Archive for the ‘Robert Frost’ Category

“Initiates of Darkness”   Leave a comment

The page is never blank, though it looks that way each time I click “new post”. Always the track of beast flares across the path, the flight or song of bird ignites the sky. All beings burn with life. Any blankness I may encounter is specific terrain I’ve chosen somewhere, sometime. Now to learn just where I took that quirk in the path. I tremble as I ask, I’ve sown it, so let me own it.

If “I have it in me so much nearer home/To scare myself with my own desert places” as Frost says in “Desert Spaces”, I also carry within me other worlds upon worlds, mirroring all the ones around me. I stand at a mid-point, and so much flows through me, through us all. Do I even notice? (Do I want to?)

Seamus Heaney observes of these lines that

… whatever risk they run of making the speaker seem to congratulate himself too easily as an initiate of darkness, superior to the deluded common crowd … they still succeed convincingly … [an] undeniable emotional occurrence which the whole poem represents.

I call it an emotional occurrence, yet it is preeminently a rhythmic one, an animation via the ear of the whole nervous apparatus …

If I’m looking for awen, for spiritual energy and music and delight, for movement into the wider self that includes but never stops with the apparent world, then rhythm and melody will take me there — the drums of Beltane beating on my inner ear, the hum and whisper of birdsong and newly-minted leaves. (Doubt just becomes boring, no use.) Once out of my head and into such prayer and listening, the recovery of life-giving vision can proceed. Lock myself into my own concerns, though, and that’s where I’ll remain. Meanwhile the cosmos keeps saying enlarge, enlarge — “an animation via the ear of the whole nervous apparatus”. Let me sync with what’s playing all around me. Ah, there it is again, that Song in all things.

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Bagby at play.  Photo courtesy NY Classical Review.

Follow me, friend, as I take this tangent: tonight I’m leading the second of two local discussions of Beowulf, Tolkien, and Benjamin Bagby, who performs the first third of the Old English poem in the original language, accompanying himself on a reproduction harp. Bagby’s coming to perform in Vermont next month — the surface occasion for tonight’s discussion.

We’ll talk, among other things, about wyrd, that old word that still half-lives in modern English weird, lives more fully in the Weird Sisters of Macbeth, and most fully in its original sense of the pattern of things which is both destiny or fate, and also the stage for meaningful human choice and action. Beowulf falls to wyrd, but also survives because of it.

Anglo-Saxonist author Stephen Pollington puts it this way:

The analogy of a spider web is usefully employed in considering wyrd. Each section of the web is a discreet part of the whole, yet the tiniest ensnared insect will set the entire web vibrating. Whether the spider wins her dinner depends on how skillfully she has woven her web, how quickly she reacts, and the chances of the captured insect to struggle free. The web is wyrd, but what the actors do upon it will decide the outcome.

Wyrd, says the poem, oft nereð unfægne man þonne his ellen deah. Taking Pollington’s analogy to heart, I render this as “The Pattern often saves an undoomed man when his courage holds” (Beowulf line 572). And I repeat to myself the charm: What the actors do upon the Web will decide the outcome.

We’re all “initiates of darkness”, of fates and destinies set in motion and still unfolding, yes — but that doesn’t define us. It just leavens the crusty bread that we are. Without a taste of that Old Tree of the knowledge of good and evil, what after all could we manage to accomplish? The first breath of any opposition would blow us away like dandelion fluff, like breadcrumbs. (No inner resources, I can hear my grandmother sniff.) We didn’t start the fire, sings Billy Joel. It was always burning/Since the world’s been turning.

Part of the journey beyond Druidry 101, as on any path worthy of the name, is the discovery of the usefulness of opposition. In careful measure (wyrd measures out some, yes, but so do I, each day), it gives us something to push against, a resistance, like weights in the gym, the settings on the stairclimber, the hills that are part of my dog-walk. I find out where I am, in the face of it — it’s potent in dispelling my illusions. It’s part of our training for what a world of polarities means. Armed and tested with this hard-won wisdom, we’re ready for realms of light. A Druid can aspire to live, serve and create anywhere. (And until that day of fuller mastery, there’s today with its choices and challenges. The poor, says the Galilean master, you will always have with you. What is my poverty?)

Some days, of course, I long for a cosmos that’s easy, or even just easy-er. But, I notice, after some time there, I’m restless again, eager to jump back into the fray and play of a more demanding laboratory world, where just about everything is subject to change and experimentation. So what happens if I take this tangent?

