Almost everyone, city-dweller or rural resident or lifelong suburbanite, has met them, and has a name for them. Also known as the roly-poly, woodlouse, or doodle bug, the pillbug is perhaps the most innocuous non-mammal children encounter. Certainly it’s safer than the family dog or cat. It doesn’t bite or carry disease, and is left without any defense other than “conglobation” — doing that “armadillo thing” that gives it the first half of its scientific name.
So I’m still repeating “armadillidium vulgare” (ar-mah-dil-LID-ee-um vool-GAH-ray) to myself every hour or so, just for the pure fun of the name, since yesterday morning when I did some research to learn more about the little creatures. Why? That’s less interesting to me right now than the pillbug itself, but I’ll explain the reason in a bit. (If you’re just skimming, in a hurry, and want to arrive at what you imagine is the “Druidic payoff” straightaway, go the final section of this post.)
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A native European, the pillbug has spread to North America and the rest of the world, where it flourishes in damp and shady environments. If you’ve encountered them, you most likely did so when overturning a garden pot or stone or board in a woodpile. Pillbugs actually aren’t insects, but crustaceans, most closely related to crabs and crayfish. They breathe through gills, and unlike the vast majority of species with iron-based blood, pillbugs use copper — hemocyanin rather than hemoglobin, for the nerds among us — an ancient alternative oxygen-bearing respiration system, making them literal “blue-bloods”.
Pillbugs recycle body wastes, can absorb water at several locations along their body, and carry their young in a belly pouch called a marsupium — if that makes you think “marsupial”, like a kangaroo or possum, you’re not so far off track.
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Which brings me to “why the pillbug as a blogpost topic?”
Workshop 5 at the recent Gulf Coast Gathering in Mandeville, LA, focused on spirit and animal guides. Here’s Lorraine leading the workshop, her own cat guide prominent on the t-shirt she’s wearing:
photo courtesy Kezia Vandilo
As often happens during guided meditations and visualizations, I work on patience. Whether or not anything “comes through”, the practice itself has value. It builds energy and receptivity to things outside the “enchantment of the apparent world” as OBOD rituals put it. Lorraine asked us to travel with our guide to a clearing where we could encounter a new helper.
Nothing … nothing … nothing. My boar guide, happy to explore the Louisiana woods, kept away. Or at least I experienced no trace of him. Instead, inner mist, overcast gray, drowsiness … Then, almost at the end of the visualization: pillbug! I swallowed my laughter. My amused surprise at the unexpectedness of this particular animal guide disturbed its inner form not at all. I’m small, but like all things I have my dignity, I seemed to hear. Pay attention.
As I wrote here a little over a year ago,
When something like this grabs me, I start trying it out, trying it on for size. What does my spiritual path do with it? Does it stir me, even — or especially — if I resist it? (I’ve found that’s one good test for the value of my path, too.) Do I want its insight with me over the next meters and miles, minutes or months? Is there a place for it in my backpack or tool-kit? If so, what? If not, why not? … Why has it arrived on my doorstep at all? Has it come to me now, or in this particular form, because I’ve already rejected it at least once?! Will I at least remember to write it down in my journal, so when it knocks me upside the head again, sometime in the future, a review of what I write today will help the lesson sink deeper, enough that next time at least I’m able to act?
I’m a Druid so also I count the non-human world among my teachers. That doesn’t mean I have to stay in class, or stick with the same teacher. It means, if I need to, that I can learn and move on. It means — thank the gods! — I have many teachers. It may well mean, if I really need to learn something, that the classwork I don’t finish here may reappear somewhere else, in another class, on another arm of the spiral. But it also means I can call on teachers I adore and who support me to help me with teachers who challenge me, rub me the wrong way — teachers who don’t make it easy …
So what do I take away from this encounter, this new guide? Stay small and inconspicuous? Keep to the undersides of things? Protect my belly and curl my back against trouble?
Or maybe pay attention to things that may seem too small to deserve your notice. Disdain nothing that can teach you. (And what can’t teach me, after all? Only what I ignore …) Stay flexible enough to adapt, to bend. Keep in touch with the earth. Know that my dignity and worth don’t depend on anyone else. My value in a supersize culture has nothing to do with quantity but with quality. And, always, listen.
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Images: pillbug; conglobating pillbug.
