Archive for the ‘poetry’ Category

Thirty Days of Druidry 22: “Seeking Beyond the Skyline”

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In her comment on # 16 in this series, Lorna Smithers writes:

Yes, I’d agree the ‘greater wisdom’ does come from walking through uncharted wildernesses. Often the signposts left by other folk help but it’s rare to find them in the books on how to [do] Druidry/Paganism or of self-professed gurus but more often from poets, philosophers, bloggers, often those who don’t know too much about Druid/Pagan religion but do know about the journey, getting lost, plumbing the deep … Anybody teaching basic writing will share the rule ‘show not tell’. And it’s always showings rather than tellings that have guided me.

I’ll venture some tellings here, if only because I’m re-reading Dion Fortune’s The Training and Work of an Initiate*, and Fortune addresses this topic. (Don’t we all read things to confirm what we already suspect? The awen stalks and finds us in spite of our circumstances and resistances.) Like many of us, Lorna’s learned her path largely by walking it herself, not always an easy or comfortable journey. For her as Bard and awenydd, showings are a kind of native territory.

Fortune tackles the “default setting” of human consciousness (allow for 1930s pronouns and gender reference):

The great majority of our fellow-men are willing to take the world as they find it, and so long as it does not treat them too hardly, they are content.

Given current world events and the growing sense of dis-ease issuing from so many directions, you’d not be wrong if you conclude that fewer people today remain content to “take the world as they find it.”

Fortune continues:

Others, however, question what lies beyond the world as they see it, and until they learnt the answer to this question, suffer from the divine discontent which has for ever urged men to “seek beyond the skyline, where the strange roads go down.”

This is our given: the itch, the pain, the hunger that won’t go away merely because parents, partners, politicians or our own painful (un)common sense tells us to ignore the raw nerve of our discontent. “Times like these” can indeed serve as a fine prod to awakening that discontent in  more of us. All this we know — too well.

Most men are also inclined to take for granted the inevitableness of suffering, and unless they are brought into personal contact with some flagrant case, or are themselves victims, they offer no protest.

We also know, or suspect, that we’ve been able to afford such complacency thus far because for so many, comparative physical prosperity, ease and stability in the West have sheltered us from many the worst forms of suffering commonplace elsewhere in the world. (As compensation, we may corner the market on psychic suffering and all the secondary physical fallout it can generate.)

But even in the West  this has never been true for all (our temporary exemption has expired), and it’s no longer true for increasing numbers of people. Glib proverbs like “The world is a school where the sleeping are woken up,” however true they might be, offer little comfort or guidance at such times. “Everything happens for a reason” doesn’t offer squat beyond pop psychology. (I want strategies, techniques, tools to use!) Cracks in the dike are starting to show everywhere — cracks that government spending on physical infrastructure, however necessary, will not alleviate.

But Fortune goes on to describe the experience of those who’ve launched themselves on a spiritual quest. You make a start and immediately you’re no longer in “lands we know.” Your footing yields, the path twists and dips and disappears most disconcertingly. Friends are usually no help. One or two may be on their own quests, but it’s rare that you can travel together — or that a companion can offer much assistance if you do.

At times, just to add to your trouble, you feel the golden chance slipping past, or sense the outlines of an open door that’s still invisible in front of you. Somehow you know, maddeningly, that it stands there waiting for you nevertheless. That it might be slowly closing. That now’s the time to go through — if only you could. But such convictions help not at all. Instead, with each subtle opportunity here — passing — gone — they increase the torment.

Fortune gets her finger on the pulse:

It is true that, although glorious glimpses are caught by the intuition unaided by the intellect, much more is lost from sheer inability on the part of the student to grasp the significance of his opportunity. Infinite things can be perceived by the spiritual intuition, but unless the intellect be fitted to cooperate, these things can seldom be rendered of practical avail for the solution of world-problems. The mystic has his moments of ecstatic emotion during which he reaches great heights, but he is seldom able to bring back water from the wells of life for those he has left behind. It is only when each vehicle of consciousness in man is in perfect correlation that the current of inspiration can flow through him and be translated into manifestation in the physical world in which we are living today; and while a man can learn great things and store them in his subconscious mind, it is only during the life in which he has learnt to correlate his vehicles so that he can bring the spiritual through into manifestation, that he can be of service to his fellow men (Fortune, p. 20).

There’s plenty here to unwrap. I read “only when each vehicle of consciousness is in perfect correlation” and I think, “Well, screw it! That’s never happening! Diagnose the problem but then calmly tell me why the solution will always be out of reach! ‘Perfect correlation’?! Are you f***ing kidding me?!”

But we can cut ourselves some slack. As Lorna notes above, we already receive an immense outpouring of “water from the wells of life” from poets and singers, philosophers and bards who do know about the journey and about getting lost. Many already “serve their fellow men” in ways that may be deeply imperfect but still arrive and feed that hunger, ways just as deeply welcome and needed. Lacking any perfect channel, I’ll take all the blessedly imperfect ones around me as my models. Neither I nor anyone else needs to be “perfect” to make a start, or achieve things of value. False prerequisite number 1!

Our goal is flow, however small the trickle at the outset, so that “the current of inspiration can flow through all of us and be translated into manifestation in the physical world in which we are living today.” And we’re already flowing. Without a flow of life energy through us, we wouldn’t even be here. We’re already flowing. Blood in our veins, breath in our lungs, food and sunlight transforming each day into physical life in us. The challenge isn’t to start, but to open the channels just a little wider as we live each day. As so many sources have urged us, a regular practice — ritual, spiritual exercise, chant, prayer, artistic practice, gardening, cooking — acts done consciously and joyously — is one proven method. Miss a day or two here and there? Don’t beat yourself up about it. Keep at it. My own strategy, as I mentioned in a recent post: fail again and again, fail well, fail confidently, until I no longer notice failure, until I don’t fail any more.

Another method is service: “… it is only during the life in which he has learnt to correlate his vehicles so that he can bring the spiritual through into manifestation, that he can be of service to his fellow men.” Fortune assumes multiples lives here, a process of spiritual evolution as we learn through life after life how to “correlate” or harmonize our modes of awareness and action.

Fortune urges us to service out of compassion:

I would urge them, if they need any spur to this effort, to remember how much it would have meant to them, when they themselves stood upon that self-same step, had the help which it will be in their power to give been available. No effort after development is wasted, even if he who strives seems to lose sight of his goal and turn aside. It is the passage of many feet that widens the path for the multitude; we, in our day, will never have to face such trials as did those initiates who broke the way for us (Fortune, pp. 20-21).

We are always initiates, always beginning a new arm of the spirals of our journeys, even as old cycles come to fruition and close. Remembering may not always come to aid us. To let words from Lorna’s site close this post, here’s wonderfully sage advice, a quotation from poet Charlotte Hussey: “Imagine if you can’t remember.” Dreamers, all of us, imagine next.

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*Fortune, Dion. The Training and Work of an Initiate.  York Beach, ME: Samuel Weiser, 2000. [Originally published 1930, Rider and Co.]

Thirty Days of Druidry 7: The Gods

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Staring at the pecs and thighs of the gods,
stupid voyeur that I am, that immortal gloss
and sheen no tanning bed or airbrush skill can give,

or sampling on the sly from that moonshine still
where they refill their goblets, at last I think
I see them true, the outsized celebrities they’ve

always been for us: golden child, outcast, neurotic,
sex-addict, the pantheon’s drunk, slut, tyrant, monster —
the whole extended family a Jerry Springer dream finale.

