Saturday, 12 November 2011

Avalon Spring 2012

Avalon Spring 2012 will be held 5th-9th June at a gorgeous venue near Glastonbury, Somerset. This year we will be working with the Diana/Aradia/Lucifer myth - I can't wait! Full details may be found on the website. I'll be going - see you there?

Wednesday, 9 November 2011

The Changing Tide

At the beginning of 2011, I watched as the events of the Arab Spring unfolded with a sense of hope and excitement. Wonderful how people could come together in solidarity and support of each other, and with amazing courage and tenacity face down and finally overcome what had initially seemed invincibly oppressive regimes.

In early summer I heard news of plans to turn Starhawk's book 'The Fifth Sacred Thing' into a film. This is a book that dares to imagine a future where two different societies have evolved from pretty much where we are now. One is dystopian - repressive, authoritarian, militarized, a deeply unequal society. The other is utopian - a flourishing, diverse, peaceful, egalitarian society of abundance and tolerance for all. The book imagines what would happen should these two societies confront each other. I have always thought it would make a great movie and it is a great springboard for discussion on the direction we want our world to take.

And finally, I have been watching with hope, joy (and sometimes anxiety), the birth and development of the 'Occupy!' movement. Watching people come together in the belief that another, better world is possible; watching them behave so peacefully and self-responsibly in the face of sometimes terrible provocation by the authorities; seeing consensus and true democracy in action - well, it has made me feel truly hopeful again.

Something is afoot. Change is in the air. Yet the energy though strong and determined, is also mindful and considered. This is no flash in the pan, firey but ultimately directionless revolt. Despite the protests being criticised for articulating what they are against whilst having - as yet - few solutions, I believe this is actually a strength. Rather than rushing headlong into poorly thought out answers to the inequalities in our society, the protestors are taking time to debate, consider, and generally sift through many many diverse ideas and strategies. Rather than asking the authorities to make it all better, the protestors are acknowledging their own power-with. This is sensible. This is mature. This could lead to real, and lasting change for the better.

If nothing else the protestors are learning invaluable lessons about living together in community, organising, mutual support, working by consensus. And in the meantime the continuing occupations in New York, London and dozens of other places show that they are not going away, not going to just give up and accept the status quo. The Occupy! movement is people finally taking their own lives into their own hands and realising their collective power.

There are many other hopeful developments too. The increase in interest in permaculture, the Transition Towns movement, the move away from mass-produced tat to home-made with love, from fast food to slow...

I haven't been able to get down and Occupy myself (yet!), but inspired by the protestors I am making changes I have talked about for a long time but until now not implemented. I have changed from my old bank (Lloyds, heavily invested in arms companies and with grossly overpaid directors for example) to a more ethical bank (The Co-op). I have made myself, or sourced from other craftspeople almost all my Christmas presents this year, and asked my family to make or buy my presents similarly. I am signing up to an organic veg box scheme. And putting my money where my mouth is feels good!

The tide is changing. Where it will take us, I don't know. But I feel real hope that we are heading to a brighter future. Perhaps we have a real chance to develop into Starhawk's utopian society from The Fifth Sacred Thing. Or something like it. I for one, hope so.

Sunday, 6 November 2011

ThriftWitch: The Magic of Scent

Scent is one of our five senses, yet for many of us it takes a bit of a back seat to seeing, hearing or touch. Nevertheless, despite - or perhaps because of this, it is a powerful link with our subconscious. Just as the taste of a madeleine brought up many involuntary memories for the narrator of Proust's "À la Recherche du Temps Perdu", I'm sure many of us have experiences of aromas bringing forgotten memories and (perhaps more importantly) emotions flooding back. For example as an adult, just walking into a school and smelling that distinctive, familiar, yet long-unencountered complicated mixture that is 'school' brings back one's own schooldays with an almost shocking immediacy. The smell of an old-fashioned kitchen - gas stove, vanilla essence, cinnamon and just a dash of vinegar - instantly has me sitting at my Nanna's kitchen table watching her bake her famous fruitcake.

Sometimes, the link between scent and memory becomes so explicit and well known to us that we no longer need to smell something, just see or conjure up its image to recall all that the scent holds for us. There was a huge lavender bush just outside the kitchen door of my cousins' house in Dorset where we spent so many happy summer days in my childhood. The sent of lavender has always brought those days back to me, but now I only have to see a lavender bush, or the image of one, for the memories to come back just as clearly as they would from the aroma of lavender.

We use this connection between scent, memory and emotion in many ways. For example we choose different scents for the way they make us feel - a zesty citrus shower gel to wake us up in the morning and make us feel alert and energised, a floral scent such as jasmine or rose when we want to feel feminine or seductive, or a comforting smell like vanilla to turn our homes into a relaxing sanctuary. Of course, because smell is a very personal thing, if you hate vanilla it's not going to make you feel relaxed. So never mind what moods people tell you certain scents are supposed to evoke, go with what they mean to you.

Scent of course, can be used in so many magical ways. It is usual to light incense for example, when creating sacred space. This is partly to cleanse the area and create the right atmosphere for the intended working, and thus there are many commercial blends of incense available that are supposed to evoke the energy of a particular deity or Sabbat. But again, I would advise that if you want to invoke Gaia yet think the Gaia incense you bought for the occasion stinks, don't use it! Think instead about what Gaia means to you (abundance? nurturing? the green Earth?) and try to come up with scents that conjure up these ideas - you could try a berry, apple or peach fragranced oil for abundance for example; perhaps vanilla, cinnamon or your mother's favourite perfume from your childhood for nurturing; a patchouli or pine or grass scented joss stick for the green Earth. You get the picture. As always, use the books (or websites or blogs!) for inspiration, then toss them aside and use what works for you.

I would suggest another function of incense is to put us in the right mind for ritual and/or magic. Some incenses do actually have a measurable effect on our physiology. Frankincense for example is known to slow and deepen the breathing, putting one into a meditative state of mind which explains its popularity as an incense over the millennia. With other incenses, I would suggest that if you habitually burn, say, sandalwood incense for your rituals, the involuntary memory thing will eventually kick in so that whenever and wherever you smell sandalwood incense your mind will go into 'ritual mode'.

