Author Archives: gemmaburford
So you had The Dream once. And you didn’t just dream it: you lived it. Or tried your very best.
You gave it everything you had. Giving up wasn’t an option. Failure wasn’t an option. You kept going, even when it almost killed you. Even when you thought you had nothing left. You managed to find a little more, because it would all be worth it in the end.
And now you’ve got no choice but to admit it: After all that, it didn’t work out.
There’s no hope. No way to salvage that particular dream. It’s dead.
That’s what happens to Brianna, the protagonist of my emerging novel The Reluctant Flame-Keeper (formerly The Nineteen Songs of Reunion). She’s travelled with her husband Daman, a treasure-trader, all the way from Ireland to Glastonbury – a long sea voyage, followed by a nineteen-day pilgrimage across the entire country of Cymru (Wales) – to bring a lantern lit from St Brigid’s Sacred Flame to a convent in a place called Beckery. They’re supposed to receive a rapturous welcome from the nuns, and and earn the patronage of the King of Wessex.
The plan goes more disastrously wrong than Brianna could have imagined. They arrive in Beckery, only to discover there were never any nuns there in the first place. She loses both Daman and the Sacred Flame, on the same day. Then the man who shows up in the guise of a guardian angel turns out to be a violent abuser.
Brianna’s completely alone in the world. She’s in pain, bleeding, and utterly exhausted. It would be so easy to just lie there on the floor and wait for it all to end. But then she hears the voice of her pilgrimage guide, Aelfric, in a dream…
You came here as a pilgrim, with a job to do, a sacred task. It doesn’t matter whether you chose it, or it chose you: you can’t just keep hiding from it.
You have to go back to Beckery.
Brianna protests, as anyone would in her situation:
But I have no lanterns left, the Sacred Flame has been put out and Daman is gone, and even the Warrior Maiden [St Brigid] has abandoned me. I can’t do this on my own.
To that, Aelfric responds:
You have to find the Warrior Maiden in yourself. She’s there, you know. She’s always been there. You’ve just forgotten how to listen to her.
If you’ve lost all your lanterns, you’ll have to become the Sacred Flame; and if you’ve no-one there to care for you, you’ll have to become your own Flame-Keeper.
You can do this, you know you can. You’re more than strong enough. You can start taking small steps towards your own dreams, all by yourself, as soon as you make the choice.
For the sake of God and Goddess and all goodness, get up from that floor and go to Beckery!
My own first step was to get up off the sofa and quit watching soaps and reading right-wing newspapers (I know, I know… I wasn’t the one buying them, but I used to read them if they were lying around, because it was easier than actually letting myself feel anything) and find the disillusioned courage to e-mail a spiritual counsellor and ask for an appointment.
And that changed everything, as I’ll explain in my next post…
Since I’ve been `outed’ online, not through choice, as That Woman who Married the Maasai Warrior, I’ve had all sorts of people getting in touch to tell me they’d love to go to Africa (or some other far-away place) but don’t know how they’ll ever find the courage.
So today, I’m starting a six-week series of Wednesday blog posts on the theme of courage and how to find it, even if you feel as though you’ve already lost everything. They’re leading up to the launch of my brand new e-course, Face the Fear and Chase the Dream, in September – which I’m hugely excited and also terrified about, but doing it anyway!
Here’s the first one. I hope you enjoy it…
Reflecting on what made me brave enough to go to Tanzania in my early twenties, and why it’s so much harder to get brave enough to do anything outside my comfort zone now that I’m coming up to my fortieth birthday, what I’ve realised is that there are two different kinds of courage.
There’s what I call illusion-based courage, or `gap year’ courage. Lots of people will know what I mean by that. It’s a naïve kind of bravery, the kind you have when you’re looking out from a rose-coloured bubble of privilege and idealism. When I first left Oxford, I did stuff just because I could, and didn’t overthink it. Why shouldn’t I get out there and change the world? Why shouldn’t I start a company and an NGO from scratch, build a school, save girls from FGM, marry my colleague, have kids, and take them to the Maasai village to visit their grandparents? What could possibly go wrong?
