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Review of The Broken Cauldron   Leave a comment

Smithers, Lorna. The Broken Cauldron. Norfolk, UK: Biddles Books, 2016.

Change the names, goes the old Latin tag from Horace, and it’s a story about us.

Smithers, a Lancashire awenydd, poet, blogger at Signposts in the Mist, and devotee of Gwyn ap Nudd, has mediated in her latest book a challenging prophetic vision of psychic and environmental shattering in the image of the Cauldron, that ancient and present manifestation of birth, wisdom and regeneration. Spiritual vessel, military-industrial grail, the Cauldron contains both dream and nightmare.

Through prose retellings of Celtic myth and legend, through poems that grapple with this world and that Other that has always deeply haunted us, Smithers links voices, times and places. She revisits the central Druidic myth: Gwion Bach’s transformational encounter with — and theft of — the Three Drops of Inspiration. Holding it up for careful scrutiny, she underscores its immense cost to species and planet. In one retelling she speaks in the voice of Ceridwen’s grotesque son Afagddu, “Utter Darkness”. It is for him that Ceridwen has set the Cauldron brewing in the first place, hoping for his transformation, posting the hapless Gwion to tend it. In a painfully apt contemporary twist, Gwion’s a negligent employee at a chemical plant, daydreaming through a reactor disaster, though acquitted in the subsequent court case.

But Afagddu’s gifted with his own preternatural wisdom, knowing Ceridwen still apologizes for him, even as she dreams of him “suave, clean-shaven, the head of the company in a priceless suit with ironed-in creases” (pg. 74). How we persist in our stubborn lusts and blind dreams.

The five subtitled sections of the book capture something of its span: “The Broken Cauldron and the Flashing Sword”, “Ridiculous”, “Drowned Lands”, “Operation Cauldron” and “Uranium”.

What will we do, we whose minds are “shrunken and empty of gods”? Smithers’ patron deity accuses us all in the person of Arthur, whose profaning raids on the Otherworld have gained humanity a magical treasure, true, but loosed a devastating tide of death. In a triad of admonition to human raiders on Annwn, the Otherworld, Gwyn ap Nudd declares: “Lleog, lay down your sword. Taliesin, cast your mind from praise poems. Arthur, be true to your bear-skin past, hear your bones and the star of the north” (pg. 10).

Listen to our bones, heed the stars: a quest each of us may still accept or decline.

For it is the Otherworld that restrains the increasingly violent rebalancing we have brought on ourselves. And it is there we find “a cauldron that is whole and filled with stars, the infinite reflection of the womb of Old Mother Universe” (pg. 7).

As a solitary, Smithers turns here from a mythos that has long troubled her. She declares her preference for Afagddu, refusing “complicity in the mysteries of Taliesin” whose limitless hunger to despoil and pillage and consume “can only lead to the world’s end” (pg. 8).

It lies in grappling with the double edged-ness of the “flashing swords” of the raiders on Annwn, I would add, that we may at last learn wisdom. Can we learn to gauge and compensate for both gain and cost? Whether we do or no, the Otherworld will assert its balance. A unique book.

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Thirty Days of Druidry 24: Playing the Druid Card   1 comment

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Could I be the Mage,
or might I be the Fool?
Should we learn to use our cards
like any kitchen tool?

When I search for wisdom,
when I peruse old lore,
do I seek just kicks and tricks
or something worth much more?

Is my quest a question,
things I already know,
or an “undiscovered country”
I rediscover as I grow?

/|\ /|\ /|\

If “playing the _____ – card” means to take (unfair) advantage of some given of our identities, what might it mean to play the Druid card? Well, it certainly gains us nothing with either the gods or local land spirits.

Druid-card Holder (DCH): “Hey! I’m a Druid!”

Land Wight (LW): “Welcome. Have you listened to the land, spent time hearing what it has to teach, growing a portion of your own food on it, and feeling how each season and its energies shape the lives of all the creatures on it, including you? Have you, in four words, lived where you live?”

DCH: Well, no …

LW: Go away and do not return until you learn reverence.

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“I invoke you, goddess, for a change.”

Let me try again. If I live where I’ve lived, rather than almost anywhere else, I accept the gift of responsibility. Usually the word sounds heavy — something people try to flee rather than to welcome. But let me do my Bard word trick once more. I know I’ve often walked away from my response-ability, my ability to respond. I turn it off, drown it out, change channels, either because it’s painful or too demanding or or or. Third time’s the charm: find three or’s and I can successfully escape my ability to respond and maybe spend my whole life in someone else’s dream rather than one of my own. Success!

I often explore my own “weaknesses” because I find I learn more from them than from my strengths. (“Could that be one of their uses?! Hmm.”) We’re so accustomed to others being down on themselves that you may hear this as more of the same. No. I gain strength and insight from such cool, steady gaze. Don’t misunderstand. I’m as good at denial, deflection and depression as the next fellow. A 3-D life! A modern Western triad!

But what I want to get better at are the finely-tuned opportunities my weaknesses constantly point me toward. Lack something, and I sensitize myself to it everywhere around me. My lack magically energizes the thing to keep knocking at the door of my life. But rather than turning to my ability to respond, my responsibility, I do everything to reject the thing I said I wanted. But no worries, mate: it doesn’t actually vanish. It will keep knocking until I let it in. “Ask (I keep asking all the time) and it will be given to you; seek (we never really give up seeking, just take breaks for a day or a decade) and you will find; knock (oh, how it will knock back, friend!) and the door will be opened to you.”*

Bala_Lake2

Bala Lake in Wales, where Gwion Bach begins his adventure of transformation

More and more it seems that rather than missed opportunities, there are only ones I keep rejecting. If I really do “miss” one, it will re-group and when necessary take another form in order to reappear down the road and insert itself into my life. Come around the next turn and — ah! There it is, possibly in a guise more difficult to ignore, less easy to escape at all.

