The living know a privilege the dead no longer do. And if the ancient Greek historian Herodotus is right (“Call no man happy till he is dead”), the dead enjoy an under-appreciated but inevitable mirror privilege.
We resolutely continue to reproduce in the face of a world seemingly ever more uncertain as a cradle for life. How can we balance both privileges and also (peace, Hunger Games) odds increasingly not in our favor? Possible answers abound, many of them very old, some discarded, some revived, a few hoisted as banners, or burnt on street corners, excoriated on Twitter, or — of course — all of the above. How can we test them for validity, utility — or compassion?
A healthy person, privileged by good genes or birth in the right body or borough, blessed by careful diet and exercise, pure dumb luck or divine gift, enjoys a privilege her sick double may long for and envy each weary day. Medicine, unevenly available or efficacious, may or may not redress the named injustice of it all.
Animals all around us, subject to ecosystems fine-tuned over millennia, spawn, hatch, are born, devour each other and die, in carefully interlocking patterns of privilege and disadvantage balanced by contingencies both evolutionary and reshaped by human presence.
The very characters of our myths and stories, movies and daydreams, often laze in privilege, vie for it, abandon it all for love or destiny or despair, shuffle their cards one way or another and start over again, or bow before their uncaring fate. We earn and forfeit it, find comfort in promises of future rebalancing, accuse and suffer and strive to comprehend. We are born in or out of it, notice or ignore it, act from or against it, minimize or maximize its effects, in the scant few years we have between entering and leaving this world.
What is it about the word or its shifting referents that’s made it recently so toxic in the West, so raw and troubling? Do we really need to ask?! Is there anything anyone can say about it right now without someone else disagreeing?! And doesn’t that give us our diagnosis — and prognosis, too?
Two hands, a heart, a mind, and time still ahead of me. Work to do.
[I’m teaching in a 5-week boarding school summer program this June-July for American (academic enrichment) and international (English as a second language) middle and high school students. The intensity of the pace accounts for the dearth of recent posts here.]
Egyptian entrance gate, Grove Street Cemetery
Tomorrow we have a day off from classes for a visit to the Yale University campus. For the older students, we’ll also make a side tour of Grove Street Cemetery, listed as a National Historic Landmark for its historical interest (its first burial occurred in 1797 after a Yellow Fever epidemic), the names of its famous dead, and its enduring ties to Yale.
In the past year my wife and I’ve discovered our ancestors lived in the same small town (in a different state, near the Canadian border) around the same decade that Grove Street was established, and mostly likely they knew each other. And as we’ve been telling the students this summer, a well-landscaped cemetery can be a peaceful and unique experience, because it can enlarge our sympathies and imaginations beyond the immediate concerns of own lives.
Live long enough, I’m finding, and your sympathies may enlarge so that any dead become part of your honored dead. We share DNA from around the planet (one of my cousins had his DNA tested and found Greek and Central African markers in it), we all face the same challenges of dying and living, and if the dead have any honor in my memory, it’s because I give it to them.
cover of the first edition (1894) of The Jungle Book
In Kipling’s Jungle Book, the human boy Mowgli says more than once to his animal companions, “We be of one blood, thou and I.” Such simple acknowledgements may at times matter more than many prayers and offerings, if they open our hearts to gratitude and the wisdom we inherit in our bones and our mortal dreams.
So tomorrow in my own way I’ll commemorate the “Grove Streeters” by reading and repeating their names, pouring libations of water (nothing stronger — I’m with adolescents, after all) in their honor, and acknowledging their part in shaping the world as we have it today. And always, I am confident, there will be others who will follow us and do the same, touched through their own sufferings and joys by a similarly enlarged sense of kinship.
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Images: Egyptian entrance gate, Grove Street Cemetery; Jungle Book cover
The green world burgeons all around me, though I fall silent. I don’t grow up like these eager stems, leaves and blossoms that surround this house of self in a blaze of green glory. So early this year, summer already launched in the heart of spring. Not up. No. I grow down.
The word itself brings the action. D o o o w w w n n n. Without thought, something bones and skin and gut do. Are doing. I shudder in a moment of vertigo. One world spins and collapses around me. Then I’m touching another, walls that shape the passage-way around my descent. Something deepens, I sense roots like fingers, fingers like roots, reaching into darkness, into cool earth and colder stone.
I feel them ever so subtly at first, their branching shapes, the strength of this bark-skin, root and claw, fingertip and tendril, things that are somehow both my hands and also the tree roots I find myself grasping.
