A few days later, Aoife went online again, but this time on a different mission. In the search box she typed in “druid groups.” She had been looking for a group for several years, and always came up empty handed. In the desert there simply weren’t any groups for hours. It would turn out, however, that now she would find what she was looking for. She happened on a small group, called a seed group, and they were meeting in her area. Friends, she thought excitedly. Not only could she have a spiritual community at last, she could also make friends. It was great to have friends in the otherworld, but she needed friends in this world as well. And, as much as she loved her siblings, well, they were siblings.
Eagerly, Aoife sent in her contact information and agreed to be at the next meeting in two weeks. Elated, she decided to celebrate her find by taking a long stroll through the woods. She grabbed her cell phone, just in case she got lost or hurt, and her keys, and stepped out into the world beyond her four walls. It was sixty degrees out, but it was sunny and the breeze that played with wisps of her hair as she walked downstairs to the main road was soothing and kind. It was a good mile to the heart of the woods where her spirit took refuge and loved to explore. Aoife started out briskly, as she was suddenly filled with the sheer delight of being able to move and be a part of such a beautiful landscape.
As she almost meditatively walked the streets of her town, oblivious to everyone around her, enjoying the wonderful day, her mind flashed back to one of the fianna’s stories she had read a few days before. In that story, they were debating over what was the finest music in the world. Fionn had told his friends that the greatest music was the music of what happens. Aoife loved this immensely. Obviously, she reflected, the whole point of being here in this world was to be a part of all that happens in it. The joy, the crying, the laughter, the footsteps of a lost one, dreams and wanting and needing and standing your ground and arguing and learning and wondering and it just went on and on and on. If the earth had its own music, if everyone on earth had their own song, the music of what happens would be akin to a symphony ringing out the existence of such beings as ourselves throughout the whole universe. Sound, of course, never dissipates and moves forever. This is one reason, Aoife knew, to always be attentive to what you say to yourself and others, because it was preserved throughout time as part of the history of this planet’s vast plethora of audible and inaudible vibration. This was basic physics at its best.
So as Aoife walked, she did something she rarely did: she closed her eyes and listened. She had walked the road so many times, and the sidewalks were so predictable and safe, that for a while she simply moved through sound, let it wash over her, until she resonated with the world she passed through, until she became a part of the sound of what happens. A crow flew overhead, cahing a warning that pierced the sky. Chickadees chattered away in the trees. The trees’ leaves swished in the wind. There was the almost imperceptible sigh of roots pulling water into the trunks of their trees. The trunks barely moved at all, but surely they made a noise when they grew. Didn’t children have a sound of growing, as well as newly born animals, minds, love, and all things that grow? Doves called out to one another. The air whispered. Aoife’s shoes crunched the leaves underfoot, lightly touched the tree roots poking up in sidewalk cracks, uniting sun and earth, just one more threshold to ponder.
As she neared the woods, eyes still closed, she could almost hear the whispered murmurings of the creek she knew would soon be on her left, meandering along the path she always took. The water gurgled and laughed and played, and told a secret within earshot of all who passed by, who would surely have grasped it’s meaning if they only knew its language. The reeds that lined the creek had their own songs too, songs that the birds knew, and the birds sang them full throated and in wonder, but the people of the world could not understand or even mimic them. The stones in the creek, undoubtedly, would have messages of their own, messages of water along smooth pebble, of pebbles among each other, of silt and sand and things swimming over them and things living in between them. Aoife walked in awe of all this pulsing, changing, rhythm of music around her that she suddenly could experience, if not ironically, put into words. She had stopped at the point where the woods met the road, and even the boundary had its own hum which though Aoife could not hear, she could feel. Her body radiated with energy. It was as if a small current was running through her blood, connecting her to the earth below her and the sky above her. She lost her own rhythm within the motion of the landscape that filled her with a power that was strange and captivating and familiar, like a childhood home, as if she had never known and had always known the pattern it wove into her flesh-and-bone self.
For a long time Aoife stood perfectly still, and then sensing that she needed to move on, she opened her eyes. She allowed time for the suddenness of vision and light to once again become normality, and then proceeded on her way. She walked for about an hour before her cell phone rang. . Aoife stopped, perturbed that someone was interrupting her quiet, and was even more disappointed when the call turned out to not come from someone she wanted to talk to.
“Hello?” she asked tentatively.
