Archive for the ‘writing’ Category

Nanowrimo 2015

bard-with-luteBard-twoYes — at it again. A rough draft of a novel in 30 days. 50,000 words. No, you don’t need a concept or a website like National Novel Writing Month — Nanowrimo for short — to write any time. But the sense of a community and a horde (300,000 people online qualifies as a horde in my book) of other writers madly hyped on caffeine or other stimulant of choice, all tapping and scribbling out uncensored, fervent prose, can help stir the synapses towards actually getting the words down. Think of it as one possible demonstration of Bardic arts.

nano15pic“Not a problem for you — after all, you maintain this blog, right?” you say. Try 1667 words a day of fiction for a month. Not such an impossibility– serious writers often set something like that as their daily word limit every day of their writing lives. Never done something like it? It can firm your resolve or leave you in the dust. I’ve been in both places. “So how ya doin’ so far?” you ask. Well, everybody starts small. That’s an hour’s work. Onto the rest of the month!

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Images: bard on left; bard on right.

Nano-ed ’14

nanowidge50KwootFinished a day early, with a solid push for most of the day. Spent three hours at an informal Write-In at the Brattleboro library, which helped a lot. Tired–check! Glad I Nano-ed again this year–check! You can always learn more about process and the reaches and tricks of self-discipline and the divine gift of imagination. Looking forward to revising-check! But not yet.  First: sigh. S-T-R-E-T-C-H. Relax. Binge-video-watch. Ah!

“Oh no, ya can’t always git whatcha want”

nanowidge34k“but if ya try sometimes …” Well, the Stones’ song is a good piece of writing advice for your main character. Give her what she wants too soon, and your story’s done before you’ve gotten to chapter two. But let her find out what she needs? Well, that’s at least as interesting.

When a regular blog doesn’t deliver the goods, some accounting by the blogger is in order. So here’s a quick Nano-update: I’m in the home stretch, a few thousand words behind, but that’s manageable. Eight days more! At this point I feel I have at least as many questions as my main character Emily: about the other world she’s been dragged to, about the people behind the scenes and their motives (because, let’s face it, how many people do you know who openly share their motives with you, alert you when they change, and generally keep you in the loop?). Yes, I’ve already written 30,000 words about her experience. Could you do justice to your life in 30,000 words?!

Of course, that’s half the reason to write: to find out what’s gonna happen next. And depending on whether the ending of the monster-lovely thing you’re birthing is clear to you, how it’s all gonna work itself out.  In my story, the girl gets the boy. But that’s when her real problems begin.

“Here, everything has a container”

artofdreamsemBack from a seminar this weekend on the art of spiritual dreaming, with a series of quirky, honest, challenging speakers and panelists.  “Intimate” was a word I heard more than once to “describe the vibe”: the distance between speaker and audience collapsed in a remarkable way, so that we were all participants. Or as one speaker remarked, talking about his experience with dreaming and comedy and comedic training with the improv group Upright Citizens Brigade, “you show up, listen and tell the truth.” If the truth isn’t yet funny-sad at the same time, you keep showing up, listening, and telling and digging. You bring it with everything you are. ‘Cause otherwise, what’s the point? Except maybe chocolate.

But the statement I heard during the seminar that has stuck with me is the line that provided the title for this post: “Here, in these worlds of duality, everything has a container.” Or to put it another way, “soup needs a pot.” My wife and I riffed on this on the drive home. Relationships, stress,  jobs, life: we’re just having “container issues.” The center around which the storms rage witnesses it all. Uncontained, it doesn’t get slimed or cracked, burnt or broken, stolen, ripped off, bungled, overpaid or underappreciated. Container issues, these. How to shift attention off the containers, even for a moment, is a source of great freedom and possibility. Don’t, say some. Can’t, say others. Shouldn’t, say still others. We listen, and we don’t, can’t — until we discover a “why not?” lying at the bottom of the bag, like a stale fortune cookie, or a light-switch felt for, in a strange house or hotel room, in the dark. And we do.  And so it begins.

