Archive for the ‘Mary Oliver’ Tag

Druids and Death   Leave a comment

No, this isn’t the D&D you’re looking for. Or perhaps it is.

Last month, on the way home from our nephew’s Southern wedding, my wife and I met my two Pennsylvania cousins for breakfast. We hadn’t gotten together since their father, my uncle, passed on almost two years ago. In his mid-90s, he’d wanted a minimal funeral: “No reason to prolong your grief, or spend money doing so”, he’d said. The rite ended up so modest and unannounced only his daughters and grandkids attended. We were just hearing details now.

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Our front-yard rhododendrons, with winter-kill on top, and the lower (snow-protected) green branches

Because of course funerals are very much for the living, too. And in spite of our callous and oblivious Western cultures so uncomfortable and unhelpful around death, we don’t “get over” grief after any fixed period of time. My younger cousin, I know, still carries hers around, like a tight knot in her chest, a cannonball of hurt.

“We’re not supposed to die!” she exclaimed at our breakfast, and I bit my tongue not to offer Druid things to her, knowing she still took a hard Evangelical Christian line about death: that it’s a punishment for sin, not a natural part of a cycle in worlds of time and space; that it’s a penalty for disobedience, not the consequence of wearing bodies that will, over time, wear out. Are autumn and winter unnatural?

Sometimes you just need to be heard in your grief, without judgment, without reply or attempts at comfort that, for you, ring false. No need to argue about death, for anyone’s sakes. I only hope she’ll find upcoming deaths, and her own, not a punishment but another step on our long journey.

Of course Druids no more “believe the same thing” than any other group of contrary, year-marked, and opinionated humans. One of my techniques, field-tested over my decades, if I can remember to turn to it — rather than bothering with belief, or non-belief — is to ask how is it true? When or where is it true, has it been true, will or can it be true again? These, to my mind, are larger, “better” questions, questions that still sidetrack me very helpfully, and fascinate me — much more than trying to lock down the moving target of “what a person can reasonably be expected to believe these days”. The answers, often spinning on to more questions, also fit poet Mary Oliver’s criteria: “so many questions more beautiful than answers”. Yup, says my inner Druid, trust the bards on this one, too.

Or as an artist friend said last night in Brandon VT, at her first major show of approximately 40 exquisite watercolors, quoting her mentor: the artist’s job (all our jobs, really) is to “deepen the mystery”, to pay attention.

As I’ve written elsewhere on this blog, I don’t so much believe in life after death as I suspect there’s life after death. It’s a hunch, an itch, a ripple up and down the spine, one way to make sense of too many experiences that otherwise don’t fit. This life is already so strange and unexpected, that to be here at all is no more or less unlikely than to continue after the change of death.

Another way to understand it: any “afterlife” has already begun. I just wasn’t paying attention. This is the afterlife of my previous life: what am I gonna do with it? Fried chicken and beer, operas and curry, sex and drugs, art and amazement, fasting and penance, profit and politics — each of us finds a set of pleasures and purposes to round out the strangeness of being here at all, along with any other projects we try our hands at.

Or, with a turn toward pop culture, with some Appropriation for Druid Purposes: “Ye best start believin’ in ghost stories, Miss Turner”, says Captain Barbossa in Pirates of the Carribean. “Ye’re in one!”

Alastair Reid writes in his poem “Curiosity“:

… that dying is what the living do,
that dying is what the loving do,
and that dead dogs are those who do not know
that dying is what, to live, each has to do.

And because you know I rely on our bards to heal and guide us, here’s Mary Oliver again, one of our master Bards, on grief, with a perfect Druid triad:

To live in this world

you must be able
to do three things:
to love what is mortal;
to hold it

against your bones knowing
your own life depends on it;
and, when the time comes to let it go,
to let it go.

Another chance for Bards to have the last word:  a page of ten particularly apt poems on the immense range of our griefs and losses.

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13 Gift-Day-Flames for Solstice-Solitaries   2 comments

… that you can give to yourself and others. Many of these are simple, elemental — as they can and may be, needing nothing beyond what we have already. If not one flame coming as a gift, then welcome another. Try one a day for all 13, or choose one or more according to a rhythm that makes sense to you. If a nudge should come to try something else, ah, nurture it for what it can be. Flame sparks flame, light reflects light.

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recent mid-December dawn over our roof

Silence. What needs stillness? Find even a brief moment where you can give yourself quiet, if not silence. What flows from that interval? The flame of silence flares when we tend it, and dies back down to embers when we turn up our internal and external volumes. There’s healing in stillness, often because we can finally hear what we’ve been missing, as well as what we can give that we overlooked. Stillness brings a kind of space and light all its own.

