One CD in my collection played only at Yuletide, for no more than a week, brings me to tears for all the Winter Festivals gone past in since I was twenty. Music to make me weep. The disc only came to me a quarter of a century ago, but it pulls all the memories from the twenty plus years before, the tears flow blurring vision through which I see like yesterday the Yuletide I became engaged to my first husband, and then the Christmases we shared for a year over a quarter of a century. Music to make me weep. The scene changes to the first Yule after I met my second husband, shared three thousand miles a apart on the phone all Christmas Day the same meal, and the same video after, and the first one we were together a year later after his two young daughters moved this at time to Ireland, after the ten years in England and Orkney, then the Yule alone, after he left me for another. Music to make me weep. Finally, six years ago in Bath, the three cats and I with the man who became husband three, a big house in the city and in then the years since after the big house to our place in the country, a home to share a life to cherish a time of gratitude. Music to make me weep. This CD has taken me through three lifetimes since I became an adult, in such different places all of which the music slips into my memory holding tenderly the remembrances of joy and gladness, gingerly those of loss and pain; for this is the power of music, to elicit emotion, to recall events, to jostle free recollections of times and people past and gone, present and here, into the future and yet to be this CD will take me through those Yuletides as well. Music to make me weep. The CD is Celtic Christmas II: A Windham Hill Collection
In her late sixties now, kneeling before the Iron box glass-fronted, soot stained, she opens the door, She faces the remnants of an old fire’s ashes left by he, who the night before, wove the magic of metal on metal striking the spark to open the flames, but he is not present now, on a cold afternoon when she and the night-black cat desire the comfort and warmth of the dancing flames. So, on her knees, she cleans the glass, the cloth taking the soot to itself and leaving the way clear to see the fire’s glory. Rolling up lengths of newspaper, and wringing them like wet rags, the deeds and misdemeanors of days past squashed and rumpled, are placed carefully on the ash-bed, a bit of thin kindling added, and cotton ball teased and pulled apart complete the preparations, awaiting only the striking of metal to metal. Spark, spark, sparksparkspark and the kindling catches, now she feeds the slightly larger bits of wood, and last of all the fire logs, and the door is closed, secured as flames dance. Time to give thanks for the gift of fire, and begin the vigil so the flames do not splutter, glow brightly, die – for this is her true job, to maintain the fire for the day to take off the chill, to gladden the heart, to challenge the cold of winter, until the night comes and in time the fire is allowed to fall away into glowing embers and at finally to grey ash for the night. Until, the morrow, when fire is once more coaxed to life in the iron box, glass-fronted, soot stained.
I was once told: Remembering the past is easy, it’s remembering the future that’s difficult. Those words have haunted and challenged me for many years now, during which time I have struggled to come to terms with the gift of triple vision – of seeing the now, but always in the light and in the shadow of the then and the yet. There is no written guide passed down, passed along, merely stumbling along as best as possible hoping this technique is adequate, knowing that it is not. How is it that I arrive at these places of semi-understanding, quasi-comprehension out of my depth, facing the breadth of clear perception and shaded sight, opening like a giant maw of uncertainty before me? Questions unanswerable, barely asked as I move beyond the mist held past and toward the fog shrouded future.
Molten crimson velvet sloughing ash delicately grey, irregular pulsations, silent throbbings, vermillion to black. Fire. contained in an iron box with a viewing glass, appearing tamed – illusion. Flames lick. Flames dance. Flames reach and retreat in yellows, purples, oranges, blues, radiating heat, drying clothes, removing moisture. Fire. Held. Contained, barely. Always like the sea untameable, wild, unpredictable, Fire grabbing the air, pulling to itself wood, devouring, all the while random sparks ascending, in hiss, spit, crackle. Flame consuming, irreverent, uncaring tumbling down fireworkings, a cascading aurora in a box, mesmerising magical, menacing, drifting in place needing no sky for its dancing. In reality, we know so well now, fire is a predator, consuming and violent, yet also the paradox when contained, fire can be friendly, warming, comforting.
