Archive for the ‘fear’ Category

Inconvenient Courage   Leave a comment

CourageI’m still learning courage, just as we all are.  Tests along the way, but no endpoint, no “I’m as brave now as I can be.”  Courage is a practice.  And I’ve learned that I miss opportunities for bravery where I need to, and can, practice it daily — in the face of my lazinesses and indulgences.  These opportunities don’t look particularly heroic or brave, but that’s because I’m still learning what courage is. Too often I think it’s something somebody else has, or needs to have.  Or I bewail its lack in others to whom I give power over my life, giving away the courage I already have.  I slip into fear, and then into denial as soon as someone points it out, makes me aware, that I’m acting out of fear.

These are not words of self-blame.  They’re words of clearing away, of washing the dishes, polishing the silver, emptying the ash from the woodstove. They are words of working the soil, turning the compost, preparing the growing space for the season to come.  Actions that make room for courage to happen.  As I prepare for health reasons to leave this teaching career of almost two decades at a private boarding high school, I look for new work.  Some of it, some of what I know I need to do, doesn’t offer a paycheck.  Some asks me for payment instead, and of a different kind.

Sometimes courage is just inconvenient.  I’ll do it, whatever has to be done.  If I’m the penguin next off the ice floe, I know that water’s cold.  I’m not looking forward to it, but I know it’s necessary.  I bring the best heart to it I can, if not for my own sake at this moment, then for others, as I move forward. Plunge.  Afterward, I discover — maybe — that was courage.  At the time I thought it was “just living my life.”  “Guess what,” my life says back at me.  “No difference.”

In the end, curiosity is stronger than fear. If I can imagine something different, I’m halfway there.  Just catch a hint of it, a flavor, a whisper of something new yet also oddly familiar.  There it is again …

Teacher, counselor and author Stephen Jenkinson has become a voice I listen to (“Yes, I hear voices”), to see what I can learn from him.  He speaks, among many other things, about our need for elders — for people who have done the work and learned and earned wisdom.  He talks about cultural death and the need for witness:

There is a lot of work to be done now, right now, in our time. Some of it is ecological, some political and economic, but all of it is cultural. Work I think is best understood as ‘the thing you’re least inclined to do’, and so we have our work cut out for us. The dominant culture, as near as I can tell, is in the beginnings of a terminal swoon. I don’t think it can be avoided. It’s end can only be prolonged or prompted, veiled or midwifed; those are our choices. The dominant culture was not built as if the last five hundred years on these shores had happened; it was built in spite of those years. It was built with a shrug to the past, and with the view that the past is gone. That is the principal reason for its ending. A culture unwilling to know its ragged, arbitrary origins is fated to a kind of perpetual, uninitiated adolescence, and it is by this adolescent spirit of privilege and entitlement and dangerous amnesia that our culture is known in the world.

We have to be in the culture making business, and soon. Real culture is not built on bad myths of superiority or inevitability or victory. It is built by people willing to learn and remember the stories that slipped from view, the rest of the truth that the empire won’t authorize. That learning and remembering costs people dearly. The work of building culture is learning and remembering how things have come to be as they are, without recourse to premature, temporary fixes, or to depression and despair. The way things are now, despair is a laziness no one can afford.*

That’s useful:  knowing what I can afford.  Fear leaves, despair leaves, when I know I can’t afford them any longer.  Not a matter of will, or often even of anything other than a realization one day.  A judgment, wisdom coming at last.  Something taking its place — the place of fear — but also something taking its own place, its rightful position all along.  Something bigger, more important.  Fear turns out to be just a temporary place-holder, a filler, padding, a zero that ultimately let me count how many spaces have room for something more, native from the beginning.  Return.

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*From “There’s grief in coming home“.