Hence the “art” part in the “Art of Spiritual Dreaming.” As an art, it needs practice. Really improves with trying out and adapting and personalizing, missing and picking up and proceeding in fits and starts, in the best human tradition.

The first stages of practice can be squeaky, atonal cries, like the noises from that violin you or your nine-year-old has just picked up and attempted to drag a bow across. Or grunts and groans, as when you move into that yoga posture, and you suddenly can count every damn one of the 206 bones, plus assorted tendons and ligaments, in the human body. Your body, thank you very much. Sometimes the art consists in not crying. Or doing so, with all the tears and sobs the situation calls for. If you’re a puddle, you’re sometimes half-way to “soup without the pot.” Then you climb back in. Repotted.

Your art may be different. “The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath,” said a certain wise teacher not so many millennia ago. How your art comes to you is your life, what you’re doing today and tomorrow. And after that, maybe.  But when this art we’re all practicing becomes dogma, the artist — who’s the point of it, after all — gets lost in the bans, inquisitions, burnings, purges, pogroms, reformations, downsizings and re-organizations. (Looked at one way, it’s all church/work.) Let me out, says the Artist. I need to breathe. And when we confuse cop-out with drop-out, we’ve confused what Tolkien called the “the flight of the deserter” with “escape of the prisoner.” One is weakness, though sometimes we need to acknowledge weakness, too, just like with crying.  (Show up and tell the truth.) The other, the escape, is a necessity. The bush may survive in the prison yard, but it blossoms in open air. You and I dream every night (proven, documented, everyone single one of us, every night — remembering is just another art to practice) to escape the container into more open air.

We talked in the seminar about techniques.  They’re not hidden, not anymore. Half a hundred schools and temples and ashrams, synagogues and retreats and workshops teach them, sometimes try to claim them, copyright them even, if they’re reeeeely insecure, or greedy and want your $ or other equivalent metal and paper tokens.

Silence. Chant, kirtan, song. Prayer, mantra, favorite refrigerator-magnet team-building-button go-to verbal icon for centering. Icon, image, idol, focus, mandala. Posture, breathing, zazen, yoga, tai chi, krav maga, judo, karate. Ritual, rite, gesture, mudra. Dream, metaphor, lucidity, shift, imaging, visualization. All of these can rattle the container, making us aware of it if we mistake container for real deal, for the truth of what’s going on right now. Pursued with sufficient discipline and zeal, they begin to open doors. Too many! you may say. I’ve just begun with this one, and you’re dumping a truck-load on me.

All you need is to master just one technique, says the Teacher. Just one, and that will be enough.

Enough for what? Suspicious that someone’s selling you something? For me that enough leads to pure experience. Opinions just not needed till after, if at all. Tolkien describes his sense of new/familiar in one of many instances in The Return of the King, in the chapter “The Houses of Healing”:

… as the sweet influence of the herb stole about the chamber it seemed to those who stood by that a keen wind blew through the window, and it bore no scent, but was an air wholly fresh and clean and young, as if it had not before been breathed by any living thing and came new-made from snowy mountains high beneath a dome of stars or from shores of silver far away washed by seas of foam.

And if this metaphor, which is simply another technique, happens to work for you, you catch another glimpse that can be strengthened by one of the techniques here. Or if you’ve swallowed long years or lives of dogma and you practice denial as one of your (powerful) techniques for self-defense against liars and their lies, or simply if your spiritual taste is nourished by other food, it may not work, and you need to look elsewhere, and maybe else-how. And like so many things that may have started for you way back in high school, “you’ll know it when you find it.”

All of this is simply a larger over-technique. And because it’s shaped in words in this post, it may trip you up as much as help you. So with that caveat I pass it along for what it’s worth. Sometimes even an echo is enough to keep us going down the hall and out the gate and along the next path.

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nanowidge-mon11-17If you’ve been following my nano-progress in the last few posts, you’ll see by the numbers here (showing up and practicing my telling the truth) that I’m lagging in the numbers game. Words, word-count, Nanowrimo, this novel, writing — all containers.  Necessary, but not the final story. I’ve got plenty to write, but it’s coming slower than usual, because it feels good to get it right.