So why not use this scent-involuntary memory connection to help you 'change consciousness at will' (Dion Fortune's definition of what magic is)? The first summer I went to Witchcamp, I took a new perfume with me and wore it every day. When I got home, without thinking I reverted to my normal 'everyday' perfume. One day I picked up the bottle of Witchcamp perfume - as soon as I took a sniff I was transported back to Witchcamp! From then on I wore the perfume only for Witchcamp-related things: at subsequent Witchcamps, when meeting up with friends from Witchcamp, or (when I started to get involved with organising Avalon Witchcamp) at Witchcamp organising meetings. Later on, after a vision of community as a giant, sacred beehive, I found a honey scented shower gel from Lush that I used whenever I was doing anything community orientated or when I was trying to make connections or draw new friends into my life. I still use both scents when appropriate, and find they continue to stir my unconscious and help me achieve the state of mind I wish to be in.

I suggest you find a 'basic' scent that you use for your generic rituals and magical workings that will help you instantly get into 'ritual mind'. You can always vary things for specific purposes, but having a reliable standby scent can be a great shortcut! My two standby favourites are patchouli joss sticks or Starchild's 'Hecate' loose incense. If you don't like incense you could try fragrance oils or essential oils in a diffuser or rubbed onto the candles you are using. Or apply perfume to your pulse points, use scented candles, pot pourri, fresh flowers, herbs and spices, floral waters in spritzers, floorwashes... the possibilities are endless.

I was thinking that it would also be helpful to choose a series of emotion-linked scents that you could carry with you in small vials to give you a heping hand when you need it. You could choose your favourite soothing scent for stressful situations, a scent that speaks to you of confidence and self-esteem for challenging situations, perhaps something that makes you feel healthy and full of vitality for when you are lacking energy or feeling under the weather. You must be careful not to only sniff them in 'negative' situations though - remember to wear them on your skin when you know you are going to be feeling relaxed and happy, or full of self-assurance, or full of well-being. That way you will make the connection in your subconscious and can then bring them out in times of need. One of my favourite perfumes is Chanel's 'Cristalle', a light summery scent that I usually reserve for special occasions. A little sniff of it instantly brings so many happy memories flooding back and always lifts my mood.

I am also a great fan of essential oils which I use for first aid (tea tree for cuts, grazes etc, lavender for burns, a quick sniff of ginger as an instant cure for queasiness...), around the house for cleaning purposes and just because they smell nice. My next ThriftWitch post will cover the subject of making your own household cleaning products - they're cheap, safe, smell great and are really effective. In the meantime, have fun experimenting with the magical/emotional possibilities of scent...

Wednesday, 28 September 2011

A Tale of Two Turnovers

Driving home from work today, I was ravenous, not having had time for lunch. On a whim, I stopped by the local shop. I had an insistent, out of the blue craving for a fresh cream apple turnover.

More than 25 years ago, I was backpacking around New Zealand. I had spent a few days in Rotorua, sightseeing the geysers and thermal pools. My trip - which had already taken me to Hong Kong, Malaysia and Australia - was nearing its end and money was becoming tight. Waiting for the bus to take me back towards Auckland, I hadn't eaten any breakfast and was starving. There was a bakery just by the bus stop, and through the window I glimpsed a tray of fresh cream apple turnovers. My stomach growled and my resolve to save money by not eating  until lunchtime crumbled. I bought one, and stood at the bus stop enjoying every glorious mouthful. It is amazing how much better food tastes when you are really, really hungry. It was just a simple pastry, but the memory of that turnover has stayed in my mind when memories of other, far grander meals have long since faded into oblivion.

I was musing on this today as I made my way to the chiller cabinet, where rows of eclairs, doughnuts and cream slices were displayed. And one - just one - fresh cream apple turnover. I had heard it calling my name!

I carried my prize back to the car. There, in the sunny car park, unembarrassed by the glances of other shoppers, I savoured every last bite. It's quite impossible to eat a fresh cream apple turnover without making a mess. Icing sugar powdering my nose, flakes of pastry on my shirt, sticky fingered, I licked my lips, enjoying it every bit as much as that other treat, long ago and far, far away. Different, but the same. Simple, but so, so delicious.

Sometimes the small pleasures in life achieve true greatness. This was just such an occasion.

Sunday, 18 September 2011

September and Storms

September and May are my favourite months. May, fresh and tender with new growth; September's maturely wistful, mellow air. The light in both months has a soft golden quality, the sun lower in the sky.

September is usually a last little burst of warmth before autumn sets in properly, the mornings chilly and  dewy, and the afternoons mild and golden. A 'season of mists and mellow fruitfulness'. This September however has been tempestuous and unsettled as the country is lashed by the tail-end of hurricanes from aross the Atlantic. Inbetween the storms the days have been as mild and sweet as usual, and the garden is full of abundant apples, damsons, autumn raspberries and blackberries. The hedges too are dripping with sloes, elder and hawthorn berries, rosehips and hazelnuts. The good weather in the early part of the year allowed excellent pollination rates and now we are reaping the results.

There is uneasiness in my heart though. Weather patterns seem to be changing, and although I know climate change and weather patterns are not the same thing, still there seems to be something going on. The last few years we have had bitingly cold winters, an unseasonably hot, dry spell in spring/early summer, followed by wet, windy summers and flood-prone autumns. Everywhere I hear people exclaiming about the unusual weather, not just here in the UK but all around the world. Droughts, floods, hurricanes, tornadoes, prematurely melting ice. Something is going on. And it disturbs me.

Here on the calm, mild days the sun is interspersed with gentle rain and it seems like a normal September. But in exposed places, traumatised trees have had still-green leaves torn away by the fierce winds. In the garden there are few signs of dew-dropped spider webs in the morning. All their careful weavings have been torn and battered down by storms.

The swallows have already left, and no doubt the martens will follow shortly. I pray they will find safe passage to their winter homes. Soon the winter flocks of starlings will be in evidence again. Hopefully this winter won't be so harsh for them.

I hope my fears are unfounded. But I worry about stormy times ahead. In the meantime I harvest fruit from garden and hedgerows, bottling, jamming, pickling, chutneying, drying and brewing it into store cupboard goodies for the cold months. What else can we do but prepare as well as we can for the lean times, whilst hoping for the best?

Saturday, 27 August 2011

ThriftWitch: Summer in Winter

Summer is slipping away. Already the days are shorter and there is a tinge of autumn in the air. Wouldn't you love to be able to capture and bottle the essence of summer to be kept for a cheering treat in the midst of the darkest winter days? Well, you can. Summer has not deserted us yet, and there is still time to capture some of her magic...

