Archive for July 2012

In the grove the Druid sits   Leave a comment

[Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3 | Part 4 | Part 5 | Part 6 | Part 7 | Part 8 | Part 9]

In the grove the Druid sits.  In my grove, the one I’ve constructed in an inner world, via imaginal energies.  With the tall slender trees of entrance standing on either side of the portal, a space between them wide enough for a single person to pass through.  And he is welcome here, though I don’t remember inviting him.  He is always welcome, a friend who will never presume.

Today he indulges me by wearing Druid robes — they make him familiar, with his dark brown skin, that homely, beautiful face  I would know anywhere — and I relax into our conversation.  I know him from somewhere else, too, someplace on the edge of awareness, a realm or time not quite pushing through to full consciousness.  He does what he needs to in order to reach those under his guidance, and to put them at ease so that he can work with them.  Awe or fear or worship is useless to him.  Attention?  That he can use.

His words issue from a place quiet and full of listening.  I’ve come to trust him instinctively, the way wild animals do in the hands of those who love them with touch and gentleness, a welcome of care and compassion for a fellow being in the worlds.  They know that touch, that presence, and their knowing has nothing of the talking human about it.  It’s a language older than words.

He knows when to use words, too, and now he’s speaking about a past I’d forgotten.  I remember it as he speaks, things I didn’t know I knew, things I have not needed to remember until now, because until now they would find no place in me to live, or have any value or significance.  They would feel like they belonged to somebody else, foreign to me, alien, no more at home than a bird of the air caught in a small chamber, fluttering at the windows.  What is it that stands between me and freedom, this transparent flat barrier I never knew was there, blocking me, hard as thought?  But no, I have no wings, I’m not the bird.  But for a moment, there …

The Druid turns to me, a look deep as evening in his gaze.  “You are all you have ever been. Do you remember our first meeting, long ago?”

“It was a market,” I said.  “And I remember.  I was … I was drunk.”

“Sitting slumped against a wall.  When I walked by, though, you spoke to me.”

“What was it I said?  ‘Keep walking, don’t talk to me now.  I don’t have anything left in this life for you.’  Something like that.  I was embarrassed.  I didn’t even know you.”

“Yet you gave me some fruit from your stand …

“Yes, I remember.  A handful of marula.”

“Where were we?” he asked me softly.

“It was … West Africa.  Africa was my home then.”

“Yes. What else do you remember?”

But somewhere in the distance a dog is barking.  My focus falters, pulls me away from this place and back to my room in our Vermont house.  The neighbor’s dog, Jim’s — barking as he always does, every afternoon, impatient for Jim to get home, release him from the chain and walk him, feed him, let him back into the house.

Damn, I think.  It’s all gone, the vision’s gone.

But he’s still with me.

“Dogs bark on all the planes,” he’s saying.  “They’ll bark, and then for a time they’ll be silent again.  You can use them as a guide, or a distraction.  Is there a dog barking near this grove?”

I listen.  “No,” I say.

“Good.  You’re back.  Now, let’s continue …”

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Updated 23 April 2015

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Grow Where You’re (Not) Planted   Leave a comment

In early June my wife noticed a particularly vigorous shoot rising from an old compost pile beside our woodshed.  The squash plant it eventually revealed itself to be has flourished joyfully, spreading in two directions, while the pitiful growths in one of our new raised beds refuse to be coaxed into thriving.

If life gives you lemons, you could make cleaning supplies, ant repellent, pickles, sore throat medicine, laundry whitener, stain remover, fruit preservative, copper cookware restorative, disinfectant — and if you insist, lemonade, too.  The dead (cliche) comes to life when our attention lies elsewhere.  Practice resurrection, and get used to it.

We hear a lot about growing where you’re planted, but what about everywhere else?  The surprise that is our universe so often arrives with the unexpected, the new pattern, the shift, the change.  Life does a one-off.  It does what it is.  (Isn’t that what you are, too — individual, unique, nothing else quite like you?  The trouble comes when I or somebody else insists you should be like the rest of us.  The universe never “conforms.”  It’s simply itself.  That’s our pattern too.  We are where we come from.)  We stand amazed at the burgeoning of vitality in places we doubted it could exist.  If we have different plans, life may upset them.  A young Christian couple I know, just married, decided they would leave conceiving a child “up to God.”  A friend from their congregation remarked, with considerable glee, “They gave it to the Lord, and he gave it right back to them.”  She got pregnant six weeks after the wedding.

