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The One True Druidry   Leave a comment

[Updated 5 August 2020]

is the one you’re actually practicing, as opposed to any ideal in your head. Or least so it looks from where I’m walking through the woods, or sitting at the kitchen table.

From new Druids on one of the OBOD Facebook sites introducing themselves, asking questions, sharing their sense of discovery on this new journey, to battle-scarred Christians on the Druidry and Christianity site, recounting their journeys out of toxic groups and towards a Jesus who’s always been praying in the forest, as well as blessing the tidal basins along the seashore and listening in the desert sands, or standing there in the next room, gazing at the statue of his brother Lugh, or his sister Brighid, we’re walking any number of possible and imagined paths to see what the next steps reveal.

Can we map out some of the characteristics of what “true Druidry” might look like?

incense

incense / Pexels.com

ONE

For a start, we can lay claim to the sense of the Hippocratic oath (NIH website). Though the oath doesn’t include the explicit words “First, do no harm” that are often attributed to it, the sense behind those words is clearly present. One of the signal advantages to walking a solitary path is that no dysfunctional group will muck up your journey. Add to that the reassurances in the study materials of responsible Orders to do what feels right, and simply to set aside any exercises or materials that don’t. Most people connect with a group, if at all, through a friend or acquaintance, and that’s as good a way as most. Likewise, the practice of Druidry should be the practice of non-harming.

Of course, Druidry like any other valid path can be an instrument to help unstick us if we’re stuck. It tends to do this gently, pointing us toward sources of balance and healing. More vigorous and rigorous forms and practices are also available. As we come into healthier balance, we often are drawn to find ways to lighten any undesirable impact of our words, actions, thoughts and feelings. Just as taking up the study of Druidry should do no harm to us, our practice of Druidry should do no harm to Others.

TWO

Good teaching supplies options to students: you can find ways to adapt the course of instruction to your interests, circumstances, and so on. A water-loving tree mentioned in your reading, for instance, may not grow anywhere near you in your home climate, a dry one unlike the British isles, but another tree in your yard or town piques your interest and attention, and can teach you much. Your local tree becomes your teacher for the month (and beyond) as much as your formal written study materials. Knowing this, authors of good materials generally point you toward such teachers, who constitute a central part of earth spirituality. “The Land is your greatest teacher”.

A Druid proverb here might be “Do not overlook teachers you may not expect, or who don’t match your preconceived notions of what a teacher should look like. For these include some of the best teachers you will meet”. Or more succinctly: “Expect the best teachers, whatever forms they may take”.

THREE

Many people recount experiences of synchronicity in their study: the lesson on animal guides arrives when you’ve encountered or been dreaming of an animal, perhaps the animal mentioned in the lesson. A book reaches your hand that opens up a topic you’ve just been thinking about. A conversation with a friend touches on an issue you’ve been struggling with, and that brings its own comfort. Any focus maintained over time tends to provoke such experiences. Are we simply more alert to things already present in our lives? Does our study “cause” them to arrive when we need them? Is the green world listening in some sense to our spoken and unspoken wishes and thoughts? Pondering such questions is also part of Druidry, and helps to shape our response to the synchronicities.

BAM Druid Gather

“It takes night to see fire best”. Full moon at BAM gathering, Sept. 2019.

FOUR

Ritual observances as the tides and seasons change, something as simple as a blessing over a harvest, or a libation to the full or new moon in recognition of its beauty and mystery as a door to spirit, deepen our experience of living in time, and also afford us glimpses of timelessness. “The apparent world fades”, says OBOD ritual. (Don’t worry, whisper the flowers on the altar. It hasn’t gone away. It’ll still be there when you return.)

Ritual both intensifies our awareness of the “ordinary” and opens us to the non-ordinary. Often ordinary and non-ordinary share qualities, or merge and blend and shift in ways we hadn’t noticed before. (Are they the “same”? Both no and yes seem true or accurate answers. Compare Tolkien’s proverb: “Go not to the Elves for counsel, for they will say both no and yes” — The Fellowship of the Ring.)

At Lunasa or Imbolc, Brighid may have something to say to Lugh, and vice-versa, and via ritual we find we can listen in to their conversation. Or we turn our words, gestures and ritual elements to one of them and it seems that the other answers. As the Wise have reminded us, just because Brighid or Lugh may not exist, that doesn’t mean they have nothing valuable to say to us. Such categories of things get re-arranged. We start to realize how large and multi-form and marvelous the cosmos can be — a blessing of freedom and possibility in itself.

FIVE

“Guard the mysteries! Constantly reveal them!” wrote Beat poet Lew Welch some 51 years ago now, in 1969, in his poem “Theology”. In one sense, that’s what the experience of doing Druidry feels like. The really profound things can’t be conveyed to other people anyway, but only experienced. Any mystery we “guard” is also something we’re trying to reveal to anybody interested, through our rituals and actions, our stories and our own practices, our urging to others to practice for themselves so they can have the experiences, too.

Doreen_Valiente

Doreen Valiente / Wikipedia.

The act of revealing often takes the form of a kind of guarding. With both mirth and reverence, as Doreen Valiente puts it in her Charge of the Goddess, we approach the sacred at the heart of the world, in ourselves and in other things. We model this as best we can because of our own repeated experiences.

Our approach is a participation and honoring; our participation is an approach. The guarding itself is an invitation — apart from initiations, our Circles are typically open to respectful visitors, and we do what we do “in the eye of the sun” unless the event runs into evening hours, as feels right for Samhain.

SIX

Curiosity seems a common trait many Druids share. Almost always there’s something that sparks their interest. Often it’s an avocation, something done as an amateur in the original sense of the word — out of love. There are many remarkably accomplished and educated people among Druids I know. They take up new studies and practices, pursue training through more formal diploma-ed and certificate programs, as well as less formally, through reading, apprenticing, experimenting, returning to and building on a hobby, study, or passion of their youth or acquiring a new one.

“So many things worth knowing” could serve as a motto for many. Like Gandalf, they often enjoy digging, learning things in the process not yet generally known or accepted. “Among the Wise I am the only one that goes in for hobbit-lore”, remarks Gandalf in The Fellowship of the Ring. The wizard’s specialty proves to be “an obscure branch of knowledge, but full of surprises. Soft as butter as they can be, and yet sometimes as tough as old tree-roots. I think it likely that some would resist the Rings far longer than most of the Wise would believe”.

SEVEN

Transformation and spiraling seem to characterize living teachings. We change, the teachings themselves seem to morph and change and shift, what we thought we were and knew transforms, and we spiral to see the same old things in new ways, encountering higher harmonics of the no longer “same old thing”, so that our experience and wisdom deepen as a result. Another common proverb expresses this well: One thing becomes another in the Mother …

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“Holy Zombie? Earth Guardian?”

“You be the judge!”

[Updated Thursday, 23 May 2020]

[Alert: image of mummy appears in this post]

One of J. M. Greer’s “notes in passing” in his latest book, The Mysteries of Merlin, which I reviewed here, concerns a cross-cultural phenomenon that with careless treatment sounds like the makings of a script for some breathless “Hidden Mysteries” documentary, or a really good-bad horror film. With attention, though, we can discern a remarkable and ancient conception of sacrifice for the communal good that spans the globe.

In the West are the legends of Merlin, still alive and enclosed in his Crystal Cave, and Christian Rosenkreuz [Wikipedia link | Alchemylab account], reputed founder of Rosicrucianism, entombed for 120 years in a seven-sided vault, and eventually disinterred, perfectly preserved, with a book of Rosicrucian occult secrets in his arms.

Kobo_daishi

Monks carrying food at Okunoin mausoleum of Kobo Daishi. Wikipedia/creative commons

A similar tradition emerges in Japan, with stories clustering around Kobo Daishi (774-835), founder of the Shingon sect of Buddhism. Tradition holds that he did not die but remains in meditation to this day, entombed in Mount Koya, awaiting the future Buddha. Monks in the Shingon tradition present food at his shrine twice a day.

