Aoife slumped onto the hard wooden floor of her apartment living room. Her eyes were threatening to spill over with tears. She was not crying for herself, but for a local person named Robin who had almost died. A teenager had stabbed Robin, who looked like a boy, because Robin was wearing a skirt in public. Onlookers had done nothing, save one who finally called the police and helped take the twelve year old to the hospital. Robin identified as asexual, neither male nor female, and while Robin’s parents were very supportive, obviously not everyone was. Robin’s assailant found the child’s choices unacceptable enough to attempt murder over it. Of course Robin was not the only one to be a victim of hatred and prejudice, only supremely lucky to have not joined the statistics of the dead.
Today, there had been a service to raise awareness of the need to accept and tolerate everyone whose body (by choice or no) failed to meet the relentlessly insidious cultural mandate for external normalization. In other words, it brought awareness to just how pervasively normal it was to reject, shun, or make invisible anyone whose body did not conform appropriately to the mainstream standards of gender, beauty, wholeness, or ability. Aoife had been more than moved by what she witnessed.
As a child, Aoife had spent countless school recesses isolated and alone. Her peers did everything they could to stay as far away from her as possible. She had all five senses, two arms and two legs, and could walk, but her accident at age two had done a bit more damage than simply make certain tasks harder for her to accomplish. It had also disfigured her face at a time when facial reconstruction had not even reached its infancy. Her school peers wouldn’t let her forget how different she was. Isolation was better than outright bullying, she was often told as an adult (if the subject ever came up.) But Aoife’s struggles to fit in as a child served to attune her particularly to the pain and anguish felt by all those who experience ostracism, exclusion, prejudice, or sometimes even contempt and hatred.
As she sat listening to people tell story after story of discrimination and loss, pieces of a puzzle she had not even been aware of, whose formation had been long in the making, all fell into place. The stories all had different content, but it was clear to Aoife that the structure of the stories, the why and to whom of them, was eerily similar.
There was a mother who lost her baby after a care giver shook her for daring to cry. There was an elderly woman who’s first husband died for the color of his skin. There was a woman who told of an intersexed child who committed suicide after her family disowned her when she told them that she identified with the gender they had not picked for her at birth. A widow of one of two conjoined twins related the deaths of her husband and his brother at the hands of a religious zealot who felt that witnessing another couple’s intimate moments, something the conjoined twins had to do by necessity, was a punishable mortal sin. There was a young man who told of how his sister had overdosed on meds after enduring relentless threats and bullying on Facebook. People told stories of being denied housing and jobs due to disabilities, and of friends who were killed because they were transgendered, or gay. They sang their stories. They danced their stories. And through song and dance, young and old alike wove a tapestry of sorrow sewn with the seeds of ignorance, discrimination, and fear. Aoife saw the patterns of thread common to them all: the systematic rendering of unusual embodiment as defective or deviant. She saw souls shatter for their appearance, recognized the silencing of those who dared speak the truths of difference.
She allowed herself to surrender to the grief, having as she did permission from the others around her who were equally affected. She ached with empathy, full of a despair that threatened to overwhelm her spirit. More than these, however, was the overpowering need to act. The need consumed her, hummed within her just below the murmur of her blood, seeped into the marrow of her bones, called out to her like a lost and wailing child. We are all the same, came the cry from where inside herself she did not know. We are all connected. If one is not accepted, none can take solace anywhere.
The discrimination faced by those with disabilities was not specific to a group, not different in kind from racism or sexism or homophobia. The destructive messages to young girls in magazines were not teen issues but human issues. Working for the rights of some while continuing to discriminate against women, look down on people from different classes, dispise a religious group, or fail to respect children continued to create the illusion that interdependence was less than a law of nature. More than ever before, Aoife believed, she felt, she knew that separation was a lie. It occurred to her that if our fears, prejudices, isolation, ostracism, and rejection were so interrelated, surely our belonging, tolerance, acceptance, curiosity, thoughtfulness, and respect were just as inextricably linked. The world in which she lived was an interwoven world, one in which every sound, every action, every person altered everything around her simply by living. The pattern had always been there, she realized. It was the change in her which allowed her to see it now.
