Archive for February 2012

Secrets, Part Two

Secrecy often emerges as a national issue in times of crisis. Recall the debate over the Patriot Act enacted in the wake of the Sept. 11th attacks, and the kinds of broad governmental powers the Act authorized, including significant reductions of citizen privacy.  Secrecy can become central to state security, and exists in uneasy tension with the “need to know.”

President Kennedy declared in an April 27, 1961 speech that unjustifiable secrecy is repellent,  dangerous, and virtually un-American:

The very word “secrecy” is repugnant in a free and open society; and we are as a people inherently and historically opposed to secret societies, to secret oaths and to secret proceedings. We decided long ago that the dangers of excessive and unwarranted concealment of pertinent facts far outweighed the dangers which are cited to justify it.*

Of course, he was addressing the American Newspaper Publishers Association, and also standing implicitly against the Communist bloc and its perceived threat to the West.  (You can listen to a portion of Kennedy’s speech on Youtube here.)  Nevertheless his points are well-made, and still almost painfully applicable today, in the wake of Wikileaks and similar events.

Yet secret societies, in spite of Kennedy’s assertions, do have a long and well-established place in the history of America, and many still thrive today.  They flourish at many colleges like Yale, with its Skull and Bones the most famous — or notorious — of several societies for college seniors.  Another similar and infamous example, though not affiliated with a school, is the Bohemian Grove.  Both have generated entertaining conspiracy theories, books, films, and news articles, all of which occasionally offer pieces of the truth.  Both exist, and both count among their membership some of the most powerful and influential people in the world.  Bohemian Grove counts among its members George H. W. Bush, Clint Eastwood and the late Walter Cronkite, according to a Univ. of California Santa Cruz website.**  Should we be worried?!

Opening Night at Bohemian Grove

Many sororities and fraternities also share elements of secret societies, depending on their charters and missions.  Still other similar organizations enjoy spotless reputations, such as the PEO Sisterhood, mostly public in its support for education, but still retaining some secret aspects.

Secret organizations are in fact particularly American, or were in the past.  At the nation’s founding, all but two of the signers of the Declaration of Independence were by some accounts members of the Masons or other society.  In the late 1800s, roughly 40% of the U.S. population belonged to the Freemasons, Odd Fellows, Knights of Pythias, the Grange, Knights of Columbus, Order of the Eastern Star, or other secret, service, fraternal or social organizations.  The 19th century was in many ways the heyday of such groups, which have declined since, even as Americans began to lament the loss of community cohesiveness and devotion to public service, unaware of the irony.

To step even further back in time, secrecy was after all crucial to the survival of Christianity, which took form as a sect within Judaism, and within a generation was perceived as a threat to Rome.  Suspected Christians were arrested, forced to worship the reigning Roman emperor (who in some cases claimed divinity) and recant their faith, or face execution in various bloody forms, including by wild animals, in the Circus Maximus, Colosseum or Amphitheater.  Until the emperor Constantine in the 300s made the religion a recognized faith of the Empire, Christianity was often an underground practice, with the ichthys (sometimes called the “Jesus fish”) as one of its secret signs, by which fellow believers might recognize each other.

The range of contexts in which secrecy manifests can be surprisingly wide.  The discipline of keeping a secret sometimes serves as a test for membership in a group.  If you can keep a secret about something insignificant, then you may earn the right to gain access to the greater secrets of the group, because you’ve demonstrated your integrity.  Shared secrets are a key element to defining in-groups and out-groups.  In the Middle Ages, much knowledge was automatically assumed to be secret.  If it was disseminated at all, it appeared in a learned language like Latin or Greek which only literate persons could read and access, and as often it was a zealously-guarded guild or trade secret which only guild members knew.  Significantly, the Old French word gramaire meant both “grammar” and “magic book,”  and is considered the most likely source of the word grimoire, also meaning a magic book.  Inaccessible or secret language and hidden or secret knowledge were the same thing, and occult meant simply “hidden.”

Some kinds of knowledge are experiential and therefore in a different sense hidden or secret from anyone who hasn’t had the experience.  Consider sex:  there is no way to share such “carnal knowledge” — you simply have to experience it to know it.  And thus Adam and Eve “know” each other in the Garden of Eden in order to conceive their children.  Many languages routinely distinguish “knowing about” and “knowing” with different words, as for instance  German kennen and wissen, French savoir and connaitre, Welsh gwybod and adnabod, Chinese hui/neng/zhidao. The kinds of experiential knowledge humans encounter in a typical lifetime are substantial and significant:  first love, first death, first serious illness and so on.  Note how these are often connected with the experience of initiation, discussed in a previous post.

It’s vital here to note that it is not secrecy itself but the nature of the secret that is crucial in assessing its significance accurately and dispassionately.  I continue to cite J.M. Greer for his lucid and keen observations about the importance and potentials of secrets and secrecy, and the influence of his thinking pervades this series of posts.  I mentioned in Part One that though we all take part in the web of communication, there are ways to see it from the outside and more objectively.   We can occasionally and briefly free ourselves of its more negative effects and minimize its compulsions, then return to it for its positive benefits of human solidarity and companionship. As I’ve mentioned, solitude can temporarily ease its influence, and grant us a clearer space for reflection.  Another group which experiences a consciousness apart from the web are sufferers of mental illness, who are sometimes involuntarily forced outside it.  There they may perceive the arbitrary nature of cultural assumptions and behaviors, the “blind spots” inherent in every culture  and human institution, and the hollowness of social convention.  Their unwitting shift away from the web can make their perceptions, words and actions bizarre, frightening and difficult to manage.  Clearly there is danger in breaking the web, or leaving its patterns of coherence that allow us to make sense of the world.

