Archive for the ‘imagination’ Tag

Expanding — and Focusing — Our Magic   Leave a comment

[Part One | Part Two]

In a recent comment, Steve writes:

A broader definition of magic sounds interesting, especially when compared with some of the ideas about it I have encountered over the years.

Do you have a working definition you could share or is this something you have developed in your blog?

I do have a working definition of magic, and I’ve also written about it in various forms fairly frequently, though not always under that label. But it’s good to regularly take out opinions and understandings, dust them off, rattle them, note what shakes free, scrape off the rust, and buff and polish the rest. So with the spur that Steve’s comment provides, that’s what I’ll do in this post.

Yevgeny-zamyatin

Yevgeny Zamyatin / Wikipedia / public domain

Our definitions come, mostly, after experiences. Before that, we don’t have much to attach them to, and if anyone who’s reading this is anything like me, your definitions at that point may not match things that you later DO experience. So then we get mired in the mismatch, rather than referring back to the original experience. Or — even better than looking backward — experiencing more, other, wilder. So I open up once again a page where I can re-read irascible old revolutionary Yevgeny Zamyatin (1884-1937), whose essay “On Literature, Revolution, Entropy, and Other Matters” reminds me: “Dealing with answered questions is the privilege of brains constructed like a cow’s stomach, which, as we know, is built to digest cud”.

“Privilege”? Tired of a too-steady diet of cud, I aim to forage more widely.

So I’ll begin by asserting we all practice magic, and work outward from there, using this as a core assumption and seeing how it holds up. We do much of our magic half-consciously, so that we often don’t perceive the patterns, causes and effects of what we set in motion as clearly as we might. After all, like most of us, I insist on who I am: in my case, straight, white, male, employed, married, healthy, intelligent, rational. But when even one of these breaks down, as every one of them has for at least some of us over a lifetime, my world trembles violently, even if it doesn’t collapse outright, and I scurry and latch on to explanations for what’s going on.

Isn’t such an interval about the least likely time for any of us to notice the patterns, causes and effects of what we’ve set in motion? And even if and when we do, we tend to account for them only with naturalistic explanations (Pagans may add supernatural but not necessarily more accurate ones), including blaming other people, fatigue, stress, illness, the government, conspiracies, the Man, our reptilian overlords, a loveless marriage, plain bad luck, and so on, forgetting how much even of our conscious experience at the very moment of our explaining has been programmed by education, habit, expectation, culture, practice, a “reasonable explanation”, and a simple, overriding human desire not … to … be … weird.

magic

But … magic?!

At the heart of this often-inaccurate accounting is a precept that disturbs and offends Westerners in particular, taught as we are that we are free and independent beings, with wills and choices subject to our conscious attention. We are not so free after all, but if we can’t even examine this assertion in the first place, what are we to do? If we all practice magic, as I claim, we all need to, because as musician and mage R. J. Stewart observes:

With 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 (Stewart, Living Magical Arts, pg. 20-21).

“[D]enied valid expression by the locks upon our consciousness”: we might think such a “locked-up” person simply needs re-education, or better training, maybe positive reinforcement, a decent opportunity. (I note here that it’s almost always some other person who’s the problem, or needs the help — never me. After all, I’m awake and in charge of my life.) This is also where we get much of the American program of self-improvement, “pulling ourselves up by our own bootstraps”, as it used to be called. Those who can afford it try therapy, or weekend retreats and workshops. Those who can’t may rely on pharmaceuticals or liquor or increasingly available weed. As the evidence mounts, as the growing dysfunction, suffering, addiction, unhappiness and all-around misery attest, something’s not working.

So why magic, of all things? Surely any number of other options would be preferable to something so half-baked, superstitious, irrational, etc., etc. — the list of slanders, some of them justified by pernicious snake-oil salesmen, is long.

J. M. Greer, ecologist, blogger, conservationist and mage, puts it this way:

[t]he tools of magic are useful because most of the factors that shape human awareness are not immediately accessible to the conscious mind; they operate at levels below the one where our ordinary thinking, feeling, and willing take place. The mystery schools have long taught that consciousness has a surface and a depth. The surface is accessible to each of us, but the depth is not. To cause lasting changes in consciousness that can have magical effects on one’s own life and that of others, the depth must be reached, and to reach down past the surface, ordinary thinking and willing are not enough (J. M. Greer, Mystery Teachings from the Living Earth, Weiser Books, 2012, pg. 88).