Highland Oak Nemeton, Fontainebleau State Park in Mandeville, LA, the magic of assembled Druids, and a sunny weekend of Gulf Coast weather in the 70s and 80s worked their cumulative spell on the 50 or so attendees of this year’s OBOD Gulf Coast Gathering. The spirits of the land witnessed Druids from OR, CT, VT, PA, FL, TX, LA, NE, VA, MI and other states make their way to the south-central U.S.
image courtesy Steve Cole
The workshops explored the Gathering theme “Opening The Seven Gifts” of Druidry. OBOD offers a lovely 2:30 video that presents the Seven Gifts more attractively than a bald recital could.
Our presenters kept the topics lively, sharing insights and fielding comments. Druidry needs no “outside experts” — the spiritual path generates its own.
Nonetheless, it’s always a draw to have a visiting speaker — and once again we welcomed the always-fabulous Kristoffer Hughes, one of Her Majesty’s Coroners, author, professional actor, OBOD Druid, and head of the Anglesey Druid Order in the U.K.
Kris spoke on “When the Last Leaf Falls: Death, an Awfully Big Adventure”, examining Western attitudes toward, and treatment of, the dead, and ways Druids can respond creatively and spiritually to the frequently dysfunctional nature of the Western “death industry” and its dehumanizing and ecologically destructive practices. He also urged us to bring each other in on, and discuss, our own plans for our deaths, disposal of remains, and the types of memorials we want.
Kris during his talk — photo courtesy Kezia Vandilo
Dana dispelled stereotypes of magic during her evening talk around the fire our first night, the opening ritual fresh in our memories. The following morning Richard addressed the core of Druidry — getting back in touch with nature.
Richard and Dana
Lorraine helped many meet a new animal guide, Gabby drew us to consider healing, Jacob turned our thoughts to philosophy, and I explored the awen and the potentials for inspiration. Even if [below] my gesture at one point suggests a fish story — “the big one that got away”.
photo courtesy Kezia Vandilo
We initiated three Bards and five Ovates, held opening and closing rituals, along with the Seasonal Alban Eilir (Spring Equinox) ritual, went on nature walks, and visited the Seven Sisters Live Oak in nearby Mandeville, LA.
Below is our Welsh Druid guest communing with the tree, estimated to be over 1500 years old, and below that is a more distant shot to suggest something of its size.
John Beckett captured an image of the atmospheric Spanish moss parasitic on so many trees south of the Mason-Dixon line.
photo courtesy John Beckett
Storytellers and musicians, notably Jacob Pewitt and Brian Van Unen, made the slowly cooling evenings magical around the fire.
Jacob and Brian — photo courtesy John Beckett
What better way to leave behind the 18″ of snow in Vermont from the recent March nor’easter?!
Always, always, it’s the faces, the reunions, the collapse of miles between us, and the conversations that make each Gathering so memorable.
Don’t know anyone before you arrive? You will before you leave!
Kathleen and Kezia — photo courtesy Kezia Vandilo
The first exercise or technique in my workshop and booklet for Gulf Coast Gathering this Saturday is “Forming an Intention.”
There’s a lot of talk these days about “being intentional”. And I wonder: Did past generations somehow do it better? Did they set about what they were doing with more awareness than we do? Or is that the point: we can do better today because we somehow “get” the importance of intention? Really, I doubt both of these things. You or I? Yes, you or I can do better. “We” meaning large numbers of people? Not so much, then or now. Where to place and focus effort?
I love that when I google “intention” the first two definitions that appear are “a thing intended” (classic dictionary-ese!) and “the healing process of a wound”. I click on the link and that specialized medical usage comes well down on the list of meanings. Can intention, handled well, help with healing? Is that what intention is, one way to understand it? Healing?
What if I approach each action as an opportunity for healing? Some intentions heal, some don’t, or hurt more than they help. Would this change how I intend?
This last weekend I attended a regular “second Saturday” spirituality study group that’s been ongoing now for several years. The book we read is less important than the group, the intentionality of a monthly meeting, the ongoing flowering of awareness that comes from it, and from practice of a set of spiritual exercises together and individually that open the doors of insight. One of the group members, Bill, said something last Saturday I knew I had to include, giving credit where it’s due, in the final draft of the Gathering booklet:
Intention is a description of the limits of manifestation.
This is a fruitful theme for contemplation. If you choose to use it that way, I’d recommend you stop reading now and come back later, after you’ve gained your own insights into its reach. What follows below are some of mine.
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Outdoors, the nor’easter that’s been named Stella (the “star” of the show, that’s for sure), has begun to blanket New England and the mid-Atlantic region with a classic March snow. Right now, at 9:00 am or so, the snowfall is still gentle and steady. Later it will strengthen, and rising winds will transform the world into a snowglobe both shaken and stirred. Meanwhile, the indomitable chickadees flit back and forth between the front yard feeder and the branches of the mountain ash.
