Month: June 2011

“You do not have to be good….”

We are all vases with hairline cracks, quilts missing a few stitches. Our edges don’t quite match. We have pores, wrinkles, sags and gray strands. We are all capable of kindness and cruelty, childishness and magnamity.

I often berate myself for flaws, as do many people, I imagine. If I just tried hard enough, I could be the wise priestess, the good wife, the perfect artist or employee or (insert your noun here). But I fail. A night’s short sleep unravels my temper. Insecurities cloud a clear sky. The words pour from me like a river of gravel, not a handful of pearls. Best-laid plans and good intentions head out to the local tavern, while chance and circumstance team up to steal their wheels.

It’s good to strive for improvement, to dangle hesitant feet in the cool water, to push self-imposed limits on skill, intellect, competence. I’ve written about perseverance as a virtue, after all: try and try again.

But just as you temper hot steel with cold water, so you must temper perseverance with forgiveness. Perfection is a type of pride — a belief that we can embody the ideal, encompass it.

Perfection comes from a Latin term meaning “finished, brought to completion.” And there’s the rub. By the sheer virtue of living, we are never finished. When we die, yes, at least in this incarnation. And who is to say that we haven’t achieved perfection? Who holds the standard by which all others are measured?

The religious answer is, of course, the Gods, or God, or All-That-Is. And it’s not that they’re refusing to tell us, but that our understanding is, by necessity, limited by the boundaries of our existence as embodied, three dimensional beings.

Perhaps it comes down to humility as the moral basis of faith. Or at least my faith. At the crux of both: sincerity. In your heart, you know what you are, no matter what the world may think.

I’ll close with the words of poet Mary Oliver, whose “Wild Geese” when sent to me by a friend when I was going through a tough time some years back. It expresses what I’m getting at better than my rambling musings do….

You do not have to be good. 
You do not have to walk on your knees 
for a hundred miles through the desert, repenting. 
You only have to let the soft animal of your body 
love what it loves. 
Tell me about despair, yours, and I will tell you mine. 
Meanwhile the world goes on. 
Meanwhile the sun and the clear pebbles of the rain 
are moving across the landscapes, 
over the prairies and the deep trees, 
the mountains and the rivers. 
Meanwhile the wild geese, high in the clean blue air, 
are heading home again. 
Whoever you are, no matter how lonely, 
the world offers itself to your imagination, 
calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting–
over and over announcing your place 
in the family of things.


Tilled fields, shared words

In Milton’s day, conversation meant sex — quite literally so. It was a “nudge, nudge, wink, wink” sort of word, coming from a Latin term meaning “to associate with.”

To communicate, also from our Latin ancestors, is “to make common,” to share — whether ideas, inner feelings, diseases or head lice.

Speaking comes from Germanic roots: spakan, to make sounds with the mouth. To talk is to share tales — narratives, monologues, even numbers.

Our Indo-European forebears had a writing taboo, believing the capture of words, sounds and ideas in symbols to be akin to sacrilege. The word didn’t necessarily create the cosmos, as it does in Christian myth, but it does create culture — the place of tilled soil. Society, the union of comrades. Civilization, the dwelling of civilians.

(Did I ever mention how much I love, by the way?)

At any rate, I was too busy last week to follow much of my habitual Web discourse, since I was planning and celebrating Mean Samhradh, picking berries and making jam, making bread and punjabi khardi. Before that, I was practicing for and participating in our gig.

Curiously, I didn’t miss it all that much.

So much of the Web is virtual conversation — meaning that it seems like the real thing, but really isn’t. And I think of the ancestors and their profoundly oral lives, based on the word spoken, sung, whispered, imparted lips to cochlea.

Virtual conversation is a bit like virtual sex — titillating but ultimately unfulfilling, a substitute for real relationship.

We fill our lives with status updates, twitterings and related silliness, mistaking it as equivalent to a friend’s hug, a mother’s kind word, a smile from a stranger. But what to do? To reach out is to risk — having one’s hand slapped, yes, but also confronting the Other’s reality. The tearful eye, the frustrating in her shoulder. The reality that this human being is more than a symbol on a page, a flickering light on a screen. It makes it more difficult to be cruel, easier to be empathetic.

Perhaps presence — real, actual — is the key to community, with its speculative origin in “sharing common duties,” and the antidote to what’s poisoning our shared, tilled field.

tunes and bugs

 Yesterday, Kwannon, the music project I have with my significant other, played a rare gig. And I’m proud to report: We survived.

