December, the nights are long, the light is clipped and the trees have shed their weight. All things wild need an inward turn, and our hearts are no different.
And yet, the whirl and fizzle of December can cast a spell. Those shopping lists, those awkward party moments, the challenge of consumerism and an obligation to feed the big capitalist machine which has little to do with the word ‘present’, as in presence. Yet when we carve to the core of what this time of year can actually holds, we find the lexicon of the sanctified, longing for our attention.
As an antidote to the noise, and as an offering into the space of presence, last year I recorded a series of short poetry salons, reading words which carried my own heart through the year, and continue to. Over the space of this series of salons, recorded around my own fire, I share poems which span the great themes of our life: love, longing, loss. There are poems too about the mystical and the mythic, poems from the margins of our everyday encounters, and poems which speak to the act of poetry itself, as a wayfinder and a guide.
As we shift gear towards the end of 2018, I want to share these recording again, and also a promise to record a few more episodes as the year draws out, with poems which crossed my path and touched me over the last 12 months- some shared at the live poetry salons in my home, and some sent on from friends afar.
The recordings come with an invitation and a hope: that every few days in December, you’ll find 15 minutes to pull up a chair, make yourself cozy, and lean in to listen. I hope my own reflections are a mirror to yours too, and that my selections invite you to hunt down the words or people which made your own heart stir. You never know, they may even inspire you to pick up a pen and search for the poetic in you too, until a new poem is born, and therefore new life.
The circle of the year is turning. As the leaves fall back home to the earth, and the evenings begin to turn in on themselves, there is a signalling to gather. Inwards.
The fire is lit. The poetry books are scattered around a low coffee table. The invite had been sent a few weeks previously. The season of the poetry salon is upon us. Now, all there is left to do is light some candles, and wait. ‘Whoever comes are the right people’, ‘Whenever it starts is the right time’. I reiterate some gathering guidelines I learned through the Art of Hosting community. They remind me that once an intention is set, once the foundations have been laid with beauty, beauty can only be braided deeper, whatever form it takes. This is not about numbers, after all, but about the act of gathering, and listening, and leaning into the space between friends and strangers, with poetry as the gateway and the salon as the template.
Lady Wilde, or ‘Speranza’ was a woman who lived up to her name, or so the accounts of the 1860s would have us believe. Oscar Wilde’s mother, a poet, Irish nationalist, folklorist and passionate women’s rights advocate, was a gatherer and host of one of the most notorious and flamboyant Dublin salons. Number One Merrion Square, grand and elegant, opened its doors to the literati, musicians, artists, social commentators, medics, law makers and perhaps law breakers, of the time. Under candlelight they gathered to discuss a gamut of affairs and culture. W.B Yeats, Ruskin and suffragist Millicent Fawcett, were all said to have crossed the door, with a young Oscar Wilde listening in from the alcoves.
Lady Wilde’s salon was not in isolation. Across Europe, from Italy to France in the 17th and 18th centuries, salons were places for the circulation of ideas, knowledge and conversation. Often hosted by women, the salon was a ground for the development of an active civic and public life. We can assume these gathering places were not always sober, and not necessarily always civil, but they did create public places for the gathering of difference, for dialogue and debate outside the formal realms of either church or state. They brought together the intersections of disciplines and sectors, where the rules of one did not outweigh the rules of another. Put a woman in the centre of things, especially in those times, especially in Ireland, and here are the ingredients for ripe and radical activism. Here was a way to do things differently.
We have Twitter now of course. And we have digital discussion rooms. But here we also have the digital infrastructure for polarisation and fraction to escalate. We have fear, and worse still, fear mongering. The institutions which one held the power and prestige are crumbling around us and in many cases, rightly so. But I question the spaces in which ‘conversations’ are happening. I watched the recent Presidential debates in Ireland for instance, and I wondered, ‘Where is the room for genuine listening? Where is the room for robust debate, unpinned with respect, and dare I say it, perhaps the most radical word of all, love. There was a poet in the midst too, running for re-election, now under attack for caring to too much about things that do not have a direct economic value. Things like poetry, and things like dignity. Would we, as a nation, dare to listen?
You find the respect in pockets of course, and the digital world can amplify those pockets. I find it with writers, like the environmentalist Terry Tempest WilIiams and Robert McFarlane, with social commentators like Rebecca Solnit, and I find it in online watering holes like BrainPickings and On Being, the latter offering us guidelines for convening with their ‘Grounding Virtues’. I love how words like ’Generous Listening’, ‘Adventurous Civility’, and ‘Humility’, are now active and explicit participants in this online space, values which I know spill over and enliven their public events. Here too: a template.