Greer observes:

To have a secret is to keep some item of information outside the web, so that it does not become a part of the map of the world shared by the rest of society. A gap is opened in the web, defined by the secret, and as long as the secret is kept the gap remains. If the secret in question is something painful or destructive, and if secrecy is imposed by force rather than freely chosen, this kind of breach in the web can be just as damaging as the kind opened by madness.  If secrecy is freely chosen and freely kept, on the other hand, it becomes a tool for reshaping awareness, one with remarkable powers and a range of constructive uses.**

An examination in the next post of the conscious use of secrecy for positive ends will conclude this series.

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*A transcript of Kennedy’s entire speech is available at the JFK Library here.  (The quoted portion above begins in section 1, after the prefatory remarks.)

Bohemian Grove dinner image and article.

Grimoire image.

**Greer, John Michael.  Inside a Magical Lodge.  p. 116.

Secrets, Part One

If you believe that everything should be “out in the open,” you’ll probably admit to a certain impatience with concealment and secrecy. We’ve heard the old saw: “If you’ve got nothing to hide, you’ve got nothing to fear” and up to a point we believe it.  Particularly in the U.S., we equate openness with being “aboveboard” and honest.  “Don’t beat around the bush.”  “Say what you mean.”  “Be upfront about it.”  We admire “straight talk.”

The Freedom of Information Act helped make at least some government activities more transparent, and we often welcome “full disclosure” in a variety of situations.  We still think of ours as an “Open Society,” and the current practice of large and anonymous campaign contributions from corporate sponsors has some American citizens up in arms. We’re wary of the con, and we tend to suspect anyone who doesn’t “tell it like it is.”  We’ve got talk shows where people “spill it all,” and public figures starting at least with Jimmy Carter who began a confessional politics by admitting he had “lust in his heart.”  But not all secrets are sinister.  They do not automatically concern information anyone else needs to know.  Each of us has some things that are innocently private.  And in fact, well beyond this concession, secrecy can serve remarkable purposes that conspiracy theorists and even regular citizens rarely acknowledge.

Some secrets, of course, appear to be built into the stuff of the Cosmos.  Robert Frost captures this in a brief two-line poem, “The Secret Sits”:

We dance round in a ring and suppose,
But the Secret sits in the middle and knows.

We circle the thing we’re after, all the while convinced it’s there, that something will answer to our seeking, but somehow we still persist in missing it.  In spite of a couple of hundred years of scientific exploration, and prior to that, millennia of religious and spiritual investigation, existence and meaning and purpose often remain mysterious and not easily accessible.  What matters most to us springs from sources and energies we can’t simply subject to laboratory scrutiny and then write up in learned journals and magazines.  As some of the Wise have put it, “the eye sees, but cannot see itself” (at least not without a mirror).  Something about the nature of consciousness blocks us from easily comprehending it.

In our search, we reduce matter to atoms (literally, “unsplittables”) and think we’ve arrived at the true building blocks of the universe, only to learn that atoms can indeed split, and that they’re composed of subatomic particles.  Quantum physics further reveals that these particles are probabilities and exist only with the help of an observer.  Space-time itself is generated by consciousness.  We live in a “nesting doll” universe, worlds inside other worlds, an onion-like cosmos of endless layers.  True secrets, it appears, can’t be told.  They’re simply not part of the world of words.  As the Tao Te Ching wryly has it, “The Way that can be talked about isn’t the real Way.”  If that doesn’t have you pulling your hair out, it can at least cast you down into a terminal funk.  Where can a person get a clear answer?

Serious seekers in every generation come to experiment with some form of solitude, and if they persist, they may discover some very good reasons that underlie the practice of removing themselves even briefly from consensus reality and the web of communication we’re all born into.  This web helps us live with each other by building enough common ground that we can understand each other and cooperate in achieving common goals.  But it also builds our entire world of consciousness in ways we may not always want to assent to.  However, solitude by itself isn’t reasonable for most people as a lifestyle.  As my mother liked to remind me, “You have to live in the real world.”

But this “real world” runs surpassingly deep and wide in its influence.  Author, blogger and Druid J. M. Greer notes,

The small talk that fills up time at social gatherings is an obvious example. There might seem to be little point in chatting about the weather, say, or the less controversial aspects of politics, business, and daily life, but this sort of talk communicates something crucial.  It says, in essence, “I live in the same world you do,” and the world in question is one defined by a particular map of reality, a particular way of looking at the universe of human experience.*

We need maps – there’s a reason we developed them.  But they limit as much as they guide.  We could even say that this is their genius and power – they guide by limiting, by reducing the “blooming buzzing confusion” of life to something more manageable.  Advertizing does this by simplifying our desire for meaning and connection and significance into a desire for an object that will grant us these things.  Trade one symbol – money or credit cards, paper or plastic – for another symbol, a status symbol, an object sold to us with a money-back promise to grant wishes like a genie’s lamp or the cintamani, the “wish-fulfilling” gem of the East. (If that’s not magic, and a questionable kind at best, I don’t know what is.  How much more wonderful it would be – how much closer it would come to “true magic” — if it actually succeeded in quenching that original desire, which is merely sidetracked for a time, and will re-emerge, only to be distracted again, by another “new and improved”** model, spouse, diet, house, product or lifestyle.  We need a remarkably small minimum of things to flourish and be happy.  In a territory far beyond the blessed realm of that minimum, the market survives, yes, while the heart slowly dies.***)

Greer continues,

We thus live in an extraordinarily complex web of communication, one that expresses and reinforces specific ways of thinking about the world.  This is not necessarily a problem, but it can easily become one whenever the presence and effects of the web are unnoticed.  To absorb the web’s promptings without noticing them, after all, is also to absorb the web’s implied world-view without being aware of the process – and what we do not notice we usually cannot counteract.

