Sunday, July 31, 2016

Our Connection to the Land

Land.

We live off it. We fight wars over it. We worship it. We take it for granted.
Each place on the planet gives off its own unique feeling. Oceans. Forest. Grassy fields with hills that roll in the distance. The stark power of a mountain. I've been living in a southern coastal city for seven years now, and the feeling of the place has got its hooks in me. When I first moved here I missed my shaded forests and storybook hills. And while I still long for those things, where I first saw the flatness of the Lowcountry I now see the huge expanse of sky. Any time of day here is all about the sky show - vast pillows of clouds and vivid hues of blue or pink or red or stormy gray like I have never seen. There is the smell of the marsh - the metallic, earthy stink of pluff mud and salt, and the silty murk of the ocean where alligators and snakes can wash onshore along with jellyfish and sharks are simply a matter of course. There is something primordial about living in the South - it is a reptilian place, but remember - the Serpent holds ancient wisdom and has so much to teach. Here too, is a world of birds - the usual back yard charmers, chickadees and cardinals and doves, but a whole new cast of black capped gulls and high trees filled with ibis, of pelicans and egrets and fierce-eyed herons.

I have spent the last seven years connecting with a sense of wonder to this land that initially felt so foreign, until I woke up one day and realized it had become a part of myself. The back yard speaks to me now - in the way the wind shifts when I greet it, sending the chimes overhanging the patio jingling, in the myriad faery lights I've seen on full moon nights in the shrubbery, in the animals that visit, each offering their own lessons. (Woodpecker says, "Quit daydreaming and get back to work!" Jumping Spider says, "There is creative magic here.")

We seek to own land so that we can control it, whether for good purposes like conservation, or sad, inevitable purposes like development. But I've come to realize that we don't ever own land, land owns us. In both a spiritual and a very physical sense. As Charleston has laid its claim on me, I have become her Daughter of the Marsh. I do not know if I will always live here, but I know now that a part of Charleston will always live in me. 

Watch this six minute video in which Aboriginal Elder Bob Randall talks about growing up in the Australian bush and how we can never be lonely when we understand our place in the Universe and connection to the land we live upon.
(Randall mentions being part of the "Stolen Generation;" he's referring to the policy of the Australian government in which indigenous babies were taken from their parents upon birth to be "assimilated" into white culture, a practice which took place from 1910 until it was finally abolished in 1970.) 

Tuesday, May 31, 2016

Animal Spirit Guides


Whether I'm in my own backyard or another country, I'm always aware of the animals surrounding me. We can learn so much by watching other animals in nature - watching birds fledge from a nest can be a lasting spiritual experience in and of itself. But our relationship with the natural world can extend further if we let it. 

In last month's newsletter we took a look at animal totems and their significance in modern life. Here's what I shared with readers. 

Why do animals want to help us?
We have a very unique place in the world. We have the ability to be masters or the ability to be stewards. The better, wiser, stronger, more peaceful, etc. we are, the better shape the planet is in. Animals, being the pure beings that they are, are continually appearing in our lives in an effort to help guide, teach and remind us. These helping spirits are what many cultures refer to as totems. But the practice of watching the natural world for signs, omens and other cues is one that spans both continents and millennia. In both ancient Britain and ancient Rome, the practice of watching nature and interpreting its signs was called "augury." It was believed that seeing a particular bird for example, flying a particular direction or behaving in a certain way meant something to the observer. Initiates were trained in the art of deciphering these signs, but I suspect that much of the information was also simply common knowledge, passed on from parent to child and carried through the generations that way.
The world doesn't revolve around us. But I do believe that the natural world is constantly trying to get our attention. We live in fancy boxes, sheltered from interaction with the chain of animal life and the elements, but we are still a part of the earth and connected to every living creature upon it. A great way to tune in more deeply to the world around us is to try and discover what animal totems may be supporting you. A totem is not necessarily an individual being in the sense that say, my dog Lucy is. An animal totem is a spirit. It is the over-arching spirit of that particular species. So, for example, if one of my totems is Owl, it may be a particular type of owl, let's say barn owl. But the spirit that is my totem comprises all the wisdom, knowledge and experience of every barn owl that has lived. You can reach out to your totems in meditation or shamanic journeying (I recommend this book by Sandra Ingerman, it comes with a CD). And to learn more about augury, Ted Andrew's book Animal Speak is indispensable.