Intention doesn’t guarantee any kind of “success”. That’s not its purpose. (Why do it then? I hear myself and some of you asking.)
But intention does invite a flow, form a mold, shape a potential, and let us exercise our sacred gift as transformers of Spirit. “Spirit must express itself in the world of matter,” writes John Michael Greer, “or it accomplishes nothing. Insights of meditation and ceremony gain their full power and meaning when reflected in the details of everyday life” (Greer. The Druidry Handbook, pg. 138).
For me, even more importantly, intention sets up a precedent of balance. It’s a handshake with Spirit, a gesture of welcome. Spirit needs our individuality to express itself. It’s what we are. But we also need Spirit to work through us, or “nothing happens”.
I set the intention of flying out to the Gathering and a nor’easter may intervene, changing an intention, cancelling flights, closing an airport, disrupting human routine. Part of the skill of setting intentions is releasing them, and then navigating through what comes. (Insisting on a particular intention can sometimes and temporarily shift all the factors in one’s favor, but the juice usually isn’t worth the squeeze. Doubt me? Don’t waste time arguing. Try it out for yourself. And as the universe sets about kicking you down the road, use your black and blues as a now-personalized theme for reflection.)
If you’re still wondering what value an intention has, look again at the situation, but this time without the particular intention. The nor’easter comes anyway, and whatever else I’m doing — intentions there, too — the storm still impacts them.
So one point I draw from this? I want to be intentional about my intentions. I’m constantly creating them anyway, manifesting constantly. I get up from bed. I make coffee. I build up the fire. I may “plan my day” or “wing it” as things unfold around me. That’s what it means to “have a life”. I just may be more or less conscious as I do, and have, and am.
But intention isn’t something that only I have, or set in motion all alone onstage. In a world of multitudinous beings, intentions constantly line up or come in conflict all around us.
“The intelligent universe longs for an equal partner” (Gary Lindorf. 13 Seeds. Northshire Press, pg. 21). I can ignore the marvelous energy of intention and still live. But not as richly, as full of love, or as magically. What does it mean to be an “intelligent partner” to life? Partner: not servant, not master.
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“Intention is the description of the limits of manifestation”. Each of us has a set of experiences and talents and insights that give us a personal key to being intentional. As with most things, being intentional isn’t a matter of “either-or” but a matter of “less-more”. What are the limits of manifestation? Do I, does anyone, actually know? We make intention experimental — something to be explored.
In the last 40 minutes — it’s now 9:43 — the snow has intensified. An-inch-an-hour is nothing new for much of the northern U.S., but each time I “have time” or “make time” to watch, it never gets old. Like watching the tide, waves endlessly arriving on the shore. Repetition builds a universe. On one scale of things, you might call Stella a very “minor” event. Take a large enough view and almost everything turns small. The weather image of the continental U.S. shows the small portion affected. What does such a view offer? On a small enough scale, it’s all-encompassing. Here in southern Vermont, a cloud moving white in every direction.
It may seem strange to speak of “non-personal” events like weather in terms of intention, but then I think that the existence of anything forms or reveals its intention. After all, do I ever see snow except when it falls, or has fallen? That’s what snow is. And I imagine — intend — living more intentionally, living like snow, being an intention of Spirit, with the added and priceless human gift of witnessing as I do.
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Where do I go from here?
All right — I’ll admit the title-as-opaque-acronym is at least a little clickbaity. (I do like the “dig” in the middle of it — it fits one of the themes for this post.)
But more importantly, this is the question I find my life keeps asking, in ways both small and large. What next?
Large: like many cancer survivors, I monitor numbers from regular blood tests. The slow rise I’ve seen over the past 5 years in undesirable antigens means I can’t grow complacent. “Leave nothing on the table,” counsels an elder I know who’s grappling with dementia. A life lived within limits isn’t a disaster: from everything I’ve seen, it’s the only way life happens. Nobody “does it all”. (The young adult novel I’ve got one-third finished won’t get completed on its own. It’s up, and down, to me.)
Small: a Meetup group I’ve been nurturing patiently is finally large enough to gather for an Equinox/Ostara potluck. A member’s offered her home, and we’ve got several people committed to bringing a dish to pass. One more chance to practice savoring the shoots and leaves of new growth that spring makes its specialty.