Sound. What needs a voice? Music, the human voice, instruments, a happy dog barking, a cat purring, a child’s laughter. These too are gifts to cherish and celebrate. What do I have that I can say, what can I contribute to the conversation? What can I start (or continue) saying that I haven’t said before? What other voices can I listen to and help be heard?

Light. What needs illumination? The Festival of the Returning Sun that is Solstice means the days will begin to grow longer again after this Saturday. We may notice the lengthening more in mid-January, at least in the Northeastern U.S., with the cold, clear days that bespeak deep winter. What’s lighting up for me now? What can I help light up for others?

Ritual. What needs to be celebrated and made more conscious in my life? The smallest things may be asking and answering. Lighting a candle, or a fire. Bathing in a tub for a change, instead of showering (go all out with candles — or bathe in the light of a single flame). Sharing a meal. Watching a video together. Singing a favorite song. Wandering somewhere, off the clock, without a destination.

Kindling. What needs to catch fire? Think kindling as both the action and the materials for it. Go wide — be metaphorical, too. In addition to paper and twigs, think art of all kinds. Sketchbooks, fine paper and pens, glorious fabrics, seed catalogs. Parts, supplies, cleared spaces for projects. Plans, hopes, dreams.

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Mistletoe in silver birch. Photo courtesy Chris Miksic.

Prayer. What needs asking and acknowledgement? Wordless is fine. Asking is a good part of prayer, and there are many other prayers. Gratitude is powerful prayer. Linked with silence, it can become a dedicated daily practice. Or try out words. “Let my prayer rise like incense” says Psalm 141: “… the lifting up of my hands like evening sacrifice”. Find a verse or lyric, song or poem and let it be your prayer. Listen for the prompts everywhere: other people’s words, advertising jingles, casual remarks, a headline, a child’s question, the wordless eyes of animals, the “slow gestures of trees”, as UK LeGuin called them.

Service. What and who do I serve already? Can I build on that? Where are new forms of service looking for me? Who is serving me already that I can acknowledge? I start small, and the list grows. Dropping off a meal to a shut-in. Shoveling a driveway. Serving myself, saying “no” when I need time and space.

Change. What can I help be born? What is seeking to emerge? How can I help shape it? What can I let go of in my life, so that a new thing can find birth? What can I welcome that’s arriving?

Contact. What needs touching? Is it me? What can I invite to touch me? If I don’t have human presences, are there animals who enjoy touching and be touched? What can I bring into connection that’s separate right now? What parts of my life deserve to meet each other, and would flourish if they did?

Reading. What deserves my attention? It may be an actual book, of course, a collection of poems on my altar, or a beloved book from childhood that I can make a ritual of re-reading myself, or sharing with others. (And dogs and cats can make good listeners for this, too.) It may be things I’ve been noticing in my life. What am I reading in my life, in others’ lives, in the world, in my dreams, that wishes to offer guidance?

Memory. What can I recall? What deserves forgetting, letting go? What can I bless, regardless of where it’s going? What scrapbooks, physical or inward, do I turn over, or revisit? What does memory offer that I can enrich my life with today? Sorting the mix we all have, setting aside some images (burning them?), while keeping others, blessing all, a second time. And a third. What can I add to my store of memory? What memories deserve sharing with others? What memories do others have that also touch on my life? What memories can I honor that have little or nothing to do with me? What memories does this elm have, that hickory? Let me honor them.

Nourishment. What needs feeding? Is it for me to feed them, or for someone else? How have I been fed? What forms of nourishment can I bring into my life? What am I bringing in already? What forms can I share with others? What prayer of gratitude can I say, acknowledging those gone, those still here, for feeding things in me that might never have survived without their help?

Freedom. What needs to run free? What do I hold on to that would make both of us happier if I let go? What can I welcome that comes to me freely, unbidden, unlooked-for? What symbols of freedom speak to me that I can bring into my attention, my spaces, as reminders and for my growth?

As Mary Oliver exclaims in one of her poems, “so many questions more beautiful than answers”.

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Evaluating Values, Part 1   Leave a comment

[Part 2]

As a set of guidelines, the six principles my new school works to embody and put into practice offer a new angle on some profound Pagan principles. I’ll list them, then look at each one from my own perspective. (Season to your taste. After all, in the end we’re the ones who choose to adopt — or refuse — whole sets of values. Whatever story we tell about them later, we’ve chosen or turned from them.)

Be here.
Be safe.
Be honest.
Let go and move on.
Set goals.
Care for self and others.

Be here. Am I here, fully, now? Well, in New Jersey, yes. Over our last week of professional development, one presenter made a point I’ve been carrying around. We tell kids, and adults too, to “pay attention!”. But do we ever teach how to do that? What’s it mean, really? Is it just one thing, or a collection of practices? Is it even always the same thing?