To put it another way, in what is not a particularly poetic magical Druid triad: Magic stems from an experiential fact, an experimental goal, and an endlessly adaptable technique.

The fact is that each day we all experience many differing states of consciousness, moving from deep sleep to REM sleep to dream to waking, to daydream, to focused awareness and back again.  We make these transitions naturally and usually effortlessly. They serve different purposes, and what we cannot do in one state, we can often do easily in another.  The flying dream is not the focus on making a hole in one, nor is it the light trance of daydream, nor the careful math calculation. What we do mechanically and often without awareness, we can learn to do consciously.

The goal of magic is transformation – to enter focused states of awareness at will and through them to achieve insight and change. Often, for me anyway, this is nothing more mysterious than moving out of a negative, depressed or angry headspace at will into a more free, imaginative one, where I can problem-solve much more effectively, and also be much more pleasant to be around. Or so my wife tells me.

“The major premise of magic,” says R. J. Stewart, “is that there are many worlds, and that the transformations which occur within the magician enable him or her to gain access to these worlds” (R. J. Stewart, Living Magical Arts, pg. 7).

The technique — a cluster, really, of practices and techniques — is the training and work of the imagination.  This work typically involves the use of one or more of the following: ritual, meditation, chant, visualization, concentration, props, images and group dynamics to catalyze transformations in awareness. “… [O]ur imagination is our powerhouse …” says Stewart. “… certain images tap into the deeper levels of imaginative force within us; when these are combined with archetypal patterns they may have a permanent transformative effect”.

Ouroboros-benzene.svgEven mundanely, golfers visualize a hole in one, carpenters see the finished design long before it emerges from the blueprint, chemists rely as much on inspiration as any artist for discoveries like that of August Kekule, who dreamt of the structure of the benzene ring via the archetypical image of a snake swallowing its tail.

Furnish the imagination with the food it needs, and it can be a powerful tool and guide. Abandon it to others who do not know us, nor have our best interests at heart, and we cast away our birthright.

PART TWO — Applications — coming soon.

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A One-Winged Dragon   4 comments

9dragSo my Druidry goes to work and I find out, a little more, what it can do.

This last September, when my wife and I were visiting friends on our way to the 2014 East Coast Gathering, we stopped in at a community antique shop. Normally I don’t visit such places, but this one, run as a non-profit, drew us in. Though my wife didn’t find the odd weaving item she’s perpetually on the lookout for, shuttle or reed or bundle of heddles that she can often locate used, I met a dragon.

I say “met” because elemental encounters with beasts like dragons are gifts to celebrate. But was this draig-athar, the air dragon I first took it to be? Or maybe draig-teine, the fire dragon? Oh, too much mind, not enough listening.

airdragThe right wing was missing. I picked it up. Heavy as earth, and earthbound with that missing wing — probably brass, that fire metal composed of tin — and copper, a water metal. As a candle-holder, also linked with fire. All of them mined from earth. All four elements in one. Candle holder on the top of the head … in Chinese dragon lore, the dragon possesses a chimu, which enables it to fly. As the Han Dynasty scholar Wang Mu observes of the dragon: “Upon his head he has a thing like a broad eminence (a big lump), called chimu. If a dragon has no chimu, he cannot ascend to the sky.”

Let go of labels. But fly without one wing? Transmute! There was my augury, if I wanted one. Don’t let mere appearances decide your reality. Or, to make it short and sweet — fly anyway.

Five dollars lighter (paper standing in for coin — metal again), I carried the dragon from the shop to our car.  Back in Vermont, he (she?) sits facing west on a window-sill near where I’m clearing a space for an altar. Just out the window is a thermometer. In other words, there’s enough symbolism here to keep me busy with metaphors and correspondences till both dragon and I dissolve into our component elements, the life force binding us long ago withdrawn.

Fly anyway.

Struggling with diet and energy levels and an ornery GI tract still sorting itself out after radiation for a prostatectomy? Fly anyway.