But hear one speak with power, watch the mask slip,
face and form fade out to nothing like our own.
Now stone or star, volcano, cave, or lake, she or he

fires your heart or brands your brain, and you’ll
never live the same. The gods aren’t yours.
You’re theirs. Beyond wrong or right,

death, life or other toys to play with, you belong.

Stuart Piggott’s “Wessex Harvest”

Stuartpiggott“Wessex Harvest” is a poem written in 1948 by distinguished British archaeologist Stuart Piggott (1910-1996). I quote it here because it evokes autumn and an autumnal mood. Also because some of Piggott’s uncharitable remarks about contemporary Druidry, especially in his 1985 book The Druids (Ancient Peoples and Places), haven’t earned him much applause in some Pagan quarters. He distinguishes, quite appropriately, between “Druids as known,” “Druids as inferred,” and “Druids as wished-for,” and drops contemporary Druidry squarely in the latter category. The Druid Revival also earns Piggott’s scorn at times.

But of course, as AODA archdruid J. M. Greer is fond of remarking, mere age is no indicator of quality in anything. If we actually could dig up a 10,000-year old Druidry, would that make it better? And “wished-for” happens to be a quality inherent in most of the great accomplishments of human culture. What “actually” exists as “known” first arrives imagined, wished-for, waiting — oddly enough — like a poem not yet written down.  No Druidry of any period simply appeared on the scene without prior human imagination and effort, to be buried like a dog’s bone and subsequently turn up in the archaeological record just for convenience.

Piggott’s poem shows a more intuitive and perceptive side of the man, which is helpful in seeing him more accurately and completely — more charitably. So here it is:

Wessex Harvest

Now the ancient Wessex hills
seize their lost splendour–
once, Stonehenge-building, their princes
proud with their Wicklow gold
strode in the sunshine;
now earth inherits
their dust, who are chalk-graved,
dry frail and brittle
pale bones under barrows–
poor fragments, those great ones.
But see, the austere lines
of downland are gladdened
splendid now, flaunting
armour of red-gold plate,
corn-stooks its studding;
new from old treasure
is this year’s miraculous
rebirth in the harvest.
And so in all years
is nothing forgotten,
always the far dead things
new life begetting.

In this poem, unlike in his other work, Piggott shows that he does perceive how things like Druidry might re-emerge, finding “rebirth in the harvest” where “far dead things” really can and do “beget new life.”

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Images: Stuart Piggott — Wikipedia.

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

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

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

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Goals and plans I had for the workshop:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

— Rainer Maria Rilke

And Larkin’s poem “Water”:

Water

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

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

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

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

— Philip Larkin

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

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

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

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pattern-star

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Images: ogham; star.

Kuklunomes — Let’s (Un)form the Circle: Part 2

[Part 1 here]

britpagcirc

Vikuklunomes!*

So it goes, so we go:
Uncircle! and the Elements flash and dance,
mingle, spin and dissolve, three, a dozen,
scores, just one, an alchemy gods conceive,
humans guess at — join, sometimes —
give birth to, even:
waterfall of fire, tower of wind,
burn of dust that is our bones in us
dancing too. Can’t help it.

In the center
spirit rests, while power
loosed like a bird from its long cage
circles on wings that feather our faces,
flies off to its home, still roosting
in our hearts, eaves of thought,
door to tomorrow, hearth of dreaming.

 

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Image: Druid Order of LondonCadet Chapel Falcon Circle at the Air Force Academy.

These images accompany two very different articles (here and here), worth reading, which sample some of the work still to be done for spiritual and religious freedom and more informed understanding.  (Oh my brothers and sisters, this is my prayer; may we learn to take wing and fly free of fear.)

*vikuklunomes: [vee-koo-kloo-NOH-mehs] vi- “reversing prefix” + kukl- “circle, wheel” + -un- “become” + -omes “first person plural– we/let’s”; a verb in Dingva, one of my conlangs (constructed languages) based on Proto-Indo-European.  Noun form: vikukluna [vee-koo-KLOO-nah] “uncircling, unforming a circle.” An incomplete and older version of Dingva appears here.

Posted 28 May 2014 by adruidway in Druidry, poetry

Tagged with , ,

Jesus and Druidry, Part 1

[Part 1 | Part 2Part 3]

Midwinter greetings to you all!  It’s sunny and bitter cold here in southern VT.  The mourning doves and chickadees mobbing our feeder have fluffed themselves against the chill — the original down jackets — the indoor thermometer says 62, and my main task today, besides writing this post, is keeping our house warm and fussing over the woodstove like a brood hen sitting a nest of chicks.  Hope you’re bundled and warm — or if you live on the summer side of the globe, you’re making the most of the sun and heat while it lasts.

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gbshawThe long and complex associations between a dominant religion like Christianity and minority faiths and practices within the dominant religious culture, like Druidry, won’t be my primary focus in this post. I’m more interested in personalities and practices anyway. It’s from spiritual innovators that any transformation of consciousness spreads, and that includes people like Jesus. Or as George Bernard Shaw (1856-1950) quipped in his play Man and Superman, “The reasonable man adapts himself to the world: the unreasonable one persists in trying to adapt the world to himself. Therefore all progress depends on the unreasonable man.”  I’m asserting that in the best sense of the word, we can count Jesus among the “unreasonable” men and women we depend on for progress.

Mostly reasonable people like me don’t make waves.  Cop out?  Maybe.  If I chose to stand in the front lines of protests against practices like fracking, wrote blogs and letters decrying the bought votes and cronyism of specific members of Congress, targeted public figures with letter campaigns, founded and led a visible magical or spiritual group or movement, made headlines and provided a ready source of colorful sound-bites, I’d win my quarter-hour of fame, and probably an FBI or NSA file with my name on it.* Maybe it would make a difference.  Maybe not.  Material for an upcoming post.

Back to the main topic of Jesus and Druidry.  As Philip Carr-Gomm notes in his book Druid Mysteries,

Although Christianity ostensibly superseded Druidry, in reality it contributed to its survival, and ultimately to its revival after more than a millennium of obscurity.  It did this in at least four ways:  it continued to make use of certain old sacred sites, such as holy wells; it adopted the festivals and the associated folklore of the pagan calendar; it recorded the tales of the Bards, which encoded the oral teachings of the Druids; and it allowed some of the old gods to live in the memory of the people by co-opting them into the Church as saints.  That Christianity provided the vehicle for Druidry’s survival is ironic, since the Church quite clearly did not intend this to be the case (p. 31).

rookOne somewhat obscure but intriguing survival is the Scots poet Sir Richard Holland’s Buke of the Howlat(e) (Book of the Owlet), dating from the 1450s. OK, . Holland’s satirical poem is peopled with birds standing in for humans, and it stars an unhappy owl which has traveled to the Pope (a peacock) to petition for an improved appearance.

lainghowlatIn the process of considering the owl’s request, the Pope orders a banquet, and among the entertainments during the feast is a “Ruke” (a rook or raven) in the stanza below, which represents the traditional satirical and mocking bard (named in the poem as Irish, but actually Scots Gaelic), deploying the power of verse to entertain, assert his rights, and reprimand the powerful.  Thus, some two centuries before the start of the Druid Revival, Holland’s poem preserves memory of the old bardic tradition.  Bear with my adaptation here of stanza 62 of Holland’s long poem.  Here, the Rook gives a recitation in mock Gaelic, mixed with the Scots dialect** of the poem, demanding food and drink:

