In ‘A Branch from the Lightning Tree’, Martin Shaw talks about initiatory journeys into wilderness, and also the importance of bringing that back an integrating it into our village. Similar things are said of contemplation, shamanic journeying, and other voyages ‘out there’. What gives the experience meaning and significance, is how we bring it back and add it to the mix. We travel together, and those who venture off the path on wilder adventures have an obligation to their tribe to come back with that. And perhaps arguably also an obligation to self, to mesh that experience into regular life. If you go off forever, into faerie, into the mists, or the wilderness, then you are lost to your own life, to your old self and to some aspects of your humanity.
Nonetheless, there are those who go, with no intention of returning. It may not be the retreat into wilderness, but into silence, absence, or stillness. A deliberate stepping out of the flow. It may be that life and people are just too difficult, or a feeling of having nothing left to offer the tribe. Even starting with that intention, it may be that time withdrawn makes it possible to see some point in going back, something worthy of offering to the wider world.
When I lived on the boat, I was very much a hermit. I spent a lot of time in silence, I interacted with very few people. Sometimes that felt lonely, but it had the merit of being easier. I’m not very good at relationships with people. I never know what to say or how to say it, I find conversations hard work at the best of times, and there are very few people with whom I am entirely relaxed. I never know what to do with my elbows. Self-conscious and over-thinking, agonising over mistakes made and anxious about the inevitable next one…
Perhaps I best serve the tribe by mostly not being in it. Perhaps I am most use when I retreat into silence and just come back, to carefully held spaces like this one where I can piece my words together slowly and I do not have to worry so much about my elbows.
In contrast though, the contemplative Druid group met this week. It’s a place where it doesn’t seem to matter much if I am clever, or not. All I have to do is show up and sit quietly with others. They do not ask much of me, and are very accepting of my not being very good sometimes. There’s a feeling of safety in that. In not having to be anything.
Part of the problem, as Martin Shaw points out in his book, is that when you come back with the light of some otherworld in your eyes, or the darkness of it… this can be scary. You have stepped outside the tribe. You really don’t belong anymore. You are not easily reintegrated. You are other. Every time I try and step back into normal human interactions, I am coming back, from long dark subterranean journeys, from imaginary voyages, from time with the hills and sky. Of course I do not fit tidily anywhere. Perhaps it is my job not to fit tidily. I do not know.