With a dramatic title like that, this post really has to deliver! But all I mean by it are the usually small ways we destroy, unmake, sabotage, undermine and discourage … ourselves.
Successful psychic attacks by others are remarkably rare. Those we work against ourselves are all too common. I can’t. I shouldn’t. I don’t. I won’t. And of course, let’s not discount the low-level psychic garbage of much contemporary media, with its insistence that it knows better than we do what the truth is about the world, its prospects, our futures in it, the roots of our safety and happiness, and so on. You can almost feel “know, dare, will, be silent” seeping out of you and spinning down the drain. “If it bleeds, it leads” may sell advertising space and draw viewers and readers, but it’s less than optimal energy to nourish ourselves with, to try to live on.
One of Best Buy’s holiday logos
The solution isn’t merely to surround ourselves with a silver shield, though that’s often a good starting visualization. Whatever comes at you that you don’t want or need reflects off and away. Such a technique works well in traffic, in public places with a stew of emotions, like airports, bus stations — and any Black Friday shopping you’re daredevil enough to attempt. You can read the mindset already in place with advertising from sources like Best Buy and AARP that proclaim “Win the Holidays.” Can we make this season any more stressful?! Yes, but we don’t have to. This too is a choice we make.
And the desire I’ve witnessed in myself and many others from time to time, to retreat, withdraw, barricade the gates, is all too hobbit-like in its naivete. “The wide world is all about you,” Gandalf reminds Frodo. “You can fence yourselves in, but you cannot for ever fence it out.” The Survivalist mentality is understandable, but wrong-headed. What to do?
elemental laundry magic — water, earth, air, fire
Sometimes the best magic there is to practice a simple shift of attention. Instead of someone else controlling what I will think and image and focus on, I can choose, if I wish. We all surrender this power of choice much too often, and daily. Does any advertizer, for instance, really have my best interests at heart?! But love purifies the market of the heart.
One of the most soothing of day-to-day tasks for me is laundry, especially when I can hang it outdoors and it comes in later, dry and sun-spiced — for free.
Laundry?, you say, more than a little outraged, perhaps. Consider the sly admonition of the Tao Te Ching, chap. 8:
The highest good is like water. Water gives life to the ten thousand things and does not strive. It flows in places men reject and so is like the Tao. In dwelling, be close to the land. In meditation, go deep in the heart. In dealing with others, be gentle and kind. In speech, be true. In ruling, be just. In business, be competent. In action, watch the timing. No fight: No blame.
We reject what can be most helpful, because it is simple. It doesn’t appeal to our vanity, to our sense that our problems must be large and important, because we are, so we may dismiss it.
Some of these recent sunny November days have seen our backyard with laundry magic at work, bowing in a cool breeze. But even the drying racks near the woodstove work their own charm. Elemental powers, I have summoned you, and you have served me well. I thank you for your gifts of earth, water, air and fire. Both the laundry basket and my heart come away lighter, cleaner. Hail, and farewell.
Such daily magic has more power than we suspect. I smile even as I write about this, and you may too, scoffing at my innocence or simple-mindedness. But in fact simplicity can be another most potent magic. The clear, simple task, with its attainable objective, is one key to using energy well. Breaking down more complex challenges into simpler tasks is good practice, as any successful efficiency expert, organizational consultant, psychologist, trainer, businessperson, housekeeper — and magician — knows.
When we reclaim such small spaces for ourselves, we witness small successes. Of such small successes and satisfactions is a good day built, and then a week, a month, a life. I don’t need to “win” any holiday. The spaces for love and celebration are always open for us, gifts we can then give to ourselves and each other, possibilities to reclaim in the small but cumulative and thereby powerful ways that magic usually works. To end on a final Tolkienian note and paraphrase Gildor Inglorion’s words to Frodo, “Joy (like courage) is found in unlikely places.”
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IMAGES: Best Buy “Win the Holiday“; stones in garden.
In the Pagan calendar the north quarter is the direction of winter and earth. We’re already both in it and going deeper. Darkness falls before it’s even 5:00 pm. I imagine my ancestors in their hut, rushlights burning. Firelight flickers on the walls, and a cauldron — a practical one, nothing magic except the daily magical tranformation of cooking — a cauldron hangs over the flames, full of stew, roots and grains and berries, and whatever meat the hunters may bring in. Despite its hardships, winter can taste umami, rich and dark and all earth-savory. Like no other season, it can return us to awareness of our mortal, imperfect, stubborn bodies.
Though we haven’t yet hit the Solstice and the official start of Winter, you feel it in the temperatures as you shiver each time the door opens. You see it in the look of the mostly barren trees — and see it denied by the green mosses which apparently have no problem with these nightly hard frosts and bright chill days.
