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.

Samhain musings

Have you ever wondered why we die? Why there is a time of winter following the time of summer? Why must all submit to the rule of nature that nothing lasts forever?

Well, isn ‘t it an obvious thing, once you start thinking about it more deeply? Because we all need a break. We need time to digest and have a more distant perspective.

For you have for sure experienced this for yourself. Standing on a high vantage point, overlooking the area, everything seems obvious. You can clearly see where all the roads are, where they will lead you to, and what path you need to take to get to a given destination. But then, once you have made your plans and set off for the journey, sooner or later doubt will start to set in. Was it left or right at this junction? And wasn’t there an easier road somewhere? You find that the road is riddled with obstructions that somehow hadn’t been visible from up high…

Yet we do the best we can. We live, we try our best. We have successes, and we make mistakes. We develop strategies that, for better or worse, allow us to navigate through the complexities of live. But there’s always a vague memory of that original vision, of that time when everything seemed clear.

That is why we need to die. To allow us to reconnect to the essence every once in a while. To recharge, to offload, and to prepare to begin anew.

This is, of course, not without sadness. For turning away means that we have to leave behind what we had started to build, say goodbye to those we loved. And that is hard.

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Maybe that is why it is good to think about the meaning of death while we are still alive. To get over our fears. To realize that there is fundamentally nothing to be afraid of. And that the only things we will be leaving behind, are things that are only of secondary importance. That we only leave behind that which we do not need anymore. For that is really all we lose. The connections that matter, the bounds forged by love, these will remain. And those that we care about will never forget us, and we will be able to keep in touch or see each other again on the other side later.

This Samhain, think of this. Think of what is so important for you that you will never leave it behind, and what are the things that you could do without. Then remind yourself of the implications. What are the things you spend most of your time on? If these are not the important things, then maybe you should rearrange your priorities…

A solitary ritual for the autumn equinox

Harvest time. Warm days, for the last time this year. 

harvest-fruit

Are you prepared? Bring in your final harvests now, for the time has come to face the fact that summer is over. Darkness creeps in, almost unnoticed at first, but bit by bit, the light is disappearing.

This is the tipping point. The point of balance. Now is the time to ask yourself what you have learned and achieved this year. Have your efforts payed of? Or have you used your energy inefficiently? It is too late to change things now, but remember that experience is worth harvesting as well. A lesson well learned has value, as it will no doubt ensure a richer harvest for the year to come.

This is not a time to be harsh on yourself, but a time for celebration. The year draws to a close, and you have seeded and grown. No matter what happened. So, harvest your experiences. For even if it doesn’t always seem like they are bearing fruit,  the only harvest that will serve you in the future is the one that you bothered to engage with, and made sure to preserve.

Here is a ritual to help you look back on the year that has past and to harvest your experiences for later use, and putting out the first tentative seeds for the future.

 

Autumn Equinox ritual

What you will need for this:

  • three stones
  • A candle
  • Something you harvested yourself
  • A glass of wine, beer or mead

Open ritual space in your usual way. Cast a circle, and call to the elements. When doing so, try to pay special attention to what you have learned this year in terms of air, fire, water and earth. As you call in the elements, give thanks for the ways in which they continue to enrich your life.

Then, take up the stones, and place the candle in the center of your circle. Light it, then circle around it. As you do so, think of the sun circling the earth. How has your year been? Which revolutions happened for you? In circling the sun a single time, how much has your life changed? No matter what the answer, focus on where you are NOW.

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Put down a stone on your current location. It is both a fixed point on your journey, and a marker to remind you of the cyclicity of life.

What are the things for which you need another go? Lessons which you haven’t learned fully enough, or challenges you did not dare respond to. Know that it is never too late to start. Make resolutions for the coming year, should you feel called to do so. 

When you are done, walk to the other side of the flame. Now put down the second stone. Look at your year from the perspective of your spring self. Congratulate yourself on successes gained. Note what went different than what you expected. Could you have foreseen that? Remember these lessons. How could you use them to ensure a better harvest next year? Also look at things that are outside your control. What is a way of circumventing such obstacles next time (if at all possible – this is not about casting blame)?

Then, enter the center. Put down the third stone. What are your goals should you have total control of things? Allow yourself a moment to dream. Then touch your heart. These can stay dreams for now, but it is good to have some light to focus on when entering the darkness. Simply acknowledge them, and allow them to incubate during the coming winter. For it is from your dreams that new light will eventually be reborn. Bless the sun, and realize how you have power over its eventual return.

Sunflower inflorescence with ripe seeds

Now step away, and look at your three stones. They represent past, present and future, and the way they are related. Remember that this process is not linear. May that give you hope for the future. Take the three stones and rearrange them in a triangle. This is your harvest. Place the harvested fruit you brought in the center, and ask your gods and spirits to bless it. Eat a bit of it, enjoying the sweet fruits of the year that has passed.