A Druidic invitation to see possibility in limitation — the only place we find it. Fly anyway.

bdrag2

A one-winged brass dragon

What I want: “a return to how things used to be.” But what do I need, apparently, among other things? Greater compassion for myself, for others dealing with the body’s trials and challenges. Patience with changes already set in motion. Definitely a stronger capacity not to let mere appearances decide my reality.

That’s all you got?

No. But it’s more than I had.

A fair trade?

Wait and see.

Really? “Wait and see”?!

Can you imagine the missing wing — see it there, mirroring the left one, ready to sweep wide and catch the wind?

Yes, but– 

So just because you can’t fly in one place, you stop flying in all the others?! Choose again. 

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Images: dragon from the Nine Dragons scroll; air dragon from the Druid Animal Oracle — image by Will Worthington; the brass dragon.

The Four Powers: Know, Dare, Will, Keep Silent–Part 4: Will and Imagination   Leave a comment

[Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3 | Part 5]

waitomo-dawnDaily you call me to pray — not the prayer of asking, of importunity, but the prayer of communion, of celebrating blood flowing through veins, of life moving in lungs and belly.  In the cool of dawn this morning I slip outdoors for air plush with oxygen, newly breathed out from the green lungs of the trees.  I gaze on the mist-shrouded pines and maples and scrub oaks, hear the neighbor’s rooster break into the sheared metal cry that is his morning’s call.  The other birds are already about, the jay chicks now big as their parents, and noisier, in their cries to be fed.  A fox bitch slinks back into the woods, cat-footed and deft as she threads her way through tall grass and brambles.  Dampness clings to my skin.  Life-prayer, what the birds and wind and water and morning light are saying.

I say “you” call me to pray: there’s a presence I address, though it’s not a person.  I could call it the echo of listening, the ambit of my attention, some kind of answer or reverberation to the pressure of a human walking the land and caressing the world with hominid consciousness that wants to talk, to name, to engage, to encounter as a person, to bring down to size a world that resolutely will not yield to whim, or whimsy.  But that’s not quite it, either.  “You” is the best I can do, to honor and salute the world I encounter, particularly when it glows or sparkles or hums or burns.  Others have called it god or gods, Spirit or numina.  We know a little better, in some places at least, how names can trip us up.  But names can be good talk. It is awen, too: that Welsh word for “inspiration” that is also the presence of Spirit.

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Wadin Tohangu comes unbidden, unless it’s a prayer to the universe which alerts him as well that I’m actually paying attention again.  Fallow time has “done it,” though merely “going fallow” as I mentioned in the previous entry doesn’t cause a change to happen, but it often accompanies it.  Something about the will is involved.  Sometimes the greatest magic is to set aside the will and be open to change.  I don’t like surrender because I can’t claim credit when the change comes.  I want it to be under my control.  Stereotypically to surrender is a male difficulty and a female strength, but there are plenty of strong-willed women who find surrender difficult, and weak-willed men who need to work on self-assertion.  So that’s not it altogether either.

“Are you finished talking to yourself about this?” Wadin asks, his mouth crinkled in a smile.  I realize he has been sitting there for some time now as I swam and splashed in my thoughts.  I smile back, unable to respond right away — or rather, my mind spins over a thousand responses, none of them particularly graceful or useful or true.  But I do know I’m glad he has come.   That’s something I hold onto in gratitude, and the whirling of thought slows enough that I can say it.

“It’s good to see you.”

His smile widens — he seems perfectly at ease in the moment, as if he came expressly to do nothing else than sit and listen to me think. Not in an obtrusive way, not eavesdropping, but simply how he is, awake to what goes on around him.

“You’re struggling,” he says, “with how to talk about the will, and that’s also been a focus for you for some time.”

“That’s definitely true,” I answer.  “I guess inner and outer worlds do line up from time to time.”

“What happens when they do?” he asks.

“I’m freed up to write about it, for one thing,” I say. “I get unstuck.”

“The stuckness often comes from pushing with the will,” he says.  He leans forward a little, resting his elbows on his knees.  “It’s a common confusion to think that will involves strain.”

“Sometimes we push through, and we can accomplish a lot.  And athletes push against fatigue all the time,” I say.

