Creepy-crawly: The virtues of the Fomhoire

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“Cian Finds Balor’s Daughter”, drawing by H.R. Millar, c. 1905. Eithne is a Fomhoire and the mother of Lugh — proving that they’re not all ugly.

In the vision, the ants loom like giants — akin to a horror film. And similarly gigantic, a catbird appears with its keen black eye and gobbles them up. It then takes flight and then lands, appropriately catbird-sized, on Brighid’s outflung hand.

“They are Fomhoire,” she explains.

“But they’re ants!” I sputter. “Just ants. They have infested the house before.”

“There is the interior problem and the exterior problem,” she nods. “Yes, just ants in one sense, but the symptom of something deeper in another. You need to address both. That’s what you have allies for.”

Another vision: Catbird and woodpecker, gobbling them up and then fanning with mighty wings, blowing the ants into a fire.

Ants, just ants.

What are the Fomhoire? 

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The Fomorians, as depicted by John Duncan (1912) Not exactly the best-looking bunch in human terms.

The term “Fomhoire” or “Fomorians” is one you’ll encounter in Irish myth, particularly the earlier, non-heroic cycles. The derivation is unclear, and includes such speculation as “the great undersea/underworld ones” and “lower demons.” At any rate, they’re considered bad dudes and described as ugly and misshapen — one-eyed, one-legged and somehow formidable despite being gimps.

Interestingly, they’re apparently not universally ugly or misshapen because they intermarry with the Tuatha Dé Danann; Lugh’s mother Eithne is Fomhoire, for example. They’e similar in this respect to the Norse Jotun (Giants), the Vedic Asuras (demons) or the Greek Titans — another elder race of divine beings, older in some accounts than the Gods. The Fomhoire, it must be pointed out, lived on the land — Ireland in the myth, but possibly the entire world from the original Celtic point of view — before the arrival of the Gods.

Like the Jotun and the Asuras, the Fomhoire are beings of considerable power, although largely used for negative ends. They’re the other side of the coin of divinity — the side that doesn’t like us all that much.

In the medieval mind, these beings would be considered devils and the epitome of evil. I don’t use the “e word” for them because I think it’s a cheap way out and neglects some basic truths: that humans and human well-being aren’t the reason and purpose for the multiverse. The gods who watch over tigers, for example, probably don’t care much for our tribe of clever, naked monkeys — and see them, in fact, as an existential threat for their community of care (tigers).

In Norse myth, the Jotun seem explicitly aligned with natural forces — namely, fire and ice. The Fomhoire can similarly be seen as deities of wild (i.e., nonhuman) nature, deities whose cares and concerns are alien to our own, whose forms seem ugly and wrong to us — but beautiful and mighty to those creatures with which they are aligned. We only matter to them as threats, resources or tasty snacks.

It’s not the same as being evil; there is a purpose and order to it, just not ours. They introduce chaos to the (human) order we prefer and thrive on.

Humans, too, can tap into Fomhoire power. Sociopathy and psychopathy are non-functional in terms of human community, but they are traits that may well fit into other, predatory paradigms; the same goes for parasitism. In terms of human community, we judge Jotun- or Fomhoire-like traits with evil, and I suppose they are evil when it comes to human society. These traits go against rta, dharma, firinne — whatever term you’d like to use for the cosmic order.

Fucking ants

Ants are, as it happens, a damn good example of the Fomhoire. In human terms, they invade our orderly homes, introducing filth, disorder and a whole shitload of stress. They damage our homes and — in the case of some species — set aphids to graze on our plants, which they then milk. They’re ugly and turn the stomach by their misshapen presence.

But.

Look, then, with new eyes. They are an orderly society, and a cleanly one that regularly rids their nests of waste. They are innovative, exploratory, obedient to their leaders. They are capable of great feats of strength, and self-sacrifice to serve the whole. Hell, they domesticated other insects.

They have an order, a purpose, a reason-to-be — but it’s just not ours. We naked monkeys are just in the way, or we are resources to be used — as monumental as trees and, to ants, as inscrutable as them. Like the Fomhoire, they were here first.

It doesn’t make infestation any easier to deal with, I must say; all I can feel is disgust as I stamp them down and sweep them up by the hundreds. The exterminator can’t make it out until Monday, and we may have to call a contractor in the long run to get rid of the hollow roof-beam where they live.

