I Believe in Offering, Not Suffering

Stinson Beach and a Seagull Caught In Flight
Stinson Beach and a Seagull Caught In Flight
   I believe in offering, not suffering. I believe in paying it forward, not payback. Most of the debts we all owe to those who gave us life, including the Earth itself, cannot be repaid. Our mothers and fathers likewise could not repay their parents, their teachers, their elders—they could only continue the line by giving to us, their descendants and successors.
   The creatures who gave us life—the chicken I had for dinner last week, the vegetables that made up a salad, the cows that made the cream in my coffee. I can’t give life back to them, but the components of my own body, built of all the food I ate and water I drank, that should and must be returned to the earth to nourish those who come after.
   We have been given so many gifts! We give in return, whether we want to or not. We breathe out–and the green world breathes in. Every evening the trees slowly exhale, and our red blood has oxygen to carry. When we take our last breath, our bodies return to the Earth. Our best efforts to prevent this do no more than slow the process, taint the gift that we should freely give as we return to the cycles of life. I look forward to setting a handsome table, to some part of me seeing through compound eyes, becoming petals that open to the touch of the sun.
   What will happen to the I, who writes these words now? I do not know, nor do I need to. I will not stand in this place again, but somebody will. I look each morning on proud vessels of steel and of wood. My work is part of their very fabric in layers of paint, well greased steel, canvas stretched across wood with copper tacks. As I sanded, scraped, pounded, if the gods are kind others will do the same. When they take apart my work, as I have taken apart the work of those who came before, will they say “that was well done,” will they notice the tiny wall and crown that ends my well-turned seizing?
   A sailor’s signature very rarely carries a name, as the molecules of air that enter our lungs do not carry to us the knowledge of their journey. The crew, or the forest remains barring catastrophe, but the trees and sailors pass into memory. The ship remains only as long as there are people who care enough to do the work and do it well. Love holds the world together.

The Druidry of Time

Grey sky, the green hills reflected in the still waters of the lake
Llyn Tegid Stood Still
   I decided to change up my commute this morning. I left the house before first light, listening to that small, still voice that is easily drowned out by the roar of daily life. I stepped directly onto the bus, and got a quiet car on the BART. I  got a good long look at the red streaks of dawn through the window just before the train dove under the Bay.
   This gave me time to walk to work from the station. I’ve been walking the other way, after work, in an effort to preserve some of the peace and clarity of my recent trip to Albion. If the afternoon walk was good, the morning is even better. I got to walk through the coolness and quiet of North Beach before the cafes are open and the sidewalks full of tables and people intent on their phone screens. I’m here at work before most people get in and am able to sit and write for a bit after spending some time alone with My Ladies, the ships who form our collection and carry their cargo of memory into the future. I am able to spend a moment or two reconciling my Druidry and my current livelihood in a way that allows me to build some more of that deep connection into the life I am living, the shape of this moment in time.
   We are all, to some degree, caught in a web that we don’t like, and it is often difficult to see our part in the weaving of it. We make choices and often are forced to do so without all the facts to hand, or in spite of the facts. I chose to be where I am now. I came here to serve these vessels and in the cool of morning, before I’m trapped in matters that have little to do with these Ladies and in fact have no part whatsoever in their survival, I can remember why I’m here and make as much time for my true work as possible.
   I picked up a sprig of fresh rosemary from the sidewalk this morning. I inhale its fresh scent and block out the tribal babblings in the next room. This moment is still mine. The darkened light of Autumn shines through the window and picks out the rich colors of the signal flags fluttering from every mast. I made every one of those hoists, party clothes for My Ladies. They don’t wear them often, but when they do they are resplendent indeed. This is the last time those flags will be flown before winter and I wonder if a century from now someone like me will be looking at another set of them in the same way.
   The space of a century is how I spend my early mornings in this place. I walk through the ferryboat, the only sounds the slap of the water and the creak of mooring line and gangway. I see all the ships of this collection in that time, a time when I and all of the people that inhabit this slice of time with me are dead. We are gone, but the vessels remain. Like the forest, the individuals that make up the whole live their lives, do their tasks and pass on, but the crew remains. Without the forest, the very air we breathe does not exist. Without a crew, the vessel is dead.
   We talk a lot on taking the long view. Thinking of our responsibility to our descendants, to our effects, with our actions today, on the seventh generation. I think that we only pay lip service to this for many reasons–among them short term gain, and the personal consequences of acting from this knowledge, which often puts us at a disadvantage when it comes to our actions in the present day. Taking the long view is hard when everyone else thinks in terms of next quarter or next year. There are rewards, however. The feeling of expansiveness I get when I think of that person a century hence standing on this deck where I am standing right now, feeling that same sense of oneness with the ship, is to align myself with the ages.
   I remember one specific job I helped with when I was still a volunteer. We were restoring a bilge pump, original to one of the vessels, and it wouldn’t come apart. It took us weeks to coax it to break loose. We tried everything, penetrating oil, torches and hammers,  railroad jacks and Johnson bars–we permanently bent an iron bar an inch thick in our efforts. Eventually we persuaded the rust that sealed the top shut to yield. The pump slid smoothly apart as the corrosion that held it fractured. The inside was almost bright. The leather washer was rotten, covered with something silver and flexible. It was dried out grease, which had served to protect the metal even after fifty-odd years. We didn’t know that sailor’s name, but the evidence of his skill and pride in the vessel was there before our eyes. The job had been let go for many years longer than it should have been, but the pump was still repairable. Without that thick layer of grease–much more than had been needed to do the job, we might well have been looking at a solid block of rust.
   I resolved that day to be that sailor. Whenever possible, I added extra coats of paint, varnish or tar to any part of the ships I could. I mummified the engines of a certain ship in the same sort of lanolin-based grease we use to coat the bilges of another, grease that was so good that the company that made it went out of business because it lasted too long to allow them to survive. I remember scraping the last of it out of 55 gallon drums in the warehouse, alone, filthy, and having the time of my life. I miss those days more than I can say, when I was directly involved in the preservation of the ships. Maybe, if I’m very lucky, someday someone will take apart one of the many jobs I’ve done and thank that unknown sailor who went the extra mile. Maybe they’ll learn, as I did, that that kind of love is what keeps ships alive, that we are all links in the chain, passing hand to hand the knowledge and skill that gets us to the future.
   This is one of the many reasons I am a Druid. We are all keepers of the future, but my spiritual practice specifically calls me to preserve and protect the past, in the present, so that our collective memory makes it to the future. We are keepers of memory, because without a knowledge of where we came from we can’t make good decisions, even for the next quarter or the next year. We are living in a world where that kind of short term thinking, fueled by the gifts and tools that the accumulation of memory have given us is bringing us to the brink of disaster. We know what we need to do to help our world back into balance, though too many of us fight like demons to keep from taking up those tasks. My job, my spirituality and my life are at the moment all reflections of that same understanding, here at dawn, with the winds of Albion still caught in my hair, the lessons I have learned still fresh in my mind.