Here is my introduction of a sequence of four poems inspired by my personal and idiosyncratic experience of Hildegard of Bingen, her life and her varied works.
I first came into contact with Hildegard when I was at university studying Mediaeval History and Literature. I spent a lot of time in the 12th century, Hildegard’s century. Even at that time I came to her life and works from inside the church box, albeit an Anglican one. For nearly a quarter of a century, however, I have been engaging her works as a pagan, specifically as a Druid, as one of my ancestors of spirit.
This, naturally, colours how I approach what she says and more importantly how she says it. It is the reason I am picking up Latin again, for the third time and now after thirty-four years, because I want to translate and read her words from very far out of the box into which she is confined by the church.
It will take some time to achieve this, but I want to see how she reads with a very different light shone on her. I believe it will be illuminating in more ways than one. From these readings I know will issue further poems than the four I am setting out here.
From how I understand and perceive her, she both more and less than what the current Hildegard ‘craze’ makes her out to be. She was a woman of contradictions and contrasts. She was fierce and formidable as well as faith-filled, potent combinations for a woman at any time, let alone the 12th century.
By way of elaboration – in the second poem of the sequence I use the word: viriditas, a Latin word that means essentially greenness. Hildegard, however, makes it her own by extending its meaning, in various translations rendered as: freshness, vitality, fertility, fecundity, fruitfulness, verdure, or growth. In her understanding, viriditas is a metaphor for spiritual and physical health. It is a word and concept as multi-faceted as the woman who used it so creatively, and it says so much about Hildegard’s approach to life and to belief.
Feather on the Breath of God – for Hildegard of Bingen One When you stood before the archbishop of Mainz being questioned, interrogated, challenged regarding your visions – You responded: I am a feather on the breath of God. Ironically, or perhaps most fortunately, the learned churchmen never really understood, would have found it quite impossible to understand – What a feather, not a soft downy one nor a flashy ornamental one . . . Oh no . . . You were a flight feather, strong and unyielding, a feather that took you far, enabled you to fly, soaring with your musics, allowing you to travel in your visions, discovering the mysteries of life, revealing the wonders of nature, probing the secrets of the Divine. Oh yes . . . A feather on the breath of God you may have been, but ooh what a feather. We will never really know what the archbishop thought at your assertion, maybe: ah . . . a docile abbess, a humble leader of nuns, a dutiful daughter of the church. They were, of course, both right, and so very wrong, for you were a strong willed, migraine suffering woman, who did not relent, nor acquiesce in the face of the wrongs of the church as they pertained to you and your community. A feather on the breath of God – indeed! Two You were overawed by the power and necessity, physically and spiritually, of what you termed viriditas; and in these times, your message takes on a different deep hue, your viriditas means so much more now as we see the fragility of ecosystems and engage in environmental degradation. Or, did you see so far ahead, see things you knew you could not write in full? People are meant to be green – Out of context, or is it? Do we know with certainty the context of your visions couched in language and explanations that preserved them for us? Three Doctor of the Church you were made, one more and final attempt to make you safe – to sequester your thought and constrict the understanding of your words, attempting to hold firmly in an ecclesiastical grasp what you said, what you saw, what you knew. Still – your feather remains a flight feather, for you can still soar and your word-wings beat above and beyond how the church chooses to interpret you. Your antiphons and responses, sequences and hymns also ascend far above the abilities of male voices; you wrote musics only women can sing, leading them to fly with you above the ranges of men’s comprehending, taking them to the realms of the Divine. Four Your word-wings, powered by your flight feathers rising on God’s breath bring you to our times, where you have become famous, because you were, eight centuries ago, a woman who dared to go beyond the limits that sought to restrict you – you wrote chiding letters to the powerful, both clerical and secular, you preached abroad in the Rhineland, you stood your ground against interdict and proscription, for neither your conscience, nor your voice could easily be confined. and certainly not silenced. Oh yes . . . You were a feather on the breath of God, a strong feather, flight feather, quill feather that did not gently fall to earth, but took you soaring where now we may, and indeed must, follow, for your words ring out timely and clear: People are meant to be green. The earth must not be destroyed.
