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New Year – New Start?

Ah yes, that time of year again. As we all, weary and impoverished to a greater or lesser extent, try to drag ourselves back into some semblance of post-festive ‘normal’ life despite the mostly cold, dark and dismal conditions (in the UK, anyway!) we are supposed to be investing our energy, intellect and willpower into ‘bettering ourselves’. Start as you mean to go on and all that. Personally I can think of few worse times for taking on the added burden of deep and meaningful personal development but there are now a slew of multimedia campaigns encouraging us to Do The Right Thing and Make Our Lives Better whether it’s giving up alcohol, becoming vegan, joining a gym or starting a qualification.

Now, don’t get me wrong, none of these are bad things in and of themselves (even where commercially driven!) and I’m a big fan of self-improvement where it’s done for the right reasons. Last year, around spring time (firstly because it was the shop anniversary and secondly because spring really is a time of new beginnings) I kicked off the concept of the Otherworld Challenge. Not a challenge to Otherworlders, but for Otherworlders to challenge themselves – find something they might want to know more about and commit to a book a month, a chapter a month, a topic a month, a workshop a month, whatever they were comfortable with so that by the end of a year they could be much further forward toward that goal.

The main distinction for me is that instead of choosing something that you SHOULD be doing (losing weight, drinking less, eating healthily, saving the world etc) you choose the result you want and start working towards it, slowly but surely (which there’s obviously a lot of psycho-babble to support, SMART goals and all that, often easier said than done!) While true catharsis, reinvention, motivation and so on can be affirming and amazing and insightful, it’s not something that can be forced or engineered, certainly not because of an arbitrary date on a calendar. In magical practice we are continually encouraged to reflect, to cleanse, to commit and to re-evaluate – it will always be an ongoing process of setting goals, working towards them, knowing they will probably move about a bit in the meantime but valuing everything you can learn and achieve as part of the process.

So by all means take some time to consider where you might want to be by this time next year, and what you might have to do to get there, but don’t be overwhelmed by excessive external pressures or tempted by near-impossible goals. Remember that this is the time of year when we have to work harder than ever just to maintain physical and mental equilibrium instead of adding to the existing demands on our precious resources. Plus, you’re much more likely to find your reflections on the past year more palatable if you haven’t set yourself up for failure in the first place!

Wishing you warmth, love and inspiration as we embark into 2018!

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Yuletide Blessings

There seems to be a lot of general despondency around at the moment. I don’t suppose this is particularly surprising given current social, economic, political (et cetera, et cetera) circumstances and the almost unavoidable media deluge continuously highlighting everything that goes wrong in the world. Whether or not ignorance is bliss, or possible, or even desirable is a topic for another day, but certainly vast arrays of ‘information’ are now readily available and not easy to avoid.

It doesn’t mean we shouldn’t make the most of any opportunity we can muster for festivity, and merriment, and words ending in -olly. If we let ourselves believe it’s about who buys what presents with what money, or doesn’t, we lose. If we let ourselves believe we shouldn’t celebrate our blessings and be happy because of the crap going on around us, we lose. If we let ourselves believe we can’t be, even marginally, blessed and happy because of the crap going on around us, we lose.

Yule and Christmas both are about the light in the darkness, about hope, about renewal, about pushing on through the deepest night towards dawn. It’s important to find reasons to celebrate; to celebrate achievements, friends, family and even yourself. To have belief, spiritual or otherwise, that who you are and what you have can be enough, and that even the smallest of acknowledgements, gestures and considerations can make things better.

Hope and belief are important. It’s the difference between the sun rising and a mere ball of flaming gas illuminating the earth.*

So to all Otherworlders, whatever your status or circumstances or beliefs or traditions, I wish you an excessively merry Yuletide and frivolous festivities replete with all the blessings, boons and benisons that will fill your season with light, laughter and love.

*READ HOGFATHER BY TERRY PRATCHETT!!!

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Tomorrow, Tomorrow

Deadlines have a palpable effect on people, the frantic frenzy that escalates when the to do list is increasing but the number of tomorrow’s in which to address it is rapidly decreasing. At this time every year it’s much more of a shared experience on a much grander scale than is normally the case (exams, house moves, holidays, work commitments). You can exchange meaningful looks (usually involving eye-rolling) with others in the queues and the crowds, wordlessly sympathising with mutual frustrations. And so, if out of necessity if not actual commitment, we do in fact get things done, partly because particularly in the commercial context of supply and demand, tomorrow might be too late.

