The Day of the Dead Ceilidh

The Day of the Dead Ceilidh

The music is driving, the people young and old, with painted faces swirling, laughing.  The lights are low, and candles in front of an altar flickering.  On the altar are photographs of departed loved ones, flowers, fruit, bottles of beer.  This could be Mexico.  But it’s Oxford: Wolvercote Village Hall, to be precise.  It’s the Day of the Dead Ceilidh.

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Day of the Dead Ceilidh 2014, Photo by Kamyar Adl

The Day of the Dead Ceilidh came about as a response to the request for a celebration in the middle of the Kicking the Bucket Festival.  Liz Rothschild, Director of the Festival, asked if Kismet, the folk band I am part of, could create something special.  I loved the idea that there should be dancing and music as part of a festival about death.  As the poet Alice Walker has it, “Hard times require furious dancing.”  So, of course, we said yes.

There’s something very powerful about remembering the dead in the very heart of life. Taking inspiration from the Mexican Day of the Dead, we dress up, not as the spooks and ghouls of Hallowe’en, but as skeletons adorned with flowers and beautiful patterns.  As we dance with each other, we dance with death, with life, with our loved ones lost.

Gigante made by Groovy Su, Photo by Kamyar Adl

The altar is a cupboard that Liz found and painted red.  On its shelves, we invite people to place photos of loved ones who have died, and to leave messages and light candles.  The Mexican tradition is to add objects associated with the people who have died, and to leave them their favourite food and drink.

Mexican Altar Photo by Noe Orozco

Mexican Altar, Photo by Noe Orozco

Our Mexican friend Noe kindly brought us back some Day of the Dead artefacts on his last trip there, so we have a few on our own altar.

Our Altar Photo by Kamya Adl

Our altar ready to receive more photos and candles, Photo by Kamyar Adl

 

Along with traditional ceilidh tunes and dances are some we’ve made especially for the occasion.  I made a dance for the ancestors set to a mesmerising French tune.  The dancers go in line, taking three steps forward and one back.  Each step backward is a nod to the ancestors, who stand behind us always.  And we stamp.  This feels good, grounding our feelings in the solidity of the earth.  It also has an ancient origin. African people stamp on the earth to call up the ancestors, whose bones are buried under the dust.  We stamp to say, ‘We, the living, remember you.  Come join us in the dance.’

Kath Lucas, another member of Kismet, took two New Orleans Marching Band tunes and made them into a dance.  The tradition in New Orleans is that the brass band plays solemn tunes on the way to the funeral, and breaks out into wild jazz for the party afterwards.  In Kath’s dance, formal movements give way to fast and furious improvisations, and then back to the solemn with a new partner. From our vantage point on the stage, it’s wonderful to watch each couple playing with the contrasts.

Kismet, photo by Kamya Adl

Kismet, photo by Kamyar Adl

For the last dance, we turn the lights off and bring the candles into the centre of the circle.  We switch of the PA and come with our instruments among the dancers.  We play ‘Harsanik’ a slow, haunting Armenian tune, and the dancers step around and into the centre and bow, and out again.  It is at once poignant and richly satisfying.  The dance is traditionally done at the end of a wedding, where there is often sadness in the midst of joy.  It belongs here too.

One of the reasons I love the Kicking the Bucket Festival, and am proud to bring this event into the programme, is because looking death in the eye helps me not to take life for granted.  My mother and father both died young, my father before he was 40 and my mother at 56.  Who knows how many days, weeks or years we have left to live?  Who knows how long our cherished friends and family will be with us?  It’s so easy to lose perspective in the struggle of daily life and forget how blessed we are.  The Day of the Dead Ceilidh, and the whole Kicking the Bucket Festival, is a little reminder.

There is also something wonderful – and unusual – about sharing grief.  No-one wants to be the chief mourner at a funeral.  It makes you untouchable.  Here it’s no-one’s personal tragedy, but a collective act of remembrance.  My grief, alongside yours, becomes more manageable.  It’s easier to accept that death is universal, that everyone is living with loss, some recent and keen, some more distant and subterranean.  Meeting the eyes of strangers in the dance, you know that they too have suffered.