We’re here partly to witness everything. And our doings and our not-doings are also part of what we witness.
Witness. Martyr, in Greek, revealing one problem of witnessing dangerous things.
There are many safer witnessings, of course. I like Japanese Buddhist kinhin, “walking meditation,” with the literal meaning, from the Chinese it comes from (I discover, courtesy of my magical familiar, Wikipedia), of “going through like the thread in a loom.” A back-and-forth that produces a fabric, a weaving of disparate threads into a whole.
My weaver wife’s out of state visiting relatives, and I make a note to share this small discovery with her when she gets back at the end of the week. Practitioners of Zen do kinhin in alternation with periods of sitting meditation, which is what za-zen or Zen means. I encountered kinhin in Japan, and tried it a few times, the slow version, a deliberate, meditative pace. For the typical American, it can of course drive you absolutely mad — and revealing that irritation is very much part of the point.
“It’s all meditation,” I can imagine them saying, though much of the discipline is paying attention, which generally means not talking. A wonderful, terrible commentary on our whole political scene.
There’s another version of kinhin that offers a brisk almost-jog, and that’s the version I prefer, this time of year at least, to get the blood flowing and keep this middle-aged body busy enough that the mind quiets and the world joins me as a companion, rather than standing off at a distance as a mere object for thinking.
So what’s the goal of such mindfulness? Attention, the shutting down of the chatter that too often fills our heads, that gets overfed by the social media we know we’re addicted to. A balance or equilibrium with everything that feels astonishingly wonderful when we slip into it, because we mostly stand outside of it the rest of the time. Yes, to continue an image that meditators sometimes use, prolonged practice endows your awareness with a kind of fragrance you start to carry around with you the rest of the time. You can be more mindful in everything you do.
And for me there’s a key. Mindfulness by itself is another tool, not an Answer. It can help me act more effectively. Otherwise, the water flows, the sun rises and sets all by itself, good things, surely — and moss covers me, also as surely as it does a stone set in the right balance of light and moisture. Compared with the stone, moss darts across the surfaces of things, greening them and slowly grinding them into dirt. Dirt — the end result of billions of years of animal life. We all come from the Mother, and to Her we all return. Sing it, brothers and sisters!
Except that’s not the whole story. Our human capacity for doing, so fraught with bad decisions, holds immense power for whatever we choose. Mindfulness can too easily become just another addiction, a way of blissed-out watching while the majority of humans slowly murder each other and erase themselves from the planet. The earth doesn’t need saving, but we do, and the plain evidence of millennia is that nobody else is gonna do it for us.
Renunciation of my power leaves the rest with power over me. One ring, old J. R. R. Tolkien, one ring does rightfully belong to me. I”ve worn it since birth, I’ll wear it till I die. The chance to become more fully who and what I am. And what is that? That’s the walking meditation I strive to practice, that’s the trick of time and space, to figure it out for ourselves in all the years we have. Not an Answer, not a Final Solution (we know how well that worked), but a tool for living.
In the meantime, the mosses watch and (g)listen.
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IMAGES: mosses — both shots — me, from yesterday afternoon’s walk; kinhin.
“Three reasons for supplicating the Mighty Ones: because it is a pleasure to you, because you wish to be a friend of the Wise, because your soul is immortal” — traditional.
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Like many I revere Brigid. This time of year it’s easy in our house — the fire in our woodstove reminds me of one of her domains, and the lovely orange and blue flames of well-seasoned wood could wake any heart to poetry. I honor her in thought whenever I recall her, I honor her in action by lighting the fire, a daily practice this time of year. To see the wood take flame, to feel the house temperature begin to rise each morning once a good burn gets going and I can close the flue — how could these not be a pleasure, a cause for celebration?
I love that none of the usual default reasons that our monotheistic culture provides for supplication or prayer come up in this Triad: to save your soul, or to avoid hell, or to please a god or God, or to make up for some human weakness. No, the reasons here are splendidly other, and the first — the first! — is pleasure. Ask yourself, “Do I actually like the company of the Divine? If not, why spend time pretending I do? But if I do … ‘Can I have some more, please?'”
Or perhaps I don’t know either way. So why not find out? One reason to revere and honor and supplicate — lovely old word! — the Mighty Ones is find out what happens if I do.
And to be a friend of the Wise? For me that means I value wisdom, value those who aspire to it, and aspire to it myself. It’s a measure of our times that wisdom isn’t a word we hear very much. Maybe because it’s fallen out of favor. Maybe because many have abandoned it for cheaper thrills online and off. The company and friendship of the Wise! This, too, is a pleasure I hope you’ve had.
