The way we focus on the wheel of the year in some pagan traditions can make it tempting to try and shoehorn all life into the solar narrative. I’ve griped about this one before. There are however some good and helpful lessons to take from the idea of the wheel of the year. Cyclical living can be considered in much more abstract ways.
We can picture life as a straight line, a journey from point to point. Viewed this way, each experience is a line, a village we will only pas through once, a view we will not see again. In many ways, linear thinking makes it harder to learn, because it reduces the idea that there is anything to learn. If we’re always moving forwards, whatever we get, it won’t be this. With a linear life view, all losses are permanent, all ends are absolute. There is no way back.
A cyclical view allows a very different way of thinking. If life has tides and seasons, things come round again. The corn dies to the scythe, the leaves fall, but come the spring there are new corn stalks pushing up, new buds coming. They may not be the same leaves, but they grow on the same trees. Each turn of the tide is its own, unique moment, but the ebb and flow are continuous, moving seamlessly from one stage to the next. If we view life as ebb and flow, as cycle, as change that holds constancy and constancy that is full of change, then there is every reason to learn from each turn.
I have experienced death in life more than once along the way. Not just the death of loved people, but the death of things within me. Hopes, dreams, ideas, beliefs, sense of self. If I believed at any point that those deaths were absolute, I’d have long since gone crazy. The linear life view would have broken me long ago. But I have a cyclical sense of things. Even when there is winter in my soul, I do not completely forget the existence of spring. When something dies, I do not entirely forget that death is part of the cycle. The moon waxes and wanes. Tiny plants grow on the corpses of fallen giants. Life has a startling ability to continue, and this is as true within as without.
There are stories in the Wiccan tradition about death and rebirth – The Descent of the Goddess – following Persephone into the underworld, and back into the daylight, knowing that the underworld part of the saga awaits. There aren’t any neat Druid/Celtic parallels that I can think of, although there is Taliesin, dying to Cerridwen and being reborn. There is Blodeuwedd who is flowers, and then woman, and then owl. That story has always spoken to me. I think about Rhiannon’s story of loss and trial and eventual release. These are cycles of descent and change, of suffering and transformation. They aren’t as clear as the Persephone narrative.
Going down into the darkness is part of life. Into the darkness of loss and uncertainty, of pain, disease, fear, depression. There are those who talk about the darkness inside the cauldron, the place of potential, waiting to be gestated, imagined into being, born into the world. There are warmer and happier way of understanding ‘darkness’ but for me, each cycle of descent is a narrative of pain and terror. Something dies. There are days of crawling through dark places with no sense of direction, and days when I just lie there and whimper, inside my head. The outside may appear to be functioning, but that’s not always indicative.
The process of emergence is not like watching a butterfly unfurling its wings. It is not the joyfulness of seeing a chick breaking free from the shell or a baby being born. But then, who can say what any of those things are like, from the inside? It’s a slow crawl, it is as bloody as the descent, and as fraught with difficulties. Sometimes the idea of being held in the darkness seems preferable, making a non-space, of not feeling, not doing, not allowing myself to care. That can feel like safety, while the idea of being vulnerable to feeling, to the scrutiny of light, is unbearable. Climbing back out of the hole, feeling like I have no skin on, nothing to protect myself with, does not seem to get any easier with practice. So far, I have always managed, sooner or later, to climb back out of the hole, hanging on to whatever tiny shreds of hope and inspiration I can find. Life is cyclical. There will be other holes, other long descents and arduous returns. Other journeys through dark lands. At least knowing this makes them less of a shock when they turn up.
I am making the trudge back from the underworld, again. I come back knowing that either one day I am going to shatter entirely and throw myself in the river, or I am going to have to find a way to be myself, hold some space that is mine, and have some place to sing the wilderness song in my soul. Sing with blood and teeth and mayhem. There has to be another way of doing things. And the wheel turns…