Monday, November 29, 2010

Peace and the Celtic Spirit: Excerpts from a Journal

In August 2010, just past the waxing quarter moon, a bunch of strangers met for the first time in Rostrevor, a small town in County Down, Northern Ireland, nestled below the Mourne Mountains on the edge of Carlingford Lough that opens out into the sea. From all over the world — from Portland to Hong Kong, from Glasgow to Nashville — they gathered together to learn about peacemaking rooted in the Celtic sense of sacred hospitality and the holiness of the land.

It was my first time traveling alone, and my first journey ever beyond the borders of the United States. For me, the week-long retreat became a kind of pilgrimage, back to the land of my ancestors, and beyond the ninth wave into a place of conversation, connection and new friendships forged.

Day Nine — The World Become Small

Prayer for.. Ireland......then I went back up to my room, kneeled next to my bed to look out the skylight — and felt this overwhelming sense of closure and peace, and a thrill at the thought of going home. I knew things were finally coming to an end.


The morning was foggy and damp, with low clouds clustering and rolling along over the mountains across the water. Every once in a while, a parting in the clouds would open and the opposite shore would be bathed with a golden misty light in a small area, as if the land were glowing all golden and green among the dark and the mists.

A rainbow. We stood there in silence for a few minutes, watching the broad ribbon of light and color thicken and take on, imperceptibly, a brighter presence among the dim gray clouds, above the dark, choppy waters. J. leaned over to me and quoted again that Bible verse, Isaiah 45:3, "And I will give you the treasures of darkness, and hidden riches of secret places, that you may know that it is I, the Lord, which call you by your name..." When she said this, I suddenly felt overwhelmed and almost began to cry. The rainbow continued to grow brighter and brighter, and I took several photographs hoping at least one would come out. Then J. said how it was funny, from here the land over there looked awash in so many colors, but they couldn't see that themselves — all they knew was that they were standing in the light.


I want to remember this. The world, it seemed, had become small. It was intimate and continuous with my body. The mind had been quieted and overruled, its seeking constantly beyond itself quelled in the face of beauty and light and — I don't know. The world has become small. This is what I keep experiencing in these moments — a smallness, a delicacy of detail, as though everything were so close. It is an experience of intimacy, connection, relationship. In the mind, in the realm of the cerebral and theoretical and abstract, everything is right up close, a thought, a split second away — and yet the mind is not ever really getting beyond itself in this — and so at the same time the world seems sprawling and huge, unmanageable and strange.

But when the mind is quieted and brought to attend to the body, the body makes the world intimate and close, immediate as skin, real, in constant contact. The light that reaches my eyes and enters me is that light, there, reflecting from the water only a few feet away. The sound that moves me and moves in ripples through my body is that sound, not an idea of the world, but the world itself present completely and pouring itself into me, pouring itself out into presence, all the time. I'm not sure I can articulate it better than that. The world made intimate. The world has become small.


Day Ten — The Journey into Exile

It's about 8 AM and I'm sitting in Terminal 5 in the London Heathrow airport, waiting for my flight home.

Now, this morning, it doesn't quite all feel real. I can't remember what I dreamed last night, though I know I dreamed, and somehow the past week feels like part of those things half remembered and half imagined.


It's funny how frank the BBC news is. First they had a story about marketers targeting ads at people, very matter-of-factly; next was a story about the British version of American Idol, and the controversy that they were using vocal-correcting technology to alter the tuning of some performers. Again, matter-of-factly, the newscaster asked, "Can you believe everything you see on TV?" Which was intriguing. Unfortunately, they followed it with the question, "And does it really matter?" The implied answer to that last one was, "No. It doesn't." What a twisted, cynical society, that willfully participates in (or apathetically acquiesces to) its own deception.

But now I have the Beatles song in my head: "What would you do if I sang out of tune...?"


It seems we're experiencing a bit of turbulence, and the engine noise is louder than I remember it being. Though that could be because of the turbulence itself and the fact that we're still climbing a bit, I think. I want to write more, but I find it hard to concentrate with the intense humming in my ears.

I just went back and reread the poems I had copied into this notebook several days ago, as well as the bit I wrote after meditating on the shore of the lough. Reading these again, I find myself almost moved to tears. "The journey home is also a journey into exile." I think something has changed in me, perhaps, and I still need more time to work on it, articulate and meditate upon it. These experiences are in my body now, like the seed or bud of a flower, to be nurtured and encouraged to open more fully, to be unlocked or unfolded only over time. I might spend the rest of my life working through the intensity and intimacy of these experiences.


I want very much to live up to this, and to live that life, get my life started, write something really meaningful and powerful. This trip, in some ways, feels too big and important. Sometimes writing seems too banal for something this intense — part of me worries that if I share my reflections, I'll feel frustrated or disappointed.

Things I want to do when I get home: I want to spend some time brainstorming and outlining and reflecting on some more of the many ideas I've had during this trip, on all sorts of topics. I want to distill some of these thoughts down into key phrases and spend some time in meditation and contemplation on them, as well as doing some writing. I want to do the same with some of my memories of the experiences, reliving and re-membering them, working with creative visualizations and journey-work to integrate these experiences and landscapes into my own inner landscape. I want to spend more time out in the woods and the park, maybe talk to Jeff about going camping more frequently.

I want to really live my Druidry, and go back to working regularly on ritual — I want to practice performing ritual for others and for myself out loud, and get down that sort of storytelling that I saw demonstrated so well over the course of this week. I want to get in touch with C. in all seriousness about eventually co-hosting a Christian-Pagan retreat of a similar nature, centered on discussion and contemplation. I think this was perhaps one of the most powerful aspects of this trip — the alternation between group discussion and communal silence. I think sitting in silent contemplation merely as people together, not as Christians of this sort or that sort or non-Christians, but merely all just people unique in our own bodies and yet sharing a world in common — that kind of work could be very powerful.


