A new perspective

P1070241 (2)What gets you through the hardest times in life?

The last two weeks have not been easy. The death of a beloved member of the family, combined with a breast cancer scare has led me to a new perspective on life, one that is filled with content and gratitude, even in the deepest moments of grief and fear.

I’ve always been grateful for my many blessings. But it’s really only upon reviewing each and every one, in a quiet and dark space, that you realise just how much you have, and how wonderful life is, even if you should die tomorrow. As I sat before my altar, the candles flickering and the incense curling around flames, I spent over twenty minutes going over all the amazing things that had happened in my life, all the experiences and people, the wonderful moments that make life worthwhile. Not knowing what the hospital appointment in two days’ time would bring, and stricken with grief over the death of a loved one the day before, still all these beautiful revelations filled my soul as the rain pattered against the windows in the darkness outside.

Some of these were:

I have walked with the reindeer herds in the Scottish Cairngorms.

I have watched the sun rise over the North Sea in ritual with friends.

I have watched the sun set over the Pacific Ocean while the wind sighed amongst the pines.

I have skied in -29 degree weather, with icicles on my eyelashes.

I have been canoeing in Sweden with my husband, with only our provisions for the week, a tent, the canoe and an arranged rendezvous point and time a week in advance.  I have seen the burial mounds and carved stones and watched Freya’s falcon soar over the water and mountains.

I have felt the burning fire of Brighid in my heart, in my head and in my belly.

I have faced a blizzard in Trollheim, Norway, and been forced by the wights and jotun to turn back to safety.

I have known the comfort of a safe home, loving parents, patient husband and a good family.

I have loved and been loved by many cats, and given them good homes.

I have climbed the mountains of the Lake District, and watched the crows dive and dance on the thermals as the water glimmered below.

I have walked back in time in the stone circle of Avebury.

I have walked the woods of my childhood home, and know the paths and where they go, the eyes of the seen and unseen upon me.

I have swum in lakes that are filled-up volcanoes, and in rivers that tumble between the ancient granite mountains of the Laurentians.

For all these things and more, I am utterly grateful, amazed, filled with awe and wonder. If I should die tomorrow, at least I have done and known these things, and I am content.

My perspective has not changed, even with the all-clear from my hospital appointment on Monday (it was a cyst). In this time of deepest darkness, I can review what I have experienced, what I have known, and be glad for it. It makes all the small things pale in comparison, all the niggles and troubles that I may have had, with people and life in general. All these things really don’t matter at all. What matters are the things that bring on the contentment, the sense of fulfilment.  All else is just the dross which can cloud judgement and perspective. No longer will I sweat the small stuff.

As we head into the darkest depths of the Winter Solstice, I wish you all very many blessings. Thank you so much for your support over the years, and I look forward to sharing, discussing and reviewing more of life’s wonderful moments with you. Please feel free to comment below, on what helps you get through the darkest times, and peace be with you all.

The Dark Night of the Soul

As the nights draw in, and the cold brings us indoors for longer periods of time, the winter months are a good time for reflection. Though we may not need to take stock of our material goods as much as our ancestors did with today’s easier lifestyle, we must pay due diligence to our emotional and spiritual well-being. For the long winter months can be the most difficult for many people, and coupled with the physical stress of lack of sunlight, fresh food and often companionship we often have a trying time ahead. We are laid upon the anvil of Brighid, to be pounded and wrought into something stronger if we are able to see it through.

Taking care of our thoughts and feelings is essential to maintain a balanced equilibrium throughout the winter months. We have to work with emotional responsibility, and take charge of our behaviour rather than letting impulses, reactionary behaviour (which is often improper), and the deluge of other destructive human emotion to rule our world. We have to come to know our shadow side, to come to terms with the good and the bad, and to feed that which will sustain us. We acknowledge the necessity of destruction, but we need not feed it through the long winter months within our souls. We do not ignore negativity, but rather work with it in order to better understand our own sense of self, and in doing so, better understand others in the process. We all have destructive and negative thoughts, but what defines us is whether and how we act upon these thoughts. Sometimes it is necessary to work with destruction, but often we do not seek the way which will cause the least amount of harm. For us Druids, we need to remember the balance of the whole, as we strive towards holistic living and becoming a beneficial and nourishing part of an ecosystem. We have to remember our place within the whole, and take responsibility for the role that we play in our life, and in the lives of others.