Thanks to Philip Carr-Gomm for sending me a link to Griefwalker, a moving and provocative video about some of Stephen’s work.  You can watch a trailer here:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?feature=player_embedded&v=xLQWM2j3AVg

You can watch the whole film, approximately 70 minutes long, here:

http://www.cultureunplugged.com/documentary/watch-online/play/7728/GRIEFWALKER

The Fires of May, Green Dragons, and Talking Peas   2 comments

Ah, Fifth Month, you’ve arrived.  In addition to providing striking images like this one, the May holiday of Beltane on or around May 1st is one of the four great fire festivals of the Celtic world and of revival Paganism. Along with Imbolc, Lunasa and Samhain, Beltane endures in many guises. The Beltane Fire Society of Edinburgh, Scotland has made its annual celebration a significant cultural event, with hundreds of participants and upwards of 10,000 spectators. Many communities celebrate May Day and its traditions like the Maypole and dancing (Morris Dancing in the U.K.). More generally, cultures worldwide have put the burgeoning of life in May  — November if you live Down Under — into ritual form.

I’m partial to the month for several reasons, not least because my mother, brother and I were all born in May.  It stands far enough away from other months with major holidays observed in North America to keep its own identity.  No Thanksgiving-Christmas slalom to blunt the onset of winter with cheer and feasting and family gatherings.  May greens and blossoms and flourishes happily on its own.  It embraces college graduations and weddings (though it can’t compete with June for the latter).  It’s finally safe here in VT to plant a garden in another week or two, with the last frosts retreating until September.  At the school where I teach, students manage to keep Beltaine events alive even if they pass on other Revival or Pagan holidays.

The day’s associations with fertility appear in Arthurian lore with stories of Queen Guinevere’s riding out on May Day, or going a-Maying.  In Collier’s painting above, the landscape hasn’t yet burst into full green, but the figures nearest Guinevere wear green, particularly the monk-like one at her bridle, who leads her horse.  Guinevere’s affair with Lancelot eroticized everything around her — greened it in every sense of the word.  Tennyson in his Idylls of the King says:

For thus it chanced one morn when all the court,
Green-suited, but with plumes that mocked the may,
Had been, their wont, a-maying and returned,
That Modred still in green, all ear and eye,
Climbed to the high top of the garden-wall
To spy some secret scandal if he might …

Of course, there are other far more subtle and insightful readings of the story, ones which have mythic power in illuminating perennial human challenges of relationship and energy. But what is it about green that runs so deep in European culture as an ambivalent color in its representation of force? 

Anya Seton’s novel Green Darkness captures in its  blend of Gothic secrecy, sexual obsession, reincarnation and the struggle toward psychic rebalancing the full spectrum of mixed-ness of green in both title and story. As well as the positive color of growth and life, it shows its alternate face in the greenness of envy, the eco-threat of “greenhouse effect,” the supernatural (and original) “green giant” in the famous medieval tale Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, the novel and subsequent 1973 film Soylent Green, and the ghostly, sometimes greenish, light of decay hovering over swamps and graveyards that has occasioned numerous world-wide ghost stories, legends and folk-explanations. 

(Wikipedia blandly scientificizes the phenomenon thus:  “The oxidation of phosphine and methane, produced by organic decay, can cause photon emissions. Since phosphine spontaneously ignites on contact with the oxygen in air, only small quantities of it would be needed to ignite the much more abundant methane to create ephemeral fires.”)  And most recently, “bad” greenness showed up during this year’s Earth Day last month, which apparently provoked fears in some quarters of the day as evil and Pagan, and a determination to fight the “Green Dragon” of the environmental movement as un-Christian and insidious and horrible and generally wicked. Never mind that stewardship of the earth, the impetus behind Earth Day, is a specifically Biblical imperative (the Sierra Club publishes a good resource illustrating this).  Ah, May.  Ah, silliness and wisdom and human-ness.

We could let a Celt and a poet have (almost) the last word. Dylan Thomas catches the ambivalence in his poem whose title is also the first line:

The force that through the green fuse drives the flower
Drives my green age; that blasts the roots of trees
Is my destroyer.
And I am dumb to tell the crooked rose
My youth is bent by the same wintry fever.