So comes the Rook with a cry, and a rough verse:
A bard out of Ireland with beannachaidh Dhe [God’s blessings (on the house)]
Said, “An cluinn thu guth, a dhuine dhroch, olaidh mise deoch.
Can’t you hear a word, evil man? I can take a drink.
Reach her+ a piece of the roast, or she+ shall tear thee.
[+the speaker’s soul — a feminine noun in Gaelic]
Mise mac Muire/Macmuire (plus indecipherable words)
I am the son of Mary/I am Macmuire.
Set her [it] down.  Give her drink.  What the devil ails you?
O’ Diarmaid, O’ Donnell, O’ Dougherty Black,
There are Ireland’s kings of the Irishry,
O’ Conallan (?), O’ Conachar, O’ Gregor Mac Craine.
The seanachaid [storyteller], the clarsach [harp],
The ben shean [old woman], the balach [young lad],
The crechaire [plunderer], the corach [champion],
She+ knows them every one.”
[+again, the soul of the speaker]

If you can for a moment overlook the explicit Protestant mockery of the Papacy (the Pope as a Peacock, after all), here, then, is an early Renaissance indication that the Bardic tradition was still recalled and recognized widely enough to work in a poem.  Holland’s poem is itself a satire, and in it, the bard demands food and drink as his right as a professional, shows off his knowledge of famous names, and generally makes himself at home, both satirizing and being satirized in Holland’s depiction of bardic arrogance.  (For in the following stanza, he’s kicked offstage by two court fools, who then spend another stanza quarreling between themselves.)

Thus, when the first Druid Revivalists began in the 1600s to search for the relics and survivals and outlying remains of Druidry to pair up with what they knew  Classical authors had said about the Druids, things like Holland’s poem were among the shards and fragments they worked with.  I’ve written (herehere and here) about the tales from the Mabinogion which, as Carr-Gomm points out above, preserve much Druid lore, passed down in story form and preserved by Christian monastics long after the oral teachings (and teachers) apparently passed from the scene. OK, .

More about Revival Druidry, the Revivalists, and Druidic survivals, coming soon.

[Part 2 here.]

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*It’s likely such a file already exists anyway: I lived and worked for a year in the People’s Republic of China, I had to be fingerprinted and cleared by the Dept. of State for a month-long teaching job in South Korea (a requirement of my S. Korea employer, not the U.S.) a couple of summers ago, and I practice not just one but two minority religions.  If you’re reading this, O Agents of Paranoia, give yourselves a coffee break — nothing much continues to happen here.

**Below is Holland’s original stanza 62 from his Buke of the Howlate.  With the help of a dated commentary on Google Books, and the online Dictionary of the Scots Language, I’ve worked on a rough translation/adaptation.  If you know the poem (or know Scots), corrections are welcome!

Sae come the Ruke with a rerd, and a rane roch,
A bard owt of Irland with ‘Banachadee!’,
Said, ‘Gluntow guk dynyd dach hala mischy doch,
Raike here a rug of the rost, or so sall ryive the.
Mich macmory ach mach mometir moch loch,
Set here doune! Gif here drink! Quhat Dele alis the?
O Deremyne, O Donnall, O Dochardy droch
Thir ar his Irland kingis of the Irischerye,
O Knewlyn, O Conochor, O Gregre Makgrane,
The Schenachy, the Clarschach,
The Ben schene, the Ballach,
The Crekery, the Corach,
Scho kennis thaim ilk ane.

Carr-Gomm, Philip.  Druid Mysteries: Ancient Wisdom for the 21st Century.  London: Rider, 2002.

Diebler, Arthur.  Holland’s Buke of the Houlate, published from the Bannatyne Ms, with Studies in the Plot, Age and Structure of the Poem.  Chemnitz, 1897.  Google Books edition, pp. 23-24.

Dictionary of the Scots Language.

Images: G B Shaw; rook; Laing edition of Buke of the Howlat cover.

Renewing the Shrine: Part 2

[Related posts: Shinto & Shrine Druidry 1 | 2 | 3 || Shinto — Way of the Gods || Renewing the Shrine 1 | 2 || My Shinto 1 | 2 ]

What is it about renewal?  We need and long for it, desperately, a hunger nothing else can satisfy, though we try to fill it with things rather than with actual transformation.  Too often we get cynical when hopes and dreams don’t pan out.  I saw a fair amount of this, sadly, in the adolescents I worked with as a high school teacher.  Of course, some of it was learned from adults. Renewal and revitalization can seem remote, hard to access.  Too often we mock the sentimentalist and the optimist for living in “another world.”  Maybe that’s partly because we know deep down that the renewal we need is in this one.

In Part One I wrote about the Japanese Shinto practice of Shikinen Sengu, a ceremony that occurs every twenty years, in which the most important shrine in Japan, at Ise Jingu, is ritually rebuilt and renewed.  The biggest shrine most of us have is our homes, where we erect a mirror for our lives by our choice of partners, children, pets, clothing, furnishings, beloved objects and spaces.  So a ceremony in a foreign country, and one focusing on a foreign spiritual practice on top of that, may seem like a backwards way, to say no more, of getting at anything important or useful to say about living life in 21st century America.  But bear with me.

Here wood for the new shrine is floated down the Isuzu River toward the site:

rivertransport

When we hear words like ‘globalization’ we may not realize how dramatic the changes have actually been, since we simply live through many of them in some form, often unawares.  To give just one local example, the recent decision to close our nuclear plant, Vermont Yankee, was driven by economic forces more than anything else, but among those were the mounting costs of meeting a tightening of regulations by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, in response to the disaster at the Fukushima nuclear plant in Japan following the tsunami two years ago.   Our lives are already linked to those of many others we will never meet.  Globalization isn’t a choice, it’s a phenomenon like the seasons — it’s part of living on earth in this era.  We’re neighbors already — distances between us collapse to nothing.

The Roman writer Terence (Terentius) captures something of this in one of his plays with the wonderfully opaque title Heauton Timoroumenos, which can be translated as the “The Self-Tormentor.”  In this short excerpt*, two country neighbors, Menedemus and Chremes, speak candidly to each other:

MENEDEMUS: Chremes, can you spare a moment from your own affairs to listen to someone else’s–even if they don’t really concern you?

CHREMES: I’m human, so any human interest is my concern. Call it solicitude or curiosity on my part, whichever you like. If you’re right I’ll copy you, and if you’re wrong I’ll try to make you mend your ways.

Where am I going with all this?  Chremes’ attitude is a valuable one, if we’re to thrive.  If I can learn something useful from Shinto, even from a crazy ceremony that rebuilds a perfectly good building right next door, I’ll try to pay attention and learn.  Notice Chremes isn’t forfeiting his own judgment.  In love with its own exceptionalism, America sometimes seems preoccupied with the second half of Chremes’ response: “if you’re wrong I’ll try to make you mend your ways” — while ignoring the possibility that the former might also be occasionally worthwhile: “If you’re right I’ll copy you.”

Shikinen Sengu is a family affair.  Occurring as it does every two decades, the ceremony happens three to four times in the average person’s lifespan.

riverfamilylg

Another aspect of the Shikinen Sengu ceremony deserving mention is its “greenness.”  In a footnote, the JNTO brochure I cited in Part One observes:

Many trees are felled in preparation for each Shikinen Sengu. These logs are carefully selected and then transported to the reconstruction site at Ise, where new life is endowed to the logs. Young trees are carefully planted to replace those fallen in order to perpetuate the forest. The timbers removed when the Shrine is rebuilt are distributed to shrines throughout Japan, where they are reused, particularly to disaster or earthquake-stricken regions. Some of the sacrificial offerings and other contents of the shrine are also distributed among other shrines. Following the 61st Shikinen Sengu, lumber and contents of the Shrine were distributed among 169 shrines throughout Japan.