Like the story’s already out there, Emily’s sitting here in the living room, curled up near the fire on a snowy, rainy, yucky Vermont day. She’s cradling a mug of tea in one hand, reading or sketching or listening to music, waiting for the next segment I’m just finishing up, and I’m trying to tell it accurately so she’ll recognize it. Or I’m transcribing from a dream what she told me in detail, in Dirnive, which she granted me a pass to enter last night, and I have to punch “replay” and re-enter that dream to check the experience one more time against what I’ve got so far.

It’s coming through like a dream, not linear — that’s for later, with editing — and with textures and colors and sounds that will loom up suddenly and ask for space and time I hadn’t anticipated. A scene with her parents and brother, casually shopping in an antiques store. A class at St. Swithins that seems to link to Emily’s absence for about two weeks’ earth time, but nearly a year on Dirnive. To conceive and give birth to a child there. Because if she doesn’t, given the difference in time passage between the two worlds, her love will age and die quite literally before she herself is out of her teens. Which makes her parents grandparents — her mother would adore a grandchild, only not so soon — but grandparents of a baby they will never see. Because Emily can come and go between worlds — her worlds — but no one else can. I think. Emily doesn’t want to risk it, yet. She says. See what a novel can do to you?!

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Image: Art of Spiritual Dreaming — John Pritchard

Nano ’14 Update and Fragment

nanowidge4-14Reporting in from the depths of Nano-ing. My goal is 25K by this Saturday, the halfway mark, and I’m obviously behind, though not impossibly so. Woo-hoo!

So here’s a recent fragment from my deeply drafty work so far. On Dirnive (that DEER-nee-veh, if things like names matter to you like they do to me), Emily’s private “other world,” a council tasked with contacting her fails in its first attempts. But the fallout from their efforts on Emily’s emotional and mental equilibrium is nonetheless severe. Medication and therapy have succeeded only in making her sleepy and angry respectively. Here she meets with yet another in what is becoming a string of therapists who can make little headway with their young patient. Of course, there’s a simple reason for that: Dirnive is actually real and not merely a disorder or complex or hormonal imbalance. Oh, and Char is one of Emily’s friends from St. Swithin’s.

“Well, Emily, this second session is where we have a chance to begin to get to know each other. Is there anything you’d like to say to get us started?”

Emily gazed at Dr. Ericson, her new therapist, and sighed to herself. Another expert.They’re all alike. She smiled sweetly and decided to play along. She turned on the sweet biddable teenage girl charm. But not too much. Understated. That’s the trick.

“There’s this repeating dream I’ve had,” she began, “three or four times now. Maybe that will give us something to work with, doctor.”

Emily took a deep breath.  Just improvise, Char always says. Well, here goes. “In the dream I’m always in the same place at the start. On a shore, just gazing out to sea, and there’s a single small cloud on the horizon, off in the west. And I know pretty soon I’ll be flying over the water toward the cloud. And I hear Lara’s theme playing. You know, from Dr. Zhivago? The weird thing is, it’s being sung by some of my St. Swithin’s classmates, and they’re all dressed in formal wear, like for a prom, but they’re all in Russia for job interviews. Weird, right? And then Zhivago, you know, the actor I mean, what’s-his-name, Mom and I just watched it last year. Omar Sharif! Yeah, that’s it. So Omar comes out in a cowboy hat and spandex but no shirt. Love the name!  I’m so gonna call my firstborn Omar. So anyway, he interviews the Swithiners for a script-doctor position for the film we’re making. Only it becomes a film about my left big toe, not the Pasternak novel. And my toe has a sad little face painted on it, like a clown’s, along with a period costume for the movie. And he, Zhivago I mean, or Sharif, not my toe, he promises them all a salary that will be paid in cheese blintzes, as long as no one cuts off my toe before the scripts are finished. Which I’m worried about, my toe that is, and I want to tell Lara about it, ’cause she’s been standing there the whole time, rocking the blonde thing and nodding sympathetically at all of us, but she’s off to a mouse festival. Which makes sense, kind of, in the dream anyway, at least with the cheese in it. So I wake up crying ‘No cheese blintzes!'”