In the mass of asphalt and concrete that is Route 91, like any superhighway, a few weeds have taken root on the meter-high divider between northbound and southbound lanes, a little way north of Hartford, Connecticut.  They’re particularly visible because they happen to be growing just about at eye level as you drive by, and the highway department hasn’t yet set upon them with weedkiller.  I give a silent cheer each time I pass, though I know my tax dollars support their eventual extinction.  Still …  Give them a few years and their roots will begin to split and break down the rigidity of man-made material into the beginnings of something more closely resembling soil.  If there’s an “agenda” at work here, it isn’t always a “human” one, though humans are born into such a world, have grown and evolved within and through its shaping patterns, and have lived in it for millenia before they thought to try permanence on a scale the universe doesn’t really support.

Instead of worrying about “what the financial situation will support,” or what our many and often distinctly weird human institutions “demand,” why not ask what moves in harmony with the patterns of the universe?  The main reason is we wouldn’t always like the answer.  Sometimes we would.  But we might find more balanced and sustainable ways of living that would approach “permanence,” which is just a weak version of natural equilibrium.  Could we devise a “financial permaculture” that might not jolt us from crisis to crisis?  Sure.  Will we?

The Dao De Jing winks at us when it makes its observations:

Not exalting the gifted prevents quarreling.
Not collecting treasures prevents stealing.
Not seeing desirable things prevents
confusion of the heart.

The wise therefore rule by emptying hearts
and stuffing bellies, by weakening ambitions
And strengthening bones.
If men lack knowledge and desire, then clever
people will not try to interfere.
If nothing is done, then all will be well.

(Gia-Fu Fen translation)

“Doing nothing” isn’t exactly what Daoism teaches; it’s more along the lines of “unforced action,” or “going with the flow”: wu-wei in Chinese.  And can we expect people to succeed by weakening their ambitions?  I don’t know; have we ever tried it?  In all this there’s a wink and a smile, too.  As if that wise voice is saying, “I don’t always mean this literally, of course, but you get the idea …”  And who knows?! “Emptying hearts (in a good way) and stuffing bellies” might just pay off.  Fill our stomachs, not our heads …

Or take this advice, surely perfect for our U.S. political season:

To talk little is natural.
High winds do not last all morning.

I’ll let Ursula Le Guin’s version of Chap. 27 have the final say here, a kind of diagnosis of how we’ve “gone astray,” that peculiar human thing we can do that the rest of the natural world doesn’t:

Good walkers leave no tracks.
Good talkers don’t stammer.
Good counters don’t use their fingers.
The best door is unlocked and unopened.
The best knot is not in a rope and can’t be untied.

So wise souls are good at caring for people,
never turning their back on anyone.
They’re good at looking after things,
never turning their back on anything.
There’s a light hidden here.

Good people teach people who aren’t good yet;
the less good are the makings of the good.
Anyone who doesn’t respect a teacher or cherish a student
may be clever, but has gone astray.
There’s deep mystery here.

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There are many free versions of the Dao De Jing online; the site from which I drew these few excerpts provides several reasonably reputable versions to sample.  Sustained meditation on the text (get a couple of versions and let them talk across to each other) can ease stress and open up many doorways and paths.  It’s one of my most beloved Druid written resources.  Wikipedia’s entry for Tao Te Ching captures some of its qualities:  “The written style is laconic … and encourages varied, even contradictory interpretations. The ideas are singular; the style poetic. The rhetorical style combines two major strategies: short, declarative statements and intentional contradictions. The first of these strategies creates memorable phrases, while the second forces us to create our own reconciliations of the supposed contradictions.”  If you recall, resolution of supposed contradictions, or finding the tertiary that resolves the binary of “either-or,” is a technique and strategy of wisdom taught in several Druid paths.