Greer points to stories of “an archaic magical operation by which a sufficiently knowledgeable and strong-willed person can pass into another mode of existence at death and function for many centuries thereafter as the guardian spirit of a family, a community, or an occult school. Legends in many lands tell of great sages and heroes of the past who descended into stone tombs beneath the earth while still alive, and the stone-chambered mounds of northern and western Europe are routinely connected with such legends” (Greer, pg. 33).

Tumulus_Dissignac

Megalithic tumulus mound, Saint-Nazaire, France. https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=7077948

Legends such as that of the Seven Sleepers, a shared Christian and Muslim narrative, may also be connected here.

A successful outcome of such practices leads in Japan to people like Kobo Daishi, and to others who become sokushinbutsu, literally “living Buddhas” — the rite was performed as recently as 1903. Mummies of those who underwent the rite are preserved in Senninzawa (“Valley of the Swamp Wizards”), Yamagata Prefecture, and occupy locations of honor in temples otherwise reserved for figures of the Buddha. For a fascinating article on contemporary observances, with details of the living mummification regime, including a strict diet, pursued by those aspiring to this role, along with images of the mummified remains and the monks and temples caring for them, see The Buddhas of Mount Yudono.

Less successful outcomes of this operation, Greer suggests, account for at least some of Europe’s traditions of barrow-wights, vampires, and the orc-neas or “hell-corpses” of Anglo-Saxon legend (from which Tolkien lifted the name and image of the orc). In one sense, then, such beings are simply testimony to “good magic gone bad”.

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Odin — Georg Von Rosen, 1886. Public domain

One thread of this story of ritual death specific to Europe, Greer asserts, is the magical three-fold death of Indo-European tradition, linked to air, water and earth, which we see embodied in the Norse god Odin, who is ritually slain, depending on the source, by being hanged, drowned and stabbed.

Christianity runs with this idea of the power of a magical or holy death, making it the center of its faith in a single divine being whose death can save many. Central to all of these magical and ritual self-sacrifices is their voluntary nature — the “sacrifice goes consenting”; the gift of the self is given freely.

The biblical Book of Hebrews explains the continuity between Jewish traditions of animal sacrifice each year in the Temple in Jerusalem, and the Christian conception of the holy and sacrificial death of a god in the form of Jesus: “Christ offered for all time a single sacrifice” (Hebrews 10). Animal or human sacrifices must be renewed because their benefit wanes over time. The sacrificial death of a god, on the other hand, need happen only once.

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Additional resources:

Jeremiah, Ken. Living Buddhas: The Self-mummified Monks of Yamagata, Japan. (Link to Amazon.) McFarland, 2010.

“Attention is the Beginning of Devotion”

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

rhododendron

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

May you go there, and return — often.

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Druidry 201, and Spiritual Dryness

So you’ve made your way as a solitary practitioner, to the point where you know your land, the compass directions you salute, the spirits you greet and work with, the seasons, sun and moon, and the local weather-signs that signal storm or heat or simply change. You may well hold to an idiosyncratic practice that nevertheless works for you, drawn from dream, instinct, wide reading, the place you find yourself, discoveries that have proven to work, chance, ancestral memory, trial and error, divination, or direct instruction from a tree, guide, spirit, the land, another person.

If none of the foregoing sounds like you or your path — if you’re not a Druid, but Druid-friendly, or Druid-curious — nevertheless you can describe your path (and might benefit from putting such an overview into words, if only for yourself, as a record, a milestone, a signpost, a witness).

pinktreemay

Spring, says Kipling in The Jungle Book … “the time of New Talk”

Or you’ve joined an order or grove or ritual group, you meet intermittently or regularly, you’ve settled on a basic ritual format that you spin variations on, you have your favorite festivals and ritual locations, and after a time you may start leading or writing your group’s rituals, or holding informal talks, or teaching divination, healing, permaculture, magic, and so on.

In either case, how many things can a Druid study or practice? Yes, you get the idea: the reach of it all widens far beyond the circle of the horizon.

In other words, you’re no longer a beginner at this stuff. You’re at least a “201-er” (following the numbering of university courses in many places, with 100-level classes signalling no prior knowledge or prerequisite coursework, and 200-level and above indicating intermediate and more advanced levels). You may not (ever) feel ready to write a book on what you know (though you could do so, nonetheless). You may never be approached by students eager to learn what you’ve painstakingly put together on your own (though that could happen, too). But you know enough, have learned enough, that when you act (or refrain from acting), things ripple from that choice, and you know it.

What’s next? Or what work lies ahead? And how do you figure that out?

The challenge of naming such next steps partly explains why there are so few non-beginner books and guides.

If you’ve stayed with any path long enough, and kept growing, you’ve learned how to begin taking those next steps, or — if they haven’t yet come into view — at least how to look and listen for them. You’ve also probably experienced “spiritual dryness” as well, those periods of inner drought where nothing’s kicking, and you just go through the motions like a wind-up toy. Patience is our greatest discipline and practice, says more than one spiritual teaching. Like trees and mountains, sometimes we need to weather for a while. And that can be the hardest work we do.

From the outside, even to close friends or family, it may look like we’re doing precisely nothing, when in fact we’re holding on and letting go all at once, questing for doors, gates, guides, signs, hints and clues, treading water, running in place, flexing all our limbs to stay as supple as possible, or — sometimes — dissolving into a complete funk and thinking we may just chuck it all. Heave a lifetime into the garbage bin and start fresh. Or abandon the whole project of having a project in the first place. Go fishing. Get and stay drunk, maybe for a few years. Have a midlife (or late-life) crisis. You’d run away, if it didn’t take so much energy. (Find a quiet corner and huddle there for a while, muttering to yourself. Yes, you’ve become one of those people now.)

201 is a point, or interval, where diverse spiritual traditions find considerable overlap, and the insights from one tradition can aid people in another. The most dogmatic and inflexible practitioners of any tradition usually haven’t wandered away from the home fires of their own hearths to the edges of the Forest, or into it. (You know what the capital letter stands for.) Or if they have, what they experienced there so terrified them that they fled and returned, hearts thumping wildly in their chests, determined to erect barriers, rules, ideologies, locks, guardians, gatekeepers to prevent others from enduring the same.

201 takes us into myth, archetype, confronting the self. 201, to borrow from Tolkien for a minute, drops us between the worlds of Man and Elf:

The real theme for me [in my fiction] is about something much more permanent and difficult; Death and Immortality: the mystery of the  love of the world in the hearts of a race ‘doomed’ to leave and seemingly lose it [Men]; the anguish in the hearts of a race ‘doomed’ not to leave it [the Elves]. — Letters, no. 86.

To paraphrase and summarize a conversation between Elf and Man I can’t locate right now (probably from the Silmarillion, or from Athrabeth Finrod ah Andreth, the Discussion between the Elven King Finrod and the Mortal woman Andreth), “Which of us should therefore envy the other?”

Meanwhile, the Renewers of the cosmos, whoever they are, send us challenges to sweep us beyond such dichotomies. What does Life or Death have to do with the Song of Awen endlessly pouring forth through everything? To one stifling in spiritual dryness, the endless streaming of Awen all around can form part of the suffering that may accompany us during such periods. “Why is so much happening and flowing and flourishing all around me, while I sit here, a husk, waiting, endlessly, for something — anything?”

But write such things in a 201 book, and most readers would burn the damn thing, if they read it at all. Sometimes it can seem our patience and persistence have merely enlarged our capacity for suffering. And that’s really not what you want to share with anyone who casually inquires “So how’s it goin’?”!

Ubi sapientia invenitur? goes the old query. Where can wisdom be found?