It was a pharmacist calling to inform her that her prescription that she’d requested in the mail was no longer available in the dose she needed. Irritated, Aoife spent quite a while arguing with the pharmacist over whether she could still get the prescription in the mail. From her remote little place in the world, the nearest pharmacy was over an hour away by car and she had better things to do. Also, she didn’t have a car. It was one of her ways to refrain from contributing to global warming.
Aoife hated bureaucracies. They were such a waste of time, and made her feel small and inadequate. In her lifetime, Aoife had spent a lot of time advocating for others, but when it came to herself there was always a nagging fear that she didn’t deserve for things to go well. While she was getting her PH.D., she had had experiences time and time again of her ideas being dismissed. She barely finished what she had started because of so many voices telling her she couldn’t, and she shouldn’t, and she wasn’t good enough. Aoife had internalized those voices. Even though a part of her resisted their devaluation of her, another more sinister side of herself whispered into her inner ear that those people had been right and she should never have tried.
Aoife lost to the pharmacist. She wondered, a bit amused, why she viewed everything as a competition. But she had wanted the prescription in the mail, and 30 minutes of transfers to this and that department including one particularly “lovely” individual who had hung up on her was definitely not an achievement. Frustrated, Aoife decided not to finish the trail she was on and turned around to go home. Quite unlike the journey into the forest, Aoife did not hear the sound of what happens as she retraced her steps. Instead, she heard the sound of her anger and the despairing cry of her broken heart which was at this moment wondering if she would in fact ever have a purpose in this world.
Aoife had decided not to pursue an academic career, and was living on savings while she looked for a job that would be of some service to others. She had no idea what that would be though, as her college and graduate studies made her intelligent without imparting any skills that could deliver on immediate results. Although it was irrational, Aoife felt that the confrontation with the pharmacist was just one more deciding factor in favor of her throwing a short pity party. Perhaps she simply was not good enough, and everyone knew it, she thought. Now she felt even worse and wanted to cry. But she was outdoors, and wasn’t sure who in this world or the next might be by, so she didn’t act on this impulse. She just kept walking, ignoring the beauty of the day—how could she see beauty when it was nowhere to be found in herself?—and continued on her way dejected and tired.
“No, not like that,” a voice said softly, full of concern and conviction.
“What?” Aoife stopped walking and looked around frantically. Whoever spoke had taken her quite by surprise. She was baffled even more when she saw no one. She blinked, and then shook her head and kept walking.
“If people who did not know how to care for themselves could wilt like a plant that had long ago ceased to obtain sustenance from life, you would make the finest example.” The voice came again.
Aoife stopped and sighed. She would have to calm down so she could see whoever was talking to her. Whoever it was, he was willing to say whatever might get her to pay attention. Whoever it was was decidedly not of the manifest world. She concentrated on breathing and imagined roots sprouting out of her feet and burrowing into the earth. She reached out underground to the trees around her, searching for connection, instinctually breaking the illusion of separation that had held her so effortlessly in its spell. Slowly she began to center and ground herself and, albeit with a small bit of reluctance, let go of her anger and frustration and, for lack of a better word, pride.
Finally the world she was used to came back to her. She turned and saw a man standing a few paces behind her on the trail. All of a sudden she recognized him, though she had only seen him once. He was Caoilte. She’d never spoken with him alone.
“Hello,” she said, a bit shyly, and added, “Sorry, I almost didn’t see you.”
“There’s no need to apologize. You do that way too often,” Caoilte admonished, and Aoife would have protested if it hadn’t been true.
“You wouldn’t have come here without a reason,” Aoife replied, “What is it?”
“Ah,” Caoilte’s eyes brightened, “I’m here to teach you how to stand tall.” When Aoife looked puzzled, he continued, “Character is very important, and so is what you say and how you say it, but how you hold yourself, literally, in this world speaks for you before you have time to open your mouth and tell the world who you are.”
Aoife nodded. She was beginning to understand what he meant. “Is that why you made the comment that I was wilting like a sorrowful dejected plant?” she asked, and couldn’t help smiling at the image.
“Well, first off, I meant to get your attention and I succeeded in that,” Caoilte said, “But more seriously, yes—your shoulders were hunched, your head was down, you looked more often at the ground than what surrounded you. You were screaming that you were worth nothing, deserved nothing, in how you moved, how you carried yourself in space.”
