Soul Clap its Hands and Sing…


Alchemy of Joy - Mara Friedman

An aged man is but a paltry thing,

A tattered coat upon a stick, unless

Soul clap its hands and sing, and louder sing

For every tatter in its mortal dress

 W.B. Yeats –   Sailing to Byzantium

What fires your soul? What makes it ‘clap it hands and sing’ each day into being, that you might do this thing – unique and personal to you – again and again? What is your passion?What drives you onward despite any loss, illness or obstacle you might face? What grips you and carries you, almost beyond your own volition, into the realisation that your life’s meaning and purpose is to do this very thing?

Some of you might be lucky enough to know exactly what your passion is and be living it fully and successfully in your lives. These questions might simply reaffirm what you already know and believe to be possible.

Some of you might know what your passion is but have been told – perhaps long ago and repeatedly since – that to follow such an irrational desire was irresponsible or unrealistic. In taking this view, you might have learned to subdue your need to express it, finding compensation in the numerous distractions that humans use to blunt and dull unresolved emotions and feelings.

Others in this category might have learned to cope with the challenge by expressing their passion on a part-time basis, placing it not at the centre of their lives – as passion demands – but in a corner, safely labelling it as a hobby; taking some comfort in its compartmentalised expression whilst yearning secretly for an all encompassing relationship with it.

Then there will be those of you who remain unaware of what form your passion takes; it may still reside somewhere beyond the periphery of your life. You might assume that you lack talent, that you have in some crucial way ‘missed the boat’ or that there was never a boat to catch!

If we permitted ourselves to ponder this issue more deeply, given the transience and fragility of human life, it would appear crazy that we are not all a part of the first category of people – those who know and back their passions. If life is so short and time and experience so precious, then surely expressing fully those gifts that are uniquely ours imbues life with a deeper purpose and meaning?And yet sadly, we do not all find ourselves so blessed and many who have become exiled from their passions will be familiar with a certain sadness, regret and even anger beneath the resignation.

Now consider a few more questions. Do you consider yourself too old to have passions?Do you believe that too many years have passed for you to find and live your true path?Do you accept that old age brings only decline; that it is too late to start again; too late to reclaim an old dream or discover a new one?

For Western Culture, age is one of those external factors that can appear to be a barrier to expressing one’s passion. We live in a society obsessed with youth. Ageist notions would have us all believe that a person’s best work, or even their best chance of that work flourishing, comes with the energy and optimism of the young. We equate aging with decline. In our retirement there is still a notion that we should take it easy and accept with a resigned wistfulness past glories never to be repeated.

This myth of youth being the pinnacle of potential is born from a hopelessly linear attitude toward life that our modern society seems keen to promote. It feeds us the simplistic lie that we are born, we flourish, we whither and then we die. In truth, when we examine more closely, we see that life is far from linear. Like nature’s own seasons, it unfolds in a series of spiralling cycles. Those moments of birth, blossoming, dissolution and death happen many times over, in many different areas of any one life.

In choosing to perceive the rhythm of life as being played out as one great peak on which we climb to middle-age – which we then tumble inexorably down towards death – we sabotage our own inherent ability as humans to begin again. In truth, our journeys are made up of multiple rises and falls, happening in all areas of our lives, some in sync with each other, others at varying intervals. These undulations will happen in our physical health, our emotional and intellectual lives; every area of our beings will experience periods of growth, loss and unexpected renewal. It is the way of things and the movement of this many layered and overlapping story marks the passage of our time not in straight lines but in twists, turns and learning curves.

This erroneous assumption of life being made up of one peak followed by one trough helps no one to truly get to grips with the complexities of living and aging. It is given a false substance by the equally unfortunate ageist misapprehension that there is a time-line that dictates what should be achieved by a specific age. We might all be subject to a pressure (both spoken and unspoken) to follow the same pattern: in our late teens and twenties we party; we might extend our education; we seek out our job or career ladder and launch ourselves upon it; in our thirties we marry, have children and climb the next few rungs at work and so on, decade by prescribed decade, until we die.