Day Eleven — The Little Puzzle Box

I'm home.

It was a long journey. Especially the last hour or so, I felt like it just went on and on forever. Getting off the plane and through security was more annoying than it was difficult — long, slow lines with American flags everywhere and CNN blaring on great big television screens with the most inane debate about what to do with all the criminals in our society and if we should let them in public areas like parks. Yes, let's make the world a prison, too. And the security officers just muttered and glared as if they all hate their jobs. And Newark was ugly and concrete, and everything was flat and dead and paved over, and a little part of me ached and rebelled, felt repulsed. We treat the landscape here as a dead thing, and so it becomes a dead thing.

And I'm back in the land of hugeness and sprawling and oozing out in all directions of excess. I miss Ireland, I miss that land. In the car ride home I talked to Jeff, telling him about my trip, the people, everything — but I couldn't talk about the land. As though some spell or geis prevented me. It was just too much, and too sacred, something you don't just spill carelessly out into words.

It was as though, although all my individual life I have lived here in the northeastern U.S.A. and I know these hills and woods — my body knows the hills and greens of Ireland, my blood and bones, my very genes, the stuff I'm made of came from there so much longer ago, and that ancestral memory is still ringing in my bones, resonating more deeply than the surface memories of this one lifetime. Coming home feels in a way like rising back to the surface, or being stretched back away from part of myself — and now I will live with that tension and longing in me, a longing I have always felt to some degree but couldn't articulate or imagine. Now that tension has a memory to go with it, too, an image in my mind to make it real. I need to go back. I need this kind of pilgrimage, back to the land of my ancestors, every once in a while. I need that together-time.

I think I'm a bit in denial and I have to sit with this a while. I almost can't believe I'm back and things are back to "normal," whatever that is. I do not want to lose what I have become and the changes that have entered into me because of my journey, now that I'm not in that landscape anymore. I want to hold the complexity of this journey and begin to unfold it within me. But part of my feels like I don't know how to do it — it's a little puzzle box inside of me that I am turning over and over, and I need to find the words or the ritual to unlock it. Otherwise, I will just grow up around it like an old tree around a barbed-wire fence.


Ireland: green and blueThe landscape shapes us. Of course, I knew this already to some extent — but the landscape here always felt like a skin, a container that I might grow to fill. I was expanding and dissipating, slowly, gradually, like taking a deep breath — except that's not what it was like. But the land, the landscape in Ireland, was a small, secret thing that made its way inside. The land here expands and pulls me ever outwards, beyond myself. But the memory of Ireland — the green, the hills that seemed so close, the sky so close in its blue and clouds — that landscape worked its way inside of me, as though I had swallowed a seed or a fly, and now it is unfolding and growing, gestating in my heart, becoming something new, something larger — it is pushing its way out from the depths of me, so that the movement is not an invitation to dissipate, but a longing, an intense longing towards something. I cannot describe it any way but this — it is like a little puzzle box in my heart, that shifts and stirs and rearranges as it opens. It feels this way within me, within my memory is a world that has become small — and it fits uneasily inside this sprawling, noisy landscape I have returned to. Everything just feels so big and anonymous. When I stop thinking and just try to sit with this feeling — it makes me cry. I'm not sure if it is sorrow or regret or happiness or simply — too much, the shifting, turning and setting loose tears like a vessel that leaks water from the joints whenever it moves. I need better language. I want to write, but I don't know where to start, or how.


Jeff said just now that this country was built on a scale of cars and trains — not on a human scale. Perhaps that's it, that's what this feeling is of everything sprawling and languishing large, and of the landscape pulling back almost as though flinching away from the ripping, grinding hunger of insatiable machines. Even the roads over in Ireland were smaller, narrower, and the house we stayed in, the renewal center, with its narrow halls and twisting corridors.

And now there is this puzzle box in my heart, full of intimate curves and dark, tight spaces. Now I feel perhaps as though I should not unfold it but hold it close and closed, hold it like a precious thing, protected, enclosed within itself, wrapped within itself and its own keeper. Perhaps I should preserve this winding and turning in on itself, and cherish it as the small and precious, delicate, twining thing that it is. An island in the heart, a secret green place to seek, to return to, to dwell in gratitude. And Jeff has lit a tiny green candle in a tiny ceramic holder — and it feels this way to me, as well, a tiny light, a tiny place of green and gold. Perhaps we can work to fill our home with these small spaces, full of small, close things. And fill my writing and poetry with them.

And my body. I want to do something with my body. I want to play my guitar, beautiful blue thing — and practice my song and storytelling.


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  1. Ali, you made me cry again. Beautiful post, poignant and heart-string true.

  2. I'm glad you enjoyed it, Tana. It's funny - reading it today before posting it, I found it hard to remember and relive all of the intense experiences I was writing about at the time.... except for the part about the Beatle's song.

    When I read that line, a sharp, vivid memory came flooding back to me of being in the London airport, completely blitzed with fatigue and dragging my suitcase around behind me from terminal to terminal, singing that song under my breath as I walked past thousands of strangers. It's weird how memory works. From now on, I wonder if that song will always bring with it a pang of... nostalgia or tension or joy or longing or... something, whatever it was I was experiencing at that moment...

  3. I want to get in touch with C. in all seriousness about eventually co-hosting a Christian-Pagan retreat of a similar nature, centered on discussion and contemplation.

    Sounds good to me...

  4. A beautiful description, and a description of beauty. Thanks for the great posting.