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Expanding — and Focusing — Our Magic   Leave a comment

[Part One | Part Two]

In a recent comment, Steve writes:

A broader definition of magic sounds interesting, especially when compared with some of the ideas about it I have encountered over the years.

Do you have a working definition you could share or is this something you have developed in your blog?

I do have a working definition of magic, and I’ve also written about it in various forms fairly frequently, though not always under that label. But it’s good to regularly take out opinions and understandings, dust them off, rattle them, note what shakes free, scrape off the rust, and buff and polish the rest. So with the spur that Steve’s comment provides, that’s what I’ll do in this post.

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Yevgeny Zamyatin / Wikipedia / public domain

Our definitions come, mostly, after experiences. Before that, we don’t have much to attach them to, and if anyone who’s reading this is anything like me, your definitions at that point may not match things that you later DO experience. So then we get mired in the mismatch, rather than referring back to the original experience. Or — even better than looking backward — experiencing more, other, wilder. So I open up once again a page where I can re-read irascible old revolutionary Yevgeny Zamyatin (1884-1937), whose essay “On Literature, Revolution, Entropy, and Other Matters” reminds me: “Dealing with answered questions is the privilege of brains constructed like a cow’s stomach, which, as we know, is built to digest cud”.

“Privilege”? Tired of a too-steady diet of cud, I aim to forage more widely.

So I’ll begin by asserting we all practice magic, and work outward from there, using this as a core assumption and seeing how it holds up. We do much of our magic half-consciously, so that we often don’t perceive the patterns, causes and effects of what we set in motion as clearly as we might. After all, like most of us, I insist on who I am: in my case, straight, white, male, employed, married, healthy, intelligent, rational. But when even one of these breaks down, as every one of them has for at least some of us over a lifetime, my world trembles violently, even if it doesn’t collapse outright, and I scurry and latch on to explanations for what’s going on.

Isn’t such an interval about the least likely time for any of us to notice the patterns, causes and effects of what we’ve set in motion? And even if and when we do, we tend to account for them only with naturalistic explanations (Pagans may add supernatural but not necessarily more accurate ones), including blaming other people, fatigue, stress, illness, the government, conspiracies, the Man, our reptilian overlords, a loveless marriage, plain bad luck, and so on, forgetting how much even of our conscious experience at the very moment of our explaining has been programmed by education, habit, expectation, culture, practice, a “reasonable explanation”, and a simple, overriding human desire not … to … be … weird.

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But … magic?!

At the heart of this often-inaccurate accounting is a precept that disturbs and offends Westerners in particular, taught as we are that we are free and independent beings, with wills and choices subject to our conscious attention. We are not so free after all, but if we can’t even examine this assertion in the first place, what are we to do? If we all practice magic, as I claim, we all need to, because as musician and mage R. J. Stewart observes:

With each phase of culture in history, the locks upon our consciousness have changed their form or expression, but in essence remain the same. Certain locks are contrived from willed patterns of suppression, control, propaganda, sexual stereotyping, religious dogma; these combine with and reinforce the old familiar locks restraining individual awareness; laziness, greed, self-interest, and, most pernicious of all, willful ignorance. This last negative quality is the most difficult of all to transform into a positive; if we truly will ourselves to be ignorant, and most of us do in ways ranging from the most trivial to the most appallingly irresponsible and culpable, then the transformation comes only through bitter experience. It may seem to be hardship imposed from without, almost at random, but magical tradition suggests that it flows from our own deepest levels of energy, which, denied valid expression by the locks upon our consciousness, find an outlet through exterior cause and effect (Stewart, Living Magical Arts, pg. 20-21).

“[D]enied valid expression by the locks upon our consciousness”: we might think such a “locked-up” person simply needs re-education, or better training, maybe positive reinforcement, a decent opportunity. (I note here that it’s almost always some other person who’s the problem, or needs the help — never me. After all, I’m awake and in charge of my life.) This is also where we get much of the American program of self-improvement, “pulling ourselves up by our own bootstraps”, as it used to be called. Those who can afford it try therapy, or weekend retreats and workshops. Those who can’t may rely on pharmaceuticals or liquor or increasingly available weed. As the evidence mounts, as the growing dysfunction, suffering, addiction, unhappiness and all-around misery attest, something’s not working.

So why magic, of all things? Surely any number of other options would be preferable to something so half-baked, superstitious, irrational, etc., etc. — the list of slanders, some of them justified by pernicious snake-oil salesmen, is long.

J. M. Greer, ecologist, blogger, conservationist and mage, puts it this way:

[t]he tools of magic are useful because most of the factors that shape human awareness are not immediately accessible to the conscious mind; they operate at levels below the one where our ordinary thinking, feeling, and willing take place. The mystery schools have long taught that consciousness has a surface and a depth. The surface is accessible to each of us, but the depth is not. To cause lasting changes in consciousness that can have magical effects on one’s own life and that of others, the depth must be reached, and to reach down past the surface, ordinary thinking and willing are not enough (J. M. Greer, Mystery Teachings from the Living Earth, Weiser Books, 2012, pg. 88).

