Archive for September 2013

East Coast Gathering ’13   2 comments

Camp Netimus sign -- photo courtesy Krista Carter

Camp Netimus sign — photo courtesy Krista Carter

Several other attendees have written fine accounts of this year’s OBOD East Coast Gathering — see Dana’s and John’s posts for two good examples, which are also introductions to their excellent blogs.  Here’s mine (with a link to last year’s post, too).

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Once I pull off the pavement onto the dirt road to Camp Netimus, I stop the car and get out.  Apart from the soft metallic tinkling of the hot engine, there is only wind.

The first year I felt self-conscious about greeting the trees, but this year it comes effortlessly.  How to convey the sense of subtle presence, of quiet welcome?  Nothing I can “prove” or point to, nothing objective for any journalist who might opt to “cover” the weekend for a human-interest piece in a local paper, except a middle-aged man briefly motionless beside a tree.  And yet.  I stand with one palm flat against the gray trunk of this Netimus oak, and the sense of familiarity and welcome is palpable.  How to explain this sense of return? Others at the Camp mention similar experiences over the course of the weekend.   If this is delusion, and “only imagination” (two words that never should go together), it’s healthier than almost any other I can think of.   The summer campers are gone, Alban Elfed — the fall equinox — is here, and Druids have returned to honor the spirits of place and the season.  I know that a few hundred yards up the hill, I will see again the members of my Druid tribe, who have gathered from Texas and Michigan, Louisiana and Florida, New Hampshire and Georgia to celebrate, reunite, sing, dance, talk, learn, eat, drink, and revere the living green world.

Steps up to fire circle from Main Lodge -- photo courtesy of Wanda GhostPeeker

Steps up to fire circle from Main Lodge — photo courtesy of Wanda GhostPeeker

Our three OBOD guests this year from the U.K. are musician and OBOD Pendragon Damh (Dave) the Bard, his wife, artist and workshop facilitator Cerri Lee, and OBOD Tutor Supervisor Susan Jones.

Damh the Bard and Cerri Lee -- photo courtesy of John Beckett

Damh the Bard and Cerri Lee — photo courtesy of John Beckett

In spite of a pesky virus Damh picked up on his way across the pond, he regaled us with two sets around the evening bonfire the first day.

The perfect encounter, fitting for a bard: we know him first by his voice alone, which precedes him, rolling out from his albums, videos and podcasts.  Check out his live performances on Youtube, and you get a sense, too, of his warm personality and delightful laugh.  Now he is with us in person, a commanding presence, towering over us at 6’4” or 5”.

Susan Jones, OBOD Tutor Coordinator.  Photo courtesy John Beckett

Susan Jones, OBOD Tutor Coordinator. Photo courtesy John Beckett

Susan Jones, the Tutor Coordinator for OBOD, also returned to the States this year to celebrate with us and lead a fine meditative workshop on the Hermit and Journeyman in Druidry.  We need the Elders of our Tribe to help us steer on a “path with heart,” to give us a sense of who and what has gone before.  We’re all in training to be Ancestors, after all.  What will we contribute when our descendants invoke and welcome us around their bonfires and hearths?

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The Cernunnos ritual Friday night proved powerful for many, the presence of the god palpable in the circle of the ceremony.  John Beckett, priest of the god, led us in invoking him. The Lord of the Forests has remained on the periphery of my life thus far, a being I respect but have few dealings with.  Yet in his grove I reconnected with an animal guide who made his presence known several other times during the weekend — that’s for another post.  Two owls called intermittently throughout the rite.

This year was my third time attending the ECG, and the first for my wife.  Over the last decade we’ve managed to pursue more deeply our  individual paths and interests, while keeping each other apprised of what we’re learning and experiencing. I’d apparently talked up the Gathering enough that she opted this time to see “what I was up to” when I disappeared for several days in late September, to return smelling of woodsmoke and bursting with stories.