Travelers Don’t Know Where They’re Going

Sunrise through the treesSunrise through the trees at Alfriston Camping Park
Dawn at Alfriston Camping Park

Travelers don’t know where they’re going,
Tourists don’t know where they’ve been.—Hostel Wall in Inverness

I saw that quote on my first trip to Britain and Ireland, and it neatly sums up my approach to traveling. I plan, loosely, but leave as much wiggle room as possible. The world has a much better idea of what I should be doing and where exactly I’ll be going than I do.

I expected to do a lot of blogging on the trip I’ve just come home from, for example. That didn’t happen, and I’ll be doing my best to make up for it now. There was too much living packed into too little time. Old friends and new, and people I wanted to see but didn’t get to. I planned carefully, but allowed for last minute changes wherever I could. Hostel reservations, for example, can be cancelled, in most cases. The few times I did get hooked for an extra night, it’s usually cheaper to book in advance and eat that cost than to try and get a bed on arrival. Train tickets, likewise, are much cheaper in advance, and a few minutes with a site like trainsplit.com will let me know which fares never change and what the difference in cost is if I book a nonrefundable fare in advance, or get a fare that can be changed or canceled. Besides, I find trip researching a particularly pleasant form of daydreaming.

Loaded bike trailer and laid out bivy sack in Alfriston Camping Park
Camping in Sussex

My first stop was Anderida Camp, in Sussex. It was the first stop on my first trip to the UK, and it was a bit off the beaten track this time, but I was determined to return. I had missed climbing the Tump in Lewes the first time, and thanks to some time on Google Earth before I left, this time I was able to walk right to it. Thanks to some overambitious travel plans though, by the time I got there I was in a slightly altered state. I’d gotten about two hours sleep in the last 48, and had learned by then that Caffeine is Good, Food is Dangerous. I found I could function as long as I remembered that, and kept busy. It took two cabbies and an online map to figure out where camp was—I knew, but they didn’t, and I was giving directions from a different country, really. I walked in there at around hour 50, but this time all my friends were there, and I was soon set up among their tents, being fed tea, and generally having a wonderful time. I was also talking to Tony Stark by then, and by hour 55 I felt like I was surrounded by pillows. I decided I’d better sleep, and missed the opening ritual.

