Archive for the ‘ancestors’ Category

“Proto-Celtic Song Lyrics” and Other Searches — 2   Leave a comment

[Part 1 | Part 2]

(Because when I pick up what I think is just one thing, a whole universe comes with it … Most days, that’s a good thing.)

You can of course find Proto-Celtic songs and their lyrics on Youtube. (What you do when you find them is another matter.) I say “of course” because if someone’s thought it, it already exists in some form, waiting for manifestation. A magical rule I keep forgetting.

Sometimes we inherit an instrument, sometimes a longing, sometimes an echo of the words or the tune. / Me with a reconstructed Anglo-Saxon hearpa or lyre.

“The three pillars of achievement”, as the old Welsh triad goes: “a daring aim, frequent practice, and plenty of failures”. Can I “fail” in a search? Only if I “give up”. And that’s the past — it says nothing about what I may do in the future. “Work in Progress” is the only t-shirt I need …

Tolkien’s metaphor of the tower — may it live forever! — fits here. It first appears in his seminal 1936 essay Beowulf: The Monsters and the Critics*, and he was one of the critics, so he should know. You can sense it already: he was gazing at something others simply did not see. Because of him, now we do. Anyone who works in a tradition (or wants to found one) confronts these challenges.

A man inherited a field in which was an accumulation of old stone, part of an older hall. Of the old stone some had already been used in building the house in which he actually lived, not far from the old house of his fathers. Of the rest he took some and built a tower. But his friends coming perceived at once (without troubling to climb the steps) that these stones had formerly belonged to a more ancient building. So they pushed the tower over, with no little labour, and in order to look for hidden carvings and inscriptions, or to discover whence the man’s distant forefathers had obtained their building material. Some suspecting a deposit of coal under the soil began to dig for it, and forgot even the stones. They all said: ‘This tower is most interesting.’ But they also said (after pushing it over): ‘What a muddle it is in!’ And even the man’s own descendants, who might have been expected to consider what he had been about, were heard to murmur: ‘He is such an odd fellow! Imagine using these old stones just to build a nonsensical tower! Why did not he restore the old house? he had no sense of proportion.’

But from the top of that tower the man had been able to look out upon the sea.

That’s the measure I want to use: does it let me “look out upon the sea”? On the face of it, that seems quite a modest goal, nothing like the “daring aim” that the triad describes. But in a world where some people seem intent only on pushing over towers, such an aim becomes strikingly subversive — even dangerous. Look out upon the waters for yourself, and you no longer need a “secondhand sea”. You’ve seen the waves yourself, heard the crash of surf on shore, felt the spray on your skin and the billows lapping at your bare toes, tasted its metallic salt.

Photo by Claudia Schmalz on Pexels.com

About “restoring the old house”: sometimes that’s not possible. Sometimes what we’re restoring isn’t anything “old” at all. Or if it is: reviving a (nearly) extinct language is an enormous undertaking — a daring aim indeed. It can be done: Cornish, Hebrew, Manx — we have evidence before us. “Is the juice worth the squeeze”? Sometimes we won’t know till afterwards. Sometimes the deed itself is enough.

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If I look at some of my own UPG, my unverified personal gnosis, like my experiences with Thecu Stormbringer, how does any of foregoing apply?

With Proto-Celtic we have considerable evidence from six Celtic languages. We have a science of historical linguistic reconstruction, tested on an increasingly widening sample of languages. We have a community, albeit small, interested in the results, whether they’re able to take part in the process or not.

The few words associated with Thecu that I’ve recovered — imagined — invented (can I always tell the difference? Can anyone?) are hardly enough to base an entire language on. Or are they? I have a friend who follows a different path, and who’s recovered? — received? — imagined? a language of several thousand words over the course of a few weeks. He uses it as a religious tongue, writes rituals in it, prays through it, writes about some of his most valued experiences with it. It continues to develop — or he keeps working at it, expanding and discovering it. For him it’s a living thing, part of his “tower”, to pick up Tolkien’s image again. The “sea he can look upon” exists in part because of that language. Validity? Authenticity? For him any answers lie in results. Such questions, he says, are theoretical beforehand, and irrelevant after. (In the process, their usually just distractions.)

Ireland — abandoned tower. Frans van Heerden / Pexels.com

“Of the old stone”, Tolkien counsels us, “some has already been used in building the houses in which we actually live, not far from the old houses of our fathers. Of the rest we can still take some and build towers …”

If we meet only silence in the face of our need, we can listen. If we listen with intention, knowing everything we bring to the moment, we may gain lyrics. From the deep I bring it, sings Taliesin. Words, after all, are one abode of the divine. And the melody? For the music, we have what awen and the gods open up for us. Where after all did our ancestors find their songs?

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Sometimes we inherit an instrument, something the longing …

*Tolkien, J. R. R. The Monsters and the Critics and Other Essays. Harper-Collins, 2007.

Posted 30 November 2020 by adruidway in ancestors, awen, Druidry, Taliesin, Tolkien

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“Proto-Celtic Song Lyrics” and Other Searches   Leave a comment

[Edited/updated 30 Nov 2020]

[Part 1 | Part 2]

Behind that particular recent search topic, among all the other searches that my blog utilities show are made on this site, lies a whole world of wonder.

What’s the weather on your inner sea? / Photo by Lynda B. / Pexels.com

In spite of appearances — which I find myself saying a lot these days, appearances being the slippery things they are — we often have an intuitive sense of what we’re looking for. Would I recognize “Proto-Celtic song lyrics” if someone posted them online? What would they look like? What inner knowing would confirm them for me? And what melody or rhythm would I use to chant or sing them? Perhaps asking for and incubating a dream experience with them is one direction that could prove fruitful for the querent. I’ve add that to my daybook as a meditation theme for just before sleep.

Underlying these questions at least in part is a thirst for authenticity.

Wyoming — Devil’s Tower, but ‘Bear’s Tipi’ in Lakota/Todd Trapani/Pexels.com

For a useful parallel, I returned to a Youtube video I watched recently, on the native Lakota people of the north central U.S. “When I speak Lakota I feel connected”, says a young Lakota woman around the 1:10 mark. “I feel connected to all my relatives in the previous generations … There’s nothing to compare to the feeling of being Lakota, in Lakota country, speaking Lakota”.

Language and identity are core issues for many Lakota, as they are for many tribal peoples facing challenges to their existence. Do modern Druids feel that native speakers of Welsh or Irish or Scottish Gaelic or Manx or Breton or Cornish are somehow more authentic as Druids? How much of that feeling arises from the minority status and threats to survival that the Celtic languages also face, though on a different scale than those facing the Lakota? I have no answers here, but I have a lot of questions.

The same program “Rising Voices — Hótȟaŋiŋpi — Revitalizing the Lakota Language” includes a segment at around 6:10 where a Lakota TV interviewer announces the day’s program topic as “the Lakota language” and asks several young Lakota a series of questions: “Did anybody speak the language when you were growing up? How much of the language do you need to speak to be an Indian?”

Their answers range widely: “A lot. None. I don’t know. Lots and lots …”

The interviewer keeps probing: “What if you used to speak the language, but you forgot it?”

Confused looks. Nervous smiles. Different answers.

“OK”, the interviewer continues, “what if you don’t speak the language? Are you suddenly not an Indian?”

Again, bemused answers. “I guess. No. Maybe. My tribal card says I’m an Indian, so I guess … I don’t speak it …”

“OK”, says the interviewer, “how about if you speak the language, but you also shop at Walmart, and you drive a big American truck? Are you more or less of an Indian?”

“Depends on the kind of truck” says one person, with a smile. “[You’re] maybe more” [of an Indian], says another. “[Nervous laughter.] I don’t think you’re ‘more’ or ‘less’ … [In Lakota, with subtitles: ‘I love Walmart’] …”

The interviewer pushes on. “What if you’re white and you speak Lakota really well?”

OK, you get the idea.

Many of us are instinctively reaching for a vehicle or a means or an access-point that will help us achieve the sense of deep connection that the speakers of Lakota feel and expressed above. Insofar as this can mediated through language, then learning an ancestral language may help. Or if you’re of German descent, for example, but Irish calls to you, learning Irish may be a way to show respect to a tradition you value, and one you long to understand more fully, regardless of your bloodline or ancestry. (Besides, who knows who and what and whose you were in a previous lifetime?)