You may have one main animal totem, or you may have several. I have found that animal guides tend to change throughout my life, but they seem to always be connected to you (so you can always "visit" with a past guide when you miss it or you feel you need it.) Some come to help you develop certain skills you need to accomplish something you're meant to do, or to help you learn a healthier way to be. The more you start to communicate with the natural world and explore getting to know your animal guides in spirit, the more strongly they will appear to you -- I can attest to that. You may dream of them, or they may appear right in front of you, like the owl I spotted near my backyard bird feeder in the middle of the afternoon. A good way to begin to search out your totem/s is to simply be more aware.

Are you seeing a particular animal again and again, either on TV, posters, books etc? Are you drawn to a coffee mug or another material item in a shop with a particular animal on it? Do you feel like you're suddenly noticing images or pictures or items for sale everywhere with a particular animal on it? Has an animal come to you in a dream? This animal may be a totem.
I got to know my first animal totem through a shamanic journey. Once that first step is made, there are lots of things you can do to support and strengthen your relationship. Donate money to the animal via a wilderness organization or give to support their habitat. Volunteer your time to help protect, care for or work with them. Purchase a small item to keep someplace special that reminds you of your totem so that you can keep the lines of communication open. You can also talk to them (via your mind) throughout the day, or think of them and send them feelings of love and warmth.

And a word to the wise (and respectful!) - Once you know who your totems are, it's best to keep them to yourselves. Telling others about your totems depletes their power. It's a sacred relationship, and one meant to be kept between you and the spirit of the animal. Exceptions to the rule can be if you "ask" and feel it is ok, or to help teach others who are looking to connect with totems of their own.

Thursday, April 28, 2016

Life, Death, and Staying "Awake"

Several days ago my husband and I were hit by a drunk driver. 

We were coming home on a bridge from an evening concert when Eric looked up just in time to see a pair of dark headlights coming at us head-on. The driver was traveling the wrong direction, hurtling against three lanes of on-coming traffic at 50 mph with no headlights at 11:30 at night. Eric swerved to the right and instead of colliding with us, the car clipped the side of our car, shearing off the rear door handle and kept on going. It was as if they hadn’t even seen us. Didn’t even realize they had somehow gotten on the bridge heading the wrong way. We were traveling 40 mph, they were traveling 50 – a fraction of a second had been the only thing that stood between us and serious hospitalization, but more likely, death.

We pulled over, shaken but somehow completely unhurt, and I dialed 911 – there was no doubt in my mind that car was going to hit someone else, and I knew we needed to get police on the scene as quickly as possible. While I was on the phone with the dispatcher she told me there was another call coming in – it seemed that the car had indeed struck another car after ours. We were told we could go home if our car was drivable and submit a police report in the morning. It was after midnight when we pulled into the driveway, still dumbstruck over the close call. Asa had just woken up and was crying in his crib. I thanked the babysitter and went in to hold him against me. He buried his head against my chest and fell back asleep. I bent to breathe in the smell of him. A fraction of a second nearly robbed my 11 month-old son of his mother. His father. I was angry, humbled, relieved; I was in shock.

The next day we found out the person who hit us was dead.

The passengers of the other car involved in the fatal crash were like us, somehow miraculously unhurt.
There were hours of police reports and insurance calls. In front of me, the phone to my ear, I read off the driver’s name. Their driver’s license number. They had recently had a birthday, their twenty-seventh. I learned about their final hours, the hours that had preceded the crash, from the officer who came to take our statement.

