My Witness is Shaped Like a Bottle of Guinness

A new visitor, Lauren from Earthy Yoga Mom, made a brilliant comment on my post from yesterday about the “Woman at Head of the Table.” She offered that this Woman, a being she has met in meditation in the form of her “inner Buddha,” actually is transcendence. Lauren says that this transcendent force “has all of the wisdom I need to respond to whatever random challenges my mind is manufacturing.” Perhaps she was telling me that I don’t have to discount the Woman at the Head of Table as a mere human resources lady just because I want to connect with an other-wordly part of myself that talks to God. This is a comforting concept, and one I am very grateful to consider.

With all of the different sources of spiritual knowledge out there, it is easy to be overwhelmed by which strategy or symbols or prayers I should employ on any given day. I tend to forget that so many of them are using a different vocabulary to move you to a similar point along the spiritual journey. Once I allow the Woman at the Head of the Table to be like an “inner Buddha,” then I can associate the Woman that helps me in daily life with a seemingly more sublime power, the Witness, the being that presides over the dialog of my soul.

Stephen Cope talks at length about cultivating the “Witness consciousness,” the pure awareness that is always there, watching, and which serves as a calm in the mind’s worst storms. I conceptualize this Witness to be like Lauren’s little Buddha. It’s meant to be a metaphysical entity, not a person or a place. The thing is, I always picture my Witness as a bottle of Guinness. Yes, Guinness, as in really dark beer.

When I was studying in Ireland in 2001 a huge music festival called Witness was being advertised everywhere. Guinness was the sponsor and every beer mat and bus stop was plastered with advertisements that featured the silhouette of a bottle and simply the word “Witness.” I worry about the queen who rules my mind and instead turn to a container of stout for spiritual guidance! (I am sure that Guinness has surely lead to its own sort of spiritual revelations, but that is for a different blog on a different day).

It seems that it may be more important to look at the end rather than the means as we try to move along the spiritual path. I could spend all sorts of time critiquing the vehicles that get me into those places of stillness where real wisdom can be gathered, but maybe I should use the symbols that I have been given and trust that they will fall away when I actually arrive in that transcendent state to which I hope I am headed.

Or maybe I should just relax and buy the Woman at the Head of the Table a pint…

A Dash of Epic Myth in the Workday

Louis le Brocquy, The Táin. Magic chariot, 1969, lithograph on Swiftbrook paper, 54 x 38 cmThe Táin Bó Cuailnge is the great Irish epic that describes devastating episodes of battle instigated by what is essentially a lovers’ quarrel: Queen Medb and her husband Aillil set to comparing their riches in bed one night; in an effort to match her husband’s fortunes, Medb stages a raid on neighboring Ulster to snatch one particular bull. The amount of individuals ready for a good fight prove that they are clashing over more than a couple and their cows, but that is another topic entirely.

The events in the tale lead to the naming of many aspects of the land, so it seems only right that the story should be “earthy” in every respect. One of my favorite professors always used to say that Irish myth “out moderned the modern” and one of the many ways these stories do that is by proving our Victorian-inspired sensibilities really are recent constructs; legends like these endured long enough to be written down because they were made of all of the stuff of life including passion and revenge and cowardice and more than a few bodily fluids.

A strange angle to take on The Táin, I know, but it is a valid one in light of the discussion, or, well truth be told, “pissing contest” that I engaged in over the subject of Irish myth and language today. Pardon me for putting it like that, I don’t quite have the brashness of Medb to say that without apology, but putting it any other way seems a disservice to this metaphor I am trying to construct. I was introduced to an eager, newly minted PhD who has just joined the faculty. As always, I was introduced with a mention of my own credentials. In such situations I tend to smile mutely, caught between shrugging off Irish Studies as a lovely little phase and fumbling around for an vaguely related arcane witticism in a faltering attempt to flatter myself. By the end of the conversation today, I felt like a fraud hiding for behind knowledge I half remembered, nodding sagely as this lovely seeming woman compared the difficulty of translating medieval Irish to the Norse.