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Yesterday out of a mix of nostalgia and procrastination at improving my Nanowrimo word-count, I was skimming through James Hilton’s Lost Horizon, which gave us the fabulous Shangri-La. (I first read the novel in high school, at the insistence of an English teacher who also pulled us through Hermann Hesse’s Steppenwolf. You can practically determine my age to within a few years just by those details, if you happen to follow — or yourself suffered through — trends in U.S. secondary education. You can find Hilton’s work online at Project Gutenberg Australia here.)
Hilton gives us the following wonderful exchange between Roberta Brinklow, a British missionary, one of a number of Westerners stranded in the Himalayas at the monastery of Shangri-La, and the English-speaking Chinese monk Chang, who is the principal go-between for the little band of Brits and the Tibetan natives.
“What do the lamas do?” she continued.
“They devote themselves, madam, to contemplation and to the pursuit of wisdom.”
“But that isn’t DOING anything.”
“Then, madam, they do nothing.”
“I thought as much.” She found occasion to sum up. “Well, Mr. Chang, it’s a pleasure being shown all these things, I’m sure, but you won’t convince me that a place like this does any real good. I prefer something more practical.”
“Perhaps you would like to take tea?”
I don’t know about you, but I enjoy stories that deal with the meeting of cultures and the delightful misunderstandings that inevitably result. Of course, my sympathies in this instance lie where Hilton’s also appear to — with the long-suffering Chang.
What good does wisdom do?! Oh darlin’, if you have to ask …
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And the best reason of all which the Triad gives us (if like us the Celts saved the best for last)? Because we recognize the gods are our kin — because what is immortal in us answers the call of what is immortal in them.
I don’t need to have any belief about this either way (“More slackness!” as Hilton’s Miss Brinklow might have said). I can experiment instead. Am I immortal? Let’s see if I can actually get some inkling either way. Do the gods have something worth my learning, something that may touch on just this issue? Why not supplicate them and find out for myself? Could there be a connection between an experience of the divine and a greater understanding of what it is to be human?
Wherever did we begin to imagine that such questions ought to be matters of belief rather than personal experience?! As if we were asked about the taste of fresh berries and cream on the basis of our knowledge of somebody else’s report, rather than the bowl of them sitting right in front of us! Here’s a spoon. Dig in …
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IMAGES: triskele; gods of war — Deviant Art; immortals — the gods; Shangri-La.
If I ask what? then I’m alone in a world of things, none of which says anything to me, though I may listen as long as I like. After all, why ask a thing?! Trying too hard, I can almost believe I’m just another thing myself.
But let me ask who? and then the world wakes to wonder. Atoms like me, earthed like me, kindred, sky-breathed like me this November afternoon. Yes, sparked like me, too, being here, in this place, now. Oh, let me lose no more songs that greet and open! You carry them, clouds — water too, and day gray on the hills.
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If I ask who, this stone
whirling with its billion atoms
mostly empty space they say (though
touching it you’d never believe)
its presence, its jacket of moss
this stone talks, not loud
if anyone listens.
Talks to itself, hasn’t yet
heard hey! from anyone else
through a skin thick
against weatherdance and stormscrape
I believe a free hand
on its rough cool reaches,
I begin to learn its witness
slow offshear in wind and heat,
flake and shard and century chip.
Stone long alone will not yield soon
but with a palm against a sunside flank
you can feel it heed sun nonetheless
warming at the distant inquiry of light.
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Who? is a song that wakes worlds. I wake you, you wake me, we rouse together singing.
The questions matter, though they’re one half of it. Mouth and ear, at the proportion of one to two, right for wisdom when the oak lets fall its hard fruit. Earth, you know. Who says so? A sapling, in a spring or two.
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Image: moss rock.
“Stop thinning your hair for good!” promises the spam in my inbox.
OK then, my inner imp says. I’ll start thinning my hair for evil.
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Because sometimes you can just tell it’s going to be one of those days …
I depart for a job interview in a neighboring town with about 15 minutes extra time built in, and I hit a traffic delay. I’ve Google-mapped the location — twice — but when I arrive, can I find it? I cannot. I have an older cell phone, one of the flip-phones that’s so last century. I tenderly call it my “stupidphone” because I’m too cheap to pay what still seem to me exorbitant data plan rates for smartphones. When I call the number for the interviewer, what I get is the immediately recognizable beep-and-squeal of a fax line. I call the other number I have for them and the line’s busy. Some days you’re just not meant to do what you set out to do.