This afternoon I helped a friend inter the ashes of her beloved cat, Oscar, who had to be escorted to the Pearly Catflap on St Francis Day - 4th October. It was his time as he was suffering from heart failure. Oscar was a real character and is much missed.
Oscar Cat ~ Rest gently now and at peace in the ground of your guarding. May the earth you knew and prowled in life, hold your remains safely in death. On the far side of the Pearly Catflap, may you experience the companionship of you Catcestors, at the place where Bastet-Ailuros presides, and all cats, wild and tame, great and small, who have gone before you find welcome and release.
If you would like to use the words I created for Oscar Cat for your own feline companion at his or her burial, please feel free to do so.
We, the modern people, suffer the dusk, challenge the night, anticipate the dawn, hoard the day. We are divided from wholeness. We are alienated from the holy. We are strangers before the sacred. Our souls are uncomfortable in our skins. We are, made ourselves, allowed ourselves to become prisoners locked away from the wonder, wisdom, wildness of earth and sky. Our ancestors would not recognise us as their relations, because we are not related to the world around us, the world that surrounded them. Though we have maps, GPS and satnavs, we are lost, we have wandered far off the path of authentic being. For without gadgets and gimmicks, our ancestors knew where they were, they knew their place, could find their way to what mattered most. They, the ancient ones, awaited the dusk, respected the night, relished the dawn, cherished the day.
Overnight unseen arriving the one, the only snowfall to mark the season’s presence and passage. Soppy, slushy, slippy already retreating, but snow nonetheless, an unusual occurrence in The Levels where the land rests low and the water table rides high. Snowdrops appeared a few days prior delicate blossoms bright green and white against the muddy woodchip, though made of sturdy stuff, these harbinger flowers. Together for a moment ephemeral snow enchanting snowdrops, Winter’s last gasp, Spring’s first sigh.
Time does not behave now as it used to, or perhaps, just maybe from such slowing down its behaviour is more noticeable. Bound in places, held in spaces what happens to spacetime, when space contracts, time constricts? Seeing no one, unless observed remotely, from windows walking past, or in virtual space in real time – What then is real? What is time? What is space? Or Where is real? Where is time? Where is space? What have we become? Who are we becoming? Going nowhere beyond the shop, necessities seem more necessary, for they are the reason to leave one’s space for a time, venturing to other places masked and distanced. Unable to trust anyone, who knows when or whether a stranger or a friend carries the contagion, making us wary as in every moment life’s time for each individual crawls and scurries onward. What is lost of time’s trajectory, no less precious for its ephemerality, no less regretted for what feels like its wasting, differently experienced now slipping past day on day, hour by moment for a nearly a year gone forever? Shards, scraps, shreds of time tumble in free fall as autumn’s leaves landing silent and mostly unremarked forming mulch for memories.
Winter now, whether by light, temperature or precipitation, and the trees know. Walk in a woodland, an orchard, a forest, or stand by a tree, listen, sense, engage what the tree lives now – it is time to rest, it is time to connect deeply with the nurturance of the land where roots sent deeply, rapped in mycorrhizal blankets, sustain and strengthen, preparing for the spring awakening Winter now, whether by light, temperature or precipitation, and the trees know. Trees teach that always pushing out, always reaching up, always producing, is not a show of power, is not a badge of strength, is not s sign of wisdom, for trees, many far longer lived than humans, spend time each year in winter in quietude, no leafing, no twigging, no flowering, no fruiting, all of which have a season, have a place and purpose, but the purpose of winter, this is different. Winter now, whether by light, temperature or precipitation, and the trees know. Listen and learn from the trees this year; this winter slow down, allow time for renewal, experience quietude, reach deeply for what truly nurtures and sustains, and know what the trees have always known – you cannot be powerful, strong or wise if you do not. Winter now, whether by light, temperature or precipitation, and the trees know.