As we age, might we not challenge these two assumptions by making the claim that passion is ageless; that Yeats’s ‘tattered coat upon a stick’ is not the whole picture; that age need not be an obstacle in discovering a passion that you never knew you had, that in fact, it might even be a determining factor in being able to express that passion with a depth, truth and power that youth could never provide?

The Landscape is Within Us

The Yar River

Near my home, at the meeting place between the rising slope of the downs and the water meadows of the River Yar, is a grove of black poplar trees. They have grown up out of the moist earth on the river margins. Flag iris, reeds and sedges flourish beneath them, a signal that the soil here is marshy and unpredictable. It feels a deeply secret place – a place not entirely accessible – its boggy centre demanding a respectful distance.

I discovered it first when walking the path up from the disused railway line that slices across the meander of the Yar. This path leads to the enigmatically named ancient farmstead of Kern, itself hidden by the undulations of the downs and once believed to have been owned by the Knights Templar. The path breaks away from the Yar’s course, its entrance flanked by alder and white willow, the going soft and yielding even in dry spells. After heavy and persistent rain, the path is more of a tributary, a channel of deep water making passage through to the grove inaccessible. This partial access only adds to the magical feel of the place, such opening and closing seeming to pulse with the life of the river, with the rhythms of the grove’s own inner nature. Like a tidal cave, its waters fill and recede; the core of its space a strange mixture of peace and danger. I am more aware here – than in any other place – that I must enter gently.

The saturated path opens out onto a clearing thick with ground elder. To the right is a path that leads to the reed beds; in summer the blue-black flight of iridescent banded demoiselles can be seen, the reed bed reaching the river bank, lush with pink comfrey, meadowsweet and balsam. To the left the path curves under ancient elder, bark soft as cork and deeply rutted, branches reaching low across the ground and arching above in coiled, sinuous forms, forcing one to bend and tunnel through. Past here you find yourself on the edge of the grove, entrance too uncertain to risk. At this point I always feel that the edges are as far a passage through as the spirit of this wonderful place will allow. Its centre feels to me like an inner sanctum and to sit in its presence, to feel my own boundaries blur and merge a little with its peace, is blessing enough.

It was the sound that first drew me to these beautiful trees, the voice of reed and poplar like the insistent whispering of a broken wave drawn back over loose pebbles. They visually articulate the wind’s eddies – its unpredictable shifts and turns – never letting it hide unseen in their branches but marking each movement by the tremble of stem and leaf. I have seen green woodpecker glide from tree to tree, and buzzards, circling low, patrolling the grove’s circumference.

Each of us knows when we encounter a ‘special’ place. Sites such as Chalice Well, Avebury andStonehengepossess a tangible ‘something’, a mixture of energies unique to that particular landscape, intensified by the energies and expectations that people continue to bring; at best there is an exchange between the soul of the land and the soul of the person, a moment of true relationship. Such moments are when we stop being tourists – mere consumers of place – and truly connect. As powerful and beautiful as these more well know sites can be, they do not draw me in quite the same way as those discovered in the intimacy of our own locale; ones that are returned to again and again, the roots of our own psyche gradually entwining with those already in the soil. We become a part of these local sacred places – as we recognise them, we too are recognised.

What makes a place special can be deeply personal to us, something in our inner landscape reflected back to us. These inner landscapes are as diverse and contrasting as the ones we encounter in the outer world, and our relationships with each differ. There are parts of our inner lives that are open, where air and light circulate more freely; equally there are places outside of us that we encounter that are as accessible, expansive and welcoming. What struck me about the poplar grove was that it spoke so powerfully of that space within all of us that is harder to reach; those hidden, tender places with firmer boundaries, where the ground is more uncertain; a place we enter with care, our footfalls soft and sensitive to the ground beneath. Such a place might be the site of our greatest wounds, bound in on all sides by thicket or thorn, waterlogged and potentially treacherous. And yet, as I sat silently in the extraordinary atmosphere of the poplar grove, I knew that such inner places could hold enormous healing potential. If we have the courage to negotiate this interior land on its own terms – just as we would hope to do in the natural world around us – taking the time and care to enter when called, we discover a place of beauty, depth and poignancy.