He nods. “That’s true for the physical body, of course.  Muscular effort moves objects.” He pauses before continuing.

athlete

“We feel pain and can push through it with the will.  Sometimes that means we ‘win.’  And of course sometimes that means we end up with a sprain or torn ligament or some other injury, too.”

He gazes at me.  “So what causes the difference?” he asks.

“I’d say, listening to the body. Not fighting it, but working with it.”

“Good,” he says. “Certainly listening can spare you injury or tension or strain.”  He runs a sandaled toe over a design on the carpet, and I realize we’re sitting in my living room.  I write “sitting in my living room,” and look up from the keyboard, and of course there’s “no one there.”

“Come back to our conversation,” he says, reaching to prod me with a forefinger.  “There’s more to talk about.”  He looks at me with interest.  “What did that feel like just now, when you returned from ‘no one there’ to our meeting?”

“I could feel an energy shift,” say. “I got interested again.  And I wanted to keep going.”

“All of these are important,” he says.  “The shift is something you ‘do,’ but it’s not a strain or a push of what we normally call the ‘will.’  And your interest and curiosity also matter.  They draw you in, rather than you pushing against resistance.”

I say nothing, waiting for him to continue.

“Imagination is effortless.  You can ‘try to imagine,’ of course.  Or you can simply imagine.  This is the difference between will or imagination, and strain, which is what most people mean by ‘will’ or ‘willpower.'”

“What about people who say they ‘can’t’ imagine?” I ask.

“They’re usually telling the truth. Fear blocks them, or their straining against their habit or desire keeps them from accomplishing what they ‘try’ to do.  That’s what they’re imagining instead. Imagination runs ahead of ‘will’ in that sense. It’s already ‘there,’ at work in the ‘future,’ long before ‘will’ arrives.  While ‘will’ is still waking up, imagination has already constructed a palace or dungeon for you to inhabit, according to your focus.  Not everyone imagines in pictures, of course.  For many it’s often feeling instead.  We already feel a certain way about something, and that ‘colors our experience,’ as we say.”

“But where’s the element of choice in that?” I ask.  “It sounds like will or imagination is just a reaction to circumstances, rather than a conscious decision to focus on what we choose.  Isn’t that the will?  What we choose, rather than what we simply let happen?”

“Discipline of the imagination is the key to life,” he says, looking at me steadily.  “What you attend to, what you look at or focus on, and how you look at it, determine your experience to a great extent.  That’s the actual ‘will,’ not the strain to do something against our intention.”

“Would you explain that?” I say.

“Remember your own experience a short time ago,” he answers. “As you looked where I was sitting, you ‘realized’ that I ‘wasn’t there.’  Then your attention shifted, and our conversation continued.  I’m ‘here,’ though I’m not ‘here.’  Which do you focus on, my presence or my absence?”

“You mean both are true?” I say.

“Yes.  Though ‘true’ is a distracting word.  You activate one or the other with your attention.  That’s will, or intention.”

“But what about human suffering?” I say. “We don’t choose to suffer or experience hardship or disasters or …”

He was smiling at me again.  “The challenge is that our habitual attention gives lasting reality to our imagination.  ‘As a man thinketh in his heart, so is he,”* goes one way of expressing it.  ‘What you do comes back to you.'”

“But what about people born into horrendous circumstances?  You can’t say they imagined them into being!” I could hear the hint of outrage creeping into my voice.  “The circumstances happened to them.  They certainly didn’t choose them.  Who would choose pain and suffering?”

“That’s an important question,” he says. “Do you know anyone who keeps making ‘bad choices,’ as they are called?  And keeps getting painful results?   That’s a fairly severe example of such choices at work.  Of course we often face the accumulated consequences of long imagining.  Lifetimes of imagination can solidify into exceptionally firm and unyielding circumstances.  In such cases, an hour or day or even a year of change  and effort may bring only surface alteration.  Deeper transformation can take longer.”

“Aren’t we blaming the victim in such cases?” I say.

