I have news for you; the stag bells, winter snows, summer has gone.
Wind high and cold, the sun low, short its course, the sea running high.
Deep red the bracken, its shape is lost; the wild goose has raised its accustomed cry.
Cold has seized the birds’ wings; season of ice, this is my news.
Irish, author unknown, 9th century.
(from A Celtic Miscellany, selected and translated by Kenneth Hurlstone Jackson.)
Winter is here. Imbolc has been and gone. The snowdrops are out and the days are short; they disappear into night before I know they’ve begun. All my animal instincts have been leaning towards hibernation, but here in this World of the Ever-Doing, hibernation is not known. And now, even as I write of Winter, there is a taste of Spring in the air. Quick, quick! Write before the season changes again… These are fast times.
Two massive events are making waves in my soul’s world. If you have read Rima’s recent beautiful blog post, you’ll know what one of them is. It is a joyous thing, and I will come to it shortly. The other is not a joyous thing, but a strong thing and a painful thing, not unrelated to the first, and one of which it is hard to write.
This first news, though. If you don’t already know, here is the joyous news: Fatherhood and I converge rapidly. There is, already, a child whose feet and knees and elbows and bony bottom I know, whose body is making Rima now uncomfortable and will soon be coming into this world to turn our lives upside down and show us who he or she is. Friends, this is remarkable news by any stretch of our very agile imaginations.
In less than a week, our due date is here. What marvel, what incomparable mystery is this?
What can I tell you about approaching fatherhood that is not already known by fathers and unfathomable to those who are not in this place? Only these few things that my mind right now can grasp:
- I feel just ready, age 42, to be a good father. But that is better than I had hoped for. There is little left undone that I can foresee wishing I’d done before the responsibilities of fatherhood arrived. I have been plenty mad and foolish and selfish and drunk enough already in this life. I’m not quite ready for the retirement home, but my thoughts are not of hedonistic or solipsistic satisfactions. And this, I believe, may be a rare thing.
- a pregnant woman in the last six weeks of her pregnancy should be treated like a queen. Upon approaching her, your role (yes, yours, and mine) is to make her life easier and to protect the growing life that she carries. In her womb is the future of the world. A woman in the last few weeks of pregnancy should be approached as if she were a Goddess. In fact, of course, she is a Goddess. Your own wants and needs are secondary, at best.
- as the birth of my child rapidly approaches, my priorities are changing fast. Each week that goes by, I care less about anything other than the wellbeing of Rima and the unknown child in her womb. I accept that this may be a permanent shift, but hope – at some point – to begin caring about other people again. Right now, my heart has space only for these two beings to whom I am connected by unfathomable, unbreakable golden threads. You’ll be glad to hear that I’ve put down my acupuncture needles for now.
- it may well be that nothing in my life prior to this really has any meaning in the way that fatherhood is about to have meaning. My invisible ancestors are crowding around this dark Devon house, drinking tea and smoking cigars. As the hour of birth approaches, unfathomable magic crackles – heaven and earth are bending towards each other in the alembic of my Rima’s womb. Nothing I’ve ever known is like this magic.
So, I am deliriously excited and – in between the busy ways we have of filling the days with preparations, both mundane and esoteric – I am attempting to approach this momentous time in some kind of manner befitting its magnitude…
But, this is the year of two births.
One, I have just told you about. The other is metaphorical, but also profound. You’ll have followed the progress of Hedgespoken, I’m sure. This is the year in which this travelling story-wagon, theatre and home will be born, and so our own newborn child will be raised surrounded by the magic and madness of lives built on stories and a love of the wilds, lives lived on the road, by fire and water, beneath the stars. I consider this as good a way to spend childhood as any and better than most, to be fair.
Of course, there are many, many preparations that must be made for any birth. Some are obvious; some more subtle. Some have been happening for years; some are only now apparent in their bright urgency of need. Some are sweet as a soul; others yet can taste of thorns. And so we come to the second event moving the waters of my soul-world…
Let me tell you about my journey to Anglesey.
I have written before about Macha, my much-loved lurcher. I have had her since she was just a pup – I can still remember getting electric shocks from her when I first picked her up. This is no lie or poetic conceit: real electric shocks, in the palm of my hand. I’ve not a clue what was going on; to this day, it’s a mystery. I took it as a sign that she was the dog for me. And so she was and so it has been; we’ve travelled a long way together, from Scotland, to a life in Wales, and here, to Dartmoor, and this life.
But listen now. Long Rima and I have wondered how Macha would fare as a travelling dog, in a lorry, with a young child. Given how easily she is frighted by flags and crowds and noise, we’ve tried to imagine how she might be at fairs and festivals, where Hedgespoken would be a hive of creative activity. Long we’ve known that this would be an unbearable strain on her, and on us. And long we’ve known that something had to change in this imagined future in order for us all to be happy, Macha and us two and the new-one-soon-to-come.
And so, some months ago, we began the arduous task of finding a new home for Macha. It’s an ordeal I’ve struggled to come to terms with, and Rima has undertaken many of its steps, and here I thank her for it – only when I’ve recollected how unhappy Macha has been when we’re on the road have I been able to still the critical voices who have called me ‘traitor’ for even thinking of re-homing her. Only when I’ve imagined life in the truck with a small baby and an unhappy dog have I remembered clearly, sharply that obstinacy can lead to cruelty, even with the best intentions.