In Shinto as in Druidry, spirituality is life — there’s no separation.  What we do to maintain our connection with Spirit is what we do already as humans in living fully and well.  Here’s how the Japanese themselves talk about the ceremony:

As food, clothing and shelter form the requisites of our life, we have to prepare similar requisites for the kami, if we wish to receive blessings from them. Therefore, the ceremony of the Shikinen Sengu includes the renewal of buildings (shelter) as well as the renewal of the treasures (clothing) and the offering of first fruits (food). By performing the Shikinen Sengu, we renew our minds by remembering that our ancestors had enshrined Amaterasu Omikami in Ise, and praying that the Emperor will live long, and that peace will prevail in Japan and the world. It also involves the wish that Japanese traditional culture should be transmitted to the next generation. The renewal of the buildings and of the treasures has been conducted in the same traditional way ever since the first Shikinen Sengu had been performed 1300 years ago. The scientific development makes manual technology obsolete in some fields. However, by performing the Shikinen Sengu, traditional technologies are preserved.

Ritual and ceremony still have important roles to play in keeping us balanced, connected and mindful of our heritage.  Even more, ritual and ceremony remind us of our place in this world, as beings who share a planet with so many others.  This is one way to understand the Japanese kami or spirit:  not so much separate things or “gods” as they are personifications of the profound links we share with the world and the other beings in it.  The links exist, and deserve our acknowledgement.  Our culture has dispensed with much former ritual, not always to the bettering of our Western lives.  We need the connections that ritual can help us form and maintain, and which help nourish and sustain us.

Of course, families usually make their own traditions and rituals instinctively, regardless of what the larger culture is doing.  It’s the start of football season, and how many families do you know who have special recipes, traditions, gatherings, rites to celebrate their favorite teams and the hours of television ahead?  We do ritual because we’re human.  The old ceremonies that no longer hold meaning or value need to be updated, renewed, or replaced with others — but not abandoned, any more than we abandon our humanness merely because one way of being human needs refreshing, renewing or transforming.  To do otherwise means living stunted, incomplete lives.

Here’s one of my favorite poems by the late William Stafford which addresses this human need for connection, renewal and watchfulness vividly:

A Ritual to Read to Each Other

If you don’t know the kind of person I am
and I don’t know the kind of person you are
a pattern that others made may prevail in the world
and following the wrong god home we may miss our star.

For there is many a small betrayal in the mind,
a shrug that lets the fragile sequence break
sending with shouts the horrible errors of childhood
storming out to play through the broken dyke.

And as elephants parade holding each elephant’s tail,
but if one wanders the circus won’t find the park,
I call it cruel and maybe the root of all cruelty
to know what occurs but not recognize the fact.

And so I appeal to a voice, to something shadowy,
a remote important region in all who talk:
though we could fool each other, we should consider–
lest the parade of our mutual life get lost in the dark.

For it is important that awake people be awake,
or a breaking line may discourage them back to sleep;
the signals we give–yes or no, or maybe–
should be clear: the darkness around us is deep.

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*Betty Radice, trans. 1961.
Images:  logs in river; family in river.

Serpent Under The Door

With a title like that, you might expect shocking revelations, secret tips, insider advice, or something — anything — designed to titillate or distract a readership.  Or perhaps I could offer some variation on “what people want” — if we try to deduce that incoherent impossibility from reports on Google’s most popular search terms.

Garter SnakeInstead, I’ll start with the literal.  Our west-facing driveway warms up during the day, and on late spring and early fall mornings like yesterday’s and today’s, when we open the overhead garage door, as often as not one or more garter snakes will have curled up on the concrete during the night to warm themselves on the residual heat. Each morning they’re sluggish and need to be coaxed with a toe from their stupor to move and so avoid getting run over by our car.  Thus the “serpent under the door.”

But as with all other things (Druids like to claim), coincidences can be teachers, too.  Take our power outage yesterday afternoon.  I saw a flash of light, heard a popping sound, and our electricity died as I was starting to draft this post.  Green Mountain Power arrived a couple of hours later and promptly fixed the problem.  With an extensible pole, the line workman loosened something small and dark from the overhead transformer which plummeted to our lawn, and then he apparently reset a surge protector or trip device.  Problem solved.  When he came to the door to report success — I was watching all this from our living room window and stepped out to meet him — he said a bird had shorted out the line, tripping the transformer.  The small dark object that had fallen was the burnt corpse of the unfortunate.  Wholly unperturbed, our resident pair of mourning doves resumed their perches nearby on the power line soon after the GMP service truck departed.

Serpents and doves: be shrewd as the former, and gentle as the latter, counsels the Galilean master*.  To put it more bluntly, avoid getting fried, or run over — each grisly fate available, significantly enough, through human agency.  So it’s fitting that any shrewdness and gentleness I can wring from these two instances should issue from the same animal world.

As I write, goldfinches brighten our feeder, squabbling with the jays and an acrobatic chipmunk for seed.  Today’s late morning humidity and temperature already climb toward midsummer highs, just a few days after night-time frost warnings in our area.  The serpent under the door is my instinct, the bird on the power grid my arrogant ignorance.  No, that’s not it.  Something else, something other.  Yes, the danger of allegory is its all-too-easiness, its tendency toward glib preachiness.  A welcome Buddhist and pragmatic strain in some contemporary Druidry reminds me that sometimes a dead bird is just a bird, a sluggish serpent just a snake.  It’s the “and yet” that rears up and insists on making bigger meanings from small ones that is a sometimes annoying blessing.

But why shouldn’t we squeeze every event and experience for all it might be worth?  Equipped with overactive brains and growing out of a world we have tried to name and explicate, it’s a natural tendency, one literally native to us, crafted by nature, by natural selection and chance, by the divine at work with these, their alter ego, their personification, their image.  Tolkien’s elves, the Quendi, named things and tried to wake them.  In this they followed their nature:  Quendi** means “those who speak with voices,” the verbal echoes of their name present in words like bequeath and loquacious, query and quest, inquisitive and require.  Kweh, kwoh, kw-, kw- … Human deeds, human cries, human needs.  The same world that wiggles and flutters in snakes and birds has shaped and turned itself to allow humans to name — and endanger — them.  Because we can do something may not mean we should.  So we look to our animal kin for direct lived insight into how to thrive in this world, their wordless gestures rich as words. In an early poem, Mary Oliver captures Druidic wisdom:

Sleeping in the Forest

I thought the earth remembered me,
she took me back so tenderly,
arranging her dark skirts, her pockets
full of lichens and seeds.
I slept as never before, a stone on the river bed,
nothing between me and the white fire of the stars
but my thoughts, and they floated light as moths
among the branches of the perfect trees.
All night I heard the small kingdoms
breathing around me, the insects,
and the birds who do their work in the darkness.
All night I rose and fell, as if in water,
grappling with a luminous doom. By morning
I had vanished at least a dozen times
into something better.

At first we might think it’s death she’s talking about, but as she says in other poems, it’s deeper and more significant than just that particular transition, that magnified human fear and obsession.  Death, yes:  but there are many more marvelous things in addition to that. We can imagine ourselves different, “better” — what that may mean. “The world offers itself to your imagination,/calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting–/over and over announcing your place/in the family of things.” Gratitude to bird and beast; this, my offering.

