Archive for the ‘William Blake’ Tag

Plucking the Web: Strands for Reflection   5 comments

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tree swallows sunning themselves — mid-April 2019

In a comment to John Beckett’s blogpost of March 28, Gordon Cooper covers several topics and throws out material very rich for reflection and experimentation.

Cooper first addresses the development of modern polytheism:

How can polytheists who honor non-Indo-European gods replicate the successes that Druidry has had?

I would suggest that the success OBOD has had and continues to have is rooted in some fairly simple and old fashioned tools — a correspondence course, mentors, and lots of engagement by the members. The first time I went to the OBOD Lughnasad gathering at the Vale of the White Horse, I was deeply impressed by the amount and quality of work I saw. One person learned ceramics, built a hand-painted and fired series of tiled walls on her properties with elemental dragon meditations she’d realized. Others had voluminous scrapbooks filled with meditations, plant studies, ritual walks, etc. Their other secret weapon is Philip. He’s an international treasure for all druids, at least in my experience.

The combination of well-thought-out instructional materials and mentors, together with a dedicated and generous leader, and the developing nature of most strands of Druidry as supportive and inspirational practices, have proven its value yet again. If the non-European gods have means of access to power in this realm, through their priests and their own natures as deities, can they inspire and help manifest similar supports for their devotees and adherents?

And yes, much of modern Druidry and Paganism in general finds a priceless resource in books. Cooper continues:

If a group chooses to start from Nuinn’s [Ross Nichols, founder of OBOD] druidry, as it seems to be articulated in “The Cosmic Shape” it is possible to arrive at a non-IE druidry by treating this as an embodied expression in ritual, artistic and land-based practices that manifests over time and space differently in each era and place. I strongly encourage reading the entirely of ‘Cosmic Shape” as one point of departure.

Cooper next tackles a particular source-text — Iolo Morganwg’s Barddas (link to complete text at Sacred Texts).

Moving to the Barddas as a possible base, regardless of how one considers the authenticity of Iolo’s writing, his notions around ritual, nature study and the sciences, poetry and justice are values that I think can be applied to many circumstances and cultures. Besides, anyone borrowing from an Egregore that includes Iolo, William Blake and a French Spy-cum-Mesmerist alchemist is likely to be in for an artistic and interesting ride.

All of us have experience with egregores of groups we’ve joined, been born into, or witnessed from outside as they variously manifested their energies. Political parties, churches, families, clubs, sports teams, other special-interest groups and so on are non-magical examples. Consciously-created and energized egregores deployed magically are potentially just “more so” — stronger, more durable, more capable of great (and also terrible) things. The principle at work is “the whole is greater than the sum of its parts”. Magic as an amplifier simply magnifies that whole.

Cooper then goes on to suggest provocatively, in a quick paragraph, one way to develop a valid Paganism or Druidry that grows organically from wherever we find ourselves, one that need not worry over cultural appropriation or validity:

I’m working on a very small group-focused practice that’s designed from the ground-up to be derived from the local biome and skills of the folks living there. It is being field tested in Bremerton [Washington state] now with the Delsarte Home Circle. It incorporates Ecopsychology, poetics, local kami, nature studies, personalized and group moving meditations and other meditation forms along with a customized ritual calendar derived from the specific region. It is appropriation-free and includes classical Spiritualist training. If interested, please contact me for details.

On the issue of Pagan or Druid chaplains, Cooper also speaks from (local) experience:

I’d say that Pagan chaplains in hospital systems are likely to find themselves in an ethical bind from time to time, as they’d be called on to engaged with YWYH on behalf of ill or dying patients in hospitals or elsewhere.

The VA Chaplains don’t serve or acknowledge the validity of druids and witches, at least at the Seattle VA. This isn’t going to happen with the current staff, and as I receive all of my medical services there, I am not inclined to fight an uphill and contentious battle.

Not all of us are called to fight outwardly — a misconception activists of all stripes are especially prone to. Following your own path is often powerful enough — the patient persistent effort of being a genuine self in a world of delusion and false directions is a forceful life stance, an essential kind of witness both to others and oneself, with consequences we often do not see. Not all music is scored as trumpet fanfare. Some of us are strings, oboes, flutes, drums, or the rests and silences between notes.

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Walking the Major Arcana, Part 1   Leave a comment

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

In this next series of seven posts, I’ll be following a classic Tarot interpretation of the Fool as the querent or seeker who journeys through the aspects and archetypes of the Major Arcana. And I’ll be writing from some perspectives I hope will be useful to Druid-Christian travelers along the Green Ways of Spirit, and will in turn inspire comments and insights from you that can enrich us all. Take this as rough draft — I’m working it out as I go.

