Archive for March 2012

Gods and Orphans   2 comments

Sometimes you have experiences that just don’t fit.  They’re orphans, and like orphans, too often they’re left to fend for themselves, so they end up on the street.  Or else they’re stuck in a home by some well-meaning authority, where they may subsist uncomfortably for years in places where everyone else looks and acts and talks different.  There may not be enough love to go around, either, and like Oliver in Dickens’ novel Oliver Twist, they’re reduced to pleading, “Please, sir, may I have some more?”

Monday night, before the hard freeze here (19 and windy) that threatened all the burgeoning flowers and trees, I offered up a prayer.  I don’t usually pray in this way, but I found myself praying for all the wordless Rooted Ones busy putting out buds and leaves and new growth in response to the warm spell that caressed so much of the U.S.  “I cry to the Powers,” I found myself saying.  A little more love here, please.  The great willow in our back yard has pale leafy fronds.  The currants are budding.  Crabgrass pushes up from dead mats of last year’s growth.  The stems of bushes and the twigs of trees show reddish with sap. At the same time, I took stock in what I knew in some traditions about plant spirits, the personifications of energies that help individual species thrive.*  Let the devas and plant guardians sort it out.  Serve the larger balance — that sort of thing.  Then the nudge to pray came, so I honored it.  Everyone has a role to play.  Then the goddess Skaði presented herself.

All this took place while I was driving down and then back home with my wife from an out-of-state trip to CT.  Bookends to the day.  We’d tried to be efficient with our driving and gas use, like the good Greenies that on occasion we actually are, and schedule several appointments for the same day.  So we rose early, drove through welcome morning sun and glorious light to have a thermostat and brakes replaced on our car, get eye exams and prescriptions and glasses before a sale ended on April 1, drop off a gift at a friend’s house, and get to an admissions interview for a certificate program I’m interested in.  (More about that as it progresses.)

We’d scheduled ourselves fairly loosely, but still the sequence of appointments mattered for times and distances to travel to the next stop.  So when the car service that we’d been assured would take no more than two hours now promised to consume most of the day, we got a loaner car from the dealership, rescheduled and shuffled some of our meetings.  Ah, modern life.  Maybe it’s no more than imagination, but at such times recall of past lives makes horse-and-buggy days seem idyllic and stress-free by contrast.  Back then we didn’t do so much because we simply couldn’t.  Does being able to do more always mean we should?

So, Skaði.**  Not to belabor you with too much detail: she’s a Scandinavian goddess of winter, hunting, mountains and skiing. A sort of northern Diana of the snows, an Artemis of the cold heights and crags.  I’d run across her a few years ago, when I was doing some reading and meditation in Northern traditions.  She loomed in my consciousness then, briefly.  Frankly I found Bragi, the god of eloquence and poetry and patron of bards, much more to my taste.  But there she was, for a short time.

I flashed on an image of Skaði then, and she seemed — and still seems to me — quite literally cold, implacable, uninterested in humans, remote, austere, elegant in the way ice formations and mountain snows and the Himalayas are elegant — and utterly forbidding.  Not someone even slightly interested in exchange, in human interaction.  Now here she was.  If you’ve been pursued by any of the Shining Folk, whether the Morrigan or Thor, Jesus or Apollo, you know that often enough they choose you rather than the other way around.  So you make do.  You pay no attention.  Or you can’t help it and now you have a patron deity.  Or something in between.  If you’re a bloody fool, you blab about it too much, insisting, and the nice men in white coats fit you for one too.  Or maybe you and Thorazine become best friends.  It’s at times like this that I’m glad of the comparative anonymity of this blog.  I can be that bloody fool, up to a point, and the people who need to will pass me off as just another wacko blogger.  And then this post will recede behind the others, and only one or two people will happen on it in another month or two.  The gods are out there, and they’re in our heads, too.  Both/and.  So we deal with it.  And I can step back to my normal life.  Or not.  I’ll keep you posted.

So Skaði of the daunting demeanor wants something.  I prayed to the Powers, almost in the Tolkien Valar = “Powers” sense — to anyone who was listening.  Open door.  Big mistake?  I’m a Druid, but here’s the Northern Way inserting itself into my life.  My call goes out, and Skaði picks up and we’re having this conversation in my head while I drive north on I-91 with my wife.  I’ve gotten used to these kinds of things over time, as much as you can, which often isn’t so much.  In a way I suppose it’s revenge — I used to laugh out loud at such accounts when I read them and shake my head at what were “obviously people’s mental projections.”  Now I’ve got one saying if you want protection for your shrubbery (God help me, I’m also hearing the scene from Monty Python and the Holy Grail at this point.  The Knights of Ni:  “Bring me a shrubbery!”), then do something for me.  What? I said.  A blog post, first, then a website shrine.  So here’s the blog post first.  I’ll provide the shrine link when I’ve set it up.

