The power of ritual - by Charlotte

Ritual forms a part of all our retreats and there’s a good reason for that. Human beings have a need for ritual - it’s the reason weddings, funerals and christenings are so ingrained in our society. And, in much smaller ways, we all carry out little rituals every day. My morning one goes like this: get up around 6.30, feed the cats (obviously that always comes first!), have a cup of warm water with apple cider vinegar, light incense, meditate for 20 minutes, make a cup of tea. After that, what happens is anyone’s guess (that’s the unpredictable life of a freelance writer for you) - but one thing I know is that my day is likely to flow much more smoothly if I’ve followed my usual morning ritual. I don’t do it every every single day - if I’m away from home, on a course or running a retreat, I fall temporarily out of my routine, and that’s fine - it’s always important to build in some flexibility. But I certainly aim to achieve my half-hour of peace every morning, as that means I’ll get there 80 per cent of the time.

As a Priestess of Rhiannon, I am trained in more structured ceremonies and holding these is something that’s really important to me. In secular society, we’ve lost a lot of our ceremony and ritual - we only really mark births, marriages and deaths. But we pass through so many more gateways than this in the course of a lifetime: coming of age, relationship breakdown, pregnancy loss, recovery from illness, menopause and many more which may be personal and particular to us. These transitions change us yet are so rarely honoured, meaning we can end up floundering around them, questioning ourselves, lacking any closure we may need and potentially missing out on a full sense of pride and ownership of what we’ve been through.

I have just experienced the benefits personally as I received a miscarriage ceremony from my fellow priestesses, to mark the pregnancies I lost four years ago - the picture below shows a paper lantern (biodegradable!) on which I wrote messages for the babies who never were being released into the wind in Glastonbury. The ceremony was intense, raw and beautiful, and I feel it has enclosed that time of my life in a gentle bubble. I’ll always feel sad about those brief sparks of life, particularly as I haven’t ended up having children, but somehow the energy around it feels different now. Powerful stuff.

What rituals do you have in your life?

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Why I host a Death Cafe - by Charlotte

A little while ago, Sarah and I decided it was time to host a day retreat about healing from loss. After all, few of us are untouched by it in some form - whether it’s miscarriage, the heartbreak of a relationship ending, the loss of a beloved pet or the death of a partner, parent, child or friend.

Death is a subject our society has a problem with and research by Dying Matters has found 77 per cent of us struggle to talk about it. Think about the hushed euphemisms we use - ‘passed’, ‘slipped away’ and so on (on my counselling course, we were taught to simply say someone had ‘died’ - a quiet, simple word that doesn’t skirt the subject). Death is part of the human experience, and in England alone, half a million people die every year, with each death affecting five people directly - and many more indirectly.

Bereavement counsellor Julia Samuel, whom I had the privilege to meet at an event last year, believes our unwillingness to discuss death may be partly down to superstition - a sense that if you talk about something, you’ll somehow make it happen. And, of course, it can seem a depressing and scary subject. Perhaps we’re able to get away with sticking our heads in the sand because as a society, we don’t have to confront death at close hand very often. These days, the dying process is usually medicalised and people often die in hospital. All this has made it very mysterious - and, therefore, a lot more frightening than it needs to be.

The international Death Café movement is a response to the silence and secrecy. At a Death Café, people get together to chat mortality over tea and cake – and as the host of my own local Death Café, in Kingston, south-west London, I’ve seen how liberating and uplifting it can be to sit and talk about death and dying with a bunch of strangers.

I decided to start a Death Cafe after being around a few friends who’d lost loved ones in particularly shocking, unexpected ways. I saw how some of them were left struggling because others didn’t know what to say or how to support them, so they were stranded with their grief. I believe if we can all get better at being open about death and bereavement - our fear, sadness, anger, guilt and whatever else comes up - we’ll be better able to support the bereaved, and will perhaps cope better ourselves when we’re faced with loss in any form, and indeed our own death.

Every Death Cafe is different. But it’s never downbeat or depressing. Yes, there can be tears - sometimes long-repressed ones that are easier to release in the company of supportive strangers. But there’s usually a lot of laughter, too. And the cafes can be very profound, bonding experiences - you certainly find out more about someone from hearing how they’d like their funeral, rather than what they do for a living. Above all, I think talking about death can free you up to enjoy your life and make the most of every precious moment. I always come away feeling moved, humbled and inspired. Why not look up your local Death Cafe ?

And think about coming along to our Colchester day retreat on 3 February. We’ll give you space to share whatever’s in your heart, and lots of inspirational exercises to start transforming your pain into something else.

