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A 21st Century Wheel of the Year: Resilience at the Spring Equinox

Japanese Knotweed as Guardian of the Waterways (from the Plant Spirit Oracle)

One of the most resilient and enduring plants in the world at present is the Japanese Knotweed.  Japanese Knotweed is also the number one maligned plant in the world, as it is able to adapt to a variety of ecosystems and thrive in terrible conditions and will continue to grow despite the best efforts at humans to remove her.  Japanese Knotweed can withstand multiple direct applications of weed killer and it can handle a wide variety of growing conditions (high and low soil PH, drought, high heat, extreme negative temperatures, flooding, chemical pollution and more).  I would argue that the Japanese knotweed is probably one of the world’s most resilient plants, able to resist almost anything that is thrown at it, and despite interaction and engagement with humans, it can thrive.  I think it’s interesting that Japanese Knotweed also is an outstanding source of food and medicine, as well as nectar for bees and insects.  But if we look to Japanese Knotweed, we see a powerful plant spirit teacher that can offer us a number of qualities that I believe are important for the 21st century, right now, and certainly, into the future. What Japanese Knotweed and many other so-called “invasive” plants teach us is the lesson of resilience.

Another example of an incredibly resilient species is the raccoon, an intelligent omnivorous mammal native to North America. Anyone who has lived in a region with raccoons gets to know them quickly–they are extremely wily, able to break into all sorts of things (like your shed full of chicken food or your chicken coop itself), they can unlock latches, solve puzzles, and have fine motor control. They are quite strong and can break into all sorts of places.  Raccoons are now quite effectively adapting to city life, over cities all over the world; even in a place as inhospitable as a city, the raccoon thrives.  A raccoon is a being that embodies resiliency–a creature that is cunning, intelligent, persistent, and resourceful. Japanese Knotweed and Raccoons offer us powerful lessons in resiliency–and by studying them and other resilient beings in nature, we can start to consider how ew might cultivate and strengthen our own resiliency in these difficult times.

Resiliency is the capacity to adapt, to endure, to quickly recover if damaged, and to dig in and deal with a set of adverse conditions.  I would argue that it is probably the single most important concept that we can explore as humans living in the world today because we face a rapidly changing world with shifting challenges, a changing climate, and increasingly unstable social institutions that no longer offer stability.  Thus, as we consider the Spring Equinox as the other “balance point” in the year, our theme today is cultivating resiliency as a spiritual and physical practice.

A 21st Century Wheel of the Year

In this ongoing series, I am offering an alternative set of themes and practices for the 21st century–considering the traditional neopagan wheel of the year in light of some of what we need in order to transition to a new way of living and being so that we can co-exist peacefully with other life on our beautiful earth.

Previous posts have included receptivity at the Fall Equinox; release at Samhain; restoration at the Winter Solstice, and Reskilling at Imbolc.  If we think about this alternative wheel I’m proposing, it is taking us on a powerful journey to strengthen our spirits and improve our physical and emotional skills to move forward. Thus, as we enter the dark half of the year at the Fall Equinox, we start by being open to change and accepting what comes. We release pain, sadness, anger, and other negative emotions surrounding our predicament at Samhain, follow up with restorative and renewal activities at the Winter Solstice, and then at Imbolc, start to move into the action at Imbolc with reskilling. You can see through this wheel how it is a journey–of releasing expectations, dealing with our own emotions and trauma, restoring and healing ourselves, and then moving into activities that help us prepare for what is to come.  As we move into the balance point at the Spring Equinox, we tackle one of the most critical themes yet–resiliency.

Features of Resilience

Dandelion from the Plant Spirit Oracle

One of the tragedies of modern civilization is that it has created generations of people who are inflexible,  vulnerable, and fragile–humans who have a hard time adapting to change and who are incapable of living without modern conveniences. Our modern way of life has cultivated a deep dependency on the current systems we have in place to feed us, clothe us, provide food for us, and offer us a host of other comforts. The system has been engineered for modern humans to depend fully upon it for their every need. And yet, if the last few years have taught us anything, it’s that the very systems we depend on are more fragile and unpredictable than we thought, and this problem will only grow so as time passes. The solution to this problem is in reskilling and resiliency.  It is in finding ways to depend less upon the problematic systems and instead look to nature directly for our needs.

