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Nano ’14 Update and Fragment   Leave a comment

nanowidge4-14Reporting in from the depths of Nano-ing. My goal is 25K by this Saturday, the halfway mark, and I’m obviously behind, though not impossibly so. Woo-hoo!

So here’s a recent fragment from my deeply drafty work so far. On Dirnive (that DEER-nee-veh, if things like names matter to you like they do to me), Emily’s private “other world,” a council tasked with contacting her fails in its first attempts. But the fallout from their efforts on Emily’s emotional and mental equilibrium is nonetheless severe. Medication and therapy have succeeded only in making her sleepy and angry respectively. Here she meets with yet another in what is becoming a string of therapists who can make little headway with their young patient. Of course, there’s a simple reason for that: Dirnive is actually real and not merely a disorder or complex or hormonal imbalance. Oh, and Char is one of Emily’s friends from St. Swithin’s.

“Well, Emily, this second session is where we have a chance to begin to get to know each other. Is there anything you’d like to say to get us started?”

Emily gazed at Dr. Ericson, her new therapist, and sighed to herself. Another expert.They’re all alike. She smiled sweetly and decided to play along. She turned on the sweet biddable teenage girl charm. But not too much. Understated. That’s the trick.

“There’s this repeating dream I’ve had,” she began, “three or four times now. Maybe that will give us something to work with, doctor.”

Emily took a deep breath.  Just improvise, Char always says. Well, here goes. “In the dream I’m always in the same place at the start. On a shore, just gazing out to sea, and there’s a single small cloud on the horizon, off in the west. And I know pretty soon I’ll be flying over the water toward the cloud. And I hear Lara’s theme playing. You know, from Dr. Zhivago? The weird thing is, it’s being sung by some of my St. Swithin’s classmates, and they’re all dressed in formal wear, like for a prom, but they’re all in Russia for job interviews. Weird, right? And then Zhivago, you know, the actor I mean, what’s-his-name, Mom and I just watched it last year. Omar Sharif! Yeah, that’s it. So Omar comes out in a cowboy hat and spandex but no shirt. Love the name!  I’m so gonna call my firstborn Omar. So anyway, he interviews the Swithiners for a script-doctor position for the film we’re making. Only it becomes a film about my left big toe, not the Pasternak novel. And my toe has a sad little face painted on it, like a clown’s, along with a period costume for the movie. And he, Zhivago I mean, or Sharif, not my toe, he promises them all a salary that will be paid in cheese blintzes, as long as no one cuts off my toe before the scripts are finished. Which I’m worried about, my toe that is, and I want to tell Lara about it, ’cause she’s been standing there the whole time, rocking the blonde thing and nodding sympathetically at all of us, but she’s off to a mouse festival. Which makes sense, kind of, in the dream anyway, at least with the cheese in it. So I wake up crying ‘No cheese blintzes!'”

She paused. “Wild, huh? What do you think it all means?”

The therapist looked perplexed. Emily barely managed to swallow a shout of laughter. She coughed to cover it. Dad would be absolutely hysterical by now, she thought gleefully.

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Nano ’14 Day 6 Update   Leave a comment

nanowidge2-14When you start bleeding caffeine, you know you’re in the thick of writing …

Here’s a rough “back-cover blurb” I pulled together today for my own use:

Emily Fioretta Zhang-Salzano, 15, is living her day-student nerd-life at St. Swithin’s School, until another world named Dirnive (that’s DEER-nee-veh) comes calling and pulls her into it. Literally. Repeatedly. Without warning. Can she stay sane, pass chemistry, reassure her parents, friends and teachers about her strange absences, and halt — or lead — a war?

And I crawled out of a slump and reached the 20% mark today on day six with over 10K. Some of it, not surprisingly, is notes towards a novel, but I’ve got enough (as you can tell from the blurb) that there’s an actual story there. Though the “war” part is a stopgap for something I don’t yet see clearly.

