Samhain Quilt

As the pagan New Year approaches, I have been making preparations by completing the next quilt (or altar cloth or display cloth depending on who I am talking to) for my display, and also buying a pumpkin and deciding what to carve into it.

The quilt design is still based on 2” squares, but this time there are many triangles incorporated – which sometimes combine to make diamonds. I wanted a lot more movement in this quilt than the one for the equinox, reflecting the flames of this fire festival. Change can happen. New seeds can be sown in the Earth to put down roots through the winter. Ancestors can peek through the cracks and offer their advice and support. My colours are perhaps a little clichéd, but they are what felt right from my scraps pile – which may even fit in its cupboard again by the time I finish all 8 quilts… Now I just have the enjoyable task of creating my display on top, which like all of our displays will find ways of connecting to the seasons as well as the Sabbat, in this case Samhain and our ancestors being remembered.

Samhain Display Quilt


The vibrant orange in the quilt is almost identical in colour to the pumpkin I have found for this year. Pumpkins are a vegetable I have been carving for over 40 years now; I can remember primary school days when other children brought in carved turnips and swedes, and thinking what hard work it looked and why didn’t they just use a pumpkin? The bits we cut out of pumpkins tasted good in pies as well, mixed with enough sugar, eggs, cream and spices, whereas I don’t think we even ate turnips in our house. However as a child I just carved a face each year, whereas as an adult I like to carve more meaningful designs. One side to represent what has been important to me in the past year, the other to sow my seeds, hopes and dreams for the next year. I usually start thinking about what I will carve a week or so before the day, when I see what size pumpkin I have.

While planning a design always involves a period of reflection for me, as all spiritual art must come from within, this autumn it has been particularly intense.

I mentioned when writing about my Mabon quilt that I had hurt my hip and leg. I have no idea what I did, or exactly what is wrong, but walking and sewing are still very tricky for me, and as for any of the plans I had for when M was in school full time, my leg is clearly telling me they were the wrong plans. Luckily I have found cycling is even better than the physio exercises and really enjoyable in this mild autumn weather. Meanwhile I have had a lot of meditation time to think about what direction I should be going in.

The strange thing is that at the end of all this, I realised there is nothing I need to be doing right now except what I have been able to do – which is to look after my family and myself. Except now I have a very small difference in my approach. I value each person equally, including myself as an equal. I am ignoring messages from the media of what I should be doing to value or look after or pamper myself, because I don’t need it. I have no lack, and I have nothing to prove. As a result I am happier than I have ever been before as an adult. I know that even though I cannot do much right now, I should just enjoy the resting period. The future might suddenly be a lot busier.

So after all this thought, I plan to make this year’s pumpkin a joint family carve, using cookie cutters to make pictures since the first two requests of fairy and frog should be easier cut that way than freehand. I did a frog last year as well; it must have worked since our tadpoles have been hopping around the garden for the last two months. This year it might go on the thank you side.

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Collecting memories

It appears to be a fact of modern life that technology becomes obsolete by the time you have opened the box. Our computer is now over six years old, security updates are no longer automatic, websites don’t always work properly and films over an hour in length freeze up in the middle. It is time for a complete system clearout and software upgrade – so if there is no post from me next week, we are still rebuilding…

Just as I like to tidy a room every few years and clear out what has become ‘clutter’, I have spent the last week going through my computer files. It is amazing how many folders remain untouched since the last clearout, that may as well be moved into ‘Archive’. A few thousand emails have been deleted, while a handful of wonderful ones have now been stored in appropriate folders to make me smile again at some point in the future. Photos of nieces and nephews remind me of when they were small. Good wishes or news from friends who live overseas. Memories and video clips of canoeing trips.

I am reminded how those who have lost all their possessions treasure the personal, the photographs, the keepers of memory. As the reward for this process of clearance, I will have a new printer that can do colour, so that I may collect a few of the most treasured pictures into a book. Something tangible that may be worth rescuing. Am I crazy to fill my physical shelves as well as the computer files? Well probably, but which will M enjoy looking at in years to come? Also I expect there will be at least two more computer rebuilds before she becomes an adult…

There are other, more pagan- or possibly witch-specific uses for physical photographs as well. While I am not a great one for spells, especially those involving living people, using photos for connecting to recently deceased ancestors is much simpler than trying to get hold of relevant objects to represent them. I have had a frame for some time now waiting for pictures to be printed out and inserted so that it may stand on a side table.

