Unexpected Inspirations

In early May I walked past a poster which read:

“I am the Way and the Truth and the Life.”

That was all, no further explanation given.

My immediate thought was wondering who it was referring to, and if there were people who believed there was someone in particular who was all of these things. (Okay it didn’t take me too long to realise that the poster was outside a chapel… I am a Pagan first and not a Christian.)

Then almost straight away a reminder came to me:

“As within, so without. As without, so within.”

Or in other words, the macrocosm is reflected and present in the microcosm and vice versa. What applies to one applies to all, and what is present in the world also applies to me as a tiny part of this world. This is my interpretation as influenced by Rudolf Steiner, slightly different to the more familiar Hermetic phrase “As above, so below, as within, so without, as the universe, so the soul…” which is usually interpreted to mean that our thoughts shape the world outside of us, and in one direction only. Therefore as well as an emotional reflection, I also see the microcosm / macrocosm relationship in a physical way such as the way patterns are repeated on every scale, eg spirals as building blocks of life on every scale, or the dome of the earth reflected in the arch of our feet which in turn reflects our connection to the earth, or the weather reflecting and also influencing our emotions. So if this phrase applies to a microcosm of one person, does it also apply to the macrocosm?

I repeated the original phrase over again in my mind, to myself, – and suddenly thought Wow! What a profound statement! Because I am, or should be, all of those things for myself. I follow my own path, and only I can know the way for myself. I must look within on a regular basis to know that way, no one else can tell me what I should do. I am also my own truth, with my own sense of morals and ethics and what is right for me to do. Others have their own truths, which may be different to mine. And life? Well this is my life. I have chosen it, I own it, and I should live it as fully as I am able. No one else.

The phrase became a personal mantra for a few days, giving me a powerful reminder of just what and who I am – divine, Spirit, Me. I need reminding sometimes. And the real wonder is that it applies equally to everyone.

Birthdays

I am proud to be another “year” older this week, and realised as I approached the day that I wanted to mark it as a passing rite in my life, the same as I might mark any sabbat in the wheel of the year. It is equally important, even if only on an individual level, as a celebration of my life. Of being alive. On this day forty two years ago, my mother gave birth to me and brought me into this world. I was not due on this day, events didn’t go as she would have planned, yet it was the day I needed to be born on to make everything come right for me in this life. The bigger plan prevailed as it so often does.

I used to forget how old I was; age seemed unimportant once in my twenties. But since ‘restarting’ my life anew, getting a second chance to do things differently, every year since I turned forty has seemed special. I am increasingly perplexed, however, about the notion that time passes quicker as you get older. Thank goodness this is not my experience, as I have so many things I want to be doing! I won’t say I love every minute of every day, yet, but I do try to live every minute.

Forty two is in numerological terms four magnified up an octave, plus two. Four is the number of stability, of home building, of organisation and connecting with Earth. This seems to be a theme running through my forties so far, with starting a new family and trying to get our house fully usable by completing building projects started some years ago. Two is the number of partnerships, of duality, and of diplomacy which I seem finally to be learning. Combined, four and two make a six, the number of love. I have learned a huge amount over the past year about what unconditional love means, and how to practice it, and have noticed an increase in the love that I am able to give and that surrounds me. To have even more of this over the next year is something I really look forward to.

I thought this was sufficient basis for celebrating, but was reminded through a rather wonderful birthday card of the other reason 42 is important – it is if course the answer to the meaning of Life, the Universe and Everything. (Douglas Adams, Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy.) So with a vow to myself to spend more time journeying over the next year, I am left wondering where this may lead me!

'42' birthday card The answer to Life, the Universe and Everything... (Inscription removed.)

’42’ birthday card
The answer to Life, the Universe and Everything…
(Inscription removed.)

Finding the Excitement

Last week I wrote about my difficulties of shopping for fabric. I was fortunate to get a second opportunity to go shopping again this week, thanks to Derbyshire and Nottinghamshire having different half terms, so having been frustrated and appalled by my previous incompetence, I thought I would have another go!

I spent some time considering what was still needed fabric-wise, with the benefit of knowing what was (hopefully!) available, and what surprised me was to realise how nervous I was about the whole thing. Yes, shopping makes me uptight. I rarely find what I want, frequently come home with something that is nearly but not quite wearable, am in danger of going into into shop after shop and coming home with nothing, and given current restrictions, am likely to end up with a tired and grouchy little girl and a parking ticket. (How people are cheered up by going shopping I have never worked out!) In short, my whole attitude was defeatist before I even started. So I meditated some more on the kestrel.