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After weather forecasts early in the week that would have left most days of the Gathering in rain, the weather shifted.  Both Thursday and Friday turned bright and sunny, with cool evenings perfect for what has become a tradition of bonfire, mead, talk, drumming, story and song late into the night.

fire

Four Quarters, we honor you.  Hawk of the East, Stag of the South, Salmon of the West, and Bear of the North, you came to be with us once again.

Directional Banner Carriers -- photo courtesy  John Beckett

Directional Banner Carriers — photo courtesy John Beckett

Renewing the Shrine: Part 2   Leave a comment

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

What is it about renewal?  We need and long for it, desperately, a hunger nothing else can satisfy, though we try to fill it with things rather than with actual transformation.  Too often we get cynical when hopes and dreams don’t pan out.  I saw a fair amount of this, sadly, in the adolescents I worked with as a high school teacher.  Of course, some of it was learned from adults. Renewal and revitalization can seem remote, hard to access.  Too often we mock the sentimentalist and the optimist for living in “another world.”  Maybe that’s partly because we know deep down that the renewal we need is in this one.

In Part One I wrote about the Japanese Shinto practice of Shikinen Sengu, a ceremony that occurs every twenty years, in which the most important shrine in Japan, at Ise Jingu, is ritually rebuilt and renewed.  The biggest shrine most of us have is our homes, where we erect a mirror for our lives by our choice of partners, children, pets, clothing, furnishings, beloved objects and spaces.  So a ceremony in a foreign country, and one focusing on a foreign spiritual practice on top of that, may seem like a backwards way, to say no more, of getting at anything important or useful to say about living life in 21st century America.  But bear with me.

Here wood for the new shrine is floated down the Isuzu River toward the site:

rivertransport

When we hear words like ‘globalization’ we may not realize how dramatic the changes have actually been, since we simply live through many of them in some form, often unawares.  To give just one local example, the recent decision to close our nuclear plant, Vermont Yankee, was driven by economic forces more than anything else, but among those were the mounting costs of meeting a tightening of regulations by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, in response to the disaster at the Fukushima nuclear plant in Japan following the tsunami two years ago.   Our lives are already linked to those of many others we will never meet.  Globalization isn’t a choice, it’s a phenomenon like the seasons — it’s part of living on earth in this era.  We’re neighbors already — distances between us collapse to nothing.

The Roman writer Terence (Terentius) captures something of this in one of his plays with the wonderfully opaque title Heauton Timoroumenos, which can be translated as the “The Self-Tormentor.”  In this short excerpt*, two country neighbors, Menedemus and Chremes, speak candidly to each other:

MENEDEMUS: Chremes, can you spare a moment from your own affairs to listen to someone else’s–even if they don’t really concern you?

CHREMES: I’m human, so any human interest is my concern. Call it solicitude or curiosity on my part, whichever you like. If you’re right I’ll copy you, and if you’re wrong I’ll try to make you mend your ways.

Where am I going with all this?  Chremes’ attitude is a valuable one, if we’re to thrive.  If I can learn something useful from Shinto, even from a crazy ceremony that rebuilds a perfectly good building right next door, I’ll try to pay attention and learn.  Notice Chremes isn’t forfeiting his own judgment.  In love with its own exceptionalism, America sometimes seems preoccupied with the second half of Chremes’ response: “if you’re wrong I’ll try to make you mend your ways” — while ignoring the possibility that the former might also be occasionally worthwhile: “If you’re right I’ll copy you.”

Shikinen Sengu is a family affair.  Occurring as it does every two decades, the ceremony happens three to four times in the average person’s lifespan.

riverfamilylg

Another aspect of the Shikinen Sengu ceremony deserving mention is its “greenness.”  In a footnote, the JNTO brochure I cited in Part One observes:

Many trees are felled in preparation for each Shikinen Sengu. These logs are carefully selected and then transported to the reconstruction site at Ise, where new life is endowed to the logs. Young trees are carefully planted to replace those fallen in order to perpetuate the forest. The timbers removed when the Shrine is rebuilt are distributed to shrines throughout Japan, where they are reused, particularly to disaster or earthquake-stricken regions. Some of the sacrificial offerings and other contents of the shrine are also distributed among other shrines. Following the 61st Shikinen Sengu, lumber and contents of the Shrine were distributed among 169 shrines throughout Japan.

