Saturday, January 31, 2015

I Can't Live Outside of Time or Place: Why there are Mysteries I Won't know and How That's a Gift

Two weeks ago I got three quarters through writing blog entry about how my perceptions of the weather and reality are different. In this case I was writing about how warmth and more daylight don't correspond and what that might me for mean in my practice. I have to put some of that writing a side as no longer relevant to the season or to my mind set. But the were a few kernels I still thought were pertinent to my practice and perhaps others.

I am not a farmer. I'm not dependent on the state of the land, the weather, or my crops for life. While I am effected as we are all effected by food shortage and drought it will never be the way our ancient ancestors were. I personally will probably never be living of the land in any way that resembles the farmers or trappers of ancient times, where so much of our faith's inspiration is pulled. Those mysteries are closed to me, are always going to be closed. I get a lot from the land. I forage (or wild craft or whatever we're calling it). I feel called to the land and moved by it. My heart is utterly pagan and multiple with depths of varying measures and traditions of both long lineage and dubious new beginnings.

I've known I'm not a farmer and still I've longed for lost knowledge. Perhaps it was my inner bookworm or the selfish greedy bit of me. I used to think it was just my thirst for knowledge, even as a little kid, I was creating binders and one stop all information shops. I loved books and the kind of abstract power they could give you. Now I've begun to see that part of me, hoarding and demanding all the power as something within me that may be slightly malicious. Sure, Know It All was always willing share but she didn't just want to know some stuff of value, she wanted to know it all, to be the source, and for others to have to come to her to know it all, to be grateful. It's a little sick. Sometimes I see Know It All's stamp on a blog post and wonder if I am truly informing/trying to start a conversation or trying to be an authority. It's hard to let go of that want and even harder to recognize it driving me in ways that people would otherwise say are good but to know the ends have a big Ego Goal waiting.

Funny how its this aspect of me that I dote so much self love and value on that the Gods have never shown much affinity for. There was a point where Their dismissive nature regarding this aspect of me hurt. I was too vested in being/gaining/growing authority through knowledge and grabbing at what I could to have it. I couldn't see what was wrong about knowing, about being able to consider all the angles, about having a deep through passionate understanding of all aspects of the Gods' traditions, desires, wants and needs.

They told me, it wouldn't have meaning. I could know it and really never understand it. I've never be able to use it or express it. Knowing these mysteries lost in part in time but more so in life style shift which the mysteries did not grow would be worthless to me and to others like me. They kept insisting this was Knowledge I was not to have, that at best it would be meaningless and at worst it would drive me mad. Since I thought not knowing was driving me mad, I was able to pretty well ignore Their underestimation of me. Besides, I've lived without gods, surely I can gain a little information without Their approval? Doesn't there have to be some text that hints to the path to gain mystery x or can't I splice enough information together to spontaneously create the path to mystery y? It had to be possible and attaining it could only be a good thing.

I'm several years into creating my own personal calendar based on the Wheel of the year as it applies to me locally and am beginning to integrate Roman, Greek, and Etruscan holidays and themes where I can. Just as it was clear to me that a British seasonal calendar would not fit a southern location seasonally and I'd have to alter things, I can see how the Mediterranean weather is not 100% a match plus I can see how socially, politically, ethically I am not where these ancient people were and I don't necessarily plan to return to their state. Still their religion was a living breathing shawl wrapping up their realities. It's not something easily or entirely able to be separated from their lives and as such some changes are inevitable. I've come up with hundreds of uses and alternative rituals and thoughts on when celebrating x or y holiday would be appropriate and when it would not. I can feel the little pings of approval when I grab an applicable droplet, and when I can sift the gold from the silt. It has never silenced the part of self that thought we/I could resurrect and modernize these faiths in a way that we'd all know what Right.

This revelation about how I still have trouble discerning aspects of time and weather has made it clear to me just how different an era I live in. That I can argue the semantics of daylight vs warmer weather and assign value and meaning to each that is mostly personal and very little based on survival is too far removed from the lives of some of my source material. They knew and experienced things I won't be able to touch, and likewise I know the divine in a way they could not. Our ways are just too different. Our Gods might be the same and some of the feeling we get could be the same but how we knew it and what we needed to know is just different.