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Mount Wantastiquet trail.

Meanwhile, I pray with the Leaf-Lords and Ladies around me:

Oak, shade my path. I welcome your wisdom.
Birch, green my way. I call on your courage.
Hemlock, heal my heart. I fast under your foliage.
Pine of all lands, I gather your gifts.
Tree companions all, I seek the shelter of your boughs.

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Images: Bagby.

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Colouring Outside the Lines   Leave a comment

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

Philip Carr-Gomm writes,

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

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

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

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

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

The answers, I find, can be surprising.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Spring Teachers — Wand and Cauldron 2   Leave a comment

As I write, the sleet and rain of a mid-April winter storm blanket southern Vermont, patter on the roof, and coat our driveway and solar panels.

Dana Driscoll in her wonderful Druidgarden blog writes:

This unseasonably cold spring offers a number of powerful lessons. The first is in studying people’s reactions to the cold vs. the land’s reactions to the cold. Humans have grown to expect predictable certainty; the certainty of the seasons coming on a schedule that we could depend on, the certainty of USDA* zones and last frost dates. But that’s not what this planet can offer us anymore. Predictable certainty says that by mid April, we “should be” firmly in the spring months. There “should be” buds and flowers. There “should be” warmth. But climate change prediction models say otherwise–-the East Coast of the USA, where I live, is likely to see shorter springs and longer winters, particularly as the jet stream continues to shift. The truth is that spring will come, but it may take longer than any of us would like. Spring will come and frost will come, and summer and fall will also come-–but no longer on predictable schedules. The daffodils understand this-–they simply wait.  The animals and insects understand this–-they wait. The flowers and seeds understand this–-they, too, wait.

[*United States Department of Agriculture zones for estimating growing seasons, planting dates, plant hardiness, etc.]

Such patience is cauldron and wand working together.

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I recently obtained a copy of Hewson’s Dictionary of Proto-Algonquian (Canadian Ethnology Service Mercury Series Paper 125). If we’re serious about wanting to talk with the spirits and land-wights in North America, and we also want to avoid cultural appropriation of living languages and practices, why not go to the source?! Just like with Proto-Indo-European for Europe, we can learn Proto-Algonquian! (Right now I’m looking at how place-names are constructed.)

Except.

One of the fallacies we cherish involves continuity and change. In our search for authenticity we often grant an unconscious, and sometimes conscious, primacy and superiority to “languages-spoken-when”: we study Old English or Old Icelandic if we’re Heathens or Asatruar, we turn to Irish or Welsh or Gaelic to be truer to the Celtic tradition, just as Catholics may pick up some Latin if they attend Catholic schools or regularly attend a traditional Mass, and more conservative Jews acquire some Hebrew as a language of their heritage and tradition for Bar and Bat Mitzvahs and Seders and Synagogue prayer and ritual. Languages of lore and wisdom are valuable gifts from the past, from the ancestors.

But just as speakers of English no longer speak Old English as a native tongue to greet the dawn and the land, or pass the bread and butter, the spirits and land wights can connect through our modern tongues just as well with us, and we with them, as we ever could in the past.

Robert Frost, old bard of the land, like any true bard, had access to Otherworld wisdom. You can hear it in “The Gift Outright” (which I often return to when this topic comes up), through the views and stances and limits of his time — as through ours, limits which we cannot yet wholly see — when he peers into that deeper well for vision and understanding:

The land was ours before we were the land’s.
She was our land more than a hundred years
Before we were her people. She was ours
In Massachusetts, in Virginia,
But we were England’s, still colonials,
Possessing what we still were unpossessed by,
Possessed by what we now no more possessed.
Something we were withholding made us weak
Until we found out that it was ourselves
We were withholding from our land of living …

Possession, possessed by, withholding — we carry deep attitudes and archetypes not lightly to be dismissed. Indeed, they are part of our work. But for all that, the Land where I live here in New England doesn’t “withhold” itself from me because I say Lake Champlain rather than Bitawbakw, or Burlington rather than Winooski. Rather I withhold myself through heedlessness. It’s my intent and practice that make up any difference.

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view of Nubanusit from Hancock, NH

Every land has seen many people on it come and go. The language — any language — is for my comfort and focus — for any act of consciousness. If out of respect I devote energy to learning old ways of address, the Otherworld (and this world) accepts that gift in the spirit it is given. Let it outweigh other considerations, though, and I’ve stepped out of balance. To use the terms of the previous post, my speech and ritual are my cauldron and wand.

