Cultural Goats

Inspired by Kiya’s post on a reflection she gave at her UU church today, here’s what I did at my Unitarian church today…

The theme at New Unity this month has been ‘culture’. Instead of delivering a reflection on the subject, this week the minister asked if the congregation would be willing to share things from their own cultures and those that have influenced them. And how we shared: stories, poetry, reflections, songs. From poems that gazed into the death-stare of Kali, through traditional Irish folk songs, via reflections by Egyptian feminists, past freestyling on Greek-British culture, and onto a gorgeous rendition of ‘Somewhere Over the Rainbow’, culture was brought home as something many-varied, colourful, and deeply embedded in us. Afterwards, friends and I fell into talking about queer culture over coffee. So many cultures. So much richness of belonging.

This is what I read in the service. If anyone hasn’t overheard me and Shai talking about the ‘goats’, you will at some point. Three months after I met Shai, I became suddenly, surprisingly and distressingly ill. Sometime around then, Shai told me this story, a Jewish Eastern European one. It has been constantly referred to in our home ever since. This is my interpretation of the story.

A man lived in a small, very crowded house with his wife, his in-laws, six children and a dog.

One day he couldn’t take it anymore. The noise, mess and stress were too much for him. In desperation, he went to see his Rabbi, who was known to be a very wise man.

“Rabbi,” the man said, “You have GOT to help me. There are so many of us in our little house. I can’t cope with the crowdedness and the noise and the mess and the stress anymore. What do I do about this situation?”


The wise Rabbi pondered this for a moment. Then he said to the man, “Do you have a goat?”

Confused, the man replied, “Yes, Rabbi. We have quite a busy farm and I have two goats.”
 
“Then take the goats,” said the Rabbi, “and bring them into the house with you.”
 
“Bring them… into the house? With my wife, and my in-laws, and my six children and the dog?”
 
“That’s right,” said the Rabbi. “And then come back to me in a week.”
 
The man duly went home, got his goats, and brought them into the house. And then he went back to the Rabbi a week later.
 
“How’s it going?” asked the Rabbi.
 
“Rabbi!” said the man, “it’s terrible! We have even less space than before, and the goat is breaking everything, and there’s goat mess on the floor, and the children are very unhappy. How is this meant to have helped?”
 
The Rabbi thought for a moment. “Do you have a cow?”
 
“Well… yes,” said the man. “I have a cow.”
 
“OK,” said the Rabbi. “Bring the cow into the house with you.”
 
“Bring the cow… into the house? With my wife, and my in-laws, and my six children and the dog, and the goats?”
 
“That’s right,” said the Rabbi. “And then come back to me in a week.”
 
The man obediently went home, got his cow, and brought it into the house. And then he went back to the Rabbi a week later.
 
“How’s it going?” asked the Rabbi.
 
“Rabbi!” he said. “This is horrific! The goats and the cow are taking up so much space that we barely have anywhere to sleep anymore! They are fighting and they’re in the way and their mess is all over everything.”
 
“Tell me,” said the Rabbi, “do you have any chickens?”
 
“Yes, Rabbi,” said the man resignedly, “I have chickens.”
 
“Then take the chickens,” said the Rabbi, “and bring them into the house with you.”
 
“Bring them… into the house. With my wife, and my in-laws, and my six children and the dog, and the goats and the cow?”
 
“That’s right,” said the Rabbi. “And then come back to me in a week.”
 
A week later the man returned. He looked exhausted.
 
“How’s it going?” asked the Rabbi.
 
“Rabbi,” he said, “I officially cannot cope anymore. The goats and cow are trying to kill each other. The chickens are flapping around making noise all day and all night. We have nowhere to sleep, nowhere to eat, we’re now having to do most things outside, and their mess is everywhere. What are you doing to me?”
 
“Excellent,” said the Rabbi. “Now. Take the chickens, and the cow, and the goats, and put them back outside. And come back to me in a week.”
 
A week later, the man came back. He looked rested and happy. “Rabbi,” he said, “you have no idea how much better it is now. There is space again. It is quiet again. It is clean again! What a relief.
 
