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, 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.

Posted in Uncategorized | 6 Comments

Kismet meets Peggy Seeger

This year, the band I’ve played with for twelve years, Kismet, had an unexpected opportunity to work with Peggy Seeger, a musician whom publicists are fond of describing as a “folk legend.”  We played together in a  fund raiser for Pegasus Theatre last month, and the experience has left me feeling both honoured and affirmed.

IMG_0536As we met to discuss our programme and rehearse together, there was much to learn from Peggy’s stagecraft and professionalism.  I appreciated her pots of sharp pencils and rows of lever arch folders of Repertoire A – G and so on.  “Who keeps your repertoire?” she asked us, and we looked at one another abashed, thinking of our dishevelled filing systems.  Interesting how we tend to imagine that great musicians are all about inspiration and pure talent, and forget that good organisation and attention to detail plays its part.

Kismet has always worried a bit about having a mixture of soft songs and full-on instrumentals.  Peggy taught us that you can place opposites next to one another for great effect.   “Do you have any funny songs?” she asked us.  Err . . . we laugh a lot in our rehearsals, but the humour tends not to make it into our songs.  Luckily Jon had a comedy number in his back pocket, “I can’t believe it’s not a real pub”.  With the encouragement of Peggy, who is up for anything, Kath realised a long-held dream for comedy dressing-up on stage . . .


We followed this song up with our most hard-hitting number, and it worked just fine.

Working together with Peggy, we chose material that reflected themes we both cared about, so clearly songs about women, and about the earth featured.  We each sang a song about our mothers, both of whom had died young, as it turned out.  She sang Woman on Wheels, about a school headmistress cutting the fences at Greenham from her wheelchair.  I sang Love’s Song, a song I’d written on retreat, grieving the loss of the wilds, but feeling connected to all things.  They were rooted in different places, but felt like two sides of the same coin.

Standing next to someone great on stage, it is easy to feel daunted, to imagine yourself less.  Yet Peggy is too smart to allow that to happen.  Instead she draws you out.  Being around her, you feel bolder, you pull your socks up.  I recognised the temptation to see her as a role model, and yet that would be wrong, because she is so much herself, she can only encourage you to be that too: yourself, and more of it.

Peggy is someone who’s lived long and suffered, someone who works hard, and continues to keep bang up to date with the latest issue.  While the media wants to focus on her past and her famous connections, Peggy seems very much in the present.  I deeply admire her integrity.  Whilst her song-writing craft is superlative, it’s always the message that matters.  I’ve often spoken of the need for and the importance of elders.  Well, as a song-writer, a musician, a performer and also as a human being, I’ve found one in Peggy.  Since Kismet is a late maturing band, never going to provide a youthful poster girl for the music industry, I’m glad to be sharing a stage with a woman in her 78th year, showing us what riches age and experience can bring.  If this is what the future holds for Kismet, it doesn’t look so bad.


Kismet is currently recording a new CD, due out in 2014.  For more info visit  To join the mailing list, email

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

A New Story for Halloween

This Summer I went to the Museum of Witchcraft in Boscastle, Cornwall, ( and left full of emotion.  The museum is a bewildering hotchpotch of Wicca, Druidry, Astrology, historical fact and cultural references, plus a case of instruments of torture.  It was these that made most impact on me.  Whatever ill may have been done by witchcraft (and I don’t doubt that it has) for me the bigger story was how women’s wisdom, spiritual strength, and connection to the land, has been so feared by the Patriarchy and Church that thousands of women were persecuted, tortured and killed on trumped up charges.  As a result, we no longer have a cultural icon of a woman in her own power.  A wizard is a man who wields magic, but this word is not an insult in the way that ‘witch’ is.  The word ‘evil’ need hardly be added.

