There’s an old story that has been holding me through the last months of this ragged year: a story of the Cailleach, otherwise known as the Hag, the Ancient One, Old Woman Herself. It’s a story I learnt from the exceptional storyteller Tracy Chipman, but it feels like one I’ve always known in my bones. If you’d like to get comfortable, I’ll tell it to you now.
Far away, to the North and the West, there is a dark, granite cave. Inside, by the light of a fire, Old Woman weaves. She sits at her loom and she tenderly weaves bright threads and dull, silver and rags, stories that make her smile, stories that are full of strife. All of Life she weaves. Also, she stirs the great pot that hangs over the fire, the pot that contains within it the essence of all that lives. This too is her sacred task. This is how things have been, for as long as she can remember, and that is long. What she forgets, if she ever knew, is that Raven is in the cave too. Raven is waiting. One night, when Old Woman gets up from her weaving, stretches and goes to stir the pot, Raven flies down, and in an ecstasy of destruction, pulls her weaving to pieces. Then Raven goes back to her niche in the cave, pulls her black wings tight and closes her twinkling eyes. Old Woman returns to find her weaving in shreds, utterly undone.
What does she do now? Sit down and wait patiently for some magical force to save her? Pull herself together, whistle a happy tune and begin again? No. She feels the shock go through her, the numbness and disbelief, and after that she feels the pain. She weeps fat tears onto the floor of the cave. She stamps her aged feet, shakes her gnarled fists in the air, roars and rages. For a week, a month, a year, or an eon, she grieves for her lost work, for the cruelty of the blow, for the sheer randomness of the destruction. She grieves. Then, eventually, finally, she picks up the pieces. She rethreads the loom. With shaking hands, she starts to weave again.
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We’ve all been doing a lot of pulling ourselves together this year. Not for nothing has one of lockdown’s hit songs on YouTube been the “Keep Going On Song” (The Bengsons). This is what we have had to do. We had to keep stirring the pot. This is what my mother did when my father died suddenly at the age of 39, leaving her with five children. And yet, and probably particularly because of that, I want to claim a different story. I want the one in which there is time and permission to grieve for as long as it takes. For an eon if necessary. Where we don’t have to be OK all the time and, particularly at Christmas, we don’t have to be jolly. In all kinds of ways, throughout this year, personally and collectively we have been undone. Much of our work lies in shreds. The fabric of our known world looks pretty tattered too. I don’t have to go into details. Yes, we will recover; loss is part of life; time will heal. But not yet.
With Midwinter approaching, and the end of the calendar year, it’s a natural time for sorting the wheat of our year from the chaff. I often practice a gratitude ritual around this time, pressing aromatic cloves into an orange to mark each thing that I’m grateful for in the year gone by. It’s a beautiful thing to do, on your own or with another, especially with children. You end up with a tangible, fragrant reminder of all that’s precious about your life. Then you can add a ribbon and hang it in your living room, or leave it as an offering on the land. And yet, this year I needed something else too. Something else first, before I could get to the gratitude.
It was my birthday this week. Any plans of going out were scuppered by my daughter getting a positive test for Covid the week before. (Her symptoms were mild and she’s made a full recovery). After a wobbly few days, I decided that since we were staying in anyway, I would embrace ‘self-isolation’. I took myself away from the family for the afternoon, to my cabin at the end of the garden. (Praise be for the cabin – a big clove in my orange for that!)
I turned off my phone, lit the fire and made myself a nice cup of tea. Then I just lay on the floor. There were no words really, I just knew I needed to cry. Over the last few days it had been building up – a feeling of tension with grief just under the surface. Now that I’d made the space, here it was, ripe and ready to be released. I found myself spontaneously doing a grief ritual. I made it up as I went along, but it’s based on thousands of years of shamanic practice, handed down by humans who survived harsher years than this one. I share it with you now as a way of giving you permission not to be jolly, if you don’t want to be. If it speaks to you, I hope you’ll find some time over the midwinter season to do something similar, in your own way. Here’s what I did.
I called in my guides. For me, because I have a shamanic training, this means facing each of the four directions in turn, the earth below, the sky above and spirit within, and asking for the powers of each direction to guide and protect me as I work in sacred space. It might not look that way for you.
I found a stone from a bowl of stones I’ve collected from various places and used in rituals or healing before. It was a good-sized, dark sea pebble that felt heavy in my hand. I lay on my belly or knelt down close to the floor, moving and breathing out a lot, feeling an immediate wobble in my jaw. Holding the stone, I let myself weep, shake and sob, and I blew the sadness and heaviness slowly and deliberately into the stone, with a prayer that the stone would carry the burdens of this year away. I kept going, with the emotion coming and going in waves, until I felt lighter. It was perhaps 20 minutes.
I laid the stone on a cloth. Now I was ready to think about the blessings of the last year, and this flowed easily and was joyful. I turned to my bowl of stones again and selected stones to signify different parts of my life that have blossomed or helped hold me this year. It was good to see these treasures laid out on the red cloth, alongside the stone that held my grief.
When this was done, I took the grief stone into the garden, dug a little hole in some soft ground and buried it. This is a common thing in shamanic practice – using the elements in a really simple way to deal with emotional energy, just as you would put other sorts of organic waste into the earth for composting. My intuition, because the stone was precious to me, was to dig it up after 3 days, so I placed another large stone on top to make it easy to find the place again.
For completion, I moved the gratitude pebbles up and laid them out on my altar. It pleases me that they are different shapes and colours – a heart-shaped one I chose for my beloved husband, a small seed-like one that represents a project that is yet to come to fruition, a white sparkly one that holds the energy of my work with the Net of Light network.
When I was finished with my mini retreat, I faced the directions again and thanked my guides for keeping me safe. I blew out the candles, made the journey back to the house and ended my birthday with dinner, cake, wine and a family game of poker using Cadbury’s Heroes as poker chips, with much laughter and silliness.
Today I dug the stone up and washed it with rainwater. Now the stone feels like an ally. I might come and ask for its assistance again in the weeks to come. I’m not sure where it will live now. Perhaps it too needs to go on my altar, as a reminder of the sacredness of grief, and of the help available from the natural world to release it and let life flow again.
Over to you
If you wish to make a ritual for yourself, please know that there is no one ‘right’ way to do this. Tune in to your intention, and follow your inner guides. Perhaps you will find a place under a tree, bury a stone and leave it there. Perhaps you will take your stone to the river and let it sink to the bottom. Maybe you will breathe your grief into a stick and burn it on a bonfire. Perhaps you will dance to some dirty drum and bass and let your sweat do the talking. Singly or together, let’s release what we can of the grief of this year. Then, and only then, we can begin to weave again.
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If you make a grief ritual, I would love to hear your stories. Please feel free to add a comment in the section below, or drop me a line if you’d rather it was private.
I will be telling a fuller version of the Cailleach story, along with songs from Emily Marshall, and time for stillness and reflection at an online event on Thursday 17th December at 7.30pm: Hold Still – A Midwinter Gathering. More info and tickets available from Eventbrite.
For more info about my work as a shamanic practitioner, creating ceremony and healing for individuals and groups, please email me. I’m always happy to set up a free initial phone conversation to discuss your needs.