Many Pagans are on a quest for the authentic Self. This is often visualized as something we already possess; we just have to clear away the accretions caused by so-called civilization. In this model, the true Self can be found by getting in touch with Nature.
I am a lucky woman, and much gifted. Four gifts in particular I received this year:
a perfect July peach
a knife that fits my hand
a heartmeant compliment from a teenage son
and an argument for which I did not apologize
These things exist in our world, but they are exceeding rare. I know their value and will wear them forged and braided as adornment and strength. I am a lucky woman.
A woman grown so quiet here, in this space where just a year or two ago I was all enthusiasm. For a while my silence worried me. A theologian, I’ve had to learn trust over the months as my thought moves down, into the body. Into my body. A poet, I’ve had to face the fact that language flattens and distorts when tossed about too quickly. A woman, I’ve had to find a way to understand my silences as active and alive, rather than passive and inert.
All the myths and stories tell us the gift exists to be transformed and passed on, or it loses its power.
A Poem for Women with Birthdays
It has taken me decades to learn to love
the way I pour each night into bed like a Midwestern river,
soft and insistent and ripe, effulgent with summer rain,
here and there paused and pooled
with minnows, with trout. Then too I am the voracious,
toothy carp jumping into the next boat that passes.
I was taught to play my breath out with care,
To run it over and through the knotted cords of my throat
like wind through a young grove of aspen,
to sing and laugh like the spring breeze that flirts
and lifts the hair playfully on a hopeful morning.
It’s a gift, that grace, but there are other gifts too.
By now I know we are equal parts joke and broken,
luscious bluster and blister, so very unspoken,
so very real. Silver and gilt. Sisters, tell me
how will you exult
in your gristle, the meat and fat of your flesh,
how will you rest in the mud of your marrow,
where important and ephemeral things go to be born?
Nameless and slippery, crunched and wiggling,
dark in the sockets of bone,
against all odds and cultural narratives,
we have time yet to locate each element and ore, here,
and here, and here again. Come closer.
Fools are more compassionate than tricksters; tricksters exploit human frailty, fools send it up, to release the healing power of laughter. The fool carries a bladder, perhaps as a symbol of pomposity, whose puffed-up balloon the wit of the fool will pop.
I wrote about the Fool a little bit in my post on elders:
Always be prepared to take the piss out of yourself and your delusions of grandeur. This is why kings would license a fool or jester: so that when they were about to do something stupid, there was one person who was not afraid to tell them it was stupid. I have a small posse of people whom I have encouraged to kick me up the arse if I ever start getting too big for my boots. I hope their arse-kicking services will never be needed, but I feel it’s wise to be prepared.
The wisest and most compassionate character in Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night is Feste, the fool – quite possibly my favourite Shakespeare character of all. He skewers the pomposity of Malvolio, the drama of Orsino, and the self-pity of Olivia, but when the other characters (Maria and Sir Toby) turn the jest into cruelty, he takes pity on Malvolio. He also sings beautiful and poignant songs.
The fool was and is an ambivalent figure. Are they truly mad, or are they saner than the rest of us, having seen through the charade of maintaining the status quo, where all the most humane values are scorned in favour of turning a quick profit?
The Fool in Jan Matejko’s painting is the only person at a 1514 royal ball who is troubled by the news that the Russians have captured Smolensk. His is a deeper wisdom than the superficial people around him.I am also reminded of the Welsh story of the three causeless blows, also known as The Lady of the Lake. A faery woman married a human, and said that she would leave him when he had struck her three times without cause. The first time was when she left her gloves behind; the second time was when she cried at a christening; the third time was when she laughed at a funeral. Each time it was because she knew something that the others present did not. Her wisdom ran contrary to that of the world, and so she was deemed a fool.
Witches, fools, and harlots were often seen as being in league with the Devil and the Fair Folk. The song Tom o’ Bedlam makes this connection:
I went down to Satan’s kitchen, for to beg me food one morning
There I got souls piping hot, all on the spit a turning.
There I picked up a cauldron, Where boiled ten thousand harlots
Though full of flame I drank the same, to the health of all such varlets.
My staff has murdered giants, my bag a long knife carries
For to cut mince pies from children’s thighs, with which to feed the fairies.
To be “in league with the Devil” is to celebrate wildness and sexuality, queerness and quirks, unbridled lust, rising up against authority.
