Saturday, 12 October 2013

Finlaggan: Seat of Power in Islay

How is it that everything not dealing with whisky on Islay feels somehow remote? Is it the roads that- more often than not- are single-track, lonely and bumpy- that give the impression of a place far away from any human inhabitation? Finlaggan is such a place and despite the awesome and modern visitor centre, once you are out and about it feels like you are surrounded by nature and miles of it all around.

That feeling makes it difficult to appreciate Finlaggan for what it once was: the seat of government of the Lords of the Isles in the 13th till the 15th century. Except for two islets in Loch Finlaggan (Eilean Mòr “Big Island” and the artificial Eilean na Comhairle (Island of the Council), some ruins there is not much to see, and it is quite difficult to build an image of what life was supposed to look like when this place was bustling with life.

The visitor centre, operated by the Finlaggan Trust, does an awesome job in explaining all there is to know about this place and one is left with a sense of awe after visiting the exhibition. The walk from the visitor centre to the causeway leading into the loch to Eilean Mòr is very pleasant indeed. But when I step onto the causeway itself and slowly walk over it into the lake, a strange feeling comes over me. It seems like I am entering into another world, an older world that is no longer there. I step onto the soil of Eilean Mòr and I receive a welcoming greeting, as if from the island itself.

And then I know: this is an ancient sacred place. Much more ancient in fact than the MacDonalds of the Isles, as witnessed by the silent standing stone overlooking the loch. Fragments of myths run through my mind: Celtic stories about sacred salmons and weird creatures residing in lochs such as these, stories about the marriage of the Celtic kings to the Land, and  parts from the Arthurian myth cycle regarding the Lady of the Lake and her mysteries. And a small mystery that has been bugging me since coming here resolves itself: why did the Lords of the Isles, of all places, pick this one for their seat of government? Not because of its accessibility or its central location, not because there was plenty of space here to build a powerful stronghold, but because this was already a significant place of a sacred power; who ruled Finlaggan ruled the realm!

I roam around the small island with all that going on in my mind and I notice how the area around me starts coming to life. I sit down in the ruined church for a brief meditation and then I am briefly immersed in life as it was in the old days. The power that once was at Finlaggan apparently is still here, for those who know where to look. I receive an insight: this is the ancient heart of this island, this is where its charms and beauty are coming from and this is what draws people here and sometimes keeps them here. 

It is difficult to leave this sacred place as with all sacred places, but when I finally step onto the causeway to go back to the car –and on our way to Bunnahabhain Distillery, I turn around and bow to the ancient Spirits of the Land that welcomed me into their realm for one brief moment.      

Wednesday, 18 September 2013

Scotland 2013: Sanaigmore: Spiritual Lessons from a SciFi Novel?

Recently, I wrote this on my Facebook page:

“During the last days I have been asking myself repeatedly: what has been drawing me to Islay (and, no, it is not the whiskey, pleasant as that has been)? The answer I found is quite surprising. Many years ago, I read the scifi novel Diamond Mask, by Julian May, which for an important part takes place right here, on Islay. This novel is number two in a trilogy, that basically is about humanity's struggle to achieve spiritual and mental maturity within a galactic setting. I have always found this "Galactic Milieu Trilogy" extremely compelling, but never gave it any further thought, until coming here. I visited many of the places she describes in this book (which was absolutely thrilling!) and by being there it gradually started to become clear that there are some important spiritual lessons for me locked away in those books, which I now will have to uncover”.