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*If you’re interested in an excellent account of this, check out The Findhorn Garden, originally published in 1976.  This Scottish community, established on a barren piece of land, “inexplicably” flourished with the help of conscious cooperation with nature spirits.  It’s documented in photographs and interviews.  There are several books with similar titles and later dates, also published by Findhorn Community.

**The ð in her name is the “th” sound in with.  I’m slowly realizing that part of my fussing over words, the urge to get it right, the annoyance at others who seem not to care about linguistic details, can be transformed to a gift.  So for me part of honoring Skaði is getting her name right.

Image:  Skaði.  I can’t draw or paint to save my life, so when I came across this stunning representation, a shiver slalomed down my back.  Skaði’s footsteps, I guess I should say.  This is in the spirit of my experience of the goddess.

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The Fertile Virgin   6 comments

“Only what is virgin can be fertile.”  OK, Gods, now that you’ve dropped this lovely little impossibility in my lap this morning, what am I supposed to do with it?  Yeah, I get that I write about these things, but where do I begin? “Each time coming to the screen, the keyboard, can be an opportunity” — I know that, too.  But it doesn’t make it easier.   Why don’t you try it for a change?  Stop being all god-dy and stuff and try it from down here.  Then you’ll see what it’s like.

OK, done?  Fit of pique over now?

I never had much use for prayer.  Too often it seems to consist either of telling God or the Gods what to do and how to do it (if you’re arrogant) or begging them for scraps (if they’ve got you afraid of them, on your knees for the worst reasons).  But prayer as struggle, as communication, as connecting any way you can with what matters most — that I comprehend.  Make of this desire to link an intention.  A daily one, then hourly.  Let if fill, if if needs to, with everything in the way of desire, and hand that back to the universe.  Don’t worry about Who is listening.  Your job is to tune in to the conversation each time, to pick it up again.  And the funny thing is that once you stop worrying about who is listening, everything seems to be listening (and talking).  Then the listening rubs off on you as well.  And you finally shut up.

That’s the second half, often, of the prayer.  To listen.  Once the cycle starts, once the pump gets primed, it’s easier.  You just have to invite and welcome who you want to talk with.  Forget that little detail, and there can be lots of other conversations on the line.  The fears and dreams of the whole culture.  Advertisers get in your head, through repetition.  (That’s why it’s best to limit TV viewing, or dispense with it altogether, if you can.  Talk about prayer out of control.  They start praying you.)  They’ve got their product jingle and it’s not going away.  Sometimes all you’ve got in turn is a divine product jingle.  It may be a song, a poem, a cry of the heart.  The three Orthodox Christian hermits of the great Russian novelist Tolstoy have their simple prayer to God:  “We are three.  You are three.  Have mercy on us!”  Over time, it fills them, empowers them.  They become nothing other than the prayer.  They’ve arrived at communion.

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Equi-nox.  Equal night and day.  The year hanging, if only briefly, in the balance of energies.  Spring, a coil of energy, poised.  The earth dark and heavy, waiting, listening.  The change in everything, the swell of the heart, the light growing.  Thaw.  The last of the ice on our pond finally yields to the steady warmth of the past weeks, to the 70-degree heat of Tuesday.  The next day, Wednesday, my wife sees  salamanders bobbing at the surface.  Walk closer, and they scatter and dive, rippling the water.

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I once heard a Protestant clergywoman say to an ecumenical assembly, “We all know there was no Virgin Birth.  Mary was just an unwed, pregnant teenager, and God told her it was okay.  That’ s the message we need to give girls today, that God loves them, and forget all this nonsense about a Virgin birth.”  …  I sat in a room full of Christians and thought, My God, they’re still at it, still trying to leach every bit of mystery out of this religion, still substituting the most trite language imaginable …

The job of any preacher, it seems to me, is not to dismiss the Annunciation because it doesn’t appeal to modern prejudices, but to remind congregations of why it might still be an important story (72-73).

So Kathleen Norris writes in her book Amazing Grace:  A Vocabulary of Faith.  She goes on to quote the Trappist monk, poet and writer Thomas Merton, who

describes the identity he seeks in contemplative prayer as a  point vierge [a virgin point] at the center of his being, “a point untouched by illusion, a point of pure truth … which belongs entirely to God, which is inaccessible to the fantasies of our own mind or the brutalities of our own will.  This little point … of absolute poverty,” he wrote, “is the pure glory of God in us” (74-5).

So if I need to, I pull away the God-language of another tradition and listen carefully “why it might still be an important story.”  Not “Is it true or not?” or “How can anybody believe that?”  But instead, why or how it still has something to tell me.  Another kind of listening, this time to stories, to myths, our greatest stories, for what they still hold for us.

One of the purest pieces of wisdom I’ve heard concerns truth and lies.  There are no lies, in one sense, because we all are telling the truth of our lives every minute.  It may be a different truth than we asked for, or than others are expecting, but it’s pouring out of us nonetheless.  Ask someone for the truth, and if they “lie,” their truth is that they’re afraid.  That knowledge, that insight, may well be more important than the “truth” you thought you were looking for.  “Perfect love casteth out fear,” says the Galilean.  So it’s an opportunity for me to practice love, and take down a little bit of the pervasive fear that seems to spill out of lives today.

