Thursday, July 17, 2008

The Holly Dancer – Finsbury Park

Thursday July 17, 2008:


Holly is an evergreen shrub or small tree with red poisonous berries and sharp prickly leaves. Native to Britain and Northern Europe, it likes to grow amongst oak and beech and is often found in hedgerows. A dark coloured tree, the holly needs little light because its shiny leaves are reflective. Holly trees are either male or female. There is debate as to whether the prickly holly is male and the non-prickly holly, female. Experts I have consulted on the matter disagree!

The holly is often associated with Yule but in the Ogham calendar its time of the year is the height of summer for its element is fire. Holly leaves burn hottest. It symbolises immortality and is the strongest protective herb in the woods. It protects against thunder and lightening, angry spirits and fire. In the Bach flower remedies, it is associated with anger; an infusion of leaves treats chest complaints and fevers. The berries are poisonous to children and purgative for adults. The gods associated with Holly include Tannus, Taranis, Thor and other thunder gods.


The early morning air is misty with undelivered rain. Cool damp leaves brush me tenderly as I walk through the garden. The neighbours are still a-bed, only the local cat stalks carefully, hunting for breakfast.
Kneeling stiffly on the slate path, I bend to place a red plate on the trunk that is the alter I have made beneath the holly tree. Next to it, I set a lit candle and beside that, some burning incense.

Reaching out, I stroke the little concrete boar, lying carelessly amongst a tangle of holly, ivy and hawthorn. He sits guard in this wilder part of the garden and I think of my twin, the kind guardian of both my parents in their old age and how, unlike my father, he meets the world with gentleness and simplicity. The holly tree plucks at my fleecy robe and rakes sharp fingers through my hair as I carefully back out from under the low branches.

It is my father’s 86th birthday and 18 months since his death. It is the month of holly and I yearn to be better acquainted with the tree. It is also the day of the funeral of a friend’s father. I am here to meet the spirit of the holly tree in my garden, to connect with my father and to acknowledge the loss of another’s father and the chord that now binds us as fatherless children.

I sit still, breathing, listening, and waiting. The holly tree shivers in the little breeze, its sharp leaves scratching against each other with a quiet clatter. I hear small scurrying in the undergrowth, and notice that the cat is prowling somewhere close, also watching and waiting.

The fire is fierce and merry. At first I think it is the tree, blazing defiantly but then I se that the tree stands beside the little smacking, crackling fire. The heat is intense and I lean back from its fierce breath.

Now I am dancing. I am dancing like a crazy thing. Rage hurls itself through me, pushing my limbs into impossible shapes, beating a tattoo of incandescence through my naked sweating body. The holly tree sways and whips my bare flesh with its sharp fisted drooping branches. I gasp and try to move away, but the tree flings itself about, reaching for me as I withdraw, capturing me with its cruel spikes.

Silently I scream. I pound my feet on the sharp flints but do not feel the pain. The tree sounds like it is growling. I snarl in return.

The holly tree has companions, a whole forest of holly stands before me, thick and tangled, dark and impenetrable. Somehow I have to get through the holly wood to find what I am looking for.

There is nothing for it but to charge forward. I put down my head and shoulder my way through. I gasp as the holly boughs scratch and seer my flesh. Fuelled by fury, I push on and on until, breathless, my skin clawed and ripped, I emerge into a small clearing to stand in front of the hugest, oldest and most bent holly tree I have ever come across.

We face each other and behind his frowning dark holly brows, I see compassion and, remembering my torn and naked state, I bow my head in shame. He bends in the wind and my eyes travel down to his roots. There amongst the dark layer of old holly leaves, laced with ivy and scattered with hawthorn, lies something new leaf green and shining.

I bend beneath the waving boughs and touch it. It is silky and soft. Carefully I scoop it up into my hands and begin to unfold it. Gossamer thin and light as a feather, it reveals itself as a beautiful leaf green silken robe. Already where it slides across my palms, I feel my torn and scratched skin somehow soothed.

I shake it out, hold it up, open it and pull it gently over my head. It slides like water over my sore flesh, gently caressing the scratches and wounds. I run my hands across my body, smoothing the robe, feeling my hot flesh beneath its thinness.

I reach out and touch the tree. And as I feel the sharp spikes, my fingers find the smooth surface of leaf, cool to the touch and gentle now. High above me in the tree, a pigeon coos.

“droo-droo, droo-droo” he sings. I look up and see a dirty grey and slate blue common London pigeon, sitting on a high branch. I step back, raise my head, put my fingers to my lips and blow a kiss.

“Happy birthday Daddy,” I whisper as I turn back to the holly tree, now still and quiet. I bow my thanks and turn to go back through the holly wood.

A baby’s wail dances in on the morning breeze. His mother shushes him. Across the garden, I hear my next door neighbour hawking noisily in his bathroom. The street is awakening.

I tie a red ribbon on a tiger’s eye bracelet and hang it on the holly tree. I reach into my pocket for the cherries, pop one into my mouth, sucking its juiciness, separating flesh from stone with my tongue. For a moment, I toy fancifully with the idea of decorating the tree with the cherries but think better of it. Ducking under the dangerous trailing branches, I place them on the alter with a handful of seeds.

I sit down again and hold the conflict that is my feelings towards my father up for inspection. Rage and compassion wrestle for supremacy, the compassion wins. A friend has lost a beloved father, like mine, a man of words, of principles and ideas, but unlike my father, a man who saw many of his desires come to fruition in words on paper that changed the world. Gently I sent a prayer for strength to her and get up to go.



Out of respect for my grieving friend, her partner and family, willingly today I made a rare visit to a church and sang Christian hymns for a man I hardly knew. And as I sat in that softly still church, I heard another daughter speak through her tears of a father, fulfilled and joyful.

I held my feelings for my own father up for further inspection. Behind the holly tree’s fiery anger had laid loving compassion. Could I reach behind my anger to find compassion for my father? I bowed my head and wept.

And because I said I would, and because unless I did I knew I might dissolve into helpless unfathomable grief, I stood and sang the hymns and was soothed and comforted. And into that quiet place came the gentle morning breeze, the dawn sunlight, the babbling of gently flowing water and the quiet stillness of the rocks. I imagined my holly tree, incongruously bedecked in glowing cherries and smiled to myself for it no longer looked so fierce.

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