Month: November 2010

Snowflakes (the Longfellow edition)

The white drifts over the leaf-fall, at the foot of oaks and naked forsythia. I regard it warmly from the other side of the pane.

And think to share a favorite poem, which I hope to set to music someday soon: Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s “Snowflakes.”

Out of the bosom of the Air,
Out of the cloud-folds of her garments shaken,
Over the woodlands brown and bare,
Over the harvest-fields forsaken,
Silent, and soft, and slow
Descends the snow.

Even as our cloudy fancies take
Suddenly shape in some divine expression,
Even as the troubled heart doth make
In the white countenance confession,
The troubled sky reveals
The grief it feels.

This is the poem of the Air,
Slowly in silent syllables recorded;
This is the secret of despair,
Long in its cloudy bosom hoarded,
Now whispered and revealed
To wood and field.


notes on “Search”

A radio station in Hong Kong is putting together a music project based on David Eagleman’s Forty Tales from the Afterlives. Being Kwannon fans, they asked me to contribute a track. (Yay!)

I struggled for a while with the project. Eagleman’s book is intriguing, but many of the tales are tragic; the book’s theme seems to be the loss of control. After months of dickering and computer problems, I settled on the penultimate chapter, “Search.” It deals with death as the scattering of our atoms, which retain their own identity. We become all parts of nature, and then periodically reunite in human flesh. In the song “Search,” my idea was to combine a certain earthiness with a feeling of transcendence and vastness, reflecting the central image of the story. We are both earthly and vast — an individual, but also flocks of birds, pine sap, entire forests.

The instruments are an udu, which is an African clay pot drum; a large frame drum; a kalimba, an African instrument of tuned metal prongs; and a five-string kantele, a type of Finnish zither. 

I can’t figure out how to append a music track to this entry, alas. But here are the lyrics:

Know yourself to be limitless.
Seek your innumerable parts:
a birch leaf, newly minted in the dawn
a flock of birds unfolding a black ribbon in the sky
the whisper of water over rock
the groan of stone under the mountain
Know yourself to be limitless.
Seek your innumerable parts:
the creep of moss on decaying roots
the tusk of a rooting boar
a pigeon feather, a starfish
the mud at the lake bottom
Know yourself to be limitless.
Seek your innumerable parts:
the spiral of a snail’s shell
a red salamander under the leaves
a fungus stepping up the dead tree
a thousand shimmering facets of life and half-life and death and life anew

On vision, visionaries and misneach

The third virtue on ADF’s official list is vision, defined as “the ability to broaden one’s perspective to have a greater understanding of our place/role in the cosmos, relating to the past, present and future.”

The goal, perhaps, is to be a visionary or a seer. While the latter is especially associated with divination or trance-work, it also derives its essential meaning from the visual sense: a seer is one who sees.

Visionaries, however, are simultaneously praised and damned. We admire the folks who engage in speculative or futuristic thinking — and then deride them as fantasists whose ideas have little grounding in fact or reality. Both aspects — the positive and negative — are part of the actual dictionary definition. At its core comes an essential value judgment: Which ideas are ahead of their time, and which are just plain nutty?

For an amusing cinematic depiction of the visionary dichotomy, watch “The Men Who Stare at Goats.” The protagonists — who attempt to use New Age concepts to create a New Earth Army of peace — can be seen as true visionaries or, more likely, as likable goofballs who had a few too many special brownies. As it happens, the military actually did form such a brigade — albeit under a different name — and did eventually use the ideas for the psychological torture of prisoners of war. The line between nuttiness and applicability breaks down in an uncomfortable way, quite possibly leading to the rotten reviews the movie had. (We prefer things to be all satire or all seriousness, not a complex mix thereof.)

The relationship a seer has with futurity and the cosmos seems to be a bit more personal. Both seers and visionaries can be called “prophets,” but seers are more intimately tied to religious or spiritual practices. Think of the volva during a seidr ritual or the oracles of the Greco-Roman world, who set self aside so as to become a mouthpiece for the Gods. Divination — when done in the oracular spirit by putting self aside and letting the divine speak — falls under the aegis of seership. While a visionary may use the arts of the secular (and popular) psychic, the seer is closer kin to the shaman, an inhabitant of a complex spiritual ecosystem with which s/he is in communication.

Is it virtuous to be a visionary or a seer? While you’d hope so, the frank answer is no. Some — of either kind — will defraud others, delude themselves or work solely for their own gain. Others may be diagnosed as mentally ill — and even truly be mentally ill, since there’s no set-in-stone standard. One person’s madman is often another’s prophet.

