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.
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.
In my wheel of the year tree mandala (1), beech and bluebell together cover the period from 24 May-15 June – taking over from hawthorn and handing on to oak. In this instance, I am drawn by the powerful visual effects of bluebells carpeting woodland in which beech is the dominant tree.
The picture above is an old one. The last year in which Elaine and I went into this space (2018 or 2019) the wood felt weird. Part of it – not quite the area in the picture – was a scene of desolation. A lot of the trees had been taken down, with a kind of ragged insensitivity. It felt like a bad moment in Lord of the Rings. I don’t know the story behind this. Perhaps there was disease, or some other genuine need for a thinning out of trees. It was certainly systematic, with notices about the work being done – the result of management, and not of vandalism, in the conventional usage of our language.
The beech is an elegant tree, and I experience it as having a soft energy. It has been traditionally feminised, and thought of as ‘Queen of the Woods’, sharing the place of honour with the kingly oak according to The Green Man Tree Oracle (2). The same source says that “slivers of beech wood and leaves were once carried as talismans to bring good luck and increase creative energy”. Local British traditions associate the beech (ogham name phagos) with serpents “probably because of its long serpentine root systems”, they add – and I wonder too about the archaic link between the Goddess and serpent power in many cultures.
My personal connection with the tree itself is limited. It concerns this time of year and the association with bluebells. Indeed the bluebell is my main focus, with the beech as complementary. If they are separated, I follow the bluebell, and the picture below is a recent one, of the Spanish variety, from our garden. For me, it represents a favourite moment in the year, to be appreciated while it lasts. It reminds me simultaneously of the poignancy of impermanence (including my own) and the beauty of the eternal present (within which I am held).
(1) This mandala is based on my personal experience of trees in the neighbourhood as well as traditional lore. Moving around the summer quarter from Beltane, 1 May, the positions and dates of the four trees are: Hawthorn, south-east, 1-23 May; Beech & Bluebell, south-south-east, 24 May – 15 June; Oak, south, 16 June – 8 July; Gorse, south-south-west, 9 – 31 July. The autumn quarter then starts with Apple at Lughnasadh/Lammas. For a complete list of the sixteen trees, see https://contemplativeinquiry.blog/2020/autumn-equinox-2020-hazel-salmon-awen/
(2) John Matthews & Will Worthington The Green Man Oracle London: Connections, 2003.
The pot belongs to my wife Elaine*, and used to live outdoors. Late in the winter it filled with rain. Then there were days of frost and the water turned into ice. The ice needed more room, and pushed against the sides of the pot. When the ice melted the pot fell apart in two neat halves. Nature in action, over time.
As part of her work, Elaine knows something about kintsugi, which literally means “golden joinery”. This treats breakage and repair as part of the history of an object, rather than something to disguise. Culturally, the approach is an aspect of wabi-sabi, the acceptance of transience and imperfection. Elaine’s repair, applying kintsugi, is literally illuminated.
The result reminds me of the refrain in Leonard Cohen’s Anthem.
“Ring the bells that still can ring.
“Forget your perfect offering.
“There is a crack in everything.
“That’s where the light gets in.”
After some hesitation, I added my Tibetan bells to the picture above. The cord attaching the two bells is about half its original length due to wear and tear. But the bells still ring. My ownership of them, here and now, is almost certainly the result of Tibet’s collective disaster and the resultant Tibetan diaspora. In the world of biological life and time, disaster and repair are a common theme. If the crack is where the light gets in, the work of repair is sacred.
For me, the skilful patterning of experience provides a gateway to re-enchantment. It reminds me that there are multiple ways of seeing the world, some obvious and others more occluded. The early morning can be a time of affirmation through ritual patterning that makes a mark on the day.
Mine begins with a morning circle which emphasises peace. Peace, here, is an active energy, not a passive absence of overt conflict, or a blind eye to dysfunction and injustice. Peace has to struggle, in this world, through skilful means that do not compromise its essence. Ritual can be one. I describe my morning circle below.
I go into my practice space, stand in the east facing west, ring my Tibetan hand bells and say the St. Patrick’s prayer (aka Cry of the Deer).
I arise today through the strength of heaven, light of sun, radiance of moon, splendour of fire, speed of lightning, swiftness of wind, depth of sea, stability of earth and firmness of rock.
Then I cast a Druid circle, calling on the four directions, each associated with a cosmic power, an element, a power animal, a quality, a time and a season.
