Beauty is Boundless

Driving along the top road out of Ventnor today, Laurie and I were treated to the most stunning display of sunrays breaking through the clouds in a perfectly symmetrical fan, each beam a spotlight brightening the ocean’s surface. Such unexpected beauty fills me with both joy and yearning; joy because the world is such an amazing place; yearning because I am acutely aware that these moments are transient. And yet, nature is so incredibly generous. I have lost count in my life of the times I have stood, breath held and heart pumping; those skin shivering times that – although brief in span – have something of the eternal about them. Such abundance leaves me grateful and humble. I have been feeling so physically low and exhausted, horribly cut off from my spiritual centre of late; those beams of light piercing cloud are thankfully never far away. When I am truly open enough to see, I am always a little taken back at how full each moment is. Boredom and emptiness are really illusions; they come when we veil our sight, when we stop touching or being touched by the world and others. I awoke in the middle of the night with a sensation of heat in the centre of my chest; a calming warmth that lasted for about five minutes. The sun’s light on the ocean today made me remember it; fire and water – love is both. 

There is a beautiful wooden carving in the Botanic Gardens at Ventnor. It is a Green Man and he is rising up and reaching towards the sun. The style is reminiscent of one of William Blake’s figures. Carved around it are the words From light and water all life flows.

Green Man, Ventnor Botanic Gardens, Isle of Wight

Lightning Strikes and Thunderclaps

I I awoke in the middle of the night to the sounds of a violent gale and torrential rain. I was drawn out of sleep just at the moment when the strength of the wind and the heaviness of the rain intensified alarmingly. The house rattled and as the noise built I realised that I was holding my breath, waiting for the gust to peak and die back. It didn’t, it just kept on building in strength and ferocity. For one moment, in that disorientating suspension between sleep and wakefulness – the darkness and the cacophony the only reality I was fully aware of – I felt afraid.  

As Pagans, we honour nature in all its forms; the beauty and the terror all have their place and deeper meaning and function, some of which might be at odds with our own sense of safety and happiness or comfort. There is nothing quite like an encounter with nature at it most powerfully raw to connect us to our vulnerability and frailness as humans. It can be an uncomfortable feeling because we might want to embrace the Divine as a loving and benevolent force and such violent upheaval might contradict our notions of such. For me, it all depends on your definition of love and benevolence. I always feel quite comforted that what might appear to human beings as destruction, earth quakes for instance, on a wider scale can be seen as merely the earth stretching and moving like me on my yoga mat, trying to keep the whole flowing and functioning in the most balanced way possible! Sometimes it can bring us up short to realise we are not at the centre of things.

The most intimate and scariest moment that I have experienced with wild weather was a close encounter with lightning in Cornwall. I have always loved thunder storms. A favourite thing as a child was to be wrapped up cosy and safe in bed while the sky roared and brightened. I was actually born during a thunder storm (which might explain a lot!), coming in with a flash and a bang (hope to go out that way too!). I have many great thunder and lightning memories but none as dramatic as my Cornwall happening.

Laurie and I were visiting Duloe which is home to the smallest stone circle in Cornwall. The sky was already starting to look angry and there were rumbles of thunder coming from over Bodmin Moor. The cloud formations were incredibly striking; strata of varying shades of grey, from pale to dark, the patterning giving the sky a hyper-real edge. The air felt ominously still.

Laurie very sensibly decided to return to the car, leaving me alone in the stones. I was very happy, singing to the stones and some rather puzzled looking sheep – there is something quite moving about singing in stone circles! As I sang I became aware that the storm was moving in across the village. The rain had started to gently fall and I became mesmerised by lightning coming to ground, moving across the fields towards me. At that moment, it was possible to perceive the storm as a living presence. As the rain got heavier, I said my farewell to the stones and the sheep and made my way back across the field to the little tree-lined track that would take me to the road. By the time I reached there, the rain was very heavy and so I stood beneath a maple by the field gate. It leaves became burdened by the weight of the rain and it began to drip over me. I moved a few feet down beneath a hawthorn whose smaller leaves seem to create a better shelter from the wet. I didn’t even think for one moment that traditionally the hawthorn is meant to protect against lightning strike!