If you know Kate Chopin’s “Story of an Hour” (and if you don’t, go read it right now — it’s very short, a matter of just a few minutes rather than an hour — so that the very next few phrases and sentences aren’t spoilers for you), you know that the main character, with a weakened heart, faces freedom and dies.

We’re called to live, instead.

newgrowth

New growth at the tips will be the most tender and sensitive, counsels the Green World.

Often the best cure is service. Not unwilling drudgery. But something worth doing. Find some way to give back, to unblock the flow of awen, of deep spirit, that has steadily been growing, pooling and accumulating, and now is a torment, because we can no longer give enough of it away, fast enough. (The cauldron is full to bursting. The weight of water in the reservoir builds and builds. Give more away, for the love of the sweet green earth!)

Instead of following a scripted plan for service (unless that appeals to you), ask for how you can serve. (Our talents can be used in ways we enjoy.) Then trust what comes, even as you test it step by step.

That, I’m still learning, turns out to be one of the bargains the universe, or the Gods, like best.

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Listening to Each Other — Recent Comments

A series of recent comments here has been helpful to me, even as I try to gauge how to approach these posts, and how far and where to take them.

I had breakfast with a Druid friend this morning, a short while before he’ll be off for an extended cross-country skiing trip, far from regular tourist routes, hiking in and out, and camping and staying in trail-side shelters. I value him in part because he’s a good listener, and as a consistent character trait, he seeks to find balance in his own reactions to his daily inner and outer life, even as he shares them with others. It makes for some priceless insights, if I shut up to catch them.

Such reflection is a gift, something to cherish and encourage in others. I try to listen here in the same spirit, when you comment in posts about what’s going on in your worlds and experiences. Often of course I don’t not know enough of your circumstances to comment usefully, but I keep listening partly for that very reason. Who knows the whole story, even of our own lives? (The late ABC commentator Paul Harvey called his popular broadcast The Rest of the Story. We keep paying attention, if we’re wise, because the story hasn’t ended yet by any means, and we’re all part of it, telling our piece as we live it. And if you suspect reincarnation is an accurate aspect of the story, its chapters can grow quite lengthy indeed.) Listening, patience, gratitude: a triad cutting across all traditions, proven countless times over and over in its profound power.

tree2-17-19

Krista writes:

Dean, I’m always especially interested when you write on this particular topic. Having been raised in the Christian Faith, and having had no quarrel with the Christianity of my youth, my own Druid practice always has something of a Christian flavor to it even though I no longer consider myself a Christian. But I don’t consider myself Pagan either. Always was a bit of a square peg. So throughout my Druid journey I’ve become very comfortable blending and assimilating and it works quite well in my private practice. It’s a bit more challenging in community practice, but I’m working on it and I adapt when it’s called for. I think it would do the Druid community a world of good to acknowledge, and have more discussion about, different Druid perspectives rather than focusing almost exclusively on the Pagan perspective. Thanks for taking it on!

How many of us hear even a part of our own experiences in what Krista shares here? Neither Christian or Pagan. It’s a perspective and an experience I suspect is more common than we recognize. “Square-pegged-ness” could probably define a number of us, and in fact much contemporary spiritual practice across traditions echoes this sense of having to find and tread our own paths. Because what price “purity” of belief or practice strictly within the confines of one tradition or school, church or community, if spiritually we’re suffocating or starving there? It can take a deal of work just to recognize such a priority, and honor such a spiritual imperative.

The influx of the divine that swirled and took shape in and around Christianity still has valid things to teach us, even as individual churches and whole communions and major denominations struggle to find their way.  The existence today of over 20,000 Protestant denominations, to say nothing of other Christian traditions, testifies to the difficulty of satisfying the questing individual soul with system and conformity, doctrine and creed.

Group practice and community often mean more to many people than words of affirmation recited at a particular portion of the weekly service, though they may describe much of value, too. But the flame that burns at the heart of what is called Christianity does not appear to keep itself neatly smouldering within any bounds set by humans, any more than it does in other spiritualities. If it did, how much would it really be worth? Instead, it kindles and warms anyone who brushes up against it for any length of time. Inconveniently so, dynamically so, wonderfully and provocatively and endlessly “inspiritingly” so.

What other perspectives or flavors of Druidry do we often overlook, besides the Christian one(s)?

Until we can begin to answer that question adequately, I’m borrowing, for the space of a quotation anyway, some monotheistic but non-Christian flavor from Tolkien’s Silmarillion, hearing in it an echo of Druidic awen, and a further gift of the elemental fire that kindles us all:

Then the themes of Ilúvatar shall be played aright, and take Being in the moment of their utterance, for all shall then understand fully his intent in their part, and each shall know the comprehension of each, and Ilúvatar shall give to their thoughts the secret fire, being well pleased.

And disabledhikernh writes:

Thank you for this post. I am hard pressed to find other Druid Christians, so I have felt kind of isolated as such. Now I don’t 🙂

Isolation, that challenge to solitaries — and how many of us are solitary, even if we enjoy a local community of others, before and after we gather with them? The anvil of solitude can forge us spiritually in ways nothing else can, though the costs can be correspondingly high.

(One of my spiritual practices, for what it’s worth, found in other interesting places, too: If this experience is happening for me rather than only to me, what can I take from it? Where can I travel with it? What doors does it open, and not just close? What beauties glow behind the doors? What deities flare and bloom there? How far, I whisper to myself, half in fear, half in wonder, how far can I really go?)

Steve has been sharing something of his journey in previous comments, and writes:

This series of posts is proving to be a thoughtful and thought provoking treatment of what is a “delicate” subject in many circles. When I first encountered some of your earlier posts on the intersection of druidry and christianity I admit to taking a very cautious approach, almost an attitude of “this is too good to be true”. With time to read and think about what you are saying it seems more likely that you are speaking from hard won, first hand experience. Thank you for doing this.

“Delicate” is apt. Steve’s caution here sounds at least as hard-won — and needful — as any experience of mine, and vice-versa. My caution in how definitively I assert something, how deep I dig, how far I push, what I ask that I can’t answer, is ongoing. Rather than encounter walls, or provoke readers unnecessarily with observations I can’t back up from experience, I want to explore respectfully — mostly so I miss as little as possible of value as I go.

One of the most startling overlaps or intersections of traditions for me happened during an initiation. I still don’t know altogether what it “means”, though it was over five years ago now. In a clear inner encounter, all the more unexpected because I hadn’t opened a Bible in many years, I saw how

out of his mouth came a sharp two-edged sword; and his face was like the sun shining in its strength (Revelation 1:20).

Rather than “meaning” anything at first, the experience shaped me within its own context, just like other profound experiences, whether of pain or joy, grief or wonder, which we analyze only later, and put labels on, as we “process” them, seeking to incorporate or reject them, expanding or contracting them to “fit” what we can accept at the time. At the time, this experience confirmed for me the energy and love behind the initiation, flagging it as powerfully memorable.

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Milan’s bosco verticale — vertical forest, completed in 2018*.

(After a car accident over three decades ago now, I surveyed the overturned and totaled car I’d been driving, walked gingerly over a puddle of broken glass to retrieve my wallet, flung from the dash out the window by the impact, massaged a sore neck that was my only physical outcome of the event, and marveled in gratitude that no one had been hurt. Anything the accident “meant” came only later: Insurance claims. My sometimes-psychic brother, agitated all morning before my phone call home to explain what happened and ask to be picked up. The eventual replacement of the car. The job interview I was returning from, the mantra I’d been chanting, my mindset, the weather, the other driver, and so on.)

Part of the gift of the initiation experience is that I was largely able to let go of what it “meant” at first and focus on accepting its effects on my awareness. What it “meant” and “means” has continued to unfold, though not necessarily along “orthodox” lines. And that no doubt drives some of what I write here. Images and metaphors as divine “transparencies” or hierophanies, ways to connect to the limitless, ways it “shines through”, are part of our spiritual furniture, and part of my bias or individuality or inner architecture. They may or may not be yours, but you have yours.