My first suggestion is to make and freeze some batches of a fresh tomato sauce. The taste of this sauce is like preserved summer sunshine. The tart sweetness of tomatoes, the fragrance of herbs - yum! It's so much better than anything you can produce with tinned tomatoes. Hopefully, you will have some homegrown tomatoes you can use, or failing that you could chat up a gardening friend, seek out a roadside 'honesty' stall, visit your local farmer's market, or even try your plain old ordinary market at the end of the day where you may be lucky to pick up a crateful of ripe tomatoes on the cheap. If all else fails, there's the supermarket!

Fresh Tomato Sauce

  • Fresh tomatoes
  • A few cloves of garlic
  • A splash of olive oil
  • A knob of butter
  • Herbs - preferably fresh. You can choose the herbs you like for this, but personally I go for basil, thyme and a bay leaf or two. And possibly some oregano.

Skin the tomatoes by placing them whole in a large bowl and pouring boiling water over them. Leave for a couple of minutes, during which you can fry up the minced garlic over a low heat in the oil and butter. Meanwhile the boiling water should have started to split the skins of the tomatoes, and they should be easy to peel. Peel them and plop them in with the frying garlic, turning the heat up a little. They should gradually start to break down (you can help the process along with a potato masher or wooden spoon if you like). Chop the herbs and add to the pan and leave the whole lot to simmer for a while until it's reduced and thickened a bit. At this stage you could be stirring in some wishes and blessings for the coming winter if you like. And you're done! You can add seasoning if you want, but quite honestly I find this recipe so tasty I don't think it needs it.

Freeze the sauce in batches. It is delicious just as it is, over pasta with a grating of Parmesan or the cheese of your choice. Or you can dilute it with a little stock, whizz it through the food processor to make it really smooth, add a dollop of cream and make a tasty soup to serve with garlic bread. Or use it as a base for all sorts of other recipes like chili or ratatouille, or add it to the mince of a shepherd's pie for extra zip. But for a real taste of summer in winter, trust me: as it is, over pasta, with a little cheese. You will be transported back to mid-August as if by magic!

Another magical recipe to transport you back to summer is my Strawberry Crumble. Although it seems a crime to freeze strawberries rather than just enjoying them fresh, trust me on this: in the middle of winter you'll be glad you showed some restraint and put a few by. Actually, if you grow strawberries or go to a Pick Your Own for them, you will know there are always some imperfect strawberries - too hard, just under ripe or over ripe, weird shapes or whatever. Those are perfect to freeze - and they'll taste fabulous in this recipe no matter what they looked like originally! And by the way, rose water brings out the flavour of strawberries beautifully in any dish. Try it.

Moonroot's Strawberry Crumble

  • 225g strawberries, fresh or frozen
  • 3 tspn sugar
  • 1 tbspn rose water
  • 65g flour
  • 30g sugar
  • 35g butter
  • 2 tspn ground almonds
  • 1 tspn vanilla essence

Mix together the strawberries, 3 tspn sugar and the rosewater in an ovenproof dish.

Mix together the flour & 30g sugar and rub in the butter until the mixture resembles fine breadcrumbs. Stir in the ground almonds and vanilla essence.

Sprinkle the crumble mixture over the berries and cook at 180°C/350°F/Gas Mark 4 for 20-30 mins (until berries are cooked and topping is browned). Serve with cream or vanilla custard.

I think this would be a great Valentine's Day dish - strawberries, rose water, vanilla would all be perfect offerings to Aphrodite (if you can bear to leave a little in a dish for Her!).

Of course there are many other ways of preserving summer into winter - perhaps I'll post about making fruit liqueurs in the near future. There are plenty of damsons, sloes and blackberries coming along in the garden and I have great plans...

Sunday, 14 August 2011

August Pleasures

It has been a quiet, uneventful weekend - heavenly, after a hectic week. Work has been extra busy and at home the house has been in turmoil while a chimney has been lined in preparation for the installation of the new wood burning stove. Earlier in the week my lovely brother and nephew were visiting so there has been much socialising too.

Yesterday I harvested mange-touts and courgettes from the veggie patch, and a basketful of peaches from the dwarf tree in the polytunnel. This morning I had lovely lie-in, and after tending to the chickens (in their luxurious new run!), geese and cats, grazed on juicy blackberries from the hedge. The elderberries are also ripening, so it will soon be time to make a few gallons of wine. And the damson tree is literally weighed down by its enormous crop which is gradually turning from green to purple - more wine, and lots of jam! I love all this harvesting, it's so satisfying.

Meanwhile the kitchen is scented by the bunches of herbs that are hanging up to dry - rosemary, watermint, meadowsweet and St John's wort. Bear snuggles, purring on my lap as I type. What a lovely day! I hope yours is just as lovely.

Sunday, 31 July 2011

ThriftWitch: Double Time

When I originally started my 'Thriftwitch' posts, I was thinking of ways of being thrifty with money. What I have been finding of late is that for me - and many others I suspect - time is also in short supply.

Here then, are a few ThriftWitch tips on saving time (and perhaps also money) in your witchery.

For me, one thing that always seems difficult is to maintain a regular spiritual practice when time is in short supply. I have found that one answer to this is to build your spiritual practice into your daily routine. For some this may mean getting up an hour earlier to meditate, but for those of us who prefer to spend that extra hour under the duvet, I have some other suggestions.

For example, one of the underpinnings of my spiritual practice is being in touch with the tides and seasons of the natural world. In an ideal world I would love to spend much of my time walking in woods communing with trees, sitting in my garden watching birds, insects and plants, or wandering the fields and hedgerows gathering wildflowers and herbs. Unfortunately the demands of earning a living and looking after animals, home and garden leave little spare time for such activities. So I try to go about the daily chores mindfully, using that time to check in with the constant seasonal changes around me.

The daily routine with the chickens is an excellent opportunity to notice what's happening in the garden as I have to go down there at least three times a day. In that time I can notice new plants emerging, coming into bloom or going to seed, tune into the songs of the birds, notice the phase of the moon or the slant of the sun and the onset of twilight. I can feel the rain or sun or wind on my skin, and take heed of weather omens for the coming days. All of this, while I am doing what I would have to be doing anyway.

You may not have chickens, but you could do the same whilst walking the children to school, waiting at the bus stop, cutting through the park during your lunch hour, taking the dog for a walk, watering the tomatoes, pegging the laundry on the line or going for a run.

