Archive for the ‘UK LeGuin’ Category

“Attention is the Beginning of Devotion”   1 comment

[I first drafted this short post in early May, and I’m returning to it now, leaving its seasonal references untouched.]

rhododendron

part of our two rhododendrons that survived the winter, now blooming in June

Penguin/Random House provides this excerpt from the late Mary Oliver‘s 2016 book, a collection of essays called Upstream.

“Attention is the beginning of devotion”, she writes, at the end of a section.

Druidry, like other true practices, is devotion, a measure of life away from distraction and toward attention. What do I mean by “measure”? A choice, a predilection, a heeding of instinct, or as Robert Frost puts it, a “stay against confusion”. After all, it’s we who do the measuring. (Or else we yield that privilege to others less worthy, less qualified to know what’s best for us. Until we do the difficult work of reclaiming.)

Truth, I find, sorts itself out marvelously well, once we start paying attention. Love itself is a kind of attention, a focus on what matters to us. I look into my partner of 31 years and discover a being new, mysterious — she’s becoming more of who she is. Both of us are graying and wrinkling, our kinship with trees ever more visible in the likenesses between bark and skin.

Attend, and we encounter. We meet other beings, landscapes, presences, the place we’re standing, feet pressed against the earth, the air we breathe, our own bodies, breathing and pumping blood, sweating under the early summer sun, or shivering slightly in this May air that only days ago frosted the grass and blackened the first brave flowers. Just beyond our skin, the cosmos. Looking only at the proportions of existence that are me and not me, you’d think attention might be in fact a wholly reasonable thing, though much modern life tells us no. So it is that the “apparent world” named in Druid ritual is what we’ve created — a sometimes-useful bridge that may not accommodate all the cars we wish to drive across it.  At need, I remind myself, let that world fade away. Don’t worry — it’ll be there when I return.

There and back again, writes Tolkien. True voyage is return, writes U. K. LeGuin.

May you go there, and return — often.

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Walking the Major Arcana, Part 1   Leave a comment

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

In this next series of seven posts, I’ll be following a classic Tarot interpretation of the Fool as the querent or seeker who journeys through the aspects and archetypes of the Major Arcana. And I’ll be writing from some perspectives I hope will be useful to Druid-Christian travelers along the Green Ways of Spirit, and will in turn inspire comments and insights from you that can enrich us all. Take this as rough draft — I’m working it out as I go.

[Note: The tarot images used here, from the original Rider-Waite Tarot, are now in the public domain in the U.S.]

FOOL or SEEKER

0-FoolSo important is the animal accompanying the Fool from the outset that almost every deck includes some creature accompanying the human figure of the Fool.

Whether we see this as our animal inheritance, part of our make-up as a physical being with age-old drives and instincts, or as a guide or companion distinct from us, the dog (or three birds in the Arthurian tarot) is with us from the beginning.

Why a fool? Nearly every significant tradition on the planet counsels us against arrogance or hubris, and in no place is this caution more needful than on our own spiritual journeys. “Let no one deceive himself. If any of you thinks he is wise in this age, he should become a fool, so that he may become wise” (1 Cor 4:10). The classic Zen master seeks to help a student recover that “original face, the one you had before you were born”.

Echoing this insight is the old Victorian Bard William Blake, a holy fool himself, who also said, “A fool sees not the same tree that a wise man sees”. Want an interesting exercise? Ask in meditation or dream to see the trees of the Fool.

WBlake

Are they the trees of Paradise? The Medieval Legend of the Rood or Cross follows the main story line of the Biblical narrative with a tree or trees continually reappearing in different guises, first in Eden, then as a seed from that original tree buried with Adam’s body at Golgotha, to become — depending on the versions — part of Noah’s Ark, a bridge that the Queen of Sheba crosses, and eventually the Cross that Christ dies on.

(Where is the seed planted in me to disrupt all my false and narrow assumptions? What tree lifts its branches in my life, sending me places I’d never go on my own?)