Druids on other continents, where other and non-European languages have long been spoken, confront similar issues. Fortunately, from what I’ve experienced on my own journey, the spiritual world senses, values and responds well to honesty, and searches our hearts and our intentions, not just the particular language we happen to be using. We needn’t wait for fluency in our chosen ritual or spiritual language before we can live a spiritual life. But we might consider how the act of learning a language with such associations and history is itself a ritual gesture with its own consequences. To say, write, and think certain words and not others has a power we can draw on for more than we imagine.

C. is a friend of mine with a doctorate in archaeology who’s worked with many North American tribal peoples as a trained consultant and is learning Ojibwe online from a Native teacher. The class includes both Ojibwe and non-Ojibwe students. For C. it’s a worthwhile use of his time in lockdown. Over the decades he has made friends among Ojibwe speakers, he appreciates the cultural insight, and it engages him because it’s about communication, something he’s spent much of his professional career doing. He’s testified as an expert in court cases, advocated for Native rights, worked on the repatriation of cultural objects and remains, and so on.

I’ve picked up the merest handful of Ojibwe words from him during our socially-distanced breakfasts that ended with Vermont’s recent stricter pandemic policies. So when he says something in Ojibwe and explains it — often a greeting or farewell — at least I can say gidash “you too”. I may say it wrong, it may not even mean exactly what I think from my brief acquaintance with it, or it may actually be used in different contexts than how I use it, but my intention remains, nonetheless: you matter. I learned this expression from him and I use it for that reason with him, for a small moment of human solidarity.

Spiritual solidarity spreads outward from there. What language do I use to make spiritual connections? Is my heart in it?

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I value the teachings of Druidry, and appreciate the Celtic origins of many of them. But I also find myself drawn to Old English, a different “cultural stream”, though I don’t feel an equivalent draw or tug toward Anglo-Saxon Heathenry, or Asatru or anything similar. Here and there I’ve put pieces of OBOD ritual into Old English on this site, I teach Old English classes online, while I still work on a constructed form of a Celtic language, as I’ve also documented in past posts.

I wrote earlier in this post about “access-points” — portals or paths that give onto a realm where we can more easily connect to what we are seeking. While some spiritual teachings attempt this by holding out a specific sets of beliefs or a creed, Druidry and others suggest that a practice and a toolkit of techniques like an ancestral or cultural language may help in accomplishing this goal.

Thus, knowing that at least one branch of my family tree is rooted in Kingsbridge, England offers me one kind of access point, through a place and a people. Places can seem near-eternal, though anyone who’s lived to see strip malls, parking lots and new apartment buildings rise in a former pasture or woods knows how unreliable that sense can be. Still, when I encounter older versions of the town’s name in records — medieval Kyngysbrygge, Anglo-Saxon Cyningesbrycg — I know a connection to place, to where some of my ancestors are buried, though I may never set foot in it. And through the magic of the internet I even know what some of the landscape looks like, though I haven’t (yet) smelled the air or felt the earth beneath my feet.

All Saints, Alvington, near Kingsbridge/John Salmon/Wikipedia

Now that’s admittedly a tenuous and vague experience, compared to speaking an ancestral language. It can feel at times that people of European ancestry in this lifetime minimize or even disown their own ancestors, out of shame at colonialism, or simply because they’re “not interesting enough”.

Yet such experiences as tracing a family tree, and finally being able to name a place where one’s ancestors lived and died, can also be a portal, and I can use it to access much more. Names can take us far indeed. We know the power of being called by our name. Extending the principle of “as above, so below” to the same-plane version “as here, so there”, what do I imagine other beings and places experience when I know their names and use them with love and affection and a request for their wisdom and assistance? Calling a rock formation on your land Bear’s Tipi is qualitatively different from naming it Devil’s Tower, whatever language you use. If we don’t yet know that truth, it lies within our power to discover it.

In his most recent post, John Beckett writes of five of his mistakes as a Pagan. They’re instructive to reflect on, because most of us have made most of them in some form, regardless of our own unique journeys. (If I think any one of them doesn’t apply to me, I probably haven’t dug deeply enough.)

John names them like this: refusing to start at the beginning, trying to ignore the gods, waiting too long to start attending Pagan gatherings, not working more magic, and assuming other people share my vision. Or as I might paraphrase them to fit my circumstances, forgetting the foundations, ignoring spirit, resisting the gifts of community, renouncing my own power — and assuming other people share my vision.

Fortunately, “learning from my mistakes” is something we all are working on all the time. It’s one of the most magical things we can do, transforming a past mistake into a piece of wisdom for ourselves and for others. No mistakes, only ongoing projects.

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Grandmothers, Grandfathers: Sixth Day of Samhain (28 Oct. 2020)

[Samhain: Season to Taste]

[1st | 2nd | 3rd | 4th | 5th | 6th | 7th | 8th | 9th]

When I realize it’s not “about me”, my sense of “me” can often enlarge, and — paradoxes teasing us and breaking up our rigidity as they do, gift of the gods to ease us open — I may know myself a part of all that is. Most humans, if we judge by interviews, polls, sociological surveys, etc., have experienced such moments. Consciousness expands, barriers drop away, and we re-connect. The ecstasy that can accompany such moments underlies a surprising amount of experimentation with altered states of consciousness — through drugs and alcohol, ritual, chant, jogging, yoga, dance, and so on.

Caitlin Matthews’ Celtic Devotional offers a “Threshold Invocation for the Festival of Samhain (to be said at the front door of the house on the eve of Samhain, 31st October, in the evening)” that begins:

Grandmother Wisdom, open the door,
Grandfather Counsel, come you in …

This sense of living ancestors, of cultural guides and totems, of others with us who simply join in “without their skins on”, still flourishes among many traditional peoples. It’s one of the things much of Druidry has also striven to reclaim and re-animate in our lives.

Part of our experience of these things lies in any welcome we give or withhold. Last night I joined a Zoom discussion on inner guidance. We talked about trusting what we receive, about learning to recognize its signs, those nudges that aren’t merely fear or ego or desire, about staying alert for the confirmation that often comes in outer circumstances that we’re on the right track.

For Christians, Jesus says “I stand at the door and knock”. As far as we can tell, there’s a lot of knocking going on in our lives. Yes, sometimes the message is urgent enough we may receive a visit uninvited. But in either case, what we do or don’t do in response often forms a core part of the significance of the visit. My listening, my acceptance, my questioning or doubt — in sum, my engagement in some way — is a good half of most experiences of contact and connection. In the language of his day, Winston Churchill remarked, “Men [i.e., humans] occasionally stumble over the truth, but most of them pick themselves up and hurry off as if nothing had happened”. In Heather Hughes Cullero’s The Sedona Trilogy, one character says, “This is the gift of Spirit to you. What you do with it is your gift to Spirit”.

East Coast Gathering, 2017. Spirit may take any form to reach us.

If you’re fortunate to know the names of your ancestors, particularly beyond your four grandparents, you may more readily gain an intimate sense of the curious timelessness of forming part of an immense ancestral line. Though my wife and I don’t have children of our own, we stand in the middle of just such a Long Line, like everyone does. As I mentioned in a previous post, live to 70 or 80 and that puts us squarely in the lives of five to seven generations within our living memory and connection. I recall my late grandmother who died at 81 in 1977, and I know her living descendants down to her youngest great-great-granddaughter Ashley — five generations already.

Try out the implications of reincarnation, and you could easily be one of your own ancestors. Take stock, look at family patterns, and it can often help clarify things: who I was then is part of who I am now. Step outside this world and its particular laws, and others come into play. Lifetimes like beads on the string of spirit, linking this brief span of decades to others, backwards and forwards. (Do I want to know the future? I’m building it day by day.)

Rather than being that flaky guest at parties who insists he was Julius Caesar or Rasputin or Charlemagne — that she was Cleopatra, or Madame Curie or Queen Elizabeth I — why not explore the major themes at work in life today, and link them up to nudges and hints about “who we were before”, to help map out a larger spiritual purpose and vision? (It sure beats the hell out of watching and worrying over current headlines — though that has its place, too, if we choose — if it doesn’t choose us.) Even as a purely imaginative exercise, it can open up perception and awareness — which seems to be one of the purposes of reincarnation anyway. (Is everything a metaphor?!)