Silence and Discovery   Leave a comment

My wife has a designated daily mid-afternoon contemplation period at 2:00 pm.  “I made a commitment,” she reminded me again this morning, when we were planning the day and I sweetly noted that her set time conflicted with other tasks that needed doing. While another time would probably serve her better (read “be less inconvenient for the people who live with her”!), I respected her response, because I know how precious an established positive habit is in transforming my own life.

One of the first discoveries almost anyone makes who sets out on a path of spiritual exploration is the apparent initial state of our individual inner worlds.  If you make room for some down-time to relax and grab your recommended minimum daily requirement of silence and commune with yourself, you frequently get brought up short:

After an amazingly short time you will most likely feel bored.  This teaches us one very useful thing.  It gives us insight into the fact that if after ten minutes of being alone with ourselves we feel like that, it is no wonder that others should feel equally bored [with us]! (68)

These words* by Orthodox Christian monk, bishop, writer and spiritual director Anthony Bloom (1914-2003) strike home, for me at least.  While boredom is a particularly American problem, it’s not unique to us.  Others know it, but with our incessant desire for entertainment and stimulation, to be bored is the prime cause that drives us toward whatever is new.  Even information about recent events we don’t yet know about, information which in a different world might actually be more useful to us, is called simply “news.”  “What’s new?” we ask.  Think about what really is “new.”  Are you finding it at 6:00 pm nightly on your media source of choice?

Bloom continues his examination of boredom and the challenges of “inwardness” and stillness:

Why is this so?  It is because we have so little to offer to our own selves as food for thought, for emotion and for life.  If you watch your life carefully you will discover quite soon that we hardly ever live from within outwards; instead we respond to incitement, to excitement.  In other words, we live by reflection, by reaction.  Something happens and we respond, someone speaks and we answer.  But when we are left without anything that stimulates us to think, speak or act, we realize that there is very little in us that will prompt us to action in any direction at all.  This is really a very dramatic discovery.  We are completely empty, we do not act from within ourselves but accept as our life a life which is actually fed in from outside; we are used to things happening which compel us to do other things.  How seldom can we live simply by means of the depth and the richness we assume that there is within ourselves. (68)

Bloom doesn’t exaggerate about that emptiness in us, and yet of course there are indeed wonderful riches inside us all, just as we suspected.  The difficulty I face in accessing them measures out for me how outward-directed I have become.  How much I have to dig to regain one darkly shining edge of those inner worlds shows me where I have work cut out for me.  (And that itself has become one of my spiritual exercises, rather than wasting time feeling guilty or making unlikely resolutions to do better.  When you can’t do anything else, do laundry, or dishes. You’ll get something done that needs doing, ground yourself with a physical act, feel better about how you spent your minutes, and even carve out another space where you realize you can be both meditative and “productive” at the same time.)

As with so many things, balance is priceless.  For everything else there may not necessarily be a spiritual MasterCard at hand, but you get the idea.  As I’ve mentioned in previous posts (here and here, among others), the challenge of becoming cause in our lives, of living consciously and with intention, is a prime Druid discipline, as it is in almost every spiritual tradition in some form.

Bloom points out an opposite trap we can also fall into.  Now that you’ve given yourself the delicious gift of downtime and reflection or meditation or contemplation, whatever you prefer to name it, “you will not be pulled out of it by the telephone, by a knock on the door, or by a sudden upsurge of energy that prompts you to do at once what you have left undone for the past ten years.”  And you make another find, when “you discover that the world does not falter and that the whole world — if you can imagine it — can wait for five minutes while you are not busy with it.  This is important, because we usually deceive ourselves, saying, ‘Well, I must do it: it is charity, it is duty, I cannot leave it undone.’  You can, because in moments of sheer laziness you will leave it undone for much longer than the five minutes you have chosen” (86-87).

Then at length the gifts of silence and inner discovery begin to open up.  But the less I say about them here, the better.  You already know what they are, from those rare precious moments when they already manifested to you.  What is fleeting can eventually become an atmosphere that accompanies you and cloaks you.  Such deep silence rings with a powerful intensity.  If you’re fortunate, you’ve met someone who radiates this as a living presence.  As the Bhagavad Gita says, “Even a little practice will free you …”

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*Bloom, Anthony.  Beginning to Pray.  Ramsey, NJ:  Paulist Press, 1970.

