Archive for the ‘W B Yeats’ Category

“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.

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Wildness, and Thoreau at 200   Leave a comment

thoreauLong-time readers of this blog know my admiration for Henry David Thoreau (who rhymed his name with “borrow”). I’m well into a new biography* of him, and reminded by a New York Times book review that today is his 200th birthday.

*Walls, Laura Dassow. Thoreau: A Life. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2017. (Go for the Kindle edition; hardcover is $35!)

Partly from Thoreau (1817-1862) and his Transcendentalist circle, but also of course from vivid Medieval conceptions, Westerners get Nature-with-a-capital-N, that idealized if not deified Presence. In the same millennium-old perception, we get two Books of Wisdom as well. The Book of Scripture, the Bible, yes. But also the Book of Nature. (Ah, but which is volume one and which is sequel?)

From the Concord, Massachusetts man and his most famous book, we learn his credo: “In Wildness is the preservation of the world”. For there is a tameness that allows us to live together at all, that is much but not all of what we mean by “civilization”, and another (or perhaps the same) tameness that makes us lie down in front of the onrushing disasters of the day, provided they don’t touch us too directly and painfully.

Or at least not right away. (Boil me gradually, and I’m a happy frog or lobster.) A few posts ago, I wrote of making coffee in an analogy for doing ritual: any trade deal made or broken is fine with me — until it deprives me of a ready supply of overseas beans. Or let’s say I do step forward, full of fire and righteous indignation (is there any other kind?!) to protest a worthy Druid-y cause, putting my life on the line, what then? Isn’t my life always on the line? As one follower* of a certain wilderness prophet cautioned us long ago: “I may even give away all that I have to the poor, and give up my body to be burned. But if I don’t have love, none of these things will help me”. More to the point, I’d say, will they help anyone else?

cernunnosThere’s also a wildness in “a certain forest god”, as John Beckett calls Cernunnos. As without, so within. There’s a wildness in each of us that politicians are eager to sedate and numb to stasis with material consumption and soundbites and spin. There’s a wildness like that of the Wild Hunt of European legend and myth, which modern Pagans, among others, have elaborated in provocative directions. The wildness of Nature isn’t Sunday-afternoon safe, and direct contact with it (if we survive) can strip away our pretences and excuses, can initiate us into powerful awareness and lasting change.

But like Tolkien’s Ents, we don’t like to be “roused”. I’ll fight tooth and claw for a comfortable cage, if one’s on offer, rather than for freedoms I claim I desire. For someone like Thoreau, Walls declares, “The dilemma that pressed upon him was how to live the American Revolution not as dead history but as living experience that could overturn, and keep overturning, hidebound convention and comfortable habits”. For we humans stand at the hinge, the pivot, the axis, in and of nature and yet able for a time to hold ourselves apart from it. Because where else is there?

Still, we strive to contrive and survive, little Sarumans every one of us. “Once out of nature”, writes W B Yeats in his almost infamous poem “Sailing to Byzantium”,

I shall never take
My bodily form from any natural thing,
But such a form as Grecian goldsmiths make
Of hammered gold and gold enamelling …

Artifice, civilization, nature, justice? Just let me live forever, something in me cries. Just that, and I’ll sacrifice everything else to achieve it. You too can sail to Byzantium — for a price.

“Send lawyers, guns, and money”, says Warren Zevon in a song with the same title. “I’m the innocent bystander. Somehow I got stuck between the rock and a hard place. And I’m down on my luck …” Solutions present themselves. Not all deserve us. Few have anything to do with luck. And innocence or guilt completely misses the point of now. We’re all in it.

But wait …

“Once out of nature”? Are we now in that impossible place? Is that the legacy of the much-bandied about “Anthropocene“, our mythical present day, that time when human action carries geological force? “Health”, said Thoreau, “is a sound relation to nature”. “Physician”, says the Galilean master, quoting wisdom already proverbial in his time, “heal thyself”.

Oh Yeats, let me take bodily form from every living thing, let me know form, let me inhabit nature fully, and I will understand better, I will heal, and I will be healed.

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*1 Corinthians 13:3.

Images: ThoreauCernunnos/Gundestrup Cauldron.

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