The last time I was in the USA was thirteen years ago. Then came 9/11 and the awful story that ensued, and life called in other directions: New Zealand, Australia, Europe. When Stephanie and I received the invitation to come to the OBOD East Coast Gathering taking place this summer in Milford, Pennsylvania, I was curious to see how it would feel to be back in the US after all that time.
I’m really happy to say that it felt like visiting an old friend. We’d been apart too long and it was time to reconnect. We spent 10 and 11 September in New York City. The weather was perfect: clear blue skies, bright sunshine. The same weather as on 9/11. We didn’t make it to one of the city’s hidden treasures: the Nicholas Roerich Museum, which no New Yorker I’ve met has visited. I saw it years ago and wanted to show it to Steph. But instead we visited another gem, recommended by a friend, and not listed on those ‘What to do in NYC’ webpages: the Rubin Museum of Himalayan art, between Chelsea and Greenwich Village. If you like Tibetan Buddhist art it is a must: a beautifully presented collection of statuary and thankas in an area of New York that is fun to stroll around.
On the evening of September 11 we walked down to Druids – an Irish gastro-pub in the Hell’s Kitchen area that is good on atmosphere and food. On our way we stopped in on a photo exhibition of the work of Editta Sherman just by Central Park. And there the photographer was herself: sitting by a desk chatting to a visitor, flamboyantly dressed with a huge hat. Not bad for 100 years old!
The next day we arrived at Camp Netimus, home for the third year running, to the OBOD gathering of the clans in the US. Straight away there was that feeling of connection: old friends from way back, last seen on the Druids’ Isle of Iona; members like Selene and Katlady who we’ve been working with for years, but never physically met; and then those we’ve known from their visits to the UK, including John Michael Greer, who gave some fabulous talks. For Stephanie, who looks at the database daily, there was the fun of matching faces with names, and we even bumped into Nico – a Dutch member we last saw at another OBOD camp, the International one in the Netherlands in June.
Just like the Dutch camp, there was that warm feeling of community, the magic of shared rituals, the eisteddfodau around a blazing fire each night, the healing that comes from sharing, the learning that comes from discussion.
There were workshops, talks, a dialogue between myself and John Michael, an opening ceremony, an Alban Elfed rite, and a closing ceremony. In between all that, there were communal meals with food for every taste (including vegan and gluten-free – quite a task to organize for over a hundred of us) and lots of conversation: John Beckett in his blog writes: ‘I think my favorite part of whole gathering was the conversation. People shared their spiritual journeys, talked about their projects and their ideas, their hopes and fears for the future, discussed the nature of the gods and what comes after death. We talked about our groves and seed groups and for a few of us, our CUUPS groups. We had the kind of conversations we’re reluctant to have in the ordinary world for fear of being seen as odd or nuts or worse. There is nothing like immersing yourself within your tribe.’
It was John who held a special ceremony one evening, to be inducted as a minister in the Universal Gnostic Church, so that he could perform legal weddings, and it was moving to witness the ceremony. And I agree with him about enjoying the conversations at camp. If you go to a conference much of its benefit seems to come, not from the lectures themselves, however interesting they might be – but from the conversations with fellow delegates and presenters over tea breaks and meals.
Conversation was one of the methods for exploring the meaningful questions about life and spirituality proposed by the New England Transcendentalists, Thoreau, Emerson, Alcott et al., and I decided to use conversation as the means for exploring what it means to be a Druid in 2012. This took place in the Storytellers’ Circle, a grove in Camp Netimus tailor-made for Druids. It was there that we held initiation ceremonies for all three grades: 25 Bards, 7 Ovates, and 3 Druids.
As we held these ceremonies I cast my mind back to the initiations we have participated in over the years: at camps in a sliver of woodland in Wiltshire, in the middle of the night on a sacred hill in Ulster, in a grove of cabbage trees in New Zealand. Always unique, always different, always the same – travelling deeper, crossing boundaries, seeking transformation.
What’s great about OBOD events is that the threads of story continue to weave: the camp is over, but the next one is already being planned, and at least one participant from California will be coming to the UK Samhain camp next week. Everyone, from the organisers who had worked all year to make it a success, to the members who gave talks and workshops, and everyone who attended – including Superman – made the camp an inspiring and memorable experience.
I’ve written a little about the gathering in my Annual Review for 2012: ‘In the USA, as the closing ceremony took place, a child tottered towards the centre of the circle in the bright sunshine. About 100 of us stood in awe as the little girl, only 2 yrs old, held up an acorn, the gift of the Druids at the previous day’s Alban Elfed rite. Superman then tottered out to join her. He was older – 3 – and wearing his superhero suit proudly, he stood with her in silence, contemplating the acorn, completely at ease in our ritual circle, banners blowing in the breeze, magic hanging in the air.’