I was in love. Passionately. Not just with Lesikar, but with Tanzania: the music, the colours, the stories, the wisdom, the land, the sky, the wildlife, the fruit, the flowers, the sense of community, the deep faith and trust, the fact that everyone talks about God and spirituality as if they’re completely taken for granted.
The flip side was always there, of course, but I wasn’t seeing it. Well, they say love is blind. If I felt any fear at all, which I don’t remember, it was overridden by a massive burst of endorphins, serotonin, oxytocin, and all that other feel-good stuff that happens when you’re in love.
And then, of course, things started to go wrong. Sometimes a little bit wrong, like a bout of malaria that was quickly treated with medication and everything was fine again…until the next time. Sometimes horribly wrong.
And then it got to a point where I realised that actually, it wasn’t all going to be fine, and prayer wasn’t going to magically make everything happen the way that I wished it would, and maybe I couldn’t manifest things just by dreaming them after all.
That’s when I needed the second type of courage.
The second type of courage, which I call disillusioned courage, is what you need in order to survive after the dream dies and the rosy bubble bursts…
It isn’t all sunshine and serotonin any more. On a good day, it feels like two steps forward and one back. On a bad day, it’s one forward and three back, and you wonder if you’ll ever figure it out.
Finding the courage to move to another country, or start a business, or whatever that big scary goal might be, is very different if you’re not under 22 and over-privileged. It’s very different if you’ve already lived life, struggled, loved, lost your illusions, and been deeply hurt. If you’ve been bereaved or traumatised, or suffered a serious illness. If you’ve been in the same job for twenty years.
So if that’s you, all I can say is please, please stop beating yourself up over the fact that you’re not already Doing The Thing.
Start celebrating the fact that you were brave enough to acknowledge that you’re afraid of it. A lot of people go through their lives making all sorts of excuses as to why they haven’t Done The Thing, but never get around to admitting that actually it’s scaring the shit out of them.
Then take that first tiny step. Send that e-mail or text, or make that phone call, or comment on this blog, or click a link, or invite a Facebook friend to meet up for a coffee… and celebrate that. Because these are the places where true, disillusioned courage begins.
It doesn’t begin when you step on the plane.
It’s frighteningly easy to say ‘yes’ to things because we think someone expects us to, and then discover at the end of the day that we’ve taken on too much and can’t finish it all. Not only do we end up disappointing the very people we were hoping to impress, but worse still, we let ourselves down because we STILL haven’t made time for that one special thing that we’re yearning to do.
We end up breaking promises, running up debts and backing out of commitments, and are left feeling frustrated, martyred, and resentful of the people who asked us to do the stuff in the first place. Either that, or we keep up the fiction that we can ‘do it all’, and carry on trying to juggle seven plates and a flaming torch…until we drop ALL the plates and burn ourselves out completely, because a physical or mental health crisis comes along and we have to stop absolutely everything.
I hadn’t realised how deeply I was stuck in that particular behaviour pattern, until someone did it to me – and then proceeded to explain, in a beautifully clear and well-thought-out way, exactly why she’d changed her mind about the commitment that she’d made to me. At first I was upset about it, but after sleeping on it, I had a new breakthrough.
What I realised is that through living in Tanzania, I became a world expert in putting other people’s needs ahead of my own – because other people’s needs were usually urgent and sometimes life-threatening. I didn’t care if I had to sleep on a bed made of sticks with a couple of animal skins thrown over the top, and get bitten to death by fleas, as long as I was ‘making a difference’. It didn’t matter to me if I had to live on boiled maize and soya beans for three days, as long as The Work got done. As for savings – forget it. Pah, who am I to worry about a savings account when the mother of the plumber that I’ve hired to fix the shower (yes, this is a real-life example…) has cerebral malaria, and her life depends on medicine that costs $10, and I’m the only person in the plumber’s immediate orbit with a ‘spare’ $10?
There was always a `plumber’s mother’, or some other such walk-on character in my drama, who seemingly had a greater need for my time and my money than I did.
Yet after coming back to the UK, I started carrying that same sense of obligation into other things, which weren’t matters of life and death. The kids want to go to Tanzania and visit their family? Of course they must – even if I have to put it on a credit card, and don’t have a plan for paying it off. The teacher at the village nursery school wants me to take over paying his salary, because his funders have pulled out? Well, I wouldn’t want the nursery school to be forced to close – even if I’m behind with my bills. Someone wants me to do this, buy that, go there? Has to be done, I suppose – even if I can’t really afford it.
