Evaluating Values, Part 1   Leave a comment

As a set of guidelines, the six principles my new school works to embody and put into practice offer a new angle on some profound Pagan principles. I’ll list them, then look at each one from my own perspective. (Season to your taste. After all, in the end we’re the ones who choose to adopt — or refuse — whole sets of values. Whatever story we tell about them later, we’ve chosen or turned from them.)

Be here.
Be safe.
Be honest.
Let go and move on.
Set goals.
Care for self and others.

Be here. Am I here, fully, now? Well, in New Jersey, yes. Over our last week of professional development, one presenter made a point I’ve been carrying around. We tell kids, and adults too, to “pay attention!”. But do we ever teach how to do that? What’s it mean, really? Is it just one thing, or a collection of practices? Is it even always the same thing?

I’m going to look at “being here” in terms of trees. When I walk up to and greet one of my new favorite trees here in NJ, I’m also listening for a rhythm, a wave of energy that has its own pulse. It may take me a bit to tune in to it, or once I do tune in, to harmonize with it. Touch can help. The give-and-take is part listening, part sinking into myself. I’m both more with the tree, and also more with myself. Trees differ as much as humans, so the rhythm or pulse differs with each one. Some challenge. Some welcome. Some heal. Some rouse. Some just have better things to do than interact with humans — nothing personal, you understand.

Being here is listening, feeling, monitoring, relaxing, attending — a whole cluster of practices and responses that intermesh and modify each other. Fortunately, the tree (usually) takes part and helps, like in any conversation, to make an exchange happen, and make it instructive or beneficial for both parties.

Be safe. Many of the girls at the school have struggled in other places, had bad experiences as learners, face significant gaps in capacities that would let them thrive in public high schools, and vary widely in their command of work-arounds, strategies, self-awareness, support systems, and so on that help them play to the strengths each one has. How can they or any of us feel safe in a world of change and challenge and heartbreak? Significantly, other people can be a resource. In the favoritism that the West and particularly the U.S. shows to independence and self-reliance, we often overlook the family, the group, the tribe.

The girls — and faculty, too — are trained to “call group”, to ask for the help of class, team, squad, dining table, or entire school. Call group for clarification: what does each person understand about the task at hand? Call it for celebration: let’s acknowledge what we’ve accomplished. (Ask another person to call group on your behalf, if you’re too shy or stressed to do it yourself). Call it for confrontation: let someone who has bullied or threatened another hear that the group knows and rejects that behavior. Can we do that and still be safe? Can we do it and not become bullies or sources of intimidation ourselves?

Are we ultimately safe in this universe we inhabit? Is the cosmos malevolent, seeking us out to crush us and pulverize every plan and hope? If we know fully our kinship with all life, the great teachers tell us, then we can indeed be safe here. But how to get there, just like how to pay attention, is something we rarely teach, or are rarely taught ourselves. Pay attention! Be safe! How, please, can I do that? Is it safe to be here, where I’m called to be?

Be honest. Can we be honest, and safe, too? Show me!

Mary Oliver’s poem “Wild Geese”, which gets quoted a lot for various purposes, offers a kind of Pagan gospel, a trust in a deep and intricate order that our human drama often belies. Maybe we could call this the Pagan trust, one of the most honest things a Pagan can tell you about life and the cosmos.

You do not have to be good. [Really? So many moral codes tell us otherwise!]
You do not have to walk on your knees
For a hundred miles through the desert, repenting.
You only have to let the soft animal of your body
love what it loves. [Danger! say many scriptures. Disaster! Damnation! Doom!]

The poem shifts in what feels to me like its second pulse, the second chamber of its heart. It doesn’t say our soft animal bodies automatically transform every problem. They’re a start, not an endpoint. Start with the fact of embodiment, says Oliver. Whether or not my attention is here right now, my body sure is. But what’s next?

Tell me about your despair, yours, and I will tell you mine.
Meanwhile the world goes on.
Meanwhile the sun and the clear pebbles of the rain
are moving across the landscapes,
over the prairies and the deep trees,
the mountains and the rivers.
Meanwhile the wild geese, high in the clean blue air,
are heading home again.

What are we to make of the “meanwhiles”? Like so many of us, you may have experienced the strange double vision of intense grief or other emotion, while the whole rest of the world all around you goes on, continues, unconcerned. Depending on where you are in your intensity, that may confuse or enrage or sadden you. How dare the cosmos not notice my suffering? Or, alternatively, if you’re swept up in a big high, why aren’t more people celebrating the amazingness of simply being alive?

But we’re not alone in the lows any more than in the highs, however isolating our internal hurricane can feel at times. But how can something of the wild geese “high in the clean blue air” communicate itself to me here in the middle of my grief or rage or despair? Here, where I’m paying attention, because I’m held in the grip of an immensity and can’t do anything else anyway, even if I wanted to.

Oliver generously, Druidically, gives us three “meanwhiles”, so perhaps we may hear at least one. But how exactly do I “head home again” out of all this?

One powerful key, or two together, appear in what I feel is the final “pulse” of the poem:

Whoever you are, no matter how lonely,
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.

Imagination and family. How do we access this connection, our place in the family of things? One way is through the imagination, which — like attention — we’re rarely taught how to use. No wonder the West suffers. It’s thrown aside many of the skills and strengths of imagination. We see the suspicion of art and the fear of imagination and transformation outside any sanctioned practices or churches or political persuasions or sexual orientations. So often we see the world, or a pretty fair chunk of it, as “out to get us”, instead of “inside to help us”. Imagination, that bottomless source of so much misery and joy. It’s imagination that connects us to our true family.

Meanwhile — Oliver’s wonderful, terrible word — meanwhile, the cosmos pays no attention to our fear. It just keeps sending us messengers, in spite of anything we do. It just keeps announcing the deep good news of our real place in the family.

I find more and more I want to pay attention.

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Posted 7 September 2017 by adruidway in Druidry, earth spirituality, Mary Oliver

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