Friday 4 January 2013

The Devotions of Winter

THIS LITTLE FELLOW has been greeting me each evening when I go out to feed the geese as the dusk comes down. As I close the door of the goose shed, having put them to bed for the night, I turn around and find him sitting just inches away from me in the branches, hoping for crumbs of goose food before dark. His quiet little round red self hops friendly, so close to me I almost believe he'll eat from my hand. And then without fail Macha comes hurtling up to me, panting with squirrel-chasing enthusiasm and the little robin is gone. Some days I wonder whether he thinks I'm setting a dog trap for him, but he keeps returning, a familiar flame of feather burning in the icy winter grey.

There are robin-like nuggets of fire nestled in all the cold branches of winter these days. Sometimes it's a red berry alone in the frosted hedge. Sometimes it's Christmas lights hanging in our homes amongst the ever-greenery to remind us of the seed of spring light germinating deep in the death of winter. Sometimes it's winter revels in pubs and village halls on wild and wet dark Dartmoor nights. Sometimes it's making tincan lanterns with women friends around a soup-steaming, baby-giggling kitchen table as the indigo dark begins to creep in beyond the windows not long after lunchtime. Sometimes it's devotions of spirit that celebrate a child of light being born to a mother of earth in the darkest part of the year. Sometimes it's standing amongst friends and strangers in a stone circle up on the moor and watching the sunrise of winter solstice herald the once more lengthening days.

This season has been hard. Many folk we know have been going through troubles and sorrows. The whole country goes into a collective frenzy as Christmas approaches. We must buy and buy and sell and sell and rush and rush until we are a twitching tense knot of maniacal stress; but we mustn't rest, we must rush more to prepare in time for ... for what? Christmas day comes just the same as all the other days, but when it does, we cannot enjoy that fabled hearth and home time, because we are too strung out by the enormous surge of collective consumerism that is so all-pervading, you cannot help but feel it even in these winding Devon lanes, far from the high streets of doom. 

Of course what we have now is a kind of warped parody of the once real preparations for hibernation and celebrations of light within the long darkness. This year I felt a particular incongruity between my body's call to tuck in and be still as the days got shorter and the outward necessity to rush about even more than usual. It felt like madness. I enjoy giving gifts to loved ones, and I love the magic of winter - the snow and antlers, the fireside and bells and stories - but those things have almost been mass-produced into inanity and I am sad that children are being taught to clamour for plastic over wonder.

Our winter doings were a jumble of busyness which I struggled with, and yet the busyness bore good magic, and that was a joy. I have just returned from London where I have been looking after my parents who were struck down with illness at a hard time this Christmas. Now I'm back home and a new year has begun! As I unpick the city from my clothes, and retread the Devon lanes, I reflect on the nuggets of red that we hung in the cold winter branches of this season at the end of the world.

Back in November, preparations began for winter markets and Advent craft fairs. My greetings cards sold well, and my prints were much admired in their rustic handmade recycled frames by David Winter. Many conversations were had; ivy and holly and candlelight adorned my wares. In one of our local village halls, my stall was juxtaposed most incongruously with a portrait of the queen and a painting of the D-Day landings hanging on the wall just behind my somewhat less patriotic array of otherworldly peasants!

As the year marched on, music called and gigs were gigged. Krasa performed acoustically in a small local pub where chestnuts were being roasted over the open fire.

We were warmly received, and I could add another performance to my (hopefully nerve-diminishing) list of musical achievements! And we handed out more flyers for the fast approaching Feast of Fools!

December got wetter and wetter and roads changed into rivers, fields into lakes, and we were glad to live on a hill. Nevertheless, the business of organising a gig had to be attended to, and Suzi and I busied ourselves with flyering the villages and towns of Dartmoor, printing tickets, arranging people to bake hundreds of mince pies, organising sound and lighting equipment and set lists and all the chattels of transforming a slightly echoey and austere village hall into a wonderland for a winter evening.

To begin with we gathered with a handful of women friends at Suzi's cozy and beautiful home to make lanterns out of old tin cans we'd been collecting, and ragged bunting. It was a lovely afternoon around the kitchen table. Children took turns to sleep and breastfeed and watch the banging and snipping in fascination.

