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The Yeastie Girlz Interview


9 Minute Read

SERENA CONSTANCE interviews with Cammie Toloui, co-founder of 80s feminist rap band, the Yeastie Girlz. 

It’s a muggy Friday night in August, and on the spur of the moment, I’ve made it to the last Haiku Hands UK tour gig in the intimate venue above the Hope and Ruin bar in Brighton. I’m not disappointed by the energy these three Australian female rappers (sisters Claire and Mie Nakazawa, with Beatrice Lewis) unleashed into a mixed audience of all ages. I can still bump, grind and squat at the front with great energy. Just the tonic I needed after a stressful week, though my thighs are groaning the next day. 

Coming out of the Peaches mould of electro hip hop and dance-pop, Haiku Hands are a feisty act with lyrics full of attitude and girl power. They get the whole crowd dancing. Together with their local Brighton support act, rapper Boudicca, the show contains a sense of energetic empowerment in these uncertain times, when modern pressures on young women are affecting their mental health more than ever. We need girl bands like this.

On the walk home, I’m thinking about the history of female singers in hip-hop, rap, and other genres. Before Haiku Hands, Peaches and Pussy Riot, when I was a teenager in the early to mid-80s, I was riding the wave of post-punk and new wave bands fronted by women with attitude, who were blazing a trail through a sexist, male-dominated industry. On the UK music scene, The Slits and the Au Pairs made me feel strong. They were singing about the reality of sex and female bodies from a women’s perspective, not through the male gaze. Hell yeah! Their music is still as powerful today with Peaches and Pussy Riot taking the genre further.

In 1987, the year I started university, hip hop was big but so male. I remember going to see the Beastie Boys and Run DMC at the Brixton Academy, on their infamous tour featuring a giant inflatable penis and caged female strippers. (Peaches does it so much better with her feminist twist.) On the other side of the Atlantic, three young women at Berkeley were performing their response to the white male hip hop explosion. Although I hadn’t heard of the Yeastie Girlz at the time (too busy raving in fields), I met one of the founding members, Cammie Toloui, when she stood up to rap at a monthly Sunday gathering of Guerrilla Poets in Lewes, performing an acapella Yeast Power.  As she had the whole pub crowd cheering, I realised just how relevant her music and lyrics are for women now as they were thirty years ago.

Cammie is a professional photographer, as well as a rapper, and also runs a massage treatment centre in Lewes. I wanted to know more of Cammie’s story, so caught up with her for an interview in her studio, on how the DIY band ethos of the Yeastie Girlz emerged.

“I was a teenager growing up in the San Francisco bay area. In the town of Berkeley, there was a magazine called MAXIMUMROCKNROLL and the editors had found a great venue on Gilman Street for young bands to play. We would all volunteer to help run the nights, and it was an incredible community. Not long after it opened, there was a big 4th July music festival; the trouble was all the bands were boys. My friend Jane came up to me and Joyce and said we have to do something about this. There are just too many boys on stage. Usually female bands were lumped all together in one line up, instead of integrating and mixing us up. Jane sat down and quickly wrote this rap Yeast Power. In between bands, we just jumped on stage, grabbed the mic, shouting “we’ve just written this song and want you to listen”:

We’re the Yeastie Girlz and we’ve got yeast power, we don’t shave our armpits and we don’t shower…

“We were terrified, but we sang it and jumped off the stage. It was so scary but kind of exciting too. We were 18, fresh out of high school. We’d sing as a bit of a joke, standing around the club, from time to time. Then the editor of MAXIMUMROCKNROLL was going to put out a 7 inch EP of all the bands that performed at Gilman Street and included us. We recorded as an acapella rap, it was about the lyrics and the attitude. Then the name came up; the Beastie Boys had just burst onto the scene but their songs were kind of rapey, so we said we’re the Yeastie Girlz.  We started to write more songs and add to the performance. We’d get speculums and explain to the women in the audience how to use them.”