Another great way to stay in tune with the seasons with the smallest of tweaks to your normal routine is to eat local, seasonal food whenever possible. There are many ways to do this, from growing it yourself to shopping for at least part of your weekly groceries at the local farmer's market/WI market/local organic or health food store. When doing your shopping, read the labels of the food. If it's been flown in from Thailand or Kenya it's not really local and hence probably not seasonal! Get to know what's in season when, from asparagus to raspberries to mackerel and mushrooms. It really does taste so much better when it's freshly picked and hasn't been transported hundreds of miles to get to you. This year I positively gorged myself on local asparagus during May/June, but I probably won't be eating it again until the same time next year. Far from feeling deprived by this, it makes the asparagus I do eat so much more appreciated. It's the same with new potatoes or summer strawberries. And when we grow some of the best apples in the world here in the UK, why on earth do we buy flavourless imported ones at the very time that other mouthwatering fruits like cherries, plums and berries are being produced on our home turf in abundance?

Here are a few more suggestions for adding a spiritual dimension to your daily routine and getting more out of your time:

  • If you take public transport to work or school, use the time to meditate, practise skills like balancing your chakras, read a spiritual book or listen to meditative music.
  • If you drive in to work you could listen to spiritual music or practise exercising witchy skills such as focusing on there being a parking space where you need one (it's amazing how often this one works with a little practice). Probably best though not to listen to anything too trance-inducing whilst driving!
  • Whilst walking the kids to school make a game with them of noticing seasonal changes around you - the first swallow of spring, the first ripe fruits on the trees, the first falling autumn leaves.
  • Cook with intent - stir in love, peace, nurturing. Cut runes or symbols into your pie crusts or loaves or biscuits or even your roast potatoes! Add a pinch of herbs or spices chosen for their magical meaning. Stir in positivity in a deosil direction. Cook with love!
  • Eat with intent, be aware of each mouthful and concentrate on how the food is nourishing you.
  • Make your housework chores a meditation. Meditate on cleaning away that which no longer serves you as you sweep, dust, polish. Even washing up can be a profound experience when viewed this way - honestly!
  • Slumping in front of the TV is so very tempting after a long hard day - I'm as guilty of this as anyone! But it's also a terrible waste of time. Choose your viewing carefully - only switch on if there's something you really want to see. If the alternative is an evening of restless channel hopping because there's nothing that really grabs you, turn it off! Read a book, write in your journal, knit a scarf, phone a friend, play with your kids, potter in the garden, bake a cake, play the piano, take a leisurely soak in the bath... all of these things will nourish your soul far more than vegging out in front of the TV.
  • Make a little altar on your desk at work or a window sill or shelf at home - it doesn't have to be an 'in-your-face-witchy' altar, but a little grouping of meaningful objects (a shell, crystal, family photo, votive candle, potted plant, fresh flowers, an acorn, a piece of jewellery...) will catch your eye during the working day and give your spirit a little lift. It will also be a reminder to see the sacred in the every day.
  • If you can do it without getting weird looks from co-workers, sing or chant as you work. Literally 'enchant' your work.

Finally, if you need more time in your life, invoke Time as an ally. Ask that time stretch and be flexible so that all that needs to be done can be done. This truly works. And when you're done, don't forget to thank Time. As in all things, a little gratitude goes a long way!

Wednesday, 13 July 2011

Birthday Blessings

Today I am grateful for... a day of beautiful sunshine.

Today I am grateful for... a wonderful boyfriend and brother-in-law who have slogged all day in said sunshine to build a me new chicken run.

Today I am grateful for... all the birthday greetings, cards and gifts from friends and family far and wide.

Today I am grateful for... my sister who has cooked a special birthday feast for me!

Today I am grateful for... the failure of the BSkyB bid (is that mean of me? But what a birthday present!)

Today I am grateful for... a special cupcake from my friend Pinky.

Today I am grateful for... the bottle of Oaked Forest Honey Mead that I will open to celebrate my birthday this evening.

Today I am grateful for... a greenhouse full of thriving tomatoes.

Today I am grateful for... another wonderful year on the most beautiful blue and green planet I have ever seen.

And you?

Sunday, 10 July 2011

Of Babies and Bathwater

When I first discovered there was such a thing as modern Paganism and Witchcraft, I was so excited to find there were other people out there who shared my beliefs. I now had a word for what I believed, and I was not alone! This is an experience that is shared by many people within the neo-Pagan community.

I quickly read everything I could get my hands on - actually not that much was available back in the 1980's, but I soon gobbled up what there was - and began trying my hand at creating spells and rituals. I was also determined to do it right, and that meant following every witchy cliché in the book. I dressed in black. A lot. I bought cheesy 'occult' jewellery. I listened to godawful faux-Celtic New Age music. I did bazillions of spells (and couldn't understand why they either failed to work or spectacularly mis-fired), and I longed, longed, to be in a coven (fellow witches not being that thick on the ground back then either). I just knew that all those other Pagans were wise, wonderful, perfect human beings and I wanted to be with them. I wanted to be them.

Well, I grew up. I got tired of wearing so much black. All colours are the colours of the Goddess, right? I stopped wearing lots of occult jewellery and found a few pieces that actually had some meaning for me. I kicked the New Age music right out in favour of stuff that didn't make me wince. I stopped doing spells and instead worked on my understanding of how magic works - and now I use it both rarely and judiciously. And I met up with my fellow Pagans. And guess what? They're human beings, just like everyone else. They're wonderful and infuriating in equal measure; they're imperfect but mostly trying to do the right thing. Just like the rest of the world. Just like me.

Somehow, we manage to make the most simple things complicated. We think to fit in, we have to change who we are and adopt the opinions, fashions and tastes of those we seek to join. Yes, of course, we need some common ground, but should we really have to give up our own unique selves? I am a Pagan, a witch. I have been all my life, and for the last 25 years I have also had the correct title to label myself with. But I am still me. To be honest, I think people would be hard-pressed to pick me out of a crowd as a Pagan, but that doesn't mean I am not serious about my Paganism. It just means I don't feel the need to point it out to the world with every nuance of my being.

Don't get me wrong. Paganism has definitely been a huge influence on my life. I have learned so much on this path, both about myself and the rest of the worlds. Paganism has definitely changed my perception about many things. Yet isn't that what life does anyway? I'm sure not many of us die the exact same person we started out. Or if we do, what a waste of an amazing learning experience!

