I feel like there's been a lot of dying going on lately. I suppose it's probably only been happening at the usual rate really, a hundred people dying every minute of every day, but all the same... four friends or relatives of friends have gone down in the space of two weeks, and that's enough to make Death a presence in my life in a way that it hasn't been in a long, long time.
In Tarot, Death stands for boundaries, transitions, changes. Out with the old, in with the new. The last couple of months for me - longer, perhaps - have been all about beginning anew. Sometimes you need that, but it's hard, because change and renewal are death and destruction viewed from another angle, and however much life needs death, each individual death is an awful, terrifying thing. We can't always be ready to let go.
In the Gregorian calendar we celebrate New Year in the deep dead of winter, perhaps because we need something to remind us that the cold and the dark won't go on forever. For all the fireworks and the turning of the clocks though, we all know that as December ends we lie still in the slough of Winter, with months to go yet before we see much that we can truthfully call New. It's with the coming of Spring, and Summer on its heels, that new life begins, and we can really start to say goodbye to the old.
So the ancient Celts liked to have a ritual cleansing, a Beltane - 'sacred fire' - to mark the end of Winter and the coming of Summer, as the days finally began to regain their warmth. The old fires would be extinguished and new ones begun, cattle and humans passed between them to drive out the ticks, burn off the brash and reheat their cores. Relight the fires in our bellies.
Edinburgh's Beltane celebrations are the biggest in the world now, with thousands of people gathering on Calton Hill at the end of April every year to burn away the remnants of the cold times, and usher in the warm. I've been every year since I moved here, but I finally felt able to take part myself this year, as a performer. The role I took was that of a guardian of the Fire Arch, the symbolic entrance into ritual space and for me, a crystallisation of the Beltane concept. As guardians of the liminal space, we were ourselves of the in-between: Half-human, half-animal, half-elemental, androgynous, of this world and the other. Most of us, I think, were in need of a new beginning in life. A lot of people are, I suppose, at any given time.
We were a self-contained group, but also affiliated with Fire Point, representing the element of fire. We did workshops together early on, fire meditation and dance, and we all camped out in a snow-wrapped pine forest on the weekend of the Spring Equinox.
A couple of weeks ago one of the people in Fire Point died, very suddenly, of natural causes. He wasn't old, by any stretch, but he wasn't exactly young either, in terms of physical age. His funeral was on Friday, and afterwards there was a celebration of his life, which I attended. I'd only known him for long enough to know that I liked him very much. Photographs lined one wall, and friends and family stood up to talk about him, the impact he'd made on them, times they'd spent together. Some sang songs, or read poems; two, who knew him from another Fire group, did a dance. He obviously left his imprint on a lot of lives.
The floor was opened at the end, and I found myself standing up to read the words I wrote about him, nothing more than a character sketch. I shook like a leaf and stumbled over the smeared words of my printout, but it still would have been harder not to say my piece, somehow. I guess I wanted to share what I knew of him, the perspective of someone whose life he barely had time to touch. I wanted to let people know that even in that time he made a difference, and maybe help them understand the power of this opportunity to get to know him better after he'd gone. Perhaps he was special, but then, we all reach into so many lives as we pass through. It's too easy to forget that, to feel small and temporary when all the while we are casting such ripples we never see.