Melissa Holding, from Kismet, Photo by Kamya Adl

Melissa Holding from Kismet, Photo by Kamyar Adl

We held the Day of the Dead Ceilidh last year even when the Kicking the Bucket Festival didn’t run.  After two years, it was beginning to become a tradition, to cut a groove in the cultural pattern of the year.  Standing opposite to May morning, when we rise before dawn to rejoice in the coming of the Summer, it holds a place for honouring the darkness of Winter and the release of death.  Humankind has been keeping the balance of these rituals for millennia.  Why not come and join us this year?

 

The Day of the Dead Ceilidh is at Wolvercote Village Hall on Friday 4th November.  Doors open 7.30pm.  Entry £12 / £10 conc.

Tickets from http://www.wegottickets.com/event/356225

 

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On Yurts, Grandmothers and the Net of Light

I have been sharing a little more widely my work with the Great Council of Grandmothers.  Sometimes people ask me how I came to work with them.  So, if you’re sitting comfortably, here is a story.

Once upon a time, I fell in love with a yurt.  It was an orange-painted, felt-lined Mongolian yurt . . . on Ebay.

13139139_610526705788935_5896478109150216481_n When I won the auction, I was so overexcited, I couldn’t sleep.  Buying the yurt was a leap of faith towards a future that included healing, and holding sacred space.  It was also incredibly ill-thought out.  We had nowhere to put the yurt up or store it, we had no vehicle of any kind, and I had done zero research on whether a felt-lined Mongolian yurt would stand up to the challenges of a British climate.  I am still apologising to my long-suffering husband for throwing him practical challenges that he hadn’t quite signed up for.

After two days of being so ungrounded that I couldn’t function properly as a mother, and had to go to a friend’s house for safe harbour, I had the sense that I was being looked after.  And called.  Some indigenous grandmothers wanted me to work with them.  “You will sit at our feet and learn” they said.  I didn’t know what this meant at the time.  Would I need to travel to a far off tribe to find them?

Some months after this, I put the yurt up at a camp, to hold a space for the women’s lodge, and a woman appeared offering a meditation called, “Casting the Grandmothers’ Net of Light.”  I went to the session, where we lay down while she drummed and invited us to visualise a great net covering and penetrating the whole earth, made by points of light which willingly joined together to hold the earth through a time of huge transition.  I felt a great warmth in my womb – a sense of healing and enlivening; of power.

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I looked up the website of  GrandmothersSpeak and was stunned by the immediacy of the message I read there.

“Earth has suffered too long from an excess of yang and insufficient yin,” the Grandmothers declare.  “The present imbalance of energy of Earth has placed all life in danger. It is time to return to balance, and for this women must lead.  Women must be empowered.  This is why we have come.”

I also discovered that Seersha O’Sullivan, who led the Net of Light session at Sacred Arts Camp, was a senior teacher at Shamanka College of Shamanic Studies for women, in Dorset.  The yurt had opened a space for me to find my calling, and my teacher.  I signed up and began a two year training in the shamanic healing arts.  I also read Sharon McErlane’s book, A Call to Power, The Grandmothers Speak, and called up Sharon to receive, (via Skype!) the ‘Empowerment’ – a transmission that’s given person to person.

What’s wonderful about the work is the way it is benefits us and the world at the same time.  The Grandmothers are all about effortlessness.  They do not want us to stress and strain to make stuff happen.  Enough of that already.  They want us to become nourished, steady and strong, connected to one another, and filled up with power from the Source.  In that state we feel good ourselves, and we have something wonderful to offer the world.  Steadiness, balance, restfulness, holding, loving compassion are so very much needed at this time of intense change and chaos.  If we fill ourselves up with these qualities, they naturally spill out into the world.

Now, I have agreed to be the ‘Oxford Beacon’ for the Grandmothers Network.  I hold a space once a month for people to come together to explore the Grandmothers’ message and to practise visualisations and meditations.  We always hold the ‘Net of Light’, and, if anyone would like to receive the ‘Empowerment’ I offer it, within a little ceremony.

