Will Self’s June ’14 article in The Guardian (“Has English Heritage Ruined Stonehenge?“) has recently been (re)making the rounds on Facebook groups I frequent, and the author’s lively reportage offers generous “blog-bites” to quote (starting with that title), so it’s ready grist for the mill of A Druid Way.
In fact, if you just jump straight to his article, read it and — in the way of our Net-lives, surf on to the Next Interesting Thing (a NIT to pick, if there ever was one) — if you neglect to return here, I’ll not only not be hurt but will rest content that I’ve served one of my purposes.
“Selfies with Trilithons”: Will Self visits Stonehenge. Image Mike Pitts, The Guardian.com
I admit to a fondness for titles that use questions.They successfully play on our inherent OCD, setting themselves up like an itch begging to be scratched. They’re Zen koans for the non-Zen types among us. You read them to find out the answer, or at least what the author thinks is the answer, and so you relieve the itch, even if the particular scratch the article provides ultimately irritates you further.
New, worse itch? No problem. The latest diet, scandal, must-see series, sex technique, disaster or investment opportunity all await you, just a click away, and many will use questions to draw you in. The “Top 10″ list relies on a similar strategy: human experience boiled down to a concentrate. Just add water! Maybe at best our lives are indeed “selfies with trilithons” and everything else slips downhill from there. Or so a great part of the Western world’s surface culture would have you believe.
The article byline asks, “The summer solstice, King Arthur, the Holy Grail … Stonehenge is supposed to be a site of myths and mystery. But with timed tickets and a £27m visitor centre, does it herald a rampant commercialisation of our heritage?”
You’re being wholly reasonable if you guess Self’s answer is “yes.”
English Heritage earns decidedly mixed reviews here. It’s the U.K. organization that oversees such sites as Stonehenge, and for Self it serves a very mixed role as an institution whose “very raison d’etre consists in preventing the childish public from chipping away at stuff they don’t understand much – beyond the bare fact that it’s very old – so they can cart off a free souvenir, rather than shelling out for a Stonehenge snow globe in the superbly appointed new gift shop.”
“Stonehenge snow globe” works fine as an alternative title for this post.
Self’s wit attacks a range of easy targets besides English Heritage. It’s little surprise Druidry comes in for a smackdown, too. “As inventions of bogus deep-time traditions go, British druidism has to be one of the most enduringly successful.” Except that unlike Stonehenge, all modern forms of Druidry that expect to be taken seriously assert precisely the opposite. They’re comparatively new on the scene, and they dispense with bogusness. They’re no older than the Druid revival of the past few centuries because that’s their real origin story — and this revival coincides point-for-point with rediscovering and wondering about and valuing things like Stonehenge and Avebury and Newgrange. You know — those Neolithic things that have always lurked in the neighborhood and have been with us for a very long time. We just never paid them much attention.
Until we did.
[Even Reconstructionist Pagan groups — who point with some justifiable pride at archaeological and other scholarly evidence to back up their practices and who sometimes sniff disdainfully at groups like OBOD, which draw on both legend and myth and on Druid Revival writings — benefit in the end from the scientific investigations ultimately launched by those same enthusiasms and, yes, those initial misconceptions of the Revival.]
We like our monuments and religions old, though we want our gossip and news “live, local and late-breaking” and our technology to be version X.X + 1 — whatever’s one higher than last week’s version (unless it’s Windows). “Selfie with a trilithon” pretty much sums it up.
But if modern Druids are the philosophical and spiritual equivalent of “the childish public … chipping away at stuff they don’t understand much – beyond the bare fact that it’s very old,” then what is it that we “cart off” from it? A reflected glory from old things? A fine wild-goose-chase for the ego? The illusion of connection with something larger and more lasting? (“All this and more for twelve easy payments of just $39/month! Our representatives are standing by for your call now!”)
These are the surface manifestations of vital and unquenchable hungers that have wakened in large numbers of people, however much a passel of hucksters manages to package and market empty and pricey facsimiles of them. Self does concede that “in important ways the [P]agans and the archaeologists retain a common cause: both groups, after all, venerate the monument, even if it’s in radically different ways.”