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Updated 4:31 pm 7/24/12

Of Headlines and Images: “Purely Cultural” or “Very Pagan”?   Leave a comment

It’s worth resurrecting a decade-old headline — and the accompanying picture! — to reflect on the power of headlines and images.   In 2002, when then incoming Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams was inducted into the Welsh Gorsedd of Bards during the Eisteddfod, an annual festival of Welsh culture, it kicked up some predictable controversy (or kun-TRAH-ver-see, as the Brits say it).  It also produced a fine picture that says at least as much — though what it does say is also debatable.  Here’s the whole article:

Incoming Archbishop of Canterbury becomes a druid
Monday 5 August 2002

An ancient early morning ceremony yesterday saw the incoming Archbishop of Canterbury stepping into a circle of Pembrokeshire stones and into a controversy.  Rowan Williams donned a long white robe, stood inside the sacred circle in a mist shrouded field in Wales, and became a druid.

The Archbishop of Wales was one of 50 people to be inducted into the Gorsedd of Bards during the service at the National Eisteddfod, a celebration of Welsh culture this week at St David’s, Pembrokeshire.

The Gorsedd comprises Welsh-speaking poets, writers, musicians, artists and others who have made a distinguished contribution to Welsh language and culture. But the ceremony was seen by some as too close to paganism for comfort.

The Rev Angus Macleay, of the evangelical group Reform, said: “Even if to Welsh speakers it is recognised as purely a cultural thing, the appearance of it looks very pagan. You have folks calling themselves druids, dressed in white and going into a stone circle, reciting prayers which don’t mention Jesus Christ.”

Dr Williams, who takes up his post in November, hit back at suggestions that the honour was linked to paganism. It was “one of the greatest honours which Wales can bestow on her citizens”, he said. “Some people have reached the wrong conclusion about the ceremony. If people had actually looked at the words of the hymns and text used they would have seen a very Christian service.”

The Archbishop is stepping down this year, having presided over a  decade’s worth of theological contentiousness about marrying and ordaining homosexuals that is splitting his church.  Other kerfluffles (I use the word advisedly:  in a century historians will no doubt smile and shake their heads at what is controversial now) include his positions on Sharia law, the hijab, Freemasonry, and creationism.  He is taking on what should be (almost anything would be!) a less dramatic and public role: Master of Magdalene College at Cambridge University.  Think Professor Minerva McGonagall as head of house of Gryffindor at Hogwarts, though Gryffindor was one of four dorms or “houses,” rather than an entire college.  Still …

I suspect Williams enjoyed his secular Druid experience more than some of his official duties as Archbishop.  I hope he reflects on it from time to time, as Druidry grows richer and more widely known.

[Updated 7/19/12]

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Celebrating “Manhattanhenge”: Sparks of Urban Druidry   Leave a comment

Our green world and ready contact with its natural rhythms can sometimes feel remote in urban settings.  Because so many people live in one of the “mega-metro” areas on the planet, their appreciation of the natural world may often burn more brightly than it does for the small-towner who has lived all her life surrounded by cows and trees.  With Tokyo, Seoul, Mexico City, New York and Mumbai heading the list at over 20 million souls each (counting their greater metro areas), it’s good to celebrate the green world particularly when it makes itself known among the girders and concrete.  The first entry in my “Druid of the Day” series, just started, was a nod in that direction.  Manhattanhenge is another one, and much larger:

If you follow Yahoo, you probably caught it.  The caption for yesterday’s image reads “The sun sets during ‘Manhattanhenge’ on July 12, 2011 in New York City. The Manhattan Solstice is a semiannual occurrence in which the setting sun aligns west-east with the street grid of the city.”  There’s a short sequence of similar images worth visiting.

We need such rhythms — to calibrate our biological clocks, to remind us how the world nourishes and sustains us, and how we need to remember it in our daily decisions — not out of piety for the Earth Mother (though nothing’s wrong with that, of course) but for the very real reason that this world is home.  Whenever we can truly celebrate, our hearts open.  And in a time when so much “news” doesn’t help us live better, stopping to enjoy the sun looking down the city streets is a good thing.