It struck me that the key thing about the kestrel was its golden colour. It was truly beautiful. I wasn’t being at all golden in my attitude, seeing shopping as going into a battle where I was likely to be only partially successful at best, and could come away with a hole in my wallet and few spoils of war to show for it if I wasn’t careful. This had to change. I meditated some more, and suddenly realised that I was looking at everything the wrong way around. I should be excited about having the opportunity to go on a shopping expedition, with my little girl, to buy fabrics which would offer the potential of new, fun projects and some good clothes for us both to wear. I had to be open to new things, allow my intuition to speak and tell me what it liked, instead of my logical, negative mind trying to judge the suitability of each item. I didn’t quite reach excited state, but I was able to go with a much more positive and open frame of mind.

Did it work?

Replacement fabric and last week's pink mistake

Replacement fabric next to last week’s pink washing mistake

Yes! I bought the fabrics I had remembered liking, plus saw some others, and found two remnants of those I wanted for a fraction of the price. I bought an amazing eight fabrics, a total of around 18m of mainly natural fibre (cotton or wool blend) cloth for just over £60. They should keep me going for a while yet! (And yes I do have a use planned for both of the fabrics in the photo.)

However, the best part was realising how it is possible to bring excitement to activities, instead of ordinariness. I have bought a bird feeding station for the garden, and in another meditation seen how to redesign the whole of the back garden putting nature at the forefront. I am almost terrified at the size of the project it has exploded into, yet tremendously excited at the same time. I’m sure I will be writing more about it here.

My aim is now to wake up every day excited by the potential it holds. I had never come close to imagining it was possible to feel this way until now, but how amazing would it be to greet each day with such joy? And yet nothing has actually changed except my attitude and way of looking at things.

Tree Stories 5 – Yew

Yew is now published on its own page – please use link above under ‘Tree Stories’.

Yew arils, last few remaining in December

Yew arils, last few remaining in December

My first encounters with yew as a witch did not go well. Yew did not wish to speak to me, and when I walked around a local graveyard, having visited the church first and enjoyed several faces peeking out from the stonework, I found a barrier. Yew did not wish me to go any further. I had never had trouble from a tree before, and when I tried to communicate with yew, on several occasions after that, it was closed to me.

I will admit, I was fascinated. I started to read about yew, to understand its nature better and see if I could approach yew on its terms. The first thing I discovered was the incredible age to which yew trees can live. Until relatively recently it was thought that they lived to about eight hundred years or so. Then came a study of a tree in a churchyard in Tandridge, Surrey, in the 1980s. The foundations are Saxon, and it was found that they were built around the tree’s roots, indicating that the tree was fully grown over a thousand years ago. It is now thought to be around 2,500 years old, but that is only an estimate. The Fortingall yew is thought to be the oldest yew tree in Britain, with current estimates being 3-8,000 years old. However the hollow trunks that older trees develop make it impossible to count rings, so no one can be sure.

Yews can be very slow growing, around an inch in 25 years in normal circumstances, creating a very dense hardwood. However they will regenerate by producing shoots or aerial roots from almost any part of the trunk, including the inside if it becomes hollow. They can also send up suckers to start new trunks, or even layer themselves where a branch touches the ground. Therefore the tree that you see might not be the ‘original’. In fact fossil yews 1,000,000 years old are virtually the same as those growing now.

Every part of a yew tree is poisonous except for the red flesh of the arils, a type of hollow berry open at the end. Few animals can eat yew leaves, although deer are one exception. For some years hedge clippings were collected by drug companies to make the cancer treatment paclitaxel. However it has now been realised that the active part is a fungus that lives on the yew, which is able to be grown in a laboratory. Hopefully this will reduce the cost of production over time.

In the middle ages, yew was considered to make the best longbows. This unfortunately led to the chopping down of many yew trees across England – which is why most remaining ancient yew trees are the churchyard yews, of which it is estimated 500 are older than the church next to them. Further destruction to mature yews occurred when there was a law passed in 1492 to require four longbows to be imported with every tonne of goods, which led to the devastation of yew trees across Europe.

Yew is believed by many to be Yggdrasil, the World Tree in Northern traditions, as it fits the description of an evergreen ‘needle-ash’ best. It is generally associated with higher knowledge and wisdom, and divination. I had not personally associated it with tarot cards until I began thinking about a story inspired by yew. However the darker side of tarot seemed to be what was wanted, and I definitely had to back off to write this one down! Rather than try to contrive something with the cards, after creating the characters and having a rough outline of the story, I asked for a tarot reading to use. I seemed to take on the character of Amy as I shuffled, and the cards that were dealt were exactly as used in the story. The particular deck I used is ‘The Sacred Circle Tarot’ by Anna Franklin and Paul Mason.

I have mentioned before that I had been collecting sticks from each of the trees in the ogham. (A project put on hold after M was born.) I was interested that once I made a connection with yew, within a week I found a suitable sized yew stick lying on the pavement below an overgrown yew hedge. However yew is sometimes used to make a whole ogham set, because its exceptional durability makes it a very potent wood for magical purposes; yew wands are also good for this reason.

