Tag Archives: Story

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

October Stories: The Fields of the Dead

The weeds, so late in the season, had been reduced to clumps of tall spindly stalks.  They reached almost to our knees as we stalked our prey across the field, tawny spikelets rasping together in the cooling October breeze.

We fanned out slowly.  Each taking a few large steps forward and then sweeping one leg forward and across in a low arc, the crunch of tall grass bending and breaking underfoot, while we scanned the ground before us for any sign.

Another few steps.

Another sweep of the leg.

And again, widening our distance.

And again.

And there!  A flash of white between grayish-green blades of grass.  My hand thrust downward, looking for purchase, for something hard and rough wedged into the earth.  And then the grip and pull against a resistance from roots above and soil below.

A few moments spent shaking the dirt away before I can properly see what I’ve found.

“Got one,” I shout to the others, “I think it’s a shoulder bone!”

“Good, now look for the rest.  We’ll keep going.”

Smiling at the club-like form in my hand, I give it a couple more good shakes, dirt flying from a thousand hollow pockmarks which seem to line one flattened edge, and then I give it a gentle toss into the low grass at the edge of the field.

I make that sweeping motion with my foot again, and then again, until I see more white peeping up from below.  More bones to gather, weathered and stained, from the hungry earth.

She does not easily yield that which she has been given.

***

Throughout my high-school years my parents and I lived next to a small cattle ranch.  Its glory days long since passed, the property was held by two elderly ladies, mother and daughter, who kept their small herd more out of habit than anything else.

I fed the cattle and my father sometimes pitched in when the owners needed him for fence repairs or brush removal.

There were never more that a couple dozen head wandering the fields in those days, and there was more than ample space for them to roam and graze.  As I recall, there was only one small field closed off to them: the grassy crown of a wide hill, hidden back behind the main house and the barn, surrounded by trees and left to seed.

We called it the bone yard.

From time to time, one of the herd would die, usually of age, and the owners would hire someone to throw a chain around its neck and drag it off with a tractor, into that lonesome circle.

There the bodies were transformed, by scavengers and time, into a loose collection of bones, picked clean and scattered across the area of flattened grass where the carcass once lay.

Still more time would pass and the bones, bleached by sun and rain, would begin their slow progress into the earth.

Or maybe they where dragged downward.

Certainly the roots seemed loath to give them up.

***

And those old bones might have vanished into the ground forever, had my father not volunteered to run the P.T.O Spook-House at my High School’s fall carnival.

Halloween in a small towns of Texas, populated as they tend to be, by the more evangelical flavors of the Christian faithful, can be a complex bit of business.

Oh the people do chatter about paganism and devil worship, and everyone is doing it, and everyone knows that everyone else is doing it, and they all pretend that they are doing something else entirely.

It’s very much the way they deal with sex, except that sometimes there are costumes involved…,

…so, I guess it’s exactly the same.

Halloween is therefore rebranded as a “Harvest Festival” or a “Fall Carnival”, which in an astonishing coincidence, includes costumes, bobbing for apples, a scavenger hunt, and a spook-house.

Oh, and a cake-walk!

And I can tell you, having participated in both, that nothing so closely resembles a poorly managed Neo-Pagan rite, than a cake-walk in small town Texas.  Particularly when the participants are trying ever so desperately to avoid the appearance that they might be involved in a dance of any description.

And that might make a good topic for another day…,

…but I was trying to explain why we were out in a field gathering animal bones.

That’s no great mystery really.

If you live in the country and are looking for props to decorate a spook-house, why pour good money into a bunch of cheaply made plastic crap, when there are entire skeletons in some neighbors field that can be dressed up in spiderwebs and a blacklight.

Because bones., skeletons…, the dead…, these things are frightening.

Or so I am given to understand.

***

A lot of time has passed since that day spent with family, harvesting cow bones under an October sky.  And in that time I have often been drawn to the fields of the dead.

