Month: February 2011

Oisin, at the shore, sees the woman

You stand on the white strand by your love, not noticing the spray soaking your cloak, the foam lapping your feet, the call of your companions, the cry of your hounds. You do not notice the gull wheeling white above you, the high proud heads of the cliffs.

For there is nothing but the hidden sun on her hair. her white feet, high-arched. Her eyes first gray, then green, catching all the sea-colors in them, the gift of her father and mother, the wavewalkers of the boundary. Her pale hand reaches out, its fingers rose-tipped.

Your companions grab you back, grab your shoulder with their spear-roughened hands. They know who she is, and whisper her name, her line. You catch nothing of it. Her name, to you, is the cry of the wheeling gull, the roar of the sea, the timbrel of your heart beating. Her line is the smooth line of her hand reaching to you.

In the moment you take it, you know what is to be. You know: the three hundred years of joy, slowly edging to grief as the sun does toward its setting. The horse with its silver bridle, and the stumble that costs you it all. Grave mounds gone green, and the old, old man, crumbling to dust on the loam.

But her hand is warm and she smiles, light dancing on wavelets. The calls and cries fade behind you.

You know what is to be, and you melt in its embrace.

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Hospitality: not just folded towels and little bottles of shampoo

Hospitality. The word evokes folded towels, mini-bottles of shampoo, or the legendary pineapple presented to Southern guests who have overstayed their welcome. It’s a virtue we have commercialized at best and at worst exile based on fear, greed, isolationism.

Hospitality and its derivatives, including “hospital,” come from the word for guest. The latter has impeccable Indo-European roots: “ghosti” means stranger, guest, a relationship requiring reciprocity. The same root gives rise to “host,” which comes from the Latin “hostis” — enemy, ultimately deriving from the concept of stranger.

It seems paradoxical, doesn’t it? As a host, you’re showing generosity — from a Latin root meaning “of noble birth” — to a person who may be a stranger at best, an enemy at worst. The point is: guests aren’t kinsfolk. They aren’t bound by ties of blood or fosterage, the rules and obligations that bind families together in a cohesive unit.

In Celtic Flame, Aedh Rua has two virtues that come into play. The first — flaithiulacht, or lordliness — speaks of sharing the wealth, generosity. Those “of noble birth” (to borrow the Latin term) don’t show their value by the number of gold bars in their vault but by how they share that wealth with others. Traditionally, that would entail feasts, lavish gifts or help to the needy. The second virtue, aiocht (there’s an accent over the i; forgive my unwillingness to open an extra program to type it), is a subset of the first: generosity toward strangers, the poor, the unfortunate.

A lack of generosity or hospitality is a critical failing in a Celtic noble, or indeed in people in any ancient society. To turn away a request for a place to stay overnight or a bite to eat was callousness indeed. Life was hard and settlements few; a twist of fate could beggar even a wealthy household.

The value of a society is reflected in how it treats its most vulnerable. As a reflection of that, the Gods sometimes appeared as beggars, trying the hospitality of those who claim to worship them. An especially beautiful tale comes from Ovid, in which an impoverished elderly couple, Baucis and Philemon, shared what little they had with two wandering peasants who asked for a place to stay. It turns out they were Zeus and Hermes.

Mary Oliver retells this story in her poem, “Mockingbirds”:
and the old couple,
shaken with understanding,
bowed down–
but still they asked for nothing

but the difficult life
which they had already.

Why should we treat strangers or the needy with kindness? It is humane — what humans do. It is civil, the roots of civilization itself. We are a fragile species; despite our delusions of complete independence and individuality, we depend on our fellows for survival, contact, comfort. We are not tigers who can make our way through the wilderness with ferocious solitude.

The Gods are manifest in the stranger, the poor, the sick — just as they are in us and everything. If we disrespect those in need, we disrespect that stream of divinity that runs through all and ultimately ourselves.

Of course, this relationship must be honored at both ends. A good host isn’t niggardly and a good guest doesn’t always come with empty, asking hands. Reciprocity — “a gift for a gift,” as it’s usually stated — is a necessary part of the equation. This holds not only in our relationships with each other, but with the Kindreds (Gods, nature spirits, ancestors) as well. Doing rituals or praying only to ask the Gods for a boon isn’t hospitable; it’s mooching. Establish a genuine, loving relationship and the gifts will naturally flow — from both sides.