“You see, there is no blame here.  We are talking about growth.  You may know the story of the Galilean master who is questioned about the man born blind.  “Who sinned?” his followers asked him.  ‘The man himself, or his parents — what caused him to be born blind?’  And the Master answers them and says, ‘Neither one.   All this happened so that the work of God might be shown in his life.’**  A circumstance can be destiny, and we can lament limitation, or it can be opportunity, and we can move and build from there.  It depends on which direction you look.  One way to understand it is that a disciplined imagination is one that is ready to accomplish the ‘work of God.’  Imagination is a powerful tool of Spirit.”

“But where does it all start?” I say.

“Often the fledgling falls from the nest and learns to fly the ‘hard way,'” he says. then pauses at my expression.

“But gravity is not ‘evil,” he continues, “though it may hurt, if the chick tumbles onto a branch or onto the ground.  But when the eagle has mastered using gravity to move through the air, it can soar.”

“Is that the price we pay?” I say.

“You hoped it would be painless, I see,” he says, smiling again.  “Pain does get the attention in a way nothing else can.  Maybe that’s why it’s still useful as a spiritual tool.”

toolbox

“Pain as a tool?  I’ll have to think about that some more.”

“You think a lot.  Everything can be a tool,” he says. “You just need to decide how to use it, rather than getting stopped by it.”

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The first post in this series looks at kinds of knowledge.  The second shows how wanting to know leads to discoveries about our real selves.  The third looks at daring and how it is a kind of freedom.

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Images: Waitomo Dawn by Richard Tulloch; athlete; toolbox.

*Proverbs 23:7

**John 9:1-3

Updated 30 Sept. ’14

Notes on Magic   Leave a comment

sunset

What follows are brief notes from a short talk I recently gave on magic.

Dion Fortune’s definition of magic: “the art and science of causing change in consciousness in accordance with will.”

“… most of us, most of the time, are content to use the imaginations of others to define the world around us, however poorly these may fit our own experiences and needs; most of us, most of the time, spend our lives reacting to feelings, whims and biological cravings rather than acting on the basis of conscious choice; most of us, most of the time, remember things so poorly that entire industries have come into existence to make up for the failures and inaccuracies of memory” (J. M. Greer, Circles of Power, 52).

We can, however, choose to imagine – & remember – ourselves differently. When we do so with focused attention, changes happen, both subjectively & objectively.

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Magic stems from an experiential fact, an experimental goal, & an endlessly adaptable technique.

The fact is that each day we all experience many differing states of consciousness, moving from deep sleep to REM sleep to dream to waking, to daydream, to focused awareness & back again.  We make these transitions naturally & usually effortlessly.  They serve different purposes, & what we cannot do in one state, we can often do easily in another.  The flying dream is not the focus on making a hole in one, nor is it the light trance of daydream, nor the careful math calculation.

The goal of magic is transformation – to enter focused states of awareness at will & through them to achieve insight & change.

The technique is the training & work of the imagination.  This work typically involves the use of ritual, meditation, chant, visualization, concentration, props, images & group dynamics to catalyze transformations in awareness.

/|\ /|\ /|\ 

Magic is also “a set of methods for arranging awareness according to patterns.”

We live our lives according to patterns.  Some patterns are limiting & may be unmasked as restrictive.  Other patterns can help bring about transformation.  “[T]he purpose of magical arts is to enable changes within the individual by which he or she may apprehend further methods [of magic & transformation] inwardly.”

“… [O]ur imagination is our powerhouse … certain images tap into the deeper levels of imaginative force within us; when these are combined with archetypal patterns they may have a permanent transformative effect.”

– R. J. Stewart, Living Magical Arts

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Image source:  sunset.

In the grove the Druid sits — Part II   2 comments

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

The day was fading into twilight, and I could feel the dew settle around us like a third party at this meeting.  “What is your name, master?” I asked him.  In a grassy spot near us I made a firepit, seeing and touching the rough gray stones, feeling their weight to make it real.  Then I gathered a bundle of sticks and lit a fire, because now there was an evening chill in the air.

“I’ve been given many names.  Some of them I even like,” he said in a wry tone, smiling at me.

Suddenly I knew his name.  “Wadin Tohangu,” I said.  “That’s an African name?”

He nodded.

“You’re an African Druid?  Is there even such a thing?!”