Here at Kimberly’s request is another fragment, continuing from where the previous post left off:

Across the hills to the west the late October sunset faded to a wan streak of amber. The three miles along Spruce Ridge Road to Callahan’s meant two switchbacks and a single-lane plank bridge just before the road turned to pavement. Halloween decorations glowed in yards and windows. A few more nights. Emily was too old for trick or treating, she thought regretfully – had been for some years, because everyone saw her height first and misjudged her age. But Kev at twelve loved the holiday untroubled by such things, and she still enjoyed it through him. His homemade vampire priest costume hung on his bedroom door, ready to go, with a real clerical collar he’d borrowed from Father Andrew, and makeup from last year’s school production of Rocky Horror Picture Show. The brief parent-teacher controversy that flared over that choice had brightened two weeks of otherwise dull classes for Emily with its predictable arguments, letters to the editor, and overblown opinions. For her own amusement she argued both sides to herself, uncertain which one deserved to win solely on logic. The production itself was a rousing success. Branston Central enjoyed an excellent theater program.

A dip in the road recalled Emily to the moment. She loved the subdued colors, the listening landscape of autumn, even the shorter overcast days that made a return to a warm house that much more inviting. Her headlights parsed silhouettes of dark tree limbs, then the deeper darkness that was the road. Mist rose off pastures and meadows, glazing and scattering the twin beams in front of her. The wet road shone faintly.

Five minutes later Emily glanced at the rearview mirror and came to a stop. Where was Pickering Lane, or Roubidoux’s farm, or anything familiar? She got out. No lights from windows in any direction. She knew this road, lived on it since forever, played in its mud and puddles as a child, grew up on it, walked it, biked it, now drove it. How could she be lost on it?

Nanoeing (like Canoeing?)   4 comments

nanowidge1-14So here’s the opening scene of my drafty 2014 Nanowrimo nano-novel. Yes, that means it’s still reeeeeely small.  But it’s getting bigger!

Here’s a bantering exchange between 15-year old Emily Zhang-Salzano, the main character, and her father, to set the stage of dark foreboding (not that dark) for what’s to come, when Emily is whisked off to parts unknown by powers unseen. You know, first a light at the end of the tunnel, but then more tunnel. As the Wise have said, if you want interesting characters, make them suffer …

“Emily!”

“Living room, Dad.”

“Honey, I need you to break the law for me.”

“Way to get a girl’s attention. Does it involve removing mattress tags?”

“No.”

“Downloading adult … cat videos?”

“What? No, that’s so last year.” Neil Salzano appeared in the doorway, a towel slung over one arm, and a dusting of flour on his nose. “Listen, your mom will be home soon, we’ll be eating, but I just discovered we’re out of whipping cream and–”

“You want me to steal a cow?”

“Exactly. Preferably one that also gives chocolate milk, so your brother will consider it a fair trade while you’re serving your sentence.”

“Ha! Nobody would miss me. That’s the beauty of your plan.”

“Clever child. Actually I need you to drive to Callahan’s and pick up a pint of cream.”

“You know I just got my permit.”

“I do. I also know you’ve been driving tractors, pickups, sailboats, dirt bikes and Voldemort knows what else since you were eight. You’re a safer driver than your mother. I’d go myself but I’m expecting a call I can’t miss. Strictly land-line. You know the cell reception in these our dearly beloved hills. Hence the highly illegal nature of your mission, should you choose to accept it.”

“You’re contributing to the delinquency of a minor.”

“So don’t get caught. Three miles, on a dirt road.”

“I’m the poster child for family values. Really. Candidates hire me for photo ops.”

“Just the Libertarians. Honor your father, that your days may be long. Look, you can park in Bill and Angie’s driveway, then walk across the highway and the last hundred yards to Callahan’s. No one needs to see you all unchaperoned and teen-terrifying behind the wheel.”

“What would Mom say?”

“She won’t say anything if you get the cream and I manage to finish making dessert.”

“I can’t get into Harvard or Yale with a criminal record.”

“You’re a misdemeanor waiting to happen. This is your chance to demonstrate your obvious maturity and independence.”

“What a sweet-talker!”

“You know it. And no stopping in at the town library on the way. I’m serious, Em. It’s Thursday evening, I know they’re open late tonight, but I’ll drive you into Branston on Saturday and you can have the whole day to hide away in the stacks at State if you want.”

“Ah, ’tis bribery now. ‘The Corruption of Emily’ miniseries, based on a shocking true story. Branston’s a promise? What about all the yard work?”

“Mrs. Breckenridge is our last this year, but she says she wants to compost her leaves herself.”

“OK, then. Deal!”

“You’re my favorite daughter. Here are the keys.”

