“Growing where you’re not planted”
I’m feeling ornery. Walk with me a little?
Of course people aren’t “equal,” whether “created,” “evolved,” “born lucky,” “favored by the Fae” or anything else. We demonstrate this by almost every action we take, whatever we may say we believe. Whether it’s elections, classrooms, job reviews, dating, playing fields, friendships, family dynamics — the list goes on — one person’s clearly not equal to another. We have criteria, hopes and fears, standards, priorities, memories, expectations, goals, feelings, and values that we almost always take into account.
Even where we might expect equality to matter most, such as in matters of law, where we confuse equality with fairness or justice, we often argue our cases with claims of unique circumstances, histories, medical conditions and so on. We seek exceptions, work-arounds, concessions — because we feel fairness or justice requires it. The particulars and specifics of our lives and experience, talents and quirks and character, all those hallmarks of individual identity, really do matter.
But if we’re not “equal,” as I’m claiming here, what we all are is valuable, unique, and irreplaceable. Most versions of equality, far from helpfully “leveling the playing field,” begin by erasing the individual differences that define our unique value. Equality allows us to be lumped together in easily stereotyped groups. We become interchangeable, a homogenized mass. People start to generalize — “all ___ are ___ ” and when we do, we forget or ignore the value of individual identities. To consider just ethnic or racial terms, whether I’m “just another privileged white male” or “just another poor brown minority,” you can more easily write me off. I have no face, no personality, no distinct identity beyond my equality with everybody else in the category, the label pasted squarely on our foreheads. My unique birth, life and death don’t budge such pre-judgments, which is all that prejudice is, as long as they’re invisible.
[You know the story of the starfish? It’s made the rounds, but it still teaches. The version I’ve heard goes something like this: After a storm, one person encounters another on a beach. Driftwood and debris dot the sand, along with sea life stranded by the storm above the reach of the regular high tide. The second person is gently rescuing starfish and setting them back in the water. “Why bother?” asks the first person. “There are so many others that will die. You can’t save them all. How can it matter?” The other person pauses for a moment, with another wriggling starfish in hand, then sets it in the water. “It matters to this starfish.”]
So what does all this have to do with living on this green earth and loving it? Gardeners, for one, know firsthand: one patch of earth ain’t equal to another. Every location enjoys unique qualities of sun, wind, exposure, soil health, moisture, shade, nearby vegetation, bacteria, earthworms, insects, birds, animals and humans. Likewise for the seedlings, saplings, plantings, harvests, compost heaps, helpful and harmful beasts, bugs and spirits — none are merely “equal.” Or listen to that world just next door; the Morrigan is not Cernunnos. Brighid isn’t Kali. Christianity and Druidry aren’t “equally valid” — a meaningless assertion because of “equal,” not because of “valid.” Each helps catalyze a different life experience of the world. Both are needed. That’s why they’re here. But what good would they do if they were somehow “equal”? And what would that even mean?
The cosmos sweeps along, manifesting both equilibrium, often through relatively stable groups, and change, which appears frequently through the impact of individuals. It’s true that whole swaths of seemingly identical beings get tossed on the scrap heap all the time. A wildfire incinerates a mature forest, a flood washes away topsoil or drowns a lowland habitat. Severe frost or enduring drought destroys a whole ecosystem. Molds, rusts, viruses, spores and plagues decimate or erase innumerable species. Many more seeds and fingerlings, tadpoles and nestlings die than manage to survive. But let a first sapling rise in a meadow, and birds perch there, dropping new seeds that will change everything in a few years. The slightly altered DNA or behavior or adaptation of one or two individuals grants them increased advantages in a changed environment, and over time their line flourishes when others flounder.
Nothing is “equal.” In a cosmos both in love with and wholly indifferent to individuals, that is how we live at all — the ongoing surprise of the individual. Our uniqueness is our glory — and so is everyone and everything else’s. How to serve both these truths — not “equally” but lovingly — that’s a challenge you and I imperfectly explore all our days.
