The Lightning Struck Tower and the Star of Hope

It has been a sad and worrying week. Some of my loved ones are going through a terrible time; it is hard to see those you care about in crisis.  It’s got me thinking about grace under pressure and how we deal with those times when our world crumbles.

Being a tarot nut, I so often turn to its wisdom, in good times and bad. This week has drawn my attention to two Major Arcana cards whose energies feel very present at the moment. The first is the Tower and the second the Star. At first glance, they look the complete antithesis of each other but I always think of them as a pair who work together to bring movement and healing.

The Tower’s imagery is pretty dramatic and alarming. Traditional images often portray a tower struck by lightning, the structure crumbling and its inhabitants falling to the ground. It doesn’t take years of studying tarot to know that this card speaks of those sudden, shocking happenings in our life that rock our foundations and bring us to our knees. When things happen that change everything; when we find ourselves standing amongst the rubble that had once been the dependable structure of our life, we meet the Tower in all it awesome power. It can feel like the most unwelcome visitor.

Despite its troubling reputation, the Tower can also bring liberation. Sometimes its energies are just what we need when some area of our life has become stagnant or when we are ignoring things that desperately need to change. I think quite often the Tower turns up when we have been resisting these much-needed changes; when we repeatedly ignore life’s subtle hints that all is not well, it is as if the pressure builds and something has to give. If we really need to engage with that place of transformation and we don’t go willingly, then often life will take us there regardless. If we look a little deeper and are honest with ourselves, what feels like a nasty surprise or a sudden shock can reveal that a push to transform had actually been simmering away beneath the surface for some time.

The Tower comes to bring life-altering momentum; it comes with powerful revelation; it comes to smash apart our illusions; it gives us the opportunity to dismantle the psychological walls we build around us that are no longer a shelter but a prison. It introduces us to new ways to see and experience the world, ourselves and others. It might feel horrendously tough to be flattened by its unstoppable force but it does present us with the opportunity to make sure our foundations are good and true, that we might rebuild on a stronger footing. Of course, the Tower is not always a full- on wreaking ball; it can come as a sudden revelation that blows you away; major paradigm shifts are Tower moments. Whatever form it takes, you can be sure the old structures will fall away and suddenly you are left looking at a new landscape once obscured.

After the Tower, the Star is a soothing balm. The Star is a card of healing renewal, of hope; it is the calm after the storm. Tower moments can be so painful that our trust in life is shaken; the Star is the return of that trust. The Tower can be utterly disorientating, what we thought we knew about ourselves and life can shatter – all signposts gone, all recognisable landmarks obliterated – but the Star reminds us that we all have an inner compass, a guiding presence that will bring us through the darkest times. There is a beautiful quote from Virginia Woolf’s book Orlando which I have long-loved and which for me speaks so beautifully of the way the Tower and Star interact to bring growth and healing to our lives:

 

Change was incessant, and change perhaps would never cease. High battlements of thought, habits that had seemed as durable as stone, went down like shadows at the touch of another mind and left a naked sky and fresh stars twinkling in it.

If you meet the Tower, hold on to this quote; know that something new is being born; trust the process; nurture yourself as best you can and as the rubble falls about you, keep looking for that naked sky full of stars.

Tarot images from the Druidcraft Tarot by Philip & Stephanie Carr-Gomm – artwork by Will Worthington

Advertisements

The Crossbones Graveyard: Remembrance and Healing

Laurie reading the Crossbones offerings

One of the most extraordinary and moving acts of remembrance that I have recently encountered is that of the Crossbones Cemetery in Southwark, London. Here, south of the River Thames – in the area where London Bridge spans the river – is Bankside and the Borough. Historically, this area was outside the old City of London’s boundaries and laws. As you crossed the river in to what was known as the ‘Liberty of the Clink’ you entered the underbelly of city life; here were prisons, drinking houses, gambling and prostitution, bear baiting and all manner of shady and edgy pursuits. In this chaotic, colourful and brutal environment the theatre was born; art imitating life at a place where living was experienced at its most visceral.

This area came under the ruling of the Bishop of Winchester, the ruins of his palace still visible near Southwark Cathedral. The prostitutes of the Liberty were under the Bishop’s licence for 500 years (they were known as ‘Winchester Geese’) but in an act of supreme hypocrisy they were denied burial in consecrated ground. The Crossbones Graveyard was where these unfortunate women ended their lives. In its latter years it became a pauper’s burial site. It was a place of forgotten souls, those whose lives had often been brutal and short and whose stories had been ignored.