[Note: The tarot images used here, from the original Rider-Waite Tarot, are now in the public domain in the U.S.]

FOOL or SEEKER

0-FoolSo important is the animal accompanying the Fool from the outset that almost every deck includes some creature accompanying the human figure of the Fool.

Whether we see this as our animal inheritance, part of our make-up as a physical being with age-old drives and instincts, or as a guide or companion distinct from us, the dog (or three birds in the Arthurian tarot) is with us from the beginning.

Why a fool? Nearly every significant tradition on the planet counsels us against arrogance or hubris, and in no place is this caution more needful than on our own spiritual journeys. “Let no one deceive himself. If any of you thinks he is wise in this age, he should become a fool, so that he may become wise” (1 Cor 4:10). The classic Zen master seeks to help a student recover that “original face, the one you had before you were born”.

Echoing this insight is the old Victorian Bard William Blake, a holy fool himself, who also said, “A fool sees not the same tree that a wise man sees”. Want an interesting exercise? Ask in meditation or dream to see the trees of the Fool.

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Are they the trees of Paradise? The Medieval Legend of the Rood or Cross follows the main story line of the Biblical narrative with a tree or trees continually reappearing in different guises, first in Eden, then as a seed from that original tree buried with Adam’s body at Golgotha, to become — depending on the versions — part of Noah’s Ark, a bridge that the Queen of Sheba crosses, and eventually the Cross that Christ dies on.

(Where is the seed planted in me to disrupt all my false and narrow assumptions? What tree lifts its branches in my life, sending me places I’d never go on my own?)

And similarly, too, in Tolkien’s Silmarillion: there he recounts stories of how the Light from the original Holy Trees in Valinor is captured in the Silmaril gems, those greatest achievements of the Elven Feanor, whose name means “Spirit of Fire”, and follows their dramatic history through the volume. Trees, Light, Fire: we have them with us as we travel, even as we have the solace and guidance of an animal companion by our sides.

C. S. Lewis in his final novel, Till We Have Faces, draws on the Greek myth of Cupid and Psyche. The title echoes a line in the novel:  “How can [the gods] meet us face to face till we have faces?” Lewis explained this to a correspondent, writing that a human “must be speaking with its own voice (not one of its borrowed voices), expressing its actual desires (not what it imagines that it desires), being for good or ill itself, not any mask”. In one way, then, the Great Work is to be me, the original self, wearing the face I had before I was born, “because no one comes to Spirit except through me”.

Ask an ancestor to show you an original face.

We might also see the sequence of cards coming after the Fool as masks that the Fool tries on along the journey, learning from each role or incarnation or experience, but never wholly defined by any of them. Or, alternatively, as initiations each soul must experience on its journey. (Looking for just four? Try the Elemental Sacraments that appear in the life of Jesus and offer themselves as well in slightly different guises to Druid and Pagan generally. And if you’re like me, you remember you may experience each one multiple times along you spiral path. I prime the pump occasionally and try one out myself, if it hasn’t come along recently on its own.)

MAGICIAN

01-MagicianThe Magician, numbered 1 in most decks, is a prime number, expressive of unity, the fullness of Awen, of Spirit before creative activity begins on the physical plane. The serpent that forms his belt recalls the admonition to be “wise as serpents and innocent as doves”.

As a lightning-rod for spirit, one hand raised to heaven or fire, one lowered to earth, garbed in fire and pure white, the lemniscate figure-8 of infinity above his head, he is a potent figure for many. And another mask.

In the Golden Tarot, the Magician is Christ, beast-Master, Lord of Animals, able to communicate with them in ways many humans have often lost and must work to regain. He knows as well the beast nature and the human nature, honoring and blessing them both. In our steps along the spiral, we sometimes cut ourselves off from what some have called our elder brothers and sisters.

Ask the spirit in all things to help you see how to participate in healing the breach.

In Hindu myth we enter the worlds with an adi karma, an initial nudge that lands us in physical bodies, and sets our feet on the spiral journey back home. “True voyage”, says U. K. LeGuin innocently, “is return”.

What is it about being human? The German poet Rilke exclaims in the first of his masterwork, the Duino Elegies:

Ah, who then can
we make use of? Not Angels: not men,
and the resourceful creatures see clearly
that we are not really at home
in the interpreted world.

