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Fire in the Head

Fire in the Head August 1, 2013

I’m really enjoying Sharon Knight’s new album Neofolk Romantique.  It’s a collection of ballads, folk songs, sea songs, and Sharon’s original compositions.  Sharon’s vocals are strong and her and Winter’s instrumentals are simply beautiful – I think I could listen to their guitars and mandolin all day.

My favorite is the first song on the album, “Fire in the Head.”  It’s one of Sharon’s originals and the title comes from the legend of a mountain in Wales.  It’s said anyone who sleeps at its foot will wake either mad, dead, or a poet.  Here’s the chorus of the song:

The screaming hag that rides the wind
Will rip the soul right from your skin
The hollow hills will swallow you
And flay apart your mind
To win the kiss of the gifted ones
We risk our lives on the mountain front
There’s some wake mad, and some wake dead
And some will rise with a fire in their head.


Though I’m loving this album and I encourage you to check it out, this isn’t a music review.  There’s a reason this song has grabbed me.  The beauty of the music can’t hide the terror of the lyrics… and the attraction.

In a Facebook comment on my previous post on free will and fate, Morpheus Ravenna pointed me to her essay on destiny.  In it, she said:

You, reading these words, you have a destiny on you. Simply put, your destiny is that thing you were made for. That thing you are uniquely equipped and gifted to do, that without you will not be complete; and that you will not be complete without doing.

Add that to what I wrote about fate:

Make enough choices … and eventually you find yourself on a path that bears a strong resemblance to fate, even though it is simply the cumulative consequences of your free will.

I can look back on my life – as far back as I can remember – and see destiny unfolding.  I can see the gateways and the defining moments, and I can see the processes that took years and had no dramatic turning points, just a clear change from the beginning to the end.  I couldn’t see that earlier in life.  I was still resisting my destiny, my calling, my true will – I thought I had to be rich and powerful or I would be a failure.

Perhaps the most useful thing I’ve ever done is to accept that while I will continue to work a professional job to support myself, my family and my spiritual work, my true calling is not to be a CEO or a VP of Engineering.  It’s to be a Druid and a priest.  That acceptance led me to CUUPS and to OBOD.  It led me to take the vows of a priest.  It led me to leadership roles in CUUPS and in my UU church.  It led me to start blogging, then here to Patheos.  Today, I’m writing, leading rituals, teaching classes, and advising students.  I’m doing what I’m called to do, I do it well and I like it.

But the journey isn’t done yet.

The fire in the head is the gift and calling of poets.  It’s the gift and calling of shamans.  It’s the gift and calling of mystics across every religious tradition.  It’s both a yearning for the experience of the gods and a message from the gods that has to be passed along, through poetry or art or music or ritual.  Something without is burning to get in and something within is burning to get out.

The screaming hag that rides the wind
Will rip the soul right from your skin
The hollow hills will swallow you
And flay apart your mind.

The terrors are metaphorical, of course.  Sort of.  Kind of.  No, not really.  They’re not literal, but they’re very real.  And the scariest part is knowing that the loosest metaphor of all is the night on the mountain.  We like the idea of initiations, of sudden and dramatic changes.  We’ll gladly pass through the fire knowing it only hurts for a moment and we’ll be stronger on the other side.

Except it’s never over in one night.  Sometimes it comes over weeks or months.  Sometimes it comes over years.  Sometimes it drives you mad, or worse.

Make enough choices … and eventually you find yourself on a path that bears a strong resemblance to fate, even though it’s simply the cumulative consequences of your free will.

I never set out to be here.  I never knew where “here” was.  But here I am, standing at the base of this mountain, the cumulative result of a million decisions, some conscious and some unconscious.

To call the last few months of my life “challenging” would be an understatement.  As recently as a week ago I saw it all as random, a string of bad luck and the realities of life.  Now I understand the flaying has begun.

I really do believe in free will.  I really do believe I can turn around, walk away from this mountain and focus entirely on the “normal” parts of my life.  I can do that and still be a good Nature-loving Pagan.  I can do that and still be an ethical person who contributes to building a better world.  But walking away from the mountain means walking away from my destiny and giving up on who and what I’m called to be.

And who and what I want to be.

And so my commitment to daily spiritual practice is strengthened, because it must.  The complications of the ordinary world are managed, because they must.  The empty distractions that eat up so much of my time are crowded out by the work of the gods, because my time is not unlimited.  My failures – and there will be failures – are noted, examined, and done better the next time, because contrary to the legend, the kiss of the gifted ones does not come to those who are asleep.

There’s some wake mad, and some wake dead
And some will rise with a fire in their head.

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