Sunday, May 28, 2006

Under the Maple Tree

I'm finding myself craving a Pagan gathering lately.

Pagans, for those who are not Pagan, like to gather in groups of 40--2000 people for camping, bonfires, drumming, rituals, and workshops. Some of these gatherings are like family reunions, or compared to the magically-reappearing village of Brigadoon. Others are wild and frenetic affairs, with three-story-tall bonfires, all-night drumming and dancing, and appearances of Pagan celebrities (BNPs, or Big Name Pagans, if you're feeling polite; Big-Nosed Pagans if you're feeling a little satirical) and festival-wide radio stations making weather reports and announcements.

I haven't yet been to FGC (Friends' General Conference--the Quaker equivalent of a gathering, for those of the non-Quaker persuasion) so I can't really say how like or unlike a Pagan gathering that is. Perhaps very--perhaps not. I do know that when Young Friends hold their annual camping weekend at our local meeting, the afterglow they bring into meeting for worship the next day feels very familiar: it's the loving intimacy I've felt in Pagan community at countless small gatherings. The one occasion that always comes to mind for me, sitting with Young Friends in their marvelous interconnectedness, is of a micro-gathering in the hills of Vermont that I used to attend regularly, near a locally-famous pancake house. We would always gather for a big pancake breakfast on the second day--perhaps a dozen of us, tired, bramble-scratched, and smelling of woodsmoke, around a single enormous table. I vividly remember the year that, towards the end of our maple syrup feast, a woman from a nearby table came up to us and asked, hesitantly, if we were Pagans--? Since the conversation had been on topics like the best way to start a woodfire, or our favorite family pets, and since we were all of us clad in the generic Pagan camping uniform of jeans and tye-died t-shirts--scarcely a pentacle in sight--it had to have been the vibe that clued her in: the sense of a loving community.

I've always treasured that memory. To be so happy in one another's company that a stranger can see that you are members of a spiritually connected community... that's quite a compliment.

That's what I miss. Yeah, I like the sound of a good drum circle, and yeah, a workshop on magickal technique can still teach me something new (it doesn't seem like that long ago that I was getting my first "Renegade Reiki" attunement at Freespirit Festival, for instance). But what I'm really feeling sad about is the time that has lapsed since I last sat under the silver maple tree there, gazing up at the clouds from between brightly-colored leaves, while friends and found-family ebbed and swirled around me.

Over the years, it seems like my husband and I have planted a lot of seeds, but seen very few come to harvest. Dear friends I'd hoped to grow old with have moved far away, or changed past recognition. Children I held in my arms only a few days old have somehow turned into young adults while I was looking in another direction, and the village of loving family I believed I was building with my friends always seems to be just behind me, or just ahead of me. Day to day life is very wearing on community ties. And my career change, to teaching, has been very hard on them, too, both because I've felt (foolishly or wisely) afraid of being visibly Pagan for the first time ever, and because of the sheer weight of time committed to learning to teach. (Anyone who believes that teaching gives you lots of time off is not a teacher--or, at least, not a novice English teacher!)

Ironically, I'm feeling this especially today because last night, my wonderful friends Kevin and Beth, and their three kids, all went out to the movies with us. It is a wonderful thing, to watch children grow up when you were there for their parents' earliest days together. In fact, Kevin and Beth married back when I was first starting out as Wiccan clergy, and I performed their wedding. In a way, I feel like their kids' grandmother, or aunt, at least. A friendship that has lasted a dozen years and included four childhoods (since my own daughter was younger than their oldest when we became friends) is a wonderful thing.

But I've got the blues for all the friends who have drifted away. The small-group center of Pagan worship (gatherings being the exception, and not the rule) takes a lot of energy to maintain. Look away, and it evanesces.

Maybe that's a human thing. All things pass... nothing lasts forever. Maybe it's only newness that makes my own Quaker meeting feel timeless. I do know--intellectually, at least--that some of the members that feel most like they must have been members of our meeting since the 60s, actually moved to the Valley more recently than I did. White hair lends a feeling of permanence, but in our culture, people move so much that looks can be very deceiving.

Still, it's one of the things I love about my meeting. Unlike a coven or a grove, always so dependent on the energies of every individual member to keep its heart beating, I can look away from Mt. Toby and it will be there when I look back. There is a whole as well as all of us as parts, and it is a whole that can survive my absence.

