Sunday, 31 May 2015

Real Miracles

Yesterday, IB and I watched in fascination as what seemed like hundreds of mayflies danced past on the breeze. The life story of the mayfly is magical - their eggs are laid in water, and the 'nymph' stage of the insect lives underwater for about a year before developing its wings, at which point it emerges from the water and hides in vegetation for a few hours until it sheds its skin once again to reveal its final, adult form. These adult mayfly tend to appear in great numbers, for they live for just one day and in that time they must mate and produce eggs. So single minded is their purpose that they have no mouths and do not eat. But as they dance and drift in great numbers their fleeting, fragile lives are a reminder of so much that is beautiful, precious, ephemeral.

Last year a story about a photograph that allegedly shows fairies appeared in the press and was shared widely on social networking sites. My initial thought was that the photo was of mayflies, although it now appears that they have been most likely identified as midges. I thought it was a cute story which showed how beautiful and magical even humble insects could be when caught in slanting sunlight and seen in an unfamiliar way. I was amazed to find though, that some people were insisting the photo showed actual fairies. My amazement turned to real irritation when I saw the photo shared on some Pagan pages on Facebook, with people leaving comments like 'This photo definitely shows fairies', 'I believe!' and 'Don't try to tell me these are insects!'. My irritation was because most Pagans would say that Paganism is a nature religion, that we honour and worship the Earth and all Her creations. And yet here were people saying that insects were too mundane and that they wanted fairies. 

I think the ephemeral miracle of mayflies should be magic enough for anyone, without having to turn them into Tinkerbell. There are so many fabulous, amazing and even miraculous natural phenomena in this incredible world we are lucky enough to inhabit. Octopi change their markings as camouflage, make 'gardens', squeeze through the tiniest cracks, use tools. Peacocks display the most amazing plumage. Spiders weave intricate webs from silk that is stronger than steel. A bluebell wood in full bloom. Morning glory clouds. The Aurora Borealis. The changing seasons. The scent of honeysuckle. Bower birds. The unfurling of a fern frond. Sequoias. Platypuses. Rainbows. Albatrosses. The individuality of snowflakes or fingerprints. Otters. Seahorses. Blue whales. Hummingbirds. The dawn chorus. Honeybees. Snow. The miracle of life unfurling from a humble seed...

When I watched the film 'Avatar' for the first time, I was entranced by the beautiful world that had been created for the film. But then I wondered, if I lived there, would it still seem so magical and wonderful? Does familiarity breed contempt? Is that what the determination of people to believe they are seeing fairies instead of midges is telling us?

It is a shame if people feel their lives are so humdrum they must Disney-fy them. It is a shame if people are so out of touch with the world around them that they fail to see the magic that surrounds us. It is especially sad if those who claim to love and worship the Earth don't find its reality enough for them.

Perhaps we need to let go of Tinkerbell, stop clapping our hands and chanting 'I believe, I believe!'. Then maybe we can release the fantasy and open our eyes to the amazing reality that surrounds us. And if we do that we will be able to truly treasure the Earth and perhaps use the energy we have been wasting on Tinkerbell to protect and nurture our amazing Planet.

P.S. You may also like to look at these images of woolly aphids to see how fairy-like insects can appear in the right light. But they are still insects, all the same. 

Friday, 1 May 2015

On Finding Grace in Glastonbury

I first visited Glastonbury over 30 years ago, with my then boyfriend. On the way back from a holiday in Cornwall, we visited the Tor - he being a big fan of all things with an Arthurian connection. I was less enthused, especially when confronted with a large hill to climb. Nevertheless, climb it we did. It was a bright, beautiful day in May. When we reached the top of the Tor the landscape spread before us, stretching out in all directions. Swallows swooped low around our feet, chattering joyfully. As the wind whipped my hair I was filled with an ecstatic feeling - anything seemed possible. I wanted to launch myself off into the air and glide with the swallows. That was my introduction to the magic of Glastonbury.


