“Some people don’t understand when I say these are the things I believe.”
So Damh the Bard sings in his lovely song “The Hills They Are Hollow.” But his song begins, “As I walk upon this green land, this land that I love …”
For me, that’s where Druidry starts, not in belief, but in love and experience of the natural world and the land we live on.
Belief may or may not come later, when doors that will not open to intellect alone open to love. And if you feel the land is sacred, then quite naturally you feel like singing about it: “Let’s sing of the mystery of Sacred Land …”
Recently a visitor to this blog pm’d me to comment on what he perceives as the need for a Druid theology. It’s easy enough to feel that way, surrounded as most Pagans and Druids are by a larger culture still shaped by a religion where creeds matter much more than they do in Druidry.
My correspondent acknowledges he’s a solitary, and such a path can indeed be lonely at times. Alone, I may confront myself more directly and disconcertingly. Alone, I face truths that can be uncomfortable, inconvenient — and profoundly useful to discovery, creativity and growth. Groups can conceal and divert us from the necessary work of the self.
Yet one of the benefits of experiencing group practice is the reminder of the energies we all encounter and work with (or ignore). Yes, we can experience them all in solitary practice, sometimes more personally, vitally and intensely than in a group. Alone, I can move at my own pace, honor and learn from and serve the beings who speak to me, focus on what is meaningful and what lives within and around me.
But attend a Druid group event and you’ll find one of the hallmarks of Druidry is a wide diversity of belief arising out of that practice and experience. Such belief is almost always secondary — important certainly, coloring experience and shaping behavior, influencing interactions with others, nourishing opinions, and clarifying decisions about future practice. Standing together in a circle with your Tribe, belief matters much less. No one asks for a recital of your beliefs as part of any ticket of admission, or denies you because you don’t “believe in” the Morrigan, or you believe that the universe is a berry carried in the mouth of a trout swimming in a much larger ocean. After all, there are days I don’t believe in myself.
We face the altar, feel the sun and wind on our faces, acknowledge the always-turning year, hear the ritual words, and encounter through all our senses the reality of a marvelous cosmos alive with presences, forces and powers anyone can experience.
Walt Whitman says in his Leaves of Grass,
Stop this day and night with me and you shall possess the origin of all poems,
You shall possess the good of the earth and sun, (there are millions of suns left,)
You shall no longer take things at second or third hand, nor look through the eyes of the dead, nor feed on the spectres in books,
You shall not look through my eyes either, nor take things from me,
You shall listen to all sides and filter them from your self.
Polytheists, animists, atheists, duotheists, monotheists, henotheists, eclectics, chaos magicians consciously selecting beliefs appropriate to their goals at the time — in the face of such variety, what can a Druidic theology say about belief in deity, the core of most credal religions — which Druidry clearly isn’t? What would such a theology achieve that Druidry doesn’t already have?
Yes, in the OBOD Alban Elfed ritual, we say the ritual words and recite the Druid’s prayer “which unites all Druids.” But from everything I’ve seen, the unity isn’t one of belief but of willingness to try out ritual for what it is and can be, to honor the sacred moment, and to hear the awen singing in its many forms. “Grant, O Spirit/Goddess/God/Holy Ones, your protection …”
“Why do we use the same ritual each year?” ask some of the regular attendees at the East Coast Gathering. Well, we do and we don’t. One common and shared autumn ritual during a weekend filled with name ceremonies, grade initiations, peace rituals, workshops, songs and the ritual of eating together with new and familiar people isn’t too much to ask.
Because it’s a ground form, a common experience for everyone, nothing too daunting for a first-time attendee, whether OBOD member or visitor, familiar to the experienced ritualist who can fine-tune the ritual pacing, catch the moment when a squadron of hawks soars above the Gathering, or a cloud of dragonflies visits the circle, or owls hoot in the woods. The wind lifts from the east at exactly the moment East is invoked, and everyone can share the connection.
My correspondent says, “Until we have a theology, I fear druidism will not be taken seriously by those outside of our thought … I do believe our fantasy perceptions need crushing and only a theological work can place [our Druidry] alongside other faiths on a level of reality.”
