Tag Archives: druid

Tara: What Might Have Been

There are memories, but they are few and far between. Scattered, broken, some fleeting pictures, some emotions which long ago imbedded themselves within an ancient segment of soul. It is June 14, 2015. Tomorrow we will go to Newgrange, then onto Tara. I’m exstatic about seeing the neolithic stones, but they have left no memorable imprint on me. Tara, on the other hand, with its alluring misted images dancing almost out of reach of conscious recognition, calls me, beckons me from far away with reasons only landscapes know. The following is a story I have woven from threadbare memories, the images and emotions are genuine, but I’ve made up the dialogue and filled in the gaps with guesswork. It is a mere reconstructed approximation of what might have been, 1800 years ago.

***

“Stay where you are!” The booming bellow from the top of the wall startles me for a moment, and I shift into a watchful wariness almost instantly, despite the fact that I’ve known that entrance into Tara would be difficult at best. I freeze.

The unforgiving winds of Samhain howl over the hill, as if it were an insignificant obstacle in the surrounding landscape. The gusts of chill drive a drizzling mist before them, a watery haze too dense to be fog, more of a suspended mass of swirling spray than a genuine rain. Far away, a low moan moves slowly through trees rooted tightly together at the edge of the forest, with its brooding mysteries obscured in darkness.

Before me, the stone wall looms, cast hard and unforgiving in the cold, inertly rising from the loam three persons high, at least five paces thick. Behind it, a ditch runs the perimeter of the hill fort, and though it is hard to make them out, several men besides the one now speaking stand sentry near and at the large imposing gates.

It bothers me that I am more easily scared than my sister. I should have considered I might need to defend myself with more than words. If it comes to that, my roan staff seems hardly appropriate, and besides, my ability to fight is less than rudimentary.

“State your intent. Why come you to Tara?” The voice comes again, hollering to be heard above the din of this dreary day.

“I serve as Bandraoi to Fionn and the people of Dun Alúine. Ailbhe rigbanfhénnid of the fourth nine, is my sister. I come at her suggestion, and the request of the high king who has summoned here the protectors of his people.”

As I speak, I stare bewildered at my challenger, whose features have suddenly coalesced out of the fog. On the ground, he would stand two hands taller than myself. I cannot see his long, golden braided hair beneath the furs pulled up to shield him from the winds. The presence of the fur cloak is the only sign he does not find me cause for concern, and he shouldn’t, of course. I recognize him instantly as one of my sister’s nine, in fact we’d just been in conversation four hours earlier. But they had all gone in before me, and I, with less standing of my own, found myself outside with the other druids and freemen, waiting my turn to pass through. I know I cannot be welcomed as a friend, even though it is oddly painful to be addressed like a stranger by a member of my adopted household. But, the high king demands formality, and to him I am as much a stranger as any other. I shiver, telling myself that this is definitely because of the cold, rather than the thought of the high king. Once again, I fail at self-deception miserably.

Despite himself, the young fénnid lets a glimmer of recognition spark in his otherwise harsh unyielding eyes. I smile up at him, then, but he has turned to shout something inaudible to an unseen space behind him. Shortly after that, I am allowed inside.

I climb the rugged dips and crannies of the hill, a flurry of activity all about me. There are people standing in groups talking excitedly, mothers comforting crying children, the hurried steps of those rushing by to seek shelter in one of the four halls surrounding the main hall of the high king. Horses stamp hooves and whinny, men and women prepare provisions for tomorrow’s feast. Commotion reigns. The expectant energy of the place palpably buzzes just below what is evident with my five senses. Overwhelmed and in awe, I stop for a while to just take it all in, the sights and the sounds, the smells—and try to imagine approaching this scene tired, hungry, and cold, a girl of merely nine years. How had my sister ever made it passed the wall? But whatever the fire in her that allowed her to journey all that way, I know it is undoubtedly that same internal flame that drives her to excellence so that she now leads a fian of her own.

My sister and I have always adored each other, and the day she slipped away in the dark to leave behind an unwanted destiny and boldly go forth to seek another was one of the most devastating days of my life. I was too young to understand, and to my mind she had simply decided she could live without me. Later I would come to understand that I had very little to do with her decision. When I decided that I, too, did not wish to return to my clan of birth, it was simply a matter of logistics to locate my sister, and apply to be the bandraoi for her community instead. For that brief time we spent together as children, she’d become more family to me than anyone else ever had.

And yet, standing on the hill of Tara, it steels on me again: that gnawing fear that I will only ever exist in the shadow of my sister, that I might never be known by my own deeds, but be tolerated in places such as this out of a duty to hospitality by proxy.

I push these uncharitable thoughts away. I know that when I am lying out in the forest near a stream, breathing in the sky, such petty thoughts don’t matter. They vanish like the smoke they are and leave only truth. I cannot let myself take such things seriously now.

Much later, when I sit in the king’s great hall with the other druids, I still can’t believe I am here. What is more, to my astonishment I find myself temporarily sitting next to Íonnach Mór, the Great Ionian himself, and the high king’s Ollamh.

“Is this your first time in the hall of Tara?” he asks, after we exchange the usual introductions. A look of warmth flickers across his face. His question unnerves me. Do I look that apparently new to kingly feasting halls? Do I seem lost? Have I acted unfavorably? I gather myself to appear far more certain and sure than I feel.

“Yes, my first,” I struggle to find a voice now suddenly shy in front of this man whom I had held in such high esteem from a distance, looking me in the eye. “I’ve been out of training for only a year,” I add, for justification, in case I’m in need of one.