He chuckled at my surprise.  “I travel a lot. And you’re as much a Druid as I am.”

This wasn’t exactly the answer I expected.  And I wondered what he meant.

“Yes, you may call me Wadin Tohangu.  Call on me when you need help,” he said, “or if you wish to talk, as we are doing today.”  He spoke English clearly and very well, but the way he said his name, with the slightest accent, set off echoes in my head.  A familiar name.  I knew it somehow.  How?

“It’s a name you can use,” he said, as if in reply to my thoughts.  He put his hands out toward the heat of the fire.  “It’s as magical as you are.”

“Some days I don’t feel very magical,” I said, and paused.  Time always seemed to pass differently in the grove, both slowly, and faster than I expected.

“That’s one key, of course.  How you choose to feel,” Wadin answered.  “Which things are your choices and which are simply given to you would be helpful to contemplate.  We confuse those two quite often.  And which to be grateful for, we misunderstand even more!”

“How much can we be grateful for?” I asked.

“That’s a question to answer by experimenting,” he replied.  The pile of burning twigs and small branches shifted, settling.  “Gratitude is another key.”

“Choices and gratitude,” I said, half to myself.

The dog started barking again somewhere in the distance.  I swallowed a flash of annoyance.  This was important — I wanted to hear everything Wadin was saying.

“Yes,” he said.  “And a third point is attention, as we’ve seen.”

I looked at him.

“For you that dog is a most useful guide,” he said, laughing at my expression.  “Why not find out his name, too?”

The darkening sky behind him showed several stars.  He stood up.  “Each moment offers what we need, both for itself, and for moving on to the next one.  How else can time pass?”  As I watched the firelight flicker on his face, he said, “Remember these things.”

I looked around at the grove one more time, and when I turned back, Wadin was gone.  I stood up.  Then I moved to touch the altar and said goodbye to the trees.  The fire had died down to glowing embers. I stirred them with a stick, pushing them into the sand of the pit.

The dog was still barking.  So I followed the sound back to my room, where it was coming in through a screened open window.  I heard a car door slam at Jim’s place, and voices.  Then everything was still again, except for crickets chirping in the dark.  I turned on a light, and sat there quietly for  few minutes, thinking about the experience, and writing it down in my journal.

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Updated 23 April 2015

In the grove the Druid sits   Leave a comment

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

In the grove the Druid sits.  In my grove, the one I’ve constructed in an inner world, via imaginal energies.  With the tall slender trees of entrance standing on either side of the portal, a space between them wide enough for a single person to pass through.  And he is welcome here, though I don’t remember inviting him.  He is always welcome, a friend who will never presume.

Today he indulges me by wearing Druid robes — they make him familiar, with his dark brown skin, that homely, beautiful face  I would know anywhere — and I relax into our conversation.  I know him from somewhere else, too, someplace on the edge of awareness, a realm or time not quite pushing through to full consciousness.  He does what he needs to in order to reach those under his guidance, and to put them at ease so that he can work with them.  Awe or fear or worship is useless to him.  Attention?  That he can use.

His words issue from a place quiet and full of listening.  I’ve come to trust him instinctively, the way wild animals do in the hands of those who love them with touch and gentleness, a welcome of care and compassion for a fellow being in the worlds.  They know that touch, that presence, and their knowing has nothing of the talking human about it.  It’s a language older than words.

He knows when to use words, too, and now he’s speaking about a past I’d forgotten.  I remember it as he speaks, things I didn’t know I knew, things I have not needed to remember until now, because until now they would find no place in me to live, or have any value or significance.  They would feel like they belonged to somebody else, foreign to me, alien, no more at home than a bird of the air caught in a small chamber, fluttering at the windows.  What is it that stands between me and freedom, this transparent flat barrier I never knew was there, blocking me, hard as thought?  But no, I have no wings, I’m not the bird.  But for a moment, there …

The Druid turns to me, a look deep as evening in his gaze.  “You are all you have ever been. Do you remember our first meeting, long ago?”

“It was a market,” I said.  “And I remember.  I was … I was drunk.”

“Sitting slumped against a wall.  When I walked by, though, you spoke to me.”