Right out at the edge of Europe on the west coast of Ireland, my little home goes by the name of ‘Wren Cottage’. It’s no Number One Merrion Square, but it’s cozy and if there are not enough chairs there are always cushions and floor space. Knock on the door by knock on the door, a little flock gathers. Some have come before, some are new. Tea is made, more logs on the fire, and we make our way naturally into a circle. I mention briefly the history of the salons, thinking of Lady Wilde, and I make reference to On Being’s ‘Grounding Virtues’. There is not much need for small talk and soon the poetry takes over. By way of tradition, Mary Oliver opens, then Rilke joins the chorus. There are sighs of awe, and sighs of not knowing what to say because the poem is just beyond words. The poems leave trails around the room. Another participant picks up a scent and offers fresh language into the circle.Then we laugh and marvel at Sharon Olds’ poem about breasts, and we delight in the spaciousness in the language of the Chinese poet Zhao Lihong, a poet new to most of us. Convulsions of laughter ripple outwards in thinking about Rumi on a modern dating site. The laughter builds a deeper bond. The circle tightens.
As the salon continues, I am aware of a friend of mine, attending an environmental conference in the US on the same weekend. It is a place for bringing together activists and changemakers. But he speaks of the fear in the room, and an intense anger too. He speaks of the deep deep grief for these times we are in, and a sense of paralysed frenzy. It makes us wonder, ‘What room for joy amidst such times? What room for beauty? And definitely, what room for poetry?’ A while later he sends me some words from another role model in our midst, the scholar and activist, Joanna Macy, on this thing called ‘Active Hope’;
‘Active Hope is not wishful thinking. Active Hope is not waiting to be rescued by some saviour. Active Hope is waking up to the beauty of life on whose behalf we can act.. a readiness to discover the size and strength of our hearts, our quickness of mind, our steadiness of purpose, our own authority, our love of life, the liveliness of our curiosity, the unsuspected deep well of patience and diligence, the keenness of our senses, and our capacity to lead. None of these can be discovered in an armchair or without risk’.
Around the circle the fire crackles and the flames spark. More tea is made. In my Celtic tradition, like so many indigenous traditions around the world, the circle was the primary shape of things. Stone circles. Fairy rings. In the shape of the circle is the container for the whole; fear and grief, joy and beauty. The circle holds both yin and yang, the masculine and the feminine, the light and the dark. It’s not a place for blind optimism, wishful thinking, nor deepest despair. Instead is a place to return those things back to their wholeness with a singular message: we are in this together.
I am interested in the intersections of things: ‘Where do you end and I begin?; Where does fear become courage?; Where do the arts become activism?; Where does beauty simply beget beauty and joy beget joy? In dark and challenging times, I’m with Joanna Macy on this: there is a radicalism in insisting on beauty and joy, for the very amplification of those things. Yes: Active Hope.
With that we get to ask questions like this: What if we didn’t need more platforms for opinions, but more platforms for presence and connection instead? What if our presidential candidates were seated in a circle, grounded in virtues and invited first to listen, then to speak. What if instead of defending a position, they were asked to defend their values? Then read a poem.
Last week, the Irish nation took to the polls. The poet was re-elected. Our president speaks of the power of words, and values. ‘We are in a time of transformation and there is a momentum for empathy, compassion, inclusion and solidarity which must be recognised and celebrated’, Michael D Higgins said at this acceptance speech, ‘Words matter. Words can hurt. Words can heal. Words can empower. Words can divide’.
The thing is this: people got up from their armchairs. They voted. They dared. Not all of us, not enough of us, but enough to #keepthepoet . Enough to insist on words mattering, and dignity too.
Back around the fire our poems circled and circled. Towards the end of the evening, my friend Orlagh suggested we each write a question on a post-it note. Any question, any question at all. Then we’d gather those questions to see how they converge. A few minutes later there is a shriek at the back of the kitchen where Orlagh is curating the post-it’s as an archivist would, or an archeologist. Two of us have written the exact same question. ‘Where does poetry come from and where does it go to?’ And the other questions? Well this is what emerged; a poem, written by the whole, from our wren circle:
Where do poems live when the book is closed?
Why does the light on the sea always stretch towards you,
Why do the stars stare?
Where does poetry come from and where does it go?
If the news showed poems instead of the tragic, what would the world become?
When is the Tao not the Tao?
Only in the forgetting of love.
Do I dare?
Around the circle, awe rolls out into the night with hints of laughter and impossible delight. I can feel Lady Wilde smiling from the great beyond, and Oscar Wilde listening in from the alcoves. This thing we are in together? We think it might be magic. If only we can get out of our way long enough to get out of our armchairs and hear the poetry of the world rising. I think the circle might just be our ears. And the salon? Well that’s up to you. Now you have a template. Go.