Grandmother Wisdom, open the door,
Grandfather Counsel, come you in …

Yes, you can purchase Matthews’ book — it’s a good one. You could also use this as a prompt for your invocations. Grandmother Wisdom, what message do you have for your descendants? Grandfather Counsel, how can I best move through the next year? Among other things, Samhain is about tapping into the larger Selves we all are. The rest is often “just” holiday bling, Halloween decorations. But like the family heirloom or old metal toy or yellowing photo, such seemingly small things can loom large, and offer a link between generations.

We hear about ancestors of blood and also ancestors of spirit. If I have a difficult family, or one divided for any reason, my ancestors of spirit, and the current family I make out of friends and loved ones — families of choice — matters just as much. Mentors, supporters, our own cheering section, school classmates, colleagues, “chance” acquaintances who become beloved, spiritual ancestors whose art or music or books matter deeply to us — all of us gather such ancestors in addition to the people in blood relationship to us. These too are our ancestors at Samhain, and can form part of remembrances and prayers and invocations.

Bard initiates with Kristoffer Hughes (left, back row) at East Coast Gathering. What is the awen saying?

Samhain is not, or not primarily, “darkness and death”, but the realities deeper than these, which may wear them as masks. (The masks themselves can be fun, depending.) One measure of our lives is how and when spirit works to get our attention, whether it can keep it this time around — and what we choose do next.

morrigan
The Morrigan personifies the challenges that prove and test us all. Photo courtesy Wanda Flaherty.

Dedicated Waking: Fourth Day of Samhain (26 Oct. 2020)

[Samhain: Season to Taste]

[1st | 2nd | 3rd | 4th | 5th | 6th | 7th | 8th | 9th]

No surprise, midway through this series and this post has been a tough one. I drafted a few paragraphs this morning, then had to step away for a while and return later.

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Whenever I lack a sense of how to proceed, the guidance of the living green world rarely steers me wrong.

But snow?!

Well, snow in the forecast, a picture of a snowy owl, and a winter memory quietly guide me. For this theme of the Fourth Day of Samhain, then, I found myself turning toward the midwinter thaw that often arrives in Vermont sometime in January or February. Not Samhain-y at all, you might think. Temperatures rise, the air warms sometimes to short-sleeve heights, and everything seems to pause on the hinge of change.

Will some oak wisdom sink into my head?

But while it’s a reprieve of sorts from the coldest months, it’s an echo, no more. The dedicated waking comes not around Groundhog’s Day or Imbolc, at least for New England, but later, after the Spring Equinox. Then there’s a greater chance that warmth might stay, or at least wake the beginnings of Spring. A kindling. Or is it a second kindling after all, after that first one from the winter thaw?

And what waking at Samhain? For I don’t need to wait till Equinox, or Samhain itself, for that matter. Things wake up, or can, all the time. A dedicated waking is fuller, the kind that comes not in the middle of the night, though I may stir and turn on the light and read for a little. The dedicated waking comes later, when I actually get out of bed. I’ve committed myself. Morning coffee calls, and the day beckons. We live by such choices, thinking nothing of them. But let a spiritual opportunity like Samhain arrive, with ancestors knocking, and it pays to listen harder. Will I?

trees and green along the Pinnacle Trail

If this is the season that marks the start of hibernation, why should I care about waking up? I’ve got sleeping to do. Well, for one thing, because the other hemisphere is awakening into spring. Beltane and Samhain, yin-yanging it across the planet, nestling in each other. Anyone celebrating Beltane is also probably hearing from the ancestors, if they give them half a chance.

I’m curious now. What are they saying?

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Working Your What, Part 1: Ancestors

[Updated 26 July 2020]

Part of my what is ancestor magic. And — no surprise — it’s not a fully-worked-out thing by any means. It doesn’t need to be, because unlike fully-worked-out and therefore dead things, my magic is alive. Sometimes like all living things it changes and shifts where I don’t expect it. Yes, my mind can still run circles around my practice, with arguments like But the ancestors have already reincarnated and they’re off on new adventures. They’re not just waiting around on the off-chance that maybe you’ll finally notice them and pay attention to them!

To which another part of me answers You’re thinking from a limited vantage-point. There’s no time in the place where we meet with the ancestors. Or rather, all of time opens up, if we allow it, for ancestors and descendants alike. What I did yesterday and will do today ripples back and forth through time, just like the actions of everyone else flow and eddy and wash across other lives. Yes, in some of what I do, I fulfill an ancestral goal or vision in my life today, and also launch my own projects, and sow my own dreams. I may work to rebalance excesses and extremes set in motion long ago, and extend long-term projects and plans, even as I add my own energies to the stream which others in their turn live and work in. And some of those others may be the ancestors themselves, returned to take up the Great Work.

A tool for my magic and my connection to ancestors:

Below is a picture from nearly a century ago in 1922, of three generations on my mother’s side. In the small-town Iowa living room, she’s the youngest, the dark-haired three-year-old near the center, looking down at the doll in her arms. Everyone’s standing in front of the fireplace — though all you can see are the bricks and the mantle above. On either side of my mother are my aunt and uncle, ten and five respectively. The young woman on the arm of the chair to the right is my grandmother Lila, with her father, my great-grandfather, ensconced in the wicker chair, the bald patriarch of the clan, calmly reading. Facing him is my great-grandmother in a dark dress, her laced boots mirroring her husband’s. It’s all carefully posed, an image of the white middle-class domestic ideal of the time.

generations

What magical uses here? you ask. So many. What is remembered lives, runs the Pagan proverb. Another is the magic of images themselves — this image, both frozen and alive in time, potent to evoke. (Remember that image is any sense impression: yours may be a song, or a recipe, the taste of family. Or an heirloom, cherished family object whose touch rouses memory.)

Another piece of magic: I know everyone’s names here, and the lives of everyone but my great-grandparents overlapped with mine. But I don’t need names to evoke anyone, because any evocation is built-in to my bones and blood. With each heartbeat I evoke them. They are each already a presence for me, quite literal pieces of my DNA, as well as the stories and impressions I carry. Put a finger on my pulse and I have a practice: with each heartbeat I say the Names — I live because you lived, you live through me. You stand by the family hearth, the fire that still lights and kindles in me, that I pass on.

In any situation, they are a council of elders to consult, a family gathering both in and outside time. One key is to ritualize this, or it will most likely remain a vague impression at best. How to ritualize it matters less: the act of holding them in my attention vividly, aided by gesture, words, objects, and a commitment simply to do the ritual, matter more. I can’t do it “wrong”.

Put a question in meditation, for example, being sure to write it down as well, and watch for dreams and subsequent meditations to round out the query. So much wisdom to draw on, if I can begin to listen to hear it. Each of my ancestors lived out a life with its sorrows and joys. My aunt who never married, in a time when single-dom was much rarer, but built a quiet and modest career as an editor, keeping her sexuality under wraps for most of her life. My uncle, who at 12 years old drove my great-grandmother along country roads in the family car, while she literally “rode shot-gun”, bagging pheasants for Sunday dinner. My grandmother, widowed young, who raised three children. My great-grandfather, who hunted and fished and homesteaded in Sun Valley, Idaho in the late 19th century, before settling down to farm life “back east” in Iowa.

With all this richness of human experience to draw on, I can draw on it to amplify my own, make better choices, honor their lives by living mine more fully, paying forward the investment in family that each made, just by being alive. In such a family gathering, they shift and move from their places in the photo, and turn to take up their lives, before and after the brief flash of the camera that captures their forms in two dimensions. (Oh, let me supply the third dimension of time!)

Another key: I can make of their strengths several charms to strengthen and clarify my path, holding their images and memory as I say the words and lay the spell on myself most of all:

Aim of the hunter is mine, to hit my target. Singleness of purpose is mine, to achieve my goal. Sureness of place is mine, to flourish where I find myself …

Part of my honoring and my magic both is to recognize and embody their strengths. It may reach concrete magical form as a bind-rune or ogham lettering of their names.