I’m going to look at “being here” in terms of trees. When I walk up to and greet one of my new favorite trees here in NJ, I’m also listening for a rhythm, a wave of energy that has its own pulse. It may take me a bit to tune in to it, or once I do tune in, to harmonize with it. Touch can help. The give-and-take is part listening, part sinking into myself. I’m both more with the tree, and also more with myself. Trees differ as much as humans, so the rhythm or pulse differs with each one. Some challenge. Some welcome. Some heal. Some rouse. Some just have better things to do than interact with humans — nothing personal, you understand.

Being here is listening, feeling, monitoring, relaxing, attending — a whole cluster of practices and responses that intermesh and modify each other. Fortunately, the tree (usually) takes part and helps, like in any conversation, to make an exchange happen, and make it instructive or beneficial for both parties.

Be safe. Many of the girls at the school have struggled in other places, had bad experiences as learners, face significant gaps in capacities that would let them thrive in public high schools, and vary widely in their command of work-arounds, strategies, self-awareness, support systems, and so on that help them play to the strengths each one has. How can they or any of us feel safe in a world of change and challenge and heartbreak? Significantly, other people can be a resource. In the favoritism that the West and particularly the U.S. shows to independence and self-reliance, we often overlook the family, the group, the tribe.

The girls — and faculty, too — are trained to “call group”, to ask for the help of class, team, squad, dining table, or entire school. Call group for clarification: what does each person understand about the task at hand? Call it for celebration: let’s acknowledge what we’ve accomplished. (Ask another person to call group on your behalf, if you’re too shy or stressed to do it yourself). Call it for confrontation: let someone who has bullied or threatened another hear that the group knows and rejects that behavior. Can we do that and still be safe? Can we do it and not become bullies or sources of intimidation ourselves?

Are we ultimately safe in this universe we inhabit? Is the cosmos malevolent, seeking us out to crush us and pulverize every plan and hope? If we know fully our kinship with all life, the great teachers tell us, then we can indeed be safe here. But how to get there, just like how to pay attention, is something we rarely teach, or are rarely taught ourselves. Pay attention! Be safe! How, please, can I do that? Is it safe to be here, where I’m called to be?

Be honest. Can we be honest, and safe, too? Show me!

Mary Oliver’s poem “Wild Geese”, which gets quoted a lot for various purposes, offers a kind of Pagan gospel, a trust in a deep and intricate order that our human drama often belies. Maybe we could call this the Pagan trust, one of the most honest things a Pagan can tell you about life and the cosmos.

You do not have to be good. [Really? So many moral codes tell us otherwise!]
You do not have to walk on your knees
For a hundred miles through the desert, repenting.
You only have to let the soft animal of your body
love what it loves. [Danger! say many scriptures. Disaster! Damnation! Doom!]

The poem shifts in what feels to me like its second pulse, the second chamber of its heart. It doesn’t say our soft animal bodies automatically transform every problem. They’re a start, not an endpoint. Start with the fact of embodiment, says Oliver. Whether or not my attention is here right now, my body sure is. But what’s next?

Tell me about your despair, yours, and I will tell you mine.
Meanwhile the world goes on.
Meanwhile the sun and the clear pebbles of the rain
are moving across the landscapes,
over the prairies and the deep trees,
the mountains and the rivers.
Meanwhile the wild geese, high in the clean blue air,
are heading home again.

What are we to make of the “meanwhiles”? Like so many of us, you may have experienced the strange double vision of intense grief or other emotion, while the whole rest of the world all around you goes on, continues, unconcerned. Depending on where you are in your intensity, that may confuse or enrage or sadden you. How dare the cosmos not notice my suffering? Or, alternatively, if you’re swept up in a big high, why aren’t more people celebrating the amazingness of simply being alive?

But we’re not alone in the lows any more than in the highs, however isolating our internal hurricane can feel at times. But how can something of the wild geese “high in the clean blue air” communicate itself to me here in the middle of my grief or rage or despair? Here, where I’m paying attention, because I’m held in the grip of an immensity and can’t do anything else anyway, even if I wanted to.

Oliver generously, Druidically, gives us three “meanwhiles”, so perhaps we may hear at least one. But how exactly do I “head home again” out of all this?

One powerful key, or two together, appear in what I feel is the final “pulse” of the poem:

Whoever you are, no matter how lonely,
the world offers itself to your imagination,
calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting —
over and over announcing your place
in the family of things.