The Celtic new year begins. I light a candle. I nod my head to my heart to gesture to this commencement of time. But it is eternal time that I bow to; this marking of ancient ways and a knowing which we’ve almost lost. To be indigenous to this place, this land of Ireland, was to be in relationship to its cycles and its ceremonies. Eight annual markings of rituals and celebrations which were aligned to how the earth spun and how the light and the night danced around it. From these markings came stories and from these stories comes a web of mythology, archeology, psychology and in essence, ways of knowing place and our individual relationship to it. To be indigenous to place was to be indigenous to oneself, held and supported in a larger constellation of time and community.
First came Samhain: the new year. Nights open up to the stories themselves; masked ghosts, wild ways, fire and shadowy flame. Who is behind the veil? What lies beneath? Between the thin gauze of knowing and not knowing, between the fine line between the visible and the invisible came an understanding that not all that’s dead is lost, and not all that’s lost is far away. They danced for their ancestors, my ancestors, and they danced for the soul of what makes a myth and what returns us to mystery. They danced for the dark.
I find it comforting that the new year begins in the dark, the unknown. There is solace in not having to understand everything and an appreciation in realising that uncertainty is just a stage in the larger cycle of knowing.
With darkness also comes the time: time to rest, time to recuperate, time to lay low and curl up like an embryo or an ember, until the spark of inspiration descends to rise new insights and then action. The winter is coming and the darkness it brings has gifts for our unfolding.
But I also want to say this: the ways of this land, this place, speaks of ways beyond these waters too. They signal to an awakening and wisdom which is more than these shores, more than Ireland- and that’s to an indigenosity to a larger time, longer cycles, and our place in the wider whole. So wherever we find ourselves, whatever skin or culture we inhabit, this signalling invites universal questions for us,
‘What is my eternal nature? How can I be more in rhythm with the earth’s turning? What is my own relationship with time and can I incorporate these phases of rest and renewal, being preceding doing? How can I honour my own indigenosity to this earth of ours? And how can I place myself here in wider communion with all beings and all peoples?
The ancient Celts knew this of course: we are not alone, nor are we the ones with all the knowing. Trace back any indigenous line, whether Aztec or Aboriginal, Inuit or Diné, Sami or Maori, you’ll find the same threads which bind a cosmic and earthly honouring through rituals, cycles and ceremony, each celebrating the privilege of being placed here, not as a culmination of consciousness or evolution, but as part of an extended family of time and place, human and non-human, light and dark both. Each tradition speaks the same language of knowing: We are made for the earth as we are made for each other. We are here as guests. We are bound to something larger. We have a duty of care.
Tonight in my little West Cork village, the street will be lined with witches and ghosts. Is that the butcher or the local banshee? Is that the hairdresser or a Shaman? They are not questions we’ll need answers too because as the fire parade makes its way down the street, knowing or unknowingly, we’ll be participating in a bigger dance; this global indigenous honouring, this re-acquaintance with a the larger span of time and our privilege of being here. Our ritual is more than the sum of its parts. The bonfire flames will rise, signalling out across the bay: Rise people, rise; the great mystery is upon us, and we are here to dance.
You can listen to a recording of this post here (6 mins)
There have been weeks of whirl. Switch the news on, and this thing called overwhelm has been hitting, hard. I see it everywhere. Walking through Dublin airport last week, I saw a mass of bodies swimming in a sea of overwhelm too. The stress of coming, and going. The stress of all this frantic doing. Then the news comes in from the Kavanaugh case, and the latest IPCC report on our global trajectory. I wanted to bury my face in the sand and just ignore it all for a while. But the thing is, the sand is suffocating too, and it’s no place for a head and a heart which gets broken open from the pain of all that it witnesses. For when the head is buried this thing called cynicism starts to creep in and calcify the openings. It blocks the flow of that which is vital to us: breath and life and connection to something which is deeper and wider and bigger than the pain. This I am realising; broken hearts are also open hearts, and open hearts hold the ingredients of our transformation.
So, I read an essay by Robin Wall Kimmerer on the plane, about how her indigenous elders respected the annual return of Salmon to their waters, and the beauty of her words stirs me up. As I read I let my tears fall onto the open page, and a stranger across the aisle reaches over and passes me a tissue, in recognition. And I attend a conference called ‘Inner Peace’ in Amsterdam, and sit with hundreds of others, who are each questioning and questing to be part of the renewal of the world. Again the tears come, and another stranger reaches from his chair in front of me, turns around, and touches my arm gently for a moment, in an act of recognition. Then back in Dublin, waiting for a bus in the cold and drizzle, I read in one fell swoop Mary Robinson’s new book, ‘Climate Justice’, and some gentle raindrops falls on the pages in a kind of mutual recognition too. Inside me, I feel the need to dance.
