A Journey With Blackbirdowl

Thursday, January 25, 2007

Bridget’s Mantle and the dogs

My throat is tight from unshed tears. Something is stuck. I want to keen and howl into cold frosty air. I want my voice to bounce against the wind and be tossed away, allowing me to yell some more.

I planned to go to a high place and do this. One week after my father died and at the time he died, this felt the right thing to do. Believing it would be quiet and peaceful, my companion and I decided to go to dog doodie hill in Oxleas Wood.

What a surprise to find when I tumbled out of bed and stumped around my garden first thing to sink into soft, crisp snow! Bridget’s Mantle, like a silent white blanket had fallen across the world in the night. I stood under my Rowan Tree breathing in the sharp morning air. The snow a soft and compassionate silence.

The real implications of the weather only hit me when I skidded across the wet tiles at Charing Cross and heard my train draw out. I’d been trapped underground by delays caused by frozen points. Bang went the synchronicity of doing a working at the exact time my father died. By the time I got on a train, I was going to be an hour late. The Cailleach was having a laugh – as she is sometimes won’t to do.

The woods were beautiful. The air brisk and sharp, the snow crackling and squeaking underfoot as we made our way through heavily laden trees. And so did half the young men and their dogs of South London, all with their sledges or tea trays, bent on a morning's tobogganing down the steeply sloping runs between the trees. Like two old witches, we pulled up our black hoods and sat down on a log to work.

I called the spirits of the land. Birds began to gather on the branches around us, calling to each other brightly. The wind nudged the heavy trees and the snow groaned and grumbled as it slowly melted in the rising temperature.

I was in a cave, a dark and warm cave, with a fire. It crackled and spat, but quietly as though content and at ease. In the corner something shifted and moved.

As though from a long way, I heard a voice calling “Jack, Jaaaack”. My heart jumped – this was my father’s chosen name.

I was back in the clearing, on my log. The voice was still calling “Jack, Jaaaack, c’mon boy” and I realised that Jack was a dog.

Then I heard him, running across the snow, panting and exuberant. He tore around us, circling and exploring the space. Determinedly, he charged the steep bank behind us, but it was too much for him, for he was an old dog. Skittering and slithering, he slid back, tried again, dogged as only dogs are. His owner appearing, my companion pointed out the easier route and off man and old black Labrador went.

I returned to my reverie, conscious of the still singing birds and the distant barks of dogs, the shouts of their owners and boys on home-made toboggans. It was dark, the trees made a cave embracing the clearing. There was a bright fire and shifting shadows. What was in the shadows? I couldn’t tell.

Suddenly the peace was shattered by the sound of dog paws on packed snow. An excited, panting dog hurtled across the clearing with a joyful velocity. He shot through the alter, knocking a candle over as he headed towards me. Nose thrusting at my outstretched welcoming hand, he nudged me casually, turned to follow his tail and was gone.

I was back with the fire in the clearing – or was it a high cave? The movement in the shadows still caught my attention, but I just couldn’t make it out.

My companion quietly began to speak. She spoke about this being a time to let go, to release, to cut loose. And as she spoke, the tears began to fall and I wept with childish desolation as I cast away the pain of family bonds broken by death and the unconscious or unvoiced fears with every seed I threw onto the ground.

Softly, we made our affirmations to the listening wood. Huddled against the sharpening wind, I tried to catch and lay to rest the unfathomable complexity of feelings and family ties, resolving to find compassion in emotional disassociation, and felt better.

We opened the circle. I stiffly rose and walked carefully across the clearing. The hill rose sharply on one side and dropped steeply away on the other. For a reason I did not understand, I chose to walk up the hill backwards and soon found myself lying on my back laughing. The snow was wetter than I remembered it being and I was glad to head towards warmth and food, soon after.

Snowy woods, tobogganing young men and excitable dogs frolicking under the high winter sky, it’s like a children’s story of long ago. A children’s story that it is exhilarating to enact, but as good to witness second hand in the cosiness of a firelit room.