Self also contrasts Stonehenge at present with ancient sites:
… in the Orkney islands, where I lived over the winter of 1993-4 – I’ve returned many times since – Neolithic remains can seem more significant than the contemporary built environment. A couple of miles from the house I stayed in on the island of Rousay, there’s the ruin of an iron age broch, or fortified dwelling, and beyond this there’s a Neolithic chamber tomb, Midhowe, that’s dated to the third millennium BCE. Midhowe is a large and complex structure, although by no means as obviously important as Stonehenge. It was fully excavated in the 1930s and 40s by Walter Grant (of the distilling family) who owned the Trumland estate on Rousay, which included this site and several other important tombs. Since the roof of Midhowe has long since gone, Grant covered up the exposed stonework with hangar-like structure, but the curious thing is that this doesn’t detract at all from its powerful and brooding atmosphere.
During my times in Orkney I’ve visited a great many of the Neolithic sites. I’ve sat in tombs, laid in them, dreamed in them, and tried to grasp the sort of mindset – whether individual or collective – that’s implied by buildings that took shape over thousands of years, and were built by people with life-spans far shorter than our own. I have felt the wonder – felt it most of all, because at Midhowe there is hardly any of the furniture and signage associated with the modern tourist attraction: no ticket office, no custodian, and only discreet information boards. Apart from in high season, you can visit Midhowe and most of the other great Orkney sites with the confident expectation that you’ll see scarcely another human being.
If, as Self notes, “archaeologists seem fairly convinced that implicit in the Stonehenge’s design is some form of ancestor worship; for us there can be no doubt: we revere the idea of their reverence, we are engaged in a degraded form of meta‑ancestor worship,” then we can also see, in our longing to (re)connect, a “degraded” form of magic. “I don’t want anything to do with magic,” we often say, as we unwittingly absorb endless hours of advertising and political language which constantly attempt to manipulate our desires and emotions with crude magical techniques. We let ourselves be “magicked” but refuse to learn how to practice any “defense against the Dark Arts” — or learn how to do magic well and for our benefit rather than someone else’s.
“No magic — that’s for kids,” we say, as our lives propel us willy-nilly along a path of magical initiation tailor-made for us out of the circumstances of our lives, our likes and dislikes, and our choices. Fate, or freedom? Yes! “When you come to a fork in the road, take it,” as Yogi Berra is reputed to have said.
“I don’t believe in magic,” we say, all the while daydreaming and planning, imagining and remembering — magical techniques in embryo, every one of them. Christian, atheist, Muslim, Pagan, SBNR, or “those who just don’t roll that way” — we all make our ways through these mortal lives which are also lives of manifestation and transformation, the essence of magic.
Author and practicing magician Josephine McCarthy, whose book “Magic of the North Gate” I reviewed here, notes that people react to the relative powerlessness that life in Western culture urges onto so many. But often a (paradoxically) powerful personal experience, an abrupt break with the past or the every-day world, sets them on a journey. In the first book of her Magical Knowledge series, McCarthy observes:
When a person chooses not to play a part in that circus, they look elsewhere. Some people begin … in search of their own power, some begin in search of knowledge, and some approach that path from a sense of deep instinct.
The beginning of the path … is very much about personal development, be it spiritual, intellectual or self-determination … This is the first rung of the ladder and has many dead ends woven into it … designed to trap and teach them a lesson that is needful for their development … The ‘dead ends’ … are often related to our relationship to power, glamour and ego. We all go through it in one form or another and most climb out of it with a very red face, ready to move on, lesson well learned. There is nothing wrong in making mistakes and doing silly things, it is all part of the learning process. The first rung teaches us about ourselves, our weaknesses and strengths, our true desires and fears, and the real extent of our ability to be honest with ourselves. Remember the words over the door to the temple: Man, know thyself.* The threshold of the temple must be cross with the intention to be willing to look in the mirror with an open mind and see what is really there. (McCarthy, Magical Knowledge: Book 1, pgs. 30-31)
In the end you cannot study “men,” as C. S. Lewis once observed. “You can only get to know them, which is quite a different thing.” And current trends notwithstanding, we very much need each other’s compassion along the way, given the difficulties and joys of life. That’s an act of High Magic. Given how we all will face death, it’s fair to say we also deserve that compassion from each other. And death? Death is one more potential magical initiation.