Finally, take your cup and take a sip. Then, pour out the rest in gratitude to the land that has sustained you through another year.

Spend some time in silence, then finish the ritual.

Thoughts on an inclusive Beltane

When asked what Beltane is all about, the answers most people give you will include the word ‘sex’, probably in a rather prominent position. And even though I am asexual myself, I concur. However…

Many interpretations of Beltane tend to revolve around the union of the masculine and the feminine, as God and Goddess. And yes, this is indeed a powerful and important theme, however, we risk missing out on so much if we stop there. Moreover, such a rite can very easily feel more than a bit alienating if you are not in a heterosexual relationship yourself. And so I would like to argue that we may need to rethink things a bit, to create a celebration that is truly inclusive for everyone.

As an asexual, I’ve struggled quite a bit with Beltane over the years. Because for me, it has often felt like ‘everybody else’s party’, and participating in Beltane celebrations to me felt mostly as a stark reminder of how I was different. (And I can imagine that for people who are involuntarily single, or in a same-sex relationship, it can sometimes feel similar.) When speaking about that to people, the answer was often something like ‘but you can make it  be about creativity as well’. That is true, but it feels somewhat like being relegated to the lesser options. Like a buffet which is full of exquisite food, and then having a few dishes for people with diet restrictions as well, added at the last minute as something of an afterthought. (Or think of the vegetarian who is told that ‘they can eat the salad’).

How do you create a Beltane ritual that speaks to everyone, without having to compromise  on content? I am not going to advocate that we need to do a ritual that is only about being creative and the fact that summer is about to begin. That would be like solving the buffet problem by putting everyone on a strict diet. (I’ll admit that up until a few years ago, I would have advocated for precisely that. But then I did some divination on the subject, and  in reply, my oracle deck gave me precisely all the cards that had the most explicitly sexual imagery on them. That was a pretty clear ‘no, you are going the wrong way here’ :-))

So, what is Beltane about then? If I can take the liberty to widen the meaning of the word sex a bit, then the answer would be, that

At Beltane, we celebrate the mystery of how the coming together of two (or more) souls leads to the birth of something greater.

The core of Beltane is the realisation that, in love,

1+1 =3.

So, let us unpack that statement a bit more.

The first, literal interpretation of this is that, everywhere in nature, from the union of the masculine and the feminine, seeds are formed, which will later grow into new living beings. This is and remains an important mystery, and it should be part of our Beltane celebrations.

And yes, this does include the sexual union of a man and a woman. But does that lead to the creation of a child every time? I sure would hope not… Overpopulation is already bad enough right now. Instead, I would argue that the ‘something greater’ is that ‘a new entity’ is indeed being created, but that entity is the soul of ‘the couple’, which is something new and different from the man and woman that created it.

The obvious advantage of this way of defining it is that it already includes all non-heterosexual relationships as part of the mystery. But we should not stop there.

We celebrate Beltane, and in fact all festivals, in an attempt to reconnect with the natural world, to stop seeing ourselves as separate from it. And so let us make Beltane the ultimate celebration of that. Let us, for a moment, look at this from the point of view of a tree or plant. In this case the true sexual dance is not so much between the masculine and the feminine, but between the flower and the bee. Between two creatures who are not even of the same species, yet need each other if they want to bring forth new life.

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So, let us include this dance in our Beltane celebrations. I see at least two ways in which this is relevant:

  • to reconnect humanity to the natural world: in your next Beltane celebration, I invite you to send everyone out into nature for a while, to go and experience that connection. Hug a tree, sing to a flower, listen to the song of rustling leaves. Allow your soul to be touched by something other than yourself, then return that love by giving back a small offering of who you are. (And may this be a falling in love, a relationship that does not end when the ritual is over, but one to be carried away and to fertilize your own life in the future, so that 1+1 can truly equal three).

 

  • in inter-human relationships: Each of us is an individual. How do we create a group, a community from that? By fertilizing each other. By being like the flowers and the bees. By giving everyone an equal chance to express themselves, to contribute ideas to the group mind. By learning to listen to opinions that are not our own, and growing wiser through that. Let this, too, be a part of our celebration.

Now suddenly, we have a lot of things to celebrate within our ritual. How can we include all of that without ending up with a multi-day rite? A simple suggestion could be to give the maypole ritual a wider interpretation.

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This ‘creation myth’ which I wrote a while ago can be a starting point for that.

 

 

 

Interpreted in such a way, the maypole dance can become a truly inclusive version of group sex magic. But if, after that, you feel called to celebrate that union a little bit more intimately with a single specific individual, well I’d say: follow nature’s call, go out and have fun!