May you find and explore them richly.

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IMAGE: urban trees — public domain; Bosco Verticale — Milan, Italy’s “vertical forest”.

*For more info and pictures of the Vertical Forest, see this article.

“The Provocations of Now”

[Solstice light and fire can fill us with energy to tackle the big stuff.  At least, that’s my sense of this post, after drafting and revising it. Here goes.]

fire circle -- crystal collins

MAGUS ’18 fire circle. Photo courtesy Crystal Collins.

The title for this post comes from a line in a recent column in the UK paper The Guardian. (I routinely skim the foreign press both as an escape from the breathless hyper-partisanship of U.S. media and also for key perspectives often wholly absent from American consciousness.)

Every age has ’em: the issues screeching for our attention, promising imminent peril and world-flattening disaster if we don’t ramp up our paranoia, doubt, fear and despair to the pitch of the writer, pol, preacher, activist, etc., etc. If you haven’t developed a nervous twitch just from hearing certain triggering labels in the 24-hour news-cycle, you obviously haven’t been paying attention.

Which is exactly what I try to practice and quietly urge on others, if they choose to give me space to talk. Often they don’t, and I don’t insist. Stop paying attention, which is a form of our energy, to absolutely everything, just because it asks for it. Pay attention specifically to what builds, to what gives joy and life to you and others. Otherwise, why bother?

What follows is geek-talk, if you’re not a Tolkien-fan. You might as well use the search box at the top left to find a topic that interests you, or wander elsewhere on the Net to track down what will feed and nourish your powers. Surf well.

OK, you’ve been warned.

Remember the Council of Elrond in The Lord of the Rings? In that remarkable extended scene with its many speakers, Gloin recounts how an emissary from Mordor comes to Dain Ironfoot, king of the Dwarves in Moria, and demands Dain’s compliance with a request. Dain answers prudently:

“I say neither yea nor nay. I must consider this message and what it means under its fair cloak.”

“Consider well, but not too long,” said he [the emissary].

“The time of my thought is my own to spend,” answered Dain.

“For the present,” said he, and rode off into the darkness.

We’re always asked to decide, to react — preferably as-quickly-as-possible — but certainly not to spend our time considering the messages we receive, or to originate a response that’s not simply a manipulated reaction for or against.

The time of our thought is our own to spend, if we reclaim it, which is precisely what we need to do if we’re to find a balance and poise that will let us act prudently, navigate our own lives with a measure of confidence and joy, avoid inadvertently assisting the dis-eases of our times, and possibly aid the forces of light.  (Yes, sometimes the admittedly exalted and grandiloquent language of fantasy has its place in a realist view of things. In times that feel over-the-top, eloquence and dramatic language fit perfectly. If they move us in any way to preserve our own integrity, they merit a place in the action.)

And we each need to do this in our own ways, which means no single formula that I or anyone else proposes will suit us all. No OSFA.* The Druid tradition of the triad quietly tells us to look beyond crippling polarities — it bids us ask where the third factor lies, and what it contributes to the situation — but it’s far from the “only solution”. Other factors shape any situation, but threes at least have the virtue of avoiding the potential deadlock of twos. A tie-breaker is built-in, so to speak. Freed from the grip of either-or, many a situation opens onto unexpected possibilities and directions.

I refuse — with the defiant gesture of Galadriel repulsing the Shadow — to spend my hours in despair, like Denethor, who thought he saw truly with his palantir, when all he perceived were the visions Sauron fed him. And a corollary: If I can’t contribute effectively to matters I care about, I will work where I can create and originate something positive, however modest. Instead of complaint, muddying the atmosphere for myself and those around me, I will build as much as I can.

And I vow — with the wisdom of the exchange of Elrond and Gimli following the Council — to keep faith with my own ideals, even as I test their validity.

“Faithless is he that says farewell when the road darkens,” said Gimli.

“Maybe,” said Elrond. “But let him not vow to walk in the dark, who has not seen the nightfall.”

“Yet sworn word may strengthen quaking heart,” said Gimli.

“Or break it,” said Elrond. “Look not too far ahead, But go now with good hearts!”

But what does that mean in my case? Showing up to write this blog, I reach 400+ people who find some value in what I say. If I can help raise spirits, I’ve found one way to serve. We each have many, and to identify them and give them attention can be a revelatory experience. We each matter much more than we believe or feel most days. (What dark magic have we allowed to enspell us that we think so little of ourselves?)

Lastly, I swear fealty to what I know of the highest and best, trusting that any purgation I face, should I fall short of my own ideals — as I have and will again, no doubt — will necessarily restore me at length to the commitment and service I aspire to.

There, a triad for myself, and for any others who may find value in adapting it to their situation, experience and capacities.

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*OSFA: “one size fits all” — a personal meme reminding me to suspect the single fix, the one answer, the sole acceptable response, the cloned ideal, the mono-culture, etc.

Sovereignty and Time

sovereigntySovereignty, Lady of an inner realm which flows ceaselessly into this one, you birth, nourish and sustain us. May my deeds serve not my own will alone, but your larger shaping for the good of all. In my words here, in my deeds, thoughts, feelings and dreams, let that light and song and fire illumine where it can, whom it may.

If conditions here no longer allow for the manifold inner purposes and directions to manifest outwardly, physical life may well withdraw from one world, moving to another. Yet in spite of the uncertainty and dark despair that may arise in our hearts from time to time, this lovely, difficult, damaged world is far from exhausting its spiritual purposes.

As a sacred laboratory for experiences for many beings, and for spirit to inhabit all lives, possibilities and forms to know itself again, the world unfolds still, rich with potential. Both established forms yet with us and new ones coming into being offer choice, beauty, misery, destruction and growth. From the small to the great, from the inner to the outer, from seed and leaf to flower and fruit, through decay and transformation and renewal, it has ever been so.

True it is, that all realms touch, intermingle and answer each other. Events here send their ripples and taproots elsewhere for good and bad, and a shift there brings about a corresponding change here. The walls of the world echo. The great wonder is not that we have no influence on life, but that our influence often exceeds our knowledge. Day to day is not always the place to look for vision, though what we see elsewhere in vision and dream returns us here to labor anew.

Because that’s what makes a uni-verse, a one-turning. We are part of the work and movement of a marvelous many-faceted whole. It’s a measure of our priorities and the fading of the ancient heritage we have received and often abandoned in our pursuit of other things that many of us no longer know this in our bones, that we have to re-learn it through often bitter experience before we can begin again to make use of it to shape something better. But our cells know better, and our dis-ease may yet call us back to here and now, our suffering may still wake us to rebellion and questioning and discovery, our losses may perhaps stir us to compassion rather than endless lament and blame and surrender.

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The seed of ritual, planted. The promise of spring, uttered. The shaping of hands to make each thing happen, foretold and prefigured at the birth of each woman and man into this world, from the great family ranged behind and all around us, that family of blood and friendship and teaching in the other worlds. Ancestors, hear us.

Slowly we apprehend what is essential and what is not, the long journey fashioned and felt and followed as we abide in multitudes of forms.

For us, the essential thing is that there is everywhere a conception of the end and the beginning of a temporal period, based on the observation of biocosmic rhythms and forming part of a larger system — the system of periodic purifications (cf. purges, fasting, confession of sins, etc.) and of periodic regeneration of life. This need for a periodic regeneration seems to us of considerable significance in itself. Yet the examples that we shall presently adduce will show us something even more important, namely, that a periodic regeneration of time presupposes, in more or less explicit form — and especially in the historical civilizations — a new Creation, that is, a repetition of the cosmogonic act. And this conception of a periodic creation, i.e., of the cyclical regeneration of time, poses the problem of the abolition of “history,” the problem which is our prime concern in this essay. — Mircea Eliade, Cosmos and History.