Our efforts to re-home Macha with friends came to nothing – we tried, and friends tried, and we thank them for their wisdom and honesty in knowing that Macha’s needs were beyond their circumstances. In the end, having exhausted every option, and heeding the advice of many who counselled that we should not attempt to do this ourselves, we turned to Hounds First. I am thankful we did and would recommend them to anyone who finds themselves in the same situation.
Thus, a few weeks ago now, I drove to Anglesey to take Macha to a foster home, where she would stay to be assessed and to live until a permanent home was found.
I’ve attempted several times over the last weeks to write about this journey, but the words have all come out of me dry, brittle, full of news and empty of either grace or poetry. This is my last attempt to tell the tale of our journey to that strange, myth-rich isle. It was a strong journey, a painful one; it was a powerful pilgrimage, a devastating and necessary act of letting-go.
In wilderness rites of passage work, we talk of the stage that begins a wilderness fast as SEVERANCE – the one who is about to fast and undergo rites of passage must in some way sever from their previous life, their everyday existence, in order to make space for the sacred, to enter some kind of dreaming-space or in-between we call the THRESHOLD. Powerfully aware that becoming a father is the greatest rite of passage yet, this journey was to be the strongest of several acts of severance in preparation for my rites, the emptying-out of my previous life in order to allow space for the other. But it was not a severance that I wished to make; it was one that – had I believed there were any alternative – I would have avoided.
Now, finally, in the umpteenth draft of this post, late at night, I understand why the words have come out dry and brittle. It is because there is so little to write about that journey that is suitable for such a bare and public scrutiny as the internet. It is too sacred, too powerful for me to write about this way. I have spoken out loud about my journey, its magic and pain, to friends. Just this Sunday, I held a gathering of fathers at the nearby piece of land known as Epona, and I talked there about this painful time that precedes such a time of joy. But that speaking was with my feet firmly on the ground, with fire and earth and air and water and men whose ears were open for the meaning of the tale. Forgive me, internet – not everything is appropriate for writing here.
We are perhaps too used to using the language of reportage for describing things that would better be approached through the circuitous routes of poetry and riddle, allusion and inference. Like hunter-cultures who never refer to their prey by name or with direct speech, perhaps we need ways of speaking about the powerful events of our lives that are not so bald and utilitarian as this.
So, for all my wishes to share something of this time with you, there ends up with little for me to say. I was away for three days. There was snow and ice. It was a journey that entered sacred territory. I understood most of it only after it occurred. I think it may have changed me forever, powerfully.
But I will tell you this part of the story, as it remains insistent:
Two hours before I delivered Macha to the remote farm where I was to leave her, I visited the burial mound of Bryn Celli Ddu. It is an extraordinary place – you can read all about it and I encourage you to visit on a cold, bright winter’s day as I did.
But, as I approached the site, with Macha, I had to follow a blackthorn-lined path along the edges of two fields. Not hurrying, I turned to the field to my right, to see what message the land might have for me.
There lay a fox, dead, with crows picking at its head. Never has a fox looked more like a dog than in that first glimpse. It was a strong image to see, no question, and stronger in that moment than most I could have imagined.
Eventually, I pulled my gaze away and, just glancing, looked into the field on the left of the path.
The first lambs of the winter. Really, the first lambs I had seen this year, gambolling, leaping, charged with the fizz and sparkle of new life.
Endings, beginnings; dyings and birthings. Letting go and receiving. These are not trivial matters – even less so when you have driven 300 miles through snow and ice to find a Neolithic burial site and say goodbye.
I could tell you more. I could tell you about Cader Idris; I could tell you about my father and my grandfather, whose graves are side by side in a small mid-Wales village, and how I visited them and what I said and left them; I could tell you about arriving back home, about Merrivale. I could tell you about the incredible beauty of Snowdonia and how I laughed and cried and the almost unbearable pain in my heart at letting Macha go. But these stories are for other places, other times, other language.
I will tell you only these few things:
Ten days ago, we visited Grimspound, because the day was beautiful and there was ice and snow and a white sky and we are trying to show our Nearly-Born the places we love. The ravens were on the air and we stood by the leat, listening to the gurgle of the snow-melt stream and the buzzards crying.
And last week, we heard that Macha has a new home, in Snowdonia. It sounds perfect. That night, I dreamed that she had been cured of a long illness and I woke with the pain in my heart relieved. There is still grieving, but it is not poison.
We miss Macha. We both dream of her frequently. If you know us and know her, you’ll also know the deep love we have for her. I had never thought that I would have to let her go, but now that I have, I see even more clearly that it had to be so.
And, as that grieving matures, space is opening up in which to welcome our child, this person we are so very, very excited to meet. Our home is ready. Everything is as good as we can make it. We make prayers for Macha, and for a good labour, for a happy, healthy child and in the hope that we will be good parents.
There was so much more that I thought I had to say, but it seems appropriate now that as the moments of our threshold approach, there is little that can be said.
Everything is changing. Who we will be on the other side of that birthing threshold is unknown. Wish us well, send your prayers and await news. We will be internet-quiet for a while to come, but we will send word. There is nothing left to do but wait, and listen, and dream.
Note: Hounds First have been amazing all through this. They are currently running a huge fundraising drive – they’re desperately short of funds. If you are moved by this post to support them and their work, please donate at the PayPal link on their homepage here.