As Wendell Berry notes in The Unsettling of America: Culture and Agriculture, one of the things our civilization has demanded are increasing degrees of specialization–and with the rise of super-specialists, we lose our ability to take care of our basic human needs.  He advocates a return to the ways of the generalist, where we cultivate a wide range of skills–and in so doing, develop more powerful methods of being resilient.   If you think about it, it makes –throughout human history, nearly all humans had a basic set of skills that allowed them to clothe themselves, feed themselves, provide shelter, find clean water, perform healing, and a host of other basic needs.  It is only with the rise of industrialization and the modern era that these have been forgotten.  But if we are going to be more resilient, its useful to think about how we can return to some of these ancestral ways.

Resiliency is a combination of having the right mindsets and being able to solve problems (drawing upon skills, knowledge, and resources).  It is about having a positive mindset, cultivating a creative and adaptable way of thinking, along with having a toolbox of skills, techniques, and knowledge that you can draw upon as needed.  Since we’ve already covered the skills in discussing reskilling and Imbolc, today, I want to focus on cultivating resilient mindsets, which involve a host of factors.

  • Recovery. Perhaps the defining feature of resilience is the ability to recover after a serious setback, challenge, or trauma.  Rather than giving up in defeat or accepting your setback, when you cultivate recovery, you cultivate an ability to find a way forward.
  • Being adaptable  Tied directly to recovery is adaptability, or being able to pivot quickly in the event of adversity or difficulty. Being adaptable allows us to face challenges and changes quickly and effectively.
  • Accepting Change and accepting what we cannot change. A necessary part of recovery and adaptability is being willing to accept change. It seems like a simple thing, but it is truly a difficult thing to do for humans to do, particularly those in modern cultures.
  • Seizing Opportunity.  Capitalizing on opportunity is another key feature of resilience.  be like the dandelion that grows out o the crack in the sidewalk–see where changes have created new opportunities, and anticipate those.
  • Applying Creativity. A lot of resiliency is about creative problem-solving.  How can you do something in a new way? How can you meet a need when what you used to use to meet it is no longer available?

Just as the Japanese Knotweed and raccoon can offer us powerful lessons of resilience, we can begin cultivating resilience in our own lives by observing the lessons of nature. Even in a stable climate, all of nature requires resourcefulness to survive, thrive, and adapt. When you spend time in the natural world, you are reminded of these powerful lessons.

I actually went into great detail about physical and mental resiliency in my post last year, so I’m going to direct you there for more on physical residency.  For the rest of today’s post, I’ll focus on a specific ritual and spiritual journey you can do at the Spring Equinox that can help you cultivate a more resilient mindset.

A Spring Equinox Resilience Ritual and Journey

Of course, mindsets determine actions.  If we can cultivate resiliency within, then when times get tough on a physical level, we are drawing upon that well of inner resiliency.  What I describe is a practice that I’ve been doing for a number of years that helps me learn deep lessons from nature from my local ecosystem.  You can start this journey at the Spring Equinox, but it does have the option to lead you to deeper work throughout the year.

Step 1: Seeking a Resilient Plant or Animal Teacher

One of my teachers literally tried to come in the house!

One of my teachers literally tried to come in the house!

The first step of the journey is going out into the world and deeply observing and interacting.  Your goal is to find a plant, animal, or even insect that offers resiliency.  This animal or plant should be something that you can directly observe or see the effects of that animal (e.g. if you are looking for a raccoon, you might not be able to see them directly but can see their tracks and/or put up a trail cam to learn more about their activities). Plants are obviously a little easier, you may just find them growing and can observe. I’ve given two examples at the start of this post of those I’ve worked with: the Japanese Knotweed and the Raccoon.

Thus, start by going out and setting your intentions for this work.  Go outside to a quiet place, and speak directly to the world around you.  Ask, in your own words, for nature to send you a messenger or teacher that will teach you about resiliency.  Then observe, interact, see what you find and who comes to you.  Use your intuition here–see where you are led and drawn.  Accept whoever comes to you (it is so much better for this work if we set aside preconceived notions or expectations).

This kind of approach can be done anywhere: urban, rural, wild places, etc.  It is as effective in an urban environment as in a wild one–for example, I once did this while I was in New York City, and I spent three lovely days observing and learning from the city’s pigeon population–they were amazing to see how adaptable and cunning they were.

Step 2: Outer Observations

Once you’ve found a resilient natural teacher who you are drawn to, spend time observing and interacting with your animal or plant teacher.  Learn what you can about them.  Observe them in the world in whatever ways you can.  Consider how they offer lessons in resilience.

For example, if you decide to focus on dandelion (a perfect choice this time of year), you might spend time seeking out dandelions in your town, looking at how and where they grow. You might draw upon what you already know about the dandelion.