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Image: selfless trilithon; Midhowe broch.
*Translation of the sign over the Temple of Apollo in Delphi, Greece that read “gnothi seauton.” [Gno- related to English know, Latin cognitio, Greek gnosis. Seauton related to English and Greek auto- meaning “self.”]
McCarthy, Josephine. (2013). Magical Knowledge: Book 1 — Foundations. Oxford: Mandrake of Oxford.
[This lovely image comes courtesy of mistressotdark. And in case you’re wondering: yes, the path sometimes IS this clear, lovely and straight. But we earn these glorious stretches during intervals when everything isn’t sweetness and light.]
Today’s post features an excerpt from Tommy Elf’s moving account of his Bardic journey, framed by his experiences at the first Gulf Coast Gathering in Louisiana this past weekend. His words dovetail with the previous post here about initiation — always a challenge, whether you’re journeying down a solitary path with its own obstacles and opportunities unique to your nature and history, or along a more public walk with Orders like OBOD.
Here are Tommy’s reflections:
Folks, I have been in my Bardic Grade studies for the last seven years. For those seven years, I believed that I could struggle through the material on my own. I rarely asked for help from my tutor/mentor, and stepped back and forth constantly as life had set into time requirements. At this gathering, I opted to have a Bardic Grade initiation – and I am glad that I did so. It has changed my perspective so much. I had the chance to talk with other Bardic Grade folks, as well as my fellow initiates, about their experiences. And I found out that I was not alone in those moments. Furthermore, one of the guests was Susan Jones, the Tutor Coordinator for OBOD. She held a session with all the Bardic Grade members to discuss pitfalls, and various other aspects concerning the course. Listening to other people discuss their experiences helped me to realize that our journeys may be unique to one another, but there are some aspects that are similar. For anyone currently in their Bardic Grade studies, I cannot stress how much help is actually available to you. You just have to reach out and grab it! There is your mentor/tutor, the discussion board, your own grove or study group (if one is near enough to you), as well as other folks within OBOD who are taking their Bardic grade or have already been through it.
Tommy’s openness here contrasts helpfully, I hope, with my own sometimes opaque references to my journey. There’s also a delightful symbolic resonance to his seven years in Druidry — at a crisis moment, the turn comes, and ways open before him. Seven it is. And now the challenge: what next? How do I incorporate this new thing into my life? How do I step into possibility, and not snuff it out by dragging along with me everything I DON’T need? What am I called to do? What CAN I do?
If time truly is what keeps everything from happening at once, and space is what keeps everything from happening here, we have ample reason to be grateful to both, pains though they both often are. Or more elegantly, as I’m fond of quoting Thoreau: “Time is the stream [we] go fishing in …”
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Rook and partial eclipse, March 2015. Unretouched photo, Roger Brady, Kinsale College of Further Education, Kinsale, Co. Cork, Republic of Ireland
In this time of balanced energies, an image of bright and dark — rook and partial eclipse at the Spring Equinox.
This morning waking from dream, another image: a shining snake. A little poking around online brought up this fascinating connection from Greywolf’s blogpost for March 19, 2015 (bolded text is Greywolf’s):
The first Solar eclipse of 2015 happens with the New Moon in Pisces, joined by Mars and Ketu. Ketu is the tail of the celestial serpent, Rahu its head. Astrologically, they are the south and north nodes of the Moon. Eclipses occur when the serpent swallows the sun. This eclipse / New Moon will clarify and challenge our beliefs and spirituality, both Pisces themes. When Sun and Moon come together near the Node an eclipse results, producing a momentary disconnection and darkening our power source, the Sun. This literally leaves us feeling in the dark, and we may tempted to pursue the shadow side, or quick fix spiritual solutions, escaping into drug abuse or New Age fantasies. Be careful of such lazy, cynical options during the next 30 days. This eclipse happens in Uttara Bhadra Nakshatra, ruled by the God Ahi Bhudnya, the celestial serpent. This divine cosmic force is associated with clearing the last bits of dirt that are blocking the soul’s liberation.