The force that drives the water through the rocks
Drives my red blood; that dries the mouthing streams
Turns mine to wax.
And I am dumb to mouth unto my veins
How at the mountain spring the same mouth sucks.

The hand that whirls the water in the pool
Stirs the quicksand; that ropes the blowing wind

Hauls my shroud sail …

Yes, May is death and life both, as all seasons are.  But something in the irrepressible-ness of May makes it particularly a “hinge month” in our year.  The “green fuse” in us burns because it must in order for us to live at all, but our burning is our dying.  OK, Dylan, we get it.  Circle of life and all that.  What the fearful seem to react to in May and Earth Day and things Pagan-seeming is the recognition that not everything is sweetness and light.  The natural world, in spite of efforts of Disney and Company to the contrary, devours as well as births.  Nature isn’t so much “red in tooth and claw” as it is green. 

Yes, things bleed when we feed (or if you’re vegetarian, they’ll spill chlorophyll.  Did you know peas apparently talk to each other?).  And this lovely, appalling planet we live on is part of the deal.  It’s what we do in the interim between the “green fuse” and the “dead end” that makes all the difference, the only difference there is to make.  So here’s Seamus Heaney, another Celt and poet,  who gives us one thing we can do about it:  struggle to make sense, regardless of whether or not any exists to start with.  In his poem “Digging,” he talks about writing, but it’s “about” our human striving in general that, for him, takes this particular form.  It’s a poem of memory and meaning-making.  We’re all digging as we go.

Digging

Between my finger and my thumb
The squat pen rests; as snug as a gun.

Under my window a clean rasping sound
When the spade sinks into gravelly ground:
My father, digging. I look down

Till his straining rump among the flowerbeds
Bends low, comes up twenty years away
Stooping in rhythm through potato drills
Where he was digging.

The coarse boot nestled on the lug, the shaft
Against the inside knee was levered firmly.
He rooted out tall tops, buried the bright edge deep
To scatter new potatoes that we picked
Loving their cool hardness in our hands.

By God, the old man could handle a spade,
Just like his old man.

My grandfather could cut more turf in a day
Than any other man on Toner’s bog.
Once I carried him milk in a bottle
Corked sloppily with paper. He straightened up
To drink it, then fell to right away
Nicking and slicing neatly, heaving sods
Over his shoulder, digging down and down
For the good turf. Digging.

The cold smell of potato mold, the squelch and slap
Of soggy peat, the curt cuts of an edge
Through living roots awaken in my head.
But I’ve no spade to follow men like them.

Between my finger and my thumb
The squat pen rests.
I’ll dig with it.

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Beltane Fire Society image; Maibaum; John Maler Collier’s Queen Guinevere’s Maying; Soylent Green; Green Darkness; peat.

The Fertile Virgin   6 comments

“Only what is virgin can be fertile.”  OK, Gods, now that you’ve dropped this lovely little impossibility in my lap this morning, what am I supposed to do with it?  Yeah, I get that I write about these things, but where do I begin? “Each time coming to the screen, the keyboard, can be an opportunity” — I know that, too.  But it doesn’t make it easier.   Why don’t you try it for a change?  Stop being all god-dy and stuff and try it from down here.  Then you’ll see what it’s like.

OK, done?  Fit of pique over now?

I never had much use for prayer.  Too often it seems to consist either of telling God or the Gods what to do and how to do it (if you’re arrogant) or begging them for scraps (if they’ve got you afraid of them, on your knees for the worst reasons).  But prayer as struggle, as communication, as connecting any way you can with what matters most — that I comprehend.  Make of this desire to link an intention.  A daily one, then hourly.  Let if fill, if if needs to, with everything in the way of desire, and hand that back to the universe.  Don’t worry about Who is listening.  Your job is to tune in to the conversation each time, to pick it up again.  And the funny thing is that once you stop worrying about who is listening, everything seems to be listening (and talking).  Then the listening rubs off on you as well.  And you finally shut up.