It’s a big contrast to all the the things that we are forever going to do tomorrow but don’t because, trite but true, tomorrow never actually comes. Then again, tomorrow isn’t always there. Not necessarily in the ultimately grim, depressing sense (although that is of course also a possibility). But the person you want to spend time with may have moved away. The place may no longer be as it was. The book may no longer be in print (that’s one from my personal list, in case you were wondering!)

There will, of course, always be things that have to be done today and therefore things that have to be pushed back to tomorrow; even more that have to be planned for further on, or moved to a tomorrow after that. In two weeks time it will, in this specific context, ‘all be over’ and through a mix of exhaustion, relief and practicality much of the motivated organisation that got as all to that point will evaporate, and we’ll be more than glad to be able to put a few things off until tomorrow, or the day after – or February! But in the meantime, try to find a bit of every single today to do something that isn’t purely about getting through the next fortnight, that’s about indulging yourself, your loved ones, your passions and your pursuits in a really meaningful way. Despite many of the inconveniences this is also a truly beautiful season, and the shared spirit isn’t only one of frustration (or isn’t meant to be anyway) so make sure you have something worthwhile to you at the end of it – even if it’s only your sanity!

(This may involve visiting a bookshop. It’s just an idea  😉 )

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Winter Wonderlands

Winter is a natural time for storytelling, for reflection and introspection, sharing wisdom, truths and tales (preferably somewhere cosy and comfy with good company and good cheer). The stark beauty of the season itself provides the perfect backdrop to stories of adventure, particularly in the UK where frosts and fogs and blankets of snow can quickly turn the surroundings into dazzling – and treacherous – new landscapes, both familiar and disconcerting at once.

It’s little surprise then that winter itself is sometimes treated as an other world, as not only the setting but the reason and manifestation for a journey of self-discovery. Many stories are about defeating winter itself, or at least its avatar. It is both enchantment and hardship, enticement and obstacle, eternal and fleeting. We must use all of our wits and skills to endure, to survive. It can never be truly overcome, but we can take comfort in what we have gained from the experience – knowledge, values, lessons, learnings.

Fortunately, you don’t need to go to the trouble of sourcing any ancient furniture, mirror fragments, unicorn horns or abandoned sleighs for your very own winter adventure – whether you’re looking for exciting new stories or challenging new ideas this Otherworld is as little as a click away (and with much more reliable opening times)! As the temperature drops (and drops, and drops) consider what you would like your winter’s tale to be, and what you want to have achieved at its close…

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Book Review – The Witches’ Ointment by Thomas Hatsis

I was thoroughly taken by this title when I was first researching my stock list and even more so when it arrived – I have a particular soft spot for clean, simple, olde worlde cover designs. However at a little over 200 pages (excluding notes, bibliography and so on) it struck me as fairly dense for such a specific subject and, assuming it would therefore be fairly academic, detailed and, well, dry I postponed tackling it until I was in a position to give it the due time and attention. Ah, assumptions. Shame on me.

It is detailed, and it is academic (in the sense of being well researched and factually informative) but the approach, style and tone are engaging, accessible and diverting. Hatsis looks at various recorded cases, stories, records and anecdotes featuring the preparation, use or sale of substances that were or could have been so-called witches’ ointments (whether actually referred to as such or not) alongside the relevant social, political and religious influences in play to assess (insofar as possible) the likely truth behind the tales.

Perhaps one of the more interesting things for me was in relation to cases and accounts from the witch trials – understandably most works tackling that subject matter are specific to the time period, locations and issues directly involved. However seeing accounts across a much broader timeline and incorporating other elements and considerations put it in new context for me, and certainly challenged me to rethink some of my previous understandings of the topic.

Perhaps most importantly though, this book was a genuine delight to read – the author’s wit, humour and wordplay throughout elevated it from the fascinating to the sublime and, as it incorporates elements of historical, legal and medical as well as social, political, religious and occult aspects, far from being niche I would thoroughly recommend it to anyone with even a passing interest in any of the above.

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Happy Endings

The last of the leaves have vanished from the Otherworld trees, and the first of the icicles have appeared. The sparse silhouette of bare branches without colour and adornment will probably seem barren compared to the spew of colours and sparkles and gaudy glitter adorning other windows at this time of year but there is just enough light to hold the darkness at bay, and there is beauty in stark simplicity.

I’ve had a great many beginnings and endings of late – of course much of the time one automatically follows from the other. It’s probably my temperament (or maybe I’m just getting old-minded!) but even in the best of circumstances I find there’s always a melancholy, a sense of what has slipped away that tinges my mood. On the one hand it would be easy to dismiss it as frivolity – certainly in the case of the leaves, they’ll be back next year after all. And it definitely doesn’t do to let such feelings take over, to lose sight of the new beginning by focusing too much on what has passed (although often this is easier said than done, particularly if the change wasn’t of your own choosing or making).