I will accept this gratefully as divination, a clue to work with in the coming days, a time for (re)dedication.
Equinoxes are ideal times for initiation because of the access to energies they provide as the earth-moon-sun system shifts. A solar system triad!
While initiation can of course take place at any time, there is a formal and cosmic rightness to this twice-yearly period that can empower such rituals, as I know from experience.
Here is John Michael Greer on initiation. (You can read the full article online here – it forms part of a rough draft of his excellent book Inside a Magical Lodge.)
The idea that secrets will be revealed in an initiation creates a sense of expectancy, and can also give rise to a certain kind of fear; both of these are useful in the work of initiation.
The production of this receptive state forms the first phase of the initiatory process. Once it has been reached, the process of lodge initiation moves to a second phase, in which a set of carefully chosen images or events are experienced by the initiate, and then explained. These experiences and their explanations are heightened by the receptive state, and are intended to offer a new pattern for some portion of the initiate’s mental map of the world; the pattern may also be encoded, more subtly, in the underlying structure of the ritual itself. If the initiate accepts this new pattern — which does not always happen — the initiation has “taken.”
At this point, the process enters its third phase. The new initiate is given a set of conceptual, verbal and somatic triggers for the new pattern. Just as a memento from an emotionally charged event in the past can awaken not merely memories but states of emotion and consciousness, these triggers reinforce the new pattern every time they are used. They serve, in an important sense, as anchors for the initiation.
The three-phase process of initiation can be handled in various ways, and has been handled with various levels of effectiveness in the initiations used by different magical and fraternal orders. Like any other art, the art of initiation has its failures as well as its masterpieces. Making the situation more complex is the fact that most orders of both kinds use a series of initiations — the usual terms are “grades” or “degrees” — to carry out an extended program of transformation, each change building on the ones already made. In the fraternal orders, the goal of this program is typically nothing more profound (or more sinister) than basic personal maturity. In magical orders, by contrast, the possibilities for change are far greater.
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Camp Netimus path — photo courtesy of Carolyn Batz
I’ve reached a watershed in my Druidic studies with OBOD — the completion of the Bardic course. The real training runs life-long, of course. No one stops talking (or starts bowing) now that I’ve learned and practiced a little more than I knew before. Except those who always bow to me, just as I bow to them: beloved trees moving even when no wind stirs their branches, sky as I exult in its blues and grays, birds when I approach slowly and smoothly enough not to startle them, Mystery that surrounds and haunts me.
As I draft and revise my Bardic Review, I’m grateful for this partial record of my journey here, online, one I’ve shared with regular readers and one-time visitors both. Much that I could not say here, I recall from the prompts to memory that ARE here: reminders of the outer experiences that pair with inner ones, links and steps that often clarify over time and through further reflection into more than I imagined. A test for the path you’re on: it’s larger than you guess, and keeps revealing and concealing as you walk, small circle of flame that rounds your feet in the dark.
For some time now I’ve carried an image with me for the Ovate Grade: Greywolf — Philip Shallcrass, head of the British Druid Order — in his “wolf-hame” — the Druid as shaman. As a Bard I’ve luxuriated in words, but what I find now draws me to Ovate is space, a place for silence, and presences I do not see but sense otherwise than with sight.
A friend who entered the Bardic grade with me in 2011, shortly before I began this blog, and who has preceded me into Ovate remarked at the 2014 East Coast Gathering that for him as Ovate the guideposts and mile-markers are fewer now. I look forward to a place that rests behind and around the words. Oh, they’re still there, this set of lovely and quicksilver tools. But now the dark has its say as well, and all the Bardic brightness has paradoxically opened onto the place beyond the firelight and delivered me where, as I am readied further, I follow a path more by touch of foot than sound of words.
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to make thinking difficult.”
So run the final two lines from Charles Simic‘s poem “Letter.”
Except often it’s just not (only) about us. Trees loom and leaf for their own sake, expressions of energy just as valid without any human presence to comment on them or arrogate them for a poem, however talented or honored the poet (Simic won a Pulitzer in 1990). And I say this as a bard, a devotee of words and their crafting. I like some of Simic’s work very much.
Yes, human presences make their trails, but the seasons also have their say, wordless though it is.
