Saturday, December 29, 2007
It doesn't feel any different...
I remember my daughter's birth so clearly. For weeks, I'd been unable to walk or sit for long without pain; my cartilage had all loosened up for the birth, and my pelvic bones rubbed together with a sensation of thunder and lightening. By the week before I had Hillary, I was already 4 cm dilated, but when my water broke, I took the time to wash my hair at the sink before heading over to the hospital. It seemed important to have clean hair...
It was a long night. There were only two bad moments--one was early on, when I thought I might be sick (and I hate being sick). The second came near morning, when I thought about how transition is supposed to be the stage in labor when it all gets really intense and overwhelming for a while, and if this is transition, then I'm all right--but if it gets much worse than this, I am so going to be in trouble. And it was transition, and it wasn't much later (because time gets very slippery when you're as busy as when you're giving birth is) that they were showing me my daughter.
I remember asking if she was a girl or a boy. You'd think I could have figured that out for myself: all the parts were there, after all. But it seemed to me that it would be a terrible thing to make a mistake about something like that, at the start of such an important relationship. I made the doctor tell me for sure.
I am not one of those mothers who, when their child is placed at their breast, feels a sudden outpouring of love and certainty. For one thing, the umbilical was still attached, and it didn't reach that far up my body. She was placed more or less on my belly, and I had to crane my neck a bit to take her in. Though it wasn't the sight of her that gave the scene it's unreality. I think it was the sudden change of focus. All those months about the inside of my body, about my inability to tie my shoes, my heartburn, the fluttering sensations--and poking, prodding sensations--coming from inside of me. I could sense her movements far earlier than the doctors and the birth books said I could... but when she was there, real, resting on my skin, I felt much more aware of the surprise of her than the familiarity.
Hello, there, small human. Where did _you_ come from?
Lots of memories of her over the years. I remember sitting with her in my lap, such a short time after her birth, the two of us watching the lights on our Christmas tree. Her first Christmas/Yule: my twenty-sixth. I remember walking her and walking her for long hours, night or morning, as time continued to telescope and slide oddly in the first weeks of her life.
I remember taking her snowshoeing, in a front pack and a bunny suit, her little face pinched with sleep. She loved the movement, and perhaps even the cold, Vermont baby that she was.
I remember taking her by the hand as she was learning to walk and to climb stairs, and walking down into the village with her, hand in hand, my muscles cramping as I bent so far over beside her. She had to climb every set of stairs we passed, up to all the front doors. I held her hand for each of them, the two of us equally solemn.
I remember taking her to secret pools and waterfalls on the back roads of Vermont. I remember buying her gifts for her first Christmas/Yule as an aware, reasoning being. I remember making her the black hobby horse with blue eyes she used so seldom, and putting her hair into pigtails.
I remember reading her her favorite books, and how she burst into fierce, fiery tears when we finished reading A Little Princess together, wild with anger that this, the perfect book, could end, until reassured that we could read it again as many times as we wanted.
I remember her jealously competing for Nora's attention when we first moved in here, and I remember her inconsolable grief when her great-grandmother died. I remember when I was the center of her world, and all my words were wisdom to her... and I remember the first time she used vocabulary she did not learn from me.
I remember the first time she stayed out past curfew; I remember the first time I rode as a passenger in a car she drove, and how very hard I tried to seem relaxed. I remember Peter teaching her: to tie her shoes. To use power tools. To drive that car.
I remember the smell of her little-girl hair when it needed a wash. I remember the feel of her infant skin when it was irritated by heat. The weight of her leaning up against me, napping or sucking her thumb when she was tired.
I can feel the warm skin of her baby scalp against my fingertips. I can feel it now, not just in memory.
And I remember watching her graduate: from high school, from community college. I remember a feeling of love and pride so intense it almost felt like it could kill me, burst me open at the seams.
I can feel that one now, not just in memory, too.
What I do not remember is how she got from there to here. It seems just as mysterious as that a small human being should arrive, suddenly, one December morning. Even with the umbilical cord intact, it felt incredible that I had anything to do with this process. And even with all these memories, I still have no sense of the process.
How on earth does it feel to be a mother? I'm still not sure I know.
Hello, there, grown human. Where did _you_ come from?
To my daughter: Happy 21st Birthday. May you be wiser than your mother, and at least as happy and beloved.
Friday, December 14, 2007
Many Pagans (as well as sci fi and fantasy fans everywhere) are, like me, in love with his longrunning Discworld novels--36 and counting at the moment. Lots of Pagan women have taken as role models characters like Morgaine or Vivianne from Marion Zimmer-Bradley's classic Mists of Avalon book. Personally, I find them both a bit gooey and treacly. And so, like many another Pagan woman with a strong sense of humor, I've always wanted to grow up to be Granny Weatherwax. On the Discworld, as here, you see,
Unlike wizards, who like nothing better than a complicated hierarchy, witches don't go in much for the structured approach to career progression... Witches are not by nature gregarious, at least with other witches, and they certainly don't have leaders.
Granny Weatherwax was the most highly-regarded of the leaders they didn't have.
Sadly, experience and observation suggests I'm not doing much to become the astonishing Granny Weatherwax--those in the know suggest I'm more on the way to becoming a version of Nanny Ogg, the perpetually cheerful, plump and earthy witch who loves to have a little too much Hogswatch cheer, jump up onto a table, and begin singing all the verses to "A Wizard's Staff Has a Knob on the End" or that other Ogg classic, "The Hedgehog Cannot Be Buggered at All."
Terry Pratchett, for those of you who don't yet know, is one of the funniest writers of the the century. And for Pagans, he's our funniest critic, a man who clearly knows us thoroughly enough to make the best jokes. It's not just Pagans who come in for satire, though: Shakespeare, rock musicians, Machiavelli, The Phantom of the Opera, and even Death are funny when he does them.
If you've never read his novels, do start now, while he's still producing more to delight us. Try some of his Death novels--Reaper Man, perhaps. (Death is actually one of my best-loved characters, and if the Grim Reaper shows up for me with those baby blue eyes of Pratchett's Death, I'll go with him only after I give him a bear hug to show it.) Or you might try the seasonally appropriate Hogfather--Samhain and Yule/Christmas have their Discworld equivalent, it turns out, a very funny jumble of wierdly twisted familiar lore. If you're a Pagan and you've never read his novels, start with Wyrd Sisters or Witches Abroad, or perhaps the more recent The Wee Free Men or A Hat Full of Sky.
The point is, read Pratchett. Celebrate Pratchett. Appreciate Pratchett. And light a candle, hold him in the Light, say a prayer, chant a spell, or do whatever the voo doo is that you do particularly well, that he remain with us in mind as well as body as long as possible, because this guy is an international treasure.
As Granny Weatherwax used to say, via a badly lettered cardboard sign propped on her chest when she would go out astral traveling, "I aten’t dead."
And, as he pointed out in his announcement, neither is he. For which I am grateful. May he receive every bit of the medical expertise, adulation, love, and attention which he deserves. Or even (if that's possible) a tiny bit more.
Thursday, December 13, 2007
Our Fulbright exchange teacher, Mr. R., carpools with me to and from work each day--a very reasonable arrangement, since I'm his mentor teacher this year. I've enjoyed the exchange of educational ideas a lot, and the cultural exchange has been pretty rich, too. The initial difficulties I had, trying to communicate with him around religion, have mostly resolved since my earlier post on the subject; on a day near Samhain, he was asking about American Halloween customs, and somewhere in the midst of my multi-cultural, multi-religious attempt at explanation, something clicked. He made the connection between Hindu traditions honoring ancestors and the dead from his native India, and my family's Samhain practices. There was a brief, deeply awkward silence--as a Christian and (I thank Marcus Borg for the terminology) a Biblical literalist, he disapproves of Hindusim--and then his instinct for politeness led him to change the topic while he digested the idea that his friend (for I am that, to be sure) and respected colleague was (I suppose he would think) a godless heathen.
Religion does sometimes rise as a topic between us on our drives. I am the advisor for our school's gay-straight alliance this year, and he is a frequent attender of the school's Bible club. I'm also really hoping to somehow take the training to teach a course in the Bible as literature at my school (and then arrange, somehow, funding for textbooks, and school board approval for the new course) both because I want to remedy my own Biblical ignorance and because I do find it sad how little knowledge of that part of our culture most of my students have. (Surely a familiarity with basic Bible stories is at least as much a part of cultural literacy in the United States as is a familiarity with Homer and the Greek pantheon?) Mr. R., meanwhile, is interested in comparing the ways that graduate study and pay scales are linked in contracts for American teachers--and, indeed, in the differences between the educational systems at all grade levels.