So this morning, I woke up with the lyrics to a new song in my head – “For Love, Or Not At All”. I think this could be a helpful song for me, because it’s pushing me to examine my own motivations every time I’m on the point of saying ‘yes’ to a substantial commitment of time or money. That doesn’t mean I’ll never offer to help anyone again, but it means I’ll try to be more realistic with the promises that I make, and ask myself questions like these:
Am I doing this because I really, truly care about it? (Or is it because I’m afraid that you’ll think badly of me if I say no?)
If yes: Have I got the time, energy and resources to do this properly, without hurting myself or anyone else? (Or would it be at the expense of my true soulwork, if I agreed to do it?)
If yes: Am I the right person to do it? (Or would it actually be more helpful, in the long run, if I just directed you to someone who already has this skill set?)
If yes: Is this the right time for me to do it? (Or would it be more appropriate to wait until later?)
This song still makes me squirm and feel selfish. But I’m going to keep singing it until I’m comfortable with it, because like Ani DiFranco in ‘Circle of Light’, “I ain’t got time for half-way, I ain’t got time for half-assed’. I’m tired of wearing myself out with half-hearted commitments, and doing things ‘just for the sake of the money’. Money is essential to life, of course, but money loves to flow wherever Love is – and when I’ve tried to do things `just for the money’ in the past, they haven’t tended to work out well. As I sing in Limitless Flow, “Money is sacred energy made tangible.”
My aim is to reach a point where if someone asks me to do something, I can either do it for Love, or delegate it to someone who really will love it…
For Love, Or Not At All
I will do it just because it sets my heart on fire,
I will do it just because it’s my spirit’s deep desire,
I will do it just because I have heard that inner call:
I will do it for Love, or not at all!
Not because of habit, not because I feel I should,
Not because, if I don’t, you’ll say that I’m no good;
Not because I’m under pressure, not because I want the fame,
Not because I need the money, or fans to shout my name,
Not because everyone else is doing it, not just because I can,
Not because I think I have to prove to you who I am…
I will link it to the songs my heart still yearns to sing,
I will link it to the joy my soul’s true work can bring,
I will link it to the dream that is always burning bright,
I will do it because it feels so right!
Not because of habit, not because I feel I should…
I will do it now because Love won’t let me refuse,
For my hands are just the tools that Spirit wants to use,
I will do it so that through me, the light of Love will shine,
I will do it because this work is mine!
Not because of habit, not because I feel I should…
I will do it just because I have heard that inner call:
I will do it for Love, or not at all!
“You told me that I was strong, and had the power in me to bring all my dreams alive: the very opposite of all the things Aedan had been telling me for so long. He called me a poor child: he was always pitying me, and telling me that I was small and weak and helpless, and that’s just what I became.”
“Of course you did,” Aelfric says. “Aedan was cunning: he wanted to use you for his own pleasure, and he knew you’d never stay with him if you were in your right mind, so he set out purposely to destroy all your self-belief.”
“But when you told me with such authority that I had to become the Sacred Flame, and get up and go to Beckery, I found the strength to do what I needed to do,” I go on. “I changed out of my clothes that were soaked in blood, and tore up my old dress into rags for the bleeding, and even had the sense to bring out our two pottery bowls to trade them for a ride in an ox-cart, although in the end the man wouldn’t take them. I was still so dreadfully unwell: I blacked out again on the journey, and bled all over that poor man’s barley sacks. But you made me believe in myself, so I was able to do all those things, even in that condition.”
“Whatever we believe about ourselves becomes our reality,” Aelfric tells me. “It’s true: you are the Warrior Maiden, my Brianna. You’re strong and brave and powerful, no different from Brigid herself. And you’ll always be the Flame Keeper and the Sacred Flame, just as long as you remember that’s who you are. I’m just grateful to the Lord and Lady that you listened to my voice in your dream, and were led to the very people who could help you see that again, after Aedan made you forget your own light.”
There are so many people out there trying to spread fear, hatred and division. We notice the violent ones, who make grand gestures and kill a lot of people in a short space of time, but we often don’t notice the ones who work in more subtle ways.
