Winter Solstice: Rebirthing Hope

The darkest days of the year are upon us, and we are eagerly awaiting the return of the light. Time then, for a reflection of what that light means for us.

Why do we fear the darkness? Is it that we are afraid to be alone with our thoughts? Or is it that we fear the monsters lurking in the shadows? The cold days certainly force us inside, invite us to spend time in seclusion and contemplation.

At the same time, we could also see this time as a time of opportunity: as we gather around our hearth-fire, this could be a time to be closer to our family and to spend time with our friends. A time to find a different kind of warmth, to remember that we are not alone.

Since the beginning of time, light has played an important role in the imagination of mankind. Somehow, it connects us to our source, and we feel lost in its absence. In winter there is the artificial replacement of man-made light, but it is not really an adequate replacement for the light of the sun.

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Could that be because winter makes us feel vulnerable? Despite all the layers of clothing which we put on, we are confronted with a power greater than our own, one which all our technological advances cannot protect us from: the wild that is lurking outside our windows. A whispering that begs us to remember who we really are: creatures from this planet. An insistent howling of spirit, shattering our soul with the words

‘You are not separate from us’.

Let us then not forget this thought when we will soon celebrate the return of the light, and we begin to contemplate the time when we will be able to return outside. For we should not allow the light to obscure that which was made so visible by the darkness: that hidden wildness that we refuse to see all too often.

And so I would invite you to join me in the following simple Mid-Winter ritual: On the evening of midwinter, under the light of the full moon, let us light a candle together. You can either do this before your altar (in a darkened room), or outdoors.

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Before you light the candle, say the following simple prayer:

Spirits of the Wild,
Tonight, I hear You,
Tonight, I see You,
Tonight, we form one community, one planet.

Take a moment to sense how you are no longer alone, but standing at the center of a circle, surrounded by your local spirit-community.

Light the fire. See how it creates a circle of golden light. Its rays cast a circle of peace, a place where the separation between the human and non-human world ceases to exist. Sit here for a while, simply taking in the light, leaving aside your everyday human worries.

Listen, be open to any message from the wild.

Finally, make an offering to the world. While looking at the candle, visualize a light emanating from your heart, and state aloud how you will contribute in the coming year to making this world a better place. For we are the world, and the sun is reborn each year within each of us.

Name one concrete action, and make a vow to the spirit-community gathered around you that you will follow up on your promise before the end of January.

Together, let us rebirth the sun. (And remember that it shines for more than just the human population of this planet.)

Finish by blowing out the candle and speaking this modified version of the traditional ending of a druid ritual:

As the fire dies down, may it be relit in the world.
May the fire of hope be reborn tonight.

See how the light spreads out around you, and how the seeds of a new year have been planted.  Give thanks to the spirits for accompanying you tonight.

Life through the eyes of a tree: roots

Before reading this, make yourself comfortable. Snuggle up in a blanket or feel the warm rays of the sun caressing your skin, depending on what the seasons are like where you live. Then, close your eyes and join me on another journey in the wonderful world of tree consciousness.

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Imagine darkness. Not a threatening darkness, but a soft, caring, nourishing darkness. One that shows you the way rather than confusing you. All you want is to discover more, to merge with it, to be carried by it. And so you slowly expand your senses in an embrace of this nourishing darkness.

And you feel its whispers. You hear them vibrate within you. And you notice how you are not blind anymore, even though you have no eyes to see. For the soft vibrating somehow translates in a tree-dimensional image of the world around you. Slowly, other senses begin to add to that: an almost magnetic pull to go to certain areas, and to avoid others.

You sense how, if you expand yourself just a little bit more in a downward direction, you will be rewarded. There will be conversation, there will be friendship, there will be sharing. And so you stretch… and stretch.. …and very carefully, you make yourself longer, until you hit a pool of emotions. A trickle of water, a source of life. It invites you to come even closer, and you hear it whisper memories of mountain streams, of long journeys through the earth: of time spent within the body of a plant.

Then, as if in response, you feel the larger organism of which you are a part, stir and chant to you. Echoes of sunlight reach you, reach through, and start their own conversation with the droplet of water you just discovered. A journey begins, a dance, a sharing: as the water elemental attached to the stream discovers new paths and rises up through the root that you are, up into the tree. Along the way, memories are exchanged, allowing the tree to share in the magic of the thunderstorm. In return, letting the elemental rest for a while within a leaf, for a moment of sunbathing before being released out into the air. The tree breathes.