There is a Zen saying, "Before I studied Zen, mountains were mountains, and water was water. After studying Zen for some time, mountains were no longer mountains, and water was no longer water. But now, after studying Zen longer, mountains are just mountains, and water is just water".

Eventually I saw there is magic in everything. Everything - the washing up, the car, gossiping with the neighbours, making myself a cup of tea. It's all in the perception. Magic really is the art of changing consciousness at will. And I have learned how important it is to be true to myself. I have learned to hang onto the baby (what is important), and throw out the bathwater (what doesn't work or doesn't have meaning for me). All those things I mentioned like wearing black etc? They're all fine if that's who you are. But being a Pagan runs right through me and how I lead my life. It's not just a costume I put on to tell the world who I am.

Here's one thing I've learned: above all, make sure you know who you are. Find your place in the world and plant your feet there firmly, whether it be a solid foundation or merely the first step on the right path. Then you can flourish (pointy hat optional).

Wednesday, 6 July 2011

The Scent of Blackcurrant Leaves

Warm sun on my back, I brush aside the leaves to find the hidden treasure. Hanging in shining black clusters, the big juicy sweet/tart berries soon fill my basket.

As the distinctive, tangy scent of blackcurrant leaves fills my nostrils, I have my own Proustian moment. I am transported back to my childhood, picking blackcurrants in my grandparent's orchard. For me it is the quintessential summer memory. In amongst the currant bushes, gobbling down most of what I pick as the sun shines and Nanna, Mum, my siblings and I chat companionably, picking, picking, picking. The currants will be turned into pies, puddings, jams and some will be frozen so we can enjoy the taste of summer even during the darkest of winter days.

This summer, my own neglected blackcurrant bushes are sprawling in all directions, overgrown with brambles, bracken, nettles and bindweed. Yet still they give abundantly, and we shall have jam and wine and currants in the freezer to enjoy for the rest of the year. My hands are scratched by brambles and my legs are stung by nettles, my shoulders turn red from the sun. Yet still I keep picking, just a few more, just a few more... and still there are enough for me, and the birds to enjoy.

Eventually the basket is full and I extricate myself from the thicket, thanking and blessing the bushes for their bounty. I make a mental note to give them a good pruning in the autumn, and tidy up all the brambles and other weeds that have grown up around them.

Wonderful, luxuriant blackcurrants that give so generously despite my neglect. Wonderful memories of childhood summers. Wonderful sunny afternoon of harvesting.

Sunday, 12 June 2011

The Fifth Sacred Thing - The Movie

I have long loved Starhawk's book 'The Fifth Sacred Thing'. And now I am so excited to hear there are plans afoot to make it into a film!

If you also love the book, you can keep up to date with the plans via Starhawk's blog, or on Facebook. And if you haven't read the book yet, I recommend it, especially as we seem to be moving closer to the world she envisions in it...

P.S. You can now make a donation (as big or small as you like) to help fund the film here.

Wednesday, 8 June 2011

Weird Stuff in Carmarthen

I have written before that Carmarthen (my nearest town) is a quirky little town. When I saw some coracle fishermen on the River Towy yesterday, I thought perhaps it was time to post some photographic evidence of Carmarthen's unique features. So although I wasn't quick enough to photograph the coracles, here are some pictures of some of Carmarthen's quirkier landmarks.

This is 'The Big Hat' a version of which has hung in Carmarthen's Lammas Street since the 19th Century. This is its latest incarnation. The story of The Big Hat may be found here.

Carmarthen obviously has a thing for attaching random large objects to buildings, because there is also a Big Coffee Pot in Guildhall Square...

I find some of the graffitti to be quite creative (if odd)! Unless it's been painted over/scrubbed off, this can be found between Nott Square and Guildhall Square.

Nott Square is home to a statue of its namesake, General William Nott, as well as the entrance to Carmarthen castle.

At the other end of Nott Square, standing outside the 'Nomads' shop you will find George the giraffe, who became a local cause celebre when the local council tried to ban him for Health & Safety reasons. There was such an outcry that George was reinstated to his rightful place and is now safely chained to the front of the shop, in a compromise that satisfies both the over-anxious council and Carmarthen's giraffe lovers.

The King Morgan pharmacy at the top of King Street has been established for many, many years, and still displays antique pharmacy bottles & jars in its windows. The stained glass door, tiled floor and old wooden cabinets inside make you feel like you've stepped back in time. There is now a bridge leading from the railway station, across the River Towy to the town (Blue Street) that is named after the King Morgan family, who served the medical needs of the townspeople for many years.

This is the tower of St Peters church, the subject of a rather odd prophecy that I mentioned in my previous post about Carmarthen...

And here's a statue of Merlin himself, gracing the newly-named Merlin's Walk (formerly Greyfriars). Rather appropriately it's carved from a huge chunk of oak. I like it, though it caused a bit of consternation amongst some that a good Christian placename (Greyfriars) was being replaced with one with Pagan associations! Which just proves you can't please everyone. There's lots of details here about Merlin's long association with Carmarthen. I reckon he preceded the grey friars in their medieval monastery anyway!

There are other sights like the Roman Amphitheatre and Merlin's Hill that I haven't got around to photographing yet - look out for 'Weird Stuff in Carmarthen II' some time in the future!

Sunday, 5 June 2011

Falling In Love Again

A favourite cushion with an old vintage mirror that belonged to my Nanna

How quickly time passes. Only three years ago, I was still married - and oblivious to any hint of trouble. Now I have been divorced for over a year and a half, and my life is so different.

I am still at Halfway Up A Hill though, which when T first left, I never expected. I thought we would have to sell up and split the proceeds. Then, when we agreed that I could keep the house as part of the divorce settlement, I fully expected to sell up and move on anyway. Too many memories here.

Funny how things turn out, isn't it? With the collapse of the housing market, I resigned myself to staying put and just redecorating and smartening the place up for a couple of years until the economy picked up and I could sell. But over the past couple of years, I have started to see this familiar house with new eyes. By slowly, but surely putting my own mark on things, I have begun to fall in love with the place again. The painful memories are gradually being erased with each fresh coat of paint.

A handpainted dresser top that was picked up for a few pounds at a car boot sale. Along with some of my china and knick-knacks! Most of the china was passed down by my grandparents.