Indeed, Sanaigmore is featured quite prominently in the Galactic Milieu novels, first in “Intervention” as the birthplace of metapsychic pioneer Jamie MacGregor and later in “Diamond Mask” as the hiding place of the antagonist creature “Hydra”. It is located at the northern tip of the Rhinns of Islay and it is only accessible by a long and narrow (and bumpy) single track road. It is not even a village; a monument, some self-catering cottages, the very interesting Outback Art gallery-annex-coffeeshop, some ruins and that’s it. Yet the landscape is absolutely stunning: the bluffs of the Tòn Mhòr, to the left the Glen Tuath and beautiful Sanaigmore Bay and its beach. It is a very peaceful and lonely place and very spiritually charged, but that could also have been my imagination. Actually a lot like Julian May describes it!
 I am taking a walk, I simply need to commune in quiet with this place, so , in spite of warnings about a bull in the fields, I go up to the ruined farmhouse and then down again till I reach the beach. There I sit down on a rock, close my eyes and prepare to meditate, the question in my mind being: “I am here. What do you want to tell me?”. While I am performing the usual preparation exercise I am gradually becoming aware how quiet this place is. The sound of the waves, sea birds, the wind, it all seems to cancel out until I seem surrounded by utter silence.

Then I realize that a voice is speaking to me. The genius loci (spirit of the place)?. Some inner voice? It does not matter, because it tells me the answer to my question. “I am here because what drew me here has the answer to this question”. I ask for clarification and get: ”What drew you here is an account of one of many possible destinies for all of humanity. Fictional it is, but in that imagined world are buried some seeds of real messages for humanity. It is up to you to find those seeds and study them to determine their merit, if you so wish. You needed to experience the reality of some of that fiction in order to appreciate and acknowledge the reality of such seeds, so you can start looking for them. Without your coming here, you would never entertain the idea that “The Galactic Mileu” could be more than just an idle fantasy. It is a myth and myths are there to teach us”.
I stand up and thank whoever spirit for communicating this to me and file these messages for future use. Back home, I decide to reread this series, and indeed, almost in the first book I catch a clue and a link to ‘real life’ : a casual referral to “The Phenomenon of Man” by Pierre Teilhard de Chardin on whose ideas Julian May’s vision of humanity’s future is loosely based. Teilhard describes evolution as a process that leads to increasing complexity, culminating in the unification of consciousness. Now there’s an interesting link to modern magic and the teachings of the Western Mystery Tradition! Funny, how a visit to a remote part of a Hebridean island can trigger such effects!

Friday, 6 September 2013

Scotland 2013: Whiskey: the Spirit of the Land!


Whiskey! If I am cynical, that is what most tourists are coming to Islay for! This island is worldwide famous for its quality whiskey’s. Currently, there are eight major distilleries on Islay and all of them offer quite extensive opportunities for visitors to get acquainted with their products. I love whiskey, mostly the single malts, and I am particularly a fan of what I call “whiskey with character and attitude”. I enjoy the quite peaty Islay malts such as Laphroaig, Ardbeg and Lagavulin, but I also love the softer varieties such as Bunnahabhain or Bruichladdich. So, a large portion of our stay on Islay has been devoted to visiting the places where these delights are made.

Now, whiskey to me is not something ‘to drink’, it is something to savour slowly, let it work its magic in your mouth and nostrils. It is an experience. A good single malt contains the spirit of the land, the water, the soil and the sun, and it contains the spirit of the people who made it. The term ‘spirit’ is used for the final product that flows from the ‘spirit still’: the raw product that after maturation in wooden casks becomes the product so many love. And if you taste that and compare it with the final product (as we have done several times), it really contains the spirit of what is to come after ten years or so.
The production of whiskey is a fascinating process which is overall very much the same for each distillery but is also very different for each in its details. Things like mash times and temperatures (extracting the sugars from the malt), fermentation times, distillation set-ups and the actual ‘cuts’ are all different and, according to most, contribute significantly to the character of the product.
The whole process also has many links to alchemy as the method to produce the spirit is virtually the same as the procedure that is used to isolate a plant’s Mercury. In the case of whiskey, though, the volatile Sulphur, which is highly individual and a reflection of all the various things that make each distillery unique, is also distilled together with the alcohol (Mercury). The “new make” (what flows from the still) does not taste or smell like pure ethanol, there are all sorts of components in it as well: phenols and esters predominantly. Those are then combined with the alchemical Salt, which in this case is found in the wood of the cask. That “fixes” the volatiles and turns them into the finished product.