On the out-breath, a wave of gratitude comes back, reaching down into the roots. This time, a ray of sunlight floods down, dancing, reverberating through the roots of the trees. Continuing the conversation with the earth. Darkness infused with light, with laughter, with joy. For a split second, everything is illuminated, and the shape of mother earth revealed. And you rest safely within her lap, knowing that she will always nourish you, lead you to where the stories are to be found, guide you to where the richest conversations can happen.

And you crawl on, ever expanding, always reaching out, connected to the sun even though you are living your life within the embrace of darkness.

Rooted in love, you feel content.

(This post is the second in a series. The first one can be found here. )

Life through the eyes of a tree: the heart

This is the first in a series of posts that tries to look at the world from the perspective of a tree.

To begin, I would like you to visualize the following. Go to a place in the forest that you feel closely connected to, and see yourself sitting there, with your back resting against a huge chestnut tree. It is autumn. Right in front of you, you notice one of its fruits, the prickly skin protecting the chestnuts from those that want to eat them before they are ripe.

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And you begin to wonder about that. Why the protective measures? Why does the tree not simply give away its fruits, but does feel the need to protect them?

And so you ask the tree if it will help you understand. In response, you feel your perspective changing, and it feels as if your body is slowly being absorbed inside the tree-body, and you become ‘the tree’. At first, that feels restrictive. You even panic slightly for a moment. What if you are not going to get out of here again? What if you are going to be a prisoner in here forever?

But then you relax. And slowly you begin to let go of your human senses, and you start to breathe with the tree. You listen to the sound of your heartbeat, and how it pumps the blood through your body. Relaxing further, you focus on that for a while.

As you do so, you feel your perspective expanding. You are walking around the forest again. Not in your human skin, but as a kind of expansion of the tree body. You see how you are attached to it through a kind of umbilical cord. And you realize that that cord does in no way restrict you, but instead, gives you freedom. For it takes care of all your material needs: as long as the tree is there, you are assured of nourishment, because the tree freely provides these for you.

Take some time to explore the forest from this new perspective. You are truly part of it now: for the tree not only shares its resources with you, but also its senses. Translated in a way you understand, that feels as if you have suddenly developed an ability for a kind telepathic communication: where before, the forest was a silent place, now it seems almost loud, as if multiple choirs are singing at the same time.

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It is hard to describe what it is exactly that you hear, and the word hearing isn’t exactly right either, for that would be a too one-dimensional way of describing it. For the ‘hearing’ that the tree provides you with, doesn’t happen with your ears alone, but engages all of your senses at the same time: you see it as a wave of colours, as an alphabet of perfume, interwoven with an ocean of sound. It is a language that is way more complex and rich than human language: it is as if every instant you engage with it, you receive treasure chests full of rich impressions, and whole stories download into your brain, instantly, complete with sounds, impressions, as if you were their protagonist.

As you walk through the forest, you realize that you are not simply visiting: in this moment, you ARE the forest.

Then you think back of what originally brought on this reverie, and you turn your attention back to where you came from, kneeling next to the tree to examine one of the chestnut burrs more closely. You admire the cosy little nest that they form around the seeds. You pick it up. And in that moment, you become it. Your mind links to the chestnuts, and you feel/hear/see the burr whisper to you in the colourful language of the forest: I will keep you safe until it is time for you to get born. I will pour all of my love into you, so that you get the best possible chance of survival.

And in that moment, you feel held and loved, not only by the burr, not only by the tree, but by the forest as a whole. You know that, whatever happens next, whether you manage to become a tree, or whether you become squirrel food, you are here, part of this family, part of this community. How you develop and where you end up growing roots will decide in which way you grow up, and what your experiences will be like, but you trust like you have never trusted before. You are part of the web of life. It breathes through you. And you are an immortal part of it.

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At that moment, you sense that it is time to go, and you feel yourself being sucked back into the tree, and then, after a few moments, find yourself back in your own body. And you hear the tree whisper ‘Did that answer your question?’