Self-consciously, Aoife straightened her back and lifted her head, which she realized was still down even while making eye contact.
“Watch how I’m standing,” Caoilte directed. At around six feet tall, Caoilte standing tall would definitely cause anyone to take notice. He looked assertive and self-assured, without coming across as intimidating, though Aoife knew she had a tendency to not even consider the possibility of being intimidated by someone in situations where other people would feel quite differently. Aoife tried to mimic him. She stood straight while appearing relaxed and self-assured. She did not actually feel self-assured, just attempted to look like it. But as she did this something strange happened, at least it was strange to her. She began to actually feel more confident. The idea that she didn’t deserve good or that she wasn’t good enough was beginning to sound ridiculous.
“Yes, like that!” Caoilte exclaimed excitedly, answering the question in Aoife’s eyes. “Okay, now I’ll show you how to walk tall.”
Grinning like a child who had just been told he could go out to play, Caoilte started off down the trail. But not, Aoife observed with relief, any faster than she was comfortable moving. She was sure that some semblance of Caoilte’s legendary speed was true and knew he’d be able to outdistance her without any effort (even if she won the 100 yard dash as a ten year old.)
“The first thing to understand is that it’s never productive to compare yourself with others,” Caoilte was saying.
Aoife wondered if he could read her mind. That would be actually frightening, she thought. “How did you know what I was thinking,” she asked. She had to know.
“I watched how you moved,” Caoilte explained. “You were walking a lot faster than you were earlier and you went back to your closed off small less than look again,” he continued, “It’s true that I’m faster than you. I’m faster than most people who have ever lived. Why should that make you less of a person? You’re not living in the time in which I lived, and you don’t have the responsibilities I had. You’ve learned things I’ll never know about. You didn’t learn to be a runner, but you had no reason to. You didn’t even want to. That is an acceptable and worthy preference to have. Running was not just a necessity for me, it was what my entire being yearned for. Besides, it would be impractical for you to try to run as fast as I can, and being me is already taken. It’s absurd to try to imitate me, or your perception of me. The world and I need you to be yourself. Only yourself.”
“But I’ve always been told I am slow,” Aoife interrupted, the words appearing in the world before she had time to sensor them. This time, she was aware when her body started crumbling in on itself trying to stamp her out, as if she was a bad little thing for wanting to take up space. With great concentration, she corrected her posture so that she was standing tall, now despite herself.
When Aoife was two, she had been in the car with her mom when they slipped on a patch of ice and skidded off road. The car had flipped over. Her mother was hurt but not severely. Onlookers said that the large section of glass from the windshield that they found shredded and fractured like a thousand glittering tears covering the toddler’s head, had missed her mother by only a sliver of distance. Mother and toddler were whisked to the emergency room, and the toddler fell unconscious on arrival.
“Will she live?” the desperate mother asked the white coated doctor hovering over her once she was allowed to hold her little girl. For a week, it had seemed that the child wasn’t long for this world. The force of the crash caused several pieces of glass to lodge in the child’s skull. If she would live at all, she was bound to have brain injuries, and the longer she remained comatose, the worse her prognosis for survival would be.
“She’s going to make it.” The doctor gently put his hand on the weeping mother’s shoulder. “You have a strong, vibrant little girl. Her will to live is stronger than her desire to return to the world beyond this world. Just continue to hold her and love her.” And although the mother tried to find the doctor to thank him for the faith and hope he had helped her rekindle in her grieving heart, so she could share with him how right he was once her girl came back into herself and smiled, she never found him, or anyone who knew of him.
Aoife did recover, perhaps miraculously from the trauma that had so suddenly plastered a question mark over the tenuous existence of her little life. However, she did not recover unscathed. She often suffered from sensory overload and would get migraines if there were too many lights flashing, or if a leaf blower and a train tried to have a noise contest outside her window. She had an incredibly horrid sense of direction and had, she recalled with a sense of shame, even gotten lost in her living room. She also literally could not multitask, perform complex math problems, or easily coordinate simple motor tasks like tying her shoes without overtly thinking about it. Her family must have had reasons, Aoife knew, but even so it always hurt to hear one of them remark on how slow she was. Such remarks seemed to only increase with her age, or perhaps it was just that she was old enough to really listen to her family’s estimations of her. At first Aoife had thought their comments were intended to lovingly make her aware of things she needed to work on, so she could assimilate into her culture and not be ostracized more than she already was. When the accusations did not stop when she reached adulthood, however, they began to take a toll on her self-esteem that she could only now begin to acknowledge.