Imagination and family. How do we access this connection, our place in the family of things? One way is through the imagination, which — like attention — we’re rarely taught how to use. No wonder the West suffers. It’s thrown aside many of the skills and strengths of imagination. We see the suspicion of art and the fear of imagination and transformation outside any sanctioned practices or churches or political persuasions or sexual orientations. So often we see the world, or a pretty fair chunk of it, as “out to get us”, instead of “inside to help us”. Imagination, that bottomless source of so much misery and joy. It’s imagination that connects us to our true family.

Meanwhile — Oliver’s wonderful, terrible word — meanwhile, the cosmos pays no attention to our fear. It just keeps sending us messengers, in spite of anything we do. It just keeps announcing the deep good news of our real place in the family.

I find more and more I want to pay attention.

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Posted 7 September 2017 by adruidway in Druidry, earth spirituality, Mary Oliver

Tagged with , ,

Backstage Druidry   2 comments

Oscars-Backstage

In the end we all do what we’re told. (It’s a backstage conversation.) We just differ on who we listen to, who we decide to heed. The cicadas from central casting announce August outside my window, under this overcast summer sky on a day of rain, and I sit grappling with this post. Somehow they’ll work their way in, because I listen to practically everything. Bards most of all, because they’re such electric company. Each cicada-Bard croons a Lunasa song, turning and tumbling toward the Equinox now, the days shortening at both ends, darkness nibbling at the warm hands of summer.

Do we really do what we’re told, and follow a script handed to us backstage? “No rehearsal. You’re on in 10 seconds.” Then Pow! Birth! And going off-script means following another script, the one titled rebel or train-wreck, fool or genius, or what have you. What do we have? “What is written is written,” runs the Eastern proverb about fate. “What can I say?” quips Buffy the Vampire Slayer. “I flunked the written.” So many scripts to choose, rehearse, try out. When we read for “human,” how many other lines do we forget? “I am a stag of seven tines,” sings Amergin, “I am a wide flood on a plain, I am a wind on the deep waters …” Memory and imagination, the same, or inversions of each other.

When poet Mary Oliver gives Bardic advice, “Instructions for living a life. Pay attention. Be astonished. Tell about it,” I want to shout “But attention and astonishment are both luxuries!” And they are: ultimate, essential luxuries. Yes, Socrates said, “The unexamined life is not worth living.” Writing teacher Robert McKee turns it around: “The unlived life isn’t worth examining.” Ouch! Take it personally like I do (though quickly I blunt the edge by applying it to characters I’ve written, all those understudies and stand-ins for my life) — take it personally and you may turn another way, determined perhaps this time to swallow life whole. This life is brand-new, never seen before. Old games, true, but new blood.

Backstage I overhear someone whispering, “Worry about living first, and if necessary, leave the examining to somebody else.” Is that meant for me?  “You’re on! Break a leg!” Is that meant for me, too?

Broken. Stuckness. Does it happen more to people who overthink their lives, who need to see where each footstep will land before they take a step?  Those who strive to word a version of their lives acceptable for a blogpost?

“When I am stuck in the perfection cog,” remarks author Anna Solomon,

–as in, I am rewriting a sentence a million times over even though I’m in a first draft or, I am freaking out and can’t move forward because I am not sure how everything is going to fit together—I find it helpful to tell myself: You will fail.

A soul after my own heart! Failure: our solid stepping stone to success. Because who IS sure how everything is going to fit together?

I have this written on a Post-it note. It might sound discouraging, but I find it very liberating. The idea is that no matter what I do, the draft is going to be flawed, so I might as well just have at it. I also like to look at pictures I’ve taken of all the many drafts that go into my books as they become books, which helps me remember that so much of what I am writing now will later change. When I am aware that my work is not as brave or true as it needs to be, I like to look at a particular photograph of myself as a child. I am about eight, sitting on a daybed in cut-off shorts, with a book next to me. I’m looking at the camera with great confidence, and an utter lack of self-consciousness. This photograph reminds me of who I am at my essence, and frees me up to write more like her. —Anna Solomon, author of Leaving Lucy Pear (Viking, 2016), in a Poets and Writers article:

No rehearsal — it’s all draft, to mix metaphors. And You will fail. But once you do the draft, paradoxically, it becomes rehearsal, revision. Re-seeing. We will look again in astonishment, memory or return, mirroring the same thing, and marvel differently. Our recognition when another tells the tale, when others speak for us because they can, they live here too, they see and speak our hearts’ truth. We know, partly, because of them. They’re versions of us, dying and being born together.

“When death comes,” Mary Oliver says in the poem of the same name,

like the hungry bear in autumn;
when death comes and takes all the bright coins from his purse

to buy me, and snaps his purse shut …

when death comes
like an iceberg between the shoulder blades,

I want to step through the door full of curiosity, wondering:
what is it going to be like, that cottage of darkness?