Something in me knows the nature of the poplar grove, recognising and resonating with its instinct for enclosure; its soft, watery centre. Perhaps we are never meant to fully re-enter the sites of our past pain, inner sanctums all their own that need a gentle approach and our loving care. Perhaps we can only venture so far into these places, sitting respectfully at their margins to listen and bare witness, to honour the experiences we have endured and survived, discovering our own deep wisdom in the song of leaf and breeze. The land outside is also the landscape within us. The illusion that we are separate from the natural world falls away as we build our own unique relationships with these special places; each, in their own way guiding us to the magical and sacred ground of our souls.

Life, Death and the Sexton Beetle

There is a moment of being that exists between the letting go and the emergence of something new. It is a magical and mysterious space. We are each touched by it many times in our lives, from the psychological deaths that bring significant change to self and circumstance, to the painful challenge of bereavement or separation. It is a place of intense uncertainty where the path ahead might appear impassable and our efforts to move on ineffectual but it is also the seed bed of all our beginnings. Change fraught with struggle impacts upon us deeply. The fragility of our outmoded identities, roles and relationships are brought into sharp focus. It is as if our newly emerging shape can no longer endure the pain of containment, our worlds seem to fracture under the pressure; the familiar structures that support who we believe ourselves to be unravel. As painful as this process might feel, it is at this point of melt down that the potential for our greatest transformation dwells. We pupate.

All creatures of metamorphosis fascinate me, both those that transform themselves – butterfly and dragonfly being particular favourites – and those that enable transformation in other substances, such as the wonderful worms in my compost bins. Each teaches us something about the nature and purpose of change in our own lives and they have given me great comfort and inspiration at those times when my trust in this process has wavered.

One remarkable creature that articulates so powerfully something of the mystery and meaning of irresistible change is the sexton beetle. My first and only encounter with one came in the weeks leading up to my sister’s death. I was walking in the woods near my father’s home and had decided to take an unfamiliar route back. I came upon a shrew, positioned unavoidably in the centre of the path. It was laid out upon its side but was still moving. Concerned that it might be injured, I knelt down. It soon became apparent that the shrew was in fact dead. From under its body crawled a tiny black beetle with two bright orange bands across its back, furry orange tipped antennae, alert and quivering, upon its head. It burrowed back under the small corpse and, with a startling strength, started to move it once again, as impressive as a human lifting an elephant. Fascinated, but not entirely sure what I was witnessing, I watched the beetle re-emerge, only to disappear once again beneath the shrew, the lifeless body gently rocking and shaking from the beetle’s insistent labouring.

I later discovered that I had witnessed a male sexton beetle in the process of preparing his love nest. Their name is apt for they are nature’s grave-diggers. Upon discovering the corpse of a small mammal or bird, the male beetle examines the surrounding soil to see if it is right for burial. If not it will lie down on its back beneath the body, its feet pushing the load along, until it finds a suitable resting place. It then waits for a mate. The female’s antennae will detect rotting flesh and be irresistibly drawn. Once she has chosen, the pair will start the long process of burial, digging a channel under the body, eventually pulling it down into its burial chamber below the surface. They shovel with their spade shaped antennae, their powerful jaws cutting through any obstructive roots. In this process the carcass is skinned and formed into a neat ball with a hard, dry surface. During this arduous and macabre dance of love – in the very act of burying the dead – the sexton beetles mate.

The female is left to lay her eggs in the soil around the burial chamber, initially feeding the larvae herself until they tunnel into the decomposing carcass to eat the carrion. The larvae, whilst transforming rotting flesh into new life, experience their own series of transformations, moving through three completely different stages until they are ready to burrow into the surrounding soil, leaving their grizzly nursery to pupate in small chambers. They emerge from the soil as adult beetles, creatures literally risen from the grave.

The Divine speaks to us in so many curious ways, articulating its wisdom through all the myriad forms of life around us, bringing moments of synchronicity that take us to a point of realisation; to a deeper understanding. My path crossed that of the sexton beetle just as my sister was slowly moving into the last stages of her own life, edging painfully but surely into that uncertain place. The sexton beetle, in its heroic effort to continue its own species, spoke to me of nature’s extraordinary power to produce life from death, the link between womb and tomb as literal as any I could imagine. The thought of those young beetles erupting through the soil like spring shoots, emerging into the sunlight after numerous transformations in the darkness, moved me greatly. Such a tiny creature – one seemingly insignificant and obscure – revealed to me something of the hope at the heart of the struggle, strengthening my ability to surrender and trust, opening me to the possibility of renewal that would ultimately come for my sister and for those of us she was leaving behind.