A few years later, my brother and sister, a couple of friends and I went on a camping trip to Glastonbury. The friends were also Pagans - I had in fact discovered the existence of neo-Paganism when I went to their wedding ceremony which (as they were Viking re-enactors) had been described to guests as a 'Viking wedding' but which actually turned out to be a handfasting performed by a member of their coven. I was fascinated and the rest, as they say is history. The camping trip was basically a chance to hang out, drink cider, visit the Tor/Chalice Well and, of course, shop. Back in those days - the late 1980's - it was hard to find Pagan books, magazines, paraphernalia or indeed fellow Pagans. Glastonbury was like a great cornucopia of Pagan goodies just waiting to be explored. We ate in hippy cafes, drank water from Chalice Well, sniffed incense, drooled over books, athames, jewellery, wands, crystals, cauldrons... On that trip I bought two books that made a huge impression on my early explorations of Paganism - 'The Spiral Dance' by Starhawk, and 'The Mists of Avalon' by Marion Zimmer Bradley.

The magic though, happened the first night we were there. After pitching our tents, cooking dinner and imbibing a few drinks, someone said 'Let's climb the Tor!'. Which we all agreed was a great idea. My memory is that we merely scrambled through a hedge and found ourselves at the foot of the Tor - although I'm sure it can't have been that simple. We began to climb in the gathering twilight. The climb was steep but relatively quick (then again I was a lot younger!). We arrived at the top breathless and exuberant, and turned to look back in the direction we had come. The most beautiful full moon, huge, yellow, was just rising. Dumbstruck by magic and beauty we stood in awed silence. We had not planned this, we hadn't even registered that it was a full moon that weekend. Serendipity had led us to this moment. The magic of Glastonbury, again.


Later, Glastonbury became a place of pilgrimage for me. I visited alone and with friends, usually managing at least one trip a year. When our friends Kevin and Ann's children were younger, the group of us spent some memorable camping holidays there. Later, I discovered Avalon Witchcamp (later Avalon Spring) which was usually held a few miles from Glastonbury and my pilgrimages became tied in with an annual visit to Witchcamp.
Then the kids grew up and the camping holidays petered out. Avalon Spring ran its course and came to an end. Life got in the way and trips to Glastonbury became less regular. Until this year, when my friend Suzanne suggested a trip together. And so we agreed to go to Glastonbury...


Thursday, 9th April
From the outset, everything runs smoothly. The weather forecasters warn of changeable conditions, but we have glorious sunshine the whole time. I am delayed leaving home and worry that I'll be late picking Suzanne up from her train at Bristol, but somehow I arrive with 5 minutes to spare and find a parking space right by the station although the car-park is packed. On arrival in Glastonbury we head straight for the wonderful Rainbow's End and treat ourselves to a delicious lunch. Then a bit of retail therapy and on to our B'n'B which is delightful and conveniently located.

Fabulous mask spotted in a shop window

At the B'n'B I make use of the free Wifi to check in with the rest of the world, discovering via Facebook that our friend Naomi is also in town, although leaving tomorrow. We send her a message hoping we can meet up that evening, and also contact my brother Mike (who lives in Somerset) and my friend Becky who has recently moved to Glastonbury.

We don't hear back before going out for dinner to the Who'd a Thought It in Northload Street, but who should walk in just as we are finishing dinner than Naomi! It turns out she isn't leaving until the following afternoon, so we make arrangements to meet on the Tor for a picnic tomorrow.

Friday, 10th April
Up and out bright and early after breakfast to get some goodies for our picnic. Then on to the tranquillity of Chalice Well Gardens, a place that somehow draws me more these days than the Tor. I have visited the gardens more times than I can remember over the years, but today is special. We arrive just as the gardens are opening, and have the place completely to ourselves for a little while. We make straight for the Wellhead at the top of the gardens, often crowded with people. Today it is just the two of us, though posies and candles remain from previous visitors.

We sit in silence, listening to the threads of birdsong weaving around us and the timeless flow of water through the Well; ever constant, ever changing, eternally flowing. Relaxing, I close my eyes, feeling such a sense of peace and healing. Be here now, the place says to me. Healing is here for you, freely given. The source is constant. I often have a hard time accepting gifts, help, kindness, compliments, nurturing from others. I am more comfortable giving these things. But this time, at Chalice Well I am able to relax and accept what is being offered me, and I can feel it sinking into me, my heart, my blood, my bones. Deep healing, long overdue. I know it is OK to relax and accept this gift, so freely given.