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Image: garter snake

*Matthew 10:16.

** encyclopedia of Arda

Bridge

forestmisttrail1

Make a bridge of rain
the hour says, so sky and I do —
water and sight, slant
of light to dance on,
firm enough (sure as breath,
fine as the fleece of stars
you spun last night, sky)
we glide from hilltop to top,
this gray company and I.
Not looking we walk side by side.
Footfalls hush in the thrum of rain.
It’s only staring that puts us off
each choosing to doubt the other, as if
real is something to decide alone
not our song together. Mist sheer
as deep leaves clothes us all,
with waking only another dream,
this way we cross over.

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image:  forest

Seamus Heaney and Me

Irish poet, Nobel Prize winner, essayist and translator Seamus Heaney died earlier today in Dublin at 74.  More than once I’ve quoted Heaney on this blog, not least because his work is accessible without being Hallmark-y, literate but not stuffy, and redolent of earth and earthy intelligence.  In other words, delightfully Druidical.  Rather than go all lit-critic here, I’ll give a tribute in the form of a modest personal anecdote. If I need any justification, we’re both farmers’ sons.

heaney2In January 1984 Heaney offered a 7:00 pm reading and book-signing as part of the long-running Brockport Writers Forum at the College of Brockport, a school that’s part of the State University of New York (SUNY) system.  I mention this because at the time I held an unhealthy disdain for the SUNY schools.  They weren’t Ivies, and though a farmer’s son, I cultivated a decided snobbery that looks simply ludicrous now.  I also didn’t know then about the caliber of writers who read at the Forum.  Nevertheless a SUNY school reading series was sponsoring a poet I greatly admired, so there was nothing for it but to sidestep my arrogance if I wanted to hear him.  (Picture him nearly three decades younger, with graying rather than white hair.)

I recall the date in part because that winter I was in my mid-20s, between schools, waiting to hear on college applications, and back to working on my dad’s dairy farm, a hard though sane life I’d largely escaped during my undergrad years.  Our herd of some fifty Holsteins meant we were a “family farm” which only signifies that everyone in the family has to chip in for the farmer to make a go of it at all.  That winter day was typical Western New York January:  cold, blustery, with a spatter of snow gusting through a short gray Wednesday a scant month past the solstice and the shortest day.  I’d have to leave after evening milking if I wanted to attend at all.  The drive sounds easy enough, some 40 miles almost due north of us, and all on decent paved roads, but what with winter, night and traffic, that meant over an hour, if I was lucky.

Southern Wisconsin Hit By Major BlizzardIn spite of a late start milking, and the worsening weather, I determined to go, cursing slow drivers most of the way.  By the time I arrived, found campus parking and located the venue, the reading had ended.  It was standing room only in the auditorium, so I leaned against the wall at the back.  The moderator was thanking Heaney, who had moved to a cafeteria lunch table set up down front for the signing.  With no time to change before I left home, I was still dressed in work pants, steel-toed boots (anyone casually stepped on by a half-ton cow gets the why), stained winter jacket and stocking hat — still fragrant of cows, corn silage and manure.

I debated whether it would be worth staying.  I’d brought with me a worn paperback of Heaney’s Selected Poems, though I’m not usually one to collect author signatures.  But the crowd was thinning rapidly because of the deteriorating weather, so I made up my mind to salvage something from the trip.  By the time I joined the signing line against the mostly departing crowd, I held a spot near the end.  From what I could see of him as we slowly inched forward, Heaney looked tired, a half-finished bottle of whiskey at his elbow.  When I finally stood before him, though, he must have caught a whiff of barn on me.  He raised his head, took my measure, his gaze sharpening, and grinned at me, then wordlessly signed with a flourish.  At that moment and after, the trip was worth it, not because I got his signature, but because we had connected, however briefly.  It was worth it because it forms part of my own vocation as poet.  Many are called, but few are chosen.  But still, many are called.

I like to think he took my presence as a compliment, a plowboy poetry-reader come to hear the poet-speaker for our human tribe, the stamp of farm still on my clothes.  I like to think of him doing something similar as a boy or young man.  I like to think in a small way my presence mirrored what he wrote with and about: words as part of this world of darkness and light, of sky and soil and storms and time, of blood stirring at these things as we walk through them all our days.

And that’s it, except of course it’s never finished till breath is.  The story is more about me than Heaney, but I remember the day and the details because of Heaney, so they belong at least a little to him too, to his memory, now.  I’ll atone for the self-indulgence here; Heaney deserves the last words — these, from his poem “Postscript,” cited in full:

And some time make the time to drive out west
Into County Clare, along the Flaggy Shore,
In September or October, when the wind
And the light are working off each other
So that the ocean on one side is wild
With foam and glitter, and inland among stones
The surface of a slate-grey lake is lit
By the earthed lightning of a flock of swans,
Their feathers roughed and ruffling, white on white,
Their fully grown headstrong-looking heads
Tucked or cresting or busy underwater.
Useless to think you’ll park and capture it
More thoroughly. You are neither here nor there,
A hurry through which known and strange things pass
As big soft buffetings come at the car sideways
And catch the heart off guard and blow it open.

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Images:  Heaney; barn in winter.

Updated 1:31 pm 30 Aug 13

Posted 30 August 2013 by adruidway in Druidry, poetry, Seamus Heaney, writing

Tagged with , ,

Lunasa ’13

lughnasadhcorn“The god Lugh is honored by many at this time, and gentle rain on the day of the festival is seen as his presence and his bestowing of blessings.” — Wikipedia entry for Lunasa (older Irish spelling: Lughnasadh)

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Assembly of Lugh

Rain this afternoon your omen,
your day the spear in me to know my Tribe,
to learn their ways, to choose from them

what holds value: metal of truth, gold of our past
cast into refining fire, cauldron of time,
everything molten. Now, always, for forge:
the mold ready for each life streaming

from its pool of glowing metal,
from its pool of cool water
where my people drink.

I look across time’s circle to where it begins
anew with each life.  You cast the spear:
our Lunasa dancers grasp it, fling it toward the center
where it lands, quivering.  From it lifts and streams
the banner of summer sky:  I will take flame

and run with it:  your August,
moon before dawn this morning
slender as cupped palms,
ready to receive water, quicksilver,
fire in the sky dipping down
on us all.

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colignyplate“[F]rom France we have evidence of a Druid calendrical system in the Coligny calendar, although scholars are divided as to the degree we can consider it purely Druidic, since it is engraved in Roman letters, leading some to believe it represents the product of an attempt to Romanise the native religion.  Dated to the first century AD, it consists of fragments of engraved bronze which have been carefully pieced together to show a system which reckoned the beginning of each month from the full moon … The names of the months are wonderfully evocative of a time when humanity lived closer to nature:

Seed-fall:  October-November

Darkest Depths:  November-December

Cold-time: December-January

Stay-home time:  January-February

Time of Ice: February-March

Time of Winds: March-April

Shoots-show: April-May

Time of Brightness: May-June

Horse-time: June-July

Claim-time: July-August

Arbitration-time: August-September

Song-time: September-October

… Horse-time indicates the month in which people went traveling — in the good weather, and Claim-time indicates the month in which the harvest festival of Lughnasadh falls, and at which time marriages were contracted and disputes presented before judges.  The following month, Arbitration-time in August-September, represents the time when the disputes and claims have been adjudicated and when the reckonings were given. At Song-time in September-October the Bards completed their circuits, and chose where they would settle for the winter season.” — Philip Carr-Gomm, Druid Mysteries. London: Rider Books, 2002, pp. 118-119.

