Friday, 20 March 2015

Eclipse 2015. Just because

the sun was actually a crescent at this point. Sarehole field

The sky began to darken around 9am as I made my way towards Sarehole Mill. Ostensibly out jogging ( OK, jog-walk-jog-walk etc-ing), something this morning prompted me to wrap my blowing horn and place it carefully in a rucksack, to take with me. I wasn't sure what I would do with it or where I would end up, I just knew I wanted to be outdoors.
eclipse over oaks at Sarehole mill

Here and there, people were pausing to look up. The birds sang loudly, as though it were twilight. I jogged on, wishing all of a sudden, to be in the woods.

By the time I entered the woods at Mosely Bog, the light had started to diminish as though storm clouds had rolled across the sun, and I made a complete circuit of the place, clockwise, to see who else was sharing the space: a few dog walkers, blackbirds and robins, ravens and bluetits, a wren and a jay, two squirrels, oaks, birches, hazels, rowan and ash in their ripe-budded springtime potency, holly and yew.

And somewhere, somehow in the air, as always, hung a memory of people long gone, who knew these woods when they stretched out much further and were much wilder. What did they make of such strange happenings as a solar eclipse? What interpretation, what mythology arose in their culture, to make sense of it? Was this moment of greatest gloom honoured with ritual ? Sacrifice perhaps?  Was there an ancestral wisdom that such events come and go? How did they understand the dance of earth, moon and sun?

My circuit complete, I left the boardwalk, heading into the heart of the wood, to sit and be.

Sitting and being, I felt more peace than I have for a long time. The darkness was not complete, a sliver of sunlight shone on, and the woods continued to rustle and sing all around me in the strange half-light. From my hiding place squatting down at the base of a birch trunk among the fungi and leaf litter, it gradually became apparent that the shadow had passed.
Now was the time to stand, feet planted firmly on the damp soil. No word, no 'I am doing this because ...' no invocation, just the raising of the horn to my lips, the deep inbreath, the turning to the sun, and a surge of joy as, clear, strong and bold as a bugle, out spun the sound. In the steady releasing of my breath, I felt an unexpected connectedness with all around me. Four times I blew, and with each out-breath came a wave of feeling - the initial joy, the love of life itself, a desire for peace, a new courage to hope.
eclipsed sunlight reflecting in the stream

 Crouched back down against the base of the birch, hidden in the undergrowth, I imagined the sound spiralling out, mingling with the singing of the birds and the wind in the trees, wider and wider into the universe, a great, visceral call - deep soul prayer. A shadow has passed.

my blowing horn, back on its peg

Saturday, 13 December 2014

Star Light, Star Bright

moon at midsummer, just before dawn

Each night when I go to bed I pause before I pull down the blind on our skylight, and look across the roof tops and up, up. The city lights stop me seeing many of the things I'd like to see, but all the same, there is the darkness, and there is, well, the universe. Most of all, I love to see the moon, and I love to see Venus as though sailing close on the clouds, and I love to see Orion ... so watching on a clear night is a moment of delight. As a little girl, I'd incant that child-chant:
full moon on the way up to the Tor

'Star light, star bright, first star I see tonight,
wish I may, wish I might,
grant the wish I wish tonight!'

But these days I don't wish on a star so often, I find other words in my mind, and it is usually these:

'Therefore I have uttered what I did not understand,
things too wonderful for me,
which I did not know.'

A favourite text, from the Book of Job 42:3. It's my kind of wrapping up of the day.  Somehow I find it reassuring that the sum of what we don't know, faced with the expanse of the universe, almost infinitely outweighs what we do know. It's a great leveller.

And I really like the fact that it's in the Bible, round about the middle in a Christian version, because it throws a spanner in the works, for anyone who likes to think they've got it all wrapped up. We haven't. The Great Mystery wins every time. OK, some people talk more sense than others, but the wisdom is not in the words as much as how we interpret them, just as we can go on looking at the night sky for ever and see nothing of any meaning, or we can really look, look deeply, look patiently, look as part of a network of wise watchers, over many many years, and rediscover, above all, awe.

a couple of Rollright stones
We've been trying to work things out, pin things down, for ever - and we sometimes do a pretty impressive job it has to be said - stone circles are one of my great loves. The signs of brilliant minds who mapped and charted the heavens unaided by technology, just by watching, patiently and intelligently, collaboratively, over generations. But again, for all our contemporary conjecture about what they were used for, we don't really know. The stones, rings of fiddlers and dancing maidens, petrified witches, knights in council and the rest, laugh wildly at our ignorance.