To me the yew is not a tree of death, but of reincarnation and eternal life. Yews have been cut down when it was believed they were dying, yet that was only the end of their first incarnation.

Life

What is life for? How do we define a good life, or a bad life? How can we judge anyone else’s life, or even our own for that matter while we are living it?

This morning I watched M emptying the clothes from the washing machine into the basket for me, while I cleared away breakfast. She does not find this easy yet, and needed some help to position herself and the basket, but such is her delight in each item she manages to get out of the machine it becomes infectious. In some cases she names the owner of the item, or when it is hers, gives a cry of pleased recognition. I almost wanted a video camera. Then when she had got it all out, she half-carried, half-slid the full basket across the kitchen to me, feeling ever so proud of herself. Finally she climbed onto the tall stool I put by the sink all by herself, so that she could supervise me washing up.

In the eyes of Rudolf Steiner, she is learning about life through doing, and through imitation. She is enjoying helping with jobs I once detested and put off for as long as possible, because I saw them as jobs. I learned some years ago to simply see them as things that need doing, so got on with it. Then when M was small they were an escape to normality, an opportunity to do something worthwhile and productive, and a bit of breathing space! Now I see them as opportunities for enjoyment and sharing. Yet they are the same jobs.

There is much written about spending ‘quality time’ with your children. I confess, I do not know what this means. I do not often ‘play’ with M, because I do not seem to be able to conjure up an imaginary world, and her language development is such that she wouldn’t understand it if I did. So instead I do the things I either want or need to do but find ways for her to join in. When sewing she hands me pins, and has learned not to pull them out until I am sewing the fabric together. She will also play with fabric, or indicate by the actions the song ‘Wind the bobbin up’. And can go off to any of her other ‘toys’ when she gets bored of me. When drawing, she will join me for some of time with her own pencil and paper. When cooking she will stir the soup, or fetch me any ingredient within her reach, or come outside to pick herbs or dig up a leek. She comes shopping with me, and to the library. It is only when I am at the computer that she cannot join me at all, so instead I have constant interruptions for stories or songs. I try to limit my activities to short bursts, which can make me surprisingly productive!

There are many more groups we could join, and sometimes I have found it hard to meet people away from groups because they maintain a full timetable up to the point they return to work. But for us, three mornings a week seems to work well, leaving plenty of time for other activities as well as time to just Be. I don’t want life to pass me by, I want to experience whatever is happening, while it is happening, and enjoy it. Life is what you make of it.

Learning

“But we don’t want to TEACH ’em,” replied the Badger. “We want to LEARN ’em–learn ’em, learn ’em!” (from Wind in the Willows by Kenneth Grahame)

I have been pondering the how, when and why of learning recently, because I have come to believe that we each individually made the decision to incarnate because, in part at least, we wanted to learn and develop in various ways. (Some say planet Earth is one of the toughest schools…)

When growing up I had some idea that we learned things at school, and when we knew everything we would be grown up. We would then get a job and use all those things we spent years learning. Learning was therefore about knowing things. It could be fun, it could sometimes be very satisfying, but frequently it simply had to be done. Spellings. Times tables. French verb declensions. Physics equations. Do children still learn these? I’m sure they are still taught, but as Badger said above, learning is quite a different matter.

Then there was learning a musical instrument, a skill that required many hours of practice and eventually some fun came out of it. Changing from the violin to the french horn helped me find the fun aspects! To reach the highest levels I can see with hindsight it was necessary to become an independent learner; to want to practise, to improve, to be the best I was capable of. To want to learn.

Whitewater kayaking and canoeing was something I did for many years, from my early twenties until shortly before I got pregnant with M. I eventually learned not only how to sit in a boat and stay upright with minimal effort while letting the river do all the work, but also a lot about visualisation which has been useful in many other ways. There was also, for me, a lot of learning about how to cope with the emotional side. Running rapids, be they rocky and technical or large and powerful, surfing waves, going over ‘drops’, is to experience nature in a very raw state. The mental anguishes I went through, and on occasion saw others going through, ‘learned’ me a lot about preparation, confidence and eventually trust. The fact I kept going back for more suggests that on some level I wanted to learn.

It was when suffering from ill health in my thirties that I really started consciously learning about life and developing my awareness of how I behave and think. A very different sort of learning, and life can present some tough lessons at times! Somewhere along the way I think I finally managed to become that adult I thought I’d be in my twenties, and become my own person. Lessons tend to have a much more practical nature though, like learning how to relate to other people with honesty and integrity, to be aware of their needs and also my own. I’m still learning; I still get things wrong and take people too literally, but I’m learning.