In the car on the way home I cranked up the Decemberists’ EP The Táin and felt a little less ridiculous about the conversation. I had not spoken my truth exactly, but I certainly had permission to talk about Irish myth since it was clearly still a part of my life – in this case it was blasted with heavy guitar and bizarre circus music.

One of the hardest things about working in academia at the same time that I pursue knowledge that is not necessarily wrapped in a scholarly, footnoted package is that one often feels robbed of the ability to speak about issues she cares about with any real authority. I know that subjects co-opted by college and university departments tend to become sanitized or problematized ghosts – how many people would recognize themselves as described by anthropology or folklore or ethnic studies faculty?

The exchange today gave me a new appreciation for the enduring versatility of myth, the ways these origin stories can color so many lives in different ways. They can be fireside diversion or fodder for a professional career, respected tales of a people’s genesis or wisdom imparting vignettes. When I lived and breathed the words and history of Ireland these stories were all about illuminated manuscripts and goddesses and warrior queens who could be read as precursors to the feminist age. Freed of the thesis scribbling imperative, they can take on a new life for me, something much closer perhaps, to their original intention.

Artwork by Louis le Brocquy as it appears in Thomas Kinsella’s 1969 version of The Táin.Louis le Brocquy, The Táin. Cúchulainn mounting into his chariot, 1969

Our Adventurous Vision For the New Year

New Year's roses

Blessed be the road that does not end
Blessed be each minute that borrows us
To witness its eternity

We are old: a species gone to seed,
Run wild under the stars;
And our talk is old talk

While we watch our brazen children
Clutch at memory of when the land
Was waking to a young and lusty sun.

– Paula Meehan
The Man Who Was Marked By Winter, Epigraph

Perhaps this poem is a bittersweet way to begin 2008, but there must be worth in looking at a new year with a broad perspective strong enough to bear all of the hope that will poured into its freshness while still acknowledging the strains of fear that accompanies any beginning. Even as we look to the glow of a fresh calendar we must bear witness to all that we have been and all that we will carry into this infant January.

I feel as if I am one given to Meehan’s old talk since I look at a new year with a whisper of trepidation, glancing at past Decembers that have melted into Januarys only to reveal another December lying in wait. But despite this wisdom, or perhaps because of it, I still cling to the brazenness of a child and seek the waking earth, the waking consciousness. All of us who know hope in this time that can seem a desperate age must know what it is to be worn thin by a scorching sun, but remain willing to forget the burns as we long to dance in the glow of noon.

Last night, my husband and I celebrated the holiday at our favorite restaurant with a toast to “adventurous vision.” We shall make this phrase our guide and our strategy in the new year and look for what blessings we can on the road that does not end. Undoubtedly there are tremendous changes ahead for us in 2008 – where will we live, what will constitute our livelihood, how will we structure our living. I can only pray that we move through it with the wide-eyed intelligence and well-intentioned good sense so that we are present for every precious minute we are granted in our little piece of eternity.

Blessings for the new year – may the seeds you plant in the coming months grow wild and beautiful under the stars.

Obstacles, Legendary and Otherwise

All Legendary Obstaclesimageafter.com

All legendary obstacles lay between
Us, the long imaginary plain,
The monstrous ruck of mountains
And, swinging across the night,
Flooding the Sacramento, San Joaquin,
The hissing drift of winter rain.

All day I waited, shifting
Nervously from station to bar
As I saw another train sail
By, the San Francisco Chief or
Golden Gate, water dripping
From great flanged wheels.

At midnight you came, pale
Above the negro porter’s lamp.
I was too blind with rain
And doubt to speak, but
Reached from the platform
Until our chilled hands met.

You had been travelling for days
With an old lady, who marked
A neat circle on the glass
With her glove, to watch us
Move into the wet darkness
Kissing, still unable to speak.

