Category Archives: Spiritual Journey

…like Animals.

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“Look at those children, behaving like animals!”

“You wouldn’t believe the filth in that place, they were living like animals.”

“These aren’t people.  These are animals.”

I often find myself becoming irritated with the way in which the word “animal” is so frequently used as a slight against people who’s presence or behaviors we might find objectionable.

This sort of insult, I feel, says more about the feelings which people hold toward our animal kin, than it does about the people so labeled.  These feelings, so pervasive within our society, must surely display themselves in the ways in which we treat the animals around us: our “pets”, our livestock, and most especially those animals which are still considered “wild” (another word frequently used in a disparaging manner – uncivilized, untamed, undomesticated, etc…,).

Each of those insults which I quoted above calls to my mind a corresponding question.

How do animals behave?

How do they live?

What are people, if not animals? 

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I have been to several zoos over the years, and driven through a few of those “Wild Animal” parks where you feed handfuls of grey pellets to the giraffes and the water buffalo, all the while hoping they won’t do anything expensive to your car in the process.  Never, however, have I experienced anything quite like my recent visit to The Wild Animal Sanctuary, situated in the plains just east of Denver, Colorado.

Firstly, I have never see quite so many animals in any single facility.  Lions, tigers, and yes bears, along with foxes, wolves, coyotes, pumas, lynx and a host of others reside here in numbers that would overwhelm any zoo I’ve ever seen.

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But this is most definitely not a zoo, and the animals are not on exhibit.

They do not appear in carefully curated little vignettes, framed in post-card images of their natural habitat, say a mountain pool, or untamed jungle.  If anything, it is the visiting humans who are on display, exposed up high on a catwalk, easily viewed by any of the animals inhabiting the facility…, if only they cared to look.

Most of them seem…, shall we say disinterested, in the folks admiring them from above.

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And that alone probably wouldn’t sit well with some folks.  We want the animals to be as interested in us as we are in them.  We want them to be mystified by us, curious about our ways, and envious of our progress.

Probably, I think, the animals at the Sanctuary just know better.

Most of them have been abused by humans at some point in their lives.  They’ve been kept on chains or in small filthy cages as a “pet” in someone’s backyard, or cramped together in some ramshackle zoo.  Some have been declawed, their teeth either filed down or removed altogether, and made to perform in some circus or roadside attraction.  They’ve been starved, or beaten, or bred relentlessly, only to have their offspring taken from them again and again, and sold to the highest bidder.

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But in the Sanctuary these magnificent creatures are able to live out the rest of their lives in peace and comfort, mostly free from human interference.  They roam huge fenced enclosures, acres upon acres of grass prairie with nice cool underground dens in which they may shelter during the hottest parts of the day, or during inclement weather.

When I say they they are not on display, I mean that they are visible when and only when they care to be.  Or more accurately, when they don’t care if they are seen or not.

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We passed entire enclosures which at first inspection seemed entirely devoid of animal life, only to return later, with dusk approaching, to see lions or tigers suddenly appearing out of the tall grass.

It is one thing to look into the bored eyes of some great tiger on display at a zoo, but it is another thing entirely to watch her vanish as if by magic into a stand of bamboo, or to try and keep pace with her, walking quickly along the catwalk as she parallels your path along the fence below, only to realize she is stalking your shadow through the tall grass, as the sun dips toward the horizon.  Short of actually viewing them in the wild, I can’t imagine a better way to dip ever so slightly into their world.

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Because this IS their world, as surely as it is ours.

We try to own them like we try to own everything.

And we fail them, and ourselves in the process.

And so I come one again to my initial questions…,

How do animals behave?

Better than we do I think, in most circumstances.  They do not hunt or kill except for survival.  They do not burn down their forests, or despoil their land in the name resource extraction, or money, or politics.

How do animals live?

These days, mostly where we permit them to live, or where we don’t notice them, or haven’t found a way to reach them yet.  But always, they live the best they can.

And what are people?

We are the animals who have forgotten how to BE animals.

And I think we all know this, on some level.  Otherwise, there would not be the fascination, the curiosity, the need to control, to dominate, and to prove our manifest superiority over them.  We, as a species have lost something vital.  And I think that this loss inspires both our best and our worst inclinations where these creatures are concerned.

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The dominate religions of our time tell us that their god is separate from the creation, and that mankind was set above the animals, was imbued with a soul and a destiny that the other ‘things’ which move upon the earth are lacking.