While I'll still study, research, and reflect. There are just things I'll never know and for once that thought isn't driving me face first into the books. It's a perfect Imbolic present.

Monday, January 12, 2015

Reflecting on Dismal Weather

It's been unseasonably cold here in the lovely Alabama. Actually, the cold is entirely within the normal range, but it's a sudden cold snap compared to our previously delightfully mild winter. It warmed briefly this morning and the temperature is already dropping again. Nothing but gray skies, freezing rain, and wet icy wind for the next few days.

I've finally braved the cooler temperature to return to my little study. The smallest room on the far side of the house is often coldest. Even my bright child like decorations, and the warm glow of salt rock lamps couldn't lure me back in. Yesterday the mate brought me a space heater and told me to return to my “room” cause I'm junk at writing or drawing when I'm not in my space for it and I'm useless when I want to be working in my studio but am doing something else for whatever reason. He's the best and I'm very blessed to have a little space to work and keep my all my stuff in stasis.

The dog is half in my little studio giving me a guilty stare that tells us we both know she's not supposed to be in here at all. I'm too happy to have reclaimed my work area to care, so long as she stays away from my work strewn across the room.

I've wanted to talk about Spring, because it's my season and it's coming. But it seems ridiculous now. There are little flashes of green in my grass (perhaps the tips of wild onions?), alerting me to the shift. My allergies are already miserable and nothing is even budding yet. I killed my first house fly at work yesterday. It's waaaay too early for those things to try to over run my coffee station, so I've completed my first round of super intense cleaning seldom looked at areas of the work station. An infinite number of those deep cleans is to come. The rain is here, pattering promises for a wild green spring, though it's too early to do more than tease. I'm planning my Imbolic ritual and anxiously awaiting for a time when it's not darkish around 5.

Still, the wind blows harsh stale and frozen breathes. The ground is brown mud and rusty leaves that look like dead mice litter my lawn. The birds haven't returned to my tree, and the rabbits still don't visit at dusk. Spring might be coming steady and fresh as the dawn, but I'm in the bleak witching hour. There is neither starlight nor the glow of the coming dawn in the sky above. Talking about Spring now seems treacherous at best. I can hope and dream but it wouldn't be the truth. I can't wait until I've a photo of my first wild flower of the year or until I've seen my first robin. I can't wait to plan my seeds—inside to start—and then out back just as soon as they're big enough and the weather will stand it. I want to frolic out in the green-ways with my dog on one side and my fiancee on the other. I want to be back in front of my Local God's temple in the lovely spring, just as we'd first met. I'd like it all so much that if I keep writing and speaking of it, I will completely skip the truth of this moment and dive full speed into a dream Spring that might be perfect in every way, but would be completely untrue. The winter has it's place, as does the waiting.

Even with the space heater blowing, wrapped in blankets, I'm still cold. The dog is all the way in my studio now, and her nose is just barely touching the first of my notebooks. She was careful when she crawled in, but in a moment she will lose focus, nose my things and I'll have to scold her. The sun finished setting as I wrote. It is decidedly dreary out and I can't quite yet speak the name of spring.

It's not spring yet, but it will be. And I have plans, such plans. Now is the time to draft those and re-draft them. To make lists of what I'll need and when I will need it. This is my least favorite time of year, but if I don't use it to sharpen my will, my favorite time will pass in a hazy sheen. Without purpose and meaning.

Winter is a clear cold song. For me it's only long note slowly changing into another note. So subtle and slow if you don't listen, you'll have gone through the whole scale and still have nothing to show. I dream of Spring, but right now my prayers have to be for production. May I plan wisely. May my studies be fruitful and reflections meaningful. May I stay focused and never surrender to pouting or frosty fingers. Though the dark is long and the gray of the day is suffocating, may I surmount the desire to hibernate and apply myself to all the diligence winter offers. Most of all, may I appreciate the current moment and learn to savor the anticipation of Spring enough to now weave an imaginary version that pulls me from truly following they seasons.  

Thursday, January 8, 2015

Judge Not Less You Be Judged? Why Can't we Engage in Compassionate, Critical Conversation Regarding Religion and Our Personal Experiences

Back in December John Halsted wrote “TheFirst Commandment of Paganism: “Thou Shalt Not Judge” (and whythis is a problem)”, a brilliant, controversial piece that you should read if you aren't familiar with it. I've been thinking about the piece in detail for a few days now and decided there are some points that are worth sharing.