The god aren’t so much crazy as determined to make you pay attention to your goals. Is this really what you want? How badly will you work for it? They ask. You check in with your goals and intentions and practice and find, yes, there’s a place that needed your love and energy. Or you’ve paid it too much attention already. Sometimes I’m the thing that makes the line busy, that re-routes all traffic to dead ahead in front of me. Sometimes the universe puts up road blocks just to get me to wake up a little more to my part in it all. We can never be wholly detached, apart, because we’re each a part. No man is an island, entire of itself, sings John Donne (Meditation XVII). Each man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main. O American, proud of your illusory independence, crying in your loneliness, it never occurs to you the two are connected, and so you stand on your own two feet, oblivious to the earth beneath them holding you up.
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Not that I’m allowed to stay oblivious forever.
“I want to know what love is,” sings Foreigner. “I want you to show me.” Well, I think. No use waiting around for that to happen. Love can start here, with me. Even the smallest bit can be kindling for a fire. Once lit, it surprises me how well it keeps burning. Yet by doing my part, I realize love was pouring through all the while. I just couldn’t see it until I returned it. The circuit wasn’t complete until I stepped into it. I was the missing piece. Each of us is part of a circuit, self and Spirit that is the other pole, the thing that lets self be self. We know it when the circuit’s complete, when we’re plugged in, and also how desperately we need that completion, how it feels when it’s turned off. You know what love is, the trees sing, even without their leaves. We constantly show you.
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If there were a Druid agenda it would start in the silence of a November dawn. It would pour from the sky like rain or light or possibility, it would skip from leaf to stone like the chipmunk that scavenges beneath the bird feeder in the front yard, then sits up and gazes at me as long as I make no sudden movements. Sometimes beauty, truth, they’re shy creatures.
“You meet with things dying, I with things newborn,” says the old shepherd in Shakespeare’s A Winter’s Tale. Isn’t it always “Scene Three, Bohemia, a desert country near the sea”? That’s where we find ourselves, that is the tale of winter, a time of encounter with death and life on a Sunday afternoon. What, my life asked me today, is your Druidry not about? What doesn’t it touch on? Have you kept yourself from yourself, held a piece of you in reserve, not spent it all on this precious life? What is it you’re waiting for?!
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“Whatever gets the words on the page is right,” says one of the pep talks Nanowrimo offers on its site for this month. Please take that out of context, says my inner imp, running with it like a mad dog with a bone. The perfect defense for pretty much anything I do wrong. Just getting the words on the page is all …
My novel this year involves a gang called the Red Fists, the Chenek Duz, incarcerated on the prison planet of Resken. A few days ago their names came through in a rush, and all in Gelem, a language I’ve invented just enough of for the story so far. The ringleader is Lodzat Moy, scarred from radiation burns and missing one eye from an assassination gone awry. With him is young and innocent-seeming Am Hezel, tech genius Dinshir Gagek, the thief Soknu Munt and the black-tempered, murderous Yar Fen. They get thrown together, through unlikely circumstances I’m struggling to make more likely, with a circle of artsy freshmen studying at the College of St. Swithins. I’m still working out the hows and whys. It’s fun to see it unfold. A kidnapping, a dream thief, a case of wrongful imprisonment, and bad love. What more could a writer ask for?
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Our lean-to, with wood drying for next winter, ’16-’17.
After a long absence, Wadin Tohangu stopped by again to talk. The old Druid grinned broadly at my surprise in seeing him. Though I shouldn’t have been so surprised, I know. Usually, if I’ve been thinking about him, he appears sooner or later.
The unseasonably warm November weather in the 70s over the last few days made it a perfect time to be outdoors. I was carrying log lengths of willow to our woodpile after some trimming and pruning work by a tree service company we’d hired a few weeks ago. Willow is a soft wood and isn’t all that suitable for burning. It doesn’t provide much heat, but it can be useful to work with for other purposes. Some of it might form the edging for a new compost pile, and rot back into the earth itself.
Without any preamble, Wadin got to the point. “You’ve been doing some firming up of your understanding. I can see changes in you.”
“That’s … interesting,” I said, letting an armful of logs fall to stack later. “I feel less certain about a lot of things I thought I knew. Like what love is, and what my purpose or focus should be, for instance. You’re sure you’re not seeing doubt and uncertainty instead?”
He chuckled, and pushed a log into a firmer position between two others. “Part of deepening understanding can mean you rely less on ready verbal formulas and definitions, and in their place you turn more to any wisdom you’ve earned. It may feel less certain, because you can’t summon it in quite such a convenient mental form, or immediately rattle it off if someone asks. Do you do any cooking?”
