Of all the stories I’ve become and the stories I’ve seen, the novels and narratives of these last few days are the most difficult to unravel.
Before I continue, though–I should remind you: The tales of the everyday are themselves quite profound. You, reading this at home perhaps, or surreptiously at work, stealing a bit of your time back from your employer at a desk or behind a counter, may not perhaps see the stories around you, but they’re there. It’s not easy to read and retell ’em, but threads of narratives come loose easily from the fabric of the everyday when you pull hard enough, and you can re-weave a life from all those loose strands. It’s just a little more difficult.
You just need to find a way to slip out of time where you stand, slip into the world between the walls, that older, persistent, ever-present world just outside where you are.
It’s a bit easier to do on pilgrimage, of course. You leave all the things which create and sustain you in the wild hope you’ll find what you don’t quite know you’re looking for. You become The Fool, dancing out into The World, stumbling upon mysteries in foreign lands.
There’s a strange thing here, though. Sometimes the inhabitants of those foreign lands, neighbors to great mysteries and co-habitants with ancient gods of land, can’t see what you’re there to find. Perhaps it isn’t really all that strange–if we, before we travel, have failed to see the magic around us in our mundane lives of work/home/consume/sleep, then even those living next to Cathedrals and shrines might miss the forest-in-the-wardrobe for the coat-tree.
The rationalist, certain only of the mundane, might say the Pilgrim is deluded, the Traveler mis-led, the Supplicant too certain of their visions to see the Real before them. Look, they might say. There’s no magic here in this land–I’ve lived here my entire life.
They, ensconced upon their thrones, the land about them wasted, are the Fisher-King.
This is an odd thing: the Pilgrim then is Perceval, traveling through barren lands made whole against the unasked question.
Opening the dis-used, rusty, overgrown gates of the Other in the lands they visit, the pilgrim must return, bearing mystic keys to unlock the gates of home.
But I don’t really want to return.
By Water and By Fire
Leaving Wales was the hardest thing I’ve done. It was so difficult that I haven’t really done so.
Still when I close my eyes I’m standing at the narrow vale, about to step over to Llyn Dinas. Rivers pour from every stone around me, I’m immersed in clear flowing glass as Heather and Fern dance low to the ground in fierce, otherworldly winds.
And I do not think I shall ever leave.
I’m also elsewhere. I’m on a bench in Berlin by a canal, under a Willow.
I’m in a cornfield near the top of an ancient Druid mountain in Bretagne as the full moon shines through thin clouds.
I’m by a river in the Hoh rainforest on the Olympic peninsula, drinking tea as the sun sets chill.
And I’m sitting in the darkness of my forest grove in Seattle, watching the flicker of a candle dance upon Fern and Maple from its setting within a Cedar stump, just as I’m watching candle-light shine fierce dragon-fire through raindrops on a bent Fir above Llyn Dinas.
I’m also in Dublin.
The Ferry from Wales to Dublin leaves from Holyhead on the Isle of Anglesy, and I’d planned to roam the Isle for several hours before taking an early evening sailing. A storm had risen upon the Irish Sea, though, and I’d been informed the night before that Ferry had been canceled.
So, the morning of the 19th Nick and I woke, ate breakfast and packed. We were both out-of-sorts; one doesn’t just nonchalantly depart a place after several days of profound, ancient magic. Too, leaving Caernarfon together meant we’d soon leave each other, he on to Shrewsbury before returning to Cardiff, I on to Dublin before crossing a vast ocean.
We sat upon the sea-wall overlooking the Strait of Menai as the wind tore through our clothes, he clutching his hat, I trying to keep my hood over my head. Ravens and Gulls played upon those winds above us as we stared out towards Anglesy, unable to find many words.
When the time arrived, we boarded a bus to Bangor, and I taught him how to braid his beard. It’s a strange thing for two men to do on a public bus, likely, though the working-class man behind us remarked only that he thought his own hands were too large and clumsy to braid a beard, so it’s better he shaves his.
In Bangor, Nick and I departed. There’s not much to say at that point, and despite being a bold extrovert given to spinning words and tales from a mere thought, there’s a deep gift in the silence of a friend who knows what you’d say if it were needed, so you can eschew words altogether.