Here’s an autumn view of a hill on a neighborhood walk that blesses my wife and me whenever we take it.
And here’s the same path as winter dresses it:
We make our paths through a world immeasurably larger than we are, a great comfort, I find. Sometimes the part of the Druid is listening, without comment. Of course, by itself listening doesn’t get the poems written, the blogposts online, the books and songs and stories heard and known and loved. But listening … oh, listening and looking, may you two always come first, springs of lasting wonder.
Is either choice more than blind?
Do choices ever present themselves clearly to the self?
You summon your judges of hunch and experience and logic and passion, your own High Court. Finally they’ve assembled, all robed and solemn, but when it comes down to it, often the choice is no choice at all. Or all choices are equally bad. Or indifferent. Nothing to distinguish between them. Or both are good, better in fact than whatever you’ve got right now.
No wonder we resort to oracles and soothsayers, or follow a prophet who shows more than half a chance of being right. Or at least less wrong than everyone else. We must choose, but we can’t. Or the choice itself doesn’t matter. Or it matters supremely. Our lives in the balance. You get it. Familiar human territory. A deep intiation all its own. How many choices you’ve faced — a measure of how far you’re being stretched.
(We say to our young people, “Make good choices.” Sounds wise, but how many of us start out by telling ourselves, “Yes, this time I’m definitely gonna make a bad choice”? OK, one night here and there you decide to throw caution to the winds. You accept things may go wrong — part of the thrill, in fact, till that kind of thrill gets old. But an actual good choice: how is it you make one, exactly?)
I use a Robert Frost poem for my divination today. (What? You have a better oracle? Use it then — but do let us know your results six months or a year from now. That’s only fair.) Frost has served me well in the past, and besides, with a name like that, how can I refuse?! The name itself is a rune, an ogham, a sybil-whisper on my skin. Sounds like he must have chosen it as a stagey pseudonym, part of a poet’s verbal bling, though he didn’t.
Of course, Frost and his poems aren’t garbed in the ivy blessing of centuries, like the Mabinogion is, or maybe the Colloquy of the Two Sages. The old New England sage and his poems can be homely, earthbound, regional. Names matter, yes. And if names are attached to something old and venerable, aren’t a lot of us willing to trust that something, regardless of its actual track record? Safe, familiar.
We troop to the old water hole, not because it has water right now at our need, but because it did in the past. Or so solemn voices among us say. But how many skeletons lie around the caked mud of the dried-up hole? And even now we crowd each other to stare and speculate when the water might return, bubbling up clear and fresh.
In “Two Tramps in Mud Time,” Frost writes about splitting wood. In the painful Vermont cold that stalks outside our windows right now, splitting wood and feeding our woodstove is about all I can manage. Set the log up, raise the axe, have at it. The rhythm gives you intervals to think in, and when the axe doesn’t hit a knot, and a single blow neatly drops and divides the wood, your bones and sinews know a rightness hard to find in other realms of living. The physical correlate to choosing, to making a good choice: you feel it.
How often the body knows and takes action before the mind can even begin to engage! How often reflex and instinct save our lives, sparking off the spinal cord before the slow processing of a choice can become a thought. We jump, duck, flinch, blink, dodge, twist, swerve, spin the wheel, slam the brakes — the body saves us so often we’re at a loss when the body itself fails, through sickness or injury or — eventually — death. Old Reptile Brain, we erect no altars to you, though you see us through more disasters averted than we can count. Here is your winter incense, your tribute, your prayers and offerings. Hot cocoa, stews and soups, curries, sauces, butter, wine, hearthstones warm to the touch, wool scarves, light and heat and familiar voices saying Come in, get warm.
Face a choice, and what does the body say? How is it that we know things “in our gut”? Can we “stomach” what we opt to do or not do? One guide for choice, right there. A spiritual barometer we often look past. Too homely, when we want glamour. But especially good at guiding us away from bad choices, if not always toward good ones. Go with your gut.
My choices can often look skewed even from the first moment I face them:
Out of the mud two strangers came
And caught me splitting wood in the yard,
And one of them put me off my aim
By hailing cheerily “Hit them hard!”
