Sunday, June 25, 2006

A Conversation About Silence

On Saturday, Peter and I went to our friends Kevin and Beth's house for a potluck and schmooze. While there, we finally got to meet R. and C., two new neighbors of theirs they'd been telling us about for weeks--Quakers from the midwest who had recently moved to the valley. It was really terrific getting a chance to get to know them. It turns out that they have been having difficulty settling in to either of the two local meetings, perhaps because they so loved the meeting they used to attend which apparently had a really great kids' program. Now, I think of the first day school at Mt. Toby as one of it's strengths, but then, I'm comparing it against Pagan groups I've known, who are lucky to acheive a critical mass of kids at any gathering, or to have any meaningful programming at all. (I'm not putting down the Pagan world, here, just noting that, as a relatively new religious movement, it's something we're still struggling with.)

In any case, the sense of how hard it can be to become comfortably settled into one spiritual home when you have experienced a really deep set of connections in another was something I could relate to very strongly. It's certainly one of the more difficult aspects of my life these last few years--not so much because, as a member of Mt. Toby, I don't have meaningful connections with the Pagan world any more as because, since becoming a teacher, I'm so short on time that I don't keep up the ties I have as well as I'd like. However, it is easy to look at differences in my two homes and see deficiencies, either in them or in me. And I'm not as rooted at Mt. Toby as I feel I should be.

Which is part of the spiritual food I got from the conversation with R. and C. Partly, of course, it was just a terrific subject to explore with other people who were experiencing familiar things. But also, at one point in the conversation, C. was talking about how it is unclear to her that people at our meeting connect much to one another outside the meeting for worship itself. As we were discussing some of the ways members do keep in touch with one another, C. asked which Sunday of the month was it we had the potluck lunch--? Third, I answered. But then I had to admit that I hardly ever attend it. At the end of meeting for worship, I sit under a tree if I can take the time... and go off with Peter for lunch alone together and then to grade more papers for Monday if I can't take it. Well... time and grading are part of the reason I leave rather than potluck it. But another reason is the deep shyness I feel around members of my meeting. That's in part because, at times, I've been someplace very deep and quiet in worship, and it's hard to come up to the surface for conversation and coffee. But it's also because I'm just flat-out a shy person... at Mt. Toby. People who know me from other parts of my life would have real trouble believing this--I'm not (lately) a shy person. But once a week, I'm once again the shy girl I was in elementary school.

C. and R. spoke of how hard it was to leave their meeting, and how one important part of what led to deep worship experiences for them was feeling the accumulated years of connection between the members. And I totally get that--one of the many points of congruence for Pagans and Quakers is the importance of honoring the divine within each person, and of connecting to the sacred at least in part through relationships with one another. Right. Totally agree. And yet, week after week, MFW ends and I'm out the door before my tea even has a chance to get cold.

I felt challenged by this. In fact, it's more an underscoring of a challenge I've been feeling since being contacted about serving on Ministry and Worship this year. (Wish me luck! No more excuses--I've got to make it to MFW _every_ week, and Meeting for Business, too. Gods willing, I'll get the papers graded for class _somehow_.)

So, that was Saturday. Today was Sunday, and after meeting for worship, Ministry and Worship had arranged the first in a series of post-meeting discussion/worship sharing sessions on spiritual disciplines for Quakers. This week was on preparation for meeting, and both Peter and I had been looking forward to it. I had not, however, expected it to be as rich as it was. Not sure how many of us there were who stayed--something between 12 and 20, at a guess--but most of those who stayed had something to say that affected me a lot. It was run as a kind of structured worship sharing... and it was absolutely wonderful.

I'm often amazed at how powerfully a community can be united through silence. But I'm a little mistrustful of it, too. Because Quakers are not the word-boxes Pagans typically are when it comes to their actual spiritual experiences, there's not the sense of instant validation you'd get at a Pagan ritual that went really right. ("Man! Did you _feel_ the intensity of that invocation?" "No kidding! I had goosebumps all up and down my spine during the Charge of the Goddess. And did you have the same feeling I did, when--" etc.)

The good side of this is that Quakerese tends to be full of pithy phrases that are so exactly apropos that they sum up whole volumes of experience. I can run across one of these phrases--staying low to the truth was one I heard recently--and feel a connection with the experience that's as strong and real as an electric shock. We don't water down our experiences with excess words, so the words we do eventually share are often extraordinary ones.

The down side is that it can be lonely and uncertain. Maybe it is not that way for birthright Quakers, or even for convinced Christian Quakers. Perhaps they are less likely to wonder if they are _really_ getting what they feel that they are getting. Perhaps it's easier to trust that you are part of a group, and that the silence really is holding as much tenderness as it often feels, if you're with them for a certain amount of time, or if you're less used to the words, words, words of a Pagan community. I don't know.