In recent years have walked across hills dotted with dolmen and crouched in the heart of mighty passage tombs.  These are the necropoli, the cities of the dead, built by our prehistoric ancestors to house and honor the dead.

In my college days I spent a lot of time in the special collections section of the University library.  There I found old property survey maps that showed every graveyard in a five county area around my home.

Many of these I visited, when I could find them at all; so many have become forgotten, resembling little more than a weed-choked jumble of markers, the names and dates long worn away.  Still others were in surprisingly good condition, considering their remote locations.

I walked these places by day, looking at the names, the dates, words love and loss and hope etched in stone and left to us – to remember, or to forget.

Old Grave

On rare occasions, when the whim took me, I would visit at night.  And I’ll confess that on more than one of these nocturnal visits, I brought a date.

There is something primal and powerful about wandering among the graves with only the moon and a flashlight to guide you.  I do not recall ever experiencing the supernatural dread which people attach to these places, but the feeling of nervous excitement they generate is, happily, both contagious and easily directed toward other ends.

In my experience, however, the dead do not linger in the places where we lay their bones, but are far more occupied with that point in space where their existence slipped from this world into that other realm which parallels our own.

Perhaps those shades would spend more time there if the living were more frequent visitors by day…,

…or night.

***

I drive through my neighborhood and I see yards decorated with plastic skeletons and faux grave stones.  We erect pretend graveyards on the lawn to inspire seasonal fear, and we avoid actual graveyards like death itself lingered there.

Movie Skeletons

Is this what people are worried about, that the dead are going to suddenly spring up like skeleton warriors from the Hydra’s Teeth in an old Ray Harryhausen movie?

Did you know that in the 19th Century, cemeteries were treated like parks?  People strolled the paths between the stones, they picnicked on the wide green lawns within sight of the markers of family and friends.

In the early days of the Roman Republic, the dead were buried in the homes of their family, where they could be properly honored and cared for by those who loved them most in life.

We think of ourselves as an advanced culture, sophisticated in ways that the ancients could never hope to understand.  And yet as we have advanced, we have drawn ourselves further and further from the fields of the dead.  Empty bones have become objects of dread and ancient feast days must be rebranded so as not to offend those with delicate sensibilities.

Say what you will about the dead, the living are just weird!

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Filed under Culture, Death, Holidays, Modern Life, Religion, Spiritual Journey, Traditions

First Harvest

When they chose the site for their new home, they were careful to pick a lot that sat on the edge of the development.  They didn’t want to be completely surrounded by a sea of homes that all looked like a variation on their own.  In mornings to come, they would look out from their second floor bedroom windows, out over the privacy fence that bordered the backyard and the swimming pool, and they would see tractors working the earth in the farmers fields that lie just beyond.

And for a time, they did just that.  Waking to a view of golden fields stretching out before them to meet the shadow of the distant trees which rose up on the horizon.

A year passed…, perhaps two.

The tractors came less frequently.

The once carefully tilled rows lay fallow.

And then the earth-moving equipment arrived and the fields were consumed by streets and yards and houses that all looked very much like their own.

And the young couple lamented the passing of something beautiful, and they thought to themselves, “maybe someday we’ll move to the country.”

Do you know this couple?

You must.

Because I’ve known at least a dozen of them, and all with the same story.

And it’s a story that I’ve heard told by others, about people I’ve never known, living through the same cliché.  There are so many of them out there, and I wonder if, when they all wake up each morning, do they pull back the curtains of their bedroom window and look out over row upon row of nearly identical rooftops, shingles glowing gold in the morning sun?

Farmland Under Threat

My family moved into the country when I was still in the Fourth Grade.  The house they built, on a Farm-to-Market road, west of Waxahachie Texas, sat upon a five-acre plot of land which was bordered on three sides by a cattle ranch and farmers fields.

I spent hours roaming those fields as a boy.