I am home. I turn the music to it’s loudest. Among the stacked, unwashed dishes in my kitchen, alongside all the ordinary, I let my rage and grief transform into something called movement. I dance. And dance some more. ‘Blackbird singing in the dead of night, take these broken wings and learn to fly… you were only waiting for your moment to be free’. Gregory Porter’s version has all the energy of renewal in it. Then I call a friend in the US. Across the span of time zones and a big ocean between us, we speak of loss, and fear, and this need for connection and momentum. Then we read a poem, from Rilke,
‘Quiet friend who has come so far,
feel how your breathing makes more space around you.
Let this darkness be a bell tower
and you the bell. As you ring,
what batters you becomes your strength.
Move back and forth into the change.
What is it like, such intensity of pain?
If the drink is bitter, turn yourself to wine…..
There is a moment of silence, and in the pause we recognise: in the space of the poem, and the space of the tears, and the space of listening for the openings, we are each trying to find a way to stay in the deeper conversation. It’s the one about love and trees, how the rivers move, and how we can build trust between those who are deemed strangers. No, I am not alone in am trying to find the ways to keep my heart above ground. I have never been alone. That was just a story.
I flip back through the months I’ve just had. It would be easy to focus on the mistakes I have made, and the ways I have been unkind to others, and all that news, but now instead I see flashbacks of the passing of tissues, the dance, the deepening conversations, and all the stories in the books, and the poems too, each showing me that here, just above the surface, rising now and rising more, there is another story being written. It picks up the frayed threads of cynicism and insists that they need not define the map of our way forward. Instead, this story weaves hope right into it’s fabric. But it is not hope as a fleeting feeling. It is a hope defined as presence, showing up to all that is, all the pain and the grief, all the confusion and the fear, and still insisting on action, and in that act, is the thing called hope, offered to us again by Rilke in poetic recognition too;
Let everything happen to you: beauty and terror
Just keep going. No feeling is final.
Don’t let yourself lose me.
Nearby is the country they called life
You will know it by it’s seriousness
Give me your hand.
And so, today, on another ordinary Monday, I turn off the news, turn up the music, and do the work which calling to me. For right now, it’s what I have, it’s my dance, and it’s my offering. In it all, I am learning, that together we can go further, and we don’t have to do it alone. This is the story for our time.
Write to Your Truth // Online Circle
If you have questions, drop me a line. If you have a friend who you think would love this, please pass on this the link. Thank you.
I must have been about 11 when I wrote and illustrated my first ‘book’. It was something to do with a penguin up a tree, with a lost and tatty teddy bear. I drew pictures to go with it, and made a cover which now lies healthily in the realms of the cute. No one saw that book, not even my parents. The writing was to be my own, and the book too. Then I discovered journalling, and ever since you can’t get me out of the blank pages. Journalling became my best companion in times of the rough and times of the tumble. It is there through joy and celebration too. But mostly it shows up when I have questions which can’t land anywhere else. Those journals, all zillion of them, store a history of words and memories, and are a map of the muddle and de-muddling of this being called Clare.
When reality got too much I turned to fiction. I was 23 when I wrote my first novel. It came so fast through me that I could barely catch it. I was teaching at Peking University in China, a time in my life that was fraught with challenge and confusion, and the writing gave me an escape route, and a landing pad too. But fiction was easier; I could pretend at least the characters were not of me. But we all know that’s a lie. In any case, the novel didn’t go anywhere but to a drawer for a few years, and then to the bin. Trust me, that was the place for it, because I realised it wasn’t about the book itself, but the writing. The book was mearly a by product of this amazing exploration of creativity, power and words, a power which my muscles and body have never forgotten. I crave and live for that feeling- the feeling of life and ideas, words and language, love and beloning racing through me, as if from a place beyond the beyond. It’s magic, and addictive, and hair-wrenchingly challenging, but it’s what I know to be true to me. It’s like an umbilical cord to the secret knowing, which only words can drip onto the page.
It was while in China that I did have my first book published though. It was an English language textbook for the Chinese market, and I was commissioned to write it. I wrote it fast. It was boring, and not something I am particularly proud of, because my heart was not in it. So, the book, was just thing thing with no soul. I may have been published, but it didn’t mean anything, because the metric of my success was never about publication, but the joy of the process, that aliveness.