We are used to perceiving the world as human beings, locked into our own head, with our perspective limited to what our eyes can see, and where our legs can carry us. This visualization gives you a bit of a sense of just how limited that view is. For how can we know what the world is like when seen through senses that we do not possess ourselves? Next time you go to the forest, I invite you to try if you can repeat this exercise: go to a tree, and take time to introduce yourself: explain who you are, and what the world looks like for you. Then, ask if it would be willing to let you share in its perspective. If you receive a positive vibe, sit down with your back to the tree, close your eyes and let yourself be sucked in…

An invitation to die

What is personhood? It is a separation that allows us to develop a personal point of view that is not directed by those around us. It is deliberately blocking out the fact that the universe already knows everything in order to have a chance at deeper understanding by learning these truths through experience.

Some of that learning hurts, and some of that brings the most intense joy imaginable. That is what we call being alive: being fully immersed in it in a way that brings us face to face with its realities every single moment of our existence.

To die then means to become more and less at the same time. Our detachment to this particular time and place, to this little heap of flesh falls away from us. It makes us lose ourselves in the sense that any definition of who we were that was based in material considerations is no longer applicable. It is something that many humans suffer with a great deal: isn’t who we are the same as what we do, what we own, what we achieved in this lifetime? What will be left when all of this falls away from us? Who is the real us behind the mask?

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It is a question that many of us are afraid to pose, for fear of what the answer might be. For who knows really who they are themselves? As we rush through life, too busy to ever allow ourselves time to live it, it seems that what we do is the only thing that matters. Isn’t standing still the same as dying? Isn’t it a sign of giving up, of having lost our way in life?

This is a fear that is put inside us by modern society, where productivity is the scale on which the value of a human life is valued. And because we have been taught to think that way, we have also begun to see other life forms as less than ourselves. We see them as less economically active, and hence as less of a valued participant in the cycle of life, all the while forgetting that we owe our life to them, and that we wouldn’t even be here if they hadn’t been allowing us to use and abuse them for our own purposes.

It is hard then to confront the moment all of that posing will fall away from us. That is understandable. But.. maybe we can find another way? You know… why postpone death until our physical body dies? Why not do it now, or at least start contemplating what it would be like?

Once we start doing so, we realize just how much active dying is actually a way of becoming, of growing into ourselves, of stopping to put limits on how much we have to give. Of stopping to measure the monetary value of everything that we do, and everything that is given to us. If we choose to step past that boundary now, and remember that we are not separate, and have never been separate, then suddenly so much becomes possible.

When will you start dying?

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Gods of the land

You may have noticed that in my previous post, even though it was about the gods, I have not spoken much about things like reading their stories or studying their lore. The reason for that is because I wanted to encourage you to live in the here and now first, and to approach this with an open mind, rather than as an academic study.

For where did these stories start? Many of them began as encounters with a god, with a place, as a dream that wanted to be shared. Not as something for which you need to dig deep in old and dusty tomes to make sure that you get all details exactly right. It began as something that was very much a living thing.

And so I would like to argue that if we want to get to know the gods of the lands we live in, the first thing to do is to get to know that land. Get out there and listen, and allow it to speak to you. Make up your own stories. And even if you encounter statues, then don’t let yourself be paralyzed by the fact that you don’t know who they are ‘officially’. But take time to imagine them. Speak to them. Dream of them. Ask if they will tell you their tales. If we want to revive the old gods, we need to allow them to become alive in our minds once again. Allow the stories to continue.

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I do believe this is what the old peoples of Europe did, with the advent of Christianity, when they were no longer allowed to worship their familiar gods by the missionaries.

They disobeyed. They did it anyway, but just got creative, and used new names and invented new stories that would allow them to continue honoring the sacred in ways that felt appropriate. The only difference was that now they called them saints, or angels. And this must especially have been true for the gods that were most precious to the people: those that spoke of the connection to their lands, and to their ancestors.

And so, for a very long time, the old was not all that different from the new, except for an added layer of paint. The gods had adapted, and they had survived. The bigger threat to them came much later, with the advent of modern science, and the invention of the notion of ‘superstition’. That is when we truly began to lose the magic of connection…

So then, what are we, modern pagans to do, if we seek to reconnect? Do we look to distant lands, and to gods far, far removed from us in time? Or do we also dare to reclaim our heritage, and reconnect to the gods underneath the layers of paint, even if we do not know what their original names where? I challenge you to try. For I believe these gods have much to teach us.