But what interests me most is how our rate of learning doesn’t seem to change much throughout our lives. I have spent many hours over the past year and more watching M learn, and just as I was struck a few months ago by the fact that we change and develop mentally all our lives, I have been surprised to notice that she doesn’t actually learn any faster or slower than I do, or than most people do.

Take language. Some people have a natural gift, others struggle. M appears to understand a lot more than she does, and can make a few words go a long way – in exactly the same way as a foreign exchange student will work out the jist of what you are trying to explain. Like the foreign student, she has a few words that she can say very well, a few ‘starters’ where I can work it out, and unlike the foreign student who would probably feel silly, a lot of babbles. Adults in the right environment are equally capable of learning a new language. Physically, M learned to walk, and then to cope with uneven ground, steps, etc at pretty much the same rate that most people I have taught to canoe or kayak learn. Looking back I don’t remember seeing a great deal of difference in those learning canoeing at age 16 or 56 that couldn’t be explained by self confidence; age itself was rarely a factor. Behaviourally three weeks is long enough for M to learn most things to a basic level, whether it is not to bite me when feeding, or to leave things in a particular cupboard. This is the same length of time we adults are told it takes to break a habit, or to form a new habit.

If, as many have suggested and I believe to be true, we are all eternal spirits having human experiences, then this makes perfect sense. Our higher selves have different levels of experience, but are all old enough that the differences between say a million and one or a million and forty one or a million and eighty one are negligible. So where does this leave us? We can all learn whatever we want to, no matter what age we are, and have every expectation of succeeding. We can put our fears aside and give things a go. Trust in life, and trust in our ability to learn.

Brambles

Blackberry flowers and fruits

Blackberry flowers and fruits


For the past three weeks M and I have enjoyed picking blackberries on our walks. Apart from just eating them, we have made several pots of bramble jelly, some blackberry ice cream, had blackberry and apple crumble, stewed blackberries for breakfast, and even frozen some. Blackberry cheesecake is a personal favourite that might come soon… It is one of those flavours that you can never quite remember properly, but a good juicy berry is always better than you expect. Or a bad one more pippy and worse.

Brambles love the British climate, growing anywhere they are allowed and rooting themselves wherever they touch the ground. Around here it is in the hedgerows that I find them, often picking a few here and there as I walk. Most branches will have a few ripe ones, but the plants have evolved to fruit over a long period to encourage maximum spread of the seeds so it is rare to find many ripe ones together. M has taught me to notice them even when I haven’t brought a pot to put some in; the odd one or two keep her going on a walk and she can now spot a bramble bush before I can. Even 30 yards away, the other side of a road. Picking half a pound along a mile of hedge is quite easy; if I’m after more than that it takes effort, knowing where to go, and frequently full combat gear! They are the most predatory plant I know, using their thorns to hook onto whatever they find – hawthorn, fences, their own branches. (Take a look at Bramble Scramble from the BBC’s Private Life of Plants if you don’t believe me!) Luckily there are thornless types now available for those who wish to cultivate them, but they are generally not half as satisfying as picking wild berries.

Bramble hedgerow

Bramble hedgerow


In some areas of Europe there is a taboo against eating blackberries – either because they belong to the fae, or because they represent death. The former is an interesting one, given blackberry wine is apparently okay! This is not a question I have had the opportunity to ask directly, but I believe the point here is about balance, respect, understanding, and above all sharing, especially if you make wine… And remembering that the bramble bushes feed and shelter many animals and birds as well. Cutting them all back, especially when they are about to fruit, would not be appreciated. Others suggest that eating blackberries or drinking blackberry wine at the Equinox is a good way to contact the fae. This is the time when the energies start to withdraw, spiralling down into the earth, and in some legends the Lord of the Harvest enters the Underworld, through the hollow hills, into the care of the fae. Black will take you down into the dark, finding the way through the tunnels of the Earth, while the sweetness will bring pleasure and enjoyment and lightness of heart, helping us to remember life is to be lived.

As for death, well being a pagan is all about the cycles of nature and death being a necessary part of life. The old must be cleared away to make space for what is to come, and Spirit is eternal. Death is not to be feared, but to be embraced, worked with, even thanked at times, for it is the only way we may pass out of this life and into the next part of our spiritual journey when it is time to leave.

There are also many superstitions against eating blackberries after a certain date, usually Michaelmas day (11th October) but sometimes Autumn equinox, or October 1st. The reasons given vary with the date, but in my experience it is a rare year that the late blackberries have been properly pollinated and ripen to full sweetness; the August berries always taste the best.

Planted on graves, brambles were supposed to stop the dead from wandering. Children or cows can be passed through a bramble arch rooted at both ends to bring health, for the blackberry has the gift of abundance as well as protection. Whooping cough was a favourite to be cured in this way, leaving an offering afterwards of bread and butter for the fairies of course.