“Um, yes,” I said, still surprised sometimes by Wadin’s quick shifts as he developed a point. “Mostly baking, actually.” I turned to walk back to the pile of fresh-cut willow lengths. The wheelbarrow I’d normally use to make quicker work of this had a flat tire. But I didn’t mind. The weather was just too splendid to miss.
“Well,” said Wadin, keeping pace beside me, “if you bake bread, for instance, you know at several points that familiarity with the process lets you make decisions about timing that you learn best by practice, not by rule.”
“True,” I said, grabbing an armful of logs. Wadin did the same. “Bread dough that’s going to rise well has a certain feel to it. And up to a point, there are tricks and back-ups you can do with a batch that’s not turning out so well.”
“But,” he said, shifting the logs into a more comfortable position, “that feeling and those tricks aren’t easy to put directly into words, even though you know them well.”
“True,” I said.
“People often treat understanding the same way. They may say, ‘I want answers,’ but they could find that a tool might be more useful to them in the end than any answer.” He dropped the logs and brushed his hands.
“Would you explain that a little more?” I asked him.
“Answers tend to have a compact form,” he replied. “Someone else has done at least part of the thinking, so when we ask a question, the answer arrives with a definite shape and size, and maybe even drags with it some definitions, or some do’s or don’t’s attached to it. It may not fit our needs and awareness. It can be like a key in a lock. Sometimes the key just doesn’t fit. Nothing turns. Even though that key may open plenty of other useful doors, it doesn’t open this one.”
“I guess I understand what you mean. So what about tools?” I picked up three more smaller logs. Wadin grabbed the last couple of strays.
“A tool isn’t meant to provide a final conclusion,” he said. “It simply helps with a particular step, or with a set of steps. It’s part of an open-ended process. A screwdriver applies force, or rather torque, in a way that the human hand unaided cannot. It doesn’t do this by itself — a human hand must wield it. But a screwdriver allows us to open or close things with screws, or do some light prying of covers, perhaps. The screwdriver goes back in its slot (at least in a neat work-area) until you need it again.”
“O.K.” I said, thinking.
“An answer, though, often implies a close, an ending.” He dropped his armful on the pile. “A tool keeps things moving. One helpful strategy is to practice seeing all your answers as tools. There’s nothing final about them, and neither is there anything wrong with that. They’re exactly what they’re supposed to be. They just help move you to the next step you need to take. Put them away when they don’t achieve that, keep them all in good condition, and find another tool that will do what you need at that moment.”
“So you’re talking about a kind of flexibility.” I leaned against a woodshed post.
“Yes,” he said. “The same tools are generally available to everybody, but in the hands of a master craftsman, the right tool saves time, accomplishes the task smoothly, and contributes to the flow of work. The master doesn’t curse his tools, or despair when the tool he insists on using doesn’t do what he wants it to. He knows what each tool can do, just as he knows how each tool feels when he uses it. Part of his mastery is knowing from the feel of the tool in his hand whether it can accomplish what he intends.”
“And part of the joy of mastery is knowing there’s always more to learn. What would it mean, after all, if there was nothing more to aspire to? If you truly knew it all, you’d get bored. What’s the point? The beauty of mastery is its delight in always learning something new, not being discouraged by it, but inspired instead by endless possibility. Sharing what you have learned, communicating that delight simply by doing, and marveling how each person develops an individual style. All right. That’s enough for today.” He smiled and turned toward the afternoon sunlight. I blinked, and he was gone.
If I asked “Is he real?” or “Was he really here?” any answer I received probably wouldn’t be as useful as what I learned. His gift wasn’t some kind of proof that he “existed,” but simply a few more tools he left for me to work with. Answer, tool. A useful distinction. I sent out gratitude, confident it would reach its destination.
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Images: hammer; saw.
Yes — at it again. A rough draft of a novel in 30 days. 50,000 words. No, you don’t need a concept or a website like National Novel Writing Month — Nanowrimo for short — to write any time. But the sense of a community and a horde (300,000 people online qualifies as a horde in my book) of other writers madly hyped on caffeine or other stimulant of choice, all tapping and scribbling out uncensored, fervent prose, can help stir the synapses towards actually getting the words down. Think of it as one possible demonstration of Bardic arts.
“Not a problem for you — after all, you maintain this blog, right?” you say. Try 1667 words a day of fiction for a month. Not such an impossibility– serious writers often set something like that as their daily word limit every day of their writing lives. Never done something like it? It can firm your resolve or leave you in the dust. I’ve been in both places. “So how ya doin’ so far?” you ask. Well, everybody starts small. That’s an hour’s work. Onto the rest of the month!
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Images: bard on left; bard on right.