Humour skewers the powerful and the pompous, pricking their bubble of self-importance. That’s why authoritarians don’t like humour and seek to control it, to turn it as a weapon against the powerless. But the joyous wildness always breaks through the cracks, like ivy and creepers bringing down stone and concrete.
The authorities want us to remain divided, frightened, and alone. They want to establish hierarchies, keep the poor downtrodden and enslaved by debt, crush the possibility of love and joy. They want women to be seen merely as walking wombs, and men as drones that fight and fuck. But we are more than that: half angel, half animal. The animal in us demands to be loved, to feel the wind on our faces, to snuggle with our beloved, and to laugh and dance and make love. That’s why Rhyd growls in his sleep. The angel in us is a messenger, a communicator, a poet, a transformer, who yearns for the connection of minds.
The Fool calls us to our full humanity, both animal and angel, lover and beloved, dreamer and maker.
That’s why being open to the queer, the wild, the exuberant, is inherently dangerous. It endangers the status quo, the drab everyday reality, and threatens to replace it will full colour and radiance and overflowing exuberance. So rejoice!
Language holds clues.
When my son was very small, he used to spontaneously burst into tears and tantrums at random moments. It took us a long time to figure out what set him off. When we had simply been talking over our day, or reading a book together, or planning dinner, why was he so triggered? After some months, I finally had a breakthrough—or at least, I think I did. To this day I don’t know if I was right (but the crying did get better, so something helped).
It turns out he was upset by the words “up” and “down.”
They’re such slippery little words. We use them in so many figurative ways. Try making a list sometime of all the common phrases that use either of those words. For my literal minded son, at age two, it was simply overwhelming and confusing, to hear these directional words used in contexts where they became nonsensical. (Look something up in a book? Write it down? What do those things mean?)
For those of us who have managed to reconcile ourselves to the idiom-soaked nature of English, language holds clues. And the phrase “slowing down” is the one I want to focus on here.
I already wrote about the downward motion that is (to me) inherent in endarkenment. But there is also a slowing, almost to stillness. One cannot seek endarkenment with the clock ticking or the timer going off. And the very phrase, “slow down” suggests there is a relation between the movement downward and the loss of velocity. We come to rest. We land (we ground). The earth offers enough resistance that we pause for a bit before burrowing under the surface of things.
In the dark one feels one’s way forward, fingers splayed out, sensing. It’s necessary to move slowly. We are learning to trust new senses.
It may be necessary. But it isn’t comfortable. I am restless, impatient with myself, always frustrated at my own lack of progress, whatever the work at hand. There is so much to do, so far to go—and I am not nearly where I ought to be, say the voices in my head. Hurry. Push it. The end of the school year push brings a breathlessness and exhaustion with it.
I recently heard this bit of wisdom: We overestimate how much we can get done in a day, but always underestimate how much we can get done in a year. Thinking about this, I know it is true. At the end of any given day, my to-do list is mostly only half crossed off—but if I think back to where I was one year ago, I’m astonished.
Even when we feel stalled or stuck…we are actually moving. Things are happening at levels we can’t consciously navigate.
To engage creatively, we have to learn to trust ourselves.
This is true in writing poetry, as Yvonne and I wrote about. It’s true in any writing, including this blog entry. (I had to start four times before I found my way with this one. I had to walk away and come back, after days.) But more than that, too. I have friends who are grieving. Friends who are fighting. Friends who are searching their lives for what comes next. In all of these cases, creativity, and slow living, are called for to avoid flammable reactions or settling into the easiest, but not best, solution.
Living well, living fully, listening into the dark is an ongoing creative process that takes courage. For some of us, art is one byproduct of a life deeply dared and lived. (This is one of my ongoing arguments with Yeats, who claimed in “The Choice” that we must choose “perfection of the life, or of the work.” I see no choice to be made.)
And, importantly, we need to find strength enough to slow the pace of our lives down and let those deeper processes have the time they need to do their work on us. Growing, healing, changing takes energy. The temptation (culturally reinforced) to keep busy, to pack in more to every hour, to multitask, to squeeze in an extra errand, to fit one more thing into our already overly crowded schedule—this temptation must be fought off. With our claws. With our teeth. Because more often than not, not only is it antithetical to our growth as individuals, it is one way we actively build up walls to keep ourselves from facing the mess.