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images: LughnasadhColigny calendar

The Four Powers–Know, Dare, Will, Keep Silent–Part 1

[Part 2 | Part 3 | Part 4 | Part 5]

This is the first of a series on the powers of magic.

heaney“All I know is a door into the dark,” says Seamus Heaney in the first line of his poem “The Forge.”  In some way that’s where we all begin.  At three, four, five years old, some things come into our world already bright, illuminated, shining, on fire even.  The day is aflame with sun, the golden hours pass until nightfall, and then come darkness and sleep and dreaming.  We wander through our early days, learning this world, so familiar-strange all at once.  We grow inwardly too, discovering trust, betrayal, lying, love, fear, the pleasure of imagination, the difference between visible and invisible worlds.  Which ones do people talk about, admit to themselves?  Which ones do people around us ignore, or tell us don’t matter?

Much of our knowing is experiential during those years.  We learn about the physical laws of our planet, the bumps and bruises and sometimes breaks of childhood a testament to the hard edges of this world.  We learn some of its softnesses too: favorite foods, the touch of loved ones, the warm fur of pets, a dog’s nose meeting ours, the new air on the skin that spring and summer bring, the delight of rain and puddles and baths and fresh-laundered clothes.

child-at-shoreThen in some parts of the world comes another learning, one that typically fills much of our days for the next decade or so:  a knowing about, the accumulation in school of facts and statistics and words and ideas, math and languages and art,  science and history.  Still some experiential learning comes through as a matter of course — Bunsen burners glowing, magnesium and potassium in chemistry doing their flaming and bubbling tricks mixed with other elements.  The practice of basketball, baseball, volleyball, football and soccer, the sprints and catches and throws and spins and tricks, the correct forms and personal styles.  Wrestling, dance, music, track and field, teaching the body to know beyond thought, to form and shape habits useful precisely when they become habit and no longer demand our full attention.

And other knowledge of the body, too:  the awakening of sexuality, the chemical prods and prompts of hormones to stir the body into further change, the powers of attraction and desire, the experimentation with consciousness-altering that seems a universally human practice, whether “naturally” through exercise and pushing one’s physical limits, through chant, prayer, meditation, dance, song, music, or through “assisted alteration” with certain herbs, drugs, alcohol.  Even into adulthood much of this knowledge rumbles and whispers just below the level of conscious thought much of the time.  Without socially-approved times and places to discuss many of these experiences, we withhold them from daily conversation, we “fit in” and accommodate, we commit to being just like everyone around us, and the nudge of what feels like difference becomes part of the background hum of living, an itch we scratch haphazardly, or learn to tune out.

We forget how valuable this kind of knowing is, how it persists throughout our lives.  This used to be wisdom of a kind we valued precisely because it took lived experience to acquire.   You couldn’t rush it, couldn’t buy it or fake it, at least not without so much practice you almost recreated for yourself the original source experience anyway.

In a previous post on this blog, I noted:

Some kinds of knowledge are experiential and therefore in a different sense hidden or secret from anyone who hasn’t had the experience.  Consider sex:  there is no way to share such “carnal knowledge” – you simply have to experience it to know it.  And thus Adam and Eve “know” each other in the Garden of Eden in order to conceive their children.  Many languages routinely distinguish “knowing about” and “knowing” with different words, as for instance German kennen and wissen, French savoir and connaitre, Welsh gwybod and adnabod, Chinese hui/neng/zhidao. The kinds of experiential knowledge humans encounter in a typical lifetime are substantial and significant:  first love, first death, first serious illness and so on.

Back to the poem I mentioned in the first line of this post.  Reading it can be, in a small way, a re-initiation back into some experiences and kinds of knowing we may have forgotten or waylaid.  It’s “just words,” but also — potentially — more.

The Forge
by Seamus Heaney

All I know is a door into the dark.
Outside, old axles and iron hoops rusting;
Inside, the hammered anvil’s short-pitched ring,
The unpredictable fantail of sparks
Or hiss when a new shoe toughens in water.
The anvil must be somewhere in the centre,
Horned as a unicorn, at one end and square,
Set there immoveable: an altar
Where he expends himself in shape and music.
Sometimes, leather-aproned, hairs in his nose,
He leans out on the jamb, recalls a clatter
Of hoofs where traffic is flashing in rows;
Then grunts and goes in, with a slam and flick
To beat real iron out, to work the bellows.

forgeHere’s one opportunity of our human life (there are others) — a door into darkness, a world inside us that is a forge, a place of shaping and molding, of hammering material into a desired form, a place of work and energy and transformation.  The door leads to a place where we can find an altar, where we can “expend ourselves in shape and music” and “beat real iron out.”  Sometimes it appears others stand there before us; at times, we stand alone, tools scattered about, not always sure of how to proceed, dimly aware, or not at all, of anything like an altar or metal or tools.  But here lies a chance at the magnum opus, the “great work” many of us seek, that task finally worthy of all that we are and can do and dream of, a labor that is pleasure and work and art, all at once or at different times.

Even to know this in some small way, to imagine it or suspect it, is a start.  The door into the dark may not stand open, but we discern the outlines of something like a door, and maybe grope towards a handle, a yielding to an inner call, something that answers to a hand on the doorknob, or shifts like a latch, clicks open.  To know this much is a priceless beginning.

How magic can build on this beginning, and assist in self-making, will be the subject of the next post.

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Images: Seamus Heaney; child at shore; forge.

Updated 3 July 2014

A Ghost-Druid Dialog

[Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3 | Part 4 | Part 5 | Part 6 | Part 7 | Part 8 | Part 9]

To see a World in a Grain of Sand
And a Heaven in a Wild Flower
Hold Infinity in the palm of your hand
And Eternity in an hour.

William Blake, “Auguries of Innocence”

That kind of seeing and holding requires a special focus, a clear attention, I think, as I hurry to lunch, distinctly UN-focused, a dozen thoughts jangling, after two very different conversations with students during conference period.  My freshman advisee Walt has asked about the intricacies of some scheduling for sophomore year, while Ann, a junior and a former student, has come to talk about polishing a remarkable piece of journal writing from her freshman year for possible publication.

At the dining hall table where I often sit, Mr. Madden, Mr. Ritter and Mr. Delahunt are chuckling about an old piece of school gossip concerning the previous administration.  Ms. Valenti  joins us, and the conversation soon shifts to the deer that appear early almost every morning in the yards of the faculty residences on the campus periphery, where Ms. Valenti and Mr. Madden live in senior faculty houses.  Ms. Valenti describes the ten- or eleven-point buck she saw standing motionless in her driveway earlier in the week.  Mr. Delahunt mentions that he’s learned a small herd of deer beds down each night in a wooded gully between the new science building and the peripheral faculty housing. I cheer silently for these animal lives thriving, often just beyond our knowledge, in this apparently suburban part of the world.

At first I think all of this is mere distraction, but Blake reminds me yet again there’s a whole world here, eternity and infinity too, if I only see and touch them.  We all gobble our food, and I hurry back to my first afternoon class with my seniors.  So many grains of sand: underfoot, on the stairwell carpets of the English building, in my second-floor office when I reach down to pick up a fallen paperclip from the floor.  Each one a world, if I had time to see it.  Next year I will have time, because this is my last here.  Voluntary poverty, or insanity, or more than a little of both.