In-between: unable to afford to buy a bigger house (we opted 9 years ago for small), or encouraged by any leads to move out of state for jobs, my wife and I focused on asking how to flourish where we are. She eventually found part-time work, and we built an addition to give us breathing room. I’m getting good writing ideas faster than I can get them on paper or screen.
How to survive, yes, of course. But how to thrive, the deeper quest.
Sometimes the big picture isn’t what I need, though I thought it was. Sometimes, instead, it’s just the next step, it’s the phone call I remembered to make this afternoon, it’s the contemplation or ritual tomorrow morning. It’s the short walk that reveals sudden green beneath melting snow. It’s the porcelain hare my aunt gave me 50 years ago.
I think “half a century” and don’t know what I feel. Then I think “half a century” again, and I say to myself, “I’m still here, still wondering what comes next”. I take the delicate figure down from the shelf and blow from its pink and white ears the dust from a season of wood stove ash. The picture’s not quite in focus, but my camera doesn’t do closeups any better. A piece of wisdom: it doesn’t have to be perfect.
And I open for the 100th time the demanding draft of a workshop I’ll be giving at Gulf Coast Gathering on “30 Days and Ways to Tap the Awen”.
Well, I remind myself, you asked for them. The inward sap bucket fills, after a winter’s dry season. Now the trick of a moment (a life): to open my heart wide enough to receive.
Depending on your media choices, you may have heard of the recent (Feb. 24) magical attempt to “bind Trump”. You can check out one version here. The more elaborate versions plan for similar recurring monthly rituals during the waning moon until the President has been removed from office. Sympathetic magic, but highly problematic.
The effort and its announcement set off predictable responses in many quarters, from Breitbart (“A group of witches is attempting to use black magic to neutralize U.S. President Donald Trump by casting a ‘binding spell’ to prevent him from governing”) to People Magazine (“organizers of the demonstration have vowed to cast binding spells on the 70-year-old on the midnight of every waning crescent moon until Trump is removed from office”). The National Catholic Register issued its own take here, highlighting from its perspective the negative (literally diabolical) energies powering such binding spells, and pointing out the dangers of such workings and also the ineffectiveness of curses on the faithful Christian. AM New York offers a suitably occult image to head its article. (I urge you to read this post and all its links with an eye alert to unintended ironies.)
Patheos blogger and Druid John Beckett posted a balanced, thoughtful and thorough assessment here: “Why I’m Not Participating in the Mass Binding of Donald Trump and What I’m Doing Instead”.
As some wiser heads have pointed out, it’s true magic can “grease the rails”. Used skilfully, it helps move energies along trajectories already established. Magic catalyzes change — it aids tendencies, and adds to existing momentum.
Try to magic your way through a strong headwind, however, whether physical, political or psychic, and your chances of success drop significantly. You’re going up against the flow of things. Planning a morning sail? With any sense, you check a barometer and weather reports before weighing anchor. You have a careful look at the skies yourself, taking into account local conditions and your own prior experience. If those signs are good, consider your crew, your boat, the tides. Watch the seabirds, the wind, the smell of the weather over water as you stand on the shore. Ponder those clouds on the horizon. In other words, to switch metaphors, magic can be part of the recipe, but neglect flour, water, eggs and sugar, and even the best magical yeast has nothing to work on.
Among several other cogent points, Beckett astutely sums up the issues with selecting Trump as an appropriate magical target: “Trump is a Symptom of a Deeper Problem, Not Its Cause. Blow up the Death Star, stake the head vampire, kill Hitler, and everything is all good and fine. Our popular culture tells us that if you remove the head, the body will die. Reality is rarely that simple”.
For my part, I prefer blessings, partly because I have to question my motives and the extent of my knowledge. Binding successfully asks a lot of the magical worker. In my experience, blessings, even low-level ones, practiced over time, transform consciousness more subtly but at least as effectively, and — significantly — without the conflict, coercion and energy blowback of most bindings.
“Let there be peace on earth, and let it begin with me” isn’t bad as an initial practice, till you can see your way more clearly. In the interim, you may find peace isn’t actually what you wanted anyway. Clarify your motives and you’re already a step ahead of most who work for change, with or without magic.
Trump’s campaign slogan, widely mocked, is “Make America Great Again” (MAGA). As a positive if vague goal, it’s one to assist, while reinterpreting it more inclusively, regardless of whether its original formulation is some sort of white nationalist code. Reinterpreting — a form of steering — is something magic can do well.