– John Montague

At yoga class tonight when my teacher spoke of obstacles and dancing with them rather than boxing with them, I thought first of the new limitations thrust upon me by an activist sciatic nerve. As I tried to breathe through the frustration that flared with each twinge in my right leg, I remembered the line that started Montague’s poem: “All legendary obstacles lay between us.” My dear friend Perspective slowly overcame the drama I was creating about being a blighted creature forced to wrestle with something as cantankerous and enduring as this mystery pain coiled in my hip. I came to realize that this was not an epic malady but another lesson, another opportunity for growth. No trauma seemed to have set off this affliction that I am trying very hard not to see as a betrayal of the body, so can only assume that some unprocessed emotion has been lodged in the small of my back.

Looking at this poem I am tempted to move beyond that wonderful first line and read it as an allegory for the self and the soul. The restless speaker is caught in the distraction of life even as he eagerly awaits the Beloved. Such distances separate them as to seem insurmountable even as he never gives up hope for their reunion. That doubt and elation he feels when he finally encounters her is the same that we all experience when we finally realize our greatest desire, to stand before the soul, all full of prayers that we are worthy and that this will be a perfect love. I dare read the old woman who accompanied the Beloved to be a spirit guide, a guardian angel, the one who watches from on high and protects us on the journey across what can appear to be unscalable mountains and infinite plains.

Suddenly sciatica seems to be less of a concern…

Identity Crisis for an Aspiring Pirate Queen

In February of 2002 I sat in a lecture hall at Trinity College Dublin while fellow aspiring academics gave papers on bits of Irishness. Instead of hanging on their every word I outlined an essay I have thought of often but never had the courage or purpose to actually compose. Despite my blind terror in the hours before I was to present my own first paper, or perhaps because of it, I was struck by the peculiarity of this collective obsession with a culture and a nation and I began to be troubled by my part in such an endeavor. Certainly there had to be an awareness of the fact that this place upon which we were so fixated was at least in part only a creation of groups like ours, packs of scholars who pirated myths and raided hilltop mounds to weave a self-perpetuating narrative that would help publish books and secure tenure. Even as I was about to dedicate myself to the game of academia, I was aware that my own desperate passion for the trappings of a foreign nation came at least in part from a different source. The person I wanted to become needed to declare her own country; she needed an entirely new land upon which to forge her identity.

This moment of crisis resurfaces because it is October 31 and until a few years ago I would have shuddered before having to call it “Halloween.” It was Samhain, dammit: the Celtic new year, the final harvest, the moment when the veil between the worlds is at its thinnest. I had fully embraced all that was “Celtic spirituality” because I needed a history that receded back into a mist-shrouded past, goddesses and warrior queens who could guide and inspire me, and magic that would enliven the quaint horror of everyday reality. With a passion that must be an essential aspect of the “conversion” path, I rejected everything that had been touched by the “invader” Saint Patrick and those who came after him. That I missed a lot in ignoring much of Christian Ireland goes without saying.

That conference five years ago was not a time to call my meandering spiritual path into question, however; I was too busy wondering at the hollowness of my own experience that demanded I borrow someone else’s country in order to uncover my own identity. One reason I have never written this story is that I still do not know what to make of feeling like a cultureless American left to feed on places that had remained “pure.” It was as if I had been born into an historical void with which I left no connection on a land that was stolen from the people who knew the real myths of the sandbars and mountaintops. I realize the ways in which these are cruel generalizations and that in saying such things I discount my own love of where I grew up, but faced with a manageable sized country with a past as old as Burren limestone, I just felt orphaned. Not connected to my own world and destined forever to be a tourist in the world that I so wished would take me in. It will take more serious consideration than I can give to a blog post to determine if this is a unique aspect of my own psyche or something that I share with my generation; would I feel so unmoored if I was from Rio or Bangalore or Kinsale? Was this a typical longing for the exotic or a testament to a real sense of lack in dominant American culture? Your thoughts?

On Samhain as on All Saints’ Day we remember those who have died, but we can also stop to honor the ideas and beliefs that have waned and faded from once influential places in our lives. I celebrate the aspiring PhD who wanted to dream in Irish and spend her life discussing Nuala Ni Dhomhnaill’s poetry. I honor the girl on her first steps on a spiritual path who had to reject everything and embrace the dreams of others before she could build her own tradition.