Now this is a fragment of my mother’s side of my family. My father’s side, from my perspective, is less easy and comfortable. My relationships with those ancestors are more troubled. Love doesn’t flow as easily or readily. But magic rests there, too, more potent for any difficulty — because they also survived. A great-great uncle and great-grandmother who immigrated to the U.S. in their teens, just the two of them, brother and sister making their way as family servants where they boarded, learning English and acclimating to a strange new country. Survivors of wars and their traumas. My grandmother with the weak heart, knowing a widow’s struggle to keep going through the Great Depression. Illnesses and early deaths. Both common stories, and also utterly personal. We each inherit a full roster of them, and are adding our own right now. Their lives, and my life, are utterly our own, and also glyphs to read for insight and prophecy. Stomach issues on my father’s side, cancer and ulcers: a challenge quite literally to learn better how to stomach the ups and downs of life. Heart issues — what challenges my heart today?

Far more often than I imagine, such signs and wisdom are plain, not hidden at all. Through the concrete details of their lives, the ancestors can provide personalized “prescriptions for living” for their descendants, like this one: find ways to drop stress to clear the path for yourself. Otherwise blockages and barriers will eat you up inside. You eventually arrive at a point where you can see that your inheritance is neither weakness nor strength, but an insight into a long project you’re an integral part of, one that comes with certain parameters you’re working with, whether you choose to recognize them or not, work with them or ignore them.

Practicing ancestral magic means family relationships don’t end just because of death, any more than they do because of birth. Travel to a different era along the time-track, to their time, and I’m the one not yet real, as yet unborn, simply one possibility among many, a descendant whisper they may not hear as they live their lives under clouds and sun, shadow and brightness as vivid as ours today. Yet my birth and subsequent life did happen, and I’m here in my own time, even as I visit theirs, and they visit mine.

I take up the photo again, and in the magic of images and numbers, I’m the seventh element, the six in the photograph complete in themselves, yet also waiting for a missing factor. This is a paradox to work with and explore, how and where (and when) we fit in the cycles and spirals. And it’s a chance, to listen and discover where we find a place, and how we contribute. It comes with work and listening, with knowing all that family means.

Any number of sacred writings have wisdom to offer here: “Wisdom hath builded her house, she hath hewn out her seven pillars” (Proverbs 9:1). “The math and myth of seven”, notes Michael Schneider in his A Beginner’s Guide to Constructing the Universe, “the Heptad, are intimately related to those of twelve, the Dodekad. Both have in common the interplay of Triad and Tetrad, triangle and square. That is, 3 + 4 = 7, while 3 x 4 = 12” (pg. 233). Use your triangle of manifestation (1 | 2), find your triads, use your four elements, build your own 7 and 12.

But what about those perhaps harsh and bent branches of a family tree? Robert Frost, no stranger to difficult families or to the keenness of multiple personal losses, provides a key to a door that may seem shut and locked. Lest we think ancestral magic is closed to us because of breaking and broken families, he writes in one poem, “Home is the place where, when you have to go there,/They have to take you in”.

Not necessarily outwardly — that can indeed sometimes be too much to ask of anyone — but inwardly, where all magic is worked. Because Frost’s poem is a conversation between husband and wife about a hired man, someone who both does and doesn’t belong to the family, an increasingly common position many of us may find ourselves in. For the wife replies about home: “I should have called it/Something you somehow haven’t to deserve”.

Ancestral magic finds us where we are, if we care to let it in. It’s then that we may discover how we’ve been practicing it all along in some form, and can build on that practice more consciously, in ways uniquely fitted to our lives and circumstances. I hope that I’ve supplied some hints and suggestions for how to go about recognizing practices we already have, and where we might amplify them, turning up the volume to hear what family, or just one wise member of it, has to tell us that may be useful in these challenging days.

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Back and Forth Through Time

In Arthur Myghtern I looked at the king at the heart of one resonant mythos still living in the consciousness of many in the West. “King who was and will be”, myghtern a ve hag a vyth, Arthur points us toward a profound magical and spiritual technique: we can walk up and down, back and forth in time. We become truly “royal”, goes one interpretation, when we accept this capacity, when we rise to the occasion, grasping our spiritual destinies with both hands. (Of course, I can always stay where I am for a few more cycles, if I choose, and accept what comes with that choice. How often I’ve done just that!)

One of my poems, “Drinking with the Ancestors“, also tries to get at something of this experience, albeit in a jocular way. You might find these two articles helpful: Five Ways to Honor Your Ancestors (at ancestralmedicine.org), and Catriona McDonald’s “Spirits, Spirits Everywhere” on her blog. You can also check out my “Seven Seeds of an Ancestor Practice“.

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Chinese tradition of Qing-ming ancestral observance, after the Spring Equinox. Image Source.

Now “time travel” is easy to say and write. But what about doing it? Well, simply being alive is one technique — the ancestors live through us in surprising ways. (Does that feel too “easy”?) We carry their DNA, and we carry on far more of their traditions and perspectives than we might think at first — as almost any couple discovers when birthdays, holidays and other traditions from two different families run headlong into each other.

But while “living through our descendants” is one way to be a time-walker, there are others. The traditions of Samhain, “when the veil between worlds thins”, is one of them. For some the romance of those words is enough. If you have something to say to me, now’s a good time, says my inner skeptic, more interested in keeping a distance than in doing any listening. (Some of the best conversations are whispered up close and personal.) For many, it usually feels fitting to remember the dead, even if it’s once a year. Most of the rest of the time we’re too busy just trying to survive ourselves.

Observing birthdays and anniversaries of those who’ve passed into the Otherworlds can bring us closer, as can photographs and family stories. What is remembered lives, indeed. Dreamwork around an ancestral photo, carried on over several days, together with journaling, drawing and meditation, can often open up new territory of insight and subtly shift our spiritual practice. I gain clarity and self-understanding by looking at what my ancestors have bequeathed me, bad and good. Some of the inheritance consists of difficult gifts, but everything can be a resource for moving on from here, if only as a guide for what to avoid.

Visuals meant to suggest “time travel”, especially those courtesy of Hollywood sci-fi, can both help and hinder. We don’t need to “see” anything, or “go anywhere”, for time travel to happen, so we may miss it if that’s the confirmation we’re expecting. “Nothing happened” is our most common experience, as we tend to label it, ignoring most of what actually does take place where we’re not looking. Time travel may not offer anything to “see”, but what of other senses?

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What of the future? Using the image of the spiral of experiences and lifetimes, I’ve found that many of those portals that most readily open across time are those which are in harmony with this moment, both behind and ahead. When some people speak with conviction of past-life recall, there need not be any disjunct between that and a sense of ancestral influence — I may well “be” my own great-grandfather, whatever that “means”. More to the point, from the perspective of that past self, I am its future, and the two of us together converse with a combined past-future that is the same larger thing. You touch your past by wearing skin today, say the Ancestors. We touch our future the same way.

One of the more remarkable stories I’ve heard firsthand comes from a woman now in her 80s. She tells how her own past self, a Greek physician from centuries ago, healed her present self in a series of dream-visions. The sense of vertigo and time-shift I’ve felt as I enter such experiences is a valuable guide. We give ourselves wider permission to explore through such stories, and we start to break the hold that time-magic wields over us. They catch the imagination and liberate us, rather than chaining us to logic and binding us to present circumstances.

If I fear a future event — my cancer returning, the death of my wife or best friend, poverty and old age, whatever — I can begin to send strength and needed courage and inspiration to that future self, and rather than passively and fearfully dreading the arrival of the event, shift the quality of that experience through my efforts today. My present fear breaks up, and my future experience changes, too. At least if our ancestral recall has anything to say about it, my life today is the magic of my ancestors made manifest in the most concrete physical ways. I am their survival, their dreams come true, their hopes realized, their magic working still.

Various teachings and understandings of our human experience talk of M-E-S-T, matter, energy, space and time. (And “messed” it is, says my inner imp.) The harmonics of our common experience organize our worlds, but they needn’t be the only way we perceive. Each perspective offers gains and limits, and learning to shift among them broadens the field of “what’s possible”. In the process, we don’t “cheat death”, any more than we “cancel winter”, but we learn to walk with and through it into the following spring, both the “same” and utterly new.