Actually that's my first point. I read the piece, I reacted to it in the privacy of my own mind, I straightened my thoughts out till I was happy with them and no longer in the position of sensitively clinging to them, and now I'm releasing them to a wider audience for their review and potential feed back. As a writer, this is a process I am intimately familiar with and used to.

First I write. Then, I adjust, review, and attack it with my own internal critic. I consider it's merit—and sometimes it's only meant for me or a small audience. Sometimes it's ready, but I'm too emotionally invested in it to stand critique.

Sometimes hours and sometimes months after creation, I release my writing for others to consider. I can of course continue to write and adapt my style on me own in a void without other input, but for the most part, I've grown the most in my writing and thought patterns through comments and suggestions from others.

I think the process merges perfectly with one's ability to evaluate others religious experiences.

That said let me drop a few disclaimers:

1   .Writing revision is not always done alone. Sometimes writing is done in teams or small groups where they limit judgment to help to improve the creative process and encourage each other to come forward with authenticity. To me, this is where/how we create safe spaces to listen to experiences of others without deconstructing. There is definitely a place in the process for safe space—I just do not belief this space should be the end goal or the default.\

2.  Not all critics are equal. Just because someone has feedback for you does not make it valuable on the face of it. I might encourage people to listen to all the feed back but that's not the same as incorporating it all. Even a qualified person may not have feedback that is relevant to your interpretation or experience, which is cool. Sometimes all we are meant to take from critique is a better understanding of what we emphasize and what others emphasize.

3.   There does need to be space between ritual and critique. Creating and performing group ritual is a leap of faith and trust. Creating solitary ritual can be a leap in faith and trust. Beyond that, ritual is a living breathing thing. It doesn't just happen and release immediately. It needs time to be and do. I've had rituals that felt like duds or felt stilted in performance but were powerful in return. Perhaps I wasn't meant to have my moment of the profound in ritual, but to experience it in pieces in my actual life. I've had experiences that were profound and continued to be deeply impacting for months afterward. How could I have given a constructive critique right off the nose? Further, though this has never happened for me, I am willing to believe that I could be part of a ritual with deep meaning for another that has no meaning for myself. And I am more than willing to perform work that is transformative for another with no benefit for myself, actually opening a ritual up to feed back so I know what another experienced would for me, be helpful to know what I'm doing “right” or “well” for them as well as myself. I would think instead of forbidding critique each group needs to state a time when they will be open to receiving said information. Or, if ritual is too personal to give feedback on directly, perhaps work-shopping past formats or generic formats for ritual.

We as pagans do not like to censor. We do not like to shut others down. I've often gotten the impression from pagans that we believe the judging state is a lower state of mind we have risen above. To facilitate this 'upward' movement, we tell ourselves lies like 'what does it matters if Bobby Q Crazy believes or does that in his practice?' he isn't hurting me. This statement IS NOT universally true and without critical review there is no way to discern which is harmless difference and which is dangerous.

To take from P. Sufenas Virius Lupus comment below John's writing he offers: “Three people see the same person walking toward them. A police officer describes them as "a mid-forties Asian male of average height and weight." A student describes them as "that quirky biology teacher who wears bow ties and sings Led Zeppelin tunes while doing labs." A daughter describes them as "daddy." All of them are right. All of them are interpreting this person based on their own experiences (or lack thereof) with them, their feelings about them, and so forth. If you started to criticize the daughter's description as incomplete or not the best interpretation because it's too personal and puts too much emphasis on her prior experiences with that person, and thus her biases and "orthodoxies" (so to speak!) that are based in her own particular context--i.e. the "echo chamber" of family life for her, her parents and siblings--how can that feel like anything other than critiquing her long history of experience with that person (who is her father)?

I agree with his point, and in the case if these three perceptions all are true and acceptable and safe. While there might be further discussion with the daughter on what else “daddy” is or is not, and there might be discussion on what each job means to each person, no individual is wrong or should be scolded or whatever negative it is we're worried about happening.