Image Scold’s bridle

I am very aware that the work I choose to do making ceremony available to people outside of the church, and calling on the sacred by the names of the Goddess, would have made me a prime candidate for burning, had I lived in other times.  So this is personal.  And, as a mother of two girls, I decided that they would not grow up with this stereotype unchallenged.  Straightaway I realised that the woman referred to as a ‘witch’ in a very nice Barefoot picture book I was reading them, was actually just a greedy old woman.  Every time we got to the word in the book I changed it, and told them why.  I was feeling pretty pleased about my small cultural activism, and then we got home and discovered that Penny’s class would be focussing on Hansel and Gretel this term.  My hackles rose.  It’s not that there should be no stories with evil child-eating women in them.  They are great fun to tell, and after all, the children outwit her and she gets her come-uppance.  It’s just that I don’t want my children to think they are the only powerful, eccentric females to be found in the woods.

I offered to go in and tell a story to Penny’s class.  After much inner debate, I decided to make up a kind of Hansel and Gretel / Crescent Moon Bear mash up, with apologies to Grimms and to Clarissa Pinkola Estes.  Here it is, in brief.

*             *               *

We all know how the story begins: the cottage near the woods, the weak father newly married to the conniving stepmother.  Winter approaching, and the lack of food.  The children overhearing the stepmother convince the father to take the children into the woods and leave them there, to be eaten by wild animals.


We know how the children survive the first time by the wit of Hansel, who throws white stones behind them, so that they can find their way home in the moonlight.  A few days later, the children overhear the plot to abandon them in the woods again, and this time the door is locked against them.  But what if at this point, Gretel said to Hansel,

“There is somewhere we could go.  We could creep out of the downstairs window and go to the house of the wise woman.  Maybe she could help us.”

“You mean the witch?  You know we’re not allowed there.”

It was true.  None of the children were allowed down the track that led to the house of the wise woman, for fear of her magic.

“I know.  But what other choice do we have?”

What if they slipped out in the night, and found their way to her door?  Perhaps an owl flew in front of them and encouraged them on.  They saw smoke coming from her strange hut.  They knocked at the door, trembling, and a face as old as mountains greeted them, invited them in.  By the light of the fire, she made them a hot drink with herbs they didn’t recognise, and heard their story.

“We wondered if you could make a potion to make our stepmother kind.” Gretel ventured, looking at the bunches of herbs drying upside down from the roof, the racks of bottled ingredients on shelves.

The old woman grunted, looked Gretel deep in the eye.  Then she went to her stores, reached up to the top shelf, took down a jar, opened the lid and sniffed.

“That’s a pity,” she muttered.  “I’m all out of the most essential ingredient: hair from the great bear who lives in the forest.  Unless, that is, you would be brave enough to go and fetch some for me?”

And so the story continues, in a form some of you will recognise from The Crescent Moon Bear.  The children take bags of provisions, and go deep into the forest, tracking the bear.  When they come near, they leave out food for it, and gradually are able to come closer, until the day when they stay right beside the food and reach out to touch the great beast, and take one of its hairs.

With the hair safely stowed in a leather pouch around Gretel’s neck, they return to the house of the wise woman.  She tests the hair with her teeth, and smiles her broad and toothless smile.  Then she drops the hair into the fire, where it burns with a wisp of smoke.

“Do not worry,” she says gently, observing their horror.  “You have no need of a potion.  You are not the children you were when you first came here.  Go back to your father’s house, and you will see what you will see.”

Taking their leave of the old woman, the children return to their home, to the warm embrace of their father.  Their stepmother, however, shivers as they look through her and through her, and before Spring comes, she has packed her bags and left.

*          *            *

At the end of the storytelling session, the children made drawings.  Bears and jars of ingredients on shelves abounded, although many of the children couldn’t shake the image of the candy house from their minds, and drew it even though it didn’t feature in my story at all.  One child had drawn a stick woman with a pointy hat and a big smile.  I asked about this and was told, “It’s because she’s a good witch.”

Clearly, it takes more than one story to reverse the oppression of centuries.  However, it felt like a good beginning.  That day, I left the classroom with a big smile too.

Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , | 2 Comments

The Sacred Art of Litter Picking

The Sacred Art of Litter Picking

“Picking up a can

From the river

And then another

On and on

It’s like a devotee

Doing countless rosaries.”

These words are from Dominique Mazeaud, an artist who for seven years from 1987 conducted “The Great Cleansing of the Rio Grande,” picking up litter from the river for a day, on the same day each month.[i]  I can’t claim to have been so diligent in my litter picking, but I do resonate with her blend of art, ritual and activism.

Back in March, I put out a call to clear up a tributary of Boundary Brook that runs along Barracks Lane, as part of OxClean’s Spring Clean.  A group of 12 adults and 8 children turned up.  We picked up 25 bags of rubbish and recycling, and it was fun.  The kids were passionate litter pickers – tapping into some ancient foraging instinct, combined with an attraction to all things shiny, and the blessed permission of adults to dawdle and poke things with a stick.

litterpickMarch13There was a bit of competition about which of us would have the honour of donning the rubber waders and delving into the murky pond, just off the cycle path.  The lucky winner pulled out bed linen, a pair of shoes, and several large slimy parcels of undelivered newspapers.  Meanwhile, I picked up the detritus of various kinds of drug-taking nearby.  It made me sad and tired, wondering about the lives of the people who had sought their highs there.  I felt motherly towards them, as I picked up their rubbish.  I sent prayers for them as I worked.  When we had done what we could, some of us stood together and called on the spirits of the place, giving gratitude, and asking that this small gesture of care and reparation be carried out on the winds to the wider world.

There is something very beautiful about litter picking, when we approach it not out of resentment or guilt but as an act of love.  As you clear a place, you give it the gift of your attention and you become intimate with one another.   If it’s your home, you find things you’ve lost; you put things in place; you clear your mind.  If you temporarily take responsibility for a public space, you become more intimate with your neighbourhood, and the other creatures and humans that share it.  In turn, you begin to feel a greater sense of belonging.

A home or a place that has been cared for is very generous with what it gives back.  You can feel this as soon as you go into a home or garden that is well-loved.  Whenever I go back to the place we cleared in the Spring, I feel welcomed.  Over time, perhaps a place cared for in this way could transform from being a patch of ‘wasteground’ to a sacred grove where you could come for inspiration.  I am not talking about gentrification, only loving the margins for being exactly what they are: a haven for wild things and people on the edge.

Our ancestors brought, and indigenous people everywhere bring, offerings of herbs, flowers, fruit, songs and dances to the spirits of a place, knowing, as we tend to forget, that their survival depends directly on the bounty of the earth.  I also like to bring these things, or make something of beauty from found objects there (ala Andy Goldsworthy) as a gift for a place.   But offerings come in many guises, and in this age, I think what’s most needful, in our back streets and right across our earthly home, is the gift of paying attention, clearing up and taking care.

However you do it, litter picking is good fun, especially with kids.  It makes a difference and it makes you feel like you’ve earned your lunch.  Litter picking with love, let’s call it the Sacred Art of Litter Picking, is deep work, which brings healing to the wild margins and streams both within and without.  In a wonderful slip of the tongue my friend Ally Stott, who is organising a litter pick on Saturday in the same place (see invitation below) just told me she’d been thinking about clearing up ‘this piece of mind’ for a while.  I think I might join her.

This blog is also being featured on The Nature Effect blogspot: 

An invitation from

Ally Stott, Brigid Avison and Chris Cullen

Dear friends

The first week of October has been chosen as `Earth Care Week’ by the Insight Meditation community of teachers, who met this summer to discuss, among other topics, how those of us practising the Buddha’s teachings could find appropriate responses to the environmental emergency we are living through. Both teachers and sanghas are invited to create their own ways of taking part in this. The new and beautiful website,, is acting as a hub for suggestions and specific plans.