Much of today’s politics is based on fear. Fear of those people who don’t look like us, or that culture that doesn’t do things the way we do them, or that guy who wants to change the system, or that group that calls itself by a different name and seems to be worshipping a different kind of Divinity.
That’s because fear is a natural human emotion. It’s evolved to keep us alive, which is usually agreed to be a good thing. So it’s easy for politicians to exploit it – to appeal to our primitive survival instincts, rather than our higher consciousness that keeps trying to wake us up and tell us the truth: There is no ‘us and them’.
As I wrote in a poem when I was a teenager at the Drielandenpunt, where the borders of Belgium, Germany and the Netherlands all meet – countries that were once at war, but have now turned the site into an international peace park:
And should we speak of ‘them’ at all,
as ‘them and me’, or ‘them and us’,
or should we speak of us and us?
Why all this fuss?
A name is just a name…
And as one of my characters has explained it more recently in my forthcoming novel, The Nineteen Songs of Reunion:
“Although the fluttery feelings don’t go away, they’re easier to dismiss when I’m in the middle of a story. It’s after the others have gone to bed that I feel the anxiety most, and wish hardest that I could be with Aelfric, and wonder what’s happening and whether he’s in terrible agony, or might even be dead.
But then, in an instant, I remember the great truth I learned on the night when Aelfric was attacked: that the remedy for deep fear is Deep Love. Instead of fretting, I give myself over to praying, letting myself be caught up and held and embraced by the Love that has no beginning or end – the Love beyond all names. It isn’t about my love for Aelfric any more, as a soul in a body; but love for the great Soul that rises in Aelfric and in all of us.
I sing new songs and pray new prayers that the world has never heard before, and Terithien wakes from his sleep, and stares at me with wide eyes. He shakes Orla awake and begs her to light a candle and take up her ink-pot, quill and vellum – for he can’t read or write – and capture all my words so that he might learn them by heart.”
This is my prayer for all of us affected by people’s attempts to spread terror: that we remember, as the members of the Fellowship learn to sing in `The Song of the Healer’, You are the Love beyond all names.
God, Goddess, Allah, Mungu, Engai Brahma, Jehovah: these are just our feeble human attempts at naming something which is far, far bigger and more beautiful than we can ever dream of.
Muslim, Christian, Pagan, Druid, Baha’i, Buddhist, Hindu, Jain, Jew, Zoroastrian, atheist, agnostic, spiritual wanderer, or whatever other names we might come up with: we are all seekers, chasing sparks of that Divine Love and trying to fan them into flames.
We can’t let ourselves be distracted from our quest by people who don’t understand it, and think that ‘those people’ over there are ‘the enemy’. A name is just a name…
We were all created to create something amazing.
We all have the potential to become artists, pilgrims, pioneers, visionaries, revolutionaries and world-changers. This power isn’t just in some of us: it’s a Divine gift that’s been granted to every single soul.
We all have that Light burning within us, but most of the time, we hide it. It’s too scary to shine that brightly.
Whatever it is that we’re dreaming of… we tell ourselves it’s crazy, or too weird, or too ‘out there’, or it’ll never work.
Or we kid ourselves we’re too small, too unknown, too young, too old, too short, too tall, too fat, too thin, too dumb, or too unknown to make it work.
Or we insist we don’t have the right education, the right training, the right skills, the right background, the right contacts, the right car, the right shoes, or the right handbag.
What I loved about Tanzania in 1999 was that none of that stuff mattered.
I was part of a group of 19-22 year olds with a dream of building a Peace Village – a place where young people from all over the world could come to learn about African music, culture and wellness traditions. We didn’t let anyone tell us we couldn’t do it. We raised money, bought a plot of land, registered our own arts and culture organisation, and started building huts.
It got burnt down, so we adjusted the dream, grew the big crazy vision even bigger and crazier, and started again.
You can’t build that there, people told us. Whatever are you thinking of? You’re insane.
It’s a barren patch of bushland. There’s no infrastructure. There’s no water. There’s no electricity.
What you’re trying to do has never been done before. There’s no path.
So we created the path by walking it.
Within five years, we had our place where young people from all over the world could come to learn about African music, culture and wellness traditions. But it wasn’t just a Peace Village. It was the beginning of a secondary school for underprivileged youth.