There are far too many people who, knowingly or not, vent their emotions, their failures, their worries, anger, stress and more upon others. Let us not be like them, let us not add to the suffering in the world. We have to take a long, deep look at blame: at who we blame for our emotions, our behaviours. Only when we do so, can we begin the on the path to emotional responsibility. Certainly, there will be external factors beyond our control, but essentially the life that we live is up to us to determine, here in the gentler West. We’re not suffering the ravages of war or famine for the most part, though in the UK the rise of poverty is accelerating at an incredible pace under our current Conservative government. Many may suffer from ill health, physical or mental or both. But in working to take the reins and guide our souls towards integration, we must first of all be willing to do so. We must want health, healing and wholeness, for it will not happen without our effort.

We not only have to look at who we are blaming, but also when we blame ourselves for our suffering. That is not to say that we give ourselves a carte blanche, and do not take responsibility for suffering that we have caused, to ourselves and others. Rather, we acknowledge and then move on from there, instead of staying stuck in the well of stagnant waters in our soul.

I’ve had someone blame me for their depression for a blog post that I wrote years ago and then suffered years of bullying and undermining behaviour in a professional capacity as a result. I’ve had a friend stop all communication with me when I provided them information on a disease that they had, which they didn’t like hearing but which I shared because I was worried about their health and their becoming re-infected (they were terribly misinformed, and I referred them to the NHS website). I’ve been ill-treated by my first dance instructor, whose jealousy and competitiveness ruled her emotions and her behaviour towards me. These are but a few examples of things I have gone through that require my own personal emotional responsibility. I cannot control how other people react to life, or to what I do, even though I do my work with the best intention in mind, and keep to a strong code of ethic. These behaviours are lamentable, and I wish that I could help these people in coming to terms with their own suffering, and alleviate the misplaced blame and anger that they have laid upon me, but I cannot. I cannot make others act as I would wish; I can only live the example that I wish to see in the world. I will not perpetuate the destruction or suffering, the anger or the legion of other emotions that are involved.

It’s not all roses and light in my world. I regularly work with my shadow, with anger and vengeance, with pain and suffering in my life, and in the lives of others. How that energy moves in my life is what I work to control, to transform. I work towards not allowing these emotions to cause further destruction around me, though I may use them to bring about certain endings in life situations, and to take stock of where it is that I am investing my time and thoughts. If it isn’t beneficial to the whole, if it isn’t nourishing, then the investment stops, and I seek to work with energies that will sustain both myself and others in my life. That’s not to say that I don’t go through dark periods as I come to terms with things happening in my life, but I know that there is transformation awaiting, if only I have the courage and the will to seek it out.

From the tide of Samhain to the Winter Solstice, I use this period for deep introspection, for reflection and spiritual work that honour the darkness both within and without. I look at where I have laid blame in my life, and where others have blamed me with equanimity. I look at the success and the failure in my life with equal measure. I take stock of what will keep me going through the winter months, emotionally, mentally and spiritually, and then simply do the work necessary. Prayer, meditation, work, ritual; all these are pathways for the soul to come to terms with the self. I can seek further guidance from the ancestors, from the gods, the Fair Folk and the spirits of place. My relationship with these beings is integral to my spiritual path, and this relationship too must be nourished. Giving in return for receiving is essential to any functioning ecosystem, to the integration sought by those on the Druid path.

The world provides us with examples each and every day of how not to be: from world leaders insulting each other over social media, the bad behaviour of colleagues, the trials we endure from friends and family and more. Seek out the darkness within and without, and work with it in order to reclaim the energy that lies in the shadow. For it is in the darkness that the seeds wait for the warmth and light of spring. The darkness is nourishing, if we allow it to be, if we are able to seek the calm and centeredness necessary before transforming the energy into something that will grow and flourish. Take a long, deep look at your own self, and in doing so, come to know your own dark night of the soul.

