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  • Erin Caitlin Sweeney

The Layers of Experience


The moon. Constantly changing, moving through her cycles. How many cycles has she been through? Each cycle a layer of time. The months becoming years, the years becoming decades, centuries, and eventually millennia. What has she witnessed? The layers of time, the layers of experience. I think of these layers of time, the layers we carry with us, as I reflect on an experience I had while traveling in Scotland last year.


I had been backpacking through Europe for just over a month by the time I made it to Dunvegan Castle on the Isle of Skye. This was the first time I ever traveled by myself. I went with the intention of visiting and connecting with my ancestral lands. I carried rosemary with me at all times. A plant known for protection and remembrance. I offered the rosemary to the land and to my ancestors as I walked on the land they once called home.


I was tense when I arrived at Dunvegan Castle. Driving in heavy rain, on single lane (2 way) roads, on the left side of the road will do that to you. I walked through the gardens of the castle and the castle itself, unable to lift the layer that surrounded me. A layer that kept me from the beauty, a layer that hung, like a cloud, over me. A layer I often describe as depression and anxiety.


This castle that sits on the edge of the sea has been in the MacLeod family for eight hundred years. Eight hundred years. The MacLeod family can walk into this castle and know that their ancestors walked the same path, touched the same stones. They can feel the layers of time. They can remember the stories of their ancestors as they gaze upon the mystical fairy flag that is still preserved. A flag said to have been gifted to the clan by the fairies hundreds of years ago. A flag whose magical qualities protected them in battles.


As I walked out of the castle I noticed a rhododendron garden to my left. A garden that was not manicured but instead grew freely. Rhododendrons surrounded the house I grew up in, rhododendrons are home for me. As I walked on the path I could feel the layer that had been surrounding me starting to dissipate. As I walked I started to remember, I started to listen, I started to see. I saw the fairies dancing in the glimmering rays of the sun on the rhododendron leaves. I sensed the magic of the land. I remembered this place, these trees, this land. The land of my ancestors.


As I walked amongst the trees, I reflected on the previous month of my travels. I spoke to the ancestors of the land every place I visited. I left rosemary as an offering every place I felt called. I connected with the trees and the plants of the land. I did the practices that I believe in wholeheartedly, but I did them secretly. I hid them, aware that my spiritual practices and belief systems are not mainstream. I felt ashamed, afraid of being judged and misunderstood, of being seen as weird.


This all came to consciousness as I took in the beauty of the place. In that moment, I realized that I had a choice. That I did not want to bring in shame and fear to the practices I believe in. That I choose to feel pride and openness in the practices that make me feel whole, that remind me of who I am. Practices that honor the Earth and my ancestors. I remembered that ancestral offerings and connecting to the natural world is an ancient practice. That it is truth. The way I move through the world and the work that I do is my truth. I remembered that there is nothing to be ashamed of, there is nothing to fear when you’re coming from a place of truth.


Then I saw her and I was moved to tears. I couldn’t stop crying as I gazed at her. She was here, this grandmother tree. A tree I had never seen before and yet knew intimately and deeply. She was my kin. We had known each other before in another layer of time. I approached her and put my left hand on her mossy bark and my right hand on my heart. I spoke to her, offering her my deep gratitude. I listened. I noticed two people in the distance and instead of taking my hand away in secrecy (as I would’ve done the day before), I stayed just as I was. Standing proudly with one hand on the heart of an ancient tree I loved dearly and one hand on my own heart. This is truth. This is remembrance.


I said goodbye to the grandmother tree, the rhododendrons, and the forest. I walked to the museum café and had my daily afternoon cake and tea. I reflected on my experiences of that day. On the experiences that have kept me from standing proudly in my practices, proudly in my power, proudly in my truth. Exploring the layers of my experience, understanding that my experience is never just mine but has instead been informed by my culture, history, and the ancestors who have come before me.


The layers of my experience. The shame and the secrecy of doing the practices I believe in. What lies beneath the experience? Where is it rooted? The layers, I imagine, run deep. Personally, there’s the desire to fit in and the fear of being judged. As I peel back the layer of my conditioning, I reflect on the society and culture I live in. A culture that does not support a deep connection with the Earth outside of being “outdoorsy.” A society in which a man passes you while you put your hand on an ancient Redwood and yells, “it’s just a tree.” A society in which it’s more culturally acceptable to go on a hike with headphones in your ears than meditate amongst the trees. A society in which the term witch instills eye rolls and resistance rather than curiosity and respect.


Peeling back the layers, understanding my experience through the lens of my personal life and conditioning, through the lens of the culture and society I live in. What lies beneath these layers?

As I sat in that café on my ancestral land I reflected on the experiences of my ancestors. On what my ancestors carried with them and what they passed down through my lineage. On what I carry.


The shame and the secrecy. Peeling back the layers, I reflected on my ancestors who were present during the witch hunts. Acutely aware of my European lineage and the witch hunts that lasted for three centuries. The ancestors who survived and the ancestors who were burned. The ancestors that did the hunting, the killing. The ancestors who did nothing at all while people, predominantly women, were being attacked. For three centuries.


I reflected on my ancestors who lived before the witch hunts, before Christianity spread through what’s now Europe and the British Isles. My ancestors who lived in relationship with the Earth, my ancestors who worshipped trees. My ancestors who believed in faeries. My ancestors who practiced Earth-based spirituality, who were “pagans.”


How much of this experience, the experiences of my ancestors that I carry with me, informed my shame? Informed the secrecy? For how many centuries did the witches, the healers, the pagans have to practice in secrecy? When secrecy meant survival. There’s the shame that can often be implied in secrecy. The shame of having a parent, child, or sibling who heals in a society that wants to burn them for doing so. The hate that can brew from fear and misunderstanding. It is often easier to fear something than take the time to understand it. When many people fear it, when the common opinion rests on fear, the hate can brew stronger and stronger. Collective fear can create collective hate. This is a part of my experience. This is a layer. This is in my blood, my bones.


I sat in the café on my ancestral land. The land that has bared witness to it all. The land that the moon has shone on for millennia. The land that holds the stories, the wisdom. The land of my ancestors. It is the land and my ancestors from whom I am always learning. It is the land and my ancestors who showed me the layers of my experience.


The land. My personal story and conditioning. The culture and society I live in. The experiences of my ancestors and what’s been passed down to me. These are just a few layers that inform my experience. That inform how I move through the world.


Everything that happened, all that I learned that day on the Isle of Skye was an act of remembrance. Remembering the practices and remembering the secrecy. Remembering the sadness, the fear, the hate, and the shame. Remembering the land, the trees, the water, the birds, and the plants. Remembering the beauty and remembering the truth. Remembering my history. Remembering my ancestors. Remembering who I am. Learning that it is all a part of me. The layers of my experience, the layers that inform who I am and how I move through the world.



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