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Seven Seeds of an Ancestor Practice

[Updated 23 May 2020]

With even a little searching, you can of course find books and other resources for various ancestor practices.

Chances are good you’ve already begun one. Like so many things, the seeds — and often, the seedlings — already have taken root in your life.

With a family photo, an heirloom, a couple of stories, human memory, and experience of being alive, you’ve placed your hands on your own thread in the Weave, on a branch of the Great Tree, that surpasses any book.

Say you have an interest in genealogy. Or a relative frequently sends out clippings, photos, tidbits of biography about the family tree.

Maybe you’ve inherited old photos and letters, and they’ve sat on a shelf or at the back of a closet in a box or boxes because it’s hard to know what to do with the stuff. You can’t bring yourself to throw it out, but right now it’s just there, taking up space, one more tug whenever you’re looking for something else and there it is: history, image, memory, bonds of time and experience and emotion.

Or perhaps you have a difficult family history. You’re estranged from several living relatives, while deceased members left the scene with issues unresolved, and the family you have now aren’t blood relatives at all, but a family of choice you’ve managed in spite of things to assemble and cherish. Roommates, friends, mentors, colleagues, partners — people you’ve gathered and welcomed into your life at various points, who love and support you in turn.

With luck and grace and a strong constitution you may have one blood relative or spiritual ancestor you’ve started with. That person’s picture on an altar, or a wall, or stored on phone or laptop, serves as your launch point. Maybe not daily, or even weekly, but often enough, the images comes up and you have a moment to reflect on them, to remember.

Maybe you’ve signed up with one of the online genealogy sites, and your profile settings see to it you receive alerts whenever an ancestor date arrives. Your great-grandmother’s birthday, for example, or your great-great-grandfather’s wedding. The site obligingly emails you pictures of headstones, or some other electronic addition you might add to a memory altar, or discard or ignore.

All of these things may be enough. You’re busy, you don’t have time for “one more thing”, or that genealogically-obsessed relative more than makes up for whatever inattention you’ve been paying to the Right Noble Family Tree with their incessant gifs and jpegs and anecdotes, newspaper articles, questionnaires, memorabilia, and so forth.

Or you’re adopted, or orphaned, or otherwise almost entirely separated from your bloodline. Rather than an embarrassment of riches, you experience a dearth of ’em.

We all have arrived where we are today with the help of someone. That person is an ancestor, a fore-runner, a pathmaker, a hand to steady us on our way. And we have performed the same service for someone else, often enough without noticing.

Here are seven seeds for an ancestor practice I’ve explored over time.

1) “The Names of the Survivors”: We’re Here Now.

In my late teens I heard Rochester, NY poet Linda Allardt read her poem “The Names of the Survivors”, and the title as well as the closing lines have stayed with me. Survival makes do for grace, she closes, and at first that can sound grim or dark. But what is survival?

The best reason, if I need one, for an ancestor practice lies in one simple fact: I’m here today. If ever I’ve felt gratitude for simply being alive, there are roots of ancestor practice lying ready to hand. My existence today is tribute and vindication of their joys and struggles, in all their grotty and difficult human-ness. If you have a gratitude practice of any kind (or are looking at starting one), if you give thanks consciously at whatever frequency, it’s a sweet and simple thing to include those who have gone before and contributed to this moment.

2) Keeping up the Bone-House

Allied with my own being-here-now is a chance to do my best to honor and pass along that legacy. One of the Old English kennings or poetic expressions for the physical body is bánhús, bone-house. What I do with this bone-house life passes on my inheritance of it in the most concrete ways.

Every act matters, and an ancestor practice can paradoxically help me recall that. The deeds of now-nameless ancestors each helped bring me to here and now. It wasn’t the “big stuff” most days, though in hindsight each of these things is enormous: lighting a fire, cooking a meal, raising the children, tending the sick, burying the dead, butchering livestock, harvesting the crops, repairing the roof, honoring the lives they in turn received by living them fully. When I do the same, I celebrate and pass along the inheritance. Each life has a weight and presence of infinite value in the world.

When I smile at others and greet them, when I hold the door, pick up an empty soda can, drop off an abandoned wallet or phone to a lost-and-found, by performing such small gestures I lighten another’s life, no matter the degree. If one other person is glad I live today, I have helped branch the ancestral tree, and honored the gift I was given.

3) The Light-and-Shadow Tracery of Faces

You may or may not have (m)any photos of ancestors, depending on your family’s circumstances and the availability of cameras. Other objects may belong on your altar or other details can fill your remembrance.

Among my favorite family photos is this one of my uncle, aunt and mother, taken around 1921. (Yes, my mother was born in 1919 — she would have been 100 last year. She had me quite late — she was 40 when I was born, more unusual and risky then than now. An ancestor’s choice I’m obviously grateful for!)

threedwe

All three have passed over now, all three are people I knew in this life, and I celebrate their birthdays still. How much further you take such celebrations — preparing their favorite foods, inviting them to join you as you partake, including family and ritualising the event in other ways — depends on your own inclination and guidance. Such choices can bring ancestors into our present in potent ways.

Though we live in time, I’ve found we also travel along it in memory and imagination and vision, and we can consciously bless our past and future selves, as well as our ancestors, and descendants. The strength I’ve found to carry on through difficult times — to survive at all — pours forth from the pooling blessings of countless others, including my own. By such acts of compassion, the boundaries between self and other, self-ish and self-less, fall away.

For the good of the whole I offer this to the Sacred Pool …

4) Houses of My Blood and Spirit

The places where my ancestors lived may lie remote from my own, or I may live near or in the same house as one or more of them. When we enlarge such “houses” to include those who have taught and guided and encouraged us, whether living recently or long ago, here or on another spiral of the great journey, such dwellings grow large indeed. I count among my ancestors of spirit those whose words and wisdom inspire me, so that my altar of ancestors potentially extends far and wide. Whose birthdays will I acknowledge, or whose lives will I otherwise recognize and celebrate? It may be a talent I share with an ancestor, an historical interest, a quirk of person and character that allows me unique access to realms a particular ancestor also explored.

When we consider the spiraling DNA of these bodies of ours, all of us still live in very old ancestral houses, heirs to millennia.

Pondering, listening and revisiting these points slowly, over time, can help each person develop an engaging, varied and personal ancestral practice, along with a calendar of “Big Family” observances, of the Trees we each branch from.

And those other trees, which may be the same trees: What else can they teach us, the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil, the Tree of Life?

5) The Telling

Recalling the quirks and twitches of our forebears, their idiosyncrasies along with their strengths, helps bring both into sharper focus, and diminishes our tendency to idealize them to the point where we can no longer aspire to be like them.

One of the purposes of ritual is the re-telling and re-enactment of stories. The central ritual feast of Communion or Eucharist in Christianity is anamnesis — “remembrance” in Greek. As often as you do this, says Jesus, do it in remembrance of me. For Christians, Jesus is the Great Ancestor of Spirit, and many traditions include remembrances of their own spiritual ancestors. When we re-member, we put the members back together, we reassemble a life and recount its impact.

Multiple stories mean multiple examples and models of choice and action. Each ancestor points to another possibility today.

6) Be(com)ing an Ancestor

Wants and desires define the ancestors, shape their legacy in us, as they define me and each of us and the legacies we leave. What I want is love and direction and purpose. What I desire may or may not bring me any closer to those things — may well change hour to hour, day to day, with an attractive face on the way to posting a letter, a split-second decision to take a different route through town, that impulse buy that leads to so many further consequences, the online comment that backfires or unfolds a friendship, the unplanned event that proves crucial to so much that follows.

Sorting these things out in worlds of time and space is what makes each of us an ancestor-in-training. What do I know, what do I need to review, what have I not yet discovered or explored?

More spirals await.

7) Regular Samhain

Samhain is the end of the Celtic year, and also — blessed paradox — the beginning of a new year. I witness the cycles of my life, its ends and beginnings, in spirals within spirals. Our normal short-term attention is between 3 and 10 seconds, and that window of awareness has a start and an end, a dimension and rhythm worth studying and exploring. So too does the cycle of waking, daytime experience and sleep.

