There were a couple of witches on the towpath last night, off to a Halloween party. It’s the time of year to play with macabre images, pretend to be a zombie, make a game out of death. In some ways I see how this works – it’s a way of making some alarming stuff a bit more manageable, and of course plenty of people like their creepy thrills. We have a culture in which real death is kept out of sight, while pretend death is ever more present. From violent movies to shoot em up computer games, fictional horror can be a feature of daily life. It’s an odd juxtaposition to say the least. For me there is no supernatural. Everything, by definition, is within nature. I have thoughts about our degree of understanding of ‘nature’ and that for a long time anything we can’t explain has been ‘supernatural’. These days we tend to go for whichever buzz term around the wilder ends of physics is in vogue. These days, if we can’t explain it, we make noises about quantum. In folklore this is the time of year when the veil between the worlds is thin, the dead walk, the wild hunt rides, the faerie courts move from their summer to their winter halls. Tam Lin’s climax is set around Halloween. It is a good time to think about people we’ve lost, and our ancestors as well. Most of our ancestors are not known to us, but we wouldn’t be here without them, after all. My ancestors have been in my thoughts a lot this last year, both immediate and distant ones. How much of who we are owes something to where we came from? I don’t think background can ever be used to excuse or justify, but it so often helps in the making sense. Understanding is a good thing, you can’t have too much of it. I’m hoping to get an actual ritual in some time soon. Time to stand in the darkness and honour the darkening days, the shift towards winter, the bright colours of the leaves and the bare branches to come. Time to think of those I’ve lost. There have been no funerals in this last year for me, but death is a constant presence. Death constantly in the news, acknowledged on the radio. This is also a good time to think about what dies within us as part of our own cycles of growing and stripping back. Inner deaths can be a gift as much as a loss and either way they create the room for new starts and fresh opportunities. Without the dying, there could be no new things. I’ve watched a whole facet of my personality dying over this last year. An aspect created defensively, so survive external pressures and make sense of impossible things. Now that those pressures have receded and there is nothing incomprehensible to rationalise, I don’t need to be that person any more. The letting go is a slow process, one day to the next. Eventually I may even be able to forget some of it, which would be a huge blessing. That part of me should never have been, and it is good to let it die. It’s like pulling a giant leech off my psyche. There are things that should be allowed to die. Things that need to die. Recognising them, and allowing them to pass is a very important process. Hanging on to that which should be declared dead, only increases the pain. Trying to force life into any dead thing seldom works and as all the traditional stories tell us, things that come back from the dead often aren’t very good for us. Not everything can be healed, not everything should be continued. Time to pause and contemplate what now needs releasing.
Monthly Archives: October 2011
I remember my father once telling me that in some traditional stories, a year and a day can mean forever. If this is so, then most of this last year and a day would be the eternity of preference for me, minus the stress of historical baggage.
A year ago yesterday, my Tom landed in the UK after a painfully long, slow process of paperwork. Moving to marry is not easy, believe me! But he got here, and my son and I went through the dramatic transformation from being a domestic unit of two, to being a fully functioning family. Today seemed like a good time to draw breath, look back, and look forwards.
I have learned so much in this last year. I had very little sense of self in 2010, and most of what I did have was based on fear. I had been told so many times how demanding and unreasonable I am, how excessive. I had been characterised as emotional to the point of instability, and so unfeeling that any emotional expression had to be treated as suspect and probably just emotional blackmail. It’s not easy moving forwards when you have so much baggage, and it must have taken some doing to step up to that. But Tom has always been glad to say that he loves me, and that it is no hardship to express that.
I’ve rebuilt a lot of my sense of self this last year, to a large degree through my relationship with Tom. He takes joy in my company, delights in doing things that make me smile. He does not treat any of the things I want to give as laughable or irritating, and does not find it hard to give the things I need. Through this, I’ve gone from being something monstrous in my own eyes, to feeling that I could, possibly, be ok as a person. Go back eighteen months and I felt like a total human-fail, that there must be something profoundly and intrinsically wrong with me that explained what was happening in my life. This last year makes me think very differently.
I’ve never known anyone else I felt so at peace with, so comfortable with. I can share anything. Life becomes a joint, creative enterprise, balancing work and responsibilities with playful exploration of the world. It’s an ongoing nurturing of each other, a sharing of inspiration and everything I ever hoped or imagined a good relationship could be.