East: May there be peace in the east, power of life, element of air, domain of the hawk, quality of vision, time of sunrise, season of spring and early growth.
South: May there be peace in the south, power of light, element of fire, domain of the dragon, quality of purpose, time of midday, season of summer and of ripening.
West:, May there be peace in the west, power of love, element of water, domain of the salmon, quality of wisdom, time of sunset, season of autumn and bearing fruit.
North: May there be peace in the north, power of liberation, element of earth, domain of the bear, quality of faith, time of midnight, season of winter, of dying and regeneration.
I also call the Below, the Above and the Centre, to make seven directions in all. Moving to the vertical dimension indicates a deepening, enacted by my spinning in place before bringing it in, and by the use of mythic names for the Below and Above.
Below: May there be peace below, in Annwn , realm of the the deep earth and underworld.
Above: May there be peace above, in Gwynvid, realm of the starry heavens.
This is followed by a further deepening into the centre, enacted through another spinning in place. Here, I am no longer calling for peace, but standing in its source.
I stand in the peace of the centre, the bubbling source from which I spring, and heart of living presence. Awen (chanted as aah-ooo-wen)
After a pause, I walk the circle, sunwise, east to east, and say I cast this circle in the sacred grove of Druids. May there be peace throughout the world. At this point I have established my sacred grove, my nemeton. All that follows is within this dedicated space until I uncast the circle on completion of my practice.
This ritual patterning, made substantial both physically and verbally, includes a celebration of sacred nature, provides a structure and a set of meanings to hold and guide me, and emphasises the commitment to peace.. Although I have personally customised this framework, most of it – anything to do with personality and external world – anchors me in modern Druid culture.
The centre is different. The centre is universal. It is the point where Oneness is recognised. “The bubbling source from which I spring” has a naturalistic feel whilst also referencing Jean-Yves Leloup’s translation of the Thomas Gospel, logion 13, where Yeshua says to Thomas: “I am no longer your master, because you have drunk , and become drunken, from the same bubbling source from which I spring” (1). ‘Heart’, as used here, is neither the physical heart nor the heart chakra, but “the Great Heart that contains All-that-is … the consciousness that underlies all forms” (2). ‘Living presence’ too points to the state of underlying conscious awareness that is here being recognised (3,4). For ritual language that honours that recognition, I draw on the mystical inheritance of the world and place myself in a wider circle of care.
At one time I tended to experience casting circles as a preliminary to practice, whilst also ‘knowing’ in a roof-brain kind of way that this was a mistake. Now I find it a powerful means of bringing me into the new day. Above all, it affirms my core understanding of world and life with every sunrise.
(1) The Gospel of Thomas: the Gnostic Wisdom of Jesus (Translation from the Coptic, introduction and commentary by Jean-Yves LeLoup. English translation by Joseph Rowe. Foreword by Jacob Needleman) Rochester, VT: Inner Traditions, 2005
(2) Sally Kempton Meditation for the Love of It: Enjoying Your Own Deepest Experience Boulder, CO: Sounds True, 2011
(3) Kabir Edmund Kabinski Living Presence: A Sufi Way to Mindfulness & the Essential Self New York, NY: Penguin Putnam, 1992
(4) Eckhart Tolle Oneness with All Life: Awaken to a Life of Purpose and Presence Penguin Random House UK, 2018 (First ed. published 2008)
Within my mandala of the year (1) Ash and Ivy together are part of a playful period extending to midsummer. The picture above holds memories of the year 2007, when the original photograph was taken in a wood near Bristol. It has recently been digitised and stylised by Elaine Knight, a frequent companion in my adventures with trees during that year.
I was enthusiastically connecting with them at the time, spurred on by an OBOD course (see http://www.druidry.org). My main focus was on being present in the presence of the living trees and connecting with them. I had a secondary concern with information about them. This includes traditional lore now often linked to the ogham alphabet. In that alphabet, ivy is gort and ash is nuin.
In my personal mandala of the year, ash and ivy preside from 23 February to 16 March. Ivy, as ever, is luxurious and abundant. Ash, at this time, is mostly tall and sleepy. I have a strong memory of finding them together as I walked up a tangled, sloping path. I felt an immediate connection with them, which I recorded at the time, though I hardly needed to. The occasion has stayed vividly in my mind ever since. Indeed the wish to celebrate that memory prompted me to include them in my tree mandala when it developed a year or so later.