And similarly, too, in Tolkien’s Silmarillion: there he recounts stories of how the Light from the original Holy Trees in Valinor is captured in the Silmaril gems, those greatest achievements of the Elven Feanor, whose name means “Spirit of Fire”, and follows their dramatic history through the volume. Trees, Light, Fire: we have them with us as we travel, even as we have the solace and guidance of an animal companion by our sides.

C. S. Lewis in his final novel, Till We Have Faces, draws on the Greek myth of Cupid and Psyche. The title echoes a line in the novel:  “How can [the gods] meet us face to face till we have faces?” Lewis explained this to a correspondent, writing that a human “must be speaking with its own voice (not one of its borrowed voices), expressing its actual desires (not what it imagines that it desires), being for good or ill itself, not any mask”. In one way, then, the Great Work is to be me, the original self, wearing the face I had before I was born, “because no one comes to Spirit except through me”.

Ask an ancestor to show you an original face.

We might also see the sequence of cards coming after the Fool as masks that the Fool tries on along the journey, learning from each role or incarnation or experience, but never wholly defined by any of them. Or, alternatively, as initiations each soul must experience on its journey. (Looking for just four? Try the Elemental Sacraments that appear in the life of Jesus and offer themselves as well in slightly different guises to Druid and Pagan generally. And if you’re like me, you remember you may experience each one multiple times along you spiral path. I prime the pump occasionally and try one out myself, if it hasn’t come along recently on its own.)

MAGICIAN

01-MagicianThe Magician, numbered 1 in most decks, is a prime number, expressive of unity, the fullness of Awen, of Spirit before creative activity begins on the physical plane. The serpent that forms his belt recalls the admonition to be “wise as serpents and innocent as doves”.

As a lightning-rod for spirit, one hand raised to heaven or fire, one lowered to earth, garbed in fire and pure white, the lemniscate figure-8 of infinity above his head, he is a potent figure for many. And another mask.

In the Golden Tarot, the Magician is Christ, beast-Master, Lord of Animals, able to communicate with them in ways many humans have often lost and must work to regain. He knows as well the beast nature and the human nature, honoring and blessing them both. In our steps along the spiral, we sometimes cut ourselves off from what some have called our elder brothers and sisters.

Ask the spirit in all things to help you see how to participate in healing the breach.

In Hindu myth we enter the worlds with an adi karma, an initial nudge that lands us in physical bodies, and sets our feet on the spiral journey back home. “True voyage”, says U. K. LeGuin innocently, “is return”.

What is it about being human? The German poet Rilke exclaims in the first of his masterwork, the Duino Elegies:

Ah, who then can
we make use of? Not Angels: not men,
and the resourceful creatures see clearly
that we are not really at home
in the interpreted world.

Some versions render it our interpreted world. We’re the ones, after all, who filter experience through memory, intention, language, culture, emotion, training, expectation — a whole set of potent magical transformations animals only partially know, filters which immeasurably enrich our lives but also deeply complicate them. The Magician is master of transformations, able to ride successive changes but not be overwhelmed by them.

I enter each card in imagination and look around. What can I see, smell, hear, imagine, receive in hints and glimpses?

How can I find a home in this world? How can I be a refuge on the road for others here like me?

The HIGH PRIESTESS

02-High PriestessIn the Matthews’ Arthurian Tarot, the figure is the Lady of the Lake. In both decks — the Rider-Waite pictured here, and in the Arthurian deck, in contrast to the Fire-red of the Magician, we see the Water-blue of the Priestess or Lady. Launched into the world of polarity, we encounter a different kind of initiation, and Initiator.