“There is always a first time,” he replies without judgment, to my relief. “Who from among those you have taken up with has sponsored your being here, or have you come representing yourself?”

Still worried about betraying my ignorance by saying something wrong, I gesture toward Fionn, who, with about two thirds of the fianna, has taken up a position along one of the walls, armed and ready to defend the gathering if needed. The rest are out around the grounds.

The Ollamh’s eyes widen in surprise, then he recovers: “Very good!” He exclaims approvingly, “That is no small accomplishment, and in only a year’s time. You have certainly earned your place.”

“Thank you.” I manage, unable to find more words. There are too many emotions crowding out thoughts, and I am too unprepared for this to quiet them into stillness.

“I am glad to have met you, Mairin of Almu,” the Ollamh replies, “I hope my filid will make you most welcome. Then he stands. I am shocked at how tall he is. He rivals some of the tallest men of the fianna in height, towering above me by a head and shoulders, and then some. In fact, at least to me, he is quite imposing, all around. His long flowing black curls simply add to his striking appearance. For a moment, his piercing hazel eyes hold mine in a solemn, yet vibrant gaze.

“It is a great honor, Ollamh,” I answer sincerely, also standing.

As I take my seat again, Íonnach Mór confidently makes his way toward the center of the room. The hall is quieting down, soon we will be brought to order.

Inside, I am beaming,. Feeling more accepted and right in this place, I finally begin to relax and wonder what will happen next.

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Wanderer of the Desert _ When Two Worlds Meet: Part 1

It is the spring of my fifth year at Stanford, and I am engaged in the highly stressful endeavor of applying for, and then receiving acceptances from graduate programs in philosophy. It is a time that now I am thoroughly relieved is in the past. The culture of the aspiring undergraduates in our program is, retrospectively, much more like a fundamentalist religious cult (with the strange difference being enforced critical thinking) than a typical academic department. The six students applying for graduate school this year, of which I am one, have formed a tight knit if competitive cohort, fervently engaged in an almost obsessive solidarity that I find familiar enough to not question (and I still don’t want to know why.)

My peers and I routinely discuss things such as how the search for truth is the most superior calling and that we would die for our ideas. We unfortunately mean this literally. (I am glad my past self was not tested on this.) We hold that the absolute worst thing that can happen to an undergrad is to not get into grad school. We frequently proclaim our slogan “Don’t get left behind!” While outwardly we pretend to be rational autonomous agents who are not at all conforming to a bizarre conception of the world, inwardly we grapple with our fears and insecurities that we will never be enough. Admittedly, I now tend to cringe at how ridiculous we were and can’t quite figure out what came over us. But this is particularly true concerning one of my fellow cohort members who proudly confided to me that she routinely quoted Plato during sex. This, I tell her in the moment, is taking things too far, even for me, and I ask her to just keep that to herself from now on. Please?

As it happens, I am one of the five out of six fortunates who do not “get left behind.” I get into two graduate programs. My fate is secure. However, the letter offering me a place at the University of Anonymous Desert, comes only two days before I must send in my acceptance. Two hours later I’ve booked a flight for seven AM the next morning to visit the school. Despite my culture shock (which I discount as I have experienced culture shock at every grad school I’ve visited,) I decide after my whirlwind encounter that the people at the school are nice. Speaking of the wind, I also notice that I can literally hear voices on the wind that tell me which direction its blowing, and this fascinating phenomenon helps persuade me to return and investigate further. After much anxiety and tears and irritating my parents, I commit to attend the school in the desert in the fall.

Around this time, my parents sell our family home, the one I’ve grown up in since I was three years old. Then, weeks before I move to an unfamiliar state to begin my program and live self-sufficiently for the first time, my parents separate. The death of their marriage has been a slow and painful one. Though part of me recognizes their separation is probably the best thing to ever happen to our family—they brought out the worst in each other—I am also broken-hearted and devastated. Part of me wonders whether, had I never been shaken as an infant, the marriage would still be intact, though I know this is as far from the truth as the assertion in a scene of Monty Python, “The Holy Grail,” that small rocks float.

It only takes a month or two in my graduate program before I realize, my family situation notwithstanding, that I have made a terrible mistake. I can’t stand feeling like a number rather than a person. I can’t stand the three digit temperatures. I can’t stand mustering up the courage to speak up in class just to have my ideas unceremoniously dismissed without even the courtesy of an argument, and in front of my colleagues besides. I am displaced, not just from my childhood home, the security of a two-parent household, and the only state I’ve ever lived in: I also, slowly, begin to become estranged to myself. I do not recognize this woman struggling to be seen and heard, who is not respected for her ideas, who is barely surviving without sight or assistance in a literally hostile environment.

Still, I do not think of leaving, regardless of how much it is, and it really is, killing my sense of self-worth and breaking my spirit, delighting in making me small, molding me into a “presentable vegetable” courtesy of the Logical Song.

First, there is the fact of my commitment and that leaving would be to break it, and that, I am convinced, would be giving up in a shamefully dishonorable way. But secondly, where would I go? My time in the nest is over.

My dad now lives in a small apartment and is dating a woman whom he eventually marries. My mom has moved to a funky rental and is struggling to get back into the workforce after twenty-seven years as a homemaker. I will be more secure in the grad program than trying to make it in the real world where my address is from nowhere. I stay.

As one year drearily trudges numbly into the next, my grip on the core part of myself, who I am, what I stand for, what I believe in, why I am here, slowly sinks beneath the red sands, like the horse from Never Ending Story who drowned in the swamp of sadness as he was pursued by The Nothing. The Nothing is so quiet, that I never notice its gradual erosion of who I once was until no trace of it remains. Then, one morning, I awake to a day like all the rest: except I don’t know who I am. Having no energy or will to grieve such a loss, I stumble on with little sense of purpose or meaning, and even now, much of that time is lost to disassociation, out of the reach of memory.

