It comes to pass oft that a terrible oath, with a swaggering accent sharply twanged off, gives manhood more approbation than ever proof itself would have earned him. William Shakespeare
Never take a solemn oath. People think you mean it. Norman Douglas
We must not promise what we ought not, lest we be called on to perform what we cannot. Abraham Lincoln
It is useless to hold a person to anything he says while he is in love, drunk, or running for office. Shirley MacLaine
But I have promises to keep / And miles to go before I sleep. Robert Frost
When a man takes an oath . . . he’s holding his own self in his own hands. Like water. And if he opens his fingers then – he needn’t hope to find himself again. Robert Bolt
They made us many promises, more than I can remember, but they never kept but one: they promised to take our land and they took it. Luther Standing Bear
Last Friday night, at my private tribal group, we had an intense lesson on oaths. My sister in the Craft (not my student) gave hers to the tribe in front of candles–not that we needed it, but because she wanted us to know how serious her love and devotion is to this family. After a year of betrayal and oath breakers, our tribe needs healing built upon the communion of trust. This was her sacrifice toward that end.
We were also blessed to have a guest (and a brother) speak on his faith, Ásatrú, and all ended up around the fire in the ritual of Sumbel. While we are of the Gangani/Alabama tradition, taking part in such a sacred moment led by a trained, serious Ásatrú (rather than an internet-trained imposter) was a blessing. As he reminded us, “we are both tribal in nature,” therefore not diametrically opposed in ritual. He taught us the true meaning of “wyrd,” without agenda or egocentric pollution, and left us all profoundly touched by the native language and feeling of “the real thing.” Turns out, there is more to it than stavs and rhetoric. As the tribe enters its private phase (without guests) until the summer is done, we were blessed by our brother–CK–with his respect for our people and the feel of kinship. It’s mutual. And not even a bit complicated.
And all of it left me thinking on “word.” Yes, “word.”
Trying to approach this in my government voice will never work. Slipping into my roots in ten, nine, eight . . .
When I was three, Momma gave me my first lesson on “word.” My brother was born, red-faced and wrinkled and damnably cuter than myself, and so in a show of hospitality and solidarity, I leaned over into the crib with my beloved stuffed dog. Now, I had *meant* to let him hold it for a spell–drool over its button eyes and gnaw on its tattered tail–but as my mouth formed the words heah now babeh, its yorn my mother mentally recorded my oath. And nary let my ass have that damn thing back. I kicked and howled and even extracted a written contract from said babe (seven years later) in an attempt to break my word–to no avail. “Spot” had become his, not mine, at my spoken word.
Having learnt the permanence of “word,” my life was marred by those who slung it around as temporary, as in:
I promise to cleave only unto you for as long as we both shall live = I promise to cleave only unto you until I can separate the secretary from her panties.
I promise to love and support my son = I promise to do so until the need for cocaine becomes greater than his need for Tylenol and food when he’s sick.
I promise to honor your grandma’s wishes = I promise to do so until I change my mind and rationalize them as being the greater good, when really I just want her money.
I promise to hold your secrets = I promise to do so until you piss me off, at which time I will holler them from blog posts and timely emails to your family.
I promise to love and respect this tribe = I promise to do so until you call me on my asshattery and hold me to my oaths, at which time I will bloodily betray every word and moment in which you loved me with your sworn enemy.
You see, none of these matched up with that learning moment of my childhood in which your “word” was your oath, your bond and the only thing that counted. For my ancestors, this was better than gold, stronger than a notary public seal and punishable by unimaginable and ruthless measures. It was, in effect, the whole of a person, the echo of grandmothers and grandfathers and the sum of all parts of a beating heart. You must die keeping your word, I was taught . . . only to find a world in which “word” was only those typed symbols on a meme or syllables slung in a moment of desire or an alcoholic haze. Imagine my chagrin.
Even now, as I desperately desire the breaking of my word with one whom has falsely attacked me, crippled my reputation and taken in my student when she needed to face her own consequences, I cringe at the prospect of such an act. There is a character, Michonne, in my favorite series The Walking Dead who refuses to speak for herself–even as we holler at her from the couch to “tell them! tell them who you are, what you’ve done!” she will not. Words in the apocalypse are no longer valid markers of a soul, therefore, she is silent. Strong. Regardless of the dangers to herself, she refuses to rhetorically design a defense against the world gone mad–and I find her “word,” or lack thereof, divine. Can we imagine a scene in which she would plead? Justify? Rationalize? Hell, naw. Hopefully, they will not write her out of her “word” for she is the last true native speaker of the script. And if we continue, as a society, to bend and twist our words to save our own asses, we will also find an apocalyptic environment in which not speaking is the last saving grace.
As for me, I remember the act of “word,” that sometimes brutalizing moment in which all of our molecules align with that of our deed from which there is no relief nor hazey amnesia. The question remains: when someone breaks their word with us, are we released from our own? I think not. I still feel some semblance of love and faith to those who have crushed their word like a cigarette under their boot, I still remain steadfast in my own convictions of my oaths–though they may be bruised and torn–for as someone wise once told me: when you enact revenge, dig two graves. Does this mean that I will not warn of the dangers of entwining oaths with those breakers of them? Lawd, no. At least there is sweet, morphinic relief in that. And yet . . .
I am haunted by the common dismissal of “word.” On Friday, after Sumbel, we enacted the Cherokee regret/hope ritual, at which time our Ásatrú brother suggested oaths to the self. As it passed through the circle like a heartbeat (in Cherokee we become “Red Heart” during ritual around a fire), it occurred to me that the keeping of an oath is much like the forgiving of one: it will shake, it will slip into the red clay, it will threaten to crack like aged wood . . . but it is in the endeavor, the constancy of effort, the mindfulness of holding to a gypsy prayer of steadfastness that redeems us. For every broken oath, there is one held. On Friday, there were ten Red Hearts thumpin’ and vibrating in “word.” As a family trad, we will never desire great numbers–but oh. You should have seen our oath when it spun into a million stars out in the country.
Our oaths are our last hope, our permanent vow against the apocalypse that has become the 2nd millennial world and the thread that keeps us sane. And as Grandma always told me: you break your word, you break your own heart.
This post is dedicated to my Tribe. I oath to never lie to you, to always call you on your bullshit, to hold you up to your own “word” and to be faithful to you until the day that I walk out into the woods for good. And to those whom have broken oath, may the Great Mother have mercy upon your soul. For you were once a child of the Earth, the angel of the Wind, the keeper of the Fire and a boat upon the Water. May you go in peace. May you find your “word.” But may you never hurt another with its enunciation.