While there is great wisdom in the occult maxim of Dion Fortune that “All the gods are one god, and all the goddesses are one goddess, and there is one initiator”, it’s also true that many people have experienced the Powers of the Worlds as distinct beings, and until we have experience of them ourselves we may wisely keep silent about them. We already know from childhood onward that what’s true on the physical plane may not work on other planes, and vice versa. Try out the effortless flight of the astral dream world on earth, and gravity has a way of asserting its own reality regardless of our wishes or beliefs.

With a crescent “moon at her feet”, and also featured in her headdress, the High Priestess is in some ways an embodiment of Isis, and of Mary as well. She has her own balance, seated between the Pillars of Force of much classical magic practice, and positioned in front of a garden of fruit trees. With both the equal-armed cross on her breast and the title “tora(h)” or book of laws in her lap, she is a complex of many meanings, all worth exploring. “May your word to me be fulfilled”, goes one version of Mary’s words to the angelic message and messenger at the Annunciation. The fulfillment of the word “tora” may be as “rota” or wheel: the Fool’s journey or spiral continues.

But the feminine is not passive, as the stereotype often runs. Possibilities are endlessly sent to us by spirit, by the cosmos rippling its energies through every one of its creatures. We can refuse them. And we often do.

What law governs this moment? What is still spinning in my life? What annunciations come to me each day? What words have I accepted and allowed to fulfill themselves? What and who have I turned away from the door?

Poet and rocker Malcolm Guite writes in his poem “Annunciation”:

We see so little, stayed on surfaces,
We calculate the outsides of all things,
Preoccupied with our own purposes
We miss the shimmer of the angels’ wings,
They coruscate around us in their joy
A swirl of wheels and eyes and wings unfurled,
They guard the good we purpose to destroy …

We’re invited more often than we know to say yes to things that terrify us. We’ve imbibed our fears along with the advertisers’ marketing jingles that we know through repetition even if we despise the product. If repetition can accomplish so much, let me turn it to my purposes, rather than somebody else’s. As author Peter Beagle famously declares, “We are raised to honor all the wrong explorers and discoverers — thieves planting flags, murderers carrying crosses. Let us at last praise the colonizers of dreams”.

Or to turn to another great Bard, the late Leonard Cohen, who sings in “Anthem”, with great Druid counsel:

The birds, they sang
At the break of day
Start again, I heard them say.

Yeah, the wars
They will be fought again
The holy dove
She will be caught again
Bought and sold and bought again
The dove is never free.

Ring the bells that still can ring
Forget your perfect offering
There is a crack, a crack in everything
That’s how the light gets in.

No, the dove is never free, not till spiral’s end, but the Light keeps getting in. The dove keeps descending, bringing the blessings of spirit, keeps setting out from the Ark to find land after flood, keeps returning with a leaf in its beak, keeps on keeping on. (Male, female, polarity. Though it’s heresy in some quarters to say it, we’re all much more than a “gender” or “orientation”. A stereotype is a simply firm or fixed reference point in a world of changes, not something to attempt mistakenly to incarnate personally — impossible, anyway!)

How am I the High Priestess? How am I still the Magician? What has the Fool discovered so far of balance and polarity?

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“What needs to be born?”   Leave a comment

I’m borrowing the title for this post, a lovely question, from John Beckett’s recent article here.

As we approach the turn of the year, we have W. B. Yeats’s version, the evocative query ending his poem “The Second Coming“:

… what rough beast, its hour come round at last,
Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?

For we give birth to all manner of things, and not always to our benefit. Like the young mage Ged in LeGuin’s A Wizard of Earthsea, “who raged at his weakness, for he knew his strength”, we sense an inchoate energy at work in so many things, if we could only align it to our purposes. Or is it time to listen more, and align ourselves with the energies of the intelligent universe all around us, that brings forth beasts and birds as well as humans who ask such questions?

And there’s our challenge: alignment. Complete the circuit. Our youth culture “hooks up” without finding satisfaction or connection. Loneliness, anxiety, depression afflict so many. Pain both physical and psychological drives an opioid crisis. What spiritual prescription can begin to address such heavy concerns?