We do have allies, but damn — I can totally see why the Fomhoire turned back wave after wave of other settlers before they were finally (but impermanently) defeated.

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Poem: Baubo

You don't want the drink -- your hand in the air
in polite declining, stark as a branch
blasted by drought, naked and beyond thirst.

The sun bakes the roof tiles above, but here
all is shadowed and cold with your grief. Thirst
writes the lines of lament across your face

but still you will not drink, being divine
and your assent to any of this -- 
the thousand-petaled flower, the gasp,

the pomegranate seed, her absence -- 
Assent means life and you're done with that now
you assure me as I limp to the board

to set your drink down. Let it yellow and
burn -- wheat and love, babies, those assholes
and the yawning-open that spells the end

of the endless march of the Golden Age.
I listen to you despair with tones bleak
as snow in this place where snow never falls

and bite back my scolding. I'm old, ugly,
lame -- a bit of a joke. I can't even
read and work in this piss-poor castle job

while you live forever and rule the earth.
Still, I mix a damn good drink. I turn back
to you, tell the dirtiest joke I know.

Your eyes widen as I strip off my garb,
wiggling sagging flesh like a courtesan
and then pantomime sex with a stallion

just for kicks. Like a blocked pipe your laughter
bubbles forth, spewing out the shit of grief
until we both shake with glee on the floor.

Laughter doesn't bring a daughter back from
the dead -- we mortals learned that lesson long
before. Laughter doesn't plug the yawning

void where love once took a shape and spoke and
breathed. It doesn't unpluck the flower or
bring us to time's fragile edge where a

choice could be made differently -- guided, wise.
No. Laughter only shakes the gates of death
and pierces the ground so the green can come forth.
Terracotta_Baubo_figurine

A Greek terracotta figurine of Baubo, of the face-in-torso type. She is holding a lyre from Priene, Anatolia. http://mkatz.web.wesleyan.edu/cciv110x/hhdemeter/cciv110.Iambe.html, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=18590768

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Eight of Cups: Leaving one path and finding another

324190408_1640ecd2deThe Eight of Cups has always haunted me. Its image: A traveler headed toward the hills, lit by the full moon, cloak unfurled and walking stick in hand. Behind her, a stack of shining goblets, beautiful in the moon’s light. Perhaps they are full, perhaps empty. That doesn’t matter anymore.

The image and its meaning sound a bell in the heart: Knowing when the path calls you on, when all your past accomplishments dwindle in meaning like so many empty cups. There is a weariness here,  a sadness, but also a determination: To find a new place, a new focus, a new purpose.

I don’t need to draw a Tarot card to know that this is a time for the Eight of Cups, for both me and my husband. My husband’s case is more secular: A decision to retire from his career. Mine is spiritual in nature: A decision to bow out of the Henge of Keltria and return to ADF.

I’m not sure if I’m truly leaving Keltria, or if Keltria is leaving me. I had one of those deal-breaking conversations with my mentor and, by proxy, the Archdruid — one of those times that caused me to look hard at my personal values, and whether they were being served by the organization that I had worked so hard to serve in turn.

In short: I value human diversity. I truly love and honor the Kindreds — the Gods, the Nature Spirits and the Ancestors — and want to make sure that any others who are called to this path feel welcome, regardless of ability or disability, socioeconomic circumstances or differences in perspective. I won’t go into the specifics of the argument right now, as I have mixed feelings about doing so publicly; honoring one’s teachers is also a virtue to me.

I’ve had difficulties before, earlier in my tenure. (I’m bad with time, but I think it’s been a bit more than 10 years since I left ADF for Keltria.) I decided to stick it out, to dig the deeper well, and let my devotion, willingness to work and my knowledge do any convincing of authority if such convincing was required. I made it through their Initiate’s program, and the Rings of Birch and Yew. I’ve written multiple articles and put together the newsletter. I was named Vice President when the previous office-holder bowed out. As of now, I’m about a year out from the highest initiation: the Ring of the Oak. And if I just sat here and shut up and toed the line, I could have made it.

But it feels wrong — profoundly wrong — to do that in a spiritual context, to lie about my deepest values and what I, in fact, believe under the surface. I can understand doing so to keep a paying job, or to keep together a flesh-and-blood family. But ultimately, spirituality and religion are two-fold: They are choices, and they ought to be a true reflection of your deepest principles. The practice of integrity calls for that.

