It’s the Spring Equinox, the time of equal day and night, that will tip over into the summer months and warmer times. It’s meant to be a time of balance, equilibrium, and calm. Allegedly.
Looking around me, I see very few people in a state of balance. Over the last few weeks, I have been drawn to the fact that most of us (in Western culture at least) always seem to be DOING something, working towards ACHIEVING something, moving onto the next step, the next thing. The spring sap is rising, and we burst into action. We plan for the coming summer, and put our dreams into tentative action. Consumerism encourages us to buy in order to improve ourselves; social media encourages us to connect more, so that we can be more accepted by others; and our working lives appear to be an endless cycle of coping with a continual stream of the next important things to do. Even the craft of doing nothing has become an acquisitive, perfectionist culture in its own right (haven’t you done your mindfulness work yet?). When we do stop in our hectic lives – to smell the roses, to spend idle time with treasured people, to be with the land and with nature, to be creative – it is often in a state of exhaustion and need for renewal.
Does this sound harsh? I don’t think so. It seems to me a very human condition to travel, to move forward, to be curious, to seek, to have an impact, to make a difference. At risk of identifying too strong a dichotomy, I find it is a masculine energy. It’s counter to the more passive, yet equally strong feminine energies of growing, holding, responding, and creating. Together, surely they weave a web that is the substance of our lives. But with an over-emphasis on the masculine energy, we risk running out of fuel and of nourishment, and perhaps miss the point of the entire matter as we rush past.
I’m working on the structure of stories at the moment, for a forthcoming workshop. The ‘hero’s journey’ is a classic story structure, eloquently described by Joseph Campbell. It must have been pulled apart and put back together again by thousands of storytellers over the years. The hero(ine) is outcast, or discovers some deficiency, and has to leave the village. He or she does not take the easy path, undergoes several trials, sometimes with help, and journeys to the dark places of transformation. Then, our hero(in) emerges triumphant but transformed, and returns to the village with gifts to share.
I’m reminded of a storytelling at a school recently where one child kept interrupting excitedly: “I know what happens next!” All of us have one foot in the present and another stepping forward into the future. But the journeys are not always physical ones, and they vary from character to character according to the power of our imaginations. And sometimes, the story needs to stay put for a while, to explore what’s really going on: to be, rather than to do. There is nourishment and inspiration aplenty in these places, although sometimes they are painful to stay in.
As ever, one story has been quite prominent in my work lately, that has caused me to muse on all this. Maon and the Willow is an ancient Irish story about a king who – through various explanations, according to the version of the story – has the grey furry ears of a donkey. That’s a bit inconvenient for a king, and of course the queen knows about it, but he manages to hide it from everyone else, apart from the man who cuts his hair. This king works his way through all the barbers in the kingdom, as anyone apart from the queen who knows about his ears must be instantly put to death.
This particular kingdom is a difficult place to choose a career in hairdressing, evidently. Until one young lad is saved by pleading that he can keep a secret; he will never tell another living person about the King’s ears. And so he lives, carrying the secret with him. The secret grows heavy, and the secret grows dark; it eats into the lad like a cancer. The Druid suggests that he should tell the secret to a tree that looks like it wants to listen. The lad puts his lips to a gnarled old willow tree, and whispers: “The King has donkey’s ears!” The burden is instantly gone, as the secret has been shared, and the lad skips away, having kept his promise.
Two years later, the King’s bard looks for a tree to make his new harp, and finds the same willow. The harp is crafted, the celebration at court begins, but with the first touch of the golden strings the harp’s willow soundbox rings out: “The King has donkey’s ears! The King has donkey’s ears!” Willows also have ears, you see.
The King stands up straight in front of the whole court and removes his hat to show his ears. First there is laughter; then there is jeering; then there is clapping; then there is cheering. His people declare how proud they are of their brave King, who is not afraid to be himself.
So, with this story, imagine being the long-suffering queen; imagine being the willow, that is done unto; imagine being the young barber, who is counting his lucky stars. But above all, imagine being the king. His journey has been the most transformational of everyone in the story, even though he never left court. All he did was to trust, which can be the most difficult thing of all.