Oh, Mark Twain gathers himself to answer. I hold my breath. Maybe it’s both like and unlike anything you imagine. Can we fear only what we dimly remember? “I do not fear death,” Twain says. “I had been dead for billions and billions of years before I was born, and had not suffered the slightest inconvenience from it.”

Lunasa thoughts. The autumn in the bones and blood, while the young are dancing. Mead around the fire. We’re both grasshopper and ant in the old fable, gathering and spending it all so profligately. Expecting a pattern, a plan, we’re told to ignore the man behind the curtain. Sometimes there’s neither curtain nor man. Other times, both man and curtain, but as we approach, the spaces between each thread and cell, between each corpuscle and moment, each atom, have grown so large we can fly through appearances, into mystery, into daydream. Great Mystery drops us into the blossom before it’s open, we sip nectar, drowsing at the calyx, the Chalice. Mystery listens as the bees hum around us, gathering pollen. Stored up sweetness for the next season. To know itself, Mystery gazes from everything we meet, we see it in each others’ eyes, so it can see itself.

Attention, says Mary Oliver, attention is the beginning of devotion.

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Image: Oscars.

Boku no Shinto: My Shinto, Part 1   2 comments

[Shinto & Shrine Druidry 1 | 2 | 3] [Shinto — Way of the Gods ]
[Renewing the Shrine 1 | 2] [Boku no Shinto: My Shinto 1 | 2]

Following the magical principle of polarity to wing myself toward what I really want to write about, in the title for this post I’ve done something quite un-Nihonteki, un-Japanese — un-Shinto, in fact.  Japan’s native spirituality focuses on harmony between human and spiritual realms, a harmony which finds a powerful objective expression in the natural world.  “Seek Spirit?  Look around!”  Yet I used boku, I wrote “I” — as if “I” could possess Shinto, as if it were a thing among other things that a person could own or control or claim.  The i returns to its proper size in balanced relationship.  An outsized I is part of the challenge the West currently faces, as well as each of us individually.  Be yourself, we’re told.  What the hell does that mean, anyway? Still too much.  (Too much is not enough, says the lower-case zen master/fool in my ear.)

Sometimes I just need to back into it, the destination that feels nearby, though I can’t see it.  “Returning is the motion of the Tao” (chapter 40). Because if I try it head-on, all the old defenses go up like a bad reflex. An old i holds on even as a new one moves in.  They spar a little.  But what are wood and water doing while I stare at an i?

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“who are you, little i” asks e. e. cummings in a poem of that title, “(five or six years old)/peering from some high/ window; at the gold/of november sunset” — let’s make it May instead: we can, and e. e. won’t mind.  Will cheer us on, I suspect — “(and feeling: that if day/has to become night/this is a beautiful way)”

Participate in our own becoming.  A call, if we choose to hear and heed it.  Make it day when it’s night (for our next trick, do it without using electricity).  Or vice versa, turning off the glare of the spotlight on the self which isn’t the whole story.

After all, “five or six years old” is about right: didn’t that crazy Galilean say we need to become like little children again?  Is that “being yourself”?

Like is important: we can all imagine it, approach it, approximate it.  Journey towards it.  Try out “yes” till it drops the ” ” — that little chicken scratch that distracts us from so much.  Or become the chicken that makes the scratch.  That’s a power we’re granted, too. Shape-shift at will and need.  One thing becomes another, in the Mother, in the Mother.  Thanks, Mom.  Can faking it make it real?  Well, the pressure’s off if all I need to do is fake it.

(e. e., you saw it, said it elsewhere:  “i thank You God for most this amazing/day: for the leaping greenly spirits of trees/and a blue true dream of sky; and for everything/which is natural which is infinite which is yes”).  And if “You God” doesn’t work for you, insert your own addressee of choice.

Need a spell to make it happen?  “Power of choice I grant thee, I grant thee, I grant thee.” O.K., proceed.

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Entrance, Tsubaki Grand Shrine, Washington state

Site stats show that my previous posts on Shinto are among the most popular here at A Druid Way.  The reason for that can’t be too far to find.  We crave like a food-hunger a spiritual reality that does not depend on belief (or at least not on belief alone), but is present to us whenever we’re present to it — and even when we’re not.  We may hunger for a Way or Ways, just like we yearn for dark chocolate or hot sauce or beef or fresh limes in guacamole (insert your favorite food hunger here), a harmony that we can begin to fall back into at any moment, wherever we are, just by shifting our attention, and restore a sense of balance and integrity. And not just a sense of them, but its reality — a poise for living that shows in our words and deeds.  We’ve all known this harmony, witnessed it in others, however briefly, which is why we can feel so disheartened when we lack it, when we’ve lost it, fallen out of it.  We know it’s possible because it’s there, in living memory, however far we stand from it right now, in this grubby, muddy present moment.