And the pause that choice may bring to me, if the spinal column hasn’t already intervened to propel me one way or another, as often as not muddies things rather than clarifying them. “Two tramps in mud time”: my choices.
Good blocks of oak it was I split,
As large around as the chopping block;
And every piece I squarely hit
Fell splinterless as a cloven rock.
The blows that a life of self-control
Spares to strike for the common good,
That day, giving a loose my soul,
I spent on the unimportant wood.
Getting and spending. Is my life only this log-splitting, this routine? It has its rightness and beauty — but right now I’m sick of them. Cabin-fever? Seasonal affective disorder? Hunger for the return of the Light? Sure. Have you felt it, the call to serve something more than this daily routine? Right now the power I might spend for any common good goes to splitting logs. At least it keeps me warm.
The sun was warm but the wind was chill.
You know how it is with an April day
When the sun is out and the wind is still,
You’re one month on in the middle of May.
But if you so much as dare to speak,
A cloud comes over the sunlit arch,
A wind comes off a frozen peak,
And you’re two months back in the middle of March.
Even before I choose, too often I sense the danger of choosing at all. Choice can stun us into inaction. Even thinking about it may throw everything into jeopardy — “if you so much as dare to speak.” But also, that’s just what the season does. One step forward, two back. (Right now, mid-February, I’ll take mid-March gladly.)
The time when most I loved my task
The two must make me love it more
By coming with what they came to ask.
You’d think I never had felt before
The weight of an ax-head poised aloft,
The grip of earth on outspread feet,
The life of muscles rocking soft
And smooth and moist in vernal heat.
Old love. There it is. “The time when I most loved my task” hits me when I see I must give it up. Or when it’s not mine anymore, but belongs to someone else. Or its shape has changed, and I must find it elsewhere, with few clues to guide me. Move along, move along. Oh, where? But no, that’s not yet the end of the story. (“Everything will be all right in the end … if it’s not all right, then it’s not yet the end,” says Sonny in The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel. Nope. Can’t manage sunny in the middle of winter. You ask too much.)
Out of the wood two hulking tramps
(From sleeping God knows where last night,
But not long since in the lumber camps).
They thought all chopping was theirs of right.
Men of the woods and lumberjacks,
The judged me by their appropriate tool.
Except as a fellow handled an ax
They had no way of knowing a fool.
I long to “know a fool,” even if it turns out it’s me. I can take it. Know things for what they are — that’s half of choosing, right? Because if I can’t do that, how can I choose? Choices come, and everything I’m doing turns “theirs of right.” They claim it all, swamping my direction, my focus, my energy. So I turn to careful, linear logic. An “appropriate tool” for the moment?
Nothing on either side was said.
They knew they had but to stay their stay
And all their logic would fill my head:
As that I had no right to play
With what was another man’s work for gain.
My right might be love but theirs was need.
And where the two exist in twain
Theirs was the better right–agreed.
Here is the claim of need, stronger. After all, we pay attention — right has a price, right is a need. Spinal column says so. Gut may say so. You feel it, that need, creeping along nerves and veins, feathering your skin, the breath of something you can’t yet make out. But real. Hot real.
But yield who will to their separation,
My object in living is to unite
My avocation and my vocation
As my two eyes make one in sight.
That may be what I seek. Right now, though, I don’t even know. What am I yielding to? Separated, fractured, scattered, longing for two to be made one. Not sure I’m the one to achieve it. But worth achieving. We mate and strive to obliterate the division between us, if only for a brief interval. We choose and strive to make our choice the only thing worth doing. We live and strive to make a life worth more than the death that ends it. High stakes. Lower them, oh lower them any way I can.
In the last lines my oracle speaks more clearly. Not sure though if I can listen, if I can hear it.
Only where love and need are one,
And the work is play for mortal stakes,
Is the deed ever really done
For Heaven and the future’s sakes.
Love and need, two guides for choice. I can live with that. I do live with that. So do we all. Faces of the same thing?
This is the Initiation of Choice, sorting out need and love. Difficult initiation. Usually lifelong. We serve it as we struggle with it, and it opens, or delays us till we earn it.