In Shinto as in Druidry, spirituality is life — there’s no separation.  What we do to maintain our connection with Spirit is what we do already as humans in living fully and well.  Here’s how the Japanese themselves talk about the ceremony:

As food, clothing and shelter form the requisites of our life, we have to prepare similar requisites for the kami, if we wish to receive blessings from them. Therefore, the ceremony of the Shikinen Sengu includes the renewal of buildings (shelter) as well as the renewal of the treasures (clothing) and the offering of first fruits (food). By performing the Shikinen Sengu, we renew our minds by remembering that our ancestors had enshrined Amaterasu Omikami in Ise, and praying that the Emperor will live long, and that peace will prevail in Japan and the world. It also involves the wish that Japanese traditional culture should be transmitted to the next generation. The renewal of the buildings and of the treasures has been conducted in the same traditional way ever since the first Shikinen Sengu had been performed 1300 years ago. The scientific development makes manual technology obsolete in some fields. However, by performing the Shikinen Sengu, traditional technologies are preserved.

Ritual and ceremony still have important roles to play in keeping us balanced, connected and mindful of our heritage.  Even more, ritual and ceremony remind us of our place in this world, as beings who share a planet with so many others.  This is one way to understand the Japanese kami or spirit:  not so much separate things or “gods” as they are personifications of the profound links we share with the world and the other beings in it.  The links exist, and deserve our acknowledgement.  Our culture has dispensed with much former ritual, not always to the bettering of our Western lives.  We need the connections that ritual can help us form and maintain, and which help nourish and sustain us.

Of course, families usually make their own traditions and rituals instinctively, regardless of what the larger culture is doing.  It’s the start of football season, and how many families do you know who have special recipes, traditions, gatherings, rites to celebrate their favorite teams and the hours of television ahead?  We do ritual because we’re human.  The old ceremonies that no longer hold meaning or value need to be updated, renewed, or replaced with others — but not abandoned, any more than we abandon our humanness merely because one way of being human needs refreshing, renewing or transforming.  To do otherwise means living stunted, incomplete lives.

Here’s one of my favorite poems by the late William Stafford which addresses this human need for connection, renewal and watchfulness vividly:

A Ritual to Read to Each Other

If you don’t know the kind of person I am
and I don’t know the kind of person you are
a pattern that others made may prevail in the world
and following the wrong god home we may miss our star.

For there is many a small betrayal in the mind,
a shrug that lets the fragile sequence break
sending with shouts the horrible errors of childhood
storming out to play through the broken dyke.

And as elephants parade holding each elephant’s tail,
but if one wanders the circus won’t find the park,
I call it cruel and maybe the root of all cruelty
to know what occurs but not recognize the fact.

And so I appeal to a voice, to something shadowy,
a remote important region in all who talk:
though we could fool each other, we should consider–
lest the parade of our mutual life get lost in the dark.

For it is important that awake people be awake,
or a breaking line may discourage them back to sleep;
the signals we give–yes or no, or maybe–
should be clear: the darkness around us is deep.

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*Betty Radice, trans. 1961.
Images:  logs in river; family in river.