Lady, we gather in your grove, where your blessing yields all seasons at once. You abolish time in each moment, directing us forward and back, to ends and beginning, seed and leaf and fruit and fallow time. You regenerate us constantly, your dark and bright moons, this daily sun, stars overhead — who cannot see it?

Often, we cannot. Teach us again, three by three by three.

“The Goddess of Sovereignty gives three drinks from her cup, purveying the white milk of fostering, the red milk of lordship and the dark drink of forgetfulness. These she offers successively in her aspects as Foster-Mother, Consort and Renewer” — Caitlin and John Matthews, The Arthurian Tarot, pg. 43.

Clothed in rags, we walk the streets of the cities and wastelands, forests and plains and mountains of Time.

Although now long estranged,
Man is not lost nor wholly changed.
Dis-graced he may be, yet is not dethroned,
and keeps the rags of lordship once he owned … — J. R. R. Tolkien, “Mythopoeia”.

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“If wishes were horses, beggars would ride,”
(some wishes are horses – watch out where they stride!)
but my words are wingéd – they fly to your side
to wish you a happy New Year ’17.
It’s not for myself that I say it – I mean
may you flourish and grow, whatever the weather:
as long as we’re in this, we’re in it together.

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Image: Sovereignty.

Tools for “Thrival”

— not just survival. That’s much of what I aim for with this blog. (You know almost as well as I do how I don’t always hit the target.)

Not tools for “social transformation” or “regime change” or advocating for somebody else’s large-scale fixes that may or may not ever reach me (or you) in anything like helpful ways. In U.S. terms, that means neither Trump nor Hillary will help more than they will hurt. (Only differently.) In U.K. terms, that means “to Brexit or not to Brexit” isn’t the question. Generally, that means binary choices often aren’t very useful ones.

Whoever “wins” won’t change what needs changing. (That ultimately lies with me. I win as I listen to what yearns to be heard most deeply.) Forces in motion that we launched decades ago, larger than politicians or parties or even empires, will see to changes. A wiser course, for me at least, is to work with forces that build, and learn to ride the ones that don’t, as skilfully as I can. Those aren’t up to a vote. They’re not democratic. If I want, I can put myself in agreement with their effects through anger or ignorance or blind acceptance. But I keep learning the hard way that none of those are profitable responses.

What’s the third — or at least a third — option? (There are always more than two options. If I don’t see them yet, right there is a place for me to work at listening and paying attention.)

Do the necessary work on myself and, as much as possible, avoid feeding energy to the rising political hysteria — of any flavor. “Chop wood, carry water” is a beginning. Yes, but also honor the trees as I do so. Bless the waters, waste less, thank more. In-form the heart, not out-form it. Love works better as a fountain, ever-flowing, than as a reservoir of “hold on to what you’ve got.” Turn down the volume on the shouting. Duck when necessary. Plant seeds for the long view. Share even modest harvests. Stay mindful of the Dao De Jing’s counsel: “Extremes do not last long.” And also: “This world is a spiritual vessel. It cannot be ‘improved.'” Or if you prefer, as humble recipes say, leaving it up to us in the end: flavor to taste.

So I keep bringing back my monkey-mind to focus here on what I can create and transform through awareness and co-operation, hoping to model in my limited way a version of what I see others I respect trying out in their lives and succeeding at.

IMG_1361

When building, start small.

Start small, because in the end that’s the only place anything starts anyway. But watch for when I touch infinities in those grains of sand I garden in. Revel in eternities that spring from my hours.

Have you ever reached a limit to joy? Not happiness which — often — is superficial, and — often — not worth pursuing:  peace to that old Declaration we claim to fancy and which offers such pursuit as one leg of a Founding-Fathers triad that provoked a 240-year-old Exit of our own.

No, I mean joy, a stranger to many, it seems. What Tolkien’s hobbit Pippin could perceive, in the middle of all-out war, in the Maia Gandalf:

Pippin glanced in some wonder at the face now close beside his own, for the sound of that laugh had been gay and merry. Yet in the wizard’s face he saw at first only lines of care and sorrow; though as he looked more intently he perceived that under all there was a great joy: a fountain of mirth enough to set a kingdom laughing, were it to gush forth.*

True kingdoms to you.

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Tolkien, J. R. R. The Return of the King, Chapter 1, “Minas Tirith.”

Thirty Days of Druidry 10: Both Trees

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In Tolkien’s legendarium, his two trees of Valinor, Telperion and Laurelin, are silver and gold, both fruit-bearing, and the originals of the moon and sun.

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Either-or? How about both-and?

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The jury’s just heard the last of the testimony. The voices of the four defendants — two humans, one animal, one deity — still seem to echo in the paneled courtroom.

The DA rises slowly from his chair and approaches the jury to give them their charge before sending them off to deliberate. As he stands before them, he leans forward a little, resting his hands on the railing at the front of the jury box. At such close range, they can see shadows under his eyes. His suit is rumpled, and the once-crisp blue tie is stained and hangs loosely knotted. His trim physique looks pale, and his eyes rather glassy behind the heavy metal-framed glasses he has worn each day as this case goes forward. He speaks:

OK, folks. You’ve heard everyone involved tell their side. The facts are clear: God plants a garden in Eden, puts the man there, makes all kinds of trees grow out of the ground, good to look at and good for food. In the middle of that garden stand two trees. Let me refresh your memories here: the tree of life and the tree of the knowledge of good and evil.

The DA pauses and wipes his mouth with the back of his hand. He looks around slowly, catching many eyes. Then he resumes his summary.

God tells the man, “You’re free to eat from any tree in the garden except the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. When you eat from it, you will die.” Note that God doesn’t say “if” but “when.”

God realizes it’s not good for the man to live alone, and after a dry run with animal companions who just don’t fit the bill, he puts the man to sleep, and from him makes a woman.

The serpent says to the woman — and everyone agrees on his words — “Did God really say, ‘You must not eat from any tree in the garden’?”

The woman answers, “We may eat fruit from the trees in the garden, but God did say, ‘You must not eat fruit from the tree that is in the middle of the garden, and you must not touch it, or you will die.’” It’s here that confusion enters the record. Does Eve know which of the two trees to avoid? Or has this all-important distinction already been lost?

I know we’ve arrived at the appearance of “he said-she said,” but it’s important to note everyone still agrees what was said.

“You certainly won’t die,” the serpent says to the woman. “God knows when you eat your eyes will be opened, and you’ll be like God, knowing good and evil.” Again, “when,” not “if.” Up to this point everyone agrees on what was said.

Now the serpent claims he tried to get Eve’s attention at this point, before she moved from her spot in the middle of the Garden, staring at the Trees of Knowledge and Life, and took that famous fruity bite. His words don’t appear in any of our official transcripts, and here’s the first disagreement. But I repeat his testimony here:

“Hey, Eve. Eve! EVE! A piece of advice. Eat from the Tree of Life FIRST! The tree of LIFE!”

Again the DA pauses, rubbing his eyes and cleaning his glasses, which he prefers over contacts. This time he takes so long that the judge is just about to admonish him, when he suddenly resumes, as if startled out of a dream.

When Eve sees the fruit of the tree is good for food and good to look at, and also desirable for gaining wisdom, she takes some and eats it. My next question to you is this: how does she know these things before she eats?

Folks, to make short work of the rest of the story, which again nobody contests, God finds them. There’s an ugly episode of shirking responsibility and buck-passing to the serpent who can’t blame anybody else (though you might look again at God).

God curses the three of them, serpent, Adam and Eve. And this is my final observation to you. In spite of what we’ve heard today, neither Adam nor Eve dies for many more centuries.

