Tales from the Road – Here be GATORS!

It probably seems like a crazy idea to go to Florida for a long weekend, but that is what we did. Hopping on a plane at 9.30 on Wednesday morning we flew to Chicago, then on to Orlando where we were met by the lovely Ashley, one of the crew for the Samhain Florida Pagan Gathering. We arrived at the campsite in the dark, but I couldn’t help but notice the ‘Beware of the Bears’ sign as we drove in. We were shown our cabin which we were sharing with the author M R Sellars and his lovely wife, took some dinner, then headed straight to bed as the jet lag just caught up with us.

When we got up the next morning (after waking up at around 5am wondering where I was, remembering, then going back to sleep – something that’s happened quite a bit this year) we opened the door to the cabin and took in the sight that greeted us. The venue was beside a big lake, and on this morning it was so still as to be mirror-like in its splendour.

After breakfast we took a walk around the site, and down to the lakeside where we saw the Warning Alligators sign – not a sign I’ve ever seen at our UK Pagan festivals! We spent Thursday meeting up with new friends and old, and chilled under the Florida sunshine.

Friday was different. A chill wind had blown in and the lake was no longer its mirrored self. We held a poetry workshop by the windblown lakeshore, and then in the afternoon I led an Ogam workshop, also somewhat colder, but both a delight to lead. Then I began to prepare for my evening’s concert. The venue was perfect, and Paul, the sound engineer was a delight to work with. In no time I had the sound I liked.

Now, I have to say that I don’t like waiting to play. Once I’m ready I just cannot wait to get on with it. But before long people arrived and I was ready to start. I took the stage, and, said “Hello!”….. and every light in the entire venue went out. I was in pitch darkness. I thought it was part of the show, and other lights would come on, but they didn’t. So there was nothng else to do but to play a bit with the situation. I got really close to the mic and in a deep voice that boomed out of the darkness I said. “Welcome to the Underworld, did you think it would look different?” Some giggles from the audience in the blackness, then a few turned on torches to light me up. I could see a few people rushing around at the back of the venue, and thought I’d better start – I could just see with the audiences’ torchlight. So I opened with Song of Awen, and during the song the lights came back on, and the show continued. What had happened was a lady with a mobility scooter had plugged her vehicle in outside the venue, couldn’t see a charging light, so flicked the switch above the plug, and in doing so she turned off all of the lights in the venue. She was so apologetic afterwards, but it really wasn’t a problem – things like that often give me the opportunity to play the fool a bit more, and certainly keep me on my toes. We all had a wonderful evening together, as did those who came along for the encore concert on Saturday lunchtime.

There were times when I was sitting with friends, and I felt the Sun on my skin, so I just soaked it up. I knew that it would be the last time I felt that warmth until maybe April of May 2012, and those of you who know me will know I am a true Sun worshipper, and miss the light and heat deeply. Sharing the campsite with beautiful red-cap cranes was quite an experience, and I marvelled at the aerial acrobatics of the black wing and turkey vultures, but I almost cried when the bald eagle flew overhead.

But soon it was Sunday, and so early in the morning we left with our friends and headed to a Cracker Barrell before being dropped back at the airport.

We had the most wonderful time at the Florida Pagan Gathering. The organisers, the other headliners, and the visitors were so lovely, and I just know it won’t be our last visit there. Thanks to everyone who made our trip, the workshops, and the concerts, so enjoyable. Oh, and thanks for all the mead too!!

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The Heart of Samhain

I was asked very recently why Druids celebrate such a dark festival as Samhain. What is it about this shadowy and occult time, where the land is overrun with ghosts and ghouls, that makes us want to associate ourselves with it. I found it a really odd question, but I think it’s a topic that, unless you are involved with Paganism, can be confusing. To the mass populous Samhain is Hallowe’en. A time when children knock on the doors of strangers asking for sweets, when demons and ghosts run riot, where we carve pumpkins into scary Jack o’ Lanterns. So in a way it’s not surprising that some wonder why we would celebrate this as a spiritual festival. So I replied that it isn’t dark. That the darkness some people perceive comes from a fear and distance from death.

The feast of Samhain comes from a time when people didn’t have world trade. They couldn’t just pop to the supermarket to buy their food. They had to grow it all themselves. Samhain as Summer’s End marks the obvious slip into the darkness and cold of the Winter. There would be the slaughtering of cattle and salting of meat to preserve it, the bringing in of crops, and some would look at the older members of their community and wonder if these frail people would live to see another Spring. The Sun’s arc is in decline, bringing shorter and shorter days, and with these thoughts of darkness and death comes our memories of those that have past on before. The Otherworld lies close at this time of year, and sometimes it feels so close you can almost touch it. So, being so distant from those tribal peoples what relevance does Samhain have today?