My fate pursues me like yours does you, like Ceridwen pursues Gwion through all his transformations. I might even evade my fate for a life or two, come back in another body, gender, set of circumstances, with a “clean slate” so to speak. Except not really. My one life is with me, my responsibility sharpens, clarifies, till I can live it fully, because there’s nothing else I can do, even if I wanted to.

That’s one corner of my “Druid card” — at least, living where I’ve lived, as I understand it so far. What’s yours?

/|\ /|\ /|\

When I respond, link, connect, then I “beltane.” Let’s make it verb … Not to cheapen it, market it, no. To sanctify it. And you, my kin, my readers, when you last beltaned, what did you discover?

“Beltane is so much about the urge to connect, to blend and merge; to feel a part of something extraordinary; to at once lose one’s sense of self in that merging but also to paradoxically feel more absolutely and truly oneself because of it. In the desire to penetrate life’s mysteries, we need also to open ourselves to them, surrendering to the power of love that it may have the opportunity to transform us. Great things are born in us at such moments of union; this place of merging is where the tap root of our creativity feeds, without it we feel dry and disconnected. If that magical, alchemical moment of connection and merging were a colour, I suspect it might be perceived as many beautiful, vibrant shades but its foundation, I feel sure, would be the green of spring: ecstatically joyful – the irrepressible life and desire that leads us to love.” — Maria Ede-Weaving

/|\ /|\ /|\

IMAGES: Ceridwen Centre logoBala Lake.

*Matthew 7:7 — an excellent Druidic number!

Updated 9 May 2016

Thirty Days of Druidry 12: J3D!   Leave a comment

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J3D — “Just Three Drops” — is shorthand for the experience of Gwion Bach, the servant boy in the Welsh story who tends the cauldron of transformation for … how long? Yes, perhaps you’ve already guessed it — a year and a day. The magic brewing in the cauldron is, alas, destined for another, and Gwion is sternly charged to keep the fire carefully. Never let it die out. Always maintain a steady flame. Haul wood, carry water. Be sure the contents continue to simmer and seethe and stew as they slowly wax in power.

After Gwion faithfully tends the fire for that long, sooty and tedious year of drudgery, at last the mixture nears completion. One day the cauldron boils up, spattering a little, and three drops spill onto Gwion’s hand, burning it. Instinctively he lifts the burn to his mouth to soothe it. Voila! In that moment he imbibes the inspiration, awen, chi, spirit, elemental force meant for another, and so begins the series of transformations that will make him into Taliesin, Bard and initiatory model for many Druids and others who appreciate good wisdom teaching.

An accident? Has Gwion’s year of service led to this? Was it sheer luck, a “simple” case of being in the right place at the right time? Does blind chance govern the universe? (Why hasn’t something like this happened to ME?) Is the experience repeatable? Where’s a decent cauldron when you need one? Can I get those three drops to go? J3D caps, shirts, towels, belt-buckles on sale now! Buy 3 and save.

J3D in some ways can mislead you. “Visit us for your transformational needs. Just three drops, and you too can become a Bard-with-a-capital-B!” The ad seduces with the promise of something for almost nothing. (May the spirits preserve us from clickbait Druidry!) Such glibness leaves out the inconvenient preparation, the lengthy prologue, the awkward context, the unmentioned effort, the details of setting everything depends on. (Doesn’t it always?) It’s true: Just three drops are all you need, AFTER you’ve done everything else. They’re the tipping point, the straw that moved the camel to its next stage of camel-hood. J3D, J3D, J3D! The crowds are chanting, they’re going wild!

Curiously, J3D is a key to getting to the place and time where J3D’s the key. It’s the sine qua non, the “without which not,” the essential component, the one true thing.

Fortunately, the way the universe appears to be constructed, we can locate, if not the ultimate J3D, still very useful versions of it, tucked away in so many nooks and crannies of our lives. If I didn’t know better, I’d even suspect that the universe in its surprising efficiencies has shaped every environment for optimum benefit of the species that have adapted themselves to live there. Which means pure change and perfect intention are pretty much the same thing, depending on the local awen you’re sipping from. Paradox is the lifeblood of thinking about existence. Or as one of the Wise once put it, the opposite of an average truth may well be a falsehood. But the opposite of a profound truth is often enough another profound truth.

When the first glow is gone, the spark has dimmed, the lustre has worn off, you’re probably at the first drop. When any possibility of an end has faded from sight, when you’ve forgotten why you’re doing it and you’re going through the paces out of what feels like misplaced devotion or pure inertia, if you even have enough energy to stop and think at all, you’re likely in the neighborhood of drop 2. When you’ve given up theories, regrets, anger, hope, denial, bargaining, and grief itself, and you simply tend that fire because you’re able to tend that fire, and lost in reverie you feel a sudden burning, the third drop announces itself.

At that point the experience may well appear as three quick drops in succession, erasing any memory of the earlier drops, the practice for the final event, slog to get to that point. Or the long intervals between each drop find themselves renewed, deepened, intensified in the pain the third drop brings. Somehow, though, all that has gone before either falls away, or the pain of change is so intense it fills your whole awareness, crowding out all else, a white and scalding fire from horizon to horizon. Or in a vast hall of silence, the only sound is a whisper of the soft flesh of your hand soothed by tongue and lip. Then you know the transformation is upon you.

J3D.

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