“Obliterated,” he’d said. They’d been at a bar with friends, and in just a few hours, it seemed, had managed to get “blind drunk.” The driver’s parents were helpful. My heart cramped for them. I’ve gone about my life because I can’t just stop, these past few weeks, and in my private time I’ve been grappling with a snake’s nest of displaced anger, sorrow, and confusion.

Brene Brown, an author and thinker I respect a great deal, talks about empathy and compassion. She argues that it can help us get through the muck and mire of life to understand (or in the very least tell ourselves) that other people are doing their best. They’re doing the best they can.

I’ve been sitting with that. The driver who hit us, and another car, who killed themselves (completely unintentionally, I now know): Were they really doing the best they can? Or were they just surfing through life on the surface, not thinking about things like consequences and the good fortune we all have to be alive, not thinking about other people with babies who depend on them, other people who want to think and breathe and live more deeply, who want to survive so they can offer something to the world?
See, I told you: anger. Someone lost their life, what right do I have to judge? I almost lost mine. That gives me the right, the Grudge-Keeper in me says. My child almost lost parents he hadn’t even built a memory of yet.

Does the soul choose the moment? Is this person’s death, like some might say, part of God’s plan? Part of me wonders if we were protected. Part of me reminds myself that I am not special. There are mechanical physics and gravity and time to contend with. No one is special. There is only the science of luck.  

I don’t know where this leaves things or why I had to share it. I suppose that at the heart of this is the importance of being awake. It feels right in my tribute, to them, these past two weeks, to re-commit myself to being awake.

To share this moment from my corner of the world to remind you to be awake too.

Was the driver truly “awake” to their life? Were they doing the best they knew how?
Know more, I wish I could say to them.
Or, I’m sorry. I’m so sorry you lost your life.
I know we all do stupid things.
I know we all make mistakes.

I try to tell them these things now, wherever they might be, whether they are in a place of knowing now, or just energy, or whether they are just a piece of the earth’s story now, a ghost. But the reality of it all is that the earth just ticks on and on. We move through our days, each approaching the end of our own stories. They may leave us full of pity or sorrow, of triumph or a sense of completion. But each story, no matter how it was lived, or how it ends, is equally meaningful.  







Thursday, March 31, 2016

Enchanted Destination: Fyvie Castle

Fyvie Castle, Scotland (Photo: National Trust for Scotland)

Located in Aberdeenshire, this 800 year-old castle is steeped in mystery and haunted by rumors of a powerful curse.

Legend has it that in the 13th century, famed laird Thomas the Rhymer roamed Scotland, traveling from court to court dazzling the people with his incredible gifts of prophesy. (It was said Thomas received his gift when he spent time under a hollow hill with the queen of the faeries.) Now these were days in which superstition yet ruled, and to offend a traveling bard or poet was a grave offense indeed. So when the Meldrum family of Fyvie heard that Thomas was making his way toward the palace, they sent a servant to thrust the gates open so that he would know he was welcome and take no offense. Though the servant did as he was told, a strong wind came and gusted the gates back on their hinges. When Thomas arrived and found the gates to Fyvie closed, he was furiously insulted. He lay a curse upon the home, swearing that no firstborn son should ever survive to inherit the castle.


Interestingly enough, he mentioned that there was one way the curse could be broken: the family had to locate three sacred stones within the castle and return them to their rightful place. The stones were known to remain dry when all other stones were wet and weep water when all other stones were dry. The stones were never discovered. And for 700 years, until the castle was sold to the National Trust in 1984, the eldest males of the five families that owned Fyvie throughout history came to end after horrible end. Not a single male heir survived to inherit the family home. 

What I find so interesting about this tale are the historical details - the "kernels of truth behind the legend."

- In ancient times, Celtic bards like Thomas were an order of the druid caste. Often thought to have great powers of prophesy, they spent decades in training and then roamed the land seeking the patronage of kings. They were revered, respected and most of all, feared because it was believed their words held the power to bless as well as to curse.
 