[A version of this post was originally published in Druid Magazine. How do we orient ourselves, and what guides and markers can we use? The things I write about are part of my own “Druid compass” — you probably have a similar set yourself. The article gets a little purple in its prose, but if you’re a regular here, you’re used to reading past that.]
Inwangsan (photo by Gael Chardon)
Sometimes it takes another country to teach you lessons about your own. Five summers ago while I was teaching English for a busy month in Seoul, Korea, I encountered a local land spirit who showed me that this lovely country I was just beginning to discover was decidedly not my home.
It was about a week after I’d finally joined OBOD and requested the Bardic course. It was also my last weekend to explore Seoul and its environs before I flew back to the States to await that first of a series of welcome brown envelopes with the British postmarks of the OBOD course.
So on a foggy Sunday morning I made my way by train toward Inwangsan, a sacred mountain a handful of kilometers from my one-room apartment in Seoul, and then on foot into the mist. Outside Dingninmun Station and under the overcast sky, I managed to miss the tourist signs and markers , but the mountain loomed nearby, unmistakable, so I began my ascent off trail, figuring I’d intersect it higher up, near where a Buddhist and shamanic shrine coexist peacefully. Inwangsan is famous for its commanding views and granite cliffs. As for the view, I had little hope for on this gray day, but exposed granite slabs and outcroppings shone slick in the rain.
Forty-five minutes of climbing later, wet, muddy, and annoyed with myself, I paused to catch my breath. The fog had thickened, but the rising slope was still a reliable guide for the direction I wanted to go. I took a step, and –- how to describe it? –- up rose a wall of resistance in front of me. Something challenged me and barred my way from further ascent. At first I thought, stubborn and oblivious as I can be, that it was merely the tug of my own fatigue, but when I took another step it was clear this issued from something other than me. The hair on my arms stood up. Heart pounding, I apologized out loud, mumbled the few phrases of polite Korean I knew, turned around and slogged back down.
What was it? I rarely see anything inwardly in such situations, but impressions came this time as I made my way off the slopes. Something with multiple arms, big as a pickup truck, banded in stripes of dark and light, and determined to block me from advancing any further. I’ve not written about this till now, and just putting it into words makes the feel of it march again up and down my spine, vivid as if it happened this morning, a heavy ascent of wet earth, a tang of juniper and Asian pine and dead leaves. Yet I’d forgotten the mountain’s name, and the train station’s, too, and had to consult my journal from that summer. That as much as anything reminded me yet again (as if I need any further sign) of my “outlander” status there: I did not know the proper names for things.
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Rupert Brooke, 1887-1915
After British poet Rupert Brooke visited the Rocky Mountains some hundred years ago on a North American tour, he wrote: “There walk, as yet, no ghosts of lovers in Canadian lanes … it is possible, at a pinch, to do without gods. But one misses the dead” (Brooke, Letter XIII, “The Rockies”).
Brooke was young – it was just a few years before his untimely death at 27 – and he wrote with a young bard’s flip ignorance to cloak his discomfort with an unfamiliar country. For of course ghosts walk this continent, millennia of them. Brooke simply hadn’t yet listened closely enough. But new landscapes often strike us that way. A Chinese proverb I heard while working in The People’s Republic of China sums it up handily: shui tu bu fu – “earth and water aren’t comfortable.” We don’t yet know them, and neither do they know us. But stay in a place long enough, sweat and sleep there, plant and harvest, raise families and bury your dead, and the land begins to learn you, too, and to recognize you. And as you work out names for the shapes of water and earth you find in the neighborhood, and come to greet the stones and trees as friends, the words get shaped by mouths that eat and drink here, by lungs that take in the local air.
In the way of Bards, another who grappled with the same challenge comes to answer Brooke’s verses with words of his own. At 86, Robert Frost was asked to deliver a poem for President John F. Kennedy’s inauguration in January, 1961. The day dawned cold and bright, and with his failing vision and the sun in his eyes, Frost couldn’t read the words in front of him, so the old bard made do with memory instead, and recited another of his poems.