The Isle of Anglesy is not yet for me; this much was made clear by the storm and the land itself, only a place to pass through and hear the gathered voices chattering from the holy mount there. It has a Welsh name, one familiar to those who’ve heard the Medieval-Metal band Eluvietie. It is Ynys Môn, or Ins Mona.
It was the gate by which I entered, and the gate by which I needed to leave, but my shaking soul quaked my body as I boarded the ferry, watching in awe as oaths spewed from my lips like breath, as if summoned or extracted, pulled from me by the cords which now bind me to a land into which I’d almost disintegrated, atomized into the rain stars sun clouds stones trees streams in the service of the Blessed Raven.
I was bereft upon that ferry, a new Stygian journey. I fear I’ve become like Orpheus, treading into the depths before I may return to the land of the living. That the whole world might become Hades after Gwynedd is perhaps unfair, but experience is not always just.
Just as I did not return from a night slept in crossroads on Menez Hom unbroken, I did not return to Dublin quite the same. Raven feathers and old bones whip past my soul on winds I cannot now quell, and I fear I shall be always uneasy until my return.
Not Losing One’s Head
My first night of sleep again in Dublin was a bit troubled, a different dread haunting me than the wild ancient giants of Snowdon had distilled into my soul from the lakes and stones.
After such high, fantastic, mist-soaked magic-days, I didn’t know how to comprehend this. Gwynedd was so giving, so convivial and generous, laughing mirthfully with my feeble and awkward gestures that Ireland seemed suddenly–hostile.
I’ve this funny quirk. I’ve never quite caught on to that strange thing about people, that some just seem really not to like each other and will never get along. I tolerate even the most frightful boors and aggressive idiots, and I’ve really less patience than I could have. It seems so easy, then, that I too-often forget that some will just always hate others and those sympathetic with them.
I’ve had plenty of evidence to convince me otherwise. Write something glowing about someone’s writing and another writer declares a crusade against you. Be kind to one person and a whole host of others look upon you with suspicion. But even still, I forget.
My host and I left Dublin by bus for Bru na Boinne, the Valley of the Boyne, a little after noon and arrived at 3pm. I’d been full of anticipation for this part of my journeys: the next morning, we’d be inside Newgrange to witness the dawning Solstice light.
Last year, when I arrived in Carnac, France, I fought hard the whim to throw off my rucksack and tear madly along the ancient tracks to the sacred wells and standing stones. The moment I arrived in Wales, nothing could prevent my gaping awe and manic laughter upon seeing the land before me. But upon my first step off the bus in the village of Donore, I wanted to vomit and then jump back on the bus, begging the quickest return to Dublin possible.
For many in America, Ireland is a sort of paradise, a lost Eden. Like Jerusalem for the Jewish Diaspora, Ireland has rooted itself deeply into the rich soil of a thousand dreams.
And I think it is indeed that place for which so many long. The smoke of glowing peat in a hundred hearths smells as you hope it does, the rolling hills, the mountains worn-low and soft just as you dream of them. The ancestors and Faeries and gods most certainly and undeniably there, alive, strong and brooding and powerful and treacherously denied.
Nothing will make you more certain of the existence of a god then the feeling of his land revolting against each of your steps, attempting to shake you off into the abyss of sky, twisting everything inside you into brutal knots, telling you to get out.
I wish I could tell you of the beauty of the land there, but I am not an objective observer. It’s pretty, certainly. Go see it yourself, unless you’ve oathed yourself to someone who is unwelcome there.
I checked with my companion–he felt nothing askew, no strange dread. We checked into an inn at Donore, and when I’d learned he’d reserved it for two days I panicked. I wasn’t sure I could survive more than a few hours in the place, let alone two nights.
We ate, and I felt no better.
The day was quite young, a few hours remaining of winter sunlight. In any other circumstances, I’d go exploring, visit and greet the streams and trees, but I felt such a crushing weight I thought the clear sky would suffocate me.
