epiphanies


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Entrance to West Kennet Long Barrow by Adrian Pink
(I’m afraid I have to rely on the photos of others as I’ve yet to scan my own.)

On a cold day in late September with occasional showers of rain, many years ago now, I was pretty much alone on the A4 highway driving from Marlborough towards Devizes in Wiltshire, England. I was on a solo pilgrimage across the West Country, a few days out from London, looking for a group of stones I’d read about. I got distracted by the looming site of Silbury Hill on the right hand side of the road and I passed the small sign marking West Kennet Long Barrow. I had to double back. A little red brick farmhouse sat beside the road, and next to it was a turnout large enough for maybe four cars. A metal gate led to a footpath curving around the farmhouse and into the empty fields, disappearing over a low hill. As I entered the gate a white goat in the farmyard eyed me with wary curiosity. The only other creature in sight was a man on a green tractor far, far across the golden fields harvesting the grain. I wouldn’t learn until later, much to my chagrin at missing them, that two weeks before there had been crop circles in that grain field.

Once the footpath entered the fields, it was fenced on both sides to keep the tourists from getting into the farmers’ way. It seemed to go on for miles, most of it a steady incline, but the guide book reassured me it only traversed a half mile. I couldn’t see anything remotely resembling a Neolithic barrow, just more hill and more. I began to wonder how such an invisible thing could possibly be as impressive as I’d been led to believe. Then I noticed a section of uncultivated field pop over the horizon, autumnal wild grass and field flowers that, I guessed, the farmer had missed. But only one long snake of field was overgrown, and as I drew nearer I saw a little track of fencing around it. As if the sight of the fence conjured them, the stones appeared, popping over the top of the hill.

I’d expected something grander, I thought, with starker, more clearly delineated stones. Certainly the pictures I’d seen of the barrow had been dramatic. They seemed dinky as I climbed towards them—but I was still a victim of perspective. I climbed and the barrow grew longer, larger. When I finally arrived, the gray-brown guarding stones of the entrance seemed massive.

I didn’t go inside at first, electing instead to climb on top of the barrow, and stretch things out a bit. I spent a long time up there while the chill soaked through my exertion and turned my cheeks slowly numb. A little path ran along the top where God knows how many tourists had trod before, marking out the one hundred meter length of barrow with their soles, wearing away the grass until the white chalk of Wiltshire showed through the top soil. About mid-point the barrow dipped as if it had sunk or collapsed, then rose up again before an undramatic end merging with the hillside. Little white flowers grew in tufts here and there on the barrow and beside it. I started back towards the entrance.

I thought of the ancient people who had been buried here, and was glad I had time to be alone with my thoughts and with the place. I entered the tomb. The light dimmed inside, fed only from the entrance. One long rock chamber went back about twenty feet before ending in a wall. Four alcoves fed off the main chamber, and on a stony shelf in the last of these alcoves, someone had laid some of the wildflowers from the top of the barrow. I thought I understood this act of veneration, for I felt it too—reverence and regret for the bones that had slept here for countless generations, and now sat on the shelf of a museum in Devizes.

I felt something else, too—or thought I did: the presence of the ancestors in this place, something deep, fundamental, and as quiet as the earth beneath my feet. The stones fairly vibrated with presence. I touched them to reassure myself it was only imagination that vibrated in that place. Cold, silent, solid stone, but also something that defied logic, something tiny and barely perceptible, not even strong enough to qualify as vibration. Maybe just the stones breathing, maybe just the earth spinning on its axis. Or maybe, I thought with a stubborn realization, it was the blood in my veins singing to my own ancestors in recognition. I laughed at myself, but the feeling persisted, undeniable, and it filled me with joy.

“Endorphins,” said the logical side of my brain, my explaining away standby any time I have a peak experience. But I always laugh at it, defy it, reject it.

I went back outside and took a deep breath. The chill sank in all the way to my toes, but I hardly noticed. I was really sailing high, spinning out on a line of exhilaration grounded in the earth, but stretched out at its limit. I hoped in that one perfect moment that the line would break so I could go sailing up through the black rain clouds and never, ever come down.

But I climbed back down the path, as one does. On the way down I encountered a couple speaking German to one another, an older man dressed for the excursion, and a much younger girl in stylish clothes and impractical pumps. Maybe a father forcing a recalcitrant child to the summit? She looked sullen and miserable, giving me a pleading look as I passed. What could I possibly tell her, even if there was no language barrier? I’m not sure I even smiled at her as our eyes met. I was trying too hard not to lose the moment, not to be engulfed by the world and the present tense once again.

It didn’t work. It never does. I got back on the A4, on my way to Salisbury.

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Many (many) years ago, after being a gobshite, I visited Glastonbury Tor and had an epiphany. Such things are not unusual there, from what I understand, and many people go especially to seek out transitional moments. Although I’d read about the Tor for years and it was high on my list of places to visit in the West Country, I didn’t go specifically seeking a pivotal moment. I don’t think one can obtain them to order. It just worked out that way for me.

Perhaps it was because I drove around the West Country for eight days on my own, but I had a number of profound experiences on that trip. If I’d had companions, perhaps I wouldn’t have been as hungry, or as internal. Perhaps discussion and camaraderie would have diluted the experiences. I don’t know. I’m just glad I received these gifts—for certainly, transitional moments are gifts.