There were hills, and rocky ledges, and creeks that seemed to spit up fossil choked clumps of limestone at every twist and turn.  There was a giant fallen tree, which had been hollowed out by a swarm of bees and transformed into the largest natural hive I have ever seen.  There were snakes (rattlers and copperheads, along with many harmless species), skunks, opossums, armadillos, and at least one wandering bobcat who made random nighttime appearances.

Sometimes, in the earliest part of the morning, you could see deer moving silently by in the mist.

It only took a few weeks living there before the cries of the coyotes became a sound of comfort, rather than trepidation.

My parents were great travelers, and by the time we moved into the country, I had already visited many of the most spectacular natural environments in North America.  They taught me, early on, to love the natural world.

But it was living there, on a little patch of land surrounded by ranch and farm and wild, that I first began to learn about the cycles of birth and death and rebirth that are the heart of the human relationship with nature, and the thread upon which our survival rests.  And it was there that I first began to hear the spirits that lived and moved within the land.

And what other harvest could we have hoped for, from a five-acre plot of land?

We raised chickens, who produced enough eggs to keep us in omelets.  There were a few rabbits, who quickly became pets.  A couple goats, who quickly became pets.  A pair of sheep…, pets.  And occasionally a garden – tomatoes, okra, string beans, radishes, pumpkins, and a few stalks of corn, on a plot maybe 30ft square.

Oh and we had a pear tree which produced more fruit than we could eat, and an apple, that never produced any.

Meanwhile the rest of the acreage was dedicated to a yearly crop of prairie grass, bluebonnets, and chiggers.

Our land had no other purpose, than to be a place where we lived, a refuge away from the city.

If our only purpose in living in a place, is to avoid living in another place, what kind of relationship can we hope to have with the land?  As individuals?  As a people?

Country Dawn

Today, I live in an old house, on a small lot, in a neighborhood that has been around since the early days of the 1950’s.  There are beautiful trees, and gardens, and the houses all have character to them, and no two of them look exactly alike.  The elderly lady next door grows a few vegetables in her little backyard garden, and the people at the end of the block have chickens – but it’s too bright here, and the roosters crow through the whole night.

I chose this area specifically, because even though it’s a little rough around the edges, it’s an older, very lived-in community, and still just a 10-minute drive from a thriving downtown.

I do miss the country, sometimes.  I miss the clear night skies and the nearby sounds of wildlife.

Occasionally, I imagine myself living in some rustic mountain cabin.

Or maybe I could find some rough and tumble little patch in the west of Ireland…,

…someplace to set down roots, at last.

The days are slipping by quickly now, and Lughnasadh is upon me again.

The ancient Irish Festival of the First Harvest is a remembrance of a time when people lived their lives in preparation for that first harvest.  This holy day must seem like a relic, in a time when every crop is available, year round, in the local grocery, and the land has become this thing we live on but never speak to.

We need a better harvest.

We need a generation of people who will listen to the voices in the earth.

We need to discover our purpose in the land.

I need to discover its purpose in me.

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Filed under Celtic Polytheism, Culture, Holidays, Nature, Religion, Spiritual Journey

Green Hair / White Witch

Green Hair White Witch

“Green hair,” my customer said.

“Excuse me?”

“That man, he has green hair,” she repeated in a not quite whisper.

I followed her glance, which was fixed upon one of my younger co-workers.

“Yes,” I agreed, “he does.”

“But why?” she asked, her gaze still transfixed upon his spiky emerald locks.

“Personal style,” I ventured.

“I just don’t think I could take anyone with green hair seriously!”

She turned her attention back to me, and I just smiled and shrugged, hoping we could get back to work.  I wondered, as we spoke, if my long hair cast doubt upon my words in her mind.  She never said anything, but if she had, she wouldn’t have been to first to mention it.

I’ve been told more than once that my appearance is unprofessional.

Sometimes they just tell me that I need a haircut.