Not to mention, we are both deeply religious people, active in our respective religious bodies.
So the subject rises. We acknowledge it--and sometimes blink a few moments at the differences in our worldviews. (The gay-straight alliance was clearly somewhat shocking to him on many levels--though he is far too civilized to say so outright. I find it mind boggling, not so much that his marriage was arranged, as that he clearly expects to arrange his own daughter's one day.)
And then, today, it snowed.
I mean, really snowed. One of those really fast, hard onset storms, that leave the road a whitened wilderness within thirty minutes of the first flakes. School was canceled at 10:45, but I did not leave my classroom until 11:15. Mistake.
Mr. R., who has never seen snow until the last storm--a measly 1" of sloppy weather--did not rush out the door, because he knew that the storm had only started within the previous 30 minutes, and he assumed it would be no real difficulty. I had not sufficiently communicated to him the urgency of the situation. Mistake again.
I am not a terrific winter weather driver. (Great on muddy Vermont spring roads, though--honest!)
I decided to risk County Road. Yet another mistake.
My school is no more than a 25 minute commute from my home--in good weather, at least--but it is in the foothills of the Berkshires, and the roads are steep and winding. And I have all-weather radials, which are good...but not great. So there was a certain amount of fishtailing going on, even before we hit The Steep Part--a stretch of hemlocks, stone walls, and winter woods that is lovely when the road is clear, but a bit terrifying when it's not.
Granted, it's uphill, not downhill, so there wasn't much risk to life and limb. But my cell phone doesn't work along that stretch of road... and I really, really do not want to be stranded in a country ditch in a heavy snow storm, waiting for AAA.
So I did what comes naturally, and prayed.
I thanked the spirit of my car (whom I have named Viggo, after a certain extraordinarily attractive actor) and encouraged him to do his best for us.
I addressed the spirit of the mountain, assured her that I loved this mountain, respected it, and asked her to let us pass.
I spoke to the Lord of the Greenwoods, and asked Him to let us pass.
And I prayed, with spontaneity and sincerity, and right out loud, to Grandmother, Great-Grandmother, Lady of Winter, Lady of the Woods, Lady of the Wild Things, to please, please, help us up the mountain and let us pass.
Mostly, of course, this came out, as such prayers are wont to do, in sotto voce exclamations of one word or two: "Grandmother! Great-grandmother!" and the car would fishtail and grab hold once more. "Let us pass! Lady!" and the wheels would slip, fin, and finally hold.
Poor Mr. R. was probably frightened at my display--not so much, I think, for the display of spontaneous, up-close idolatry, as because he could not have known the situation was no graver than it was.
I, however, was to busy praying and finagling our way up the hillside to give much attention to the duties of a host. And when I heard Mr. R's whispered subvocalizations (far more discrete than mine, but clearly as heartfelt) I was glad to have the help.
The more prayers the better. And, hey, this Jesus guy he's so fond of may or may not be the same Spirit as the Light that enfolds me so often on First Day mornings in meeting for worship, right? The Light of meeting is all right by me--especially, I will admit, while praying through a snow storm.
I find it interesting, however, that whatever my ideas may be about God, when I am consciously making a request of the cosmos, I direct it first and foremost to the Mother of All. I suppose my Wiccan roots are showing...
I also find it interesting that, today, in prayer as I drove, I felt that same sense of a door opening in my heart I feel in meeting for worship among Friends.
It's as if, when I need to name or personify my experience of Spirit, I reach for the names and metaphors by which I first experienced spiritual life directly. But at the same time, I have been changed enough by my Quaker life and worship that I experience even that familiar touch at least partially through what almost seem like new, Quaker senses.
After we had passed the worst of the drive, I returned to hosting duty, and tried to convey the relative lack of danger we had truly been in. The route is not very wild, and we would hardly have frozen to death. Even had we somehow fishtailed into the path of an out-of-control oncoming car, we were all moving slowly enough that the accident would have been a mere fender-bender.
Mr. R. was perhaps no more than partially reassured. Poor man! He would have been much happier today in the car of a more confident driver--or at least, one with better tires and four wheel drive. But he was friendly, positive, upbeat--praised the school system for dismissing school early.
And acknowledged to me that he had been praying.
"I know," I said. "I could tell. Thank you."
I did not tell him I had been praying. Clearly knew. And I knew he was no more offended by my prayers than I had been by his.
"Look," I could have said to him. "You know this enormous Mystery at the heart of things by one name. I know it by many. But neither of us understand It. Both of us love and trust it. And it's fine that we are different--and when we need to, we pray together just fine, too."
I could have said this. But I didn't need to, so I did not. The sincerity of praying together had said all that needed saying. So, I concentrated on the road, and got us home in one piece.
But, as much as I disliked the nasty drive in nasty weather, I am grateful for the moment of clarity with someone whose ideas are often truly foreign to me--but whose heart is not.
I think he might say the same.
Sunday, December 02, 2007
I’ve just finished chapter 1, and my pulse rate is up. If I were somebody who took blood pressure medication, my doctor would be telling me this book was bad for me. I am agreeing with Borg. His religious feelings are in sympathy with my own, and his outlook on history and on the nature of truth seem not only dead-on accurate but obvious.
Yet Borg is presenting one side of a debate in our culture, and it seems to me to be the losing side.
Maybe the fundamentalist side really is winning. Our president can get away with torture and treason and can send thousands of Americans to die in a pointless and ill-conceived war, and he’s still there because fundamentalists (most of whom are decent, moral, and loving people) keep voting for him because he supports Christian “values.”
Conflict about the Bible is the single most divisive issue among Christians in North America today. And because of the importance of Christianity in the culture of the United States, conflict about the Bible is also central to what have been called ‘the culture wars.’ … The conflict is between ... a “literal-factual” way of reading the Bible and a “historical-metaphorical” way of reading it.
Maybe it just seems like they’re winning because of my own history with them. I stopped calling myself Christian about 25 years ago after a summer program at a Christian community where the “literal-factual” way of reading the Bible was presented quite strongly. They convinced me that fundamentalists were correct in their interpretation of Christianity, but they also showed themselves pigheadedly ignorant about almost everything else. Most Christians, faced with such a realization, would leave the Church and start calling themselves atheist. I left the Church and called myself damned. I never stopped believing in G*d, but it was ten years before I found a door to the Divine that wasn’t barred and a communion that hadn’t been poisoned for me. And when I did, it sure as Hell wasn’t Christian.
So maybe I just feel like the Christians with a “historical-metaphorical” approach to the Bible are on the losing side because they already lost—I already lost—when the battleground was me.
OK. Deep breath. Let’s read on:
But, quoting from another author, L. William Countryman, "Biblical Authority or Biblical Tyranny?" :
From [the fundamentalists’] point of view, allowing nonliteral interpretation opens the door to evading the Bible’s authority and making it say what we want it to say.
I’m nodding here. In fact, I’m almost jumping up and down and shouting, “Yeah! Yeah! What he said!”
These Christians imagine that the nature of biblical authority is perfectly clear; they often speak of Scripture as inerrant. In fact, however, they have tacitly abandoned the authority of Scripture in favor of a conservative Protestant theology shaped largely in the nineteenth century. This fundamentalist theology they buttress with strings of quotations to give it a biblical flavor, but it predetermines their reading of Scripture so thoroughly that one cannot speak of the Bible as having any independent voice in their churches.
I’m a Quaker now, and as a Quaker I’m worshiping alongside Christians and I’m encountering the Bible as part of the milieu of spiritual writings that we read and discuss, and there’s some good stuff in it. But the Bible is a body of writings with life and breath, with seasons and moods, with hope and despair and poetry and mysticism, and when “Bible-based” Christians insist on the literal truth of every word, they kill it. And there’s just no way to tell them that.
There are some truths that language cannot contain. Words collapse under the weight of some meanings. I’ve known that for a long time, and the strategy I’ve developed for coping is: Stay centered, stay grounded, be real. Or as a Quaker might put it, Let your life speak. Borg identifies this as “postmodern”:
That’s me in a nutshell—my personal faith and practice in five simple sentences—and the first bit could just as well have been a quote from George Fox with the language updated and the thee’s and thou’s taken out. But trying to talk about spirituality to a fundamentalist is like walking into a crowded, lively room and discovering I’m a ghost. Scream, shout, wave my arms in front of people’s faces or walk right through them and they just won’t see me.