One of the teachers invites us to leave our world `as clean as, or cleaner’ than we found it (see link below). With this inspiring intention in mind, there will be an opportunity, on Saturday 5 October, to come together informally with other practitioners and like-minded souls for an afternoon of mindful litter-picking. This will be framed by time together for reflection and sharing in one of East Oxford’s most transformed spaces, the community garden in Barracks Lane.

Here is information about this event. There is no need to book, and everyone with an interest in meditation and caring for the land is warmly invited.

When Saturday 5 October, 2—5pm with optional picnic lunch from 1.15pm (bring your own)

Where Community Garden, Barracks Lane, off Cumberland Road, East Oxford OX4 2AP (see for directions). The site for the litter pick is a piece of neglected and abused land about 10 mins’ walk from here – the ground is uneven underfoot, possibly muddy

What to bring

– suitable clothing for several hours outside

– protective footwear and gloves for picking up litter

– some plastic bags

– whatever food and drink you might need; we will return to the Garden after the litter-pick, and you may want to bring a flask of tea

We look forward to seeing you there!

With metta and gratitude

Ally Stott, Brigid Avison, Chris Cullen

[i] (Read more about this project in Suzi Gablik’s wonderful book, The Reenchantment of Art)

Posted in Uncategorized | 4 Comments

Calling up the Wild Woman

At Uncivilisation Festival this year I led a workshop for women called Singing Over the Bones.  In an hour and a half in a tepee, we gathered up the bones of the wolf woman and sang her into life.  This is the story of how that came to be, what happened when we did it, and what it might possibly mean.

Uncivilisation Festival was in its fourth and final year in 2013 when I encountered it for the first time.  Held by the Dark Mountain project, “a network of writers, artists and thinkers in search of new stories for troubled times.” (see it took place in the Sustainability Centre in Hampshire on a showery weekend in August. I was invited to offer something into the women’s space, and I jumped at the chance to lead a workshop I had been dreaming about for months.  Ever since the fox came into my garden and died.


I have never seen a live fox in my garden, or even in the park behind my house, so it was quite a shock when I went out to hang out my washing and found a large bright body in my flower border.  A rush of energy went through me, being in the close presence of something wild.  I wasn’t sure what to do with a dead fox, who had made herself my responsibility by dying in my garden.  Eventually, we dug a big hole at the end of the garden and buried her there.  The children were interested in digging up the bones in a year or two.  And that got me thinking.  Wasn’t there a story about that?  OK, it might have been a wolf . . .

La Loba, as told by Clarissa Pinkola Estes in Women Who Run with the Wolves, tells of an old woman who collects bones.  When she has a whole wolf skeleton in her bag, she takes them home to her hut.  She lays them out meticulously, then lights her fire and sings.  Her song puts flesh and hair back on the bones, puts breath in the wolf’s body and a beating heart in its chest.  When it is ready, the wolf jumps and up and runs into the desert.  At some moment, mysteriously, the wolf transforms into a woman.

As a woman, a storyteller, a singer, and a lover of wolves, this story has always sent a shiver down my spine.  I have told it many times, but now the thought occurred to me to enact it, using a technique I learned years ago as a Sesame-trained Drama and Movement Therapist.  Working as a group, after warm ups, individuals take roles and, without speaking, improvise the entire story.  Since there is no audience, the myth enactment is a ritual, performed usually for the sake of inner transformation.  I wanted to do it also in a sacred manner, to call up the energy of the Wild Woman, (call her Archetype, Goddess or Hag as you will) for the sake of the fox who died in my garden; for the sake of all the wolves driven out of our land; for the sake of all the women cut off from their source of instinctual wisdom.  I asked a friend and colleague, Ally Stott, to support me in this enterprise, and I was blessed by her steady support and the prayers of her drum. (

So, here we were, a group of ten women gathered in a tepee.  As soon as they spoke I knew there was great depth in them and their journeys as women, and that gave me courage.  We sped through warm ups and then a time of lying on the earth letting our voices come through.  I told the story, women chose their roles, and now I watched the drama unfold.  Bones were collected, the fire burned brightly, a song was begun, and flesh began to come onto the bones.  For a long time, a dance of flesh and bones ensued, while the singing and percussion grew in intensity.  I kept an eye on the time, mindful of our schedule.  Anxiety wrestled with trust in my being.  How long would it take to reflesh the bones of a wolf?  Then the wolf was up, paws twitching, heart beating, loping around the tepee.  Now the howling started.  As the sound rose, the hairs on the back of my neck stood up.  The wolf was up and dancing.