The result? The “exalted” essence of “the land” where it was made and matured, brought about by the love, dedication and devotion of the people performing this alchemy. I noticed that my appreciation for the Islay malts has deepened since my stay. These “land spirits” now trigger a deep connection with land itself, which I built by consciously contacting this land while I was there. I mentioned such contacts also at the Kildalton Cross, here is another example. This time in drinkable form!
Slàinte mhath!      

Sunday, 1 September 2013

Scotland 2013: Blessed be at the Kildalton Cross, Isle of Islay

A few miles up the single track road that leads away from the three southernmost distilleries on Islay (Laphroaig, Lagavulin and Ardbeg), stands an old derelict church and to its side, the best-preserved Celtic Cross of Britain. We are in the parish of Kildalton (from Gaelic Cill Daltain, “Church of the Foster Son”) and on the maps and signs, this place is referred to as the “Kildalton Cross”. It is a lonely place, and even though there are still scattered people living in this area, it is quiet and peaceful when we are here.
Before I investigate the church and the cross, I take a little walk away from the monuments, and soon I find myself in the midst of the countryside with no one visible around. And then it hits me, a sense of such complete belonging here and now at this place that tears fill my eyes and the only thought in my mind is one of extreme and utter happiness. A “peak moment”, if there ever was one. This is something that happens to me frequently, but only at certain places. Very often it happens at ‘places of significance” like the Egyptian Pyramids, the Borobudur in Indonesia or the Grand Canyon in the USA. But in Scotland, it can strike anywhere, as I have noticed this phenomenon many many times. It feels at that moment as if the land itself is talking to me, directly into my soul. Have I been here in a previous life, perhaps? Who knows?

When this “special communion with the land” has subsided, I walk back and start exploring the roofless church and the cross itself. A plaque tells me it is from the 9th Century C.E., so with that in the back of my mind, I am completely astonished how beautifully well preserved it is. And then I notice the similarity of this cross with the symbol that I am wearing today: what I call an “elemental” cross as it depicts a magical circle with the four elements in it. It is almost an exact copy of the upper half of the Kildalton Cross.
And I notice something else: in the centre of the cross is a tiny flower chiseled out, and it looks suspiciously like a rose. The Rosy Cross is a very important and potent spiritual symbol, connected to things like Balance, Divine Love, Grace and Mercy. I am quite excited to find this symbol of Divine Grace here in the countryside as it gives me a key to what the land might have been “telling” me before. And if that weren’t enough, some good soul has put some boxes with cakes and implements for coffee or tea on a picnic table, with an honesty box underneath and with a sign to help ourselves to a “Coffee at the Cross”. This is still a blessed spot and it is great to see people continue this blessing. After a coffee and some reminiscing, we return to Ardbeg for our tour there, but all the time I feel touched by a higher being…until the complimentary dram, that is!

Friday, 30 August 2013

Scotland2013: Islay!

Islay! This is the picture that strongly speaks to me, and no wonder, I woke up and went to bed with it for six days! This was the view from our guesthouse ‘The Monachs’ in Nerabus on the Rinns of Islay. You see Laggan Point and Laggan Bay from here across Loch Indaal, with the upland of the Oa to the right. I cannot help comparing Islay to that other island we spent a week on, Skye. But whereas Skye is dramatic and challenging, Islay is friendly and peaceful, even in bad weather. Islay is Water and Air, yet Skye seems more like Fire and Earth, almost like polar opposites!

Water is everywhere on Islay: the island is almost cut in half by the combined forces of Loch Gruinart and Loch Indaal, it is scattered with lochs, little streams and rivers, it vast peat moss sites are drenched in it, and its main industries-the whiskey distilleries-cannot function without a steady and plentiful supply of water. It also falls out of the sky, quite frequently! And that leads to the Air element, also present everywhere. Islay's weather is unpredictable, from rain in the morning, to sunshine in the afternoon and back again, and its skies are vast and magnificent, roamed by a large variety of seabirds.

