contemplativeinquiry

This blog is about contemplative inquiry

Tag: Covid-19

IN MEMORIAM: GRIEVING IN A TIME OF PANDEMIC

In Memoriam is a touring artwork by Bristol-based artist Luke Jerram. His installation, as shown on Weston beach on 16 September, is a temporary memorial for those lost to the COVID-19 pandemic, as well as a tribute to the NHS health and care workers who have been risking their lives during the crisis. I was in Weston with my wife Elaine at the time, and we explored the installation both separately and together.

The exhibition is made up of 100 flags, originally hospital bed sheets, planted in the sand. A bird’s eye view would show a blue cross against as white background. When I photographed the installation at sunset on 16 September, it felt numinous to me and slightly reminiscent, in its feeling-tone, of an ancient ritual site. I wonder if our distant ancestors had portable and perishable structures for enhancing ritual space as well as the great stone ones that remain part of our landscape. It seems likely.

Luke says of his work: “As we move towards the end of this pandemic in the UK, it feels like, as a nation, we need to come to terms with everything we’ve been through. With funerals limited in their capacity and places of worship closed, it’s been hard for many people to grieve properly.  I hope this artwork will create a framed space and moment in time for personal and shared reflection”. http://www.memoriamartwork.com/about

The exhibition has been deliberately placed in the open air and in windy locations, inviting people to enter, contemplate and explore the artwork.  The experience recorded above combined shape, colour, sound and movement – all at twilight, leaning in to the autumn equinox, in a meeting place of land sea and sky. For me, both the time and place made a difference, manifesting the power of liminal times and spaces wherever they are found.

My earlier, day-time experience of the installation had been different. Then, the scene felt defined and organised, with clear edges. A blue sky with light patches of cloud matched the flags. At the same time, the sense of a darker ground was evident, with shadows like freshly dug graves.

The flags installation has been touring the UK for about a year. It is due to move to Bristol on leaving Weston, where it forms part of a local health and arts festival. Weston and Bristol are its home, for it was commissioned by Culture Weston https://cultureweston.org.uk and the University Hospitals Bristol & Weston NHS Foundation Trust. It is also supported by the Without Walls street art consortium https://www.withoutwalls.uk.com and the Welcome Trust funded Weather Lives project based at the University of Durham.

INTIMATIONS OF RENEWAL

I took this picture on the North Somerset coast (UK) last September. It is an autumnal and sunset picture, which paradoxically offers me a vision of renewal. The location is Weston-super-Mare, at the Brean Down end and facing the Island of Steep Holm. It is a place that draws me, and I wrote about it at the time (1).

Elaine and I will be spending time there in September this year, investigating a possible move. We both have reasons for wanting this, and it has been in our minds for awhile. But the uncertainties of Covid-19, its wayward management in England, and our own separate health problems have slowed us down.

I have become unused to moving. On my return to the UK in 2003, I lived in Bristol before coming to Stroud at the end of 2008. By that time I was already familiar with this old Cotswold mill town, more recently the birthplace of Extinction Rebellion.. For many years I was essentially living a Stroud/Bristol life. It hardly felt like moving.

In the new plan, Bristol will still be our city. But I’m a different person now, and the move feels like a major operation. Almost daunting. I feel stable and secure in my current home, and a part of me is tempted to cleave to the apparent stability and security of a familiar property and community.

Another part is concerned with the energetic costs of stagnation. Yesterday I drew the 4 of Cups card from The Duidcraft Tarot (2). I am using the pack as a simple psychic mirror, rather than for classical divination. I draw a card when I feel a need to check-in with the oracle. In this instance, I found myself faced with a jaded youth. I am neither jaded nor a youth, But I do feel as if I have been in Stroud for long enough. I catch myself at times in moods of lassitude and an undefined discontent. I am looking for a different experience, and knowing this helps me to raise my energy levels and recover a willingness to take risks. Writing about it is an energiser.

The risks themselves are modest. Weston is familiar to us and the distance not great. There are shared pragmatic reasons for the choice. Beyond these, we both look forward to open ourselves to the local energy of earth, sea and sky in the liminal space where they meet. I also like the notion of living in the English west country, where I was born, and having the opportunity to re-connect with the psychogeography of the region and in particular its coasts, more deeply.