Albert Einstein has to be one of my favourite 'great minds' and sources of one liners, not that I can pretend to understand the theories with which he gifted the world, but he looks so disarmingly like someone who would have trouble remembering where he put his pencil from one minute to the next. He was not just clever but wise; he had not just looked into and reported on, but drawn something meaningful out of the Mystery. On what I guess was a bad day, on the subject of the infinite and our ignorance, we get a rather harsh 'Only two things are infinite, the universe and human stupidity, and I'm not sure about the former.' But he also suggested a way out of that 'infinite stupidity', that resonates through time and space; resonates, I am sure, with the people who made the stone circles, and so many others who went before us and left no trace:

broken concrete slab star
'Look deep into nature and then you will understand everything better.'

Albert Einstein

Sunday, 14 September 2014

'So what do you really believe?'

the river at Meanwood

'Everything flows, nothing stays the same.'

My heart sank momentarily the other evening, while enjoying an evening out with my dearly beloved, Ray Gaston. I had just popped out to the ladies - before I got up, he and a couple we didn't know, sitting alongside, were harmlessly chatting about living in the Midlands. I came back just as the guy leaned over, purposefully, and said to Ray, 'so what do you really believe?' How they made that jump in the space of a few minutes, I don't know, but I felt it would have been better to stay with nice easy subjects, like football. For people whose whole life and work is wrapped up with questions of theology, philosophy, and the dynamics of engagement with the diversity of faiths in the world today, it's not an easy question to answer lightly on an evening off, over a curry.

reflections, Meanwood park
I get asked it too; I find it a very difficult question, a slippery kind of question. Asking it, I feel that the questioner often wants to get a hold on me, catch hold of something that allows them to label me and put me in a box of their own making, and then, quite likely, find something that either seems to be the same or different, in order to form an alliance or start a disagreement. It's a game I never want to play. I say, 'what do you mean by believe?' Or if they've asked the slightly different question, 'do you believe in God?' I ask, 'What do you mean by God (or Gods)?' Or, when asked, 'Are you a Christian or a Pagan?' I ask, 'What do you mean by Christian? What do you mean by Pagan?' We can then, all being well, get into their issues instead of mine - which is probably what they really want to talk about anyway.

 My feeling is, that people who start by putting one on the spot with such a question, actually, often unconsciously, really want to talk about what they believe, and there's often a chip on the shoulder or a frustrated need for a soap-box in there somewhere. perhaps there is sometimes an insecurity, a desire to check for conformity too - 'are you safe for me to associate with? Are you going to help me stay in my comfort zone or are you going to disturb me and make me have to rethink everything?'  It's a different phenomenon, a different game, to the one played by people who don't even bother to ask, and start out with the massive assumption that there is already a shared understanding: 'We believe ...' which of course almost invariably elicits the response, 'please speak for yourself.'