Step 3: Spirit Journey for Deep Teachings

Any physical connexion is going to help you open up a spiritual connection. In the druid tradition, many of us work with the idea of an “inner grove” or a space that we have on the astral that is safe and that we visit often (different traditions teach this differently, but it seems to be a common feature)*. This journey uses the inner grove as a starting point for a journey with your chosen plant or animal teacher.  If you are new to spirit journeying, you might check out this post.

Begin by opening up a sacred space (I use AODA’s solitary grove opening).  Once your sacred grove is open, you will want to put yourself into a quiet, focused place.  For this, I suggest getting into a comfortable position and doing some of the four-fold breath: breathe in for four counts; gently hold for four counts; breathe out for counts; gently hold for four counts, and repeat.  After a few minutes of this, you should have quieted your mind and prepared yourself for the journey.

Now, speak your intentions about the journey in your own words.  For example, “Dandelion, I seek your continued teachings to help me cultivate resilience in my life.  Will you come and offer me your spirit teachings?”

Now, enter your inner sacred grove.  If this is a new activity for you, most people first envision themselves on a path into the forest.  Work to build your inner senses, noting the colors, shapes, smell, sounds, as you walk. As you enter your grove, your animal or plant teacher will be there to guide you on a journey.

Once your journey is finished, offer gratitude and respect to your plant or animal teacher.

Step 4: Gratitude and Offerings

At the end of this process, I strongly suggest making some kind of meaningful offering to the plant or animal teacher on the physical world.  Leave food offerings out for the raccoon, help spread the seeds of the dandelion, create positive artwork about the Japanese Knotweed, or whatever other gifts of your time and energy you can.

You might find that this plant or animal will continue to be a teacher for you, offering lessons.  Or it may be that you will need to seek them out again. Whatever your longer-term relationship is, know that you can always continue to meet with them physically and metaphysically to learn more and grow.

Conclusion

The above is a great way to start thinking about resilience as a spiritual practice and how we can begin to cultivate and integrate a mindset of resilience.  I think that when we can do the work of spirit, then it becomes easier to manifest that into our physical existence.  I’m also grateful of the many lessons of Japanese Knotweed, Dandelion, and Raccoon–what they have taught me has helped me to learn to be adaptable, resilient, and strong in the face of so much.

 

Taking up the Path of the Bard III: Practice makes Perfect

“You have so much talent” or “I’m not talented enough” are powerful statements, statements I hear on a regular basis from those who long for a creative practice. The idea of talent can cause an incredible amount of inaction, of people not feeling they are “good enough” to even try.  I see this, in particular, with the visual arts. But the first time you put pen to paper, if you aren’t Picasso or Monet, you might as well forget about it. This larger cultural ideal, of course, seems at odds with the druid tradition where Eisteddfod and the channeling of Awen are central to our spiritual life. In the druid tradition, creativity isn’t about producing something of commercial value or high quality, its about the channeling of creativity for spiritual purposes. But for those coming out of mainstream Western culture with all of the cultural baggage, this can be difficult to institute such a mindset shift.

 

As I mentioned in my post last week, the reason I took the last few weeks off of blogging was so that I could turn my attention to another project–doing the analysis and writing the paper for the OBOD’s 19th Mt. Haemus lecture. My work in the mundane world is as a professor and a learning researcher; I study how people learn, develop over time, and transfer/adapt that learning to a wide variety of circumstances.  And so, understanding bardic development as a learning process is tied to some of that broader research I’ve been doing for a long time. Over the last five months, I conducted an empirical study of the bardic arts in the druid tradition, surveying 266 druids from 9 countries as well doing in-depth interviews 14 participants at different points in their bardic development. I talked to people about their bardic arts, their successes, their struggles, and gained a deep understanding of what the bardic arts do–and can do–for us as a spiritual practice.  The results were heartening, uplifting, and amazing.  The study itself will be published by OBOD on Beltane 2018 (and I’ll share a link on the blog when it is posted) so I’m not going to talk too much about it here.  However, I did want to share a specific piece of the study, almost a prequel if you will, and talk more about the bardic arts from a developmental perspective.

 

You’ve Got Talent!

In the process of doing this research and just over time in in sharing my own visual art, it seems clear that words alone are not enough to encourage people to break through the “talent” barrier and create, even for those who long for such a creative/bardic practice. In the last few weeks, I have had conversations with people about the study, and multiple conversations go something like this:

 

Friend: Dana, you are so talented! You should sell your work!

Me: Actually, I practice a lot.  I spend at least 10-15 hours in my art studio most weeks, and have done that for over 12 years.