When the CalMac ferry was approaching Islay and made its way towards the Sound of Islay to moor at the pretty harbour at Port Askaig, I stepped outside even though the weather was not so nice: persistent rain and a strong wind. I looked at the steep and rather forbidding eastern face of the island and I swear I heard voices in the wind. Maybe it was just the seabirds, maybe just the sound of the wind in the crags and rocks, but to me it felt like the island itself was welcoming me and inviting me to learn whichever lessons it has to teach. And in the days to come, there turned out to be many opportunities to do so.

Tuesday, 14 May 2013

Barrowman-Con…or: The Convention Formerly Known As FedCon 2013. Part 2

It sometimes –though not too often- happens at a FedCon that I get quite overwhelmed by one of the actor guests,  in terms of their personality that for a variety of reasons I find enormously appealing. I do like many of the actor guests we’ve met in almost 15 years of conventioneering, some of them I don’t really care about , yet a few stand out as people I would want to have as my friend. This FedCon I met two such people. One of them I expected to like immensely, but the other was quite unexpected. I am talking about Ben Browder here.
Now, who’s Ben Browder? SciFi fans will know him best from his portrayal of John Crighton in the groundbreaking Farscape show, or for his role as Cameron Mitchell in the last two seasons of Stargate SG1. In both series, Browder plays a rather brawny character with some rough edges and a certain ‘redneck’ factor as well. Add to that the fact that he grew up in the Southern USA and you end up expecting a certain kind of person. And yep, it is a prejudice and a generalization, but there it is anyway.

Well, Ben Browder is nothing like that at all, there is also a lot more to this man! We first met him upon check in at the hotel reception and many more encounters were to follow. At his autograph session Bill and I have a quite long talk with him on the insanity of some of the anti-gay things happening in the States, and if I still felt there was something redneck about him, that had melted by the time we were done.  

I sat though his two panels and they were a blast. Ben turned out to be a born entertainer and he is absolutely hilarious on stage, redecorating the stage set up, sprinkling water on the floor  “for Barrowman”,  but at times shifting gear into a more solemn and more serious tone, when a question begged for that. It’s also quite a sign of having some guts to address WWII within five minutes of appearance in front of a predominantly German audience, always a sensitive and precarious topic.
One thing does need clarification: the look on my face on my photo shoot picture. As one can see, that day I had dressed up in Star Trek 2009 gear, including the phaser which I had holstered at my left side. So, while we are posing, Ben all of a sudden says: “I hope it’s that phaser of yours poking me”, on which we both fall apart from laughing, so the photo has to be done again, and I find myself struggling to keep a straight face, as I am very much aware of that phaser poking him again. Hence the rather strained look on my face in the picture, and hence my feeling of being “Browdered” .

But the last impression Ben made upon us will last the longest. It happened during the closing ceremony, after everyone had come on stage and John Barrowman was being ‘hailed in’. John dances in, starts fooling around with Ben-who happened to be closest to him- and of course stage and audience alike go crazy-as this is the power of Barrowman. Things cool down a bit and then all of sudden Ben Browder turns towards John, grabs him in an embrace and tenderly and lovingly gives him a full kiss on the mouth. Yep, these are actors, yep, this is acted, but to me this is a very powerful expression of complete and total acceptation of a gay person, at the same time showing that this is not something to be feared, looked down upon, vilified or ridiculed. Seldom have I seen such a meaningful symbolic act and it really affected me. Barrowman then obliged the audience by pretending to swoon and faint, but to me the hero of this convention was Ben Browder. I am glad and proud to have met him and talked to him.