Some versions render it our interpreted world. We’re the ones, after all, who filter experience through memory, intention, language, culture, emotion, training, expectation — a whole set of potent magical transformations animals only partially know, filters which immeasurably enrich our lives but also deeply complicate them. The Magician is master of transformations, able to ride successive changes but not be overwhelmed by them.

I enter each card in imagination and look around. What can I see, smell, hear, imagine, receive in hints and glimpses?

How can I find a home in this world? How can I be a refuge on the road for others here like me?

The HIGH PRIESTESS

02-High PriestessIn the Matthews’ Arthurian Tarot, the figure is the Lady of the Lake. In both decks — the Rider-Waite pictured here, and in the Arthurian deck, in contrast to the Fire-red of the Magician, we see the Water-blue of the Priestess or Lady. Launched into the world of polarity, we encounter a different kind of initiation, and Initiator.

While there is great wisdom in the occult maxim of Dion Fortune that “All the gods are one god, and all the goddesses are one goddess, and there is one initiator”, it’s also true that many people have experienced the Powers of the Worlds as distinct beings, and until we have experience of them ourselves we may wisely keep silent about them. We already know from childhood onward that what’s true on the physical plane may not work on other planes, and vice versa. Try out the effortless flight of the astral dream world on earth, and gravity has a way of asserting its own reality regardless of our wishes or beliefs.

With a crescent “moon at her feet”, and also featured in her headdress, the High Priestess is in some ways an embodiment of Isis, and of Mary as well. She has her own balance, seated between the Pillars of Force of much classical magic practice, and positioned in front of a garden of fruit trees. With both the equal-armed cross on her breast and the title “tora(h)” or book of laws in her lap, she is a complex of many meanings, all worth exploring. “May your word to me be fulfilled”, goes one version of Mary’s words to the angelic message and messenger at the Annunciation. The fulfillment of the word “tora” may be as “rota” or wheel: the Fool’s journey or spiral continues.

But the feminine is not passive, as the stereotype often runs. Possibilities are endlessly sent to us by spirit, by the cosmos rippling its energies through every one of its creatures. We can refuse them. And we often do.

What law governs this moment? What is still spinning in my life? What annunciations come to me each day? What words have I accepted and allowed to fulfill themselves? What and who have I turned away from the door?

Poet and rocker Malcolm Guite writes in his poem “Annunciation”:

We see so little, stayed on surfaces,
We calculate the outsides of all things,
Preoccupied with our own purposes
We miss the shimmer of the angels’ wings,
They coruscate around us in their joy
A swirl of wheels and eyes and wings unfurled,
They guard the good we purpose to destroy …

We’re invited more often than we know to say yes to things that terrify us. We’ve imbibed our fears along with the advertisers’ marketing jingles that we know through repetition even if we despise the product. If repetition can accomplish so much, let me turn it to my purposes, rather than somebody else’s. As author Peter Beagle famously declares, “We are raised to honor all the wrong explorers and discoverers — thieves planting flags, murderers carrying crosses. Let us at last praise the colonizers of dreams”.

Or to turn to another great Bard, the late Leonard Cohen, who sings in “Anthem”, with great Druid counsel:

The birds, they sang
At the break of day
Start again, I heard them say.

Yeah, the wars
They will be fought again
The holy dove
She will be caught again
Bought and sold and bought again
The dove is never free.

Ring the bells that still can ring
Forget your perfect offering
There is a crack, a crack in everything
That’s how the light gets in.

No, the dove is never free, not till spiral’s end, but the Light keeps getting in. The dove keeps descending, bringing the blessings of spirit, keeps setting out from the Ark to find land after flood, keeps returning with a leaf in its beak, keeps on keeping on. (Male, female, polarity. Though it’s heresy in some quarters to say it, we’re all much more than a “gender” or “orientation”. A stereotype is a simply firm or fixed reference point in a world of changes, not something to attempt mistakenly to incarnate personally — impossible, anyway!)

How am I the High Priestess? How am I still the Magician? What has the Fool discovered so far of balance and polarity?

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The Democracy of Incarnate Living   Leave a comment

“The hours of folly are measured by the clock, but of wisdom no clock can measure” — William Blake, “The Proverbs of Hell”.