Friend: I wish I had your talent!

Me: If you set your mind to it and devoted effort, you could make great strides and produce things you are happy with.

Friend: No, I’m not good at it.  I just couldn’t. I don’t know where to begin. 

Me: No, really, you could.  You just have to start somewhere and keep practicing. Take a class.  Come here, we can do art together.

Friend: It’s easy for you to say that because you are talented.

Me.: I haven’t always been this way. I have to work hard. 

Friend: I’ll never be talented like you.

Me: …

 

The problem with this conversation is at least twofold: first, the person assumes that because they aren’t “good” at something the first time they try it, they shouldn’t try at all. Yet, if we know one thing in educational research and human history, it is that humans have an incredible capacity to learn and adapt over time.  Denying oneself the opportunity to learn something new, grow, and learn a new skill is almost like denying that innovative and creative part of yourself that longs for expression. In fact, studies of human development in a variety of contexts (including some of my own exploring writers’ development over long periods of time) show that even people who aren’t “good” at all when they start can gain incredible amounts of proficiency and skill in the long run.  The key is taking the first steps on that path. The second challenge with this conversation, from my perspective, is that anything I say doesn’t make a difference because I am “talented.”  After several frustrating conversations just like this, and in seeing where some of my study participants struggled,  I realize that maybe the best way to address this issue isn’t in conversation, but rather, with actual physical evidence of an artist’s development over a period of time. And so, in the remainder of this post, I wanted to share a bit of my own bardic development.  I use myself as a model for a few reasons.  First, I am finding myself more and more often in a place where people talk about how I’m “very talented” and it “comes naturally” (incredibly ironic, given the rest of this post!)  Second, I think the only way for people to understand how real learning happens is to have good models, models not just of success, but also of how people worked through failure, so I’m hoping to provide one. The truth is, regardless of how much I love doing  art and the spiritual benefits it offers, I still have to work hard at it, and have worked hard at it for 12 years, and that counts for a lot more than any innate “talent” I may have had when I first picked up a paintbrush.  And I still have plenty of times where it doesn’t work out well, lots of “failures” and attempts that don’t pan out.

 

 

A Story of Bardic Development

When I was a child, I grew up in a family of artists; my parents were graphic designers, and that’s how they made their living. I made a lot of art as a child, but as a teenager starting to consider options for my future, I distanced myself from it.  To me, art was associated with not having enough, and I watched my parents struggle to make ends meet in a rust belt economy that was quickly seeing all of their clients leave the area.  Art, to me, was a thing I couldn’t do, something forbidden, some that would somehow pull me into that world of economic struggle.  Becuase I loved art so much, I felt I would get sucked into it, and end up loving it so much that I wouldn’t want to do anything else.  Circular logic, to be sure, but it prevented me from doing any art from about the age 15 to the age 25. When I decided to attend college and was trying to select a major, my parents asked me to do anything but be an artist. After one year as a miserable computer science student, I settled on Writing instead (which was another love of mine). But all through this time, I wouldn’t let myself near art supplies, I wouldn’t create, and I certainly wouldn’t think about art.

 

When I was 25, so many things in my world shifted.  I lost a dear friend to cancer, I found my spiritual path of druidry, and congruently, as part of my own bardic/spiritual practice, I began to seriously take up visual arts again: painting, primarily, but also a range of other art forms (jewelry, mixed media, bookbinding, etc).  Of course, I hadn’t practiced artwork in over a decade.  I didn’t have a style, I didn’t have a theme, I just knew that in my pain and sorrow, I wanted to do something creative.  I wanted to visualize it, to paint out the pain, so to speak, and so I bought some supplies and started painting.  I hadn’t practiced much, I wasn’t very good, and I had no idea what I was doing.

 

Example #1: Artist Trading Cards

Fairly quickly, I stumbled upon something called Artist Trading Cards (ATCs) which were great for my graduate student budget and time–they were little 2.5 x 3.5″ pieces of artwork that artists made and traded all over the world through various websites. I wasn’t very good at these and my first attempts were lackluster, but the community was super supportive (with no judgement) and I quickly realized how much I enjoyed creating these small works of art. After may failed attempts (which I didn’t photograph, unfortunately), I started trading them with people.  So in 2006-2008 or so, my mini works of art I was willing to trade and photograph looked a lot like this:

Attempt at Abstract art

Attempt at Abstract art, Circa 2006

Watercolor Tree 1 (Circa 2006)

Watercolor Tree 1, 2006

Watercolor Bonsai tree (Circa 2006)