When, I wonder, did it become polite to offer grooming advice to someone you’ve only just been introduced to?

But, of course, I’m thinking about it all wrong.  Because, we are the impolite ones, we men with long hair, or short hair dyed vibrant colors, or who sport large beards, and always there are the women, who show too much skin, or are veiled head to toe…,

It’s okay to point and scoff, because it is rude to stand out from the crowd.

To do so is to mark yourself as the ‘other’ and the ‘other’ is not to be trusted, the ‘other’ must be watched and guarded against, because the ‘other’ is either crazy or up to something.

Are you shaking your head as you read this?

Are you thinking how sad it must be for these people who have been trained to fear and distrust anyone different?

Well just stop, because, deny it all you like, but society has taught you the same lessons.

Not an hour after my customer left, the one with the hair-color fixation, I was approached by the subject of her dismay, my compatriot with the verdant hair.

“Hey,” he said, taking me aside “I was talking to this woman the other day and she started talking about, like really weird stuff, and I thought I really wanted to tell you about it.”

“Yeah…,” not really sure where this was going.

“Well, when I asked her to explain what she was talking about, she said she was a ‘white witch’, or something like that.  I mean, that’s CRAZY right!”

And I just smiled and shrugged as I listened for the sirens of the irony police, approaching at a distance.

The truth is, no matter how much we stand out or blend in, we are all freaks of one sort or another, but this basic distrust of the different among us is hardwired into our brains.

Forty-thousand years ago, if you met someone who looked different than you, there was a good chance he’d be trying to eat you for dinner.  But we’re not living in that world anymore and actual incidents of human cannibalism are surpassingly rare.

And I suppose that’s progress we ought to be proud of.

So what if the average citizen thinks people who dye their hair green, or who call themselves witches, are living just this side of the looney-bin.  At least no one is being burned at the stake, or beheaded, or dragged behind a car, or disowned by their parents, or bullied by their classmates, or…,

…or not.

We have made progress, but that progress is, I fear, just a shrug and a smile away from an angry mob, with their torches and pitchforks at the ready, crying out for the blood of whichever ‘monster’ has the misfortune to come lurching out of the hills.  The progress we’ve made could be lost in a heartbeat, if we are not careful, if we do not learn to fight the desire to spot the ‘other’ moving through the crowd.

But, don’t take my word for it.  I’m just another freak.

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Nest

I spent the early hours of the morning watching her, as she fluttered quickly between the closely packed branches of an overgrown bush in my backyard.  She would slip suddenly between the branches, seeming almost to tumble toward the ground, and then catch herself at the last moment with a skilled flip of her wings.  Each excursion lasted mere seconds, as she flicked aside leaves and debris, and then, finding exactly the twig she was looking for, she would launch herself like a tiny missile, straight back up into the thicket.

On a tree branch high above, her mate, resplendent in his red feathers, was chirping out his high pitched song, a challenge to any other male who should happen by.  This is his territory after all, and under his watchful eye, his rust colored companion was building their nest.

For nothing.  All for nothing.

I know this couple.  Cardinals mate for life and never migrate, and this pair have been living in the bushes at the back of my property for several years now.  I put out seed for them, but they remain quite people-shy.  The male is easy enough to spot of course, his bright red plumage makes him hard to miss.  The female is less visible, the ability to cloak herself in the underbrush, a gift of evolution.  Still, I spy her now and again throughout the year, flitting between low branches, keeping a careful eye out for the local felines, no doubt.

Lady Cardinal

I don’t spend as much time in the further reaches of my backyard as I’d like to.

Apparently, I spend far less time there than I should.

A recent letter from the city, demanding that I cut all my overgrown bushes down, or face stiff penalties, made that fact abundantly clear.

I’ve had so many other projects, and it has been so much easier to just put off the work back there.  And I like the green after all, and I like the wild.  So why not let it grow?