The Gods don’t care whether I remain with Keltria or any other organization; they’ve told me as much themselves. So, it comes down to the basics: do you follow your principles, or do you alter those principles to stay with the group?

Being who and what I am, there really wasn’t much of a contest. That being said, this has been a rather stressful experience overall.

When I renewed my ADF membership, I just felt … welcomed, in a way I never did with Keltria. Maybe it’s just “the grass is greener” principle, but when I received that form letter with its hearty welcome, I felt like I belonged. I signed up for their Facebook groups, and people welcomed me wholeheartedly.

I was invited to join a study group in Ithaca! Who knew there were Druids so close? I deeply look forward to it — to no longer being alone on the path, to recapturing the joy and connection I felt when I was with Grove of the Other Gods, back in my home state of New Jersey.

I plan to start on the Generalist’s study program; I completed the Dedicants’ program years ago, although I plan to attend Ithaca ADF’s Dedicants program discussion group to get back in the swing of things.

I know ADF has its problems, and some of the folks I had issues with back in the day are still there. That’s surmountable, though, and conflicts of this nature are a part of all churches. And in ADF’s defense, I was an absolute twat in my 20s, for which I apologize. Overall, I plan to stay away from the Mother Grove and the bureaucratic functioning of the organization, to focus on my own path and the involvement in the local group — which, truth be told, is all I ever wanted anyway.

So, onward.

It’s worth remembering that the Eight of Cups is followed by the Nine and the Ten — enjoyment and the happy family, respectively. Hopefully, I’m on my way. This blog will, as always, invite you to walk alongside me.

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No Maypole? No problem! Tips on celebrating the Feast of Flowering

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A maypole in East Frisia, Germany, by Matthias Süßen – Own work

No doubt they rose up early to observe

The rite of May, and hearing our intent

Came here in grace our solemnity.

— Shakespeare, A Midsummer Night’s Dream

The great hinge of the year swings to Beltaine, the Feast of Flowering. The cows head to the summer pastures, driven between the smoke of two fires. Flowering branches are brought indoors, to spread the blessings of the green on all therein. Deft hands weave crowns and garlands of blossoms, ornamenting all for the rite.

At modern Pagan gatherings, Beltaine is commonly celebrated with the weaving dance of the Maypole – and the inevitable laughter when the ribbons tangle or someone heads in the wrong direction. Contrary to popular belief, Maypoles aren’t an ancient Celtic tradition; they appear to be native to Germanic societies, although the concept of a sacred tree – bilé in Irish lore – is found in cultures worldwide. That doesn’t mean, of course, that modern Druids can’t have a Maypole in their rites; maypoles have certainly become an entrenched part of Beltaine traditions through the decades, and that’s unlikely to end soon.

Flowers, of course, are a traditional part of May Day festivities, as are visiting holy wells. Beltaine, however, is primarily considered a fire festival; the name is often translated as the “fires of Bel” for the Gaulish Belenos or the Irish Bilé, although whether Bilé is a true God is subject to debate. The “fire” portion of the name – tine in modern Irish – is uncontested, however.

Why fire? Beltaine heralds the start of summer, as Samhain does winter in Celtic tradition; the flames are reminiscent of the waxing sun – and perhaps more importantly, the rising tide of life-force. While modern Pagans tend to think of Beltaine as “that sex festival,” it also has themes of purification and protection, as animals and their associated humans leave the bounded home of winter and venture out into the wider world. Fertility is, of course, part of the festival – as are tricks and spontaneous connections with spirits, especially the Sidhe. As with Samhain, the spirit-world is close and many Celtic tales are associated with this time of the year.

I’ve been Pagan and a Druid for quite some time, and have seen Beltaine celebrated in a wide range of ways. In that spirit, I offer the following thoughts for those who struggle to find a way to celebrate the season.

You don’t have to do that sex thang. 

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Image by Cypresseyes

Pagans in general are a fun-loving folk, and Beltaine can bring a gamut of randy jokes and flirtatious behavior. For individuals with trauma or pain associated with sexuality, this can become uncomfortable or even frightening. For those of us who lack an appreciation of juvenile humor or reserve our sexual impulses for significant others, a lot of common Beltaine “customs” can just be flat-out annoying.