Norris arrives at her key insight in the chapter:

But it is in adolescence that the fully formed adult self begins to emerge, and if a person has been fortunate, allowed to develop at his or her own pace, this self is a liberating force, and it is virgin.  That is, it is one-in-itself, better able to cope with peer pressure, as it can more readily measure what is true to one’s self, and what would violate it.  Even adolescent self-absorption recedes as one’s capacity for the mystery of hospitality grows:  it is only as one is at home in oneself that one may be truly hospitable to others–welcoming, but not overbearing, affably pliant but not subject to crass manipulation.  This difficult balance is maintained only as one remains [or returns to being] virgin, cognizant of oneself as valuable, unique, and undiminishable at core (75).

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This isn’t where I planned to go.  Not sure whether it’s better.  But the test for me is the sense of discovery, of arrival at something I didn’t know, didn’t understand in quite this way, until I finished writing.  Writing as prayer.  But to say this is a “prayer blog” doesn’t convey what I try to do here, or at least not to me, and I suspect not to many readers.  A Druid prayer comes closer, it doesn’t carry as much of the baggage as the word “prayer” may carry for some readers, and for me.  “I’m praying for you,” friends said when I went into surgery three years ago.  And I bit my tongue to keep from replying, “Just shut up and listen.  That will help both us a lot more.”  So another way of understanding my blog:  this is me, trying to shut up and listen.  I talk too much in the process, but maybe the most important part of each post is the silence after it’s finished, the empty space after the words end.

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Norris, Kathleen.  Amazing Grace:  A Vocabulary of Faith.  New York:  Riverhead Books, 1998.

PIE for Breakfast   Leave a comment

This post is self-indulgent, so if you’re not feeling mellow enough to tolerate such things, best move on and come back another time.  OK, you’ve been warned.

Beside me as I write this lies a thick paperback copy of J. P. Mallory’s cumbersomely titled The Oxford Introduction to Proto-Indo-European and the Proto-Indo-European World.  Since it’s a week-end day like today, and nothing presses me to get up and pretend to accomplish anything, I pull it from the nightstand and lie abed thumbing through it.  Yes, I’ll say it first:   “Nerds ‘R’ Us.”

I confess to abject weakness for books like this one about Proto-Indo-European, the reconstructed mother tongue of everyone who speaks one of the approximately 100 languages descended from it — roughly half the planet, three billion people, give or take a few million. I open the book and pause at a list of less well-known extinct language names — Illyrian, Dacian, Thracian, Macedonian, Phrygian — that evoke salad dressings, or obscure vintages, or mysterious bloodlines of characters in an occult novel.  To anyone wired just a little differently, the whole thing must just scream B O R I N G.  Though if you’re such a person, you’ve probably stopped reading this already.

My addiction occasions sighs from my wife, because my corridor of facing bookcases dominates a little-used hallway which has now transformed into a single-file passage to the front door of our house.  Language books fill one whole bookcase.  No, not for the most part languages I speak or know in any worldly useful way, but languages I drink from, for their beauty and architecture and sound (and ideas for my own conlangs*).  I know things about them not even their native speakers know, but I couldn’t speak most of them to save my life.  So this is language as first morning coffee, as comfort food, as fix.  Even the abbreviation PIE, for Proto-Indo-European, is comforting.  Pie.  Whipped cream.  Dessert.  Maybe for breakfast.  Flaky crust and steaming freshly baked fruit.  Ah.

The underlying draw of such things (beyond the sensuous indulgence I confess to above) seems quest-like.  After a long climb I crest a hilltop, the mist clears, and there before me are the ruins, thousands of years old.  Only instead of fallen pillars, abandoned steps, doorways opening on empty air, the ruins are words.  Ancient words, weathered, yet often still bearing a family likeness.  Wiros, gwena, brater, swesor.  Man, woman, brother, sister.  Mus, gwous, deiwos.  Mouse, cow, god.  Sedo, bhero.  I sit, I bear.  Oinos, dwou, treyes, kwetwor, penkwe.  One, two, three, four, five.  The likenesses grow if you know even a little Latin or a Romance language, or one of their cousins in India.

Some of the same fascination with this proto-language stirred in the first linguists who considered the verbal ruins they were painstakingly excavating and reconstructing.  Word by word, through comparisons of living languages and their structures and patterns, the older ancestral language was and is rebuilt.  See where the stones are notched, worn, and smudged with soot, and reassemble the fireplace they once made.  And there’s part of a wheel, an urn, a head-dress.  August Schleicher, who flourished in the first half of the 1800s, “sifted through the reconstructed Indo-European of his day for enough usable words to compose a short narrative tale … published in 1868” (Mallory, 45).  His colleagues caught something of the same fever, kept tweaking Schleicher’s story over the ensuing decades, and here’s a contemporary “version of their version”  of the first sentence that I’ve made somewhat more pronounceable for English speakers by taking a few small liberties.  Linguists will see the changes at once and cluck their tongues at me, and no one else will care:

Gurei owis, kwesyo ulna ne est, ekwons speket, oinom ge gurum wogom wegontem, oinom-kwe megam borom, oinom-kwe gumenem oku berontem.