Postmodernity is marked by a turn to experience. In a time when traditional religious teachings have become suspect, we tend to trust that which can be known in our own experience. This turn to experience is seen in the remarkable resurgence of interest in spirituality within mainline churches and beyond. Spirituality is the experiential dimension of religion. … An obvious point that has often been forgotten during the period of modernity: metaphors and metaphorical narratives can be profoundly true even if they are not literally or factually true.
Last summer, at NEYM Sessions, I had the chance to dialog with hundreds of Quakers from all over the theological and political map, and it really seemed like a lot of the Christian-identified Quakers believe that if you’re not Christ-centered, you don’t have a center. Once in a while something like that gets stated explicitly. Jeanne over at Social Class & Quakers published a guest post by Bill Samuel in which he said:
And I want to say, “Lack of a clear spiritual center??? Excuse me??? Hello-oh!!! Sitting right here! In a meeting covered by an ocean of Light! In case anybody was wondering. Or paying attention. Or cared.”
I have a theory that the class homogeneity among liberal Friends is related to their lack of a clear spiritual center. It has been my experience among Christ-centered Friends and other Christ-centered churches that class is less of an issue, because the uniting factor is Jesus Christ. Without a clear, explicit uniting factor other than something like class, a group tends to gravitate towards becoming a club more united by socioeconomic and cultural factors.
In the midst of the conflict over NEYM’s relationship with FUM during Sessions last summer, Chris McCandless, the clerk of NEYM, said something along the lines of “Unity does not mean we are in agreement; unity means we are girded about by the bonds of love as we labor together.”
But how do you labor together with someone who is deaf and blind on all the wavelengths you use to communicate?
*sigh* I'm not actually as discouraged as this post makes it sound. The way you labor together is you worship together in gathered meeting, and when someone speaks, you listen not so much for the words as for the place the words come from. There's a reason I'm Quaker.
Wow. All this just from reading chapter 1.
Friday, November 30, 2007
Maybe it's OK if my life seems insane and cyclonic, if I can just keep enough of a still space to sit with that question. What is the deep Spirit of Life seeking of me now?
Even if I have trouble sitting with the question on a daily basis--and I'm going to try to create it, somehow--I know I can listen for the answer in Meeting on First Days. I think perhaps it is enough, whether I am too tired for words or not. I think perhaps it is enough of an answer for now.
Wednesday, November 28, 2007
I'm going to go ahead and write this as a big, fuzzy journal entry--no editing, no waiting for discernment, just stream of consciousness. (I'll try to spare you thoughts about what I ate for lunch, however. I really do want to avoid becoming that kind of a blog!)
Every morning, as I'm waking up and getting ready for my day, I think about the things I'll do when work gets out. Today is the day, I think to myself, I'm really gonna go roller skating again. Today is the day I'll walk downtown after work with Peter and get supper at La Veracruzana, or browse for used books at Raven or Cherry Picked, or Half Moon books.
But mostly I think, maybe tonight I'll get to write. And I'll spend the time I have alone in the morning, as I'm packing up my lunch and sitting down with my breakfast, thinking about what I want to say today. A lot of the time it's the next installment of the Spiritual Journey series--there was a recent article on the painful struggles among Friends on the Cape in an issue of The Freedom and Justice Crier that struck me, two weeks ago, as having all kinds of connections to the installment I'm working on now, and I'm dying to re-read them both, and see if I have something meaningful to say. And I've been thinking about what is and isn't ministry among Friends, and how recent conversations with Friends at Mt. Toby and blogging by Liz Opp do or don't line up with the ways I feel myself, especially in worship, changing. And of course there's more--I come up with ideas to write about every morning.
But now I'm home, and the hope of writing something meaningful and truthful that seemed so reasonable earlier today seems as impossible as a trip to the skating rink. I can think, after a fashion. And I can perform the mechanical activity of writing. But that source of ideas that matter is distant now, buffered by layers of exhaustion, like cotton wool. All I have left are the shadowy memories of what I cared about. I'm just too tired to find my center, and it happens every day.
I think this is part of where the Quaker testimony of simplicity comes from. How can I hear the small still voice when I'm this weary? And I fantasize about having a life simple enough to sit in silence for a half an hour in the morning light, or take an unhurried bath or shower.
Summer vacations, when I lose this bone-deep weariness, I can't really even believe in it. And I look around me and I see so many other people who seem to be able to hold jobs and make room for a spiritual life at the same time. Look at all the Quakers who sit on committees at Mt. Toby! They're not all retired! How are they doing it?
I'm not a first year teacher any more. Yes, I grade on the weekends, but surely I could be more efficient about how I use my time then. I don't think it has to take as long as it does.I'm home at the end of a day that's usually no longer than 8 or 9 hours, these days. I'm doing my work well, so it's not that it's unduly stressful.
But the end of the day comes and I...
move. Which is incredibly frustrating.
I've never actually worked full time before becoming a teacher. I remember the days when I used to be able to book one day a week for community work as a Pagan, and I miss them. I think I'm good at teaching, and I don't think it's wrong for me to be doing this work right now. I even like it.
But I hate what it takes away from the rest of my life.
Crap. I suppose part of what's going on is that I just need to accept that I don't get to meet everyone's expectations. Part of identifying with two spiritual communities is feeling absent from two spiritual communities, feeling that I've abandoned not one, but two groups of people I care about. I know in the abstract that I'm always going to look like a loser if I keep score based on what I don't accomplish and who I don't take time with in my life. But it's hard to believe that it's OK for me to give so much to my work and my students. (Of course, though I do not write about them here, they are so often in my thoughts and in my heart, that it's clear they are my spiritual community too.)
I think I count on this blog, and the comments I get here, to double-check that I'm on track spiritually. Not blogging about the deep stuff makes me crazy! And it's true that this blog, and the community of bloggers who stop by here, have been a wonderful tool for growth for me in the past two years.
But I think I'm going to have to be very, very careful about that keeping score against myself thing. Yeah, I'd really like more chances to sort through what's going on day to day. But I need to remember that in worship, that sense of tenderness and Light has been as clear as sunlight and a strong as wine.
There's that image that comes, sometimes, in worship, of what it was like learning to float: my dad's arms under me, his warm, calm voice telling me to relax, lie back, trust him. And, more importantly trust the water to hold me up.
How hard it is to trust. How hard it is to believe that the water will really hold me up.
But I ought to know better by now--I've got lots and lots of First Day mornings built up, these days, telling me so.
Maybe I can't keep up with all the things I want to do. But even without the time to lose all track of time, and the energy to think and to write the way I want, I can let go, lean back. And float. The Water will hold me up.
(Is it this hard for everyone? Is it this hard forever?)
Sunday, November 04, 2007
And then an echo of the Song of Songs came to me: "I am my Beloved's, and my Beloved is mine." And everything changed, and the words washed away in just being with the Beloved. And the Light grew so bright and good around me and inside me, that I could just about bear it:
There is an hour, every week, during which I get to drop all the hard work of trying to be something, and just be what I'm supposed to be. I don't have to be strong, or wise, or clever. I don't have to anything at all, because the Beloved is there, and it's just fine...
At those times, the image comes to me, of myself as a tiny child, almost too young for speech. Have you ever seen a little girl, one just barely walking, make her way solemnly to her mother? That's me. And when I get there, I lift my arms up in the air, stiffly, the way that toddlers do.
"Up!" I say, in that toddler way. "Up!" with all the quiet confidence of the completely loved, completely trusting child.
And I go up in those warm, strong arms, and turn my head into that safe neck and shoulder, and I let go and clasp on, and I'm free in a way I have mostly forgotten how to be.
And you know, everything else--the hundred thousand words we use to strap ourselves in, corset-like, to being faithful to the Light we're given, all the Quaker or Pagan or philosophical apologetics--is really beside the point.
I am my Beloved's. And my Beloved is mine.
And everything follows from there.
Wednesday, October 31, 2007
I didn't try for a religious holiday from my employer. Though I'm pretty well "out" as a Pagan to the faculty and students who care to know, I've hardly made a point of my Paganism to my administration. Can't have it both ways, after all--maintain that my religion is a personal matter, and then go out of my way to make it universally known. And, though having a whole website on the matter might be expected to take any concerns about my "hiding" anything off the table, the fact that I'm also a Quaker--and "out" about that, as well, to anyone who cares to know--means that my religious identity does not fit easily into a soundbite.
