Peace: some personal reflections

When we talk about “the ancient druids,” really, we are talking about ourselves – about our ideas of a better way to live, inspired by a time that seems untouched by the degradations of modernity.  And when I revisit the Roman texts (disclaimer: I grew up in a family of Classicists) this is what I find most striking about my adopted spiritual forebears:

The Druids usually abstain from war — Julius Caesar

Often when the combatants are ranged face to face, and swords are drawn and spears are bristling, these men come between the armies and stay the battle, just as wild beasts are sometimes held spellbound. Thus even among the most savage barbarians anger yields to wisdom, and Mars is shamed before the Muses. — Diodorus Siculus

The keen-eyed among you will have spotted those qualifiers: “usually”, “often”, but not always.  The mind harks back to Tacitus’ description of those women in black attire like Furies, with hair dishevelled, waving flaming torches to defend the sacred isle of Mona.  As you might expect among barbarians…

Peace is not pacifism, yet when the debate about the place of peace within druidry spilled beyond the nemeton of the Druid Network and into the more public forms of social media, I often saw the two conflated.  People spoke of their need to defend, to resist, to fight for their beliefs.

How much of this, I wondered, is at odds with peace?

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coffee and creativity

About a year ago, I wrote a blog post reflecting on my caffeine addiction, after learning that caffeine leaches into the sea around our coastal towns and cities and causes molluscs to secrete stress hormones.

I still haven’t kicked the habit, although it mellowed slightly as I left my stressful job, started doing work I loved, and moved into a greener, quieter city.  I am saving myself for September; it gives me a month of long, lazy breakfasts with a full cafetière once my partner returns.  But over the course of the past year, the idea of giving up has become an unavoidable question of when, not whether: the growing sacrifice of ignorance, at the core of my druid path, has left me unable to turn away from the truth that this addiction stunts my spiritual growth (such as it is).

Today, aptly enough, I came across an article on the relationship between caffeine and creativity.  I suppose some part of me – the part of me that secretly pictures myself sipping my black morning coffee on a pavement table in Paris (where I have never been), smoking gauloises (which I have never smoked) – thought that coffee was at least the habit of an intellectual.  But, as the article relates, “the resulting mind-state is one of narrow focus and “hyper-vigilance”: great for ploughing through predetermined tasks, but poor for the insightful forging of connections between disparate ideas.” – as anyone who has ever pulled an all-nighter with the help of a few cans of red bull will know: you do your planning first.  I used to have a formula worked out at peak times of stress: read, plan, drink two cans of red bull, write write write and eventually collapse into a gibbering wreck on the carpet with very little idea of how or what I had managed to write, but safe in the knowledge it was done.

Nimue yesterday wrote a thought-provoking blog post about “Slowing Down for Druidry” in a world that favours speed.  Oddly enough, I read it without much sense of recognition;  I have always tended to take life at my own pace, disappearing into a book (often up a tree) whenever I wanted to slip out of the current of frenzied activity around me.   The habit took me all the way to Cambridge, and I have spent the best part of a decade recovering; my caffeine addiction is the last vestige of those burnout days.  Most of my other harmful crutches fell away once I found my own two feet, but the tiredness stayed with me, and so did the coffee.  The lack of a sense of recognition is what reminded me I still had an addiction to address.

Interestingly, Oliver Burkeman’s article and Nimue’s blog post reached almost the same conclusion, from their different respective directions.  It is not the caffeine, suggests Burkeman, but the ritual associated with the coffee that promotes creativity, creating time and space for the mind to wander in search of inspiration.  This is not coffee drunk in desperate gulps from a paper cup while striding between meetings; it is sacred time.  It is also the best reason I have come across to give up coffee.  Coffee will always be slightly alien to me, as a plant; I drink it because, as a slightly careless borderline-anaemic, it allows me to ignore the warnings of my tired body.  And, as any pagan knows, ignoring your body is ultimately detrimental to the pursuit of creativity.  So I am saving up for a teapot, a fine china cup and a selection of the herbs with which I have the deepest and most powerful relationships.  More than a substitute for coffee, these herbs are what the coffee has been substituting all along: the best medicine for body, mind and soul (not to mention tastebuds).

My favourite ritual was given a wonderful nickname by a former flatmate: teatime with the gods.  Choosing, blending and infusing the herbs, sitting before the altar and sharing a cup of inspiration; it needn’t take any longer than it would to fill a cafetière or boil a percolator, and it goes so much deeper.

1% inspiration

Sitting down to write takes discipline, more discipline than I can muster most days.

Whatever it is that made its home in my chest all those years ago and has crouched there ever since, eating away at the words in the core of my being, it’s part of who I am, now.  The closest I get to creativity is baking bread, and even that is little more than routine, most weeks.  I still sing, sometimes, almost by accident – the songs rise up in me unbidden.  I wouldn’t say I am a singer.  Some nights I feel moved to play guitar, or even (for a laugh) pick up the ukulele; it always makes me happy, though the happiness is tinged with recognition that I could be so much better.  Maybe even now, I could be so much better, if I practised.

What stops me?

I’m sitting down to write this because somebody has died.  It’s too raw, too recent for me to find the right words, and I bitterly wish I could, at least for her daughter’s sake.  At times like these, the experience of living is pared down to the stone-hard seeds of truth buried at the centre of your being.  Life goes crazily on.  Bees buzz in the clover; young lads with their shirts piled on the grass fish for bream; coots bob around their nets; schoolgirls shriek and push each other.  World is crazier, and more of it than we think, Incorrigibly plural.  There are acorns swelling on the burr oak, each one a unique and evanescent presence on this earth.

She was a painter.  Her paintings were wonderful.  Her youngest is a painter, too; a brush for hire, a damn good one.  Her eldest designs and hand-crafts clothes that conjure up fantastic worlds.  A lot of people from those old days, back in Wales, create things for a living – artwork, music, stories.

I don’t want to create things for a living; I want to create things so that I can be more fully alive.

All I have are words.  As recently as yesterday, I thought I’d lost even those – I actually thought I might never think in full prose again.  A small victory for that voracious emptiness living in my chest.  But I keep writing.  Inspired by the wise words of Nimue’s recent blog post, The Quest for Inspiration, I sat down to write today, and I kept writing.

I may never find the words to express the dance of leaf-light on the bare earth beneath the oak tree in the park this evening, nor the words I so desperately wish could comfort my oldest friend – but if I keep writing, keep learning, keep honing the few words that I have, perhaps I really could be so much better.  As long as I am taking up space in the universe, I feel I ought at least to try.