I’ve about 12 years of blogging behind me now, writing which has come from aliveness, in the main, and writing which has taught me the power of practice, and rhythm and showing up even if I don’t feel like showing up. And I’ve had another published book in that time, One Wild Life, which still carries learning and lessons for me, for it was in that book where I really started to experience the power and potential for story.
Over the course of a year of travel, I listened to hundreds and hundreds of stories from social entrepreneurs around the world. There were stories of triumph and challenge, heartbreak and heart opening, and stories which still need to be told. I put some of my own story in there too, but I was shy, and afraid almost of sharing too much. I missed an opportunity. I can see that now, because I did not go into the story enough. I did not capture the places and the senses enough. But that is my learning, for a book is just a snapshot in time, and afterwards we grow from it.Writing does that you see; spark growth, and integration and brings the strands of meaning together. If I wrote One Wild Life now, it would be totally different, and rightly so. But the Clare of then did her best, and in this I trust.
For the last while, (er, good while now) I’ve been writing a new book, a memoir, and I can honestly say that the process of writing this book has turned me inside out, and opened my heart to my life and those who has moved across it in a whole new way. The writing has made me ask questions of myself like nothing else has, and it has brought me into deeper and different conversations with my family, friends and those zillion journals. By picking up the strands of my story, and weaving a narrative, I have been finding patterns and connections which help me to see the arc of my life and the trajectory I still follow in greater clarity. It has transformed me, and when I say transform, I mean literally- trans/ form = change form. I am a different person now as to when I started writing that book, and friends have even said that my face seem softer, and my heart is more present in the world too. So whether or not that book gets published (which I hope it does), the writing has already done it’s work on me, and I bow to the door of it’s grace in honour of that.
So, yes 30 years of writing. That’s a lot of words, and I realise a lot of learning too. And so, a while ago, it came to me to offer some of this in a workshop. I did one, and it blew me away. I did another, and it too, showed me the value in the process. And so I went back into design mode and have created a whole programme, to be taught online, to go with it. I’m calling it Write to Your Truth.
It’s about how we access our stories, then how we weave them. It’s about diving into the power of words, and writing, for the potential and promise of it, and it’s about circle and connection. This part was really important for me. Who wants to do just a plug and play course? But who wants to connect with others, on live calls, and be part of this unfolding. I’ve designed the course so that I record videos as we go- responding to the content and writing about what is taking place in front of us. It’s a lot more work to do it this way, but it makes for a much deeper, richer experience, and I am all for depth and richness.
So, if you are interested, curious, wondering, I invite you over to my website to read more. You’ll find the course outline, and dates too, and if you have any other questions arising, you can just pop me an email.
The programme starts on Saturday 20th Oct and will run for 8 weeks.
I’ve an early bird offer open until noon on Oct 5th.
And if you think this is not for you at the moment, but you know someone who you think it would be great forshare the link to my page. Word of mouth is a powerful messenger, and I’d value your support. Thank you.
Onwards, with love
We make our lives bigger or smaller, more expansive or more limited, according to the interpretation of life that is our story. – Christina Baldwin, Storycatcher.
As the days begin to fold in on themselves and the nights begin to stretch out their dark and wondrous ways, we have reached the final arc of the Celtic calendar, the Autumn Equinox. In the ancient Celtic calendar, the Autumn Equinox was one of eight points on the annual wheel of the year, mid-way between the festival of Lunasagh and Samhain (Celtic new year).
Like with the other Celtic seasons, the marking of the Autumn equinox can be evidenced in the ancient stones and monuments of Ireland. In Cairn T at Loughcrew, for instance, the sun is welcomed into the inner chamber on the dawn of Autumn equinox, illuminating the back stone to reveal symbols and markings, bringing light to the ordinarily dark places. Which in many senses is what rituals do; they create a pause and point into which to invite contemplation and reflection, focus and intentionality to the places in our lives which we may rush over or abandon due to busyness or the pace of contemporary life.
Like the Spring equinox six months ago, the autumn equinox is a time when day and night are in equal measure. At this time of year, as we enter the darker phase of the year, marking the turning with a ritual can help us embrace the change, and the gifts and offerings of the dark days ahead.
So, as the year turns and we cross this autumnal threshold, we are invited to an inwards motion, a introspection and a re-gathering, calling us to bring ourselves into relationship with our own rhythms and needs, our own equilibrium and to take stock of our resources for the winter ahead.
To support you, I have created the final ritual in the cycle of eight, beginning last October (with Samhain), all the way through the Celtic year, until now. For those of you who completed the Spring (Vernal) equinox ritual, you’ll find parallels in the practices, with a focus on equanimity. In addition there is a new section on preparing you for the winter days ahead.