November of 2007 sees the final drawing up of my parents’ divorce papers. Meanwhile, the landscape around me at the school mirrors the raw and barren, thorny, and parched landscape of my heart. Up until now, I’ve spent my whole life living in the Bay Area, California. I’m used to and love the golden hills, the green lawns and chattering trees, and most of all, the ocean. But here, here the desert sands ooze red like blood, canyons gape open like mouths fiercely begging for a rain to quench an eon of thirst; here the wind gathers itself and rumbles across the earth like a living animal. Here people promise themselves in strange awkward moments that a scientist somewhere must be hard at work at this very moment, creating a pesticide that will get rid of the vast infestation of dust that takes over their houses, floats in films onto their dishware, scurries into their clothing, sifts through their hair, settles into their ears and mouths, suffocates their souls. For like the parched clay within my heart, dried out and hardened from the intense heat of anger, frozen by my fears, stilled by the silence I keep in order to survive where I do not belong, the landscape surrounding me is hostile and defensive and sometimes literally locks its tenderness away, displaying nothing but spikes on the outside.

The philosophy department in this earth-cracked, hungry place is full of bigoted and sexist graduate students and prejudiced professors. One graduate student tells me after an argument in which I announce that if the department is going to give me ninety students to teach, it is my responsibility to give each of them an equal opportunity to learn, even if my research falls behind for this reason: “It would behoove you to adopt our values, or leave.” There is the professor not on my committee who expresses surprise that I have passed my comprehensive exams. There is the professor who insists that I have made a pact with most of her colleagues to grade me leniently due to my blindness, a statement I still have in writing. In fact, my miserable situation even seeps into my dreams: I dream that, at a department meeting, all my colleagues turn into eighth graders. True enough, my experience is very much reminiscent of middle school.

This desert, which I have now endured for two long years, leaves my bones dry and brittle, leaves my soul thread-bear and gulping for water, raw and cold like a piece of forgotten old stone. Inside or out, I am nowhere. I have no home, and for this reason, through the years in the desert, I wander like a nomad, like one of a lost people yearning for a promised land without the benefit of believing that a god will grant such a place to me.

For during this time I also shed the last vestiges of Christianity and throw myself whole-heartedly into following the earth-centered path I have always followed, whose name I have only now learned. I am ecstatic to realize that there are others like me in the here and now, and I can claim the ancient ways of my own ancestors. Somehow amidst the despair, I honor mother earth, hold sacred the land, sea, and sky, and speak to the old ones. This revelation somewhat complicates my graduate experience however as it also means living in the broom closet. According to my department members, the only sane position on spirituality is atheism and anyone deviating from this world view is stupid, irrational, and not worth anyone’s time. There is no attempt to tolerate others’ differences, and even the Christian in the program finds himself at the center of ridicule and insult. So I live a double life, unable to be honest with my colleagues, in constant fear of discovery.

At the end of spring 2011, and nearing the end of my coursework, the smoldering remains of the silent cry within myself keens so loudly for freedom that I can no longer ignore the necessity of leaving. I am so tired of wandering. I have wandered this desert for six years. I take a six month lease apartment in the fall to make sure I don’t change my mind. I’m too far along to leave the school, but I can make an exodus, like Moses out of the American Sahara back to my home in the Bay Area, where I can write my dissertation on virtue and interdependence. I will return to the rolling brown hills, green trees and winding trails, and water. Dear, inviting, vital ocean whose rhythm is my heartbeat.

Not even a new relationship, the first one in as many years as I’ve been a graduate student, can detour me from home. With tears in my eyes I leave for a long distance arrangement and for an apartment in Berkeley, surrounded by family and friends, soft mist, the silent bay, and people who won’t figuratively cut off my head if they learn I am a druid. (As a philosopher I very much value my head, thanks.)

Finally I start to grow and heal. Finally I can dissolve into a sacred space of becoming, from which I might emerge changed, but enough, re-membered into cohesion, renewed. Perhaps I will even once again be able to hear the voices on the wind and look into the world beyond the world, which now is lost to me. Perhaps, I can spin a cocoon around my broken pieces so that the withered fragments I have become can mend me, weaving themselves into new wings with which to fly.

The Salmon of Knowledge _ When Two Worlds Meet: Part 12

December 22, 2013

It is now Tuesday, and I have yet to hear from Caoilte or Oisín about the letter I sent them. I wonder whether this has been the best way to communicate. I do remember thinking, however, that if anyone from the otherworld would read a letter on a computer screen, Caoilte would.

Now however, my anxiety over whether or not anyone will understand is growing rapidly. Are they angry? Have I failed my commitment to do my best in all things and follow through on what I say? This last thought threatens to send me into despair. After all, I said that my place was theirs also, and now I am taking it back. I remind myself that I am changing my mind for good, perhaps even legitimate reasons, but I cannot convince myself that those in the otherworld will find such reasons sufficient. I am hoping I have not inadvertently created a conflict. More than that, however, I take the vow I have made to live by the fianna’s values extremely seriously and would rather not break it in only four weeks’ time because I hadn’t the foresight to realize just what I could and could not commit to.

I get to my routine Tuesday appointment, conveniently within walking distance from home, a good fifteen minutes early. Happy with myself on this count, I sit down on the plush couch in the waiting room and close my eyes. I’m going to use this time to think.