I'd like to extend the example so I can highlight the potential for danger. What about the police officer's partner who saw the mid-forties Asian male of average height and weight with a weapon in his hand, who may or may not act based off of the perception of a weapon? Are we supposed to wait until the officer shoots and hurts someone to address his mistaken impression (assuming it's mistaken, which based off the three other witnesses who mention nothing in the man's hand, its safe to at least consider)? Granted in this scenario, there may be no other option, but this isn't the case in faith. We don't have to wait until someone does something extreme to intervene. We can not be so afraid to judge or interpret a person's experience that we don't step in when what the person is saying may lead to self harm, or dangerous action. Granted, we might have a long debate on what is harmful action. I suspect the pro and con modern medicine folks have a lot to work out before we can set real guidelines.

I further suspect that mental stability is very touchy in the pagan community and as such plays a complicated role in judging or not judging others experiences. Mental illness and the pagan community are not topics I'd like to combined into subject matter for group sharing at this point in my thought process because I'm certain to bungle it terribly. I will say that mental health and paganism has been muddy waters in great quantity because we as a community were misunderstood by the larger modern society, a problem the psychological community is still rectifying, but that doesn't mean that paganism doesn't have it's share of truly mentally ill people whom I worry we don't provide the correct support for.

Another argument I hear a lot to critically discussing religious experience is “who are you to tell me what I saw/heard/felt/know”. I am no one in particular. I consider myself someone with above average intelligence, good listening skills, and sometimes good insight, but I don't have like a special license or qualification for it. Still, we seek advice from unqualified people all the time. I talk with strangers fairly often in line to check out or while looking at items and ask them for advice on clothing or where to go to find X kind of food and do they like their dance instructor and tell me more about their home school program. I know this is all minor stuff, but I've had strangers come up to me and tell me their mother passed a week ago and they are having trouble dealing with it, or that they are pregnant they don't know what to do or that they're taking care of their kid's baby and their kid is into drugs and they don't know what to do. You do not always have to be qualified to help and sometimes as apparently was the case for these people who chose to confide in me, being silent was more damaging than sharing with another person.

What's key here is that I did not go to these people and demand they share and I never claimed authority when talking to them. They came to me and laid their situation out in the open with little more than a pleasant greeting to grease the wheels. People need and want feedback and will take it from almost anyone in desperation. I think the way we present the space to offer feedback, the polish of the feedback we give so it can be critical but not cruel, thoughtful but not condescending, compassionate but firm is far more important and interesting a conversation than whether or not we should judge others.  

Wednesday, January 7, 2015

Fear, Perceptions, Reality, and Seeking the Middle

“So I finally caught the Baptists yesterday who keep leaving all that literature in my doorway and told them to stop,” I tell my friend in passing. It's a big victory for me, they've been leaving this stuff for me at work at least once a day and at my house 2 or 3 times a week. There's nothing I can do about it at work, where the pressure to provide amazing service makes it too awkward to do anything, but there's no reason for these people to come up to my house. They aren't from within my neighborhood, but they van in and hustle from door to door dropping pamphlets with a train on it asking if I'm on the rails to hell and asking how can I be “sure” I'm on the right track. While amusing to view the first time with their Harry Potter-eque train stop asking what, to me, is the weakest argument to join a faith ever created, they become a nuisance fairly quickly. If nothing else, it's a waste of paper—and waste like that is against my religion.

“Wow, your balls. I'm always impressed how brave you are!” She jumps in. She's shaking her head, at me though and I wonder what's going through her mind. We might be best friends but she's in Massachusetts and I'm here in Alabama. The physical location distance makes guessing exactly her reaction and meaning harder than it used to be. I never thought that your physical place in the world would give so much context to my thoughts. Even being outside of modern culture as I strive to be, doesn't make me immune to it's projections or the subtle assumptions continually pushed on my thinking.

“Maybe it was too forward? Are you sure you're safe?” She continues.  My deep thought face usually give away when I need more context, and it seems my friend can see it just fine over skype. This is all for the best as her words prompt a visceral almost visual portal from her mind to mine.  I can practically smell what she's thinking and feeling.