The very common habit of passivity toward our own inner lives, a habit that is responsible for a very large portion of human misery, shows itself clearly here.  It’s one thing to accept a map of the world as a useful convenience, one that can be replaced when it’s no longer useful, and quite another to accept it unthinkingly as the only map there is—or worse, to mistake the map for the world itself.*

A secret breaks the web.  It remains something apart, the fragment that doesn’t fit.  It’s the puzzle piece left over that doesn’t match the gap in the nearly-finished picture staring up at you, that one annoying bolt or washer or other component remaining after you’ve put together the “easy to assemble” appliance or device.  It’s the hangnail, the sore thumb, the mosquito bite of awareness that something’s off-kilter, out of whack, out of step, no longer in synch.  We have words for these things — we can name them, at least — because they happen to us frequently enough to break into the web.  And we struggle to fix them as soon as we can, or barring that, ignore them as much as possible, that uncomfortable fact, that inconvenient discovery. As Churchill quipped, “Men occasionally stumble over the truth, but most of them pick themselves up and hurry off as if nothing happened.”

I’ll continue this topic in Part Two.

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*Greer, John Michael.  Inside a Magical Lodge, pp. 114-115.  I reread this book about once a year, and its lucid style makes this pleasurable apart from its subject matter. In addition to being a “guided tour” of the workings of lodge dynamics (fraternal, magical and social) and group magical practice (with an example magical lodge that Greer examines in considerable detail), the book is a clear, demystifying meditation on group consciousness, secrecy, and the magical egregore or “group mind” at work in all human organizations, institutions and collectives, including families, churches, political parties, companies, clubs, sports teams — the scope is immense.

**As comedian Chris Rock says, “Which is it, new or improved?!”

***As a teacher at an expensive private school for students whose parents expect them to gain admission to the top colleges and universities in the country, I here acknowledge that I myself participate in another kind of wish-fulfilling enterprise marketed to a considerable degree to that now widely suspect 1%.  In defense of the school, however, if not of myself, every year scholarship students are admitted solely on merit.  They succeed out of all proportion to their numbers in earning top class rankings and coveted admission letters to the best schools.

The Fur Teacher

This will be a sentimental “cute doggie” story only in passing.  Not because I’m averse to sentimentality (I’m often a “softie” as my wife reminds me), or because emotion is somehow automatically suspect (it’s not), but because sentimentality on its own can be a distraction when there’s some other and more valuable discovery I can usually make.  Such a discovery may underlie the sentiment it raises like a flag waving, a blush at sudden emotional vulnerability.  But the discovery itself often reaches much deeper than sentiment can take us. Let sentiment always claim first dibs on my attention and I may never make the discovery that so often seems to slip past right under my nose. It’s like, well … licking off the dressing and throwing out the salad.  OK, imperfect metaphor, but you get the idea.

Sentiment deserves its proper place.  That’s a lesson on its own, I’ve found — figuring out what that place is in all the various experiences of our lives — and worth its own post.  But this is a story about animals as our teachers, a theme in Druidry (and elsewhere, of course) that never grows old, at least for me.  And it’s a story about one particular furred teacher, in this case a dog.  Often animals are some of our earliest and best teachers.

Some time ago, while my wife Sarah was slowly recovering from cancer surgery, the after-effects of follow-up radiation, and the side-effects of long-term use of an anti-seizure med, she fulfilled a two-decade dream of getting another Newfoundland.  For those of you who don’t know them, the Newf is the more mischievous cousin of the St. Bernard, with whom it is sometimes confused. Both are the giants of the dog world.  And both drool pretty much continually.

Sarah’s first Newf, her beloved and mellow Maggie, saw her through a rough time in her teens.  But her second Newf, Spree, was entirely different in temperament.  Strong-willed and stubborn, unlike Maggie in the latter’s eagerness to please, and formidably intelligent, where Maggie could be somewhat dim, Spree simply demanded much more from both of us.  Leash-training, house-breaking, socialization — all were more involved than either of us had experienced with previous dogs.  Spree’s first mission seemed to be to wrench Sarah out of a lingering mild post-op depression — by canine force, if necessary. “I am now your black-furred, drooling world,” she insisted. Lesson One:  “There’s more to pay attention to.  Watch (me)!”  A second Lesson followed closely on that one:  “You can still trust this physical body (to take care of me, for a start.)  There are years of use left in it.  Now move that fanny!”