Thinking yields a plan of action that, I admit, feels outlandish to me. Where did this idea come from? It is this: go talk to the salmon of knowledge and ask after how Oisín and Caoilte and the rest of the fianna feel about my decision.

In my mind, I recall the story in which Fionn, comes by the wisdom of the salmon. The salmon, Finton, acquires the wisdom of the ages from eating the nuts of the nine hazel trees which I have only learned very recently are said to have stood around Nechtan’s Well at the mouth of the river Boyne. The druid Finegas gives young Fionn the task of cooking up the salmon as well as warns him not to eat any of it in the process. However, while cooking it, Fionn attempts to squelch a blister on the salmon’s skin. In doing so, he burns his thumb, which he instinctively places in his mouth. Upon hearing this, Finegas instructs Fionn to eat the salmon, as its knowledge is obviously meant for him to have.

Closing my eyes, I am surprised at how easy it is to come by a place I should know little about. The grove of the hazel trees is so vivid to me, that I can’t imagine I’ve never been here before. But I can’t fathom how or when this could have happened. It is located near a very steep hill, which by my rough estimation is 20-30 degrees in slope. I must walk up the hill and down the other side to get there properly, avoiding lots of loose rocks and tree roots along the way. The pool is surrounded by many slopes leading down to it, in fact, and lies slightly below the grove which lines the slow stream running straight through the middle of the trees.

As I walk into the grove, I suddenly remember things that seem rather silly to find important at the moment. Facts such as that there are better places to wash, it isn’t safe to navigate the stream or even some of the river it turns into further on with a boat or coracle, and that the willow trees nearby can’t properly burn in a fire. Since I am not interested in making a fire, washing in the stream, or boating, I wonder briefly where these seemingly random thoughts have come from, and why. I decide I definitely have to have come here before even if I find it baffling.

It’s super cold and windy here today. Due to the time zone difference, my venture at 11:15 A.M. pacific standard time puts me in the grove at about 7:15 in the evening. The water feels like it is under sixty degrees when I test it, and after leaving my hands in it for over a minute, they turn numb. Around me the leaves rustle in the wind, while the stream gurgles around small boulders and dances over pebbles. I sit on an ancient flat rock with my hands in the water, hoping the salmon of knowledge will appear sooner than later.

After five or so minutes, a relatively short time, I note to myself, I see the salmon in the water and catch it immediately. To be fair, I think it is easy for me to get hold of the salmon only because, a few months before hand, I have a dream in which I catch the salmon of knowledge in my hands. Since allowed this in the dream, it seems that the salmon is quite happy to hang out again with me now. Holding the salmon gently under the water, I realize with relief that I don’t actually have to enact cooking it or sucking my thumb. This is quite fortunate for the both of us, I have to say, the exemption from thumb-sucking particularly appreciated on my end of things. Just touching it is sufficient. Unsure of whether or not sending pictures to the salmon in my head is an effective way to communicate, I give it a try anyway and ask my question.

Next, I let the salmon go, after thanking it for its help in the matter. Then, I wait. Not for long, it turns out. But I have to say, the next few minutes pass with interminable slowness. I have finally come home. The last thing I would ever want to do is find myself rejected after such a long time yearning after and searching for those in the otherworld with whom I truly belong. I am sincerely worried, convinced that I can’t trust myself to ever do the right thing, and it is a bit existentially terrifying to not know where I stand. These are the feelings I have in any similar situation in this world, but somehow multiplied exponentially in this situation where I tell myself that I might lose everything– an everything the likes of which in this world I have never known. Yet, as these things so often go, I am soon to have a lesson in just what real belonging looks like, and it is, for the most part and with some crucial exceptions, the truth against anything my past experience urges me to believe.

Presently, the salmon returns, with an answer in the form of a picture. of course everyone understands why I’ve had to close the portals to the otherworld, and have not been upset with me in the slightest. I can let go of my concerns. Real belonging is unconditional. It is my own sense of separateness and fear that has prevented me from knowing this before. Succumbing to the fear of rejection, I have inadvertently spun an illusion of the very isolation I dread around me, until I have convinced myself that “real” belonging is conditional and capricious, any actual evidence otherwise notwithstanding.

Secondly, they have been waiting for me to recognize the value of my own needs and commitment to myself, and change my mind. They’ve known for a while it hasn’t been working out for me, but I needed to come to this realization on my own, and they are surprised by how long it has taken me to concede. I, however, am not surprised. Conceding, it seems, is only something I do once it becomes absolutely necessary. It has now become necessary. However, at any moment beforehand, I was determined to stand my ground indefinitely. Oh well: I know myself well enough to recognize I can be recalcitrant, even to my own detriment. “Perhaps such a steadfast commitment to self-defeating stubbornness is no longer needed?” is the suggestion offered kindly in the picture. I find the idea a bit strange, against my instincts really, but because it is part of the picture, I start to take it seriously, a little at a time.

Later that day I get a very vivid vision. I am told that if I go to the Aquatic Park, to a particular tree near a picnic table I’ve found last week, I will find a gift from Oisín to thank me for the hospitality I’ve shown the fianna. I have hosted so many of his family and friends that he wishes to give me a tangible token of their gratitude. It is clear from the picture he sends me that he doubts I’ll consistently remember the bit about just how understanding everyone has been and still is, unless there is something in this world to remind me. I have to admit he is probably right about that. Moved by such unexpected reciprocated generosity and full of curiosity at what Oisín has in mind, I decide that tomorrow, as soon as I can get out, I’m going to head off and investigate. I’ve now forgotten all about doubt and worry which have been replaced by the sheer excitement of participating in this unfolding mystery that spans two worlds. So, in my return picture I say, “Wow, that’s incredibly thoughtful of you. Oh, and if there are more adventures to go send me on, I’m up for it.”