As any American in this era of televised political news can tell you, we are not a people who take well to nuance. Anyone whose beliefs, practices, or understandings go beyond soundbites is immediately suspect.
So I didn't ask to take the day off on religious grounds. Nope--However, I'm home quite legitimately, having scheduled visits with my doctor and dentist today rather than some other day. Rather than take some random day away from work, why not take one of the holiest days in the Pagan wheel of the year?
What makes Samhain holy? Memory... and love. And loss, and the acceptance of loss. Samhain is the holiday when we deliberately honor the fact of mortality: our own, and that of those we love. It's the day when we look at the skull in the mirror... and smile.
And how does this fit with the Quaker teaching against "the keeping of days"? Surprisingly well, actually, because Samhain, however important it is to me to have had the chance to take today off, is not a day, but a season, a tide. There's no magic charm in the 31st of October... the magic is in the earth itself, and in the cycles of life and death that happen here.
Pagans like to say that, at Samhain, the "veil between the worlds" is thin. And in a sense, it's always thin. The dead are never far from us, and neither are the spirits of nature, of the trees and the earth, and the cycle of life that becomes death and becomes life again. People die at any time of year, after all.
And yet--and yet: There's a reason that so many hospices and bereavement programs take some variation on the fallen leaf or the tree in autumn as a symbol. This is the time of year, in the Northern Hemisphere, when the world gets quiet, and death or sleep overtakes so many species. Everywhere we turn is death--some of it, the product of our own human hands. My students have begun to plan for the annual hunting trips with their parents; the crops have been harvested, cut down to feed our human selves. Life and death are more clearly cheek by jowl now.
So I am readying myself for a visit from our Beloved Dead. I've laid in the feast foods: Guinness for Peter's many-years-dead college room mate, squash for my much-missed former father-in-law, Earl... lobster in real butter for my Grampy, apple pie for Nanny, and sticky buns and tea for Nora, Peter's grandmother. I even brought in roast beef for my Pappy, my father's father, happy carnivore that he always was. I eat meat at no other time of year, but for Pappy--for all my ancestors--I will set aside my own ways for this one night, and remember when I was a little girl, and happy with their own.
Too much of the food is from the freezer or from Boston Market; if I had taken the day without the medical appointments, I'd have made my Nana's cabbage, and chopped and roasted and basted more of the meal myself. But that is not the point, surely: I do not think that my ancestors will be appearing physically at my dining room table an hour from now, to lift their meals with knife and fork to their ghostly lips. I know full well that a full plate will go down to the compost in the morning (though Peter and I will have eaten our own share with great relish by then). I'm hopeful, though, that if spirits linger and can sense our hearts, my ancestors will know that I have tried, within the confines of my silly, mortal life, to set a feast for them within my heart.
It's Samhain, Halloween. And I feel something stirring, in the land and in my body. I feel the tide of Samhain. And I remember.
To you and yours, and to all our Beloved Dead--blessed be.
Saturday, October 27, 2007
|Image: Courtesy Oddworldly|
Tuesday, October 23, 2007
First off: I've been reading through a couple of the blogs I was following closely all summer. I hate that I don't have the time to stay up-to-date on all the Pagan and Quaker writers I love... but I'm very happy to notice that many of those same writers feel a bit like old friends who I may not see for months or even years on end, but who somehow I can always settle back into intimacy with.
Reading through the comments on one Quaker blog today, noting the level of honesty and openness I find there, I found myself thinking, "I love (insert name here)."
And this is about a person I have never met.
Does this make me unrealistic? Some kind of boundaryless freak?
I don't think so. Sure, if I had to live with and wash dishes with a lot of the men and women I love and admire as writers, I'd have plenty of chances to get to know their perhaps many human faults and failings. I'm sure we'd bump up against each other and feel pain, because that's just how humans seem to be.
But, see, I think love is never the illusion. Yeah, we're all capable of projecting our illusions onto others at times--but I think that simple, happy, unpossessive sense of simply loving another person in the moment is not a projection, but rather, a rare moment of clarity--a kind of grace, even.
The times we're too pissed off to deal with the complexity of it all--those are the times we're caught up in the illusion. Not that it's not gonna happen, because it is--we'll reach the limits of our merely human capacity to see clearly, whether due to fatigue or hurt feelings or disappointed desires or (favorite Britishism coming up) sheer bloody-mindedness. And we won't see through the eyes of love. (Hmmm... I'm realizing this thought has more to do with the Felicia Hardy posts than I thought at first blush.)
But the loving glimpse of the other is the real one. The rest is when we're seeing "through a glass, darkly."
Right. So, that was Afternoon Thought #1.
Afternoon Thought #2 arose driving home with our Indian exchange teacher in the car. He has never seen a New England autumn, so he's pretty much blown away by the fall foliage. He's never seen a maple tree or an oak tree or a white pine before this year... and our winding, hilly road to and from work takes us past some extraordinary stands of forest.
I get to see all of this through new eyes, because he is in the car with me. And I loved it a lot already with the old eyes, I can tell you.
So here's the thought I had, gliding past swirling eddies of orange and yellow leaves on the rain-slicked road: Maybe I am Pagan simply because I had the good fortune to be born and live most of my life here, in New England, surrounded by all this beauty.
How could I live in this place and at this time, and not give the whole embrace of my heart to the trees and hills of home? How could I look on the warm, smoldering fire of autumn maples, sumacs, and oaks, bright against the grim deep greens of hemlocks and pines, and not feel an answering warmth from deep inside my belly?
I dearly love the flooding light of Quaker meeting, and I trust the Spirit I encounter there. But the earth's musk and the lifted head of the doe who catches my scent, and the fire on a Berkshire hillside... I have no words for the depth of the love I feel for this vivid, living landscape of mine.
How could I not be Pagan, when my life and my heart have grown up here?
Sunday, October 21, 2007
(I'm working on something more substantive--I promise. But this one is just too good to miss...)
Saturday, October 20, 2007
I still remember my tears of joy on the day that same sex marriage became legal in my home state... It was a time of many challenges for me personally, but that moment has become one of my touchstone moments. My own marriage has been a source of such wonder and depth in my life, that it breaks my heart to think of others who are arbitrarily denied it in other states. And something in me is healed, likewise, when I see how deeply concerned so many of us are to show our support--our religiously convicted support--for same sex couples' rights.
I feel great pride that my coven, my Quaker meeting, and my local council of the Covenant of the Goddess are all signatories to the declaration of religious support for the freedom of same sex couples to marry--and deep gratitude to all people of faith, everywhere, working to recognize human dignity and freedom on this basic issue.
Let's show the world what loving spirits can do...
Credit card donations can be made online at the RCFM website, and you may leave the note "Pagan Contribution" in the comments field, if you wish. (An address for checks appears below.)
Rev. Maureen Redddington-Wilde
Church of the Sacred Earth : A Union of Pagan Congregations
Board Member, Religious Coalition for the Freedom to Marry
20 October, 2007
Dear Friends,For the past ten years, I have served on the Steering Committee, now Board, of the Religious Coalition for the Freedom to Marry. During this time, the RCFM has frequently turned to various faith organizations for significant donations to keep us running. Since Pagan organizations are so decentralized, I have not hitherto tried to raise funds from us.
However this is a good time to try. The struggle to keep equal marriage legal here in Massachusetts is pretty well finished after the end of the Constitutional Convention this past June. However, the struggle still continues on in the rest of the country. The RCFM has a lot of experience and help that we can contribute.
The RCFM Board has just concluded an all-day retreat to re-vision our mission as we proceed forward from here. As of January 1st, we will return to being an all-volunteer organization. This is a good time personally for the people who are our current paid staff to step down and a good time for an organizational shift.
We have a major project to be completed by March 1st -- the creation of a How-To manual, documenting what we have accomplished over the past ten years and how we did it. This resource will be made available on the web to help other states in their organizing efforts. National and state leaders have been requesting and are awaiting this manual. The RCFM is awaiting word on a grant proposal we submitted to cover the costs involved in this project.
Meanwhile, we still need to raise $10,000 to cover our operating expenses and salaries for our Executive Director and Office Assistant through the end of 2007. In addition to helping us prepare for a number of victory celebrations in the months to come for the RCFM and MassEqulity, our staff will be preparing all the initial work for the manual during this time before handing on the framework and computer set-up for it to the volunteer committee.
Please give generously. We have accomplished an amazing victory for civil rights and freedom of religion here in Massachusetts. But this is only one state, and we must share our knowledge and experience with the rest of the country so that the rights we enjoy here can be expanded to everyone.