It seems to me that human nature hasn’t changed much; for thousands of years we have painted our memories, first directly onto our walls, then on wood, leather, canvases or parchment. We may puzzle at the exact meaning today, but we still value the pictures. However just as we have hidden files in silicon crystal that may be accessed in the future, so did the ancients, in the form of quartz crystals. Meditating with a stone, or even a skull, can reveal all kinds of truths and memories that have been stored there.

Communing with the Ancestors

Duddo Stones, Northumberland

Duddo Stones, Northumberland

This is the third and final blog post relating to my recent holiday in Northumberland, and needs a bit of background.

Before I went on holiday, I sent out a request for what I wanted to get out of the experience. Good family time, range of activities, good food, balanced weather, all predictable sort of stuff for holiday enjoyment but by stating what I wanted I helped it to happen. Then I considered something else I don’t normally do – how good a holiday I wanted. I’m sure you are wondering: could I really make a request like that? Well I had never tried before and wasn’t sure if it was possible, but it felt right. I looked at it in terms of a scale I use frequently when pendulum dowsing, for example buying (or usually not buying) books or other items online. The scale runs from 0-7 and I have learnt to interpret it as follows:
1 – useless
2 – passable
3 – okay
4 – good
5 – very good, worthwhile
6 – brilliant
7 – life changing

So for this holiday I thought I wanted a 5 or 6 … until the day before I left. Then I started to wonder why I was shying away from accepting something that might be life-changing.

At the back of my mind may have been the book ‘Pilgrimage with the Leprechauns’ by Tanis Helliwell, in which she takes a group of people around Ireland on a pilgrimage that doesn’t exactly go to plan but gives people what they need so as to be potentially life changing for each individual. Sometimes something ‘bad’ might have to happen in order to make the positive change needed – like a broken leg, or illness, and this was what I was shying away from. Having recognised what I was scared of however, I decided to accept ‘life-changing’ for myself and trust that it would lead to something positive.

I had quite a good activity plan for the week in my mind, having learned by past experience that the more research I do before a holiday the better. I included such things as beaches, castles, Alnwick gardens, etc, with flexibility to suit people and weather. One day, towards the end of the week, had a somewhat vague plan, starting at Etal village market and exploring the various ‘attractions’ there and in the twin village of Ford. For various reasons my ideas didn’t work out, and we found ourselves both with an unplanned afternoon and needing to find a shop to buy food for the next two days. Suddenly a new plan emerged. To find a supermarket in Berwick, going via the Chain Bridge Honey Farm and also the Duddo Stones which I had really wanted to visit but couldn’t see a way to fit them in sensibly. The holiday had just taken on its life-changing dimension.

I hadn’t been sure how to get to the stones, and my directions to the driver would have been wrong – but a sign was spotted that led us the right way. It was then a short walk across fields to the stones, on the top of a slight rise, growing ever larger as we approached. And when I got there, like at Bamburgh beach, I realised I had been there before many centuries ago.

Single Duddo Stone, Northumberland

Single Duddo Stone, Northumberland

The dialogue I had with the stones was fairly simple, after all I wasn’t alone, but I made a promise to work with my ancestors to do whatever healing was needed. I did not have any idea what I was promising at that stage, just an amplification of a feeling I have had for some time that healing was needed, and trust that I would be guided in what and how to do this. I also didn’t know what ancestors, how long ago they had lived, or how they related to me – but I was fairly sure they had more to do with racial memory than blood or family ties. I then sealed my promise with the gift of a seashell I had planned to keep.

Later, back at home, I did some journeying to find out what the ancestors wanted me to do. It actually took two journeys, the first I lacked focus and clarity about what I was journeying for and also lacked a drum (not wishing to disturb others) and I found the Duddo stones covered in a blanket of snow. I was with my power animal, who seemed unimpressed by me, met a person dressed in simple dark brown clothing who I was unable to communicate with, and a snow and ice dragon who, as always, had a much simpler and more direct message for me. Use the drum. So two days later I did that, and was shown the Duddo stones as they had looked when I was there previously; they were in a large clearing but surrounded by woodland. My power animal was now in her element, leaping through the woods, running, playing, splashing through streams or small rivers. Returning to the stones, there were many people there, and they had a strong message for me. They had started the removal of the trees, and that was what was wrong and why I hadn’t recognised the stones until the last moment. The countryside was now almost bare of trees. And the land was suffering as a result. All the work I and others do with weather to help keep it in balance is much needed, but until we plant more trees and enough of the land is wooded once more there will never be true balance. I need to use my writing to spread the message, need to do far more than the short tree stories I am currently writing. I also need to learn how to drum at or near power sites, such as stone circles or waterfalls in woodlands to spread healing.