Beyond that is the lunar cycle, so useful as a model for working with cycles on a scale most can manage, even in busy modern lives. The three days of dark in each monthly cycle encourage a practice of letting go and picking up again, can allow for a physical correlate to deep meditation, for other kinds of work with the pattern of Samhain of endings and beginnings, at different scales than just the calendar year.

Spirals within spirals form a spiritual reality and offer a model for a vital practice that proves flexible and adaptable to individual circumstances, shapes our lives however we live them, and links us to ancestral wisdom and presence in ways I’m still discovering, as are we all.

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A House between What if? and Impossible

On an online Druid forum I frequent, an atheist Druid recently posted those words. That’s where I aim to live my life, he said (I’m paraphrasing). Between What If? and Impossible. (That part’s verbatim.)

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moss rock in backyard, 9 March 2020

It’s a remarkable space, that interval.

“Knowledge is disinfectant”, notes David Ropeik in today’s USA Today apropos of the virus commanding so much of our attention. True enough: knowledge is also a bridge, a compass, a balm for fears, a great gift passed along from ancestors to descendants, our precious long human heritage, built slowly and often with great effort, against fear and superstition and a disinclination to train and refine and amplify these animal instincts into something more than the survival baseline we’re all granted at birth. (What else are these enormous brains for, if not to play with and improve on the given?)

We add, each of us, to the human tapestry, helping to provide each other with experiences of this world. Hail and welcome, Fellow Catalysts.

Knowledge reaches in both directions, towards the What If, illuminating that terrain with often startling results, and also toward the Impossible, doing the same. In fact, serious work in either direction often illuminates the other just as much. Sometimes they trade places, being the highly fluid things they are. Funny how that works.

What do I know, personally? (persona — the thing the sound –sona comes through per-.)

I know cycles within cycles within cycles. I see the lines of my grandmother’s face written in the face of my 5-year old first cousin twice removed, my grandmother’s great-great grand-daughter, two beings separated by five generations. Are they “the same person”? Of course not — no more than I’m the “same person” I was at five, and I’m still here. Along with what if? and impossible, these identities we cling to are also far more supple and fluid than we commonly suppose. Those of you who do ritual and path-working, meditation and visualization, altered states of consciousness of so many kinds — you know what I mean.

I know the moon waxes to full and wanes to dark every month, whether I’m watching or not. The mourning doves are singing again among the bare branches here in Vermont, as they return to do each spring. I know the years, the decades. I know the snow and the green grass, the summer heat and the frost of January. If these are sometimes poetry it’s because they’re always poetry, our heartbeats the meter of the verse and song we only sometimes notice.

I see the lines on my face and my wife’s keep spreading, our hair graying, our bodies — despite the care we try to take of them — accumulating the signs of a cycle’s eventual close that will sweep them away. Rather than despair, I rejoice we’re here at all. Should we be somehow exempt from the same patterning and transformation and cycle that first brought us into manifestation, along with everything else?

I know the tremendous sustaining and healing power of the love and caring of other beings, having seen it in my life and all around me, and offered my own. We all witness human and beast and “those without their skins on” — TWOTSOs — reach out to us each day and night, in waking and dream and in-between, in the inquiring noses of dogs and cats, the human warmth all of us need, the oxygen-gift of green things, the nudges and hints and humor of dreams and visions, the food that some of these other lives provide to sustain us each day.

I know that between What If? and Impossibility — however you and I choose to label them — are hoards of beings, chances, doorways, moments and passages. (Pick something to marvel at today.)

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Monday’s full moon, night setting on camera: “light within, and light without”

I know that each day I move through so many states and flavors of consciousness — the fluidity that makes creativity and magic possible: sleep, dream, near waking, day-dreaming, full waking, concentration on a task, creative flow, intense experiences of pain or pleasure, intoxications intentional and unintentional provided by medications and “other” substances. And we all know what is fully possible in one state is inconceivable and (therefore) quite literally un-do-able in another. We know this because we’ve been there.

Between the what if and the impossible is where all of us pass our lives.

I know that both the rough-hewn and the refined spiritual technologies we call “religions” and “practices” and “rituals” and the imaginative embrace of Here and Now have deepened and enriched my life in ways I probably can never fully disentangle from all that I am and do and think and feel and suspect (a verb I infinitely prefer to “believe”). A good chunk of evidence for all these assertions is what I write about and attempt to document on this blog.

I  know the wonder and beauty and mystery and love of these things in my own ways, as many of you also do.

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A final word about proportion, because the wisdom I aspire to — the best of what I “know” — doesn’t shy from hard truths, but in the act of looking finds they’re not as hard as we make them (I make them) out to be. Amid the wonder and beauty and mystery and love, a dash of fear, never dominating, just enough of that animal survival heritage of ours to keep us alert and focused on what matters, to keen our senses, prod the pulse if need be, but never dominate the day, or cloud the whole scene.

I know that “I” — this funny little ego with its likes and dislikes, its tempers and distempers and moods and whims — doesn’t “have eternal life” (how could such a flimsy thing?), but that life has me, in ways I keep discovering. Has me, holds me up, keeps sending me into the scene, gives me a part to play.

Sometimes the supporting roles are best of all.

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Acrostic of the Heart

[An exercise from a draft of a book on Druid spiritual practices I’m writing.]

Using your own name, a specific goal boiled down to a word or two, a god-name, an ancestral name, etc., spell the name or word, giving a separate line for each letter (an acrostic). Then, in a meditation or ritual, dream or other prompting, ask for guidance. Write what comes to you. You may wish to do this on successive days, either with the same focus, or a succession of names.

Zita and Dean 1921For practice with this exercise, I chose my grandfather’s middle name, William. He died more than twenty years before I was born. We share the same first name — when I was young, I heard people talking about him using “my” name. I first saw a picture of him when I was 10 years old. (I always wondered why my grandmother had so few family pictures in general — maybe memory was painful enough without reminders. He died when she was still in her thirties, left to raise two children through the Depression.)

Hearing and sharing the same name set up a connection, and seeing his formal portrait, and later other pictures of him, confirmed a link I value to this day. I’ve deepened it with writing about him in pieces like the one below.

Though this one’s not specifically about him, it’s about connecting with the ancestral legacy we all bear, about the Ovate flavor of experiencing the inward journey, about the Bardic encounter with ever-deepening mystery at the heart of things. In the end, they’re not separate, and it’s a relief not to struggle to sort them out, but wait until they clarify, like a muddy stream will, in a few days, after a rainstorm roils the waters.

Just pay attention, whisper the Ancestors. That’s a good half of everything we ask of you.

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Ancestral

Washed out of my bones
I fly across an ocean green as glass,
lifting easy above whitecaps.

Loosed from cages of chest and skull
I see them all at once
along this dark shore — shadows, lights

moving to music I can’t quite hear,

am always hearing —
ash, ember, blood drum.

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Sometimes what you receive or create is for you alone. It is sacred, which means no one else has any say in the matter, nor any opinion to touch upon what is inmost in you, unless you grant it. What you welcome is not for others’ commentary or reaction or judgment, but for blessing and connection and the kindling of a holy fire within.

Other times, you may receive inward blessing to share, but these decisions themselves are not for debate with others. Choose prudently.

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In the poem above I underlined the letters of the name prompt. The two final lines, both beginning with the letter “a”, came after some listening time, later the same day. When I say the lines to myself I hear them now as a kind of breathing, or sigh, or a voice without words, a sound at the edge of hearing.

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Trigger Blessings

What? Well, we’ve heard a great deal, at least in the U.S., about trigger warnings — flags to alert you to media content that might possibly cause you distress.

(These days I find myself asking what doesn’t cause distress to somebody, somewhere.)

So why not look for trigger blessings instead?

You know — signs, clues, hints, flags that something out there (or in here) might possibly bring you joy, strength, inspiration, the will to carry on.

Do such things even exist?

They do. And often we mediate them to each other. Hello. I am your trigger blessing for today. Grandchild singing tunelessly, pet warm in your lap, neighbor waving on the way to work, kind stranger who lets you into line — many of our blessings come through persons. And we can be a blessing to others.

Not a bad goal, and prayer, for one day a week, to start: let me be a blessing to others. Then, having asked, watching for the moments I can make it happen.