It was not until I ventured back there with clippers and saw in hand that I discovered the bushes and weeds along my back fence had grown into an impassible thicket, such as you wouldn’t be blamed for thinking Maleficent lived here.

Maleficent Thorn Wall

Yeah, I guess I’m the bad neighbor.

I’m just riddled with shame.  Can’t you tell?

And so began a week of cutting and trimming, which quickly transformed into desperate sawing and hauling, as I made increasingly little headway, and the time allotted to me by the municipal oppressor, slipped steadily by.

Finally, having completed nearly two-thirds of the work myself, I was forced, bone-weary and out of time, to call in the professionals.

It was only then, in that moment of calm that washed over me after having made the arrangements, and as I stood in my backyard for the first time in days with no particular task grabbing for my attention, that I noticed lady cardinal working on her nest.

It lay in a fork between three branches, suspended nearly seven feet above barren ground, which had only the day before been the dense heart of the thicket.  From below, it could be easily mistaken for a clump of leaves, blown into the low branches during one of the many storms that have passed through so recently.  I only noticed it at all because my attention was drawn by the flash of dusky red feathers, glowing golden in the early evening sun.

I watched for a few moments, as she diligently went about her business, and then I made my approach.

She swept up into the high branches of a nearby tree as I inspected the nest for eggs.

None there.  The nest then, was still a work in progress.

And tomorrow it would be gone.

There was no way to save it, where it was.

I’d nearly cut it down myself, without knowing or noticing – just another windblown bundle of leaves and twigs, just more evidence of my shoddy groundskeeping.

I walked away from the nest, and I could hear her wings beat past me, overhead.  I heard her push herself into the thicket, and then turned to see her drop to the ground like so much dead weight, only to burst up again with a small twig in her beak.  No doubt, upset with the repeated delays in her progress caused by my intrusion.

And now…, the nest, and all of her hard work, has been swept away.

As I write this, the men with the saws are doing their work outside my window.  The thicket is gone, the chainlink fence which lay beyond it, is exposed once again to the light of day.

And what then, is the moral of this sad story?

I don’t know.

Maybe, I was thinking of the earthquake in Nepal.

When disasters strike, when bad things happen to good people, we like to say that “there is a reason for everything.”  And strictly speaking, that is true.  But it is also a pretty big stretch to assume that the reason, whatever it is, has anything whatsoever to do with those suffering loss.  Maybe it’s simply a release of pressure between opposing tectonic plates.  Or maybe there are giants in the earth who cause it to groan and shake with their restless movements.  For that matter, both things could be true (and I rather suspect they are) but none of that means the gods are testing us for any “higher” purpose.

We shout desperately that there must be a reason, when these things happen, and we pray silently, but with equal fervor, that we never learn what those reasons are.

Or…,

This could just be a simple lesson on the unintended consequences of putting off for tomorrow, what needs to be done today.

Either way, it’s a lot to think about.

And outside, the chainsaws are still raising their racket.

But there is another noise, louder still, filtering through my window, above the noise of the saws.  It is the familiar high pitched call of a male cardinal, announcing that this is still his territory.

However much we shape this world to fit our arbitrary expectations, it will never be ours while the song of a single bird can rise so clearly over the wretched noise we make.

And I am honored to live within his domain.

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East of the Sun and West of the Moon

It was a tattered little book.  The original spine had been torn away, only to be mended later by some well meaning librarian.  The pages, rough and uneven around their edges, were browned with age and the oils of countless fingers.  The binding was so brittle that you could hear the book creak as she turned its pages, reading aloud.

The fingers turning those pages, the voice reading the words, belonged to the young woman who was teaching my 2nd-Grade class.  Or was it 1st?  It’s hard for me to remember for sure.

What I do remember, is that we were given a half an hour of every day for Story Time, and that each week our teacher would choose a new book to read from.

I remember little else from those long ago days.

I know that I got in trouble a lot.  Teachers called me disruptive.