To put it another way, in what is not a particularly poetic magical Druid triad: Magic stems from an experiential fact, an experimental goal, and an endlessly adaptable technique.

The fact is that each day we all experience many differing states of consciousness, moving from deep sleep to REM sleep to dream to waking, to daydream, to focused awareness and back again.  We make these transitions naturally and usually effortlessly. They serve different purposes, and what we cannot do in one state, we can often do easily in another.  The flying dream is not the focus on making a hole in one, nor is it the light trance of daydream, nor the careful math calculation. What we do mechanically and often without awareness, we can learn to do consciously.

The goal of magic is transformation – to enter focused states of awareness at will and through them to achieve insight and change. Often, for me anyway, this is nothing more mysterious than moving out of a negative, depressed or angry headspace at will into a more free, imaginative one, where I can problem-solve much more effectively, and also be much more pleasant to be around. Or so my wife tells me.

“The major premise of magic,” says R. J. Stewart, “is that there are many worlds, and that the transformations which occur within the magician enable him or her to gain access to these worlds” (R. J. Stewart, Living Magical Arts, pg. 7).

The technique — a cluster, really, of practices and techniques — is the training and work of the imagination.  This work typically involves the use of one or more of the following: ritual, meditation, chant, visualization, concentration, props, images and group dynamics to catalyze transformations in awareness. “… [O]ur imagination is our powerhouse …” says Stewart. “… certain images tap into the deeper levels of imaginative force within us; when these are combined with archetypal patterns they may have a permanent transformative effect”.

Ouroboros-benzene.svgEven mundanely, golfers visualize a hole in one, carpenters see the finished design long before it emerges from the blueprint, chemists rely as much on inspiration as any artist for discoveries like that of August Kekule, who dreamt of the structure of the benzene ring via the archetypical image of a snake swallowing its tail.

Furnish the imagination with the food it needs, and it can be a powerful tool and guide. Abandon it to others who do not know us, nor have our best interests at heart, and we cast away our birthright.

PART TWO — Applications — coming soon.

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The Work of an Order   Leave a comment

Finding out about how we ourselves “do Druidry” — or other path we’re on — is a key step that all of us, it seems, keep taking. From that personal connection and insight, renewed over time and through our own experiences, comes a growing confidence in our own strengths and uniqueness that others can’t easily shake. It’s no longer just faith, but communion. It’s bone-knowledge, gut-wisdom, skin-sense. We know things, in that lovely old expression, by heart.

The more our practice, whatever it is, rests as much in doing as in believing, the more we draw strength from it in ways that can feel surprisingly like physical exercise. Our bodies learn to know our practice as well as our brains. Oak or rowan or beech become friends — our community has grown through knowing individuals, no longer just abstractions in a listing of trees in an ogham-book. The welcome of oak differs from the subtler touch that rowan extends. And these two differ from maple or hemlock. And so on through all the other furry, winged and finned kindred we encounter in the land where we find ourselves.

The work of any Order worth my energy and dedication will contain material that speaks clearly to me and seems just right. There will also be exercises and insights that I can adapt, and still others that are right to set aside for a time until they align with what I’m doing and needing to do. One of the signal advantages of an Order is its span: many hands and hearts have sifted material I might never encounter on my own, and wiser heads than mine have added insights, caveats and encouragements that I might otherwise miss. The work of an Order is more compact, in valuable ways, than the work of a Solitary. It’s denser, richer in certain ways, brewed and spiced, aged and tempered, refined and mellowed, sharpened and lit.

It also vibrates on a harmonic that reaches others attuned to it. Doing the rituals, passing through the initiations, studying and reflecting on and trying out the coursework, meeting others doing the same things, all bring me into a greater circle I discover I need, no matter how solitary I am — and need to be — most of the time. The choice, as it so often does, arises from the richness of both-and, not either-or. I find that I come not to a fork in the path, but the path itself opening out, for a time, into a meadow. Beyond is vista: mountains, maybe, or valleys shining with silver rivers, towns bright with banners and laughter. Quests beckon, mysteries abound. It’s no surprise that a medieval landscape features in so many modern dreams and deeds, with both real danger and jewelled possibility a heartbeat or horse-ride away. Just over the next hill, or back at the castle, down a corridor we never knew was there.

In the West we pursue ever more isolated and internal lives, busy too often with busy-ness itself, all the while crying out for the gifts of community we simultaneously keep turning away from: connection, fellowship, camaraderie, friendship, shared interests and inspirations, shared suffering and joy. Well-founded community sees that spark of individuality restored to a healthy place, one that does not render me less able to connect, but more; one that honors my need to withdraw at times, even as I also need to open to others; one that sweeps me out of indifference toward engagement with the struggles of others anywhere, who turn out to be surprisingly like me after all. We be of one blood, ye and I.

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first fire, a few days ago

Along with Groucho Marx, many of us may have grumbled some version of I don’t want to belong to any club that will accept people like me as members. And knowing ourselves as we do, maybe we’re right to say that. On our off days, we’re off on ourselves as much as anyone else. Hamlet’s our doppelganger, midwife to angst and depression and self-accusation: I am very proud, revengeful, ambitious, with more offences at my beck than I have thoughts to put them in, imagination to give them shape, or time to act them in. What should such fellows as I do, crawling between earth and heaven?