The RCFM is a 501(c)(3) organization, and all donations are tax-deductible. After ten years of my own work with the RCFM, it will mean very much to me personally to have an outpouring of support from the Pagan community so that we can share our success across the country.
At Samhain and other Pagan gatherings this month and into the start of November, please ask the people who gather together to donate to the best of their ability. If ten people contribute $20 each, that's $200. If ten groups do this, that's $2,000. Please, ask people to contribute $20 if they can. Lesser amounts are gratefully accepted, larger amounts are quite welcome. If you can afford a $100 or $200 donation, please consider doing so.
Make checks payable to: Religious Coalition for the Freedom to Marry. In the Memo line, please note: "Pagan Contribution". Send to:
The Religious Coalition for the Freedom to Marry
11 Beacon St. Suite 1125
Boston, MA 02108
Donations can also be made online with a credit card at RCFM.org.
If you contribute online, in the Comments field, please note: "Pagan Contribution".
Thank you very much. Love & Blessings,
Rev. Maureen Reddington-Wilde
Sunday, October 14, 2007
All posts in this series:
Part I: Getting (and Losing) That Old Time Religion
Part II: Coming Home
Part III: The Fool's Journey
Part IV: The Underworld
Part V: Seven of Cups
Part VI: A Letter and a Kiss
Part VII: Morticia Loves Gomez
Part VIII: Nora
Part IX: Felicia Hardy and the Tower of Babel
Part X: When Babel Fell
Part XI: Community 2.0
Part XII: This Forgiveness Stuff
You stand in a forest. All around you, a rich smell of leaf mulch and growth fills the air. Receding into the distance are the boles of giant trees, redwoods, towering, and in the peak of green life.
From above, shafts of light pierce the canopy and slant toward the forest floor, like light piercing the living silence of a cathedral. Except for the singing of one far-off bird, there is no sound but the soft drips of moisture from the canopy above--the sound of life too rich and strong to measure.
Now picture this:
A woman stands before you. She is round, with a wasp waist and tiny feet, but otherwise like an overstuffed child's doll of a girl. And she bounces on those tiny feet, and her smile shows many teeth. Her eyes are full of mischief, her hair curls in a cloud of softness around her face, and her voice is high and elfin when she speaks. She is fond of purple things, and leopard prints, and cats. She loves Taco Bell, pop culture, the works of Aphra Behn, and tech theater. She also loves the Spiderman comic book anti-heroine, The Black Cat, sometimes known as Felicia Hardy, and all her friends would recognize that it is she I am describing in this paragraph, even though I will call her by the name of that favorite Marvel comics character. There's just no way to disguise this part of my story.
But what may not be recognizable is that the first picture, of the forest, and the second picture, of the round and bouncing woman, are two pictures of the same person. Let me start there.
When I eventually moved in with Peter and his grandmother, Nora, we gradually set about assembling the multi-generational group and family house I described when I explained what life was like with Nora. Felicia was not the first person to join our household to try and assist in Nora's care, but she stayed longest. She was still living with us when Nora died, at Samhain the year that my daughter turned nine.
I first met Felicia at Peter's bachelor apartment, just as he was planning to move in with his grandmother. At that time, I was completely bedazzled by everything connected to Peter in any way--I idealized the very coffee he drank and the plants on his altar to the Green Man. I thought even the towels in his bathroom were somehow special, unique, somehow more real and deserving of love than other people's towels.
Laugh if you like, but you know what I mean: I was at that early, intense rush of love that is almost incompatible with common sense. So I ignored the signs that Felicia might actually be a little high-maintenance for lasting friendship, and embraced her blindly and completely. Felicia was a friend of Peter's, and therefore a friend of mine.
And when a personal crisis in Felicia's life left her in urgent need of a place to live, Peter and I rushed to invite her to come and live with us.
I don't mean to imply this was a charitable project. Though Felicia would be starting over with a lot of debt and little money, and though she needed safe people she could trust to help her get back on her feet, she also brought another set of adult eyes and hands to a household in desperate need of them. Peter and I were starting our new life together with a lot on our plates, caring for a five year old and a ninety-three year old, and with Felicia on hand, we knew that there would be someone who could sit with Nora when we could not, cook the occasional meal, and pitch in as a babysitter and companion with my daughter from time to time, so that Peter and I could have an evening out.
So Felicia moved in. Eventually, she would wind up living on the same floor as Nora, in our rambling old Victorian, to be available for middle-of-the-night calls... and eventually, as Nora became more and more frail and needy, and Felicia found it hard to locate and keep full time work in the area, Felicia would become a paid health aide for Nora.
We could not have managed without her.
From the beginning, she and my daughter got along wonderfully. Felicia had a vast store of knowledge of movies and theater, and made a real point of sharing them both with her, taking my daughter to plays and musicals that I would never have gotten around to sharing with her. And with Felicia added to the household, I felt that we were engaged in something that I had always wanted--building a real, committed community. A Pagan community, something tribal and visceral, unafraid of sharing the details of daily life.
Felicia and I became very close, in the way that sisters perhaps become close. (Having only a brother, I'm left guessing here.) She gave me sweaters that matched her own. We shopped together, and compared notes on the big purchases--ritual garb, a leather jacket for Felicia (which she let me try on for photos), an amber necklace for me. We shared books and talked about ritual and eventually, once we'd formed Stepchild Coven, worked some together. We talked about Qaballah and the Pagan gods and goddesses, and began to reach out to other Pagans in the area, meeting one another by ones and twos. It was about this time that the Church of the Sacred Earth ordained me as clergy in their organization, so I did a lot of networking, but quite often, if I couldn't attend something, Felicia did. She was outgoing, well-informed, intelligent, and fun.
We meditated together. We worked magic together--and we played with magic together.
It was during one of the times we were playing at magick together that Felcia let me "look" deep inside her... let's say "aura", because I have no better word. Felicia had deliberately lowered her shields, let me see into her heart as deeply as I could.
That's when I saw that forest I mentioned: Richness. Greenness. Life. All of that is who Felicia Hardy is on the inside, at her deep core. Her heart--soul? spirit?--is beautiful and good.
I said so then, when we were so close. I say so still, though we can scarcely speak to one another, or bear one another's company. Hold that thought in mind. I'm going to sift the ashes of that friendship one more time, and see if I can't find some way to explain what went wrong, not just in our friendship, but in the community we had been part of together.
I was incredibly grateful to the Pagan community for letting me find Peter--and, truth to tell, myself. I'd been such a brittle and self-conscious teenager and twenty-something, and Paganism gave me Mystery and color and the sense that things matter: there is holiness in the smallest salamander crawling across the forest floor, and there is a richness of immediate experience of Spirit that only grows deeper the deeper you explore it. And somehow, in all the explorations, I learned how to be myself: fully and simply myself, without pretense or worry. I learned to sing with a full-throat, even when people were watching me. I found my voice in more ways than one.
And it was my coven and my community that taught me all of that, at least as much as the gods. Nurturing Pagan spiritual community was one of my greatest ambitions in my life. I wanted to say thank you to the universe that had given me so much in so short a span of time.
So creating an extended family with Peter was living out a dream. It filled me with great gladness to have Felicia move in. Every person we helped to weave in to our community made life a little richer. Every strand in the web of community made the world a little warmer.
When Felicia met and began dating (and training) Frodo, that was terrific, too.
I believe my first introduction to Frodo was actually to his shoes--innocent white running shoes, parked in the front hall when I came down to breakfast one morning. There was such an innocence in those abandoned shoes! I was simply charmed to meet their owner when he emerged, sleepily into the family rooms at mid-morning... As it turned out, our friendship with Frodo long outlasted the fling he and Felicia shared. Catching our joy in community, Frodo became one of the earliest members of Stepchild Coven.
Many other friendships sprang from our connection with Felicia. Felicia suffered from terrible insomnia, and she would sit up late at night at Peter's computer, set up just outside our bedroom. I would hear the clacking of keys, sometimes punctuated by soft laughter or the squeals, squawks, and boings of the modem. She was always there at the keyboard if I got up in the night.
Al Gore may have invented the Internet, but Felicia Hardy discovered it, at least in our household, in it's earlier incarnation as networked computer bulletin boards--BBS systems: FidoNet, WWII, and a lot of other names I can't remember. It wasn't long until she had introduced us to a host of local BBS users and hosts. Long, threaded discussions were growing up about religion, politics, role playing games... We met Pegasus, a former "jar-head", local cop and BBS host whose curiosity about Paganism became something much stronger--and who eventually became my "grandson" in the Stepchild Coven lineage, when La Contessa (another BBS friend) not only completed her own training with us, but trained him in turn.