Yes, it’s still a pleasure to say the New Hampshire Abenaki lake names Skatutakee [skah-TOO-tah-kee], Nubanusit [noo-bah-NOO-sit] and Winnepesaukee [win-neh-peh-SAH-kee], even if they’re poorly Anglicized.

Names matter. Echoes remain. That’s how we fashioned a modern Druidry. Trust the echoes, if they’re all I have at the moment, follow them, and they lead to the originals.

Wiccan ritual often demonstrates an instinctive understanding of the power and wealth of names and naming. The Charge of the Goddess reminds us to attend to echoes and inner music:

Listen to the words of the Great Mother; she who of old was also called among men Artemis, Astarte, Athene, Dione, Melusine, Aphrodite, Cerridwen, Cybele, Arianrhod, Isis, Dana, Bride and by many other names …

Here we’re close to the Jewish Psalm 137, a song of exile sung in Babylon:

How shall we sing the LORD’S song in a strange land? If I forget thee, O Jerusalem, let my right hand forget her cunning. If I do not remember thee, let my tongue cleave to the roof of my mouth; if I prefer not Jerusalem above my chief joy.

If I do not recall and recite the old names, may I lose the power of speech as proper penalty. A curse, just as with a blessing, is not a thing to be summoned lightly.

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To paraphrase the old adage of the Hermetic Mysteries: “Pilgrim on earth, thy home lies in all the worlds; stranger, thou are the guest of gods”.

MacLir (cited below and in the previous post) notes:

We find other wands in myths that are the sources for our modern wands. One wand user, the Greek god Hermes (Roman Mercury), has long been linked to passage between earth and the higher realms. The staff or rod … the caduceus of Hermes-Mercury has come to be associated with healing and the medical profession due to its similarity to the rod topped with a brazen serpent employed in the Bible by Moses to work healing magic. It has also been mixed up with the wand of Asklepios, a Greek demigod closely associated with medicine and healing. Asklepios used a wand that is usually depicted as a rough branch with a single snake spiraling around it (Wandlore, pg. 7).

Wand, staff, ogham stave, intention to plant, to sow and to manifest, I honor you.

Spring, east, dawn, wind, intelligence, will, knowledge, wand-realm — cauldron has called you forth, evoked and invoked you. Kundalini, serpent power always coiled, wand and cauldron, now I will work with you both, doing the work humans are uniquely called to do, standing between earth and heaven, foot and hand in so many worlds.

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Images: Lake Nubanusit.

Hewson, John. 1993. A computer-generated dictionary of proto-Algonquian. Gatineau – Quebec : National Museums of Canada. 281 p. ISBN : 0-660-14011-X.

MacLir, Alferian Gwydion. Wandlore: The Art of Crafting the Ultimate Magical Tool. Woodbury, MN: Llewellyn Books, 2011.

In Praise of Altars   Leave a comment

Brenda Ash

photo courtesy Brenda Ash

OBOD Chosen Chief Phillip Carr-Gomm at this weekend’s Gulf Coast Gathering in Louisiana. The Alban Eilir/Equinox altar features Spanish moss and whelk shells. I didn’t attend, but through a magic as palpable and marvelous as any, an image consisting of light particles carries this moment from the event to all of us. Surely we can number images among our altars — beloved photographs of dear ones, of family and friends gathering, of the large moments and smaller ones of our lives.

And in the image below, Mystic River Grove’s Equinox celebration, which I was able to attend, processes through the March snow toward their ritual site in a Massachusetts park.

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photo courtesy Anna Oakflower

Here are many altars: the altar of the event, held in imagination and expectation. The altar of the location, a park, a dedicated space of a different kind: the will existed to preserve a natural space from development and for the public, an acknowledgement of common wealth, re publica, for which the Commonwealth of Massachusetts is named in aspiration. The altar of each body present, beaver (broad tails slapping the water when we edged too near), birch, stone, water, human (about 25 of us gathered in eastern Mass.), avian (crows, and an owl hooting during an Ovate initiation preceding the main rite), canine (coyotes yipping just at the close of the ritual and as darkness settled in).

“I make of my intentions an altar”: something I can practice doing at any moment, if and when I remember. And how often the moment makes its own altar, if I pay attention: sunlight and silence on an afternoon walk, or a caucus of crows startled into flight and talk. A found stone that perfectly fits your hand. The first drops of needed rain finally beginning to fall. The greeting of a passing jogger or hiker out like you for word from the sun and the air and the world around us.