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I would like to illustrate this by telling of my own encounters with the local Goddess of the land. Her name is Mary.

I do not have the luxury of living in a country that is full of standing stones. And the sacred places that exist, like sacred wells and other places where the power of the land is strong, have been Christianized, and often churches or little chapels have been built on these locations. And so it is quite impossible to simply pretend that the past 2000 years have not happened, and that I can simply take a time machine back in time, to connect with what used to be there before.

And I have begun to think that this is probably not such a bad situation. I have often heard pagans lament about how all of this is a disgrace, and that they stole ‘our’ sacred places. And yes, to a certain extent, this is true, and I am not trying to defend the missionaries. On the other hand, things could have been far, far worse. For most of these places are still held as sacred now, so many centuries later. Compared that to how the sacred places of the Native Americans were and are still being treated: many of them ended up being paved over to build a parking lot.

And so I began to look deeper. And it is interesting to notice how many of these places like sacred wells have chapels that are not devoted to the Christian god, but to the virgin Mary or to an (often female!) saint. Could it be that the connection between sacred wells and the divine feminine was just too strong, and that even a male-dominated church couldn’t afford to ignore that? Or… was it that maybe the deities were the ones who had the final word, and continued to claim these places as theirs?

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I live in a landscape that is littered with little chapels, most of them devoted to the virgin Mary. Many of these are placed in the last remaining spots of natural beauty. And so I began to frequent them, and honor the divine one that was present there, in much the same way as I would pray to Cernunnos or to Artemis at my home altar.

And she responded. Over time I have come to know her as one that uses many names. Or more importantly, one that does not really care so much what name you call Her, as long as you listen. As long as you honour what is sacred. For she is the Land. She is the Mother that feeds us all. And in giving us life, She is Us.

I do not consider myself a Christian, but connecting to Mary has lead to some of my strongest experiences of the Goddess. If this is the mask that she has chosen to put on in the place where I live, why should I turn my back on that? But make no mistake, for honey-sweet though the traditional church-depictions of her may be, that is far from the whole story…

Using the ‘automatic writing’-method I explained in my post on Awen, I asked her to speak to me. What came out was not exactly a gentle message, but more like a stern warning from an angry mother. Yet it does ring true…

 

I am you. Your essence is my essence. Your body is my body. All that you are and ever have been, you owe to me. I am the one who has fed you and nurtured you, ever since you were born. And I am the one who will one day claim your death.

This is a message to you. Remember that you are earth. Remember that your life has been gifted to you and should not be taken for granted. For it is a gift that I can take back when I deem your time on this earth has reached its natural conclusion.

Do not think of me as unkind or cruel for pointing this out to you. This is merely a reminder that you are no more special than any other creature living on the face of this planet. If you think it normal that plants die when winter starts, or that the lamb is eaten by the wolf, why do you think that you are the one exception that needs not give up his own place when your time has come?

I tell you, you are no more special to me than any other being. I will willingly nourish you and feed you, but I will not yield you preferential treatment.

And right now you have sorely tested my patience. Why are you ignoring all my gentle calls to remind you of your place? Why are you treating me as if I were just a thing, a commodity that can be used and abused at will? When will you ever give me the gratitude I deserve for all the many things I give you without ever asking anything in return? When?

For it is high time that you learn. That you remember. For if you refuse to learn of your own accord, then I will teach you. As your mother, I will interfere and correct your bad behavior. I will not do this because I hate you. I do not hate, I will do this out of love. But you may not like the lesson.

You are my children, and all I want is for you to grow up and become beautiful and wise and wonderful. But I am talking now of you as a species. I cannot continue to sustain every single one of you. The way you are living and abusing me now, is smothering me. And at some point I will need to take action. That time is nearer than you may think. Think about this. I beg you. Allow me to show you the way we can reconnect. I beg you. Even while threatening you, I would much prefer to be soft, but I can only do this if you agree to listen and learn from soft teaching methods.