I admit: I became discouraged by Beltaine as a young woman, when I literally had to hide in a horse stall during one ritual to avoid unwanted attention. (No, not exaggerating – sadly.)

Good news: You don’t have to celebrate the holiday that way.

When I celebrate the Feast of Flowering, I honor Boann – Goddess of the river and wisdom – and her husband Nuada, the Sword-God and light of truth. I focus my celebration on the Earth itself, making and offering caudle – a type of porridge – to the land, and bannock with nine knobs to the critters, one species each knob. Most often, that latter is preventative in nature: “I give this to the carpenter ants, so they don’t invade my house this upcoming year.” I also walk between the smoke (or at least the light, if I’m doing this indoors) of two fires and relight the hearth-candle for the season.

Key concepts: The awakening Earth and her creatures, light, fire, and the purification and protection offered by fire.

Alternative Maypoles

Let’s face it: Maypoles are pretty impractical, even for those who want to celebrate the traditional fertility festival. Yes, there are instructions available on how to build and install one of PVC pipe for even the smallest of backyards, but not everyone is particularly handy with that sort of thing. If I tried to install a Maypole by myself or with a small group of grove mates, chances are that I would end up in the ER after doing something clumsy and Youtube-worthy.

Enter the Alternative Maypole! (Not to be confused with alternative facts; a pole and maying are actually involved.)

One year, White Cat Grove decorated its own interpretation of a Maypole: a seven-foot tall branch. Rather than dance around it, grove members decorated it with ribbons, feathers, beads and butterflies as the ritual act; we also decorated a wreath, which we then attached to the top to symbolize the union of male and female. Afterward, you can offer your creation to the Earth or the fire, or keep it around as a power-object. (I have the pole and wreath to this day in my ritual room.)

Key concepts: Male (something linear), female (something circular), ornamentation, joy.

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Cloths tied to a tree near Madron Well in Cornwall. Photo by Jim Champion via Wikimedia Commons

The well-dressed well

Boann is, of course, a river goddess; Nuada is also associated with fresh water, as well as the light of truth and possibly clouds or the sky. Belenos/Bilé, the God most often associated with Beltaine in Keltria, is associated with bonfires as well as trees. With this in mind, you you can choose to focus your Beltaine ritual on the intersection of fire and water or, alternatively, tree and water, sky and water, etc.

Consider well-dressing: Decorate a watery place (springs are traditional, but a bowl of water would work just fine) with flowers, cloth strips known as clooties, even candles if you’re working with a bowl. In this polluted age, the waters could use the extra blessings and energy.

Key concepts: April showers bring May flowers, the purity and protection of our water sources.

Do I have to do the May Queen thing?

Personally, I’ve never enjoyed the selection of May Queen and May King, although I understand the concept. There is a beauty of embodying community’s energy for the year – which is how I’ve often seen this interpreted in Pagan groups – but there also is a weight of expectation to it. The Queen and King dyad can be especially problematic for groups with an unequal number of men and women, and the genderqueer also can feel left out.

Perhaps it’s childish of me, but I admit there’s also the current of “Crap, I never win anything” associated with it. (Fun fact: I won exactly one drawing-by-chance in my life. The prize: A potted daffodil. My luck ends there, at least when it comes to winning stuff. Needless to say, I don’t bother playing the lottery.)

While we didn’t have enough men – well, any – for the May King, White Cat Grove did select a May Queen one year with the traditional bean in the cake. The next time, we said “Screw it” and unanimously elected my cat Missy as the May Queen. She had a blast that year, greeting everyone at the door when they arrived and even walking between the two fires.

So, as with everything Beltaine, you can skip the whole May Day royalty bit if you want to.

Key concepts: If it doesn’t work for you, screw it. (Not literally, unless it’s consensual.)

Happy Maying, all!

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Poem: Goldilocks

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Goldilocks runs from the three bears. Illustration from Arthur Mee and Holland Thompson’s 1912 work, The Book of Knowledge

What can one small girl do against three bears?

Settle into a chair: Is that a crime

When you have all three — soft, hard and just right?

You weren’t even there to sit in them.