- Thomas the Rhymer, also known as "True Thomas," is believed to have been a real historical figure. His given name was Thomas of Erceldoune, son of Thome Rymor of Erceldoune, and he is mentioned in two charters from the 13th century. 

- "Weeping stones" are a phenomenon I've witnessed - in neolithic tombs. West Kennet Long Barrow in Wiltshire, constructed around 3700 BC, has just such a stone. A wet rock, limestone I believe, has a place of prominence in the deepest chamber. I sat with my back to it and it soaked my jacket although all the other stones in the chamber were dry. A porous rock, limestone is thought to absorb water and when the humidity and temperature is right, release it again.

If you're Scotland bound, Fyvie Castle is an enchanted destination not to be missed! 

Friday, February 19, 2016

Enchant Your Life: Scattered Petals - An Offering From the Heart

Enchant Your Life: Scattered Petals - An Offering from the Heart



Whether you've just moved into a new house or are simply seeking a deeper connection, scattering flower petals is one of the easiest ways to begin to forge a relationship with spirits in nature, especially with those in a place you visit often - think your own backyard!

It's an ancient tradition to leave offerings of flowers in sacred places - but my own practice was born from a healthy modern convention of convenience and a desire to connect. I love to fill my house with flowers, and buy fresh blooms to make bouquets a couple of times a month. It's a great way to bring the beauty of nature inside, and I find that they serve as constant reminders that life itself is an everyday miracle. I mean, stroke the velvet of a snowy-white rose petal and tell me that doesn't make you wonder at the utter genius that is mother nature! But as my roses began to fade, it always filled me with sadness. So I got into the habit of -- at the first sign of drooping-- plucking the petals and placing them in a basket or bowl to bring outside. I take a moment and step out onto the patio, take a few deep breaths and just relax, and I greet the yard. Just a mental greeting usually, or sometimes I'll reach up and gently touch my wind chimes to let them know I'm there. Almost always I can feel the atmosphere shift. It breezes with an awareness of sorts. I move about the yard, scattering the petals in places that I feel are specially charged, usually with the simplest but heartfelt thought: Hello. These are for you. Thank you just for being

Some people may differ on this, but personally, I don't feel it's necessary to speak out loud - in fact, for me, it diminishes my experience. After all, I don't hear nature spirits and other spiritual beings "speaking" to me in the physical world, I feel them in my heart or I "hear" them as a suggestion or thought in my own head. So to reply to them in the same way feels only natural.

The beautiful thing about this gesture is its simplicity. It only takes a few moments, but I always return inside feeling as though I've just had a meaningful connection or experience. If you decide to give this a try, be sure to listen. What do you hear? What do you feel? Often times when I'm out there the wind will pick up, but I'll notice it's only rustling the leaves in my yard. Sometimes I'll be startled by a particular bird fluttering close overhead. Magic abounds. I encourage you to give it a try and enjoy the deep sense of peace this can bring.

And don't worry about the spirits seeing these sorts of offerings as "sloppy seconds!" The flowers have spent time in your home, where they've been admired and appreciated. Now they'll grace the dwellings of the spirits that frequent your yard. It's the message you carry with them that is the real offering. The gesture, the reaching out. Days will pass and my busy life will sometimes take hold -- but it only takes a momentary spotting of those scattered petals on the ground by my bird feeder to remind me that I am plugged in to the enchanted world that surrounds me -- just as we all are. It never fails to bring me back to that moment of quiet, heartfelt connection, and then the wind picks up, and I smile. 

Monday, December 15, 2014

Clearing the Tree near Fairy Bridge

Recently The Manx Independent published an article ("Fairy Bridge and Tree Cleared of Clutter") about a man who's taken it upon himself to remove some of the bike helmets, plastic dolls, mirrors, scarves, necklaces, and many notes for deceased loved ones that had been in some cases stapled to the tree that sits beside the famous "fairy bridge" on the Castletown Rd.**

Those of you who read my book Faery Tale know of the beautiful places and people I connected with on the Isle of Man, and so, being such a fan of the incredible island, I like to keep up on the happenings there. People on Facebook (many of them Manx, from the feed I saw) were outraged.

