Late autumn: the final unwinding… the dying back… the sinking in. The nights are long, the light is crisp, the magic is close. Use this time to prepare yourself, body and spirit, for the deep inner-workings of Winter.
Winter is the time of compost and of the crone; it’s the underworld and the undoing, when even colors lose their vigor to the season’s whites and grays and browns. It’s the time of accepting death.
In a culture that praises the sun and worships youth, even the mere metaphor of death can send us searching for the light. Culturally, we’re just not cut out for this journey into the dark.
But the witchy ones know otherwise. The witchy ones know that darkness, that death, is a part of a larger cycle. The Phoenix needs the ash, the soil needs the compost. The human soul needs the long dark night.
Still we don’t go gently.
When I was in grad school, I’d often take my journal and sketch pad to an overlook on the Blue Ridge Parkway. It was a quick getaway and I was often alone up there. But one evening a family mini-van pulled in as the sun was edging toward orange. The kids hopped out and jumped onto the low stone wall as the sun began to dip below the horizon.
Suddenly a heart-wrenching cry ripped through the stillness. Don’t goooooooo! the small boy yelled, choking on tears as he railed at the departing sun.
Whether it’s the small loss of the sun as its hours diminish in the sky… or the death of a love affair… or a business… or a long-held dream, some atavistic part of us feels gutted with every new death. And when the death is not metaphoric but is instead a parent, a partner, or a child, letting go and accepting death can be a Herculean task.
Which is why we practice.
When I was studying in Ireland, I found two dead starlings on my way home from gathering herbs in the far pasture. It was a cold day. I remember my breath pluming and leaning on the door as I shut it against the wind. I told my teacher in passing, as I pulled off my mittens, “dead birds in the field, under the power line.”
I was focused on the power lines and the why but my teacher had other thoughts. It’s time, she said, to learn about death.
A casket, a hole in the ground, a body cooling after the last breath is exhaled… I’d sat with these before. But somehow laying my hands on these cold, still bird-bodies petrified me. I wouldn’t let myself use a shovel. I put on gloves and picked up each bird, trembling with inexplicable terror.
How do we begin accepting death as part of the spiraling cycle of life?
Every year, we attempt to relearn the art of letting go: we learn it from the trees and from the earth, we learn it from the quiet places in our hearts, and we learn it from each other as we lean into our family and friends.
How do we prepare our spirits for this yearly death as we move past the balance of the autumn equinox and toward the darkness of winter?
What has amazed me most in my years of working with women is the benefit of acceptance.
What rituals and work can help you create this shift towards accepting loss?
- Build an altar each day for a week to memorialize and work towards accepting death in your life. You can download a free how-to guide on altar-building here.
- Meditate with a tree, feeling its leaves dying and falling, its energies returning to the earth, to its roots…
- Have less and less light in your house each night ’til you get to the Solstice and have no light at all.
Dive deep into the velvety dark, allow it to embrace you, and as you sink into its depths, know the wheel will turn, and the light will return.
Big Hugs and Happy Solstice—
We parked in a rut on the side of the road and hiked up a barely-seen track and then across a stile before clambering up a fence line edged with Hawthorn and Elderberry.
This route had become familiar, ‘though I doubt I could find it now, thirteen years later.
The stone circle at the hill’s top was off most maps and worn down like ancient teeth. Walk clockwise to build energy; the stones like that my teacher murmured.
So I set off in a sun-wise direction, moving slowly, trailing fingers over moss and bird droppings to feel the ancient rock beneath. Once, twice… the walking became a meditation. I stopped seeing my teacher, the sun, the the gnarled roots beneath my feet.
For just a few moments I knew the vibrant stillness of stone.
When I finally sat, snugged against rock, messages came. Stories about time and its passing from a perspective so different from human, so much more ancient than tree.
It’s hard to speak of these mysteries in a way that doesn’t create distance and disbelief. So let’s simply say I’d walked myself into a trance state, a place in which the world is more vocal and alive then the place we inhabit daily.
It’s this place which called to me this morning as I contemplated the season’s new-found chill.
I love this time of year: the curling into your core, shaking out sweaters, and rescuing nutmeg from the back of the spice cabinet. I relish the fading light and even the ghosts, the hungry parts of myself and my ancestory, which have not yet found rest.
Healing ancestral wounds is part of our work toward wholeness.
It’s easy to give in to maudlin or angry or even self-righteous as these ghosts rise from their shallow graves.
Instead I sort them gently:
You are new, I say, grown from regret of things not done this year past. And you? (Why this year? I wonder) You are my younger self’s heartbreak over a lost love. And then there’s you, who aches from the misunderstanding of your fragile psyche, who moans as electricity arcs through your brain (“Hello, Grandmother,” I murmur). But you, my friend, you are ancient dust and bone… You’re tangled in my DNA, in pogroms, and genocides, and the feeling of homelessness.