Our next meeting is on Wednesday 13th July, at my home, from 1pm – 2.30pm.   Please get in touch if you’d like to know more.  Later in the Summer, I hope to offer a day for the Grandmothers at our yurt, which now has a home on a farm in West Oxfordshire (how that came to be is another magical story!).  Then the circle will be complete.

 

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Picking up our own Sh*t

I walked back from the school run today with a friend who is a dog-owner.  As we reached a slightly squashed dog poo, she paused and mused, “Ah. I’m not sure, but I think I’ll take responsibility for that one.”  And she duly did the deed with the plastic bag.

What I want to share today is a practice that on an energetic level is much the same.  It’s about picking up after ourselves, and in the process becoming more radiant, creative and joyful.

In the Inka tradition, which is the shamanic path I am studying, everything in the universe is understood to be made up of energy.  The flow of energy of the universe (known as ‘sami’) is light and naturally abundant.  If we are in harmony with it, we are also light and joyful.  When the flow is blocked, the energy becomes stagnant, and heavy energy (known as ‘hoocha’ is created)   As only humans have free will, only we create hoocha, and only we can clear it.  Hoocha (like poo) is not evil; we are not sinners for creating it.  It’s just that we don’t want it hanging around us.  Consciously choosing to give away hoocha is like saying, “I think I’ll take responsbility for that one.”  It’s both a duty, and a service to the world.  And it also (like decluttering your house, which I also recommend!) clears space for good new things to arrive.

poqpo

Here is a human with her bubble of energy (‘poqpo’).  In our pure state, our energy field is bright and glowing, plugged into the ecstatic flow of the universe.  But daily the world impacts our energy with its disappointments, aggression, misery.  We also create our own hoocha (our irritations, fear, jealousy etc).  This ancient Inka practice allows us to clear our bubble, and return the hoocha to the earth, where it can be transformed.

Samin Chakuy

Standing upright, plant your feet solidly on the earth.  Visualise your ‘energy bubble’ around yourself. You can use your hands to help build a sense of how far out your energy extends around yourself. It extends to the front and back, left and right, above your head, and below your feet, as in the picture above.

  1. Call on a powerful cleansing light or shower of clean rain (Sami) from above to wash away the hoocha from the outside of your bubble. This is the residue from other people and the world: stuff that isn’t yours. See the hoocha dripping off like mud, and seeping into mother earth, with your thanks. (Sometimes, I find a pressure hose is needed . . . )
  1. Now open a little aperture at the top of your bubble, above your crown. Bring in the light / rain to cleanse this space between the bubble and the outside of your body. This is the hoocha you have created: your fears, jealousies, irritations and so on. Give these away too, with thanks for everything they have taught you.
  1. Thirdly, bring the light through the crown of your head into your physical body, cleansing every cell, especially your organs, leaving them sparkling and golden. Pay special attention to any part of the body that feels tight or unwell in any way. Send the hoocha to the earth, with thanks.

Finally, fill up with light, and then close the aperture at the top of the bubble and feel yourself clear and bright, relaxed and alert. In this state you are better able to deal with the knocks and bumps of the day, and to stay present to all kinds of suffering, without getting overwhelmed or depressed.

*                               *                              *

We live, as the Chinese curse goes, in Interesting Times.  Sometimes the news is so Interesting, it’s hard to remember that Life is essentially creative, beautiful, abundant.  (And I’m aware that it’s not very British to suggest this. Especially in February.)

The practise of Samin Chakuy reminds me that the fear and gloom is like a dark mist in the atmosphere.  It seems like reality, but actually it can be washed away.  The truth of life is far more extraordinary and magnificent, unpredictable and magical that it seems.

And there’s more.  When we decide to do this practice, we also enter into a giving and receiving relationship with Pachamama, the earth and Sami, the life force.  We begin by giving away our hoocha, which Pachamama willingly receives.  This makes us ready to receive more from the flow of the universe, staying alert to what opportunities come our way.  This principle of reciprocity, known as ‘Ayni’, is fundamental to the Inka world view.  See more about it in this wonderful article by Inka World.