 

In the wildwood, all the chairs are taken,

all the porridge claimed, steaming in the bowl:

too hot, too cold, just right. The covers turned

down on all the beds, waiting for someone

 

to settle down and sleep — too soft, too hard,

just right. Sleep-sick and hungry, I stumble in

with no back story and only a head

of fabulous hair. Why would I have more

 

in a world where the bears and the bulls write

the stories and engrave their names on

the backs of chairs, gilded like thrones? A girl,

no less — greedy, willful, unchaperoned

 

where teeth and claws are the only currency.

Who sat in my chair? Who slurped down my soup?

Who dared to dream in a bed not theirs?

Peering down, the powers return: snouts, teeth.

 

After that, my story ends like porridge.

Do I run into the woods? Am I spiced

and eaten? Who am I anyway?

Surely I have a name — not just “blondie”

 

and there was a reason I was there alone.

You never give me a chance to speak

but only to steal, to eat and to sleep.

What can one small girl do against three bears?

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You can do it: On excellence, “talent” and 10,000 hours

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King Pigeon — the pose I was doing in class, due to my open hips. Image by Jfbongarçon – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=17846671

“That pose you did — it’s like poetry. I could never do it,” a woman says to me after our morning yoga class.

I’ve practiced yoga on and off for at least 17 years, and there are some poses — King Pigeon among them, and the ludicrous feet-behind-head (my stupid human trick) — that I can easily do. In Bound Angle (or Cobbler, or Butterfly; the names vary), my knees flop onto the floor. I sit in Lotus pose casually, rather than simple crossed legs. In short, my hips are naturally open, perhaps by build, but more likely because I have been practicing my “stupid human trick” consistently since I was around 11 years old.

Of course, there are plenty of poses in yoga that I can’t do, mostly due to my tight shoulders, occasionally to my tight runner’s legs. There are poses I probably would be able to obtain, but decided against because the cost is too great; I could probably do Virasana (in common parlance, “the W sit”) without a block if I worked at it, but it would loosen my knee ligaments to the point that I couldn’t run. So I don’t.

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There are plenty of yoga poses I can’t do. I’ve worked on this one, and my shoulders just don’t have the flexibility. Image of Reverse Staff Pose by Mobiusinversion at English Wikipedia – Own work by the original uploader, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=42981225

So often in life, I hear variants of: “I can’t do this amazing thing, and the only reason they can do it is natural talent.” In other words: If you can do something well, it’s because you were born to do it, and you can figure this out very quickly in the time it takes to pick something up. If you’re not good right away, might as well drop it because you’ll never be good.

And there is a corollary: If you can’t be the absolute best at something, might as well drop it. Why take up running if you’ll never be able to place in a marathon? Why take up the guitar if you’ll never be good enough to get a record deal? Anything you do must be for a purpose — for money, honor, the esteem of others.

I’m going to give you one of life’s best-kept secrets — and a truth that’s hard for many to swallow: All of the above is bullshit. In fact, it’s such a huge amount of bullshit that it can attract flies from a square-mile radius.

Bullshit is, however, useful fertilizer and I urge you to turn it into the ground as you plow the field of your abilities and skills.

Natural advantages

Of course, there is such a thing as natural advantages. Sometimes these are obvious; if you have the genetics to be 7 feet tall, it’s probably easier to excel at basketball. But what if you don’t consistently play or practice your game? Then you’re just another tall guy.

The social circumstances we are born into can be seen as innate advantages or disadvantages. The player from an affluent home may be able to afford the costs of travel leagues and extra coaching; a would-be player from a poor family might be forced by his family’s financial need to drop out of school and work in the fields.

Some natural advantages are less obvious. What if you do play and practice, but your birthday is in November and the cut-off for the kids’ basketball league is in January? As Malcolm Gladwell explores in Outliers in regards to youth hockey players in Canada, birth date can be a huge natural advantage or disadvantage. Players with birth dates right before the cut-off are almost a full year older than would-be players born later in the year, and thus larger and more developed; they are accepted into leagues and build on these opportunities, one after the other. The younger would-be player just aren’t afforded the same chances by the sad fact of their birthdays.

So, yes, natural advantages do exist — but they’re not necessarily innate. Someone born later in the year may be a fantastic hockey player, if given the same opportunities as his earlier-born peer. A young field laborer in Nigeria might have been an engineer if she had been born into a family in different circumstances.