After a little while more people begin to appear in the gardens, obviously wanting quiet time of their own at the Wellhead and we move along, back down through the gardens, following the flow of water. I pause at the Lion's Head spout to anoint my third eye, throat and heart with wellwater, then drink a glassful, consciously taking in healing. We sit for a little while under the yew trees by the waterfall, usually my favourite spot, but today I am restless and want to move on. I listen to my inner voice and follow its promptings, which lead me to the Vesica Pool at the bottom of the garden. Usually this is another busy place, but today it is just Suzanne and I sitting on the sun-warmed benches listening to the gentle splash of water, the birdsong and buzz of bees. I soak up the peace, drink in the tranquillity, allow the sense of being healed to pour into me. Time passes. I allow myself to not care, to drop the mantle of responsibility and anxiety and clock-watching and just be here now.  


We climb the Tor by the long, slow, path. I'm not sure which path is hardest, this or the short, intense one further up the lane. Panting, sweating, we stop frequently for breaks. These bodies aren't as young as they once were. Even a little way up though, the views over the town and the Somerset Levels beyond are amazing on this bright spring day. We persist, and as we crest the hill, we are greeted by singing. A young girl with a guitar and a beautiful voice is singing in Spanish in the ruins of St Michael's tower, taking advantage of the acoustics. We sit and listen while we catch our breath, then find a spot on the grass outside for our picnic. The Tor is busy with a constant stream of visitors. Naomi joins us and we talk and laugh and eat and catch up on what we have all been doing. We think it must be at least three years since we were all last together, maybe more. By the time we are finished eating the wind is getting fierce. We gather up the leftovers before they can blow away and make our way back down, the wind lessening as we descend. Children pass us, running up the Tor like mountain goats, and we laugh at their exuberance contrasting with our own more genteel pace.

At the bottom we notice that the White Spring opposite Chalice Well has opened its doors to visitors - an irregular occurrence. We enter the dim chamber, filled with the sound of running water and voices echoing in the dark. Altars have been set up in alcoves, and candles lit. I especially like the altars for Brigid and Gwyn ap Nudd who is said to live under the Tor, and with whom I once had  strange encounter in this very place.

Altar to Gwyn ap Nudd in The White Spring, Glastonbury

We emerge from the subterranean gloom back into dazzling sunlight. It is time to say our goodbyes to Naomi and drag ourselves from the magic of windswept hills and flowing water.

Later that evening we enjoy a lovely meal at La Terre in Glastonbury High Street, and arrange to meet Michael and Becky the next day.

Saturday, 11th April
We have arranged to meet my brother Michael in Crewkerne this morning. The drive down is lovely, winding our way through pretty Somerset villages and open countryside. We get a little lost in Crewkerne itself, but manage to find the car park where we are to meet Michael just as he drives in behind us. We wander through the town to Bilby's coffee shop, where my brother recommends the Somerset Apple Cake with clotted cream. Although it's not that long since breakfast, Suzanne and I give in to temptation and are not disappointed; the cake is delicious and the clotted cream goes with it perfectly. Although we don't have long in Crewkerne - as we are due back in Glastonbury at lunchtime to meet Becky - time seems to stretch to accommodate us and we have a lovely, relaxed visit with Michael and still arrive back in Glastonbury in time to meet Becky and her new baby daughter, Berry.

We meet in Rainbow's End where somehow - Somerset Apple Cake notwithstanding - Suzanne and I manage to eat another yummy lunch. I get to hold Berry, a delightful, happy, relaxed little soul who snoozes happily in my arms while we chat. Becky tells us about her move to Glastonbury and how everything seemed to fall into place once they decided to make the move - I feel a little envious and mentally flirt with the idea of moving to Glastonbury. Would the place still be so magical if it was my everyday? A strange coincidence occurs when we realise the caravan Becky (who does not know Naomi) is telling us about selling as part of her move is the very same caravan Naomi has told us about buying.

After lunch we say our goodbyes to Becky and Berry, and Suzanne and I make a visit to the Glastonbury Goddess Temple. This is another oasis of calm, somewhere I always try to visit when I'm in the town. From the courtyard below, we climb the wooden stairs to the Temple. Inside, there is the smell of incense, soft music and the glow of candles. There are altars and artwork, chairs and soft cushions and rugs to sit on. A temple 'Melissa' is in attendance, sitting quietly and holding the space. I find a place against the lilac coloured w
all and sink back into the cushions. Again I feel the sense of being nurtured, healed, held. I relax into it again, and initially tears well up - the tears that come when someone offers unexpected kindness in a time of hardship. But the tears soon dry - perhaps they are the last shred of my resistance to accepting the Grace that is being offered me here in Glastonbury. I sit in contented peace, sometimes with eyes closed, soaking in the calm; sometimes gazing at the flickering candles, the beautiful altar, the other people in the temple (including a crawling baby quietly exploring the world at floor level and a little girl, very intently making a drawing which she later presents as a gift to the Melissa). When we leave, the atmosphere of quiet calm comes with us. 