Aoife had not spent the entire past month living in such emotional intensity. She had gone to today’s event with a friend, a friend she hadn’t known a month before. She had met Ashlee at the first meeting of the druid seed group she’d attended. It was a group of women who would become her second family. Ashlee also had an ability to see and speak to otherworld people, and the two hit it off immediately. Before the meeting was over, they had already set a date for coffee.
After ordering a hot chocolate and an espresso respectively at the quaint local Starbucks, Aoife and Ashlee began a lively discussion of their families, childhoods, life goals, and professional lives. Finally they turned to a discussion about otherworld beings, how they saw them, and what they were learning. Ashlee had an affinity with Sequoia trees and often had such long, patient, enduring conversations as those which are characteristic of trees: The kind that unfold and enfold, rather than trip on words or hasten to a conclusion. She could speak to the spirits that inhabited a place—a river for instance—and learn from them just how much damage human pollution was causing the water and the animals depending on it. Sometimes when she closed her eyes, Ashlee could see the stars as if the milky way was imprinted right there on her eyelids. She knew the memories of roads, the history and origins of wooden decks. She knew what it was like for a bridge to feel the sway of a fierce wind, and that even the mountains could breathe.
Aoife was entranced by her new friend’s recounting of all this, and felt wonder at the awesome and breathtaking experiences given to her. Finally Ashlee asked Aoife about her experiences. Aoife began with the faery folk she had seen as a child, the small noble people who danced in clearings and glades, lit the trees at twilight, and sparkled like jewels in the creek that meandered through the woods. She told of meeting Athena who had taught her that wisdom and weaving were one and the same. “Everything is interconnected. Those who believe otherwise, are not wise. Wisdom is knowing the difference between that which is part of everything else, which simply is, and that which appears separate which never was.” Athena had instructed. Aoife lost count of how many times she needed to be reminded of these words. And then she told of coming home after her time wandering the desert, and how she had met Oisin and Caoilte.
“That’s incredible,” Ashlee said a bit wide-eyed. “So Caoilte taught you to stand tall, and then offered to run with you. Did you get to run with him yet?”
“Oh yes, we ran together twice now,” Aoife said with a smile in her eyes.
“And…” Ashlee asked expectantly.
“Well, I suck at running, so Caoilte ran super slow, slow for him that is, so I could keep up. We ran out on one of the trails through the woods, up a hill and then down near a creek on the other side. It was a very beautiful part of the woods, but I was too busy trying to breathe to pay attention. I held out for about five minutes before feeling like I would pass out.”
The two friends laughed at the image. “You don’t look out of shape,” Ashlee offered helpfully.
“By some standards I’m not, but the last time I ran any distance, I was ten years old.” Aoife explained. “Fortunately Caoilte took pity on me and we walked the rest of the trail, and if he thought anything about my less than meager running ability he never said anything. When I suggested that next time we run a much steeper path with lots of exposed tree roots zigzagging across it (because I still felt like I should attempt to meet a good challenge,) he cautioned that it would be highly impractical.”
“Well he definitely sounds sensible to me. I certainly wouldn’t be able to run that trail, I know the one you mean,” Ashlee replied thoughtfully. “So where did you go on the second run?”
“The next week we ran the same easier trail again, except that this time Caoilte tried giving me some tips on how to move while running—how to land on my feet differently than if I was just walking, how to move my arms in rhythm with my steps more parallel to the ground than at my sides, that sort of thing. I valiantly tried, but the suggestions only had the effect of making me look like a renegade puppet in desperate need of outside intervention. I couldn’t make any of my movements flow naturally so I kind of just bobbed around with aimless exertions of effort. Caoilte and I both laughed at the absurdity of the situation then, and he was quick to assure me that it really didn’t matter because the whole thing was just supposed to be for fun, which it was. We walked for a while before I turned to him and asked a question I had been pondering for a while. My curiosity could no longer be ignored. I asked him whether there were more modern people who had, after death, joined with those fianna who became guides.”
Ashlee listened intently. She was fascinated by her new friend’s ability to talk so candidly with otherworld folk as if they might have belonged to this world, still. “You mean there might be people throughout all the generations after the fianna lived who would want to take up with them after they died?”