This might have continued to be so but for one of those strange twists of fate. During improvements to the Jubilee Line, London Transport dug upon the land that had once – unknown to most – been the graveyard; their digging immediately unearthed skulls and bones and so further work was halted while Museum of London archaeologists were brought in to investigate and remove skeletons.

At around the same point, the playwright, poet and performer John Constable was making his own surprising discoveries with regard to the Crossbones site. Without knowing of its existence, he was drawn one night to this desolate piece of industrial ground by a poetic ‘voice’ in his head. The poem came to him in an inspired rush. It soon became apparent that the voice of this poem was that of a Winchester Goose, the ‘spirit’ of a Liberty prostitute who had been laid to rest at ‘Crossbones’. It was as if London Transport’s digging had unearthed not merely the bones of the dead but their unheard voices too.

Constable’s writing and later research led him to discover that the Crossbones cemetery had indeed once existed –  it had not merely been something his imagination had conjured that first night that ‘The Goose’ had introduced herself. Those earlier poems went on to become part of a larger work of modern mystery plays known as the Southwark Mysteries and since then John has become a champion of those ‘despised and rejected’ souls.

John and the Friends of Crossbones hold monthly ceremonies at the gates of this ‘hidden’ ancient graveyard. The land is mainly waste ground which is out of bounds to the public. They clear rubbish and tend the space lovingly. The gates themselves have become a beautiful shrine covered in ribbons, flowers and tokens. As names of those interred here have gradually been rediscovered, John ties ribbons with these names written upon them; the gates are festooned, transforming this rather bleak place into something beautiful. This act of remembrance is incredibly powerful and moving. John understands Crossbones to be a ‘wound of history’ and that the work that he and others are doing at the site is a way of healing that wound, of acknowledging those who in their lives and deaths had been treated with such disdain and indifference. He believes that this work of naming and acknowledging the lost and forgotten not only brings peace and healing to those long dead but has a transformative impact on us too.

John’s approach is very near and dear to that of modern Druids. As Druids we understand the importance of honouring the ancestors, of remembering those forgotten ones. We sense that they are the foundation of our being; their days lived and shed are the countless layers of fertile psychic soil that we root ourselves within. They are you and me; we are them. Their mistakes and lessons are ours and every cell of our bodies holds a memory of their experiences. In Druidry, we aim to respectfully draw upon these for their wisdom and guidance. We know that our own stories will vanish beneath the soil all too soon and so, in remembering those who have gone before, we are also acknowledging that all existence counts; that each voice, no matter how lowly, has something valuable to add to the ever deepening and unfolding story of life. The Ancestors can enable us to remember who we truly are and in caring for them, we also begin to learn to care for our descendants too; their futures matter to us. In acknowledging the forgotten ones, we tie the thread of life – the past, present and future – into a circle, a symbol of the eternal bonds of love and experience, the spiralling of life, death and rebirth that makes us one with each other and all creation.

History is so often written by the powerful and wealthy. The political and financial manoeuvrings of a country’s elite in reality is an extremely narrow view of history, one that excludes the rich and complex day to day experience of ordinary folk.  What John Constable and the Friends of Crossbones dedication and care illustrates is that when we acknowledge the story of those forgotten lives – the struggles, the degradation and the poverty; the heroism and vision of ordinary people who had the odds unfairly stacked against them – we are also acknowledging our common humanity. It teaches us how to treat each other in the here and now –with kindness, respect and care.

I find it incredibly moving that this place has become a shrine to the lost. These beautiful gates are not only an entrance to the past; they are a place where redemption is found for all those who find themselves cruelly and unfairly exiled. Here we gather those lost souls back into the fold of our humanity; here we reclaim something of ourselves.

Please do visit the Crossbones website http://www.crossbones.org.uk/#  . John and the Friends of Crossbones are campaigning to save the south and oldest end of the graveyard from development. They would like to create a memorial garden. So please do sign their petition!