I still have a lot of work to do to fully understand this message, especially the last part! and to really make a difference. I feel somewhat overwhelmed by the responsibility being asked of me, but if every journey starts with the first step, my first step is to be brave enough to post this. Thus my commitment to trees (and to dragons, but more of them later) is sealed. Will this be life changing? Well in one sense it simply feels like the logical next step on a journey I’m already on – I just hadn’t seen it yet. However, it also feels like it needs to be bigger than anything I’ve done before. Time will be the judge.

Samhain

There are just a few days in the calendar where the date dictates the activity. October 31st is one of these for me – I will be carving a pumpkin.

Originally turnips or mangelwurzels were carved rather than pumpkins, in a British tradition going back at least three hundred years, but thousands of years worldwide. There are a variety of stories put forward for carving the turnip on All Hallows Eve, known as Samhain in parts of Scotland, or Punkie Night in the West Country, but the most common was that it was carried by Catholics while begging for Soul Cakes. Then after the potato famine took many of the turnip carvers to America, they discovered the pumpkin as the ideal fruit for carving lanterns. Turnip lanterns were also used by pranksters, to carve a grotesque face and scare people on the night when ghosts and other spirits were said to be abroad. This may be more of an English than Irish custom, where it was sometimes known as Hoberdy’s Lantern. Others make a connection with will o’ the wisp, the strange flames sometimes seen in peat bogs.

I started carving pumpkins as soon as I was old enough to hold a knife. I don’t know how old I was for the first, but my first year in Primary School aged five someone brought in a carved turnip for Halloween, and I remember thinking how hard work it looked for a pathetically small result. Why didn’t they use a pumpkin like normal people? So I must have been pretty familiar with carved pumpkins! I stopped briefly as a student, and then took myself by surprise the next year by coming home with a pumpkin. I had missed the tradition, and wanted to carve one. Just a simple face…

Not long after, on a visit to America, I found a book with pumpkin carving pictures – with shadow images for the reverse side. I was inspired. Some carving tools were fashioned out of broken hacksaw blades, duck taped between lolly sticks, and I was away. They must be over fifteen years old now, but still doing good service.

I have probably now carved around thirty-five lanterns. The last few years have seen me move away from faces or clichéd scary images however. Samhain is generally celebrated as the Pagan New Year, with various rituals and traditions associated with it. Although it is known to some as the Day of the Dead it has positive connotations – such as remembering our ancestors and setting a place for them at the table. Not just ghosts to be scared of! So I now choose to carve images that mean something to me, from the year that is ending, to that which is coming. What has been and what I am grateful for, usually as the main image, and what I hope for over the coming year as a shadow, unformed image on the back.

A theme for me this year has been to celebrate trees, and publishing the first few tree stories I have written online. So I decided to carve a series of leaves around the pumpkin. Those for which I have completed stories at the front, those yet to be written in shadow, with various stages of transition in between. Having a small pumpkin meant I couldn’t fit all twenty, so I dowsed to find out which ones I should include for the year to come. I have made a note and will have to see if they are the important stories of the next year, or if I was completely wrong on some! But carving each leaf has brought me closer to them by making a connection with the trees, so it might prove to be self-fulfilling. Apologies for not taking a photo; none of my recent designs have been photographed, due in part to large holes in the wrong places showing the candle through, which upsets the light balance. Also pumpkin carving is one situation where you don’t get two goes at it – so it is the intention behind the design that counts more than the reality sometimes.

After our Samhain dinner in recent years I have used the pumpkin as a cauldron in a ritual to help me clear away what I do not wish to bring forward into the new year, ceremoniously burning in its flame what was holding me back in my life. Then I have asked mother Earth to transform the energies into something positive through the action of my compost heap. (Apart from the thinnings and trimmings, which get eaten for dinner of course!) But this year that seemed a negative approach, when I would rather focus on what I do want. So I am allowing the flame to bring transformation, taking in the warmth and light to see me through the dark evenings of autumn as I dream new dreams.