We had filled the tin cans with water and frozen them in preparation for banging patterns of decorative holes into them; it stops them crumpling, as well as leaving a beautifully striated cylinder of ice afterwards, decorated internally with hundreds of tiny shock fractures. 
The kitchen table was littered with teapots and mugs, chocolate, baby toys and tincans and hammers and awls. Some of us tore fabric for bunting.

And then we had soup.

By the time the 23rd of December had reached us, all that needed to be done was done. We just had to transform the village hall (not to mention squeeze in a last rehearsal!).

In the afternoon, we decorated the hall, and bands arrived with instruments and wires and the first threads of a magic evening were woven.

Large amounts of fabric can do wonders to an uninviting space. And so we knotted and we draped and we hung and we decked. There were fairy lights and ivy, and tincan lanterns (of course), and there was bunting galore. We were very lucky to have papier-mâché animal heads created by Rob Mason watching the proceedings from around the walls. The ceiling was hung with a parachute, and the sound checks continued. My belly got tighter as the hour approached. I'd never played through microphones before in such a small group. The doorkeepers donned masks and prepared the float. And the audience started to arrive...

In the end it was an utterly beautiful evening. Tom told the ancient Irish Celtic tale of the Birth of Lugh in three parts, between the three bands' performances. There were heroes and heroines, horrible foes and great adventures, and we were transported on that dark wet Dartmoor night to a land long ago when a light-child was born.
The different musics of all three bands made for an excellent mix. Ale and mince pies were quaffed. And everyone had a thoroughly wonderful evening. After our set was done, I could relax a little and enjoy myself too. Though I was too overwhelmed to take any more photos than these of our Oxford friends beginning to play.

Right at the very end of the evening, a little before midnight, Telling the Bees ended their (frankly exquisite) set by removing their microphones and stepping off the carpet-stage to play their last song amongst the audience. And there came then that beautiful tipping point in the evening where everyone moved as one, and an old magic was unleashed.

Two days before this, we had risen before dawn and made our way up onto Dartmoor to a particular Bronze Age stone circle not far away. We didn't know who we'd meet there, but went with a thermos of hot chocolate to welcome in the sun on this winter solstice morning of the day the world might be ending.

We arrived to find folk standing with the stones looking expectantly toward the eastern horizon. There were many familiar faces there, and we felt blessed to live in a place where these old rites are honoured in a thoroughly un-trite and unplanned way. We sang some songs, and someone traced the shadows of the stones as the sun rose on a large piece of paper on the ground.

When the sun came, the moor blushed pink and everyone cheered.

We exchanged greetings with people we'd not seen in a while, and then we all walked down again to eat breakfast together at a friend's house, leaving the moorland winds to blow our prayers into the new era.

At home, our devotions have been those of woodburner and book and oven. A fallen lichen-etched Elder branch holds our winter trinkets and lights, ivy creeps about the walls between paper greetings from friends afar, and Macha sleeps on the rug.

It is quiet here now. Soon the year will begin in earnest; indeed only yesterday I could have sworn I smelt spring in the air. But perhaps this is just a brief scent-promise before we are battered by more storm-throes for the rest of winter.

I have been thinking on the various ways this dark season is celebrated and sung through in different spiritualities. Whilst I cannot share the Christian beliefs about Christmas in a concrete way, I can find truth in story and remember the magic of stable and manger in the same way I remember the magic of gingerbread house and talking cat. The beauty for me is in the sacred, which is why I find icons so moving and so beautiful. Devotional music of all creeds cracks open the winter heart-kernel in the same way, and in that sense, we can all share the same prayers.

Here as you hold the hurts and plans and memories and wonders of the year just gone and the year to come in the quiet place before the coming of January's storms, I offer you the beautiful Orthodox chant of the monastery of Valaam, which is situated on an archipelago in the Republic of Karelia up between Russia and Finland. Against old photographs of their simple life and in their unique harmonies, the monks sing to the continuer of life: god who is a woman.


Charlotte said...

Thank you for these words in a time that can so easily lose its meaning. There are many of us who find the need to purchase our solace against the dark an anathema. I hope there are more than a few. This year we made our gifts, chose gifts that had meaning or were to be shared by all. Board games for the children (Cluedo and Uno being the most requested). We love the familial closeness of playing these games together. Our boys are also the gadget generation but it is tempered by the joy of us being together. I wish you and yours much joy and togetherness, music and laughter, tales and telling in this coming year.