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For those interested in astronomical details and explanations, Wikipedia’s entry for Manhattanhenge helps.  The event occurs twice a year, in May and July, on either side of the planetary solstice, as the sun makes its (apparent) journey north and then south again after the solstice.

Druid of the Day (1)   Leave a comment

New York Times columnist Dana Jennings wins the first “Druid of the Day” award particularly for this portion of his column in yesterday’s (7/10/12) Times:

Scenes From the Meadowlandscape

Monet had his haystacks, Degas had his dancers, and I have the New Jersey Meadowlands from the window of my Midtown Direct train as I travel to and from Manhattan.

But what, it’s fair to ask, does squinting out at the Meadowlands each day have to do with art, with culture? Well, as a novelist and memoirist for more than 20 years, I like to think that if I stare hard enough — even from a speeding train — I can freeze and inhabit the suddenly roomy moment. Through the frame that is my train window I’m able to discern and delight in any number of hangable still lifes.

And the Meadowlands never disappoints, no matter what exhibition is up.

Its shifting weave of light, color and texture hone and enchant the eye. The sure and subtle muscle of the Hackensack River is sometimes just a blue mirror, but when riled and roiled by wind and rain it becomes home to slate-gray runes. The scruff, scrub and brush are prickly and persistent, just like certain denizens of New Jersey. And the brontosaurus bridges, their concrete stumps thumped into the swamp, idly look down on it all.

For his focus, intentionality and the requisite quietness to see, and then — just as important — turn the results of that seeing into a window, an access point for others who read his column to do the same “noticing” in their own lives, Jennings earns my commendation as “Druid of the Day.”  This seemed like a good series to launch, to help remind myself as well as my readers of ways we can be more attentive to beauty around us, particularly unexpected instances — free, a gift if we only notice them — and receive their transformative power.

City or country, it doesn’t matter: we can be witnesses of natural power and beauty, and learn what they may have to teach us, anywhere — including Manhattan, and from the window of the Midtown Direct train.  These are no less — or more — “Druidic” than any other spots on the planet.

Know others who deserve recognition as “D of the D”? Please send them along to me and I’ll write them up and include an acknowledgement to you in the citation.  Thanks in advance.

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Dirty Words, Green Thoughts   Leave a comment

Compromises.  They get bad press. In this time of American public life, compromise is among the worst of bad words.  It’s true that we often seem weakest where we make one.  That’s OK, as long as we aren’t blindsided by them, as long as our compromises aren’t destructive to us, as long as we can make them and live with them as conscious acts.  But any one of those challenges can pierce us to the core.

As a case in point, I want to address a “local” issue that echoes everywhere.  Last December, over a thousand residents in Vermont, New Hampshire and Massachusetts gathered to protest the continued operation of the Vermont Yankee (VY) Nuclear Plant beyond its original 40-year licensing period. There were over 130 arrests, though the protest remained orderly — both protesters and police had prepared months in advance.

As Vermont transplants rather than natives, my wife and I inherited the controversy when we settled here over a decade ago.   So first, some details — as unbiased as I can make them, from sources on both sides. A Druid tries to find the multiple tertiaries or neglected alternatives between two opposed binaries, so bear with me here.

First, the pros:  VY has been through $400 million of upgrades since it was first commissioned in 1972.  These include a 2006 retrofit that allows the reactor to generate approximately 20% more energy than its original design specifies, obviating the need to build other plants or increase fossil fuel use.  Vermont relies on the plant for about 30% of its current energy use, and when VY is down for refueling, increased consumption of gas and oil must make up the difference.  Decommissioning the plant would require finding other (and mostly more expensive) energy sources to make up the shortfall.  Published estimates put the pollution savings over the past four decades  of operation at 50 million tons of carbon that VY’s nuclear capacity has avoided dumping into our atmosphere.  That clean operation contributes heavily to keeping our famously pristine Vermont air famously pristine. Employment statistics put the number of jobs directly connected with the plant and its operation at around 650 people, and the impact on the state economy in the hundreds of millions of dollars.  Obviously, shutting down the plant isn’t just a matter of pulling the plug.