“Well, not exactly,” Aoife admitted. Caoilte made it clear that no one was actually a member of the fianna, the way they might have been in the second century. In the other world, such hierarchies and class distinctions were meaningless and nonexistent. He had explained this after once again changing expression from curious to serious in that characteristic way of his. Aoife said, “Caoilte shared that yes there are many people who become guides, and a few who not only dedicate themselves to assisting others in the manifest world once they cross over into the other world, but also take as their own the three values that we live by: the truth in our hearts, the strength in our hands, and fulfillment on our tongues. And then of course he added that the whole thing was phrased slightly differently in the otherworld where nobody actually had tongues or hands and the notion wouldn’t make sense. He has this way of being solemn without taking himself or others too seriously, you know. He went on to point out that such an otherworld arrangement made it possible for people who had been any age or gender in life to be counted with them, one among many, and made a point to assure me that the otherworld was all about equal opportunity.”
Ashlee laughed at that. “Seems like people continue to learn and grow, even after their time here is over.”
“Absolutely,” Aoife agreed smiling as well. “I don’t think I ever mentioned myself in any of this, but here is the rest of what Caoilte told me. He said, ‘just because Oisin and I sought you out doesn’t mean you have any obligation to join us. We never compel anyone to do anything. We are all free persons, and how you choose to live, whether or not you want to be counted with us, it is entirely up to you. We’ll keep sharing what we know with you whether you are one of our own or not’.”
When Caoilte said this, Aoife had been full of gratitude and great respect. Here was this person who, perhaps for the first time in her short life, was showing her at that very moment the meaning of unconditional acceptance. She had never had such acceptance from her family. For sure, they loved her, but their love always had strings attached. She was lovable if she did what her mother wanted, accepted by her father only when she could pass as normal. If she ever disagreed with her mother and stood her ground, there would be hell to pay. If she ever failed her father’s lofty expectations of her, he would withdraw affection—subtly, in ways that were noticeable only to Aoife and imperceptible to the outside world of casual observers and acquaintances. Aoife did not like to think ill of the dead, but her relationship with her parents had been difficult, fraught with mixed messages, guilt trips, expectations that she alone could fill any number of their bottomless needs, or give them the belief in themselves they sorely found lacking within. Here was someone she hardly knew, letting her know in no uncertain terms that she wouldn’t be expected to put on some kind of performance, pass a test, prove herself, twist herself into a pretzel, act a certain way, be a certain way in order to gain acceptance and belonging. It was difficult, but once again Aoife found herself forced to believe Caoilte and trust this knew and strange thing, unconditional acceptance, since he wouldn’t have said something he didn’t mean.
“Was that something you were thinking about?” Ashlee was asking.
“Was what something I was thinking about?” Admittedly, Aoife’s mouth had been speaking, but her mind was busy sorting through connections, making observations, presenting her with scenes and pictures and possibilities, and she forgot what she was specifically talking about.
“You know, joining them,” Ashlee said matter-of-factly.
Aoife felt oddly threatened by the question so she said curtly, “No of course not. I’m a druid. The fianna are warriors, and I have chosen a path of peace. Besides, I’m not dead.”
But long after she left the coffee shop, as one week ran into the next, she wasn’t so sure that being a physically embodied druid and living the truth against the world were at all mutually exclusive. In fact, a voice she was too frightened to acknowledge was whispering in her inner ear, when it came to the three principles the fianna lived by, it was very, very possible that she was already living by them herself. She certainly did not have to be dead in order to better align her life with values she already personally held dear. She was no fighter, but then if the otherworld was as interdependent as she felt it ought to be, physical fighting was right out anyway. Still, she hated danger and didn’t care to be physically injured or thrown in jail. She avoided protests like she stayed clear of spiders. If she were ever asked to do something like that, she would never make good on it.
All of this was true and yet… and yet hadn’t she been a child advocate since she was three years old? Hadn’t she spent years speaking out around the country for those who could not raise their own voices? Didn’t she unhesitatingly give what she could to whoever was less fortunate to herself? She simply thought of such things as ordinary and not worth counting in the course of things, but that pesky inner voice continued challenging her to her complete dismay.