Frost at Kennedy’s inauguration
“The land was ours before we were the land’s,” he begins in “The Gift Outright” (Frost, 1975, p. 348). How often a bard finds a way through error and trial and awen. Frost continues, naming an experience common enough among many American Druids who may strive to honor a rich heritage originating east of the Atlantic, while also heeding new-old voices here on what some First Peoples still call Turtle Island:
But we were England’s, still colonials,
Possessing what we still were unpossessed by,
Possessed by what we now no more possessed.
Something we were withholding made us weak
Until we found out that it was ourselves …
Here in what homesick settlers called New England, older names still linger for things no one truly possesses. Within an hour from where I live you can find Mt. Monadnock, Mt. Ascutney, Wantastiquet Trail, Skatutakee and Nubanusit lakes. Anywhere you go on this continent, similar names and undercurrents whisper, and careful listening will repay any effort to attend to lore and myth and what the land wights may have to say. (The earth’s an old house: many lands have the same overlay of newer names on older ones.) Sometimes it takes long patience to regain their trust, if careless previous inhabitants squandered it. Sometimes it takes longer practice to stop withholding ourselves from our places, and to inhabit them fully.
Here in Vermont the Yankee accent and sensibility rise like springwater from long winters and sap from local trees boiled to syrup, pork from free-range pigs that graze the oak mast on Windmill Hill, which we can see from our living room window, and Okemo State Forest not so very distant. “Eating local” needn’t be mere marketing of another yuppie indulgence. It’s what we all did until just a couple of generations ago, growing it ourselves, letting the land feed our bellies and spirits. And it makes sense if you’re committed to “Druiding” (let’s make it a verb!) –- the taste and smell of home, and of a new place, too, can be powerful guides. The body leads the way by a kind of homing instinct.
Names, listening, tastes and smells. What of ritual and ceremony? Once my wife and I settled in Vermont, walking to learn my neighborhood became a go-to practice for me, with a three-mile loop of dirt roads my almost-daily ceremonial. When I honor the four quarters, I see the fish pond east of our house the former owners stocked with carp, and I remember water-of-air. The cold fronts each winter sweep down from Canada: air-of-earth. And with a hill named for a grove of hemlocks to our east beyond the pond that obscure the horizon, we never get much in the way of sunrises, but dramatic sunsets make up for it: fire-of-water. Online you can still track down Mike Nichols’ Wiccan classic “Re-thinking the Watchtowers: Thirteen Reasons Air Should Be in the North” (Nichols, 1989): it’s now a “sacred text” itself, though it started out as an observed deviation from traditional practice. Rules change with places, but ancient patterns abide.
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Brooke, Rupert. (2004). Letters from America. Project Gutenberg EBook #6445. Retrieved from http://www.gutenberg.org/files/6445/6445-h/6445-h.htm
Frost, Robert. (1975). The Poetry of Robert Frost: The Collected Poems, Complete and Unabridged. New York: Henry Holt and Co.
Nichols, Mike. (1989). “Re-thinking the Watchtowers or 13 Reasons Air Should Be in the North.” Internet Sacred Text Archive. Retrieved from http://www.sacred-texts.com/bos/bos089.htm.
IMAGES: Inwangsan by Gael Chardon; Rupert Brooke; Frost at JFK Inauguration.
The inspirational email from OBOD for this week reads:
And above all, watch with glittering eyes the whole world around you because the greatest secrets are always hidden in the most unlikely places. Those who don’t believe in magic will never find it. — Roald Dahl
OK Roald, what are you saying? I’ll walk some of the way with you because of your magic. After all, it’s almost part of the definition that creative people have felt it, and pass along a hint of it, even as it slips between their fingers. But wait — belief comes first, and then magic? Seeing is believing, we’ve been told; believing is seeing. But what’s a glittering eye? Well, it seems it’s a useful technique.
