Sunday, 28 November 2010

Blatant Advertising!

OK, here's a blatant advert: it's cold outside and I have some lovely cosy knitted items in my Etsy shop (along with other tempting goodies). Go see! Thank you.

Wednesday, 24 November 2010

When is a Dead Frog Just a Dead Frog?

Detail from an altar at the Spiral Dance

A few years back, in the days leading up to my initiation, I was set a series of preparatory meditations and cleansing practices. One of these was to go to a local beach to cleanse and purify myself. As it was a particularly blustery day in March this turned out to be no gentle shoreline cleansing but a fierce sand-blasting by the elements. As I began the return journey, I was feeling positively scoured clean, and ready for the next stage. And then I saw them. First one, then another, then more and more. Dead frogs of all sizes, the corpses quite dried out and dessicated, were scattered along the pavement and in the gutter. Part of my mind was occupied with thoughts of the upcoming initiation, but part was bewildered. Why so many dead frogs, here, now? Had there been a plague of frogs in this small seaside village? Had they spawned and then met some grisly end? Poisoned by something? Run over? Frozen? Drowned? Can a frog drown? No one else seemed to have noticed. I walked on, puzzled.

Later, I checked on the lore and symbolism of frogs. They are creatures of earth and water (the two elements I resonate with most strongly). Due to their life cycle, from spawn to tadpole to frog, in many cultures they represent change and rebirth. Frogs seemed to be creatures I could have a connection to – and my eye was drawn back to the sentence about rebirth. In the days leading up to my initiation, a rite of passage symbolising the death of the old self and rebirth of the new, was it mere coincidence that an abundance of frogs – dead frogs – had crossed my path?

More recently, I was at my friend S’s house preparing, along with others, for the initiation of another friend. A couple of us were cleaning and tidying the space in readiness for the ritual, when we discovered the dessicated corpse of a frog under some shelves. We checked with S that it wasn’t a precious magical or ritual object (cue for many jokes about only having to ask such questions in a fellow Witch’s home!). It wasn’t – merely the hitherto undiscovered grisly relic of a hunting trip by S’s cat. Yet I noted the strange coincidence. Initiation. Dead frog, symbol of death and rebirth. Again.

My own initiation marked the onset of a period in my life where everything that could go wrong, went wrong. My health suffered, and I felt like for some reason I was out of step with the Universe. This period culminated in the end of my marriage, and a huge re-examination of my Self. And then, one evening last summer, just as I finally felt truly back in harmony with the Universe, another piece of frog magic occurred. Going out to shut the chickens away, something made me look up at the garden wall as I passed. There, at eye-level with me, was the biggest, healthiest looking frog I’ve ever seen. We regarded each other for a few seconds, until I quietly said, ‘Thank you.’ Then the frog jumped over the wall and disappeared.

I do think some part of me died and was reborn at my initiation. I think somehow, somewhere, my life had gone off-track without me even noticing. I think the Universe gave me gentle and some not-so-gentle signs and nudges to get me back on the right track. And I think the frogs - dead and alive - were part of that, a sign or message about the death and then rebirth of the self. Or at least a damn strange coincidence.

I have mentioned on this blog before now the notion of being predicted by the weather – the fact that sometimes, the weather seems to reflect our inner moods. Or are our inner moods subtly coloured by the weather without our realising it? The trouble with messages from the Universe is they can be so hard to spot in amongst ordinary day to day events. Another potential pitfall is that sometimes, we may be looking for a message when actually, there isn’t one. Sometimes a flat tyre may be telling us something profound about our journey through life. And sometimes it’s just a bloody nuisance. Sometimes, the Universe does have a message for us. But sometimes, shit just happens. The question is, when is a dead (or live) frog a message from the Universe? And when is a dead frog just a dead frog? How can we tell?

This is what I think. I think we live in an amazing and interactive Universe that speaks to us all the time. I think sometimes we hear, sometimes we don’t. Sometimes we misunderstand, or only hear what we want to. I didn't notice how out-of-tune my life had got - the Universe tried sending me gentle hints, then glaringly obvious symbolism (dead frogs) then finally had to whack me over the head with stress-related exhaustion, illness, misfortune and the end of my marriage. I can be a slow learner, but I got it in the end. How much simpler, though, if I'd been listening in the first place.