Consider these things carefully, and you can only arrive at one verdict. All right, ladies and gentlemen. You’re dismissed.

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But what is the verdict? Is there, can there be really only one, in spite of how we often interpret the story? A better question or at least a more Druidic one: what’s the range of possibilities?

My apologies to those of you who know this story well. I taught it in high school for a decade and a half in a “Bible as Literature” unit, and we looked at characterization, at gender, at issues of truth and specificity, and the implications of distinctions like if and when, and what the story may subversively teach below and around and in spite of what we’re traditionally told it teaches. (A small detail: as many of you also know, there’s no apple anywhere to be found.) And we looked at over-reading the story, too, which teachers are infamous for doing, and which I do here.

I’ve also manipulated the story, and added to it, for my purposes. The “if/when” distinction, however, does appear in the New International Version, which comes in for its share of criticism for instances like this, and many others.

Student atheists in my class often didn’t know the story, Jews and Christians who actually did know it (and not all did as well as they thought they did) expressed often widely disparate views on what the takeaway is or could be. It’s safe to say all our eyes were opened. If we left some discussions feeling uncomfortable, it was a useful discomfort.

Among the reasons I like this story as a Druid is that trees are mediators of such potent energies as wisdom, moral law, and life. And as the song “The Wisdom of Trees” says, “Church bells ring, and I’m glad they do, but …”

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Therese1896Let’s refuse to choose between wisdom and life. Like Thérèse of Lisieux, when presented with a choice, will I say “I choose all”?

IMAGES: Therese.

Thirty Days of Druidry 6: Call and Response

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A (dreamily): If you call, they will respond …
B (annoyed): Who are “they” and why should I care?
A: Oh, well, uh, you don’t need to care. I was just saying …
B: Then why mention it?

And thus another chance at discovery gets shut down. Yes, of course it’s happened to me as it no doubt has to you, and more than once. But I’m more interested in how often I’ve provided this unkind service for somebody else. If in the midst of human self-pity or fatigue or temper, I can’t muster enthusiasm for another manifestation of Spirit, can I at least offer silence? (These days that can count as an invitation.) My own actions I have some control over. I’m not answerable for other people’s, thank the gods.

Fortunately, the awen does not depend on human kindness or indifference. It flows from deeper wells, and it will out. I can slow it, temporarily shunt it aside from blessing me or the local situation or the whole cosmos, but never altogether block it. The Galilean Master knew this: “I tell you, if you keep quiet the stones will cry out.”*

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The call went out and I responded. In this case, for afternoon “exploratories” — informal classes in a skill or craft at a neighborhood high school, after regular classes end for the day. I jumped through the hoops of paperwork, the routine police background check, got fingerprinted (digitally), so I could then offer a six-session class on conlanging.** I even went to a school meeting a week ago to talk it up with my “Top Ten Reasons to Join the Conlang Class.”*** Now I’m waiting to see if initial interest turns into enrollments and makes the class happen. The teacher who organizes the exploratories helped: he’s a fan of conlangs himself and knows a few kids he thinks might find them “just the right amount of weird to be cool,” as he put it.

So what’s particularly Druidic about conlangs? Well, not everything has to demonstrate an immediate link to Druidry, does it? Conlanging is something this Druid does, and you’ve read this post up to this point, so stay with me. But if you think about it, language and language craft are after all domains of the Bard, and my Bardic self is always responding to the call of language and words and sound and human awareness of the cosmos as we talk and think about it.

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Take the Welsh phrase from a recent post, y gwir yn erbyn y byd, and you’ve got a fine example of conlanging to work with.

(Wait, you say. Welsh is a real language. Well, so are many conlangs, if by “real” you mean that they exist and people use them to communicate and you can say anything with them that you can say in your native language. How much more “real” can anything be? If by “real” you mean they have thousands or millions of speakers, well, Welsh stands around the 500,000 speaker mark, depending on who’s counting. Many Native American languages have only a few dozen speakers left. Mere numbers are just that. Besides, as a wise one once said, some of the same minds that created all human languages are at work on conlangs. At this point, the word real starts to look less than altogether useful and more like a comment on the person who uses it.)

One of the initially daunting things about a foreign language is simply that it “looks (and sounds) foreign.” But this Welsh phrase has almost a one-for-one correspondence to English. The different words mask vast similarities that make both Welsh and English human languages, and make them learnable and usable. Here’s a word-for- word rendering of the Welsh:

y gwir yn erbyn y byd

the truth in despite (of) the world

What this means for conlangers is that surface differences are one key to conlanging.

(The “fake glasses and a moustache” school of conlanging gets a lot of mileage out of surface differences. Make your conlang too much of a cleverly disguised English, though, and conlangers will call you on merely making a relexification, which is a learned way of saying you’re just replacing word by word, rather than creating a unique language where a one-for-one translation is usually impossible. But don’t worry: many conlangers go through a fascination with relexification. Tolkien himself made a childhood relex called Nevbosh, which means New Nonsense. He and his cousins played with it and even could make limericks in it. He probably also learned a fair deal from its making.)

Welsh and English both have articles: the and y(n). They both have nouns. They make phrases in a very similar way. And sentences. Yes, Welsh and English word order differs in a few important ways. Sounds interact somewhat differently. From a conlanger’s point of view, that’s window-dressing to play with.

In English we say “just add -s to make a noun plural.” What could be simpler? So you may shake your head when you hear that Welsh forms plurals in over a dozen different ways. But consider: English “cats” adds -s. But “dogs” adds a -z, though it’s still written -s. And “houses” adds an -iz, though it’s written -es. Add in ox/oxen, wolf/wolves, sheep/sheep, curriculum/curricula, and so on, and you get a different picture. Native speakers make most of these shifts instinctively. The same happens in other languages. That’s the reason that when a child says “I goed to school” we may think it’s cute. We may correct her (or not), but if we think about it a moment, we understand that she’s mastered the rule but not yet the exception.

All hail the awen of human intelligence!

Go a little ways into conlanging, and you may discover a taste for something different from (here British English requires “to” rather than “from”) SAE — “Standard Average European.” There’s a rather dismissive word for it in the conlanging world: a “Euroclone” — a language which does things that most other European languages do. Nothing wrong with it. I’ve spent years elaborating more than one of my own. But many other options are out there to try out, in the same way that the eight notes of an octave aren’t the only way to play the available sonic space.

Take Inuit or Inuktikut. Just the feel of the names shows they inhabit a different linguistic space than English does. I-nuk-ti-kut. For a conlanger, that’s a sensuous pleasure all its own, a kind of musical and esthetic delight in the differences, the revelation of another way to configure human perception and describe this “blooming buzzing confusion” as psychologist William James characterizes a baby’s first awareness of the world. But of course that “BBC” does get converted into human language. (Language origins continue to fascinate researchers.)

In the case of Inuktikut, “… words begin with a root morpheme to which other morphemes are suffixed. The language has hundreds of distinct suffixes, in some dialects as many as 700. Fortunately for learners, the language has a highly regular morphology. Although the rules are sometimes very complicated, they do not have exceptions in the sense that English and other Indo-European languages do.” (I’ll be lifting material wholesale from the Wikipedia entry.)

Agglutinating or polysynthetic languages like Inuktikut tend to be quite long as result of adding suffix to suffix. So you get words like tusaatsiarunnanngittualuujunga “I can’t hear very well” that end up as long as whole English sentences.  As the entry innocently goes on to acknowledge, “This sort of word construction is pervasive in Inuit language and makes it very unlike English.”

Tusaatsiarunnanngittualuujunga begins with the word tusaa “to hear” followed by the suffixes tsiaq “well”; junnaq “be able to”; nngit “not”; tualuu “very much” and junga “1st person singular present indicative non-specific.” The suffixes combine with sound changes to make the word/sentence Tusaatsiarunnanngittualuujunga. So if you want to create something other than English or your average Euroclone, Inuktikut is one excellent model to study for a glimpse of the range of what’s possible.