This made me think of Annie Sprinkle’s sex-positive feminist performances where she’d use a speculum on herself and invite the audience to look at her cervix.  I asked Cammie more about this part of their act:

“ I wanted to educate. I’d worked out you could play the cardboard tube of a tampon applicator as an instrument, so I figured out how to play songs such as Iron Man on it. I’d get on stage and play this thing, sometimes throwing a whole bunch out into the mostly male audience. It was very feminist; we’d be teaching women how to defend themselves too.  Most of the guys would be totally embarrassed, as we’d be singing about our periods, cunnilingus, yeast infections and so on. We were throwing it back into the faces of these punk guys who thought they were so tough; we’d freak them out! Most were great, but some just couldn’t handle it. However, the club was very open-minded; we wanted to talk to women but also shock the guys!

“In 1988 we went on tour as a joke; Joyce had moved to a squat in Amsterdam and Jayne moved to New York. I asked my friend Kate to join the band. We went over to Amsterdam separately and did European tours with Joyce; we’d just show up, no music, just our voices. Most people didn’t know what we were singing about but occasionally they would because of the international reach of MAXIMUMROCKNROLL. We were trying to sell our demo tape too, so we dipped tampons into fake blood and put them in with the tapes so people would have to pull them out. We were really challenging guys’ attitudes to women and our bodily functions.

I kept a scrapbook with all the comments and material we created. All our memorabilia is now in a feminist archive at Harvard. 

“By the late 80s, we’d split, as everybody had moved and were focused on different things. Then in 1991 we were contacted by a band called Consolidated. They were an indy dance band and wanted us to feature on their album. They sent us their music and we thought yeah, we could do ‘You Suck’ to this one. We recorded in the studio – me, Kate and Wendy O.  It became a dance hit, even to this day people tell me they’ve heard it or we get some royalties from radio airplay. “

I ask Cammie where she saw Yeastie Girlz within the feminist history of rap and dance music.

“We were pre-Riot Grrl and there were lots of female punk bands before us that set the stage; we weren’t breaking totally new ground, but every movement since has pushed it forward. To talk about your pussy, your periods and yeast infections was new. I look at other bands now like Pussy Riot and think wow, it’s really evolved. At the time, with what we were doing, we’d really taken the subject to a new level.”

As women, we have come a long way in terms of openly discussing periods and our power over our own bodies. with movements such as the campaign to end period poverty and group performances by artists within the Menstranauts collective founded by Dr Marisa Carnesky. I asked Cammie if she’d be performing more Yeastie Girlz:

“We’ve occasionally performed over the years, sometimes sitting down to write new songs. Now that all of us are going through perimenopause or are in menopause, we’ve got lots more to sing about. I feel there are people who are writing and performing about this now. For instance, whenever I see Pussy Riot – not that they are menopausal, but they are even more forceful and radical – I have so much respect for them; they are incredible. I look at them and think the world doesn’t really need the Yeastie Girlz anymore! I’d like to think the three of  us would get together to write a couple of menopause songs – that would be hilarious.” 

I wonder what Cammie’s now older wiser menopausal self would now say to her 18-year-old self. She laughs:

“Go girl! I don’t have any regrets. I’ve lived a full life as I could. We started the Yeastie Girlz when I was 18, but then in 1991, I became a peep show dancer at the feminist strip club The Lusty Lady in San Francisco. I was studying photojournalism at Uni and really needed more money to fund all the costs involved. I didn’t expect to stay as long as I did there – three years – but the work turned into a photojournalism project. I was documenting clients who agreed to be photographed. In fact, more people know me for the photos that came out of the Lusty Lady, as I’ve exhibited in galleries and museums all over the world.”

Having danced briefly at the Raymond Revue Bar in Soho back in 1998 – the now-defunct club had just celebrated its 40th anniversary – I became interested in sex-positive, feminist performers such as Annie Sprinkle. Co-incidentally I also have a copy of The Lusty Lady by Erika Langley on my bookshelf. I ask Cammie how receptive Lewes is to this aspect of her creative career:  

“I did a presentation with photos from the Lusty Lady era at the Westgate Chapel in Lewes. The audience was really surprised and enthusiastic, and I’ve had lots of positive feedback. I think people here see me as a mild-mannered massage therapist; they don’t tend to see me as a Yeastie Girl or a Lusty Lady!”

I’m glad that Cammie has stepped out of her Yeastie Girlz closet, and am looking forward to her latest creative project. You can view her photos at www.cammiet.com and find more about her current photography service. 