And that’s good. After weeks of practice, the weather glowered — and then, a few hours after our gig, devolved into an outright tantrum. The humidity popped the B-string on my harp and I had to ditch "The Path That Leads to Nowhere" and "March Elegy," since both used the string. I almost cried, although I’m glad I didn’t, since it would have caused the unaccustomed eye makeup to run. I am, I admit, over-protective of my instruments. Perspective: it’s a cheap Pakistani-made 22 string harp I bought for $350, hardly a masterpiece. But it’s my magical tool.

Note to self: Outdoor gigs in the summer require metal-stringed instruments. Stick to the dulcimer, bulbul tarang and kantele. They’ll give you less lip.

I am especially proud of myself for making it through the set list without screaming maniacally, since I had various critters walk all over me while playing. To wit: two bees, some gnat-like critters that look innocuous and usually bite, and even a tiny spider that spun tiny webs on my hand while I was playing "Brighid of the Healers." I’m not making that up.

Other lessons: take off the dupatta (scarf that goes with the salwar kameez) if you’re playing on windy days. Amazingly, I can play with all my hair blown in my eyes like a sheepdog. Weighting down the song-sheet with my tuning wrenches worked, although next time I should bring a clothespin.

In truth, I was glad to help out. I was glad for a reason to practice, to force myself to overcome my pathological shyness and get up on stage.

Seeing pictures of myself snapped by fellow Druid Chris, I just have to remember: I’m built like a brick shithouse. I run 5 to 8 miles most days of the week, do yoga and am pretty damn muscly. Yeah, I’m not Kate Moss, but I think I’m in decent shape.

Spiritual warriors?

Spiritual warrior. It’s a term I find occasionally in yoga magazines as well as New Age texts. You find it in Christian works as well, although it seems to mean something different there. Or does it?

I admit that I’ve never appreciated or really understood the term. In many contexts, it seems to indicate a person who ventures forth — in this case, “forth” means something internal rather than an actual physical direction — to confront spiritual challenges. These can be the stereotypical “shadow self,” ignorance or what-have-you; at the end of the day, the “demons” constitute whatever keeps one from a spiritual life, however that’s defined. Bad thoughts, bad actions, bad habits. A spiritual warrior’s weapons aren’t spears or halberds, but will, determination, a recognition of one’s weaknesses and vulnerabilities.

All this is well and good, but it doesn’t fit the definition of a warrior. The very term has “war” at its heart: conflict, a battle in which there are winners and losers, whether or not those winners and losers are clearly defined. It’s the idea that there are defined winners and losers in the first place.

War is conflict and hostility, whether with fists or fighter jets, words or bullets. It sets the tribe/self/”good guys” against the Other/outlaws/”bad guys” and is probably the core to the entire concept of hierarchical dualism. We like to say that the military is about “being all you can be,” but at the end of the day, such service often involves killing. All that training has a particular purpose.

This sure doesn’t sound like an appropriate spiritual metaphor to me, at least in the yogic and New Age circles. The Christian concept of spiritual warfare is closer, because it involves literally praying for the enemy’s defeat and death. I can see, in Pagan contexts, a spiritual warrior as one who practices battle magick — say, the priests and priestesses of Angelsey, who cast curses on the invading Romans.

In this example, spiritual warfare is a well-defined skill, probably seldom-used (at least I would hope).

Why do we insist on the warfare metaphor for spiritual endeavors outside that context, however?

My guess: It’s our culture, which privileges Dumezil’s second function. We valorize warriors. I use that term deliberately, since it’s about the government determining the value of a commodity artificially by buying it up or funding the producers. That is a good metaphor for how war is used in our culture. Our leaders beat the war drums, driving up the sound and the fury, because it’s a hell of a lot easier to kill and invade than do the dirty work of the farmer and provider, the nuturer and the parent, the teacher and the builder.

So, for something to have value, we speak the language of war. It means something difficult to attain, something that brings worth and value.

Why not “labor”? Both the labor of the birthing mother and the labor of the worker — farmer, builder, artist, musician. Labor implies tedium, but so much of anything valuable — spiritual or otherwise — is tedium. Spiritual work should be just that: work.

In closing — because I really do need to run out the door right now — I’m reminded of a different kind of spiritual personage, the anti-warrior, so to speak. The Druid walking out to the field of battle and shaking the bell branch, stopping warring armies. That’s the kind of working we need.