And we met Kevin and Beth, hosts and guiding lights of the Peace Frog BBS, and among our closest friends to this day. When they were seeking Pagan clergy to perform their wedding, all those years ago, I offered to be that clergy. Now my own daughter is older than Kevin was they day he and Beth were married, and I have no words for what it means to me to have watched their own three children grow.
We offered a monthly Pagan study group, and kept up lively connections with Step by Step Farm, a list of Peter's old Pagan friends from his days with Valley Pagan Web and as editor of Moonrise, and of course visited Kirk and Amy on their land in Vermont, especially whenever anyone connected with the Church of the Sacred Earth held a gathering or an event. We pitched our tent in Massachusetss' poison ivy patches for Beltane, under tall Vermont pine trees at Lammas, and dossed down in a communal heap of sleeping bags on the floor at Touchstone Farm for Samhain.
I remember the year that we brought Nora to Touchstone Farm. We had asked Shaker if the community of circle dancers could join the assembled members of the Church of the Sacred Earth for a night, and if he would lead us all in sacred circle dancing. The room, lit only by strands of Christmas lights, was crowded and bustling. By that time, Nora was blind, and in the wheel chair, with her oxygen tank slung over the back. Peter and I had been taking turns staying with her, answering her questions and holding her hand during the dances; I was with her when a member of the circle dance group asked if Nora could be wheeled into the center of the ring for a dance specifically to honor elders--the haunting "Old Woman" song.
Nora had no objection, so in we went. My daughter, perhaps six years old at the time, joined me, feeling a need to be close to mom in the crowd.
All around us, the dancers wove. It's a lovely dance, mysterious and sad and soft, with lots of raised arms and quiet steps, lowered eyes, and slow circling.
It was only later, when we had left the circle and I was heading off to bring Nora home for the night, that Brightshadow pointed out to me that, between us, Nora, my daughter, and I, had made up a living icon of the Goddess: Maiden, Mother, and Crone.
Life in Pagan community was full of such moments of sudden richness and surprise.
One of the best came on a visit to Laurelin Farm, for a weekend retreat on sacred sexuality offered by the Pagan GLBTQ-affirming ritual group, Q Moon.
It was a dismal weekend, with a light rain that the tents kept out but which still managed to soak everything through sheer humidity. It was a day as warm and moist as a mouth, which featured too many mosquitoes, and a total lack of decent drumming. It was also difficult being present at a weekend where it turned out we did not share some very basic, core values with the other attenders: not so much as the token straights at a retreat which focused on gay and altnernative sexuality, as a deeper, more basic incompatibility:
Neither Peter nor I eat red meat. And the pig roast turned out to be the major Saturday night event. Ugh.
Happily, our lifestyle was shared by another attender, a man we had met only once before, Two Bears of the Moon, a committed vegitarian and--delightfully--an afficianado of good, dark beer.
Two Bears shared with us some of his good dark beer, and we sat morosely in the rain, soaked to the skin, trying to take our minds off of the off-putting sight of the pit being dug for the pig carcass a little ways down the hillside. Something about the circumstance of sharing the rain, the beer, and an antipathy for dead pig led to particularly good conversation, and as everyone else gathered for a blessing before the meal, the three of us snuck off to town for a (vegitarian) pizza in a dry and well-lighted place.
We talked about community, and how important it was to all three of us. And, only half-jokingly, we told Two Bears that we wished we lived in community with him, and described life in our house and in our coven to him.
We were surprised--but not at all displeased--when some time later, Two Bears called us up at home and asked us if we had been serious. He wanted to move in with us, and he'd like to start visiting from Eastern Mass. from time to time to hunt for work. What did we think?
We thought it was a terrific idea, though Felicia, who had not been at the weekend camping retreat (and probably would have stayed for the dead pig if she had been) had reservations, and insisted we put him through a formal interview process, which we did. I still remember sitting solemnly in a row, peppering Two Bears with questions about how he would handle this domestic crisis or that, explaining to him exactly what he would or would not be allowed access to in the house--certainly no parking space! That he would have to find for himself! And he'd have to pay his full share of the groceries, mind you!
We later joked about just how easy-going and flexible Two Bears was, both in that interview and, once he did move in, as a housemate. We would reminisce about the interview, making it more and more extreme: "Then we said, 'You'll have to sleep on the roof, you know, whenever we have guests!' And then you said, 'Oh, that's all right... I really love the night sky.'"
Not that Two Bears was a perfect housemate. He was always a bit of a slob. He watched far too much TV, and I'm almost sure the foot fungus I got that year came from sharing a bathroom with his bare feet.
However, he was peaceful, playful, and accepting of all of our little quirks. Slow to anger, he would always respond to a request to pick something up or turn something down quickly and without defensiveness. He had a warm, kind, curious spirit that was refreshing to share a home with...and memories of caring for his own mother, in her last days, that gave him an experienced empathy for what Peter, especially, was living through in Nora's decline. With the addition of Two Bears to the house and to the coven, that sense of being grounded in a real, meaningful spiritual community, of having built something lasting and fine, was complete.
Felicia, on the other hand, was becoming harder and harder to love.
Saturday, October 13, 2007
There is a Sound,
That supports the World.
It is tree dance
And brook babbling.
It is summer storm and volcano.
It is in us and apart.
As loud as sleigh bells -
Still, you may not hear it.
Dance in moonlight.
The Sound is silent
Til you sing it.
For more glimpses into David's world, stop by his brand new livejournal blog. Here's hoping it will be a rich and productive outlet for his words.
Wednesday, October 03, 2007
So it's not a total surprise that she has written some deeply wise words on the subject of spiritual maturity today--ideas she credits to her "Quaker Yoda", her friend Vivian, recently hospitalized for a heart attack and stroke.
Here's something I loved so much I had to share it:
Our value as children of God does not depend on our spiritual maturity - grandparents do not have more intrinsic worth than the babies - but neither are they less valuable. So it is with spiritual maturity. It is merely the natural consequence of time spent in the presence of the Holy One, like age is the natural consequence of life. But maturity is a need of, and a blessing to, the Body of Christ.
I know that my Pagan kin will prefer other words than "Body of Christ"--but the deeper concept I think transcends labels and sects.
Certainly, it speaks to my condition...
As I try to live out my spiritual path, I feel something deepening in me, and I love it, and I value it. It's something that I must allow, and even seek, and yet it does not make me any more lovable or worthy than those who have less of that ripening in them.
It is something that is coming about naturally, as I drink from the waters of Spirit at my meeting (and in nature, and in community, and in my beloved's eyes; find the Light in one place, and you'll see it again in many).
But it's not I alone who benefit, nor even other people I affect in daily life. Nope--"maturity is a need of, and a blessing to, the Body of Christ"--to the whole living, shining shebang of gods and Spirit and all.
Peter and I have asked one another what it is that the gods want of us, we puny and silly human beings. And we keep coming up with the notion that what they want most of all is for us to grow--so that we will be better company for them.
So that we will be in deeper communion with them--and with the Light, whether we call it Christ or Goddess, or have no name for it at all.
There's lots more good stuff. Go read the original post. (Even if you're a bit Christophobic, O Reader, go read it; it's worth the time to translate it into the language that God uses when She speaks to you.)
I'm very grateful to Peggy Senger Parsons... and that "her Yoda" is doing well, and hopefully will continue to heal.
Monday, September 24, 2007
I keep thinking I'll be able to do things: visit a friend, write a blog post, read a serious book... and I keep being surprised when, as happened again this past weekend, Saturday rolls around and I just fall down.
Sorry. This isn't meant to be a teaching blog. But teaching is looming so large in my poor little psyche these days that there's little room for anything else.
But however firm the wall between church and state within my little classroom, religion follows me wherever I go, and my experiences as a teacher and as a soul are definitely affecting one another.
For one thing, there are the conversations with S.
I'm mentoring a Fulbright exchange teacher from India, as I mentioned earlier. It's a terrific experience overall--though where he comes up with his energy, I have no notion! We are fortunate in that, unlike most mentors and mentees (is that even a word?) we have enough time together--we both live in the same small city, and commute together to our small regional high school. A half hour in the car each morning and evening is dedicated to talking about whatever small or large cultural or educational questions might be coming up for him... everything from how to weight quizzes to the role of special education in American Schools. He's an extraordinary, curious, adventurous spirit, and I'm enjoying the connection a lot.