How Creating my Own Rituals Helped me Grieve for my Mother


11 Minute Read

I’m a skeleton collector. I have a large sea-washed radius from a sperm whale beached on the sands in Orkney. Part of its flipper, its hand. One of my most treasured possessions is an early Victorian piece of scrimshaw, engraved with portraits of two women – maybe the whaler’s wife and daughter or maybe his lovers in different ports – made from a sperm whale’s tooth which I inherited from my father. In fact, I have a whole collection of teeth, ranging from a 50,000-year-old European cave bear’s molar to all my baby milk teeth kept by my mother alongside my four adult wisdom teeth taken out when I was 21. I can now keep my wisdom in my pocket.

Bones and teeth survive. Bones remind us of the transformation that occurs at death. I have a bunch of my hair too, literally a fist full of matted dreadlock strands woven with strips of fabric and beads, remnants of my thankfully brief ‘crusty grunge’ phase in 1991 – hair which has lasted nearly 30 years. Like bones, hair lives on. I’ve come to understand I’m a bone worker. Bones have worked their way into my ‘medicine basket’ of ritual tools that have helped me navigate a year filled with death. From the sudden death of my mother at the end of 2017, to the sudden death of my mother-in-law within two weeks of that anniversary in December 2018, to the sudden death of a yoga friend who tragically took her own life shortly after this New Year. Their bones now are ash; only fragments of bone remain, returned to the earth to sit with ancestral bones or waiting, resting, keeping family company whilst loved ones adjust to the massive, unexpected earthquake of transformation that’s hit them. The dead have to adjust too. Sometimes their souls need help crossing the mythic river in the Underworld. There lies the role of the shaman, the psychopomp, the death doula, the soul midwife, the priest or priestess and the Irish mna caointe and baen-shea in the-end-of-life and soul-crossing rituals they perform.

Through all of this, more than ever before, I’ve come to understand the value of ritual in our natural cycle of life and death.  Ritual makes us human. Ritual connects us to our animal, secular and spiritual selves. We know many species have ritualistic behaviours. Corvids have been observed participating in mourning rituals, and I still have the vivid picture in my mind of a London raven jumping up and down on a dead bird’s body, cawing as if were singing an intense keening in St James’s Park as I walked to work. We now know that ritual increases the likelihood of species survival as it binds groups together. I wonder if this large, black bird was performing a ritualistic death dance to warn the rest of the flock, or was it in mourning? Ravens have long since been associated with death in folklore and myth.

Part of being human is coming to terms with death. Ritual has its place in helping us negotiate that final transformation – from ashes to ashes, dust to dust. In our increasingly secular society long focused on prizing youth above elderhood, spending vast amounts of money on maintaining a youthful veneer, we have developed an unhealthy relationship with death. Death and its rituals have been pushed to the sidelines in this relentless pursuit of youth, of living as long as possible, even if the quality of that life is often questionable. Death has been taken out of the home and medicalised. So many people want to deny death, they fear death; by doing so death has gone underground until it rears its inevitable skeleton head. Death is all around us, there is no escaping; delaying possibly, but let’s face it, it’s not going away. The planet is at the precipice of the sixth mass extinction, yet still so many of us are ill-equipped for death. We’ve forgotten how to greet it, to sit with it, and ultimately how to mourn and grieve. However, many of us do instinctively know that ritual has its place when it comes to death. Even if that instinct is sometimes more unconscious than conscious.

Death demands ritual. Not just the physical death of our loved ones: our partners, our elders, our families, our friends, our babies, our children, leading ultimately to our own death, but other symbolic deaths too. The end of our bleeding (if we’re a woman), our marriages, our jobs, our old, worn-out selves, all these transformations involve a final goodbye which deserves to be marked and mourned. Ritual and ceremony can provide a framework to do just that. Underlying all ritual (and myth) is a universal pattern: the death and rebirth of a god or divinity that ensures the fertility of the land as well as social order and harmony. When we place ourselves at the heart of ritual we connect back into that universal pattern. I think that’s the key to ritual unlocking whatever transformation and change we are marking, honouring, letting go of or celebrating.