Not for my sake (though serving brings its own rewards) but because it’s so clear others very much need blessing. Just as much, it turns out, as I do.

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Since working with the Enchantments of Brighid, you could say I haven’t had anything remarkable to show for it. Led a workshop discussion on Past Lives, Dreams and Soul Travel. Caught a miserable sinus infection, along with my wife, after a weekend trip to celebrate her dad’s 85th birthday. (The old guy’s in better shape, in some ways, than I am.) Had a few dreams I’ll get to in a moment. Enjoyed the growing light that February brings to the northeast U.S., whatever the weather. Felt a stirring of creativity easily attributable to chance, or cycles of change. Nothing especially unusual here. Move along.

Except …

Enchantment often works best under cover. No one’s contacted Industrial Light and Magic, or WETA, or the local CGI crew, to mock up a trailer for the work of Brighid. The goddess, or our own life patterns if you prefer, can pull it off without the splashy special effects.

Though they’re present, if I look behind the glamours and bad mojo of our deeds, our headlines and our endlessly squawking media to all the other things, better ones, that are happening all the time.

My wife and I are making plans for a family and friends gathering to celebrate our 30th anniversary. An online Old English group I founded just held its first Skype meeting to practice the language, with 8 of us chatting awkwardly, with a good deal of laughter, for 40 minutes. Ideas are percolating, following on the Druid-and-Christian themes I’ve explored here in numerous posts, for a session at the 2nd Mid-Atlantic Gathering this coming May — a breakout discussion group I suggested will talk about the many intersections of the Druid and Christian experience.

Our finances, always interesting, continue to be interesting, but just in new ways. It turns out we won’t starve after all. (Or if we do, I’ll document it here.)

And the dreams …

In the first, from 31 January, I face Thecu, many-armed and -faced, pointing toward the east and to either the 4th or 3rd of her 9 runes of storm. Near her, a patch of intense darkness. My spiritual Guide and Teacher from my other path appears, says it’s always a choice: leave it alone or walk through. Bless the darkness — no reason to fear it. New fears, old fears: the old are a marker; the new, often, no more than distractions, unless I let them teach me something.

The second, from 4 February: I am warning others of an approaching tornado, but no one can hear me.

In the third, which my dream journal records for 9 February, I’m with a group of students from my former boarding school, though in the way of dreams I don’t recognize anyone. We’re talking about diversity, when one student shouts “Be careful!” Then I’m flying over trees, leading with my left toe. I arrive at an abandoned house somehow connected with my parents. I shout, “You never shared your pain with me!” and wake, at ease, reflective.

While going through old documents and photographs, I come on an image of my dad’s grandfather Albert whom I’ve never seen before, age and sepia blending, formal pose and 114 years all combining to distance him and bring him near. Yes, Ancestors, I’m still here, still listening.

Albert Hird

Turns out more than enough is happening to keep any respectable Druid very well occupied.

Trigger blessings to you all.

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Storm and Story

In a fit of New Year’s house-cleaning, I spent part of yesterday going through photos and papers my mother left to me. She passed sixteen years ago, but only now am I finally getting around to culling photo albums and memorabilia. Unlabeled pictures of ancestors I don’t recognize I’m discarding. (The clearest of them I’ll scan and post to ancestry.com — someone may perceive a link to their own story.) Together the images I’m discarding will make for a personal springtime ritual of memory, which feels now like it should be annual: to the unknown ancestors.

Ann Hall

a known ancestor — my great-great-grandmother Ann

Among my mother’s effects was a sealed envelope, with a notation in fading Victorian script: “Worth County Eagle of Feb. 10, 1881”. Worth County is rural northern Iowa, where my mother was born and grew up.

The paper is just one quarter its usual size, and the Feb. 10th issue opens with an apology, explaining that the recent three-day blizzard has delayed their paper shipment, and so the present issue is small, a single sheet, folded in half to make four pages.

The railroads are all blockaded. Possibly the BCR & N [railroad] may get trains to Albert Lea [nearby in Minnesota] by Saturday night, if they have no bad luck. The Minneapolis & St. Louis [line] is in very bad shape. Six engines are dead at Hartland and the road is full of snow. They cannot clear the road this week.

But the most poignant column of the issue, appearing on the third page, is more personal:

Last Friday afternoon, Joe Fleming, of Kensett, came to Northwood, on horseback, for a coffin, for the only child of Chas. Christenson. It was late on his arrival, and he did not think it expedient to venture out again, so near dark, and remained over night. Our readers all know what a day Saturday was, and it was unsafe for one to be out on the road, so Joe waited until Sunday morning. By then it was impossible for him to get his horse out of the barn, on account of the deep snow. But he made up his mind that the trip must be made, and so had the coffin fastened securely to his back and started on foot, during that severe snow storm. He arrived at home safely.

What we do simply to survive is worthy of story. Let’s not diminish the lives we lead today. One-hundred thirty-seven years ago a child died, a human grief, and that death sparked the human determination that became this particular story. What is remembered lives. But we chose what we remember. Storms occasion such stories, markers of our lives. Everyone has one or more to tell.

May you be warm and safe and cherish your stories, however hard-won. By living them you’ve earned them. Such memories number among things that need to be born.

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Becoming an Ancestor

From the OBOD “Inspiration for Life” for 26 October: “Our greatest responsibility is to become good ancestors” — Jonas Salk (1914-1995). Search for information on Salk and you’ll find, beyond his discovery of the life-saving polio vaccine, that the original quotation has  “be” for “become,” but “become” fits. It gives us room to grow into the role.

Growth? I don’t know about you, but most days I need all the help I can get. We can be as literal as you like. My father had a mild case of polio in the 1930s when he was a young man, and it stunted the growth of his legs. He would have been as tall as I am at 6’2″. When we sat, we were the same height, but standing, he was six inches shorter than me. He made up for reduced stature by work and persistence (if you’re uncharitable you might have called it cussed stubbornness). Sometimes we can feel like we’re cast against type in our own lives. What now?

If I approach the day, the season, this life, as roles, I can often feel my way into possibility. We’ve all slipped in backstage. From there we tried out for this role — like almost all the others we’re offered — just by being born. Set aside for a moment the question of whether any of us asked to be here.  If we do indeed get recycled from one part of this universe into another, perhaps our own ancestors called us, and our parents made bodies for us and brought us back to the longest-running show of them all. Have kids, and we’re doing the same for them. No kids this time around? You won’t escape that easy.

Live in this world more than a handful of years and you’ll meet others you instantly warm up or cool off to. Mere chance? Unlikely. Instead, one big noisy, contentious family reunion. You never liked Great-Uncle Louis, only now (s)he’s your one-year old niece Lucy who just spit up on your new silk shirt.

Or that annoying nephew Luke who always manages to bring back your car with a few more dings and scratches whenever he borrows it. You’d say no but you still owe his mother a few grand from that tight period some years back.

After all, karma’s one of the most efficient ways of polishing rough edges. Get back what you give out. Until you decide to play it differently. A different take. An original interpretation. A dramatic break-through. A sensitive and well-rounded performance that elicits sympathy for a potentially unlovable character.

What roles will I play in this ancestor ritual that is my life? Can I live large enough that I qualify as a “good ancestor”? Do my choices make the future lighter, wiser, more loving? (The signs tell me I’ll get to find out in person. Back in a century or three to check in and live my own consequence.)

Some days I get a foretaste. I wake, sliding slowly out of bed feeling I’m already halfway to ancestor status. You know, when your body’s now the best barometer for tomorrow morning’s weather. Low pressure and my lower back aches. Rain coming and my shoulder throbs. At such times it’s slender consolation that half a millennium hence my thighbone may decorate some family altar, or that my brother’s great-great-great-times-10 granddaughters will drink toasts from my lovingly preserved skull.

No, Salk probably meant something more. While not all of us will fall fighting to defend our land for our descendants, in every age too many of us do.

But just as many of our battles are inward, and many outwardly calm or seemingly easy faces conceal, it may be, most grievous private wars. It’s fitting, then — humbling, sobering and just — that we may well return to see what becomes of our own deeds.