I remember a cole fire, crackling and snapping like the snow in the clearing. In my minds eye, I see my father bending to tend the fire, reflected in the night dark window that I press my nose to, trying to see the snow outside.

He is gone, that time is gone. I am no longer a child. I have lived more years than I have left (unless I live to be 102!). Now it’s time to grow up. Now it’s time to be compassionate in my disassociation as I return albeit reluctantly to the family to lay my father’s body in the earth.

Tuesday, January 23, 2007

The watching, guiding dogs

The Goddess has many faces. Last year I connected strongly with the Cailleach. In her aspect of destroyer, she is ultimately about transformation. Winter seemed a long time in going but I just had to ride it out.

In this pilgrimage so far, I’ve been to beautiful places; I’ve been to real ho-hum sort of places. Everywhere I have an encounter with her in some way, however fleeting, odd or full on and Technicolor. All of them grow me as a human and bring me closer and closer to who and what I am.

Well I never thought I would meet her with my family. The death of my father brought her to me through animals.

As I right this, I realise, hey this is where I came in! I came to the Goddess through the death of a dear friend; the vehicle was trees back then. So maybe I’m no stranger to her in this place really, even though this part of the journey feels so new for me?

My father who was 84, died last Wednesday after a long illness. I went to sit with him on Tuesday, never dreaming that this would be the last time.

He lay drifting in and out of consciousness, sometimes lucid sometimes confused. I felt helpless as I could do nothing. So I sat and did nothing, just waited and was there.

Quietly, I cast a circle and called my allies. The She-wolf came and moved close to me as she often does when I am feeling vulnerable or afraid.

It came into my head that I should call for help from dogs. And as I thought this, I got a real sense that two dead family dogs, Honey and her son Billy (golden Labradors) had just pattered across the ward and snuck under Dad’s bed. With a certain amount of tail thumping and paw skittering, they settled down to wait and watch.

It was incredibly peaceful. We sat there for a wile, the humans speaking occasionally to each other, the dogs quietly breathing, attentive and still. Eventually I got up to go, and as I turned from the bed, my father said in his habitual mock Victorian way, “goodbye daughter”.

In death, he was neat and serene. His white hair spread on the pillow around his face like a halo. I stood by his bedside shrouded by curtains, the cluttered ward still vibrant outside. Leaning forward, I took his cool hand in mine and opened the circle I had cast the day before. I felt the dogs stir quietly. Silently, I asked them to guide him across the water.

Later, in my mother’s untidy kitchen, the usually bouncy dogs Bella and Truska lay quietly in their beds. Mostly they seemed to doze, occasionally twitching in that doggy way which may mean they were dreaming. Did they know? I don’t know but I got the sense that they were waiting.

In my morning and evening prayer circles, I have been conscious of the dogs, as though heard from a great distance. The space left by my father is a trembling gap that always brings silent tears to me. My throat is sore and I need to roar.

It is hard to remember the mundane and ordinary right now. I mostly sit in a quiet and grumbling oppression. From time to time, my inner fool wants to assert himself. I know he is wise and that mirth is as healing as tears and that I should let him out.

On that Wednesday evening in my mother’s kitchen we sat round the table and planned the funeral. We joked about Dad’s habit of never throwing things away, no matter how broken down they were. We laughed together about the fact that in choosing a green funeral, we are in a way recycling him! And the laughter was soothing.

Death is transformation. In nature, things die back and grow again in spring. Wild flowers and a rowan tree will grow on his grave. The woodland that grows up over his body will in turn feed other living creatures. The natural beauty of the place will comfort those who mourn.

Gently, I feel the old lady’s stiff fingers leading me to a place where I can grow easier with the memory of my father. In planning the funeral together, in responding to what must now be done when a person dies, and in particular in uniting to support our mother, we forge new relationships with each other.