sycamore trunk under the bark
Really, and simply, at heart, I believe - or I find value in the idea of - trying to explore what it means to be a human being: the meanings and implications of 'humanity', and the inevitable shadow, 'inhumanity', and that is my starting point. It's essentially relational and experiential. More broadly, I 'believe in' exploring what being human means, in the context in which we find ourselves, in our communities, on this planet, with the other life-forms and existences with which we co-exist, in this century, with the history we know to be behind us and the possibilities that lie ahead of us. I think I am happy to say, and always have been, that I have a feeling there is more to all this than meets the eye; there's something deeper, something bigger, something intangible and mysterious. That's a feeling, an intuition, based on inexplicable experiences, I'm not sure it's a 'belief' as such. I would not call myself a materialist, that I'm sure of, but I still have to base my exploration on personal experience and observation of the 'real' world around me, natural and tampered with, and my own intuitions and impressions, and I appreciate these are highly subjective. Sure, I have some stories, significant role models and guidelines that were given to me, early on, that I often go back to as an interpretative filter as I try to make sense of things, but sometimes other stories and expressions of wisdom beyond my childhood framework, make more sense in a given moment. There are undoubtedly those who would like me to sound more loyal, more vociferous in defending my foundational faith, but it's not something I feel needs defending by me, particularly, it's been doing fine for centuries - or not, depending on how one views world history. Sometimes, at the end of the day, there is just no need to try to construct a meaning, a framework in which everything is neatly wrapped up. It just 'is'. Perhaps, one day, all will become clear, and perhaps not.
water droplet, Meanwood
In a sense, the only constant is change. What I 'believe' faith-wise is a shifting thing because I am on a journey through life. If I make an emphatic statement one day, I know I am likely to find, some way down the line, that I don't think like that any more; I wish I had used different words. Words, in a sense, are the problem - and I say this as the author of seven books (the seventh is in the pipeline right now). How can they articulate something that is beyond the cerebral? I used to play a lot of music, clarinet and saxophone and other things; I used to just improvise, letting the melody flow. That, in a sense, was my open response to any question of what I might believe, but it was the language of the soul or something very deep and wordless. Painting, especially abstract, combinations of colours and shapes, perhaps has a similar effect.
sunlight through a leaf
What we really believe, I think, is expressed in the way we live, and others see this in the way we walk, our body posture, the default expression on our face, the vibes we give off, the way we relate: we have a translucency that we do not always realise. While another person does not know the inner processes of my thoughts and feelings, I do not know what they see in me. It is hard for us to find the right words when there is information missing. If I say I 'believe in God', yet my whole body is set in a tense, defensive, pained position, then my body betrays my unhealed state, my lack of trust, my fearfulness - my doubt, perhaps, based on my life experience, and a perceptive observer will see this without needing to ask. My words might be an expression of what I think I should believe, or what I want to believe, but not the reality that my inner nature lives.The day I become at peace, serene and shining, able to sail through all storms unruffled, giving out only love and peace to all, that's the day you can ask me what I believe and get a straight answer; I imagine myself saying, 'I don't believe, I know.'

river at Meanwwod

You cannot step twice into the same river. 

Wednesday, 13 August 2014

On the Doorstep: so many interesting places, within 100 miles!

We have just got back from a lovely short break away in our beloved campervan, which is the way we enjoy most of our holidays and retreats for time out of city life. We try to minimise our mileage as much as we can and look for sites within a 40, 60 or 80-100 mile radius of Birmingham depending on how long we are going away for. I'm really looking forward to blogging about some of the most recent places, having just downloaded the photos, but for now, I'm marvelling at how many amazing places we've been able to visit and often spend significant time with, in the last couple of years.
White Horse at Uffington

 This is the recent furthest, at about 80 miles, but a definite favourite for both of us (that's me and Ray): the White Horse, Dragon Hill and the
Manger at Uffington.

me looking pensively at ... something inside Wayland's Smithy ...
Then just down the Ridgeway (itself a joy to walk), is another favourite, the neolithic burial mound of Wayland's Smithy.

Odda's Chapel, Deerhurst

Here's an Anglo Saxon chapel at Deerhurst (one of two), where of course it was only natural to stand in the sanctuary and recite the 'our Father' in Anglo Saxon, for the sake of awakening the old timbers ... (although the liturgy would have been recited in Latin, which I'm no good at!).

Rollright Stones

Then, the Rollright Stones (see my previous post) are about 40 miles south of us,

one of many green men at Tewkesbury Abbey

not to mention multiple Green Men at Tewkesbury ... again in one of my older posts.