We’ve even got a Shinto shrine in the U.S., the Tsubaki Grand Shrine in Washington State, if we need the reminder.  Which is what a shrine, among other things, persistently tries to be.  It’s here, all around us, what we seek.  And a few among us imported Shinto as a recognition of that consciousness, as a support for us when we lose our way.  From it we can jump-start our own (there’s a possessive pronoun again) American Shinto, if we desire it, if we give it space to manifest.  The kami know and dwell in America, too.

Though it’s not a perfect instrument, a song, a painting, a poem can remind us, point us in directions that can restore and heal. “The Spirit,” says Mary Oliver in her simply-titled “Poem,”

                        likes to dress up like this:
                          ten fingers,
                            ten toes,

                      shoulders, and all the rest
                        at night
                          in the black branches,
                            in the morning

                      in the blue branches
                        of the world.
                          It could float, of course,
                            but would rather

                      plumb rough matter.
                        Airy and shapeless thing,
                          it needs
                            the metaphor of the body,

                      lime and appetite,
                        the oceanic fluids;
                          it needs the body's world,
                            instinct

                      and imagination
                        and the dark hug of time,
                          sweetness
                            and tangibility,

                      to be understood,
                        to be more than pure light
                          that burns
                            where no one is--

                      so it enters us--
                        in the morning
                          shines from brute comfort
                            like a stitch of lightning;

                      and at night
                        lights up the deep and wondrous
                          drownings of the body
                            like a star.

(And so I ask myself, what isn’t Spirit?!  Is that being yourself?)

Tsubaki Grand Shrine -- harmony

Tsubaki Grand Shrine — harmony

“The Japanese,” says a BBC Religions page,

see shrines as both restful places filled with a sense of the sacred, and as the source of their spiritual vitality – they regard them as their spiritual home, and often attend the same shrine regularly throughout their lives. Shrines need not be buildings – rocks, trees, and mountains can all act as shrines, if they are special to kami.

Physical world as spiritual home: what a change that would make in us if we carried that knowing with us all day long.

A large shrine can contain several smaller sub-shrines. Shinto shrines can cover several thousand acres, or a few square feet. They are often located in the landscape in such a way as to emphasise their connection to the natural world, and can include sacred groves of trees, and streams.

How many of us find the kami in a garden, a window pot we lovingly water, a bird feeder stocked through winter, or whatever season in your area that otherwise challenges the small feathered lives around us?

Tsubaki Grand Shrine ritual

Tsubaki Grand Shrine ritual

Various symbolic structures, such as torii gates and shimenawa ropes, are used to separate the shrine from the rest of the world.

Separation as a reminder — not that one exists like some line in the sand, but one we need, in order to notice what’s right in front of our noses.

And so I remember to bow at the willow at the bottom of the hill where our house sits.  I talk to the crocuses.  Sometimes I forget.  Then I remember again.  Muslim mystics chant the dhikr, literally the “Remembrance” of that one Name ringing just behind our day-to-day awareness.  Or many names, each waiting to be cherished, each a kami, each a potential doorway to what we seek.  In a world of seven billion persons, a grand synthesis, a God for everyone, may not be feasible at this point in our consciousness.  But we can reverence that lopsided pine down at the corner, honor the robins and starlings on our lawn, respect our own bodies on this earth, and begin, again, to find our ways.  Isn’t that much of the promise of spring (and of so many of our human stories) — starting over?  The growing shout of green, the rising sap, birdsong and peepers calling into the night, what we call spring fever in our veins and nerves and sinews, obeying an old law we’ve almost forgotten.

In answer to a query about the viability of some form of American Shinto, about “What is Shinto to the West,” a Westerner observes,

Well, Shinto in the West is automatically different from Shinto in Japan. For some reason, Japanese immigrants and their descendents don’t seem to keep practicing Shinto very much, perhaps because of the difficulty in practicing a shrine-centered, community-oriented faith in a place with nearly no shrines (I can count the ones I know of on one hand!) and a very small and scattered community.

So, most of the North American practitioners I know of are of European ancestry, trying to practice Shinto alone and without shrines, and learning what they know from books. Many have some sort of cultural connection to Japan – either they’ve studied it academically like you, or else they have married a Japanese person, or they lived part of their life there, or have learned a bit about Japanese spirituality through the martial arts community. We have to adapt the religion to our new environment, e.g. finding replacements for unavailable supplies, translating prayers from Old Japanese into English, and trying to answer hard questions like, should we honour the spirits of Japan or try to identify the spirits of our own environment?