A graveyard stood within sight–the dead are generally reliable guides, and those I truck with are keen to introduce me. I told my companion I’d go consult them, and I managed only one step in that direction before turning forcefully about-face. The dead belonged to another, to the power of the land forbidding my passage.
I hid in our rented room and decided to nap. I’ve only once needed to ward the bed upon which I’ve slept. I don’t even need to lock my house-doors in most places I’ve lived, yet I knelt, trembling, placing the strongest gate-stones I possess (grove stones, enchanted at the four cross-quarter gates) and slept, fully clothed, clutching the wand of Alder washed up upon the shores off Caer Arianrhod.
It felt as safe as sleeping in a blanket fort behind a couch as a child while your parents are fighting.
My companion woke me for dinner and I opened eyes, alert as if I hadn’t slept. We ate at the inn, the sort of place done up more fancy than its cuisine. I couldn’t shake my unease, one foot always bent from the floor, ready to spring from the table and run from the land.
It was maddening. Only once before have I felt so assaulted by the very air around me, last year, encountering the dead for the first time during Anaesterion. That time, I’d decided to check myself in to the psychiatric ward of a Seattle hospital and had called a foul-mouthed Thracian priest to inform him that I’d likely be gone awhile until he replied, laughing–
“Ah. Wear a hat.”
“A hat? I think I’m gonna kill myself and you want me to wear a hat?”
“Yup,” he’d replied, and I’m sure I heard him swig rum through the phone. “Do it and see how you feel. Check yourself in if you need to, but put on a hat, first.”
He was right. The hat quieted everything immediately, bought me enough time to douse myself in Florida Water (you’re supposed to dilute that stuff, I guess…I didn’t) and sleep in safety.
So I consulted him again, as well as a priest of The Morrigan and an Oracle crafted by a friend, and their combined answers told me what I couldn’t uncover in my maddened state:
The Dagda wasn’t quite pleased at my presence, and if you’ve read The Mabinogian and know why I’m a bit corvid-obsessed, you’ll know why.
Newgrange is said to belong to The Dagda, and know what?
It’s very much his.
This time I couldn’t just put on a hat.
Dark beer, dirt-money, my taste into the ground for passage; the same amount of dirt-money on leaving. By the time I discovered all this, the inn’s bar was about to close, so I hastened there, broodingly searching out a beer. The place was crowded, the patrons all linked, cut from the same bolts of cloth, laughing and moving almost as one as I pushed through them, unyielding.
It’s not uncommon to find yourself in such situations, a shifting labyrinth (indeed, it happened the next day) until you’ve bought your passage through, or at least greeted the Presence re-arranging the world around you, preventing you everywhere.
Also, it’s hard to do ritual in public, even in a bar. In Seattle I tip out libations from my first beer of the night upon the floor when I’m out–adding up the spirits and gods for whom these are given, most of my first pint is empty before it’s my turn for a sip. But here? Not a good idea.
Of course, shoving a coin in your mouth and walking outside with a mouthful of beer looks a bit suspicious, too, even to drunk folks, but it was the easier route.
The moment I got outside and spit the beer-soaked coin onto the ground, everything lightened.
I returned to my beer inside, and found myself suddenly engaged in conversation with a damn hot man named Liam. He had things to tell me, that drunken straight-man confessional where he’s leaning on me, his mouth too close to my ear not to arouse, telling me tales of why he had to leave.
Grew up here, he said. Just down the road, by Newgrange. No jobs, y’know. I’m a carpenter, he added, as I resisted fetishizing his profession and his scruffy jaw. But the work’s in London. There’s shit here.
And then he wandered off, and I could not stop thinking about the children of The Dagda, his Cauldron of plenty just nearby, but his name never called.
Threading the Eyeless Rocks
Newgrange is but a 30 minute walk from the village of Donore, but we woke early. I don’t think I could have slept much longer. My passage was bought for a short time; another god had spoken on behalf of me, it appeared, one I barely know but consider quite fondly–Lugh. His kindness confirms a suspicion a friend had last year that there’s a connection between him and the resistance of peasants and workers, both in Ireland and nearby, seen particularly in the tales of the Luddites and their mysterious leader, King Ludd. A guard, explaining why they’d fallen back at the approach of Luddites destroying a factory, testified to a pale, shining warrior wielding a pike (i.e., a spear). Perhaps Lugh likes me because I’m advocating the same sort of struggle.