Healing Herbs

Gaia's Daughter - Mara Friedman

A little over a week ago I had an appointment with a Gynaecologist. Exactly a week after this, I had an appointment with a Medical Herbalist. The difference between the two meetings, and the impact they each had on my immediate well-being, was striking. I have to say that the hospital doctors and nurses are certainly trying to help me in their own way, but the herbalist appointment was a revelation and left me feeling a million times better! In contrast, I left the hospital with a gnawing doubt about the course of treatment that they are suggesting. I am down to two choices: the removal of the lining of my uterus or the complete removal of my womb – both of which leave me feeling quite worried about the possible consequences. My body seems to be fighting this all the way: my cervix was too small for a womb biopsy to be taken without a general anaesthetic. They tried to do this process whilst I was conscious, which was excruciatingly painful and failed. I have taken the conventional medical route over this last 18 months or so to tackle my menstrual issues. It has been a challenging route (to say the least) and despite all best efforts, it has left me feeling, at times, very ill and increasingly demoralised.

I met the very appropriately named Wendy Budd by chance. She had been invited to talk about the medicinal properties of herbs at the open day of my friend Tracey’s Community Orchard and Garden project.  For months I have been complaining at feeling confused about what particular solution is best for my problem; as each option presented itself, I felt no clear sense within about which one was right for me. My friends have suggested things, my medical practitioner’s also, and yet I remained paralysed by the fear that I would choose something that would, yet again, make my symptoms worse. As I listened to Wendy’s talk, I felt that sudden spark of recognition; after months of assuming that I had completely lost all sense of judgement, at that moment, I felt certain that I had to speak with her. I approached her in a quiet moment and asked about the possibility of booking an appointment. After explaining my situation, she confided that she had suffered with exactly the same problem and was now managing her symptoms and feeling really well. If I hadn’t already got the hint, I did at that moment!

Understandably, hospital and doctor’s appointments are pushed for time, ten minute blocks that speed by. I spent almost two hours with Wendy where she asked about every area of my life and health. Rather than treating me as a set of isolated symptoms, she engaged with the whole me, trying to put together a clearer picture of my life, from diet and exercise to emotional and mental states that might be impacting on my health and leading me to suffer in the way that I am. I have always known that the events in my life over these last few years are a key factor in my worsening symptoms; I gave up tying to explain this to my doctors because none of them seemed to think it relevant. The equation for them is symptom + treatment = management; I have been astonished at how often the cause gets left out, particularly if it might involve the complex and tricky world of the emotions – they just don’t have the time to go there, and sadly, some don’t even have the interest. I am reminded of a Joni Mitchell lyric – Doctor’s pills give you brand new ills.

With Wendy I felt truly listened to; in an age when ever tightening budgets dominate health care, this empathetic exchange between patient and healer often gets lost. It is a tragedy because, as we all instinctively know, it is such a crucial part of the healing process. After almost all my doctor and hospital appointments, I left feeling very low; after Wendy, I was practically doing cartwheels!

I have also been increasingly aware that something has started to shift in me. Since being synthetic progesterone free, I have felt so much more settled in my self, the angst easing, and the pain of my family situation being placed into a greater perspective. I am feeling happier and this in itself is working its own magic. After not bleeding for an age after the implant’s removal, I have just experienced the best menstrual period I have had in years. I am hoping with the help of herbs that this sudden improvement will continue to be the norm for me.

I have been given a tea and tonic, both to be taken three times a day. Each has a mixture of several herbs, aimed not only at physical but emotional symptoms too. The tea is Raspberry Leaf, Yarrow, and Shepherd’s Purse, Rose, Lavender and Hawthorn; the tonic is Borage, Shatavari, Motherwort and Belladonna (a very small dose! It is an incredibly good painkiller apparently!), Peony, Liquorice, Ginger and the wonderfully named Tree of Life.

For the first time in a long time, I feel hopeful that my life will no longer be dominated by pain, bleeding and exhaustion. It is a heady thought! I don’t know whether it is psychosomatic but I am already experiencing a sensation of opening in my lower body, as if something that has been clenched and closed has suddenly relaxed and softened. Strangely, I also feel a mirroring of this sensation emotionally too. Wendy said she is often amazed at how often the herbs go to where they are needed, even beyond her own understanding of their medicinal qualities. They are magical things. Time will tell but for now the sun is shining, I have people who I love in my life, I have purpose and feel well. What else truly matters?

The Sacred Grail of Swadhistana

Swadhistana Chakra - Mara Friedman

The rookery on the lane that leads up to the Brading Roman Villa had many of its number in residence today. Rookeries are normally frantically noisy and agitatedly animated but today around fifty rooks sat spread out amongst the branches in a Zen-like quiet, all facing the direction of the sun, obviously warming their bellies and enjoying the heat and light after the recent dark and rainy days. I could sense how good it felt.