It is healthy, and necessary, to occasionally sit and look out the window on a rainy day. To stroll, rather than jog. To read a novel, rather than a blog post. To graze on fresh picked berries and herbs, rather than throw something in the microwave. Even just to sit in the sun and soak up the spring warmth and the scent of flowering trees. Above all, to put away the screens and turn the phones off for a while.
Something happens to time when we choose the slower path. It becomes more fluid. The minutes no longer tick second by second, rather they pour into each other, flowing and ebbing as our breathing shifts, as our thoughts slide and skitter and slide. We become a little more fluid, opening to change in ways we can hardly articulate. In such moments, it may feel to our restless, sensing brains as though nothing is happening. We certainly can’t point to evidence of being productive. And yet, a year of this, or even a month, or maybe even a good rich weekend of retreat, I can’t help but believe, would be life-altering.
This sort of slow motion living is how the deeper wells of being get stirred.
Are you ready? On your marks…get set…slow.
She looked down as she poured her tea. “It was…”
“Oh, no,” she said quickly. “Really good. Really good. Just…different. Than what I expected. What I know.”
“Okay girlfriend, you’re gonna have to explain,” I said, laughing and burning my tongue again.
She went on to tell me that when she had arrived at her date’s place, she was feeling really low. “Just down. Not feeling it. At all.” At first, her new honey had tried to suss out what was going on, asking her why she was upset, what she was feeling. “I couldn’t even find words,” she said. “I was just…down. You know? But then…he stopped asking. And he just…held me. There. On the couch. So I could curl up in the dark of him, in the silence, and move into the feeling.” She looked at me, eyes wide with the wonder of it. “And he just stayed there, with me, not saying anything, letting me feel however I needed to feel.”
She leaned back and sighed. “Oh my god it was incredible.”
Experience exists before we put it into words. Language is translation. Sometimes we jump to expression quickly, reflexively, as a way to navigate through life. As my friend experienced it the other night, silence can be a gift we give each other that allows us to more fully feel. A loving silence can nurture tentative growth which might freeze or fizzle under a barrage of questions and suggestions.
Mostly we move in the opposite direction. We do our best to push silence away with noise. We exist in a time, in a culture (in an election season) of blare and scare, of too many words. Incessant speech flattens and cheapens language. Without silence, we have no choice but to turn up the volume on what we say, in order to be heard.
Daring to hold silent and listen to experiences not our own, beliefs not our own, anger and pain not our own…this is scary stuff, agreed. Eat a good breakfast before you set out. But imagine, just for a moment, if we waited an extra day or three before posting that meme or responding to that blog. Imagine if we could dare a few minutes of silent meditation before entering the fray.
As a place to start to consider for yourself the power of silence, may I suggest finding the nearest copy of Karina BlackHeart’s A Witch’s Book of Silence. (*note for my non-witchy readers: you don’t have to be a witch to read this book and distill some awesome peace and power from it. I promise.)
BlackHeart approaches silence from many perspectives—she explores her theme through many lenses but this passage speaks directly to our moment:
In silence, we study words. We develop the capacity to choose our words with care, sifting and sorting them, measuring them for truth, honor and effectiveness. We learn to withhold negative, irresponsible speech, conserving the power of the word for more worthy endeavors.
“Conserving the power of the word for more worthy endeavors…” Doesn’t that sound…good?
Integrity involves knowing not only when to speak, but when to remain silent.
It’s important to note here that there are many flavors and versions of silence. I am specifically NOT talking about silence that is coerced, forced or threatened. Keeping secrets against one’s will, or to the harm of ourselves or another, cannot increase our power nor our integrity. There are times to break silence. There are times to support and act as witness to the breaking of silence.
Most of the time, though, we merely talk and talk to push silence and the scarier gifts it brings away. BlackHeart understands all too well why we fear silence and fill up the void with 24/7 news cycles, noise, chatter, with tell alls and listicles and grumpy cats and bullet points. Silence, she writes, has to do with
the powers of the north, the deep earth, the dark moon and death itself. We must be willing to name and openly confront our fear of these dark powers.
We recoil because what lies within and beyond them exists in the Mystery. Maps are useless. Check lists disintegrate. When we step off the well worn path without flashlight or trail guide, we are left to our own devices: Instinct, intuition, and the Wild Soul’s starlit vision.