I recommend doing Samin Chakuy every morning, after a long journey, after a stressful day . . . as often as you like.  Once you get used to it, you can do it in a few breaths anywhere and anytime.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Yin and the Art of Not Doing

I spent a lot of this early Autumn doing nothing. Lying down in bed, asleep or awake. Sitting very still in a chair in the sun. I had a disturbance of the inner ears, which made movement or concentration of any kind difficult. My doctor helpfully offered the word ‘disequilibrium’ to describe the brain confusion that resulted from any exertion. On the other hand, as long as I sat or lay absolutely still (and I was calibrated like a fine spirit level to know when this blissful moment arrived), I felt fine.

Stillness

Not doing

Go deeper

Beyond not doing

No thought ripples the pond

Empty

Full

My usual world of list-ticking business turned upside down. I cancelled things. The children ate baked beans. We all watched a lot of children’s TV. When the girls were at school, I sat in the sun and watched the blackbirds eat our unpicked grapes. My days became not a question of ‘How much can I get done?’ but ‘How softly can I be? How little can I disturb myself?’

I spent a lot of time musing about balance – or the lack of it – in my life, and in the world. The balance between being and doing. The balance of Yin and Yang.

Imagine a garden. Here are some of the things the gardener does: sowing, weeding, watering, thinning, killing pests, pruning, tying up, cutting down, harvesting, picking, mulching. All good and useful Yang Doing words.

Except, as yet, there are no plants. Not until we add the Yin words, the ones that (at the risk of sounding like Neil from The Young Ones) nature does for us: incubating, germinating, sprouting, rooting, growing, budding, blossoming, fruiting, decaying, composting.

We cannot make our garden without any of these things. Sometimes we have to do something, but we also have to trust, to wait, to notice, to accommodate, and simply celebrate and be grateful. Or, at times, to surrender and accept our losses. These are all Yin qualities of Being.

In my life, and in our culture, the Yang qualities are so much more celebrated, that the Yin ones can feel invisible. They are also mistakenly thought of as passive. Is a seed lying in the ground, waiting for its exact moment to explode into life, passive? Or do we just not know what it’s up to? What about a flower offering itself up to be pollinated?

I find it sad that our culture is locked into economic progress and productivity that we are only really allowed to stop when we are ill (or dead!). We are like a garden that is constantly weeded, sprayed, fed and harvested, but not given any time to incubate, grow and blossom. What would the world look like if we could bloom into the exact shape and form that we naturally have, in our own time? What would we create, if we could allow our ideas real time to germinate? And, as a parent of tired children, I wonder what an education system that took this seriously would look like.

Now I am ‘better’ I am struggling to keep a sense of balance while I go back to the endless round of doing, and feeling that it’s not enough. Again!  And yet . . . sometimes I do remember, and I become a little more compassionate with myself, with my children, with friends being sleepy, or unproductive, or ill. And despite my conditioning (much like yours) to ‘Look busy, Jesus is coming!’ I am beginning to truly value my time ‘within’, and trying to live according to the terms of my own unfolding. It won’t pay the bills, it doesn’t bring success or prizes, because mostly the world isn’t set up to even notice. But perhaps it can bring something else – that lovely Yin word that speaks of a vessel brimming with essence: fulfilment.

So, amid the extra business of December, let’s raise a glass to doing nothing, resting, dawdling, day dreaming, procrastinating.  I give you full permission.  Let me know how it goes.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Slow Books – Melting Islands, Arctic Bears and the State of Publishing

When I saw the play Island at the National Theatre, it made me cry.  I cried because the story was sad and true – it’s about a melting island in the arctic.  I cried because the story was beautiful, and beautifully told.  And I cried because it was written by my sister, Nicky Singer, and I was proud.

It’s such an important story, that Nicky naturally wanted to revisit it as a novel – since being a novelist is what she’s always done.  So she wrote the book, and felt that the last pages were some of her best writing ever.  But when it came to publishing,  there followed a tale that would make you weep tears of frustration.