I vividly remember seeing this solitary crow on last year’s visit. It was busy, head down, making a living on the muddy, still estuarial beach. It was a peaceful moment, framed between sunlight and shade. I stepped into peace myself, better to capture the moment and to avoid disturbing the bird. I felt alive and receptive to the setting, which even then felt like a potential home.

Only time will tell.

(1) https://contemplativeinquiry.blog/2020/09/23/

(2) Philip and Stephanie Carr-Gomm The DruidCraft Tarot: Use the Magic of Wicca and Druidry to Guide Your Life London: Connections, 2004. Illustrated by Will Worthington.

SUNSET LATENCY

In the rich evening of my life, I’m experiencing a sense of latency. Good – in its suggestion of possibilities. Uncomfortable, in a context of possibilities deferred.

The context is that, for most of this year, I’ve been experiencing breath problems. Once I knew that I didn’t have Covid, I assumed they would go away with winter. But they haven’t. Next week I’ll be having a battery of tests including an electrocardiogram, blood tests and a chest X-ray. I want to find out what is going on, what if any formal medical intervention is required, and how to manage my health going forward. There may be a new normal to accept and work with. I try to cultivate a Druid sensitivity to the life energy within me and a sense of how to nurture it.

Meanwhile, I find that breathing exercises help. They are the same breathing exercises I use to connect with stillness, and rest in the heart of Being – an interesting state of affairs in itself. One one level I am semi-grounded by a degree of impairment and a lack of knowledge about what it implies. On another I am called to intensify my spiritual practice. Problem and opportunity in the same package. Whatever happens, I feel that the opportunity is greater, though it doesn’t always feel that way.

On another level again, my wife Elaine and I, both now twice vaccinated, are wanting to step out into the world again. Our eyes are looking north, towards York, the Tyne and Wear coast, and Scotland – specifically Edinburgh and the Lothians. We have family up there and want to live a little closer to them. We would also like to live closer to the sea. This is quite an old idea, interrupted at first by the uncertainties of Brexit, the pandemic, and Scotland’s future. One thing we have learned is to stop worrying about uncertainties, or we’ll die before making a move. But Elaine’s physical health is also compromised – she was very seriously ill in January, still recovering now – and we have to work to find the energy to make our house presentable, sell it, and settle in another part of the country. We are taking steps whilst being careful not to over-tax ourselves and push the river. A northern tour is planned for early June.

I notice that I am not going on local walks and taking pictures as much as for most of the last eighteen months. In some ways I regret that. In others, I am allowing a change of focus. I am conscious that 2021 has been slower to wake up and bloom here than in the wonderful late spring and early summer of the first lockdown. Cold northerly winds bringing hail and sleet have been a feature. Normally this wouldn’t be a deterrent to me. I like bracing weather and don’t mind getting wet. But this year I’m being cautious. There is a great deal going on, a lot to attend to, another life waiting to break through. I will be 72 later this month, and I’m calculating that I have time for a new worldly adventure, shared with Elaine. We cannot be certain of this, yet I have rarely felt so alive.

CHERISHING LIFE

The world is changing, again. New growth insists on its place in the world, however icy the conditions. Life asserts its rights, as we move towards the festival of Imbolc. But this post is personal rather than generic. I am welcoming the return of my wife Elaine from seven days in the Royal Gloucester hospital, where she was treated for a life-threatening, non-Covid condition.

This was the background to my previously reported Covid test, (1) since we thought that Covid might be a factor for Elaine, whose symptoms were severer than mine. I have not said anything about this context up until now, because Elaine did not want to be mentioned in this blog at the time of the crisis. Now she is fine about it. In her first two or three days of Elaine’s hospitalisation, I was very worried about her. In the last couple of days I have been more relaxed and confidently looking forward to her return and a period of convalescence at home. Elaine speaks very highly of the hospital, its staff and the treatment she has received. I was able to communicate with her (and others) by text, email and sometimes (on her initiative) phone. So I did not feel cut off from her even though the hospital is operating a complete ban on visitors due to the Covid crisis.