“What was it I said?  ‘Keep walking, don’t talk to me now.  I don’t have anything left in this life for you.’  Something like that.  I was embarrassed.  I didn’t even know you.”

“Yet you gave me some fruit from your stand …

“Yes, I remember.  A handful of marula.”

“Where were we?” he asked me softly.

“It was … West Africa.  Africa was my home then.”

“Yes. What else do you remember?”

But somewhere in the distance a dog is barking.  My focus falters, pulls me away from this place and back to my room in our Vermont house.  The neighbor’s dog, Jim’s — barking as he always does, every afternoon, impatient for Jim to get home, release him from the chain and walk him, feed him, let him back into the house.

Damn, I think.  It’s all gone, the vision’s gone.

But he’s still with me.

“Dogs bark on all the planes,” he’s saying.  “They’ll bark, and then for a time they’ll be silent again.  You can use them as a guide, or a distraction.  Is there a dog barking near this grove?”

I listen.  “No,” I say.

“Good.  You’re back.  Now, let’s continue …”

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Image

Updated 23 April 2015

Drinking with the Ancestors   2 comments

Some teachings run you through their rituals.
Find your own way – individuals
know what works beyond the shown way:
try out drinking with the Ancestors.

Chat ‘em up — don’t merely greet ‘em;
such rites are chummy: do more than meet ’em.
(Spend your weekends with a mummy?)
But I like drinking with my Ancestors.

Another round of pints and glasses
will have us falling on our asses.
Leave off ritual when they’re calling —
you’ll be drinking with your Ancestors.

By and with the spirits near us —
“Don’t invoke us if you fear us” —
good advice: if you lose focus
though you’re drinking with your Ancestors,

in the morning you’ll be uncertain
if you just dreamed or drew the curtain
on some world where it more than seemed
that you were drinking with your Ancestors.

Alcohol works its own magic,
and not all good – it’s downright tragic
if you’re just hung over from what could
have been you drinking with your Ancestors.

They come in all shapes, and in all sizes:
some are heroes, some no prizes
(they’re like us in all our guises).
Listen: they are singing, they are cussing,
they can advise us if we’re fussing
over where our lives might go
or put on a ghostly show.
We’re the upshot, on the down low.
We’re the payoff, crown and fruit
(we got their genetic trash, and loot),
we’re their future – “build to suit.”
So start drinking with your ancestors.

*            *             *

Ancestor “worship” is sometimes a misnomer, though not always — some cultures do in fact pray to, propitiate and appease the spirits of the ancestral dead in ways indistinguishable from worship.  But others acknowledge what is simply fact — an awful lot (the simple fact that we’re here means our ancestors for the most part aren’t literally “an awful lot”) of people stand in line behind us.  Their lives lead directly to our own.  With the advent of photography it’s become possible to see images beyond the three- or four-generation remove that usually binds us to our immediate forebears.  I’m lucky to have a Civil War photo of my great-great grandfather, taken when he was about my age, in his early fifties.  In the way of generations past, he looks older than that, face seamed and thinned and worn.

The faces of our ancestral dead are often rightfully spooky.  We carry their genetics, of course, and often enough a distant echo of their family traditions, rhythms, expectations, and stories in our own lives — a composite of “stuff,” of excellences and limitations, that can qualify as karma in its most literal sense:  both the action and the results of doing.  But more than that, in the peculiar way of images, the light frozen there on the photograph in patches of bright and dark is some of the purest magic we have.  My great-great-grandfather James looks out toward some indeterminate distance — and in the moment of the photo, time — and that moment is now oddly immortal.  Who knows if it was one of his better days?  He posed for a photo, and no doubt had other things on his mind at the time, as we all do.  We are rarely completely present for whatever we’re doing, instead always on to the next thing, or caught up in the past, wondering why that dog keeps barking somewhere in the background, wondering what’s for dinner, what tomorrow will bring, whether any of our hopes and ambitions and worries justify the energy we pour into them so recklessly.