These are the democratic altars of existence, moments and openings of life and energy accessible to all. In them lie the origins of Druidry and so many other practices, a “momentary stay”, as Frost says, “against confusion”. Even the effort to “stay”, or simply to celebrate as it all passes by, is an altar, a focus.

We gather after the ritual at a long-time member’s home, another kind of ritual. Two soups go onto the stove, chicken and potato-leek. A salad comes together, and — warmed by a generous assortment of alcoholic contributions, an altar of bottles on the kitchen counter — several of us nibble at irresistible dessert cookies while the main course warms. We glow a little brighter in each other’s company, another altar we make by choice and effort. We could have stayed home for any reason, but we didn’t. An important altar. Others — a parent’s death last autumn, remembered; an upcoming surgery and a request for prayers; a first home and all the discoveries of ownership.

The “secular” is the “world” — Druidry recovers the world in all its sacredness, a human forgetting changed into human recollection.

Trees, humans too, we stand against the sky, a grove of profiles, outlines against the sky. Feeling our ways along, delighting — given half a chance, making one for ourselves — in all the altars of our worlds.

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“I’m doing Druidry wrong”   Leave a comment

Have you seen them? The ridiculous (to my mind, anyway) articles, often partial advertisements or product placements, that purport to instruct the reader.  They arrive in a simple format, usually with the same clear lead: “You’re doing X wrong”.

(I strive to avoid yielding my attention, as much as possible, to things that can’t instruct me, however I may initially feel about them. So let’s see what we can gain here, for I would exploit all things that seek to manipulate me, and wring from them something both needful and utile. You know: just to turn them back on themselves, and fulfill my part in manifesting the ancient wisdom that says all thing work together for good for those that love. Because, to exploit another more recent piece of wisdom, “Everything will be all right in the end. If it’s not all right, it is not yet the end”*. We are, after all, actors in a 10 billion-year-old play. Just gotta get through this particular scene. Find your character’s mark, don’t bump into the furniture, deliver your lines with feeling. Ah, there now.)

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Public? private? Is there a difference, if both need clearing?

Now it may be Americans in particular who are susceptible to this form of social insecurity — wanting desperately to fit in, do the right thing (wear and drive and own and think the right things), be hip, be au courant, woke, and all the other necessary adjustments that our national Puritanism tells us are necessary for secular salvation. And so perhaps only Americans are doing our planetary Druidry wrong. Or not.

(Anyone outside the petri dish-circus-nuclear meltdown-barbecue that is America can spot a number of necessary adjustments Americans should be making for our own good and the good of the planet, but which we somehow inexplicably and wilfully ignore, but that’s another matter. We all have our own to-do lists.)

If there was money in it, somebody somewhere would be telling me I’m doing Druidry wrong.

And I am. Because all that means is I’m not doing me precisely like you’re doing you.

The tree-wisdom that is Druidry means living our lives on earth, in these earth-bodies, whatever else may be going on with us, whatever other realms we inhabit. All we can do is go with what we get — through the senses and training and experience, memory and genetics, personality and character, hints and clues and dreams, the nudges and examples of friends who wish us well, inner and outer gods and neighbors, animals and the blessed trees.

Quite a package. When we say we don’t know what to do, how to choose, what matters, how to go on, it’s not for lack of choices and possibilities, but from a super-abundance. And no clue, key or compass ready to hand.

So when I say I’m doing Druidry wrong, I mean by that what Thoreau says (pronouns expanded): “I desire that there may be as many different persons in the world as possible; but I would have each one be very careful to find out and pursue their own ways, and not their father’s or their mother’s or their neighbor’s instead”.

That is, I ignore or defy peer pressure (insofar as I can) where it really matters — not in the obvious outward ways of young people discovering for the first time what it means to have a self, choosing hair or makeup or clothing or other faddishness at odds with arbitrary norms that superficially reassure us all is well, that the walls are secure, that wakeful sentries guard the gates. Not outwardly but inwardly I wander and marvel, where as yet the Thought Police do not patrol. (Though cookies and bots, Google and Amazon are scratching at the windows.)

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What cookies have I swallowed whole lately?