If anyone summoned me to witness a spear of sunlight streaming into a 5000 year old burial mound on the morning of the Winter Solstice, I’m suspecting it was him. There seems to be…some arrangement, I guess, between some gods, gods who are on about the same sorts of things. Lugh no doubt knew what I intend to do, as would Brighid, as I told her.
Even still, the last twenty minutes of the walk to Bru na Boinne required the lighting of a candle offered to a certain very old being met on Llyn Dinas in order to even approach. What whispered from the trees as we walked was not kind.
The moon rose in the east just as we arrived at the visitor’s center, the sharpest crescent of Ceridwen I’ve seen in quite some time. It cheered me even as I noted its razor-edged sickle. Death is hardly an inconvenience, let alone a fear, and I was going to witness the moment modern Druids depict as the symbol of Rebirth.
The Bru Na Boinne visitor center is a bit of a trip in itself, as are the women who greet you with the most curious, knowing smiles as one of the randomly chosen few to witness the event. 50 are selected each year by school-children from five local primary schools. The odds are nearly impossible, except that all impossible odds are never actually impossible, otherwise they wouldn’t be odds at all.
There’s a sense that you’re about to be initiated into something, though if any of the folks who work at the visitor center are devotees of an ancient religion, they most certainly don’t let on. They seem like cheerful cafeteria ladies, asking if you’d like chocolate or regular milk (they even offer free breakfast after the event for the selected).
The light enters the tomb over a period of six days (“Solstice Vigil,” our guide called it), and the previous few days had not been good. Newgrange isn’t far from the sea, and the mists are known to come in to veil the site. There’d been a 6-year period where the sun hadn’t been seen on any of those days: the luck afforded by chance selection could not, after all, guarantee a clear sunrise.
We sipped complementary tea and chewed on oat biscuits until the time came for us to be transported by bus to the foot of the mound upon which Newgrange sits. You cross a tributary of the Boyne to the bus-stand, board along with 21 other excited and nervous folks, and are released into the crowds of others lingering expectantly around the mound, those who come to witness the sunrise from outside the tomb.
Two things caught my eye as we walked the path to the entrance. As I passed a tree, it filled suddenly with an unkindness of Ravens, calling out fiercely in voices I recognized, voices familiar to me, calls and chants in solidarity.
The second? A man, sitting with his back against one of the stones surrounding the site, holding a wooden flute, staring at the east. I’d need to talk to him, I understood, but I didn’t yet know why.
The moments before entering the passage were heady. Folks took photos of themselves almost as if to distract themselves from the tension and excitement rather than to mark the occasion. I mingled amongst them, listening to the fragments of their stories, their clipped speech, their tales caught short in the throat. There wasn’t anything really to say, but they were about to walk into a tomb. Solemnity isn’t needed before such a thing.
We were gathered by an announcement as others turned to watch us, we 22 people with our dinky lanyards and plastic passes suspended awkwardly around our necks. I watched the faces of those who wouldn’t be able to enter, who hadn’t been chosen. There was no envy or jealousy there, only expectation, an eagerness to hear from us what we would see.
And then we entered.
Lights had been turned on to guide in; it’s utterly dark otherwise, and I suspect otherwise they’d have quite a few injuries on their hands. The chamber was illuminated only long enough for us to enter and to stand with our backs against the wall, making a semi-circle, facing inward upon the path where, if the weather held, the spear of the sun would enter.
And then, darkness. The voice of the guide spoke, calming those who might have found themselves in fear at the blackness in the chamber. It’s dark, indeed, and just beyond that darkness, what?
What the others saw and heard, I do not know. There was much chatter, nervous, curious questions eager to fill the silence. If one is an apt student of other humans, one need not possess sharp psychic powers to hear the Other–you need only listen to the edge in the voice of others, the muted, nervous laughter stifling a gasp or an ancient sigh, a groan hidden as a throat-clearing cough. When the throngs of dead enter a tavern or pass through a crowd, you can hear them in the echoes of clamor and laughter.