No wonder she felt like she had to compare herself with everyone, even someone like Caoilte who “everyone else” could never compete with if they tried. Her whole life, or perhaps more accurately, much of her childhood, was spent putting energy into becoming like everyone else. Whoever this everyone else was, Aoife never measured up to them. When occasionally she indeed did do something better than everyone else, such as get the highest grade in the class, her parents would congratulate her, but such circumstances never seemed to make up for what she could not do. Aoife had started to internalize the message that she was never good enough, that in order to make up for what she lacked she must try endlessly to do more, more, more. There was always a better, more normal, and definitely faster way. She came to believe that the only antidote to her imperfections due to her accident was perfection. It was an inevitability that she would fail, every single time, at being perfect.
Caoilte was looking at Aoife sympathetically. “It is not right that others would tell you that,” he began, “Perhaps you don’t fit the measure of excellence that they prescribed for you regardless of whether it was warranted. Perhaps they don’t feel good enough, and it is safer to make it your problem.”
“I don’t know. I’ll have to think on that awhile.” Aoife answered honestly. “I could walk tall if I was good enough, but I don’t always meet my own standards.” She hated admitting this, but somehow the fact that she was speaking to someone in another world made her less guarded.
Caoilte changed from his interested curiosity look to his less frequent grave and serious look. “I certainly have not met my own standards in the past, either.” He said. “I have worked through this, but even I have made terrible mistakes, mistakes that have cost many many lives, and there are things I did that I died regretting.”
Aoife was baffled. She found it hard to believe that someone whose deeds , whether real, exaggerated, or imaginary, had been celebrated for over a millennium would have not lived up to his own standards. Caoilte must have seen the disbelief on her face because he added, “You’ll have to believe me because honesty is one of the few standards I have met excellently without fail. I have never spoken falsely.”
Aoife nodded solemnly. It would be interesting, she thought, to see just how many painful yet pervasive beliefs about herself she would be forced to let go of because she was told they were false by some of the most honest people who had ever lived. On that point, this was just the beginning.
“Why worry about being fast?” Caoilte wondered aloud. “Life isn’t a race. What’s the hurry for you? Those people who say you’re too slow are afraid. It’s true. It takes courage to meet the world slowly. Next time someone tells you that you’re slow, really contemplate how that person lives her life. Such people have an opposite difficulty: they don’t know how to slow down. Have you ever thought of what a disadvantage on someone it is to be incapable of doing one thing at a time, or to literally be unable to wind down long enough to appreciate what they have, count their blessings, hear their own thoughts, or listen to the voice of their soul?”
Aoife was astonished. She had never thought of her limitations of being any more than just that, limits, problems, defects. Suddenly there was another perspective to consider. It was a perspective that, as a matter of fact had never crossed her mind until Caoilte pointed it out to her. But now that he had, a tiny flicker of hope, and something like joy, overtook her. Could she allow herself to feel this way, she wondered. Yet there it was, permission to just be herself in this respect without apologizing to people, without having to hide, without having to carry around the burden of believing she was less than everyone she met because of something that wasn’t her fault, that was completely out of her control…something that might even be a gift. There was a flicker of a suspicion that a better person wouldn’t have needed permission, but she told that part of herself which realm of Dante’s inferno it could take a hike to. After all, in the ugly duckling story, the “duck” didn’t learn he was beautiful until he saw a swan with which he could compare his reflection. A person who is told all her life that she is “just a woman” and so can’t follow her dream of becoming an astronaut won’t usually believe otherwise unless someone tells, or better shows her otherwise. Those who achieve great things without guidance from anyone are (often retrospectively) deemed heroes or geniuses.
“Thank you,” she whispered.
They had left the forest and were walking along the road now. The sun was slowly making its way westward across the sky. Aoife guessed it was around four in the afternoon, but couldn’t be sure. She was standing, and walking tall now. She was already beginning to appreciate this way of holding herself in the world. She could take up space, she could have a voice in the world, she could share and participate in what went on around her, because she was already here, because to be here was her right. This had nothing to do with being arrogant or holier than thou or falsely coming across as greater than anyone. It was simply the way a person literally embodies the truth that she is, and never has been, less than anyone. For Aoife, it was the first time she took the idea that she was enough, good enough, seriously.