The week has reminded me of the fragility of both life and love, and of their immense value. The outcome feels like a victory for life at a time when nature, in my neighbourhood, is pointing in this direction. Meanwhile the festival of Imbolc celebrates the return of the light. I will cherish this time as we move forward from here.

(1) https://contemplativeinquiry.blog/2021/01/18/another-dawn/

NAVIGATING TURBULENT TIMES

Ten suggestions for navigating turbulent times: I am interested in the following list by Carolyn Baker and Andrew Harvey (1). They are not from my tradition, but I find their thoughts relevant and challenging. They prompt me to wonder what my list would be. Their book, which I will review in a later post, was published in the USA in 2020, a little before the November elections.

“1. Stay Safe: wear masks when you are outside, continue social distancing as much as possible, and listen carefully to the scientists who are telling us we are in the middle of a second wave of the pandemic. Shun all large gatherings and rallies and find other ways to protest which can be just as effective.

“2. Take special care of your health and keep your body vibrant with exercise and good nutrition. The psychological and emotional demands of unfolding crises will be far more effectively sustained with a healthy body.

“3. Whatever your spiritual practice, plunge more deeply than ever into it. It is essential to pursue realization of your true Self with more faith and intensity in these exploding times than ever before.

“4. Fill your life with inspiration and beauty. Inspiration will keep your heart buoyant and alive, and beauty will remind you of the magnificence of life and fill you with the energy to want to safeguard it.

“5. If you can, spend 20 minutes in nature per day, experiencing your oneness with it and drinking in through every pore its steadiness and radiance. Allow yourself to become intimate with the Earth.

“6. Stay aware of how the pandemic and environmental crises are evolving. There is no security in denial or ignorance. Learn, however, to pace yourself because the ferocious information you will be taking in can become overwhelming.

“7. Take time to grieve. No one will escape heartbreak in a time such as this, and not attending to the suffering of the heart that inevitably rises in the face of so much destruction will lead to severe depression or a kind of inner deadness that makes it impossible to respond creatively. Get support from others who are also grieving alone, and there is no need to be alone in a crisis that is now global.

“8. Renew old friendships and relish and deepen the ones you have you have because everything now depends on the sanity and joy that only deep friendship and relationship can provide, Take special care and lavish special love on your animal companions, and they will reward you with their tender and miraculous love.

“9. Despite being mostly in lockdown, make an effort to practice Sacred Activism by giving wisely to those in need. Foodbanks need support as do healthcare workers and the homeless who are afraid of going to shelters because they are Petri dishes for the virus. If you are able to assist those in prison by standing up for their rights, or by encouraging them in any way, do so. Take seriously your right to vote, for everything depends throughout the world on turning back the tide of dark money-financed authoritarianism.

“10. Use this book as a way of training your inner eyes to see and celebrate the signs of the Birth of a new humanity that are rising everywhere amidst the obviously apocalyptic death. Note the heroism of extraordinary/ordinary people globally who are turning up to serve the sick and dying. Note the heroism of protestors after the horrific death of George Floyd. Read great evolutionary philosophers and mystics like Sri Aurobindo, Teilhard de Chardin, Bede Griffiths, Satprem, Teresa of Avila, Hildegard of Bingen, and Julian of Norwich, and those who speak of the global dark night, giving birth potentially to an embodied divine humanity.”

(1) Carolyn Baker & Andrew Harvey Radical Regeneration: Birthing the New Human in the Age of Extinction Bloomington, IN: iUniverse, 2020

ANOTHER DAWN

It is the dawning of 18 January 2021. The stark, bare beauty of the trees is set against a promising sky. Is the world beginning to open up? I can see a leaning in to Imbolc in this dawn, and a loosening in the hold of winter as the year moves on.

I cannot run out into this dawn, as I would like. I am in formal isolation, with a home testing kit for Covid-19 winging its way from NHS/Amazon. My symptoms are ambiguous. Covid-19 may not be the cause, but there is a real chance that it might. Meanwhile people in my 70’s age group are about to get vaccinated. Interesting times, for sure.