You don’t have to be religious to create ritual. As I’ve discovered, consciously creating your own personal rituals can be very cathartic and freeing. There can often be a sense of drama to ritual, and there is the idea that theatre itself emerged out of ritual. The performer in me, having created improvised theatre and dance over many decades, has been naturally drawn to creating ritual in recent years, particularly in this year of major loss. The death of the mother is one of the most fundamental deaths to grieve, since not only do we come into the world from our mothers, they represent the fertility of our land, of our society, of our ancestors. No wonder 2017/2018 was an earthquake year when I lost both my mother and my mother in law. At the same time I’ve been losing my periods – the ultimate ending of my fertility, although an ending I’m finally glad to embrace after giving birth to death. It’s taking me 13 years, and many deaths in between to reach this place of acceptance.

Through all of these griefs, I’ve found myself creating ritual. I’m not religious; but I am spiritual. For many years I was a card-carrying atheist, rejecting the dogma and ingrained patriarchy of most monotheistic organised religions. Christian mythology never really did it for me anyway. I just couldn’t relate to Jesus, and as a mythologist, I couldn’t understand how people actually believed the Bible as a gospel truth, not as a loose collection of stories written down many hundreds of years after the grains of various historical events had become mythologised and spun into stories. I enjoyed the story telling aspect at Sunday School (I voluntarily went when I was seven for a brief period) and at 14 easily gained an A in compulsory O level Religious Education. I guess it’s because I’m a storyteller.

When my baby died, I found myself craving ritual. I remember going into churches just to create my own rituals focused around Mary, lighting candles for her and my son. The archetypal mother who had also lost a son. To me she was the only remnant of an ancient fertility goddess left, sanitised into a virgin by a male dominated institution. I found Catholic or High Church of England churches always good for some goddess veneration in the form of Mary. Their churches really do the best smells and bells – because they understand the theatre of ritual. The three cores aspects of ritual being:

  • blood sacrifice (the blood of Christ in a cup)
  • a natural process or mythic historical narrative (the Christian mythology), and
  • an act of magic (the Christian symbol of transformation, the Holy Communion)

Thirteen years on from that earthquake birth, I’m exploring and creating my own rituals which have been particularly helpful during my year of mother grief. I have organically gathered together my ‘medicine’ basket with my tools of ritual. My bones, my incense, my core oracles – the runes and roses – and various other objects of meaning and personal importance. My horse skin drum ‘Paskadi’, my rattle, my cloak, my hood, and my 1940s fox fur cape. The elements of ritualistic transformation. I’ve started inviting others to join my rituals and offer rune and rose reading rituals.

I created my rune set after being called to work with runes in three dreams within three months of my mother’s death. This became a ritual in itself; collecting the wood to complete the set (I’d been given the first nine), carving, sanding, polishing and then anointing them with the last vestiges of my own menstrual blood (the blood sacrifice), into a tool that can help others transform (the magic), underpinned as they are with a Norse mythological framework (the narrative).

By working intuitively and instinctively, I’ve found that creating rituals both personal and shared, has really helped me through my grief. It’s provided a focus and an outlet for my grief. When my mother was close to death (she died 24 hours after having a major stroke whilst out shopping), I somehow knew what to do. I didn’t consult a book; I wasn’t a member of a church, but I knew that ritual was important. In the year that’s passed, I’ve also discovered I have a natural ability to do what I now know as soul journey work. I’ve found I have ‘psychopomp’ abilities – I had to look this up – after experiencing very strong and vivid dreams and vision journeys with drumming, where I’ve helped dead or dying people (and trees) ‘cross over’ to the other side.

Birds too, back to the corvids, are said in many cultures to have a psychopomp nature, carrying the dead to the afterlife . A few days before I lost my son, I was lying in my old bedroom at my mother’s house, clinging on for dear life looking out at the sycamore tree at an unusual gathering of at least 15 magpies in the tree. There had not been one before or since. My mother and I were both struck by the strange occurrence. The magpie is my death bird and my magician. I don’t try to explain this psychopomp phenomenon, as ultimately I don’t think it matters. I simply accept it.  All I know is the role of the psychopomp is known in myth, in folklore and in ancient spiritual practices, down through the millennia. I’ve also starting exploring the power of singing laments and keening from the Celtic Scottish and Irish traditions – coming as I do from strong Celtic stock as well as Norman Viking – using my drum to access these songs as they emerge. They are a powerful way to bring voice to death and grief.