Watercolor Bonsai tree, 2006

As I continued to paint hundreds of these cards, and challenge myself outside of my normal media, I started getting better. A lot better.  I took classes, I explored different media, I focused on the technical aspects of the craft. I watched a lot of YouTube to see how other artists went about their process. I took on challenges that I knew were too hard so that I’d get better even if I failed in the attempt.  I kept trying to hone my craft as an artist.  I started a “reject” box for all the art that I wasn’t happy with and didn’t want to trade; I saw that box as my “improvement” and “practice” box. As I improved, I developed a style, found tools and media that I really liked (a particular kind of paper, a particular brush, a particular paint) that I could rely on for effect.  And I improved:

Whimsical Tree, Circa 2010

Whimsical Tree, Circa 2010

Wintry Trees, Circa 2011

Wintry Trees, Circa 2011

Three trees, watercolor and ink, 2010

Three trees, watercolor and ink, 2010

I did these little pieces of art seriously for about 7 years.  In that time, I painted literally thousands of them.  I know this because each one I painted, I traded to another artist and I have a shelf of binders full of the pieces I received in return still in my art studio to this day.  Thousands and thousands of mini paintings on variety of subjects (but about half of them trees) will certainly help you improve.  Just recently, at the start of 2018, I completed some more ATCs as gifts for my interview participants in the Bardic Study.  My style and complexity have continued to improve, so here’s where I’m at with this same size  (and same paints/media/paper that I like):

 

Watercolor Awen Tree #1, 2018

Watercolor Awen Tree #1, 2018

Watercolor Awen Tree #2, 2018

Watercolor Awen Tree #2, 2018

Watercolor Awen Tree #2, 2018

Watercolor Awen Tree #2, 2018

Practice and dedication to one’s art, over a period of time, produces results.  Is there something to be said for vision, for inspiration, and for “talent”?  Perhaps, but I don’t think any of that is what has gotten me to where I am today.  What got me here was a willingness to make mistakes, a willingness to try and attempt, a dedication to improving my skill, and a lot of hard work and determination.  What keeps me going are the intrinsic and spiritual benefits I gain from such a practice.

 

Example #2: Tarot of Trees and new Healing Plant Spirit Oracle

As a second example, which in some ways is much more drastic because it is at a larger size, we might look at the comparison between my self-published tarot deck, the Tarot of Trees and a new project I’m currently working on. The Tarot of Trees reflects my skill level between 2008-2009 after I had been painting a few years; my new project, the Healing Plant Spirit Oracle reflects my style in 2016-2018.  The Tarot of Trees really pushed my skills at the time and also helped me really establish not only my own artistic style, but also, the synthesis of the creative arts with my spirituality–a true bardic art.  I did these as sacred artwork, completing them in a sacred grove, painting, channeling the Awen.  And like any of my other paintings and projects, I had a few that didn’t end up in the deck and didn’t pan out, but that’s part of the process.  Here are two of my favorite cards from the Tarot of Trees:

The Empress, Tarot of Trees (2008)

The Empress, Tarot of Trees (2008)

The fool from the Tarot of Trees (2008)

The fool from the Tarot of Trees (2008)

My newest oracle project got underway in 2016–a series of plant spirit paintings, reflecting the spirit of healing plants.  I’ve been really, again, working on the synthesis between my technical skill and spiritual practices. To deepen my technical skill, particularly my drawing skill, I’ve been doing individualized drawing study and studying the work of other artists. I’ve also gotten regular expert feedback from artists on these pieces.  These plant spirit paintings are, once again, pushing me out of my comfort zone.  Here are a few of my favorite pieces from the series (which I hope to have complete by 2020):

Spirit of Goldenrod, 2016

Spirit of Goldenrod, 2016

Spirit of Poison Ivy, 2017

Spirit of Poison Ivy, 2017

Spirit of Blackberry/Bramble, 2016Spirit of Blackberry/Bramble, 2016

Spirit of Blackberry/Bramble, 2016

Certainly there is magic here, but it lies not raw talent, but rather, the careful application of the skills I’ve honed to bring forth a particular vision combined with channeling the Awen that is flowing. Paintings like these don’t happen without considerable effort and work–I do a lot of meditation, journeying, sketching, and more to manifest them in the world. As evidence of this, here is a page from my sketchbook that shows just this for poison ivy (I worked on the sketches for this for several sittings before doing a larger sketch that led to the painting):

Poison Ivy sketch

Poison Ivy sketch

 