Time

Time By LetsgomusicStyle – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=27330732

The importance of time

What really makes the difference in acquiring knowledge or skill is time, and Gladwell gives a precise measure: 10,000 hours. If you put 10,000 hours into something, you will master it.

A personal example: I write well not because I am innately talented, but because I have read and written a great deal over my lifetime. My elementary school teachers were always impressed by my preternatural ability to understand the workings of language, and probably chalked it up to talent. Truth be told, I just read a lot at home due to my innate curiosity. I read kids’ books, ransacked the local library and then my older brother’s textbooks. By the time I was in third grade, I had certainly amassed those 10,000 hours reading beyond my assigned level. I also wrote stories and poems from an early age, which impacted my school work.

My incessant reading and writing led to other opportunities: college and ultimately a Ph.D. in English, for which I had to write a book (which is, essentially, what a dissertation is in liberal arts). I followed that up with a career in journalism, with daily deadlines.

In other words: I’m a good writer because I’ve written a hell of a lot. If you write a lot, you’ll be a good writer too.

The same goes for pretty much anything, from doing yoga to learning a language. The more time you spend on it, the better you get. And by time you get those 10,000 hours, you’re doing Reverse Staff pose, you finished that novel, or you have that black belt in aikido, or you’re at the top of your professional field.

The importance of interest and motivation 

People resist — even vehemently so — the idea that they can excel at what they put their time to. Why is that?

To some, I think it feels like an imposition, another thankless task at which to toil. They would rather do other things, which is fair. They’re not enjoying the guitar they said they would practice, or a hot television show seems just more exciting than hitting the books yet again. “I’m too busy at work,” they grouse as they surf Facebook at home and binge-watch Orange is the New Black.

Now, there certainly are people who can’t afford to get those 10,000 hours because they’re juggling three jobs in a gig economy, or taking care of toddlers or the infirm. I don’t discount that. But these people usually aren’t the folks complaining “I can’t!” because, let’s face it, they’re too genuinely busy to complain. If you’re struggling to meet your lower-level survival needs, you don’t have time for that self-actualization stuff; that comes later, when your life is on firmer footing.

If you’re surfing Facebook or watching the tube, you have time to pursue your passions.

“Passions” is the operative word here. You need to genuinely enjoy an activity to keep at it, and acquire the skill. I genuinely enjoy singing, have made time in my life for voice lessons consistently during the past 15-plus years and practice almost daily. As a result, I sing like an opera singer and I’m pretty damn proud of that.

But I did it because I wanted to; I genuinely enjoy practicing, and writing songs, and all the things I do surrounding music. So I put the time in.

On the other hand, I’ve said for years that I wanted to learn Gaeilge and even Old Irish, languages that would benefit my practice as a Keltrian Druid. I take Gaeilge lessons from my local community college from time to time, buy the books, say I’m going to practice at home and never freaking do. End result: I don’t know Gaeilge, although I tinker with it from time to time.

It’s not that I don’t have a “talent” for language. I passed my AP exam in Spanish with flying colors back in high school; I learned how to read French in one summer for graduate school. I had goals and motivation fueling me then: Passing that AP exam means I already filled my foreign language requirements by time I hit college, allowing me to save time and money. I need to have reading proficiency in two foreign languages for my Ph.D., hence the summertime French lessons.

Learning those languages was a priority for reasons of my education and my future. Gaeilge? Much less so. I don’t actually need to speak it in ritual except, maybe, for a few key phrases. People don’t speak it as a primary language, so it’s not like I can use it for a mundane purpose. I don’t really have the motivation to learn Gaeilge, so I don’t. It’s not that I can’t.

To put in the 10,000 hours, you have to have the interest and the motivation. Sometimes motivation alone is enough, in the case of a job, but even then you won’t perform as well as someone with both interest and motivation.

The next time you tell yourself “I can never do that wonderful thing,” I want you to pause and assess. Is it true that you can’t? Or that you won’t because you don’t have the interest or motivation to practice?

A lack of desire to do something isn’t a personal judgment; it’s just a statement of fact. You don’t have to do everything, and you don’t have to excel at everything you do. You can sit back and enjoy a good singer, or watching a hoop-dancer. You can dabble and play around — sing in the shower, hula-hoop at home — not to excel, but to the level of your enjoyment and interest.