As I saw in front of me the wolf turn to woman I celebrated with a shiver of power, this emblem of undoing the Patriarchy. Then a part of me worried that our howls would disturb the other workshops at the festival.  2,000 years of conditioning was not going to evaporate in an instant! Then a new confidence came in as I thought, “Here we are.  Let them hear us.”

In our closing circle, several women commented that they had been reminded to trust themselves and their bodies, and how aware they were of their normal inhibitions to doing this.  Only afterwards it occurred to me that this workshop has a wonderful marriage of form and content.  Sitting and talking will not call up the Wild Woman.  She is to be found in our hips, in the myriad impulses of movement, in our uncensored voices, in the instinct that knows: this is my place in the story.  To improvise, we have to enter the unknown, trust our senses and the group.  At times, gloriously, no one is leading.  This is the essence of the flow that, along with the wolf, has mostly been driven out of our land by the suits and schedules, and the march of ‘progress’.

Just as important as the task of rewilding the land, there is rewilding to be done in the inner landscape. These things are not separate.  As the Dark Mountain manifesto has it, “there is no such thing as nature as distinct from people.”  Quite so.  And the reverse: there are no such things as people as distinct from nature.  So I offer this work not just for the participants, whom I thank heartily, but also for the land.  May its reverberations extend to all rock and bone, wolf and woman.  May we be confident to stand up in our own natural power and act our age, which is the age of the Earth.

And those fox bones at the end of my garden?  I think it’s nearly time to dig them up and start singing.

Posted in Uncategorized | 4 Comments

An Urban River Ritual

Every first Friday of the month, whatever the weather, I pack my bags with fire-lighting materials, don wellies and warm woollies and head down to the end of Meadow Lane to await a small troupe of like-minded  folks, some carrying drums.  We hop over a five bar gate and walk down through a neglected water meadow to a spot that has become sacred for us.

We come to make ceremony at a place where the waters meet, where the Boundary Brook flows into the River Thames.  Yes, the brook, often referred to as a ‘drainage ditch’, runs through a concrete culvert, with graffiti on its walls.  Yes, we are in the midst of the town, and the traffic of Donnington Bridge, the trains beyond, and the emergency sirens of a Friday night are our acoustic backdrop.  But we come following an ancient tradition, to give thanks to the land, and to venerate the waters which give us life.  And, more specifically, we come on this day each month because a Peruvian medicine man asked us to.

Back in March 2011 InsightShare ( put on a community festival in East Oxford called Conversations with the Earth.  A whole week of talks, workshops, film and art events took place, making the connections between threatened indigenous communities from around the world and our own steps to sustainability at home.  Hipolito Peralta Ccama was invited as a special guest at this event, and so it was that on the last evening of the festival I found myself walking towards the river down the streets of East Oxford in the company of a brightly-robed Peruvian shaman, a druid clad in white (alias Chris Parks) and about 60 other people.  No wonder approaching drivers panicked and turned down the first available side road.   I was carrying a vessel of water from the Boundary Brook which had been at the festival from the first day, soaking up the vibes.  We paused to return this water to the Brook, carrying our prayers and good will to the world. Hipolito blew his conch shell fit to wake the dead, and in spontaneous response I uttered a sound from my heart more powerful than I knew I had the breath to create.  Then we gathered at the confluence, with a small coracle of hazel and skin, crafted by Chris, and a bag of coca leaves provided by Hipolito.  We called in spirit, gave our prayers to the leaves, and floated them out on the water.  At one surreal moment the local disco boat passed by blasting “I’m having the time of my life” and we had no choice really but to join in.