While I can certainly understand the controversy, they could bear reminding that according to folklore, in ancient times if any thought to remove (or even so much as touch) a rag tied to a fairy tree, they were believed to risk taking on the illness left in hopes of curing by the petitioner - or in other cases, risk the wrath of the faeries themselves. So if this man's displeased the Good People, they needn't worry about justice and retribution, the faeries would take care of that.

However, I'm not so sure the faeries would be displeased. 

The man raised an excellent point, and it's one I've been wanting to write about for quite some time now.

"'I’ve driven past it often, and thought that for a while now it was getting out of hand,' he said. 'I had a day off today, so I thought I’d just come down now and do it quickly.’ He admitted he wasn’t sure if he had the right to clean up the area, but felt that not everyone was comfortable with the state in which the landmark bridge had been left."

When I first began venturing to fairy sites I was touched and astounded by the sheer evidence of human pilgrimage to these sites (as I wrote about in the book). I found the things left behind to be novel, kitschy, fascinating. It was only in visiting site after site since the publication of my book that I began to understand just how serious the impact of "leaving offerings" can be. Things like bike helmets, plastic toys, sunglasses, figurines, laminated paper, metal, beads or glass should never be left behind. As a result, some sites I've visited look more like landfills than they do sacred places. 
The Fairy Tree, Isle of Man

Places that do it right are places like the Chalice Well, where even candle wax is scraped from the stones by volunteers careful to preserve the site's "unmarked by man" sense of purity. 

Before I understood the impact, I was guilty of leaving things in places that didn't belong there - even though they were things like shells and natural stones I'd picked up on my journey to that place - leaving them behind was still a distraction to others who came to those places after me, seeking to have their own experience. Untainted by other "pilgrims" who'd visited before. We have only to visit places like St. Nectan's Glen in Cornwall to see the sad and astonishing impact that "just leaving one special thing" can have on a sacred place in nature.

Sacred sites like stone circles, hut circles, raised burial mounds and ancient ring forts (aside from mostly belonging to governmentally-operated preservation societies, or in some cases farmers and other individuals who kindly let you trespass on their property to experience a site) do not belong to you. Or even me, as much as I'd like it. The people who truly act as guardians for these sites realize they belong to everybody.

It discouraged me to read in the same article that "In 2009, Sonya Bowness, who lived at the Fairy Bridge cottage and owned the land on which the items were being left, grew exasperated as the popular tourist spot turned into an eyesore. However, her plans to have a visitors’ centre and a public access space built on land next to the bridge were denied." 

Ms. Bowness was clearly only searching for a solution that would still allow visitors to leave objects while simultaneously preserving her own sanity! However, Tynwald is considering installing a letter box near the tree so that children and adults wanting to leave notes no longer feel the necessity to staple and otherwise affix them to the tree. 

A"Wishing Tree," St. Nectan's Glen
Some might argue that in many cases (like on Fairy Bridge on Isle of Man and in St. Nectan's Glen) these items have been left as a memorial to honor a loved one. Especially on Isle of Man, where many of the items were left by family members of bikers who died in motorcycle wrecks on the island. My heart goes out to them. 

But I would say, if you want to make a shrine for a lost loved one, why not do it on your own property, where you can visit it daily and offer as many things as you'd like in remembrance? After all, their spirit isn't on the Isle of Man, it's much more likely with you, and the others who they loved during life. If you must leave something, leave an offering of flowers with a biodegradable string - these things go back to nature and it's the gesture, not the object, that carries the true meaning. 
Just a few of the thousands of trinkets
left behind in St. Nectan's Glen

I've seen a lot of trinkets left behind in my travels to ancient and folkloric sites. But of all the memorial objects I've ever seen, the thing that effected me most powerfully was a simple bouquet of wildflowers left beside a forgotten burial mound in southern Scotland. It was impermanent, unintrusive, and an astonishingly beautiful anonymous gesture that said, I honor. I remember. In this moment, I remember. 