She paused. “Wild, huh? What do you think it all means?”

The therapist looked perplexed. Emily barely managed to swallow a shout of laughter. She coughed to cover it. Dad would be absolutely hysterical by now, she thought gleefully.

Nano ’14 Day 6 Update

nanowidge2-14When you start bleeding caffeine, you know you’re in the thick of writing …

Here’s a rough “back-cover blurb” I pulled together today for my own use:

Emily Fioretta Zhang-Salzano, 15, is living her day-student nerd-life at St. Swithin’s School, until another world named Dirnive (that’s DEER-nee-veh) comes calling and pulls her into it. Literally. Repeatedly. Without warning. Can she stay sane, pass chemistry, reassure her parents, friends and teachers about her strange absences, and halt — or lead — a war?

And I crawled out of a slump and reached the 20% mark today on day six with over 10K. Some of it, not surprisingly, is notes towards a novel, but I’ve got enough (as you can tell from the blurb) that there’s an actual story there. Though the “war” part is a stopgap for something I don’t yet see clearly.

Here at Kimberly’s request is another fragment, continuing from where the previous post left off:

Across the hills to the west the late October sunset faded to a wan streak of amber. The three miles along Spruce Ridge Road to Callahan’s meant two switchbacks and a single-lane plank bridge just before the road turned to pavement. Halloween decorations glowed in yards and windows. A few more nights. Emily was too old for trick or treating, she thought regretfully – had been for some years, because everyone saw her height first and misjudged her age. But Kev at twelve loved the holiday untroubled by such things, and she still enjoyed it through him. His homemade vampire priest costume hung on his bedroom door, ready to go, with a real clerical collar he’d borrowed from Father Andrew, and makeup from last year’s school production of Rocky Horror Picture Show. The brief parent-teacher controversy that flared over that choice had brightened two weeks of otherwise dull classes for Emily with its predictable arguments, letters to the editor, and overblown opinions. For her own amusement she argued both sides to herself, uncertain which one deserved to win solely on logic. The production itself was a rousing success. Branston Central enjoyed an excellent theater program.

A dip in the road recalled Emily to the moment. She loved the subdued colors, the listening landscape of autumn, even the shorter overcast days that made a return to a warm house that much more inviting. Her headlights parsed silhouettes of dark tree limbs, then the deeper darkness that was the road. Mist rose off pastures and meadows, glazing and scattering the twin beams in front of her. The wet road shone faintly.

Five minutes later Emily glanced at the rearview mirror and came to a stop. Where was Pickering Lane, or Roubidoux’s farm, or anything familiar? She got out. No lights from windows in any direction. She knew this road, lived on it since forever, played in its mud and puddles as a child, grew up on it, walked it, biked it, now drove it. How could she be lost on it?

Nanoeing (like Canoeing?)

nanowidge1-14So here’s the opening scene of my drafty 2014 Nanowrimo nano-novel. Yes, that means it’s still reeeeeely small.  But it’s getting bigger!

Here’s a bantering exchange between 15-year old Emily Zhang-Salzano, the main character, and her father, to set the stage of dark foreboding (not that dark) for what’s to come, when Emily is whisked off to parts unknown by powers unseen. You know, first a light at the end of the tunnel, but then more tunnel. As the Wise have said, if you want interesting characters, make them suffer …

“Emily!”

“Living room, Dad.”

“Honey, I need you to break the law for me.”

“Way to get a girl’s attention. Does it involve removing mattress tags?”

“No.”

“Downloading adult … cat videos?”

“What? No, that’s so last year.” Neil Salzano appeared in the doorway, a towel slung over one arm, and a dusting of flour on his nose. “Listen, your mom will be home soon, we’ll be eating, but I just discovered we’re out of whipping cream and–”

“You want me to steal a cow?”

“Exactly. Preferably one that also gives chocolate milk, so your brother will consider it a fair trade while you’re serving your sentence.”

“Ha! Nobody would miss me. That’s the beauty of your plan.”