Somehow “joining an Order” just doesn’t seem like any kind of sane response to that question, but more like the absolute last thing I would choose. Isn’t there a twilit bar or pub nearby where I can hide and drown my sorrows?

And certainly Orders aren’t any kind of cure-all or panacea. As human institutions, they’re potentially beset with all the human foibles we know so well in ourselves. Personalities clash, dreams backfire and scorch, visions implode, egos lunge and stab. We peer around at the wreckage, bandage the worst of our wounds, and vow: never again.

But Orders can also launch us toward the heights that we know or dream of, or — if we’re particularly cynical right now — doubt are possible at all: they focus and help to nourish the deepest hungers in us, beyond food or sex. In the connections they aid us in making, we touch on something that lifts us out of ourselves, we’re part of that never-ending story our best dreamers keep singing about to us, and painting, and weaving, and nudging us to explore.

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Omens, Signs, Friends Visiting   Leave a comment

I’ve mentioned before on this blog that I practice two distinct spiritual paths. One of the teachings on the other path concerns waking dreams. “A waking dream is something that happens in the outer, everyday life that has spiritual significance”, writes one of my guides on that path. And the crucial point, for me, is that I can perceive that significance. Or miss it. Or call it coincidence, or something else.

In her post “The Reality of Omens“, Druid Life blogger and author Nimue Brown writes,

When looking for omens in the world around us, it is necessary to consider how reality works in the first place. One of the things I have rejected outright is that other autonomous beings could show up in my life as messages from spirit – because the idea that a hare, a sparrowhawk, or some other attention grabbing thing could have its day messed about purely to try and give me a sign, is profoundly uncomfortable to me. I have something of an animist outlook, and I do not think the universe is *that* into me.

Brown’s caveat rings true — we can safely pare the human ego down, without fear it will crumble and disappear. Unlike the average toddler, most adults handle reasonably well the discovery that they’re not actually the center of universe.

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But as a fellow semi-animist, I’d not separate “spirit” from what you and I and other things are doing every day. “Spirit” isn’t a thing that stands apart from what it inhabits — it’s not a bearded Jehovah lounging in the heavens, lording it over the rest of the cosmos, twitching the puppet-strings to get his way with us. Spirit permeates things — it’s what peeks out when you look in the eyes of a dog or bird or bug, or into the heart of a flower. It’s what gives waves their curl, or cumulus clouds their cotton-like billow, or your jogging neighbor the will to keep at her four-mile routine, in spite of December sleet. Spirit makes things thing-ly — how else can I detect its presence? Ever seen it hanging out all by itself? Pay attention and I can notice now more, now less. But never apart from the things it’s been doing all along, like you and me and the grass growing tall in the back lawn where I haven’t mowed it at all this year.

The skies cloud over, the temperature drops and a wind kicks up. Is it an “omen”? No — but these things do carry meaning to anyone paying attention. It’s probably going to rain soon. That particular kind of omen we call a “no-brainer” (though humans still manage daily to ignore even obvious omens). As part of the universe where a local storm is brewing, I can pick up on other things spirit is doing, or I can ignore them. The universe “isn’t that into me”, but it is in fact *in* me, and in you too, and we’re both in it.

So I prefer to see “omens” and “signs” as friends visiting. Spirit is simply flowing. One of its flows is you, another is me, a third is the car pulling into the driveway with S. at the wheel, “just stopping by” on her way home after shopping. If I gain insight or wisdom or a nudge to do something, or a burst of gratitude from that visit, then I’m paying attention in some way, and I’m being me, with my own unique responses to what spirit’s always doing all around and in me.

Rather than worrying overmuch about whether it was a sign or an omen or simply another wave in the ocean of spirit manifesting everywhere and everything, why not measure its effects? Is my life deeper, richer? Are the lives of others made richer and deeper? Is that enough, without checking the box labeled “omen” or “not omen”?

But what of the autonomy Brown names as part of her animist understanding of the uni-verse, the “one-turning”?

The idea that “other autonomous beings could show up in my life as messages from spirit – because the idea that a hare, a sparrowhawk, or some other attention grabbing thing could have its day messed about purely to try and give me a sign, is profoundly uncomfortable to me”, she notes.

But she and the many other beings in her life can be and are many things at once. And so are you and I. Like spirit in us and all around, I am many things at once. I am not “purely” anything, but delightfully mongrel. I’m an incarnate human, and also a Vermonter, a husband, a blogger, an aging white male, a person alive in the 21st century, an American, the son of two parents who both lost fathers while still in their single-digit years. I am a manifestation of spirit, a homeowner, a Druid, a teacher, a conlanger, a portal of Mystery, and so on. (Maybe the problem isn’t labels by themselves, but that we never use nearly enough of them. Scatter them like seed. Each is — not a limit — a possibility.) Each of these features opens access points for spirit to reach other beings, while leaving me with the same freedom as other “autonomous beings”. Spirit does “overlap” and “interconnection” really well.

My individuality and freedom are what spirit uses to connect with all other free and individual things. Spirit as the whole, the universe, seems to “love” individuals — that’s why there are many of us, rather than just two or three. Spirit as “one thing” interconnects and links all things, all these other “one things”.