T's taste was fairly conventional and minimalist. Mine is more hippy-witchy-shabbychic-vintage-bohemian; definitely not minimalist. Now I am free to indulge those preferences without restraint! The interior - and exterior - of the house is beginning to reflect my tastes and personality as it never did before.

The lawn - once so carefully tended by T each weekend - has been declared a wildflower meadow. I prefer the look of all those flowers, and life is too short to spend it mowing! The overgrown flowerbed by the kitchen door has been tidied and planted up with roses, hardy geraniums and fuschia, and is now thronging with happy, busy bees. Pots of flourishing geraniums and herbs surround the back door with colour and fragrance. Suncatchers and windchimes dangle from every window, paintings and vases and lanterns and plants, new cushions and throws decorate the rooms. I have fun creating seasonal altars around the house and garden.

I LOVE my pantry door, which was made to measure by my very talented friend, Harry.

IB loves this house, and I am starting to love it once again. This weekend we have put up some wall cupboards that I have painted with a distressed finish in my favourite colours. In the dining room hearth, a 'new' (secondhand!) woodburning stove is waiting to be installed in readiness for next winter. I am planning to add a porch to the back door, and a forest garden down the hill...

The new woodburning stove, waiting to be 'plumbed in'.
I thought there were too many memories here for me to stay. But would they really have dispersed just by moving location? The memories are a part of me, a part of my story. The trick, I am beginning to learn, is to hold on to the best of the past, and let go of the grief and the anger. And in the meantime, go on, creating new memories as you fall in love with life once again.

Says it all.


Sunday, 15 May 2011

Bread and Jam

I have been extremely busy of late, as my lack of posts will testify. In the absence of a proper full-time job I have been taking on work as a domestic cleaner/gardener/odd job woman, and the last couple of weeks have been hectic as on top of my 'regulars' I have picked up a lot of one-off jobs as people want their homes spring cleaned or their gardens spruced up for the summer. I also continue to make and sell crafts, and last week every spare moment that I wasn't scrubbing bathrooms or trimming hedges I was frantically finishing off craft projects ready for the local Spring Fayre at which I had taken a stall, hoping to make a bit of extra cash.

By Saturday morning I was tired but well prepared, with everything neatly wrapped in newspaper and packed into boxes. As well as lots of hand-decorated candle jars, I had some pretty painted birdboxes, lacy-knit mohair shawls and I had planted up violas and busy lizzies into some old vintage tea cups that had lost their saucers and were about to be chucked by one of my house-cleaning clients until I rescued them. I was pretty pleased with my efforts and had high hopes things would sell well.

IB had kindly offered to come along and help me and we arrived in good time and set up the stall, which I was pleased to see faced the entrance so that my goodies would be the first thing people saw on entering. A very kind gentleman went back to his nearby home to get a few coathangers for me so that I could display my shawls to their best advantage.

Once the stall was prepared, I took a walk around to check out the other stalls, and chatted with my friend Jen and another friend I hadn't seen for a while. I bought a pretty hand-made birthday card for an upcoming birthday, a beautiful hardy geranium at a bargain price, and some tombola tickets (which unfortunately didn't win anything!). Then just before the doors opened to the public I grabbed us two cups of coffee from the friendly lady who was selling refreshments.

The first person to walk in was one of my neighbours, and we had a lovely chat catching up on the neighbourhood gossip. She was catching the bus home, so when she bought a large scented geranium plant I offered to mind it for her and drop it off when IB & I drove past her house on the way home later. My Mum and Dad also dropped by with a friend and were very pleased with some bargain tomato plants they snapped up - and I was pleased when their friend was my first customer, buying one of my candle jars as a gift for her daughter.

So far people were admiring my goodies but I had only made the one sale. Even so, I had been eyeing up the home made cakes and preserves on the next stall, so soon spent some of my earnings on a jar of marmalade and a yummy-looking lemon drizzle cake. The rest went on some vegetable plants from another neighbouring stall!

People were still coming in thick and fast and I was enjoying chatting with friends from the village that I hadn't seen for a while. One stall was selling locally made cheeses at bargain prices and the tasting samples were proving very popular! Once IB and I had tasted too, we realised why and of course had to buy some of the cheese. I also bagged a bargain photo frame which I spied across the hall on the bring and buy stall.

After the initial rush of people, it quietened down, although people were still coming and going. We had another cup of coffee and a cupcake, and chatted with the other stall holders. Once things had really quietened down, the lady running the tombola was keen to finish up, and went around the hall giving tickets away to anyone who wanted one, just to clear the remaining prizes. We won a bottle of bitter lemon and a very nice gift set of M&S toiletries - but not the bottle of whisky that IB had his eye on, which was eventually won by the vicar's 6 year old daughter (her Daddy took immediate custody of it)!

In the end, I sold only one other candle jar, which meant with all my purchases overall I was well out of pocket (despite not having to pay for the stall).

My hopes to sell plenty of things and make some money had been dashed. But then again, was it so bad? I spent an enjoyable day with IB, chatting with friends and meeting some lovely new people. I came away with some real bargains and treats - plants, gourmet cheese, marmalade and cake - and once again felt myself connected to my local community. So - not what I had expected, but perhaps what I needed.

Sometimes, we are so focussed on the daily bread and butter of making a living, we miss the jam - the quality time we spend with friends and family. We overlook the small pleasures of life like a beautiful flowering geranium or some tangy home-made marmalade. And we take for granted the immeasurable wealth of being part of a community.

Though I worry from day to day about my lack of income, today I am reminding myself that bread isn't everything. Without a little jam, it's pretty boring really.

Monday, 25 April 2011

Lessons From A Cherry Tree

From the bedroom window I can see petals falling. With every shifting breeze, a gentle shower of shell-pink confetti rains down. How gracefully the flowering cherry tree relinquishes her spring finery, a little at a time, like the slow ebbing of a tide.

No regret, no clinging on to past glory. No resentment, no cutting-off-your-nose-to-spite-your-face wholesale dumping. Just a gentle shedding, releasing what no longer serves easily, willingly, naturally, open-heartedly.

I know that only change is constant, yet in my own life how often do I cling to what is outmoded because it's familiar? How often do I hang on to possessions I no longer need 'because it may come in useful one day', or because Great Aunt Mabel gave it to me and I feel guilty for not actually wanting it?

Someone once told me that a leaf only falls in the autumn when the bud of next year's leaf has formed below, ready to unfurl in the spring when conditions are right.