If we’ve been paying attention, we know that no single solution works for everyone. This holds true in religion and spirituality, too, though plenty of one-true-wayers will beg to differ. So we turn again to do what we can, each in our own way.

As one of the Wise observes,

The ideal that you hope to achieve is always to be ready for an incarnation, whether it is in this world or those planes beyond. But unless an incarnation can be offered its birth through you, though, it is incapable of being brought into the manifestation of life. Therefore, your attitude should be one in which … you alone accept the responsibility of incarnating a new and greater value of yourself.*

Examining what needs to be born is a first step in bringing about a birth. (Following the metaphor further, we can of course rush to conception, and deal with the aftermath later. Some of us at least have learned that doesn’t always end well.)

1–What can we help be born in our homes and yards? I’ll start here with Earth. This time of year is perfect for dreaming with garden catalogs. What else? Is there a spot of backyard I can allow to grow wild, or at least wilder? The front lawn may feel more public, or be subject to various town or highway ordinances. But especially if you have even a couple acres like I do, consider whether a spot of wild is both “creature-kinder” and asks less mowing and upkeep. Brush from winter windfall can get it started.  Erecting even a few birdhouses for the more shy species that favor cover can also help. We’re still shaping what we’ve received from the previous owner of our land. I’m less green-thumbed than many, but even a thoughtful neglect to mow absolutely everywhere can encourage many species. We have a working truce with our feisty moles, renewed each year with a ritual and a few conversations, to keep them from our garden areas.

Is the way open for berry bushes, which birds may have obligingly already started for you? Along fence lines and beneath their favorite perching and nesting shrubs and trees, birds drop seeds that will grow in a few seasons to a source of blackberries, raspberries, elderberries, and more. Staring at snowdrifts can serve up good practice for imagining spring and planting and new green.

2–What can be born in my spending habits? I’ve come to appreciate small changes, because they’re easiest to stick with. There’s more virtue and occasion to feed the ego (and thereby nurture a positive practice) if I follow through for a year, rather than think big but end up doing nothing. Combine errands and car trips? Recycle used oil, parts, tires, cardboard, glass? Many communities are moving toward better custodianship of resources, and starting to offer better options. Inherit a shed filled with rusting things, and badly-labelled containers of possibly petroleum substances? Any clean-up is “more than before”. Shop used when possible. The northeast U.S. reads a lot through the winter months, and well-patronized library book sales often have surprisingly current titles. With many large libraries so short-sightedly downsizing their collections, you can sometimes enjoy remarkable finds.

3–What can be born in my practice? By this I mean spiritual practice. Whatever yours is, feed it. Make it easier for you to do it, whatever form that may take. If you haven’t taken up a practice, the new year is a good time to try one out, if not today. Again, make it easy on yourself. Huge numbers of possibilities: five minutes for sacred reading (and you decide what’s sacred to you), stretching, breathing exercises, clearing a chest of drawers or closet or room, an artistic practice, listening to music, yoga, meditation, home renovation, volunteering, helping a neighbor, shoveling a driveway, driving someone to an appointment. Writing actual letters. Listening. Singing or playing an instrument. Cooking. Tending a household shrine. Photography. Weaving.

Whatever it is, I succeed most when I begin with such a small period of time I can’t NOT begin. As a writer, I practiced with 10 words a day during my busiest times. (Too small not to succeed! Easy to make up for the next day, with 20, if I “forgot” the previous day.)

4–What can be born in other quarters of my life? I’m often not a very social person. (My default mode is reading or writing, rather than hanging out and talking.) This blog is part of what I do to connect beyond my own immediate circle. I’m also not a major volunteer, either, but rather than guilt myself up about it, I choose options where volunteering at all will encourage me to do it again. A monthly open discussion series at a local library starting in January is one of my current outlets. Supporting my wife, who’s the current wage-earner in the family, is another. Laundry, dishes, fire (our heat source), snow removal from driveway and solar panels, and I’m serving, acting outside myself, encouraging flow.