So when a crow flies overhead while I’m checking the squashes in the garden, the crow is a crow and a friend visiting and a reminder, if I’m listening, of animal intelligence and and and.  Its appearance and my awareness meet, for whatever comes from that meeting. Omen, sign, friend visiting, reminder of crow wisdom to fly over things before I decide to land on them, spirit guide — because spirit is always sparking the beings it pervades — to eat, fight, flee, love, mate, birth young, flower, fruit, grow old, die, return, become, become.

And the crow also discovers and learns something. Here’s a human that does not aim a gun at me as I fly over. Here is a water supply, a pond I can drink from. Here are trees to roost in, good cawing branches to talk to the rest of the flock, food sources to peck at in the scraps and compostables that get put out almost daily. And a hundred other crow things I don’t know about, without shapeshifting to Crow, or crow to me.

Brown goes on to make a key observation about our attention:

I can however read something into my behaviour at this point. I was in the right place at the right time, and I think that tells me something about my relationship with the flow. I take exciting nature encounters as good omens not because I think nature is bringing me a special message, but because it means I was in just the right place, at exactly the right time, looking the right way and paying attention. That in turn means I am in tune, and would seem to bode well for anything else I’m doing.

I simply take “encounter” as “message”. Humans are meaning-makers — it’s what we do. Any omen is an amen, an awen, a chance, a doorway. Will I walk through it? Or will I see how spirit walks through it — to me and to everyone and everything else? And as these things happen, can I catch the Song that is always singing, just at the borders of hearing?

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Article in today’s New York Times: “What does it mean to be human?” touches on some of these matters.

Review of “Falling in the Flowers”   Leave a comment

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Photo courtesy Srinivas Ananda.

Granderson, Benjamin and James Granderson. Falling in the Flowers: A Year in the Lives of American Druids. Amazon, 2017. Kindle Edition.

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Stone Circle at Four Quarters Sanctuary — photo courtesy Anna Oakflower

The Granderson brothers, a photojournalist and ethnographer team, key their book to the general reader, taking care to provide a short introduction to Paganism and some of the main strands of contemporary Druidry. But given their focus on a particular OBOD Grove, Oak and Eagle (hereafter abbreviated OAE), and largely on the two leaders of the grove, David North and Nicole Franklin, the text has a valuable immediacy often lacking from such studies. The 97 color photos also go far to bringing the reader into an experience of living Druidry, and grounding it in vivid sensory detail. (Respecting copyright, I include other images here to enliven the text of this review.)

The Grandersons are also careful not to generalize too far from their experience embedded with a specific Grove. Benjamin writes:

Unlike my previous project on Paganism, this work is a tighter focus; one which examines a very select group of Pagans who follow a specific Druid school of thought: The Order of Bards, Ovates, and Druids, or OBOD for short. Starting with Dave and Nicole, my brother and I investigated the lives and practices of these individuals who called themselves OBOD Druids (pg. 10).

In addition to taking care not to paint all Druids or even all OBOD members with the same brush, the authors nevertheless back up assertions like the following with specific examples, detailed description and photos.

Since the OAE is more intensive than a typical Seed Group, the core members are very tight-knit and comfortable with one another, and often consider the others to be close friends and confidants. From woodland camps to the living rooms of suburban houses, there is a clear culture of openness, where one moment raucous drinking and jokes are interspersed with moments of deep discussion and potent ritual (pg. 23).

One comes away with the impression of the significant trust the OAE members placed in the Grandersons, and the authors don’t betray this trust in intimate portraits of OAE members and their practice of one form of 21st century Druidry.

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David North, second from left. Photo courtesy Gail Nyoka.

Catching David at a point near the completion of his Ovate studies, and the transition of OAE from Seed Group to Grove, Granderson perceptively observes,

While what constitutes “completion” of the course material varies from person to person based on the correspondence between them and their mentors, before all else, a person’s evolution through the grade work determines if they feel like they have achieved balance (pg. 35).

Much of the non-hierarchical and non-dogmatic character of OBOD comes across in comments like these, in large part one of the signal accomplishments of OBOD’s current leader, Philip Carr-Gomm.

The authors also show themselves sensitive to picking up on Druid cultural practices:

(a) widespread hugging in greeting and farewell, often even among those meeting for the first time;

(b) the relaxed quality of “Pagan” or “Druid Standard Time”, in which events happen in a fluid and intuitive way, not on a strict schedule, but more when the group as a whole feels ready, and almost everyone alert to group energies feels a subtle shift toward action;

(c) unspoken taboos against bad-mouthing other Druid groups (in part because people are often members of more than one, each affording a unique set of teachings and perspectives), and

(d) a kind of ritual respect, so that during unscripted moments in ritual, when attendees are invited to toast, offer thanks, blessings, prayer requests, etc., one forgoes invoking a deity or energy out of keeping with the group, or exclusive to one’s personal practice.