(Below is a link to a video about the whole festival, in which you’ll see Hipolito at various points, and this full moon ritual at around 11mins 30.)

Hipolito holds a traditional Quechua ritual on the first Friday of each month in his home city of Cusco.  Before he left Oxford, after many moving exchanges, he asked us to keep this ritual up on the same day that he holds his.  He left it to us to work out what exactly that would mean, we who have no true tradition to draw on, and no shared language for prayer.

So we have kept faith with him.  Since July 2011 someone has been there each month.  Sometimes two of us have drummed and sung under the willows and felt a moment of starlit connection to the universe.  Sometimes 15 of us, some strangers, some close friends, have gathered around a warm fire and shared the thoughts of our hearts.  We have meditated with the elements, made offerings to the trees, and water, danced with the rhythm of the breeze, and over and over reaffirmed our devotion to mother earth.

Making a commitment to gather outdoors every month, whatever the weather, would no doubt be a worthwhile activity, but working in solidarity with Hipolito brings another  dimension.  There he is, reclaiming his right to the rituals of his beleaguered people, at a sacred site that’s now in the heart of an uncaring city.   Young people in jeans, carrying their high street bags, sometimes stop out of curiosity, and then take part, receiving blessing.  Here we are, in a city of academia and car manufacture, claiming our right to call our land sacred, to cast our prayers on the waters in the old way.

My archeologist friend Olaf Bayer ( tells me that evidence of Neolithic monuments and deposits has been found at many of the major confluences of the River Thames, strongly suggesting that these places were used for gatherings and ritual activity by our ancestors.  He also tells me that despite modern channelling of the Boundary Brook, its course has changed little over thousands of years.  It gives me an extra tingle to know that we may not be the first people to meet in this place with sacred intent.  There are nights when, for all the traffic noise and street light pollution, we drop into a deeply peaceful place, simply being by the fire and becoming conscious of the interplay of air, water, warmth and nourishment by which we live.  Not so distant from our neolithic forebears.  Not so far from our tribal Peruvian friends, with whom we link up via 21st century technology.  We live in hope that this is not just the past for humankind, but also part of a wiser future.

Anyone is welcome to join our gathering.  For full details of where and when to meet please email me.

See below for a video about Hipolito leading rituals back home in Peru.

Posted in River Rituals | Tagged , , , , | 1 Comment

A Divorce Ritual

This year in my work as a celebrant I have had the great pleasure of presiding over two weddings and a civil partnership, all joyful and memorable occasions, and relationships I have faith in. However, much as we want to believe in ‘happy ever after’, sometimes a relationship comes to an end, just as a life ends, and if this happens, what are we to do with the passionately declared vows and symbols of our marriage?

It’s a subject I feel strongly about because of personal experience.  I married at the age of 26, and after 8 years of harmonious cohabiting, and 5 years of marriage, I found myself having to acknowledge that our relationship was going nowhere.  Although the idea of separating terrified me, I had to accept that it was in both of our interests. We were legally married, and the legal divorce process had its own logic and timescale. But since we had also bound ourselves together with ceremony and magic I felt we couldn’t just ignore that and walk away. I needed a ceremonial unbinding.

Being a lover of ritual, our marriage ceremony had been a beautiful occasion.  It had also been a real community affair, into which many people had poured love and creativity.  One of the things that pained me about my relationship breaking up was that I felt the people who had been inspired by our wedding and given their energy to it were being let down.  So when it came to divorce I felt that something needed to be done which was public, to some extent, as well as personal.

I had heard of a Native American ritual called Cutting the Ties that Bind.  This is something that can be done by an individual whenever they feel that someone else has an unhealthy influence over them.  In essence, you take two sticks, one representing yourself and one for the other person, and use wool to bind them together.  Then, at a later point, you deliberately and prayerfully cut the wool, and throw the sticks as far as possible in opposite directions.