“A sheep that had no wool saw [some] horses, one pulling a heavy wagon, one a heavy load, and another swiftly bearing a man” (ibid).

Maybe it comes down to this:  through such reconstructions we can come closer to talking with the ancestors — and maybe join them in their drinking songs, rather than expecting them just to sing along with ours.

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*My most developed conlang or constructed language is called Thosk.  (The name is cognate with Old English theod “people,” Oscan teuta “people,”  Latin teutonicus, and German Deutsch.)  Its word-stock and grammar are very Indo-European, and so it’s a sibling of English, Spanish, Latin, Hindi, Armenian, Greek, Pashto, French, Latvian, Swedish, Russian, Bengali, Serbian, Danish, Romanian, Ukrainian, Sanskrit, Farsi, Albanian, Dutch, Gujerati … you get the idea.  Here’s a simple sentence in Thosk:  Men ta tha moi urht bev ahi sumbend no meve klase.  “I give more work to anyone sleeping in my classes.”

Mallory, J. P. and D. Q. Adams.  The Oxford Introduction to Proto-Indo-European and the Proto-Indo-European World.  New York:  Oxford University Press, 2006.

Drinking with the Ancestors   2 comments

Some teachings run you through their rituals.
Find your own way – individuals
know what works beyond the shown way:
try out drinking with the Ancestors.

Chat ‘em up — don’t merely greet ‘em;
such rites are chummy: do more than meet ’em.
(Spend your weekends with a mummy?)
But I like drinking with my Ancestors.

Another round of pints and glasses
will have us falling on our asses.
Leave off ritual when they’re calling —
you’ll be drinking with your Ancestors.

By and with the spirits near us —
“Don’t invoke us if you fear us” —
good advice: if you lose focus
though you’re drinking with your Ancestors,

in the morning you’ll be uncertain
if you just dreamed or drew the curtain
on some world where it more than seemed
that you were drinking with your Ancestors.

Alcohol works its own magic,
and not all good – it’s downright tragic
if you’re just hung over from what could
have been you drinking with your Ancestors.

They come in all shapes, and in all sizes:
some are heroes, some no prizes
(they’re like us in all our guises).
Listen: they are singing, they are cussing,
they can advise us if we’re fussing
over where our lives might go
or put on a ghostly show.
We’re the upshot, on the down low.
We’re the payoff, crown and fruit
(we got their genetic trash, and loot),
we’re their future – “build to suit.”
So start drinking with your ancestors.

*            *             *

Ancestor “worship” is sometimes a misnomer, though not always — some cultures do in fact pray to, propitiate and appease the spirits of the ancestral dead in ways indistinguishable from worship.  But others acknowledge what is simply fact — an awful lot (the simple fact that we’re here means our ancestors for the most part aren’t literally “an awful lot”) of people stand in line behind us.  Their lives lead directly to our own.  With the advent of photography it’s become possible to see images beyond the three- or four-generation remove that usually binds us to our immediate forebears.  I’m lucky to have a Civil War photo of my great-great grandfather, taken when he was about my age, in his early fifties.  In the way of generations past, he looks older than that, face seamed and thinned and worn.

The faces of our ancestral dead are often rightfully spooky.  We carry their genetics, of course, and often enough a distant echo of their family traditions, rhythms, expectations, and stories in our own lives — a composite of “stuff,” of excellences and limitations, that can qualify as karma in its most literal sense:  both the action and the results of doing.  But more than that, in the peculiar way of images, the light frozen there on the photograph in patches of bright and dark is some of the purest magic we have.  My great-great-grandfather James looks out toward some indeterminate distance — and in the moment of the photo, time — and that moment is now oddly immortal.  Who knows if it was one of his better days?  He posed for a photo, and no doubt had other things on his mind at the time, as we all do.  We are rarely completely present for whatever we’re doing, instead always on to the next thing, or caught up in the past, wondering why that dog keeps barking somewhere in the background, wondering what’s for dinner, what tomorrow will bring, whether any of our hopes and ambitions and worries justify the energy we pour into them so recklessly.