She's seeing the deep south—the white cross burning Alabama. And of all the southern states, Alabama might as well be the poster child for the Bible Belt intolerance in the USA. The Alabama, that even in my liberal haven of Huntsville, just a few short months ago denied a Wiccan Priest the right to give the invocation at the town meeting (the situation has been rectified and it appears to be one man's prejudice as opposed to the community, but it doesn't mean we don't feel the blow less—after all it only took that one man to keep us away from our right to participate in the rotating invocation program). Even though I am white and my fiancee is white and we live in an upscale end of the state, she sees this simple religious difference and the attention I bring to it as threatening. She's imagining people stoning me and police joining in. She's seeing my home in flames and riots in the street. She's seeing someone grabbing me as I leave my job at night and taking me and doing terrible things to me because I told the Baptists “no” to any more literature at my home.

It's not her fault, it's part of our collective unconscious image of the South (an image that admittedly is fueled more strongly up north than here in the south, but southerner's are not ignorant of this portrait). Truth be told I have this same image in my own subconscious. It's why I knew exactly what she was worried about. She and I have seen discrimination of all kinds and people range from rude to scary. We think intolerant south and our mind jumps to violent-- an action that I'd be hard pressed to decide which of us fears most.

I weight every choice I make about announcing difference based off of this possible outcome. And it is totally crazy. I am not a prime target for any of these scary images. A young polite white girl in upper middle class suburban America, if a little rural, is perhaps as safe as you can be. My Hindu friends are in far more risk than I am. And yet I see their quiet guarded choice to share their food, their faith, and their culture, gently and carefully—and I think, if they can do it, the least I should manage is telling the Baptists to please stop leaving their literature at my door. I understand their mission but they need to understand a polite no thanks if they are ever going to be successful in their mission.

“You jump to the idea that I'd just tell people I'm Pagan too fast,” I tease my friend because again I can see what she's thinking. Up North, especially in college, I would just announce I was pagan when the topic turned to religion. I came out loudly and often. I never softened the blow and on a few occasions, I was intentionally inflammatory. I like to think I grew out of that before I moved, but what we would like and what is true is not always the same.

In any case, I did not tell the Baptists what faith I believe in, I didn't see how it was appropriate or their business.

“Here, you tell them you've found your faith already and they assume you're another kind of Christian. They don't tend to ask, usually telling them you are completely satisfied with your current faith practice and relationship with God/Divine sets them wrong footed,” I tell her.

“But you can't just tell these people no,” she begins.

“Why not? I'm sure they hear no all the time.” I ask, intentionally being dumb. I want her to either think about that fear or I want to actually hear her articulate that ugly horrible irrational fear we hold in our hearts of lynchings and brutalization because I won't accept an infinite number of pamphlets from a Baptist church.

“Don't joke,” she chides, “these are not rational sane people. These are not people you can reason with. These are not people whose next move you can predict. These are the kind of people who picket soldiers funerals, and who send their children out to preach the word of God as manipulative tools. These are people who attack OBGYN clinics because one of their services include abortion. These are people who preach abstinence only and would prefer people live in disease and poverty than offer out condoms and birth control. These are people who think they are warriors of God and are not afraid to inject violence into a situation to get what they think is right. These are not safe people to disagree with.”

The thing is: she's not wrong. I've never physically been to a soldier’s funeral, let alone one that was picketed but I've met people who proudly announce they've picketed funerals. I've met folks who will look you dead in the eye and wish violence and harm on homosexuals. I've know people who don't believe in vaccines or medicine or whatever for “religious reasons”. It's so common, the pharmacist who was offering me a free flu vaccine took my hesitation as a religious objection, she was quick to apologize if she'd offended me. I had to explain to her that I was not morally opposed to vaccines, simply afraid of shots. We laughed, but part of me thought it was more disturbing than funny that it's so common here to refuse medicine a pharmacist is prepped and apologetic if she stumbles into that territory.

Alabama only has two abortion clinics in the state. While there is a legal battle to rectify the situation, there is a law on the books that says all clinics which offer abortions have to have Dr.s that work out of the hospital (hence why we only have two in the state now). The one here in Huntsville is under 24hr surveillance by a church group that photographs everyone who goes in or out of the clinic and posts their picture online to alert people to who is “pro abortion” or “had and abortion” or “helps people get an abortion”. I don't know a thing about the Tuscaloosa clinic, but I wouldn't be surprised if it didn't have a similar group photographing everyone.