Relationship is the core of human experience. Be that relationships with other humans or with the rest of the world. We exist, and know ourselves through the ways in which we interact with others. There was a time when I felt that pain was a measure of love, and how much you will give of yourself or sacrifice the best measure of devotion. I felt at the same time that generally this was something I would do on my own, and I had no right to expect anything at all in return. These days I view relationship in terms of that which is shared. It is what we do together, what we dream together, how we treat each other. A two sided thing, a give and take, co-supporting and rooted in care and respect. Without care and respect on both sides, it’s not a balanced relationship, it’s a relationship based on use.
There is so much more to learn, I think. So much to understand and discover, to explore and create. I look forward at a future that is rich with possibility. Short term challenges and set backs are so much easier to handle when you have a sense of direction and a feeling there are good things in your life. I have that now, but for a long time, I didn’t.
So I’m offering up this very public declaration of love, this recognition of the gorgeous, honourable and delightful man who has brightened my life in innumerable ways. Here’s to many more years, and to celebrating the good people, the beauty of small things done well, and the sheer joy of good relationship.
The science of dreaming fascinates me, the limits of it more so. There are dreams that I can readily identify as being my brain just sorting out what has come in during the day. When I learned to crotchet recently, I was crocheting the fabric of my dreams for some nights. I can also spot the dreams that are born from suppressed emotion – usually anxiety. Not least because they tend to take the same forms all the time.
But there are other dreams, rare and strange ones that I can’t rationally explain. Dreams that have such deep resonance it feels like they are telling me something. I remember waking from just such a dream in which my father was trying to contact me, and knowing that he would phone that morning. He did. My Nan had gone into hospital and she died a short time later. Not all of the resonant dreams are that clear and coherent though. Sometimes I wake with the sense that a profound thing has happened during my sleep, and no real idea what it was.
In my teens I studied my own dreams enthusiastically, and was managing a little lucid dreaming. In my twenties my dreams reduced down to a small number of scenarios, obsessively revisited and laden with anxiety. The return to good dreaming has been very much a part of my return to more creative and happy mental states. The quest for re-enchantment has me looking hard at my dreams again.
After all, we spend a fair chunk of our lives dreaming, they are part of our experience, and that gives them a reality of sorts. They may well be windows into the unconscious, they certainly have the capacity to bring fresh inspiration and to help with problem solving. There are dreams that incline me to feel I have really been somewhere else, and that something real has happened to me. Dreams where the emotional content is so affecting, that by influence, the dream itself becomes real in important ways.
We used, collectively, to be far more open to the idea of dreams as messages from god, or the gods, and of the potential of dreams to be prophetic. The rise of rationalism has done away with this as superstition. But I don’t think that’s entirely fair. We take in and process far more information than we are conscious of. The capacity of the human mind to make connections and find patterns in apparently random things is phenomenal. Magical, even. It underpins so much of what we are able to do ‘rationally’. Dreams are all about the mad juxtapositions, the great intuitive leaps, maybe they are the bits we reject as other parts of our mind go through the available information to see what might be useful. Dreams are testimony to the sheer wonder of both our consciousness and our unconsciousness, to the imaginative potential within us all, and the dashes of chaos and irrationality that go into making us human.
Rational, logical thought only takes us so far. Intuition and inspiration are not logical (I pause once again to nod to Zen and the art of motorcycle maintenance). Invention, problem solving, and creativity all depend on that more irrational thinking. Dreams are part of that process, a nightly eruption of the kind of thought that shows no respect to boxes, laws, or consensus reality.
Last night I dreamed about going to court, and finding there was no real hearing, just lots of people gathered together to sing, organised by a portly woman of advanced years. Explaining this to Tom he said ‘It’s not over until the fat lady sings?’
She sang. Perhaps it’s a good omen!
She has woven one web too many and now the sticky trails of recent machinations are all tangled up around her legs. Grandmother Spider, refusing to acknowledge her own strings even as she spins them.
“These threads? Oh no, they aren’t mine at all. I didn’t make them. Come a little closer, have a proper look. That’s right.”
Grandmother Spider knows that she is far, far cleverer than anyone else. It is this vast intellectual power that allows the careful making of webs. Anything caught by her deserved to be trapped, for its own stupidity.
Only now it is she who has somehow been tangled up.
That wasn’t supposed to happen.
Grandmother Spider knows that she is far, far too clever to be caught in her own web, or anyone else’s for that matter. Therefore the only reasonable conclusion, is that she has not been caught. The sticky lines restricting her movement are not real, and this has not happened.
She is still explaining this to an uncaring reality, when the birds come.
(I’m planning to do more flash fiction, when inspiraiton strikes!)