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“Where do you get your ideas from?” Every writer’s been asked this question, and every writer morosely ponders it anew, when inspiration flags and the blank page or screen stares back. When the awen is flowing, writing’s a pleasure. When it’s not (or as my guide might say, “It’s flowing differently”), often the real work begins: to listen, to bless the fallow times. To let go. Or as one of my teachers puts it, “Sit, sing, and wait”. No — not a prescription for doing nothing, but rather a particular kind of blessing. To bless ourselves is often the hardest work of all. It asks less than we’re willing to do, because doing isn’t the issue. At least not the kind of doing I usually do.

Often I get ideas from you, my readers. I look at the site statistics and find an old post from a year or two past is getting traction again. Why that topic? Why the interest now? I re-read it and listen for what might be speaking. What are you looking for? What’s shaking in your lives right now? Often, too, human memory being what it is, I don’t remember the post well (or at all), and so I can come upon it with something like fresh perception. Your interest helps me look and listen. And if it’s happening with you, it’s almost a sure thing it’s happening with me, too.

In the previous post, I wrote of honoring the mundane, respecting this world and its rhythms and changes. I go out later today to a new fire circle in my backyard to ask that it be consecrated. I initially wrote “to consecrate it”, and that could well be accurate, if I took on the sole responsibility of hallowing it. But even then, other energies and presences are involved. Because do I ever act alone? More and more, I’m learning at least my own answer to that question.

I ask for consecration, as well as performing it myself, in order to hear something of what goes on around and through me. As a capacitor and transformer of spirit, I find listening almost always clues me in that there’s more going on than I suspected. This is a suspicious universe, and I mean that in the best sense of the word. There’s so much to imagine might be happening, and imagination will pull back the curtain, open the window. I suspect the sacred all around and within me.

And then? Often, because vision’s my default sense, I expect, or suspect, I’ll see something. Instead, an air blows through the open space that carries me with it. Or a bird calls, or one of the sugar ants that have invaded our house this summer crawls across my arm. I start, and grumble at a meditation interrupted, until slowly it occurs to me this is a message. I’m part of a host of others, of selves, and we spiral together. Consecrate a circle or grove, and every square centimeter is stuffed with beings. Even counting only those with skins on.

In a post from a few years back that’s been drawing readers, I wrote,

So we return and begin (again) with the things of earth, these sacred objects and substances.  As sacraments, earth, air, fire and water can show us the holy, the numinous.  Their daily embodiments in food and drink, precious metals and gems and sex, pleasure and learning and science, music and literature and theater, sports and war and craft, are our earliest teachers.  They are part of the democracy of incarnate living, the access points to the divine that all of us meet and know in our own ways.

Not bad, but I’d add: “their daily embodiments” in embodiments. In all the Others that journey with me. These are the ones I’ll invite to join me as I open my inner grove, and as I light the first fire in the new fire circle later today.

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While digging up our yard for a new foundation last fall, our contractor unearthed a lot of stones. We asked him to pile them on the edge of the excavated area, suspecting we’d find places for them eventually, and wanting them nearby and handy, rather than neatly dropped along our property line — and further away to carry. Puzzled, he agreed. When his crew returned two months ago to reseed the area with grass, they added to the pile as they raked and smoothed the dirt. We could hear them talking and see them shaking their heads as they threw more onto the pile in what looked to them like the middle of our back yard.

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And now some serve for a fire circle, and others — the two or three large ones above — may work for seats or altar stones, if we can manage to shift them and set them firmly in place. To give you an idea of size, the large one to the right weighs a few hundred pounds (150 kilos or more).

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Thirty Days of Druidry 3: “The World Has To Be Dreamed”   Leave a comment

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Sometimes an evocative line can serve up a good day’s worth of Druid meditation. An article on schizophrenia in the current New Yorker offers this fabulous paragraph on the development of the brain, with its potent last line:

The human eye is born restless. Neural connections between the eyes and the brain are formed long before a child is born, establishing the wiring and the circuitry that allow her to begin visualizing the world the minute she emerges from the womb. Long before the eyelids open, during the early development of the visual system, waves of spontaneous activity ripple from the retina to the brain, like dancers running through their motions before a performance. These waves reconfigure the wiring of the brain—rehearsing its future circuits, strengthening and loosening the connections between neurons. (The neurobiologist Carla Shatz, who discovered these waves of spontaneous activity, wrote, “Cells that fire together, wire together.”) This fetal warmup act is crucial to the performance of the visual system: the world has to be dreamed before it is seen.