The trick is to hone our listening skills. Tune in. Listen carefully. Notice coincidence and serendipity when they occur. Use the divination methods that work for you. Ask Reya's useful question, 'If this was a dream, what would it mean?'. Trust your intuition, your gut instinct. Pay attention to your dreams. Don’t just listen for what you want – or expect – to hear. Remember to say please and thank you.

And most important of all, remember that sometimes, a dead frog is just a dead frog.

Tuesday, 16 November 2010

La Dia de los Muertos

Our final day in San Francisco was La Dia de los Muertos, the Day of the Dead (2nd November). In the UK, it is 'All Souls Day' and passes by pretty much unnoticed, but in Mexico and amongst some Mexican Americans in the US it is the occasion for a big celebration.

In San Francisco, in the Mexican Mission district of the city, the weeks leading up to the date see shops and houses decorated with altars to the dead, intricately-cut tissue paper bunting depicting skulls, skeletons, flowers etc., and decorated sugar skulls and 'pain de muertos' or 'bread of the dead' are for sale in bakeries. Marigolds are another traditional decoration at this time of year, and along with all the Hallowe'en pumpkins, witches, ghosts, etc, the Dead are a definite presence within the city.

The Day of the Dead skeletons are usually depicted dressed in clothes and/or carrying the tools of their trade. Traditional ones would be dressed as farm workers for example, or fancily-decked out Victorian ladies, but I also saw more modern ones such as the skeleton dressed as a career woman with power-dressing suit and briefcase, or a skateboarding skeleton complete with backwards-facing baseball cap. The point is that the Dead are like us - they are us, and we shouldn't be afraid of them, or of death, nor should we take life too seriously. I must say I like the idea of continuing a relationship with our Beloved Dead after they have left us, and in many ways the Day of the Dead celebrations are like a big party to which the ancestors and the living are both invited to hang out with each other.

There is a big parade through the streets of the Mission District on the evening of la Dia de los Muertos, so that evening, IB, Deborah and I and several of her friends painted our faces to look like skulls, and carrying a lit votive candle each, made our way to the gathering point for the parade.

There were already many people assembled, and some of the costumes were amazing, putting my own skull-bedecked T-shirt and jeans ensemble to shame. As well as all the people dressed as the dead like us, there were drummers, Aztec dancers, stiltwalkers and an amazing covered wagon pulled by a team of cyclists, with a kind of 'ringmaster' figure perched on top calling through a megaphone for people to 'bring out your dead!'.

We followed the parade from its start on Bryant Street, turned onto 24th Street (which was thronging with onlookers) and followed it for several blocks before leaving the crowds and cutting down Balmy Alley to the quieter part of the celebrations, where beautiful altars to the Dead had been set out in Garfield Park.

The park was a mixture of people, some in 'Dead' costumes, others conventionally dressed, wandering thoughtfully amongst the altars. Yet at the same time, in a nearby part of the park a brightly-floodlit kid's baseball game was taking place complete with picnicking families. It was, for me, the perfect juxtaposition of the living and the dead; a reminder that life and death are inextricably linked. The dead are always with us. And life goes on.

P.S. Beautiful photos of some of the costumes and altars may be found here.

Sunday, 14 November 2010

Did I Really...

...see a dragon on the horizon this afternoon?

Do you see it too?

Wednesday, 10 November 2010

San Francisco Photos Part 2

It's hard to believe it's less than a week since we left...

The lovely City by the Bay 

Coit Tower 

Amoeba Records, Berkeley

Go Giants!

There are amazing murals everywhere in the Mission District

More murals...

Beautiful altars at the Spiral Dance. This one is for water.

Another lovely altar at the Spiral Dance.

Walking across the Golden Gate Bridge

San Francisco from Coit Tower by night.

Tuesday, 9 November 2010

San Francisco Photos Part 1

Well, we are back in Wales, the computer is fixed - finally!! - and I have a few photos to share with you...

 The Rubinoos 40th Anniversary Concert 23/10/10

Mel's Diner


Sea lions at Pier 39

The Ferry Building, Embarcadero

Day of the Dead Altar in our favourite Mexican Restaurant (El Metate on Bryant Street)

Giant Redwoods in Muir Woods

They're really tall!

Golden Gate Bridge

Just too photogenic!

Tuesday, 2 November 2010

Dancing, The Dead, and Baseball

Continuing our adventures in San Francisco...

We ventured further afield on Thursday, crossing to the East Bay on the BART system to visit Berkeley. Berkeley, which describes itself as a small place with a big reputation, is probably best known as a centre of liberal politics and political upheaval, especially back in the 60's and 70's. At its heart literally and metaphorically, is the university campus.