Druids have built their own shrines, and begun to listen to the spirits here on the North American continent, which differ from European or Asian ones.  Just the act of listening opens many doors.  What we often lack is the support of a community in our practice.  Many have the strength of self-discipline to sustain a solitary practice, but others need the interaction, inspiration and community spirit that can help through the arid periods where nothing seems to be happening and we’re stopped dead in the water.

For that reason alone many Americans stick with Christianity or Judaism, because it offers that support, even if they also seek out other founts of spiritual nourishment in places their Abrahamic fellow-religionists might balk at.  It’s the reason behind “spiritual but not religious,” which ultimately is often hard to pull off in practical terms, because spirit seeks a form, a practice, if only to come true to us, to enter our physical lives in manifest ways, as Oliver’s poem above reminds us. We do this and not that because it works.  Any claims about earlier or better or more spiritual or, Goddess help us all, divinely inspired and uniquely true forever and always, come along after.

Part 2 here.

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Mary Oliver. Dream Work, Atlantic Monthly Press (Boston, MA), 1986.

Images: trees on cliff; Tsubaki Grand Shrine images (homepage auto-sequence), accessed 9 May 2014.

Serpent Under The Door   2 comments

With a title like that, you might expect shocking revelations, secret tips, insider advice, or something — anything — designed to titillate or distract a readership.  Or perhaps I could offer some variation on “what people want” — if we try to deduce that incoherent impossibility from reports on Google’s most popular search terms.

Garter SnakeInstead, I’ll start with the literal.  Our west-facing driveway warms up during the day, and on late spring and early fall mornings like yesterday’s and today’s, when we open the overhead garage door, as often as not one or more garter snakes will have curled up on the concrete during the night to warm themselves on the residual heat. Each morning they’re sluggish and need to be coaxed with a toe from their stupor to move and so avoid getting run over by our car.  Thus the “serpent under the door.”

But as with all other things (Druids like to claim), coincidences can be teachers, too.  Take our power outage yesterday afternoon.  I saw a flash of light, heard a popping sound, and our electricity died as I was starting to draft this post.  Green Mountain Power arrived a couple of hours later and promptly fixed the problem.  With an extensible pole, the line workman loosened something small and dark from the overhead transformer which plummeted to our lawn, and then he apparently reset a surge protector or trip device.  Problem solved.  When he came to the door to report success — I was watching all this from our living room window and stepped out to meet him — he said a bird had shorted out the line, tripping the transformer.  The small dark object that had fallen was the burnt corpse of the unfortunate.  Wholly unperturbed, our resident pair of mourning doves resumed their perches nearby on the power line soon after the GMP service truck departed.

Serpents and doves: be shrewd as the former, and gentle as the latter, counsels the Galilean master*.  To put it more bluntly, avoid getting fried, or run over — each grisly fate available, significantly enough, through human agency.  So it’s fitting that any shrewdness and gentleness I can wring from these two instances should issue from the same animal world.

As I write, goldfinches brighten our feeder, squabbling with the jays and an acrobatic chipmunk for seed.  Today’s late morning humidity and temperature already climb toward midsummer highs, just a few days after night-time frost warnings in our area.  The serpent under the door is my instinct, the bird on the power grid my arrogant ignorance.  No, that’s not it.  Something else, something other.  Yes, the danger of allegory is its all-too-easiness, its tendency toward glib preachiness.  A welcome Buddhist and pragmatic strain in some contemporary Druidry reminds me that sometimes a dead bird is just a bird, a sluggish serpent just a snake.  It’s the “and yet” that rears up and insists on making bigger meanings from small ones that is a sometimes annoying blessing.

But why shouldn’t we squeeze every event and experience for all it might be worth?  Equipped with overactive brains and growing out of a world we have tried to name and explicate, it’s a natural tendency, one literally native to us, crafted by nature, by natural selection and chance, by the divine at work with these, their alter ego, their personification, their image.  Tolkien’s elves, the Quendi, named things and tried to wake them.  In this they followed their nature:  Quendi** means “those who speak with voices,” the verbal echoes of their name present in words like bequeath and loquacious, query and quest, inquisitive and require.  Kweh, kwoh, kw-, kw- … Human deeds, human cries, human needs.  The same world that wiggles and flutters in snakes and birds has shaped and turned itself to allow humans to name — and endanger — them.  Because we can do something may not mean we should.  So we look to our animal kin for direct lived insight into how to thrive in this world, their wordless gestures rich as words. In an early poem, Mary Oliver captures Druidic wisdom:

Sleeping in the Forest

I thought the earth remembered me,
she took me back so tenderly,
arranging her dark skirts, her pockets
full of lichens and seeds.
I slept as never before, a stone on the river bed,
nothing between me and the white fire of the stars
but my thoughts, and they floated light as moths
among the branches of the perfect trees.
All night I heard the small kingdoms
breathing around me, the insects,
and the birds who do their work in the darkness.
All night I rose and fell, as if in water,
grappling with a luminous doom. By morning
I had vanished at least a dozen times
into something better.