Lughnasad – We are children of the earth

Lughnasadh was originally a funeral feast in honour of Lugh’s foster mother Tailtiu, who died of exhaustion after clearing the plains of Ireland for agriculture.

At this time of abundance, let us give thanks for that sacrifice, and for all the many ways that the earth continues to provide for us, even though we aren’t exactly kind to her most of the time…

 

Children of the earth

You are human, child of this earth.
Every day of your life, you receive earth’s many blessings.

She gives,
And continues to give.
Unconditionally.

As every mother would.
For no mother ever refuses her children.

This is your home.
This place will never refuse you.
No matter what,
For no mother ever refuses her children.

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Wake up, child of earth.
Who are you?
What is your age?
Do you consider yourself an adult?

Which adult then,
Is it that you want to be?
Do you still expect your mother to take care of you,
Like she did without question,
When you were still an infant,
Unable to walk alone.

She has continued to feed you,
Unquestioning,
All through your life.
For no mother ever refuses her children.

Human child,
Throughout the ages,
Your mother has never stopped caring for you.

But now you have got to grow up.

Will you start caring for your mother,
As she continues to do for you?

A summer solstice meditation

Let me take you on a journey. Have you ever wondered what happens to the rays of the sun once they touch the earth?

Close your eyes then. Let us go back in time, back to when the sun was born, now six months ago at the winter solstice.

As you open your inner eyes, all you see at first is darkness. Darkness, and a tiny little seed, sleeping in the depths of the earth.

Now, become that seed. And dream. Dream of the world above, of what you will become once you are finally born. Dream, a million dreams.

And then.. the miracle happens: as a shaft of sunlight pierces through the darkness, you wake up. Or rather, your dreams awaken. And you sense how they are all racing out, to the light, searching for a rope, a ladder, a step-up that can help them grow.

And as the sun gradually grows stronger as the months progress, they grow. Some grow strong, others hit into obstacles, but, every time they are hit by a new ray of sunlight, they push on, and on, as high into the air as they can get.

At as they grow, these dreams begin to have dreams of their own. Dreams for the future, Dreams to share. And these also reach to the sun. And as the sun hits them, they catch the sunlight and store it for the future. They are the seeds of tomorrow.

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And we will need them. For today marks the moment when the sun reaches her highest point. Today tells us that the time of striving for growth is over. Now begins the time of storing up light for the future. Of taking the results of our projects, finishing them, putting on the final touches, and sharing them with the world. Of harvesting ideas, so that we will be able to hatch new plans during the long winter months.

Today gives us a warning to prepare.

But first, it ask us, these coming months, to stop focusing on ourselves alone, and enjoy the light and the bounty all around us.

And so we give thanks to the sun, for bringing us to this point. And to the grains, whose journey we have just shared, and who are now ripe for us to pick. And to all the fruits and wonders that will be ours to collect this coming summer.

And now I will ask you to take a moment to reflect: what is it that you want to harvest this summer? What is it that you have to share?

The World Tree and the Maypole: a Creation Myth.

In the beginning, there was nothing but empty space. Nothing, but a single drop of pure Awen. 

And the drop brought forth a dream, and that dream became the first seed. As the seed hatched, the first tree was born. The tree that would become known as the World Tree.

And the drop of Awen became a well, so that the tree could drink of it. And as the tree drank, it began to grow. And behold, it began to have dreams of its own. And as these dreams took shape, they became the first leaves of the tree.

And as the leaves grew, they became aware of their surroundings, and as they became curious, together they dreamt up the sun, so that there would be light. And they found that the light of the sun nourished them, and allowed them to grow even more. 

As the rays of the sun reflected on the pool, the world began to sing with awen. 

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Now, the tree produced flowers, so that it would be able to better hear the song. And thus it was that, out of the union between the flowers and the song, the tree grew fruits, which carried the seeds of the tree.

Then the tree dreamed the first animals, so that they could eat the fruits and carry the seeds further away, so that new trees and plants could grow from them, and the area around the tree would become the first forest.

And the world tree loved them all, so much so that once a year, it shed all its leaves, to share his dreams with this beautiful world. And in return, we still share our own dreams with the Tree. For when we go to sleep, we return to our source, and become part of the Tree again. And as it feeds on our dreams and experiences, it becomes ever bigger and more beautiful…

And do you sometimes wonder about the nature of the gods? Well, maybe they are simply the dryad companions of the Word Tree, sent out into the world to help it curate its dreams, and to keep reminding us all of just how interconnected we are.

So, once a year, as we gather around our maypoles, let us be reminded of this. As we dance and see our strings intertwine, we are feeding the World Tree. And in coming together as a community, we are creating the seeds of the next generations.

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Together, let us dream a more beautiful world. For all of us, whether we are human, animal, plant or tree, together we ARE the world tree. May we dream of love, and share the beauty of diversity.