I've been approached by children with ages from 8-14 who want to let me know “God loves me” or want to “invite me to bible study” or want to ask if “I've accepted Jesus as my lord and savior”. Sometimes their parents are around and other times I've been alone with a wandering child. I wonder about these parents. How could they believe their children are prepared for contrary answers from strangers or do they assume that no one in their community holds a contrary belief or do they believe so completely in the persuasive power of a child to over ride contrary feelings? Oh, the stories of my “daring” with some of these children would terrify my friend. I don't want to scare her anymore.

But how do I let her know it's ok? Really, I'm going to be fine.

“These Baptists could be Those Christians but that's not the vibe I got from them. I think they just wanted to share the word,” I finally settle on, because there are Those Christians, and they are all around me. There is one of Those Christians at my work and she is technically my superior. The careful dance I have to do to not lie to her but also not reveal how scary, crazy, and inappropriate she is for work (to me for all settings) is something I'm making a mental note never to bring up to this friend as we speak.

“Well they shouldn't be going door to door like that,” she huffs, “it's crazy. It's intrusive. It's pushy.”

“I know and it's weird to go up to a stranger's house, knock on the door and share your most personal religious belief with a stranger and insist that your soul's truth is their truth. Not that these Baptists were sharing anything personal in their brochures. Do you think people really convert to avoid the potential of Hell?” I ask.

I already know what my friend's answer is. We are pretty much on the same page about fear conversion, but I want to hear the tangent again or any other if it helps move her from her own fear for me. She lets me change the subject and we go on.

Weeks later this conversation lingers with me. I don't think about it often, but I'm a Northerner living in the South. I don't think of myself as a Southerner, while I've adjusted to how things are here, they can still stir me up in a way only a Northerner could take affront. Door to door conversion happens up north. People handle it differently. Sometimes they are rude. Sometimes they are cold. Sometimes they are polite but not open to the message even when they agree to pray or listen to the bible. I assume sometimes they are open to the message and convert or churches would invest in a different method of conversion.

The point is that up North, people might scold you for being too mean to doorstep witnesses, but most people would think since it's your house it's your right to respond to the disturbance as you saw fit. Very few people would be afraid for your safety for rejecting the message or the visitor. Heck there are a lot of people I know who were Christian of some sort and claimed to be Satanists or Pagans just to shock the witnesses. People saw these antics as funny or mean or too much work, but no one came back and said, “was that safe?”

Northerner's don't look at door to door witnessing in the south the same way they do in the North. There is fear injected into rejecting the visitors. There is all this old news reel footage in the back of our heads from the 60s from the fight for racial equality—not even related really except that there is violence and Christian religious symbols overlapped. If the South reacted that way to racial equality, how would it react to religious—I guess that's the leap we make. What can I say to my southern friends, it makes sense in my head. I think the basis is that we've seen the south use religion as a weapon and we've seen the south be violently afraid of difference. Hence all Christian people may use their religion as a weapon and be particularly afraid of difference. Forget that this footage is from the 60s and never mind that the same can be said for people everywhere. We've seen it happen in the South and we're not about to forget it.

Southerner's do not look at door to door witnessing the same way. In my fiancee's work area along probably about a third of the people there have gone door to door or have programs in their church that does this work which they heavily support. This is a done thing that we are supposed to allow. When I talk with them about how unwelcome these pamphlets are, how wasteful all the paper is, how awkward the meetings are, I got blank stares at first. Sometimes I get a “who cares” question. I mean obviously I care and I would hope the people going door to door care too.

So here I am, a Northerner, who believes I should have a right to reject religious intervention at my home but paralyzed by a the monster of Violent South that the North has a love affair with and further hindered by the carte blanche acceptance of the practice in the South. I can't just shake off my perceptions or the perceptions of others but I have to find an truth within the tangle that will suit.

The more I think on it, the more certain I am that I've done the right thing for the Baptists and for myself. I hope one day I can think of my mingling identities as a more unified compilation. I hope that one day all this baggage of prejudice and judgment will wash away, and that there won't be fear as a first or second consideration in my own personal decisions. Until then, I hope to continue to have a discerning glance that can review my own perception for prejudice and can pick at where there may be truth and where there just may be rampant unreasonable fear.