By the time Emily pulled the battered Honda out of their circular driveway, darkness settled in and was getting comfortable. Recalling the conversation of a few minutes ago, she smiled again. Mom’s English was really good, but she still couldn’t always follow the banter between Emily and her father. It felt wonderful to be this light and easy again with at least one of them, finally, after all the fights and prescriptions and appointments and drama of the last year. St. Swithin’s had officially ended her medical leave with an invitation to return this fall, and classes were going well. Maybe she actually had her life back again.

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As Patrick Rothfuss says, “Thou shalt not just think about writing. Seriously. That is not writing. The worst unpublished novel of all-time is better than the brilliant idea you have in your head. Why? Because the worst novel ever is written down. That means it’s a book, while your idea is just an idle fancy. My dog used to dream about chasing rabbits; she didn’t write a novel about chasing rabbits. There is a difference.”

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Nanowrimo ’14   Leave a comment

Participant-2014At it again: another novel in the works with this year’s Nanowrimo, the National Novel Writing Month. Though as the website banner so humbly announces, “the world needs your novel” definitely qualifies as a claim that’s “off the chain,” my students would say.

Still, there’s an undeniable badass nerd adrenalin rush that comes with hitting that daily quota of 1667 words. You watch a story grow in spite of itself. I say in spite of itself because without generous intervals of Muse-seducing, -teasing and -taunting, an idea just as often topples abruptly from its perch like a bad drunk, and sprawls on the floor of a blank page after a day or two of that oh-so-glorious writing high. What vile false hope! No wonder out of the 300,000 or so Nanowrimos*, about a fifth of that number finish the “winning” rough draft minimum of 50,000 words in these thirty days of November. Of those, even fewer go on to revise.  But “nothing ventured” still has the same outcome, after all these millennia. Funny thing, that.

Over decades of bad writing, the only kind you can do in order to get to the good stuff, you learn to interrogate your story, go on a date with it, blindfold it, tie it up against the wall and threaten to execute it, propagate its most bizarre roots and shoots and runners, name its characters vividly, trust it implicitly, play fifty-two card pick-up with its themes, and generally treat it like the first 11 lines of the following Billy Collins poem every high school English teacher uses (guilty!) at the start of a poetry unit in order to seem cooler than Antarctica:

Introduction to Poetry

I ask them to take a poem
and hold it up to the light
like a color slide

or press an ear against its hive.

I say drop a mouse into a poem
and watch him probe his way out,

or walk inside the poem’s room
and feel the walls for a light switch.

I want them to waterski
across the surface of a poem
waving at the author’s name on the shore.

But all they want to do
is tie the poem to a chair with rope
and torture a confession out of it.

They begin beating it with a hose
to find out what it really means.

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*the addicts of Nanowriming

“Creating a Goddess Book”: The Rest of the Workshop   Leave a comment

Our bodies already know the Goddess – this is our oldest magic.

I relied on this insight in planning for the workshop at this year’s East Coast Gathering, whose theme was “Connecting with the Goddess.”

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Goals and plans I had for the workshop:

The heart of the workshop is a hands-on look at various ways to make a physical book/scroll/altar object that explores/invites/incorporates ritual, ogham/runes, art, prayer, poems, questions, magic and daydreaming into a concrete “link” to the Goddess as we experience Her — or desire to experience Her. Think “book” as “portable paginated/folding/roll-up ongoing altar-in-process.” I’ll talk about inspiration, nudges, hints and ways to listen, inviting and hoping for participant sharing and input! The seed for the workshop comes out of the fact that I’m a prime example of somebody who doesn’t have a consistent Goddess practice (though She’s seeing to it that’s shifting, too), but when She wants my attention, She gets it, like with this book, and workshop.

It’s probably a good thing we don’t always hear how ambitious we sound. Young or old, you eventually learn to deal with the inevitable gap between vision and manifestation. If you’ve managed to hold on to any of that original and wonderful idealism of youth, you also realize that the gap isn’t a reason to despair, or to dispense with vision, but rather a sign of just how important vision is.

The physical world, so important for manifestation, by its nature tends to lag behind the swiftness with which vision can appear. But that lag is precisely part of this world’s immense value: its inertia and density allow for greater permanency and resistance to change, so that we can experience the results of vision over time — and fine-tune it if we choose. Unlike in dream, where the subtle stuff of vision or imagination can wisp away so quickly, physical manifestation tries to linger.

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The Goddess is generous. Or alternatively, if you prefer the cynical version, I belong to the OCD Order of Druids. Creativity, as the saying goes, is messy. I over-planned for the workshop, ending up with far more material than any mortal could begin to do justice to in a mere hour, and this post is my penance, or confession. Or further indulgence. And maybe — in the way it often arrives when we’re not paying attention, even in spite of ourselves — a spark of awen.