And I understand the appeal, the desire to feel important, to be of central importance in some grand scheme.

But the old religions knew better.

We are OF this world.

We should learn to accept that before it’s too late for them, and for us.

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Stalking this tiger with my camera, only to realize that she was stalking my shadow through the tall grass.

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What a feeling to watch her stroll away into the distance once she lost interest in the “hunt”. No bars and no faux stone walls to keep her where we could see her.

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Filed under Modern Life, Nature, Philosophy, Photography, Spiritual Journey, Travel

Shut up, Linus!

Several years ago now I thought it would be a neat idea to write a post which used the Peanuts characters, specifically excerpts from the animated Charlie Brown Thanksgiving special, to illustrate what seemed a very simple point…,

That Thanksgiving is a holiday that does not belong to any particular group.

At the time I wrote it, I think I’d seen a few too many evangelical types trying to claim the holiday as their own, and felt the need to push back a bit.

Looking back on it now, I feel like it’s one of my more cringe worthy efforts.

It is too long, too clumsy, and…, well, it’s too popular.

Seriously!

That damn throw-away thanksgiving post from six years ago is consistently the most frequently read thing on this blog. Mostly, I am in no doubt, due to the work of search engine algorithms coughing it up to folks looking for links to the Holiday Special itself.

But I suppose I should be…, thankful.

After all, if only a fraction of the folks who stumble across it stick around to read anything else I’ve written, and maybe inspired to think about things in a way that they hadn’t previously…, then it’s worth every misplaced click.

My message this Thanksgiving is a bit more concise: “Shut up, Linus.”

Sure, the preachy kid is always there to yammer on, but the only one at that entire party who knows what’s really going on is that girl Marcy.

Oh, we’d all do well to thank our gods for the bounty of the harvest, but these days I think we’d do better to concentrate on thanking each other. Not just on the one day but every day.

And not just our family and friends either.

Thank our teachers, both the professionals, and those who teach us by example. Thank the warriors back from trenches past and present, and thank the desperate retail employees, fighting their own yearly war of attrition. Thank the neighbors, the strangers, the doctors, sanitation workers and bureaucrats that you encounter throughout your day. Even thank that preachy kid, once he finally pipes down and lets everyone get back to their meal.

Because we all touch each other’s lives, and the actions of a stranger we pass on the street can have every bit as much power over our personal prosperity as that of any deity.

A simple expression of genuine gratitude can make a difference that pays us back a thousand fold.

Give thanks where thanks is due.

And have a Happy Holiday.

And thank YOU for stopping by!

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Filed under About this Blog, Holidays, Modern Life, Traditions

The Nature of the Message

We’ve all seen those solitary blades of grass reaching up from the cracks in a sidewalk, or maybe a bit of green clinging to the side of a wall where a bit of wind blown soil and seed found purchase amongst crumbling bricks.

It’s common enough to see these things as a sign of the impermanence of mankind’s imposition upon the natural world. The earth shifts, concrete falters, and the green world which was hiding just below the surface asserts itself with a vengeance.

I’ve shared that same feeling, and found some comfort in it.

Nothing we do, truly lasts forever.

But sometimes, I wonder if we haven’t misinterpreted the nature of the message.

Near my workplace there is a No Parking sign imbedded in the sidewalk, standing no less then seven feet above the roadway, and crowned, amazingly, with a healthy shock of leaves, waving in the breeze.

Upon closer examination, the base of the signpost is imbedded firmly within the pristine pavement. There are no cracks or gaps, no place for the earth beneath to show through. But there is a long thin vine, reaching up through the middle of the post, climbing all the way up into the light at the very top.

Sometimes, when I’m outside taking a break from work, find myself looking at that single, impossible plant, and I wonder about the people who pour the concrete, who build the sidewalks, the buildings, the streets, the systems, and the institutions that surround us.

Sometimes I wonder about myself.

We’ve put so much effort into reshaping the world…, giving it an order and a purpose and forcing it to adhere to some common vision of how we think the world should be, of how it can best serve us.

And we keep getting it wrong.

That sprig of green poking out of the pavement may not be a warning sign at all. It may instead be the sound of a trumpet, rousing us to action, calling us to break through the concrete and the metal that is even now closing over our heads.

Maybe it’s time to serve the world, rather than trying to force it to serve us.

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Filed under Modern Life, Nature, Philosophy, Spiritual Journey

A Year…,

12 Months.

365 Days.

I don’t know how many hours and minutes.