Part of the authors’ experience drew them in deeply enough that the boundaries between observer and participant start to blur. Undesirable as this continues to be in good ethnography, it confers the authority of personal witness to what the Grandersons can recount:

I situated myself on the floor, text in hand, and I began reading. The text started off like the beginning of the Imbolc ritual, with the calling to the corners and the centering of the self. While I read the text aloud, Dave moved from corner to corner of the room, gazing into the expanse—at what I did not know. The text then changed, and from that point onwards I began to lose any understanding, only picking up something about ancestors. I was intent upon trying to guess when to stop to give Dave time to perform the ritual, while also fighting my excitement about getting a good photo (pg. 81).

Something of the eclecticism present in OBOD practice emerges. While much of the study material is Celtic in origin or spirit, OBOD members come from such varied and often mixed backgrounds that the OBOD ethos encourages members

to throw away selectivity and investigate and study the wisdom and traditions of all their ancestors, spanning time and geography, to form a complete profile that honors all of those that came before … to be open toward other traditions and practices that do not belong to one’s ancestral background, and to be willing to recognize wisdom and truth no matter what source it comes from (pg. 89).

Recording the mood, participants, ritual actions and aftermath of several of the Great Eight seasonal festivals of Druidry and Paganism generally, the Grandersons caught the generally relaxed ritual mindset, as well as the personalities of individuals:

There were some slip-ups, with a ritual participant or two walking the wrong way at first, starting a line too late, or failing to light a candle due to a stubborn lighter. An occasional glance would be cast at Dave or Nicole, seeming to seek their validation. Dave looked on stoically, though always welcoming and patient; he knew from experience these rituals were never flawless (pg. 109).

Though much of modern Druidry is indeed visible, or at least detectable with some modest effort at inquiry, if one is interested, there is a quality of what might be termed “spiritual privacy” to even its public rituals. This is a cherished skill among the Druids I know, one for intermittent discussion, certainly, and always a matter of judgment and discretion. Each person assesses the line he or she prefers to observe in how public the individual practice of Druidry should be. The Grandersons capture it well:

OAE wasn’t afraid to be out in public, but they made that public space private. They didn’t hang a sign up saying, “Druid Meeting Here,” or make announcements on a loudspeaker. They also chose a pavilion that, by design and location, created seclusion; it was a reserved piece of land that they sanctified, and they created an island for themselves for a day. Again, this speaks to the contemporary Druid’s ability to take what is modern—a state park pavilion—and make it ancient, carry out their practices in the open air, and somehow remain largely hidden (pg. 124).

The authors divide their book in to poetically captioned sections: Introduction; What is A Druid?; Opening the Door; Naked Before the Full Moon; Into Spring; Beltane; Branching Out; Trip to Four Quarters; The Latter-Half of the Year; Living with Dave and Nicole (a ritually full time, with a wedding of Druid Hex Nottingham and his wife Daisy, East Coast Gathering, a baby-naming ceremony during the same Gathering weekend, a local Pagan Pride Day, etc.); A Detour to New York (with an interview with another Druid, Nadia Chauvet); and The End of the Journey.

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cabin banners at East Coast Gathering

This review has focused more on the first half of the book; the second half builds on it, with more interviews of members we have already encountered, and observations specific to their experiences.

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MAGUS Beltane fire-circle. Photo Courtesy Wendy Rose Scheers.

In sum, I recommend this book to the “Druid-curious” for its detailed reporting and photography, and for conveying, as close as text and photos can, something of the experience of what doing Druidry actually feels like. And to those familiar with Druidry who may also know many of the Druids it portrays and interviews, it’s a pleasure to read and ponder. Finally, as an insight into the energy, organization and personalities behind the very successful MAGUS gatherings of 2017 and 2018, it also deserves exploration by anyone interested in contemporary Druidry and in organizing focused and effective Pagan events.

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Entitled and Title-less   Leave a comment

With a hill to our east, we greet the sun itself about an hour after astronomical sunrise, and as I begin this post, it’s growing in strength as it clears the trees, doubly welcome after overcast days and fogs and thunderstorms. Hail, Lugh, in all your guises!

At Mystic River Grove‘s Lunasa celebration on Friday, I had to laugh: we were blessing with fire and water as part of the ritual, and a light rain had just begun to fall through late afternoon sun. No need — fire and water are already with us, my inner Bard satirist exclaimed. Sometimes you just want to celebrate what is — sometimes ritual gets in the way, if Things already are chorusing all around you. But we doggedly went ahead anyway. Couldn’t we just recognize what was already with us and dance in the rain around the fire in welcome?! No need to invoke the Directions, either, snorted my inner Bard, irony-meter on high. Where do you think you are? North, south, west, east — they always embrace you. You stand at the Center, always. No distance.

Nothing like a gathering of Druids to kick my awareness of change and focus. Discomfort can be a useful guide for where to look, a shift from the stasis we too easily fall into day to day.

This morning I woke early and read a little.