What kept her from running, that very instant, from the thoughts quietly taking up their positions in her mind, those thoughts she wished fervently she could just ignore, was the very fact that nothing at all was expected of her. If Caoilte and Oisin had promised to protect her, it was done with no expectation that she do anything. It was the same, she mused, when she had wanted to help them as a child. She had no hidden motives, no expectations of her own.
And over the next few weeks Aoife pondered another thing that Caoilte had said. While showing her a running technique during one of their entertaining excursions, he had paused and made an observation which Aoife figured was meant to apply to much more than running. “It’s okay to emulate someone when doing something knew, everyone has role models,” he’d said, “But never imitate anyone. If all you do is strive endlessly to be like everyone else, you won’t ever be who you are.”
Now Aoife sat on her floor trembling, thoughts of the day’s discrimination awareness service overcrowding her already frenetically occupied brain. It was only a matter of minutes until these feelings, these thoughts, the almost futile attempt she had made to integrate all that had happened during the last few weeks, this bewildering suspicion that she was completely over her head, all came crashing together, hurling her out of any last chance of composure. When shaking and rocking herself like a child who had almost gone unloved wasn’t enough, she jumped up and paced the floor in tears. When that wasn’t sufficient to express her terrible sadness, her undeterred determination to change what she could, gather the shattered points of light within every last living thing, never mind how absurd that was, and piece them whole, do what was needed, whatever was needed… she began to shout.
She was glad of two things then: that she lived alone, and that finally after years and years of silence and her nonconsensual apprenticeship within the confining perfect wall flower guild, she had found her voice again. Even if her words were merely tones, “aaaaaaaaahhhhhhh” and “Om” and “awen,” it was her voice, and that was what mattered.
Sound slowly turned into words, and words into exclamations. She stood tall, closed her eyes, and shouted. “Is Mise Aoife! Is Mise Aoife! Táim anseo. Táim anseo I gcónaí. Is Láidir mé. Is Mise. Is mise I gcónaí.” (I am Aoife! I am Aoife! I am here. I am always here. I am strong. I am. I am, always.)
Aoife’s world became sound. It became moment. It became one resounding moment. Rational thought had long since walked out the back gate of her head to take a long leisurely stroll down the path of the familiar. Aoife was. She was, always. What lived in her then was something much older, wiser, eternal, knowing, and unfathomably mysterious. The kind of ineffable but indomitable spirit that sent logical syllogisms and the tenants of empirical science cowering into old dusty corners, suddenly uncomfortably aware of the limitations of all that is ascertainable and finite. All Aoife ever was, truly was, emerged like a butterfly breaking out of a cocoon that had become too tight, too small, insignificant. It has been said that the woman who looked then out of Aoife’s blazing eyes, who stood tall, whose tears were spent, who addressed the world as one who had always known her belonging in it, whose voice pierced the silence that had long overstayed it’s welcome, was a soul as old as the mountains, as vast as the sky, as fragile as flesh and bone, as vulnerable as a two year old in the back seat of an overturned car. She. Was. Her. Self.
Now, there was a moment, right after the man who had first chanced across the fianna’s cave in that story twice blew the dord fian, the ancient hunting horn of the fianna. The voice of the man’s soul had called to him a third time in that moment, called him to complete what he had started, told him all that was needed, to blow the horn the third time so that those who had slept for so long could finally awaken, could finally return to themselves. The man heard but did not listen, knew but was too afraid to understand, and so he fled, never looking back. He did not look to see what had come of his choice to fear, he did not look to see that he had turned on none other than his own soul, he did not ever dare to face that what he was so deathly afraid of was himself. The fianna had no need to be awoken, but he had such a need, and for him, at least, it never happened.
Uncertainty, fear, doubt, these things had no place within the woman who stood transformed, transfixed, in the middle of her living room near the coffee table. She did not need to ask after what she could do. For she did understand. She would finish what was started. She would see the dawning of the three. When next she spoke, it was only truth she uttered. When next she spoke, she asked only for what was already hers to claim.