What my Quaker meeting lacks, though, is the skinless intimacy that my Pagan communities excel in. I don't mean that Quakers are not good at intimacy, and I'm not overidealizing Pagan community. Pagan groups are small, intensely connected, and often wildly unstable--the line between intimacy and boundarylessness is crossed over and over again, and Pagan groups can blow up in the most amazing, destructive way. It takes longer to get on a hugging basis in a Quaker group... but that isn't always a bad thing.

Today, after meeting, R-- came up to me after meeting. He's a fFriend, and it felt completely natural, musing as I had been on community and intimacy, to hug him hello. He'd actually come up to me to ask quietly if he'd been intrusive the other week. It had been an intense meeting, and I'd been crying, he said, and he had touched my face with his hand. I don't even remember the moment, truthfully. It must have been so completely appropriate to the energy of the moment that I did not even record it as significant... there was nothing forced or awkward in it at all. We talked about that for a bit, and about how Quakers shake hands at the end of the meeting, but whenever Peter and I arrange a meeting for worship at a Pagan gathering, the attenders always embrace.

There are strengths to both ways of being. The Quaker practice is a one-at-a-time bonding and acknowledgement with individuals, and the gentleness of it helps ease me back from the depths of meeting. On the other hand, the Pagan practice seems to acknowledge more truly the depth and intimacy of what has just transpired. Both these ways of being in community are precious to me, and I would not choose one over the other.

But I do long for a feeling of ongoing connection, of cycles that return and return.

This may be why it is so good, today, that the warm weather has come back, and that I've returned to my fair-weather practice of lying out on the grass at the end of meeting. Peter and I went outside, where the grass is getting long. (Peter is itching to return to his Ministry of the Lawnmower again this year--as teachers, we tend to try and work in a whole year's worth of service to the meeting in three short months.) Anyway, we were lying out under a tree-a small sugar maple, as it happens, rather than the giant silver maple of Freespirit-when our fFriends J-- and D--... and eventually R-- and P-- joined us.

The conversation sometimes had the power of worship-sharing, and sometimes just of chat. We spoke of peak oil, labor unions, carpooling, and the need to reestablish ties with both land and community. We chewed on blades of grass, brushed tiny spiders from one another's shoulders, and built small piles of fallen twigs as we spoke.

We wound up hugging one another as we wrapped up our talk. And if it's not a silver maple, and if it is, indeed, another seed planted of community and not the harvest I keep dreaming of, it was still a nice bookend to last night's trip to the movies. I guess we're all longing for communities that deepen and last. At least one challenge, though, for me if not for everyone, is not to spend so much time mourning what passes that I miss the moment I'm in.

Saturday, May 20, 2006

Kids and Books and War and Peace

I teach English.

I teach school, and I'm new enough at it that I'm still wrestling with questions of my identity as a teacher, and my idealism about teaching is barely touched with the frost of cynical experience. And I teach English, that discipline second only to Social Studies in provoking both thought and outrage with what we teach. Books, ideas, and words--learning to think, learning to feel for others (in fiction or in life), and learning to speak your truth--that is the real curriculum, when you teach English.

And I teach English.

That's important on a whole lot of levels, including a newfound sensitivity to owning the Pagan part of my spiritual identity. Too late--even before this blog and the Quaker Pagan page went up, enough kids in my school had Googled me that I was out "of the broom closet" before my first year in the classroom had ended. Right now, though, I'm wrestling with how Quaker leadings and testimonies fit into my classroom.

My kids live in a district that is neither blindingly poor, nor dazzlingly rich. It is, however, a place of shrinking opportunity, as the blue collar jobs dry up and the economy becomes more and more polarized. A lot of my kids don't see much reason to work very hard in school, either because they trust that their fathers' jobs will be waiting for them when they graduate (they won't) or because they sense that they won't be, but can't imagine ambitions beyond those. Others have proud family histories of military service. So, for whatever reasons, mine is one of the schools that welcomes military recruiters with enthusiasm, and plenty of our kids enlist when they leave school. Our kids show up for graduation with Marine Corps stickers on their caps, turn out for field trips to the Air Force base in huge numbers, and often have brothers, cousins, or boyfriends in the military.