I recommend you carve an hour for yourself, light some candles, cuddle up with your journal and a hot cuppa, and savour.
You can download your free ritual guide when via my mailing list (and for those of you already on it- check your inbox!) Sign up here.
You can listen to an audio recording of this letter here (11 mins)
I like to think of you as friends. Or at least that we gather here in the spirit of friendship. It makes writing these letters to you more real, more connected for me. In writing to a friend we are writing to a companion on a journey, a fellow seeker, those who have a listening ear and an open heart. A friend is a companion in adventure, and whether close or distant, an acquaintance or even a stranger, to commune in friendship is to turn towards each other and be willing to see the best in each other, even through the rough times.
So, right now, in order to write this, I’m imagining you sitting nearby, as a companion would, tucked in by the fire. I’m sitting on my sheepskin rug, having just made a pot of tea. You’ve brought the dark chocolate and I’ve put some logs on the flames. We are in for the night.
And so, to begin, I’d want to hear what is bringing you alive right now. I’d want to know what’s in your heart, what’s really in your heart- even the anger, even the fear, even the doubt, even the hurt. You’d tell me things that you’ve been holding onto, and in the telling you can sense that you are passing them over to me for a while, and it would make things lighter. Then, when I pass them back to you, without me having said a word, you’d feel that they’ve changed shape. The worries and fears are less complex somehow, better understood.
And then I’d begin by telling you that the blackberries were beyond generous this year, and how it has amazed me, the abundance. I’d show you my inky fingers, still purple from the morning’s pickings, and I’d promise you a jar of jam from the next batch. And then I’d tell you how I hosted my first solo writing retreat this week, and how it was deep, and intense, and challenging for both the writer, and for me. But I’d also explain that there were moments when life’s clarity jumped from the page, and shed new light on everything, and how we were right in the creative process, even the messy bits, and got to a place where the journey ahead for the writing revealed itself as exactly that, a journey. But I’d also say that I felt I could have done better, and I made mistakes. And, you’d probably tell me to be less hard on myself, but I’d explain that I’m glad, in a way, that it was challenging, because now I can really learn to sit into the imperfection, knowing that it too is part of the beauty, and the growth.
Then you’d tell me about your own dreams, and the ideas you are working on, and this ‘thing’ that you just won’t go away. And both of us can sense that the ‘thing’, is a key, and to lean in there.
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Autumn is on it’s way and I can feel the pull and the turning. I’ve been picking blackberries nearly every day. The bushes are literally bursting with their generosity, and now my freezer is too. Winter will be made all the sweeter by this season’s harvest.
Speaking of harvest, around this time of year, I often run my Living Seasonally Autumn course. It’s a chance to reflect on the year so far and tune in with the rhythms of the seasons. It is particularly a chance to think of harvesting your own life, and then contemplating on what needs to fall away in order to create space for new growth down the line.
The autumn equinox is not for another few weeks, when I’ll share the Celtic ritual for that threshold, but I am aware of the ‘back to school feeling’ at the moment. So many people have been speaking of transitions, and not feeling grounded.
I decided not to run the course this Autumn. I am in the process of reconfiguring my online teaching, but that does not detract from the value of reflection and tuning in at this time of year- and I am feeling the gap too!
I’ve been savouring the book Braiding Sweetgrass by Robin Wall Kimmerer this year also, reading each essay slowly, and sometimes twice. It’s so rich and lyrical, and grounded. She speaks a lot of reciprocity and generosity as nature’s rhythms. The final paragraph sums up so much of my current thinking, which I am seeking to incorporate not only into how I share my gifts, but also the economy in which this operates.
‘The moral covenant of reciprocity calls us to honour our responsibilities for all that we have been given, for all that we have taken. It’s our turn now, long overdue. Let us hold a giveaway for Mother Earth, spread out blankets out for her and pile them high with gifts of our own making. Imagine the books, the paintings, the poems, the clever machines, the compassionate acts, the transcendent ideas, the perfect tools. The fierce defence of all that has been given. Gifts of mind, hands, heart, voice and vision, all offered up on behalf of the earth. Whatever our gift, we are called to give it and to dance for the renewal of the world.
Residing in the Celtic heritage (and thus imagination) there are emblems of feminine power, resilience and guardianship. I met these figures of Sile NaGig in the Crawford Art Gallery in Cork last week, and once again was struck by the strength of the symbolism. The female, open vulva, open breasted, were placed on sacred ground, perhaps representing portals to the otherworld—fertile thresholds into creativity and receptivity, or as empowered emblems of the Goddess. No shame, no guilt, no corporeal covering or body blaming. Here, the feminine as sacred ground too– wedded to the land and wedded to the Gods, — the feminine of intuition, protection, fecundity, and power.