It’s okay. Life doesn’t issue you a report card, or force you to eat your broccoli when you prefer spinach.

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Success is apparently a peak in Washington State. Who knew? By Walter Siegmund (talk) – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=13303593

But what if I can’t be the best?

There’s that pesky thought pattern again: If I can’t be “the best,” it’s not worth it.

“The best” is always an external measure: The Olympic medal, the platinum record, the painting on the museum wall — the recognition of others. But there are many people who may be “the best” but never get recognized for their skills or abilities. External success depends on so many things unrelated to “talent”: skills unrelated to the field in question (say, social skills). Networking and connections. The surrounding culture. In short: the availability of opportunity.

And here is an unalterable fact: In a world of seven billion-plus people, you’re never going to be the best at anything. Ever. At all. There is always going to be someone better than you — and it’s not a problem.

Being the “best” is an illusion — and, ultimately, completely worthless. You don’t have to be the best; you don’t even have to be good. I suck at aikido, but I do it anyway. Why? I get something out of it: Challenge, a furthering of my abilities and my boundaries pushing me beyond what I thought I could do. It doesn’t matter if I ever get a black belt or can do ukemi without the guidance of my arms.

If you have passion, interest, desire, do it. Practice and dedication help you grow as a person, no matter the art or skill or field in question. Doing something you enjoy is enough; you don’t need a medal, or a personal best, or any recognition at all. You don’t even need to be good at it by anyone else’s measure. Real rewards, just like true initiations, are internal. The ritual is nice, but ultimately it’s just fancy icing.

And no matter what it is, you will progress if you put time in. I have been involved in aikido for slightly less than two years, but I recently passed my fifth kyu test. I can do ukemi without breaking out in a cold sweat or quivering in fear, although they still need a lot of work. I may never truly master ukemi, but I know I’ll get better if I continue to put the time in.

But you’re just bragging. 

Whenever I give someone the “you can do this too” talk, people often accuse me of bragging about my accomplishments, whether it’s writing, music, aikido or whatever. It’s true: I do a lot of things well, although not perfectly, and I’m working on other things. Like anyone, there are things I suck at: riding a bicycle, home repair, a lot of the soft skills involved in human relationships. I’m pretty sure that I could improve on those things if sufficiently motivated, but it hasn’t happened yet.

Talking about what you’re working on or what you do well isn’t thoughtless bragging. Yeah, no one likes someone who talks about themselves all the time, but you are allowed to talk about yourself. You matter. Your desires, dreams, goals and practices matter. You get to talk about them if you want to — even if you’re not objectively “good” at them.

Humility, in this sense, comes from our culture’s Christian heritage, in which we are all debased, sinful creatures begging for the mercy of the divine. Our actual Pagan forebears were quite different; they boasted about what they could, would or did do, because their mastery was a positive reflection not only on themselves, but their culture and their gods. I often wonder if cultural Christianity is responsible for the low-grade depression that’s so typical in our culture, the perception that we — by fact of original sin — are born worthless.

As Pagans, sin — original or otherwise — isn’t our bag, so drop it. The Gods enjoy seeing you work at something you enjoy; it’s akin to a parent proudly posting their kid’s drawing on a fridge.

So.

 

If you want to do something, practice at it — as long as you enjoy what you’re doing. If you don’t enjoy it, find something that you do. If you don’t really want to do something, that’s okay; you don’t have to. Once again, find something that you do enjoy instead. If your interests change, that’s fine; that can happen in life. Once again, find something you enjoy. (Have I said that enough? Pleasure is not the devil, especially if you’re Pagan. We don’t have those crappy Puritan hangups.)

Don’t worry about the external measures: whether you’re the best, or good, or (yawn) what those other people think of you. (Who cares what some snarky soulless asshole on the Internet thinks? Why does that asshole even matter to you?)

If you like something and want to do it well, keep practicing. You’ll improve. Short guys can play basketball well, too.

You can do this.

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Poem: Equinox

The blue has returned, a harbinger

of the next generation of robins,

the bold hydrangeas on the neighbor’s bush

 

but that’s all in the planning just now.

There is white snow and shreds of white cloud

the meltwater rushing over gravel

 

and everywhere a song: the wild laugh

of the woodpecker, the sigh of lovelorn

chickadees, the blackbirds’ electric trill

crocus

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