Then all at once, that subterranean tug of ancestors, my roots their roots, reaching and twining into the dream earth I crawl into each night and pull over me. I shiver, bone-deep. All that they were, I am. All that they feared and love, I too fear and love. In the darkness, a space opens. Water pools at my feet, a faint glow illuminating it, silvering the surface. Ripples die away and all lies still. My own breathing deafens me, too loud. The dark silver still shines with its own light, waiting … for what?
I’m jerked upright, to my feet. Want to meet your ancestors? asks an insistent whisper. Look, the whisper says. Look, Pilgrim, in the mirror. The silver surface of the water steams, mist swirls up from it, the fog thickens, then furls back and away. I kneel down to look …
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Singing. I hear singing.
Three awens for the dead, who live again. Three awens for the living, who will die in turn. Three awens for those yet unborn, who know both worlds, who await a third.
O Walker between the worlds, do you wish to remember all you have forgotten? Then stand ready. The nine awens of change wash over you.
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Are you ready?
It’s not a question. Oh, it has the form of one, but it’s not. It’s a choice. I show I’m ready, or not, by what I choose. And by how. Not by thinking of an answer.
It’s a fair choice. It’s always a fair choice, I hear. Because it’s yours. But if I don’t know it’s a choice, if I listen to fear, or doubt, or judgment, or anything else but what I was born listening to, what shaped me while I was a mere thumbling in my mother’s womb, I miss the choice, and think it’s merely a question to answer, one that already has an answer, not one I answer in this moment, right now, by choosing. What will I choose? That’s the real question.
I gift you with a grail, the chalice of your desire, says the short powerful figure before me. I try to make out a face, but nothing other than an outline in this dimness. And the voice.
What will fill it? Where will you pour it? The gift cannot be given to you until you give it away.
How? I hear myself shouting, how in the name of the Nine Druids do I give away a gift I don’t even have?
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I’m coming back. Ascending, though that’s not exactly it either. One world fades, another gains strength.
A final whisper. Wanderer, you have no other home. Home is where you serve.
Images: greenworld; sheila-na-gig; lake at night; grail.
Imagine a path you create as you go. We don’t need to call it “shamanism” or “Druidry” or “earth spirituality” or anything else in particular. If anyone asks, it’s “nothing special.” It’s just “what you do every day.” I call it my life.
You respond, or you don’t, to the guidance of hints, nudges, dreams, gut instinct, chance encounters, coincidence. You seek, or you don’t, for something that begins to answer the call inside you, the tickle or itch that won’t go away. Oh, you can dull it for days or decades with a wider variety of distractions now than at almost any other time in the last ten millennia.
Sometimes, perversely, it seems the call or itch or tickle is ITSELF the distraction. Can’t do it all. Just gonna live my life. Keep my head down. Leave me alone, will ya? Not gonna get suckered into a wild goose chase, a will o’ the wisp, a fool’s errand. (How many names we have for them …) YOLO. You only live once. Just do it. Live like nobody’s watching.
And the silence, which never quite goes away, which nothing ever completely fills, which opens ever more deeply inward.
Until the day it doesn’t. A barrier, a wall, a blockage. Maybe a guardian who challenges you there. Inside, perhaps, or outside. That restless partner, impossible boss, difficult co-worker, awkward relative, rebellious child. Just for you. Old story. New each time it happens to me, though. OK, so what is it this time? What’s the point, the life lesson? Sometimes a pain in the ass can just be a pain in the ass and nothing else, right? Please? Can’t the growth thing give me a break?
Then, oddly, it does. A month, a year. Smooth sailing. What’s new? Nothing much. Your holiday notes are short because, blissfully, things are going well. If you’re the suspicious type, you wonder why. If you’re just grateful, you go with it.
Soon enough the sane plainness of it all threatens to run you stark raving mad. Something, anything different. The uneventful routine you longed for has sucked you dry as last month’s bread. You’d prefer a little drama, maybe — you hear yourself actually say it — a minor, manageable disaster. Just, you know, for some color. Something different.
The universe, remarkably compliant, gives us what we ask for (or what we fear, which is asking by negation; or what we’re least prepared for, which is a gift for our carelessness; what we never saw coming, which is “a little something” for our blind indifference), whether we want it or not. The universe: compliant, and monstrous. Monster under the bed, enormous, hairy and fanged. Or snake-slick and implacable. Or less distinct, and thus scarier: dark tunnel over there, on the other side of the light, which the whirlpool of this dream drags you toward, closer, closer …
If you know all this, have done all this, seen it all, heard it all before, know it inside and out, welcome. You’ve just finished the introductory material. Now for the actual beginning.