Maggie had suffered from severe hip-displasia, a weakness in many large and large-boned breeds like Newfs that can leave them effectively crippled.  Sarah was determined by any means in her power to avoid this with Spree, if she could.  She researched bloodlines and ancestries, kennels and breeding practices.  Finally she made her choice from a recently-born litter in Ohio, eight hundred miles from our home.  On top of that, Sarah was prepared to cook from scratch all of Spree’s food for her first two years, while her bones grew and she matured.  Spree did in fact end up with good bones, as a couple of tests demonstrated to everyone’s satisfaction, and she never suffered from displasia, but she had a number of food allergies that plagued her the rest of her life. The next Lesson didn’t seem to be only “Guess what?  First problem down.  Next?”  It was more like “In the decade or so I am with you, I will stretch you and teach you to love more.  And you’ll be starting with me.  Ready?”

During all but the first of the eleven years Spree was with us, we lived in a dorm apartment at the boarding school where we worked.  Most of the freshman girls in our dorm adored her — certainly she was a great conversation starter for any visitors.  We put up a dog gate to protect the dog-phobic minority, an obstacle Spree despised.

It’s true that at 124 pounds she did outweigh many of the girls.  (More than once, out and about on campus with her, we heard pedestrians near us exclaim, “Oh my God, is that a bear?!”)  And on evenings when I was on dorm duty, Spree had her many fans among the girls who just had to pet that soft lush black fur before they could settle down to study hours.  And during breaks they’d come back to visit — Spree of course, not me.  One of the lessons here, which she seemed to express with a contented doggy gaze at me as she received the girls’ caresses which she took as her due, was “Remember the wisdom of the body.  It is after all your life in this world.  We all need touch to thrive.  (I volunteer to demonstrate.  Pet me.)  Remember good food.  (Feed me.)  Remember exercise.  (Walk me.)”

The last few months of her life, Spree dealt with bone cancer that started in her neck and shoulder and spread, weakening bone and aching more and more.  We always knew Spree had a very high tolerance for pain. A score of incidents throughout her life had shown us that. Injuries that would set other dogs crying or yelping she would bear in silence, and keep on running, playing, eating — whatever was more interesting than pain.  We learned to slow her down for her own good many times, to minimize further damage, to check just what had happened, to bandage and treat and clean her.  In her final weeks, however, even on medication, her suffering continued to increase. It was winter, and she would ask to go outside several times a day to lie in the snow, her great coat keeping the rest of her warm enough, as she chilled and eased the hurt, rolling slowly in the snow, then lying on her back and side for half an hour or more at a time.  The three shallow back steps to our small yard were eventually agony for her to climb either up or down, but she refused the sling we’d borrowed to help her.  She cried out only once, in her last days, when it simply hurt too much.  A Lesson:  “I stayed longer than my kind usually can. [The average Newf life-span is roughly 8 years.]  Make the most of what you’re given.  You two are obviously slow learners on that score.  Why else do you think I hung around this long?”

Spree in her final springtime, age 11

The last hour of her life, at the vet’s office, was  on a snowy winter day (she loved the snow). Dazed from a liberal dose of morphine, but as a result now blissfully free of pain, she enthusiastically greeted the three of us, Sarah and me and a fellow Newfie owner, who came to say goodbye as she was euthanized. Several difficult lessons.  “There will be pains and pain.  Guaranteed.  You can still do much.  There will be hurt, but there’s no need to grant it more power over you than it must have.”

Spree greeted the vet who came to administer the euthanasia with her typical curiosity and people-love.  A wagging tail, a nose pressed into the person’s thigh.  The last seconds before she passed, she lay full-length and at ease.  The vet had earlier inserted a catheter in her left paw to make both morphine and euthanasia easier to give, fuss-free.  Spree nosed the syringe that held the dose as the vet pushed the plunger.  “What is this?”  Always she had explored her world first through her exquisite sense of smell.  Near-sighted as she was her whole life, smell was her go-to sense.  It is of course the chief sense for most dogs, but so much more so, almost obsessively so, in her case.  Each shopping trip we brought into the house required a comprehensive smell-check, each item sniffed and investigated completely, regardless of whether it was (to a Newf) fit for food.  In part, the Lessons here seemed to be “Sniff out whatever comes into your orbit.  Find out its nature, whether it directly concerns you or not.  And enjoy the physical senses.  They also do not last, but each will tell you much about this life.”  And yet another lesson:  “Dying may suck, true.  Death, however, does not deserve our fear.  Pain does not last forever.  Be curious about everything.  Friends, isn’t that a better way?”

Animals teach wordlessly, and therefore often more effectively, through their nature as other spiritual beings who share the planet with us.  Here I have interpreted into language some of that teaching as best I could, without excessive anthropomorphizing.  I send gratitude for this fur-teacher in our lives.  And I thank old wisdom-teacher William Blake for writing, “Everything that lives is holy, life delights in life.”

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Shinto — Way of the Gods

[Related posts: Shinto & Shrine Druidry 1 | 2 | 3 || Shinto — Way of the Gods || Renewing the Shrine 1 | 2 || My Shinto 1 | 2 ]

hikonejoAlmost two decades ago now, in the early 1990s, my wife and I lived for a year in Hikone, a medium-sized city in central Japan, about an hour’s train ride north of Kyoto.  The city’s most visible claim to fame is Hikone Castle, a 380-year-old wooden fortress that dominates the downtown skyline.  But the most  enduring memory I took from Japan and have never forgotten is the profound impression of its many Shinto shrines — roughly 80,000 of them, according to various sources — that dot the landscape and invite the casual visitor as well as the reverent worshiper.  I usually found myself somewhere between the two.  But this wasn’t ever a problem. Visitors, including foreigners, are welcome.