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ogham“Creating A Goddess Book,” with focus on “book” in order to free it from the psychological shrine many Druids, and Pagans generally, tend to put books in. Instead of paper, a book of leather, or metal, or cloth — individual sheets, or a single longer scroll. A nudge to try out the qualities of other substances than paper, than the admittedly inviting blank books on sale in chain bookstores, or even Ye Friendlie Lokal Paygan Shoppe.

Each workshop participant received a packet to practice with, consisting of a rectangle  (approx. 3″ x 4″) of vegetable-cured leather and a similar-sized rectangle of .019″ aluminum, wrapped in a larger swath of canvas cut from a shop drop-cloth from Home Depot. A wood- and leather-burning tool, a few screwdrivers, some markers of various kinds, a few words about inspiration and the importance of working to manifest things on the physical plane as one powerful way to connect with the Goddess. Suggestions for inscribing/writing/ incising a short prayer, vow, magical name, etc. Reference tables of Ogham and runes for those who wanted to inscribe words with some privacy, as a personal meditation. I pointed out that you could cut all three materials with kitchen scissors. Besides the wood-burner, no fancy tools required. Then I shut up and let participants have at the materials. Done!

Hex Nottingham's leather and metal "pages" -- photo courtesy Hex Nottingham

Hex Nottingham’s leather and metal “pages” — photo courtesy Hex Nottingham

Except for the next flash of inspiration in the planning process, which would not let go: a “Nine-Fold Star of the Goddess” you can try out here at one of several websites that illustrate the steps.

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A sampling, with some commentary and additions, from the workshop handout:

“Spirit must express itself in the world of matter or it accomplishes nothing.  Insights of meditation and ceremony gain their full power and meaning when reflected in the details of everyday life.” — J. M. Greer, The Druidry Handbook, p. 138.

This world, here, is the realm of mystery. Spirit is simple — it’s this world that’s so surprising and complex in its changes and ripples, its folds and spirals and timings. Make something, I tell myself, labor with the body, and then I can often approach the Goddess more easily, dirt under my fingernails, sweat on my face. She likes bodies. I’m the one who keeps forgetting this, not her.

“Work with a Goddess long enough and you learn to hear Her call. You learn to pick her voice out above the noise of contemporary society, above the words of teachers and friends, and even above your own thoughts and feelings. Sometimes what you hear is not what you expect.” — John Beckett, “A Rite of Sacrifice,” Mar. 4, 2014.

“Shaper, you have made and shaped me. Honor and serenity are yours. I am your garment, you the indwelling spirit. Work with me in everything I do, that all may know you. Energizer, quicken me. Measurer, clear my path. Protector, guard me safely. Initiator, take my hand. Challenger, transform me. Savior, be my help. Weaver, make my pattern bright. Preserver, heal me. Empowerer, make me wise.” — adapted from Caitlin Matthews, Elements of the Goddess, p. 118.

Rilke’s fragment, a whole meditation in itself, or a daily morning prayer.

Oh, I who long to grow,
I look outside myself, and the tree
inside me grows.

— Rainer Maria Rilke

And Larkin’s poem “Water”:

Water

If I were called in
To construct a religion
I should make use of water.

Going to church
Would entail a fording
To dry, different clothes;

My liturgy would employ
Images of sousing,
A furious devout drench,

And I should raise in the east
A glass of water
Where any-angled light
Would congregate endlessly.

— Philip Larkin

After delighting in this poem, make an exercise of it. Choose one of the elements.  It can be water, as in the poem, or one of the others. Finish the sentence: “If I were called in to construct a _____, I should make use of [element].” Keep going: a series of statements, a meditation on the one you just wrote, a free association.  Whatever gets you putting words down.  You can try this over several days with all the elements, or at a different pace, if you’re working with the elements on your own.

The ECG schedule this year put the Goddess Book workshop immediately after Thursday’s Opening Ritual, so people arrived still bubbling from the ceremonial jump-start for the weekend.

“In every world, in every form, in every way, I am near you, I uphold you, I comfort you, I guide you, I deliver you from each limitation until my freedom is yours. Your body is my chalice, your heart my echo, your form my shadow, your pulse my footstep, your breath my passing.” — from my own Goddess book.