The Rabbi smiled. “Then go home,” he said, “and enjoy the wonderful life you have with your family. And remember, if it ever gets too much – there could always be a goat living with you.”

 

There were a few goats in my house as I walked around Camden after church, getting some meanness about my scooter from fellow Camdonians, and thinking about the very hard week I’ve had of defending my stance on disability and access. But then there was tea and trees and work in Regents’ Park, and the goats were out of the house. For a little while. Everything can always wait until tomorrow.

 

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Regents Canal, where it meets the bridge at Regents Park, Camden, London

31 Days of Offerings – Day 23-26: Shying Away from The Great Offering

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I have the gall to whine at a goddess about my difficulties resolving concepts of ‘Pagan’ and concerns about many, many of the practices of that community, and to wonder whether my strategy from here on in should be silence.

And my Lady, who has called me to tell her stories and speak her name, came to me as a mighty giantess walking along the shore of Oileán Baoi in the early dawn, the hills of her island rising dark and strange behind her, the cold and death and rebirth of a coming November blowing the first winds of a storm across the dark water.

The shores of Oileán Baoi, island of the goddess now known as Cailleach Bhearra

The shores of Oileán Baoi, island associated with the goddess now known as Cailleach Bhearra

And she said…

Do you think you are a daughter of a queen? Are you from the tribe of great, remembered gods, their stories preserved by monks and monarchs? Do you speak of the chiefs and kings in your lineage, the castles your family lived in, the great wars they fought in, the great deeds they did?

No. You run with the wild spirits of the most isolated, sidelined, liminal land in Ireland, with its poorest, most marginalized of people. You do not boast of ancestors with kingly lineage. You speak of the horrific suffering of your people: the good, very ordinary farmers, victims of famine and war and oppression, those whose backs were broken as the great, remembered men of Ireland climbed over them to reach their powerful place, and ate their food, and whose names they did not remember. Of the soldiers who fought the great wars the great myths tell tale of, whose deeds are ascribed to other, greater men, and whose names are not remembered. Of the women who watched their many, many children die, in famine and pestilence and at the brutal hands of English landlords, and carried on, whose names are not remembered. Of the road through the mountains that you love, that was built to carry food in one direction and bring coffins back, carrying the bodies of those whose names are not remembered.

And even their stories are forgotten.

The memorial to famine victims at the top of the Healy Pass, the road through the mountains between Cork and Kerry. Once called the Kerry Pass, re-named for the first president of the Irish Free State. Photo: Sludge G (CC).

Memorial to famine victims at the top of the Healy Pass, the road through the mountains between Cork and Kerry. Once called the Kerry Pass, re-named for first president of Irish Free State. Photo: Sludge G. (CC).

And this is the way you chose to walk.

Then how dare you be embarrassed of the name you choose call yourself or the community you choose to draw around you?

And how dare you be ashamed of a goddess whose stories are so deeply buried in the landscape that few remember her name? When few know of her sacred sites, or the stories of her cow and her lobster and her harvest, or have heard the songs the mountains sing in whispers about her? When many roll her lazily into the stories of her more renowned sisters, and forget the name of the One she is married to, and forget her island, and her mountainous country, and her dark shores? When so many do not remember her name?

You are here to tell the unheard tales. The tales of the oppressed, those whom society crushes beneath their endless, vicious race to the top. The stories of the desperate, the despairing, the dying, the lost. The many who serve the few. Whose names are not remembered.

Then open your mouth and speak.

The long dark is coming, and my picture of a dark figure plunging a staff into the ground needs to move into the living room. It is not a picture of Her. And yet it is.

And her name will be remembered, by those who choose to listen for it.

31 Days of Offerings – Day 19: Surprising Offerings – Sound, Song and Speech

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Singing!

Tonight I thought it was about time to pull a new Ogham fid, to set the tone for the next few days of offerings. I pulled Muin, the fid I associate with communication, words, music.

Photo: 'Muin' Ogham fid - card from the Celtic Tree Oracle pack

Photo: ‘Muin’ – card from the Celtic Tree Oracle pack

So then I suddenly find myself singing. I grab my bodhran, and out come both tune and words, in several verses:

Come, blessed Ladies, and gather around
As I sing a story without word or sound,
The world recreated as it resounds,

A song from the sea and the sky and the ground.