Death and rebirth share the same ground, their territories merging and cross fertilising, and yet we have been taught to view them as separate continents, perpetually at war. The lesson of the sexton beetle is poignant and powerful for all of us. It reminds us that pain ends and sorrow passes; that death serves life and the place where the one touches and mingles with the other births new worlds and new beings; new relationships and new ways to be. We can find ourselves distorted by the pressure of a life that no longer fits; if we can learn to trust the process of dying – whether psychological or actual – we might come to realise not only the compassion in death but also its gift to reshape us authentically. We become like those newly transformed beetles, nurtured and prepared for new life by the forces of decay and release, the soil erupting before us, the darkness birthing us.

Eye to Eye With the Ancestors

Cowslips over St Martin's Down, Isle of Wight

I am lucky enough to live only a short walk from Brading Roman Villa on the Isle of Wight.It is home to some very beautiful mosaics. One of the images that fascinates me is a stylised eye, earthy tones of tesserae, diamond shaped with a circle at the centre. The decorated floors radiate out from it; scenes of gods and goddesses of nature and the turning cycle of seasons. Some are vibrantly clear, others deeply faded or partially absent, each appearing to bleed through from the earth below as if the soil herself were a deep well of memory, her images rising up through the layers of matter and time.

The mosaics’ meanings appear puzzling and yet paradoxically familiar: the goddess Ceres hands her corn to Triptolemus; the nymph Ambrosia transforms into vines; a shepherd holds his crook and panpipes; a river nymph with reeds in her hair pours life – giving waters from her jar, while mermen cavort with mermaids. When viewing these images, the distant lives of the Romano-British seem remarkably close. This island still grows its corn, the vineyards still nestle on the slopes of its downs, the sheep graze, the River Yar meanders through the valley and the fishermen bring their catches to shore as they have always done. If by some means time were reversed and our ancestors could view mosaics of our lives, despite our technological advances, I am sure they would recognise much – for the foundations of living and surviving remain the same.

I can only speculate on the original meaning of the mosaic eye but the image draws me. Eyes are compelling symbols. When we meet another’s eyes, it is the circles of iris and pupil that we focus upon. The circle is an equally compelling shape. It possesses such great significance for modern Pagans. We worship within its enfolding boundary. We feel its cyclical flow and energy in the seasons of earth, moon, sun and life, travelling along its curved and eternal edge. We also stand at its still hub, enveloped by its peace as it holds us at the very centre of each moment. Within its beautiful shape we find equality – none standing in greater value than another – the hierarchical structure of the old Divine order brought down to earth. In the circle our hearts are open and accessible to all who stand with us; all aspects of life are valued and understood as an interconnected and interdependent whole. It is the shape of sanctuary; the shape of a deep, spiritual ecology. The fullest expression of the circle is the globe. Nature’s many and diverse parts interact to form a miraculously functioning whole and what more perfect a shape to articulate such wholeness then the globe? It is no accident that this is the shape of our beautiful planet; the shape of the eye also.

It occurs to me that what I find compelling about the mosaic eye at Brading Villa is that it speaks to me something of nature’s mystery. Mosaics are made up of individual pieces; when we focus on a single square, its meaning remains obscure. When we expand our perspective – allowing our eyes to order the seemingly chaotic and scattered tessera into a pattern – we begin to appreciate the meaning of the wider picture. Similarly, when we perceive of ourselves as one part of nature’s complex totality, our eyes can open to its beauty and value.

In truth, our connections to those that have been, those that are and those yet to be born are closer than we might at first imagine; we each exist on different curves of the same spiralling thread. This thread holds all that has ever been or ever will be in a complex web of relationship and connection. We rest upon its lines, each at our own special point in history, quivering like notes upon a stave, the sounds of our living rippling back and forth in time.