And as someone primed to look for signs, and work creatively with them, I’ll take that campaign slogan acronym MAGA and reinterpret it in Druidic terms — as a female magical energy: magus, mage or magician, and its feminine form, maga. What feminine magical energies are lacking in my own consciousness (to say nothing of those at work publicly shaping one of our current realities)? Stopping’s harder than steering what’s already in motion. What energies can I manifest, starting in my own life, to find balance from which to act most effectively? And then how can I encourage those energies to flow outward from there?
For that is what we are: magical transformers, all of us. We distribute what we accept and create. Together, we make the worlds.
*Solwom wesutai syet. SOHL-wohm WEH-soo-tie syeht. “May it be for the good of the whole.” That’s where I strive to root my magic to begin, however often I may get blown off course. (And part of my own magical work is to find ways to let the winds pass by. Trees bend when they can, rather than break. Weak? Passive? How about “still around to make a difference”!)
Got questions? Dispute my assessments and conclusions? Doubt what I or other authors have asserted at the links provided? Try these things out for yourself. Then your opinion is founded on knowledge and personal experience, not supposition and untried assumptions. In the process, you’ll grow and understand your life better than before. That’s a good foundation for any magic.
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Images: Gandalf; MAGA sticker; druid.
1. We tried out Druidry for a weekend. Here’s what we discovered.
2. This revival religion was cute as a baby, but what it looks like now is insane.
3. Fans were outraged when his magical secret was revealed.
4. Want to save money on car insurance? Try our new pay-a-Pagan-to-drive-you service.
5. This green lifestyle can cut your grocery bills by 90%!
6. Talk to trees? You may have this common mental health disorder!
7. Famous celebrities you didn’t know were Pagan.
8. Watch as this May Day ritual goes horribly wrong.
9. This woman joins a Druid group. What happens next is incredible!
10. Warning: these unusual old-new beliefs may be changing the planet!
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Image: DeSoto National Monument tree.
In English (and other Germanic languages) there’s a cluster of words related etymologically in “deep time” and beginning with tr-: true, troth, trust, tree. The meanings they convey branch outward — the metaphor is no accident — in other European languages, with similar connected meanings. In some Indo-European languages it’s specifically the oak that’s the quintessential tree, its hard wood most reliably “true”, able to hold its shape, resist warp and rot, or honor the gods like the oaks at the Greek oracle at Dodona, sacred to Zeus. Druids aspire to be “people of the trees”.
It’s no surprise then that speakers of these languages tend to think of truth in similar terms. Languages offer such networks of related meanings, idioms and imagery that shape and direct our thoughts and our cultures in both subtle and pervasive ways. The resource of words, like any resource, can be spent well or ill. We can draw on it to nourish and enrich human lives, or abuse it to twist, enervate, and destroy. We are, as older culture put it, only as good as our word.
In the archaic “troth, betroth, plight one’s troth”, we encounter truth in another sense, as a promise, something time will help fulfill, yes, but primarily a human action dependent on fidelity and effort. To betroth is to promise “by one’s truth“. Here, truth doesn’t just happen. It’s an outcome of a commitment. We enact truth. We say of something that it “holds true” — it meets the tests of time and other forces colliding with it. If this intrigues you, start a list of other expressions like it, and work with it in meditation.
So we have two related senses of truth: a quality often inherent in experience, and a human way of perceiving, choosing and acting. But in both cases, when something is true, it exhibits a quality similar to a good carpenter’s labor — the pieces fit, align, work together harmoniously, possessing strength and beauty and utility. Hence our sense of truth as something that is often beautiful as well. English idiom also gives us the lovely image of things that “ring true”. Truth, then, also “sounds right”. While a true thing may not exhibit all these qualities every time, it frequently does in surprising ways.
So I offer this as another subject for meditation: in how many ways does a truth appeal to the senses and offer its qualities through numerous images and metaphors in making itself accessible to human consciousness?
I’m always looking for techniques, for strategies and methods. My pragmatic streak longs for good ways to do things. (That’s not to say my lazy and selfish streaks don’t play their parts all too well. What’s new there? We all deal with limits worth exploring and working with creatively.)
These two related senses of truth offer what I’m looking for in the form of three challenge-questions I can ask: (1) Does my experience of a person, thing, idea or course of action offer these qualities of harmony, fit, rightness, alignment? (2) If I enact a commitment in my own life based on these qualities as indications of its truth, do I achieve results with similar qualities? (3) Does a possibly true thing “hold true”? That is, do its qualities persist over time?
Apply these observations at will to your own choices, commitments, beliefs and the actions of others. Do they hold true for you?
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Images: Wisdom Tree; Tree World.