What I know for sure is how important it was to me to hear people putting into words the intimate and personal things that, somehow, aren't as easily discussed over tea and cookies in a fellowship hall as over a cup of mead around a bonfire. The connections _are_ there. I was grateful to have that reinforced with discussion of other people's practices. Silence _is_ a good venue for creating a deep, connected community. But words to validate it come in handy.

And, yes, I plan to attend more potlucks, too.

Saturday, June 17, 2006

The "W" Word

"Ms. Bishop, are you a Witch?"

Picture it--I'm about to give a reading quiz to a group of less-than-prepared high school students. They, of course, are thinking that a diversion would be sweet right about now. And one of them has just the thing. Turns out, he's done the inevitable, and Googled my name.

"Ms. Bishop, are you? Are you a Witch? Are you a _practicing_ Witch?"

So there I am, clock ticking, a stack of quizzes in my hand, and for once all student eyes are on me. And about 50,000 things are going through my head at once, including:

- The urgent question, what does this kid think the word, "Witch" means?
- The urgent question, what do all the other kids in this classroom, and every member of their extended families, think the word "Witch" means?
- The comic comeback, "Nope, I stopped practicing and now I'm the real thing."
- The importance of the separation of church and state.
- The reasonably large population of fundamentalist Christian families in my school district.
- The importance of plain speech and truth-telling.
- My mixed feelings around no longer wearing a pentacle every day in plain sight.
- The fact that the pentacle both does and does not seem to reflect who I am of late.
- The fact that I feel like a coward for not wearing it.
- The fact that I feel like a bulls' eye target when I do wear it.
- The rueful thought, "So much for taking down my Wiccan web page for the sake of discretion."
- The fact that to hesitate in answering the question implies guilt or shame.
- The courage it has taken for many of the Pagan students at our school to own that identity publically.
- The fact that owning the Quaker half of my spirituality is so much less charged, and the sense of relief in having at least one identity I can acknowledge without having to explain myself has given me.
- The confusion at not having a simple answer to a simple question.

I'll spare you the rest of the set. But when this scene took place, a few months ago, it set off an incredible conflict inside of me. I'm still wrestling with a mass of contradictory impulses, ideas, and feelings.

I'm not happy, either as a Pagan or as a Quaker, with how I handled that question. I _have_ been using the Quaker half of my identity as a shield, which is incredibly non-Quaker. (I know, I know!) But (and even I hear the rationalizing tone in that but, however truthful that which follows may be) I have so _loved_ feeling that I have a truthful answer to the question of what my religion is that does not automatically earn me hatred and condemnation. It's a lovely thing.

I suppose it's what light-skinned black people may have felt, at least in recent years, at being taken for white. A sense of guilt at allowing the misperception to continue, maybe, but also a relaxing of the guard, and a relief at not having, temporarily, at least, to fight the good fight. Justice is tiring...

Complicating the matter is the fact that, like the light-skinned black person, I _am_ what I seem to be at the same time that I also am not. Just as the skin simply is the color it is, without reference to human preconceptions, so my religious practices are, indeed, Quaker. Can't help it, guys--I'm not _just_ a Pagan anymore.

And then there are all those different feelings around the vocabulary of Paganism: Witch, Wiccan, High Priestess, clergy, Goddess, Horned God... all have different emotional and cultural charges, in the world of my public school, in the world of my Quaker meeting, and in the wider Quaker world. Not to mention that all these words have meant different things to me, at different times...

When I first became Pagan, "Pagan" was a word that was used to describe people with an Earth-centered spirituality who had not had training in a "real" Pagan tradition, like Druidry or Wicca. The importance of training was emphasised in many books and articles, and I wanted, so badly, to find other practicing Pagans in "real" traditions so that I could be a "real" Pagan, too.

When I found a group, finally--the Church of the Sacred Earth--I found self-taught practitioners and initiated Wiccans, and we eventually formed a little bootstrapped coven of self-taught but well-read, grounded men and women we called the Coven on Wheels... COW for short, a joke based on our needing to travel long, dairy-farm-filled miles in Vermont to meet at all.

