Rekindling the Fire

Imbolc Shrine

Imbolc Shrine

It’s been a while since I have seriously and consistently celebrated the festivals of the Wheel of the Year. For almost twenty years, these seasonal festivals have been the foundation of my spiritual practice but this recent period, with all its attending difficulties, has found me only sporadically writing and performing rituals for them.

After so many years of orientating myself through the honouring of these seasonal changes, it has been strange to let them go for a while. In the past, the qualities and themes of each season played an enormous part in my well-being. Through joyful times, they enriched my life and when life presented its inevitable struggles, I found the wisdom of the Wheel a huge help in getting through.

As the grief took hold of me, I stopped hearing and seeing the wisdom. The sense of spiritual connection that I had once felt crumbled in the face of the overwhelming loss that I was experiencing; the spiritual meaning that had once felt so deep and nourishing now appeared shallow and brittle.

persephone 2

When our spiritual survival kit stops working and there is nothing to replace it, we can suddenly feel ourselves resident in a psychological wasteland. The wasteland is an interesting place; it is a bleak and shadowed landscape, lifeless and featureless. It exists in parallel to normal life and those caught behind its veil can continue to witness life going on around them and yet cannot see its colours, or fully feel its sensations. It is as if we gaze at life through darkened glass. We can feel that we are in life but not of it. It’s a painful place to be.

It takes courage to function without any spiritual scaffolding but I have come to believe that this process is actually a very important part of all of our spiritual journeys. There are many stories and myths that tell of a descent to the Underworld. I have written here before about my love of the goddess Persephone. Her tale articulates so well the experience of being catapulted into the wasteland by painful change in our lives. Persephone’s abduction to the Underworld by the God of Death is an archetypal experience. We will all find ourselves in such a position at some point in our life when we lose something precious to us – a loved one; our health or any other loss that shakes us to our core.  When faced with such devastating change, we are compelled to take that journey to the land of the shades, and whilst there, we will encounter our hopelessness, cynicism and nihilism. It can feel like crying out into a void, hoping to hear an answer to our prayers but receiving only silence or echo.

We might fear that we are trapped in this grey place forever but gradually, and with faltering, meandering steps, we find our way back to the light. The darkness will always remain a part of us but somehow we will now understand its inherent wisdom. It changes us but it doesn’t have to destroy us.

I have just celebrated Imbolc. I wrote a ritual for it – my first in months. I threw myself in to decorating my shrine in honour of the season, making it pretty and decorating it with things that spoke of the first stirrings of spring.

Bride by Jane Brideson

Bride by Jane Brideson

Imbolc is strongly associated with the Celtic Goddess Brighid. She is a goddess of fire. At this time of the year she is the light that warms the soil and brings it to life; she is also the purifying and transformative flame that burns away all that no longer serves us and keeps us chained to the past. She is a matron of midwifery and as such is connected not only with physical birth but with helping us to birth new ways to be. When we are stuck and stagnant, her fiery energy brings movement – she is the rekindling; that glorious moment when we feel the life and hope within us returning.

Brighid has long been one of my special deities. I honoured and worked with her for many years but in these recent times of upheaval, she has felt very distant. Brighid was a core deity for me, so it was a surprise to sense my relationship with her slip away. I had started to feel that Brighid and I had lost touch for good but this last week, particularly since my Imbolc ritual, I have felt her presence growing.

This reconnection has undoubtedly been triggered by the realisation that I need to let go of some things I have been holding on to. When we are in the wasteland, the past calls to us; all that we have lost resides in our memories. Reaching out to the past is a natural response to grief; all that is lost to us returns in those moments of remembering. It is a way of coping with loss and honouring what we grieve but we cannot stay in this place for ever – we must come to the place of letting go. This process takes a long time – months, years even – there is no timetable that we can follow; these things unfold at their own pace, but we must all return to the surface – Persephone can’t stay in the Underworld forever or spring will never return.

This last month I have been able to take a step back and see just how much I have been clinging to the past, so much so that the current blessings of my life are being missed. Key to reclaiming the present is acceptance – beneath the heavy weight of anger and impotence that loss brings, awaits our acceptance. Acceptance is compassionate and patient and will wait for as long as we need to discover it within us.  It is an extraordinary moment when we begin to feel its effect upon us, as I have this past week.

For my Imbolc ritual I felt the strong urge to offer up my recent past to Brighid’s healing fire, handing it over to her with trust and faith that nothing is truly lost but merely transformed into something new. I made a commitment to myself to embrace the tender stirrings of healing and renewal happening within me and in doing so, I have felt Brighid’s protective, joyful and empowering presence growing inside me.

Snowdrop by Amy Weiss

Snowdrop by Amy Weiss

A month ago I could never have envisaged this shift happening but the gift of acceptance has laid down its thread of light to guide me back from the wasteland. The wasteland is not the enemy, or a punishment –it is, in fact, a place of healing although it can feel the opposite when we wrestle with our pain. The wasteland is the dark, cold, wet soil of winter waiting patiently for the warming light to stir it. The rekindling has come; the frozen earth cracked open by a tender snowdrop.