Sometimes the world demands it of us — it’s the only option if we want to see at all.
On our return car trip from a Chicago wedding last weekend, we first drove north to Michigan’s Upper Peninsula — the UP, home of the “Yoopers” accustomed to delightfully cool summers and long, snowy* winters, nestled among three of the Great Lakes, Superior, Michigan and Huron. (For readers living in other lands, that’s the north central U.S.)
The UP is the area from Gogebic to Chippewa counties.
Here’s the morning sun on the water of Grand Island Harbor, Munising, on the south shore of Superior, where we stayed three nights ago.
The camera manages to capture what a normal human eye can’t look at directly. Only a “glittering eye” can see it — the sun demanded such an eye of anyone who wanted a look. Sometimes the whole world glitters and glimmers — too bright to look at any other way. At such moments it’s easier to admit even if only to oneself that gods must live in fire and shadow.
Or if you want some sort of equivalent in words, that impossible Bardic challenge, try this, courtesy of the 19th century poet Emily Dickinson:
Tell all the truth but tell it slant —
Success in Circuit lies
Too bright for our infirm Delight
The Truth’s superb surprise
As Lightning to the Children eased
With explanation kind
The Truth must dazzle gradually
Or every man be blind —
Oh Emily, we know some days how things do “dazzle us gradually” — the passing of time, each season’s gesture of beauty and change, the grace of a moment as it sashays or lumbers past us. Heartache, bittersweet — we can halfway name what it’s like to be alive. Whether or not we opt to honor these moments and seasons with ceremony or any kind of observance, the world’s ways tell their own truths, very far from headlines or gossip or what passes these days for “news.” The only really worthwhile news is always new, always the same, always old, too, and it begins just beyond our noses. An ancient story.
All it takes, sometimes, is a glittering eye, because the world glitters. Or sometimes an echoing ear, because the world also resounds and reverberates.
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Image: Upper Peninsula.
For a recent (2013) low-key native’s and traveler’s reflection on the UP, go here.
*as much as 300 inches/7.5 meters, according to the article above.
Some things glow with it,
flame-keepers, hearths we return to
whenever the world dulls and grays,
whenever bodies earth themselves
too deeply, those mornings each of us
can count all two hundred and six bones
stacked here in our skeleton houses.
Some things touch and smolder,
some kindle, flare once, no more.
Others spark and ignite everything around them.
Fire says: be done with cataloging. I
will renew. In the end, leave everything
for a bright journey. Burn
slow and long.
But what of activism? readers may rightly ask, especially after my last post.
One of the most evil perspectives — I use the word evil intentionally; a great peril of our times is that the force of the word has weakened to something almost laughable, even as the thing it names continues to spread, infect and damage our world in forms both subtle and painfully blatant, a truly demonic state of affairs — one of the most evil perspectives we cherish is that ecological awareness is somehow a luxury, or a liberal fantasy, just one option among other better and more profitable choices, or an idea whose time is past because it hasn’t produced “results.”
R. J. Stewart succinctly sums up the matter: our true selves and the land are one.
Cause and effect really do still operate, however inconvenient we find them. But merely fighting polarized symptoms lines up more adversaries for us to attack, without ending the war.
For corporate greed like Nestle’s is just a symptom our modern world makes possible — other eras had and will have their own symptoms.
Yes, we can spend ourselves in noble battle, whatever our position, and if we push far enough, we can “prove” ourselves “right” — and bleed out in the process, kissing this incarnation goodbye. The particular forms that evil takes in this era conform to the lessons we need to learn at this stage of our consciousness.
In a sense, we create the lessons through our weaknesses and imbalances. How painful that continues to be for me to learn! So I want to uncover how to reduce such weakness, rather than spend a life lining up future adversaries that I create out of my ignorance and resistance to a set of lessons I refuse to learn. If indeed the world is a spiritual vessel that cannot be “improved” then what can be “done” with it? Do we even know yet? And how far are we willing to go to find out?