I’m beginning to see there is a place for all this work – as we enter into a new, more open and frank relationship with death. Death is coming out of the shadows. Ritual most definitely has its place and new death rituals are emerging, rooted in our landscape, in a way that is meaningful for us today. The growth of the death cafe is one example of communities coming together to talk about death and break some of the taboos that have grown up in our youth-obsessed world. I went to one in Plymouth the week before I led a small family ceremony to interr my mother’s ashes in her family grave. The cafe was well-facilitated, we all sat round tables talking about our experiences of death, dying and grieving, and it was actually very light hearted. There was much more laughter than I expected. Ultimately I think that’s the trick – to laugh with death, even in the midst of the tears, the anger and the whole gamut of emotion death wrings out of us. Gallows humour, morbid humour is there for a reason. Death doesn’t want us to be deathly serious…all of the time.

So I’ll continue to collect my bones, read my runes and bang my drum whilst I lug my increasingly heavy medicine basket around the country singing to the land and telling stories to birds in the trees, laughing along the way like some crazy Sacred Fool literally dancing with Death. And strangely as I sit here in my mothers easy chair finishing this article, the voice on a radio play I’m listening to drifts over, and says: “She deserves a good death.”               

Resources and further reading

Chi In – my poem about death and the Sacred Fool

For rune and rose readings, rituals, poetry, stories and my blog visit www.runesnroses.com

For more on ritual, the book Ritual  – A Very Short Introduction – by Barry Stephenson

For information on death cafes

For information on psychopomps

Dirty Blood and My Still Born Boy


1 Minute Read

Blood has been such a massive part of my life for the last 37 years. Every month, from the age of 12, I’ve bled like a stuck pig. One of my best friends recently said how much she enjoyed her periods. My jaw just dropped. I’ve always hated mine violently. From the first drop. Bleeding pints, great big fat clots the size of my fists, soaking up ultra-maxi pads in one gush, spilling over the sides, through my black pants and through my dark trousers, leaving a bloody puddle leaching into my chair in the middle of a business meeting. The shame of discreetly trying to wipe it off, waiting for everyone else to leave first and hoping no-one would notice.

And the pain, don’t talk to me about period pain. That time I was 15, curled up on the bed in my first boyfriend’s bedsit, then him calling out the GP (in the days when they would do home visits) to give me a massive shot of morphine to take away the most incredible pain I’d ever experienced.  The morphine felt good.

That time in my early 20s on a rural bus in Java, when I was writhing in pain on the plastic seats, silently crying big fat tears down my cheeks. I had no sanitary protection as I’d been taken by surprise. A kind Javanese lady took me off the bus and into her home to clean me up, give me painkillers, wash my clothes and let me rest before making sure I got home. A good Samaritan.

The only respite I ever got was going on the pill as a teenager for seven years.

“You’re not to use it as a play pill,” my mother scolded. Little did she know. Too little, too late.

Numerous tests showed nothing – no endometriosis, no fibroids, no this, no that.

“Dirty blood,” a Javanese reflexogist told me, prescribing a thick black liquid brew that tasted putrid. But I downed it every day, desperate to have clean, light, easy blood.

Trying to get pregnant in my mid-thirties (my mother had me at 39, I thought it would be easy – too little, too late), how I hated my blood even more. Every month obsessing over cycle lengths, daily temperature charts, and urine samples. More tests.

“You have an unusually long womb and a tight vagina,” the gynaecologist said. Dirty sod.

Then a miracle. Just as I had almost given up – a missed period and a positive test. Excitement, elation, at 37 I was going to have a baby. Not my first pregnancy, but this time I wasn’t afraid, I was older.  This time much coveted. Oh, but then the blood came. Hang on, that’s not right. Is it? “Go home, don’t worry about it, everything is normal.” Three months came and went. Blood came and went. Still the baby grew. Clinging on. Heart beating somersault twists and little kicks. Until the clots started coming. As big as a fist. No, no, no. This isn’t right. This can’t be happening. Please God no.

“Your placenta is coming away – see that shadow there – a large clot of blood,” the consultant said. “Very touch and go. Go home, rest, and wait.” A death star lurking in the lining of my womb. There is no God.

My waters broke at five months – ah, what a gush that was. 48 hours later I went into labour, was whisked into the Royal Sussex, sirens blaring. My beautiful perfect, tiny Tom Thumb of a son was born on 2 May 2006. The sun was shining on a glorious bank holiday. But everything was black. My world stopped turning. For the next three years.