In ogham lore, ash is connected with themes of rootedness and endurance (2). An ash can bear weight and absorb shocks. It has been the second most popular tree, after hawthorn, for planting at holy wells. It has also been a popular choice for maypoles. In the northern, Viking, tradition, it is Yggdrasil, world tree and wisdom steed of Odin. It links underworld, earth and heaven. It links macrocosm to microcosm, and the inner and outer worlds.
Ivy embodies the strength that can come from seeking support, whilst also being associated with poetry and intoxication. Its spiralling, labyrinthine dance turns both inwards and outwards. Ivy is a tenacious plant, skilled in binding and attachment. It is said also to connect us with our own inner resources, giving us “the ability to see through the eyes of the soul beyond the material world” (3).
I am fascinated by the way in which we can read the characteristics of our own hearts and imaginations into the life of trees whilst also connecting with their independent existence and what it can teach us about, for example, interdependence, a slower rhythm of life or the simple miracle of being. When among trees, I am taken up with the life of the tree on its own terms, more than with either botanical knowledge or inherited mythologies pointing to a larger life. It is when I am away from them that I turn fruitfully to their role in the collective imagination. There are different kinds of attention in play here, and I find that it helps to be aware of the difference without doing too far in disentanglement.
(1) This mandala is based on my personal experience of trees in the neighbourhood as well as traditional lore. Moving around the spring quarter from 1 February, the positions and dates of the four trees are: Birch, north-east, 1-22 February; Ash & Ivy, east-north-east, 23 February – 16 March; Willow, east, 17 March – 7 April; Blackthorn, east-south-east, 8 – 30 April. The summer quarter then starts with Hawthorn at Beltane. For a complete list of the sixteen trees, see https://contemplativeinquiry.blog/2020/autumn-equinox-2020-hazel-salmon-awen/
(2) The image is from: John Matthews & Will Worthington The Green Man Oracle London: Connections, 2003.
(3) Liz and Colin Murray The Celtic Tree Oracle: A System of Divination London: Eddison-Sadd, 1988 (Illustrated by Vanessa Card)
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.
My wife Elaine created this midsummer cauldron fire, now ten days ago. It was fuelled in part by dry dead leaves. She chose the evening of the day itself rather than the traditional eve. The point about midsummer (24 June) is that the sun is on the move again after its moment of stasis, clearly beginning its decline. It acts as the polar opposite of the Sol Invictus or Christmas festival in late December. The Church gives 24 June to John the Baptist, decapitated at the wish of his nemesis Salome.
In our neighbourhood, there is a paradox about July. It is the quintessential summer month, in which the light begins to diminish. At the moment, sunrise is at about 4.50 am., with sunset at 9.20 pm. By Lughnasadh, it will be rising at 5.25 am and setting before 8.50 pm. In August, the process will accelerate while the earth and sea remain warm by North Atlantic standards. Getting up an hour or so after sunrise I am tending to find a dull and cloudy sky. There can be a stillness in the air, disturbed perhaps by blackbird pair flying low amongst the trees. I have a sense of latency.
The inquiry phase beginning at the 2019 winter solstice has settled a number of issues. I am re-confirmed in a modern Druid practice that is held within a circle and seven directions (E, S, W, N, below, above, centre), and is mindful of the wheel of the year. I also settled my approach to ethics at the beginning of this inquiry year (1) drawing on the work of modern Pagan philosopher Brendan Myers with his re-visioning of ancient Greek ‘virtue’ ethics (2). I have deepened in my experience of an at-homeness in the flowing moment, and its therapeutic benefits, which I wrote about last year (3). Fully established in my life, these are no longer fundamental inquiry issues. The uncertainties I formerly had with them are like dead leaves, now safe to burn.
For all that I have gained from other paths – Tantra, Tao, Zen, other forms of Buddhism, and Christian Gnosticism – I know that I will not be practising or following them. I will continue to appreciate their literatures and cite them in this blog, but this will be from the perspective of the appreciative outsider. Here too the active inquiry is over. Uncertainties have shrunken into dead leaves, and are safe to burn.
I know that, in the turbulent, airy mental realm, I have contending gnostic and agnostic energies. They are co-arising twins, and neither is going away. I still have work to do to find a settled home for them both. I am also concerned about how, more elegantly, to fit an ‘emptiness’ understanding into an earth pathway. A feeling about myth, and the truth and beauty of myth, is tied up with this. In the coming phase, I will look again at R. J. Stewart’s Merlin work for help with these questions. This reprise is also part of my older person’s looking back, recalling what I have valued, and asking what role it can still play. It sets my direction for the second half of the year.