In those years, I called myself a Witch. I felt that the word was...well, plain. Wiccans, I thought then, were mealy-mouthed people who were members of initiatory groups that looked down on those of us who were making it up as we went along. These were the folks who said you couldn't really be a Witch (or a Wiccan) unless you were initiated by another Witch (Wiccan). Which begs the question, who initiated the first Witch? I decided the Gods did, and that Wiccans, by definition, were snobbier than the Gods. So, at that time, I called myself a Witch. And though I didn't enjoy the misperceptions some people had about what that word meant, well, neither did I worry about it over-much. And I enjoyed the resonances with folk-tales and myths, stories about little old women who lived on the edge of a forest, gathered herbs, and always knew what to do when asked for wisdom. That's who I wanted to be. During this period, I did my magic barefoot, learned a lot of herbal remedies, and made a point of not owning any tools that looked like anything but kitchen tools.

Time passed, and I learned more about "the Craft" and its history. The more I read and the more I learned, the more clear it came to seem to me that the origin stories Witches/Wiccans like to tell, about unbroken lineages of nature-worshippers stretching back, if not to the actual Neolithic, certainly to the Middle Ages were... not true. I came to accept the more modern, scholarly view that modern day Wicca is rooted in the folklore movement of the 19th Century, and became a religion with actual specific beliefs and practices during the 1950s, when a man named Gerald Gardner took a bunch of Golden Dawn ritual magic materials, some Masonic ceremony, and a pinch of folklore, blended them, and dubbed the result Wicca: The Old Religion.

From this perspective, it was the word "Wicca" that seemed the less pretentious. By calling myself Wiccan, I now felt that I was acknowledging the actual history of my religion, however un-glamorous it might be, and agreeing to be true to it.

It didn't hurt, I confess, that the word "Wicca" was beginning to gain some credibility in the wider, non-Pagan world. People, non-Pagan people, had heard of it and in some cases already knew some positive things about it--that it involved nature-worship and reverence for the feminine as well as masculine face of the divine. And, since at this time I was becoming more and more of a public representative of my religion, I did value having a word that I could use that didn't carry quite so much negative baggage as the word "Witch." Still, most of the time that the subject of religion was relevant at all, I was talking to other Pagans, and the word "Wiccan" actually carried _less_ mystique than the other W word. So, it was both a convenient word and a plain one, in ways that appealed to me.

I have a ring which I still wear that I found at about that time. It's an Eastern Star ring--the Eastern Star being a kind of women's auxillary to the Masonic groups that loaned so much of the surface trappings to modern day Wicca, and also a very "plain" group, at least in my mind. I found the ring in an antique store in Maine, where my grandparents lived. My grandfather was a Mason. Many of the pie-baking, rummage-sale Methodists and Baptists in the towns my family lived would have been members of Eastern Star. And so, while the ring has a very mysterious-looking Masonic star on it, to me it is an emblem, not of exotic mystery, but of the mystery of the everyday--of men and women living ordinary, good lives in ordinary American towns. When I wear that ring, I feel that I'm owning the real roots of my Pagan practice: not really anything very far away and long ago, but something quite down-to-earth and prosaic. And since Paganism is the religion that honors the immanent sacredness of the everyday, that seemed especially appropriate to me.

And it could pass for an ordinary antique. Notice how the strains of honesty and plainness and of passing and sleight-of-hand lie side by side here? Turn the experience one way, and it reflects integrity. Turn it another, and it's about convenience and hiding one's Light. In honesty, I have to own them both.

Wednesday, June 14, 2006


It's amazing how, no matter how many of my wishes in life are granted, I am able to see a bad day as unfair... Odd how the down days feel like personal wrongs, but the good stuff gets accepted as only my due... (Wry smile.)

Meanwhile, it's hot, and the classroom where I teach 9th grade English is hotter, and is incredibly loud with the sound of ventilators directly outside the windows... which encourages students to be loud, too, as does the fact that the school year is ending and, well, if possible, they want to be here less than I do.

I love my job. I did the "happy dance" when I got it two years ago. I love my co-workers, I have a mentor who not only thinks I can teach, but has the insight and experience to understand teaching--it's not empty praise when it comes from that quarter, and that has been incredibly helpful. More than that--I've finished my prep for the day, I think I have a reasonbly good handle on what I'm teaching for the next week and two days, and I'll be going home and spending my summer with the man of my dreams. Just having the man I do as a husband is enough reason to be glad and grateful all the days of my life.

But here I am, cranky and feeling put out, because it's hot, it's loud, and I'm going to get my final job evaluation of the year sometime in the last few days of school, when neither my kids nor I will be at our best.

Someday, maybe, somebody will show me how to feel something like peace in the middle of loud, hurrying, ordinary everyday life. No matter what gifts life gives me, I do seem to have an amazing aptitude for quarreling and kvetching.

Feh. I am really a much more spiritual feeling person when I'm sitting someplace pleasant with the sounds of nature all around me. (And no mosquitoes, needless to say.)
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