“Clever child. Actually I need you to drive to Callahan’s and pick up a pint of cream.”

“You know I just got my permit.”

“I do. I also know you’ve been driving tractors, pickups, sailboats, dirt bikes and Voldemort knows what else since you were eight. You’re a safer driver than your mother. I’d go myself but I’m expecting a call I can’t miss. Strictly land-line. You know the cell reception in these our dearly beloved hills. Hence the highly illegal nature of your mission, should you choose to accept it.”

“You’re contributing to the delinquency of a minor.”

“So don’t get caught. Three miles, on a dirt road.”

“I’m the poster child for family values. Really. Candidates hire me for photo ops.”

“Just the Libertarians. Honor your father, that your days may be long. Look, you can park in Bill and Angie’s driveway, then walk across the highway and the last hundred yards to Callahan’s. No one needs to see you all unchaperoned and teen-terrifying behind the wheel.”

“What would Mom say?”

“She won’t say anything if you get the cream and I manage to finish making dessert.”

“I can’t get into Harvard or Yale with a criminal record.”

“You’re a misdemeanor waiting to happen. This is your chance to demonstrate your obvious maturity and independence.”

“What a sweet-talker!”

“You know it. And no stopping in at the town library on the way. I’m serious, Em. It’s Thursday evening, I know they’re open late tonight, but I’ll drive you into Branston on Saturday and you can have the whole day to hide away in the stacks at State if you want.”

“Ah, ’tis bribery now. ‘The Corruption of Emily’ miniseries, based on a shocking true story. Branston’s a promise? What about all the yard work?”

“Mrs. Breckenridge is our last this year, but she says she wants to compost her leaves herself.”

“OK, then. Deal!”

“You’re my favorite daughter. Here are the keys.”

By the time Emily pulled the battered Honda out of their circular driveway, darkness settled in and was getting comfortable. Recalling the conversation of a few minutes ago, she smiled again. Mom’s English was really good, but she still couldn’t always follow the banter between Emily and her father. It felt wonderful to be this light and easy again with at least one of them, finally, after all the fights and prescriptions and appointments and drama of the last year. St. Swithin’s had officially ended her medical leave with an invitation to return this fall, and classes were going well. Maybe she actually had her life back again.

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As Patrick Rothfuss says, “Thou shalt not just think about writing. Seriously. That is not writing. The worst unpublished novel of all-time is better than the brilliant idea you have in your head. Why? Because the worst novel ever is written down. That means it’s a book, while your idea is just an idle fancy. My dog used to dream about chasing rabbits; she didn’t write a novel about chasing rabbits. There is a difference.”

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Nanowrimo ’14

Participant-2014At it again: another novel in the works with this year’s Nanowrimo, the National Novel Writing Month. Though as the website banner so humbly announces, “the world needs your novel” definitely qualifies as a claim that’s “off the chain,” my students would say.

Still, there’s an undeniable badass nerd adrenalin rush that comes with hitting that daily quota of 1667 words. You watch a story grow in spite of itself. I say in spite of itself because without generous intervals of Muse-seducing, -teasing and -taunting, an idea just as often topples abruptly from its perch like a bad drunk, and sprawls on the floor of a blank page after a day or two of that oh-so-glorious writing high. What vile false hope! No wonder out of the 300,000 or so Nanowrimos*, about a fifth of that number finish the “winning” rough draft minimum of 50,000 words in these thirty days of November. Of those, even fewer go on to revise.  But “nothing ventured” still has the same outcome, after all these millennia. Funny thing, that.

Over decades of bad writing, the only kind you can do in order to get to the good stuff, you learn to interrogate your story, go on a date with it, blindfold it, tie it up against the wall and threaten to execute it, propagate its most bizarre roots and shoots and runners, name its characters vividly, trust it implicitly, play fifty-two card pick-up with its themes, and generally treat it like the first 11 lines of the following Billy Collins poem every high school English teacher uses (guilty!) at the start of a poetry unit in order to seem cooler than Antarctica:

Introduction to Poetry

I ask them to take a poem
and hold it up to the light
like a color slide

or press an ear against its hive.