And so I want to share Nicky’s own telling of that story – how the novel was deemed a ‘quiet book’ (i.e. not going to earn a load of cash for the publishers in a difficult financial climate) and how she decided to do something about it by starting a Kickstarter campaign.

Nicky’s Blog

There are three days to find the remaining £1,000 for Nicky’s campaign.  Would you like to be a backer?  The first level of backing is just £5.  For £15 you get a first edition of the book, so it’s just like a pre-order really.  Or. for £500, you could have her come to do a day of bespoke workshops / talks in a school.  See more here:

Nicky’s Kickstarter Campaign

If you can help in any way, I’d be very grateful.

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Moon Time – a book whose time has come

This week sees the publication of the second edition of a book by Lucy Pearce that’s close to my heart: Moon Time – Harness the ever-changing energy of your menstrual cycle.

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I met Lucy in her role as commissioning editor of Juno magazine, in which some of my articles have been published.  She’s a great networker, and a powerful voice for women.  Her new book is poised to make some waves in the world, and I am cheering her on. In my view, anyone who helps women – and eventually men – to understand the power and the wisdom of the female cycle is a revolutionary.   Just think for a minute – How different would our world be if we honoured and valued all the seasons of a woman?

When I was growing up it was The Curse. At school it was a mess and a nuisance. When I was at University no-one mentioned it. When I started working at a psychiatric hospital as a young dramtherapist, I met a MALE psychiatric nurse, who befriended me and told me about some books I should read. (Blessings to his previous girlfriend, whoever she was, she must have been cosmic.)

So I read The Wise Wound, and I read Her Blood is Gold. I was blown away by a new way of looking at my cycles. Until then I had thought of myself as binary, either ‘on’ (having a period) or ‘off’ – being normal. Or, worse, as a defective man: mostly normal, but with a blip once a month when I was a bit weak and useless. Now I understood that at any time I was somewhere in my cycle. Like the moon. How different that felt.  And I read that in indigenous cultures, ‘moon time’ was a time when women would retreat to their special lodge and spend time together, dreaming, resting, singing.

I wrote a song called Moon Time, but I was too shy to play it in public. I wrote another song called She is Gold (with reference to Her Blood is Gold), which was about being premenstrual.

“Sometimes, all you can do is lie down on the earth,

And wait for the river to come through.”

RiverShe Is Gold became the title track for my solo album, but I don’t think anyone understood my oblique references. My brother actually quoted from this song in a speech he made at my wedding . . . little did he know!

Now, traveling around the month with my cycle is a natural part of my life. I cherish my Moon Time as a time to rest and dream. I tend to feel tired and heavy, but more centered and unflustered. I don’t rush about getting things done; I try to let the busyness wait.

I currently run a creative mentoring group for 12 year old girls, calling themselves The Wolf Clan. Recently, I was excited to share with them this way of looking at menstruation. I used stones and shells on a circle of black cloth to represent the cycle of the moon, which they related to easily. Then I mapped the menstrual cycle onto the moon cycle. I also told them a beautiful Native American story, which I found in Lucy Pearce’s book. It tells of how Grandmother Ocean and Grandmother Moon conspire to give women an opportunity to let go of all the negative emotions and heartache that they took on for their children, their families, their tribe.

The story, told by Nicolas NobleWolf (another MAN I notice) ends:

So ever since then, every woman has a time each moon cycle when she embodies the power of the moon and flows the cleansing of the ocean. We call this the woman’s time of the moon, or moon-time.

It is each woman’s responsibility to take the time when she is in her time of the moon to purify. It is the responsibility of the men to give the women the opportunity to do so.

Amen and Aho to that. And huge thanks to Lucy for her courage and vision in bringing this work forward.

The book launches on Friday 5th June, and if you buy a book on the day, you can access some special deals of the type that Lucy’s good at.

http://dreamingaloud.net/moon-time-bonus-features/

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Strong Like the Water

What is an empowered woman like?  I keep returning to this question and wondering.  What is the nature of feminine power?  Is it different from masculine power?  Do we have any models?