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pattern-star

1. Once you hold the Star of the Goddess in your hand, write the names of the four elements and Spirit, one near each of the points. Complete this step before reading further.

2. Which elements sit on either side of Spirit? Contemplate on their positions there.  Are they elements that help support your spiritual life?  Are they especially active?  Are these the elements that need extra attention and balance?

3. Consider a section in your Goddess book for vows: experiment with them, not as harsh, unyielding obligations, but as tools for studying resolve, testing experience, practicing manifestation of your intent, and so on. They need not be “public” – write them in ogham, runes, etc. Start small and easily achievable.

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Dedicating a Goddess Book: Blood, sweat, tears, spit, etc. can mark our books with our earthiness: a commitment to be honest with the Goddess about our path, its ups and downs, to remember her presence with us, and to acknowledge what we need, what we doubt, what we’re willing to work for – whatever feels right to include. Make a ritual of it. Do it quietly, simply, without fanfare, with silence making its own ritual. Or call out all the stops, bells and whistles. Then dance, feast and celebrate.

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Allow a Goddess book — it could be a single sheet or “page” specifically intended for this purpose — to return slowly to the elements on an outdoor altar. Or bury it in the Mother’s good earth. Thus is the vow fulfilled that the Mother takes into Herself, as She will take all things back in time, and return them again.

“All things are holy to you.  This book like all things lies among the faces you show to me; may I learn from you daily, drink deep from your well, and body you forth as your child.” — from my Goddess book.

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A small ritual. Take a few deep breaths. Sing the awen, or other name or word that grounds and focuses you. Holding your cupped hands in front of you, say: “I make this altar for the Goddess, a space where she may act in my life.”

Holding the Star, or your journal, or other ritual object meaningful to you, or nothing else at all, ask yourself: What specific space or doorway exists in my life for the Goddess to manifest or to act in? Pay attention to hints, images and answers as they come.

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And again: Our bodies already know the Goddess – this is our oldest magic.

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Images: ogham; star.

Kuklunomes — Let’s Form the Circle: Part 1   Leave a comment

birchgrovemd

[Part 2 here]

Kuklunomes.  Karla, our ritual leader, half-sings, half-speaks the word in Priyosta Grove’s dedicated language.  Let’s form the circle.

Swonago!  says Russ, as he strikes a singing bowl forcefully.  The sound ripples through the clearing.  We’ve been experimenting with opening gestures and words.  These seem to work for us now.  I can feel without looking that the others are listening, as I am, as the sound fades.

Already the five of us who’ve gathered have been falling out of speech and into a ritual hush.  April wind blows chill through our grove, though the sun in a cloudless sky feels blessedly warm on our faces.  I open my eyes. Dry brown grass whispers around us and underfoot, but the rains have greened things as well.  Almost everyone still wears long sleeves, though a few dare to bare a little more.  Russ strikes the bowl a second time, and cries Swonago! just as Angie and Dan enter the grove.  They’re somewhat flushed, and release hands as they separate to walk to opposite sides of the circle.  Our resident young couple has plainly been making out.  Karla smiles at Angie, who’s tousled and a little breathless.

For the invocation, Karla passes to Michelle the staff she’s handcarved.  For each gathering she decorates it anew.  This time, on one end of the staff, three bird feathers, and a neat braid of colored ribbons cut from scraps from the Beltane rite last year.  Michelle raises it toward Karla in acknowledgement, than lifts it high over our heads.  The words to come are hers. We each bring a piece of this rite, having rehearsed it through a flurry of emails and briefly in a conference call a week ago, fighting static over a bad connection.  All becomes part of Grove tradition, stories to retell, to share with newcomers when the time is right, to remind us who we are.

Gods, spirits, ancestors of blood and the heart’s bond, Michelle chants in a minor-key singsong, we call you to sift our intent, to join our rite, and to bless what we share here and always. 

The words ripple up and down my spine. I glance around the circle again, wanting to take it all in.  Dan and Angie’s eyes are closed.  Both their heads tilt slightly as they listen.  To the casual observer, we’re just as casual: no robes or massive Pagan bling.  Look closer and you might see a few discrete pentagrams, a few modest-sized pendants and earrings.  One bearded fellow we know only as Dragon wears jeans and an embroidered white dress-shirt, a fluid Celtic pattern worked in red.  Michelle has brought water in our lovely aquamarine offering bowl that she found some years ago at a household auction and gifted to Priyosta Grove.  Friendship, it translates, or Amity.  An ongoing goal for us, an intention.  Michelle passed the bowl to Dragon when Karla handed her the staff.  Some of the rite we’re improvising now, relaxed at what’s scripted and what arrives free-form.