But is reality in fact one thing? Is an insistence on one reality — always somebody else’s, I notice, never mine — what we need now, or have ever needed? Do “the Fae dance on Midsummer’s Eve”? Perhaps we need more, not fewer, “fantasy perceptions” in a world where a large portion of people routinely cannot see the stars at night because of light pollution, where a Guardian columnist notes that our language mirrors our declining ability to notice and name the natural world:
The same summer I was on Lewis, a new edition of the Oxford Junior Dictionary published. A sharp-eyed reader noticed that there had been a culling of words concerning nature. Under pressure, Oxford University Press revealed a list of the entries it no longer felt to be relevant to a modern-day childhood. The deletions included acorn, adder, ash, beech, bluebell, buttercup, catkin, conker, cowslip, cygnet, dandelion, fern, hazel, heather, heron, ivy, kingfisher, lark, mistletoe, nectar, newt, otter, pasture and willow. The words taking their places in the new edition included attachment, block-graph, blog, broadband, bullet-point, celebrity, chatroom, committee, cut-and-paste, MP3 player and voice-mail. As I had been entranced by the language preserved in the prose-poem of the “Peat Glossary”, so I was dismayed by the language that had fallen (been pushed) from the dictionary. For blackberry, read Blackberry.
“One of the most striking characteristics of Druidism,” writes Philip Carr-Gomm, “is the degree to which it is free of dogma and any fixed set of beliefs or practices” (What Do Druids Believe? Granta Publications, 2006, pg. 25). “It honours the uniqueness of each individual’s spiritual needs. In this way it manages to offer a spiritual path and a way of being in the world that avoids many of the problems of intolerance and sectarianism that the established religions have encountered.”
And so I submit that it’s always good to know what you believe, as a way of doing what Carr-Gomm describes: honoring the unique form of your spirituality. Get it down in writing for yourself, grapple with it — and keep it on hand so you can revise it as your life takes you in unseen and unforeseeable directions. But never suppose it can serve you as a club to beat others “for not doing it my way” unless you want others to beat you with theirs.
Why let a belief-reaction, a secondary response to the primacy of experience, dominate my consciousness? No, thanks. Beliefs change. Any religion which rests on a credal foundation will always be rocked by a world that shifts beneath it, by words that will forever need updating as understanding changes, by a nagging sense that reality stubbornly persists in not conforming to belief. Rather than blaming Satan or some evil Other, Druidry looks at the world and strives to learn from it. Imperfectly, humbly, joyfully.
Are there beliefs that most Druids share? Sure. But more interesting to me are my own experiences and the conclusions I draw from them. Below I offer part of a previous post from some eight months ago as an approximation of my own theology, always subject to change without notice, as any honest theology should be. Here are six things I believe:
/|\ I believe that to be alive is a chance, if I take it, to be part of something vastly larger than my own body, emotions, and thoughts (or if I’ve learned any empathy, the bodies, emotions and thoughts of people I care about). These things have their place, but they are not all.
/|\ I believe this because when I pay attention to the plants and animals, air, sky, water and the whole wordless living environment in and around me, I am lifted out of the small circle of my personal concerns and into a deeper kinship I want to celebrate. I discover this sense of connection and relationship is itself celebration. Because of these experiences, I believe further that if I focus only on my own body, emotions, and thoughts, I’ve missed most of my life and its possibilities. Ecstasy is ec-stasis, “standing outside.” Ecstatic experiences lift us out of the narrowness of the life that advertisers tell us should be our sole focus and into a world of beauty and harmony and wisdom.
/|\ I believe likewise that the physicality of this world is something to learn deeply from. The most physical experiences we know, eating and hurting, being ill and making love, dying and being born, all root us in our bodies and focus our attention on now. They take us to wordless places where we know beyond language. Even to witness these things can be a great teacher.