Consider a cup of coffee. The energy needed to run the coffee maker is only a tiny portion of the total petroleum-based energy and materials that go into the process. Unless the coffee is organically grown, chemical fertilizers and pesticides derived from oil are used to produce the beans; diesel-driven farm machinery harvests them; trucks, ships, and trains powered by one petroleum product or another move them around the world from producer to middleman to consumer, stopping at various fossil-fuel-heated or -cooled storage facilities and fossil-fuel-powered factories en route; consumers in the industrial world drive to brightly lit and comfortably climate-controlled supermarkets on asphalt roads to bring back plastic-lined containers of round coffee to their homes. To drink coffee by the cup, we use oil by the barrel.*

I got up and brewed a pot, sipped from my cup and returned to this post, holding all the many ironies at bay while I considered what I wanted to think about out loud on the page.

Rather than seeing Greer’s words above as an accusation, I read it as a map of points for focus.

And I recently read in our local papers of the increasing likelihood in the immediate future of planned rolling black-outs by our local Green Mountain Power company, in an effort to manage demand. (For the extra-paranoid, there’s added levels of worry about the vulnerabilities of our national power grid, and rumours of the Russians hacking it –any day now!) How many prods to action do I need?!

Time for setting up car-battery power for lighting and small appliances. The blackouts will teach us to use less anyway. It’s too easy to forget that reduce-reuse-recycle aren’t just the 3 R’s for our age, but a hierarchy of priorities, with reduce being by far the most important, and recycle a stopgap of last resort, only for when the things slip by the first two strategies. Cleaning up after our anniversary celebration last weekend, with some 100 aluminum soda cans going into our recycling bin, also gave me pause.

It was some 20 years ago now that my wife and I investigated cordwood masonry building techniques at Rob Roy’s cordwood building school, in West Chazy, NY, along with a suite of sustainable tech by amateur and professional builders who walked their talk. It’s a measure of how far the two of us still are from doing the same that I’m writing this post. Again, not to blame ourselves or wallow in pointless guilt — and guilt is always pointless unless it motivates change — but to find in my discomfort a map for focus. A Druid can and should always ask what now? — and as well as ask, listen for the many answers to that question that are always arriving in ways both obvious and subtle. The answers come, in abundance, if I’m listening. If I don’t yet hear them, there’s my practice, mapped out for me.

Our raised vegetable beds and compost piles are slowly expanding, and for now, the three CSAs nearby that we’re members of raise 80% of our vegetables better than we can.  Likewise with good chickens, eggs, dairy and beef less than four miles away. So far, not a prime focus. Should they change, so will we.

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Beets, kale, squash and potatoes in a modified hugel-mound bed. We’re trying out several different sizes and shapes to see what works best.

But our energy needs remain a focus. Solar, however admirable it can seem on the consumption end because it feels so clean, relies on components extremely energy-intensive to extract from the earth, process, fabricate and distribute.

When we met, my wife and I discussed for a long time the kind of life we wanted, and at the time our lack of funds — deep irony! — prevented us from getting the land and building the house and living the kind of sustainable life I’d imagined. So we took the employer-employed route instead.

The obstacles for so many of us are systemic, and harder, though all the more needed, in times of challenge like now. Difficult to navigate, but deserving our creativity to find pathways that work for our situations. The best changes, often, are incremental. I’m more likely to stick with them, I find. I can adjust as I go. No need for the dramatic transformations — those will come regardless, as long as I’m alive.

We’ve returned to questions of sustainability through the decades, out of a mix of opportunity and necessity and common sense. Wood heat, small-scale gardening, one car, locally-produced foods — these we’ve achieved. But still fairly high electricity use: that’s where we stand now. Our solar production covers all but about $100 a year, yet a single power outage renders oven-fridge-computer-water pump and hot-water-heater large and useless household ornaments, until the current is restored and flowing again. No reserves. And that stands as a metaphor to explore on many levels, not just the physical. What spiritual reserves do I need to develop?

Barometer rising, forecast clear — time to wash clothes and get them out onto the line in the backyard. I’ve got work cut out for me. I’ll update here as I discover what I can do.

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*John Michael Greer. (2008). The Long Descent: A User’s Guide to the End of the Industrial Age. New Society Publishers, pg. 115.

 

“(Not) Your Grandmother’s Druids”   Leave a comment

1–Your grandmother’s Druids were most likely members of a fraternal order, similar to the Masons.

Many contemporary Druid orders seek to assist members in developing a spiritual foundation and fostering a training equal to the challenges humans face over the coming decades and centuries, where new understandings will help us adapt successfully to more limited resources, a hotter planet, rising oceans, pollution, species die-off, massive social unrest and population migration, and still other shifts and changes we do not yet foresee.

Even if the challenges remain exactly as they already stand today — even if all predictions, forecasts, and extrapolations from available evidence are hopelessly inaccurate — it’s clear we already need wiser approaches and clearer thinking to grapple with them. In this predicament, however, we do not confront anything new. The human experience over the history of our species is one of frequent and sometimes dire challenge and change. In any case, one of the benefits of Druidry is the gift [link to “Seven Gifts of Druidry”] of wisdom and foresight — always useful skills.

To explore a play on words, the difference between change and challenge is lle — the Welsh word for “place, room, accommodation”. As soon as we “make room” for actual reality, then, we can deal more effectively and creatively with change. It is only when we deny, balk, block, resist, fear or ignore a challenge that the initial change has no place to manifest, and so it pools, darkens, and accumulates into something much more difficult later, when it finally breaks through, whether it’s an individual illness, societal breakdown or planetary shift. Further, a major “secret” to dealing with challenge is respect for place, for the “room” or space we inhabit. Our ability to care for it, listen to it, learn from it and live in it more fully will help many thrive.