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What would you do? - by Sarah

If you’ve spent any time with me, you’ve probably heard me talk about my late Great Uncle Harry. I have him to thank for many happy childhood memories including kitchels (he was the caretaker of and lived above the town hall) and his cuckoo clock (he’d turn the hands to 12 o’clock).  

Whatever challenges life threw at him (infertility; his beloved wife Rose’s Alzheimer’s; a broken knee at 92; spending his final couple of years in a nursing home) Great Uncle Harry’s favourite saying was: ‘Mustn’t grumble’.  And he didn’t. 

Uncle Harry came to all our family dos. He loved the food, the banter, the board games. But the thing he loved best of all, I think, is our ‘Christmas dinner scratch card’ tradition.

Silence falls. The oldest person in the room is handed the lucky coin. They scratch while everyone watches. The coin is ceremoniously handed to the youngest person. Then it’s the next oldest person’s turn, the next youngest and so on. Oh the thrill of winning a tenner, or even a £1!

Since Uncle Harry died two years ago, we continue to scratch cards after turkey, before pudding, and we begin by raising a glass to him. It’s the time of the year I miss him most.

This Christmas the conversation turned to ‘What would you do if we won big?’. What would I do? While others talked of ditching or switching their jobs, I thought, ‘I’d do exactly what I already do!’ Even if we won squillions on a scratch card.

Several years ago, I went to a ‘manifest your dreams’ workshop and I made this vision board. I found it recently and was thrilled to realise the fun, nurturing and stillness I’d tried to capture on card are all high up on the agenda on all our retreats, and in my Reiki and Nia classes. And whether I’m penniless or rolling in it, fulfilling this dream will continue to be the reason why I jump out of bed in the morning.

If you can say the same then we’re one of the lucky ones. If you’d make massive changes then why wait for an unlikely lottery win (especially if like me you only play it once a year)? Even if you can’t ditch or switch your job, you can take steps, even small ones, towards creating a life you really love. That’s what Great Uncle Harry, the happiest man I’ve ever known, would do.

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My relationship with my feet - by Sarah

When I was a teenager, somebody told me I have ugly feet. I looked down. My feet are wide. My toes are long – if they were cigarettes they’d be Super Kings. There are lumps at the back of my ankles. And my little toes curl inwards like tiny Wotsits.

I blame ballet. From the age of three, I squished my soft little feet into snug fitting ballet slippers and eventually I went up onto pointe shoes.

For three decades after that comment, I longed for straight toes and – oh the irony – for narrow feet that slipped elegantly into flat ballet pumps. Mine bulged over the sides. Muffin-feet.

 Along came Reiki and my practice was helping self-acceptance to blossom, but my unconscious foot shame remained. I shunned strappy sandals and feminine flip-flops, opting for DMs, Fly boots and chunky clogs. In summer I thanked the footwear gods for Converse and Espadrilles.

But then in 2016, I trained in Nia Dance barefoot fitness and unexpectedly fell in love - with my feet. When I lose myself in the music, I am flooded with gratitude for every inch of bone, joint, ligament, skin, muscle and sinew in my body. And of course when I’m dancing, my feet step, flex, tap, stretch, glide and kick. I’m glad they’re wide and strong.

Learning to love the attractive, semi-attractive and neither-here-nor-there bits of myself was difficult enough, but it’s really challenging learning to love the unattractive bits. My size sixes are more Shrek than Dr Scholl, but I’m determined to take my self-love all the way.

Don't let it go - let it be - by Charlotte

Have you ever been advised to ‘just let go and move on’ - whether that’s of an unrequited love or an unresolved conflict? To me, it’s the one of the least useful pieces of advice around. Because we’d all do it, if we could. Obviously. If you can’t let go of something it’s because…well, you can’t.

Once, when my heart was smashed to smithereens, I thought longingly of the film Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, which centres around characters erasing memories of the lovers who’ve left them, so they no longer have to live with the pain. Deep down, though, I knew such a shortcut - if it existed in reality - wouldn’t really be an answer. We always have to grieve a bit and learn the lessons from these situations before we can feel better.

So all I could do was give it time and distance myself from the situation. I couldn’t let go but I could do something else - something the late Sally Brampton, brilliant journalist and agony aunt, told me about when we worked together several years ago. ‘I never tell people to let it go,’ she said. ‘I prefer to think of letting it be.’

Letting it be simply means leaving it alone - whatever it is. You stop engaging and you stop trying. You don’t necessarily stop feeling sad/angry/frustrated/whatever, not straight away - perhaps not even for a long time. But you stop putting your energy into something (or someone). Letting go is - annoyingly - rarely something you can do at will. Letting it be, though, is always possible.