Heather said...

So many lovely images allowing us to share in your festive activities.
Christmas has become so commercialised now - the magic has gone and we can no longer enjoy it as we once did.
The fabric bunting and tin lanterns were a great success - what a clever idea.
Do hope your parents are fully recovered now and that 2013 will be a happy, healthy and prosperous year for you all.

tut-tut said...

How lovely; thank you for all of this. A happy New Year, Rima

Eleanor said...

What an incredible post, and thank you for the beautiful music at the end.

I'm a new reader to your blog and I really love your band. Been wanting to play the kind of music you do for a long time (I'm a fiddler)! said...

Beautiful post Rima. May this find you in the midst of a peaceful and restful day. I never sit down to read your posts without a cup of tea. I settle in and let your words take me across the sea to your ancient and green land. You are a gifted story teller. Thank you for the truth and heart and depth you offer here, over and over. Happiest New Year Blessings~ Nao

Gitta said...

this chants reach my soul....
thanks gitta

Teresa Kasner said...

Hello Rima.. from across the globe.. I enjoyed reading your words and can relate to your thoughts. I very much enjoyed seeing the images of your festival and seeing the making together in preparation. I loved the chant at the end and the images.. and also the ones of you all trekking to the hilltop and welcoming in the new times. Hugs from Oregon, Teresa

Aoife.Troxel said...

Your posts are so... ethereal. I look forward so much to each one and seeing and hearing about your adventures. Tomorrow is my birthday so thank you for the early birthday present :)

Chloe grice said...

Thank you Rima, I needed this tonight :-)

Flotsam said...

It is good to see folk still see in the equinox / new year like you did. (Stonehenge and Avebury near us becomes so busy it s not worth the visit). Let us hope 2013 proves to be a drier one.

Anonymous said...

I adore the chants. Thanks. So happy to hear more adorations of Mama in the winter night.

Ajahli said...

Hi Rima! I am, unfortunately, a person who was born and raised by the grid and has long since forgotten what it means to live the simple life and honor old traditions, but I wanted to say that I always read your blog and I leave inspired and enchanted. As a fellow artist I always enjoy a look through a frosted window into a world that is often unseen by the people I see on my day-to-day routine. I wish you and yours a Happy New Year and thank you for the words and for sharing the chant. When I visit England again this year I will look out across the moors and think of you. Be safe, happy and well!

~Ajah from the United States

Ronnie (RR) said...

Sorry to hear your parents were both unwell over the winter holidays. Glad to see that you enjoyed your pub gig and nerves did not get the better of you. Such a lovely robin greeting you every evening. Late Solstice greetings to you both.

Jennifer Tetlow said...

I have a Robin just the same, joins my little routine of geese feeding and closing up for the night - is there in the morning too! Lovely words from start to finish, beautifully touching and filled my whole with a year of things to think upon.

Lynn said...

Joyfully haunted and uplifted by this.
Many thanks, Rima.

sweet harvest moon said...

Thank you for this post. Such wonderful words.

I love the idea of greeting the winter sun. Such beautiful pictures too!


Emily Wilkinson said...

Thank you Rima, such beautiful inspiration for how Christmas should be...wishing you some restful times and health for your family. Emily x x x

Hermit Witch said...

As always, a post of much beauty and joy and which sings of hope and renewal and kindred spirits. Reading this brought light to an otherwise dull day. Thank you x

Rebecca S. said...

Art and beauty just pour out of your writings and pictures here. I get such a wonderful sense of how you live and create. Happiest of New Years to you and yours.
That is a very special are all bits of fire and red in winter :)

the wild magnolia said...

Always, I enjoy your posts. they seem as gifts. Your sharing is meaningful.

The solstice gathering brought tears to my eyes. Still in the country to see this is a blessing to me way across the water.

Thank you for sharing word and photo.

Wishing you a healthy happy meaningful prosperous creative New Year.

Snippety Giblets said...

Fabulous ! I love the way you capture the very essence of something so we can all feel its warmth and light. You have such a way with words, m'dear !

Hope 2013 brings you and Tom love, light and happiness in abundance. Much love from us three here xxx

Amy said...