We found it an interesting place to walk around and explore (IB was delighted to visit another branch of Amoeba Records, whilst I could have spent weeks in the wonderful bookshops!). Berkeley is a strange mix of the achingly trendy and the tragically dispossessed (many homeless people).

We had a quiet couple of days then, mostly in the neighbourhood where we're staying as we wanted to conserve our energy for the Spiral Dance on Saturday night.

It was held in the Kezar Pavillion in Haight-Ashbury. We caught the bus - I was nervous about missing our stop, but we did fine! The venue had been beautifully decorated with amazing altars - once again I took lots of photos - and was filled with hundreds of people, many in fabulous costumes. I was really looking forward to experiencing a ritual on such a grand scale.

And it was a grand scale, with many, many people sharing the priestessing, a choir, dancers, stilt walkers (and white-clothed 'Graces' scattered throughout who did a wonderful job as greeters cum information points cum guides cum ushers). It was spectacular, both visually striking and theatrical. On the downside, I found this cut down on the possibility for fully participating as it creates something of a performers/spectators dynamic. For example the choir were both talented and polished in their performance, but most of the chants and songs they used were so elaborate (with so many verses) that people tended to listen rather than join in. My personal preference would be for simple chants that the choir could lead, but which the community as a whole could really join in with. But that's just me!

The invocations of elements, deities, the dead and descendants were beautiful and moving. The main part of the ritual was a Trance to the Isle of the Dead, where we were reunited with our Beloved Dead, and this was done wonderfully. We then began the Spiral Dance, an amazing feat of organization when dealing with so many people (we guesstimated about 600-800). The Graces really came into their own here, supervising the joining of people to the snaking line until at last everyone was dancing the spiral, laughing, singing, smiling, crying. I think there were actually two separate spirals weaving around each other, and I was just blown away by the sheer number of faces passing in front of me. What an experience! The dance culminated in a huge cone of power, after which we devoked and priestesses came around with baskets of baked goodies to share ('May you never hunger!'). I have to say the cookie I received was very welcome by then!

We bravely caught the bus home again instead of hailing a taxi, and this in itself was an experience - the bus was crammed with Hallowe'en revellers in high spirits wearing every costume imaginable including vampires, zombies, mermaids, cats, nurses, skunks, devils, medusas etc etc.

The next day was Samhain (Hallowe'en), which we celebrated in a much quieter yet no less enjoyable way, with a quiet 'Dinner for the Dead'. This was an absolutely delicious meal cooked for us and the neighbours by Deborah, at which we set a place for our ancestors and Beloved Dead and ate by candlelight.

Later, we watched the latest game in the finals of the baseball World Series (makes me giggle every time I hear 'World Series', given that only the Americans play it...). Despite having no understanding of baseball whatsoever, I found myself getting more and more interested in the outcome. This is mainly because the final games were between the teams of our lovely host city (The San Francisco Giants - hooray, hooray!!) and their opponents (The Texas Rangers, with George W. Bush sitting prominently supporting them - boo! boo!).  The Giants won that evening, leaving them with just one more game to win to secure the title...

The next day (yesterday) was spent mostly in the neighbourhood shopping for souvenirs, although Deborah also took us out for a drive to see some of the city's best-kept secrets (including what is allegedly the REAL twistiest street in town - Vermont, as opposed to the more famous Lombard). I have to say, despite living in a hilly part of the world like Wales, some of the hills in San Francisco are truly daunting!

Later, with bated breath and fervently whispered prayers, we watched the baseball match - and San Francisco won! This is the first time in over 50 years the Giants have won the World Series, and the city just exploded in celebration! At first we listened to the sounds of jubilation erupting all around us, but then we just had to jump in the car and drive round the city (honking the horn and shouting 'Go Giants!, naturally). And so did everyone else. The whole city was out on the streets, honking horns, playing drums, tootling vuvuzelas, letting off fireworks, singing, dancing, shouting, waving flags and banners, and embracing total strangers. Quite a sight to behold. We think it's very considerate of San Francisco to win the baseball before we have to go home!

Today is La Dia de Los Muertes, the Day of the Dead. Tonight we will join those celebrations for our final night in the city. And tomorrow we will travel home... it will be nice to be home, but what an amazing trip it's been. We will be sorry when it's over.