When I started out as a pagan I didn’t do ritual in any group or formal sense. Getting onto the druid path, I discovered not only a local grove and their open rituals, but also the gatherings at Avebury and Stonehenge. An eclectic group started up in my area too, and for some festivals I was out ritualling a lot, for some years.
This last year I’ve not being doing ritual, but here I am, poised to jump back in, and wondering about the whole business.
I love the social aspect of gathering for ritual – not just in a gossipy sense, but the sharing of inspiration and energy. Having the 8 standard festivals to work with makes it easy to grab people for that. However, it ties ritual to a solar narrative in the wheel of the year, and makes it harder to do rituals that aren’t focused on that turning of the agricultural seasons. I do see the point of engaging people with the natural world, but I also think that ‘nature’ is more subtle and complex than this rather simplified story of the rise and fall of the sun allows for. Even the farming it’s supposed to relate to is more complicated.
I live very close to the practical realities of changing seasons – boat life makes nature and the sun (or its absence) very immediate. There is no ignoring what’s going on ‘out there’. I know from working with big groups that for urban folk whose living and employment situations alienate them from the natural world, the wheel of the year aids reconnection. This is undoubtedly a good thing, but it feels like a place to begin, for me, not an end point.
When I’ve been involved in running open ritual, providing that point of connection with nature through the year seemed like an important part of the job. Simply holding ritual was about service to community. But I’m looking at a very different sort of group now, with people in it who are far more connected, who maybe need the shared inspiration angle of ritual, but not the ‘getting outside’ bit.
I’m sure our ancient ancestors would have celebrated the end of harvest, the coming of spring, and done something in the dark days to cheer themselves up. But when you are living day to day with the subtle shifts in season and sun, those big focal points seem less important, I find. I don’t need reminding where we are, I know it in my bones.
I’m thinking about ritual to take me further, to help me connect with the things that aren’t immediately present in my daily life. Which means identifying what those are for a start, and seeing how they correspond, if at all, with what anyone else wants. I’m in the curious, liminal headspace of knowing I’m looking for something and not yet knowing what it is.
As a consequence I’m going back to the absolute fundamentals in some ways, asking, what is ritual for? Who does it serve? What do I want to get out of it? What does ritual mean? How do I want to do it. (More of this pondering to follow, no doubt!)
I feel like I’m going through a big upheaval phase, questioning everything, paring everything back, looking for the essence, the significance. All the things I have ever taken as normal or fixed seem open to negotiation, and that’s an exciting place to be. I always did like the inbetween places.
There are a number of standard meditation techniques popular with druids that I find impossible. They make no emotional sense to me. It doesn’t mean there’s anything wrong with the techniques, I’m sure they work well for some people, just not for me. I’ve been trying to find alternatives, and having got one, wanted to share on the off-chance that I am not alone in my difficulties.
There is the meditation in which we go down into the otherworld. We may go through a door in a tree and down a stair, and meet the guardian. I’ve encountered this one in a few places. It stumps me partly because it’s directional. I have ideas about Annwn that would work for going down, but the otherworld as underworld doesn’t sit right. I understand the otherworlds as being alongside this one, overlapping, interwoven in ways too complex for me to understand.
When I want to explore something otherworldly in meditation, I have tried hard and repeatedly to work with the ‘down’ model. I’m not an inherently visual person, and I’ve tried using imagery from all kinds of places to reinforce the work, and I still struggle. Being a frequent meditator and good at working with other thought forms, I’ve come to the conclusion that maybe it’s just not the right idea for me.
I then started looking round for some alternative. I need a meditative journey that takes me from the world as I experience it, into somewhere else. I need that journey to be emotionally resonant for me, and the imagery to be simple enough that I can easily picture it. I spent some days deliberately mulling this over, and nothing came.
Then, walking beside the canal in the darkness, I watched the full moon rise, creating a path of light across the water. I knew I’d found my image. I remember a story from childhood – Masquerade – in which a hare had to run the path of the sun, created by the sun setting over the sea. I’m sure I’ve read moonpath stories as well. It’s an idea I’ve also used in fiction writing. Path of the moon, path of the sun, stretching out over the water, over river or ocean, and taking us… I don’t know. Beyond the map, into the unknown.
I’ve started working with the idea of a moonpath in meditation, and currently just imagining walking or running it is enough for me. I realised once I started that I had created a scenario in which I would have to walk on water, which is laden with interesting connotations. So far the journey is simply over the water, following the light. I know that when I am truly ready, that path will take me somewhere. I’m not pushing, or presupposing what I will find, and I like that too. It makes me realise one of the problems I have with prescriptive visualisations and pathworkings is that they often tell you what to encounter. I’ve got to the stage where I don’t want to write a story about where I’m going, I want to journey and experience in a freeform way, in a way that might possibly be a real spiritual experience rather than the creative working of my conscious mind.