Those aren’t classrooms, officials told us. An octagonal timber-frame building can’t be a classroom. Classrooms are rectangular and built from concrete blocks. They measure 9 metres by 7.2 metres and have three windows.
You don’t have to demolish them. Just use them as store-rooms, or whatever. But go away and build us some classrooms.
So we did. And two staff houses, and toilet blocks, and a laboratory, and dormitories. All in accordance with the officially recognised plans.
Those aren’t students. You can’t be a student in a secondary school if you’re wearing Maasai robes. Make them all buy shirts and trousers, or skirts if they’re girls.
Ouch. That one hurt. We thought about giving up at that point. But we knew school would come to the village sooner or later. We figured it was better to have one that honoured the Maasai traditions as best it could, and showed young people the power and the beauty of indigenous knowledge by bringing Masters and PhD students from overseas to study it… and let them wear their robes on special occasions, if they wanted to. (Some of them didn’t, which was also fine…)
I won’t say it was all 100% benefit and no costs. Nothing in life ever is. But since our first graduation in 2008, more than 300 students – most of them from low-income families who’d never have been able to afford an education – have graduated from Noonkodin Secondary School with a Form 4 certificate – the equivalent of GCSE or tenth grade.
Many of them are now teachers, nurses or business owners. And one is the Headmaster.
So if you have a dream, however wild and crazy, don’t let anyone put you down. Don’t let anyone tell you that it’s too much, or that you’re not enough.
You are enough.
We are ALL enough.
We are big enough, smart enough, brave enough… even when we aren’t feeling it.
In this week’s blog series, I’ll be sharing my own insights about how to face your fears. I’ll introduce you to Daman, the crazy dreamer from my new novel The Nineteen Songs of Reunion, who’s all fired up about crossing the Irish Sea with a lighted lantern to win the patronage of the King… and to Brianna, the heroine of the story, whose spark becomes a flame when she falls in love with Daman and discovers new dreams of her own.
And I’ll be telling you about my new crazy dream, which you can join in- a powerful initiation for Summer Solstice, held at the ancient sacred site of Aquae Sulis (Bath Spa), to help women awaken the fearless Goddess within and start living those dreams!
One of the greatest tragedies of the West is that we’ve lost the magic of song.
In the Maasai community, singing is part of everyday life. People sing to praise God, regardless of whether they’re Christians, Muslims, or followers of their own indigenous spiritual tradition (where ‘Engai’ is actually translated more accurately as ‘Goddess’).
People sing to preserve their memories and histories, most of which are still unwritten. All the rites of passage have their own songs associated with them, including weddings, ceremonies to bless unborn children, child-naming ceremonies, initiation into adulthood, and the transition from warriorhood into elderhood (although the latter doesn’t have an equivalent for women), and funerals.
Songs are used to welcome important visitors, to launch projects, or – as in the photo above – to entertain parents at the school Open Day. Crucially, they can also be used to open people’s minds to the possibility of change: in our project to reduce the prevalence of female genital mutilation (FGM), we started every seminar and workshop with a performance by a women’s commuity choir.
Yet, in so-called ‘developed’ countries, we’ve created a culture in which most people are afraid to sing.
Shows like ‘The X Factor’, ‘American Idol’ and ‘Britain’s Got Talent’ – where harsh criticism of people’s vocal performance is seen as entertaining – certainly haven’t helped. But a bigger issue is that, with the decline in church attendance, most people just don’t have a space in which they can sing freely without being criticised or judged.
When I recently started attending my local Baptist church in England and the very first song we sang was one that I recognised from an international church that I used to attend in Tanzania, it felt like coming home. But traditional church services don’t appeal to everyone, and despite the vast amount of content available on YouTube, a lot of people – whatever their religion – wouldn’t know where to start looking for inspiring, uplifting, soul-stirring, life-changing, motivating songs that can support their own personal journey to reconnection and wholeness.
That’s why I was inspired to write ‘The Nineteen Songs of Reunion’.