It also is an experience that I find challenging in a few unexpected ways. S. is, you see, not a Hindu, as might be guessed, nor even a Muslim, but rather a serious and dedicated Indian Christian. And among our cultural conversations have been a few on the subject of religion. He has been a bit surprised to find that the U.S. is not a Christian nation, for instance. And though he is pretty open minded when it comes to religious pluralism in this country, there are a few concepts that awkwardly enough, don't translate.
He'd never heard of Quakers. That I explained at least roughly, in terms that made at least intellectual sense... though giving the thumbnail sketch of Quaker history to someone who had never heard of a Puritan took some thought.
The whole question of Christian and non-Christian Quakers, which feels so central to my integrity if I discuss my religion, is almost impossible.
S. has never heard of "Wicca" or "Paganism"--at least in the sense of a modern religious movement. I might as well say the words "Froodle" or "Pipkin" to explain my personal spiritual life. He doesn't have any of the same cultural stereotypes, either--one teacher, who knows I'm Wiccan, made a joke in front of him about whether or not we share a broom for the rides to and from school rather than a car. The witch riding on broomstick motif is just not a part of his cultural background. I had to translate the joke later, and there's no doubt in my mind he had no idea why Jeff thought he was being funny, or what either brooms or witches have to do with anything about me.
Where to begin? Well, not with the stereotypes, thanks! Since I'm not a broom-flyer, it doesn't seem appropriate.
Well, but if I feel the need to clarify my position in our discussions, why not speak in terms of the polytheism of the Hindu world, with which S. is familiar?
See, he's familiar, but not in a nice, comfy, P.C. North American way. To S., Hindus are the benighted and superstitious majority he needs--through his church, at least, if not personally--to evangelize to. He has made it very clear that Hinduism is, to his mind, simply a mountain of foolish superstition that will vanish like magic when people are exposed to the infinitely superior Gospels.
Now, S. is a gentleman and a kind man. I'm not in the least afraid of becoming the target for any bigotry or intolerance. But I'm his host, his mentor... and I really don't want to make him embarrassed. I do want to let him know that, well, some of us polytheistic heathen types receive a fair amount of comfort and strength from our gods--whom we do not consider to be superstitions any more than he does Jesus, thanks very much. But how can I speak for Hindus, when all of my experience is book learning from half a world away? And how can I set him straight without causing him mortifying embarrassment?
Laugh if you like, but I have not yet found a way to make myself clear, in the small windows of time when religious topics have coincided with an appropriate moment on a drive. (Just pulling into the school parking lot = not an appropriate moment.)
I don't mind if our world views are very different. But, well, let's just say that I find "passing" for monotheist, particularly in a context of a relationship where some pretty negative things have been said about polytheists, acutely awkward.
S. was teaching Beowulf last week. Perhaps that accounts for the appearance of Grendel's mother in the dream I had last Friday.
I was in the midst of a group of some kind of unearthly Others. Fair Folk, Wild Hunt, spirits of some sort... and it was a context that clearly involved--as do contacts with the Good Neighbors--the need to be careful of cultural signals and etiquette that might have unexpected consequences.
I had a guide with me--a young man, of medium height, with dark black hair and fair skin, who was talking me through how to behave in a manner that was at once polite and safe in that company. We had all just arrived at some woodland retreat, a set of buildings clustered in a clearing in the forest. It was the end of the day, and shadows were falling fast.
On a kind of bridge between two buildings, tied up in straps from head to foot, lay the naked figure of... Grendel's mother--a greater monster even than her monster son, remember. She was alive, but completely inert.
When the company found her, they were enraged, and I could only watch in some horror as her figure was taken up by one of the members of the company, and then beaten against the walls and ground and trunks of trees until it broke apart into hundreds of fragments... Fragments, surprisingly, of a tough and decidedly unappetizing meat.
The company then all gathered around her, and pieces of her flesh were doled out on all sides. My guide told me that I must eat--that to do otherwise would give grave offense.
The giant who had beaten her into morsels grinned at me, holding out a scrap of meat. It looked like undercooked chicken skin, with stringy dark meat and fat clinging to it, and it was disgusting. I understood that Grendel's mother was the embodiment of human sin and evil, and that I was being offered a kind of communion with that.
I did not want to eat, but it was clear that I must, so I took the scrap of meat.
"You'll love the taste of it! You'll see!" leered the giant. And I shook my head, knowing that that at least was not true.
It tasted awful, but I knew that, in tasting it, I was acknowledging that there was nothing that was in Grendel's mother that was not in me. Not only did the assembled company expect me to take part in this bizarre communion, but it was actually right to do so, for I knew that, loathsome as her substance was to me, it was really not foreign to me at all, and that admitting that was the best protection against one day learning to "love the taste."
After that, a bonfire was lit somewhere, and music began to play. It was full dark, and I could see stars glittering by the thousands in the blue-black of the sky. There was no moon, but the stars were so bright that the naked boles of the trees in the woods all around were perfectly visible as deeper black silhouettes against the night sky.
I found myself swaying to the music. We were all gathered in a clearing, and the tone was peaceful and celebratory now, not monstrous. I knew that somewhere, at the opposite end of a long line of figures, was the god Odin, and that it was his celebration in some way. I could feel the music swelling in me, and a great sensation of joy and love, and the willingness to do and strive rising up in me. I knew (and I had a vision of antlers rising above Odin's head as I thought it--Odin being at least one of the figures who has loaned his mythology to my patron, Herne)that I was going to dance, soon... to let to music move me out into the clearing and set me spinning.
I knew, too, that my dancing would bring Odin to me--that my joyful willingness to dare and to love was going to draw him to dance with me. And that I would gaze into his eyes--
"You must never gaze into his eyes!" gasped my guide--
and, in fact, that I would gaze most deeply into his missing eye, the eye he traded for the wisdom of Mimir's well
the eye that held the deep infinity of space and all those far away, rushing, rushing stars
and I would fall and fall and fall and not mind, ever...
And I woke up just before I would have begun to move, to dance.
Sunday, September 16, 2007
But now it's September, and we're diving for the sea floor. We'll be down here, under the ice, far from our summer lives of friends and free time, until we emerge again in June.
I exaggerate slightly. I'm going to go to Meeting for Worship today, and I'll be attending our local RPG group just as religiously as meeting. (Amusingly, it's the second place I find my spiritual community--several of my very favorite longtime Pagan community members attend week after week, and recently, a number of our Quaker fFriends have begun to join us in slaying orcs and rescuing dragon eggs. I think that Beth's game has been going on for something like fifteen or twenty years now--and the friendships shared between its members are deep and strong.)
And, of course, I'll be in attendance at That Annual Pagan Gathering once again in October. I'm already looking forward to it.
But, overall, I forget how all-absorbing teaching really is. Down here under the polar ice, there's little to remind me of the passage of time. Has it really been three weeks since my last post here? (Pause to double-check the calendar.) It really has!
Ambitious dreams I'd had for this school year--twice weekly exercise after school, and once each weekend; taking training to be a telephone support person for New Orleaneans in exile from their post-Katrina city; attending every meeting for business; being a faculty advisor for at least one student group... all these are fading away. I don't see how I can add even small commitments to the one big one--teaching high school English--I've got on my plate.
I forget the bone-weariness of the end of a day of teaching. It will fade--it does get better over the course of the year, and the September adjustment is always the worst. But it is hard to re-enter that state of perpetual exhaustion.
People think it's easy to teach school. People think that the problems in American education are the result of lazy and uncaring teachers. It is bloody difficult not to get pissed off about that. And even though, so far this year, my school days have been much shorter than in past years (I'm usually out of the building by 4--5 at the latest. Let's hear it for Year Four, and a mere 9 hour day, down from the typical 11 of my first year) when I hear the politicians calling for "extended learning time"--meaning adding another 25% to the school day or year--I know that I'll never be good enough at this job to withstand that.
I'm loving teaching this year. I can hear this voice of competence rolling out of me this year. I'm mentoring a Fullbright exchange teacher this year, too. (We carpool together, so, if you add the time I spend mentoring on the way to and from work each day, I haven't actually gotten my work-day down to nine hours yet. But I choose not to count that time as "work"--it would be too depressing if I did!) That's tremendously satisfying, too. It's exciting to step back and talk about the big picture of education with a curious, intelligent co-worker: why we have special education laws the way we do, and how to teach to multiple intelligences and learning styles; the importance of supporting independent reading and frequent writing practice; ways to get students engaged more deeply through projects and hands-on assignments as well as traditional tests and essays.