I say drop a mouse into a poem
and watch him probe his way out,

or walk inside the poem’s room
and feel the walls for a light switch.

I want them to waterski
across the surface of a poem
waving at the author’s name on the shore.

But all they want to do
is tie the poem to a chair with rope
and torture a confession out of it.

They begin beating it with a hose
to find out what it really means.

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*the addicts of Nanowriming

“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.

Nanowrimo ’13

Yes, I’ve once again* entered that artificial arena of neurotic constraint and gratuitous creativity sponsored by the good (though by now addled) folks at Nanowrimo.  National (though it’s gone global) Novel Writing Month.  A 50,000 word draft of novel in 30 days.  Join nearly 300,000 other dreamers doing the same thing and keeping tabs on each other at the Nanowrimo website, its forums, messages, Q and A, and so on.  Giving out free advice, titles, sympathy, inspiration, horror stories and pep talks.  The whole project runs on a shoestring.  You can read a little more about the details here.

I’m at 10,500-something words right now, some 6000 words short of where I should be, if we were keeping score.  Which I am.  But not.  1667 words a day is nothing more than many novelists write all year round, so do not take too seriously the self-pity and the indulgent whining heard from your marginally stable neighborhood ‘Wrimo.  He or she need do only one thing:  keep writing.  Nothing else is acceptable.  “Someday I’m going to write a novel,” meet your moment (month?) of truth.

And, to tell the truth (available in good novels everywhere), I’m on my second plot, after severe crash-and-burn a few days ago, but at last words and ideas are flowing.  All my strategies and tricks from three decades of writing went on strike and picketed my brain.  But now I’m back (breakdown averted once again) and I’m on it. And that first story?   Not stillborn, just arrested, delayed, challenged, developmentally disabled.  “Differently scripted.”  I still have hopes for it.  With surgery, therapy, time …  “Your children will disappoint you.  Love them anyway.”

Novelist and blogger Chuck Wendig waxes vulgarly eloquent on the pitfalls of The Nanowrimo Simplification (sounds like a title for The Big Bang Theory) in this 2011 post, “25 things you should know about Nanowrimo.”  For anyone interested, he’s dead on target, and the four-letter words underscore the realities of the writerly world.

Shield-Nano-Blue-Brown-RGB-HiResStill, if you plant butt on chair and do the writing, in one month you will undeniably clutch in the form of hot little electrons what your dreaming-of-writing-a-novel-before-I die self did not have previously:  material to work with, to cudgel and trim, exercise (exorcise) and massage into a draft of what could become a novel.  With time and much more effort.  O Grasshopper, the draft is only a beginning.  But thou art now A Writer.

I’m off to drive my wife to a weaving workshop in Massachusetts.  Then it’s back home to move the story forward another 500-1000 words before Sunday turns into Monday and its 1667 additional words.  Wish me luck.

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Image courtesy of National Novel Writing Month.

*Here’s one of several posts from my 2011 Nanowrimo experience.

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 , ,

Full Moon Reflection 2: More and Less

Compassion has no religion.  Silence is not always indifference.  O great, listening, witnessing world, you too have something to say, something you always are saying, without words.  What comfort we can offer, miles and lives away from the families of the Sandy Hook school victims, and from other, newer sufferers since then, may consist of not filling the airwaves and spiritual spaces further, with our own shock or anger or sadness or dismay, or whatever other responses events may next provoke in us.  Even if we do not know the families or victims or any of those touched by an event, we may send sympathy, because we are not stones.  This is prayer, too.  But every turn of the world changes us because we’re in it together.  A great service is to love those who need love, and not merely to feel, to emote.  We can do more than relive pain, especially another’s pain, or make it ours.  Suffering needs no extra rehearsals, no practice.  There’s always more than enough to go around.

We’re not stones, but we may raise them into a cairn, a act that by its solidity and palpable weight can lift suffering even a little, if it may, stone by stone.  Let earth bear a portion of  the weight.  Allow this elemental power of Earth to transmute, to compost and transform, as it does all else that comes to it.  The turning of the year again toward light in the middle of winter, the planet doing again what the planet does each year, can be solace too, earth re-establishing its balance.  Soothing motion of the familiar, wordless touch with its animal comfort.  Moon growing again towards fullness, light on the world in the middle of darkness.