I Drempt of Me Who Once Was I

Unsteady with recognition I gaze
Up the steep climb, changed over the centuries
I, both who I was and now am wind
My way like the vines that creep namelessly

Along the track. Around my feet, here and there the branches twine,
And the moon’s three A.M. shadow glides above me silently,
Grasses on the hilltop bending wildly.

So high above the village and the fields,
The fierce wind blows, with a reckoning all its own.
There are many waiting for what future I’ll divine
Much depends on the outcome of the night.

The wise man, does he live still, ailing down below?
The one the troubled turned to, at his hearth fire now they gather,
Folded hands, a day’s work left undone. I keep the vigil with them here.
I call the wind by name, long and earnest tones,

With rising hands I raise the storm,
And at the center, meet its eye.
The swirling wind around me cries,
It is crying, cries and cries,

“The cold that mourns is born,” it cries,
The voices of the storm, they cry,
And rooted where I am, I cry,
Drowning out the wild song, together wind and woman cry.

As if I were a lightning rod
I resonate what shines but is not mine,
I form the bridge of earth with sky,
And through me, they both come alive.

Our hopes and dreams a final time
Are carried far across the land,
And though I hear, I can’t make out the whispered answer
My dream-self, the one who I am now, I do not understand.

Wide Awake _ When Two Worlds Meet: Part 2

(Sometimes:) Is fearr rith maith ná drochsheasamh.  A good run is better than a bad stand. – Irish Proverb

 

When Aoife returned from school to the coast where she grew up, she decided to reconnect as much as possible with a source of spiritual guidance.  The barren and lonely desert, with its moaning winds and haunting separatism, favored only those living things who could bottle up and hide away anything valuable to them, whether that be life sustaining water, little green shoots, or happiness and tears.  Before graduate school, Aoife had decided to follow the spirituality of her ancestors and joined a modern group of druids.  She had begun to study as a bard for only a few months when her parents died, and anything that she might have loved or enjoyed seemed to languish then.

                Now that she was healing from what she had been through, she no longer needed the thorns and spines and thick hard shell that protected her so well in the desert.   She felt it was finally safe to return to her bardic studies.  She considered that it would be wise to learn many of her ancestors’ stories, just as the bards of old sang the lives of those who had gone before, weaving the strands of long ago into the pattern of everyday living.  Now, Aoife sat at her laptop PC, the internet just a keystroke away, thinking about her commitment to remember Oisin and Caoilte, and the rest of the fianna.  Despite their words of caution that she would not gain much insight into who they truly were from reading stories of who others thought they should be, she thought the best place to start was to learn the stories written about them anyway.  After all, the only story about them with which she was familiar was the one about the cave and that had nothing to do with what happened while they were alive. 

                So, with excitement, Aoife began a rudimentary google search.  Once she started reading, she got lost for hours in the retelling of all their countless adventures and otherworldly encounters and exploits and nearly thwarted escapes from captivity, battles, and nomadic hunting excursions.  She read about how Oisin was purportedly born.  How, the first time Fionn came to that forlorn dreary stretch of woods, he found a deer which neither of his dogs would harm.  When he brought the deer inside his house, she turned into a beautiful otherworldly woman.  She was Sadbh of the Sidhe, transfigured by an evil doer, and Fionn was the only human being whose protection kept her in her true form.  Sadbh was Fionn’s truest love, but tragically he could not forever stay indoors with her – this no one could do, surely—and so she was found and taken as a deer back to the woods.  The last time Fionn came upon those same woods, he found a boy, naked and surely frightfully cold, whom he recognized to be his son.  For this reason he named the boy Oisin, which means “Little Faun.”

Aoife then read about the time when Fionn was captured and Caoilte burned a great number of fields and killed hundreds of men, women, and children in his grief and then (not unlike Noah from a very different place and time) had to gather two of every kind of wild creature and bring them all to the king before Fionn was set free.  The majority of this story listed all the manner of wild thing Caoilte captured but didn’t give many details about why Fionn was imprisoned.  Aoife was struck by how oddly similar the tale was, besides it’s apparent Noah connection, to the story of Demeter who in her grief on losing her daughter to the underworld, refuses to allow anything to grow, any crops to survive, or any patch of earth to be fertile or green.  Less seriously the list of animals made her recall the scene in a Monte Python movie in which a character extolls the various animals, objects, birds, and all other plethora of items on which the people “feasted and were glad” upon receiving the Holy Hand Grenade.  She had a terrifically fun moment with this image before, inevitably, considering just how many innocent people died in many stories, but this one especially.

Although all the accounts about the fianna were fascinating and full of adventure and would probably make a very successful action movie, Aoife was greatly disturbed by all the seemingly useless violence.  It didn’t surprise her that they’d killed so many people, sometimes in the name of war, other times just because they could.  She knew she didn’t share the same value system so central to a time when classes and hierarchies were taken for granted, a time fraught with warring tribes, a time defined through standards and a quality of life that she could never know or ever completely understand.  She tried, sometimes more successfully than at other times, , to withhold judgment about the decisions people made in the past even while she searched through and weighed the consequences of their actions almost unconsciously, attempting to piece together lessons she might learn in order to find the joy in life they knew and avoid the hardships and pitfalls they did not see coming. 