I’m a huge fan of Jodi Picoult’s book Sing You Home, which has a downloadable soundtrack. I LOVE those songs, especially ‘Ordinary Life’ – a cry from the heart for LGBTQ rights and non-discrimination – and the title track, a haunting song dedicated to a child lost through miscarriage. So, inspired by this, I decided to go a step further and write a novel in which the song lyrics are actually woven into the text and form an integral part of the plot.
‘The Nineteen Songs of Reunion’ is a story of transformation and healing through song, and I’m starting to explore ways of recording the 19 songs – which include, among many others, The Song of the Sacred Land, The Song of the Wilderness Wanderer, The Song of the Pilgrims, The Song of the Midwife, and The Song of the Artist – with a Celtic harp and chorus.
I’ve already posted some excerpts, but will be adding more in future. And please keep watching this space for more details of my Transformational Song Healing workshops, and the role of song in the Travelling Light program…
So what do I mean by `Reunion’ in my forthcoming novel, The Nineteen Songs of Reunion?
On one level, it’s about trying to help people to bring together the Divine Masculine and the Divine Feminine within themselves. This, according to the early Gnostic Christians – those who saw Jesus’ message as being primarily about an inner ‘knowing’ (gnosis), about who we can become when we really get beyond all artificial divisions and realise that All is One – is the true goal of life.
But in another, it’s about trying to bridge the gap between Christianity and earth-based spiritual paths. We’ve come through so many centuries of separation – of denigration of Mother Earth and glorification of the Heavenly Father, of genocide perpetrated against women who knew about medicinal plants and sacred landscapes, of entire economies and cultures driven by masculine energy – that most people in Western societies are growing up in a completely unbalanced way. We think ‘religion’ means sitting in the church, the mosque, the temple or the synagogue, and listening to someone preaching. We think ‘nature’ is somewhere to go in the summer holidays, and ‘the environment’ is what you save when you put your empty plastic bottle in the recycling bag instead of the bin.
We imagine that we’re all separate from each other, from the Land, and from the Spirit that created and creates us.
So here, in response, are the full lyrics of The Song of the Maiden:
“After the coldest, darkest night, come melt the frost and ice and snow:
Now is the time to reunite what was divided long ago:
After the time of pain and grief, when Earth and Sky were torn apart,
Now is the time to bring relief: O Saviour, heal this Maiden’s heart!
(Chorus:) Heal my heart, Saviour, remind me the power of this land where I belong;
Heal my soul, let your Love find me, and open up my ears to hear your song;
Heal my dreams, let me heal others, reconciliation cannot wait:
Heal the earth, sisters and brothers: now is the time, it isn’t yet too late…
Lord, when I thought all hope was lost, you rose again to set me free:
Thawing my heart from winter’s frost, you lit your Sacred Flame in me!
This is the season of rebirth: let’s leave behind the empty tomb,
Pushing their way through frozen earth, my hopes and dreams like snowdrops bloom.
Heal my heart, Saviour, remind me…
Deep in my heart let me forgive, and seek the way where Love will rise;
Learn to receive, and learn to give, and see the truth through Spirit’s eyes:
Honour the Sacred Masculine – the Father, Spirit, and the Son;
Honour the Sacred Feminine, Goddess and God; for All is One.
Heal my heart, Saviour, remind me…
Warrior Maidens who remain, remembering the sacred vow,
Come and let’s take our place again, emerging from the shadows now;
No longer living in disguise, no longer hiding, playing small…
The time has come for us to rise; the time has come to change it all!
Heal our hearts, Saviour, remind us the power of this land where we belong;
Heal our souls, let your Love find us, and open up our ears to hear your song;
Heal our dreams, let us heal others, reconciliation cannot wait:
Heal our earth, sisters and brothers: now is the time, it isn’t yet too late…
Since my last visit to Tanzania, in December 2016, I’ve become a regular and passionate attendee of my local Baptist church.
That shocks some people, including my older daughter who’s very politically aware, because of what `the Christian Church’ has done in Africa and what it’s doing right now in the USA – all the racism and homophobia and sexism that’s somehow being sold to people as having something to do with Jesus. But I think Jesus would be appalled by the misuse of his name, because he was a genuine revolutionary. He was someone who touched lepers and invited prostitutes to his house for dinner, and then went into the Temple and overturned the tables of the people who were making money off the backs of the poor, and criticised them in the strongest terms possible, and that’s why the religious leaders of the day insisted that he had to be crucified – because he was a threat to their power.
