The Autumn Equinox is approaching. Some say it’s a time of second harvest and others say its a time of balance, when the night and day are equal. For me, this time of year signals a reflection on what has happened, is happening in my life and what challenges and triumphs I take with me to Samhain. I spent time over an equinox weekend on a mountain top, far away from people and glowing screens and the daily grind of being distracted. Moving with the rhythms of the High Sierras, of most wild places I find myself in, restores by equilibrium and allows me to pause to ponder and wonder/wander.
Breath and Equilibrium
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 and a loss of equilibrium. 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.
Fortunately, I had other experienced high altitude backpackers with me, so I just had to contend with the breathlessness, nausea and dizziness each morning. I’m told it’s reminiscent of morning sickness, that unsettled feeling that you can’t shift. The concoction of chlorophyll tablets, water and specific herbs would take about an hour to work their own magic. The difference was stunning. Full deep breaths came easily for most of the day and well into the night.
Standing on a high precipice, above the tree line, looking across an impossibly expansive valley thousands of feet below me, took my breath away on more than one occasion. Taking off my boots and striding out, knee deep, into a hidden lake, filled by glacial snow melt, took my breath away. Standing in the full moonlight of the Autmun Equinox, with dear friends, speaking what was true and painful and scary and hard and wondrous about my life, and simply being held in all of that magic, took my breath away.
Stillness at the Equinox
The Clark’s Nutcrackers swooped overhead. They cleaned and scraped their beaks on the weather beaten, dead branches of the trees I was camped under. A gopher nervously popped it’s head up through a tunnel, scurried across to another hole in the ground and quickly disappeared. Lake trout surfaced for a moment, ripples on an otherwise still lake were the only trace that fish were there.
But in spite of all of this motion, the comings and goings of a vibrant ecosystem teeming with life, what I felt most was stillness. The granite of the rock face across the lake appeared unchanging and motionless. The cloudless sky hung there, like an Ansel Adams picture, perfect and still. The air was pregnant and full and still. The snow capped peaks, just a 1000 vertical feet up above me were still. And eventually, I became still too. I slowed down and stopped all of my actions except what what was most vital. Coming to a point in my own skin, balanced like the equinox itself, with time to think. My thoughts disappeared into the void from which they sprang up from. In the stillness and near silence, I broke open.
Tears in the face of my Gods
I cried a lot up there at 10,000 feet. All of the hard things in my life right now were up there with me and there was no hiding from them. I shed many, many tears over tangled relationships with friends and loved ones and beloveds. I wept for the Communities I hold dear that are struggling to survive or change or find their own place in what seems to be an ever more uncaring world. There was sobbing for myself, the recent prodigious hurts and betrayals and losses.
Tears flowed freely and copiously as I thought about the wild, embodied, unapologetic magic I love to do and the constraints I’ve felt about bringing that forward. And just when I was convinced that I’d cried everything out, I found myself tearing up, this time with joy and gratitude. The mountain, the sky, the hard ground below me, the creatures of this place, both seen an unseen, my ancestors and my gods were standing with me. Or allowing me to stand with them. There’s great magic in simply standing still, weeping and feeling supported by everything and everyone in the landscape.
Choices and perspectiveIn the mountains, in the stillness, in the hyper-focused reality of having to make decisions about filtering water and storing food in bear canisters and how much food to eat and how much energy one can safely expend on a day hike, lots of other choices rapidly become unimportant. There’s a magic in that kind of thinking. Being mostly alone in the amazing, harsh, unforgiving landscape, surrounded by open sky and massive rocky edifices, allowed me a new perspective. What’s really important for me to make a decision on now? What’s just ego or wishful thinking or mind-garbage? Perspective is something I’ve been sorely lacking recently. And that became vividly apparent at the equinox. I spend a lot of time standing in the bright daylight without equal time given to the shadows.
Boundaries are Signposts
I was pleased with my physical stamina. My knees held up. I tested my muscles but never stressed them. But there were limits. I couldn’t hike up the last 1000 vertical feet to stand on the summit. I was cold at night as the temperatures plummeted below 32 degrees (freezing). Swimming in the lake was right out of the question. As refreshing as it might have seemed, getting warm afterwards would have been virtually impossible, especially given that back country fire permits had been suspended.
As I reflected on my choices and tears, and stillness and breath, it became apparent that boundaries can be good signposts – “beyond here, there be dragons!” – They offer protection and a certain exclusiveness, but held solidly they can give an excellent framework for participation. My boundaries need tending. Some are way too porous and I leak out all over the place. Others are far too rigid and only serve to separate me and keep people out that could otherwise offer me advice and counsel and solace and intimacy.
One of my traveling companions directed me to listen to the mountain for answers. One response was “Even mountains eventually crumble, let a few things fall apart.” This sage advice, from a mountain range that is over 4 million years old, feels perfect. I need to hold certain boundaries hard and fast, especially where my heart is concerned. Others need to fall away and quickly too, like a destructive avalanche.
So what does all of this have to do with magic? Well, for me, everything. I’m not a good magic worker when I’m disconnected and the Equinox reminds me to stay connected. Being with the mountains, the lakes, the birds and foxes and flowers connects me back to the natural, inherent magic that is Place and Planet. Being connected to the rhythms of early morning, twilight and nightscape, changes my perspective. Changing consciousness at will, is something we witches often cite but don’t always actually know how to practice.
Breath is often the first and most basic part in any magical spell. Tears connect me to my compassion and humanity. Choices are the steps on the path that shape my life and the magic I do in the world. Boundaries, mine and yours, keep my magic focused, my integrity intact and compel me to ask questions relentlessly.
The magic I did at 10,000 was some of the most profound, painful, and joyful I’ve ever done. The quiet, slow, pragmatic spell work I did will, no doubt, have long ranging impact for me. Hiking out into the darkness, lost and lonely and then finding myself again as I stepped into a full, bright moonlit meadow was revelatory.
It’s an old adage, but I really did need to go to the top of the mountain to find out what is important to me and for me. And for that lesson, I am truly grateful.
Blessed be the wild places…