I find myself wanting to draw out this image, to extend its reach, then try out those extensions to see whether and how they might be true. Dream a world and you can see it. Sing before you can hear anything, let alone the music of the spheres. Limn the deeds and character of a deity, and she begins to manifest at the invitation of this earliest devotion. Imagine with whatever awen drops into your awareness, and the transformation of that subtle primordial seed-stuff proceeds apace. We nurture energies and impulses, not merely passively experiencing them, and they weaken and die or grow and thrive in the womb of human consciousness. How many things are literally unthinkable until that first person somewhere thinks them? What can I give birth to today? (Schizophrenia, and creativity too, have physical correlates — according to research cited in the article they both issue from the processes mentioned of strengthening and loosening connections between neurons.)

Old Billy Blake, sometime-maybe Druid, maybe madman, says in the last lines of his poem “Auguries of Innocence“:

We are led to Believe a Lie
When we see [with] not Thro the Eye
Which was Born in a Night to perish in a Night
When the Soul Slept in Beams of Light
God Appears & God is Light
To those poor Souls who dwell in Night
But does a Human Form Display
To those who Dwell in Realms of day.

Praise be then to the Keepers — and Seekers — of such Double Vision. And I ask myself: Can we see the world whole in any other way? Hail, Day-dwellers, Night-dwellers, Walkers of Both Worlds!

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Image: “Infinity”

Earth Religion and What We’ll Miss   Leave a comment

blueberry-pie-cut-2-smIn I Remember Nothing*, one of the last things screenwriter Nora Ephron wrote before her death in June 2012, the final short chapter is titled “What I Will Miss.”  It’s simply a list, tinged with an anticipatory nostalgia that became clear in retrospect after her passing — and testimony to a life in which the most memorable things aren’t really things (unless you count people as mere objects — if you do, go away) so much as experiences.  Here’s the entire list:

My kids
Nick [her husband of twenty years, Nicolas Pileggi]
Spring
Fall
Waffles
The concept of waffles
Bacon
A walk in the park
Shakespeare in the Park
The bed
Reading in bed
Fireworks
Laughs
The view out the window
Twinkle lights
Butter
Dinner at home just the two of us
Dinner with friends
Dinner with friends in cities where none of us lives
Paris
Next year in Istanbul
Pride and Prejudice
The Christmas tree
Thanksgiving dinner
One for the table
The dogwood
Taking a bath
Coming over the bridge to Manhattan
Pie

The wonder and beauty of this list is that however different your list is, you get the love here.   Yes, Ephron’s financial success means that among her items are Paris and Istanbul and more dining out than many of us can afford.  But there’s no disagreeing about what should or shouldn’t be on Ephron’s list, because we each have our own list.  Her list doesn’t negate mine.  It celebrates her life while it leaves room for everyone else’s — it positively invites me, in fact, to celebrate mine, just by being a list, a tally, a memoir of pleasure.

Earth religion calls us to celebrate and cherish the things of this world because this is where and when we live.  The brute acid irony of the present age, filled as it is with increasing numbers of people who say this life is the only one we get, is that it is also an age of the greatest ongoing and criminal destruction of the planet.  If we will miss the things on our lists, and the quality of our fondness, if not the exact identity of our items, closely resembles that of everyone else alive now, it should make the same kind of deep visceral sense that a warm breeze on the skin or a cool drink in the throat does to help each other increase our fondness and spread the capacity for delight, and to preserve their sources, instead of denying joy to others while simultaneously pissing in the common well.  If we were even one tenth the materialists we think we are, we’d worship the material, revere the physical, treating it lovingly and respectfully, rather than bitch-slapping it like an abusive spouse.

Now it’s true that if my wife and I indulged more often in even some of the things on our own lists, we’d be what her grandmother used to say of others with a sniff: “fat and happy.”  And the sum of earth religion doesn’t mean merely to stuff ourselves silly with everything Dr. Oz says is bad for us,  or vacuum up experiences like we’re snorting coke.  But not enjoying the world is along the lines of holding your breath to get what you want.  After you wake with a touch of headache, you may be no closer to getting what you want, and you’ll have missed out on pie, or butter, or bacon, or time spent with friends, or whatever your pleasure of the moment was, while you went ahead and had your tantrum.  And you’ll have denied pleasure and joy to others, one of the cheapest and deepest forms of joy out there.

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When I consider what if anything may survive my death (yes, even here the possessive creeps in, as though I own my death, one among the many other objects to bequeath to my heirs and assigns), it’s very likely that a love of these things won’t be among them.  While I adore blueberries, and that love connects me to a weekend when I was five and I stayed with my grandmother who fed them to me while my parents attended the World’s Fair in New York City, it’s not an essential piece of me.  Even my love of silence, which we might reasonably expect to run deeper, is in part a reaction to the noise of nearly two decades of working with adolescents in groups.  So what IS essential?