That’s the second half, often, of the prayer.  To listen.  Once the cycle starts, once the pump gets primed, it’s easier.  You just have to invite and welcome who you want to talk with.  Forget that little detail, and there can be lots of other conversations on the line.  The fears and dreams of the whole culture.  Advertisers get in your head, through repetition.  (That’s why it’s best to limit TV viewing, or dispense with it altogether, if you can.  Talk about prayer out of control.  They start praying you.)  They’ve got their product jingle and it’s not going away.  Sometimes all you’ve got in turn is a divine product jingle.  It may be a song, a poem, a cry of the heart.  The three Orthodox Christian hermits of the great Russian novelist Tolstoy have their simple prayer to God:  “We are three.  You are three.  Have mercy on us!”  Over time, it fills them, empowers them.  They become nothing other than the prayer.  They’ve arrived at communion.

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Equi-nox.  Equal night and day.  The year hanging, if only briefly, in the balance of energies.  Spring, a coil of energy, poised.  The earth dark and heavy, waiting, listening.  The change in everything, the swell of the heart, the light growing.  Thaw.  The last of the ice on our pond finally yields to the steady warmth of the past weeks, to the 70-degree heat of Tuesday.  The next day, Wednesday, my wife sees  salamanders bobbing at the surface.  Walk closer, and they scatter and dive, rippling the water.

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I once heard a Protestant clergywoman say to an ecumenical assembly, “We all know there was no Virgin Birth.  Mary was just an unwed, pregnant teenager, and God told her it was okay.  That’ s the message we need to give girls today, that God loves them, and forget all this nonsense about a Virgin birth.”  …  I sat in a room full of Christians and thought, My God, they’re still at it, still trying to leach every bit of mystery out of this religion, still substituting the most trite language imaginable …

The job of any preacher, it seems to me, is not to dismiss the Annunciation because it doesn’t appeal to modern prejudices, but to remind congregations of why it might still be an important story (72-73).

So Kathleen Norris writes in her book Amazing Grace:  A Vocabulary of Faith.  She goes on to quote the Trappist monk, poet and writer Thomas Merton, who

describes the identity he seeks in contemplative prayer as a  point vierge [a virgin point] at the center of his being, “a point untouched by illusion, a point of pure truth … which belongs entirely to God, which is inaccessible to the fantasies of our own mind or the brutalities of our own will.  This little point … of absolute poverty,” he wrote, “is the pure glory of God in us” (74-5).

So if I need to, I pull away the God-language of another tradition and listen carefully “why it might still be an important story.”  Not “Is it true or not?” or “How can anybody believe that?”  But instead, why or how it still has something to tell me.  Another kind of listening, this time to stories, to myths, our greatest stories, for what they still hold for us.

One of the purest pieces of wisdom I’ve heard concerns truth and lies.  There are no lies, in one sense, because we all are telling the truth of our lives every minute.  It may be a different truth than we asked for, or than others are expecting, but it’s pouring out of us nonetheless.  Ask someone for the truth, and if they “lie,” their truth is that they’re afraid.  That knowledge, that insight, may well be more important than the “truth” you thought you were looking for.  “Perfect love casteth out fear,” says the Galilean.  So it’s an opportunity for me to practice love, and take down a little bit of the pervasive fear that seems to spill out of lives today.

Norris arrives at her key insight in the chapter:

But it is in adolescence that the fully formed adult self begins to emerge, and if a person has been fortunate, allowed to develop at his or her own pace, this self is a liberating force, and it is virgin.  That is, it is one-in-itself, better able to cope with peer pressure, as it can more readily measure what is true to one’s self, and what would violate it.  Even adolescent self-absorption recedes as one’s capacity for the mystery of hospitality grows:  it is only as one is at home in oneself that one may be truly hospitable to others–welcoming, but not overbearing, affably pliant but not subject to crass manipulation.  This difficult balance is maintained only as one remains [or returns to being] virgin, cognizant of oneself as valuable, unique, and undiminishable at core (75).