We see the feminine voice rising again, claiming back it’s power through referendum and marches, movements and turning points in our collective history, and now too, I think, a time to deeply reclaim the feminine in not only our institutions and laws but also how we create each day we have been gifted and how we use our gifts. Whether male or female, we can honour the feminine (the intuition and power) by noticing all the ways we are giving it away. The ‘always on’, ‘badge of busy’, is based on linear models of growth and productivity. It comes from the industrial era, where to be productive was to been deemed efficient and thus worthy. But it’s not efficient. It’s eating our land’s resources, it’s constantly selling us things we don’t need, it’s advertising subverts the feminine form and feminine spirit in so many ways.
When we are in our creative bodies, tapped into deep core needs of belonging and ‘aliveness’; when we are writing or painting or creating organisations, businesses, or projects which honour cycles of time, and cycles of growth; when we refuse to define our worth by how busy we are or how much we can produce, this is the reclamation. And that’s a radical thing, because it can topple these linear growth models. A woman in her full power, is not a full-on capitalist consumer- instead she is creating, sharing, connecting, yeilding, resting, opening her body and breast to the land and to the sky, realising her body is enough, and her creativity is her birthright. And as men, in their feminine, their emotions are their path and power, their worth too is not defined by how much they can earn or produce or contribute to the economy, but by their wholeness and their beauty too.
We all have so much to (re)learn. For me; it means creating the ‘things’ even when it doesn’t make ‘rational sense’, for the sake of it. Does it make me come alive? Does it connect me to a deeper power and a deeper voice.
Then that, follow that…. this is my own personal revolution. And yours?
Hello all, and hope the summer has been unfolding well for you.
Time for some updates and stories. So, grab yourself a cuppa, make yourself comfortable, as I invite you to dive in. You can listen to this post below (10 min listen)
The Immram and the Aisling.
The weather is on a cusp between summer and autumn here in West Cork. Outside the coffee shop window the harbour is still cast with sails and the voyagers are off to seek their pleasure. The sails are bobbing and dancing on the dancing water, letting the wind take them further out. There is so much power in this unseen force.
The sailboats shrink as they get closer to the horizon, leaving my sight as dots, then vanishing across a thin line. What must it have taken back in the day, I wonder, to journey across this line, into what was unknown, uncharted lands. What quest was strong enough to carry these men into the dark sea?
The power of dreaming, and the power of quest, is a power, it would seem bequeathed to men back then, but I can’t help thinking of the women. How did they voyage? How did they quest? So I am searching for the stories.
I turn first to the immrama. In ancient Irish mythology there are tales of men who embarked on heroic sea quests —an immram. They’d set sail on pilgrimages which had no end. It’s wasn’t about reaching a holy place, a Mecca, but the journey itself which held the gold. They didn’t know where they were going but trusted that wherever they landed would offer them clues and some unusual gifts. St. Brendan’s immram, for instance, was an epic sea voyage which took him and his monastic crew into islands of the otherworld, of the mystical and the fanciful, the magical or the surreal — each landing was an island of story and experience. There was the island of sheep and the island paradise of birds. There was an island of grapes- on which they dined for 40 days. Then there was the island on which they lit a fire, only realising it wasn’t an island at all, but a whale. Imaginal or real, the immram was always a creative, almost mystical adventure, the force of which had the power to transform those who dared to journey. One could only return a changed man. Still I wonder of the women.
So, I turn to the Aisling, in search of clues. The Aisling is a poetic form which appeared much later, around the 17th Century, in which a dream or a vision was presented to a bard. The dream was to stir up nationalist or political sentiment, and incite feelings of love and loyalty towards Ireland. The ‘Aisling’, was always in the shape of a female figure who came as spéirbhean, or sky-woman, a heavenly creature who was the carrier of the dream. So, why was it always the men to have the big dreams and the license to sea-quest? So, once again I wonder—What of the women? How did they find their quest? What vision was presented to them? And to what were they called?
I took a boat to an island a couple of weeks, not to quest, but to be in conversation and friendship. It was a Tuesday. The sky was tussled but the sun was promised. So I packed a picnic, rain-gear and my swimming togs, popped Milly on her lead, and then collected my friend Jennifer from the next village over. It’s only a five minute ferry journey to Heir Island from Cunnamore Pier, and by the time we got there, we were already in a different world.