Just like our temporary, beautiful and impermanent lives, the inherent message was that this too shall fall into the ground and pass.

And that, if you ask me, is how it really should be. 

**I know of two other fairy bridges on Isle of Man, one is the one I write about in the book, and the other is kept a close secret by only a few locals. That one I pray they will keep a secret, even from the likes of me. 

Tuesday, December 09, 2014

An Easy Way to Help Animals in Zoos

As someone obsessed with animals, I -- like many -- have conflicted feelings about animals in captivity. My love for animals goes back many years - as a child I wanted nothing more in the world than to be a veterinarian, and then in my first year of college at George Washington University, I had my heart set on becoming an animal behaviorist. Unable to resist the call of my fascination for wild creatures, I would skip out on calculus class and take the metro to the National Zoo, where I would sit and make observations in a notebook about the resident orangutans. (I would not recommend this as a highway to success, but I did have some beautiful experiences with the animals over the course of that year. )

While there can be no denying that good zoos often provide caring and stimulating homes for animals that, for a myriad of reasons, are no longer suited for or capable of having life in the wild,  there are an equal (if not greater) number of zoos around the world that trade in illegal wildlife and treat animals abominably. In honor of Animal Rights Awareness Day, I wanted to share this powerful article by animal communicator Anna Breytenbach. I encourage you to take time to think about what you might be able to do to help wild animals today, whether it be donating time or even a small amount of money to your favorite organization. But Anna shares a technique you can use that doesn't cost a thing, and I invite you to try it the next time you find yourself facing an animal in captivity. 
"Seeing captive wildlife in zoos can be very upsetting for people who care about the distress the animals may feel. The vast majority of animals in zoos or recreation centres are living a miserable life of confinement and overwhelm. Unable to exercise their bodies or minds nor live a natural lifestyle with normal relationships, they suffer dire mental, physical and emotional consequences. When we witness these sad states, we can ourselves become upset, angry, sad or despairing. Unfortunately, us being in those states is not at all helpful to the very animals. If we indulge our emotional reactions and end up pouring those out in the direction of the animal, they feel so much worse about their situation and themselves. Feelings such as pity and anxiety add to an animal's stress, compounding the problem.
Of course we need to be authentic in acknowledging our feelings. They can also be wonderful motivators of positive, productive action - inspiring great acts of support, assistance and transformation.
However, when we're in the presence of any animal in distress, it's important to adjust our thoughts and feelings in the moment. Here's a simple 4-step process to do that:
1. Take a moment to calm and quiet your mind. Even in a busy environment, simply closing your eyes and focusing on your regular breathing rhythm can achieve this quickly
2. Allow any unpleasant or unhelpful emotions and thoughts to leave you. One way is to visualise them running down and off your body like muddy water
3. Bring your attention to your heart centre and feel a sense of calmness
4. Think of positive or uplifting emotions and states of being - one at a time. For each one, feel like you are projecting that particular feeling towards the animal, imagining it landing upon them and wrapping them in the soft light of that particular energy
Throughout these steps, contain and ground your own energy within yourself. This is a non-intrusive process aimed at supporting the animal without expecting any feedback or outcome. We're not trying to force anything upon the animal; we're simply offering energetic assistance by providing the kinds of frequencies they may not be call upon on their own due to their circumstances.
By humans witnessing and caring in this way, animals feel appreciated and seen at a deeper level than the average person who only "sees" them visually and superficially. Most visitors to zoos put a camera lens between themselves and the animals they are supposedly there to experience. Far better to set aside all technology and distractions and simply engage with the animal directly with your full awareness. Even very distressed or depressed animals will sense your connection and compassion, and their experience of their day will be the better for it." 
For more information on Anna and her company AnimalSpirit, visit http://www.animalspirit.org/