And I sit here gazing at that photo, or summoning his image from what is now visual memory of the photo, as if I met him, which in some way I now have.  Time stamps our lives onto our faces and here is his face.  No Botox for him.  Every line and crease is his from simply living.  And around him in my imagination I can pose him with his spouse and children (among them my great-grandfather William) and parents, and so on, back as far — almost unimaginably far — as we are human.  Fifty thousand years?  Two hundred thousand?  A million?  Yes, by the time that strain reaches me it’s a ridiculously thin trickle.  But then, if we look back far enough for the connection, it’s the same trickle, so we’re told, that flows in the veins of millions of others around us.  If we can trust the work of evolutionary biologists and geneticists, a very large number of people alive on the planet today descend from a relative handful of ultimate ancestors.  Which seems at first glance to fly in the face of our instinct and of simple mathematics, for that spreading tree of ancestors which, by the time it reaches my great-great-grandfather’s generation, includes thirty people  directly responsible for my existence (two parents, four grandparents, eight great-grandparents and sixteen great-great grandparents).  Someone called evolution the “ultimate game of survivor.” And now I break off one line, stalling forever this one particular evolutionary parade, because my wife and I have no children.

The poem of mine that opened this entry, “Drinking with the Ancestors,” suggests we can indeed meet and take counsel with members of this immense throng through the exercise of inhibition-lowering and imagination-freeing imbibing of alcohol.  Of course there are also visualization exercises and still other techniques that are suitably alcohol-free — more decorous and tame.  Depending on who you want to talk to among your clan, you can have an experience as real as most face-to-face talks with people who have skin on.  The difference between us in-carnate and ex-carnate folks is indeed the carne.  No sudden dispensation of wisdom automatically accrues to us just because we croak.  A living idiot becomes a dead idiot.  Likewise a wise soul is wise, in or out of flesh.

It seems fitting to end with an experience of the ancestors.  Not mine, this time — I keep such things close, because often when we experience them, they are for us alone, and retain their significance and power only if we do not diminish them by laying them out for others who may know nothing of our circumstances and experiences.  Wisdom is not a majority vote.  Even my wife and I may not share certain inner discoveries.  We’ve both learned the hard way that some experiences are for ourselves alone.  But it’s a judgment call.  Some things I share.

So in my place I give you Mary Stewart’s Merlin, in her novel The Hollow Hills*, recounting his quest for Excalibur, and an ancestor dream-vision that slides into waking.  The flavor of it captures one way such an ancestral encounter can go, the opposite end of the easy beery camaraderie that can issue from making the libations that welcome ancestral spirits to a festival or party, as in my poem.  Note the transition to daytime consciousness, the thin edge of difference between dream and waking.

I said “Father?  Sir?” but, as sometimes happens in dreams, I could make no sound.  But he looked up. There were no eyes under the peak of the helmet.  The hands that held the sword were the hands of a skeleton …  He held the sword out to me.  A voice that was not my father’s said, “Take it.”  It was not a ghost’s voice, or the voice of bidding that comes with vision.  I have heard these, and there is no blood in them; it is as if the wind breathed through an empty horn.  This was a man’s voice, deep and abrupt and accustomed to command, with a rough edge to it, such as comes from anger, or sometimes from drunkenness; or sometimes, as now, from fatigue.

I tried to move, but I could not, any more than I could speak.    I have never feared a spirit, but I feared this man.  From the blank of shadow below the helmet came the voice again, grim, and with a faint amusement, that crept along my skin like the brush of a wolf’s pelt felt in the dark.  My breath stopped and my skin shivered.  He said, and I now clearly heard the weariness in the voice:  “You need not fear me.  Nor should you fear the sword.  I am not your father, but you are my seed.  Take it, Merlinus Ambrosius.  You will find no rest until you do.”

I approached him.  The fire had dwindled, and it was almost dark.  I put my hands out for the sword and he reached to lay it across them … As the sword left his grip it fell, through his hands and through mine, and between us to the ground.  I knelt, groping in the darkness, but my hand met nothing.  I could feel his breath above me, warm as a living man’s, and his cloak brushed my cheek.  I heard him say:  “Find it.  There is no one else who can find it.”  Then my eyes were open and it was full noon, and the strawberry mare was nuzzling at me where I lay, with her mane brushing my face (226-7).

/|\ /|\ /|\

*Stewart, Mary.  The Hollow Hills.  New York:  Fawcett Crest Books, 1974.

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