The rain was by now monsoon-like and I could smell a strange and powerful odour. I had no idea that this was ozone, that the earth was sending up a path for the lightning to travel down to her – a sort of love call; a call to union from the earth mother to the sky father – and I was stood right next to the intended contact point!

The lightning strike and the thunder clap happened at exactly the same time. I have never heard such deafeningly loud thunder – before or since – it was right above me, all around me, felt in every fibre of my body. The lightning hit what I thought to be the maple I had just been standing beneath (but was in fact, on later inspection, the telegraph pole next to it), no more than ten feet away from me. It hit with an equally deafening snapping, cracking sound. My body took over and I ran. It has to be said I am a crap runner but that day I was positively gazelle-like! Running felt like no effort whatsoever. My senses were sharp, acutely aware of the flood of water rushing down the road, the beat of my own heart and the alarms in the church hall, triggered into action by the enormous clap of thunder. My adrenalin was up for hours – poor Laurie had to put up with me rambling incoherently all the way to Falmouth!

It was an awe-inspiring experience, frightening yet incredible. It had a profound effect upon me to have been so intimate with such a vast elemental power of nature, and me, so small and vulnerable in its presence. I clearly felt the thunder and lightning as a vast being that day, an irrepressible energy that I was extremely privileged to have witnessed at close hand without harm to myself; a strange but wonderful gift.

Two gods of thunder whom I feel affection for are the Celtic Taranis and the Norse Thor, both being linked to the fertility of the earth and abundance. It feels very magical to me that lightning actually fertilising the ground that it touches, clearing and freshening the air. Despite the danger inherent in the power of the thunder deities, when we open to their spiritual potential, we can find that their thunder resounds in our hearts as strength; their lightning illuminates our minds with inspiration and their fruitful rain brings spiritual growth and a rich and abundant life – all worth the bit of knee trembling and heart racing that their presence might stir in us.

There is a wonderful poem by Wilfred Owen called ‘Storm’. It is actually about the taboo of a man’s love for another man but I have often thought that it reminds me of my own love of deity and the facing of my own fears with regard to that relationship. The thunder gods can change us in quite sudden and violent ways; they can fry our circuits but they can enrich us, illumine us, fertilise our spirits if we respect their awesome energy and face our fears honestly. If we can be a little like the earth and send up a path for the thunder god’s inspiration to travel down, the land of our being will find itself richer for the blessing..

Storm 

His face was charged with beauty as a cloud

With glimmering lightning. When it shadowed me

I shook, and was uneasy as a tree

That draws the brilliant danger, tremulous, bowed.

 

So must I tempt that face to loose it lightning.

Great gods, whose beauty is death, will laugh above,

Who made his beauty lovelier than love.

I shall be bright with their unearthly brightening.

 

And happier were it if my sap consume;

Glorious will shine the opening of my heart;

The land shall freshen that was under gloom;

What matter if all men cry aloud and start,

And women hide bleak faces in their shawl,

At those hilarious thunders of my fall?

                                     Wilfred Owen.

The Gallery

Rowena Cade Takes a Well Earned Rest

Rowena Cade Takes a Well Earned Rest

Recently, I have set myself the task of an extended writing project, planning out a twelve month schedule for work, a series of targets stretching out in my head. I had forgotten what it felt like to make plans for myself; much of life has felt on hold during these last few years and for so long I didn’t even dare to hope for something more, fearful that the rug might be ripped out from under me. It’s a familiar reaction to loss, I have found, others confessing a similar fear. For me, it was a series of losses coming thick and fast that knocked me into a tail spin; I couldn’t quite believe that the worst was over because just at that moment of relaxing and trusting in myself and life again, the next crisis hit. The value of all this is that you learn to discover your own strength and resilience; the downside is that you can become habitually primed for battle. It is taking time to lay down my arms, knowing that I must, despite the continuing challenges that have come as a consequence of these events. It has been so good to feel my focus kick into touch once more; heartening to watch as something barely formed begins to gather more substance and grow in size. Engaging with a stronger sense of purpose has a magic all its own.