And I sit here gazing at that photo, or summoning his image from what is now visual memory of the photo, as if I met him, which in some way I now have.  Time stamps our lives onto our faces and here is his face.  No Botox for him.  Every line and crease is his from simply living.  And around him in my imagination I can pose him with his spouse and children (among them my great-grandfather William) and parents, and so on, back as far — almost unimaginably far — as we are human.  Fifty thousand years?  Two hundred thousand?  A million?  Yes, by the time that strain reaches me it’s a ridiculously thin trickle.  But then, if we look back far enough for the connection, it’s the same trickle, so we’re told, that flows in the veins of millions of others around us.  If we can trust the work of evolutionary biologists and geneticists, a very large number of people alive on the planet today descend from a relative handful of ultimate ancestors.  Which seems at first glance to fly in the face of our instinct and of simple mathematics, for that spreading tree of ancestors which, by the time it reaches my great-great-grandfather’s generation, includes thirty people  directly responsible for my existence (two parents, four grandparents, eight great-grandparents and sixteen great-great grandparents).  Someone called evolution the “ultimate game of survivor.” And now I break off one line, stalling forever this one particular evolutionary parade, because my wife and I have no children.

The poem of mine that opened this entry, “Drinking with the Ancestors,” suggests we can indeed meet and take counsel with members of this immense throng through the exercise of inhibition-lowering and imagination-freeing imbibing of alcohol.  Of course there are also visualization exercises and still other techniques that are suitably alcohol-free — more decorous and tame.  Depending on who you want to talk to among your clan, you can have an experience as real as most face-to-face talks with people who have skin on.  The difference between us in-carnate and ex-carnate folks is indeed the carne.  No sudden dispensation of wisdom automatically accrues to us just because we croak.  A living idiot becomes a dead idiot.  Likewise a wise soul is wise, in or out of flesh.

It seems fitting to end with an experience of the ancestors.  Not mine, this time — I keep such things close, because often when we experience them, they are for us alone, and retain their significance and power only if we do not diminish them by laying them out for others who may know nothing of our circumstances and experiences.  Wisdom is not a majority vote.  Even my wife and I may not share certain inner discoveries.  We’ve both learned the hard way that some experiences are for ourselves alone.  But it’s a judgment call.  Some things I share.

So in my place I give you Mary Stewart’s Merlin, in her novel The Hollow Hills*, recounting his quest for Excalibur, and an ancestor dream-vision that slides into waking.  The flavor of it captures one way such an ancestral encounter can go, the opposite end of the easy beery camaraderie that can issue from making the libations that welcome ancestral spirits to a festival or party, as in my poem.  Note the transition to daytime consciousness, the thin edge of difference between dream and waking.

I said “Father?  Sir?” but, as sometimes happens in dreams, I could make no sound.  But he looked up. There were no eyes under the peak of the helmet.  The hands that held the sword were the hands of a skeleton …  He held the sword out to me.  A voice that was not my father’s said, “Take it.”  It was not a ghost’s voice, or the voice of bidding that comes with vision.  I have heard these, and there is no blood in them; it is as if the wind breathed through an empty horn.  This was a man’s voice, deep and abrupt and accustomed to command, with a rough edge to it, such as comes from anger, or sometimes from drunkenness; or sometimes, as now, from fatigue.

I tried to move, but I could not, any more than I could speak.    I have never feared a spirit, but I feared this man.  From the blank of shadow below the helmet came the voice again, grim, and with a faint amusement, that crept along my skin like the brush of a wolf’s pelt felt in the dark.  My breath stopped and my skin shivered.  He said, and I now clearly heard the weariness in the voice:  “You need not fear me.  Nor should you fear the sword.  I am not your father, but you are my seed.  Take it, Merlinus Ambrosius.  You will find no rest until you do.”

I approached him.  The fire had dwindled, and it was almost dark.  I put my hands out for the sword and he reached to lay it across them … As the sword left his grip it fell, through his hands and through mine, and between us to the ground.  I knelt, groping in the darkness, but my hand met nothing.  I could feel his breath above me, warm as a living man’s, and his cloak brushed my cheek.  I heard him say:  “Find it.  There is no one else who can find it.”  Then my eyes were open and it was full noon, and the strawberry mare was nuzzling at me where I lay, with her mane brushing my face (226-7).

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*Stewart, Mary.  The Hollow Hills.  New York:  Fawcett Crest Books, 1974.

Mud Season and Tree Sugar   Leave a comment

This warmth won’t last, though it makes me say
earth feels like home on a sunny day.
But let sky darken and wind turn chill
And old winter wields dominion still.

*  *  *

While the warm hours last, birds try out songs we haven’t heard for months, and the woodworkers appear.  Not carpenters or cabinet-makers, but those people who come out of the woodwork on fine days like this, delightfully odd folks you swear you’ve never seen before, or at least not on this planet.  Probably I play the role myself for at least one other person, with my day’s stubble and turtleneck, wool socks with Birkenstocks.  “There are things more important than comfort,” says author Ursula LeGuin, “unless you are an old woman or a cat.”  Though I can’t qualify as the former, I’ve been feeling feline these last few days, so I pay no mind.

In our co-op parking lot an old woman is singing to herself, a rhythmic song in another language that keeps time with her cane striking the ground.  A sky-blue 60s Cadillac makes its way around the parking lot, then subsides with a splutter.  A couple climb out, then look up like they’ve never seen sky before and, heads tilted back, they drink it in for a full minute or more.  Their pleasure is contagious.  It’s a day people greet strangers simply because we’ve resurfaced, emerged from the bunker of ice and snow and cold and hunkering down, into a world of thaw and mud and sudden warmth on the skin.