And that brings me to the ultimate highlight of this convention. John Scot Barrowman.  Scottish-American actor, singer, dancer, writer, and entertainer. Openly gay icon and quite flamboyantly so. An amazing multitalent, as I discovered a long time ago after being captivated by that iconic series Torchwood. Now, John Barrowman at a convention is like a force of nature. This man has such an enormous amount of energy, he has such an hysterical sense of humor and, above all else, he is such a warm and giving human being, it is almost unreal. On stage, he is the Entertainer Incarnate with never a dull moment during his two panels. Off stage, he is someone just like us, who is clearly thrilled to be there. There was an instant connection between Bill, myself and him, as evidenced by the first thing he says when we meet him for his autograph: ”You were sitting front and center, in blue and yellow, right? How long are you together, fellows?”, so I’m all like “Wow, he remembers us from the f**king audience!”.

The photo shoot with him was something else as well, as he is actually the only male actor ever who actually hugs other guys (as evidenced by the picture). And to be honest, Bill and I were quite “happy” after this, hence the “We’ve been Barrowmanned!”.  

John Barrowman is everywhere, he is at the party, where he runs into me, looks me in the eye and goes: “Well, Hello again!”.  Acting, or does he recognize me for real? I’d like to think so, as most actors (will pretend to) recognize you only AFTER you’ve drawn their attention. This was Barrowman drawing MY attention.
And on it goes, Sunday Morning, Barrowman is late after a whole night partying, he is almost an hour late for his autographs. No problem, after we are done with Ben Browder, after we have chatted with Anthony Montgomery about his first comic book  there is nothing to else to do than wait for John to ‘arise’ . Luckily, the things that I want him to sign (I think more of it as “Imprinting his energy into it”) are his two autobiographies “I am What I Am” and “Anything Goes”. So I set myself down and start reading “Anything Goes”, chuckling all the time, because the way he writes is very much the way he speaks as well, which is at times hilariously funny.
Then he walks in, sunglasses and all, not really Mr. Sunshine this morning, but professional to the end. And I have the rather surreal experience of reading a book written by an author who is sitting right in front of me, talking the same way as he wrote the book. We are getting in our line, and once we reached his table, it is: ”Hi again” and then the mask drops and he tells us he’s so tired and needs to go on autopilot for a while. One again, it feels like the person talking and not the actor.

Later we go to his panel, that he holds together with Eve Myles and he seems to have recovered considerably, or he must have a really good autopilot.

So why am I writing all this, as if I were some star struck teenager who’s meeting his idol? Well, partly because I do feel that way J. But mostly because I feel and want to show that John Barrowman brought something unique and precious to this convention: a genuine concern and love for fellow human beings coming from a genuine and fully developed person. That at least is what I got from the personal time we had with him. Yep, he is hilarious, yep he is raunchily flamboyant, a born entertainer, a fantastic singer actor and o, yeah, I love his books! But he is also a beautiful human being, willing to share this inner beauty and wisdom.  And that is most important of all and it holds a significant teaching to me. I cannot wait to meet him again…

Barrowman-Con…or: The Convention Formerly Known As FedCon 2013. Part 1

While I am typing this, I am listening to John Barrowman’s album “Reflections from Broadway” album, and once again I am moved and amazed by the sheer range of talents of this man. There is no doubt about it: Barrowman came, saw and conquered us all, in what started out not too promising. All SciFi conventions have to deal with the inevitable cancellations of their Star Guests, but FedCon this year was particularly hit hard, when Alexander Siddig (ST:DS9’s Doctor Bashir), Roxann Dawson (ST: VOY’s B’Elanna Torres) and Tricia Helfer (BSG’s No 6) all cancelled at short notice due to various commitments. It happens, it is never nice, but this meant we had to shift our expectations a bit towards a rather quiet and more laid back con than usual. Boy, did we get this one wrong….