/|\ I believe in other worlds than this one because, like all of us, I’ve been in them, in dream, reverie, imagination and memory, to name only a few altered states. I believe that our ability to live and love and die and return to many worlds is what keeps us sane, and that the truly insane are those who insist this world is the only one, that imagination is dangerous, metaphor is diabolical, dream is delusion, memory is mistaken, and love? — love, they tell us, is merely a matter of chemical responses.
/|\ I believe that humans, like all things, are souls and have bodies, not the other way around — that the whole universe is animate, that all things vibrate and pulse with energy, as science is just beginning to discover, and that we are (or can be) at home everywhere because we are a part of all that is.
/|\ I believe these things because human consciousness, like the human body, is marvelously equipped for living in this universe, because of all its amazing capacities that we can see working themselves out for bad and good in headlines and history. In art and music and literature, in the deceptions and clarities, cruelties and compassions we practice on ourselves and each other, we test and try out our power.
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Don’t worry, spiders —
I keep house
— Issa Kobayashi, trans. Robert Haas.
Every day a journey waits, if we seek one of the boats waiting at the dock.
Sometimes the way is closed …
Sometimes it pays to ask who closed it, and whether you can open it.
Sometimes what appears a wall …
is a series of steps.
No rush to the top (or the bottom).
Each step can also be a rest point on the journey.
photo courtesy Hex Nottingham
Here’s the poem* I read by the fire** at Saturday night’s eisteddfod at ECG ’16. I’m also submitting it to Touchstone so you may run across it there if it’s accepted.
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Drinking with the Ancestors
This poem ain’t no teetotal ritual:
let’s raise each cup, now, individual,
every mug and glass fill up now
and start drinking with the Ancestors.
Chat ‘em up — don’t merely greet ‘em;
the Dead are chummy when you meet ’em.
This good liquor in your tummy
gets you thinking: toast the Ancestors!
By and with the spirits near us —
“Don’t invoke us if you fear us” —
good advice, if we lose focus,
glasses clinking with the Ancestors.
A few more rounds, more pints and glasses,
may find us falling on our asses.
We strive to heed old voices calling
though we’re blinking at the Ancestors.
Yes, when morning comes, perhaps uncertain
if we dreamed or drew some curtain
on a world where it truly seemed
that we were linking with our Ancestors,
good liquor works its own true magic,
so never blame it – downright tragic,
if “hung over” is what we name it:
feel like sinking toward the Ancestors?
They come in all shapes, and in all sizes:
some are heroes, some no prizes
(they’re like us in all our guises)
familiar patterns – star or rose
tattoos we’re inking for the Ancestors.
Listen: they are singing, they are cussing,
they can advise us if we’re sussing
out the paths our lives might take
or leave shivers in their wake
that have us shrinking from our Ancestors.
Before a soul decides to curse them,
mutter charms that will disperse them
foil their harms and then reverse them,
all these stinking, damned Ancestors!
(Ah, do please remember)
we’re their consequence, not moot –
we got their genetic seed and root,
and we’re the payoff, crown and fruit,
we’re their future, built to suit,
so cheers to drinking with our Ancestors!
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*I’d drafted the piece at ECG ’12, with the title/last line echoing in my head all weekend, then revised it a few days before this year’s Gathering.
**Hex remarked when he posted the image, “You have the complete attention of a long horned fyre god here, and it is blessing you with its aura.”
photo courtesy Krista Carter
The 7th OBOD East Coast Gathering (ECG) took place this last weekend with over 100 Druids, friends and family gathering at Camp Netimus in NE Pennsylvania. [Go here for accounts of previous Gatherings.]
Netimus, a girls’ summer camp, has welcomed us each autumn for Alban Elfed, the Autumn Equinox. The non-human staff of coyotes, hawks, dragonflies, chipmunks and owls lets us know they know we’re present, too, adding their own wild signatures to the rituals, the evening fire circles and the day and night-time hours.
Hex in his drumming workshop
This year we celebrated the turning of the year among ourselves, without the headline special guests that can make registration for the Gathering a matter of internet frenzy and growing wait-lists.
We initiated ten new Bards, two Ovates and two Druids into the Order, as well as holding workshops on fairies, crystal jewelry, drumming, moon wisdom and beekeeping, and gathering in the camp dining hall for meals our devoted kitchen crew volunteers prepare with love, laughter and long hours of hard work.