Am I preventing new growth in my life by clinging onto the past?

May I be like the cherry tree. Able to sense the shifts and changes in my life and move on without regret.

Monday, 18 April 2011

My Lawn is Full of Dandelions

My lawn is full of dandelions.

Glowing in the sunlight, shivering in the breeze. My lawn is full of golden treasure...

The lawnmower died last summer, and the once-tidy green expanse outside my window suffered a series of disastrous patchy scalpings for the rest of the year as I struggled to tame it with the strimmer.

This spring I have not yet cut the grass, which has suddenly spurted into growth. It is beautiful, lush, green - thick with dandelions, daintily dotted with lady's smock and nodding cowslips.

My neighbour used to wage war on dandelions each spring, pulling them up and chopping them down in a furious and futile battle to contain their exuberance and stop them spreading little parachute-puff seeds far and wide.

My neighbour passed away. The dandelions nonchalantly survived her feverish assaults and have spread with joyous, reckless abandon.

Now bees bumble contentedly as they feast on the abundant, incandescent blooms, and swallows swoop, chattering gleefully in the blue spring sky.

I put the strimmer away, unused for another day, and go to lie among the dandelions in the warm, damp grass.

Thursday, 14 April 2011

A Mediterranean Climate in Wales

A couple of weekends ago, IB and I visited the National Botanic Garden of Wales, at Llanarthne near Carmarthen. Tucked away in the rolling hills of Carmarthenshire, this family friendly attraction is the most visited garden in Wales and has won a host of awards including Best Children’s Garden and Best Afternoon Tea.

It was a glorious, sunny spring day and the gardens were filled with spring flowers. Although the gardens are only just coming up for 11 years old, it is amazing how much there is to see. The jewel in the crown of the gardens is the Great Glasshouse, the largest single span glasshouse in the world. This houses a spectacular array of plants from regions around the world which enjoy a Mediterranean climate with hot dry summers and cool, moist winters. Plants from California, Australia, the Canary Islands, Chile, South Africa and the Mediterranean Basin are grouped in naturalistic plantings. Many of these plants are now threatened in their native habitats, and the Great Glasshouse is dedicated to their conservation. The windows of the glasshouse are controlled by a computer, opening and closing to keep the correct climate inside. The local birds have caught onto the advantages of being able to enter and leave the large, mild, climate-controlled environment at will, and the space is enlivened by their presence, perched in the branches of exotic trees and shrubs. And no doubt Dr Who fans will love the fact that the great glass house was used to film an episode of the popular series!

The National Botanic Garden of Wales is not only the most visited garden in Wales, it is also at the cutting edge of biodiversity studies. The current science programme focuses on conserving biodiversity in the UK. The Barcode Wales project, for example, will DNA barcode all the native plants of Wales. The barcodes can then be used in biodiversity conservation projects. In addition, the Welsh Rare Plants Project is conducting essential research in order to conserve some of the country’s most threatened species of flora.

The Garden also has great eco-credentials, using a reed bed system to deal with its sewage, building a greenhouse from plastic bottles, powering its land train with bio-diesel, and keeping rare breed sheep and cattle on a nature reserve. We loved the plastic bottle greenhouse and may emulate it if we can collect enough!

There's plenty for kids too - a 'Roots and Shoots Adventure Zone' (a willow play area with slides, climbing frames, tunnels and musical blocks), seasonal family activities (see the website for details) and weird and wonderful exhibits such as the biggest single span glasshouse in the world and bizarre plants that smell of toffee, chocolate and curry. When we visited there was a really interesting special exhibition on fungi, including a forest of giant mushrooms, which kids would have loved!

My other favourite parts of the garden include the gorgeous walled kitchen garden (envious sigh!), the herb garden and herb exhibition (which includes a replica old Victorian pharmacy), the truly beautiful and inspiring sunken bog garden (despite its unpromising name) and the bee garden which includes a hive webcam so you can see the bees in action from a safe distance!

All in all, I thoroughly recommend a visit to the gardens next time you are in West Wales.

Saturday, 26 March 2011

Earth Hour

Just a quick reminder that today at 8.30pm, many of us will be observing Earth Hour, by turning off our lights (and as many other electrical items as possible) for an hour. I wrote about this last year, and I shall be observing it again this year. Please join me!

Beautiful Spring

Tuesday, 22 March 2011

ThriftWitch: The Pleasures of Foraging - Spring Herb Salad

What could be more pleasurable on a mild spring day than wandering out in the garden to find something yummy to eat? The veggie patch may not yet have much to offer this early in the year, but it is still possible to put together a delicious salad by foraging for ingredients not only in the vegetable beds but also the herb garden, flower beds and the wild places.

Today's lunch consisted of mushroom, onion & cheese omelette (home produced eggs and onions) and a foraged Spring Herb Salad. The ingredients of this salad change every time I make it, because it all depends on what I can find. Today it consisted mostly of lamb's lettuce (aka corn salad) from the veggie patch, supplemented with tender young garlic mustard leaves (wild foraged), primrose and lungwort flowers (flower beds) and tender young sprigs of oregano, lemon balm and lemon thyme (herb garden). Other excellent ingredients used in previous salads have included chickweed, hairy bittercress (much nicer than it sounds - a bit like rocket), violet flowers and leaves, oriental salad leaves, fennel leaves, blanched dandelion leaves, cowslip flowers, ramsons, sorrel leaves - you get the picture. Of course later in the year, Summer Herb Salads have a far greater range of ingredients available, and it is lovely to experiment with flowers like day lilies, nasturtiums and calendula.

If you are sure of your plant knowledge, go ahead and experiment! If you are a little uncertain, a good book is Richard Mabey's classic 'Food for Free' which is enough to inspire even novice foragers with confidence, or Ken Fern's adventurous 'Plants for a Future'.

The key to a great Herb Salad is to ensure the bulk of the salad is composed of the milder flavoured leaves like lambs lettuce, chickweed, and violet leaves, and the stronger flavours like fennel, oregano, lemon balm and sorrel are used sparingly. Most flowers are bland in taste, but they do make it look pretty!

You can either serve the salad as is or add your favourite dressing. This is my favourite salad dressing:

Moonroot's Sesame and Garlic Salad Dressing
Mix 2 tbspn sesame oil with 1 tbspn balsamic vinegar. Add a pinch of sugar, a dash of soy sauce, a finely minced garlic clove and about quarter of a teaspoon of your favourite mustard. Stir until the mixture has emulsified, spoon it over your salad leaves and toss them in the mixture. Serve immediately.