On 2 June I enjoyed a simple, senior day. A picture anchors its feeling-tone and will prompt my memory in times to come. On this day, I went nowhere. On this day, I did no inquiring. In this day, I could hardly tell the difference between thinking and looking out of the window.
The day was both ordinary and unique, tied to a cherished space and with its own distinctive features. It was the day before the weather broke, the last of a warm, dry and sunny spell that has blessed us during the lockdown. But the break was clearly coming and that, too, would be welcomed.
More importantly, my day was an extended moment of companionship with my wife Elaine (sometimes in separate spaces, sometimes sharing one). In part we were just there. In part I was time conscious, looking forward to Elaine’s coming birthday, not long after my own – and then our relationship anniversary in the coming June days. As the wheel turns, anticipation flavours the now. Memory flavours the now too, and I want to remember this day, and the value of its simple, senior pleasures.
A lone fawn protected by a dolmen. Boxing hares. A drill bow kindles a flame. As I move beyond the equinox into the second quarter of the year, what are these images telling me?
I am working with the Wildwood Tarot* as a resource for my journey through the wheel of the year. I’ve done a three card reading to intuit themes for the three months ahead. Each card is a lens on the whole period, revealing different aspects of the year’s second quarter, perhaps with an element of progression.
The key word for the 4 of stones, the one with the fawn, is ‘protection’. The supporting Wildwood text is largely a reflection on spiritual warriorship, with themes of testing, endurance, ethics and compassion. They help me to understand our public health crisis as also a spiritual crisis. Fortunately, the dolmen holding the fawn in immobilised physical safety can also be a space for spiritual renewal.
The 2 of stones, with its boxing hares, is another earth card and stereotypically seasonal. Its key word is ‘challenge’. In the traditional universe of the Tarot, One becomes two, and then three, and then the multitude. The opportunity for I-Thou relationship, diversity and the world of interbeing have been created. At the same time stress, tension and potential conflicts of interest have been born along with them. Interconnectedness sounds rich, creative and dynamically supportive. So it can be. Yet relationships involving dominance, submission, predation and parasitism are also forms of interconnection. Viruses too.
I don’t know what it’s like to be a hare. I have been told by other humans that boxing hares are playing a mating game, enacting a mating ritual, or demonstrating that female hares are capable of seeing off unwanted advances from males. Perhaps all of the above. They certainly demonstrate the complexities of interconnection. Currently I describe myself as ‘self-isolating’, and this is likely to go on for at least the whole quarter. Actually, I am self-isolating with my wife Elaine, and we are very conscious of needing to take active care of our own relationship and to maintain good distance links with others. The health of the interconnectedness within which we live is more important than ever. I take some comfort here from the boxing hares. Their energies are successfully held in balance. Their collective life and its continuation over the years are enabled. They are resourceful creatures and our traditional lore about them speaks of shape shifting capabilities and closeness to the Otherworld. They are survivors.
The key words for my third card, the Ace of Bows, are ‘spark of life’. In a reading without major trumps or court cards, this stands out as the fountainhead of the fire suit and in the Wildwood Tarot it points to the later stages of this quarter, from Beltane to the Summer Solstice and indeed beyond. It introduces human agency and technology, and is associated with creativity, enterprise and science: “The drill bow suggests the human element, our partnership with the environment in which we live and the mastery of its gifts”. I find myself placed in a somewhat passive position, but I am part of a wider community. I do have confidence that creatively scientific and genuinely enterprising efforts will be brought to bear on the current health crisis. ‘Spark of life’ resonates favourably for me, without saying anything specific about my individual future.
The three cards together encourage a strong focus on my contemplative inquiry, including this blog. The inquiry is personal, and in the language of Wildwood maintains my link to the Otherworld. It is also public, because of the blog, and can therefore play a role in a larger effort to use blogging and social media in the service of healthy interconnection. Wildwood’s suit of bows talks of ‘philosophical and esoteric pursuits’ as a form of “skilful ability fuelled by will”, along with the creativity, science and enterprise already noted. I would like to think of my contemplative inquiry as a manifestation of this, and I hope that it can be a form of service in the forthcoming quarter and beyond.
*Mark Ryan & John Matthews The Wildwood Tarot Wherein Wisdom Resides London: Connections, 2011. Illustrations by Will Worthington