Now if this sort of thing interests you, you’re still reading. If not, you’re saying “Well, he’s just geeked out on another post. Where’s the Druidry, man?” For me, Druidry has wisdom and insight about all human activity, and can deepen human experience. I’m in it for that reason. May you find joy and wisdom as you live your days and follow your ways.

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*Luke 19:40

**conlanging: the making of con(structed) lang(uages). Tolkien’s one of our patron saints. You can find other posts about conlanging on this blog here. Here’s the obligatory Wikipedia entry. And here’s a link to the Language Creation Society., cofounded by David Peterson, one of the best-known conlangers working today, and creator of Dothraki, Castithan, Sondiv, and a dozen other conlangs.

***Top Ten Reasons to Join the Conlang Class

10: Languages are cool — conlangs are even cooler: Game of Thrones has Dothraki & Valyrian, Avatar has Na’vi, Star Trek has Klingon, Lord of the RingsThe Hobbit have Elvish, there’s Castithan in Defiance, Sondiv from Star-Crossed, Esperanto, Toki Pona, etc.

9: I’ve been conlanging for decades, can help you get started, gain a sense of the possibilities, & keep going after the class ends.

8. Making conlangs can help you go “inside language” (like Lewis said of Tolkien) & discover amazing things about our most powerful human tool.

7: Conlanging is one of the cheapest arts & crafts I know: all you really need is pen & paper. (Of course, a computer can help.)

6: Nerds need to stick together or our 3 big Nerd Secrets will get out — we’re all nerds in some way, nerds are cool, & nerds have more fun.

5: You’ll learn enough to participate in the international conlang community which is very active online & also in print.

4: You too can learn to say things like Klingon Tlingan Hol dajatlaH & Valyrian sikudi nopazmi & Elvish Elen sila lumen omentielvo — & more importantly, you’ll know what they actually mean.

3: You can join the Language Creation Society & create languages for others for fun & profit.

2: You can keep a secret diary or talk to friends in your conlang & no one else will know what you’re saying.

1: You’ll have your own conlang & script by the end of the last class.

Initiation: To Serve in Order to Know (2) — What About Power?

woe-leg[Updated 28 May 2020]

[Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3]

[For a previous series on this topic, go here.]

What I want to talk about here, others say well and beautifully, so this post will invoke quotation for these two potent magics. And in anticipation of what’s to come, if you haven’t given yourself the wise pleasure of reading Ursula LeGuin’s fantasy A Wizard of Earthsea, promise yourself you will soon — your library may well have its own copy or can get you one through interlibrary loan — a “magical familiar” as powerful as any in the pages of medieval grimoires.

A “young adult” fantasy, Wizard has as much to say about magical power as any book I know. If you haven’t read it, I’ve tried to avoid spoilers, and I feel I succeeded. And if you know of a book that teaches more than Wizard about these things, please send me the title!

Here’s more from J H Brennan as he continues to recount his first steps in magical training:

What actually attracted me to magic was not service but power. Nothing grandiose, of course. I had no burning ambition to rule the world or enslave hordes of beautiful women. (Well, maybe just one or two beautiful women…) But I was undoubtedly a prey to a disease which is becoming even more prevalent with the increasing complexity of modern society: a feeling of helplessness.

There are many reactions to such a feeling. Some people embrace political credos. Others get religion. A few (usually male) take to beating their spouses. I turned to magic, which seemed to me to be the ultimate antidote: for what is magic if not a secret system which promises control of damn near everything?

You will be desolate to learn it did not work. Although I spent some nine years in daily Qabalistic training and learned a great deal in the process, I remained Clark Kent: no amount of magical leaps into ritual phone boxes could turn me into Superman.

(J. H. Brennan, Foreword, The Ritual Magic Workbook, p. 4.)

If you’re honest, your first reaction to Brennan’s admission may well be, “Then why bother with magic?!”

In fact it’s a deeply legitimate response, tangled with helplessness. In so many peoples’ lives today — I’m thinking only of our own time — so much anger, pain, suffering, despair, all because we sense a deep truth about ourselves, but one that the world does much to discount, deny and distract us from: our spiritual selves are strong. LeGuin captures this wisdom at the outset, in the first chapter of A Wizard of Earthsea. Her mage hero Ged is still young, but even untrained, in a moment of crisis he draws on a profound truth about himself: “He … raged at his weakness, for he knew his strength” (A Wizard of Earthsea, Bantam Edition, 1975, p. 8).

Our detestable weakness never quite overwhelms that inner knowing, though we may well go under without a lifeline, without support, without confirmation, without some practice that sustains us, whether it has the label “spirituality” or not. Despair at not being able to get at our strength has destroyed many lives. It’s cruel, that despair. In our search for a door to the power in us that we dimly recognize, but which seems to elude us day after wretched day, we may clutch at a cause, as Brennan notes — politics, or religion, or magic — or, if we’re half-under already, at abusive behaviors that may not target others in our lives, but ourselves, though all abuse brings “collateral damage.” Which is double-talk for karma.

The appeal, the draw of power, is clear.

Ged’s teacher, a wizard named Ogion, tries to show Ged the realities he faces in a world where power can be used well or badly. After Ged encounters one who uses her power in a questionable way, and has had his own terrifying encounter with a dark spirit just before this conversation, Ogion admonishes him:

The powers she serves are not the powers I serve. I do not know her will, but I know she does not will me well. Ged, listen to me now. Have you never thought how danger must surround power as shadow does light? This sorcery is not a game we play for pleasure or for praise.  Think of this: that every word, every act of our Art is said and is done either for good, or for evil. Before you speak or do, you must know the price that is to pay!

When we hear this, it’s too much.  More evasion, more powerlessness! We’ve apprenticed ourselves to those who claim to know, and instead of — at last! — affording us even a little taste of power, they scold us for not knowing anything, and set us instead to memorizing, or visualizing, or some other repetitive task that smacks of elementary school drills. (For of course that’s where we are — in school, at a beginner’s level. Again. How long this time?!)

Predictably, Ged rebels. Note what motivates his response:

Driven by his shame, Ged cried, “How am I to know these things when you teach me nothing? Since I have lived with you I have done nothing, seen nothing–”

“Now you have seen something,” said the mage. “By the door, in the darkness, when I came in.”

We seek power, yet once we commit to a magical or spiritual path, often the first thing we meet is darkness. In ourselves. Distinctly not fun.

Ged was silent.

Ogion knelt down and built the fire on the hearth and lit it, for the house was cold.

There it is in plain words — Ogion demonstrates literally the “Path of the Hearth Fire” that is one of the magical and occult paths we can take.  And he does it not in words but in actions LeGuin describes — the daily tasks of an “ordinary life” that can be done with magical awareness of their place and purpose, a responsibility that we can serve while we learn — a way that actually leads to our ideal “inner Hogwarts” without fleeing from the obligations of our “mundane” world which have far more to teach us than we know.

Then still kneeling [Ogion] said in his quiet voice, “Ged, my young falcon, you are not bound to me or to my service. You did not come to me but I to you. You are very young to make this choice, but I cannot make it for you. If you wish, I will send you to Roke Island, where all high arts are taught. Any craft you undertake to learn you will learn, for your power is great. Greater even than your pride, I hope. I would keep you here with me, for what I have is what you lack, but I will not keep you against your will. Now choose …”

(A Wizard of Earthsea, Bantam Edition 1975, pgs. 23-24.)

Power greater than pride: Ogion nails the issue. As J. H. Brennan notes, implicating many of us:

The problem with arrogance is that it is a quality for which I have a sneaking admiration. Consequently it plays a greater part in my character than it really should.

(J. H. Brennan, Foreword, The Ritual Magic Workbook, p. 4.)

