Remembrance in the Thin Time

This month I participated in a holiday that commemorates the blessings one has received in life. No, not Thanksgiving. I’m talking about Samhain.

I had the privilege of attending a Samhain festival at Portland’s St. Peter & Paul Episcopal Church. I’ve long been fascinated with ancient Celtic culture, but never had the opportunity to attend a traditional (reconstructed) celebration before. It was wonderful, and full of surprises.

The first surprise was that an Episcopal church was drawing from a deep well of Celtic Spirituality.  I don’t know much about the Episcopalian tradition, but I had always assumed that as a branch of the Anglican church, their focus would be, well, English and not so much Irish. I had no idea where in Portland I could encounter Celtic Christianity, and now it had found me.

The second surprise was that the service, held in a church, was connected with deep roots that go beyond doctrine or dogma. The ceremony was rooted in two concepts: a circle where all are welcome and all are equal, and the empowerment of everyone present to tell their story.

That was it. No exclusion, no pressure toward religious belief, no attempt at “managing” input beyond invitation and facilitation. Everyone from 10-year-olds to the middle aged was able to don the storyteller’s cloak and tell both of legends dear to them and of their own experiences dearer still. I was blessed, and I’m not just mouthing a ritual word to say that.

The third surprise was an unexpected encounter with my own past.  The Rector, Kurt, explained that Samhain (“Sow-in” or “Sav-an”) is the “Thin Time,” the beginning of Winter where resources strain and life hangs by a thread–but also when the veil between flesh and spirit thins, allowing us greater closeness with those who have gone on, but are still in our hearts.  Like my Dad.

I didn’t attend the Circle expecting to encounter my father. I only knew that I had been invited. But as others shared their memories of departed loved ones, I realized that the window was open for a connection with him. I donned the cloak and told the tale of my father and me: of the heritage and roots he instilled, of the bitter differences we had, of the death that left us unresolved, and of the gifts of love that I carry even through the pain. And I felt his presence for the first time in years.

What happened here? First, I came open to having a meaningful experience, but with no particular expectations. Second, the hospitality of that Circle made a safe space where I could unburden my heart. And third, a context of ritual and tradition was provided that could draw me into a mindframe that I wouldn’t have arrived at on my own.

That’s how community looks. That’s how ritual looks. And that’s how telling stories together looks, whether at bardic circle, church service, or game table. And it’s beautiful.

Peace,

-Joel

Tell your story, ask a question, interpret generously

The response from visitors to my blog has for the most part been cordial, affirming and enriching. But a couple of recent incidents have told me it’s time to make clear how I endeavor to conduct myself here and what I expect from guests in return.

My friend Willem Larsen of the College of Mythic Cartography has developed a set of guidelines for some forums he moderates. The way I hear it, he got so fed up with the choice between pages of nitpicky rules and nebulous “commonsense” standards of niceness, that he boiled down the behavior he was looking for to three simple directives. I find they sum up beautifully how I’d like to interact with people here or anywhere:

Tell your story. Relate your experience, describe your feelings, share your personal knowledge. Instead of responding to others off the cuff with whatever instinctive reaction or opinion comes to mind, dig deep into your own experience that causes you to think or feel that way. Share that. Your story is valuable, and so is everyone else’s. When we share on that level, we can empathize more fully and discover each other’s value.

Ask a Question. If there’s something you don’t understand about someone else’s story, if there’s some detail you think might be relevant, if you think you might have some experience in common…ask. Don’t assume you know what someone “really” meant unless they’ve said it directly. This dovetails nicely with the first guideline–if you can’t understand where someone is coming from, you can always ask, “what experience have you had that led you to that conclusion?” We want to hear each other’s stories, and questions are great for teasing those out and finding common ground.

Interpret Generously. If someone’s statement sounds ridiculous to you, or someone seems to be advocating a reprehensible position, assume for a moment that they’re not. Assume that what they’re saying makes sense, is reasonable, and has value. Try to imagine how that could be. Ask questions to clarify, until you are sure you understand where the person is coming from. ANd if you still find you have differences, you can part ways politely, without anyone being compared to Hitler.

I find this way of communicating to be more human and life-affirming than a lot of modes I’ve tried in person or online. And while it’s a challenge to to break out of old patterns, there’s something freeing in following a simple set of principles instead of having to guess, by gut feeling, whether you’re being “nice,” or “a dick,” or whatever.

Is there room for disagreement under this philosophy? Absolutely, we can disagree quite freely. The only thing we lose is the ability to argue or “debate” in a juvenile, “uh-HUH!” “Nuh-UH!” fashion. Our disagreement is expressed through our experiences and we can be certain that even in our differences we can be truly heard.

That’s the call by which I invite yo all into the hospitality of my space. That’s the standard I’ll expect of you as guests. When there are hiccups and challenges, we’ll work it out through discussion and hopefully continue on in goodwill. If any of us (yes, me too!) stumble and someone points it out, it’s not a “punishment” or a label of “bad person.” Only in persisting in a disruptive behavior might a guest outgrow my hospitality. In the meantime, Welcome. Come and tell your story!