A leap and a turn:  stay with me.  Much is made of finding one’s True Will in magic, the Hermetic equivalent of salvation or realization or enlightenment people seek elsewhere.  As Frater Acher remarks in his introduction to Josephine McCarthy’s Magic of the North Gate, “Isn’t peeling away layer after layer of ego-driven wishes and desires to finally find and fulfill my True Will what drove mages for at least … well, at least since Crowley succeeded in establishing the highly ambiguous term “True Will” as the most successful fig leaf since the philosophy of hedonism to turn your life into a self-centered journey of narcissism?”**  We can take a clue from Blake (as long-time readers know, one of my go-to figures among the Wise) who said “Eternity is in love with the productions of time.”  This life matters.  It’s not a rehearsal, though it is practice, in the sense that musicians and artists practice to keep growing and to continually refine their art.  Infinity in the palms of our hands, eternity in our hours:  we’ve all had a taste, a hint, the briefest glimpse, though it slips away again into yesterday and tomorrow.  Here and now is where and when we always begin again.

In his poem “Love calls us to the things of this world,” Richard Wilbur echoes St. Augustine, who with Christian diffidence in his love of the physical, exclaims of his awareness of the divine, “I have learnt to love you late, Beauty at once so ancient and new! I have learnt to love you late! You were within me, and I was in the world outside myself. I searched for you outside myself and, disfigured as I was, I fell upon the lovely things of your creation. You were with me, but I was not with you. The beautiful things of this world kept me far from you and yet, if they had not been in you, they would have no being at all.” (Book X, paragraph 27), trans. R. S. Pine-Coffin.  Augustine struggles to reconcile the paradox of the physical as both distraction and divine presence — incarnation.  Here is Wilbur’s poem in response, in conversation, a fine coda for this entry:

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Image:  blueberry pie.

*Ephron, Nora.  I Remember Nothing: and Other Reflections.  New York:  Vintage Books, 2010, pp. 134-5.

**McCarthy, Josephine.  Magic of the North Gate.  Oxford, UK: Mandrake of Oxford, 2013, pp. 7-8.

Updated 5 October 2013; corrected works to productions in Blake quotation “Eternity is in love with the productions of time.”  Same idea, faulty memory for exact wording.

A Ghost-Druid Dialog   Leave a comment

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

To see a World in a Grain of Sand
And a Heaven in a Wild Flower
Hold Infinity in the palm of your hand
And Eternity in an hour.

William Blake, “Auguries of Innocence”

That kind of seeing and holding requires a special focus, a clear attention, I think, as I hurry to lunch, distinctly UN-focused, a dozen thoughts jangling, after two very different conversations with students during conference period.  My freshman advisee Walt has asked about the intricacies of some scheduling for sophomore year, while Ann, a junior and a former student, has come to talk about polishing a remarkable piece of journal writing from her freshman year for possible publication.

At the dining hall table where I often sit, Mr. Madden, Mr. Ritter and Mr. Delahunt are chuckling about an old piece of school gossip concerning the previous administration.  Ms. Valenti  joins us, and the conversation soon shifts to the deer that appear early almost every morning in the yards of the faculty residences on the campus periphery, where Ms. Valenti and Mr. Madden live in senior faculty houses.  Ms. Valenti describes the ten- or eleven-point buck she saw standing motionless in her driveway earlier in the week.  Mr. Delahunt mentions that he’s learned a small herd of deer beds down each night in a wooded gully between the new science building and the peripheral faculty housing. I cheer silently for these animal lives thriving, often just beyond our knowledge, in this apparently suburban part of the world.

At first I think all of this is mere distraction, but Blake reminds me yet again there’s a whole world here, eternity and infinity too, if I only see and touch them.  We all gobble our food, and I hurry back to my first afternoon class with my seniors.  So many grains of sand: underfoot, on the stairwell carpets of the English building, in my second-floor office when I reach down to pick up a fallen paperclip from the floor.  Each one a world, if I had time to see it.  Next year I will have time, because this is my last here.  Voluntary poverty, or insanity, or more than a little of both.