Dragon steps forward to bless the circle with water.  He’s at ease, smiling slightly, as he sprinkles each of us in turn.

Western gods and spirits, lakes and rivers, blood in our veins, oceans circling, he chants slowly, turning to each of us, we call you here,  now. 

Dragon’s name, I’m beginning to sense, fits him well after all.  I remember how I rolled my eyes a little when I first heard him introduce himself, then scolded myself as a Pagan snob.

Now, briefly, I flash onto a serpentine form, awash in a frothy sea — a water dragon.  Its arcing wings shoot a cascade of cool, refreshing water over us.  I shudder involuntarily in surprise at the vividness of what I experience.  A confirmation, something to tell him after, if it feels right.

I look around again at the others.  All of us are in fact wearing ritual garb.  The point is comfort and ritual dedication.  We’ve changed into these clothes, but they’re modern, like our ritual.  Priyosta has never come close to discussing anything like a “ritual dress code,” let alone tried to make one a formal policy — nobody has the balls, nor could they get it to stick anyway — but over our eight years of existence, we’ve established our own unwritten sensibility.  One piece of jewelry you’ve dedicated and worn to many rites over time is almost always better than thirty pounds of robes and bling from “Auntie Gaia’s Mystyk Cauldron and Proud Pagan Emporium.”  In big circles and at major festival gatherings, some of us might dress up more.  For this and for our other local rituals, we dress “in” — that one piece of clothing or jewelry that helps remind us as we breathe the smoking sage, feel the water of the blessing, that solvas son yagnei — all things are holy.

We continue inviting the Quarters, and settle in to the Rite.  We tell what feels appropriate, and pass over the rest, belonging to the Grove alone.

It’s not a major festival that’s brought us together this time.  Priyosta doesn’t always manage to meet for every one of the “Eight Greats.”  You follow the Wheel as you can.  But it’s time for our own thanksgiving.  The papers are signed and filed, the last check cleared our now very small grove bank account, the land title arrived on Monday.  This little hilltop with its stand of birches is now officially “ours” to care for.  A former hunter’s camp, much of it had been badly trashed, but we got it for back taxes and not a whole lot more.  A trust, for our grove to hold and heal, and when the time comes, to pass on.  We keep its location private, to preserve it from further heedless indifference.

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Image: birch grove.

DRL — a Druid Ritual Language, Part 1   Leave a comment

[Part 2 | Part 3]

Ritual Language and the Case of Latin

Many spiritual and religious traditions feature a special language used for ritual purposes.  The most visible example in the West is Latin.  The Latin Mass remains popular, and though the mid-1960s reforms of Vatican II allowed the use of local vernacular languages for worship, they never prohibited Latin.  For some Catholics, the use of vernacular reduced the mystery, the beauty and ultimately, in some sense, the sacredness of the rites.  If you visit an Orthodox Christian or Jewish service, you may encounter other languages.  Within an hour’s drive of my house in southern Vermont, you can encounter Greek, Hebrew, Russian, Arabic and Tibetan used in prayer and ritual.

tridmass

Language as Sacrament

The heightened language characteristic of ritual, such as prayer and chant, can be a powerful shaper of consciousness.  The 5-minute Vedic Sanskrit video below can begin to approximate for one watching it a worship experience of sound and image and sensory engagement that transcends mere linguistic meaning.  The rhythmic chanting, the ritual fire, the sacrificial gathering, the flowers and other sacred offerings, the memory of past rituals, the complex network of many kinds of meaning all join to form a potentially powerful ritual experience.  What the ritual “means” is only partly mediated by the significance of the words.  Language used in ritual in such ways transcends verbal meaning and becomes Word — sacrament as language, language as sacrament — a way of manifesting, expressing, reaching, participating in the holy.

chantcoverAnd depending on your age and attention at the time, you may recall the renewed popularity of Gregorian chant starting two decades ago in 1994, starting with the simply-titled Chant, a collection by a group of Benedictines.

