Peter on the Otherworld, Truth-Telling, and Racism

Peter on the Otherworld, Truth-Telling, and Racism July 15, 2016

There is a place in the woods of Western Massachusetts where there is a fairy ring. Mountain laurel grows in a circle, maybe dozen feet across, not planted by any human hand. The center is open, bare earth with a soft carpet of pine needles. Not much to look at. You could see it and miss what it was. But it was there and it was real.

Peter Bishop, 2016.
Peter Bishop, 1989.

Camping in those woods thirty years ago, walking back to my cabin in the dark, it seemed as if the woods were full of mischievous spirits. I remembered stories of humans being pixie-led, losing their way in the woods to wander, lost, all night.

I did not lose my way. Whatever was in those woods did not trick me off of the trail, and I found my cabin only a few minutes later. But there, just downhill from it, was the fairy ring.

I walked down to it, walked around the outside of it, and it felt like static electricity. If I opened myself to it, I could feel a buzz of energy flowing outward from the circle in every direction. At the eastern quarter there was a small gap in the laurel, just wide enough to step through. I stood at the opening, spread my hands, and asked permission.

And I felt the flow of energy reverse in that spot, the current drawing me inward instead of pushing out. I gave thanks and stepped into the circle.

I stood in the center, facing north and looking out into the depth of darkness between the trees. Scrying. There were no hallucinatory visions; I was not tripping. But after some time I felt the presence of two beings approaching out of that darkness. They walked toward me slowly, stepped into the circle, and took places standing to either side of me. There was an offer. Wordless. They could have taken hold of me and lifted me, carrying me up to……

I said no. Thank you, no, not yet. Not tonight. Not this year. Not until I have a clearer sense of who I am. And they turned and left, receding into the woods the way they had come.

Where would they have taken me thirty years ago? What would I have found? And would I have returned still sane?

This is a true story.

* * *

Today I read a scene in a fantasy novel, Patrick Rothfuss’s’ The Wise Man’s Fear. The narrator has been captured by a seductive fae, one who lures men into the Otherworld where most of them die and the few who return have gone mad. He convinces her to let him go by promising to write a song about her once he is back in the mortal world. As she sends him off, she gives him a gift to keep him safe so that he may return later. She tells him:

“another I would give a shield and it would keep him safe from harm. another I would gift with amber, bind a scabbard tight with glamour, or craft a crown so men might look on you with love.” She shook her head solemnly. “but not for you. you are a night walker. a moon follower. you must be safe from iron, from cold, from spite. you must be quiet, you must be light, you must move softly in the night. you must be quick and unafraid.” She nodded to herself. “this means I must make you a shaed.”

The passage made me ask myself, were I to be given a gift of subtle magic from the realm of fae, what would I want it to be? And the answer comes, that when I speak the truth, it be seen and known for truth. Just that.

And I have it, at least a little, as a teacher and as a writer–—even a writer of fiction. I suppose also as a parent and as a lover, and as a Friend; speaking Truth is the second of the Quaker disciplines, after listening. It may be the thing I have been working for my whole life. With that tool, all the riches of the world—–the real riches, the ones worth having–—become achievable. In so far as I have it, it is both earned through hard work and courage and a gift wholly unearned.

I am grateful.

* * *

Yesterday, at a rally in Holyoke in protest of the two most recent killings of black men by police, we broke into groups to sit in circles and share who we are and what each of us is doing about racism in America.

I’’m Peter. I live in Leeds and teach high school in Hatfield. It’s a very white community and there are three black students in the whole school.

Real change comes through relationship. My students respect me–—I have earned their respect–—and they know who I am and what I believe.

Karen G. Johnston. 2016. (Used with permission.)
Karen G. Johnston. 2016. (Used with permission.)

In the rally, we chant Black lives matter! and The killing has to stop! Our words are loud and insistent, but the power of our words both does and does not come from the sound of our voices.

We must speak, or the truth will go unheard, but it is the Truth in the words that fills them with light and gives them their power.


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