I am in the process of setting up a sort of gallery of inspiration next to the computer as an aid to keep me creatively buoyant. It is taking shape with pictures, portraits, poems, pieces of prose that lift me and strengthen my self-belief. There are people here I have known or know who continue to inspire me, and also those I don’t know, artists, writers, performers, creative people whose vision and dedication move me. It is turning out to be as enjoyable a project as my writing!

One of my Gallery luminaries is the extraordinary Rowena Cade, designer and creator of the Minack Theatre in Cornwall. A local production of The Tempest, due to be shown in the grounds of her house at Minack Head in 1932, prompted her to design and create the beginnings of what was to become a life long work of passion and dedication. She and her helpers, Billy Dawlings and Charles Angove, carved from the granite cliff edge a beautiful open-air theatre, eventually using concrete to shape and decorate its structure. She didn’t start this project until she was thirty eight (there is hope for me yet!) and carried on working to improve and expand it right up into her mid-eighties. It is amazing to think that this frail looking old lady was lugging sand and timber up the steep cliff from Porthcurno beach. I read once that when a shipwreck washed up a hoard of timber, she was caught by police on the beach in the act of attempting to smuggle wood up to the headland; they let her off because they couldn’t believe that this tiny woman was capable of hauling a heavy load up such an arduous path. They left and she got on with the business of claiming her booty!

I find her creative vision, her strength and commitment so moving and inspiring. I have a wonderful photo of her as an old lady, taking a breather from working on the theatre. She is sat in an upturned wheelbarrow, reading. Like Vanessa Bell (of recent posts), I feel heartened that the creative spark did not diminish with age but seemed to burn all the more brightly. She makes me want to create, to immerse myself in the thing that I love, regardless of how impossible it might appear to achieve: – who would ever have thought that the Minack was possible? Love, passion and creativity fuel us and manifest themselves through us – if we let them – and this in turn touches others, inspiring them in their own attempts to shape into form all that yearns for life within. This exchange never fails to amaze and fascinate me and so my gallery will no doubt be a very full one.

It’s exciting to be forging on in my own small way. No doubt there will be a few tantrums and tears, massive doubts and the blankest of empty page moments but that really doesn’t matter. As my gallery illustrates, it is the doing that proves the most crucial. Without such, how will I ever know?

The Minack Theatre

The Minack Theatre

Nemetona, Inspiration and the Breath of Life

'Sanctuary' - Mara Friedman

'Sanctuary' - Mara Friedman

The glorious weather has lured me away from the screen. Sometimes I wonder what is more important: experiencing nature or writing about experiencing it. I seem to be so strongly drawn to both; one like a wonderful opening that takes little effort but seems to bring so much joy, peace and connection; the other demanding an active, disciplined labouring. Within me (within all of us) the passive nature of being receptive, of listening, of being filled by the magic of something needs to be balanced by a striving to express – they are the Yin and Yang of creativity. I seem to have become overwhelmingly Yin, my Yang floundering and flat.

Recently, Laurie and I spent an incredibly lazy afternoon on our backs in the sun at the Ventnor Botanic Gardens. The gardens used to be the site of the old lung hospital. More accurately, the car park used to be the site of the building itself, a very impressive Victorian affair, built upon a terrace overlooking the gardens and the sea. Situated in the special micro-climate of the Undercliff, the conditions were believed to be conducive to the healing of illnesses of the lung – mostly TB. There are wonderful old photographs of patients in their beds on the open terraces, fresh air viewed as the key to successful treatment. Now the hospital is gone but the gardens remain. They are the site of a wonderful arboretum of trees from around the planet; plants from exotic continents thriving in the unusual warmth of the Undercliff.

Laid beneath a eucalyptus tree – basking like the garden’s wall lizards – we spent an inactive couple of hours soaking up the sun. Laurie snored; I pondered. The blissful singing of a blackbird in the neighbouring tree was soon replaced by the equally beautiful song of a robin above. I thought of how one’s lungs are so crucial to the act of singing, of speaking and expressing one’s own voice. It seemed so wonderfully apt that a place once dedicated to illnesses of the lungs was now home to so many trees, themselves the lungs of our planet, enabling each of us to breathe freely and thrive.