Sunday, 12th April
On our last morning in Glastonbury, we have a few last visits to make before we begin the return journey home. Firstly, we drive the car up Well House Lane to take one last look at the Tor and say our goodbyes.

Then we turn back into town and make our way to St Margaret's Chapel and the Magdalene Almshouses. Neither of us have visited the Chapel before now, but Becky recommended it to us and we are curious. We arrive before opening and wait in the sunshine for the key holder to arrive. The Chapel and Almshouses are tucked away behind a building at one end of the High Street - easy to miss unless you are looking for them. The Chapel stands at one end of a small, but beautiful garden along one side of which run the Almshouses. As we enter the garden, my eyes are immediately drawn to a beautiful carved wooden finger labyrinth. I drop my bag and begin tracing the winding paths with my index finger.

Halfway round, I become self-conscious. Does the key-holder who has just let us in think I am being disrespectful by ignoring the Chapel and rushing to play with the labyrinth? Should I have stood back and asked Suzanne if she wanted to trace the labyrinth first? Another part of me is saying that this too is sacred, a sacred journey that I should perform mindfully, that I should respect the magic of the labyrinth. But ignoring those thoughts I rush to complete my tracing of the paths. I have reached the centre, no time to pause and reflect, to listen to the labyrinth's message - hurry to trace the return journey, get out of the labyrinth. And then something strange happens. As I wind around the paths, I expect to be led back out of the labyrinth again. After all, labyrinths have only one path which leads into the centre and back out again. And yet... I find my finger has traced me back to the centre again. I wasn't aware of losing my way and yet somehow I have. I smile to myself. I should have listened to the voice telling me to slow down and do this properly, respectfully. I was taught to treat labyrinths with respect and I have failed to do so. The labyrinth is letting me know there is no point in rushing, it is done when it is done - and it is not done yet. I lift my finger from the centre, but consciously accept that I am still 'in' the labyrinth, it is working on me, within me. I surrender to it, accepting what it has to teach me.

Suzanne traces the labyrinth, we wander the garden, explore the Almshouses (one of which has been restored to its original condition - tiny yet serene in its simplicity), and I think what a haven this place must have been to the poor and needy in the days when there was no Welfare safety net for them. We sit for a while in the Chapel, which like Chalice Well Gardens and the Goddess Temple is another place of serenity and I feel the touch of Grace again. I light a candle as an act of gratitude.

And then, sadly it is time to go. I do not want to leave this calm sanctuary, I do not want to leave Glastonbury. And as I am thinking these thoughts, I see - very briefly - two swallows fly overhead and disappear. The first swallows I have seen this year. The sight I have been waiting for so impatiently. The swallows I wrote about wanting to see (strangely enough) on our first night in Glastonbury. To me it is a sign of hope and promise, and a sign that our trip is at an end. It is definitely time to go.


Well, almost... there is one final thing to do before I can leave Glastonbury. I take my place back in front of the finger labyrinth. This time, I do it properly. I relax, breathe, and place my finger back in the centre of the labyrinth, where - I notice - a heart is carved. I listen. Do not rush the journey. It is not about reaching the goal, the centre, the prize. It is about the journey. Experience the journey, let it take as long as it takes. Take the time you need for yourself. Accept the gifts that are offered to you. Accept that you are loved and no more or less deserving than anyone else. Learn to accept what is offered. Remember the heart at the centre of the labyrinth. I take another deep breath and trace my way back out of the labyrinth. This time it is easy, effortless, and I find myself exiting more quickly than seems possible. I have left the labyrinth, but I take its message and its spirit with me.

We leave Glastonbury then, and begin our return journeys home, me to Wales, Suzanne to South London. There is much to ponder as I drive back along the motorways that lead me westward. I feel I have been given so much, I have healed wounds I didn't even realise were still sore. Such unexpected magic and serendipity. So much Grace, unlooked for yet gratefully received. 

I think of the heart at the centre of the labyrinth and smile.     


If you would like to know more about Glastonbury and its sacred places, this is a great resource.