Mostly, I think, for my habit of talking in class.

Whenever I got bored, my mind liked to wander off on its own, which might have been fine if I hadn’t insisted on taking others along for the ride.

And here I am now, taking you down memory lane.  Old habits die hard I guess.

I think my mind must have done a lot of wandering in those days, because I honestly don’t think I could tell you anything else that happened in those classes.  I couldn’t name for you the children I sat with.  I couldn’t hope to tell you what it was I was supposed to be learning, when I did bother to pay attention.

It was all just too long ago, now.

And yet, I do remember ‘story time’ as if it happened only yesterday.

No.

That’s not true.

It’s just that I remember one particular week of ‘story time’.

If you asked me what stories our teacher read to us in the weeks that came before or after that one special week, I could not say.

So the truth, I guess, is that I don’t really remember ‘story time’ at all.

What I remember is ‘East of the Sun and West of the Moon’.

The Great White Bear

Have you ever read the story?

It is an old Norwegian folk tale, intended for children, but like so many fairytales, it’s packed full to bursting with deeper mythological content.

On an evening at the end of Fall, a poor farmer is accosted by a talking polar bear and asked to give up his youngest and most beautiful daughter in exchange for great material wealth.  The girl at first refuses but is then convinced by her father to give herself willingly for the good of the family.

—At the beginning of that long transitional time between final harvest and first planting, a young girl, the symbol of the creative principal in its first flowering, is sacrificed to the totemic spirit of a white bear, bleak winter incarnate.

The great white bear returns the next day and, carrying our heroine on his back, takes her away from her home.  Just as their hovel is about to pass out of sight he stops and asks her, “are you afraid?”  She was not.  They travel further across fields and forests, finally arriving at the base of a steep, snow covered hill.  The bear taps against the side of the rock and a door is opened to an underground castle, filled with every luxury.

—Here we have the classic passage from the world of the living into the underworld of the fairy faith, where the great hills contain hidden halls and kingdoms which may only be entered by those who know the way or have cast off the fears and burdens of mortal existence.

Thereafter, during the day she has everything she could ask for, except the company of another living soul.  In the night, when she has climbed into bed and put out the light, she is visited by a man who does not feel like a bear, and who vanishes again before the first light of dawn.

—Here we find common ground with countless other tales of fairy-folk who are said to exist in one form by day and another by night.  The young lady is made queen of a domain that she cannot fully perceive, commanding agents which provide for her every need, but with whom she may not communicate.  And if our young lady seems more put out by her daytime solitude than she does the nightly visits from her Bear Prince, well…,

I could go on at length, but I don’t want to give away the entire plot.

If you’ve never read the story (or any of the others that usually accompany it) you should.  If you have read it, I’d highly recommend reading it again.

For such a short little story, there is a great deal of imagery to explore.

There is still the fabled (if temporary) return from the land of the dead, which always causes problems, a (magic?) candle smuggled in from the land of the living to cast a revealing light upon the nocturnal visitor, broken vows and dire consequences, a triplicate goddess who appears to guard the way back into the otherworld, living incarnations of the four cardinal directions, and just when you needed some comic relief – TROLLS!

A fateful encounter with the North Wind.

A fateful encounter with the North Wind.

I remember, as a child, thinking that the trolls were pretty crazy.  My favorite part of the story, however, was always when the young girl makes makes her way to the home of the North Wind.  I knew, even then, that there was supposed to be more to him than just a gust of cold air.  I just knew that he must have other names.  I simply had no way of knowing then, what those names might be.

But I wanted to find out.

I wanted the teacher to keep reading from that book.

I pestered her about it for the rest of that year, but she never opened it for us again.

Instead, on the last day of class that year, she handed it to me and wished me well.

And I have it still.

And I still read it, from time to time, although I’ve since bought a slightly newer copy, so as to better preserve that first one.