Note: St John of the Cross, 16th-century, Spanish poet and Roman Catholic, Discalced Carmelite mystic, priest, and Doctor of the Church St. John of the Cross, OCD wrote a poem entitled “The Dark Night of the Soul” in which the human soul sees communion and integration with the divine.

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Today, I am a Flamekeeper of Brighid

candle-2The longest night is upon us. For three short days, we have watched the watery sun rise and set in the same place on the horizon, barely skimming the treetops at its highest point, filmed over by hazy clouds. This morning, it was impossible to tell just when the sun had risen, and indeed even though it has been up for half an hour, it’s just as dark as before, with heavy overcast skies letting in only a small amount of light. I lit a candle in my lantern dedicated to Brighid just as the sun rose somewhere behind the clouds, and in Her name I lit my solstice flame. The candle’s flame burns very low, just barely alight as it struggles amidst a pool of wax and an insufficient wick. There is the tiniest amount of light at the tip, with a small blue aura beneath. I look at it even as I type these words, and its struggle portends much to come.

It has been a difficult year for many. Across the Western world, we have been rocked by unprecedented political change. There is not much hope for the future. Political leaders do not have the common good in mind, and greed runs riot. Things have not changed for the better. Across the globe, war, strife and unrest rage, with millions of innocent beings suffering. And there is still more darkness to come.

But even so, we can still take hope that the seasons change, the sun’s light will return. My candle is guttering now, in a valiant effort to stay alight. I have tried to help it, tipping out excess wax, but the wick and wax balance is not favourable. Just as in today’s political, economical and social climate, things do not look in our favour. But still we struggle on. We are a light in the darkness, no matter how small.

Somewhere, behind the clouds, the low sun is rising. We are the sun, we are the earth. We are the wind and the rain. We are the wild beasts and the tame. We are our neighbours and our enemies. We are our deeds. We are our poetry. We are our ancestors. The flame might go out in the physical, but it still shines in our hearts and minds. Where does a flame go when it dies? A flame is always there, simply needing the right conditions to manifest. So too with all of life. We all depend on conditions, yet we all have the flame within, waiting to manifest. The spark of awen, the spark of inspiration. To share this inspiration is at the heart of all that I do, in the hopes that my words inspire others not to give up hope, to remember their connection to each other, to all of nature. The flame that burns within our hearts and minds can never be extinguished. Instead, it kindles a new flame in the hearts and minds of others, and we tend that flame with all that we have, for our future ancestors.

The wick is barely glowing now in my lantern on the windowsill. But the flame of Brighid burns brightly in my heart. Though there is a long darkness ahead of me tonight, and a long darkness for many to come, there is still a light that shines. Even the smallest light shines in the deepest darkness.

And so, I will tend to my flame today. Today, I am a flamekeeper of Brighid. And should that flame go out, I will simply light another, and another, and I shall persist.

Blessings of the winter solstice to you all.

 

(Originally published today on my blog, Druid Heart, on SageWoman’s channel at Witches and Pagans.)

 

The Wisdom of Gandalf

A lovely reader, Donal commented on my Make Tea post about how the US feels like they’re living in a Tolkein epic right now. It may indeed seem that all the forces of evil are set against us, overshadowing all. I was instantly reminded of my all-time favourite Druid, one of my greatest inspirations and heroes since I was a young lass: Gandalf. Tolkein was writing during some very dark times in his own day and age, and through Gandalf presented wonderful wisdom and awen.  This got me through some pretty dark days in my own life, and still continues to inspire me each and every day. I hope that they can also inspire others. x

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Make Tea

She lit the candles and incense, and sat down upon the cushions. Breathing deeply, she inhaled the fragrant scent, and allowed her gaze to wander over the items on the altar. She tried to focus, her gaze finally resting upon the image of Brighid, and the flame that the goddess held in her hands. As the darkness fell, both within and without, both figuratively and literally, she focused on the flame being offered. She took it within her heart, and for a brief moment it flickered, then died out as the darkness consumed it in a deep blanket of despair.

Breathe.