And I don’t want to know.

We don’t get them back.

…,

I’ve been gone from these pages for a while.

Not dead.

Not sleeping.

But elsewhere.

Did you miss me?

…,

This was a year of projects, of choices made, muscles flexed, and time spent.

I built myself a workshop.

I witnessed a total eclipse of the Sun.

My wife and I got married, again, and in public view this time.

And I worked…, a lot, even as I have felt my satisfaction in those labors waning.

…,

But new years bring new choices.

The numbers are arbitrary, of course.

Two-Thousand and Seventeen, becomes Eighteen.

Separated by nothing so much as our desire to begin again.

To grasp another chance to do our bit, and change the world to our liking.

…,

I have a plan for myself.

It’s a ten-year plan.

I guess that makes this Day One.

And I am terrified by the sheer weight of everything that needs doing.

But the good news, for me, is that I’m not alone.

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I mean, if you could get have a traditional Celtic hand fasting ceremony, while dressed as The Mad Hatter and The Queen of Hearts, and if you could likewise persuade your friends and family to come, dressed as Wonderland characters…, why wouldn’t you?

 

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Filed under Holidays, Spiritual Journey, Traditions

Chasing that hole in the sky.

“So, is this a religious thing, or do you just think it’s cool?”

We were sitting in the office at work, one of my managers and I, and I was making arrangements to leave a little early for the evening.  One of my co-workers had agreed to finish out my shift, and when my manager asked me what the occasion was, I’d told her that the wife and I were planning on driving straight through to Tennessee to secure our campsite for Monday’s eclipse.

She was adjusting my schedule in the system, shifting the little bars that represent my comings and goings, when she glanced up and asked the question.

Most of the folks in leadership at my job are at least somewhat aware of my spiritual leanings, if only in the abstract.  I’m the guy who asks off for unusual days on the calendar, and marks them down as religious observance – often followed by an unpronounceable series of letters:

Imbolc…Beltane…Lughnasadh…Samhain…,

I’d been planning for the Eclipse trip for a while, but I’d only been able to secure three days off from work, Sunday thru Tuesday, during which we’d make the twelve hour trip to our chosen spot along the path of totality, set up camp, watch the big show, enjoy some nature, break the whole thing down and drive back again.

As the trip grew closer, I’d been fussing with the itinerary, worried that our campsite might be over crowded, about traffic congestion in the area, about arriving so late in the afternoon that I’d be setting up camp in the dark.  And finally, with only a week to spare, I’d come to the conclusion that the best course of action was to just drive in over night and through the morning.

“So, is this a religious thing, or do you just think it’s cool?”

One of the other managers, who is fairly new and doesn’t know me as well, glanced over at us with a confused look on his face.

“No, I just think it’s cool.”

It was an honest answer, I thought.

I had no rituals planned, neither prayer nor sacrifice was on the agenda.

This was about a maybe once in a lifetime chance to watch the moon completely obscure the sun.  It was about science, and timing, and prepping to get the best photo I could with the equipment I have.  It was about being in the right place at the right time and seeing something remarkable and rare.

As the date of the eclipse grew closer, I’d seen more and more discussion groups showing up online, asking what were the proper traditions and ceremonies for pagans to observe during the eclipse.  And I’d sigh and shake my head.  Because there are none, not really.

An eclipse is too random, too site specific, and never repeating at the same locations at the same intervals.  The ancients didn’t leave us any eclipse related traditions, at least none that I’ve ever heard of, because there are none.

If spirits that live in the rocks and trees of central Tennessee decided they wanted to speak to me, certainly I would listen.  But maybe, if they could just hold that thought for another 2-minutes and 32-seconds…, that would be fantastic.

I was there for the sun, and the moon, and to see the thing that I’d missed too many times before.

I’d seen five eclipses already in my lifetime, all of them partial.

When I was a kid and the other children in my class had their shoebox viewers at the ready, I came to class with my fathers telescope, sun-lens equipped, and ready to share a first hand look with the rest of the class.

I’d watched that yellow disk slowly consumed by the interposing body of the moon, and I’d watched that shadow slip away again, its mission unfulfilled.  I’d felt the strange cooling in the air, listened to the hush of bird and insect, and watched as daylight faded into the semi-twilight that a partial eclipse can bring.  All that I was missing was that elusive moment of totality.

“No, I just think it’s cool.”