And I find the cultural compare and contrast, between India and the States, to be fascinating. It's fun.
And I don't know if I can really do another year like last year, spending 10 hours a day during the work week on teaching and planning, and another 6--8 hours each weekend on grading.
Damn. I'm whining. Sorry, guys. It's just, even having fun, I'm not totally sure I can keep the pace till retirement. I know not all teachers work this hard, and I know that both my perfectionism and the difficulty I have staying organized make teaching especially challenging to me. But I really do think that the American people are just not getting it, the ways that "education reform" has the potential to suck the life out of an educational system that, in most communities, in most schools, actually works pretty well, thank you. I really wish that people who think teachers are a spoiled "special interest group" could spend two weeks teaching in a modern classroom before they feel free to set education policy on a state or national scale.
Not gonna happen. But I do think the disrespect with which Americans view teachers and schools is related to the ebbing respect we have for education itself... and that culture of disrespect gets my nod for the most serious issue I contend with in my classroom.
Sorry. I meant this post to be more positive than this. I really am enjoying the victories of teaching this year already: writing groups that I think are really going to work; kids who are able to spot and discuss themes and imagery in poetry already this year; the small class sizes I have at the moment, and the sense I have of a good balance of personalities and talents in each of my classes.
Not to mention the deep satisfaction of the Fullbright mentoring thing.
But I bet the submarine guys feel a fluttering of dread as they dive deep for each new season of silent running, too.
Saturday, August 25, 2007
This announcement will remain posted longterm at Quaker Pagan Reflections' Back Page area.
Stasa has also posted at her blog a report on her experiences, particularly with the Pagan Quakerism workshop she facilitated, at FGC's Gathering this year.
Thursday, August 23, 2007
I hate leftovers. With the exception of Thanksgiving turkey, stuffing, and pie, I'd just as soon never see the food again once it's been cleared away at the end of the meal, and I'm personally affronted to discover some mouldering brick that used to be a last half-slice of lasagna, that nobody ever got around to eating, after all.
I will, in fact, go to any lengths to get the food eaten the first time it's set out... Be aware, if a guest in my home, you will be expected to finish up that last little spoonful of green beans left in the serving bowl! All because I hate leftovers so much.
And yet here it is, ladies and gentlemen: a hefty serving of Quaker Pagan leftovers--stuff that's been piling up in the editorial 'fridge around here, reconstituted for your reading pleasure. It's not elegant, but I will certify it 100% mold free. Mangia!
The Lost Blog Entry
Not sure how I did it, but it's gone, gone, gone. It had a brief half-life through Bloglines, and I managed to capture its ghost, but then my replacement Mac finally arrived (redeemed from the land of Microsoft once more! Can I hear an hallelujah?) and somehow managed to lose the rescued text during the move.
The post was not an earth-shaker, but for inquiring minds who may have missed it the first time around, it dealt with the fact that, having been interviewed by religion wire service reporter Daniel Burke, the resulting article Quakers Ask: What Do We Believe, and Why? came out about as well as could be expected. That is, Mr. Burke is a good writer and a careful reporter, but it's easier to make the point that Quakers are confusingly diverse in our understandings than it is to make the point that we are also puzzling able to find Unity amid our diversity, through Spirit.
I don't suppose mysticism ever fit neatly into even the best brief news article... I'm afraid I was a little irrationally disappointed at that. Still, it's not a bad article, and features quotes from a variety of Quakers more seasoned than Peter or I, including Catherine Whitmire, Thomas Hamm, Robin Mohr, and NEYM's own Jonathan Vogel-Borne.
Is Blogging Ministry?
I also spent a little time feeling panic-stricken as I realized I need to weigh seriously whether this blog is a form of ministry, and whether I should be asking my meeting to lend me some clearness and oversight around it. No answers yet, but I have, since the original post, had a long discussion with a weighty Friend on the subject. The thing that was most difficult about that was calling her up in the first place. Not only does it feel self-indulgent to ask for the time of a busy public Friend, but it feels much, much riskier to talk about such a thing with a member of my own meeting than it does to bare my soul online, in the faux-anonymity of the blogosphere.
I'm still quite interested in what other Quaker bloggers think of the possible need for clearness or oversight committees around blogs--but I'm deeply certain that what I needed very much to do was reach in to my own meeting on the question at this point. We'll see where the question takes me.
The truly grave part about losing that earlier post was losing the comment that seems to have been attached to it! At least, I cannot find it now, much to my sorrow!
A Quaker Pagan Book?
Jen--my memory does not furnish me a last name, and I'm not sure if she's a member of the Quaker Pagan listserve at Yahoo or not--contacted me with an announcement regarding a book proposal she's attempting to pull together for the Quaker Universalist Fellowship, on Quaker Pagans. Hopefully she'll stop by and see this post, and add more information--if she does, I'll put up a longtime post at the Quaker Pagan Back Page, with a link from the main blog.
The gist of the matter is that she's trying to pull together a sample table of contents at present. So, any other Quaker Pagans (or Quagans, Quiccans, Pagan Quakers, or--as one visitor to this blog once put it--Quaking Penguins) out there who have essays or ideas for essays on how earth spirituality and waiting worship combine, be aware, there is a call for your work! Hopefully, more details soon. (And, Jen, many apologies for my carelessness.)
Normally, I don't engage in memes, at least on the front page. (That's part of what I created The Back Page for.) But, in this case, I will as it gives me a chance to link to a blogger I have come to enjoy and admire,Mahud of Old and New Moons. I like Mahud's openness... and I'm also appreciative of the fact that, in a world where we are all expected to find clear labels for our spiritual journeys, he's willing to acknowledge complexity where his life sends it to him.
Mahud passes along these rules from Birch Grove:
You have to use your own belief system for the meme. No fair using someone else’s to make a joke or satire. Being humorous about your own religion is encouraged!
You have to have at least one joy and one trial. More are encouraged. And no, they don’t have to be equal in length, but please be honest.
You have to tag at least one other person. More are appreciated!
Please post these rules!
I'll try to be very brief here (just for the shock effect, for those who have grown used to my wordiness).
I keep meeting (in person or in the blogosphere) people I find truly loveable. Some of them shine from inside with the Light that they carry. Some of them are rocks of integrity, or models of balancing justice and gentleness. They instruct me and they inspire me... and sometimes they think I'm pretty cool, too. What is better than being loved back by people you deeply admire and love? What is better than the friendship of kind, wise-hearted men and women?
Well, maybe--maybe its the friendship of Spirit, of "The Friend of Friends," as Benigno called it in the Bible half-hours at NEYM, or the times when I'm standing in a forest, surrounded by hemlocks and maples with colors like illuminated stained glass, and I suddenly know that the forest is alive, that I love it with all my heart, and--get this--it loves...me...back.
The times when a breeze touches my face, and it's a caress from a god. The times when, in meeting for worship, I begin to tremble because the whole world is filled with joy--that drinkable Light from The Voyage of the Dawn Treader I wrote about the other day.
How about the fact that my capacity for joy has grown so much over the past year? I can feel it--I'm bigger inside than I used to be. I feel more alive--and I think I'm kinder, too.
My Trials:I keep falling off the mountain. There I am, feeling all cool and groovy and at one with Life and the Spirit...and then I get a headache, or I stay up too late surfing the Web, or I am mildly inconvenienced by some trivial household muck-up... and suddenly, there she is again: Bitchycat, same as ever.
I can go from 0 to 100 mph in lost temper. And while my brakes are getting better, I still frequently neglect to apply them in time. I hate how easily I let myself slide into self-righteousness, sloth, denial, and flat out cussedness. Hate it, hate it, hate it.
Oh, yeah. I also hate how every growth experience I've ever had has been wonderful, glorious, a cause for great rejoicing...in hindsight. At the time, I mostly feel tired, cranky, stupid beyond belief, mad at the gods and the whole world.
Growth is not graceful. I always remember it as if it were, once I've done some growing, but it's never fun at the time. Oh yeah! And the worst part? I'm never done--just when I think I've turned out pretty well, thank you very much, and you may bow down and worship my saintly wisdom now, ladies and gentlemen, I slip on another damned moral banana peel, and realize what an idiot I am all over again.
I really hate how it feels when I realize that I have not been faithful (to put it in Quakerese). And I really hate how hard it is to actually challenge myself, haul my butt off the couch, and try again to be faithful once I've figured that out.
Photo from Gluten Free Girl under Creative Commons License 2.5