2–Your grandmother’s Druids generally sought and found inspiration and example in both the limited information surviving in classical sources, and in the Druid Revival beginning in the 17th century, which drew on practically every source that didn’t run away first, and on some that did.

As the growth and development of modern Druidry continued, and with contributions from Celtic Reconstructionists like ADF, who stressed historical authenticity and searched for the half-hidden remnants we still possess of older Druid traditions*, new teachings, practices, insights and shifts in emphasis emerged in many established Revival orders like AODA, OBOD and BDO. These “new” teachings are in fact often very old, reintroducing images, stories, understandings and quite specific herbal knowledge tribal peoples worldwide have long possessed. (As a single example, see the work of Druid and master herbalist Ellen Evert Hopman.)

3–Your grandmother’s Druids were generally, officially and at least nominally Christian. While other varieties no doubt existed, it was often both dangerous and illegal until surprisingly recently to be too open about believing and practicing anything other than some version of Christianity.

Today’s Druids span a much wider range of backgrounds, with atheist, pantheist, animist, Christian, Jewish, Hindu and other traditions influencing and being influenced by Druidic perspectives and practices. As with Alexandria and Rome in the centuries before and after Christ, a stir of Gnostic, Egyptian, Chaldean, Christian, Neo-Platonist and Pythagorean mystery teachings, practices, ideas and perspectives produced a potent ferment that still pervades much contemporary culture worldwide.

4–If your grandmother’s Druids were challenged with the oft-heard critique “You can’t be a real Druid because we know hardly anything about ancient Druidry,” they might readily concur and acknowledge that their Druidry is a fraternal order, inspired by the romantic image of the Druid as a learned leader and cultural arbiter and repository of tribal memory.

Today’s Druids still hear this increasingly ridiculous challenge, about as accurate as early challenges that “Christians practice cannibalism” because they ritually drank the blood of Christ in the Mass.

In fact, a surprising amount of information survives about older Druid practice and training, outside of the fragmentary Classical references, largely in Irish but also in Welsh sources.

Members of OBOD can trace the increasing influence of these sources in the revisions of the OBOD coursework, first in the transition from Chosen Chief Nuinn/Ross Nichols to Philip Carr-Gomm, and in the new Chosen Chief Eimear Burke, who has said that OBOD “isn’t broken so it doesn’t need fixing”, but that an increased focus on Irish material will be a natural outcome of her Irish identity and experience.

For a quick overview of the hundreds of sources available, of varying age, usefulness, completeness and provenance, check out this link at the Celtic Literature Collective. Here’s just a small fraction:

Colloquy of the Two Sages / Immacallam in da Thuarad. 12th century Book of Leinster.

Trioedd Ynys PrydeinTriads of the Island of Britain. Versions in 13th century White Book of RhydderchLlyfr Gwyn Rhydderch, the Red Book of Hergest / Llyfr Coch Hergest, and the Peniarth Manuscripts.

The Mabinogi(on) / Another link. One of the most famous of sources listed here. Welsh tales, legends, philosophy, magic, training, etc., from the medieval period.

Book of Ballymote / (Wikipedia link.) Leabhar Baile an Mhota. 1400s. Includes the “Instructions of King Cormac”, stories of Fionn Mac Cumhaill, and other tales.

Auraicept na n-Éces / Another linkAn ogham treatise dating from the 7th century, with later interpolations.

Dindsenchas / The Lore of Places. A “recounting the origins of place-names and traditions concerning events and characters associated with the places” (Wikipedia) and vital as a gateway to understanding much of Irish myth and legend. Many are found in the Book of Leinster.

Brehon law / Senchus Mor or “Gael Law” — numerous collections (see link at beginning of sentence), the earliest dating from the 700s — “possibly the oldest surviving codified legal system in Europe” (Wikipedia). Focusing on restorative rather than punitive justice, and on care of the land. See also Laurence Ginnell’s 1894 The Brehon Laws: A Legal Handbook, full text online here.

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Colouring Outside the Lines   Leave a comment

“But what can we do?” people often ask. Whatever the need, the question is a perennially valid one. What action is best for me to pursue, yes. But also, what can I do before I act, before the main event, so to speak, so that I can choose more wisely how to act on that larger scale? The Hopi of the American Southwest use a ceremonial pipe they call natwanpi — literally, “instrument of preparation”. What can I do to make of my actions a natwanpi in my own life as often as possible? How can I act now to prepare for the next action needed? How can my deeds begin to form a shining set of links, not merely a random assemblage?

Philip Carr-Gomm writes,

Try opening to Awen not when it’s easy, but when it’s difficult: not when you can be still and nothing is disturbing you, but when there’s chaos around you, and life is far from easy. See if you can find Awen in those moments. It’s harder, much harder, but when you do, it’s like walking through a doorway in a grimy city street to discover a secret garden that has always been there – quiet and tranquil, an oasis of calm and beauty. One way to do this, is just to tell yourself gently “Stop!” Life can be so demanding, so entrancing, that it carries us away, and we get pulled off-centre. If we tell ourselves to stop for a moment, this gives us the opportunity to stop identifying with the drama around us, and to come back to a sense of ourselves, of the innate stillness within our being.