Shinto shrines are impressive for their openness.  Many (especially the smaller and rural ones) are free to visit (though of course donations are gratefully accepted), wonderfully peaceful, and lovingly tended.  Not once did I see any graffiti or vandalism in the dozen or so shrines I frequented, in either countryside or city.  Often enough I was the only person present, which allowed for a meditative experience of the grounds and atmosphere. Here’s a shot of the entrance to Taga Taisha, about 20 minutes from our apartment in Hikone.

During matsuri or festivals, however, a shrine can be absolutely mobbed, and that’s a wholly different experience, also not to be missed!  You can catch something of the energy of a festival in this shot below of Tenso Jinja shrine.  The celebrants in the background carry a mikoshi, a portable shrine, back to Tenso Jinja after a day of parading it around the town.  Usually there’s a musical accompaniment, and the bearers of the mikoshi can get very enthusiastic in their chants, drawing quite a crowd.  In retrospect, the experience felt very Druidic — all that energy, all the communal good feeling, everyone included.

Shinto is the “way of the kami,” the Japanese word used to translate both English “god” (and “God”) as well as “spirit,” “ancestor” or “essence.” From the Shinto perspective, the world of the kami overlaps with ours.  Everything has its kami, and the natural world is full of places that manifest the particularly strong presence of kami.

Thus, natural objects pervaded with kami often receive a small marker shrine and sometimes other identifying signs, like at Hatagoiwa just off the coast in Ishikawa prefecture.  Note the rope linking the large ocean rocks, as well as the small red shrine atop the larger rock.

Shinto focuses on practice more than belief. One of its key practices is purification, so that we can participate in the world of the kami more consciously and harmoniously. For that reason, the entrance to a Shinto shrine typically includes a temizuya (literally “hand-water-spot”) or basin for ritual washing before proceeding further.  Here you can see the basin and the bamboo dippers for washing.

The marker signalling the sacred space of a shrine is the torii gate, through which all visitors pass.  The torii may be simple, like this wooden one at Ise, one of the oldest and most famous shrines.

Or it can be wonderfully elaborate, like the main entrance of Fushimi-Inari Jinja near Kyoto, and inside, its sloping corridor of seemingly endless red torii.

Lest you feel this is all well and good, but for all that still remote from your life, there’s a major Shinto shrine in Washington state, near Seattle, named Tsubaki Grand Shrine.  And among its kami is Kokudo Kunitama-no-Kami, who protects the North American continent.

Here’s a shot of the interior of a shrine, featuring dosojin, or kami representing an ancestral married couple.  Dosojin are protective spirits, and often placed along borders and boundaries.

The last shot is of a dosojin more recognizably human, marking a field border.

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Images:  Hikone-jo; Taga Taisha; Tenso; Hatagoiwa; Ise torii; Fushimi-Inari; Tsubaki; dosojin; dosojin2.

The Hunger Games — a Meditation

“When I wake up, the other side of the bed is cold,” says Katniss Everdeen, opening Suzanne Collins’ novel The Hunger Games as both narrator and protagonist, and launching a major theme and complex of imagery in the book.

The widely-anticipated movie version of the novel arrives in a little over a month, in late March.  The transformation of novel into film, with its inevitable directorial choices, budgetary limitations and too-specific casting of too-attractive young actors, will enchant some and disappoint others.  No film can perfectly incarnate the word-world of a book to everyone’s satisfaction.  (Here’s a link to an official trailer, in case you’re curious and haven’t yet seen it.)  But it’s the novel I wish to focus on here.

The presence or absence of warmth is a recurring theme:  heat — passion — violence — fire continually trade places throughout the story.  Human warmth is, after all, what initially launches Katniss into the story.  She volunteers on the spur of the moment to take the place of her beloved sister Prim, in the annual national lottery that selects a pair of youths from each of the twelve districts of a future North America and drops them into a televised death match.  It’s blood sport with a vengeance.

**Spoiler Alert**

Prim is now safe, thanks to Katniss.  But once Katniss is taken from her home, along with the other chosen youths who are now her rivals, she is pampered, buffed, polished, trained — and made over to show off an explicit fire imagery her stylists have conceived for her.  As part of the lead-up to the competition, along with her rivals, she is interviewed and paraded on a nationally broadcast special program.  But first, the finishing touches.

The team works on me until late afternoon, turning my skin to glowing satin, stenciling patterns on my arms, painting flame designs on my twenty perfect nails.  Then Venia goes to work on my hair, weaving strands of red in a pattern that begins at my left ear … They erase my face with a layer of pale make-up and draw my features back out. Huge dark eyes, full red lips, lashes that throw off bits of light when I blink. Finally, they cover my entire body in a powder that makes me shimmer in gold dust. (127-128, pprbk. edition)

After the makeover, Katniss is dressed in her costume for the evening.