You’d think, after all these years and misadventures, that it wouldn’t still be so humbling to discover that I am an idiot.

Totality.

It was like nothing I have ever experienced and yet powerfully familiar.

Watching the last vestiges of the sun slip away through a pair of solar binoculars, I was visually disconnected from the world around me in the last few minutes before it hit.  And while I was expecting a long, gradual progression, I was totally unprepared to feel the sudden and repeated shifts in the world around me, as layer after layer of the sun’s atmosphere was blocked from view.

And when totality struck, I was unprepared for the noise it made.  There WAS a noise, although I couldn’t tell you if it came from outside or from within, but it sounded to me like something that the sound editor of an effects ridden disaster flick would be compelled to add, because you can’t just have the sun whiff out on screen, without some auditory cue – something between a deep throb and a gasp.

I was unprepared for the glowing white ring in the sky, for the deep red clouds on the horizon, and for the overwhelming feeling that this, THIS, is what the otherworld must feel like: detached and superimposed over our own world, always there just beneath the surface, and yet almost entirely out of reach.

Of course it was a “religious thing.”

Or no, not a religious thing at all.  A spiritual quest, maybe.

Because religion implies organization and planning and ritual, and try as you might, I just don’t think you can plan on an eclipse.  We do rituals to try and find our way, if only partially, into the otherworld of the gods and the ancestors.

But from time to time the Earth conducts a ritual of her own, and if we are very lucky, or very privileged, we may just stumble upon her and her sister moon, as they weave and dance in and around the fire of the sun.

And why else would so many of us travel so far to share in a single event, except in pilgrimage?  Each and every one of us, chasing that hole in the sky, and finding ourselves forever changed by what we have seen and felt.

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Filed under Nature, Religion, Science, Spiritual Journey, Traditions

First Harvest

This is not, I think, what the ancestors intended.

Just sitting in my backyard, drinking a glass of lemonade, on the first reasonably cool morning I’ve seen in a while, and simply watching the world go by, is not exactly what I think of when the celtic festival of Lughnasadh comes to mind.

I’ve always thought of it as more of a “working holiday”, with everyone busting ass to bring in the first grains of the season, performing all the mechanical alchemy that turns raw grain into flour, and then the truly ‘High Magic’ that renders freshly baked bread unto a formerly barren world.  Meanwhile, those not otherwise engaged in the sacred rites of food preparation begin to gather in the newly clear fields, to compete with each other in contests of strength, endurance and athletic finesse.

To be fair though, my particular ancestors never had to deal with Texas heat.

And they knew what they were contributing to their community, they could see, touch, feel and even taste the things they produced.  A celebration of the first harvest was a culmination of their own efforts and the benevolence of the land upon which they worked their lives.

For many of us, in this age, the day to day yield of our efforts is a little more difficult to see.

First Harvest?

We can sit on a cool morning under the shade of the oaks, looking through the blooming echinacea, out over the cats playing in the grass and the birds taking turns at the feeder, past the workshop which is nearing completion and out to the stands of honeysuckle which are consuming the white trellis I built for them.  The bushes in the back need trimming (again) and the mosquitoes are buzzing, but there’s always something needs doing and there are always those moments, however brief, when we can choose to let those chores and distractions go for a while, and just savor the moment for what it is.

A celebration of everything that brought you this far.

I wish a joyous Lughnasadh to you all.

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Filed under Celtic Polytheism, Holidays, Modern Life, Spiritual Journey, Traditions

Fan the Flames

The gods of our ancestors are everywhere around us, though we barely know them.

Their sacred places have vanished, or become ruins, overgrown and crumbling curiosities of a bygone age.  Their sacred names are misremembered and mispronounced, uttered without the reverence and caution that should attend the power which those syllables invoke.  Their sacred stories…,

The stories we have, the myths, the legends, are but fragments of a once rich tapestry, burned almost completely away now, by time and forgetfulness.

For those of us who are driven to seek out the old ways, there is but scant evidence of the gods left to be found in this world.

We pour over the bits that we can still find, while sifting through surviving folk traditions and songs, looking for anything we might have missed.  We speculate and we argue about the fragments we do uncover.  How do they go together?  What do they mean?

And still, for all that effort, we seem to know more about the lives of the Dinosaurs, who at least had the courtesy to die and leave their fossilized remains for us to dig from the Earth.

Let us speak now, of one such nearly forgotten god.

