I wasn't exactly having any raging hot sex in my mid-twenties. What intimacy there was to be snatched between caffeine-addled swing shifts was difficult and desperate, and always over too soon. Why should love be so hard? The world seemed full of impervious surfaces -- concrete, steel and glass -- against which there was nothing to do but rip myself ruthlessly open to the possibility of contact. To make the foolhardy choice to stay soft and tattered; to refuse to be ground smooth into something polished, invulnerable, inhuman. To choose, each time, to throw myself once more into the harsh, cold waters where the restless waves broke against the rocks. Which might be why, these days, I am still so often surprised by the utter heart-wrenching gentleness of quiet, boring sex. It is a blessing I am still getting used to.
Between research and writing, there is a lacuna in which almost anything can happen. The hush is nearly unbearable. In my mental landscape, ideas rustle and nudge towards one another through the tall prairie grasses, their haunches twitching with tension, ready to flee. Eros is thick in the air. Ecology rubs up against ritual theory, playing with the hem of her skirt. Bruce Lincoln is making eyes at Lewis Hyde. The deer of my dreams raise their heads to listen hard for the hunter. The salmon of wisdom are working their way home. Any moment, I'm going to start writing. Any moment...
In a moment of sad synchronicity, only a few hours after I posted this I found out that Mary Oliver is seriously ill. Writers and poets are sharing their stories about how her work has influenced them, and sending their blessings and prayers. I know many Druids and Pagans are also familiar with her work and have been touched by her vision and love of nature. Please take a few moments today to express your love and gratitude for an amazing woman, and consider sharing your story with her by sending her an open letter. In honor of our first Valentine's Day as husband and wife, I wanted to share the poem that Jeff and I had read at our wedding, "The Ponds," by Mary Oliver.
What struck me was the absence, how it stretched out in all directions. Indistinguishable. The trees were stunted and small, scraggly things, as flimsy as old paper dried up and twisted and left to the dust of the endless desert landscape. From the ridge, they spotted the ravine's slope here and there all the way down to where it met the empty, mud-cracked stream bed. Out here, they called that a river. They had the nerve to mark it on a map. When I looked down into the ravine from the top of the ridge where I was standing, a sense of vertigo swept through me. The unfamiliar shrunken size of the trees tricked the eye, so that even shrubs which I knew were only a few feet down seemed to stretch the landscape into an odd but persistent sensation of distance. A gradual slope dropped away in an optical illusion of dizzying depth. I blinked. I thought, this was what the Discworld Witches called "gnarly ground."
When I was a sophomore in high school, I applied for a really exclusive summer school for aspiring student artists. I had been fancying myself a writer since first grade, and more specifically a poet since fourth or fifth. I was anxious but confident. I made it past the first round of interviews.... but I didn't get in. Today I stumbled across two pieces of internet flotsam that reminded me of that teenage, poetry-ridden self of mine. The second was an article by Jim Moore, who recently saw his seventh book of poetry into print. Moore writes: "People sometimes ask, especially parents of aspiring writers, 'What does it take to become a poet?' From my own experience I would say four things matter most. Everything else takes care of itself. ..."
Last night I had a dream. I was enrolled in a class that taught self-defense. The instructor was a thin, over-eager man. He split the class in half and gave half of the students bats. To the other half, he said, "They're going to come at you with bats. So you need to practice how to defend yourself." I kept waiting for some advice, some insight into how you fend off a person with a bat. But that was all he said. And they came at us with bats. Swinging for the head, the shoulders. I raised my arms over my head to protect myself, and they swung their bats until my arms were bruised and shattered in a pulpy mess of pain. The instructor called out, "Swing harder! You need to learn how to defend yourselves against an enemy that will show no mercy. This is a serious threat, and you need to take it seriously." And it dawned on me that those of us without the bats were not the only ones being taught. The students with bats saw themselves as warriors, defenders learning to wield their weapons for the right cause, in the name of justice. Their eyes burned with pride and power.
The significance of Beltaine reaches beyond merely being an agricultural festival focused on fertility and fecundity in service to the community, with romance acting as a bit of grease we can indulge in now and then to keep the Wheel turning. The holy day at the height of spring is also a day of ecstasy in the original sense, a day on which the attraction of life-force can pull us beyond ourselves and into communion with a larger Mystery, beyond tensions that might keep us too rigidly locked into unhealthy or hampering community bonds once they have outlasted their benefit. Along with Samhain, the other hinge of the year, Beltaine serves as a liminal time, a time of thresholds and permeable boundaries. The great ecstatic mysteries of sex and death dominate both these holy days.
Our first morning, I walked down to the beach and sat for an hour watching the dark clouds, heavy with unspent thunder and rain, wash out to sea and the thin horizon. Sun spilled through here and there, shivering in bright rippling pools on the surface of the rough, green water. Waves overturned unbroken seashells at my feet. Seabirds wheeled and cackled, and I had no words appropriate for prayer, no songs that came to mind but the sappy love themes of old movies — which I sang beneath my breath, sighing only a little when stars may collide slipped into the breeze as a pelican threw itself into the breaking waves with a splash and all of it seemed to me, for a moment, to be celestial and stardust, Spirit pouring Spirit into Spirit, and surfacing from Spirit with Spirit in its beak.
Strange, that all of a sudden I remember the poem — the smell of the book it was in, like a palmed cigarette stub sweaty and stale with old smoke, and how worn it was, and loose in its faded jacket — and I don't recall the poem itself. Just that it was about a girl — I imagine her with oily hair in waves rich with grief that you could dip your fingers in — and perhaps a convenience store, closed for the night with security fluorescents churning in their cluttered hollows, or a living room in an old apartment with the shades drawn, or at least some other dark, crowded place where the noise and hands are hard and constant, tearing the throat out of dirty evening sunlight.