Issues with Ritual Language

One great challenge is to keep ritual and worship accessible.  Does the experience of mystery and holiness need, or benefit from, the aid of a special ritual language?  Do mystery and holiness deserve such language as one sign of respect we can offer?  Should we expect to learn a new language, or special form of our own language, as part of our dedication and worship?  Is hearing and being sacramentally influenced by the language enough, even if we don’t “understand” it? These aren’t always easy questions to answer.

“The King’s English”

kjvcoverFor English-speaking Christians and for educated speakers of English in general, the King James Bible* continues to exert remarkable influence more than 400 years after its publication in 1611.  What is now the early modern English grammar and vocabulary of Elizabethan England, in the minds of many, contribute to the “majesty of the language,” setting it apart from daily speech in powerful and useful ways.  Think of the Lord’s Prayer, with its “thy” and “thine” and “lead us not”: the rhythms of liturgical — in this case, older — English are part of modern Christian worship for many, though more recent translations have also made their way into common use.  A surprising number of people make decisions on which religious community to join on the basis of what language(s) are, or aren’t, used in worship.

Druid and Pagan Practice

When it comes to Druid practice (and Pagan practice more generally), attitudes toward special language, like attitudes towards much else, vary considerably.  Some find anything that excludes full participation in ritual to be an unnecessary obstacle to be avoided.  Of course, the same argument can be made for almost any aspect of Druid practice, or spiritual practice in general.  Does the form of any rite inevitably exclude, if it doesn’t speak to all potential participants?  If I consider my individual practice, it thrives in part because of improvisation, personal preference and spontaneity.  It’s tailor-made for me, open to inspiration at the moment, though still shaped by group experience and the forms of OBOD ritual I have both studied and participated in. Is that exclusionary?

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Ritual Primers

Unless they’re Catholic or particularly “high”-church Anglican/Episcopalian, many Westerners, including aspiring Druids, are often unacquainted with ritual. What is it? Why do it? How should or can you do it? What options are there? ADF offers some helpful guidance about ritual more generally in their Druid Ritual Primer page.  The observations there are well worth reflecting on, if only to clarify your own sensibility and ideas.  To sum up the first part all too quickly: Anyone can worship without clergy.  That said, clergy often are the ones who show up! In a world of time and space, ritual has basic limits, like size and start time.  Ignore them and the ritual fails, at least for you.  Change, even or especially in ritual, is good and healthy. However, “With all this change everyone must still be on the same sheet of music.”  As with so much else, what you get from ritual depends on what you give.  And finally, people can and will make mistakes.  In other words, there’s no “perfect” ritual — or perfect ritualists, either.

(Re)Inventing Ritual Wheels

Let me cite another specific example for illustration, to get at some of these issues in a slightly different way.  In the recent Druidcast 82 interview, host Damh the Bard interviews OBOD’s Chosen Chief, Philip Carr-Gomm, who notes that some OBOD-trained Druids seem compelled to write their own liturgies rather than use OBOD rites and language.  While he notes that “hiving off” from an existing group is natural and healthy, he asks why we shouldn’t retain beautiful language where it already exists.  He also observes that Druidry appeals to many because it coincides with a widespread human tendency in this present period to seek out simplicity.  This quest for simplicity has ritual consequences, one of which is that such Druidry can also help to heal the Pagan and Non-Pagan divide by not excluding the Christian Druid or Buddhist Druid, who can join rituals and rub shoulders with their “hard polytheist” and atheist brothers and sisters.  (Yes, more exclusionary forms of Druidry do exist, as they do in any human endeavor, but thankfully they aren’t the mainstream.)

About this attitude towards what in other posts I’ve termed OGRELD, a belief in “One Genuine Real Live Druidry,” Carr-Gomm notes, “The idea that you can’t mix practices from different sources or traditions comes from an erroneous idea of purity.”  Yes, we should be mindful of cultural appropriation.  Of course, as he continues, “Every path is a mixture already … To quote Ronald Hutton, mention purity and ‘you can hear the sound of jackboots and smell the disinfectant.'”  An obsession with that elusive One Genuine Real Live Whatever often misses present possibilities for some mythical, fundamentalist Other-time Neverland and Perfect Practice Pleasing to The Powers-That-Be.  That said, “there are certain combinations that don’t work.”  But these are better found out in practice than prescribed (or proscribed) up front, out of dogma rather than experience.  In Druidry there’s a “recognition that there is an essence that we share,” which includes a common core of practices and values.