It’s because we do not trust each other to “be very careful to find out and pursue their own ways, and not their father’s or their mother’s or their neighbor’s instead” that we feel we must lay out tracks and paths for all, lest the heedless deeds of a few bring down the whole ramshackle scaffold that passes for civilization. And the few are never us but always Somebody Else. Until the trees finally reach me and teach me differently.

Ya gotta go wrong to go right.

“You gotta get in to get out”, Genesis sings in “The Carpet Crawlers”.

“The only way out is through”, says Robert Frost in “A Servant to Servants“.

outbackstAh, Outback Steakhouse, guru of the moment, with its tag “No rules, just right” — there’s a form of my own credo: that somehow, in the spiritual Outback we’re each exploring, I suspect there’s a path that’s right, apart from (other’s) rules, one for each of us. My evidence: we’re all walking our own paths anyway, in case you haven’t noticed.

Something of what all this can mean in turn I’ll be addressing in the next post.

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*The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel, 2011.

Images: cookies picture by Kimberly Vardeman; Outback Steakhouse tagline.

A Druid’s Compass   Leave a comment

[A version of this post was originally published in Druid Magazine. How do we orient ourselves, and what guides and markers can we use? The things I write about are part of my own “Druid compass” — you probably have a similar set yourself. The article gets a little purple in its prose, but if you’re a regular here, you’re used to reading past that.]

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Inwangsan (photo by Gael Chardon)

 

Sometimes it takes another country to teach you lessons about your own. Five summers ago while I was teaching English for a busy month in Seoul, Korea, I encountered a local land spirit who showed me that this lovely country I was just beginning to discover was decidedly not my home.

It was about a week after I’d finally joined OBOD and requested the Bardic course. It was also my last weekend to explore Seoul and its environs before I flew back to the States to await that first of a series of welcome brown envelopes with the British postmarks of the OBOD course.

So on a foggy Sunday morning I made my way by train toward Inwangsan, a sacred mountain a handful of kilometers from my one-room apartment in Seoul, and then on foot into the mist. Outside Dingninmun Station and under the overcast sky, I managed to miss the tourist signs and markers , but the mountain loomed nearby, unmistakable, so I began my ascent off trail, figuring I’d intersect it higher up, near where a Buddhist and shamanic shrine coexist peacefully. Inwangsan is famous for its commanding views and granite cliffs. As for the view, I had little hope for on this gray day, but exposed granite slabs and outcroppings shone slick in the rain.

Forty-five minutes of climbing later, wet, muddy, and annoyed with myself, I paused to catch my breath. The fog had thickened, but the rising slope was still a reliable guide for the direction I wanted to go. I took a step, and –- how to describe it? –- up rose a wall of resistance in front of me. Something challenged me and barred my way from further ascent. At first I thought, stubborn and oblivious as I can be, that it was merely the tug of my own fatigue, but when I took another step it was clear this issued from something other than me. The hair on my arms stood up. Heart pounding, I apologized out loud, mumbled the few phrases of polite Korean I knew, turned around and slogged back down.

What was it? I rarely see anything inwardly in such situations, but impressions came this time as I made my way off the slopes. Something with multiple arms, big as a pickup truck, banded in stripes of dark and light, and determined to block me from advancing any further. I’ve not written about this till now, and just putting it into words makes the feel of it march again up and down my spine, vivid as if it happened this morning, a heavy ascent of wet earth, a tang of juniper and Asian pine and dead leaves. Yet I’d forgotten the mountain’s name, and the train station’s, too, and had to consult my journal from that summer. That as much as anything reminded me yet again (as if I need any further sign) of my “outlander” status there: I did not know the proper names for things.

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Rupert Brooke, 1887-1915

After British poet Rupert Brooke visited the Rocky Mountains some hundred years ago on a North American tour, he wrote: “There walk, as yet, no ghosts of lovers in Canadian lanes … it is possible, at a pinch, to do without gods. But one misses the dead” (Brooke, Letter XIII, “The Rockies”).

Brooke was young – it was just a few years before his untimely death at 27 – and he wrote with a young bard’s flip ignorance to cloak his discomfort with an unfamiliar country. For of course ghosts walk this continent, millennia of them. Brooke simply hadn’t yet listened closely enough. But new landscapes often strike us that way. A Chinese proverb I heard while working in The People’s Republic of China sums it up handily: shui tu bu fu – “earth and water aren’t comfortable.” We don’t yet know them, and neither do they know us. But stay in a place long enough, sweat and sleep there, plant and harvest, raise families and bury your dead, and the land begins to learn you, too, and to recognize you. And as you work out names for the shapes of water and earth you find in the neighborhood, and come to greet the stones and trees as friends, the words get shaped by mouths that eat and drink here, by lungs that take in the local air.