This is part of my re-enchantment quest, and my searching for magic in my life. I realised that I needed to open myself to otherworldliness, and looked around for suitable tools. I think in the moonpath and sunpath meditations, I’ve found something. I also like that I can go out and work with real phenomena – I don’t just have to sit and imagine, I can meditate with the moon or sun on the water sometimes, and I’m very drawn to grounding my meditations in reality where I can.
More notes from the journey when I have anything to report.
I’m English, genetically (as far as anyone can be) culturally, and geographically. I’ve only spent a few weeks of my 34 years outside the British Isles. As a consequence, there is a bias in both my thinking and writing. I know it’s there, I probably ought to flag it up more, and it raises some interesting questions for me.
Helgaleena pointed this one out in a comment on a previous post (thank you) and I’ve been pondering it a lot since then.
I spent a number of years looking after The Druid Network’s Directory – a big listing of groves, groups and orders worldwide. (I was using a different name back then, in case anyone remembers that work and was wondering…) Anyways, this brought me into contact with a lot of different groups, all of whom were including words about their unique take on Druidry as part of their involvement in the directory.
This contact gave me a superficial impression of what it is that different druid groups focus on and how they see themselves and wish to present their druidry to the world. I learned that druidry is diverse, expressed in many, many ways, with a significant number of groups consciously moving away from European roots to create a druidry of their own that makes sense for their own place and time. And at the same time, I never once saw a statement from a group that didn’t chime with me as druidic.
My druidry is just one facet of the huge crystal that is the druidry of the world. It’s the bit I find it easiest to talk about, but I don’t want to inadvertently sound like I’m trying to be definitive. I also don’t want to caveat the blog to death!
I’m coming to think in a certain way because of this. All religion is human construct. However, what we call druidry exists because we are all, wherever we happen to be in the world, seeing something and responding to it. The core of what we see, is enough the same that most of us, as far as I can tell, are able to recognise each other. The surface of practice can vary a great deal, but there is a heart, an essence to druidry that holds it all together. I don’t believe that druidry itself exists as a thing separate from human thought, available to be tapped into from any place or time. But there is something else that we are responding to that gives us this commonality, and it is not as simple as ‘nature’ because other pagan paths respond to that too and go in different directions from us druidy folk. It’s not ‘celtic’ either because people who are deliberately not celtic are still druidic. My current guess is ‘the land’.
The idea of looking longer and deeper into manifestations of druidry around the world really appeals to me. There is more here to understand, and I’m more fascinated by modern manifestations of druidry than I am by peering into the murky waters of the past. Plus, I’ve done some past-peering, so this has the lure of a new thing. Which raises another interesting question. I cannot be other than who I am, and where I am, so to what extent would it be possible for me to understand druidry as it manifests in another country?
In the blog before last I suggested that people in survival situations do ‘whatever it takes’ and had a challenge over that. It was one of those statements I typed out quickly as part of a different argument, so the subtleties of the issue just weren’t tackled. I really appreciate people catching me when I do these, because it requires me to think, to figure out ideas that I may have been taking for granted.
What I’ve come up with may be entirely personal to me, I don’t know. Usually when we talk about morals, ethics, behaviour we tend to assume that a given person has one set of values. On reflection, I realise that I do not. I have a number of levels within my ethical thinking, I’m going to simplify it to three for ease of explaining, but that’s probably not all of it in some instances.
I have ideals. These are the standards I would like to uphold, the things I think would be optimal. They include only buying organic and ethically sourced food, clothing and other objects, only using electricity I have generated myself by green and sustainable means, not using fossil fuels, re-using and recycling rather than throwing anything away, never losing my temper, never speaking or acting in haste, always acting with absolute care, thoughtfulness and integrity. There are others, but that’s enough to give a flavour.
In reality, I wouldn’t be able to afford to eat if I stuck to those ideals, and I certainly couldn’t buy clothes on those terms. The realities of not having much money are just not compatible with my ideals. I’m stuck with the available levels of technology, and while I have very low fossil fuel consumption, I’ve not got that down to no use, yet. And of course the whole being human thing means I’m not always perfect in my self-control, speech and behaviour.