Using this as my model, I took two sticks and started to attach pieces of wool.  I found it helpful to tease out all the different strands of the connections between me and my husband, so as I worked I labelled each strand with a little piece of paper.  There were strings for ‘sharing a home’ and ‘being married’ as well as ‘being lovers’ and ‘sharing the dream of having children’.  There were also strands for ‘being part of each other’s families,’ and simply ‘love’.

At this point I worked on my own as I didn’t know whether my husband would want to take part.  Having got this far, I proposed the idea to him, and asked for support from a wise counsellor who we had been seeing to help us to communicate with each other as we separated.  She agreed to hold the space for this event, and, somewhat to my surprise, my husband agreed to do it.   We asked a friend if she would host the occasion in her living room (which had a fireplace and two doors), set a date, and invited six close friends who had been at our wedding, and were willing to be witnesses.

The ritual took place at a time when we had been living separately for a few months, but had not yet sold our house. Having the date in the diary helped me to know that our separation was real and going to be permanent.   I knew that after the ritual there could be no turning back.  Also, since I hadn’t initiated the end of our relationship, it gave me some small sense of control to be initiating this ritual.


When the day came, I was desperately nervous.  It happened at a time when my husband and I weren’t normally able to be in the same room as each other, and I thought it quite likely that he wouldn’t show up.  However, once we all there, I felt very supported.  We began with a round of appreciation for all the good that our marriage had contained.  We spoke, and our friends did too, reminding us particularly of good times they’d shared in our home.

Then we began taking a sharp pair of scissors to the pieces of wool.  We undid the scroll of paper, read the label and spoke as we felt moved to.  Then one or other of us cut the wool, unwound it and put it in the fire.  Sometimes people spontaneously added comments or well wishes.  There were moments of intense sadness, but also boldness and laughter.  When we came to the strand for ‘love’ we didn’t put this in the fire, but kept our halves of wool.  I tied mine around my wrist for a while.

With that done, we were pretty drained, and it was good to pass around a bottle of whisky and toast our futures.  One of our friends had made cards for each of us, with an image on the front of a butterfly, and someone else gave one of a ship.  What brilliantly inspiring images to see every morning as I awoke to the adventure of my new unmarried life.


We came to the moment of leaving, as we had planned, by different doors.  This mirrored our wedding, in which we had arrived through separate entrances and left together.  I elected to bring a friend with me, a woman who had been ‘best woman’ at our wedding.  We walked out of the front door and down to a bridge, where I threw my stick into the river. Then we came back and had tea and cake, and hugs all around.  It was the clearest and strongest I had felt for a long time.

If there was something I missed out of our ritual it was probably about forgiveness.  Maybe we should have spoken everything we were sorry about, and thrown a bucket of water over each other!

I wish I could say that after that we had no more conflict as we negotiated our separation.  The truth is a lot more human.  I’m not sure that there is any way to leave a partner without suffering, and anger seems to be one of the emotions that helps us cure the habit of depending on one we’ve been close to.  What the ritual did do, however, was declare the intention of our highest selves to separate with respect.  As I said in my book, Birthrites, ( “When we make a ceremony, we shoot an arrow of intention into the future, and start walking towards it.”  I can say that now, ten years since the occasion, I am very happily remarried, and on good terms with my ex.

Divorce is one of the big challenges of modern life that many of us face, and there is not much in our culture to help us navigate it as a rite of passage. Yet it matters.  How we leave one relationship can have a huge impact on how successfully we can build another.  When children are involved, there is all the more reason to act with as much respect and compassion as possible.  And, like any challenge it presents an opportunity for spiritual growth.  Facing it with courage and open-heartedness can turn it from a bleak ordeal into an initiation.

I share this story in the hope that it may prove an inspiration to others, not as a script for a ritual, but as an example that you may adapt for your own uses.  If both partners do not want to work together, it is still good to do on your own, and even better if you can have a supportive witness.  If you have a story to share, please do leave a comment.  It would be great to build a library of resources here.

Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged , , , | 3 Comments