I can feel the silken inside as they slip it down over my body, then the weight.  It must be forty pounds … The creature standing before me in the full length mirror has come from another world.  Where skin shimmers and eyes flash and apparently they make their clothes from jewels … the slightest movement gives the impression I am engulfed in tongues of fire. (128)

I’m not perceiving something new here — other authors have gone further — there’s a book out titled The Girl Who Was on Fire which explores this theme in the novel in depth.  Soon the gritty, violent death-match will replace this world of artifice and polish, and with the starkest contrast leave a trail of bodies dispatched bloodily, and even the survivors gashed, burnt, deafened, half-poisoned, dehydrated and starving.  But the elemental world the novel has conjured persists in these sharply unglamorous forms.  Fire of the spirit, the singular drive to survive.  Fire of anger at the political motivation underlying the contest which deploys needless violence and death.  Fire for cooking, fire as weapon, water for thirst and bathing, earth — a cave — for protection.  Fire of human passion, whether genuine or contrived for show.

The Hunger Games has already achieved the dubious distinction of banned book status, as if it advocated violence instead of patently demonstrating against it.  But violence nevertheless permeates our world, and the younger readers who have taken this book to heart and made it into a phenomenon respond enthusiastically to a story and an author who acknowledges this fact honestly. Further, Katniss offers a strong female protagonist in place of the one-dimensional tag-along female romantic interest more typical of plot-driven stories with male leads. She manages to confront imminent death, make hard choices, and still retain her integrity in the face of what is after all adult manipulation and advocacy of institutionalized violence for political ends. The same human capacity for strong feeling that draws us toward violence can also lead us to bonds of strong affection and loyalty that are one antidote to violence. If that is fighting fire with fire, it often works.

Images:  cover; banned.

Answering Molly

I teach at a boarding school, and a few years ago, one of my freshman advisees asked a seemingly innocent question during one of our first meetings.  I was still learning the scores of new names teachers must match with faces each fall, but Molly’s inquiry made her stand out from the other students:  “What question should I ask, and what’s the answer?”

I vaguely remember replying that I’d have to give  her question some thought, but I’d be sure to get back to her.  As a bit of playfulness, the matter might have ended there.  But Molly brought up the question again, almost every time we saw each other in fact, and it soon became a kind of inside joke.  She graduated before I wrote this, but she’s on Facebook, so I’ll be sending this along to her, only half a decade late.

Ideally, teaching and learning invite questions.  Good questions distinguish students who are thinking well, and they can move classes in rich and unforeseen directions. Good students and teachers distinguish themselves by the mileage they can get out of each other’s questions.  How often I’ve shut students down by dismissing a question out of lack of time, answering it poorly, not hearing it as it was intended, or deferring it in the face of “more important things” and ultimately forgetting it.  A class often comes alive with student questions.  They break up a teacher monolog, and — better, often, than teacher questions — reveal student thinking, which may well be superior to anything the teacher has planned for the day.  For me, following wherever such questions lead at least once a week has proven worth the time again and again.

For questions imply answers.  Insofar as it can be put into language, a desire to know carries the seeds of its own response.  Often we already “know” much of what an answer should “look like” – which some might say is a problem, because it conditions the kinds of answers we can receive, or those we will devote the most energy looking for.  When the man searching for his lost key is asked why he’s looking under a streetlight, he replies, “Because that’s where the light is.”

If we ask simple informational questions, such as “What time is it?” we already know a great deal about the form of the answer.  “Half a cup” or “Poughkeepsie” or “grayish green” won’t do for answers in this case.  “Not yet” edges somewhat closer, since it has at least something to do with time.  “4:18 pm” serves very well, whether or not it’s accurate, because it has the form of the kind of answer we seek.  So it satisfies the formal requirement without necessarily satisfying the content requirement.

In the case of “large” questions, though, it can be more difficult to recognize whether an answer even satisfies the formal requirement.  But as The Hitch Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy insinuates, though we may have an answer,  even one as specific as 42, without its “inciting” question to steady and direct it like a rudder on a boat, an answer by itself may not help us very much.

Mary Oliver notes in one of her poems, “there are so many questions more beautiful than answers.” Living in our questions is one way to keep a spiritual search alive. Resist the craving for an answer too soon. In her poem “Spring,” she asserts, “‘There is only one question:/how to love this world.”  The biggest questions may not have an “answer” in any  sense we expect or demand, but they may nonetheless propel us in necessary or powerful directions, ones we need to travel.

Molly’s inquiry is a meta-question – a question about questions.  It asks about quality.  It also assumes the listener might know more than the speaker, at least about questions and their answers.  It implies that another can recognize – and provide – good or worthwhile questions worth asking, can anticipate the kinds of questions you may have, and has good answers.

Now all of this is unfair to load onto a probably offhand and casually teasing question.  But by continuing to ask it, Molly slowly transformed it into a kind of riddle or meditation object, deepening its significance.  What a lesson there!

One kind of answer to that question is also a general one, and sounds like advice for someone setting out on a journey:  ask the best kinds of questions you can, and trust that you also need to seek out your own answers.  Those anyone else can supply, except for day-to-day matters, aren’t really worth your time, except as provisional responses, first approximations to the answers you can best provide for yourself.  Question authority, because some sacred cows stopped giving milk a long time ago.  Question authority to find out if that authority deserves the name — does it feed you stock answers, or does it actually possess the power to lead you toward your own answers?  And better, authorize questions — encourage yourself, and others, to keep asking.

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Image:  cartoon

A Portable Altar, a Handful of Stones

An altar is an important element of very many spiritualities around the world.  It gives a structure to space, and orients the practitioner, the worshipper, the participant (and any observers) to objects, symbols and energies.  It’s a spiritual signpost, a landmark for identifying and entering sacred space. It accomplishes this without words, simply by existing.  The red color of the Taoist altar below immediately alerts the eye to its importance and energy.