5–And I make and find rituals for what needs to be born, to help keep the doorways open. What needs to be born?, I ask, and light a candle, gazing at its yellow flicker. What needs to be born in me?, I ask, and spend time writing in my journal the response that comes. What needs to be born that’s already taking shape, that I can help with? What’s about to be born, that I can work with, and foster, and celebrate? What’s born among friends, when we gather in two days on the 17th in their backyard, to light a fire, and talk and snack and sit on lawn chairs in the snow, feet toward December flames?

Asking the question as I go, keeping the fire of my attention burning, helps the new thing be born.

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*Paul Twitchell. The Key to Secret Worlds, pg. 7.

Deeper than Yin and Yang, Part 1: “The Darkness Also Had Spoken”   Leave a comment

[Part 2]

So your spiritual practice – i.e., your life – is going well, and moments of insight come to you like the god-kissed gifts they can be. The afternoon light slants a certain way, bees hum in late-summer flowers, the sweet air itself intoxicates you, and the golden pollen of August dusts your eyesight. It’s what the SBNRs, the spiritual-but-not-religious, count among the “treasures outside the walls” of a church or temple. Walk but a little deeper into such moments, hone that attention ever so finely, and you may more fully participate in what the Lakota call Great Mystery:

A bird sings in a nearby tree, and “in that moment you understand the singing of the bird … the shape of the clouds, and the beginning and end of the wind that stirs the leaves … it may even seem to you that you yourself are a word spoken by the sunlight” (A Wizard of Earthsea, pg. 35).

woe-legThese words are slightly adapted from Ursula Le Guin’s classic fantasy, a source of wisdom I count among my teachers in book form. Such a charged sensibility as Le Guin describes glimmers at the edges of our awareness all the time.

Of course as we age, we learn how to turn it off, shut it down, dull its sheen into an occasional daydream, because in full spate it can remind us painfully of what we have forgone in our quest for other things we thought mattered more. Often I abandon the greater magic for the lesser – and the spell I cast, the one we cast together – works all too well.  Exhibit A: just look around, or check out the shrieking headlines.

Or it’s nothing, as far as I can tell, that I’ve done, or left undone.

Nevertheless I search my thoughts and actions for a clue, plumb my mood and my intent, skim my spiritual journal (if I’ve been keeping it up to date, if I keep one at all).

And sometimes, as over this past six weeks, I know precisely where the imbalance lurks. I’ve just finished a teaching intensive, working with international high school students in a residential summer program, doing evening dorm duty, teaching classes, chaperoning day excursions – the kind of all-encompassing, immensely rewarding and exhausting work I’d already done for sixteen years, and which I’d consciously left two years ago. So I knew exactly what I was getting into.

And I could see how out of balance I was getting day by day, postponing regular and vital “inner time” till after the meeting about a troubled boy in the dorm, after I’ve had breakfast — I’m starving!, after teaching three straight classes, after grading this stack of papers I’d promised my kids for yesterday, after a nap I’ve got to have now, or I’ll fall over. After, after, after. Because after all, these things are i m p o r t a n t ! I’m serving, giving, helping, connecting, making a difference! (Best seduction ever.)

In the middle of all this supposed selflessness, my wife and I found our arguments escalating and cutting deeper. I shirked tasks and cut corners, pleading fatigue. And when I didn’t step forward quickly enough to deal with a cluster of dorm incidents — including sexual hazing, secret videotaping, and two fights, all within a 24-hour span, and the deans took over and dismissed my complaints that I was cut out of the solution they had to impose in my absence — I took refuge in ugly self-pity.

Of course, nothing new. As magician and poet R. J. Stewart characterizes it,

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

We respond to stories, to myth, because they are our own lives writ large. My little drama, echoed in epic. It does not pay for me to ignore the second teaching, after the pleasant mysticism of sunlight and glorious connection. “Once … he had felt himself to be a word spoken by the sunlight. Now the darkness also had spoken: a word that could not be unsaid” (A Wizard of Earthsea, 66).