I woke up in the middle of the night, feeling much more grounded in reality, and went to the fire. A weekend of connection and community followed. Anderida Camp is known for Burning Things, and this camp was no exception. The firesides are also the best to be found anywhere. There was the happy-off, where we all played the happiest music we knew, and the hippy-off—well, you get the idea. A camp-wide version of the Age of Aquarius had us all on our feet. This, for me, is the heart of Druidry. Connection with people, and with the Land. Once again I felt the chrysalis around our world. It may feel as if we are dying, but it is only the old ways dissolving to make way for the new. This, I think, was one of the reasons I didn’t know why I was making the trip, or the shape of it. I still don’t, but the work I have to do is before me and the more of it I do, the clearer things become.

Maybe it was the ridiculous marathon of getting to Camp, maybe it was meant to be, but I lost the pouch with all my magical things in it somewhere along the line. Among them was my set of ogam feda. These look like a bundle of sticks, but they represent the ogam alphabet. They can be thought of as wooden tarot cards, though the system they represent is more a skeleton on which oral knowledge is hung. It is a way of memorizing such knowledge and organizing the relationships between it. The first letter, for example, is called Beith. The word means Birch, but it is also associated with Ban (white), Besan (pheasant), and beginnings. Among other things. The old Bardic schools used to teach oral knowledge, and for the first three years, students memorized 50 sets of associations for each letter. Once that structure was in place, their education continued with stories, philosophy lessons, grammar, etc. A Victorian reconstruction of a list of their studies can be found in P.W. Joyce’s A Social History of Ancient Ireland. One of the sets of associations are the different woods in the Irish forests, and modern use of this system tends to emphasize that set of meanings over the others. Accordingly, I decided to make my first set out of the woods. It took me many years to learn to recognize the trees and collect the various woods, and make the first set. It was very hard to lose it, along with my first Awen, and the pouch full of items that was attached to it, the presents I had for people, and so on. However, gone was gone. I could grieve over what were essentially things and let the loss overshadow the trip, or I could realize that I made many of the things that had been in that pouch, including the pouches themselves, and treat this as a new beginning.

I was in the land where the forest reflected the ogham. I decided to treat this as a “final exam.” The first set I’d constructed had been made by trial and error. I know more now, and can do a better job this next time. I also have a chance to make a set that is wholly from the forests of England and Wales. My first set reflected my own American state of being, being constructed from woods from several states as well as a few I could find only in Albion. My first trip gave me the last woods to complete that set.

So my trip was a chance to look closely at the forests around me and find the trees I needed. It was a chance to connect with each tree, and exchange gifts. It was a chance to create a ritual to contain that sharing, and to explore the difference between giving and theft. I didn’t have much time, and I am not completely satisfied with how I went about this task, but I did complete it, and learned a lot in the process. I came home with a forest in the form of a bundle of sticks. I know now that I can recognize every tree in the system in its natural habitat, and I have a ritual for collecting that creates connection between the gatherer and the gathered. I have seen a community in a field of Heather, and had a centuries-old Oak throw a branch at my feet. I know where each wood came from and can remember the conversation we had. Most of all, I am involved in a process, and am learning the phases of creation of a set as a set, rather than disparate woods gathered at different times. All of them came home with me as a bundle of green wood. Now I am in the process of stripping them of their bark and allowing them to dry completely. That has to happen before I can choose a size for each fid (wood), as each stave is called. I also have to decide how I will shape them this time as I no longer have access to the tools I used the first time.

Not knowing, but trusting, was a wonderful way to travel. It wasn’t all good, but neither is life. I feel as if the Land was testing me. The first two trips the red carpet was rolled out. I was cradled and protected by the Land. This time, more is expected of me. The gifts were no less munificent, and I count the tasks among them. What I lost may be the catalyst for someone else when they find what amounts to a kit for Druidry somewhere. In the meantime I have articles and songs to write, blog entries and recordings to make, and experiences to share. I have friendships and memories to sustain me here on the Shores of the Western Sea. I am blessed beyond measure by the Druids and the Land of Albion.