Each evening brings the fire circle, always a draw. And this year we organized a more competitive eisteddfod, showcasing our singers, storytellers, musicians, dancers, fire-spinners and mead-makers, culminating in a final round on Saturday.
photo courtesy Gabby Roberts
The Ovates gathered mugwort Saturday morning as we prepared our gift to the Tribe during the main Alban Elfed ritual Saturday afternoon. An invasive that can take over, mugwort nevertheless has healing properties, healthful in teas and soothing as a smoked herb, too (when it smells remarkably like pot!).
photo courtesy Krista Carter
Preparing for Ritual
photo courtesy Nadia Chauvet
A nearly full moon rose overhead each night, bathing the Gathering in light, and making the Camp paths and steps a little easier to navigate if, like me, you forgot all three nights to fetch your flashlight from your cabin before dark — needing a light to find your light!
photo courtesy Alec Mayer
The rain — thank you, Spirits of Place! — held off till shortly after the closing ritual Sunday morning.
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The reason Camps like this happen at all is that enough people are willing to give of themselves. Rather than complain about what doesn’t happen to their own narrow liking, enough people contribute to what does.
And among the thanks, reminiscences and anecdotes that always leave us both smiling and teary during the final ritual, several comments stood out, like Frank’s. He thanked us for the opportunity to serve. Those people in our lives that we come to value the most are those who give without drama or ego display.
Our closing ritual talked of all four elements, including the humility of water, that takes whatever shape we ask. Alban Elfed, Light on the Water, is a festival of the West, of Water, of balance and change, the dynamic that Druids revere, and strive to navigate with all the grace and wisdom we can muster.
photo courtesy Alec Mayer
Thank you, everyone, two and four-footed, winged, scaled, legless, and unbodied, who made this ECG another splendid opportunity for the Tribe to gather and celebrate and grow.
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late afternoon on our 3-mi loop-walk
The seasonal festivals may start to come upon you like the visits of old friends. You don’t need to be anything other than who you are for them, of course. Fat chance, anyway, of sustaining even a polite deception with someone who knows you this well. I can shove the unsorted laundry into a closet, ready the guest room with fresh sheets, maybe offer a vase of goldenrod and queen anne’s lace this time of year. Clear the top of a dresser or nightstand and set out a few found objects to share: quartz or shale or mica from a recent hike, driftwood from a stream or beach walk. Such gestures never go to waste. They welcome the guest and lift the mood of the host, if lifting is needed.
Sometimes it is. We felt a seasonal shift here in southern Vermont about a week ago, a subtle movement of energies and weather and light as they whisper together and ease us toward the equinox, the evocatively named Alban Elfed, “Light on the Water.” The birds knew it, too — maybe something in their song clued us in to pay attention in the first place.
Of course the linguist in me tries to quibble that neither word “actually means” light or water, but instead simply the quotidian equinox (of) autumn, but then rummaging around the OBOD website I’m caught up in wonder by Coifi’s observations in a lovely post:
This is the Feast of the Autumn Equinox. The Light of the Sun in the Wheel of the Year stands in the West, in the Place of balance between the Light and the Darkness. This is a time of the Great Tides. This is the Gateway of the Year.
This Feast is known by many names to many people, for the Truth is reflected from many mirrors. It has been celebrated as Alban Elfed and Harvest. Our ancestors called it by names long forgotten, and our children will call it by names as yet unconceived.
So it is that literal gets overtaken by the figurative, just as speech does by song. Or not overtaken, not exactly. Whether I let them or not, they start dancing, each bowing to the other. Here is one of the Earth’s truths that says listen. The ancestors gave it names, as do we with our Alban Elfed and Mabon and Harvest Home, and as will our descendants. Each will know it, both the waning light, and the promise of Return.
A further quibble that the festivals are “just modern inventions” dissolves when you can point to old stones and other markers: the earth, again, is a witness here. From the plains of Wiltshire with its over-famous Henge to a hilltop in southern Ohio with its Serpent Mound, the inhabitants of many lands have been drawn to find ways to mark off days and seasons with structures whose physical remains simultaneously hush and awaken the mind.