Class goes fast with my fifth period Brit Lit seniors.  Many of them read from the satires they’ve written in imitation of Jonathan Swift’s “A Modest Proposal.”  We don’t work on Blake, but here is eternity, too.  For a few moments we’re all paying attention, laughing at a satire of college admissions, or the sleep deprivation so many students face, not thinking about anyone or anything else — about the test next period, the sick friend, the college rejection letter, deadlines, schedules, midterm tomorrow, the weather, or whether a visionary dead white male Romantic poet may or may not have anything useful to say to us.

blake

Mr. Blake, we survived the 2012 fake apocalypse, I feel like crowing.  His ghost seems to nod, looking out the window at the light fog that huddles over the nearest quad.  Maybe that’s the best we can do, right now, our version of eternity: bad apocalypse.

Unwilling to share their satires, the sixth period seniors struggle with Blake.  We work through a couple of the easier poems, and soon I can tell it’s “drag” time.  I drag them through a few more, trying to open up the sometimes seeming-simplistic usually-complex lines.  Blake’s ghost sighs heavily.  An uphill climb for everyone, even though I’m working harder than usual to exhume the poet from two centuries of cultural and historic static that seems to buzz between the words on the page and the lives of my students.  I give them a creative writing exercise, and one soft-spoken girl produces a lovely poem inspired by the lines at the top of this post.  Her lines offer almost all sensory detail, a lovely lyric, with none of the teen angst that normally trails after much adolescent poetry like a homeless dog.  I give thanks for such things.

Blake, old sage, tyger-burner, Jerusalem-singer, painter and poet of the 19th century as strange and full of possibility as our 21st … what else do you have to tell me?  I listen as I write, content for a moment to hear the voice of silence in and around the clicks and taps of the keyboard.  “Hear the voice of the Bard, who past, present and future sees …”  With the view out my window circumscribed to the present only, I can tell I have my work cut out for me.  Blake’s ghost nods encouragingly.  Time to begin again.

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image:  “Beatrice addresses Dante”; William Blake

Updated 23 April 2015

Circe’s Power: Part 1

OK, be forewarned … this runs long.  If you’re more in the mood for bon-bons than for jerky, come back later.  This ended up pretty chewy.  It’s also provisional, a lot more tentative than it sounds.  Now I’ve told you, so don’t get cranky with me later.  Here goes …

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In her poem “Circe’s Power,” Louise Glück speaks in the voice of the sorceress who transforms the crew of Odysseus into swine when they arrive on her island.  Even the great war-leader and trickster Odysseus himself would have fallen under her spell, but for a charm the god Hermes gives him.  (“Some people have all the luck,” “the gods favor them,” etc.) So it’s dueling magics at work, divine and mortal enchantments competing for supremacy.  (Sort of feels like life at times.  Like we’re adrift in a hurricane, or trying to build a house on a battlefield.) Circe speaks to Odysseus, to all of us, in a kind of explanation of life seen from the vantage point of magic. Or not.

I never turned anyone into a pig.
Some people are pigs; I make them
look like pigs.
I’m sick of your world
that lets the outside disguise the inside.
Your men weren’t bad men;
undisciplined life
did that to them. As pigs,
under the care of
me and my ladies, they
sweetened right up.
Then I reversed the spell,
showing you my goodness
as well as my power. I saw
we could be happy here,
as men and women are
when their needs are simple. In the same breath,
I foresaw your departure,
your men with my help braving
the crying and pounding sea. You think
a few tears upset me? My friend,
every sorceress is
a pragmatist at heart; nobody sees essence who can’t
face limitation. If I wanted only to hold you
I could hold you prisoner.

Oddly, this poem always cheers me up, with what I take to be its hard realism.  That may sound funny, since part of the time Circe’s talking about magic, and she has a cynic’s view of much of life.  Or maybe a minimalist’s.  How do those two things go together?! But it’s a magic we’re born into, the nature of a world in which the outside does indeed often “disguise the inside.”  Here, almost everything wears a mask.  Even truth hides as illusion, and illusion as truth.  The god of this world, we’re told in the Christian Bible, has the face and name of Liar.  We learn this soon enough, discovering quite young the great power of lying.  It’s a magic of its own, up to a point — a beguiling enchantment.  Some of us never recover.  It’s lies all the way.  But there are other worlds, and other magics as potent, if not more so.  If Circe is “sick of this world,” what can she tell us of others?

Another way of looking at it can come to us in an Emily Dickinson poem.  (What is it with these poets, anyway?!  Liars, magicians, many of them.  Enchant us into the real.)  “Tell all the truth, but tell it slant,” says the Amherst visionary, and we’re off to the nature of truth seen in a world of illusion:  paradox.  (Maybe truth needs a mask, to exist here at all.)   “The only way out is through,” insists Frost in yet another poem, but in spite of our longing for the Old Straight Path, it’s fallen away from us, and the world is now “bent,” as in the Tolkien mythos.  We can’t get out so easily.

“Success in circuit lies,” Dickinson goes on to say.  In other words, “you can’t get there from here”: the directions are all scrambled, even the best of them.  You travel in a cosmic roundabout and end up somewhere else, not just on a road less traveled, but one apparently never traveled before, until you set foot on it.  Who can help you as you journey there?  No one?  Anyone?  One paradox is that you’re walking the same path everyone else is, too.  Everyone’s having an experience of being on their own.  What we share is what keeps us separate.  Paradox much?  Useful at all?

“Too bright for our infirm Delight/The Truth’s superb surprise,” says Dickinson. OK, so what the hell does that mean?  Well, Circe knows, or seems to.  If every sorceress is indeed a “pragmatist at heart”, then she and all the others who deal in truths and illusions may have something useful to tell us in the end.  Certainly our encounters with truth can have a surprising quality of sudden opening and revelation.  Whether the surprise is “superb” depends in part on you.  But what are we to make of her next assertion?  “Nobody sees essence who can’t face limitation.”   The two negatives “spin your head right round.”  Is it still true if we remove them?  “Everyone sees essence who can face limitation.”

This is without doubt a world of limits, of hard edges, of boundaries we run into all the time, however much we try to ignore them.  Inconvenient truths aren’t the same as illusions.  (We just wish they were.)  Some of the edges cut, some leave scars.  We get away with very little, in the end.  Most of our illusions get stripped away, in this world of illusions.  What’s left?  Emily, Louise, mother-wit, “the sense God gave gravel,” somebody (anybody!), help us out here!!

“As Lightning to the Children eased/With explanation kind/The Truth must dazzle gradually/Or every man be blind –” Emily concludes.  (Maybe the dash says it all.) Is there any “kindness” in this world of disguises?  Well, if some truth really is, or can be, as potent as the words here suggest, then one kindness is precisely the illusion we complain about.  It’s protection, insulation, a hot-pad between us and the Real, to keep it from scorching our skin, burning our vision.  Mortal eyes cannot behold the infinite.  “No one can see the face of God, and live,”  Moses is told.  Things get scaled down in this world.  The hot turns lukewarm, tepid.  You want scalding?  You were warned.

So what might we take away as a provisional set of guidelines to test and try out, and maybe use, if and when they fit?

1.  Know your worlds.

This ain’t the only one.  Don’t mix ’em, or expect one to work like any of the others.  “When in Rome, do as the Romans do,” and all that.  This world in particular revels in concealment.  Spring lies in the lap of winter, and unlikely as it seems, green and warmth will return to this world gone gray and white and cold.  Neither winter nor spring is the whole truth, but each is true in its season.  Time works out truth in a world built of time and space.  “Dazzle gradually,” so you can surprise and startle and reveal intensely … in the end.