Mitchell's Fold

And heading West, there's so much to explore, not least the enigmatic stone circle of Mitchell's Fold, about 60 miles away...

rubbish cleared from Wayland's Smithy
One of the things we love about these places is how quiet most of them are. I'd like to say unspoilt - but behind many are sad stories of vandalism, from yellow paint daubed on the Rollrights, to piles of dead tea-lights at Wayland's Smithy, to people actually pulling the biggest stone at Mitchell's Fold over with a tractor. I have been delighting in such places since my childhood, having the privilege of parents who always took us camping around the historical and natural sites of interest in the British Isles and France, and they are integral to my spirituality. I don't know why some people want to damage them; fear or ignorance, I suppose, and sometimes well-meaning thoughtlessness, such as the debris of prayercandles left for others to clear up. I'm not sure how lighting a by-product of the petro-chemical industry wrapped in a piece of non-biodegradeable foil is supposed to enhance the experience of sacred and / or beautiful space, it doesn't really seem to be honouring anything very natural, to me, and can cause damage.

We are very fortunate that such places are open to visitors, usually free of charge at any time, and I dread the day they are fenced off. Minutes after emerging from Wayland's Smithy with a handful of rubbish, my hands green and sore from rubbing a chalked inscription off one of the interior walls, a little girl appeared, asking her older relative, 'can I go in?' I was so pleased I had just got there before her, so that she could experience the burial chamber for what it is, without the clutter of other peoples' 'stuff'  - just as I had experienced the awe of the place myself at a similar age. She is the next generation of ancient place lovers! May her right to unspoilt places of mystery and wonder be upheld!
Wayland's Smithy 

Thursday, 24 July 2014

The War Stone: Birmingham's Jewellery Quarter

The War Stone
I went to visit the War Stone today in Birmingham's Jewellery Quarter. I was taking photos for an article I will be writing soon for Mystic Christ, about the Seasons and Elements (this will be the last in a series: Summer and Fire). The trail of thinking that led me to the stone was something like: fire, energy, industry, industrial revolution, iron smelting, railways, railway journey, places I can reach easily from my local train line ... good excuse to visit the War Stone!
But I had wanted to pay a visit for a while, article or no article. There is something about this stone that really speaks to me, and occasionally it seems good to just go and sit with it a while. It's been set on a plinth on the edge of a rather atmospheric old graveyard, with a little inscription, telling the passer-by something of its past.

'This felsite boulder was deposited here by a glacier during the Ice Age; being at one time used as a parish boundary mark it was known as the Hoar Stone of which the modern War Stone is a corruption.'

Felsite or felstone is a volcanic rock - so appropriate for my impending 'fire' article. Born of the molten rock in the churning furnaces below the earth's crust, this particular specimen was thrust into place in Wales, to be broken from its parent rock and carried, oh so slowly, by a great glacier, all the way to this little spot, where it was deposited as an 'erratic'. And, amazingly, here it remained.

While the vast elemental processes that formed and moved the rock are mind-boggling, somehow, what fascinates me just as much about this particular stone is the way it has just sat here. Ok, it has been moved a little bit, but not out of the area, and not as much as one might expect, given that it is relatively small. It has sat here, from the time it was dropped, when all around was a bleak landscape of ice and rock. It could have been set down 10 000 years ago, or 100 000 years ago; the information sign is non-committal.

It sat here while the ice gradually receded, while the first hardy trees and patches of vegetation sprouted.
It sat here, as creatures, deer and the like, found their way back onto the land, eating the fresh vegetation, followed by people, tracking the herds. It sat here while the land mass was cut off by the sea.
It sat here before there was any settlement in this region, and then sat some more, as communities came and went, nomadic at first, then staying put for longer periods.
It sat here as tribes and then  kingdoms rose and fell. The Romans came and went, and more kingdoms rose and fell.
It sat here, marking a parish boundary, as the villages round here gradually grew and became the city of Birmingham, and it sat here as a quarry opened up and then closed down, as a railway line was dug and graveyards built ...

I see in the face of the rock, something of a microcosm of the bare landscape the glacier carved out. It is weathered now, but not in the same way as the tombstones. It is harder, and hosts little in the way of micro-life.
The rock is very dense. I imagine it as having absorbed something of everything that has happened around it, black-hole like. I imagine, and of course this is ridiculous, that it has become more dense, the more it has sat through.