But I think there is also often a great deal too much impetus on ‘what’s next’ as well (for instance, I’m assuming mainstream shops will have their Easter eggs in from next week) rather than acknowledging and accepting the past – or even the present for that matter. A beginning that follows from an ending is part of a journey, and failing to acknowledge that could mean missing a vital lesson – how you get there can be just as important as where you end up. I think it can be especially true on a magical path, particularly when you stumble on something fresh and exciting. The temptation can be to reinvent yourself, renouncing all former ties in favour of the shiny new path you’re travelling, forgetting it was the original course that got you there in the first place.

And, while it’s sensible to put away the things you no longer need, and to move on from them, it doesn’t mean you have to denounce or dismiss them entirely. Learning and growing from them can turn even the most bittersweet of finalities into a happy ending.

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Remember, Remember

I’m not sure I’ve ever really connected before that there are two such significant ‘remembering’ events so close together, until this weekend when I saw a poppy and started chanting to myself ‘remember, remember’ only to realise the two had got crossed over in my head.

Of course my pedant brain kicked in at that point to qualify that, for most of us now at any rate, ‘remembering’ isn’t really the right concept for either occsasion so much as learning, understanding and honouring what has gone before so that we do not find ourselves there again.

While increased distance in time from such things is of course a good thing (if only such turmoil could become entirely a relic of the past!) and can bring benefits in the context of perspective and objectivity, there is also a risk that we lose something in the process. Memory can be a tricky thing. Remembering, real remembering, is (or at least can be) visceral, consuming, compelling. Strong memories are very often linked to strong emotion, and why you can more easily and vividly remember significant events from decades ago but not where you left the keys this morning. This can be problematic in its own way – the same subjectivity that creates the poignancy of association makes it more difficult to be, well, objective, or rational, to distinguish fact and reality from point of view and feeling.

This is not a bad thing. There are so many things that SHOULD be subjective, that are about feelings over analysis, experience over rationale, effect over cause. Minimising, disregarding or neglecting the actual tangible impact to actual tangible people in favour of objective analysis, facts, figures or any other quantifiable measure (particularly if that measure relates to what is ‘rational’ or, worse, ‘normal’) means losing a valuable learning opportunity, the chance to connect, the chance to understand, the chance to change.

Balancing the ability to acknowledge and comprehend your own memories, experiences, thoughts and feelings and to then question them, to challenge them and to objectively assess them is a massive part of any path or practice, not least in your dealings with others. I hark on about journalling a lot (certainly in the workshops) but this is another area where it can be an invaluable tool – faithfully relating your feelings about something without editorialising will not only provide you with a reliable point of reference and future aid (as I said earlier, memory can be a tricky thing) it will also serve as a starting point for ongoing understanding and learning, preserving and honouring the poignancy, the feelings and the emotion which recollection might otherwise dilute while acting as a foundation for development and growth.

(Or, if nothing else, as something to laugh and / or cry about as needed!)

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Perchance to Dream

Well, this is it, the run-up to that time of year again. So much to do and so few hours of daylight to do it in. It’s full of positives – gatherings, experiences, adventures – but it can be a massive drain and not just on the finances.

My relationship with sleep has always been complicated and, between the full moon, the fireworks and the frenzy of overthinking I struggle to manage my snooze levels have been seriously depleted of late, spurred to a dubious low of around only four hours last night what with one thing and another. This is heightened by the fact that, even when I do sleep, I dream very intensely so neither quality or quantity are achieved. Of course, the more wound up I get about how I need my sleep (physical, mental and emotional resilience all suffer when overtired) the harder it is to achieve either!

The good news is that I do, from previous experience, know how to turn it around. When the clocks went back I posted about using ‘The Magic Hour’ – reclaiming a solid chunk of time to really understand and prioritise your needs and choose to do something about them. This is something that should really be done on a regular basis, not just once a year when time mystically reappears! The other thing is journalling – pouring out everything that’s uppermost in my mind before I try to get some rest, without editing organising or rationalising (although it’s often a good exercise to do that at a later stage) as well as recording everything that’s interrupting my rest whether through dreams or wakefulness, acknowledging the parts my conscious, busy brain might not be picking up on and working through any unresolved deliberations my unconscious (or other relevant force) is screaming at me to deal with whenever it gets a chance.

Finally, for me a escaping into a good novel is a great way to distract myself productively while letting my mind work through whatever it has to in the background, but for some people and in some circumstances I know this can be counter-productive (and for me can often lead to even more intense, albeit varied, dreaming – sometimes it takes a different way of looking at things to nudge something into perspective!)