I call you, first among the great fianna of Éire, who fight with deed and song
I call you, you who are eternal in the world beyond the world
I call you to awaken from the depths within us
I am the one who touched the earth with my hands
I am the one who turned my face to the sky and wept for what I had almost been again
I am the one who looked within and wept for not fully being who I am
Blood of my blood and bone of my bone,
I remember you, the clay out of which I am formed belonged to the landscape from whence you came
Out of all I’ve ever been, from time beyond time
From all dormant places locked inside
I call you to arise, rise, rise,
Blaze out from behind our eyes
I, the soul of ages, the spirit that now within myself resides
I will embody that voice that cries: “I need you, I call you, and it is time.”
I call those I know by name
Those whose lives within our lives remain, I remember.
Those whose lives we never sang, I remember.
Those whose journeys never crossed the white lines of printed page, I commend you.
By star and stone, by earth and sea and sky,
Hear me, hear the three things that I live by
The truth in my heart, the strength in my hands, fulfillment in my words
As a child of the oak I ask to put my hand in your hand and do what is needed
Reach into the recesses of my belonging and cry the truth where most it needs be heard
Answering foremost as you do to Bríd, whose healing fire shapes and mends you
The source of all divine from which we all were spun
Woven into existence, kindled by the radiance bound not by any world
I stand beside you as a free person, my own unique shining person,
Those whose truth against the world unfurls,
I will serve the cause of justice with you, and live without regret or fear
Be fully, beautifully, exquisitely, wondrously here.
I combine my lot with your own, In this world and the next
For I am, and my song has etched itself into the fabric of all that is
In whatever way I am able, even if right now I do not understand
I will stand, stand with you, and do all I can.
Silence. Stillness. So silent that Aoife could almost hear the earth turn. So still that the rhythm of her breath, in and out like the tide, continued only as a vestige of motion. She had only done what was needed. She had had no expectations. What may or may not happen next she hadn’t the foggiest idea. She felt cold, the kind of cold that came to claim her whenever she expended a vast amount of energy. She was a bit dazed, stunned even. She blinked. A few times. Besides blinking however, she stood perfectly still.
When they came, they formed two lines, Aoife between them. She might have said that she looked into their eyes, but it was they who stared unblinking into hers, and they saw, she felt, not just who she was now but all she had ever been. They sought and found the measure of her name. She also did not blink, as much as was possible, and to her bewilderment she matched their gazes, she did not flinch or move or look away. She stood by her words, she stood on the truth she had always known. Nothing more was needed. They saw, and she was everything she had said, and more.
She could not put her hand in theirs, literally. Having a body where they did not made it a rather complicated matter. They compensated effortlessly. She watched in astonishment, profoundly moved, as each put their hands under her own. She noticed as they passed her how she could not tell their gender or height or glimpse what they wore, or if they carried anything. They did not come looking like one might have expected. Such formalities were meaningless to the soul of the world and the pattern of interconnection that they were inextricably a part of, that Aoife was inextricably a part of with them. As they saw only spirit when they looked at the woman who wished to be one of them, as a druid, oak’s child, so they did not bother with appearances with her and she, too, saw all they had ever been. In pairs they moved past her. All she could see were the two walking past at any moment. All she could feel was the radiant energy that ran like current through her hands as they “held” them, the collisions of two worlds. She would never know exactly how many passed her, but it seemed to her that at every quarter minute there were two more. It seemed to her that when she felt surely there would be no others, more others appeared, endlessly. They did not stop long with her, except for the two who turned, and stood arm and arm with her, looking out with her at the others, and she knew she would have recognized Caoilte and Oisin, even if they had not stood with her the longest. Later she would learn how she stood there for at least twenty minutes. Long long after, once her analytic thoughts had reluctantly, begrudgingly returned home to their familiar head, she would calculate that at about two people every fifteen seconds within twenty minutes, she would have met one hundred and fifty people. The sheer number of them made her head spin. But it was not how many, but what it felt like to look into their eyes, and be well met by every one, that she would always remember, that everything she ever was would always remember.
Once she was alone again, stillness settled back in around her. Stillness, and awe, and a sense of joy, like returning home. She could have been overwhelmed by it all, if she wasn’t also more exhausted than she had ever been in her memory. Peacefully, gently, she fell asleep and slept for many, many hours. She would not wake until the sun was halfway to the center of the sky. She drempt of stillness. That still bead at the center, that had changed everything.