I think I wanted to come and sit with it because of this. The world seems a tense, dangerous place to be at the moment, and I am unsettled. War is all around us and many of us who say we love peace, it seems, still find ourselves struggling with very un-peaceful thoughts, all too easily voicing hasty, angry words, self-righteous sometimes, frightened perhaps, existentially challenged maybe, our faith - if we had one- rattled, perhaps, and every day 'the News', like an alarmed rabbit thumping its hind legs, sounds more and more urgent.

me and the War Stone
All in all, it's a good day to pause and make time to sit with an old lump of rock. I like to think that centuries from now, whatever state humanity is in by then, the War Stone will still be sitting here. I hope there will be people who still know that the stone is called the War Stone, and who visit it sometimes, inexplicably, when they feel in need of peace and a sense of perspective.

I have some hope, because as I sat, two complete strangers both very kindly offered to take my photo with the stone, recognising it as a local personality, and as I came back to it after a wander round the area, a group of friends were sitting with it having their lunch. The ground around gives clear signs that people come here for a quiet fag or a drink. It is a sitting place and the stone is a definite, welcome presence.

Why such things should give me hope I don't know, perhaps it's clutching at straws - but people simply seem to like the stone and be drawn to its gravity. It has its own attraction, in its quality of just 'being'.
I have heard it said that the Sanskrit word 'guru', a teacher, is related to the concept of heaviness or gravity, a person with true weight - gravitas - to whom others are drawn. Can one adopt a rock as one's teacher, I wonder? Why not.

the War Stone

Saturday, 5 July 2014

Druid Remembrance Ritual

the main memorial at the arboretum
I drove up the A38 to the National Memorial Arboretum today, to join some friends in a Druid Remembrance Ritual, which I first heard organiser Geoff Boswell talking about back in January when I met him at a conference of Pagans, Christians and Druids (or any combination of these concepts that seems appropriate to the attendees) at the Ammerdown Centre. Geoff was very kindly giving me a lift and described to me his vision of an event. It immediately made me think of my two grandfathers, who both served in the First World War in different ways, and the fact that they then brought up my parents, who were children during the Second World War - so I was honoured to be invited to talk about them during the ceremony today, the 100 year anniversary of World War 1 all the more poignant, as this year my own son has reached the age of 18 - 'call-up' age.
a sculpture of stretcher bearers

In short, one of my grandfathers was called up at the age of 18 in 1917, and sent to France, and the other, inspired by his Methodist upbringing, enlisted with the Royal Medical Corps in 1915, as a non-combatant stretcher bearer, sustaining a serious injury while searching for the wounded.

I arrived early at the Arboretum, and had time to explore. It's a huge place and hearteningly full of healthy young trees, which will become a beautiful forest, already clearly a habitat for all kinds of wildlife.

Unusually, I managed to catch a goldfinch sitting still long enough to be photographed, so here it is, if you look carefully!

I am not much of a one for war memorials if I am honest, I feel very uncomfortable with anything that looks like it might be veering towards a glorification of the horror of warfare, but I did find the principal memorial, set up on a hill, strikingly moving. Entering the sanctuary-like area at the top of the steps, one is confronted with huge, curved walls of names, the names of people who have died in war  since the wars that were supposed to end all wars. There are many names, which is chilling ... I asked for my photo to be taken in front of them as a witness to my respect and sorrow:
me by the wall of names

the empty wall

But equally chilling was the empty wall, where the most recent names were followed by a vast space ... for more names.
Appropriately for the Druid choice of venue, according to a guide I overheard talking to a group, the architect was inspired by Stonehenge in designing the monument, and incorporated a gap through which a shaft of sunlight shines at 11am on 11th November, to illuminate a sculpture of a wreath. 

the sun-slit, from outside the structure
A view of Stonehenge
We gathered in a grove of young birch trees for the ritual, created to recognise the harm that England and Germany did to one another's cities, and to honour the peaceful relationship that has since ensued. At the centre of the grove, most appropriately, was a Dresden Oak, under which the ceremonial table was laid. 
preparations for the ritual
Here, led by Geoff and Elaine of Wildways, we stood (or sat) in a wide but friendly circle to honour those who died in the first world War, the survivors, the victims, and the lives that have continued to be affected by the legacy of war. True to general Druid principles, we called for peace, in dignity, with story, song, poetry and simple ritual, and welcomed any onlookers into the circle to share with us. Closing with a heart-rendingly sensitive sounding of the Last Post, and the words, 'we will remember them', it was a very moving, and fitting memorial, and surely, unique.
If anyone can identify themselves in this photo and would prefer for it to be removed please get in touch with me thank you.