Please. For I do love you all, and that will never change. But sometimes a mother has to discipline her children and tell them to play nice.

 

(Note: it is my belief that this method makes it possible for the gods to speak to us, much like we can also encounter them through shamanic journeying techniques and other methods. But I do acknowledge that ultimately I have no way to check the source of this, or how much this was influenced by my own thinking and my own subconscious. So believe what you want to believe, and see this as a message the earth might have sent to us, if she had a voice to speak with. )

Where do we meet our gods?

There’s many a discussion whether Druidry is even a religion. Some say yes, some say no, for many different reasons. No, because ‘religion means dogma’, means ‘someone telling you what you are supposed to believe’, and so on. My personal definition of religion is an extremely simple one. I’d say it means ‘doing some kind of devotional practice that involves honoring the divine and its expressions in the world around us.’ By that definition, I would say that yes, Druidry is a religion. (Or at least, my Druidry is. )

So then, how to go about it: how do we come face to face with the divine, where do we  even find these gods? How about taking inspiration from our ancestors? When reading the old tales, it becomes obvious where to look. The same place as where people have been finding them from the beginning of time. In our interactions with the world around us.

Many of us came to Druidry (or paganism) to satisfy a deep yearning, hoping to find something that they felt was missing from their life. A desire to connect with what was sacred. A desire to find our center. A desire to reconnect with nature, and to find true community. 

A desire to making living our  life a sacred act again.

And that begins by standing still. Stopping to run away. Finally starting to listen to ourselves, and truly seeing the world around us.

Stop what you are doing for a moment. Close your eyes. Breathe. Become conscious of the miraculous fact that you are alive. Then listen. To each thought that wells up. It doesn’t matter what it is. Listen to it. Acknowledge it. Give it space to be. If you continue doing this – not just in this moment, but for days, for months, probably for years to come, you will at some point reach a moment of stillness, when your conscious mind has told you everything it desperately wants you to hear, right now. The stillness means that it is satisfied that you are at least trying to listen to it.

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Enjoy the open space of that stillness, and keep listening. Keep listening for the voices that are coming next. For these are the voices of the sacred. These are the whisperings of the world around us. The voices that are always trying to reach us, but which are mostly being drowned out by the noise and static in our head.

Who is speaking now? Don’t worry about that at first. Don’t worry if no words come either. For not all spirits speak with human voices. If you feel like dancing, then do so. If you feel a sudden urge to go down on all fours, sniffing the grass and enjoying its aroma’s, then do so. And note what you are doing. You are beginning to interact. Dancing is a conversation with your body, with the air around you, with the space you are in. Taking in the aroma’s of the grass means starting to listen with different senses.

Continue your acts of listening. Go to different places and listen at different times.

Do not worry if sometimes (or maybe often, depending on your life situation), here-and-now thoughts and worries seem to take precedence. The fact that they are there means that they need to be listened to. (And interact with them. If they keep emerging again and again, that may simply mean that you have been trying too hard to ignore their existence.) If they are actual cold-hard real life worries that cannot be resolved in the short run (or which are beyond your power to fix by yourself), then simply listen, acknowledge, do what you can, then dismiss them for the time being. This is not an exercise in running away from life. This is an exercise in starting to live it. That means doing what you can (important!!), but not being a slave of pointless worries.

Start using all your senses. Make a habit of being open for listening. That is the only way hear.

For this is where you will meet your gods. In starting to be in conversation with the world around you. In walking through the forest, and having a sudden emotion well up while touching that special tree that means so much to you. By looking up at the full moon, and feeling blessed by the power of its light seeming to illuminate the way forward, and that sudden urge to do something crazy. In that one line that suddenly jumps out in the middle of a song, carrying special meaning. In walking through the city and suddenly seeing rainbows everywhere.

You want to meet the gods? Then be prepared to actually hear their call. Out in the world is where you will hear their whispers, not in the dusty tomes of the library. You may want to read these later, when you eventually want to give a name to what you felt or what called out to you. But that will rarely be the first step.