Sugar shacks smoke trough the night as the sap rises and the “sweet trees” yield their juice.  You pass what you think is just a stand of trees, and there’s a faint square glow from a shack window, someone patiently (or impatiently) at work through the evening.  Boil down the sap over a low heat, a wood fire as often as not, more and still more, then just keep going beyond all reason, and you eventually get a single lovely brown gallon for every thirty to forty of pale sap you’ve lugged in.  If you do sugaring for more than yourself and family and maybe a few friends, you upgrade and invest in an evaporator.  And if through the hours and days you manage not to scorch the slowly condensing syrup, that first taste on pancakes (or over a bowl of crisp new snow, a northern treat more rare this year) makes sore muscles and bloodshot eyes and smoky clothing worth it.

The French further north have their cabanes a sucre, where the temperatures haven’t risen quite so high and more of the white stuff remains.

And sweeter still, in less than ten days, the vernal equinox, with day then overtaking night.  Hail, growing light!

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Images:  Sugar shack; cabane.

Posted 13 March 2012 by adruidway in Druidry, equinox, nature, outdoors, poetry, Sugar Shack, trees

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Aboutness   Leave a comment

“I heard you saw the movie yesterday.  So what’s it about?”  “Jean and Bill are arguing again.  What’s that about?”  “OK, he tried to explain and it still doesn’t make sense to me.  But you understand those kinds of things, so tell me about it.”  And there’s the old-time newspaper seller’s cry:  “Extra, extra!   Read all about it!!”

This elusive quality of aboutness is core to so many of our ways and days.  We spend years in education (and life) dividing things up into their parts and labeling them, and then at least as much time putting them back together, searching for the links and connections between them, so that we can “grasp” them, “get” them, understand them.  Re-assemble and it might resemble what it used to be.  We crave community, fellowship and friends along the way at least as much as we prize our American individualism and independence and self-reliance.  We long for aboutness.

About is near, close, approximately, almost — good enough for daily reckoning, for horseshoes and hand-grenades. It’s about five miles.  We’re about out of time.  About is sometimes the guts, the innards, the details, all the juicy pieces.  About is also the whole, the overview, the heart of the matter.  If you know about cars or cooking, you don’t need to know every specific model or recipe to “know your way around them.”  What you don’t know you can usually pick up quickly because of family similarities they share.  If you under-stand, you know the sub-stance.  Position yourself in the right place and time (apparently beneath what you desire to comprehend, according to the peculiar English idiom), and you’ll get the gist.

Layers, strata.  This onion-like reality keeps messing us up with its levels.  Its aboutness won’t stay put as just one thing, but consists of stuff piled on other stuff below it.  Often you gotta dig down through the fossil layer to reach the starting point.  Peel it all away, though, and sometimes all you have is peel.  You may know the simple and lovely blessing — there are several versions extant:

Back of the loaf is the snowy flour,
back of the flour is the mill;
back of the mill is the wheat and the shower,
the sun and the Maker’s will.

Sometimes if you pay attention you can catch it like a melody on the wind, something that lingers behind the sunlight.  We know more than we know we know.  This is the natural mysticism that comes with living, however hard we may try to ignore it.  This is the  aboutness that underlies our lives and our days, while we scurry from one thing to another, in pursuit of happiness.  So it follows us, shaking its head at our antics.  It could catch up to us if we stopped, looked and listened, if we made space for it to live with us, rather than renting out a room next door, trying vainly to catch our attention.

Robert Frost is one of my go-to guys for insight, as readers of this blog discover.  In “Directive” he begins with that sense of constriction, and our partial memory of a past that shines brighter because of what we’ve forgotten about its difficulties.  Yes, the poem’s “about” dying New England towns and abandoned houses, but also about us:

Back out of all this now too much for us,
Back in a time made simple by the loss
Of detail, burned, dissolved, and broken off
Like graveyard marble sculpture in the weather …

If there’s a place and home for us, he goes on to say, it’s reachable only by misdirection.  “You can’t get there from here,” because the “here” has no more substance than anything else.  It won’t serve as a starting point.  Time has wrenched it free of its moorings.  Things drift.

The road there, if you’ll let a guide direct you
Who only has at heart your getting lost,
May seem as if it should have been a quarry—
Great monolithic knees the former town
Long since gave up pretense of keeping covered.
And there’s a story in a book about it …

Yes, there’s a story, maybe several stories, a hint or two that maybe somewhere else, or someone else, will do it for it us, will finally deliver to us what we’ve been seeking.  The stories of art, of music, of the great myths we want to believe even when we can’t.  Sometimes the hints are maddening, sometimes the only comfort we can lay hands on in our seeking.

Make yourself up a cheering song of how
Someone’s road home from work this once was,
Who may be just ahead of you on foot
Or creaking with a buggy load of grain.