Is it spiritually valuable to be a visionary or seer? While I’ve never been a visionary, I can vouch for seership’s spiritual value. It deepens my relationship with the cosmos by allowing me to see and participate in the spiritual ecosystem. It allows me to help others in unconventional ways. But I can see instances in which “visionary” gifts turn out to be a curse — not being able to differentiate between fantasy and fact, Otherworld and this world — or seeing realities that one cannot avert. The Trojan Cassandra would be a case of the latter.

Of course, perhaps “vision” as a virtue doesn’t refer to spiritual vision, but what we would call “perspective.” Aedh Rua calls this misneach, or “right measure.” He associates such perspective with courage: “You have Misneach when you know that the most important thing is your own honor, integrity, and the Gods, and when you are therefore able to face danger calmly, knowing that your fate is less important than your actions” (Celtic Flame, 48). 

Of course, right measure doesn’t mean you give your life up for meaningless causes, even if you’re in the right. If you’re unarmed and a robber is pointing a gun at you, demanding your hard-earned cash, you’re committing no sin by complying. Perspective asks: “What’s more important, the $60 in my wallet or staying alive to provide for my spouse and children?” Perspective is never black and white; it takes into account the complexities of a situation, both the actors and the action.

Perspective, then, can be seen as a virtue. Someone who views things in correct proportions — mountains as mountains and mole hills as mole hills — is less likely to engage in petty acts of retribution, or drown in a well of panic. Perspective is more than just visual sense, however: it’s essentially comparative in nature. You can’t tell if it’s a mountain or a mole hill unless you look at some other object — a tree, a blade of grass, even yourself — and gauge the size differential. Similarly, a lost toy may seem like a major tragedy for a 2-year-old with virtually no life experience, but it’s nothing to her 35-year-old mother who has survived the loss of many toys, not to mention keys, a debit card and the beaded handbag that would look really great with that outfit.

Perspective, then, is based primarily upon proper comparison rather than simply “vision.” It’s certainly not limited to the physical sense, either; we compare textures with our hands and the loudness of sounds with our ears. It’s not simply enough to perceive; you need to process the input of your senses.

This can lead to a greater understanding of our place and role in the multi-verse, certainly. But that’s not why it’s a virtue. It’s a virtue because, first and foremost, it allows us to see our place and role within our families and communities — whatever designation of “humans in groups” you’d like to use. Perspective improves social cohesion by lessening the drive for extreme reaction.

At least that’s my take on it. What’s yours?

still pondering: what’s coming eventually

Still pondering virtues.

The next one I write about will ne “vision” on the ADF list, compared to Aedh Rua’s concept of misneach, or right measure (the closest concept I can find in his list, but the discrepancy between the two lists themselves is intringuing).

Alas, I have to go running first and then go family things, but more tomorrow, perhaps!

the jealousy of Emer: a song without a tune

The scattered words of a song I wrote in yesteryear on a green scrap of paper:

Where are you going, your white hand knife-ready?
Steal away, come away, come and take what is yours:
your tears in the sea and lost in the eddy

the gray of the waves, your feet on the jetty
Steal away, come away, come and take what is yours.
Where are you going, your white hand knife-ready?

The red of your heart’s blood the tale does not carry.
Steal away, come away, come and take what is yours:
your tears in the sea and lost in the eddy

The wind twists your hair but your pale grip is steady.
Steal away, come away, come and take what is yours:
Where are you going, your white hand knife-ready?

And she lets him go in the face of your fury.
Steal away, come away, come and take what is yours:
Where are you going, your white hand knife-ready?
your tears in the sea and lost in the eddy

An autumn thought

A November sky: eggshell blue and tossed by the wind. Oak leaves dance brownly to the ground.

The sun never seems to reach its zenith in the darkening time. Even at noon, it’s westering — always at a tilt over the horizon, blinding the eyes, painting the pavement in long shadows. The half-full moon waltzes into the blue, unafraid of the zenith that Grian shies from.

Breathe in the wet scent of earth, the dry leaves, the bright sky. Accept the gift that is given.

trust: a poem

Since I’m musing about faith and its relationship to trust, I dug up a poem I wrote last year. It concerns the fragile nature of trust, and thus of faith.

trust —
is a precarious thing
with spiderweb feathers
and sugar-spun wings

quick into flight
and mantled in light
before powdered into keen-edged dust

a penitent saint
with eyes spun of glass
and palms free of taint

or a streetcorner whore
rouged and broad, a door
giving forth and giving out

common as clay
and dull as the day
with the color of pigeons
ash gray, ash gray

a shit-stain, a death
unnoticed as breath
and the jewel beyond price