For “light on the water,” as it turns out to my now-placated left brain, is indeed apt, a festival that celebrates a brief balance of light and dark in the quarter of the ritual year that belongs to the west and to water. “Light on the water” brings with it a twilit mood, a sunset reminder of the reality of life on earth, both dark and bright.
For the whole planet, northern and southern hemispheres both, experiences a balance of light and dark before the days continue to shorten or lengthen, depending on where you stand. The time, friends, is a whole-planet festival. Come! Join in!
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Images: western light in southern Vermont; Ritual Wheel of the Year.
Moving and stacking the last of the firewood yesterday, I disturb a garter snake three times. Same snake, or three different snakes? It’s there, perhaps, to feed on the fat black crickets that have congregated in the same spaces between the logs and pop away each time I lift another piece and toss it into the wheelbarrow. Or maybe it seeks rough edges to begin another peel, an autumnal sloughing off of old skin.
The three-ness of its appearances alerts me. I’m ready to pause and straighten my back and consider. Small moment-in-passing for snake and human, but wordlessly the snake has gathered my attention. Most of my days offer small moments like this, choices about where I’ll spend my energies beyond the daily necessary. Enough of them working together can define a larger trajectory, a disposition. Right now, though, I’m just attending to 18 inches of trim liquid muscle embossed with muddy green and yellow stripes, breathing lightly and slowly enough I can barely detect a small set of lungs working.
Except for one or two counties in the north part of the state where you can still rouse a rattler or maybe a water moccassin, Vermont has no poisonous snakes, so I’m at my leisure to ponder this one, or these three, up close. They’re sluggish with cooler evenings now, though the temperature still rises most days to the 80s. It takes a toe to prod this one off its perch on a piece of wood, coils oozing into a flow of motion. Sometimes being legless looks like an excellent choice for a species to make. No flailing limbs, just the slim body looping effortlessly behind the head until the whole marvel has poured itself out of sight.
Please understand — I share the common primate reaction to snakes. We yield, often enough, to that little shiver of distaste. But each time snakes usually stop me long enough to examine that response, and if I’m fair to the experience and question it, I find I end up pairing it with something like amazement. Warm and furry, bright-eyed and responsive to human presence — that’s a no-brainer: we easily go soft and mushy, and can lay a good half of our reaction at the feet of Disney and a whole industry of cuteness. Snakes are more alien, wonderfully adapted to their niches in the world, but changed enough from the ubiquitous mammal design we instinctively prefer that they provoke that involuntary shiver. Add to that the touch of cool skin against warm, if you pick up a harmless one to handle, the feel of it like a plastic raincoat.
So, snake, I’ll use what you left for me and ask a question. What do I welcome, what do I fear to touch, out of all I may meet each day? I add a tentative beginning practice of snake-shifting, gliding legless through my choices and meetings and discoveries, to see and smell, taste and feel what is there. Then return and judge, if I must, all I want. But first, encounter.
In the end we all do what we’re told. (It’s a backstage conversation.) We just differ on who we listen to, who we decide to heed. The cicadas from central casting announce August outside my window, under this overcast summer sky on a day of rain, and I sit grappling with this post. Somehow they’ll work their way in, because I listen to practically everything. Bards most of all, because they’re such electric company. Each cicada-Bard croons a Lunasa song, turning and tumbling toward the Equinox now, the days shortening at both ends, darkness nibbling at the warm hands of summer.
Do we really do what we’re told, and follow a script handed to us backstage? “No rehearsal. You’re on in 10 seconds.” Then Pow! Birth! And going off-script means following another script, the one titled rebel or train-wreck, fool or genius, or what have you. What do we have? “What is written is written,” runs the Eastern proverb about fate. “What can I say?” quips Buffy the Vampire Slayer. “I flunked the written.” So many scripts to choose, rehearse, try out. When we read for “human,” how many other lines do we forget? “I am a stag of seven tines,” sings Amergin, “I am a wide flood on a plain, I am a wind on the deep waters …” Memory and imagination, the same, or inversions of each other.