Oscar the Grouch (our car – ‘Oscar’ being an anagram of Corsa and ‘Grouch’ because he is bloody miserable and spends most of his time refusing to work) is back on the road yet again after his clutch cable snapped for the second time in four months. He now has a shining new clutch and is in a good mood – this won’t last. I mustn’t grumble because Oscar – despite his many faults- enabled me to get out in the sunshine after a weekend of worsening symptoms. Last week, I watched as the man from the garage loaded Oscar up on his truck and took him away. I thought how great it would be if someone could strap me down, take me off and after a quick tinker, send me back fixed. In some ways, I can understand the attraction of a mechanical universe – this nut here, that bolt there, and voila, everything ticking away nicely again. Living, breathing bodies with histories and sensitivities, with complex layering and a host of hidden triggers that can propel us into physical crisis, are often not so easy to put right with a bit of an oil and polish or some mechanical jiggery pokery.

I have always been fascinated by the links between our emotional bodies/selves and illness; of how we each have places in our bodies that become illness hotspots, places where we hold on to stress or emotional turbulence, and these eventually articulating themselves through physical symptoms and ailments. My own problems with my periods started very young, long before the sexually abusive relationship of my teens but it hasn’t completely passed me by that these experiences have impacted on my relationship with my menstrual cycle; if this is already a place of difficulty genetically, then perhaps it makes it a sensitive area when crisis hits?

Thinking of the Chakra system, the womb and ovaries are linked to Swadhistana, the sacral chakra; it is the place of our emotions, the ideally unimpeded flow of these; it is sensuality and sexual pleasure, physical and emotional nurturance and the free exchange of these. These energies move out from us into the world and we keep the circuit moving by keeping ourselves open for these very things to flow back into us. It’s a kind of loop of love and connection, of movement and constant change and because of this is so important in the process of our creativity. It is the chakra of the dance of love and life.

When intimacy brings with it experiences of hurt, rejection or violence; when one side of the polarity blocks the flow of feeling in this way, it can lead to a psychologically stagnate pool developing deep in our feeling life. We can stop trusting and close down but this defensive act will never bring us happiness because this chakra looks outward to the world; it is the chalice that brims and overflows, its life-giving liquid streaming always towards another, those waters carving out a channel for that other to find us and touch us in return. This is not limited to sex of course, it is about opening to life, to the appreciation of all that exist beyond us, letting it impact upon us, move us, stir us and through it, accessing within ourselves a resonance with all creation. This exchange happens when we make love, when we are affected by art or music or nature, by the pain of others – it is the seat of our empathy and the depth of our humanity.

The experiences of my teens has meant that at points in my life, I have had to work hard on the issues and themes of this chakra and with all the recent crisis of my family life, it would seem that the flow of exchange is still an issue for me in many ways. To feel deeply is to engage with our vulnerability. The trick is to stay open, regardless of those times in our life when that polarity has been severed; no matter how many times we may have been hurt, we must give that flow and exchange a chance – often easier said than done.

I know that my life has become unbalanced – too much focus on crisis and not enough on pleasure. It is little wonder that the flow in me has begun to act like a wound that won’t stop bleeding. I have turned into the Fisher King and my wasteland needs the wisdom that only the Grail of Swadhistana can provide. I have misread the challenge: it is not how to deal with crisis and hurt – the challenge is not to run away from happiness. The problem now is, where do I start?

You Whom Care in Prison Keeps, and Sickness Doth Suppress

In one of  earth’s tranquil haunts a man may lay his head on her green pillow…There is a hand on the hot forehead. He meets death with the absence of morbidity – almost amounting to indifference – which you find in the gay short-lived citizens of wood and meadow. Death is no longer either the supreme disaster or the supreme desire, but an incident – the swinging back of the gate on the skyline. He begins to link himself with the Beauty that lies in and beyond the beauty of earth, like light in a flower; an intuition begins to dawn on him that this Beauty, or Love, is not only above all things, but in them, permeating them; that he and the very germ of disease that destroys his body abide in it as inevitably as the world abides in the invisible air. When each breath is drawn in this eternal atmosphere, now and forever are one; today and in a million years, here and beyond the uttermost star, we are in the heart of God. 

Mary Webb –  The Spring of Joy