Breath. The first thing I noticed at 10,000 feet was breath. Actually, it was the lack of breath that really struck me. I became aware of the incredible effort it took to breathe deeply and slowly, enough to fill my lungs.
Altitude sickness is a thing. It's not a condition to be taken lightly. First there's that inescapable feeling of not being able to quite ever catch one's breath. Then there's the nausea. Next it's dizziness. Left unchecked, the shakes begin, you know the ones, like when you have the flu and no matter how many blankets you pile up around yourself, you shake and shiver and it feels like your teeth are going to shatter in your mouth. If the shakes set in it's time to get down the mountain immediately.
I planned a beautiful ritual with my magic group for Samhain in the Blue Mountains; at night in the labyrinth, with a fire and masks and an underworld trance. But I wasn’t even there for it – instead I found myself in Northern New South Wales, the place where the Circle of Eight was birthed and I had lived for so long. It wasn’t a time I’d planned to travel, or to travel there in particular; a tenant in my house gave notice and I knew I couldn’t organise the number of things that had to happen from where I live, a thousand kilometres away. I asked my son to drive with me, amazingly he had already taken a week off work, though it wasn’t the week that suited me. It was the week over Samhain.
The room is mostly empty. A strand of Tibetan prayer flags dangles listlessly from a single thumb tack. The white walls are punctuated with tiny pinhole dots, the last reminders of where posters and photos once lived. A thrift store desk, repainted many years ago, sits empty. The lack of homework and hair scrunchies and change hurriedly deposited there makes it seem even older and somehow smaller.
The offering bowl filled with cleansing herbs floats alone on a sea of beige carpet. The charcoal is lit. A single, curling tendril of smoke rises from the center, and I close the door.
It's mid-day. The air is crisp and cool. The fog is clinging to the tops of the redwood trees, wetting the forest floor with something not quite rain yet more than mist. Sunlight makes it's way, through leaves and branches to the duff below and highlights patches on the ground. I can see spectacular rays of sunlight, filtered and spreading out like fingers, illuminating stumps and bright green lawns of moss.
I'm standing still. The air and I are both still. There's no birdsong, just now, not even the distant croaks of the sentinel ravens, roosting high above me. It's as quiet as a forest can be. Practically silent, in fact. I take in one long breath and let it out with an even longer "ahh!". It is the only sound I'll utter for the next few hours as I wander about this oh so familiar spot in the woods.
I remember the moment, the exact instant when Her name was called and She was there. She stood behind me, wrapped Her enormous feathered cloak around my body and completely engulfed me. There's no describing what happened next, except to say that I lay inside of Her for an interminable length of time. I could clearly see the ritual circle and the flames of the bonfire and the other participants going through their own processes, and I was also somewhere completely "other".
For the next three days, I walked between the worlds. I was absolutely present in this world, interacting with people, eating breakfast, making perfect sense and able to carry on conversations about toilets or whatever mundane topics we were discussing. I was utterly not present too; or maybe it's better to say I was also present elsewhere. And She was there too, as real to me as anyone I'd ever met.
It's just after noon. The weather is warm. There's a slight breeze that causes the leaves high in the canopy to rustle. The redwoods are creaking as they rub against each other. Loud raven clicks and caws punctuate the quiet forest. I'm one of only a few people standing in the camp grounds and we are all silent, breathing deeply, settling our rushed minds and sinking in, just sinking in.
In two hours witches from all of over the world will arrive. Some journeying to these woods for the first time, others coming home as they do each year. There will be hugs and kisses and hearty shouts of "oh! There you are. I'm so glad you came back." After the hub-bub of getting here subsides and the first night's dinner dishes have been put away, it's time for ritual.