Oghma

Sometimes called Oghma the Honey-Tongued – because he is a god of eloquence, a master of poetry, and the father of writing.

Sometimes called Oghma with the Sun’s Countenance – because he is a solar deity, or because he exhibits a divinely radiant aspect, or because he likes to cause trouble in academic circles and he knew that taking on a Sun related nickname was a sure way to get people writing papers.

We know that he is the brother of the Dagda, the husband of Étan, and that he has at least two sons.  We know that he is one of the Champions of the Tuatha Dé Danann, the gods of Ireland, and that his strength is second to only one among their number.

We know that he fought in the Second Battle of Mag Tuired, and that he died there, or that he didn’t.  The stories have it both ways.

The Irish gods do have a nasty habit of dying in one story and showing up again in some later tale.  Which may have something to do with the impermanence of death when it comes to the gods.  But more than likely, it has to do with the fact that these stories were written down by Christian monks who were trying to…,

…who were trying to…,

…we really don’t know.

We haven’t a clue as to exactly what these guys were trying to accomplish.

We do not know their true motivations or what they may have changed along the way.

We don’t know how well they knew the stories themselves, or why they chose these particular stories to preserve.

Is Oghma really just a flagstone flipping superman with a sunny disposition and a way with words?  Can that possibly have been all that the mythology of the ancient Irish had to say about him?  Or were there stories upon stories, now lost and forgotten because they didn’t fit whatever criteria the monks used to determine what should be saved and what should be let go.

Or were they written down and then lost again.

We may never know.

We owe these unknown monks a vast debt of gratitude, but that doesn’t mean we should put too much trust in them.

Let us take a side trip out of Ireland and into the ancient forests of Gaul where another god, or maybe the same god, named Ogmios, once roamed.

He too, was a god of great strength, usually portrayed as a Gaulish Heracles.  But, unlike the Greek Hero, Ogmios is also said to have been a god of great eloquence, who’s power of persuasion was so strong that silver chains dangled between his wagging tongue and hooks embedded into the ears of his every listener.  As a consequence, every mortal within the range of his voice would joyfully gather close to do his bidding.

The little we know of Ogmios comes to us through a handful of Gaulish inscriptions and from a brief description by the 2nd Century Greek satirist Lucian, a fellow who lived long after the Gauls had been conquered, and one not overly sympathetic to the gods of his own people, much less those of long dead foreign barbarians.

Oghma.

Ogmios.

As I said at the start, his holy places are gone, his name misremembered, and his stories are, at best, the stuff of rumor and speculation.

His priesthood however…, his priesthood is as powerful as ever, and it has never waned.

Just don’t look for them among the folks who actually believe in him.

His priests and priestesses are those who write and who speak in a voice we can still hear long after we are parted from them.  They speak to us across the depths of time (think of Shakespeare or Clemens), and they move us with their words even today, when words seem to have so little value.

Only a few nights ago, as I sat with a few hundred others, and listened to Neil Gaiman reading from his stories and poems, and answering questions in a thoughtful, ever friendly manner, I could see in my minds eye, those thin silver chains growing link by delicate link, could feel the hooks sliding deep into my own ears, and I knew that, though he believes the Gods are things created by story, he is every bit the vessel of their power.

Later, reading through his introduction to his latest volume, a retelling of selected myths of Norse Mythology, I found this bit:

“We have lost so much…I wish I could retell the tales of Eir, because she was the doctor of the gods, of Lofn, the comforter, who was the Norse goddess of marriages, or of Sjofn, a goddess of love.  Not to mention Vor, goddess of wisdom.  I can imagine stories, but I cannot tell their tales.  They are lost, or buried, or forgotten.”   —Neil Gaiman

We who believe in the gods of our fathers know that particular feeling all too well.

We were born to find the stories, to tell them, to share in their wisdom, and to bask in their glow.  These things are as much a part of worship as any ritual or prayer.

But the previous generations have not been kind to us, and all that are left to us are the last fading embers of a once great fire.

And yet even that can be light enough, if we are careful.

We must learn what we can from the old stories.

But we must be willing to play with them as well, to prod and poke them until the hint of fire within begins to glow stronger through agitation and exposure to the air.

And we must be open to invention.  It is through Imbas that we allow the gods to speak through us, to fan the flames of creativity and to tell their stories in our voices, for new generations.

It is long past time to fan the flames.

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Filed under Celtic Polytheism, Culture, Mythology, Religion, Spiritual Journey, The Gods