Second, the cons:  VY’s design closely resembles the Fukushima reactor in Japan that failed in the 2011 earthquake and subsequent tsunami.   The 2006 upgrade that allows VY to generate approximately 20% more energy beyond its original design specs imposes unknown and unstudied stresses on a reactor structure deteriorating in spite of repairs — uncertainties the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) admits.  The plant stores its spent fuel in containment tanks that are now already at 95% capacity, yet the scheduled recommissioning is for another 20 years.   VY sits on the Connecticut River, whose waters ultimately empty into Long Island Sound.  An accident to either the reactor or fuel containment pools would not only affect the immediate area of mostly small towns, but carry radiation and waste downstream directly into the middle of  major centers of population like Springfield and Hartford, and numerous smaller towns like Greenfield, Deerfield, Northampton and Holyoke, MA, and Enfield, Middletown and Old Saybrook, CT.  It would then spread into the Long Island Sound and quickly impact eastern Long Island.  Tucking the spent rods and other waste away in “remote locations” like Yucca Mountain is no real solution, only a poor stop-gap measure.

Critics cite a string of mostly minor incidents at the plant over the years — small leaks, structural failures, and accidental discharges, as well as cover-ups, lies, bribery and arrogance in responses by the parent company Entergy, which runs eleven other nuclear plants around the country. Vermont governor Peter Shumlin openly says he wants VY shut down.  Entergy’s own website for VY (at www.safecleanreliable.com) addresses safety, somewhat obliquely, with a list of emergency contact numbers and the statement:  “The area approximately 10 miles around the Vermont Yankee is called the Emergency Planning Zone. Plans have been developed for warning and protecting people within this 10-mile area.”  Within this 10 mile radius live approximately 35,000 people. Yet after the Fukushima reactor meltdown in Japan, the NRC recommended that Japan extend its emergency safety zone radius to 50 miles.   The number of people within a 50 mile radius of VY is 1,500,000.

Here’s an aerial view of VY, courtesy of Entergy:

VY may well be shut down in some future election cycle, or it may face a spate of incidents that call into question its safety.  It may even run safely (for a nuclear plant) until its all of its operating extensions expire.  Until then, unless I and everyone else who benefits from the plant volunteer to cut our energy usage by that 30% that VY generates, and help subsidize a transfer to alternate sources of energy, can we justify our self-righteous claims to “shut it down” with no further personal sacrifice?  What are we willing to give in order to get what we want?

Though some people deride our Druid rituals and mock our perspectives about the earth, what we do to the world we do to ourselves in very real ways.  The facts can be disputed — the principle operates in full force as it always has.  What goes around comes around: we know this, which is why such sayings have penetrated the common language and consciousness.  We alive today are part of the world’s karma — our karma, the choices we make and actions we take every day.  I turned on the oven to heat my lunch earlier today.  Would I be willing to make do with a solar oven, or eat my meal cold, or … any of a number of alternatives?

A Wise One observed that in the last decade the entire world had the opportunity to accept a major initiation — a step forward in consciousness, based in large part on our accepting greater responsibility for our actions and their consequences.  As a single aware corporate entity, the world consciousness refused this opportunity.  (Was it majority vote?!) Individually we still all grow at our own paces, but we also take part in a world shaped by planetary consciousness as a whole, to which we each contribute a part.  We can plainly see the results all around us right now, and whatever we may think of the ultimate causes, they began in human choices. As Gandalf observes (and why shouldn’t a decent movie Druid get his share of press?), if we regret the choices we see and the consequences of those choices which we know many will suffer, “so do all who live to see such times, but that is not for them to decide. All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given to us.”  And that is enough for any film character, or four-dimensional beings like ourselves.  Each life improved is a life improved, and within our circles we can accomplish much of value before we leave this world.  It is not our task to redeem the planet.  World-saviors appear in flesh and myth to do such tasks.  (Unless you’re signing up for the job, in which case you should have been told where to go and what to do.  Just don’t ask me.)  The time that is given to us is enough to fill with the best that is in us right now — not in some imagined future “when we — or our people — have the power.”  To leave the last words again to Gandalf:  “[I]t is not our part to master all the tides of the world, but to do what is in us for the succour of those years wherein we are set, uprooting the evil in the fields that we know, so that those who live after may have clean earth to till. What weather they shall have is not ours to rule.”

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