I don't know what to do about this. My job, surely, as a teacher of English, is to help kids find their own voices--not to give them my own sheet music to sing. I don't hide my politics--kids being kids, the first thing they notice about a new teacher is the kind of car they drive, and mine is plastered with the traditional Quaker and Pagan slogans. (War is Not the Answer; Mourn the Dead, Heal the Wounded, End the War; Civi Marriage is a Civil Right; I Worship the Gods and I Vote; etc.). And there are plenty of teachable moments that life washes up on the shore of a classroom every day. I don't have to bring political questions up for discussion--just give them a home when they do arise, and make sure that discussions stay respectful dialogs. I don't hide my own perspective in these classroom debates, and to the extent that I have influence, I am glad.

But I also know that many of these kids have strongly held values that are very pro-military. I know that some of my most reluctant readers will pick up and become absorbed by well-written books about war (_Black Hawk Down_, _Ghost Soldiers_, _The Killer Angels_). And, as Twain said, "The man who doesn't read good books has no advantage over the man who can't read them." My school does not have much of a problem with illiteracy... but it _does_ have a problem with aliteracy, and I do--strongly, passionately--feel led to work against that. I stock the books that kids read, whether I like their themes or not.

But it plays hell with my peace testimony, I can tell you.

I am thinking of one student in particular this morning. Sixteen years old, but not planning, with so many of her peers, to go to the prom this weekend, because _her_ boyfriend is getting ready to ship out with the military. There are others--the boy who told me last year that he was going to enter the army because he knew he couldn't find anything better, the environmental, GLBT-activist girl whose famly history with Vietnam has convinced her that military service is noble and good... I hate knowing that my students are now at such risk. They seem so young to me--was I really that young when I was in high school?--but they can be killed or damaged by this war all the same. Iraq is much nearer than it looks on an atlas, and the tiny openings it seems like I have to share my peace testimony feel so useless and so small in the light of current events that it just makes me sadder.

Should I be actively preaching at my kids? It feels feeble to be standing on the sidelines, coaching kids to love to read and to write with clarity and conviction when, in so few years, they may be dying--or killing. But without the tools of thought, how are they going to keep themselves out of the military? Lack of alternatives is such a powerful recruitment tool for the military. And those who contemplate enlisting for idealistic reasons are at least living their ideals--this is such a cynical time to be an adolescent. If nothing else, scolding strikes me as an unlikely tool for changing a teenager's mind...

I try to plant seeds. I try always to do so from a place of real respect for my students and their families. I hope I don't try too hard, and lean over backwards, and wind up implying an endorsement of what I hate. I think I have done that, sometimes. And the stakes are high. But I think about my husband's teenaged ideas about joining the Marines, and how his seriously considering it did not keep him from arriving at his peace testimony in the end... maybe even helped him get there. And I think about George Fox's saying to William Penn, when he asked if, now that he was a Friend, he really had to stop wearing his gentleman's sword: "Wear it as long as thou canst." There is a value to allowing people to find their own way to Truth.

But I also think about my brother, and the pain that is in him over his time in the Navy. And I think of a Friend in my meeting, who shines with the light of his peace work... but who has also shared some of his indelible grief for the time that he turned weapons against other people. Maybe anything is justified in order to prevent this kind of suffering--let alone the broken lives in Iraq? Maybe there should be room for polemic in the classroom?

This feels like thought to me, though, not leading. And the big insight I had when I got slammed with my conversion to the peace testimony back in 2001 was that my brain, my pesky, tricksy, over-active human brain, was never going to be clever enough to solve the whole nightmarish issue of war, and I ought to just keep it simple, trust the spirit that was leading me, and let go. Let myself be, as the message came to me, "a single leaf on a single tree in a great forest" of people who are trying to be faithful. I don't have to understand it--I just have to trust it.

Right. Back to the root. Maybe tomorrow I'll be called to chain myself to the fence outside the White House. Today I teach English. And I don't proselytize. I'm plant seeds and try to make the unthinkable--refusing to wage war--thinkable, by being a visible alternative. This may not be enough--in fact, I'm bloody sure it's _not_ enough--but I think it's what I've got as _my_ leading, today.

I think. But, I'll tell you, I am really churned up, knowing that my kids are being blighted by this war.

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