Rima - Inspired observations as always. I've been trying to think about how to change my formerly (though family) Christmas traditions into the Midwinter/Solstice traditions I'd prefer to honor. The holidays extend into January with birthdays and Twelfth Night and then regular life picks up and . . . just when are we supposed to have down time and nurture ourselves?

I shared some of your world with friends, with attribution to you and a link back to your blog. Please let me know if you'd prefer I removed the post.


Maura said...


Beautiful post, the pictures of Mr. Robin are so clear.
I always feel so peaceful after I read your postings, hoping yor parents are better - Blessings to you and yours for the New Year and 2013.

Velma Bolyard said...

something was missing this christmastide, i'm not sure if having both children away (not unusual for me) or what, exactly it was. we got big snow and wintery weather. then i read your post and realized that something i did miss was that gathering of women around the table, with babes, and messiness and making things, and soup, this was absent. thank you rima, for taking me back to the days when i was a young mom, and being with friends. and remember that i need to work a bit to make the magic happen in middle age.

Karen said...

What a pleasure to read this at the end of a long wet day. Your posts always remind me of what is important in life. I hope this new year brings happiness and creative inspiration for you. Karen x

Lynn said...

You live the type of Christmas season that I would like to have. Commercialized gifts are not what this season is about. The preparation and anticipation is definitely more appealing than the actual day itself. Nature is more uplifting than anything which can be found within the walls of a church or chapel. Take care of your parents. Life is so fleeting, and your memories of them will sustain you when they are gone.

Anonymous said...

Reading your blog is always a balm. Merriest of the merry to you in this New Year.

Anonymous said...

Beautiful post. This blog and the comments left by its readers always restores my faith in humanity. I was away from the computer with a reasurred peace in my soul.

"I love the magic of winter - the snow and antlers, the fireside and bells and stories - but those things have almost been mass-produced into inanity and I am sad that children are being taught to clamour for plastic over wonder."

Beautifully put!

LuTi said...

great post, thanks for sharing it with us. Music (and the translation on Wiki) is beautiful finishing touch

Vicki said...

Beautiful post Rima.
What a wonderful way to celebrate the solstice. The atmosphere must have felt amazing.
Wishing you and Tom a bright, peaceful, fulfilling year.

abetterjulie said...

Dear Rima,
I am glad to hear that your parents are better and that your Solstice was enchanted. The music at the end of your lovely post is another reminder to let music back into my life. It has been absent for so long, and I am not sure when it went wandering. Thank you for the inspiration.

Vicki said...

Finally, YouTube stopped crashing on me and, today, I could see the images and listen to the beautiful Orthodox chant.
I cried.
I have an old, old book that came from my mother's homeland. It has similar photos in it. The book was one of the very few possessions she had from "the old country".

Pombagira said...

ohh i was gifted two Telling the Bees Albums at the Summer Solstice here in New Zealand. They are wonderful!!


Admirer in Massachusetts said...

Bless you.

Gemma Mortlock said...

Happy New Year Rima! May you have a blessed and happy year ahead. Your pictures and words are magical and really evoke the feeling of your festive period. Thank you for the music it is wonderful!

Andrea Bustelo said...

Thank you! Bendiciones. Andrea.

kat said...

Thank you for sharing all these lovely things Rima; your blog is, as ever, a great pleasure to spend some time with. I hope your parents are better now; just your being with them will have helped.

Nomi McLeod said...

Dearest Rima,

I'm glad you smelt Spring on the air...we are covered in snow here, in every way possible, but Spring will come again


carool said...

Dear Rima, thanks for sharing your story, your paintings, pictures and the beautiful choir.
Love Carool.

Pamela Terry and Edward said...

So lovely to hear from you again, Rima. This post is full of "the old magic" and was a joy to step inside. Blessings to you in this time of gathering in.
pamela, and edward too

herhimnbryn said...

Hallo Lady R!
A happy and peaceful and creative and healthy and loving new year in 2013 to you and yours.

Plumfield House Gardens said...

Oh my goodness, this is exactly the way I see the people of your country, love your garland, lanterns, the way the pup looked, and to have an ancient stone circle in your backyard, (sort of)
wow! love your blog! Have a blessed Imbolc!