Monday, January 15, 2007

The Circle of Hearts Medicine Wheel

Taking the form of a North American "medicine wheel", and echoing the European tradition of building stone circles as meeting places, the medicine wheel (constructed to celebrate the Millennium) consists of two concentric circles of stones, with longer stones at the north, south, east and west points. The grass space between the circles is divided into four sectors representing the elements of fire, water, earth and air, and a depression for occasional fires is located in a smaller circle covered in gravel and planted with wild flowers.

It was another incredibly beautiful winter's day. Just how I'd ordered it!

The blue sky was high and cloudless. The sun splashed warmly down on us as we moved through the waterlogged grass towards the Medicine Wheel. Families were out walking, dogs running about and all the birds were yelling their heads off in an excess of cheerfulness.

We were off to meet the goddess in a more recently constructed ritual space.How fabulous that the rate payer had consented to such a memorial! Willen Park also housed a Japanese Peace pagoda - complete with about thirty Buddhist monks, and a maze, all constructed by artists. All of them held a space in which to work spiritually and for peace.

The South-Westerly wind tugged determinedly at us as we explored where to set up the alter. The best shelter was offered by the South stone. I sat down on the picnic rug and cast my circle. With my back to the soft sandstone, I allowed the sounds of the park to be with me as I called the spirits of the land.

I was standing barefoot in a wide green field. The sky was a high blue, the sun was warm. Judging by the feel of the air, Summer was almost here.

The field dipped down in the middle . Deeper, mossier green showed dark against the occasional half-submerged yellow grey stones scattered apparently haphazardly across the grass. I moved closer to the mossy compression and saw it was a small bubbling spring. I stepped into the soft, wet velvety moss and wriggled my toes happily in the cool water.

Mesmerised by the gentle trickle of the water, I was lost in time, I knew nothing till the sound of hoof-falls approaching at a trot, broke in upon my revery . I raised my eyes and saw a tall white stag silhouetted against the sun. Stepping from the spring, I moved slowly towards him. He stood still and we gazed at each other in silence.

His head turned towards the Spring, I turned too and saw a bowl I had not noticed before, sitting on a small rock beside the very source. I crouched to fill it with clear water, and brought it to him. Slowly he bowed his great head and drank. Eyes closed, I held my breath, not daring to move.

An eternity passed, the bowl was large and heavy and my arms grew tired. Still I did not move. In time, I felt him shift. Opening my eyes, I watched him as he walked towards a taller stone and waited for me. I climbed up and got onto his back.

Then we were riding fast across the lands, speeding through the centuries and the changing landscape. Years flew by us as we pounded the ground.

Slowing, he stopped outside the Medicine Wheel and I slid off.

Turning to bid him farewell, I saw only grass where he had stood. I walked back into the circle, to the South stone and the blanket. In a tree by the lake opposite, three crows sat and cawed. I opened the circle and we got up to go.

Thornborough Mounds

Two well-preserved Romano-British burial mounds lie side-by-side in a field beside the River Twin, next to the Buckingham Milton Keans road, close to a favoured picnic spot near Thornborough in Buckinghamshire.

Squeezing our way through another gate not designed for round and magnificent goddesses, we walked across the tussock grass towards the burial mounds. As ever, when faced with a steep climb, I invoked the spirit of the mountain goat, trusted to my feet and marched purposefully up the side of the larger of the two burial mounds.

The wind was up, and at this height it was more than a little boisterous.

Beating the picnic rug into submission, we flung ourselves down upon it before it got up and went, and attempted to set out our alter. No chance of lighting the candle, but the incense cooperated.

Casting the circle, I invoked the beings of the land. The sheep, who also shared the field, climbed upon the opposite mound and moved together, and according to my companion, eyed us with suspicion. I pulled up my hood and hunched my back against the wind.

I was sinking down, down, down into a dark warm space. The smell of damp earth and old ashes came to me again. This time, the chamber was empty.