2.  Essence and limitation are linked.

“Nobody sees essence who can’t face limitation.”  If we want the truth we seek, and desperately need, and deep-down know already (a particularly maddening truth we reject whenever we can), we find it here in this world, in limits and seeming dead-ends and walls and obstacles and finales.  Death’s a big one.  These are our teachers still, till we’re able to move beyond them.  Really?  That’s the best you can do for us?  Well, got any other world handy? Yes?  Then you know what I mean.  You don’t need this.  No?  Then you’re right where you need to be.  Understand that I’m not speaking from any privileged or superior place.  I know what you know, and vice versa.  Deal.  You’ll notice that I’m here in this right beside you.  As my wife and I remind each other whenever necessary, those too good for this world are adorning another.

3.  Truth ain’t so much obscure or impossible or unavailable or “an empty category,” but it IS often different than we think or want it to be.

We manifest it as we discover it.  We know it when we see it, like pornography or good taste.  Just don’t ask for someone else’s version to guide you, or you’re back to square one.  (As a clue, OK.  As absolute authority over your life?  Don’t even think about it!)

4.  In the end, it’s all Square One.

5.  And that’s a good thing.

6.  To quote The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel, “Everything will be all right in the end.  If it’s not all right, then it’s not yet the end.”  Patience is one of the primal and most subtle of magics.

7.  Your version of “all right” will keep changing.

If it hasn’t changed recently, check your brain for clogs.  You may have missed an important message the universe has been trying to tell you.

8. Everything wants to make a gift of itself to you.

The distance between your current reality and that truth is the measure of the Great Work ahead.  This one’s taken me for a couple of l o n g walks indeed.  EverythingGift.  If I resist it, it comes back in an ugly  or terrifying or destructive “un-gift” form.  There are hard gifts.  Each life ends with one.  Still a gift.

9.  Ah, the triple three of nine, a piece of Druid perfection.

The ultimate four-letter word is love.  “A love for all existences,” goes the Druid Prayer.  Get there, and life begins in earnest.  We’ve all been there, briefly.  Time to make it longer than brief.  “Reverse the spell to see the goodness and the power,” to reword Circe only a little.  Still working on these.

About Initiation, Part 4

Go to Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3 | Part 4 | Part 5 | Part 6

Many people share a hunger for meaningful actions and deeds, choices and moments, in their lives.  We especially seem to long for meaning in the face of so many acts in our daily experience that, without the gift of some kind of transformation, can seem so deadly, vacuous and meaningless.  We wait in lines, we reflexively check Facebook and email countless times a day, we make the same daily drive to work, we pay the same endless bills month to month, and talk with the same acquaintances who never seem to grow and move beyond their original assumptions and opinions — we tire and bore even ourselves with our own personalities and routines and habits …

The world is too much with us; late and soon,
Getting and spending, we lay waste our powers;
Little we see in Nature that is ours;
We have given our hearts away

as 19th century British poet William Wordsworth remarks in a sonnet named for the first line.  That sensation and the force that drives it have only intensified in the intervening two centuries.  Whatever stimulant of choice we turn to, we need increasing doses just to keep going:  stronger energy drinks, more vivid cybersex, the overhyped fake violence of summer blockbusters, the brief but lovely bliss of cutting and piercing.  And if you agree as I do with the adage that anyone who points out a problem is also challenged at least to begin to offer a solution, and not just complain about it, here goes another reflection on initiation.  Site stats continue to identify this topic as one of the most popular over the past months — and there are good reasons for this.

How can we start to open up a way forward? In the 24 November 2009 post on his blog, The School of Myth, Martin Shaw identifies three common stages of initiation:  severance, threshold, and return — a sacred triad all its own.

Shaw astutely diagnoses us:  so often we’re addicted to severance, while never moving beyond it to the next stage of initiation.  We know how to do this part; we’re severance experts.  We endlessly cut ties, get divorced, quit jobs, abandon projects, dump friends, remaking ourselves any way we can, redecorating our homes, tatooing, starving and stuffing our bodies, changing styles, desperate for healing change, for “something more,” for the authentic, the genuine, the real, in a world that, whenever we touch it, feels increasingly plastic.  Sometimes only pain feels anything like real.  Once a core initial experience of initiation, the doorway, a “shock to the system” because it immersed us in something new, severance is now often the default setting of our lives.

Shaw then focuses on threshold, noting that

Any individual, deprived of certain staples and put into a ritually held disorientation, can open up to the time-honoured fruits of the experience. With Vision Quests, the focus is not on cultural costume or mythic inflation but a whittling away, a search for a certain ‘core’ of you. It is kept empty of any ethnic affectations, but seeks some universal ground of being that is ageless.

At some point in this period of liminality, perceptions of community are radically expanded; personal mirrors are held in moss and rock formations as well as the family and marketplace. The experience of separation from earth diminishes, it has information for you, you are related. This has huge implications in an era of climate change and global warming. It is from the edge of things that wisdom originates — the hope is that the edges of our imagination are porous enough for such dialogue to take place.

So this part of the process seems possible, viable, even crucial for re-negotiating (or re-membering) our relationship to wild nature. The emphasis has to be on the core spiritual and psychological opening initiation offers, rather than a self-conscious aping of cultural costume.

But it is return, Shaw observes, that has become for contemporary humans the hardest of the three stages.

Initiation is a process dependent on grief and focuses on a de-[s]cent, a pulling away, a going down. When we refuse to go down, we run the risk of anaesthetising ourselves. Cultural anaesthetics could be described as engendering a subtle trance, and so the shining and uncertain face of the returning initiate carries a kind of beauty that society is trying to defend itself from — the implications are simply too challenging.

Returnees from initiation threaten the status quo — they’ve seen what others refuse to acknowledge, they’ve confronted what others have no desire ever to face if they can possibly avoid it, because it will mean the end of their carefully constructed lives built on false foundations, on accommodating pain and suffering, on acclimating to misery.  And no one wishes to support and nourish and sustain the awareness pouring out of the returnee, the new initiate with the “shining and uncertain face” — or even if they wished to help, they wouldn’t know how.  The cultural mechanisms to feed the new initiates more of the kind of energized life they experienced at initiation, and especially the presence of older initiates who have themselves assimilated some of the lessons of their own initiations and can often help the most out of personal experience, are too often lacking.

Hence the prevalence and popularity of workshops, retreats, weekends, camps — any means by which initiation can be fostered and even temporarily encouraged to continue its transformation as long as the special group consciousness persists which acknowledges and cherishes and values it.  We have an abundance of gurus and guides, true and false, reliable and negligent, like James Ray whose inexperience and carelessness led to deaths of three clients in a sweat lodge during a 2009 retreat.  The impulse to induce severance was certainly valid, but its form was too extreme and poorly managed.

One place to begin is to reflect on past initiations and more fully absorb their lessons.  Keeping a journal, blog or some kind of record of experience and reflection over time proves invaluable in accomplishing this.  Today is a good day to begin.  We obsess over what we still need to learn and explore, and if we can’t see these things in our own lives, often we can detect them in others’ — and they in ours.  As we become more familiar with the ongoing effects of past initiations, we’re more likely to discern new ones as we enter them — and they exist in abundance in everyone’s lives.

More in coming posts.

Go to Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3 | Part 4 | Part 5 | Part 6

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Images:  Ghana initiation; Catholic ordination; Sikh Amrit Sanchar.

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