The phenomenon of dreaming is an endlessly fascinating one in terms of scientific, mental and even magical understanding (check out Nimue Brown’s Pagan Dreaming) and while, like any other area, I’m cautious over encouraging anyone to get too fixated on their nocturnal cogitations a little bit of consideration can be a great way of checking in with yourself and, perhaps more importantly during the season of busyness and bugs, promoting better rest and resilience!

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Samhain: Dark Matters

Merry Samhain to all! I say that quite deliberately – it may not be the most obvious seasonal festival for merry-making but I think it should always be an integral aspect of any seasonal consideration. We refer to them as seasonal celebrations for a reason!

All over people will be celebrating in their own way (and special wave to the other hemisphere where it’s Beltane rather than Samhain). Those following slightly older traditions will be out guising, others will be pursuing its more contemporary cousin trick-or-treating, and many more will be indulging in the complementary “shut the curtains, turn the lights out and pretend we’re not home” method.
Does it matter that these are frivolities whose meaning has largely been either lost or warped?

The more magically minded may be acknowledging the turning season, the death of the oak king and ascent of the holly king; others will be remembering those that have passed and looking to what can be learned and gained from loss; while yet others treat it as an occasion for honouring all who have gone before, whole bloodlines and the essence of ancestral spirits.
Does it matter whether the provenance for these practices may be based in romantic reinvention rather than ancient mystery? Is it important which, and how, and why you opt to pursue?

Others still, probably lesser in number, will channel Samhain as a time to reach for the darkness, truly parting the veil, the narrow window when the darkness reaches back. Many of the practices that have often been deemed taboo, illicit, immoral (or at least questionable) in the New Age spiritual rebranding of magic, but whose roots go the deepest in the dark and are increasingly being rediscovered and explored…
Does it matter if we court controversy, whether we are drawn in by morbid curiousity, sensationalism or academic enquiry rather than an all-encompassing divine mandate?

Yes, it matters. It absolutely matters. It matters that when we choose to acknowledge, to honour, to celebrate that we understand, on a personal level, the what and the how and the why as it relates to us. Whether it’s something you’ve adopted (perfectly legitimate) or something you’ve devised yourself (equally legitimate!) the essential driving force should be that it adds meaning and value to your path and your practice, not something undertaken by rote based on a blog post you read somewhere (even if it’s mine).

For me Samhain is an exceptionally special time of year – I will indulge the guisers (but not the trick-or-treaters, no party piece means no reward at mine I’m afraid) for a bit, (hopefully) dash off to the Beltane Fire Society torchlit parade to acknowledge the turning of the year and then, assuming I’m not completely wiped, take some time when I get home to honour what Samhain truly means for me*.

*As a matter of metaphorical reference I tend to take a Granny Weatherwax approach to this – stand on the threshold and face the darkness, accept all that it stands for and means, turn towards the light and step back

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Backwards and Forwards

I had a very odd, but very wonderful, weekend at the beginning of the month. It involved revisiting a lot of old memories, prompted through a combination of conversation, physical ‘stuff’ and environment. I couldn’t tell you which was the most poignant – being in a setting and a place that is at once strange and familiar, revisiting recollections of special people and circumstances or rifling through the memorabilia of, well, my life (certainly academically).

I’m a little baffled by those who so easily walk away from the detritus and accumulation of the past, but more wondering than critical or envious. Objectively, I would be the first to advocate that you don’t need ‘stuff’ to inspire a connection, to re-visit, re-live or re-experience a point or place in time. And yet personally, subjectively, I find the tactile experience of it undeniably compelling, and it takes considerably more effort to achieve the same evocation without ‘props’ (though from a certain point of view is all the more worthwhile for it). And it’s so easy to forget, little things, that the slightest prompt can once more release. At this time of year, on the cusp of Samhain, the ability to look to the past (my discernible roots, not a romanticised ancestral construct) has always helped to give me perspective, context and insight to inform my ideas and aspirations for the cycle to come. Anything that helps me do that – most especially family and friends, but also ‘stuff’ – is something I value highly and while it’s not healthy to live in the past, it’s nice to visit sometimes.

On Sunday, the clocks will go back and, just like magic, we get a second shot at the last (as in previous, not final!) hour of our lives. For a lot of people, it equates to nothing more or less than an extra hour in bed (and no shame in that, as far as I’m concerned). But in the approach to Samhain, the New Year of the neo-pagan calendar and ethereal passing place of what-has-been and what’s-to-come, it’s perhaps the perfect opportunity to take time back for yourself, wield it with purpose, put it to use – the thoughts, reflections, plans and priorities that never reach the surface during its normal hourly, daily, weekly passage.

What will you do with your magic hour?

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