But sometimes we hate comfort.  Too often solace can reek of appeasement.  We stiffen.  One more easing is too many.  Intolerable.  Like words — already more than enough.  With no ready target we seek out whatever will serve, anything to shut up the noise, the roar of raw nerves jangling.  Anodyne.  Oblivion, even, at least for a while.

Grief is too steady a companion.  It knows us, it seems, deeper than a lover.  OK, we get it.  Pain too has something to say that will not be denied.  We make a place for it, and it moves in, gets comfortable, settles down for too long.  (How long is memory?  Is recollection what we consist of?  Do we relive, instead of living new? Does this become our only, instead of our also?)

When words do not do, I bring silence to the altar.  When I cannot pray, then that is my prayer, just the act of moving toward the altar, a center, a focus.

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The house has cooled overnight when I get up to write this.  In between the last two paragraphs, I open the door of the woodstove to put in another two logs.  In a turtleneck and sweats, I sit on the floor, feet toward the fire, with my laptop where its name says.  Warmth, says the body, unrepentant in loving what it loves.  Warmth too, radiating from the electrical current flowing through the machine I write with.  So little, but a little.  A start.

Druid in a Box, Part 1

She was Druid.  When she needed to know things, a way would open.  She was learning to trust it.  Sometimes an opening way asked for patience, and that took work, still.  Waiting rarely looked hard when others did it, but she’d done enough herself to know better. A song made it easier, and when she listened a certain way, now and again songs came, tinkling on the air, or roaring out of someplace she didn’t know she’d gone to till she returned with a start, the phone ringing, or her cat Halfpint curled in her lap and kneading one thigh with paws tipped with needle claws.  Often the words came later, the melody already running ahead of her, in and around her attention till she got a version down on paper or on her music program.

She was Druid, she knew.  It was a long time coming, that knowledge.  Sometimes she’d resisted, convinced she was done with paths, and seeking and god-stuff, anything like that.  But through it all the gifts kept arriving.  Hard ones, and easy ones too.  Often enough it meant whatever the land gave her at the moment.  For proof, all she had to do was look at her house, filled with stones, bird bones, animal skulls, pressed flowers, carved branches, vervain and basil and mint, garlic and St. John’s Wort and other herbs she was learning as she went.  After Jack left with his secretary, she got the little ramshackle two-bedroom house and the six acres of pasture they’d planned to farm, and slowly the once-empty rooms filled with links to the green world outside the door.  Inside, too.  Spiders in the corners, mice in the walls, squirrels skittering across the tin roof, crows caucusing in the back yard.

Jack.  One of the hard gifts.  He left, and for a while the emptiness threatened to eat her alive.  A big hole she had to stop looking into.  No bottom, but walls dark with bitterness.  So she stayed busy volunteering and running the food pantry and substituting at the local elementary school, until one day a boy complained about the smell of incense that seemed to follow her wherever she went. “Witch” was the real reason, she heard from a sympathetic colleague.  Parents complaining about “that teacher.”  Though when the principal called her in “for a little chat,” what he said was they just couldn’t rely on her to be on time.  All she knew then was that her morning ritual had just cost her one needed source of income.  Hard gift.

A month of therapy, and “you’re stuck in a box labelled ‘wife,'” until she knew she could give herself better advice, and cheaper. When the box is the whole world, then I’m Druid in a box, she thought.  And thinking inside the box is a great place to start.  Hardly anybody else is in here.  They’re all outside, because that’s where they’ve been told they should be.  That’s where the clever ones are, the ones who want to be ahead of the curve.  Mostly people do what they’re told.  But almost always something held her back from doing what everybody else did, shoved her or kicked her sideways.  A kind of resistance, a suspicion, a compass set in her belly and spinning her some other way.  Ahead of the curve?  It was more than enough to be the curve, bird’s wing in the air, crescent moon, arc of water coursing over a falls.  The backyard junipers and oaks and one old willow bowing at the sky.