For me, the best way of addressing this is day at a time, whilst also assessing possible challenges sufficiently to be prepared for them. From a Druid perspective, I am finding the nemeton of my practice circle a tremendous resource. From the beginning of this year I have had both a morning and an evening circle. The former is built around energising myself and affirming both being and world. The second is contemplative, and built around both walking and sitting meditation. Each lasts for about half an hour.

I notice that I draw on Druid (largely OBOD) liturgy (1) , with modifications, quite a lot – for example, the approach to sacred space and use of the Druid prayer. This locates me within a training and community which add strength even at a distance. There are also aspects of practice drawn from other traditions and others which I have developed myself. The package overall retains a basic simplicity. It is a distillation of my contemplative inquiry – in a sense re-telling its unique story twice a day. I am finding this enormously helpful. I am reminded that the journey is what I had hoped it would be. This recognition holds me up, and is a dawning in itself.

(1) http://www.druidry.org/

(2)  https://contemplativeinquiry.blog/2020/08/27/my-druid-prayer/

WELCOMING 2021

Love and blessings to everyone at the threshold of 2021. May we find both nurture and inspiration in the coming year. It comes to us amid multiple crises and disruptions. May we navigate safely through them during the coming months, finding opportunities within the undoubted challenges ahead.

I end 2020, as I began it, in a watery time and place. The picture above, taken after a storm on Christmas Eve, shows a lively flow of water at the gateway. Wellies are needed for anyone wanting to walk on through. This kind of flooding was once rare and has now become normal. (A more traditional after-rain normal is shown in the picture below.) Not far away, buildings were flooded. Since then there has been snow, which has stuck in some parts of our locality and not in others.

In my part of the world, raised levels of wind and flooding, this year and last – and in other years going back for over a decade – are enough to show climate change in action to anyone with their eyes open – though they are less dramatic than events in other parts of the world. There signs that the partly engineered trance of public inattention in much of our public discourse has started to weaken. As the worst of the Covid pandemic comes to an end, I hope that we see more focus to the underlying existential threat of climate change, backed up by levels of action that can make a real difference.

In my last post of 2020, I continue to draw strength from the rhythms and powers of nature, even in their alterations. The strength of a stream rushing into the Stroudwater canal, with the land and the exposed tree trunks all around, lifts my spirits. In 2020, I set out to give prominence to the wheel of the year in my contemplative inquiry, mapping it back into a Druid based spiritual culture. I focused less on the feast days themselves than on the gradual turning of the wheel. A tree mandala, based around sixteen trees, became an important means of supporting this, with the proviso that it is an aid to direct experience. It is not an overwriting of it or a substitute for it.

I am less clear about 2021. My guess is that I will reduce the volume of my blogging, at least for a while, as I have done at times in the past. It will depend on the flow of the year – what themes may be emerging, what else may be happening in my life – which this time I cannot predict. I hope to be safe and I trust that I will continue to be life-loving, beautifully companioned, curious and grateful. I wish all good things, whatever they are for you, to readers of this post.

THE PASSAGE OF TIME

The years roll on, with ever increasing speed. This is me in 1952, sitting to have my picture taken in a photographer’s studio. I just about remember the occasion as a significant event, for which I was carefully dressed and coached. I am pleased to report that this eager, inquisitive (if slightly anxious?) boy has never died, though at times he is hard to find. His image reminds me of the magical, light bringing child in each of us, whatever else we have become. Buried, it may be. Wounded, confined or hiding, in some cases, at some times. But still there, still embodied in old and hidden places, awaiting renewed recognition and love.

This is midwinter and a time of reminiscing and stocktaking. On 20 December 2019 I wrote: “I’m peering in to the 2020s. Calendar numbers might be arbitrary, but they are numbers of power in our culture. They award shape and identity to years and decades. Part of me sees the 2020s as pure science fiction, with an increasingly dystopian tilt. Themes of alarm, determination, resourcing and resilience come up for me at multiple levels”. (https://contemplativeinquiry.blog/2019/12/20/approaching-the-years-turn/).