A year and a half ago I went to a Women and Earth Retreat, at Pistyll Rhaeadr in Powys.  The long weekend was run by Annie Davey and Hilary Kneale (see http://www.thenatureeffect.co.uk), at a campsite next to a magnificent waterfall.

Photo by Zane Licite

Photo by Zane Licite

At that time, as a mother of two small children, trying to keep my creative practices alive, and keep some money coming into the family coffers, I was feeling more than a wee bit weary, and yet I felt such a strong drive to make waves in the world.  I travelled with this question: how can I step more fully into my power?  It was the element of water that spoke to me in reply.

On the first bright, clear morning, we walked up the river valley to a mountain lake, and spent time sitting quietly by its shore. After a while, I bent low to the water, and noticed a tiny sound.  Droplets of water were rolling from the soft moss into the lake. As I listened to their delicate music, I marvelled at how these sweet droplets were made of the same stuff that filled the great lake, and which had, over millennia, carved the entire valley. I was put in mind of the daily tasks of mothering, which in themselves are so small, yet which add up to something great.  ‘Take heart’, the droplets seemed to say. ‘Each sandwich made, each sock hung up to dry, each goodnight kiss is a droplet that partakes of the great lake of love, which has huge power.’  This put me in mind of Mother Theresa’s advice that we should not pursue “great deeds” but rather “small deeds with great love.”

Later on that day, we chose the spots on the land where we would be alone for the next twenty-four hours.  My place was sheltered by a sycamore tree, right by a stream. All day and night, the stream sang to me.  I couldn’t see where the source of this flow was, it just endlessly poured by.  I often sang along, and a little ditty emerged: “From deep within, your blessings flow. You are the spring, you are the flow.” In a world where I am regularly looking for affirmation from outside (a good pay packet, an award for achievement, preferably both), this was a beautiful reminder to look within for both affirmation and inspiration.

Within the last hour of our solo time, the sky grew overcast, and it started to rain.  I was glad to pack up my sleeping bag, and head for shelter, warmth, food and company.  By the time I woke up early the next morning, it had been raining for 15 hours. As I wandered from the tent towards the shower block in my anorack, I became aware of a roaring sound. Looking up, I was stunned by the sight of the waterfall in full flow.  What had been a graceful, white, maidenly fall of water when we had arrived, was now a thunderous, red Mumma in full power. I abandoned any thoughts of showering or breakfast, and headed straight for the waterfall.  “YOU WANT TO SEE POWER?” she yelled, “I’LL SHOW YOU POWER!”

Photo by Zane Licite

Photo by Zane Licite

Here was charge enough to pound rock, and carry away trees: a vivid demonstration of what happens when millions of those little drops of rain from upstream run together.  I kept a wary distance, but got soaked anyway.  And a new song started forming in me . . .

Mother you call us home,

And all our journeys are as one,

And when we flow together,

Then we are strong.

 

We are strong like the water,

And our power is the flow.

Every sister, mother, daughter,

Come on and let your passion grow.

 

For the water knows no stopping,

And the water knows no pain,

So bring your burden to the water,

And be free again.

 

I’ve spent more than a year pondering the teachings from this retreat. I went with a question about power, and came home with an answer that was all about nourishment upstream.  As a woman, especially a mother, it’s easy to run dry.  Yet those little drops of love – a sandwich here, a kind word there – fill us up again, ready to flow, effortlessly.  To be really powerful, we need really good nourishment upstream. And we are even more powerful, when individual tributaries meet.

Starting a monthly women’s circle last January has given me a tangible sense of what magic can be unlocked when women make a commitment to collaborate, celebrate and nourish each other. This is far from the Patriarchal idea of power, in which for me to be lifted up, someone else has to be subjugated. No, this is what the American activist / author / ritual-worker Starhawk defined as “power with” rather than “power over”. Individually, we each have our cycles of giving and needing to receive. If we carry on giving, we burn out. But by leading collectively, we take our turns to serve, and be served, as the need arises. In this way we flow together. We are strong like the water. And, as the water has been showing us abundantly over the past three months in this country, that is very powerful indeed.

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