Aren’t we almost there?  Or is it merely illusion?  Is this a path anyone else has traveled and succeeded in the end, or our own unique interstate roaring straight toward disaster?  What lies are we telling ourselves today?  And are we waking up to them at last?  You gotta get in to get out, go the Genesis lyrics (the band, not the Bible).  You have to get lost in order to be found.  That experience is necessary, though painful.  Not one of us is the son who stays at home.  We’re all prodigals.

And if you’re lost enough to find yourself
By now, pull in your ladder road behind you
And put a sign up CLOSED to all but me.
Then make yourself at home.

Might as well get comfortable being lost, because it’s gonna last a while.  Though we never can be wholly comfortable in illusions.  No end in sight.  The problem is that we don’t know this until the end actually IS in sight. What illusions do we need that will actually bring comfort for a time, at least?  They’re not illusions until we outgrow them, live through and past them.  In fact we need truths now that only later become illusions precisely because they will be too small for us anymore.

First there’s the children’s house of make-believe,
Some shattered dishes underneath a pine,
The playthings in the playhouse of the children.
Weep for what little things could make them glad.
Then for the house that is no more a house,
But only a belilaced cellar hole,
Now slowly closing like a dent in dough.
This was no playhouse but a house in earnest.

Our house in earnest, playhouse in our childhood, has collapsed, or will.  Our old selves won’t do.  They don’t fit.  We shuffle them off like snake-skins that bear the imprint of what lived in them, down to scar and scale, and we mourn and mistake them for ourselves, another illusion, standing there in the mirror that consciousness provides.

Who then can show us the way?  From this perspective, we need, not salvation, but someone to show us where we can walk on our own two feet.  Not out of vanity or stiff-necked pride, but because we have to make our way ourselves.  Otherwise it doesn’t stick.  It vanishes like a dream on waking.  Yes, others have carried us there briefly, by art or alcohol or sex or those moments of ecstasy that come on us unannounced and unsought, glimpses of home through the fog.

Tolkien has Gandalf and Pippin touch on it briefly in The Lord of the Rings:

Gandalf:  The grey rain-curtain of this world rolls back, and all turns to silver glass. And then you see it.

Pippin: What? Gandalf? See what?

Gandalf:  White shores … and beyond, a far green country under a swift sunrise.

Frost continues, wise old poet-guru.  (Sigmund Freud once remarked, “Everywhere I go, I find that a poet has been there before me.”)

Your destination and your destiny’s
A brook that was the water of the house,
Cold as a spring as yet so near its source,
Too lofty and original to rage.

We keep flowing — we’re not meant to stay put.  Heaven as stasis, as a static destination, an endpoint, a final arrival, nothing beyond, is a false heaven.  Enchantments of different kinds surround us. Some deceive, and some actively conceal what we know we must have in order to live at all.  Yet what we seek also and paradoxically lies hidden in plain sight. The water was “the water of the house.”  It’s right here.  What can we use to gather it up?

I have kept hidden in the instep arch
Of an old cedar at the waterside
A broken drinking goblet like the Grail
Under a spell so the wrong ones can’t find it,
So can’t get saved, as Saint Mark says they mustn’t.
(I stole the goblet from the children’s playhouse.)
Here are your waters and your watering place.
Drink and be whole again beyond confusion.

Be whole again.  What was lost is now found.  Restoration.  Return to what is native to you — your watering place.  This is the command that drives us onward, the quest buried in our blood and bones.  Reach for it. Whole again beyond confusion.

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Secrets, Part Three   Leave a comment

Yes, secrets can be dangerous.  But live long enough and you notice that most things which may be dangerous under certain conditions are often for that very reason also potential sources of valuable insight and energy.  Poisons can kill, but also cure.  Light can disinfect, and also burn.  Different societies almost instinctively identify and isolate their favorite different sources of energy as destructive or at the least unsettling, just as the physical body isolates a pathogen, and for much the same reason:  self-preservation.

For many Americans and for our culture in general, sex is one great “unsettler.”  We need only look at our history.  Problems with appropriate sexual morality have dogged our culture for centuries, and show no signs of letting up, if the current gusts of contention around contraception, abortion, homosexuality and abstinence education mean anything at all.  Wall up sexuality and let it out only on a short leash, if at all, our culture seems to say.  Release it solely within the bonds of heterosexual monogamy.  Then you may escape the worst of its dangerous, unsettling, even diabolical power.  You can identify this particular cultural fixation by the attention that even minor sexual miss-steps command, surpassing murder and other far more actually destructive crimes. Let but part of a breast accidentally escape its covering on TV or in a video, even for a moment, and you’d think the end of the world had truly arrived.

a Mikvah -- ritual bath

Other cultures diagnose the situation differently and thus choose different energy sources to obsess about and wall up, or shroud in ritual and doctrine and taboo.  For some, it’s ritual purity.  At least some flavors of Judaism focus on this, with the mikvah or ritual bath, various prohibitions and restrictions around menstruation, skin diseases and other forms of impurity, and the importance of continuing the family along carefully recorded bloodlines.  The first five Biblical books, from Genesis to Deuteronomy, list such practices and taboos in often minute detail.