 

 

 

 

Black Mud and Rising Waters

The heart formed around a broken branch in Borthwood Copse

The heart formed around a broken branch in Borthwood Copse

I sat at the base of the big oak in our little spot in the woods, listening to the rush of water in the valley below me, the Yar’s banks swollen and fast flowing after the rains. Our beautiful grove has oaks, birches, a giant holly and a crab apple – all feel like old friends now. The ground has sprung to life with bluebell shoots and foxglove leaves and the honeysuckle leaf buds have opened upon their dry tendrils. Beyond the crab apple is a badger set; Laurie and I have sat here in the dark listening to the satisfying sound of their sharp claws stripping bark and the amble of their stout bodies through the undergrowth in the steep gully below. Trish was actually visited by one at dusk during a solo meditation, wrapped silent and still in her blanket whilst the badger rooted around her. They feel like guardians of the grove and it’s comforting to think of their set stretching out deep beneath the woodland floor; their well trodden paths networking the valley. During ritual we have been visited by a massive dog fox, red squirrels and woodpeckers; in warmer months bats fly between the widely spaced pines. In the neighbouring field I have seen both barn owl and kestrel hunt; buzzards often fly low over the trees, the colouring of their beautiful chest and wing feathers clearly visible; mewling cries signalling their arrival.

 

Today the Canada geese fly in twos and small V shapes, ducks with stretched necks and rapid wing beats coming up from the swollen waters below. The sun is a deep orange globe sinking into the ridge behind me, the first quarter moon above. I feel the oak’s strength grounding and calming me, and I feel that familiar peace descend.

 

I am grateful for the feeling. All week I have felt more like the rising waters of the Yar, full to the brim with a strange uneasiness which I can’t quite fathom. Something is surfacing and in the peace I try to articulate it, seeking out its true shape. So much of us remains hidden to our conscious selves, that small ‘me’ that fools itself that it ‘sees’, ‘knows’ and ‘understands’. We are in a constant state of uncovering, a little more of our being surfacing into daylight, hopefully making itself known at a pace that our psyches can cope with. Sometimes we do our utmost to ignore what presents itself but denial can never be a good long-term strategy. My own psyche feels fidgety and anxious, perhaps more aware of the surging currents of the valley waters, the barely contained building of waxing energy that will explode into life over these coming weeks.

 

The allergic swelling returned last week. One night I awoke alarmed to feel the tightening spreading down my legs and up across my chest. I could feel irritation in my windpipe, a sudden panic that my throat might close. I calmed myself as best I could and in my half-waking, half sleeping state, focused on the swelling in my pelvis, reaching for an answer. I got the sudden, vivid image of a wolf, black with patches of red fur – a beautiful creature. I have often seen wolves at times of extreme stress; vivid, spontaneous moving images that have brought with them feelings of being powerfully protected. My black wolf started to howl, and I knew immediately that he was crying for his pack, a sound of such painful longing that I actually started to cry. He sung my hurt.

 

How strange is grief? Just when you think that those feelings have passed from your life, a little more surfaces, just enough for you to cope with and process; no set time, no set pattern. The image then changed…

 

Just recently we had visited Blackgang beach. The path down through the landslip was stable until we reached the bottom, where the loose, black soil had erupted with a new shift. In the heavy rains it had become waterlogged, although looked deceptively solid. In my urgency to reach the beach, I had sunk into the mud up to my knees. The more I struggled to free myself, the more the grip of the mud held me, sucking me down deeper. Now, in my inner vision, I was back at Blackgang, only this time I was utterly naked, covered in mud, stuck once again up to my knees. The wolf stretched out upon his belly next to me, and I knew with a startling clarity that I had only to fall backwards; stop fighting to free myself. I surrendered to the soft, wet soil. I was not sucked under but felt the warmth of the mud holding me. I felt such extraordinary relief that I was not required to fight, to struggle; all that was required of me was to be present in this place. We can try to defend ourselves against our own pain but it is a tiring and unproductive process. Sometimes we really do have to just sit and be with our own grief, not trying to fix it or change it, merely opening up enough to accept its presence within. Ultimately we come to understand this process as a healing force.

 

Sat against the steady trunk of the oak, my current uneasiness settles into quiet; I realise that I am still processing much; that black mud still present in the creases and pores of my skin, the stain of it still visible if I look closely enough. This thought brings to mind some lines from a poem by Vicki Feaver:

 

…and the nights

when I lay on the roof – my emptiness

like the emptiness of a temple

with the doors kicked in; and the mornings

when I rolled in the ash of the fire

just to be touched and dirtied

by something.

 

I know that I am far past that point of numbness that Vicki’s poem speaks of; life bursts in on me daily and in nature I feel it vividly. When we suffer loss, the act of loving and trusting again can feel painfully hard. It is not that love and connection are not desired, on the contrary; the emptiness that Vicki’s poem writes of echoes with both the yearning and the fear. If I am totally honest, intimacy scares me and draws me in equal measure. I think that I have found a closeness to nature far less threatening to achieve than closeness to other human beings, but as my wolf clearly understands, we all need our soul tribe; the mud and ash on our naked skin is also about allowing the world outside to touch us, to impact upon us – as dangerous as this might feel, without it the emptiness remains.