This FedCon has been a rather special ride, mainly due to two people: Ben Browder and the aforementioned John Barrowman, but more about them later on. Let me first give a general overview of this years FedCon, which was, in one word, relaxed! Compared with the rollercoaster ride that was FedCon 2012, this one felt like a calm river boat ride. Never before were the photo shoots with the stars as relaxed as this year, and even though these things go fast, faster, fastest, they were run very pleasantly and smoothly. Also the great autograph sessions were a wonderful experience, as we could focus on getting some of the not so busy actors’ autographs on the Saturday while doing the long lines on Sunday with the Special Needs group (as my husband cannot stand in lines for more than ten minutes or so). This was a very relaxed way of doing things, and we thoroughly enjoyed it!

There was not a lot to complain about this year: all the volunteers were doing their jobs magnificently and were pleasant and even the inevitable “Gold Seat Crashers” (those that sit there but don’t belong there and therefore have to leave when we arrive) were quite responsive to our new strategy of Direct Assertiveness: “OK, I need two seats, you, do you have a Gold Seat ticket? No? Well, You don’t belong here, you have to leave now, thank you, and yes, these seats are reserved!”. This approach works very well, we may not be found “very nice”, but neither is sitting in my seat that I paid good money for…

This year I focused more on other shows than Star Trek, most notably Farscape, Eureka, Torchwood and a fascinating phenomenon: Starship Troopers. There was some Trek for me, most notably Linda Park’s (ST ENT’s Hoshi Sato) fine panel and Richard Arnold’s interesting presentation celebrating 20 years of Star Trek: Deep Space Nine.
The Farscape Universe was well-represented with Gigi Edgley (Chiana), Claudia Black (Aeryn Sun) and leading man Ben Browder (John Crighton), the latter two actors doubling as representatives of the Stargate Universe as well. They all provided solid and very interesting panels, and as Farscape is such a goofy and experimental project, their stories were quite different from the usually well-oiled production machines that are Star Trek or Stargate.  More about Ben Browder later on.

Eureka was represented by Colin Ferguson (Sheriff Jack Carter) and Matt Frewer (Taggart). I was especially looking forward to meet Matt, as he also is the face of 80’s star Max Headroom. Matt had a very fine panel, encompassing his vast career and later on, when we met him in the autograph lines, we actually sung a few lines together, from his big 80’s hit single “Paranoimia” which he did with the Art of Noise.  Kind of a surreal experience!

Starship Troopers is something that entered the FedCon stages when main actor Casper Van Dien was invited last year and immediately stole the hearts and minds of everyone present. I personally never realized that this Paul Verhoeven movie had such a large following, but apparently Casper has been ‘recruiting’ and this time he was back with two fellow actors from that movie: Dina Meyer, who plays Dizzy, and Patrick Muldoon, who plays Zander. This awesome threesome managed to put a great stamp onto the show and –I must admit- has rekindled an interest in watching the movie again. Incidentally, Patrick is a great rock singer, as he proved during the Saturday night party!
And then there’s Torchwood. Spin-off of the renowned Doctor Who, and more geared towards an adult audience. Two actors from this series graced our stage:  John Barrowman (who play Captain Jack Harkness) and Eve Myles who is Gwen Cooper. There is a lot more about Barrowman in the second part of this report, but I simply loved Eve Myles’s panels. She’s witty, she’s knows how to captivate an audience and she’s incredibly funny besides. Very lovely lady!
Before moving on to the main highlights of the FedCon, let me finish this general overview. As usual, our dealer friends brought a lot of tantalizing and tempting materials, and I think my signed Emilia Clark (Game of Thrones’ Daenerys Targaryen) picture tops it all, followed by a signed Eric McCormack (Will, from Will and Grace). It was also great to see Garrett Wang’s parents again who brought some incredible new T-shirts!
And then there were the various show elements, of which the FedCon musical really stands out:L incredibly well done, and capturing the essence of a first time FedCon so well! Also great and thoughtful to give the lyrics ‘karaoke-style’ so we could all sing along with the cast!