“You won’t always feel like standing tall,” Caoilte said, breaking into her thoughts. “The important thing is to stand tall whether you feel strong or afraid, whether you believe at the moment that you are good enough or start to worry that you are inadequate. If you meet someone while feeling unworthy, your standing tall will show the other person that you will back yourself up, that you believe in who you are, and you are someone worthy of consideration and respect, someone who has things to say and valuable contributions to make. Then, while you literally demonstrate how you take ownership of all you do and are the one to account for yourself, you can get your thoughts together and dispel any beliefs that are vying for you to think otherwise.”
“I understand,” Aoife said excitedly. “And I suppose it gets easier, the more you practice.”
“Exactly!” Caoilte beamed at her.
At that moment, Aoife’s cell phone rang again. She froze, terrified that the glaring this-worldly intrusion would break their connection and that she’d be alone, before the conversation was over. She said, “Don’t worry, I’m not going to answer that. I should never have brought it with me on the walk in the first place.”
In response, Aoife was in for two further startling occurrences. First, she was relieved to find that, after the ringing ceased, Caoilte was still there. He had stopped a few paces ahead of her on the sidewalk, and had turned to face her. Secondly, as impossible as it might seem, he had changed from standing tall to appearing rather shy and uncertain. Aoife blinked. The sight was actually unnerving. “What is it,” she asked cautiously.
Caoilte looked as though he was conflicted over how to proceed. In truth, his curiosity was threatening to overwhelm him. He managed to show a completely unconvincing amount of restraint while his eyes went wide and a grin spread across his face, “Can you show me how it works?”
Aoife laughed. If he had been of this world, she imagined he would have perhaps, if no one was looking, actually jumped up and down with joy. His pure wonder at the world, as if, at every moment, he saw it anew through the eyes of a child, was wondrous, perhaps even awe inspiring. “Sure,” Aoife said, with an equally big smile, this time actually embodied on a face. She pulled out the cell phone and showed Caoilte how the buttons worked, how to call someone, explained about texting, and how the screen responded to taps of your fingers so you could communicate with someone hours, even countries away. Caoilte didn’t understand how you could talk to someone without having a visible connection between you and the other person. In the end, Aoife settled on an analogy that it was similar to the two of them speaking to each other even though they were separated by an entire world. It was not at all the same, but it was the best she could do.
“So how does the signal get sent across to the other person? How can something so small do so many things? How does it do what you want it to do?” Admittedly, most otherworld people were not this fascinated with manifest world gadgets, and even were wary of them, but Caoilte had always been fascinated by how things worked. He surmised that had he lived in this time period, he would have liked to build things. He would certainly have tried to learn everything there was to know, if that was possible.
Aoife was sorry that she would have to disappoint him, “I don’t know how the phone is actually built.” she said finally. “I can give you some very rough details, but I don’t know more than that. And I can tell that you’re as fast at learning as at running, and you’ll out question me in less than a minute.”
Caoilte nodded. “It’s of no matter. You’ve already told me more than I’ve ever gotten to learn before.”
He was harder to see now, Aoife noticed. It takes a great deal of energy for someone in the other world to manifest with an image of themselves in this world, and Caoilte had kept up an image in this world longer than any otherworld person she knew. He must have been thinking something similar because he said, “I can’t stay now. I need to go back to my own world, and rest.”
“I know,” Aoife replied, but she held up her hand, then, to gesture that she hoped he’d stay a moment longer. “I just wanted to thank you again before you left,” she said.
“Think nothing of it,” Caoilte replied, “You have all you need within yourself. We are simply sharing with you, in a way you can understand, what your spirit already knows. That you are already whole, that you lack nothing.” Then, just before disappearing he added, with light dancing in his eyes, “If you want, purely just for fun at another time, I’ll run with you.”
“I would be delighted, son of Ronan.” Aoife responded, and she thought she now could discern another sound of what happens. It was the sound worlds make when they intertwine and then fold back into themselves. Aoife thought long about this, and about the importance of standing tall, all the way back to her apartment and into the remainder of the day. That night, she fell asleep to the sound of darkness enfolding the world in its arms.
For a version of the story of Fionn Mac Cumhaill and the music of what happens, click here:
Watch a tribute to the music of what happens in action.
“The Music of What Happens” – RTÉ – Big Music Week 2010