Thursday, 23 June 2011

True as the North Star

There’s something magical about the night sky, something that draws us all in. Looking with wonder at the stars is a universal human trait that must have been with us from the very first moments of species consciousness. The night hold such beauty, not just the richness of those pale diamonds cast over a velvety sky beyond our comprehension, but the possibility of what might lie beyond them. Thankfully for the less dewy eyed there is still a perfectly sensible reason for looking up besides pure indulgence, turns out those little lights are as useful as they are beautiful.

One of the most fascinating stars visible in the night sky is Polaris, the North Star or Polestar. Whatever name you want to give it, and believe me there have been a lot of names over the years: the Lodestar, star of the sea, the golden peg, Tou Min, to name but a few. Whatever you want to call it, it is both captivating, as one of the brightest stars in the sky, and an amazing navigation tool.

People have always been fascinated by Polaris. The Norse tradition tells of it being a jewel encrusted spike that kept the giant orb of the world suspected above, and Arab myths tell of a ominous hole in the sky. If we choose to, we can be scientific and accept it for the fiery wonder it is and yet, unlike some things, knowledge of its true origin in no way detracts from its use or fascination.

Polaris shines directly in the north. If you are facing Polaris you’re facing North. Of course in the days before compasses or GPS this was an essential means of navigation for any traveller. One can imagine the kind of relationship mariners would have built up with the Star of the Sea, her beautiful light keeping them on track, a reminder of, or leading them to, home. These constants are the kinds of things that us Pagans love to deal in. The sense of connection we feel with those who have gone before us, when our ancestors looked up at the North Star they looked to the same point and at the same white brightness that we do now.

Another thing about being a Pagan is that you might well find yourself lost in the woods on a dark night. Of course we’re a well organised bunch but even a consummate professional can find themselves with a torch that has run out of battery, or a compass which refuses to point north. If this happens fail not!

Polaris is right next to the constellation of Ursa Major, you know, the Saucepan, or Big Dipper if you’re slightly more eloquent. Find the handle and then find the part of the saucepan opposite that, the bit where you’d pour the tomato soup from…follow that straight up and there Polaris is, ready to guide.

Polaris is fantastic help in setting up a circle, assuming you are putting your altar in the north and working round from there. If you align your northern point with Polaris you’ll not only be perfectly aligned with the compass points, but with all the other groups or solitaries practicing in ages gone by and those working at the same time as you.

Have a look see if you can find her out tonight! 

Wednesday, 22 June 2011

The benefits of walking

I want to start this by saying that I always intended to drive, and probably, at some point, I won’t be able to avoid learning to do so, but recently it’s occurred to me that being a driver isn’t as much fun as it’s cracked up to be. There are of course advantages to the fast travelling metal box, such as not getting soaked in a rain storm or getting where you want to be in a quarter of the time, but the disadvantages are often overlooked.

Every day I walk for around two hours to complete the school run. My two children currently go to different schools because my daughter’s school couldn’t fit my son into their nursery. It isn’t ideal by any stretch of the imagination and at first I was concerned about whether we would be able to keep it up for a year. However to my surprise I’ve, for the most part, really enjoyed my daily trek.

Let me give you a few examples of how the walk has enriched my life: I have lost five pounds without dieting. I used to really struggle to keep my food intake low but I can be a lot more relaxed about it now because I know I’m giving my body the exercise it needs. There are three hills on the walk and so not only have I toned up, but now when I go for a run my stamina is so much better than it used to be. I get to spend an hour of the walk with my children. We talk about all sorts of things and by the time they get to school they are happy and ready to learn. You can’t rush about as much without a car, you can after all only go so fast on legs. We post letters together, point out shapes in building, talk about colours. In fact some of our best conversations are had during this walking time.

At first I thought walking to school put my children at a disadvantage because I wasn’t turning up with a flashy car everyday to school but that feels so unimportant now. When I see how fast they both run, how bright faced and healthy they look in an age of childhood obesity, when it’s difficult to get children to put down their computer games, I feel proud that they get a good stretch of their legs every morning before they have to sit in class.

We’ve seen some wonderful things during our walks, the first buds on the trees, spider’s webs like a string of diamonds in the misty frost, the migrating geese swooping overhead with their distinctive call. All of these sights, allowing my children to experience the changing seasons the very day the great wheel turns, makes all those soggy, less fun days, well worth it.

In September the walk will be considerably shorter when my son joins his sister at her school. I can only imagine that this will be an even better walking experience, shorter, but then when other parents are beeping their horns and pulling their hair out to try and find a parking space at a school that has no car park, I can stroll past without worrying where I’m going to leave my big metal box, carbon footprint 0.

To you lucky people who have the option of sometimes driving, I envy you because there are times when a car would be a blessing but I can only praise the benefits of sometimes making the decision to walk somewhere if you can. Our legs were designed to carry us anywhere we want to go and with careful planning, they’re as good at it now as they ever were.

Sunday, 12 June 2011

A space with our Mother

My exam is tomorrow afternoon and so I had nothing planned for my day but to sit at the table again and read over the essays of professional literary critics to make sure I can recall their main points in the test. Obviously trying to revise with two children running around isn’t a formula for success, so once again my husband had a plan to take them out for the day, this time to an open farm the other side of the city.