And whatever you think of the Resurrection of Christ, whether you see it as a physical resurrection in the body – and I believe there’s a lot about the human body that scientists are still trying to get their heads around, this whole emerging belief that in the end we’re all just energy, and we still don’t know what we don’t know – or as a phenomenon that occurred in the disciples’ consciousness, a sort of collective shamanic experience, I think what matters most is the message behind it. It’s an overwhelming message of “the truth of Love transcending death”, as I express it in The Song of the Lovers.
It’s not just Love transcending death in a physical sense that matters, but also – in fact, all the more – in a spiritual sense. It’s about the ability of Love to break through depression, anxiety, apathy, overwork, overwhelm, addictions, and that awful sense of emptiness that symbolises the ‘dark night of the soul’. It’s the idea that individually and collectively, we can come through even the most horrific of circumstances and be reborn: we can make a fresh start at any moment, full of hope and passion and joy. It’s that sense of “Lord, when I thought all hope was lost, you rose again to set me free” that bubbles up in the second verse of the Song of the Maiden.
The point I’ve been trying to work up to, in these blog posts, is the deeper ‘why’.
Why I went to Africa; why I stayed so long; why I came back to the UK; and why, this year, I felt I had to write a historical novel called ‘The Nineteen Songs of Reunion’.
I think when you distil it down, it’s about the contrast between material poverty with spiritual wealth, on one side of the world, and spiritual poverty with material wealth, on the other. I don’t want to perpetuate the myth that everyone in Tanzania is blissfully happy all the time even in the face of death and disease, but there really is this mindset in Africa that just makes life so much more liveable. There’s an acceptance of the present moment, and a contentment with what is (even when, on the face of it, ‘what is’ is full of troubles and hardships).
And there’s a genuine faith in God/dess (the Maasai word Engai is grammatically feminine, whereas the Swahili Mungu is gender-neutral) that flows through everyone’s conversation, all the time.
A Tanzanian friend of mine once asked me why white people always `hurry-worry’ and forget about the God who created them, and it’s so true. He gave me the example of tiny ants living in a red hibiscus flower: they don’t worry about tomorrow, they just live in the moment. He’s living in the USA now, though, so he gets it, he understands that we have to hurry-worry because that’s the way the system is designed, and it’s really, really hard to opt out of that system and find another way of being. And now he’s just trying to save up enough money to pay for a ticket back to Tanzania.
Another aspect of the spiritual wealth of Africa is that there’s a real, tangible interdependence, and a recognition of the fact that we truly are `all one’, at a very deep level: you can’t just look at where someone’s body begins and ends, and think that’s the end of who they are as a person. Everything is about the community, and what’s good for the community, rather than the individual. Even material goods get shared around the community, which is pretty frustrating when it’s your expensive watch or mobile phone or whatever and your neighbour’s son’s idea of interacting with it is to take it to pieces and see what’s inside. But hey, it’s all part of the learning curve.
So what I wanted to do with ‘The Nineteen Songs of Reunion’, and more broadly with the whole Songs of Reunion trilogy, is to show that a living spirituality that’s rooted in nature and community doesn’t have to be something ‘out there’. I’ve met some amazing people and been to some wonderful projects that are all about trying to rebuild a sense of community, and restore people’s connection with nature at a very deep level, but I think there’s still this huge tendency to assume that in Britain we don’t have any indigenous knowledge or indigenous spirituality. People are trying to import shamanism from Siberia or sweat lodges from the Native Americans, because that’s what they know about, but beneath the surface we have all these ancient British traditions of our own. We cling on to things like May Day and Halloween but we’ve forgotten the meanings.
There are two things that have been life-changing for me since I came back from Africa. The first was rediscovering this whole British pre-Christian tradition, which has survived or been revived in a whole variety of different forms, like Druidry, Wicca, Paganism, Goddess worship, and so on. That’s what got me back out into nature and making pilgrimages to ancient sacred sites, it’s what enabled me to connect with like-minded people who cared about creativity and community and celebrating the changing seasons, and overall it’s what pulled me out of quite a dark depression.
And the second was rediscovering Christianity, which I will talk about tomorrow.