There’s even a penny whistle accompaniment! There’s more of it to come, about speaking the lost stories of the unheard, but I need to sit down and work with the snatches of lines I got while playing.

Singing!

Well, I did say that my shrines were there to tell my deities’ stories.

“Open your mouth and speak…” For silence is the gateway of oppression, but stories break down the walls.

Or, as Bonhoeffer put it (much better than me): Silence in the face of evil is itself evil. Not to speak is to speak. Not to act is to act. Dietrich Bonhoeffer, 1906–1945

Summer Harvests

It was Lammas at Druid Camp.

Alone, I would usually choose to celebrate Lughnasadh – the festival of Tailtu who created agriculture, of Lugh who prevents the death of the crops and brings the harvest. Summer games and competition and high-energy feats of challenge and pride, in honour of a proud, accomplished god.

But we were together, and it was Lammas.

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The wheat of the Lammas harvest that we were surrounded by at Druid Camp. Photo by Pawl Rouselle.

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Community-witnessed handfasting at Druid Camp. Photo by Pawl Rouselle.

Druidry is very much a community-based tradition. If alone I am a Gaelic polytheist with Brythonic leanings, together with these friends I am a Druid in a community of Druids. And only communities can reap a good harvest.

And I thought back to two weeks before, in Ireland with my mother and grandmother, spending most of our time with cousins and other family. I didn’t get much time with the land, with Beara. I did more important things. My harvest was community.

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The view across the hills and down to the sea from the vantage point of my family farmhouse, dating back to my great-grandparents and still at the centre of a small farm worked by my cousins. Beara Peninsula.

I return to posts from American Pagans about rejecting Lughnasadh (by which, in this case, the writer actually means Lammas) because “most Pagans live in the US” (EXCUSE ME?!), the assertion from some corners that modern polytheism is better than modern Paganism, and other culturally imperialist rubbish that starts to bring me down. British Paganism and British Druidry are a minority voice online. Most Americans don’t know about the beautifully non-hierarchical, deeply rooted-in-our-land, strongly community-focused practice that draws from many streams of modern Paganism and other spiritualities that is modern British druidry. The loud voices shouting about their recent conferences, and whose hotel was better, know nothing about the week we spent in a field, overlooking the river of Sabrina and the ancient barrows across the hill, surrounded by sheep, having to build our own community from the ground up (and make it accessible to as many people as possible!), where the success is all the sweeter for how every person contributes in their own way. They don’t know about the talent (that Eisteddfod!), the strength, the love, the mutual acceptance and help and support, the critical thought, and the plain hard work that can bring 200+ very diverse druids together in a field and have them, by the end, become a coherent spiritual community complete with regular dramatic rituals and dances and fires and drinking of mead and telling of stories. So many stories.

Flaming labyrinth at Druid Camp. Photo by Pawl Rouselle.

Flaming labyrinth at Druid Camp. Photo by Pawl Rouselle.

And that started me thinking about stories, and how the One Reality we all inhabit can be so very different from so many different perspectives. “We don’t need Lughnasadh,” announces someone who sees one side of the story. On the other side of the world, Lammas is the theme for 200 druids in a field surrounded by wheat. The sun at its height but showing the first signs of waning towards its long sleep. Our carefree summers making their way, like a slowly-winding labyrinth, towards Samhain and darkness and change. At the height of summer there is the seed of winter. At the height of life there is the seed of death. That’s what our harvest, here on this insignificant island where modern Paganism was birthed, is all about.

And that’s what our very different stories are all about, too. “I was right, you know, and he was wrong.” Except that right and wrong are forever relative. As a friend of mine said today: “We are all scumbags. We are all saints.” We may want to play the innocent hurt victim or the evil villain – depending on where our self-esteem might be today – but these are stereotypes, archetypes that aren’t useful beyond a certain point. I don’t worship the Maiden, the Mother and the Crone, because these are useful illustrative archetypes, but not necessarily the stories by which I want to live my life. I am neither the villain nor the victim. I am neither the Druid nor the Christian. I am neither the daughter nor the wife. I am neither the sociologist nor the poet nor the seer nor the Gaelic polytheist nor the Pagan nor the wheelchair user nor the stranger nor the friend. I am all these things and more. Truth is bigger than we can imagine.

