photo by Bridget McKenzieAll this was a long time ago, I remember, And I would do it again, but set down This set down This: were we led all that way for Birth or Death? There was a Birth, certainly, We had evidence and no doubt. I had seen birth and death, But had thought they were different; this Birth was Hard and bitter agony for us, like Death, our death. We returned to our places, these Kingdoms, But no longer at ease here, in the old dispensation, With an alien people clutching their gods. I should be glad of another death. ~ T. S. Eliot, The Journey of the Magi
What follows is a very personal and in many ways quite abstract response to being at Uncivilization this year. It strikes a very different note to other reactions that I’ve read, but then this year I felt myself walking an often solitary path that had much to do with finding myself in odd places outside the general flow of events for purposes that I don’t yet or fully understand – if indeed there is anything to understand. Given more time I would have doubtless written otherwise and possibly even managed some jokes, but wanted to catch the flavour of the experience before life sweeps it onward, as is its wont.
Four basic things will happen in a ritual, if it’s a good one.
First, showing up with intent – a decision that might well get made outside the dominion of the conscious mind.
Second, breakdown. Any expectations brought in will be shattered, confounded; the old shell left in fragments of fear, dislocation, grief, insignificance.
Third, reconnection. Cohesions arise from the blackened ashes, broken pieces begin to slot back together in new alignments.
Last, the journey back to normal life, which demands – if the work of the ritual is to be fulfilled – the processing and reintegration of whatever painful illuminations participating in the ritual has drawn down.
If you were at Uncivilization this weekend just gone, whether witting or not you were part of a ritual – a very real and very powerful one. A ritual that stretched its presence and implications right through and beyond the more obviously ritualistic moments: gathering around the fire to hear Tom Hirons tell the tale of Ivashko Medvhedko (upon which skin-shuddering magic I stumbled about halfway through), following the call of the piper into the dark forest as the mysteries of Liminal unfolded, singing together in a haunting refrain as the festival drew to its close.
Some participants were working to hold and move the energies and spaces of this ritual in time-honoured traditions (including the routine alchemy of event organisation), while others took a bold attitude of radical improvisation, feeling a push to let conjure something beyond the ken of what traditions hand forward. Some knew just enough to not fully know what they were unleashing; some sensed just enough to behave in the manner of very small children let loose with a box of matches. Some felt a crackle pass through them but had no name to lend it; some stepped into their walk-on parts oblivious and without missing a beat. Some passed an enjoyable weekend of learning and sharing and discovering the company of like-minded others, and some, I’m sure, are still trying to work out what hit them.
All of us, regardless of what we brought with us or thought we were doing there, of whether at the end we called time by labelling our participation or the festival itself success or failure or something more equivocal, were conduits for something greater. Greater than the gestalt of human festivity and honest companionship, greater than any inherited or re-learned capacity to engage as equals with the powers of the next-to-wild place where we had gathered: of the chalk and the copper beech groves and the early morning magpies and the towering montbretia. Something precious, and also dangerous, to the extent that we were invoking something out of our back pockets; only part-knowing, as an impromptu collective, what we were about. And in moments it drew close to us – sometimes you know it when the fine hairs on your human body stand erect – the sacred mystery, the breath upon which the universe turns.
It touched me as I was taking part in the chorus of Liminal on the Saturday night, already transformed by uncharacteristic clothes, face paint and a lantern in the dark into somebody other than I think I am, processing through the woods and coming to the last punctuation place: a naked man curled foetal around an illuminated deer skeleton scattered with rose petals, then suddenly the clearing beneath the beeches opened out and came alive in a scatter of flickering lights, its silence swallowing our footsteps and our words.
Although I’d tried to come to Uncivilization with my mind open, still the expectations crowded in, all ready to be broken and exceeded. Advance plans to forage and take writing workshops were overtaken by other necessities, my sense of timing was chronically misaligned, doors that I fully expected to open stayed stonily closed, and others that intimated distraction quietly asked to be avoided. All this stranding left me bang on cue to step into other roles that were wanted of me: to lend ears and hands under the radar, to be with the power of council and find a home for my grief, to listen for tightly guarded silences, to learn truly for myself how vital the gift of a story can be.
To carry a red thread, a connection trailing from place to place. Worn outside for the eye to see and dropped upon the ground; carried alone on the inside and gifted to the ground.