So, where did we go wrong?

For one, we demonize the stranger — which was common enough even in ancient times. The fact is, most crimes aren’t committed by the stranger but by the far more dangerous creatures who reside in one’s own household, neighborhood or circle, whether you’re talking theft, rape, molestation or murder. We tend to project this onto the Other because we feel, at the core, there’s little we can do about our kin unless we decide to live in a perpetual haze of fear and mistrust. It’s a projection that’s encouraged by rulers — whether the old-fashioned tribal chieftain or the modern-day political party — because it can be channeled into unquestioning group action for the ultimate goal of territory/wealth acquisition.

The second is, of course, commercialization. When we travel, we rarely seek the help of strangers; instead, we turn to the professionals. Reciprocity is expressed in terms of credit cards, which is probably why some folks don’t feel odd about trashing rooms or engaging in other forms of misbehavior that would have been unthinkable to the true household guest.

In terms of the unfortunate, we do a type of mental warding by refusing to believe terrible things can happen to use. The Other must have deserved it and to show her mercy is to endorse her assumed failings. At the core, however, we know that our lives are fragile and there is little we can do about that. Just as with the kinship problem, this anxiety only intensifies the projection.

Certain quarters have called for bringing back civility to an increasingly paranoid, angry and hostile society. Hospitality, the welcoming of the stranger into the sacredness of the household, may be just the virtue that’s needed to accomplish these ends.

Colorful thoughts in late winter

Everything, white. Crotches of trees. Rooflines. The sky. The world, blinding and pillowed.

Truth be told: I hate white, the color of teeth, bones, hospitals, ancient temples stripped by time of their gay paint. White is death, what’s left after the softer bits rot to loam.

“Ultimate reality” as “white light?” How sterile, how institutional, how cold.

Black is warmth, the charcoal waiting to shed its heat, the world under the down comforter. It beckons with its vastness, drawing you further in. You can gave into the face of darkness, fall into it. Darkness is the screen, the bowl, the mirror upon which your visions dance and play. It is earth, the rotted bits that push up the green shoot.

But better still: green itself. The blue of sky, hydrangea, robin’s egg. The varied shades of brown, the merry glint of gold in the daisy’s eye. The rare flash of purple in the grackle’s sheen, the ground-hugging violet, the lilac.

Neither the page nor the ink, but the sheer reality of what is described, rendered into flesh.

Thawing: for Aonghus Og

Blocks of dirty white
tumble on the shore
playthings for spring’s child.

He rises, a hawk
on unseen thermals
hot air over cold

and rising, rising.
Mother Sun pauses,
watches, knowing eyes

gleaming, of that time
she paused for nine months
to help the river

heave up the young son
on her muddy shores —
a watery birth

hidden, as spring is
always hidden. It
repeats, as myth does

every year when cracks
lace the river’s white
reach. For a moment

until she freezes
anew. Then thaws. Then
again he rises.

February and November

Gray. White. Brown.

My feet drum the winding pavement. Aine’s face is a yellow balloon through a white shroud, not even shining. White breath puffs from my lips as I run past the brown bark of trees, the white and yellow of dog-pissed laced snow. I run fast and my red blood courses unseen, black as darkness in my veins. But all I want is to dig a burrow in the snow and sleep until spring.

In my poetry, I often use “November” as a trope signifying bleakness and depression. An excerpt from a poem of mine called “Lucy”:
i am
exiled from the sun, i am
Lucy rolled with rocks and trees
i am Clytie in a gray november —
the sparrows eat my seeds

Why November? Perhaps it’s the endless brown and gray, the leaves underfoot, the scent of death not yet washed clean by snow. The sky is still darkening, then. Harsh winter is ahead.

Perhaps I should have made it February.

February is lit by Brighid’s presence, true. Imbolc is always a bright light for me: the merry flicker of the hearth, the candle flames I light in her honor. Being snowbound can be a source of joy, sometimes: books, loved ones, cats, hot chocolate, music-making. The days are lengthening. The Cailleach is loosening her grip.