Class goes fast with my fifth period Brit Lit seniors.  Many of them read from the satires they’ve written in imitation of Jonathan Swift’s “A Modest Proposal.”  We don’t work on Blake, but here is eternity, too.  For a few moments we’re all paying attention, laughing at a satire of college admissions, or the sleep deprivation so many students face, not thinking about anyone or anything else — about the test next period, the sick friend, the college rejection letter, deadlines, schedules, midterm tomorrow, the weather, or whether a visionary dead white male Romantic poet may or may not have anything useful to say to us.

blake

Mr. Blake, we survived the 2012 fake apocalypse, I feel like crowing.  His ghost seems to nod, looking out the window at the light fog that huddles over the nearest quad.  Maybe that’s the best we can do, right now, our version of eternity: bad apocalypse.

Unwilling to share their satires, the sixth period seniors struggle with Blake.  We work through a couple of the easier poems, and soon I can tell it’s “drag” time.  I drag them through a few more, trying to open up the sometimes seeming-simplistic usually-complex lines.  Blake’s ghost sighs heavily.  An uphill climb for everyone, even though I’m working harder than usual to exhume the poet from two centuries of cultural and historic static that seems to buzz between the words on the page and the lives of my students.  I give them a creative writing exercise, and one soft-spoken girl produces a lovely poem inspired by the lines at the top of this post.  Her lines offer almost all sensory detail, a lovely lyric, with none of the teen angst that normally trails after much adolescent poetry like a homeless dog.  I give thanks for such things.

Blake, old sage, tyger-burner, Jerusalem-singer, painter and poet of the 19th century as strange and full of possibility as our 21st … what else do you have to tell me?  I listen as I write, content for a moment to hear the voice of silence in and around the clicks and taps of the keyboard.  “Hear the voice of the Bard, who past, present and future sees …”  With the view out my window circumscribed to the present only, I can tell I have my work cut out for me.  Blake’s ghost nods encouragingly.  Time to begin again.

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image:  “Beatrice addresses Dante”; William Blake

Updated 23 April 2015

The Fur Teacher   2 comments

This will be a sentimental “cute doggie” story only in passing.  Not because I’m averse to sentimentality (I’m often a “softie” as my wife reminds me), or because emotion is somehow automatically suspect (it’s not), but because sentimentality on its own can be a distraction when there’s some other and more valuable discovery I can usually make.  Such a discovery may underlie the sentiment it raises like a flag waving, a blush at sudden emotional vulnerability.  But the discovery itself often reaches much deeper than sentiment can take us. Let sentiment always claim first dibs on my attention and I may never make the discovery that so often seems to slip past right under my nose. It’s like, well … licking off the dressing and throwing out the salad.  OK, imperfect metaphor, but you get the idea.

Sentiment deserves its proper place.  That’s a lesson on its own, I’ve found — figuring out what that place is in all the various experiences of our lives — and worth its own post.  But this is a story about animals as our teachers, a theme in Druidry (and elsewhere, of course) that never grows old, at least for me.  And it’s a story about one particular furred teacher, in this case a dog.  Often animals are some of our earliest and best teachers.

Some time ago, while my wife Sarah was slowly recovering from cancer surgery, the after-effects of follow-up radiation, and the side-effects of long-term use of an anti-seizure med, she fulfilled a two-decade dream of getting another Newfoundland.  For those of you who don’t know them, the Newf is the more mischievous cousin of the St. Bernard, with whom it is sometimes confused. Both are the giants of the dog world.  And both drool pretty much continually.

Sarah’s first Newf, her beloved and mellow Maggie, saw her through a rough time in her teens.  But her second Newf, Spree, was entirely different in temperament.  Strong-willed and stubborn, unlike Maggie in the latter’s eagerness to please, and formidably intelligent, where Maggie could be somewhat dim, Spree simply demanded much more from both of us.  Leash-training, house-breaking, socialization — all were more involved than either of us had experienced with previous dogs.  Spree’s first mission seemed to be to wrench Sarah out of a lingering mild post-op depression — by canine force, if necessary. “I am now your black-furred, drooling world,” she insisted. Lesson One:  “There’s more to pay attention to.  Watch (me)!”  A second Lesson followed closely on that one:  “You can still trust this physical body (to take care of me, for a start.)  There are years of use left in it.  Now move that fanny!”

Maggie had suffered from severe hip-displasia, a weakness in many large and large-boned breeds like Newfs that can leave them effectively crippled.  Sarah was determined by any means in her power to avoid this with Spree, if she could.  She researched bloodlines and ancestries, kennels and breeding practices.  Finally she made her choice from a recently-born litter in Ohio, eight hundred miles from our home.  On top of that, Sarah was prepared to cook from scratch all of Spree’s food for her first two years, while her bones grew and she matured.  Spree did in fact end up with good bones, as a couple of tests demonstrated to everyone’s satisfaction, and she never suffered from displasia, but she had a number of food allergies that plagued her the rest of her life. The next Lesson didn’t seem to be only “Guess what?  First problem down.  Next?”  It was more like “In the decade or so I am with you, I will stretch you and teach you to love more.  And you’ll be starting with me.  Ready?”