Concluding Thoughts

I think its easy to look at, see, or hear something beautiful and feel that the piece must have emerged out of the ether and is the result of some mystical talent. And yet, I’m a druid who channels Awen and even I don’t believe that. For every person I know who has considerable skill and expertise (notice how I’m avoiding the word “talent” here), I know that their work is a product of years of dedication to their craft. In fact,  think the most ironic thing about the whole “talent” challenge in modern society is that by ascribing to this idea of talent, it undermines the hard work that people who are dedicated to an art or craft take to hone their skill. By telling someone that they are talented, we reinforce the idea that it magically happens and you either have it or you don’t–and in my experience, this couldn’t be further from the truth.  It disempowers the speaker, it disregards the effort of the person who has practiced, and it makes the bardic arts unattainable for many.  In truth, we all can improve, we all can become highly skilled, if we put the time into it.

 

So how do we do this?  My earlier pieces in this series, Taking up the Path of the Bard part I and Taking up the Path of the Bard, Part II, offered details and discussion of how we can begin to develop creative and spiritual practice in our own lives. I’ve talked about the bardic arts as a spiritual practice, the historical idea of honing skill, channeling the flow of Awen, and other kinds of rituals to help empower us as bards.  Hopefully, among all of these blog posts, you’ll find something of value!

 

Blessings upon your bardic journey and may the Awen flow within!

 

Taking up the Path of the Bard, Part I

Bardic Artistic Expression through Clay, Sand, and Straw (cob)!

Bardic Artistic Expression through Clay, Sand, and Straw (cob)!  (This is part of a tree piece I collaborated on at Strawbale Studio in Michigan)

A group of people sharing stories and songs by the fire. A fine pair of leather shoes. A beautiful woven garment. A tale full of twists and mystery. Finely wrought iron doors. An amazing wood carving on a stump. A marble sculpture. A wildly painted mural on a wall. A cob structure with whimsical trees and forms. A song that reaches deep within you when you hear it.  A rousing speech. Each of these, and so many others, represent the natural creative expressions of humanity. Taking up the path of the bard is one of three paths in the druid tradition (along with the work of the Ovate and the Druid). Yet, many people aren’t sure how to take up the path of the bard because they don’t think they are “creative” or “talented” enough.  However, the bardic arts are part of our human heritage and birthright, and each of us has that possibility. I believe it is essential that we have an opportunity to cultivate them and to embrace the flow of awen in our lives. This post, part my longer series on the bardic arts, explores the nature of the bardic arts, how to take them up, and how to become proficient at them. The goal of this two-part post is to answer the two basic questions:

 

  • How can we make the bardic arts accessible to every person?
  • How can you begin to take up a bardic art yourself, regardless of skill level?

 

To explore our two questions, in this week’s post we’ll begin by examining some definitions of the bardic arts.  Then, we’ll explore common challenges people face with taking up the bardic path and the roots of some of these challenges.  Next week, we’ll discuss how, regardless of “talent” or starting point, you can become proficient at a bardic art and offer you tools to get started or continue that process.

 

What are the bardic arts?

For the druid path, the bardic arts, or a wide variety of creative expressions, are central to the practice of druidry.  The ancient bards invoked the “Awen”; the awen is  the inspiration, the muse of inspiration, or the spark of creativity that flows. Likewise, modern druids intone and invoke the Awen in our practices often and draw upon the flow of awen for creative works. I talked more about the awen in last week’s post and more about this centrality of connecting to the creative arts in my recent post on connection as the core philosophy of the druid tradition. 

 

By “bardic arts,” I refer to a wide variety of creative and skilled expressions that can fall into four broad categories:

 

  • Performing arts: including music, theater, dance, movement, storytelling, singing, acting, and so on.
  • Fine arts: including painting, sculpture, drawing, photography, printmaking, and so on.
  • Literary arts: including writing poetry, songwriting, writing prose, and any kind of writing that requires craft and skill
  • Fine crafts: including fiber arts, metalwork/smithing, pottery, glasswork, woodwork, bookbinding, papermaking, and so on.

 

I recognize that many of these categories overlap, and all are inherently performative in nature and allow a bard to engage in some form of self-expression.  One possibility to add to this list might also include “digital arts” of various kinds (film, 3d design and printing, etc) although I’m sticking here to comments on more traditional bardic arts. A second possibility might be culinary arts or other kinds of creations.

           

Challenging Social Structures and Creative Expression

So now that we have some idea of what the bardic arts are, we can begin to dig into the challenging social structures and cultural inhibitions against creating that prevent more people from taking up the path of the bard. Because it isn’t until we understand the problems we face in cultivating the bardic arts that we can find ways of addressing those issues.