For me there’s no better perspective. I find myself asked to forgive less than glorious forebears. “Judge not, lest you be judged” can cut painfully close. Knowing my own struggles and weaknesses, I’ll toast them with a generous measure of compassion — not because they may “deserve” it, but because they need it, and so do I — even as I honor the great among them, this weekend on Samhain.

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“Imagine if you can’t remember”

says Canadian poet Charlotte Hussey.

Now this proves very useful advice, I’ve found. All the materialist skepticism to the contrary, imagination springs from an inward compost and leaf-mold, yes, and also a vital, creative capacity we all possess as our human birthright. Even those of us who’ve tried to cast it away, if only because to nourish dream and hope can hurt much more than indulgence in flat despair. That means almost all of us. Maybe our singers and poets and wild-eyed prophets number among those who simply can’t forget any longer.*

And some of the Wise will tell you that imagination is the astral sight: we see by other means than merely light rays reaching the retina and dashing up neurons to the brain. Light everywhere has its place, but physical light does not account for those familiar or haunting landscapes we’ve never visited, companionable (or challenging) beings we have never met, and so on. Or indeed, landscapes and beings we have met before. Just not here.

charlottehusseyjpgAnd Hussey’s Ecobardic Manifesto asserts, among its other points, both the return of and our singular need for “the prophetic vocation to look into the inner truth of things and speak, on behalf of the community, what need[s] to be spoken.”

But do we even want to hear “what needs to be spoken”? And if we opt to listen, how do we distinguish this needful message in the midst of the clamor and noise of all the other increasingly hysterical voices around us?

Small steps. I keep returning to this most helpful strategy. Our own practice of silence is a beginning (and advanced) step that helps with discernment of an inner truth we each know for ourselves, if we listen. If we can’t discern it, we can imagine it. Finding a still point beyond the mind chatter. Walk along a quiet sidewalk with trees, find a park, a quiet corner of your apartment or condo or neighborhood. Stillness as practice.

Focus or mantra or prayer. For Christians, scripture like “Be still and know that I am God” makes a powerful start. Pagans have an equivalent range of seed-verses and prayer-songs.

Sometimes the name of deity, or a suitable word like awen or om or amen.

Song or chant in a language you don’t know, to take you out of your talking head (and anybody else’s, too).

Symbol or mandala or image, for those who prefer the non-verbal. Cross, triskele, star, Platonic form, face of a beloved.

Counting your breaths.

Worship kinetically: pick up colorful leaves, play in the mud, lie on your back and watch the clouds. The skills we practiced effortlessly as children have not abandoned us, though we may have “put away childish things” as we raced off to concern ourselves with “matters of importance” and the wide word of adult stress and doubt and angst.

Substances used reverently, like various smudges and smoking herbs, fermented drinks, and so on, have featured in worship and ritual and self-care for millennia.

More important than what I do is doing it often enough that it becomes for me a spiritual practice.

dweI cannot remember the paternal grandfather I was named for: he died 14 years before I was born. All I have of him are three yellowing photos and a handful of stories. But I imagine him when I honor my ancestors of blood and spirit, and he’s more alive to me as a result. A link, however tenuous, that I (and he, from his side) can strengthen at will.

One of the OBOD Bardic practices is the inner sacred grove. So what kind of place will I make as a spiritual sanctuary for myself and any inner guide whose counsel I seek? I resort to this place to leave a symbol, a dream recalled I want to ponder, or to begin a poem, resolve a problem, express my gratitude, build an altar, light an inner flame, begin and end a ritual, recall during moments of challenge and joy. What I imagine can become as real as anything I build with lumber and mortar, nails and plaster and insulation. (And the grass there doesn’t need weekly mowing. Though the trees, oak and birch, rowan and ash among them, are growing well.)

Imagine, and I remember.

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IMAGES: Charlotte Hussey; D W Easton, circa 1925, on his mail route in Niagara Falls, NY.

*”I think we’re living in a culture that’s so demanding: You never feel like you’re good enough. It wears people down. People are exhausted at the end of the day. They go home and have a drink as a way to cope with all of this—a lot of people have to self-medicate because it would be hard for them to look in the mirror otherwise. The whole concept of being conscious—that’s hard work. A lot of people just don’t want to sign up for it.” “Alcohol as an Escape from Perfection.” Atlantic, 10/13, accessed 10/4/16.

“Drinking with the Ancestors”

firegod

photo courtesy Hex Nottingham

Here’s the poem* I read by the fire** at Saturday night’s eisteddfod at ECG ’16. I’m also submitting it to Touchstone so you may run across it there if it’s accepted.

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Drinking with the Ancestors

This poem ain’t no teetotal ritual:
let’s raise each cup, now, individual,
every mug and glass fill up now
and start drinking with the Ancestors.

Chat ‘em up — don’t merely greet ‘em;
the Dead are chummy when you meet ’em.
This good liquor in your tummy
gets you thinking: toast the Ancestors!

By and with the spirits near us —
“Don’t invoke us if you fear us” —
good advice, if we lose focus,
glasses clinking with the Ancestors.

A few more rounds, more pints and glasses,
may find us falling on our asses.
We strive to heed old voices calling
though we’re blinking at the Ancestors.

Yes, when morning comes, perhaps uncertain
if we dreamed or drew some curtain
on a world where it truly seemed
that we were linking with our Ancestors,

good liquor works its own true magic,
so never blame it – downright tragic,
if “hung over” is what we name it:
feel like sinking toward the Ancestors?

They come in all shapes, and in all sizes:
some are heroes, some no prizes
(they’re like us in all our guises)
familiar patterns – star or rose
tattoos we’re inking for the Ancestors.

Listen: they are singing, they are cussing,
they can advise us if we’re sussing
out the paths our lives might take
or leave shivers in their wake
that have us shrinking from our Ancestors.

Before a soul decides to curse them,
mutter charms that will disperse them
foil their harms and then reverse them,
all these stinking, damned Ancestors!

(Ah, do please remember)

we’re their consequence, not moot –
we got their genetic seed and root,
and we’re the payoff, crown and fruit,
we’re their future, built to suit,
so cheers to drinking with our Ancestors!

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*I’d drafted the piece at ECG ’12, with the title/last line echoing in my head all weekend, then revised it a few days before this year’s Gathering.

**Hex remarked when he posted the image, “You have the complete attention of a long horned fyre god here, and it is blessing you with its aura.”

Our Honored Dead

[I’m teaching in a 5-week boarding school summer program this June-July for American (academic enrichment) and international (English as a second language) middle and high school students. The intensity of the pace accounts for the dearth of recent posts here.]

entrance

Egyptian entrance gate, Grove Street Cemetery

 

Tomorrow we have a day off from classes for a visit to the Yale University campus. For the older students, we’ll also make a side tour of Grove Street Cemetery, listed as a National Historic Landmark for its historical interest (its first burial occurred in 1797 after a Yellow Fever epidemic), the names of its famous dead, and its enduring ties to Yale.

In the past year my wife and I’ve discovered our ancestors lived in the same small town (in a different state, near the Canadian border) around the same decade that Grove Street was established, and mostly likely they knew each other. And as we’ve been telling the students this summer, a well-landscaped cemetery can be a peaceful and unique experience, because it can enlarge our sympathies and imaginations beyond the immediate concerns of own lives.

Live long enough, I’m finding, and your sympathies may enlarge so that any dead become part of your honored dead. We share DNA from around the planet (one of my cousins had his DNA tested and found Greek and Central African markers in it), we all face the same challenges of dying and living, and if the dead have any honor in my memory, it’s because I give it to them.

JunglebookCover

cover of the first edition (1894) of The Jungle Book

 

In Kipling’s Jungle Book, the human boy Mowgli says more than once to his animal companions, “We be of one blood, thou and I.” Such simple acknowledgements may at times matter more than many prayers and offerings, if they open our hearts to gratitude and the wisdom we inherit in our bones and our mortal dreams.

So tomorrow in my own way I’ll commemorate the “Grove Streeters” by reading and repeating their names, pouring libations of water (nothing stronger — I’m with adolescents, after all) in their honor, and acknowledging their part in shaping the world as we have it today. And always, I am confident, there will be others who will follow us and do the same, touched through their own sufferings and joys by a similarly enlarged sense of kinship.

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Images: Egyptian entrance gate, Grove Street Cemetery; Jungle Book cover

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