Before the children’s toast had even popped up the weather forecast was showing images of the mottled blue cloud, that means heavy rain, over Wiltshire. I reassured myself and the children that it would be okay; We’re not the kind of family who is deterred by a quick shower. While they ate breakfast I went to wake my husband and the sound of the water hitting the window reminded me that I should get out of the habit of dismissing predictions of the forecast as mere speculation. I opened the blinds (ignoring the cry of protest from my husband) and miserably observed the dull sky and water soaked grass below, no farm for the kids today.

A moment of anxious panic swept over me as I imagined tripping on scattered blocks of razor sharp Lego, the words of Henry James having to compete with The Empire Strikes Back booming from the other room. My husband tried to comfort me by saying he would still take them out, but I couldn’t bear the image of them traipsing round the farm, their soaked hair running into their eyes, the youngest one crying. Outwitted and dismayed I turned to the person I have always found myself turning to in a moment of crisis, my mother.

Half an hour later I was snuggled under a cashmere blanket, a kitten purring contentedly on my lap, as I basked in the eloquence of Eliot on German fiction, to the gentle pitter-patter of the rain against my mother’s window. The children and their father could watch their film at home without an irate loony pulling her hair out at each hum of a lightsabre.

I’m lucky to have a mother who is there for me; I know it’s not something that all of us are born with, or are able to enjoy into later life. The great wheel of existence is trying and some mothers face enormous challenges, that can lead to gaps forming between them and the children they have brought into the world. I don’t want to judge, motherhood is the single greatest challenge I have ever faced and it’s all too easy for people to condemn a mother when it all goes wrong. We can’t always make everything perfect but the energy of the Great Mother is there for everyone, regardless of their own experience with their maternal mother.

Goddess energy in its Mother aspect is a straight line to the feeling of comfort and security that we all first felt in our mother’s womb. Although we’re not children anymore, the world is still often a big, wide, sometimes scary place, but we, as Pagans, have something which is denied to so many other faiths: a true mother. She is not just the mourning virgin of Christianity, but a strong primeval protectress who both guides and guards us if we seek her out. She reaches out to us with her unending love, and we only have to reach out to her with open hearts like children and we can share in her thousand-fold blessings.

I’ll continue to love and cherish my maternal mother for as long as I am blessed to have her in my life but I know that she, like I and all mothers are part of another, greater energy that connects us all.

Saturday, 11 June 2011

A lesson from Gabriel Oak

It’s revision time again and me and thousands like me are full of anxiety about how well we’ll do in our exams and what the future will hold for us if we don’t get the grades we’re hoping for.

Outside the blackbird sitting on top of my roof is singing blissfully across the garden, the clothes on the line move in the gentle wind, and I’m sad that while my children and their father are outside playing, I have to stay in and study the finer points of 19th century fiction. Somehow, probably by the sheer determination that drives all mature students, I turn my attention from the beauty outside back to Hardy. Well at least in his writing I can read about nature, even if I can't enjoy it today.

The course book is discussing gender roles, highlighting the feminine aspect of Gabriel Oak’s (the male protagonist) personality, his care for animals as a shepherd and his devoted love for Bathsheba. It's all standard; it’s done the same for the other seven novels I'm going over. But then the text reminds me of something I had forgotten: the love and respect which Hardy gave Gabriel for the Divine Mother.

The first time I read Far From the Maddening Crowd I was struck, as everyone else is who reads Hardy, with the beauty of his descriptions of the natural world, but chapter 36 had really brought a lump to my throat. It covers the coming of a great storm after Bathsheba’s marriage to Sergeant Troy, when everyone is drunk and celebrating. Gabriel is the only one concerned about the coming weather and what the rain will mean for the recently gathered harvest, the loss of substantial income for the farm. The drunken Troy’s cynicism leads Gabriel to begin to doubt his instincts.

‘Gabriel proceeded towards his home. In approaching the door, his toe kicked something which felt and sounded soft, leathery, and distended, like a boxing-glove. It was a large toad humbly travelling across the path. Oak took it up, thinking it might be better to kill the creature to save it from pain; but finding it uninjured, he placed it again among the grass. He knew what this direct message from the Great Mother meant. And soon came another…’ 

Gabriel knows nature’s signs because he is of the earth, and as such a great example to us modern pagans. We live in a time of such distraction and detachment from the natural world that we’re often surprised by a rain shower, or caught off guard by a thick fall of snow. But nature, our original Mother and all the creatures that live in her have plenty of messages to share with the careful observer.

I’m not on par with Gabriel yet, my washing got rained on this afternoon, but I’m inspired. Once I can leave the books behind for a few months, I intend to  listen to what Hardy calls the ‘voice in nature’; even though I’m aware they’ll always be a lot of Sergeant Troys around who can’t hear her subtle whispering over the sound of their own voice shouting “Pooh!"

If you want to read the rest of the chapter you may do so here: Far From the Maddening Crowd - Chapter 36
Or buy it here: Amazon