Renewing the Shrine: Part 1   1 comment

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

In a post from a little over a year ago I wrote about Shinto, the “way of the kami” or nature spirits in Japan.   One of the most important national Shinto events takes place throughout 2013 and especially this fall*, the Shikinen Sengu, which is the ritual rebuilding and re-dedication of parts of Ise Jingu, the most significant Shinto shrine in Japan. Shikinen Sengu takes place every twenty years, with 2013 marking the 62nd time the year-long ritual event has occurred.  The ritual cycle originated in approximately 690 CE, more than 1300 years ago.

isetorii“And all this matters why?” you might ask.  Perhaps the most visible reason is the sheer beauty of Shinto.  If as a Westerner you want to encounter a foreign culture on its own terms, one of the vivid and memorable ways is through its physical manifestations in objects, tastes, sounds and smells.  The atmosphere of Shinto is something anyone can begin to appreciate immediately, because Shinto shrines and ceremonies are so public.  And in Shinto we can encounter a distinctive Japanese expression of what I have experienced as the spirit of Druidry, a love and reverence for the natural world, seen through the unique perspectives of an entire culture and nation.  Shinto provides one model for doing earth-based religion on a large scale.  And I hope you’ll see why I think it’s really cool.

naikuIse Jingu (ee-seh jeen-goo), the shrine at Ise in Mie Prefecture on the main island of Japan, covers more than 20 square miles of mostly forested land.  You pass through the torii gate (above image), sign of a Shinto shrine, to enter.  Shinto expresses a sense of the “permanent renewal of nature,” as a Mie tourist guide describes it, and Shikinen Sengu, literally the “Ceremonial Year Shrine Relocation,” renews the shrine quite literally, by rebuilding significant portions on an adjacent location.  Imagine reconstructing your own house every twenty years, on the same lot, planning in advance and spending a year to do the job, with song and ceremony and all your family members visiting at some point during the year, with picnics and celebration and parties and priests to bless the proceedings, and you begin to get an idea on a very small scale of what’s involved.

KazahinomisaiShinto is more practice than belief: what you do matters more than how you understand and talk about it, though of course that’s important too.  Shinto focuses on harmony between people and the natural world.  Get out of whack, and Shinto shows you things to do to resolve imbalances and restore the original state.  Often it’s a case of not taking ourselves so bloody seriously.  If you can’t recall when the last time was that the universe bowed to you, maybe that’s because you can’t remember the last time you bowed to the universe.  And the latter is generally better for you than the former. Even if taking a cold outdoor shower under a stream doesn’t appeal to you, for instance, you still get how it might restore a healthier sense of proportion.  The practice of misogi or purification gets real, especially when you do it in winter, as practitioners do in Japan and in the U.S., like Rev. Koichi Barrish who is priest at the Tsubaki Shrine in Washington State.  Note that I’m not rushing to be first in line for this particular practice.

misogi

I’ll be talking more about these things, and why I’m writing about them, in Part 2.

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*My principal sources for the information in this post, beyond my experience of living in Japan for two years in the early ’90s, are this detailed PDF document about Shikinen Sengu, published by JNTO, the Japan National Tourist Organization, and the website for the Tsubaki Shrine in Granite Falls, Washington.

Images:  Ise torii (gate); Naiku steps; kazahinomisai

updated:  23 Dec. 2013

Serpent Under The Door   2 comments

With a title like that, you might expect shocking revelations, secret tips, insider advice, or something — anything — designed to titillate or distract a readership.  Or perhaps I could offer some variation on “what people want” — if we try to deduce that incoherent impossibility from reports on Google’s most popular search terms.

Garter SnakeInstead, I’ll start with the literal.  Our west-facing driveway warms up during the day, and on late spring and early fall mornings like yesterday’s and today’s, when we open the overhead garage door, as often as not one or more garter snakes will have curled up on the concrete during the night to warm themselves on the residual heat. Each morning they’re sluggish and need to be coaxed with a toe from their stupor to move and so avoid getting run over by our car.  Thus the “serpent under the door.”