Aoife was at heart a progressive, almost socialist pacifist and believed fervently in the maxim “We are all some mother’s child,” rather than in the efficacy of war.  She believed that race, color, gender, disability, sexual orientation, or religious creed were all aspects of identity that had no bearing on the respect and consideration of human dignity which everyone deserved and was worthy of.  She believed class shouldn’t even exist.  She was determined to have a lively philosophical discussion with Oisin and Caoilte about the use of violence and whether it was ever morally justified when the right time presented itself.  Although she knew they would probably have to agree to disagree on some points, she was more than curious to find out what the fianna would think about modern values and she might even change her mind about some of her opinions.  It was fantastic that she could simply just ask them, she thought, grinning like a mystified child.

                It was then that Aoife came across one of the most told stories about Oisin that exists: the story of Niamh and Oisin in the land of the young, tír na nóg.  She read about how Oisin had been out hunting, and wasn’t having much luck, when he saw the most beautiful woman he’d ever seen riding across the white capped waves of the sea on a horse that had no equal in all of Éirinn.  The woman had long flowing golden hair, and her eyes shown with unfathomable depth and piercing clarity, and were so like the pearls found in the shells of oysters that cling to the rocks at low tide that it was impossible to tell their milky white hue from that of the foamy crests of water that held her reflection.  Oisin asked her for her name once she came ashore, for he was already so in love with her that he could think of nothing else but to be with her.  The woman replied that she was Niamh, daughter of Manannon Mac Lír, the god of the sea and one of the Tuatha de Danann, no less.  She told Oisin that she had come seeking him and was so in love with him that she wished to take him with her to her country, tír na nóg, and there be married and live happily.  She was adamant and persuasive, and came across as one who had always gotten her way.  She told Oisin that Tír na nóg as a land of flowers and fields and forests, a land without strife or toilsome striving, where no one grew old and no one died.

                Oisin knew that, if he accepted Niamh’s offer, he would never see his father or the rest of the fianna again.  He asked for one night to think it over.  On the next dawn, he knew he must go with her to this strange land.  He had to see this place for himself, and more importantly, Niamh’s fairy charm was irresistible and he knew he could never be happy again without her.  In Tír na nóg, Oisin had three children and lived very happily with Niamh, but after three years he missed his homeland of Ireland sorely, and longed to see his own people again.  Niamh did not tell him that while three years had passed in her country, three hundred years had passed in his.  She did try to persuade him not to return home, but Oisin’s mind was set and it was impossible for another person, even his true love, to unmake his mind.  And so, Oisin went to Éirinn on Niamh’s only condition, that he not set foot on the ground, for then the years would catch up with him and he would be very old.  Oisin meant to keep his promise, but it was not to be.

When he got to Ireland he was overcome with grief at not finding any trace of his family or companions.  Just before returning sorrowfully to Niamh, he saw several men trying to lift a large and heavy boulder.  Being always an empathic soul who wished more than anything else to help those in need, Oisin began to lift the rock for them and it was then that the saddle slipped from the horse and he fell to the ground.  He became an old, blind, withered, wrinkled man, dependent on others to survive (which must have been quite a change as he never went through the stages of growing old as most folk do.)  He died belonging neither to the land he was born to nor the land in which he raised his children, neither in the arms of his love nor among friends.  It was presumably only once he died, that Oisin gained some semblance of peace.

                Aoife sat staring at her computer screen, stunned.  It was not occurring to her to ask whether the story was accurate.  It was not occurring to her to start reading another story, or indeed do anything at all.  Somewhat numbly, she covered her face with her hands and squinted, hoping, praying to whomever she could think of—a rock, the god Lugh, her dog—that she would not feel, that she would not think, that she would not remember.  But she did remember.  She began to sob.  She was not just crying for Oisin, she knew all too well, she was crying for herself, and for Conn, or perhaps despite Conn.

                Connell, hence Conn for short, had been her only, her true love.  Well, she thought he had been her true love.  There were too many similarities between her story she gave the world about her relationship and the one told about Oisin to not wonder if it was more than likely that Niamh, who at first came across as flawless, beautiful, loving, and kind, in the end turned out to be a waking nightmare.  For Aoife had, for a long time, told her siblings and friends that she was happy, more than happy, couldn’t imagine her life without her love, and wished they could spend an eternity together even though this was a big, blunt lie.  She persisted in keeping up the facade of contentment and joy even while Conn slowly and steadily kept her more and more to himself, until she hardly saw her friends or spoke with her family.  In truth, Conn would often cling to Aoife like a vulnerable toddler and whine that if she truly loved him, she would go away with him to share a little world of their own and only have each other.  In truth she was as terrified to be with Conn as to be without him, and he made sure of that.

When she first met Conn on that infernal August morning, a mere 104 degrees, Aoife felt as though she was a weary lost and bedraggled traveler who, upon the brink of death, suddenly stumbles on an oasis and eagerly revives herself with the water she thought she’d never find.  Aoife had been promised the world, in fact more than the world.  Somehow Conn knew all of her weaknesses, all of her insecurities, and all of her places where she was too vulnerable to fight, but it was over a year before Aoife questioned whether his having such knowledge about her was anything other than safe and genuine intimacy.  She had nothing to compare her experience to.  .  When he found out about the death of her parents, he had assured Aoife that she would be accepted into his large family and would never be abandoned again.  He wrote her long romantic love letters.  He held her for hours.  He told her there was something special about her and that most men wouldn’t see it, but he did.  He told her that she was the only person he could be himself with, that he’d found the one, that he couldn’t live without her.