These questions seem to me far more vital than almost any others I’ve encountered. And I know that stance is luxury itself. I’ll admit right here: if I’m the one of those dying of thirst stemming from drought mixed with corporate greed, you who fight to put water back in my hands are my friends in ways a self-named Druid blogger sitting in hydrated Western comfort simply cannot be. So I readily accuse myself on that front, should you turn the focus that way.
But beyond mere easy outrage and less easy symptom-combat and triage, what can I learn and grow from and share? That seems more and more my dharma, the task I find keeps landing on my doorstep unsought.
I want to stare down the hardest questions, because I learn the most from them. But by this I don’t mean to set up tents and squat there in some new “Occupy Existence” movement. The existential is a starting point, not a garden to grow food in. I look at hard questions out of selfishness: I want the biggest bang for my buck out of this lifetime. No guarantees I get more than one (though available signs are promising). As John Beckett notes in a recent blogpost, who among us will lie on our deathbeds and lament most of all that we didn’t sign up for extended cable?!
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Yesterday the second of three cords of firewood arrived. To get from this …
even to this modest beginning
always seems a daunting task. But each year, piece by piece, we eventually get it done. Daily, daily, daily, a practice builds. When I find the right pace, the task itself becomes a kind of pleasure. if I listen, the task itself teaches me. I alternate which arm carries a bundle, and which arm steadies it. I feel each side getting a good workout. I stop when sunburn threatens or aching muscles bring me to the point of diminishing returns. The fatigue of needful effort feels good.
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Images: Nestle water; Nestle chair.
— not just survival. That’s much of what I aim for with this blog. (You know almost as well as I do how I don’t always hit the target.)
Not tools for “social transformation” or “regime change” or advocating for somebody else’s large-scale fixes that may or may not ever reach me (or you) in anything like helpful ways. In U.S. terms, that means neither Trump nor Hillary will help more than they will hurt. (Only differently.) In U.K. terms, that means “to Brexit or not to Brexit” isn’t the question. Generally, that means binary choices often aren’t very useful ones.
Whoever “wins” won’t change what needs changing. (That ultimately lies with me. I win as I listen to what yearns to be heard most deeply.) Forces in motion that we launched decades ago, larger than politicians or parties or even empires, will see to changes. A wiser course, for me at least, is to work with forces that build, and learn to ride the ones that don’t, as skilfully as I can. Those aren’t up to a vote. They’re not democratic. If I want, I can put myself in agreement with their effects through anger or ignorance or blind acceptance. But I keep learning the hard way that none of those are profitable responses.
What’s the third — or at least a third — option? (There are always more than two options. If I don’t see them yet, right there is a place for me to work at listening and paying attention.)
Do the necessary work on myself and, as much as possible, avoid feeding energy to the rising political hysteria — of any flavor. “Chop wood, carry water” is a beginning. Yes, but also honor the trees as I do so. Bless the waters, waste less, thank more. In-form the heart, not out-form it. Love works better as a fountain, ever-flowing, than as a reservoir of “hold on to what you’ve got.” Turn down the volume on the shouting. Duck when necessary. Plant seeds for the long view. Share even modest harvests. Stay mindful of the Dao De Jing’s counsel: “Extremes do not last long.” And also: “This world is a spiritual vessel. It cannot be ‘improved.'” Or if you prefer, as humble recipes say, leaving it up to us in the end: flavor to taste.
So I keep bringing back my monkey-mind to focus here on what I can create and transform through awareness and co-operation, hoping to model in my limited way a version of what I see others I respect trying out in their lives and succeeding at.
When building, start small.
Start small, because in the end that’s the only place anything starts anyway. But watch for when I touch infinities in those grains of sand I garden in. Revel in eternities that spring from my hours.