There’s a whole book of wisdom to be unpacked from Ogion’s words, which deserve extended meditation. I’ll zero in on the last two: “Now choose.” How can we choose before we understand the consequences of choice? As Tolkien says (in talking about translation*), “We constantly need to know more than we do.”

Choice? That’s another post …

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Images: A Wizard of Earthsea — cover.

*translating Beowulf. In J R R Tolkien (ed. Christopher Tolkien). Beowulf: A Translation and Commentary. New York: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2014, pg. 191.  For much more on this that you probably could EVER want to know, come to the International Medieval Congress in Kalamazoo, MI this May 2015, where I and many others will be delivering papers on Tolkien’s translation — and in my case, on his peculiar theories of “correct style” and how this intersects with his whole legendarium and the power of imagination.

“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

Aboutness

“I heard you saw the movie yesterday.  So what’s it about?”  “Jean and Bill are arguing again.  What’s that about?”  “OK, he tried to explain and it still doesn’t make sense to me.  But you understand those kinds of things, so tell me about it.”  And there’s the old-time newspaper seller’s cry:  “Extra, extra!   Read all about it!!”

This elusive quality of aboutness is core to so many of our ways and days.  We spend years in education (and life) dividing things up into their parts and labeling them, and then at least as much time putting them back together, searching for the links and connections between them, so that we can “grasp” them, “get” them, understand them.  Re-assemble and it might resemble what it used to be.  We crave community, fellowship and friends along the way at least as much as we prize our American individualism and independence and self-reliance.  We long for aboutness.

About is near, close, approximately, almost — good enough for daily reckoning, for horseshoes and hand-grenades. It’s about five miles.  We’re about out of time.  About is sometimes the guts, the innards, the details, all the juicy pieces.  About is also the whole, the overview, the heart of the matter.  If you know about cars or cooking, you don’t need to know every specific model or recipe to “know your way around them.”  What you don’t know you can usually pick up quickly because of family similarities they share.  If you under-stand, you know the sub-stance.  Position yourself in the right place and time (apparently beneath what you desire to comprehend, according to the peculiar English idiom), and you’ll get the gist.

Layers, strata.  This onion-like reality keeps messing us up with its levels.  Its aboutness won’t stay put as just one thing, but consists of stuff piled on other stuff below it.  Often you gotta dig down through the fossil layer to reach the starting point.  Peel it all away, though, and sometimes all you have is peel.  You may know the simple and lovely blessing — there are several versions extant:

Back of the loaf is the snowy flour,
back of the flour is the mill;
back of the mill is the wheat and the shower,
the sun and the Maker’s will.

Sometimes if you pay attention you can catch it like a melody on the wind, something that lingers behind the sunlight.  We know more than we know we know.  This is the natural mysticism that comes with living, however hard we may try to ignore it.  This is the  aboutness that underlies our lives and our days, while we scurry from one thing to another, in pursuit of happiness.  So it follows us, shaking its head at our antics.  It could catch up to us if we stopped, looked and listened, if we made space for it to live with us, rather than renting out a room next door, trying vainly to catch our attention.

Robert Frost is one of my go-to guys for insight, as readers of this blog discover.  In “Directive” he begins with that sense of constriction, and our partial memory of a past that shines brighter because of what we’ve forgotten about its difficulties.  Yes, the poem’s “about” dying New England towns and abandoned houses, but also about us:

Back out of all this now too much for us,
Back in a time made simple by the loss
Of detail, burned, dissolved, and broken off
Like graveyard marble sculpture in the weather …

If there’s a place and home for us, he goes on to say, it’s reachable only by misdirection.  “You can’t get there from here,” because the “here” has no more substance than anything else.  It won’t serve as a starting point.  Time has wrenched it free of its moorings.  Things drift.

The road there, if you’ll let a guide direct you
Who only has at heart your getting lost,
May seem as if it should have been a quarry—
Great monolithic knees the former town
Long since gave up pretense of keeping covered.
And there’s a story in a book about it …

Yes, there’s a story, maybe several stories, a hint or two that maybe somewhere else, or someone else, will do it for it us, will finally deliver to us what we’ve been seeking.  The stories of art, of music, of the great myths we want to believe even when we can’t.  Sometimes the hints are maddening, sometimes the only comfort we can lay hands on in our seeking.

Make yourself up a cheering song of how
Someone’s road home from work this once was,
Who may be just ahead of you on foot
Or creaking with a buggy load of grain.

Aren’t we almost there?  Or is it merely illusion?  Is this a path anyone else has traveled and succeeded in the end, or our own unique interstate roaring straight toward disaster?  What lies are we telling ourselves today?  And are we waking up to them at last?  You gotta get in to get out, go the Genesis lyrics (the band, not the Bible).  You have to get lost in order to be found.  That experience is necessary, though painful.  Not one of us is the son who stays at home.  We’re all prodigals.

And if you’re lost enough to find yourself
By now, pull in your ladder road behind you
And put a sign up CLOSED to all but me.
Then make yourself at home.

Might as well get comfortable being lost, because it’s gonna last a while.  Though we never can be wholly comfortable in illusions.  No end in sight.  The problem is that we don’t know this until the end actually IS in sight. What illusions do we need that will actually bring comfort for a time, at least?  They’re not illusions until we outgrow them, live through and past them.  In fact we need truths now that only later become illusions precisely because they will be too small for us anymore.

First there’s the children’s house of make-believe,
Some shattered dishes underneath a pine,
The playthings in the playhouse of the children.
Weep for what little things could make them glad.
Then for the house that is no more a house,
But only a belilaced cellar hole,
Now slowly closing like a dent in dough.
This was no playhouse but a house in earnest.

Our house in earnest, playhouse in our childhood, has collapsed, or will.  Our old selves won’t do.  They don’t fit.  We shuffle them off like snake-skins that bear the imprint of what lived in them, down to scar and scale, and we mourn and mistake them for ourselves, another illusion, standing there in the mirror that consciousness provides.

Who then can show us the way?  From this perspective, we need, not salvation, but someone to show us where we can walk on our own two feet.  Not out of vanity or stiff-necked pride, but because we have to make our way ourselves.  Otherwise it doesn’t stick.  It vanishes like a dream on waking.  Yes, others have carried us there briefly, by art or alcohol or sex or those moments of ecstasy that come on us unannounced and unsought, glimpses of home through the fog.

Tolkien has Gandalf and Pippin touch on it briefly in The Lord of the Rings:

Gandalf:  The grey rain-curtain of this world rolls back, and all turns to silver glass. And then you see it.

Pippin: What? Gandalf? See what?

Gandalf:  White shores … and beyond, a far green country under a swift sunrise.

Frost continues, wise old poet-guru.  (Sigmund Freud once remarked, “Everywhere I go, I find that a poet has been there before me.”)

Your destination and your destiny’s
A brook that was the water of the house,
Cold as a spring as yet so near its source,
Too lofty and original to rage.

We keep flowing — we’re not meant to stay put.  Heaven as stasis, as a static destination, an endpoint, a final arrival, nothing beyond, is a false heaven.  Enchantments of different kinds surround us. Some deceive, and some actively conceal what we know we must have in order to live at all.  Yet what we seek also and paradoxically lies hidden in plain sight. The water was “the water of the house.”  It’s right here.  What can we use to gather it up?

I have kept hidden in the instep arch
Of an old cedar at the waterside
A broken drinking goblet like the Grail
Under a spell so the wrong ones can’t find it,
So can’t get saved, as Saint Mark says they mustn’t.
(I stole the goblet from the children’s playhouse.)
Here are your waters and your watering place.
Drink and be whole again beyond confusion.

Be whole again.  What was lost is now found.  Restoration.  Return to what is native to you — your watering place.  This is the command that drives us onward, the quest buried in our blood and bones.  Reach for it. Whole again beyond confusion.

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