At that time I undertook to give more attention to the wheel of the year, and to cultivate certain values: lovingkindness; positive health and well-being; a life of abundant simplicity; and a spirit of openness, creativity and wisdom (https://contemplativeinquiry.blog/2019/12/27/values-for-2020). Sometimes during the year I have been on point and sometimes I have not. I do feel overall that these were good choices for the year of Covid-19 and I have at least paid them conscious attention.

I do not approach 2021 with new and different thinking. I expect it to be another challenging year, especially in the early months, no doubt in a slightly different way. I will bring the same approach to 2021 as to 2020, perhaps enhancing the qualities of simplicity and openness, leaning more towards the centre rather than the periphery of the wheel. This could be the role of the elder within. There is room both for youth and age in one person.

ROWAN

Walking in the woods yesterday, I was struck by the vitality of rowan leaves and berries. I haven’t done this walk for a while, so I’m not quite sure when the berries became so vivid. All I can say is that they powerfully drew my attention. They were just what I needed, in this time of tentative emergence from Covid-19 lockdown. I look forward to their companionship as the high summer leans into autumn and beyond.

Sometimes I feel ambivalent about tree lore. Too much lore can get in the way of living connection with a tree, or even displace it. But in this case it seems to fit. To me, rowan does look magical, and feels potentially protective. I am not surprised that our ancestors planted it for this use down the ages – to guard stone circles, sacred groves, churchyards and houses. The very name rowan is linked to the Norse runa, meaning ‘charm’. In Ireland, rowan was considered a Druid tree and linked to the blackbird as a Druid bird. The berries themselves present a pentagram image, linking us to notions of magical protection.

Rowan is said to be concerned with wisdom and foresight. Breathing in smoke from the burning wood was an aid to foreseeing danger. Rowan is associated with solar goddesses of wisdom, skill and fire energy: in Ireland, Brigid; and in Britain, Brigantia. Both are said to have possessed arrows of rowan, which could catch fire if necessary.

I find the presence of rowan subtly morale boosting as I negotiate a new normal with my wife Elaine and, together, with the wider world. We work with the knowledge that Covid-19 is not going away and that we do need to re-engage more directly with that world. The very physicality of the rowan tree is an invitation to step out, whilst also encouraging a sense of what to look out for, and how the next phase is likely to be.

A TURNING POINT

On a recent evening I watched lightning, heard thunder, and waited for the rain. It came quickly, fast and hard. It changed my sense of the year. It was as if, at least for some part of me, the blessings of the solstice moment were threatened with cancellation. I remembered autumn and winter last year, and what seemed like relentless wetness. Was our sun kissed respite, itself made strange by Covid-19 and the lockdown, to be so brief?

The wheel of the year, moving through familiar seasons, was once a comfort. Bad things could and did happen. There were big variations from year to year. Yet on a human timescale there seemed to be a pattern. The ritual year told us that nature was reliable within certain limits. The gathering pace of climate change has undermined this perception. In different ways, throughout the globe, the old patterns are being disrupted without settling into new ones – greater changes are to be expected.

The sun will rise at the solstice as it always does. Here in England, I would never have expected to predict the weather of the day. But this year I do feel a raw anxiety about the future. Happily, my at-homeness in the flowing moment is strong enough to hold this anxiety. I accept and welcome it as the experience I am given, mine to live even within the act of resistance itself. Self-compassion and thence a wider compassion arise from this. Yet, as I link my contemplative inquiry to the theme of ageing, I wonder about harvesting and legacy in my own life. Do such notions even make sense?

For the last six months I have rebuilt a specifically Druid practice, restoring the pattern of the circle and four directions, restoring height and depth dimensions, affirming a strong centre. I am working with levels of experience I describe as physical, psychic and causal. I want my spiritual life, which is all my life, to be a coherent witness to my experience and values. In spite of threatening clouds, I remain fired up for this, by an ever rejuvenating sun within, as I approach the decline of the year.

Image from R. J. Stewart’s The Merlin Tarot, illustration by Miranda Grey Aquarian Press, 1992

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