In the two years I have known her, Jennifer has become a dear and trusted friend. She wraps me in listening and helps me see the truth of myself, and the truth of my future-self too. You see, Jennifer is a film-maker. She is one of those people who has a beautiful blend of talent and humility, so when she speaks of her craft and her creative process, she speaks as a learner and a fellow seeker too. She does not proclaim to have the answers. And so we read poems, and talk of open hearts and broken hearts. She tells me of the films she is working on. I tell her of the books I am working on. In between we laugh at silly jokes, drink another cup of tea, then jump into the sea. I am aware that it is a Tuesday, mid-week. I am aware this is another form of wealth. I am aware that this is not considered ‘work’, but I feel alive, and I feel clear, and I feel like I can, in fact, accomplish anything, if only I keep listening to the conversations which are alive in me, then following the conversation into my heart where I will be shown how to keep responding creatively, shown what to do next.
Why am I sharing this with you? Because, I think it has to do with women, and their immram and their Aisling, how we journey, and how we vision. I think it is about how we make our way over the horizon to that place beyond our current sightline, a place we know our hearts are longing to be.
A couple of nights ago I finished the final chapter of a memoir I am working. It is still very much in draft form. There is lots and lots more work to do, but I have made it to a point in the process where I sense there is light. A couple of months ago I wanted to pack it all in. It had been taking so much longer than I thought it would. The timeline of any of our lives is never linear and definitely not straightforward and I was still trying to find the core themes from which I could weave a stronger story. I had hit a part of the process where it all felt chaotic, unruly, even impenetrable. Here was a warren of stories which were not falling into a neat narrative arc, a thing I could easily call ‘a book’, and I was beginning to question the whole venture. ‘Who am I to call myself a writer?’, a little voice nagged, and ‘who was I ever to even begin?’
But that day on the island, something clicked. My journey, my immram suddenly came into focus. I was aware, yes, that it was a Tuesday mid-week, but I was also aware of the choices which had led me to this point, sitting on an island, feeling alive, feeling completely at sea. I have been led to voyage in new ways. It has meant listing to a voice which encouraged me to write, despite myself. It meant leaving my home in Dublin and moving to an entire new place. It meant asking questions of myself, my mother and my lineage which I have never dared ask before, and it has taken me into a whole new orbit of friendships and connections, on a Tuesday, on an island, speaking of stories.
So, I think I am beginning to see; our dreams, our Aislings, happen through the Immram, the journey. It’s how creativity works. We meet it halfway, and it takes us along for one hell of a ride. It’s not about waiting for the ‘sky-woman’ to descend and offer the dream, but the dream comes from the whispering of the unknown force. Call it a creative urge, the one deep within, which quietly keeps on tugging and says, ‘look here, this is interesting, follow me’. There is no major fanfare, there is no ecstatic cry, but following the whisperings of our creative urges is like those boats being led to the great beyond through the power of wind and the power of sail. There is a sense of heart opening, an uplift, and a pull to follow the urge out over that thin line of knowing and not knowing.
But here comes the challenge: the whisper- it’s so easy to silence. ‘Oh, that’s just a silly idea’, ‘Oh, that will never work’, ‘Who am I to write, or tell that story, or create that business, or start that thing’. So we sit in the coffeeshop, still waiting for the descent of the Aisling, while looking at others set sail, and we slowly begin to shut down our vital life-force, our creative power, the little voice knocking on the doors of our heart and saying, ‘follow me’. Little do we realise that beside us in the coffeeshop is a Jennifer, a woman who knows that the Aisling is in the immran, and if you tap on her on the shoulder, and ask her to tell you a story about her journey and her questions, soon you’ll find yourself jumping into the sea of yours. Our guides are always closer than we think.
After the island that day, with laughter lines still salty, and my hair knotted with sand, I realised the only way to get through the chaos was to face the chaos. So I got out my yoga mat, I put on some music, I danced until the sand fell out of my hair, and then I wrote. I wrote and wrote and wrote, until I got to the end of what I needed to get to, enough to know I was on the other side of the horizon. I came up for air, to say that yes, this journey, this life, this immram, the feeling, this is the dream that has been seeking me. Yes, it’s always closer than we think.
So I want to tell you, reader, that urge inside, that voice which says, ‘follow me’, no matter how quiet, no matter how silly, this is our gold. Our creativity has a gift of aliveness, a gift of both the immram and the Aisling. We can not return, but changed. So, yes, as those ancient voyagers knew, it’s not about the mecca, but it is about the pilgrimage —the ultimate journey home. No matter who you are, your creativity is ready to take you on the ride of your life. The way is in the whisper. Listen, then listen deeper, then tap the shoulder of the woman next to you, and start the conversation. That may be just enough to begin.