It is this for which the Sciences were made, observations of what is manifest upon the material. It is our loss it tries to explain the shadows of the light according to the patterns in its books. What the guide offered those assembled souls together was a calm, reasoned voice, like the bell or drum of the shaman, a guide-line along a blind path. The age of the structure, the science and maths of angles and rotation. One thinks of W.S. Merwin’s poem, “The Widow”
There is no season
That requires us
Masters of forgetting
Threading the eyeless rocks with
A narrow light
But even in the guide’s calming, reasoned voice you could hear her sudden gasp.
“Ah,” she said, breathless. “Here it is.”
We stood and watched. Some tentatively reached their hands to touch the light, hesitant, pulling their hands back suddenly as if afraid they’d done something profane or too sacred.
I can hear them all now; not the dead, but the living, their strange, wild joy, halting words trying to express what they saw. Other pilgrims from all over, bewildered and enchanted. No ritualist was present to make sense for them this occurrence; the “science” only ever goes so far, and what was left to them was the world of meaning, the event in itself the Thing and they, rebels, anarchists, staring into Lugh’s spear, a light which 5000 years later has never gone out.
The magic is within the tomb, yes.
But it’s also when you leave.
The faces you meet when you exit the passage greet you into a new dawn, the Dawn of the year, the Dawn of the World. You are reborn with the sun, whether you died or not.
There’s one more story I need to tell you of this day, what happened before we fled swiftly as my time ran out, as the “dirt-money” I paid The Dagda would not permit me to miss the first bus out of Donore. I felt everything unravel, like a vampire racing the dawn perhaps, or a Raven fleeing a storm.
“You’ll Know It When You See It”
I was asked by many people to say prayers on their behalf, to collect soil or water or stones. It’s what you do on Pilgrimage, carrying the wishes and dreams and good-will of others as a walking staff or a warm cloak against the chill. At Newgrange I uttered a prayer on behalf of my friend Lupus, as I arrived, as I entered, as the light shone, as I exited, and as I left. It’s a beautiful prayer, one I was honored to utter on behalf of another.
A part of it required finding a certain “very interesting” stone behind the tomb, and as I made my way to it, I encountered another man standing before it, staring intently.
It was the man I’d noted upon entering, the one I knew I must talk to.
“Hey,” I said, fumbling in my pocket. The man turned, a bit startled, his eyes full of dream, his face seeing something else beyond what was before us.
“I need to give this to you,” I said, finding the small yellow cloth I’d carried with me into the tomb. Of all the things I brought with me, it seemed the strangest and least relevant. A gift from my friend Alley Valkyrie, a patch printed with a bee.
I didn’t quite know what I was doing as I handed it to him, I only knew I must. I could fight the silent command, but in the time of the Mysteries, there after being one of the few humans alive to witness the shaft of solstice light flood through a 5000 year-old tomb, resisting anything makes no sense.
To be fair, it also made little sense that I needed to have the patch in the tomb with me, though I knew I must. No “reason” dictated that I lay it upon a stone as the light shone through, but there was no doubt when I did so.
“Uh,” he said, awed. “I keep bees.”
I could only smile, mutely, so he repeated himself, staring at the bee in his hand. “My wife and I keep bees. How did you know?”
I laughed, because I could do nothing else. “There you are, then. It’s for you, from my friend Alley Valkyrie. Happy Solstice!”
He let me take his photo and gave me his name, John, and I proceeded to utter the next part of P.S.V.L.’s prayer before the stone:
Paths well-worn have all here lead,heavy deeds so far to tread;join this world to other ones–one night cloaking many suns.
And I could not stop laughing, neither at the power in those words before the stone, nor at Alley’s request for my pilgrimage. I’d asked her what she would like on my travels, and she’d answered, only, “you’ll know it when you see it.”
And I’d smiled when I’d heard those words, because I’ve learned to know things when they’re seen, a spear of light, the kindness of ravens, and the faces of the others all reflecting an awakening dream.
Other Pilgrimage Entries
And my book, Your Face Is a Forest, containing my pilgrimage journals from last year,