Monday, 23 June 2014


Rollright stones, facing East
We are just back from a lovely sunny midsummer weekend, visiting the Rollright stones on the border of Warwickshire/ Oxfordshire.
The King Stone
It's a beautiful ring of very weathered limestone stones, with a solitary 'King stone', now separated by a road and hedges, which is actually an integral part of the design, plus a burial monument of stones, a short walk away. The stones were set up around 4000 years ago at a time when the landscape was gradually changing, with land clearance and the development of farming techniques brought over from the grain-rich 'fertile crescent' of ancient Mesopotamia.
Standing in the circle, looking towards the King Stone, one's gaze would be directed towards the wide expanse of sky in which the midsummer sun sets, to the west, and then rises, to the east. The shadow cast by the King Stone falls, as it has done since it was first set up, as a giant sun-dial, allowing the observation and charting of the passage of time. In the photo, the shadow marks a mid-afternoon position of about 4pm. Today, the view of the stone, and the sun's setting and rising, is obscured by the hedge, so some imagination is required to get a sense of the whole structure.

lichen, standing stone
Historically fascinating, the stones also host a diversity of lichens and tiny creatures.

the micro environment of a crevice in a standing stone

In this crevice, if you look closely, you can see tiny snails, about 1mm in diameter, behind a single grass seed.

Parking the campervan in a layby near the stones on Friday evening, we found lots of people, including stewards, already there, and joined the general mooching around and quiet sitting, to get a feel for the place. Everything felt calm and good humoured, the natural merriment of some not intruding overmuch on the quiet contemplation of others.
A pretty but destructive candle

We did notice one moment of tension though. On arrival, as we walked into the ring, at twilight, little candle flames were flickering, all around the ring. It looked quite enchanting, the stones glowing gently in the soft light. The woman who had put them there was still at work, keen to light twelve, a number which sounded as though it had some special significance for her. Initially, it looked as though she was part of a group who were going to 'do' something, but she wasn't. There were no obvious groups doing organised 'things'. Within minutes of her departure, the stewards rushed in in consternation, and extinguished the candles again - pretty maybe, but death to the micro-environments inside the crevices, and potentially harmful to the rocks themselves.
The lighting of a few candles may sound a small thing, but yes, our impact is unwittingly damaging, all too often, even when we mean well. There's a saying, in many a magical circle, 'and it harm none', an expression of the wish that the projection of one's will cause no ill effects. Those ill effects can happen on a microscopic scale, as the tiny snails in the crevice show. The smaller we look, the harder it seems to fathom what impact we unwittingly have.
Chatting with the stewards, who come to protect the site because they care about it, all kinds of damage is done to the stones and the place itself, from daubing them with paint, to scratching into them, and paraffin wax and hot flame, although it may be meant to enhance the ambiance or perhaps sometimes to effect a magical rite, is also damaging to these ancient and mysterious stones. It is difficult to know who would vandalise such places deliberately, or why one would want to.
the moon, taken with my mobile

Although we cannot know for sure what rituals were enacted here long ago, and what beliefs were held, what stories told, what songs sung and dances danced, the point of the place, in part, is certainly connected with careful observation of the heavens. Ambience enough, on Friday evening, was provided by a beautiful waning gibbous moon, which stayed with us as the sun rose.

shortly before sunrise
By 4am, lots of people had gathered in the King Stone field to stand in quiet anticipation. People were there for all sorts of reasons - spiritual and secular, sharing the wind chill as the temperature dropped, watching and waiting together...

and sharing the sense of awe as the golden orb of the sun gradually appeared on the horizon, a sense of awe that surely unites humanity since we first walked the earth.

sunrise 4.45am midsummer 2014 Rollright Stones
me and the largest easterly-facing stone