“Dirty blood,” said the woman at the nutritional supplement centre, “full of copper, no wonder you lost your baby.”

The cow. So tactless – so unprofessional. I was furious. Bereft. Obsessed.

Then my first husband fucked off. Sick at the sight of my dirty blood. Wanting new blood – fresh and young.

Then I hit my roaring 40s. And how I roared, and wept, and bled some more – a whole lot more – as if my whole insides were falling out. Has someone just been murdered? Has someone slit their throat?

The period pain is minimal now. Almost non-existent. My cycles are starting to dither about but my sex drive has gone through the roof – the sex-surge they call it – do keep up; all that testosterone. The hot flushes come thick and fast (always carry a fan), night sweats come and go. My short-term memory is hopeless, and I’m forever losing things. Ah, the perimenopause. Bring it on – I want it to stop. No more bleeding at long, bloody last. No more packing spare sets of clothes, wearing two pairs of black pants, no more shoving a MoonCup up myself (I care about the environment) and yet still having to wear a maxi-pad, so what’s the point? Dear MoonCup, please can you make a bucket size cup – the size of the blood red moon?

Oh, hang on a minute. When my periods stop, that will finally be it. The finality of my fertility. And I will grieve all over again. Not as intensely, but it will still happen. Lurking in the shadows, popping up on Mother’s Day (will someone please send me a frickin card?), popping up when siblings start to become grandparents, all those life stages and milestones that my second husband, friends and family celebrate as their children grow.  Of course, I celebrate with them.

The joy of being an aunt, a great aunt, a fairy godmother…the magical, mysterious, marvellous elder that comes bearing gifts. The exotic elder that always plays and dances, makes up stories, dresses up, hides and seeks. They all clammer to try on my jewels and trinkets. The elder that still goes clubbing in Cardiff nightclubs and gets crowned Queen; the elder that takes a drag, and does all the things their parents can’t as the responsible adults. I am fun personified. I’ll settle for that.

“Aunty I love you.” The best thing a child could say to me, as he gives me a big fat cuddle. “I love you too darling.” So much love – a bottomless well of it.

There was a time when I had to grit my teeth and sob behind dark glasses, closed doors, and in the loo at work. Although that time has gone now, I’m still a mother, and it was still a birth – however invisible, however silent. Always there. Always loved.

Dirty blood. I’ll be glad to see the back of you.

An imagined 11-year-old

Somewhere, in a parallel Universe, there is a bold young boy playing with his vorpal sword that goes snicker-snack. His name is Vincent. He has blonde hair, and blue eyes; he’s very creative and loves to dress up. He wears feather boas, and glitter. He’s a glam rock star in the making. He loves to fly kites. He can ride a horse and swim the ocean. He loves physics, art and dance like his mother. And English literature and New Wave films, like his dad. He’s a brave young boy, playing in a field full of sunflowers.

9-15 October was National Baby Loss Awareness Week. On the Sunday, I lit a candle and danced – a wild dance, shedding skins in celebration of a short life but whose soul lives on in my imagination, making me feel more, laugh more and love more. SANDS threw me an umbilical lifeline when my world stopped. You can support them here.

Fire-Starters and Shamanic Dreamers – Celebrating High Summer on the Sussex Shore  


1 Minute Read

Imagine a windy but warm night at 10pm on 1 August 2017. Three women gather outside a blue beach hut at Hove Lagoon. Fishing boat lights twinkle on the horizon, and Carl and John, the two resident homeless chaps are already bedded down for the night on their beach shelter benches.

We drag a pile of firewood and kindling onto the pebbles, along with a large bunch of beautiful wild flowers Asha has picked from Whitehawk Camp Community Orchard. I grab sheepskin rugs, cushions and blankets from my hut. No one else is around, all is quiet.

What are we doing at this time on a wild Wednesday night, trying to start a bonfire?