Crawling on my hands and knees (it was too low to stand up in), I moved across the space, exploring it carefully. The chamber narrowed into a tunnel, I squeezed through and began to wriggle upon my belly. Soon it was not possible to move. The earth held me in a firm embrace, but I was not scared. All I had to do was to submit.

I was rocking, rocking and swaying in the kind of way one does when being carried on a stretcher. It was dark. The drum beat was insistent, meandering in and out of the approaching chanting voices.

Now I was being lowered and laid upon something firm. Beside me, the brightness of a huge vigorously burning fire, dazzled me. My whole body grew hot as I lay warming myself beside it.

The drums were louder here, the chanting more distinct. I felt an overwhelming urge to get up and dance. Springing to my feet, I danced round and around the fire, skipping and jumping, leaping higher and higher until I found myself leaping over the fire. Whooping with exhilaration, pulled by something unknown, I jumped right into it's centre and began to gyrate with the flames in an ecstasy of .. Of what? Passion, joy, madness? I didn't know and much less, didn't care as I hopped about, untouched by the flames.

The drums slowed and stopped, the voices faded. Hands lifted me from the fire and lay me down on soft sheepskins. I curled up and slept deeply.

The light changed, something stirred around me. The sheepskins were moving softly. A distinct smell of ewe assaulted my nostrils. I rolled over and reached out. The sheep had generously warmed and kept me safe as I slept.

Rising, I thanked them and walked back across the field to the burial mound.

Darkness was falling. The wind was icy. It was time to go. Closing our circle and capturing the determinedly flapping picnic rug, we began to edge our way slowly down the side of the mound.

My companion's balance, not being what it once was, our progress was necessarily cautious. Walking with respect, and in the footsteps of the mountain goat, we laid each foot carefully on the steeply sloping ground, tested it for firmness before moving forward. We walked with reverence and attention, giving thanks to the mounds, the sheep and the many beings who inhabit this land, past, present and future.

The Goddess as a chocolate fudge cake

A gentle drizzle fell against my face as I stepped over the nettles onto the path. The earth held my feet in an elastic grip, firm but not constraining, quietly insisting that I become conscious of how I stepped. I gave my attention to my feet.

The softening mud pulled me deeper into the earth, cradling my feet with firm but gentle hands. As I stepped, the sour tang of decomposition rose and mixed with the sharper green odour of the winter wood, stirred by the brisk little breeze drying the rain on my face. Moist and succulent, soft and yielding, like the best of chocolate fudge cake, the earth held and released me, held and released me. And as I stepped, I sighed aloud with the sheer sensuousness of it's texture.

It sucked at my feet, schlurpped and licked, silently giving beneath my weight. With a soft glup, it enfolded and embraced, then let go with a comical pop as I pulled my foot free. On and on I walked, slowly, carefully, lovingly placing each foot tenderly upon the earth, sensing the textures with my feet, noticing their consistency, moaning with pleasure at my favourite.

Dabbling my bright red wellied feet in a puddle, I giggled like a contented four year old. It didn't matter how muddy I got, everything would be alright. Moving back along the path, I sighed deeply, filled with a warm sense of fulfilment, loving and being loved by the mud.

Saturday January 13, 2007, 11 am.

Howe Park Wood

Inside Nature's Gazebo
Howe Park is probably the woodland mentioned in the Domesday Survey of 1086.
Parts of it may be rare surviving fragments of the "wildwood" that covered the whole of lowland Britain after the last ice Age, 6-11,000 years ago.

The sun tried it's best to shove the low, mildly threatening clouds out of the way as my companion and I squeezed our goddess sized bottoms through the gates into the woods. Our feet sunk satisfyingly into soft loamy mud and we began to squelch our way carefully along the path between hornbeams, woodland shrubs and innocent-looking nettles.

Vandals had black markered the once helpful map at the edge of the woodland. We might wander for hours and not find the ancient Crab Apples or Great Oak, or even the tree (probably a lime) that looks like half a dozen trees, ranged in a circle. But suddenly, mid speculation about getting lost, my companion let out a cry of delight. There to our right *was* that tree pretending to be a circle of trees.