Each year I watch them gather round me. Each year I whisper what do you need?
The answer is always the same: love, honor, respect, to simply be seen, a wake, a funeral, a moment of mourning or week of shiva.
It’s tempting sometimes to give myself over to the ancestral grief locked in my blood. To become ancient rage and hatred, to succumb to nostalgia and regret.
But raging against the grandchildren of Nazis, the great-great-grandchildren of Russian Tzars, or the ten-times great-grandchildren of Spanish Inquisitors won’t heal these wounds.
We are called to honor the past, not to recreate its resonance in the present.
So I gently disentangle the threads, me from not-me. I honor the ghosts but don’t let them inhabit my body or become my being.
On the nights when they’re near I make an offering of tears or whiskey (a remnant of my time studying in Ireland) or squares of chocolate. It’s my way of saying I see you, you are not forgotten. Like laying flowers on a grave.
How do we repair damage in a pre-generational past? How do we weave the threads of ancestry which have been cut or torn? I think of the matrix, the soil, in which our ancestral roots grow. Comfrey which strengthens bones also amends soil. I tuck a bit in my Medicine pouch.
I sat this morning with the stones I keep close (two crystals, one odder looking than the next). I think about time and the quantum loops of past and future. And I think of those ancient standing stones which I still feel supporting me more than a dozen years later.
Perhaps it’s as simple as this: when we lean into the stones and the trees, we remember we’re part of a greater whole which has a different timeline than humanity’s. In the broad sweep of history, we are all ghosts…
What ghosts will you lay to rest? Tell me in the comments below.
This is autumn’s work, this year and every year. This is the work we do together each year in Witch Camp. If you want to join me at Witch Camp online to do the work of honoring and releasing, click here (it’s beautiful work made more beautiful by community).
Gluten-free pumpkin bread: my autumn go-to treat.
It’s yummy exactly as is or turned dessert-like with dark chocolate chips (I use Pascha 85% chocolate chips) and/or walnut or pecans.
Preheat oven to 350 degrees F, grease an 8×10 pan, and let’s get baking!
1 cup canned pumpkin
1/2 cup olive oil
1 cup date or maple sugar
2 teaspoons vanilla
1/3-1/2 cup apple cider
1 1/2 cups gluten free flour blend (I use Namaste) or regular flour
1 teaspoon baking powder
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon each allspice, ginger, clove
Bake for about 30 minutes.
Nights have gotten cool here.
I have pulled out the down comforter and rescued my woolen slippers from the back of the closet.
Ginger and cinnamon have once again found their way into my tea blends and it’s rare that I don’t have a cup of something warming my hands.
I suspect that the sudden abundance of small feathers and squirrel tails (minus the squirrels) and the raucous protests of the neighborhood crows are signs that the hawks are passing through these mountains on their autumnal trip south.
This is, without contest, my favorite time of year.
In Ireland we would lean into these last days, harvesting and collecting plant medicine for the winter months. Nothing would be gathered after Samhain–which we call Halloween–when the fairies were said to piss on the peppermint and spit on the hawthorn.
And so the evening of October 31 was a party, in some ways like Halloween is here, but not given over to children.
There is a magic to finishing your work for the season and then donning the mask of winter. I painted a black band over my eyes and wove raven feathers into my hair. Not as sophisticated as the Darth Vader masks or sexy kitten lingerie found here in the States, but it suited my mood and the time of honoring our ancestors.
This is where the masking originally comes from, you know: the spirits are abroad as the days grow shorter and a mask keeps them from recognizing you, in case they mean you harm.
In this time when the veil between the world is thin, we call our ancestors to us to offer guidance through the darker months. We honor them with cakes and wine and fill a plate for them at the table.
This is how we celebrated there, then.
It’s been a dozen years since my apprenticeship in Ireland but I have never lost the reverence for this season. As the scent of the wind changes, and the cold begins to whisper in, I feel the energy shifting. I imagine that I can sense the veils thinning and the spirit world snuggling closer, as if to stay warm through the darkest days.
It’s in this spirit that I have been beginning my own harvest.
Not plants this year, but ideas. Thoughts that have been ripening on my mind’s vine are suddenly full and ready for tasting. The juice of these days drips off my chin as I gather supplies for the Samhain Retreat, where I will have the joy of guiding others into the reverence of this season, where we will honor our lineage and the particular magic that we bring to our bloodlines. The crows are dropping feathers we’ll weave into our hair, and small crystals are finding their way to my hands for our altars.
Most of the year, I stand in the doorway, weaving a gentle wildness into my days, watching the signs of the seasons and the cycles of the moons. And so I look forward to the sweet days that hinge autumn to winter, when I put my work down and step, wholly, into the mystic.
Begin making your plans, my friends. Sample the winds and see if you can taste change.
And be sure to head to the comments and tell me what this season means to you.