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This isn’t where I planned to go.  Not sure whether it’s better.  But the test for me is the sense of discovery, of arrival at something I didn’t know, didn’t understand in quite this way, until I finished writing.  Writing as prayer.  But to say this is a “prayer blog” doesn’t convey what I try to do here, or at least not to me, and I suspect not to many readers.  A Druid prayer comes closer, it doesn’t carry as much of the baggage as the word “prayer” may carry for some readers, and for me.  “I’m praying for you,” friends said when I went into surgery three years ago.  And I bit my tongue to keep from replying, “Just shut up and listen.  That will help both us a lot more.”  So another way of understanding my blog:  this is me, trying to shut up and listen.  I talk too much in the process, but maybe the most important part of each post is the silence after it’s finished, the empty space after the words end.

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Norris, Kathleen.  Amazing Grace:  A Vocabulary of Faith.  New York:  Riverhead Books, 1998.

Nerds and Fear   Leave a comment

Nerds talk a lot, one way or another.  If they don’t speak, they write.  That’s annoying, because it’s often hard to get them to shut up.  And now, armed as they are with blogs and email and Twitter and Facebook and Myspace and a myriad of other venues — well, you get where I’m going with this.  More words than people on the planet, every single day.

But while not all of us are Nerds, or even nerds, one thing we all face, nerd or otherwise, is fear. Since we often do our level best not to talk about fear, why not put the nerd instinct to good use?  Resist the flow.  Be awkward, that thing nerds excel at, and talk about it.  (Along the way I get to include a Youtube link, and references to the plague, Jesus, and a medieval poem.  Good stuff — a regular pot-luck entry.)

One big fear, of course, is fear of death.  Reader, if you’ve found a sure-fire way around it, get busy marketing.  You’re set to make your fortune.  And no, I’m not talking about any Afterwards.  That’s a separate post.  I mean the process, the whole sucky thang of the roof caving in on the house, the ground floor dropping away into the basement, and the walls tumbling down. The Demolition (or Eviction, depending on your take regarding a Landlord).  The Snuff, the Blowout, the Final Exit, the Nobody Home of your life.

Have I got you thoroughly depressed, and on your weekend, too?  Sorry for that, though I won’t apologize for the topic.  If we’re going to be morbid, let’s do it right, with style and flair, and a literary reference.  Here’s your serving for the day.  There’s a well-known Middle English poem I keep coming across from time to time which partly inspired this post.  I read it in college and I’ve taught it in high school in British Lit.  Pause here for a digression — just skip the rest of this paragraph, and the next one, if you’re in an impatient mood when you read this.

Still with me?  OK. Yes, I get it — unless you’re also a fan, Middle English is next door to Old English and Beowulf and all that other stuff your high school or college English teacher inflicted on you.  Or if it wasn’t English, it was something else.  Let’s just acknowledge that at one time or another you’ve been on the receiving end of, and made to suffer for, an intellectual enthusiasm or obsession you didn’t share.  And no —  I’ve never shed the geek/nerd label since it first attached itself sometime in high school — the difference nowadays is that I make my living from it as a teacher.  It’s as if I wrote a book called Nerdiness for Fun and Profit.  Which might actually sell.  So I’ll apologize in advance for whatever my educational peers have put you through — you and my own students.

So here’s an excerpt from approximately the first half of the poem.  The spelling’s been modernized, and the few words that haven’t made it through into modern English are clear enough in context that you should be able to catch the gist without me being even more nerdy and annotating the damn thing.  But I’ll do it anyway.  And one other note:  the Latin tag in italics translates as “The fear of death disturbs me.”

In what estate so ever I be
Timor mortis conturbat me.

As I went on a merry morning,
I heard a bird both weep and sing.
This was the tenor of her talking: [substance, topic]
Timor mortis conturbat me.

I asked that bird what she meant:
“I am a musket both fair and gent; [sparrowhawk/nobly-born]
For dread of death I am all shent: [ashamed, confused]
Timor mortis conturbat me.

When I shall die, I know no day;
What country or place I cannot say;
Wherefore this song sing I may:
Timor mortis conturbat me.”

