Alternative Wheel: Other seasonal cycle stories
When this column started, it was all about exploring different ways of thinking about the wheel of the year, reflecting on aspects of the natural world to provide Pagans alternatives to the usual solar stories. It's still very much an alternative wheel, but there's a developing emphasis on what we can celebrate as the seasons turn. Faced with environmental crisis, and an uncertain future, celebration is a powerful soul restoring antidote that will help us all keep going, stay hopeful and dream up better ways of being.
There is no place in a regular wheel of the year where it makes sense to talk about going back, returning, backtracking or heading the wrong way. The cycle of the year does of course bring us round the same seasons, reliably, but there is always a sense of moving forward. Turning, not returning. Time as we experience it only flows one way. However, there are many ways in which we can go back.
We can make geographical returns to places that were important to us, and practical returns to ways of being that we have parted from for a while. Paganism as a whole can be seen as an attempt to go back to something that was lost, and like all lost things, raises issue around how much can be reclaimed. Is anything gone forever? Is it possible to return? As the saying goes, we cannot step into the same river twice. Whatever we go back to is not the same as before. It will have changed over time, too, we will have changed.
The landscape I loved as a child has been altered a bit by development, but my shifting perceptions have affected that relationship far more. I had to go away before I learned how to be a Druid, I had to come back before I understood what the land means to me.
Migrating birds return in the autumn, or set out, depending on which way you look at it. The river returns to the sea, or perhaps heads out to it. In the ebb and flow of tides there is no saying which way goes and which returns, and perhaps the same curious circularity applies to all things. Only with time can we look back and see what takes us towards, and what takes us away from the centre. Sometimes it is only by going away and coming back that we can even see where our centre is. When you are home, it can be easy not to notice, and only in testing that do we find out what we’ve actually got.
Perhaps the most important returning we do, is in memory. We return to critical moments in our lives, going back into instances that shaped and defined us. We go back to periods of intense feeling, either seeking to understand, or rekindle something. Just like the river, you cannot quite step into the same memory space twice because you bring the wisdom of this moment along with you.
I write this at the end of summer, with fruits ripening on the bushes and the first hints of turning colours in the leaves. Autumn, for me, is a natural time for nostalgia, and looking back at what was. When we harvest, we may also be tempted to think about that which we have lost, left behind or grown out of. Then, with Samhain on the horizon and ghosts of the dead, we can, if we choose, go deeper into our loses. The usual cycle of the year invites us to remember, but not to go back. And yet, what else can we do but return to the source? Ultimately all life takes us to the moment when we relinquish these cells and atoms, giving back to the earth what came from her in the first place. At the final chapter of our lives, there is nothing to do but return from whence we came. Day by day we step towards that final returning. It is worth pausing along the way to look back, to go back, to resist the call of progress in order to try and catch a scent of last year’s flowers, and yesterday’s love.
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