She focused once again on the image, this time on the watery vesica pisces symbol. Yet her mind would not focus, her thoughts filled with grief and anger, darkness and despair. She breathed through them, trying to remain in the present moment. But the darkness was overwhelming, and as she floundered, she cried out: “Help!”

The voice of the goddess spoke softly in her mind. “Make tea.”

She sat for a moment longer, determined to spend at least ten minutes at her altar. At last, she gave up and blew out the candles, allowing the incense to burn itself out. Make tea, the goddess had said. Alright. Let’s make some tea.

She went downstairs and put the kettle on. Let’s make tea, she said to herself. Mindfully. She prepared the small teapot with herbs known to lift the darkness and soothe the nerves: St John’s wort and skullcap. She also added some lemon balm, to ease tension and also for flavour. She inhaled the scent of the dried herbs, and mixed them together before placing them in the teapot. She looked out the window in the light of the setting sun, a small muntjac deer feeding alongside a magpie underneath the bird feeder.

She placed on a tray the teapot, strainer and saucer, as well as a small handmade earthenware cup. She brought these to the table, and laid them down with her full attention. The kettle had boiled, and she carefully filled her small iron kettle with the water, feeling the steam against her skin. She brought the iron kettle to the table, and placed it on a heat-proof mat. She sat down, her mind still battling the darkness around the edges, her thoughts seemingly not her own. She knew her hormones were swirling in a dance similar to that which she had experienced at adolescence, though now she was at the other end of the brilliant spectrum. She had to take care of herself, of her body as well as her mind.

She opened up the teapot and breathed. Mindfully, she took the iron kettle and filled the teapot with water, replacing the kettle with equal attention. She inhaled the scent of the herbs, and replaced the teapot lid. No other thoughts entered her mind, just these simple, small actions. Working with mindfulness, working with full attention to her actions, there was only the present moment.

She sat back and waited for the tea to brew. Slowly, she felt the darkness returning, crowding at her mind. Despair at the state of the world, at the constant struggle she faced with work, with others who could not do the simplest of tasks, with expectations from both strangers and friends, knowing that if she didn’t do something, no one would – stop. Breathe. Focus. Three minutes stretched to an eternity as the brew steeped in the teapot.

She took a deep breath, and the darkness receded an inch. She picked up the teapot, and concentrated on pouring the tea through the strainer into the small bowl. She kept up her concentration on her breath and on the pouring, and it filled her entire being. Nothing else mattered in that moment. Just pouring tea.

She put down the teapot and picked up the cup. The scent of the herbs brought back memories of a wonderful little shop called StarChild in Glastonbury. She allowed the brief memory to flicker, and then she refocused her attention on the cup in her hands. The heat radiated through the bowl, and she had to pick it up carefully, her fingers near the cooler end of the rim. Quietly, she took the first slurp, allowing the air to cool the hot water before it reached her tongue. She concentrated on nothing but drinking the tea, sitting alone in the dining room, with night falling outside.

She drank the first cup, and then brewed another in the teapot. She kept her mind focused on the present, acknowledging past wounds but not allowing them to flavour the present moment. She had worked hard to name them and transform them, and was working on it still. Three minutes again slipped past, and outside her dining room window she saw the Christmas lights from the house across the street go on.

She poured herself another cup, and drank it mindfully. A third cup was brewed and drunk, and when she finished she sat back and bowed to her tea set. She felt a little better, the darkness within relenting, though not wholly gone. She acknowledged and allowed the herbs to do their work on her body and her mind. With equally careful attention, she rinsed the kettle and washed the teapot, bowl and strainer, and then went upstairs with a lighter heart, to Skype with her mother and find even more comfort and peace, there in the moment, utterly in the moment.

Dark Moon Wisdom

Dark Moon Wisdom

You don’t have to shine to be powerful.

Release.

Release into the darkness, allow the night to fill your soul.

Find your sovereignty in the darkness.

Face the shadows, name the fears.

Then allow the dark moon to guide you further, deeper within, towards utter integration.

Feel the deep magnetic pull.

You don’t have to shine to be powerful.

 

© Joanna van der Hoeven