Then it was October, her birth month, and in spite of turning 30 in a few more days, her mood lightened.  She could feel a shift coming, something new trying to find her, a little blind, and maybe needing help.  She could help it.  Listen, she reminded herself.  It was one thing she’d finally gotten good at.

To be continued …

The Hunger Games — a Meditation

“When I wake up, the other side of the bed is cold,” says Katniss Everdeen, opening Suzanne Collins’ novel The Hunger Games as both narrator and protagonist, and launching a major theme and complex of imagery in the book.

The widely-anticipated movie version of the novel arrives in a little over a month, in late March.  The transformation of novel into film, with its inevitable directorial choices, budgetary limitations and too-specific casting of too-attractive young actors, will enchant some and disappoint others.  No film can perfectly incarnate the word-world of a book to everyone’s satisfaction.  (Here’s a link to an official trailer, in case you’re curious and haven’t yet seen it.)  But it’s the novel I wish to focus on here.

The presence or absence of warmth is a recurring theme:  heat — passion — violence — fire continually trade places throughout the story.  Human warmth is, after all, what initially launches Katniss into the story.  She volunteers on the spur of the moment to take the place of her beloved sister Prim, in the annual national lottery that selects a pair of youths from each of the twelve districts of a future North America and drops them into a televised death match.  It’s blood sport with a vengeance.

**Spoiler Alert**

Prim is now safe, thanks to Katniss.  But once Katniss is taken from her home, along with the other chosen youths who are now her rivals, she is pampered, buffed, polished, trained — and made over to show off an explicit fire imagery her stylists have conceived for her.  As part of the lead-up to the competition, along with her rivals, she is interviewed and paraded on a nationally broadcast special program.  But first, the finishing touches.

The team works on me until late afternoon, turning my skin to glowing satin, stenciling patterns on my arms, painting flame designs on my twenty perfect nails.  Then Venia goes to work on my hair, weaving strands of red in a pattern that begins at my left ear … They erase my face with a layer of pale make-up and draw my features back out. Huge dark eyes, full red lips, lashes that throw off bits of light when I blink. Finally, they cover my entire body in a powder that makes me shimmer in gold dust. (127-128, pprbk. edition)

After the makeover, Katniss is dressed in her costume for the evening.

I can feel the silken inside as they slip it down over my body, then the weight.  It must be forty pounds … The creature standing before me in the full length mirror has come from another world.  Where skin shimmers and eyes flash and apparently they make their clothes from jewels … the slightest movement gives the impression I am engulfed in tongues of fire. (128)

I’m not perceiving something new here — other authors have gone further — there’s a book out titled The Girl Who Was on Fire which explores this theme in the novel in depth.  Soon the gritty, violent death-match will replace this world of artifice and polish, and with the starkest contrast leave a trail of bodies dispatched bloodily, and even the survivors gashed, burnt, deafened, half-poisoned, dehydrated and starving.  But the elemental world the novel has conjured persists in these sharply unglamorous forms.  Fire of the spirit, the singular drive to survive.  Fire of anger at the political motivation underlying the contest which deploys needless violence and death.  Fire for cooking, fire as weapon, water for thirst and bathing, earth — a cave — for protection.  Fire of human passion, whether genuine or contrived for show.

The Hunger Games has already achieved the dubious distinction of banned book status, as if it advocated violence instead of patently demonstrating against it.  But violence nevertheless permeates our world, and the younger readers who have taken this book to heart and made it into a phenomenon respond enthusiastically to a story and an author who acknowledges this fact honestly. Further, Katniss offers a strong female protagonist in place of the one-dimensional tag-along female romantic interest more typical of plot-driven stories with male leads. She manages to confront imminent death, make hard choices, and still retain her integrity in the face of what is after all adult manipulation and advocacy of institutionalized violence for political ends. The same human capacity for strong feeling that draws us toward violence can also lead us to bonds of strong affection and loyalty that are one antidote to violence. If that is fighting fire with fire, it often works.

Images:  cover; banned.

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