Of course, one key is to practice the Awen when it IS easy, so that it becomes a skill and a habit to draw on when “life is far from easy”. Right now I take this advice, pause from writing this, and chant three awens quietly.

After all, what good is any spiritual practice if it doesn’t help when I need it most? I find this holds true especially with beliefs, which is why so many contemporary people have abandoned religious belief, and thereby think they’ve also “abandoned religion”. All they’ve done, often, is abandon one set of perhaps semi-examined beliefs for another set they may not have examined at all. “Carried away, pulled off-centre” — we’ve all been there. But each moment, in the wry paradox of being human, is also calling us home, “back to a sense of ourselves”.

A few weeks ago I had cataract surgery on my right eye. I was surprised how the looming procedure, with its success rate of above 95%, kicked up old fears in me from the major cancer surgery I’d experienced a decade ago. Coupled with that was a series of dreams I’d had a few years ago about going blind. Altogether not an enjoyable mindset to approach a delicate procedure on the eyes.

But instead of the victim version of the question “Why is this happening to me?” I can choose to ask the curious version of the same question. Insofar as anything in my life responds to events and causes I have set in motion, it’s a most legitimate question.

The answers, I find, can be surprising.

I feared loss of spiritual vision, because I was drifting away from the other spiritual path I practice. This is clearly a cause I’ve launched. I didn’t approach the surgery as some kind of superstitious opportunity for the universe to “pay me back” for spiritual neglect, as if the cosmos operates like a sinister debt collection agency. But if I approach my whole life as an instance of an intelligent universe constantly communicating with me, my fears have a cause, and an effect, and my experiences will mirror all that I am and bring to each moment. Not out of some sort of spiteful cosmic vindictiveness, but because all things, it seems, prod us along the next arm of the spiral. We’re all part of the Web. The same force, I believe, that pushes up the first flowers in spring, in spite of the lingering danger of frosts, the force that urges birds to nest and hatch a fleet of fledglings, even though a percentage will die before reaching adulthood, is the same force alive in me and in my life and the lives of every other being on this planet. Even our seemingly static mountains weather slowly in wind and rain, frost and sun.

Christians focus closely about “being in right relationship” with God. Druids and other practitioners of earth-spirituality are likewise seeking harmonious relations with the world around us. Though a god or gods may not have exclusive claims on me, still, if one makes herself know to me, it’s not a bad idea to pay attention. Same with anything else that knocks for my attention — and deserves it. Day-to-day practice of an earth path like Druidry is an ongoing opportunity to seek out new kinds of harmony as well keep to ones I’ve tried and tested, an opportunity to balance claims of allegiance and attention and energy, to make good choices, and to stand by them as much as I can. (Of course I’ll mess up from time to time. Part of the fun is seeing if I can mess up in a new way this time, to keep myself entertained, if nothing else. Why hoe a row I’ve already weeded, unless it really needs tilling again?!)

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With Lunasa in the northern hemisphere comes Imbolc in the southern one. The ley lines linking the earth festivals around the world deserve my attention, I find, as much as the lines of connection between hills and wells, trees and stones on my continent.

So it is that Brighid of many skills, healing and poetry and smithcraft among them, pairs well with Lugh Samildanach, Lugh “equally gifted” in all the arts and crafts. Both at Imbolc with the kindling of a new cycle of birth and growth, and at Lunasa as first of the harvest festivals, we’re reminded of origins of the crafts of civilization. With human and divine inspiration and gifts supporting our lives, we draw our existence today. I eat because my ancestors tilled the earth and lived to birth and teach the next generation. I wear this body because spirit clothed itself in this form among all the other forms it takes. I peer out at the world and at all the other forms who are likewise looking at and listening to the ongoing waves of existence. From this perspective, how can I not celebrate in simple amazement?!

We’ve all felt those moments when life seems paradoxically dreamlike and marvelously real. Robert Frost, bard of New England and a Wise One I keep turning to for counsel, says,

Only where love and need are one,
And the work is play for mortal stakes.
Is the deed ever truly done.
For Heaven and the future’s sakes.

Where love and need are one: how often do I separate them? Do I respect my need enough to love it, or truly need what it is I think I love? Can I align these two and make them one? Mortal stakes: is what I spend the greatest energy on actually contributing to life, my own life among others? After all, Druidry urges me to consider that each life is worthy and valuable, mine no more but also no less than others.

A Frostian triad emerges: There are three things fitting for the aspirant to wisdom — a seeking after unity of love and need, a work which is play for mortal stakes, and deeds done for heaven and the future.

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After the builders finished the weaving studio addition (visible on the left), they seeded the lawn with clover, and now we have a lovely nitrogen-fixing, weed-inhibiting perennial I refuse to mow. The bees have been loud and happy, cheering at my choice, and the crop will also hold down the still-loose soil against runoff, and help it firm up.

You can see, too, in the foreground the edge of the recent delivery of firewood I need to go stack.

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