In medieval Europe death was everywhere.  People died at home, people died young, and people died from — among other things — the series of perfectly nasty plagues that swept Europe and took out a good third of the population.  Today we’ve got it easy in many ways.  Our life expectancy is twice that of the 1400s, we can usually moderate pain through medication, and many medieval diseases have been eliminated.  No, I’m not asking you to be ever so grateful and click on over to EasyDeath.com.  But what’s interesting is that the speaker of the poem isn’t concerned with pain but with uncertainty.  It’s that sense of being ambushed by an invisible assailant that adds to our fear.

There are several things to say, Druidic and otherwise, in response.  First, those who’ve had out-of-body experiences often report that they’ve lost their fear of death.  You may be one of those people yourself.  To quote Genesis (the band this time–not the book–in their song “Carpet Crawlers”), “You’ve got to get in to get out.”  Or in this case, get into other states of reality, see that this one is one among many, and that leaving this one is less of a Big Deal.  These kinds of experiences are more common than we’re lead to believe, and those who’ve had them often keep quiet about it because of the general atmosphere of fear, skepticism, and materialism that denies whole facets of human existence.  What I’ll say for victims of these mindsets is that they deserve compassion for living on the porch and never venturing into the house, never bothering to find out if there even is a house.

A powerful technique I’ve found is to send love to my fears.  I can make it a daily prayer.  If we’re worried about a difficult dying, send love to that future self which will die.  Break down the patterns of fear that sap and sabotage our present possibilities for joy.  As Jesus observed, “Perfect love casts out fear.”  And don’t worry if your love isn’t “perfect.”  Any love is a good start, an improvement on dread.  Most fear is learned.

For those of us who believe in or have had experience of other lives, the sense of deja-vu often replaces fear.  Gotta go through it all — again!

I’ll close with another citation, which I find Druidic in sensibility.  This one I ran across in school, decades back, and copied down into my journal.  The paper I’m reading from as I type this is yellowed and crinkling on the edges.   It describes a kind of initiation.  The quotation is long but I hope worthwhile for the “tough wisdom” it teaches.

The American Indian’s insistence on direct personal religious experience remains preserved when he comes into contact with Christianity:  he finds it difficult to accept experiences of the other world which are said to have happened two millennia ago and which are attested to only by a book.

An empirical attitude toward the other world is a difficult one to put into action.  It requires an emptying of the mind and the body, a humbling of the self before all other beings, “even the smallest ant.”  It is not as though the Indian [you can substitute Druid here — ADW] is “close to nature” and therefore found such an experience easier to come by than ourselves; he speaks of the journey as carrying him “to the edge of the Deep Canyon,” and he feels it as nothing less than death itself.  While he is there he sees a universe where everything is not only animate, but a person, and not only a person but a kinsman.  On his return from the journey he is reborn; he is no longer the same person he was before.  Having seen for himself the reality of the other world, he now has what William Blake called “the double vision,” as opposed to the single vision of Newton.  Alfonso Ortiz describes this double vision in the teachings of his Tewa elders, who “saw the whole of life as consisting of the dual quest for wisdom and divinity.”  It is not that the Indian has an older, simpler view of the world, to which we an Newtonian thinkers have added another dimension, but that he has a comprehensive, double view of the world, while we have lost sight of one whole dimension.

The way to his understanding is not found with the road maps of the measurable world.  One begins by finding four roads that run side by side and choosing the middle one.  The Road, once found, is cut by an impassable ravine that extends to the ends of the world.  One must go right through.  Then there is an impenetrable thicket.  Go right through.  Then there are birds making a terrible noise.  Just listen.  Then there is a place where phlegm rains down.  Don’t brush it off.  Then there is a place where the earth is burning.  Pass right through.  Then a great cliff face rises up, without a single foothold.  Walk straight through.  If you travel as far as this and someone threatens you with death, say, “I have already died.”  (Teaching of the American Earth, xx.)

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So there you have it — one of my stranger posts, oddly organized, with weird tonal shifts.  Hope you get something useful from it.  Thanks for reading.

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