He had been so loving that she felt comfortable sharing her ability to see the spirit world with him.  He swore he understood, and assured her that she was strange and exotic and other men would make fun of her for her differences, but that he, Conn, cherished and valued her.  Sometimes he got angry with her for wearing clothes that he felt made her look like Lolita and would insist that she change into something less revealing when they went out, even if it was otherwise completely appropriate.  He would then cajole her with a pout in his voice that he loved her so much that he couldn’t bear to have another man look at her.  To please him, Aoife would go change, happy to have found someone who was so brutally honest and loyal.  She also knew not to make new friends, especially guy friends, because Conn would get jealous and start calling her incessantly to check her whereabouts and even threaten to track her, but he earnestly explained holding her hand and looking deep into her eyes, that he only acted this way out of love and because he had had some traumatic event happen to him as a child.  So Aoife did exactly what Conn wished her to do.  If Conn was hurt, she knew how that felt, and she would not hurt him further.

                Conn hated technology and disliked living near too many people.  He told Aoife his dreams of living off grid with her in a remote part of Wyoming, where their nearest neighbor would be at least a mile away.  He lovingly insisted that Aoife was selfish for wanting the amenities of an apartment, and promised that she could always depend on him to survive.  If and when Aoife ever challenged his opinions or thought differently, he would go into a fit and break things, important things, and he’d put her down for her education and remind her that he had gotten where he was in life with nothing.  It didn’t matter that he had no degree himself, he was intelligent and smart and the education system was corrupt and bureaucratic.  Aoife would worry that something was wrong with her and promise to try to love him better, do more for him, cease being judgmental and listen more, whatever it took to calm him down until the love of her life returned.  Then he would gather her up in his arms and kiss her and tell her he wanted to be her life partner.

This went on and on.  Aoife found Conn more and more unbearable to be around, but the tenacity and power she once had in abundance continued to slowly ebb out of her bones as if the tide in her only knew how to recede.  What was more frightening than Conn, however, was the absence of the light inside her.  She would sometimes, very cautiously, peer within herself and more often than not come up empty handed.  When she saw no light at all, though, something shifted.  Despite the fear and her grief which was so palpable she thought for sure it might drown her, she knew better than to never, ever let anyone take all the light that burned inside her, that made her her own.  That light kept keening so persistently, though now quiescently, to shine, always shine, that she could not ignore it’s calling to her, the call to return and belong to the only one she would ever be in this world.

                On one of the rare occasions when Conn went back to visit his family, Aoife knew what she had to do.  Her heart was a stone, but the neurons in her brain were on fire.  She would live, she must.  She shipped back his things and changed the locks.  She called her brother and he had stayed with her a week, until she had stopped shaking, until they knew Conn would not return to try and hurt her.

When Aoife left, she left knowing only that some part of her deserved more, was more.  She felt more guilty and uncertain than she had ever thought possible, and was afraid that Conn was right and that she was inadequately prepared to live her own life, a life without him in it.  When Aoife left, she continued for a while to hope that Conn would change, and they could live the life they had planned together.  She told herself that Conn had only threatened to hit her once.  He hadn’t actually hit her, just did things like yell at her to watch her jump and get angry when she went out with her friends.  These were the excuses she would give herself as to why it wasn’t all that bad and she could live with it, but somehow she knew she was now lying to herself as well.

It was only after she left, a month or more after, that the word abuse ever came to mind.  Who, besides someone skilled at manipulation, guilt, feigned neediness, and practiced apathy would make someone choose between their relationship and their friends and family?  She had not waited until she was old and frail to leave.  But those months in the beginning, when Conn was her world, when all good and meaningful things in life felt permanently eclipsed by his brilliance and undying love, when all she could see was him, him, him, filling every inch of her horizon, when he made her feel special and unique and loved beyond any love she had ever known: it was as if a fairy from another land had waltzed into her life.  Within a year they were living together, and in the months before she left they were already talking about marriage.  After that, once the relationship began to go downhill, Aoife had lived in the land of youth in yet another way.  Conn, as it turned out, had the emotional capacity of a five-year-old.  If he did not get his way, he threw a tantrum.  Granted, it was a tantrum of emotional blackmail, fear, obligation and guilt, threats, rage, and sometimes desperate displays of tears which was more sophisticated than simply throwing yourself on the floor and pounding your fists, but it was just as ineffective.  Aoife found herself unwittingly in the role of mother one moment, lover the next, and it was disconcerting and exhausting.  Thank the gods they had not had children.

Aoife often hoped that, had Conn succeeded in isolating her completely, she still would have found the courage to walk away, but of that, she would fortunately never be sure.  Now looking back at that time which she filed away under “relationship mistakes,” it was almost as if the time with Conn was a dream, a surreal blip on the timeline of her varied existence, as if she had spent more than a year sleep walking, as if she had moved in a waking coma, as if she had given her very heart and soul away not realizing she had surrendered, almost willingly, to become the play thing of a bangle tiger.  She was not sure how she woke up before the tiger swallowed her whole, but she knew she was still mending the pieces of herself that had been so skillfully torn away.  She knew, then, she was stronger than she had ever given herself credit for.  She knew Conn had picked the wrong sort to mess with, and over time she learned her worth in this world.  She knew she had almost missed her chance to wake up, but she was now wide awake and would never be lulled asleep again.

                Once again Aoife surrendered, this time in safety, to the flashbacks and her tears.  Perhaps if she cried enough she would learn to live with the experience, as a war veteran might learn to live with the shrapnel permanently embedded in his shoulder.  She let herself cry until she was spent, and tired, and could resolve once again to no longer give away her power to this man and the wounds he inflicted on her already bruised and battered spirit.  It was late, she realized, and so she ate some chocolate and went to bed.