 

Growing Up and the Langauge of Disempowerment

Children are the most natural bards of all. Young children do not have the cultural inhibitions against creating that many adolescents and adults later develop.  In fact, young children instead create constantly: a group of children with crayons and paper will quickly create numerous colorful drawings, sharing them with each other. Another day, children might create complex sandcastles or fingerpaint on the wall or draw pictures in the soil outside.  They are happy to sing, dance, and create anything. No one has to teach these children to be creative; they might need to be taught how to use the markers, but a healthy child will create, often to excess, without hesitation or judgment.  Further, children aren’t judgemental of their creative work: they create becuase it brings them joy, not necessarily, because they are creating masterpieces.

By the time that that bardic-arts loving child goes through mass education, however, his or her willingness to pick up a crayon again is often greatly diminished. By the time that child is a teenager, their creative spirit is often replaced with narratives of disempowerment.  They might now say, “I’m not creative” or, when experiencing another’s bardic expressions say, “I could never do that” or “I’m not talented* like you.” They say, “I could never be a [musician/artist/etc.].”

 

How many of you have heard statements like these or said them yourself?  I have heard hundreds of people over the years say these things. Our words have power,  and the kind of statements above is the language of disempowerment. This kind of language prevents us from taking up the path of the bard, and it stifles any chance of creativity. The more we say these things, the more we reinfoce the idea that we are not creative, not talented, and not capable of creative work.

 

(*The etymology of the term “talent” is also worth exploring here. The original term “talent” is a unit of Roman currency. The “Parable of the Talents” within the Christian tradition tells a story of a master who gives three servants different numbers of coins. Two of the servants invest their coins and gain additional talents. The third servant buries it in the earth to prevent losing it; this servant is punished by his master. The moral here is that if we invest in our talents, we gain.)

 

Cultural Sources of Creative Disempowerment

Playing music from the 1750's

Playing music from the 1750’s

What exactly happens in western culture to turn happy and creative children into disempowered teens and adults? I hold that it has at least six sources of disempowerment, each of which is worth considering to help us begin to remove the cultural blocks on the creative spirit and the flow of Awen.

 

Celebration of the Exceptional. Because western culture celebrates and elevates that which is exceptional, it makes average people believe that the bardic arts are only worth pursuing if they are highly “talented.”  Mass media constantly parades exceptional skill/talent in our screens and in our faces, making any of our own efforts appear less than satisfactory. For example, the culture of celebrity prevalent in Westernized media elevates professional entertainers, craftspeople, and artists. It is their work that we consume and their work fills our homes and our lives, stifling our own. The phenomenon of television shows celebrating exceptional “talent” (The Voice, America’s Got Talent, American Idol, etc.) is a telling example here. Tens of thousands of people come out to compete for a chance to win what is, essentially, a highly publicized talent show. Those who aren’t exceptional are literally mocked on national television, and as the show goes on, in the end one or two are elevated to celebrity status. Their music or other creative talents are consumed by millions across the land.

 

Active and Passive Entertainment. The above example directly leads us to the second cultural challenge: the everyday people are discouraged from actively providing their own entertainment. The proliferation of mass media being broadcast into every home ensures that one is so immersed in the creations of others that one has little time, or desire, to create for themselves. One of the things the modern druid movement does is bring back the Eisteddfod, the bardic circle, and celebrates the telling of stories, singing of songs, playing of music, and encourages each person (regardless of ability) to share, actively taking entertainment back into our own hands.

 

Deferring to the Experts. The culture of celebrity also encourages us to “defer” to the experts—those professional entertainers, artists, musicians, and so on who hold exceptional talent are the only ones who hold power. In the Unsettling of America, Wendell Berry cautions against trusting a “specialist” for everything: we have specialists who are in charge of our health, specialists who are in charge of growing our food, and specialists who are in charge of our entertainment (among many other things). An adult living in western society has, literally, decades of practice being conditioned to defer to experts for his/her basic needs, and unfortunately, the creative arts are no exception.  This is disempowering and doesn’t encourage one to take up the bardic arts.

 

Remote Creative Expressions. A fourth challenge present that the celebrity/expert culture puts creative expression in the hands of distant strangers rather than local people in the community. You don’t personally know the celebrities that are providing your entertainment or arts; they are remote, distanced strangers who aren’t accessible to you in any other way. This reduces the chance for you to learn, to ask questions, and to see that any person can cultivate a bardic art.