Edging our way nervously past the nettles, we entered a kind of natural gazebo which was all one tree. Five or six trunks, circled a central one. Their branches entwined, the soft loamy earth hiding the common roots beneath the soil. It seemed as though there was a trunk at every quarter.

We marvelled at nature's design.

At the west point, the trunk, interestingly knobbled , offered several inviting flat places to put the trappings of a simple alter. We set out our candles, stones and bowls and laid out our waterproofs and blankets on the soggy ground and cast our circle. I sat quietly listening to the sounds of the wood. Birds called to each other amongst the bare tree tops, twigs and branches groaned and tapped in the stiff little breeze which reached its icy fingers between the trunks and tugged at my hood. Breathing quietly, I settled upon my sitting bones and allowed the wood's waiting quiet to enter me.

Something light moved against the dark central trunk. It moved and I saw it was a small dog sized animal, but brilliantly white. Surprising myself with the neatness of the act, I rose easily to my feet and approached it. It turned and led me between the trunks and through the wood. I walked on soft steady feet out into an expanse of whiteness, a wide field covered in snow.

The animal, rather like a tiny deer or small goat, almost disappeared against the whiteness. I followed it's dark footsteps across the field and up a steep incline. Against the dazzling snow brightness, a dark hole appeared. The creature stood beside it as though saying "after you". I dropped easily to my knees and crawled in.

The darkness was complete. The space was not huge and smelled of damp earth and ash. AS I crouched by the entrance, I saw a dark shape lying in the middle of what appeared now to me to be a long, narrow bare earth chamber.

I crawled over to it and knelt beside it before instinctively lying down next to it.
In the darkness, I lay still. The chamber seemed to rock and move forward, gently swaying as though born on water. Sharp, biting wind nipped at my cheeks. I tasted salt upon my lips. In the distance, a soft falling drum beat offered comfort.

I was being lifted up and gently lowered onto packed earth. It was dark and quiet. As I lay, I felt rather than saw the finger of light, growing brighter by the minute that penetrated the darkness. Rolling over, I crawled towards it's brilliance. Thrusting my head out into fresh air, I saw that a new day was dawning and, judging by the greenness of the grass, it was a beautiful early summer morning. I rose and began to walk.

Then I saw it. In the middle of the field, a white statue glimmered in the morning light. Moving closer, I saw it was a white stag dear, and that it was also a fountain or spring. I cupped my hands to gather the water falling gently from the statue's mouth into a bowl below. I poured the
water on the grass and offered thanks. Stooping, I drank the soft cool water, lapping like a thirsty animal.

When I had drunk my fill, I sat back and studied the statue. He gazed at me quietly with gentle but firm eyes. I saw that he was indeed a young stag, the antlers still delicate in their first growth. I was filled with a quiet peace. I ran my hands gently across his face and antlers, cupped my hands and tenderly trickled the water upon his forehead, tracing the droplets with my fingers.

Time past and the sun moved higher in the sky. Reluctantly I turned and moved away, walking slowly across the green field. And as I reentered the wood, the seasons shifted until, arriving back at nature's gazebo, winter's grip was once more upon the land.

Off Again.

The train is packed to the roof with escaping Scots. I sit squished into a corner, my overlarge weekend bag wedged uncomfortably between my thighs.

This weekend, the honeymoon with the goddess moves to damp Milton Keynes. I'm off to find ancient wild wood, burial mounds, and paganism on the rates in the guise of public sculptures! The goddess can be met with everywhere not just in the old and known pagan places.

Wild winter storms have torn through most of the country and it has rained greatly earlier in the week in the Milton Keynes area. Many of the roads to the north are flooded. It has been necessary to pack the red wellies and U.S. army cape but I am hopeful that the rain will hold off for the weekend, although forecasts are not favourable.

As ever though I'm optimistic that things will be okay.