At first we might think it’s death she’s talking about, but as she says in other poems, it’s deeper and more significant than just that particular transition, that magnified human fear and obsession.  Death, yes:  but there are many more marvelous things in addition to that. We can imagine ourselves different, “better” — what that may mean. “The world offers itself to your imagination,/calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting–/over and over announcing your place/in the family of things.” Gratitude to bird and beast; this, my offering.

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Image: garter snake

*Matthew 10:16.

** encyclopedia of Arda

Answering Molly   Leave a comment

I teach at a boarding school, and a few years ago, one of my freshman advisees asked a seemingly innocent question during one of our first meetings.  I was still learning the scores of new names teachers must match with faces each fall, but Molly’s inquiry made her stand out from the other students:  “What question should I ask, and what’s the answer?”

I vaguely remember replying that I’d have to give  her question some thought, but I’d be sure to get back to her.  As a bit of playfulness, the matter might have ended there.  But Molly brought up the question again, almost every time we saw each other in fact, and it soon became a kind of inside joke.  She graduated before I wrote this, but she’s on Facebook, so I’ll be sending this along to her, only half a decade late.

Ideally, teaching and learning invite questions.  Good questions distinguish students who are thinking well, and they can move classes in rich and unforeseen directions. Good students and teachers distinguish themselves by the mileage they can get out of each other’s questions.  How often I’ve shut students down by dismissing a question out of lack of time, answering it poorly, not hearing it as it was intended, or deferring it in the face of “more important things” and ultimately forgetting it.  A class often comes alive with student questions.  They break up a teacher monolog, and — better, often, than teacher questions — reveal student thinking, which may well be superior to anything the teacher has planned for the day.  For me, following wherever such questions lead at least once a week has proven worth the time again and again.

For questions imply answers.  Insofar as it can be put into language, a desire to know carries the seeds of its own response.  Often we already “know” much of what an answer should “look like” – which some might say is a problem, because it conditions the kinds of answers we can receive, or those we will devote the most energy looking for.  When the man searching for his lost key is asked why he’s looking under a streetlight, he replies, “Because that’s where the light is.”

If we ask simple informational questions, such as “What time is it?” we already know a great deal about the form of the answer.  “Half a cup” or “Poughkeepsie” or “grayish green” won’t do for answers in this case.  “Not yet” edges somewhat closer, since it has at least something to do with time.  “4:18 pm” serves very well, whether or not it’s accurate, because it has the form of the kind of answer we seek.  So it satisfies the formal requirement without necessarily satisfying the content requirement.

In the case of “large” questions, though, it can be more difficult to recognize whether an answer even satisfies the formal requirement.  But as The Hitch Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy insinuates, though we may have an answer,  even one as specific as 42, without its “inciting” question to steady and direct it like a rudder on a boat, an answer by itself may not help us very much.

Mary Oliver notes in one of her poems, “there are so many questions more beautiful than answers.” Living in our questions is one way to keep a spiritual search alive. Resist the craving for an answer too soon. In her poem “Spring,” she asserts, “‘There is only one question:/how to love this world.”  The biggest questions may not have an “answer” in any  sense we expect or demand, but they may nonetheless propel us in necessary or powerful directions, ones we need to travel.

Molly’s inquiry is a meta-question – a question about questions.  It asks about quality.  It also assumes the listener might know more than the speaker, at least about questions and their answers.  It implies that another can recognize – and provide – good or worthwhile questions worth asking, can anticipate the kinds of questions you may have, and has good answers.

Now all of this is unfair to load onto a probably offhand and casually teasing question.  But by continuing to ask it, Molly slowly transformed it into a kind of riddle or meditation object, deepening its significance.  What a lesson there!

One kind of answer to that question is also a general one, and sounds like advice for someone setting out on a journey:  ask the best kinds of questions you can, and trust that you also need to seek out your own answers.  Those anyone else can supply, except for day-to-day matters, aren’t really worth your time, except as provisional responses, first approximations to the answers you can best provide for yourself.  Question authority, because some sacred cows stopped giving milk a long time ago.  Question authority to find out if that authority deserves the name — does it feed you stock answers, or does it actually possess the power to lead you toward your own answers?  And better, authorize questions — encourage yourself, and others, to keep asking.

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Image:  cartoon

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