 

Belief in Innate Talent. Fifth, we have a powerful and prevailing cultural belief in innate talent. This has two sides. First, there is the belief that only those with innate or extraordinary talents should take up creative expressions (because those are the only people who could make money at doing it, see next challenge below). Schools–and individuals–work to elevate those rare individuals with “gifted” or extraordinary people while serving to disempower those who don’t immediately display such gifts. Secondly, there is the idea that a person must already be good at something in order to pursue it. Often, others seek to disempower you if you aren’t as good or are just learning–and this can be stifling.  There is no room for practice or someone who is just “good enough.” Over a lifetime, these beliefs severely disempower those who may have an interest in learning a new bardic art but aren’t immediately masters when they begin (and really, who is?). This leads to disempowerment and people not even trying a new bardic art becuase they aren’t immediatel good at it.

 

Creative Gifts tied to Material Wealth. A final source of disempowerment comes in the form of the expectation and assumption of financial gain. In a materialistic culture, every serious pursuit is expected to be of some financial benefit. This discourages both those who want to enjoy creative gifts for their own sake in a position of constantly explaining “I don’t sell my work” and those who are interested in taking up a bardic art in a disempowered position.  This also leads to the idea that if your work isn’t good enough to sell, you shouldn’t be doing it.  If it can’t be monitized, it has no real value and isn’t worth your time.  Obviously, this is false, but it is still pervasive.

 

Spirit of Poison Ivy, a recent painting I did with the help of the flow of Awen

Spirit of Poison Ivy, a recent painting I finished with the help of the flow of Awen

To demonstrate some of these cultural challenges, I’ll use myself as an example. I have a panflute, which I play occasionally. Although I have a good ear for music, I’m not that good at my panflute because I don’t practice enough. This is because I choose to devote most of my time to my writing and visual arts.  So when I play my panflute,  I usually mess up a bit – it is a challenging instrument to play. I don’t care if I make a few mistakes, and neither do the trees I am playing for. But people do–they expect flawless, expert performances. I have had people tell me, “don’t quit your day job” after hearing me play. My singing is even worse–I have not taken voice lessons nor do I have a very strong voice, but I like to sing anyways.  If I sing or play the flute and others hear me, it is not seen as a positive thing, but rather, I experience a lot of discouragement.

 

On the other hand, I am a highly skilled artist.  This is becuase I grew up in a house with two parents who were professional artists and because I have dedicated myself to my art and practice it at least several times a week for over decade.  If I share my work, I often will hear the “you are so talented, I could never do that” statements.  These statements both disempower the speaker and disregard the thousands of hours that I have put into my artwork to be able to get to the level where I am. I also hear, “you should sell your work” as if commercializing it is the ultimate compliment.  My art is part of my spiritual path and making money from it isn’t the point of it. But the only models we have, culturally, suggest to be successful as a bard is to be *really* good at it and to make a profit.

 

Breaking Away from Cultural Challenges: Local Bardic Communities

Despite the above cultural challenges, a good number of everyday people break out of these narratives and engage in the bardic arts, often developing local communities of bards. You see these endeavors through initiatives such as community theaters, community orchestras, local wood carving guilds, artist associations, local art shows, local singing groups, local craft guilds, and more. These groups not only support those engaged in the bardic arts in further developing their talents but offer places for everyday community members to be exposed to artists who are ordinary people and who are engaged in the creative works. In other words, these local community groups serve as counter-narratives to the above problems in at least four ways:

 

  1. They demonstrate that everyday people (neighbors, friends, family members) can engage in creative expressions
  2. They demonstrate active role in one’s own entertainment/creative expression rather than handing this over to specialists
  3. They accept the idea that being “good” at something is good enough*
  4. And, they demonstrate that bardic arts don’t have to be done only for profit, but simply, for pleasure

 

Here, I point to a scene in John Michael Greer’s Retrotopia, where the main character goes to see a theater performance and comments that the singing and acting were “good” and an enjoyable time was had by all. The point being made here is that entertainment doesn’t need to be done by only the exceptional—being “good enough” still leads to enjoyment.

 

Despite serious cultural challenges, the creative flow of awen hasn’t completely been lost from the common folk! So hopefully at this point, we can see the roots of some of these common cultural challenges and through this illustration, we can begin to break out of the challenges and embrace our creativity. Next week, we turn to a discussion of how to cultivate your creative gifts as a bard and cultivate and join communities of bards. In the meantime, perhaps this week, take some time for whatever bardic pursuit you enjoy (or are thinking about taking up!)

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