Well, we are here to celebrate High Summer otherwise known as Llammas in the old English Anglo Saxon pagan calendar, and Lughnasa in Gaelic. Originally held on 1 August, the celebration marked the first harvest, and was an important seasonal feast alongside the pagan festivals of Samhain, Imbolc and Beltane. Lughnasa is the mid-point between the Summer Solstice and the Autumn Equinox, it celebrates Mother Earth and the abundance of nature; plus says farewell to the Oak King as his power slowly starts to subside to make way for the Holly King. Feasting with neighbours and honouring the still powerful forces of the summer sun’s light are important elements of this community-based sabbat. The festival’s energy is one of optimism, hope and well-being and brings out the best in people. This was particularly relevant, as we had just been feasting at my flat on Hove seafront whilst sorting out outfits to wear at the Brighton Pride Summer of Love Parade – the biggest and best of UK Pride events, celebrating sexual and gender diversity and freedom. So many people across the world remain repressed in their communities, and I feel so lucky to live in a beautiful part of the world, which is abundant and relatively progressive and tolerant.

Before we got the fire going, Selina, who had just come down late from her London commute, started the proceedings by reading aloud to the sea, a poem she had brought by Mary Oliver. It summed up our mood –

The Summer Day

Who made the world?

Who made the swan, and the black bear?

Who made the grasshopper?

This grasshopper, I mean-

the one who has flung herself out of the grass,

the one who is eating sugar out of my hand,

who is moving her jaws back and forth instead of up and down-

who is gazing around with her enormous and complicated eyes.

Now she lifts her pale forearms and thoroughly washes her face.

Now she snaps her wings open, and floats away.

I don’t know exactly what a prayer is.

I do know how to pay attention, how to fall down

into the grass, how to kneel down in the grass,

how to be idle and blessed, how to stroll through the fields,

which is what I have been doing all day.

Tell me, what else should I have done?

Doesn’t everything die at last, and too soon?

Tell me, what is it you plan to do

with your one wild and precious life?

Then Selina said her farewells and retired for the night, as we realised it was going to be a while before our ‘spontaneous’ fire ceremony got going. Asha, who is an incredible Polish shamanic scholar and celebrant, directed me to build the fire in a sheltered spot on the beach and lay out the flowers in a circle around the pyre. She’s an expert fire starter, and despite the wind, we got it going with the help of some additional candle wax dripped onto paper.

Wearing yellow to celebrate the high summer sun, the two of us created our own ceremony, drumming, chanting, and praying to the spirits of the East, South, West and North, to Father Sky and Mother Earth. We shook our rattle, beat our drum and sang to the sea and the stars. We fed the fire with frankincense, tobacco, wine and fruit in offering to the harvest; then cast our prayers and wishes to the waves. We drew animal totem tarot cards and I pulled the turtle whose wisdom teaches us about walking our path in peace and sticking to it with determination and serenity. Slow moving on earth, yet also incredibly fast and agile in water, the turtle also teaches us to be grounded yet fluid. An art that I am forever practicing and developing since my natural temperament is to fly high without a solid anchor, but I am learning to cultivate and nurture my root system.

Then my friendly vixen made an appearance – ever so tame, she arrives like clockwork at my hut every evening I am there. She has almost braved the inside my hut on one occasion. So we said ‘hello’ and she lay down and watched us awhile. At midnight, Asha and I decided to read aloud some of favourite poems about the moon and summer (mobile internet has its uses), inspired by Selina’s earlier contribution. One of my favourites is by e.e.cummings, and felt so appropriate for the occasion:

i carry your heart with me (i carry it in

my heart) i am never without it (anywhere

i go you go, my dear; and whatever is done

by only me is your doing, my darling)

i fear

no fate (for you are my fate, my sweet) i want

no world (for beautiful you are my world, my true)

and it’s you are whatever a moon has always meant

and whatever a sun will always sing is you

 

here is the deepest secret nobody knows

(here is the root of the root and the bud of the bud

and the sky of the sky of a tree called life; which grows

higher than soul can hope or mind can hide)

and this is the wonder that’s keeping the stars apart

 

i carry your heart (i carry it in my heart)

Before we knew it, the fire had burned right down and it was 1am. Still warm and windy, with the moon shining amidst the clouds, we closed our High Summer circle, gathered our instruments and cards, and left with a song of joy in our hearts for the last days of summer.

About:

Serena Constance is a dancer and wand-maker with the soul of a gypsy queen, who dresses like a peacock and has the spirit of a white tiger. By day, you can find her at the University of Sussex, weaving her networking magic for Sussex Alumni Relations.

Asha Sali is a shaman in training; a sweat lodge builder, a Biodanza facilitator and all round magical being.

Selina King is a moon sister, a fire starter and a great freelance researcher.

We all live in Brighton, UK.

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