In a previous post I introduced the new study group, Sycamore Circle, that Jeff and I recently founded for Druids and Pagans in the Pittsburgh area. And then I spent some time waxing philosophic about (read: anxiously worrying over) issues of group politics and member dynamics. If you thought this was a bit premature, considering our "circle" currently has all of two members and two prospectives, well... I can't disagree. But you know me, I can't stay pinned to mere reality when possibility beckons so seductively. So on that note, I wanted to explore a bit about my vision for what I hope Sycamore Circle can become, what it can offer to myself and to others, and how, and why. This isn't the final word on the matter, or even a manifesto for the group--just my personal dreams and hopes. Consider the following a kind of creative exercise, getting a handle on things, exploring options, and articulating potentials with the hope that maybe the Universe is listening and wants to play along.
Autumn is creeping in around the edges once more, gold and russet seeping along the veins of leaves and the sky trembling through moods alternately blustery and bright. Always this time of year brings with it the energies of renewal. Not the renewal of spring, with new life bursting forth from every crevice in the sidewalk, but the renewal that comes from release, letting the fecundity and lushness of summer die back to discover those things which persist, the bare bones of what matters most and the fruits that contain within them what seeds may grow in warmer months from now. I think again how appropriate it is that we get to celebrate Sycamore Circle's founding around this time of year, when the busyness of back-to-school has died down into routine and the coming dark reminds us to value those lights in our lives that will sustain us through the coming winter. I position a few more candles on the mantle and make sure the bowl of apples, the pumpkin cookies and the box of assorted teas is set out so folks can help themselves when we return. Then, I shrug on my thick sweater, wrap the blue scarf close around my neck and head out to join the rest of the group gathering on the front stoop, laughing and chatting and sharing the latest news.
This new moon, it's Jeff's turn to lead the meeting again, and we've been brainstorming guided meditations and discussion topics for the past week in preparation. There are several group members who have been through TDN's Perennial Course in Living Druidry three or four times by now, and have taken their turns leading group discussions and writing rituals as well; but one or two others have joined us in the last year and are still finding their grounding in the local landscape of this City of Steel intersected by three rivers in hilly Western Pennsylvania. As the group of us head to the wooded park nearby for our usual hillwalking, I smile at Jeff's second-oldest daughter, accompanying us for the first time now that she's reached an age when her curiosity in her father's spirituality has blossomed into a personal commitment, and meditation and long discussions don't tire or bore her. Few of Sycamore Circle's members grew up Pagan as she has, but things are changing. One young woman walks more slowly than last year at this time, now carrying a bulging belly and holding to her partner's hand firmly in hers. We'll have to start thinking seriously about planning regular family events pretty soon. But first, there will be a Naming Rite to celebrate, probably before Alban Arthan comes around.
Jeff leads this gaggle of Druids along familiar paths, and I hang towards the back of the troop, listening as conversations fade into silence and each person's attention hones and then expands in the dusky light. Someone near the front lets out a startled gasp when some leaves rustle by the side of the trail, and we each pause for a moment to silently greet the brown, lumpy toad hunkered down in the debris before we walk softly on again. This group practice of contemplative hillwalking has remained one of my favorite parts of the new moon meetings. As the years have passed, together we've watched the landscape dance through its changes during these walks, always repeating and yet never exactly the same, until even the flux and subtle shifts in light and weather feel comforting and home-like. Somewhere a cardinal chirps, not even ruffled by our presence, and I smile to think it might just be some old companion come to say hello.
It took a long time to get to this place, a place of trust and intimacy.The members of the grove, too, have changed with the years--a few joining only for a time before moving on again to follow the promptings of their own unique soul-songs; others remaining, returning month after month, year after year, always growing, searching for a deeper authenticity, a more poignant longing for Spirit along the Druid way. This misty afternoon of the new moon, as we trudge through the woods towards our usual gathering spot on the hill, I'm surrounded by the warm bodies of a dozen or so folks as close to me as family, perhaps even closer. Up ahead, I see one of Sycamore Circle's first members, my anam-chara, soul-friend and student, a young man who began this path full of eager skepticism and humor, so anxious to be counterculture that sometimes the desire drove him away from himself. He has settled gently into a quiet confidence these past years, though with the same warm laugh as ever, and he walks beside his own anam-chara now, mentoring one of our newest members, sharing those long, intense discussions on theology and magic theory, ecology and justice, that I remember the two of us used to have. Sometimes, he still calls me up for coffee and we sit in the local cafe, now more truly soul-friends than mentor-student to one another, sharing stories about our work, or just relaxing and catching up. A small ripple of gratitude runs though me as I think about these bonds interweaving among us all, each member seeking guidance from a mentor, becoming in turn the anam-chara of another. It has taken a long time to build this community, but there is real trust and intimacy here, and so is there honesty, questioning, uncertainty and integrity.
Of course, there are always some members who only ever make it to our major holy day rituals, living out their paths mostly in the mundane world of business and education and politics and family. But their enthusiastic presence lends a celebratory air to the solar and fire festivals nonetheless, as we see our modest circle suddenly expand with newcomers and old friends alike coming together to honor and remember our stories and the gods. This afternoon's meeting, beginning as it always does with our hillwalking, will also include some final planning for the Samhain ritual, only a week away by now. Jeff's daughter has been working on a song to perform for the rite, and a few others have perfected their drumming for the guided meditation. Though each of us in turn has the chance to lead ritual or take on one of the more active roles, my own real joy has always been writing the chants and group prayers, or sometimes sharing a poem or two. This year one of the younger members will be leading the Samhain ritual as priestess, but I still look forward to that moment when a chant I wrote from years ago begins to thrum again in the throats of all the participants of the grove, our voice lifting up above the trees, carried on the wind. Ritual as living poetry, enacted stories in honor of Spirit--we have had some dreadful flops, and some hilarious accidents, but the longer we work and pray and practice together, the more moving and powerful even the most familiar rites become.
I bring my mind back to the present moment. The hilltop is in sight, and as the group makes the final climb and begins to lay out blankets for sitting, Jeff pulls the small candle and box of matches from his pocket and stoops to place it on the flat center stone. Without a word, we all settle down in a lop-sided circle around the pale, flickering flame as he begins with some simple breathing and centering exercises. His voice is calm and smooth in the silent afternoon. After a time of quiet meditation, he'll lead the group discussion, inviting thoughts and stories about each person's individual work over the past two weeks, prompting observations of the season's changes, encouraging new members especially to share songs, poems or other works of art or craft they have brought along. By the time dusk has truly fallen, we'll have passed around the thermos of cool spring water, quietly making libations as we whisper our own personal prayers and gratitude to the land. But for now, I close my eyes and breathe deeply and slowly, feeling the lumpy earth beneath me, the breeze carrying the smell of rotting leaves from the surrounding woods. Nearby, sharing this hilltop with us, a sycamore reaches its thick branches upwards, its bark fading from patchwork to skeletal white high among its wide, browning leaves. It rustles and lets a leaf or two fall, twirling their way down under a gray sky. I breathe again, and then again; I keep breathing.