For many winters I have descended into the dark days of December and January, sometimes without even a torch, and have squelched through the mud at the bottom of the pit. Have been retained by the tenacity of that clay, held paralysed by its heaviness. Have felt my energy sapped, as I have been pulled in opposing directions.
Torn apart in the re-enactment of some ancient conflict, greyed by anxiety. As if bled by leeches, and with vigour leaching away.
During other winters, I have consciously experienced a replenishing winter dialogue with light – either candle light over family meals, or altar light in traditional churches or temples, tea-lights in Buddhist ritual. Sometimes accompanied by breathy lullaby, anthem, psalmody.
Or held in fire-light, from the wood grown and harvested by the Beloved, patiently stoking one of the three, four, five, six fires of our wed life. Suppers round the fire, with our bathed and hairwashed toddler throned in the Little Gold Chair of my childhood.
Ruby embers, shifting into dream, to gaze into at bedtime. (Cold ashes to scrape out in the morning, though even this wood potash nourishing roots in the garden and allotment).
Or under the focused beams from a desk lamp, studying in a library or writing an essay in my student room. In the suffused glow from a bedside lamp , resting with ‘flu or (at some late dawn) waking up slowly, tea-mug to hand, writing in my journal.
And most importantly, Sun-light. Sun’s benevolent rays received with appreciation as I have lolled in an armchair facing full south at noon. Rays filtered through the last tenacious leaves of the silver birch trees in our garden at Dalefield.
Advent sunlight pouring into my lap in abundance, while on retreat at The Old Stable House in Newmarket in the 1990s.
January or November light in Herefordshire, iluminating the page of a book by Sangharakshita, as I relax into lila in the Library at Adhisthana**, his home domain. Warmed by two winter writing retreats there this decade, before his mortal death in 2018.
In November this year, returned from a summer in Scotland, I faced due south in our Cambridgeshire garden . Aligning at noon (“Greenwich Mean TIme”) to the parallel shadows of the trunks of our silver birches, I took a dry-writer pen and marked the position of south on the paving stones outside our sitting room.
Birch tree shadows at Dalefield, pointing north towards Dhruvaloka
From the orientation of South – sun, abundance, resource, generosity – I can calibrate the directions of each of the others – the Eastern dawning of Awakened Wisdom; the Western heart-warmth of sunset, blood, passion and romantic dream; the ferocity that accompanies the fire-brand of Full Intention, moving with energy in its chariots from the strong-holds of the snowy North. And the white light of integration, transformative at the alchemical centre of this, my perception of the five-Buddha mandala***.
And on the sandy shoreline in Sutherland, close to this Autumn Equinox, I was standing with my geographer friend Lynn. Facing in turn each of the Four Directions, guided by her. In a practice gifted by her deep-green ecological mentors, house-keepers for Mother Earth.
In each orientation I set my intention to scoop up (on an In Breath of inspiration) the resources I need, letting go my energy (on an Out Breath of Expiration) into whatever most aptly calls for it.
In eleven days time it will be the anniversary of the Winter Solstice of 2017, which I spent on a Cambridgeshire hill in the company of Buddhist friends, led by she skilled in Druidic rites. We enacted the ceremony of Alban Arthan, in which the Holly King (who has reigned since midsummer) passes his crown to the Oak King.
There too were the Mistletoe Bearer; the Guardians of the North, South, East and West; and the Elegist (the Poet-figure, who bewailed the loss of the light and the apparent death of the vegetation).
That occasion was joyous, shared, delightful, solemn and merry – a rite held within an ancient landscape alongside Iron Age burial mounds. And on that day, it was light enough at sunset to look north over the sleep-snuggled yet bright city of Cambridge – a brain-centre for most of my life now – and beyond it.
Imagining the tracks that stretch ever north towards where my home might become (because we were already following up my Boreal Aspiration, the Call of Thule).
And as I played the part of the lamenting Elegist, the Poet of Loss – standing in circle next to the Guardian of the North – I felt a deep comfort, an abiding trust …
That – as in the twilight Alban Arthan ceremony, so in broad daylight too – my vision of a place of sanctuary, creativity, “ordinary joy” and freedom, under the North Star, would become embodied.
A year later, here I am, one foot planted firmly in each of northernmost Scotland and south Cambridgeshire, a home in each, with my arms flung wide to feel the energy of the Sun, wind, and stars, and the pull of the sea, the Moon, and their tides.
Blessings of the Turning Earth to you; blessings of the Returning Waves to you; blessings of the Four Directions to you.
May you breath in True Inspiration, and may you breath out Right Intention, as you follow your true and earnest Path towards your Homing.
Walnut bowl and spoons crafted by my partner, on map centred at Dalefield
**Adhisthana, the last home of Sangharakshita, the founder of Triratna Buddhist movement. Lila is a Sanskrit word which here I am using in the sense of “play”
*** For more about the five archetypes of the Buddha, see ‘A Guide to the Buddhas’ by Vessantara, Windhorse Publications, 2008