East Of The Sun

Those worn pages are special to me because they were my first introduction to some of the thoughts and ideas that form the very basis upon which the mythologies of Western Europe were built.  So many of the things I’ve come to revere, to question and think deeply about, are hidden ever so skillfully, between the shabby covers of that little book.

I didn’t recognize them when I first heard them, but I must have known there was ‘something’ there that seemed important enough to me that I didn’t want the story to stop.

I think I was lucky.

I wonder about the kids of today, and I worry.

They have so many things available to them that I never dreamed of, information streams into their lives through computer screens and tablets and a million other sources.  And that’s all for the good.

I wonder though, if anyone will take the time to sit down with them and read from a tattered little collection of folk tales that were old beyond memory when their words were first set to paper.

I dearly hope so.

Because there are answers there, and questions, and truths which have been long lost to us, blown like an aspen leaf on the north wind to land finally on the emerald lawn of the castle which lies east of the sun and west of the moon.

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Filed under Death, Literature, Modern Life, Mythology, Spiritual Journey

Close Encounters

You can’t give an experience.

Items, on the other hand, make easy gifts.  You find just the right book perhaps, or some knick-knack for around the house.  You pull it off the shelf, pay for it, wrap it up, jam it under the tree, and you are done.

Experiences are another story.

We can’t buy them and they don’t come pre-packaged.

We can set up the circumstances, perhaps, but in the end, an experience has a life all of its own, and it will ‘be’ whatever it chooses to be.

You can not give an experience.  They have no tolerance for being bought or sold.

An experience, good or bad, may only be shared.

CloseEncounters

On Yule morning last, as we exchanged gifts, I revealed to my mother that on the second weekend of February, she would be meeting one of her all-time favorite actors, Richard Dreyfuss – my gift to her.

The plan had been hatched only a few weeks before, when I learned that Mr. Dreyfuss would be attending a local sci-fi convention.  From that moment on, the wheels began to turn, tickets were purchased, preparations made, plans…, ummmm, planned.

On the surface it seemed pretty simple: we go, we get in line, she gets an autograph.

Easy – As – Pie.

Except, of course, that there is so much that can go wrong.  Circumstances beyond our control may dash even the most carefully constructed scheme.  It’s maddening.

Items are so much easier – buy it, wrap it, and done.

Experiences I fret over, and needlessly.

We can’t control them.

We can only share them.

And share them, we did!

It was an incredible weekend!

There were crowds to wade through with all the attendant bumps and bruises and a fair helping of “hurry up and wait.”  There were scheduling snafus, parking adventures, and the gastronomic ‘roll-of-the-dice’ that is convention food.  There were all those things of which I have come to expect from the ‘Con’ experience, but which were completely new to my mother, and which I tried to ease her through.

And I should have known better.

Mom with Richard Dreyfuss

My mother, Kathleen, enjoying her encounter with Academy Award winning actor, Richard Dreyfuss.

My mother got to meet Richard Dreyfuss!  She got to shake his hand, get his autograph, and they even shared a memory of the first thing she ever saw him in (an old episode of ‘That Girl’ with Marlo Thomas – filmed in 1967, the year of my birth).  It’s been a long while since I’ve seen a smile quite that big on my mother’s face.

And I think she was buzzing too much to really even notice the crowds.

Later, we sat and listened to Mr. Dreyfuss speak passionately about his efforts to bring civics education back into the classroom, while still answering questions about shark movies.  He was funny, and down-to-earth, and inspiring in a genuine way that is rare among celebrities these days.

DreyfussAutograph

So she has the autograph, and a photo of herself with one of her cinema heroes.

But those are just objects.  They are ‘proof of contact’, yes, but of no real significance.

Far more important is the encounter, the experience, the story.

These are things not given, but shared.

I’m glad we could be there, Mom – to share in your ‘close encounter’.

This one was for you!

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Filed under Culture, Family, Heroes, Holidays, Modern Life, Movies