In the way of Bards, another who grappled with the same challenge comes to answer Brooke’s verses with words of his own. At 86, Robert Frost was asked to deliver a poem for President John F. Kennedy’s inauguration in January, 1961. The day dawned cold and bright, and with his failing vision and the sun in his eyes, Frost couldn’t read the words in front of him, so the old bard made do with memory instead, and recited another of his poems.

frost_inauguralpoem

Frost at Kennedy’s inauguration

“The land was ours before we were the land’s,” he begins in “The Gift Outright” (Frost, 1975, p. 348). How often a bard finds a way through error and trial and awen. Frost continues, naming an experience common enough among many American Druids who may strive to honor a rich heritage originating east of the Atlantic, while also heeding new-old voices here on what some First Peoples still call Turtle Island:

But we were England’s, still colonials,
Possessing what we still were unpossessed by,
Possessed by what we now no more possessed.
Something we were withholding made us weak
Until we found out that it was ourselves …

Here in what homesick settlers called New England, older names still linger for things no one truly possesses. Within an hour from where I live you can find Mt. Monadnock, Mt. Ascutney, Wantastiquet Trail, Skatutakee and Nubanusit lakes. Anywhere you go on this continent, similar names and undercurrents whisper, and careful listening will repay any effort to attend to lore and myth and what the land wights may have to say. (The earth’s an old house: many lands have the same overlay of newer names on older ones.) Sometimes it takes long patience to regain their trust, if careless previous inhabitants squandered it. Sometimes it takes longer practice to stop withholding ourselves from our places, and to inhabit them fully.

Here in Vermont the Yankee accent and sensibility rise like springwater from long winters and sap from local trees boiled to syrup, pork from free-range pigs that graze the oak mast on Windmill Hill, which we can see from our living room window, and Okemo State Forest not so very distant. “Eating local” needn’t be mere marketing of another yuppie indulgence. It’s what we all did until just a couple of generations ago, growing it ourselves, letting the land feed our bellies and spirits. And it makes sense if you’re committed to “Druiding” (let’s make it a verb!) –- the taste and smell of home, and of a new place, too, can be powerful guides. The body leads the way by a kind of homing instinct.

Names, listening, tastes and smells. What of ritual and ceremony? Once my wife and I settled in Vermont, walking to learn my neighborhood became a go-to practice for me, with a three-mile loop of dirt roads my almost-daily ceremonial. When I honor the four quarters, I see the fish pond east of our house the former owners stocked with carp, and I remember water-of-air. The cold fronts each winter sweep down from Canada: air-of-earth. And with a hill named for a grove of hemlocks to our east beyond the pond that obscure the horizon, we never get much in the way of sunrises, but dramatic sunsets make up for it: fire-of-water. Online you can still track down Mike Nichols’ Wiccan classic “Re-thinking the Watchtowers: Thirteen Reasons Air Should Be in the North” (Nichols, 1989): it’s now a “sacred text” itself, though it started out as an observed deviation from traditional practice. Rules change with places, but ancient patterns abide.

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Works Cited:

Brooke, Rupert. (2004). Letters from America. Project Gutenberg EBook #6445. Retrieved from http://www.gutenberg.org/files/6445/6445-h/6445-h.htm

Frost, Robert. (1975). The Poetry of Robert Frost: The Collected Poems, Complete and Unabridged. New York: Henry Holt and Co.

Nichols, Mike. (1989). “Re-thinking the Watchtowers or 13 Reasons Air Should Be in the North.” Internet Sacred Text Archive. Retrieved from http://www.sacred-texts.com/bos/bos089.htm.

IMAGES: Inwangsan by Gael Chardon; Rupert BrookeFrost at JFK Inauguration.

Fools in the Dark   Leave a comment

fool_uniThe Tarot Fool — a fitting symbol as we pick our way slowly from this time of greatest dark right after the Solstice and into the slowly growing light. Blessed fools, all of us, lost and stumbling where angels often fear to tread (is that because, unlike us, they can actually see where they’re going?!). A time for gestation, if we can grab a few moments in the modern restless energy to fill every moment of this season, a time that, if we listen, calls us inward, to introspection and nurturing, to brooding on the new life in us that seeks birth and is always possible. So we run away instead with busy-ness. Almost successful in drowning out the possibility of transformation. Almost. How valuable our failure is to us becomes clear only later.