And now there is nothing else in general anymore, so in Part 2 I’ll talk about the two men who made this FedCon very special: Ben Browder and John Barrowman!  

Tuesday, 26 March 2013

My 3rd Dan test in Karate and Kempo!

I have been involved in the martial arts for almost 13 years now. When I started, really as a try-out, I never anticipated to be standing where I stood yesterday night: on the threshold of receiving my Third Dan, otherwise put: the 3rd Degree Black Belt in US Urban Goju Karate and Shaolin Kempo. Now, all the Dan exams at American Dragon Martial Arts are different, as they are tailored to the individual(s) undergoing the test (which also means that future candidates will not be able to use this report to prepare for their own test. It will be completely different!). So, I had no idea what to expect, all I knew was that a board of high-level martial artists was going to evaluate me and my knowledge of the martial arts. I decided to approach this as a lesson, a “Master Class”, so to speak. And it turned out that this was exactly the only right approach, because, as we were informed right at the start:” You have already completed your material test during last months, this is to see if you are ready to take the next step.” I took this exam together with (now) Sandan Patricia De Jager who will –hopefully- write her own story as well

The first stage of the exam tested our ability to modify one of our katas (standard forms) to include special movements and approaches one needs in order to defend against a weapon attack, in front of the entire board. Most of these are designed to defend against fist attacks, and need to be modified in order to be effective against e.g., a knife attack. My kata of choice was Tensho, the 1st degree black belt kata which I have studied extensively, as it is an excellent kata to work on and with the Qi. While performing this test, I noticed very quickly that the usual energy build-up and release would not work against a knife, one simply has to be a lot quicker with the movements. So, I completely changed the katas flow, introduced some dodging and indirect blocks to avoid an imaginary incoming stabbing knife. A very interesting exercise that you cannot prepare for, it simply has to come out there and at that moment.

That also applied to the follow-up assignment: four weapons were selected and we had to give an impromptu lesson about the weapon and then create a form which showed these lessons. Out of the window went all my carefully prepared “special weapon katas”, because this required an entirely different approach. I got Bo (the long stick, one of my better weapons), Nunchaks (which are my worst), Katana and finally the Kamas, a subject we had addressed a long time ago, so I had to examine the weapon on the spot to find its specialties and peculiarities. Again, this is not something you can prepare for as it is testing how deeply the knowledge has become a part of you.

By that time, the board members had seen enough to find our weak spots and in the second half of the exam, we spent 20 minutes with each of them to work out these weak spots and receive a lesson about them. The “Master Class”, I mentioned earlier.

I was first handed over to Sensei Sandan Alex B. who is an excellent worker with the katana and that was also the subject of his work with me. For twenty minutes we worked on the specific flows and techniques with this weapon, and to me that was really an eye opener. Until now, I have worked with the katana -and actually with all weapons- as an exercise in techniques. Sensei Alex taught me to really feel and use this most venerable weapon as an extension of myself, indeed becoming a part of me. An invaluable lesson!

Then Renshi Godan Rumley-van Gurp took over and for the first part of his teaching we worked on self- defense flows against the knife, in which I needed to demonstrate as many different techniques as possible. But then the Renshi followed up on the previous session, by letting me work on the same kind of flow with the knife and-finally- with that underestimated weapon, the Kamas. It is amazing how different all these weapons feel while doing that kind of exercise!
After a small break, Sensei Godan Rene Bommele worked with me on self defense but at a considerably higher level than “what I am used to”. If there is one lesson from this exam, it may be that I need to start working beyond the “techniques” (which still have to be perfected) and more ‘from the inside”. Sensei Rene showed me the importance of awareness in the area of self-defense and how gaining control should be a first step, rather than a focus on ‘disarming’ your opponent. Again, a valuable and though provoking lesson.