Have you ever reached a limit to joy? Not happiness which — often — is superficial, and — often — not worth pursuing: peace to that old Declaration we claim to fancy and which offers such pursuit as one leg of a Founding-Fathers triad that provoked a 240-year-old Exit of our own.
No, I mean joy, a stranger to many, it seems. What Tolkien’s hobbit Pippin could perceive, in the middle of all-out war, in the Maia Gandalf:
Pippin glanced in some wonder at the face now close beside his own, for the sound of that laugh had been gay and merry. Yet in the wizard’s face he saw at first only lines of care and sorrow; though as he looked more intently he perceived that under all there was a great joy: a fountain of mirth enough to set a kingdom laughing, were it to gush forth.*
True kingdoms to you.
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Tolkien, J. R. R. The Return of the King, Chapter 1, “Minas Tirith.”
In addition to whatever religious, ritual or secular calendars you may follow, you’ve probably begun to recognize and honor your own holy days. You know, the ones that fall between the official dates on the calendar that hangs on your wall or scrolls from your desktop. Some difficult, some joyful. It may be that you count your birthday or some other similar day among them. Hobbit-like, you may have come to enjoy gifting others rather than yourself on those days, with a feast, or outing, a picnic, perhaps in a back yard, garden, or favorite annual reunion campsite that has begun to take on numinous qualities, because your love has helped to make it so.
A valuable piece of wisdom there, in the transformation our love and our repeated attention can make of almost anything.
For me, my parents’ anniversary on the 26th of June plays that role. Long ago my father and mother set the tone, because they almost always made it a larger family event. A month later in July, my father’s sister celebrated her anniversary, and with a number of May family birthdays preceding it, the late June date falls squarely in the middle. The typically good weather here in New England, together with the first early garden produce (strawberries! asparagus!), make it a perfect candidate for a holiday gathering, a cookout or garden party. This year would have marked my parents’ 60th anniversary (they made it to 46), and for me the date’s taken on a “second solstice” quality. Cherish such days in your year. If you’re like me, such personal calendars subtly shift and re-form over time.
So yesterday a libation and some quiet reflection, a walk through my new Druid grove awaiting its formal consecration, and the working out of some light physical karma that has come to flag for me a potential shift in consciousness. “Pain is often the creator of awareness,” one of my teachers like to say, rather ruefully, and it’s proven true for me. When I wake up enough to know once again I’m in the hands of Spirit, minor pain and discomfort can open a chance for sharpening awareness quite effectively.
Outwardly, builders recently finished repairing the foundation and rear wall of our garage, a necessary dedication of resources if it wasn’t to fall down our sloping back yard.
And just as true as the seemingly mystico-magical but quite practical saying “if you build it they will come,” if you’ve already come to a place, sometimes you have to (re)build it in some way to flourish there. And when you do, everything else re-equilibrates to the new harmonic you’ve established. Energy will flow first along the easiest channels it finds, and I’ve learned that often means right through the middle of any weakness, hole, or gap in my being and circumstances. I perform that service, I’m that easiest channel, a part of any dynamic I seek to transform, and the sooner I get that, the less wear and tear on the earth, water, air, and fire bodies that Spirit wears locally, in what I am pleased to call me, my life. No distinction, really, as I keep relearning. Jiji muge, the Zen Buddhists say. Between one thing and another is no separation.
Tamias Minimus, aka chipmunk
So we must act mindfully and vigilantly at all times, they tell us. Nope. Not at all. Fat chance of that happening! snarks my inner brat. I don’t know about you, but I mess up all the time. That’s where the learning and growth is, the crack in the sidewalk where weeds finally push through, the shell the chick pecks open to move to the next stage, the new home the hermit crab must seek when it outgrows the old one.
Life’s what happens when you’re busy making other plans, John Lennon reminds us. Well, yes, and that’s a very good thing indeed, whispers the chipmunk, my inner guide for the month. (A mated pair lives beneath the roots of the evergreens that line our driveway.) Keep learning to listen, and you’ll plan wider.
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Image: chipmunk (tamias minimus)