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In the first chapter of The Lord of the Rings, Bilbo sings of the path, his path as he leaves the Shire. (That’s old wisdom, not taught much anymore. When in doubt about something, make a song of it. It helps.)
The Road goes ever on and on
Down from the door where it began.
Now far ahead the Road has gone,
And I must follow, if I can,
Pursuing it with eager feet,
Until it joins some larger way
Where many paths and errands meet.
And whither then? I cannot say.
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Walking two paths and contemplating the Ovate grade feels something like this to me right now. The real climb is about to commence. (Already has.) I’m standing where I’ve always been, which is on the way to somewhere I can’t quite make out. Glimpses, sometimes. A voice I know, then a good conversation one afternoon. Or a curve in the path opens onto a familiar vista. The waterfall, or lake, or mist over the valley. The call of a bird. A memory, piercing in clarity. A discovery, one that time brings you, or one that has nothing to do with time. Rest point. Then back out into it.
The start of Ovate is both the vehicle that has brought me here, and simply a step with a label off the shelf that I grab for convenience and plaster on my experience because it’s there (both experience AND label), because it caught my eye. “Oh-vate.” A little inspired, a little crazy. Vatic power, and all that. Indo-European *watis “inspired, mad, possessed, crazy.” Ancient word sent through its changes, re-surfacing in Old Irish fáith “seer, prophet” and then as Woden or Odin, god who hangs on the World Tree Yggdrasil for nine days for the gift of wisdom, for insight. God who sacrifices one good eye for the same reason. Your life comes asking “What’s it worth to you?”
Warrior, traveler, initiator, self. Homeless person you meet on a street corner, and turn from, because he reeks of sweat and urine, because he’s mumbling (or screaming) to himself. So not the Druid I was looking for.
And yet this, too, is useful, or not. We reach for images to see the invisible, to name the nameless. The Way that can be walked isn’t the real (lasting, eternal) Way, says the Tao Te Ching. Six words in Chinese: dao ke dao fei chang dao. “Way can way not lasting way.” A mantra for the possible, for the (in)sane, for the despairing. “Over the river and through the woods to grandmother’s house we go.” Same woods where Little Red Riding Hood meets a man-eating wolf on her path.
Carl Larsson’s Little Red Riding Hood.
Wolf at your elbow?
But we walk it anyway, because there isn’t any other way. No way! people say when they don’t believe something. No path to understanding. I’m stuck in surprise and disbelief. Not a problem. You can “way” it anyway. “What’s love got to do with it?” asks Tina Turner in her signature song. What’s belief — or a clear path — got to do with it? Some people stop at the first line. But the Tao Te Ching does actually offer some useful advice mixed in with the maddening inscrutability of its lines:
True, the way you can walk ain’t no lasting way. The name you give it (or yourself) ain’t no lasting name. Give one thing a name and you find a whole world of (other) things. Long for anything and you may run up against its shape (or its opposite) everywhere. Give up longing, though, and it opens into a mystery. Both of these come from the same source. If I had to name it, it’s darkness. Darkness IN darkness, a door to understanding. Really? Uh-huh.
Understanding. Great word. When you stand-under it, and don’t grab at it, it comes to you of itself, like dawn, arriving every morning without any tugging on your part. Like a bird at the feeder which grows accustomed to your presence as you patiently fill and refill the seed each day. Feed your mystery until you feel its wings beat and hear its chirping.
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The last chapter of The Lord of the Rings (which is never the last chapter, another piece of old wisdom now fallen into sad disrepute) gives us additional words to Bilbo’s walking song:
Still round the corner there may wait
A new road or a secret gate,
And though I oft have passed them by,
A day will come at last when I
Shall take the hidden paths that run
West of the Moon, East of the Sun.
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path; monster; Larsson’s Little Red Riding Hood; Georg Von Rosen’s Woden/Odin.
Looking at the current roster of candidates for U.S. president, all I can think of are the words of Dr. Horrible (a marvelous Neil Patrick Harris) in Joss Whedon‘s unique Dr. Horrible’s Sing-along Blog: “The world is a mess and I just need to rule it.”