Back in those days I didn’t have to take a bus to the Tor. I parked my rental car on the road that runs behind it and walked up to it through the countryside. I’d read that some people believe the terraces ringing the Tor are the remains of an ancient three-dimensional labyrinth that pilgrims used to traverse to gain…Well, theories vary, and many discount the idea entirely. The terraces go round the Tor seven times, ending at the pinnacle where the remains of St. Michael’s church now stands. It resembles the Cretan labyrinth, so they say, and if the theories are correct, it’s part of a long continuum of ancient ritual. A search for enlightenment? The prelude to a sacrifice? A journey through the maze of the soul? Who knows? You can read a fascinating analysis of this by Geoffrey Ashe here.

I myself approached the top of the Tor mostly as a feckless tourist, partially as excited quester, blundering along the path that cuts through the “labyrinth” and heads straight to the top. I got disoriented at a certain point about halfway up, where a clump of bushes surrounded a bench with a sheep resting its head on the backrest. I no longer remember why I grew insecure about the path—it’s a fairly straight ascent, after all—but I did. I looked down the Tor to see if I could ask someone if I was “doing it right” and spotted a young man several terraces down walking crossways along the Tor. “Is this the right way up to the Tor?” I yelled. He stopped and gave me a “what kind of a gobshite are you?” look before nodding a continuing on his journey. It was only much later when I was off the Tor and back at the B&B that I realized I’d interrupted his journey through the maze. I’m not stupid, but sometimes I’m not smart. Perhaps my idiotic interruption was part of the tribulations the mazewalker had to go through to reach enlightenment? One can only hope.

I continued on in my gobshite way, reaching the tower on top of the Tor and for some reason was granted a moment of grace. Grace is always mysterious, and often goes to the underserving. It’s not just for Christians, either. I’ve noticed that even pagans are sometimes granted grace.

Or maybe it was just endorphins from the long climb. I say that as a nod to science, which I love and respect, but mostly I’m not inclined to look this gift horse too closely in the mouth. It was a moment of personal fulfillment and I am grateful for it.

Here’s part of what I wrote about the experience many long yarns ago:

It was another cold, gray day when I got to the tower, and not too many folks around. For the moment, I was alone at the top with the tower. There’s a doorway on both sides and in the middle a pit with evidence of a recent campfire. The inside of the tower is like a vast chimney because there’s no roof, and I had a strong sense of stepping away from the world.

And I was overcome by an odd, strong realization that I was at a crossroads. I remembered an image from a book I’d recently read about a doorway on a mountaintop, and I had the unshakeable conviction that if I stepped through one doorway of that tower and emerged on the other side, my life would never be the same. But I had to choose to step through, at that precise moment in time, in the full knowledge that I accepted and welcomed the change, agreeing to something new and different in my life. I hesitated, known devils being preferable to unknown ones, but for once my timidity didn’t win. I stepped through.

mountain

Alchemy: the Invisible Magical Mountain And the Treasure therein Contained

On the other side of the doorway, the Tor descended gradually towards a plain of green fields and hedgerows, and to the northeast lay the ruins of Glastonbury Abbey and the town itself. A group of four sheep grazed just below the crest, heads down and disappeared in shadow, backs like tight balls of cotton floating above the hill. In the distance, the sun broke through the clouds, a shaft of silver illuminating the sky and downslope lands, while the area around the Tor remained in shadow. All except the backs of those sheep, whose whiteness caught the sun and glowed white-gold against the dark, shadowy green. The moment pierced my heart with its beauty, and I felt . . . as if the bargain I’d struck with life had been accepted. I don’t know if it was magic, or plain old motivation, but my life really wasn’t the same after that. That year—that trip and the sense of empowerment it gave me—started a cycle of changes that set me on a new path.

I have a photograph of the moment when the sun illuminated the sheep. A pale echo of the experience, but thanks to Canon, Kodak, a good color lab—and maybe a bit of grace—the dramatic lighting on the backs of those sheep came through. Whenever I really look at that photo, I am right back there, in that place, having just concluded my bargain, and realizing (maybe for the first time) that my life really was what I made of it and that the only one I really had to answer to was myself.

glastonbury sheep

Random quote of the day:

“Reason, I sacrifice you to the evening breeze.”

—Aimé Césaire, Notebook of a Return to the Native Land, tr. Eshleman & Smith

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Disclaimer: The views expressed in this random quote of the day do not necessarily reflect the views of the poster, her immediate family, Siegfried and Roy, Leonard Maltin, or the Mormon Tabernacle Choir. They do, however, sometimes reflect the views of the Cottingley Fairies.

 

Random quote of the day:

“The words of the writer act as a catalyst in the mind of the reader, inspiring new insights, associations, and perceptions, sometimes even epiphanies.”

—Nicholas Carr, The Shallows

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Disclaimer: The views expressed in this random quote of the day do not necessarily reflect the views of the poster, her immediate family, Siegfried and Roy, Leonard Maltin, or the Mormon Tabernacle Choir. They do, however, sometimes reflect the views of the Cottingley Fairies.

Random quote of the day:

 

“Whatever became of the moment when one first knew about death? There must have been one. A moment. In childhood. When it first occurred to you that you don’t go on forever. Must have been shattering, stamped into one’s memory. And yet, I can’t remember it. It never occurred to me at all. We must be born with an intuition of mortality. Before we know the word for it. Before we know that there are words. Out we come, bloodied and squalling, with the knowledge that for all the points of the compass, there’s only one direction, and time is its only measure.”

—Rosencrantz, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead (Tom Stoppard)

 

Disclaimer:  The views expressed in this random quote of the day do not necessarily reflect the views of the poster, her immediate family, Siegfried and Roy, Leonard Maltin, or the Mormon Tabernacle Choir. They do, however, sometimes reflect the views of the Cottingley Fairies.