                But the next morning she couldn’t put the story of Tír na nóg out of her mind.  It had been over a week since she saw Caoilte or Oisin, and she found she very much wanted Oisin to know that she understood what he might have gone through.  She sat down and ate a bowl of cereal and then sat on the sofa to read her email, but behind her eyes were images of Oisin leaving his family, and never seeing them again, all for the sake of a girl.  No human being could be worth such a sacrifice, Aoife thought adamantly, because it was such an insidious choice to force someone to make.  Surely there were strong people in the world, like Oisin, who would never fall for such a trick as the one Niamh must have pulled.  But if there was any truth at all to the story, even someone as strong as Oisin had fallen for it, for a longer time than she had.

                Tears came unbidden into Aoife’s eyes again.  This time she did cry just for Oisin, for the unnamed and incalculable parts of himself and people he loved that he had lost without any struggle or fight or last stand, just stolen in the name of love out from under his nose by a woman who was very probably damaged, and broken, even while stunningly beautiful.  A woman who was hungry for all she could never have and, like Conn tried to do to Aoife, devoured everything he had.  She cried.  It was only when she finally looked up, after what seemed to her like a long time but might have merely been moments, that she realized she was not alone.

Oisin stood next to her, his hand, which she couldn’t actually feel, resting on her shoulder, his face full of concern.  It was so odd, Aoife thought, that she didn’t shriek or pull away or do any of the other things she usually did when someone surprised her, especially if that person was of the opposite gender.  She had generally been very afraid of people, particularly men, since she had left that terrifying relationship with Conn.  Perhaps, she mused only momentarily, she really was healing from it.

                “Please don’t cry,” Oisin said quietly. 

                “Sorry,” Aoife always felt a bit embarrassed when someone saw her cry, “I never meant for you to have to come comfort me for being upset about something that happened to you.”  The whole scenario struck Aoife as being opposite what it should be.  “I wanted to comfort you, let you know you are not alone.  I just really empathized with what you went through, never seeing your family again. Was it like…” she stumbled on, trailing off unsure how to say what she wanted to say.  He had so much more experience than she did, having been in the world so long ago.  There must be something more important to ask someone so ancient.

                “I don’t remember all the details of what it was like.  But I do know that you’ve been through many struggles, and when you found your strength to actually walk away, learned what you were worth, and discovered that leaving doesn’t always mean giving up, I was very proud of you.  It took me a much, much longer time to realize that I would give up everything by staying, and gain everything by leaving.  It was almost too late when I learned that”

                “Did you ever find your family after you left?” Aoife asked.

“Sometimes it’s possible to physically be with your family while being further away than you have ever been in your life.  But I have had hundreds of your years in this world to be with my family.  I’m no longer sad or angry or divided.”

“I understand,” Aoife replied, and she really did.  Then after a while she asked, “I just wondered, how did you know I was with someone and left him?  If you were there, then, why didn’t… I… see you?” She was going to ask why he hadn’t come to talk with her then to warn her to stay away, but decided it wasn’t good on her to ask that question.

                Oisin smiled knowingly.  “Well, you weren’t ready to hear a warning from anyone, not even your siblings and school friend who valiantly tried.  Let’s say, your mind was made up and nothing would unmake it.” After a moment, he went on, “You were so defensive back then, that you were blind to the world beyond the physical world.”

                Aoife nodded.  He was right, of course.  She was shut off from everything back then, including herself.  “I didn’t read what actually happened to you, did I?” she asked almost as a statement.  “Can you tell me everything you know that happened?  Perhaps it might help someone else realize it’s time to open their eyes.”

                Oisin sat down facing her.  He truly did not know the details of all that happened, not anymore.  “A long, long time ago,” he began, “I reconciled myself with Niamh, for I do recall her name was in fact Niamh.  She was of noble birth, for sure, but not Manannon’s daughter.  I never met Manannon or his daughter until my life was through, and they would very much like to clear up the misunderstanding.  In the world beyond your world, after some time…if I can speak of something such as time happening in a place where time doesn’t mean the same thing as it does to you, I learned to forgive her.  Most importantly, I forgave myself.  After that, there was no need to remember the details.  The lesson was, first, to find the good that can be saved from the experience.  I cherish my children who I would not have had without her.  I then learned to let go and move on, as you’re doing now.”  He paused for a moment and then he thought of something and his eyes gleamed in the half-light of the room.  “I will tell you a different story.” He said.

The Birth of Oisin:
http://www.mc.maricopa.edu/~thoqh49081/celtic/oisin1.html

Oisin in tír na nóg:
http://www.shee-eire.com/Magic&Mythology/Myths/FinnMacCool/Oisin-TirnaNog/Page1.htm
For a different version which I have not heard told anywhere else go here:
http://www.horsesoftirnanog.org/legend.htm

 

 

I don’t wish to write about the subject of unhealthy or abusive relationships without providing some information that might be helpful.  In no way am I at all qualified to assist anyone in any official manner, beyond sharing my experience.  In my experience, then, while anyone can do a google search, sometimes the people who are most in need are those who are too terrified, traumatized, overwhelmed, depressed, or too isolated and in danger to do a search themselves, and I hope this helps them.

 

The National Domestic Abuse Hot Line:

http://www.thehotline.org/

 

The Narcissistic Abuse Recovery Program, resources, articles, and community run by Melanie Tonia Evans:

www.melanietoniaevans.com.

 

The Verbal Abuse Site Run by Patricia Evans (no relation to Melanie, it is simply coincidence):

http://www.verbalabuse.com/.  Many of her books can be found on Amazon or Audible.com.

 

Eilish Niamh