Good foraging!

Sunday, 20 March 2011

Finding Balance in a Time of Chaos

Today is the Spring Equinox, one of only two days in the year that day and night are of equal length. From today, days will be longer than nights, daily increasing their dominance until the Summer Solstice in June.

Today is a day to pause and consider balance and equipoise. Yet at the same time, even more extreme events than usual are occurring around the world. Revolution and disorder in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya and many other countries. Devastating earthquakes in New Zealand and Japan, leading (in Japan's case) to further chaos from first the tsunami and then the terrifying prospect of nuclear disaster. Financial crisis in country after country and the resulting job losses, inflation and devastating cuts in welfare for the most needy in our societies. All played out against a backdrop of unusual weather patterns and uncertainty.

Unsurprisingly, people are wondering what on earth is going on. Literally. The pragmatic blame the politicians, the bankers. Those of a more esoteric bent blame Uranus moving into Aries, or invoke 2012 prophecies to claim the end of the world is nigh. Conspiracy theorists mutter darkly about The New World Order and HAARP. The wackier end of the Christian spectrum claim in cruel self-righteousness that their vengeful God is smiting non-Christians. And just last night, many of us were holding our breath in wonder at a Full Moon closer to the Earth than she has been in 18 years and wondering, could that have anything to do with anything?

But who knows? None of us really. My own theories combine the pragmatic approach mentioned above, with a sprinkling of the esoteric - fused with the certainty that sometimes, shit just happens.

But when shit does happen, how do we cope? How do we find balance in a time of chaos and upheaval?

Ground. Take a deep breath and ground.

Grounding is a fundamental skill, one that we witches and Pagans talk about a lot. But quite frankly, we don't always walk our talk, or give grounding the attention and respect it deserves. After all, grounding - how dull is that, when you could be 'up there', bouncing off the stratosphere?

Well for one thing, bouncing off the stratosphere (or wherever you happen to be, astrally) turns out to be no fun whatsoever when you can't get back afterwards. Imagine a prolonged roller coaster ride. However much you love roller coasters, at some point you just want to feel your feet on the ground. Grounding properly first, before you enter a trance or attempt astral travel is essential.

However, grounding is also a useful skill for anyone to have in their tool kit. How often in times of crisis have you made rushed, foolish decisions because your head has been in such a whirl? How would you like to feel calm and steady instead of stressed out by the day's events? How good would it be to feel that you are approaching problems and times of difficulty from a stable place?

There are many ways of grounding, but one basic way that you can practice virtually anywhere is this. Take a deep breath in and out. Take a moment to really concentrate on sensing your body and its edges. It may help to run your hands briskly over your body - arms, shoulders, head, torso, legs - to really feel those edges and remind yourself that this is you, this is where you are right now. Breathe deeply in and out, and feel your feet firmly planted on the earth, feel that connection. Know that you are a part of the earth. Imagine roots growing from the soles of your feet into the earth, keeping you grounded, stable, connected. Breathe deeply in and out. Remember that connection. Then bring the roots back into your feet, knowing all the while you are connected to and supported by the earth.

Some people absorb energy from the earth in this way. If at any time you feel you have a surfeit of energy and feel too 'buzzy' you can return any excess by putting your hands on the earth and sending it back. If this is not feasible (because you're in the supermarket check out queue for example!), try consciously exhaling the excess on a slow, gentle outbreath.

Practice grounding. Don't beat yourself up if it's difficult to start with. We all have different skills and strengths, and grounding, like any skill gets easier with practice. You will also be able to do it more quickly. The true skill is to be able to ground quickly, even in the midst of chaos, panic or emotional distress. If you practice grounding regularly when you don't need it, you will be able to ground easily when you most need it.

It may help to take time to notice how you feel when you are grounded and relate this to a word, a musical note, a colour or a scent (or you could combine these by visualising the word written in your grounded colour. Or sung to your grounded musical note. Or visualise your grounded colour whilst calling up a sense memory of your grounded scent). With practice your word/note/colour/scent can become a shortcut to the feeling of 'grounded', and that can help get you there almost on autopilot.

I wish you a balanced and harmonious Equinox. As the year tips toward summer, may we find our feet firmly planted on the ground, even if our heads are in the stars.

Sunday, 13 March 2011

Look Out Edward Woodward...

I have a confession to make. The last couple of years, my garden has been a bit of a disaster. Well, maybe 'disaster' is an overstatement, but it certainly hasn't been the picture of abundance and productivity I would like it to be.

I can blame some of this on the weather, which has been all over the place - unseasonably warm/dry/cool/wet in varying combinations, but to be perfectly honest it is my neglect of the garden that has really let things slip. To start with, after T left I was in a bit of a slump and just couldn't summon the energy or enthusiasm to do much in the garden. And then when IB appeared on the scene, well, I was having too much fun to concern myself with weeding or watering or mulching...

We did make a good start last year by preparing the garden well over the winter in preparation for the spring, but we lost momentum and the weeds took over. A few things did well - the onions and parsnips were pretty good - but for the most part it was a bit of a damp squib.

This year we are determined to do better. We have spent hours pondering over seed packets and planning. We have laboriously weeded the veggie patch, spread compost and mulched to keep the weeds at bay until we are ready to plant. We have already sown a few early crops in the greenhouse. Today was beautifully warm and sunny, and the two of us have been working hard. It is lovely to feel the sun on your back, your hands in the earth. The chickens bustled around on the grass, the birds sang, the cats looked at us as if we had lost our minds (why work when you could be sunning yourself against the hedge?).

We have now sown broad beans and turnips, and planted out the onion sets. Trays of compost sown with tomatoes and chilis are germinating in the airing cupboard. And we have packets and packets of seeds ready to sow over the next few weeks - brussels sprouts, lettuce, radish, mange touts, parsnips, carrots, beetroot, peas, calendula, cauliflower, kale, broccoli, chard, then beans (french and runner), courgettes, nasturtiums, squash, sweetcorn, pumpkin, pak choi... And of course, there will be potatoes.

We are fired with enthusiasm and determined this year's harvest will be one to remember. As IB says, if after all this hard work things still aren't up to scratch, the only thing for it is to find a policeman, a big wicker basket and some matches...