I am the universe emerging into consciousness, beginning to understand itself. (To slightly misquote Babylon 5.) And how much more am I than stereotypes and archetypes, as a result? I won’t reduce myself or others to one-dimensional pictures. I am stardust, as complex as the winds and as simple as the rain, the sacred legacy of my ancestors, the sacred ancestor of those who come after me.

This is the harvest that I reap.

Happy Lughnasadh. Happy Lammas. May summer and harvest festivals be celebrated forever, the wisdom of our forebears integrated into our new stories. We need the old and we need the new. We need all the sides of the story.

Hail, Lugh! Hail, ancestors!

Books To Read and Books To Avoid

So, I read a lot of books. Most, I do NOT read from cover to cover. I do a whole lot of ‘dipping in’. And while that’s great for a lot of books, it does mean that I sometimes miss out.

When I do read a book cover to cover, it tends to be either a book I really enjoy, or really dislike. The latter, because I usually want to see if it can be redeemed by the end, and I want to give it a chance. The former, because there *are* some really good Pagan books out there, even though you often have to sort through the dross to get to them.

I’m going to do a series on Books To Read and Books To Avoid. Hopefully, this will help me to read more books cover-to-cover and give me a reason to talk about them (and I love talking about books). You will probably not agree with everything I say about these books. You might think some books I put in one category should be in the other. Go for it – tell me in the comments about why you love a book I hate, or why you hate a book I love. Let’s debate it, and together maybe we can put together some crowdsourced thoughts about Pagan books that readers would find useful.

I suspect some of my choices will be very controversial. I often hate books that others love, and sometimes vice versa. But there are plenty of other reviews out there to read besides mine. If I un-recommend a book, read some other reviews and see whether you think you’d like it, on balance. But I don’t like tiptoeing around what I really think, in my reviews. So I’m going to get bolder about what I think.

I’ll be writing a review of Luke Eastwood’s ‘A Druid’s Primer’ later today. Stop back here later to find out what category I put it in. Cliffhanger…!

J is for… Jigsaw Puzzles – and filling in the gaps

“It is in the story of your life that you will recognise yourself” – Brendan Myers

Photo by Pablo Nicolás Taibi Cicare (CC) - flickr

Photo by Pablo Nicolás Taibi Cicare (CC) – flickr

We all want to think of our lives as a coherent story. We re-write them again and again, re-shaping them in response to new experience, retcon-ing them around hindsight. We look for the missing puzzle pieces to fill in the gaps.

So we find Paganism, and suddenly we were always Pagan, and grew up in the woods and lived off the land. Even if, technically, we were staunch atheists who loved the city as much as we enjoyed our occasional visits to the countryside. That old woman next door who once showed us her herb garden becomes the witch who taught us ancient healing and magic. Our occasional flicking through books on Wicca is transformed into years of research into the Craft.

Or we find a band, or a type of music, that we love, and suddenly we always loved Garage/R&B/Manic Street Preachers – quickly acquiring their back-catalogue to fill in the missing pieces around that one song of theirs that we quite liked a few years ago, when it came on the radio.

Or we learn something about ourselves that we never knew – that we have a particular talent we never realised before, or we’re gay, or have a certain medical condition, or that the father we never knew was a spy with MI5 – and suddenly we always knew, on some level, and everything that happened was really all about that. 

And sometimes these things are true, or partly true, and we’re recognising something within ourselves that we never had a name for before.

And sometimes there might be a thread of truth to it.

And sometimes it’s an entire fabrication – an excuse – a metaphor.

But it’s the missing puzzle piece. The one we’ve been seeking for a lifetime. So if we have to hack it to bits so that it fits the hole in our soul, that’s what we’re going to do.

The story of my life is important. When I tell it, I need to recognise myself in it. And it needs a beginning, a middle and a now. But I shouldn’t forget that I’m not looking for an end yet. There are more pieces of the puzzle our there that will better fit the gaps.