As a result, to give another instance, Carr-Gomm says, “If you take Druidry and Wicca, some people love to combine them and find they fit rather well together,” resulting in practices like Druidcraft.  After all, boxes are for things, not people.  Damh the Bard concurs at that point in the interview, asserting that, “To say you can’t [mix or combine elements] is a fake boundary.”

Yet facing this openness and Universalist tendency in much modern Druidry is the challenge of particularity.  When I practice Druidry, it’s my experience last week, yesterday and tomorrow of the smell of sage smoke, the taste of mead, wine or apple juice, the sounds of drums, song, chant, the feel of wind or sun or rain on my face, the presence of others or Others, Spirit, awen, the god(s) in the rite.  The Druid order ADF, after all, is named Ár nDraíocht Féin — the three initials often rendered in English as “A Druid Fellowship” but literally meaning “Our Own Druidry” in Gaelic.

A Human Undersong

Where to go from here?  Carr-Gomm notes what Henry David Thoreau called an “undersong” inside all of us, underlying experience.  “We sense intuitively that there’s this undersong,” says Carr-Gomm.  “It’s your song, inside you. The Order and the course and the trainings [of groups like OBOD] — it’s all about helping you to find that song.  It’s universal.”  As humans we usually strive to increase such access-points to the universal whenever historical, political and cultural conditions are favorable, as they have been for the last several decades in the West.

Paradoxes of Particularity

Yet the point remains that each of us finds such access in the particulars of our experience.  (Christians call it the “scandal of particularity”; in their case, the difficulty of their doctrine that one being, Jesus, is the  sole saviour for all people — the single manifestation of the divine available to us.**)  And the use of heightened ritual language can be one of those “particulars,” a doorway that can also admittedly exclude, an especially powerful access point, because even ordinary language mediates so much human reality.  We quite literally say who and what we are.  The stroke victim who cannot speak or speaks only with difficulty, the aphasic, the abused and isolated child who never acquires language beyond rudimentary words or gestures, the foreigner who never learns the local tongue — all demonstrate the degree to which the presence or absence of language enfolds us in or excludes us from human community and culture.  And that includes spirituality, where — side by side with art and music — we are at our most human in every sense.

In the second post in this series, I’ll shift modes, moving from the context I’ve begun to outline here, and look at some specific candidates for a DRL — a Druidic Ritual Language.

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Images: Tridentine Mass; OBOD Star and Stone Fellowship rite.

*Go here for a higher-resolution image of the title page of the first King James Bible pictured above.

**In a 2012 post, Patheos blogger Tim Suttle quotes Franciscan friar and Father Richard Rohr at length on the force of particularity in a Christian context.  If Christian imagery and language still work for you at all, you may find his words useful and inspiring.  Wonder is at the heart of it.  Here Rohr talks about Christmas, incarnation and access to the divine in Christian terms, but pointing to an encounter with the holy — the transforming experience behind why people seek out the holy in the first place:

A human woman is the mother of God, and God is the son of a human mother!

Do we have any idea what this sentence means, or what it might imply? Is it really true?  If it is, then we are living in an entirely different universe than we imagine, or even can imagine. If the major division between Creator and creature can be overcome, then all others can be overcome too. To paraphrase Oswald Chambers “this is a truth that dumbly struggles in us for utterance!” It is too much to be true and too good to be true. So we can only resort to metaphors, images, poets, music, and artists of every stripe.

I have long felt that Christmas is a feast which is largely celebrating humanity’s unconscious desire and goal. Its meaning is too much for the rational mind to process, so God graciously puts this Big Truth on a small stage so that we can wrap our mind and heart around it over time. No philosopher would dare to imagine “the materialization of God,” so we are just presented with a very human image of a poor woman and her husband with a newly born child. (I am told that the Madonna is by far the most painted image in Western civilization. It heals all mothers and all children of mothers, if we can only look deeply and softly.)

Pope Benedict, who addressed 250 artists in the Sistine Chapel before Michelangelo’s half-naked and often grotesque images, said quite brilliantly, “An essential function of genuine beauty is that it gives humanity a healthy shock!” And then he went on to quote Simone Weil who said that “Beauty is the experimental proof that incarnation is in fact possible.” Today is our beautiful feast of a possible and even probable Incarnation!

If there is one moment of beauty, then beauty can indeed exist on this earth. If there is one true moment of full Incarnation, then why not Incarnation everywhere? The beauty of this day is enough healthy shock for a lifetime, which leaves us all dumbly struggling for utterance.

Updated (minor editing) 1 April 2014

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