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And maybe you will never feel the need to connect your experience to something as official as a deity with a pedigree and a fully fleshed out mythology. In the end, names are not what counts most. For even that soft whisper from a tree, or the caress of the moonlight is a meeting with the sacred. And that is where it all starts. The place of relationship and connection. Where names and status are ultimately of minor importance…

Tell me: how many of your friends did you meet by looking up random names in the phonebook? How many of them did you meet by going out in the world and starting a conversation? And did you start out with the intention of meeting a celebrity, or did you simply want to make friends? Which approach, do you think, will be the most successful one? Meeting the gods is, ultimately, not all that different.

I plan to write about some of my own personal encounters with deity and spirit in upcoming posts. But if you have stories of your own to share, I’d love to hear them!

Coming face to face with death

This is the time of year when they say the veil between the world is thinnest. The time of year when we honour our ancestors and loved ones that have passed over to the other side.

A good time, too, to reflect on the way in which our society tends to deal with death.

This essay is based on my own personal encounter with death. My father died at the beginning of this year, after finally losing a 10-year battle with cancer. From the very first, we knew that there would be no healing for this. The cancer had already spread too far when it was first discovered, so all that could be done was to halt its progress for a while. How long, was something nobody was able to tell us at the time. ‘Until we run out of options.’ For cancer is devious: no matter how great a cure may seem for the first few months, after a while the cancer will find a way around it. One weapon down, on to the next one.

Until finally you know you are down to the last treatment, the final thing that can buy you some more time. After which, death is inevitable.

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It is that final journey I want to speak about, and about the lessons I learned from it. How it changed me, and how, paradoxical as it may seem, it took away most of my own fears regarding death. And how it showed me just how toxic the ways in which we deal with death in our society are.

It is a humbling and confronting journey, to see the man you once looked up to as a protector gradually become weaker. See the person, who, before, had been there to keep you safe from the world and who you could always lean on for assistance, now more and more begin to lean on you. Beginning with simply leaning on your arm when going up the stairs, until, towards the end, needing assistance with eating, and help to change the diapers he needed to wear now.

Coincidentally, at around the same time when the final decision was made to cease all treatments, my sister got her first child. And there was a curious inverse parallel between both journeys. One new life, completely helpless at first, then gradually beginning to explore and gain more and more control over her body. At the same time, an increasingly broken body, slowly falling apart, loosing control and abilities at about the same rate. One person being born into this world, one person being born out of this world, preparing for his journey towards the otherworlds.

The very last month, a decision was made to move him into hospice care, so that all care would be taken over by professionals, thereby giving us time to focus on what was truly important: saying our goodbyes, and preparing for the journeys to come. For all of us would have to make a journey after this death finally happened. Also those of us who stayed behind: a journey back to the world of the living.

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For that last month was spent somewhere in-between. In a place that was still here, but where death was a constant companion. A companion that was not hushed away, but that could be freely talked about. For we understood each other. Family members, soon-to-be-departed, hospice staff. There was no taboo. Here, death was simply part of everyday life.

And that made that this was a period that made it possible to focus on essentials. By not running from the truth, by not denying this reality, openings were created that would make the mourning process considerably lighter later on. This may sound weird, but I have almost exclusively positive memories of that final month.

How different things were afterwards. The return to the normal world. Going back to work for the first time. Seeing a hint of fear in people’s eyes when you speak to them for the first time. Having no idea how to confront this immensity, wishing it will simply go away if they keep silent. Then, immense relief when I choose to talk about something else. With the assumption that now, everything is back to normal and will now never have to be talked about again.

Can we stop doing that to each other, please? Can we, as a society, learn to start talking about death? Break the taboo? Be not afraid to talk about the fact that sometimes, we hurt? That one day we, too, will no longer be there? That missing someone does not finish after the funeral?

Let’s make it so that the most difficult part is missing someone, not having to fight for the right to feel sad. Where it does not feel as if you, as the person mourning, are responsible for shielding the people around you. Let us learn to carry each other, rather than building walls around death and sadness, stop pretending that it doesn’t exist as long as it isn’t our turn.

I am writing this on a Druid blog, because I strongly feel that we, Pagans and Druids, members of newly developing traditions, have a responsibility here. In our rituals, let us make space for this. In our sharing circles, let us not shy away from these difficult topics. When you know someone is hurting, let them know that you will hold space for them. That you are ready to listen to how much or how little they wish to share. Let death become a natural companion of the living once again, like it used to be for our ancestors.