It’s still dark, though by minutes each day the time of light grows longer. But if the skies are cloudy, you may take a lot of convincing. Looks just like yesterday to me.

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“The card,” writes A. E. Waite, “which bears no number passes through all the numbered cards and is changed in each.”*

A little shiver at that. Like it or not, if we’re alive we’re changing. Un-numbered and free at the outset, I soon enough get counted, numbered, labelled, weighed, boxed and mailed to an unknown address. I get unboxed by others, or I unbox myself. I keep arriving, but never quite get there. But then that means the situations themselves are static, and the trajectories we follow are shaped by the initial energies we manifested when we set out. We are what we started out as, and we build as we go from there. Action, reaction. Source of traction to be able to walk at all.

The Fool isn’t looking at the drop right in front of him.  White dog at his heels (I say “he” and “him” because I’m personalizing things here — the fool quite rightly looks androgenous in many decks — it’s the Every Person card. Rewrite any pronouns to fit — it’s your story here), the Fool is intent on the journey, that first inhale, the animal spirits of hound and flower and golden sun urging him forward.

Of course, the path’s still unclear, the picture has a frame, we haven’t seen what’s up next. The Fool hasn’t even set out yet, or — inevitably — fallen, or opened up that pack on a stick that holds food, a map, a key to a lock it doesn’t fit, a phone number, a debit card with an initial balance. A roll of the dice. A lotto number. With clothes still clean, no grime from the trail, or wrinkles on the complexion, the Fool is unscarred, untried, fearless. Zen calls it Beginner’s Mind. Jesus says, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my strength is made perfect in weakness.”** Yup, know that, been there. Weak and not even recognizing it. No grace to be seen — because it’s dark, because grace manifests not as a separate thing in this case, not as something I can see or sense, but as the nature of the Fool itself.

Swept clean, rebooted, upgraded, ready to take the world by storm, found that dot-com, make a million before you’re 30, met your soul-mate, have the 2.2 kids and the photo-shopped life that the Fates and your parents conspired to deprive you of, and so on. Or simply in love with life, not yet hard-boiled and cynical, jaded and sarcastic, still full of yearnings and dreams. Not yet beaten down. Not just with eyes on the horizon, but above it, in the clouds. “If you have built castles in the air, your work need not be lost; that is where they should be. Now put the foundations under them,” says Thoreau.

nightlyre-foolredwhitedrakeOr the Fool is in fact immensely powerful and full of potential, but wholly blind to it. Dragon energy curls and flames in us. No mystery (all mystery) that one symbol for Britain and for things Celtic is a yin-yang, a Western mandala of two dragons, white and red.

In this card, the awful gulf below means nothing to one with the power of flight — but will I, will you or any of us, realize it in time? Instead I look back, I turn away from the chance to fly, I long for the comfort of the past.

Stephen Batchelor writes in his book Living with the Devil: “Without the devil to obstruct it, one could not create a path. For a path is kept open by overcoming the hindrances that prevent freedom of movement along it.”***

The devil is in the details, and the devil, or the details, are me — I custom-make the circumstances of my life from which I can learn the most. That’s one view. Everything is feedback, and therefore useful. Another view. “I do not believe in God any more than I believe in Hamlet,” says Batchelor elsewhere, “but this does not mean that either God or Hamlet has nothing of value to say.”

Back to square one, that first step, the dawn, the new day, the Fool’s setting forth. It’s summer, it’s winter, it’s summer again. “The wheels on the bus go round and round.” The wheel of the year takes us again and again through the great cycle of death and life and mortal beauty.

“We dance round in a ring and suppose, while the Secret sits in center and knows,” says sly old master Robert Frost.

“Knows what?” asks the Fool, and insists there’s an answer, never mind what anyone says.

“The Fool who persists in his folly will become wise,” says William Blake.

And the Fool, the blessed Fool, takes the next step.

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*Waite, A. E. “The Soul’s Progress.” Manual of Cartomancy. Reprinted as The Complete Manual of Occult Divination, Vol. 1. University Books, 1972.

**2 Corinthians 12:9.

***Batchelor, Stephen. Living with the Devil. New York: Riverhead Books/Penguin, 2004.

IMAGES: Fool from the Rider Waite deck; dragon.

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