During all but the first of the eleven years Spree was with us, we lived in a dorm apartment at the boarding school where we worked.  Most of the freshman girls in our dorm adored her — certainly she was a great conversation starter for any visitors.  We put up a dog gate to protect the dog-phobic minority, an obstacle Spree despised.

It’s true that at 124 pounds she did outweigh many of the girls.  (More than once, out and about on campus with her, we heard pedestrians near us exclaim, “Oh my God, is that a bear?!”)  And on evenings when I was on dorm duty, Spree had her many fans among the girls who just had to pet that soft lush black fur before they could settle down to study hours.  And during breaks they’d come back to visit — Spree of course, not me.  One of the lessons here, which she seemed to express with a contented doggy gaze at me as she received the girls’ caresses which she took as her due, was “Remember the wisdom of the body.  It is after all your life in this world.  We all need touch to thrive.  (I volunteer to demonstrate.  Pet me.)  Remember good food.  (Feed me.)  Remember exercise.  (Walk me.)”

The last few months of her life, Spree dealt with bone cancer that started in her neck and shoulder and spread, weakening bone and aching more and more.  We always knew Spree had a very high tolerance for pain. A score of incidents throughout her life had shown us that. Injuries that would set other dogs crying or yelping she would bear in silence, and keep on running, playing, eating — whatever was more interesting than pain.  We learned to slow her down for her own good many times, to minimize further damage, to check just what had happened, to bandage and treat and clean her.  In her final weeks, however, even on medication, her suffering continued to increase. It was winter, and she would ask to go outside several times a day to lie in the snow, her great coat keeping the rest of her warm enough, as she chilled and eased the hurt, rolling slowly in the snow, then lying on her back and side for half an hour or more at a time.  The three shallow back steps to our small yard were eventually agony for her to climb either up or down, but she refused the sling we’d borrowed to help her.  She cried out only once, in her last days, when it simply hurt too much.  A Lesson:  “I stayed longer than my kind usually can. [The average Newf life-span is roughly 8 years.]  Make the most of what you’re given.  You two are obviously slow learners on that score.  Why else do you think I hung around this long?”

Spree in her final springtime, age 11

The last hour of her life, at the vet’s office, was  on a snowy winter day (she loved the snow). Dazed from a liberal dose of morphine, but as a result now blissfully free of pain, she enthusiastically greeted the three of us, Sarah and me and a fellow Newfie owner, who came to say goodbye as she was euthanized. Several difficult lessons.  “There will be pains and pain.  Guaranteed.  You can still do much.  There will be hurt, but there’s no need to grant it more power over you than it must have.”

Spree greeted the vet who came to administer the euthanasia with her typical curiosity and people-love.  A wagging tail, a nose pressed into the person’s thigh.  The last seconds before she passed, she lay full-length and at ease.  The vet had earlier inserted a catheter in her left paw to make both morphine and euthanasia easier to give, fuss-free.  Spree nosed the syringe that held the dose as the vet pushed the plunger.  “What is this?”  Always she had explored her world first through her exquisite sense of smell.  Near-sighted as she was her whole life, smell was her go-to sense.  It is of course the chief sense for most dogs, but so much more so, almost obsessively so, in her case.  Each shopping trip we brought into the house required a comprehensive smell-check, each item sniffed and investigated completely, regardless of whether it was (to a Newf) fit for food.  In part, the Lessons here seemed to be “Sniff out whatever comes into your orbit.  Find out its nature, whether it directly concerns you or not.  And enjoy the physical senses.  They also do not last, but each will tell you much about this life.”  And yet another lesson:  “Dying may suck, true.  Death, however, does not deserve our fear.  Pain does not last forever.  Be curious about everything.  Friends, isn’t that a better way?”

Animals teach wordlessly, and therefore often more effectively, through their nature as other spiritual beings who share the planet with us.  Here I have interpreted into language some of that teaching as best I could, without excessive anthropomorphizing.  I send gratitude for this fur-teacher in our lives.  And I thank old wisdom-teacher William Blake for writing, “Everything that lives is holy, life delights in life.”

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