So, I have an aspirational level of ethics, and the reality. I push towards the aspiration in every way I can think of, but the nature of those ideals is that if I get close to reaching them, I’m going to shift the goalposts. Those aspirational ethics are not fixed, they exist to stretch me.
Then there’s the ‘whatever it takes’ ethics, and I suspect we all have these too. I don’t steal. If I genuinely couldn’t feed my child by any other means (postulate some apocalyptic scenario if you will) I would take what he needed. No question. But that doesn’t mean that I would consider absolutely any behaviour if I had the right justification. I don’t believe that rationalisation holds water, although I have the impression some people do think that way. I would not, for example, kill someone in order to escape from an extreme poverty scenario. I would not countenance doing anything that put my child in danger to achieve any other end.
The idea of doing whatever it takes has a connection with whether you see the ends as justifying the means or not. For someone who does, ‘whatever it takes’ is a very broad remit indeed. I don’t see the ends as inherently justifying the means, I think instead that the means must support the intended outcome. So there are definitely things I would not countenance doing.
For most people then I think ‘whatever it takes’ exists within a moral framework. No doubt there are people who can uphold their highest ideals no matter that happens to them, but I for one have a ‘bottom line’ ethic as well. They come into play when two ethical positions collide. Duty of care versus something else would be the most obvious. How far would I go to save a life, to protect a habitat, to prevent a worse injustice from occurring? I’m not sure, I won’t know until it happens.
I’m not going to die of cold rather than burn coal. That’s putting immediate survival before aspirational ideals. Whatever it takes, is relative. It depends a lot on how you define survival and how you craft your priorities.
Some years ago, pagan author Pete Jennings pointed out to me that if all pagans were killed, all pagan books burned, all traces of paganism expunged from the earth then there is every reason to think that at some point in the future, someone will figure it out all over again. The same cannot be said of book religions that depend on individual revelations.
How important then, is the history of Druidry, or for that matter, of any other pagan path?
I recently reviewed Ronald Hutton’s epic work Blood and Mistletoe over at www.druidnetwork.org. It’s a book with a lot to say about the limits of our knowledge and the lack of certainty in anything to do with the ancient Druids. Well worth reading. I’m now reading Graeme Talboys, a beautiful counterpoint to Hutton looking at what we might plausibly extrapolate. Two very different takes on what we know, and read side by side I think they make a perfect pair.
Like a lot of people who end up on a druid path, I started out with a fondness for things Celtic – the knotwork, the mediaeval stories, the harps… I find ‘Celtic’ things resonant at an emotional level. Having Cornish ancestors and ancestors from the Forest of Dean (which historically was more often in Wales than not!) plus a legend about an Irish lass who ran off with the stable boy, I feel confident that I have some biological Celtic ancestry. That however, is secondary because someone with no claim to blood lineage who felt that resonance, would be no less entitled to it, in my book.
What is it that draws us to other times and places, giving us a sense of connection outside ourselves? Is it some kind of past life or genetic memory, or just fancy? I wonder too about the impulse to identify ourselves with plants and animals.
You could look at this from one angle and get the idea that pagans are mostly misfit fantasists who want to be something else, somewhere else. We have the fantasy that as Celts, (or whatever else it is) we’d have fitted in. That may be true on any count.
But there’s also the great object-subject divide to consider. (Thank you zen and the art of motorcycle maintenance). We live in a collective mindset that places the individual as distinct and separate from everything else. We are separate in time and space, and so any engagement with anything that is not part of our own time and space, is by definition fantasy. That’s not the only way of looking at things. If you perceive everything as interconnected, then what is without can also be within. Everything we experience within ourselves is part of our dialogue with everything else. If we are discrete entities, but part of our nature is made up from our contact with other things, those other things are part of us.
The human mind having its limits, we can’t hold consciousness of being connected with everything all of the time. We can however explore the bits we encounter in meaningful ways, and answer the feelings of resonance certain things evoke. By this measure, the resonance of the Celts, of the herons, or oak trees or flowing waters or whatever else calls, is no kind of crazy. By experiencing them and caring about them, they become part of us. Arguably they were part of us anyway and all we have done is notice this and responded to it. Our understanding of time, and history, can be very much part of this.
Zen and the art of motorcycle maintenance talks about mythos – the shared story on which society depends, and goes on to point out how rooted in a rather limited ancient Greek vision our current mythos is. To step outside the mythos is to court madness, allegedly. I think it can be done. More, I think we’re already doing it. We have to challenge all those beliefs that are currently being passed off as indisputable fact. The world is, I suspect, a far more interesting place than we let ourselves believe it to be.