Chalk path--South Downs Way
South Downs Way

 

I Will Never Be Indigenous

Two natural standing stones
Natural Standing Stones, California

I’ve been thinking lately about studying Druidry in California, a land where it is not indigenous. I’m beginning to think that what I thought of as a predicament might just as well be an advantage. Instead of the marked wells and obvious stone circles of Albion and Ireland, my landscape is covered with markers that I have never been taught to recognize, wrested from the people who should have been our friends and teachers but were mostly murdered and driven into the Missions. I know that someday I will have to seek them out, the ones who survived, and learn the proper names for the places, the names and needs of the spirits of this place, and of the First Peoples.

We *have* to learn to share this land, to return, if not the land itself, all the rights and recognition that we of the dominant culture have, and have respect for what is left of their culture. They should be able to choose a fitting and comfortable place to live, rather than a bit of land that we don’t want, where life is marginal, and further breaks the bonds of culture. We have to become one people here, of many colors, traditions and cultures, who live together in peace and harmony. That is a process already begun, but it will take many generations at the rate we are moving because everyone needs to be a part of this and most of us don’t seem to realize that it needs to happen at all.

I can of course honor my ancestral deities–we all can–but if I am to live in this land, I must also honor the spirits who live here, who are indigenous. I think that that is part of what is meant by re-indigenization. That’s part of it, but it’s more than that. We all need to remember that we are part of this world, we are not the owners of it. I have altered my rituals to reflect this. I ask permission and guidance from the ancestors. I ask to honor them and make an offering. It really is the least I can do and I recognize that it’s only a start.

We have to learn to recognize the true strength in diversity, the inherent fragility of monoculture.  We need to remember what true wealth is: clean soil, clean water, clean air. We cannot live without these things. If we put toxics in the ground, we eat them. If we put toxics in the water, we drink them. If we put them in the air, we breathe them. We are doing this right now, and we wonder why so many of us are getting sick. We wonder why so many of us are getting fat and why we can’t lose weight, why cancers, once rare, are now becoming ever more common. Meanwhile, we use our drinking water to flush our toilets, and the traces of the drugs we take in order to heal ourselves from the conditions the toxins we have put in the land, water and air cycle back to be taken into our bodies again. We can’t get away from them, who can refuse to breathe, drink, and eat? All we can do is stop the cycle and clean up the mess.

So how did I get from holy wells and stone circles to the sicknesses of modern civilization? John Muir said it a century and more ago: “When we try to pick out anything by itself, we find it hitched to everything else in the Universe.” Our world is a largely closed system. What we do to one part of it affects the whole. If we want to be well, we have to heal the world around us. We need to recognize that we are part of this world, and that we have to care about the other living things around us. Every being in this world has a right to live well. The Kichwa people in Ecuador have a term; sumak kawsay. It means to live well, but it’s more than that. It’s a way of describing coexistence. An ocean has the right to live well, as does a plant, or a people. This right is now written into the Ecuadorean constitution. The country has yet to catch up with the words on the page, but at least they are there at last.

Where I live, there are so many people of Northern European descent. Many of our stories were lost as our ancestors fled their homes and we have struggled to find an anchor, a place to belong, and in the process have too often recreated the oppressive systems that were strangling our ancestors. Many of us follow other paths, from Atheism to Buddhism to Christianity. What was rootlessness has become a great mixing and could be a source of creativity and strength. It is a great blessing to have all these different ways to the center. None need be privileged over any other, and anyone of any ancestry should be free to choose that which calls to them.

I grew up Unitarian, and played in a chapel where banners stitched with the symbols of many faiths hung in the tall windows that ringed the space. I was never formally taught any faith, but many different ways surrounded me. I was an Atheist in my teens, but eventually found Paganism, and now Druidry. My path through the forest and to the land of my ancestors is a source of great beauty and meaning to me, and while I am happy to share it, I know that it is one among many, and that the world is a more interesting and beautiful place because we don’t all try to use the same one. A road trod by all can easily become rutted and strewn with garbage as people are driven along it by force. Better we spread ourselves out and discover places that have meaning to each of us. The path to my grove in the hills beside the Shores of the Western Sea is still full of mystery precisely because no one comes there unless they choose to.

Few of us can return to where we came from. Such a place doesn’t really exist for many of us as generations pass. All we can do is share the places where we are, and treat each other with respect. None of us get to choose where we were born, and few of us get to choose who we live among. We do get to choose how we look on the world and the people around us, and how we pass the land and culture on to the next generations. I hope those who come after live in a world that is healthier, stronger, and happier than the one I inhabit. I hope that they know a peace that I will never experience. I live in wonderful, terrible, pivotal times. I will never be indigenous, but I can work for a world where future generations can be one with the land, true citizens of Earth.