As a center of ritual action and visual attention, an altar is positioned to draw the eye as much as any other sense.   In Christian churches like the one below, everything is subordinated to the Cross and the altar immediately below it.  Church architecture typically highlights this focus through symmetry and lighting.  But in every case, enter the sacred space which an altar delineates, and it tells you what matters by how it is shaped and ordered and organized.

Part of OBOD* training is the establishment and maintenance of a personal altar as part of regular spiritual practice.  Here’s a Druid altar spread on a tabletop.  Nothing “mundane” or arbitrary occupies the space — everything has ritual or spiritual purpose and significance to its creator.

Such obviously physical objects and actions and their appeal to the senses as aids in spiritual practice all spring from human necessity.  We need the grounding of our practices in the physical world of words, acts and sensations in order to “bring them home to us,” and make them real or “thingly,” which is what “real” (from Latin res “thing”) means.

Religions and spiritual teachings accomplish this in rich and diverse ways.  We have only to think of Christian baptism, communion and the imposition of ashes at Easter; Hindu prasad and tilak; Jewish bris/brit (circumcision) and tallit (prayer shawl) and so on.

Atheists who focus exclusively on belief in their critiques and debates thus forget the very real, concrete and physical aspects of religious and spiritual practice which invest actions, objects and words with spiritual meaning that cannot be dismissed merely by pointing out any logical or rational cracks in a set of beliefs.  Though you may present “evidence that God doesn’t exist” that seems irrefutable to you, you haven’t even begun to touch the beauty of an altar or spiritual structure, the warmth of a religious community of people you know and worship with, the power of a liturgy, the smell of incense, the tastes of ritual meals, the sounds of ritual music and song.

Just as we hear people describe themselves as “spiritual without being religious” as they struggle to sift forms of religion from the supposed “heart” of spirituality, plenty of so-called “believers” are “religious without being spiritual.”  The forms of their spiritual and religious practice are rich with association, memory and community, and can be as important as — or more so than — a particular creed or set of beliefs.

Having said all of this, I’ve had a set of experiences that incline me away from erecting a physical altar for my Druid practice.  So I’m working toward a solution to the spiritual “problem” this presents.  Let me approach it indirectly.  Once again, and hardly surprising to anyone who’s followed this blog or is as bookish as I am, the trail runs through books.

Damiano, the first volume in a fabulous (and sadly under-known) trilogy by R. A. MacAvoy, and recently reissued as part of an omnibus edition called Trio for Lute, supplies an image for today’s post.  Damiano Delstrego is a young Renaissance Italian who happens to be both witch and aspiring musician.  His magic depends for its focus on a staff, and we see both the strengths and limitations of such magical tools in various episodes in the novel, and most particularly when he encounters a Finnish woman who practices a singing magic.

When I read the trilogy at its first publication in the 80s, the Finnish magic sans tools seemed to me much superior to “staff-based” power.  (Partly in the wake of Harry Potter and the prevalence of wands and wand-wielders in the books and films, there’s a resurgence of interest in this aspect of the art, and an interesting new book just published reflecting that “tool-based” bias, titled Wandlore: the Art of Crafting the Ultimate Magical Tool).

So when I then read news of church burnings, desecrated holy  sites, quests for lost spiritual objects (like the Holy Grail) and so on, the wisdom of reposing such power in a physical object seemed to me dubious at best.  For whatever your own beliefs, magic energy — whether imbued by intention, Spirit, habit, the Devil, long practice, belief in a bogus or real power — keeps proving perilously vulnerable to misplacement, loss or wholesale destruction.  Add to this Jesus’ observation that we are each the temple of Spirit, and my growing sense of the potential of that inner temple of contemplation — also a feature of OBOD practice — and you get my perspective.

Carrying this admitted bias with me over the years, when I came last year to the lesson in the OBOD Bardic series that introduced the personal altar, I realized I would need both contemplation and creativity to find my way.

My solution so far is a work in progress, an alpha or possibly a beta version.  My altar is portable, consisting of just five small stones, one for each of the classic European five elements — four plus Spirit.  Of course I have other associations, visualizations and a more elaborate (and still evolving) practice I do not share here. But you get the idea.  (If you engage in a more Native-American nourished practice, you might choose seven instead: the four horizontal directions, above [the zenith], below [the nadir] and the center.)

I can pocket my altar in a flash, and re-deploy it on a minimal flat space (or — in a pinch — right on the palm of my hand).  One indulgence I’ve permitted myself: the stones originate from a  ritual gift, so they do in fact have personal symbolic — or magical, if you will — significance for me.  But each altar ritual I do includes both an invitation for descent and re-ascent of power or imagery or magic to and away from the particular stones that represent my altar.  Lose them, and others can take their place for me with minimal ritual “loss” or disruption.  Time and practice will reveal whether this is a serviceable solution.

This post is already long enough, so I’ll defer till later any discussion of the fitness of elemental earth/stone standing in for the other elements.

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*OBOD — the particular “flavor” of Druidry I’m studying and practicing.

Images: Singapore Taoist altar; Christian altar; Druid altar; Amazon/Trio for Lute.