When poet Mary Oliver gives Bardic advice, “Instructions for living a life. Pay attention. Be astonished. Tell about it,” I want to shout “But attention and astonishment are both luxuries!” And they are: ultimate, essential luxuries. Yes, Socrates said, “The unexamined life is not worth living.” Writing teacher Robert McKee turns it around: “The unlived life isn’t worth examining.” Ouch! Take it personally like I do (though quickly I blunt the edge by applying it to characters I’ve written, all those understudies and stand-ins for my life) — take it personally and you may turn another way, determined perhaps this time to swallow life whole. This life is brand-new, never seen before. Old games, true, but new blood.
Backstage I overhear someone whispering, “Worry about living first, and if necessary, leave the examining to somebody else.” Is that meant for me? “You’re on! Break a leg!” Is that meant for me, too?
Broken. Stuckness. Does it happen more to people who overthink their lives, who need to see where each footstep will land before they take a step? Those who strive to word a version of their lives acceptable for a blogpost?
“When I am stuck in the perfection cog,” remarks author Anna Solomon,
–as in, I am rewriting a sentence a million times over even though I’m in a first draft or, I am freaking out and can’t move forward because I am not sure how everything is going to fit together—I find it helpful to tell myself: You will fail.
A soul after my own heart! Failure: our solid stepping stone to success. Because who IS sure how everything is going to fit together?
I have this written on a Post-it note. It might sound discouraging, but I find it very liberating. The idea is that no matter what I do, the draft is going to be flawed, so I might as well just have at it. I also like to look at pictures I’ve taken of all the many drafts that go into my books as they become books, which helps me remember that so much of what I am writing now will later change. When I am aware that my work is not as brave or true as it needs to be, I like to look at a particular photograph of myself as a child. I am about eight, sitting on a daybed in cut-off shorts, with a book next to me. I’m looking at the camera with great confidence, and an utter lack of self-consciousness. This photograph reminds me of who I am at my essence, and frees me up to write more like her. —Anna Solomon, author of Leaving Lucy Pear (Viking, 2016), in a Poets and Writers article:
No rehearsal — it’s all draft, to mix metaphors. And You will fail. But once you do the draft, paradoxically, it becomes rehearsal, revision. Re-seeing. We will look again in astonishment, memory or return, mirroring the same thing, and marvel differently. Our recognition when another tells the tale, when others speak for us because they can, they live here too, they see and speak our hearts’ truth. We know, partly, because of them. They’re versions of us, dying and being born together.
“When death comes,” Mary Oliver says in the poem of the same name,
like the hungry bear in autumn;
when death comes and takes all the bright coins from his purse
to buy me, and snaps his purse shut …
when death comes
like an iceberg between the shoulder blades,
I want to step through the door full of curiosity, wondering:
what is it going to be like, that cottage of darkness?
Oh, Mark Twain gathers himself to answer. I hold my breath. Maybe it’s both like and unlike anything you imagine. Can we fear only what we dimly remember? “I do not fear death,” Twain says. “I had been dead for billions and billions of years before I was born, and had not suffered the slightest inconvenience from it.”
Lunasa thoughts. The autumn in the bones and blood, while the young are dancing. Mead around the fire. We’re both grasshopper and ant in the old fable, gathering and spending it all so profligately. Expecting a pattern, a plan, we’re told to ignore the man behind the curtain. Sometimes there’s neither curtain nor man. Other times, both man and curtain, but as we approach, the spaces between each thread and cell, between each corpuscle and moment, each atom, have grown so large we can fly through appearances, into mystery, into daydream. Great Mystery drops us into the blossom before it’s open, we sip nectar, drowsing at the calyx, the Chalice. Mystery listens as the bees hum around us, gathering pollen. Stored up sweetness for the next season. To know itself, Mystery gazes from everything we meet, we see it in each others’ eyes, so it can see itself.
Attention, says Mary Oliver, attention is the beginning of devotion.
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