And want? Oh, love and need are enough to grapple with. Need and love will open a space to figure out want, which often takes third place. Probably should, if we’re honest. Though it rarely does, since we bundle need and want into a lump of trouble for ourselves. That old Meatloaf song: “Two Out of Three Ain’t Bad.” Ah, but which two?!
And two questions follow the initiation, which we answer as we can, from out of who we are: Can I love through the choice I need to make? Do I need what I’ve spent my life loving?
Those are the challenge questions of the initiation of choice. I serve my life by how I answer.
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Images: choice — paths; carved in stone; two out of three.
Earlier today my wife and I walked through the brilliant winter sunlight on the neighborhood loop that took us past snowfields already blue with late afternoon shadows.
Looking southeast around 3:30 pm
I’ve quoted the Philip Larkin poem “First Sight” before, but today it seemed perfect as a tribute to the goddess whose hearth (or in our case, woodstove) I worship at particularly intensely on these frigid midwinter days.
Imbolc as guide: more than half our wood remains.
Spring will come, and as goddess of fire and smithing, Brighid warms and heals and shapes us. Lack of any promising evidence for that change bothers her not at all.
Larkin’s poem means more to us, because just four miles from our house a local farmer milks his herd of some 90 sheep and sells a variety of sweet, rich cheeses in a little shed halfway down the lane to his milk barn. Lambing season is usually later than February in the Northeast, for the simple reason that it’s too cold for the newborns in anything other than a heated shelter. Push the ewes to conceive too early in the fall, and you’ll end up with dead lambs. Larkin captures this time of change in a somewhat milder climate, but still snowy. Memory had me reciting his lines again to myself as we walked. I had to come back and locate the poem to fill in the gaps I couldn’t bring to mind:
Lambs that learn to walk in snow
When their bleating clouds the air
Meet a vast unwelcome, know
Nothing but a sunless glare.
Newly stumbling to and fro
All they find, outside the fold,
Is a wretched width of cold.
As they wait beside the ewe,
Her fleeces wetly caked, there lies
Hidden round them, waiting too,
Earth’s immeasureable surprise.
They could not grasp it if they knew,
What so soon will wake and grow
Utterly unlike the snow.
This always moves me — a transfomation we simply cannot see coming merely by looking around us. No evidence here, at least none we can make out. Even, sometimes, a “vast unwelcome.” Life in this world is catalyst. It never leaves us alone. What gifts of the gods and spirits and our own ancestors will wake and grow in us? Will we let ourselves be surprised? Brighid, may it always be so!
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The rangy willow in our backyard has been feeling the sun these past several days. Even with its branches garbed in snow, you can make just make out in the crown of the tree the first faint reddish-green hint of spring in the depths of this February cold. Imbolc upon us. “They could not grasp it if they knew,/What so soon will wake and grow.” Memory of other Februaries wakes and hints at what will return, against the odds.
With the triplet of Imbolc, Groundhog Day (in the U.S.), and a full moon tonight on Feb 3, it seemed right to celebrate today and tonight, the third day of the three. And this evening my wife and I enjoyed homemade potato soup rich with leeks and garlic and sour cream — we practiced the traditional Italian “mangiare in bianco” — literally, “to eat in white” in observance of the moon, without also “eating blandly or lightly,” as the expression can indicate, too.
The hill to our east, cresting perhaps four hundred yards above our roof, delays sunrise and moonrise both. Moonrise tonight “officially” hit Brattleboro VT at 5:09 pm. We wait for it longer here.
At first I thought the image below was a discard. A tree-trunk obscures one edge of the moon, and the horizon is hazy. But then I saw it perfectly captured our Imbolc experience. Slowly the sky cleared as the temperature continued to drop towards 0 (-18 C), as it has the last several nights. Hunger Moon* rose higher, and the moon-shadow of a pine in the backyard leaned out dark against the snow in the moonlight. I took another shot.
Moon around 6:45 pm, shortly after clearing our hilltop
Praise to Brighid and life and light, warmth human and divine in our veins, in the animals and plants around us! May our vision of the Whole become clear as the moon this night.
Moon around 8:00 pm
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*Hunger Moon” is one of the Native American names for February — and never fails to make me shiver.
Image: Snow lamb.