There is no avoiding this truth: Silence is the path to the self. As Howard Thurman said,
There is something in every one of you that waits and listens for the sound of the genuine in yourself. It is the only true guide you will ever have. And if you cannot hear it, you will all of your life spend your days on the ends of strings that somebody else pulls.
It takes courage to listen for that true guide. BlackHeart acknowledges this.
In silence we seek knowledge of our true will. In silence, we gather courage so we might dare utter that truth into being. In silence we await our words return to us made fully manifest.
To listen for the genuine in yourself is to learn to discern, there in the dark, the gleam of your own unique gifts and power. And this is to dare a radically creative life. Creative endarkenment exists in the cauldron of that silence that turns truth into being. Brainstorming, workshopping, sharing and publishing are all good and necessary parts of the creative life. But at heart, at root, at some point the creative soul closes the door and returns again to her own deep well.
And, in silence, the work begins once more.
(Looks like I could be on to something here.)
Effort lay in us
at pond bottom
All things move toward
that freely work down
to oceans’ black depths
In us an impulse tests
(Click on the link and read the whole poem, with correct formatting. Seriously, I keep losing the formatting when I type it in here and it is wounding my poet soul.)
When we discussed changing the name of our blog to “Dowsing for Divinity,” that word “dowsing” resonated for all of us immediately. As Christine put it,
When the three of us started brainstorming a new name together, once someone tossed out the word “dowsing,” we kept circling back to it.
And Yvonne added,
…we kept coming back to dowsing imagery, with its connotations of looking for hidden currents, connections with the unseen, hidden waters, and hidden patterns.
Tonight, I keep coming back to the physical feel of the dowsing stick, held loosely in the hands, and how it tugs the attention…I’m arrested by the simple motion. Downward. We are dowsing, and that means we seek to be pulled, downward.
The opposite of light is dark…but another opposite, in our language, is heavy.
In Wallace Stevens’s poem “Sunday Morning,” he ends with an image of birds at sunset, flocking “Downward to darkness on extended wings.” Darkness brings a sense of release, of letting go, of drift, the ceasing of struggle…eventually: death. There is a falling and fallen quality to endarkenment. We sigh, and let our guard and our defenses down. We can loosen the ties of the day. We can be a little more vulnerable.
But the wisdom of the dowsing stick isn’t a relaxing and drifting and letting go. Stay out here long enough in the dark, and there comes a time when we feel the tug in our gut, the impulse to nose our way down a little further into the murk.
Something in us wants to descend.
“In us an impulse tests/ the unknown” Niedecker writes. Moving our awareness down into the body takes us to the soft messy areas: to gut, to sex, to the muscled thighs. Our largest muscle groups. Our deepest instincts. To all that stuff we want to pretend we’re above. Camille Maureen, in Meditation Secrets for Women, agrees and builds on the idea:
“There are times…when the call downward is a transformative journey, a summons to the depths of the soul. People tend to think of spirituality as rising upward into the sky. In the traditional (male) teachings, enlightenment is often described as a flight from the lower centers of the body, the instinctive and sexual places, to the upper centers in the head and then out. …Everyone fears this descent, this sinking down. Yet sinking down connects us with the earth, with our personal ground, with our foundation.”
There are many journeys we’re called on, through our lives. The concept of “enlightenment” (and the hero’s story) encourage us to venture “up and out”…might it also be true that there are times to adventure down and in? The concept of endarkenment takes us not only into the dark but also down, towards (and into) the body, and the earth.
The rhubarb pushes its nubbly red thumbs up through the leaf litter. Lawns turn squishy with melt, worms once again emerge. There’s water everywhere suddenly, and with it, the muck of life, stirring, down at the roots.
Acquainted with the Night
I have been one acquainted with the night.
I have walked out in rain—and back in rain.
I have outwalked the furthest city light.
I have looked down the saddest city lane.
I have passed by the watchman on his beat
And dropped my eyes, unwilling to explain.
I have stood still and stopped the sound of feet
When far away an interrupted cry
Came over houses from another street,
But not to call me back or say good-bye;
And further still at an unearthly height,
One luminary clock against the sky
Proclaimed the time was neither wrong nor right.
I have been one acquainted with the night.