The Bible also testifies, in some of its more well-known stories, to the fate of individuals like Jacob’s brother Esau, who married outside the family, and thus forfeited God’s blessings and promises that came with blood descent from their grandfather Abraham.  And one need only consider Ishmael, son of Abraham but not of an approved female, who is driven out into the wilderness with his mother Hagar, a slave and not a Hebrew.  This Jewish Biblical story accounts for the origins of the Muslims, descendants of Ishmael or Ismail.  (The Qur’an, not surprisingly, preserves a different account.)  The flare-ups of animosity and sometimes visceral hatred between Jews and Muslims thus originate quite literally in a family inheritance squabble, if we take these stories at their word.

If secrets have at their heart a source of potent energy and culture-shattering power, no wonder Americans in particular suspect them.  We like to think we can domesticate everything and turn it to our purposes: name it, own it, market it, even cage it and sell tickets for tourists to see it in captivity, properly chastened by our mastery.  But the numinosity of existence defies taming.

Such an oppositional stance of course almost guarantees conflict and misunderstanding and ongoing lack of harmony.  But the experience of some human cultures tells us that we can learn to discern, respect and work with primordial forces that do not bow to human will and cleverness.  (Likewise, Western and American culture have demonstrated that fatalism and passivity are not the only possible responses to disease, natural disasters, and so on.)  Master and servant are not the only relations possible.  For a culture that prizes equality, we are curiously indifferent to according respect to sex, divinity, mortality and change, consciousness and dream, creativity and intuition as forces beyond our control, but wonderfully amenable to cooperation and mutual benefit.

So how do secrets fit in here?  The ultimate goals of both magical and spiritual work converge.  As J. M. Greer characterizes it,

… the work that must be done is much the same–the aspirant has to wake up out of the obsession with purely material experience that blocks awareness of the inner life, resolve the inner conflicts and imbalances that split the self into fragments, and come into contact with the root of the self in the transcendent realms of being (Greer, John Michael.  Inside a Magical Lodge, 98).

Of course, much magical and spiritual practice does not (and need not) habitually operate at this level — but it could.  “By the simple fact of its secrecy, a secret forms a link between its keeper and the realities that the web does not include; a bridge to a space between worlds,” Greer notes.  This space makes room for inner freedom, and so the effort of maintaining secrecy can pay surprising psychological dividends.

Keeping a secret requires keeping a continual watch over what one is saying and how one is saying it, but the process of keeping such a watch has effects that reach far beyond that of simply keeping something secret.  Through this kind of constant background attention certain kinds of self-knowledge become not only possible but, in certain situations, inevitable.  Furthermore, this same kind of attention can be directed to other areas of one’s life, extending the reach of conscious awareness into fields that are too often left to the more automatic levels of our minds … Used in this way, secrecy is a method of reshaping the self … (Greer, 116-117).

Thus, the actual content of the secret may be quite insignificant, a fact that baffles those who “uncover” secrets and then wonder what the fuss was all about.  Is that all there is? they ask, usually missing another aspect of secrecy:  “things can be made important–not simply made to look important, but actually made important–by being kept secret” (Greer, 118).  The effort of maintaining secrecy and the discoveries that effort allows can mean that the supposed secrets themselves are often next to meaningless without that effort and discovery.

In this case, the danger of secrecy lies in what it reveals rather than what it conceals.  Once we discover the often arbitrary and always incomplete nature of the web of communication (and the cultural standards based on that web), we perceive their limitations and ways to step beyond them.  Here secrecy has

a protective function on several different levels.  To challenge the core elements of the way a culture defines the world is to play with dynamite, after all.  There’s almost always a risk that those who benefit from the status quo will respond to too forceful a challenge with ridicule, condemnation or violence.  Secrecy helps prevent this from becoming a problem, partly by makng both the challenge and the challengers hard to locate, but also by making the threat look far smaller than it may actually be (Greer, 127).

Secrecy forms part of the “cauldron of transformation”* available to us all.  Most of us balk at true freedom and change.  We may have to relinquish comforting illusions — about ourselves and our lives and the priorities we have set for ourselves.  So like a mouse I take the cheese from the trap and get caught by the head — I yield up the possibility of growth in consciousness in return for some comfort that seems — and is — easier, less demanding.  All it costs is my life.

Guard the mysteries; constantly reveal them, goes an old saying of the Wise.  The deepest secrets we already know.  That is why awakening confers the sensation of coming home, of return, of reclaiming a birthright, of dying to an old self, of extinction of something small that held us back — so many metaphors that different traditions and cultures and religious and spiritual paths hold out to us, to suggest something of the profound, marvelous and most human experience we can have.

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Images: cartoon; mikvah; cauldron;

* See John Beckett’s excellent blog post on this topic here.

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