Trees are such a central part of my spirituality and, – as a modern pagan druid – I am particularly drawn to the Romano- British goddess Nemetona. Her name roughly translates as ‘Goddess of the Sacred Grove’. Very little is known of her but for many modern pagans she is the personification of the grove or sacred circle that we worship within. For some, this is extended to include our own personal aura, that subtle body that marks our boundaries in a deeper, more intangible way.

In building a relationship with her these last few years, she has become a powerful source of inspiration and comfort. I believe that her essence resides in the sacred space of our hearts; her presence shimmering in those special places where the sanctuary of our being widens to inhabit the sacredness of the earth. For me, she is very much about our relationship with nature, what happens when we engage with the earth in an intimate way. Every time I cast circle and open to all that is holy within and around me, I feel her peace and connectedness fill the space. In this way (for me) she is not just a goddess of the grove; she wears the changing colours of place and time and she has become the animating spirit at the core of my spiritual practices.

I first became aware of her whilst meditating in the woods. I had a very strong, clear vision of a dark haired woman dressed in green stood before me. She was wearing an extraordinary headdress that seemed to be made from the red, green and black feathers of a green woodpecker. She exuded a powerfully centred and serene energy. I had no idea who she was or what she represented but, over time, it became clear that in recalling that vision, I repeatedly felt a sense of grounding and clarity that helped me enormously. This was to prove especially vital as my life travelled deeper into crisis. The energy of that original vision never seemed to be far away. I began to recognise its presence each time I cast circle and also each time I settled into meditation. I would feel it out in nature often and began to consciously call upon it in both times of need and times of calm.

Connecting a name to that special energy later came whilst reading Emma Restall Orr’s book Spirits of the Sacred Grove. She writes of Nemetona as a goddess of sanctuary:

Her arms enfold us within the sacred circle. She holds the temple that we might find the release to be soul naked and true, and to focus effectively.

This beautiful description resonated very strongly with my experience, and from that moment I came to call my mysterious green lady by her name.

Through my connection to Nemetona, I celebrate not only the beauty of the sacred circle but also the holy grove of my own heart and being. She is the sacred relationship that I strive to build with my environment and the many beings that inhabit it; she is the sacred relationship I strive to build with myself. My love of butterflies is strongly connected to her; the sacred circle is a richly layered Mandala of change, the spiralling cycles that brings us movement and transformation, not only in the physical world of the seasons but also in the cyclical natures of our emotions, minds, bodies and souls. Nemetona nurtures and supports that transformation, holding us in her peace, opening us to her wisdom that the changes might bring healing and flow to our lives. Her butterflies are the soul’s journey of freedom, movement and joy; they encourage us to recognise the quality of each season – whether of nature or life journey – that is working upon us at any one time. The letting go, the stasis, the waiting, the awakening, the blossoming, the fruiting – within Nemetona’s loving arms we can engage more fully with each, never losing sight of the eternal soul within.

As I listened to the birdsong, Nemetona’s connection to trees drew my thoughts to the link between these and the breath of life. Both are intimately interwoven with the drawing in of inspiration and the outward expression of our own unique voice – our own individual talent to create. This voice needs to be added to the multitude; our gifts expressed that the world might be further enriched by our contribution. It is a sad thing when our creative voices remain mute.

There is a strong tradition in Druidry between the sacred and our ability to create. When we each engage with the sacred, when we breathe it into out being, nourishing our cells and souls, we also feed our creativity, opening the channels for inspiration, and in doing so, transforming our creativity into an act of worship. There is an exchange that takes place – a breathing in of the one and an outpouring of the other – setting up a circuit as vital as the continuous exchange between the carbon dioxide and oxygen that we and the trees depend upon for life.

I often berate myself when I feel creatively stuck. More and more, I am coming to recognise that the key to moving through such moments is to open and receive in readiness for the moment that my voice sings out. Nemetona has taught me that the inhalation and exhalation of the breath of life – the acknowledgement of this as a sacred act – is the core of my inspiration. Sitting quietly, reaching for my still centre, letting her flood my heart, I feel that precious and true sense of belonging, peace and joy – I am fit to burst with it. Isn’t this why the bird sings? When we give our creativity to the world – responsibly and with love – we become a dawn chorus, a full throated celebration of the creative force of life that is daily reborn within us.