Lately, thanks in part to my colleague Yvonne’s excellent writing around embodied spirituality, I’ve been thinking a lot about embodiment, endarkenment, and creativity, and how intertwined all these concepts are. I’ve even (finally) invented a phrase for how I ground my own work in the world: creative endarkenment. After all, creativity roots itself in the dark, no matter how small or large the idea…but before anyone can explore that truth, we have to get comfortable with the idea of darkness.
I belong squarely in Generation X, which means when I was in college many of us gathered and marched and
shouted and sang songs by the Indigo Girls in order to Take Back the Night. We petitioned and argued to install emergency phones and more lighting around the darkest spaces on campus. Back then, we thought if we lit up the shadows, rape culture would suffer a serious blow. And I remember wondering at the time if I was strange, in that darkness felt so much safer to me than being pinned and spotlit by the newly installed lights. Their glare made me so obviously single and alone as I walked back to my room through the Minnesota dark.
Maybe we were safer from some kinds of violence, I don’t know. But I do know we blamed the wrong thing. Darkness was never the root cause. Social media has proved convincingly that rape culture is all too happy to go public with acts of abusive power and violence.
And yet it isn’t any surprise we feared and blamed the dark. We grow up in a culture that assigns so many negative qualities to “darkness”—labels so many bad things “dark” and blames “darkness” for them: ignorance, fear, anger, violence, to name only the first few that spring to mind. And this has inevitable repercussions in a society that labels and separates people as “white” “black” and “brown.”
Now we wheel past the spring equinox into the season of light. We rake off our garden beds, poke seeds, pile on mulch and remember darkness can be kind, can be nurturing, and is certainly crucial. As Molly Meade (Remer) writes, “In darkness, things germinate and grow. The dark is a calm, holding, safe, welcoming place—we come from darkness and that is where we return.”
Light pushes always out against the dark…and yet any light source is eternally nestled within that deep embrace, no matter how bright it shines. We can feel this truth as threatening, if we are scared of the dark, of what lives in the shadows.
On the other hand, without darkness, we are left with the glare of brutal interrogation and too rigid certainty. There remains no mystery to seek. It is impossible to imagine a fluid dreaming without darkness. And what would we be without dreams? What would it mean if our shapes could never shift?
Of course, dreams are not only happy cuddly things. The phrase “the dark night of the soul” resonates in the bone because it feels true. Frost’s poem “Acquainted with the Night” knows that just as there is room for light within the embrace of darkness, there is room for much else too. Our deep depressions, our sorrows, our angers, can take us to places that are psychically quite dark. As Carl Jung knew (and as our therapists tell us on a regular basis and we pay them for it), it is at times necessary to rest in the presence of such discomfort. To stop pushing the dark away long enough to listen to what lives there.
Fortunately, there are people to help us on the path. I had the pleasure and good fortune to interview Danica Swanson recently for a class assignment. You can find the entire interview posted at her blog, but today these words are in my mind:
Sacred endarkenment, to me, is a concept and a way of being that provides a necessary counterbalance to our culture’s over-emphasis on enlightenment, transcendence, “rising above,” and so on. … Despite popular belief, darkness doesn’t necessarily mean evil or negativity – in fact, dark places can be sources of great richness, alchemy, and incubation…
I was raised in a New Age family, and had experienced first-hand the failures of empathy and errors in perception that could result from a heavy emphasis on “positive thinking” and other forms of saccharine sweetness in spiritual work. In a way, you could say my New Age upbringing primed me for a darker, more chthonic path. Dogma can be just as oppressive when it’s presented as “love and light” as it can be when it shows up in less culturally sanctioned ways.
Swanson gets it right: too much positivity results in “failures of empathy” and “errors in perception” and that my friends gets us into a mess. Welcoming the dark with all its unknowns and locating the tender spots is necessary for any fruitful germination, including our own. In our fearful, angry moment of history I can’t help thinking that it’s as good a time as any for us to face our own personal and cultural shadows, to begin to sit with our histories of violence, oppression, guilt, fear, resentment. To learn stillness.
That’s a big ask. And more than I can take on this morning. A good place to start might be just getting a little more comfortable sitting together, here in the dark. Over the next few days and weeks, I want to explore the idea of endarkenment, to think about how and why we might want to wander out once in a while past the fire’s light and peer into the shadows. I hope you’ll join me.