Except when she tightens it. In the north, February isn’t the merry cherry red of Lupercalia. It’s the white of snow, the gray of slush and skies, the brown of bare bark. Yes, there are buds if you look, but there are also starving deer. The coyotes are mating, rejoicing in their own frenzied Lupercalia. The humans grumble with snow shovels and shake their fists at the skies.

I don’t write a lot of poems about February. It makes me too morose.

However, I wrote this poem in February 2008, called “Hothouse Hyacinths”
pink mouths clamber
up the stalk, an ancient grief
etched on tongues — ai ai ai —
by a god’s fanciful finger.

a gift the color of wan dawn
on February’s fainting couch.
petals pass through finger pads
telling losses like beads,
an abacus, a mala of griefs
on frozen soil.

but not alone in its
disconnected earth, its sheath
of green paper: forsythia
branches mouthing and falling
in a scatter of gold, as sentries

and the bullish heads of
crocus, with saffron serpent
tongues darting from their jaws.
a hothouse spring hovers
by the pane, a temple incense.

beyond, the snowfield:
the white weight stamping down
the bulbs, the wanting green
in waiting while an old
gold ribbon flutters

on a stripped lilac. and in
the world edged and glittered:
small footprints pattern the white
spelling the raw fact
of hunger.

Primum non nocere: mental illness and divination

Lately, I’ve dealt with a particularly hairy divinatory situation, which is the inspiration for this particular entry.

Personal policy dictates that I refuse to read or offer spiritual advice to someone with an active mental illness. By “active,” I mean a mental illness that isn’t being appropriately treated or one in which appropriate treatment hasn’t yet been determined (i.e., medication was recently adjusted and symptoms return, etc.) This may include not only the folks with paranoid schizophrenia — and I’d probably include the aforementioned in that category, based on what I’ve seen — but someone with deep even suicidal depression, or in the throes of mania, etc.

I struggle with this sometimes, as it seems discriminatory. People don’t choose to have mental illnesses, after all; by what right does a seer refuse to share the wisdom of the Otherworld?

Primum non nocere: First, do no harm.

That’s a healer’s principle and not a seer’s, one may argue. A seer’s motives aren’t limited to healing, per se. Truth, perhaps, or interaction with cosmic order. What clients most often seek, however, is some sort of soul-healing — the truth that sets them free (pardon the cliche), the signpost that can show the soul’s path and thus calm the source of dis-ease.

You can offer the best and most accurate reading in the world to someone — but if they’re not — and cannot be — in a place to receive it, it’s a wasted effort. Now, the wasted effort isn’t entirely my business, so to speak; I cannot make people heed the reading and some perfectly “normal” folks have disregarded the advice offered in repeated sessions. That’s human nature for you.

Where mental illness becomes a problem is the client’s interpretation, which may have nothing to do with the actual reading or the situation at hand. Someone in the throes of suicidal depression may see a reading as proving the bleakness of their circumstances, giving a motive for their act. Same with paranoid schizophrenia. I’ve seen this firsthand when I did end up doing readings for people who were ill. I don’t want to give anyone an excuse or justification for harming themselves or others.

Second, the true spiritual task for clients so inclined is to get a handle on their illness — not to converse with spirits, cast spells or journey to the Otherworld. They need connection to the flesh and blood world, to consensus reality. Spiritual exploration is better done with your feet on solid earth, not on quicksand. This isn’t to say that folks with mental health diagnoses can’t do journey work or ritual — not at all. But without a firm grounding in their own physical and mental well-being, that work is at best wasted and, at worst, something that fans the flames of their illness.

In these cases, the only responsible thing for me to do is refer such clients to their mental health professionals. I am a seer and not a healer — I know my limits. I do feel compassion, however, because there are mental health professionals who would view spiritual pursuits as symptomatic of illness or at least an idle escape. And sometimes they’re right, too.

This isn’t a blanket refusal to read for anyone with a diagnosis. Someone with well-managed schizophrenia, depression, bipolar disorder or what-have-you may come in and ask for insight into job prospects, a relationship, a dream. As a seer, I’d be none the wiser; these clients are no longer defined or circumscribed by their illnesses. They’re in touch with the worlds — the outer world of consensual reality, the inner world of their own thoughts and feelings. In short, where we all need to be.