O, shut up, says my severest critic. Can you contemplate getting over yourself for a moment?! The story’s a cool story, and your human pettiness is no different than most other people’s. There’s no cosmic link. Stop your posturing, make your point and be done with it already. So I will assay nothing better than to close, once more with Le Guin’s words — the epigram that opens her book.

Only in silence the word,
only in dark the light,
only in dying life:
bright the hawk’s flight
on the empty sky.

[Part 2 looks further at dark, light, and the field they appear on.]

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Le Guin, Ursula. A Wizard of Earthsea. New York: Bantam/Parnassus Press, 1984. Stewart, R. J. Living Magical Arts. Living Magical Arts: Imagination and Magic for the 21st Century. London: Blandford, 1987. Images: A Wizard of EarthseaLiving Magical Arts.

Geeks, Greeks, Dudes and Druids   Leave a comment

tblSometimes I can contrive nothing better to say or do on this blog than simply pass along something I’ve been reading for its surprise or its insight — or at best, both at once.  (Why begin with an image of Jake, Donny and Walt? Keep reading.  Or call it a Druidic obsession with triads…)

Today’s shamelessly self-indulgent instance of such a something comes from a post on another blog, where I encountered the following passage from The Greek Commonwealth by British scholar, utopian and idealist Alfred Zimmern, first published 1911, and now available online. (It’s also been reprinted at least five times by Oxford, the latest edition I’ve found dating from 1977.  Yes, I spent time tracking that info down.  It’s better than grading the mountain of essays that sit on my desk and desktop. Call it rationalized procrastination.)  In a chapter on poverty, noted the poster, Zimmern “tries to get the reader to imagine, in a poetic passage, the daily life of the Greeks in Classical times.”

Sappho and Alcaeus

Here, then, is Zimmern himself:

We think of the Greeks as pioneers of civilisation and unconsciously credit them with the material blessings and comforts in which we moderns have been taught, and are trying to teach Asiatics and Africans, to think that civilisation consists.

We must imagine houses without drains, beds without sheets or springs, rooms as cold, or as hot, as the open air, only draftier, meals that began and ended with pudding, and cities that could boast neither gentry nor millionaires. We must learn to tell the time without watches, to cross rivers without bridges, and seas without a compass, to fasten our clothes (or rather our two pieces of cloth) with two pins instead of rows of buttons, to wear our shoes or sandals without stockings, to warm ourselves over a pot of ashes, to judge open-air plays or lawsuits on a cold winter’s morning, to study poetry without books, geography without maps, and politics without newspapers. In a word we must learn how to be civilized without being comfortable. Or rather we must learn to enjoy the society of people for whom comfort meant something very different from motor-cars and armchairs, who, although or because they lived plainly and austerely and sat at the table of life without expecting any dessert, saw more of the use and beauty and goodness of the few things which were vouch-safed them – their minds, their bodies and Nature outside and around them.

Greek literature, like the Gospels, is a great protest against the modern view that the really important thing is to be comfortable…

How many Druids would hold this up as an ideal as well, at least at first?  But would — or could — we be as happy? Somehow I can imagine Jake Lebowski (from the Coen brothers’ ’98 film The Big Lebowski) would manage better in such conditions than I would. The Stoner might just beat out the Loner.  “There are things more important than comfort, says fantasy author Ursula LeGuin, “unless one is an old woman or a cat.”  She’s now an old woman, as her image here shows; I confess that for some years, I’ve noticed a creeping feline-ness of (dis)inclination invade my once radical and rebellious bones …

leguin

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Images: BBC News article on The Big Lebowski (worth reading!); Plato’s Academy; Ursula LeGuin.

Updated: 18:31 24 Feb. 2013

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