And finally, it was my turn to be taught by Sensei Martijn Smith, 6th Dan in Taekwondo, who proved to have a very keen and critical eye. With him I went back to the basics in order to take my performance of forms and katas to a higher level. Sometimes very simple and subtle things will make a tremendous differences, and I was actually quite astonished how a few modifications completely altered (and considerably improved!) my experience. It is actually true: there are at least a thousand lessons hidden in each kata, and this short 20 minute work with Master Smith gave me some valuable keys to learn a few more!

And then: the exam was over, the board convened and were satisfied enough to promote us to Sandan. As a token of this, we received the certificate, the belt rank insignia and a special token of our new found dignity: a wonderful and beautiful katana, handed over by the senior members of the board.

So, what’s next? On to the Fourth Dan? Maybe, maybe not. These Dan grades are not really achievements or accomplishments, they are more like doors to a new area of development and growth. As this account hopefully has shown, one can only prepare so far for this, the really important things have to come from inside. In order to do that, the knowledge and experience one has gathered needs to ‘mature’.  So, there is definitely more material to be learned. But there is also a lot to be done to bring the material I have now to a higher level. And that is what I am going to work on.
And that 4th Dan? We’ll see it when and if I get there…

I ‘d like to thank Sander and Erin for, being there and helping us out and I’d like to thank Sylvia van Herrewijnen for helping us with the video. A very special thanks to the board members Sensei Alex B., Sensei Rene Bommele and Sensei Martijn Smith for inspiring me and finally, many thanks to my husband and Renshi, Godan William Rumley-Van Gurp for making this wonderful exam possible and for believing in me…  

Wednesday, 9 January 2013

Into the Neolithic Sky…


I have just completed a full year cycle of meditations on a Neolithic theme as part of observation of the pagan year fests. I have learned a lot, predominantly about the relationship of the Neolithic people’s worldviews (as expressed through their monumental structures)  with their everyday lives and doings. Most of this is “inner understanding” that makes sense to me personally, but is not ‘true’ in an absolute or scientific sense. So please excuse me for not sharing all of that in public.
One thing that I consistently get, though, is that the people in those days were extremely practical in their approach to almost anything. The concept of highly abstract thought apparently had not developed yet or was in its earlier stages of development. So, one built earth and stone structures in order to accomplish straightforward things: a mound is something that brings you closer to the sky, a barrow lets you enter into the earth, a henge or a circle sets aside a piece of land for one or more specific purposes and erecting a stone into an upright position is leaving a human mark upon the landscape. The latter realization also explains why we find natural formations such as sea stacks, standing pillars like the Old Man of Storr on the Isle of Skye or in the Bryce Canyon in the USA so fascinating and often a bit eerie.

In this process I also started to feel that the division of the year into eight more or less equal periods with a “holiday” at the beginning or end did not really resonate with what was going on in the Neolithic world. Some of these (neo)pagan holidays started to feel quite artificial as seen from within, almost as if I was trying to force a modern notion onto an ancient belief system and not quite succeeding. After all, there is a gap of several thousand years between the late Neolithic in our part of the world and the earliest written accounts of year fest related folk customs. Most of the problems occurred with the “quarter days”, the more or less ‘Celtic’ festivals of Imbolc, Beltane, Lughnasadh and Samhain, while the solar equinoxes and solstices felt more naturally resonating with the energies I was trying to contact. 

So, how to follow this up? The latter observation points the way: next, explore in meditation the influence of the heavens onto the Neolithic outlook on life, death and the world at large while assuming this is somehow embedded into the monumental structures we know. There exists a –admittedly wee bit controversial- branch of science called Archaeoastronomy, which studies exactly this. So I am currently embarking on this road of study, and see where it leads. But this also means I am abandoning the regular observation of the eight pagan holidays of the Wheel of the Year in favour of working on days which seem natural to the monuments under study. That will be weird, as I have been observing these for almost 15 years now. But if it is no longer useful, it should either be transformed or abandoned. That is a fact of life!