But as with all other things (Druids like to claim), coincidences can be teachers, too.  Take our power outage yesterday afternoon.  I saw a flash of light, heard a popping sound, and our electricity died as I was starting to draft this post.  Green Mountain Power arrived a couple of hours later and promptly fixed the problem.  With an extensible pole, the line workman loosened something small and dark from the overhead transformer which plummeted to our lawn, and then he apparently reset a surge protector or trip device.  Problem solved.  When he came to the door to report success — I was watching all this from our living room window and stepped out to meet him — he said a bird had shorted out the line, tripping the transformer.  The small dark object that had fallen was the burnt corpse of the unfortunate.  Wholly unperturbed, our resident pair of mourning doves resumed their perches nearby on the power line soon after the GMP service truck departed.

Serpents and doves: be shrewd as the former, and gentle as the latter, counsels the Galilean master*.  To put it more bluntly, avoid getting fried, or run over — each grisly fate available, significantly enough, through human agency.  So it’s fitting that any shrewdness and gentleness I can wring from these two instances should issue from the same animal world.

As I write, goldfinches brighten our feeder, squabbling with the jays and an acrobatic chipmunk for seed.  Today’s late morning humidity and temperature already climb toward midsummer highs, just a few days after night-time frost warnings in our area.  The serpent under the door is my instinct, the bird on the power grid my arrogant ignorance.  No, that’s not it.  Something else, something other.  Yes, the danger of allegory is its all-too-easiness, its tendency toward glib preachiness.  A welcome Buddhist and pragmatic strain in some contemporary Druidry reminds me that sometimes a dead bird is just a bird, a sluggish serpent just a snake.  It’s the “and yet” that rears up and insists on making bigger meanings from small ones that is a sometimes annoying blessing.

But why shouldn’t we squeeze every event and experience for all it might be worth?  Equipped with overactive brains and growing out of a world we have tried to name and explicate, it’s a natural tendency, one literally native to us, crafted by nature, by natural selection and chance, by the divine at work with these, their alter ego, their personification, their image.  Tolkien’s elves, the Quendi, named things and tried to wake them.  In this they followed their nature:  Quendi** means “those who speak with voices,” the verbal echoes of their name present in words like bequeath and loquacious, query and quest, inquisitive and require.  Kweh, kwoh, kw-, kw- … Human deeds, human cries, human needs.  The same world that wiggles and flutters in snakes and birds has shaped and turned itself to allow humans to name — and endanger — them.  Because we can do something may not mean we should.  So we look to our animal kin for direct lived insight into how to thrive in this world, their wordless gestures rich as words. In an early poem, Mary Oliver captures Druidic wisdom:

Sleeping in the Forest

I thought the earth remembered me,
she took me back so tenderly,
arranging her dark skirts, her pockets
full of lichens and seeds.
I slept as never before, a stone on the river bed,
nothing between me and the white fire of the stars
but my thoughts, and they floated light as moths
among the branches of the perfect trees.
All night I heard the small kingdoms
breathing around me, the insects,
and the birds who do their work in the darkness.
All night I rose and fell, as if in water,
grappling with a luminous doom. By morning
I had vanished at least a dozen times
into something better.

At first we might think it’s death she’s talking about, but as she says in other poems, it’s deeper and more significant than just that particular transition, that magnified human fear and obsession.  Death, yes:  but there are many more marvelous things in addition to that. We can imagine ourselves different, “better” — what that may mean. “The world offers itself to your imagination,/calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting–/over and over announcing your place/in the family of things.” Gratitude to bird and beast; this, my offering.

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Image: garter snake

*Matthew 10:16.

** encyclopedia of Arda

Bridge   2 comments

forestmisttrail1

Make a bridge of rain
the hour says, so sky and I do —
water and sight, slant
of light to dance on,
firm enough (sure as breath,
fine as the fleece of stars
you spun last night, sky)
we glide from hilltop to top,
this gray company and I.
Not looking we walk side by side.
Footfalls hush in the thrum of rain.
It’s only staring that puts us off
each choosing to doubt the other, as if
real is something to decide alone
not our song together. Mist sheer
as deep leaves clothes us all,
with waking only another dream,
this way we cross over.

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image:  forest

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