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Updated: 27 July 2013

Wood and Water

There’s elemental comfort in contemplating the woodpile in our back lean-to (and a second one outdoors) — a reassurance that reaches to the bone.  Wood is our primary source of heat, and we spend about $600 a year to heat our small ranch house.  Some rooms have electric baseboard which we use only minimally, when we’re away for more than a few days in winter, to save pipes from freezing.  Taking a break from splitting, I stand and count days and logs, logs and days.  And I give thanks to the waiting trees around our property.

Yes, it’s labor-intensive to feed a stove and keep it drawing well. If you’ve maintained a fire, you know these things, of course — I’m hardly telling you anything new.  But for us the payback of wood is true solace:  even when the power goes out, and no matter the windchill, we stay warm.  Each log is captured sunlight, and if you’ve spent any time in wood heat, you know its delightful penetrating quality, much like sunbathing. (This winter has been mild so far for southern VT — our heaviest single snowfall clocked in at under a foot, and the thermometer dove and hovered just below zero Fahrenheit for only a couple of days last month.  Today on our hilltop the mercury hit the mid-40s — briefly.)

Especially at night during a winter outage, with flames or embers our only source of illumination beyond candlelight or short bursts of flashlight, a moment’s reverie can transport us back 10,000 years to a Neolithic cave and the flicker of firelight on stone walls.  You sit close to each other for added warmth, and fire-watching feels both utterly ancient and distinctly human.  Then the hearth resumes its old and honored place as center of life and civilization.  (Brigid, saint and goddess, patron of Candlemas and Imbolc just past, is lady of the hearth-fire.) Without heat on a bitter night, we’re each reduced to King Lear’s “thing itself … unaccommodated man … a poor, bare, forked animal.”  At such times, more even than water, heat’s the immediate necessity.

When we first visited the house with a realtor on a bright, cold January day some years back, I remember thinking how much work wood heat would be.  But we’ve only needed to start a fire about half a dozen times since late October, when the stove began burning steadily.  Since then, the coals are almost always still hot enough in the morning to re-ignite whole logs without kindling.  My wife or I wake up most nights now, in the small hours,  almost taking turns without consciously planning it, to stoke the fire just once, and return to bed.  And we can cook on the stove.  Yes, it takes longer, but if the power’s out, time suddenly returns in abundance.

As for water, beyond our well, we have a small pond at the bottom of our yard.  Again, when we first saw the property, all I thought was “mosquito breeding ground,” but I’ve come to see its multiple advantages.  No, the water’s not potable (though the minnows, salamanders and frogs don’t seem to mind), but we can boil it if need be. It also serves for irrigation in a drought. Come spring, we’ll be fitting a hand pump to our well-head for water during extended power outages.  (I stare at the pond now, this pale February light reducing the scene to white, gray, black, wondering how thick the ice is, how much chipping with an axe to reach the frigid liquid water.)

I record all these details in part because my wife and I spent half an hour yesterday watching clips of the new National Geographic series Doomsday Preppers, premiering next Tues., Feb. 7.  While the featured families and individuals carry their preparations to extremes most of us would not, it’s perfectly sensible to maintain a store of several days’ food and drinking water in case of power outages or local natural disasters.  Dried, canned and easy-to-prep foods if you have no means of cooking, rice and flour, beans and pasta if you do.

The harshness of local events in the past several months, like the drought in Texas, the severe tornadoes in the Midwest, and hurricane Irene in the Northeast, have persuaded people in ways nothing else could to consider such preparations.  If heat isn’t under your control and you live in a temperate (read “cold”) zone, it’s wise to have a fall-back plan.  Ditto for cooling, if your home otherwise bakes in the summer.  You don’t have to expect “the end of the world as we know it” to use (as my grandmother liked to say) — “the good sense God gave gravel.”

While much is made of Americans’ dependence on electricity and foreign oil, most of us learn pretty quickly, if we have to, how to make do with wind, water, wood and fire.  If you grew up in a small town,  attended a summer camp, went hiking or just stayed up overnight outside a house, you have a preliminary sense of your abilities and tolerances in the natural world.  It’s useful to know these, and build on them.  That old sense of self-reliance that’s part of the story we tell ourselves about the “American character” is a good place to begin.  And for you readers from other parts of the world, consider the equivalents in your cultures.  Make it a game, especially if you have young kids.   Think through your options in emergencies and disasters, and if they feel too constraining, work to expand them.  We live in such varied circumstances, so no one solution will work for everybody.  And that’s as it should be.

Come September, my wife and I will be back in CT, in school housing, with different contingency plans to consider.

A weekend’s reflection and planning will pay off down the road, even if they simply get you through the next minor “inconvenience” more smoothly.  As the inconvenience increases, so will the payoff.  Live long enough and you know from personal experience that John Lennon spoke true: life is what happens when you’re making other plans.

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Groundhog Day and Punxsutawney Phil

To get you into the spirit of Imbolc and Groundhog’s Day tomorrow, February 2nd, here’s a Youtube video documenting record attendance at Gobbler’s Knob outside Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania, on Groundhog’s Day, 2008.

If you’re impatient and don’t wish to watch the entire seven-minute video, begin with the first 20 seconds or so, as the town’s “Inner Circle” in black coats and top hats process to Gobbler’s Knob, and then cut to when the action picks up again with Phil’s appearance shortly after the four-minute mark.

For the “official” Groundhog Day site and up to the date info, as well as other videos, visit

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