Today most of us are so distant from even the idea of death that we find it dark and scary. Dead bodies are taken away, hidden from view, filled with chemicals, then put straight into a box, then into the ground or cremated. Death is such a part of life that this distance is, in my opinion, unhealthy. Many of us British people take that another stage further with the idea of having to keep our chin up, or that emotional-baggage inducing stiff upper lip. So many of us either will not allow ourselves to mourn, or are not allowed to by our peers. The act of crying is such an important part of letting go that in the end this pent up emotion has to come out in some way, and sometimes this is in illness or misplaced anger. So during our Samhain ritual we say that all the time the names of our loved ones are spoken into the air, they will know they haven’t been forgotten, and sometimes that very simple act of saying their name out loud, of bringing their faces into our memories, is enough to break that barrier of held grief, and allow people to begin to let go. A powerful and truly human thing.

A part of any spiritual path deals with what happens after we die. In the end none of us will truly know what will happen until we take that journey, but while we are here these spiritual teachings can bring us comfort and peace. As a Druid I believe in reincarnation. That when I die my spirit will travel to the Blessed Isles of the West, to rest, reflect on my life, and then to return to the Cauldron to be reborn again. I don’t know this, but I feel that it’s what will happen. I wonder if our journey after death reflects our beliefs in life. We shall all find out in the end, and maybe that is the real essence of Samhain that people find frightening and dark. That death is life’s one inevitable, and every day we are making our way on a journey towards that moment. Let’s spend the majority of our lives living, but once a year it’s good to ponder our mortality.

The Strength of our Roots help hold the Tree

I’ve heard it said that a tree doesn’t benefit from having its roots dug up, and this is true, but every now and again I feel the need to take stock and look back at what brought me to the Path in the beginning. To make sure that my roots are still secure, as sometimes they do need some kind of repair.

So yesterday I stopped looking forward, and placed my gaze firmly on the past, yet from this present moment. I got out my old Grove Books that I wrote during my studies with the Occult Church Society, and then the Order of Bards Ovates and Druids. I read what I’d written for the first time in probably 8 years.It was lovely to read my own words as I set out on this path, a time when I had no idea how my life would change. I hadn’t yet written one Pagan song, so all of it lay unknown, in the future.

One beautiful thing that came from this was a great sense of re-connection, of getting back to my own roots, and it was wonderful. During one of the rituals I wrote that I believed I had met Brighid who had told me that the “source of my poetry and song lay in my own Spirit”. When I asked what that meant She just kept on repeating the same words, over and over again. There were other beautiful messages about the future hidden within the text, and a couple of times I couldn’t help but have to dry away a few tears.

There is a lot of sense in working with the Power of Now, especially if we have a tendency to live in a perceived future when we believe all will be better. But every now and then, and particularly as Samhain approaches, I think it does me good to look back and acknowledge the ancestor of my life today. To water the roots that keep my feet on the Path, and to be able to then take a new step forward, held by my life’s experiences.

Can you hear me calling you?

Can you hear me calling you? Can you hear me calling and crying your name in the dark? Can you hear me calling you? Can you hear me calling you? Can you hear me calling and crying your name in the dark? I am the Shadow who calls to your Soul….

So sings the Cailleach on my song Samhain Eve, weaving her cries between the fear expressed in the main vocal, pleading for her to pass him by for just one more year.

Samhain approaches. I remember when I first discovered Paganism Samhain was explained as, amongst other things, the Celtic New Year. I was happy with that. It made sense when I looked at the way the Old People started their ‘day’ at dusk; that we still count our days in nights ie. a ‘fortnight’ being two weeks. It is understandable then that the year should also begin at dusk. Now, as I look outside, I can see the evening of the year falling – it’s darker, colder, and somewhat calmer than a few weeks ago. There is a distinct smell in the air, of decay, of rotting leaves, a smell that, like a good incense, makes me feels relaxed and peaceful. It’s the smell of the Earth. Now it seems that some confusion has fallen over the true meaning of Samhain.

I’ve seen some people get quite irate if reference is made to Samhain being the Celtic New Year – saying that we don’t really know what it is, so any claims as to its authentic meaning are, well, meaningless. I suppose if one approaches spirituality as an historian would that could be right, but I’ve always approached my spirituality as a poet. Some might accuse me of escapism, and in a way that is true, but not to run away from real life, or as Druids tend to call it ‘the apparent world’, but to add to it. Recently my attention has been drawn to the monotonous and plastic constructs of our modern lifestyles, and this has confirmed to me once again that if we turn our backs on our imagination, our instincts, our animal natures, we simply play at life rather than engage it fully. Paganism is a natural spirituality that simply cannot breath if we approach it expecting tangible facts and historical proof. It’s the letting go of the need for facts, and opening to the potential of Nature as Wisdom that, to me at least, lets Paganism and Druidry breath freely.

The idea that Samhain might have once been the old New Year, and the understanding through myth, poetry and story that the Celtic peoples began their days with dusk, just leads me to relate to Samhain as a time of new beginning. All of the waste from the year, all of the pain and sorrow, the mistakes, the losses – this is the one time in the year when I can really offer them to decay, where I can express that I’ve learned all I can and need from these experiences, and that now I offer them to the earth as my own fallen leaves, to compost, and break down, to leave me with new bare branches on which fresh green can grow.

So may it be.