You can catch the good doctor’s comment (along with another quip about the “status quo”) near the end of this 1-minute clip:
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Just back from the 50th Int’l Congress on Medieval Studies (held every year in Kalamazoo, MI) where I survived delivering my paper on “Tolkien’s Beowulf and the ‘Correcting Style'” and hobnobbed with some 3000 other medievalists from around the world. The Congress is always a remarkable experience: the 4-day event this year included 567 sessions of papers, roundtables and presentations, along with the always-popular publishers’ room (BOOKS! we’re NERDS!), concerts, mead-tastings, interest-group meetings, the annual Saturday Dance, the Pseudo Society’s mock lectures and delicious satiric send-ups of all things medieval, housed in typical 1950s-style concrete block dormitories with university cafeteria food and coffee, in always variable Midwestern U.S. May weather.
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Also visited again the striking Serpent Mound near Locust Grove in southern Ohio, and learned there’s a winter Solstice celebration at the site that includes the placing of lights to outline the earthwork serpent that loops across a rocky outcrop of the Adams County countryside:
(WILDART ALBRECHT 12/20/10) Volunteers light the 900 luminaries at the Serpent Mound in Adams County for the winter solstice. (Dispatch photo by Eric Albrecht)
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Images: Dr. Horrible; Tolkien’s Beowulf; Serpent Mound Winter Solstice.
[Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3 | Part 4]
Bluets (houstonia caerulea) in our back yard
Bluets carpet our backyard lawn, an easy seduction into putting off the mowing I’ll need to do in another week. The air itself is a welcome. I no longer brace myself to step outside. Instead, I peel off an unnecessary extra layer and stand still, feeling my body sun itself in the coaxing warmth. Bumblebees chirm around the first blooms, goldfinches dart across the front yard, and our flock of five bluejay fledgelings from last year wintered over without a single loss and now sound a raucous reveille every morning.
In this last of a four-part series on Beltane, I want to look at our “found festivals” — how we also touch the sacred in the daily-ness of our lives. We don’t always have to go looking for it, as if it’s a reluctant correspondent or a standoffish acquaintance. When I attend to the season and listen to the planet around me, I touch the sacred without effort. The sacred encounter, like a handshake, is a two-part affair. How often do I extend my hand?
Susanne writes in a Druid Facebook group we both follow that finally in her northern location “the last bit of snow on the north side of the house melted away on Beltane day.” Gift of Beltane. Something to dance for.
Rudolf Steiner school celebration in Great Barrington, MA
The ritual calendar of much modern Paganism meshes with the often milder climate of Western Europe where it originated. It doesn’t always fit as well in the northern U.S. or Canada, or other places that have adopted it. (So we tweak calendars and rituals and observances. Like all sensible recipes say, “Season to taste.”)
It’s a cycle that the medieval British poet Geoffrey Chaucer celebrates in the Canterbury Tales by singing (I’m paraphrasing lightly):
the showers of April have pierced the droughts of March to the root … the West Wind has breathed into the new growth in every thicket and field … the small birds make their melodies and sleep all night with open eyes …
A Vermonter like me looks at Beltane looming on May 1 and reads those lines of Chaucer’s and thinks, “About a month too early, Geoffrey.” Spring, not summer, begins at Beltane, though to feel the recent temperatures on your face you might well think Beltane is the start of summer indeed. Game of Thrones fans, never fear: Winter will come (again). But now … ah, now … Spring!
and even though they are a symbol of Imbolc, the snowdrops are blooming merrily followed closely by the daffodils. The peepers are peeping, the owls are hooting, the woodcocks are rasping ‘peent’ on the ground and twittering in flight.
salamander crossing signs in our nearest town
Late April and early May here in southern VT, and in your home area, too, means an annual migration of some sort. Here it’s spotted salamanders. After dark, volunteers with flashlights man the gullies and wet spots to escort the salamanders safely across roads, and slow the chance passing car to the pace of life.
Beltane finds Susanne with her hands in the earth, responding to the call of Spring:
The weekend was spent with Spring clean up, turning the soil and sowing the greens and peas in the garden. I was a bit disappointed in myself that I haven’t held a Beltane ritual but then I realized that this was the ritual…working with the soil, plants and spirits of the land, listening to my favorite songs …
May you all touch the sacred where you are.
[Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3 | Part 4]
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Images: bluets/houstonia caerulea — ADW; Great Barrington MA school celebration; salamander sign — ADW; yellow spotted salamander.