Friday, June 29, 2007

Cat’s Spiritual Journey, Part IV: The Underworld



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

Sometimes I think of my early development in Paganism as a path between two poles: Beltane and Samhain, exuberant innocence and painful deepening… Rites of Spring and Twilight Covening.

In some ways, my growth in Wicca was pretty far along by the time Doug, Kirk, and I visited Rites of Spring together. We had coalesced into a strong working coven, and I had progressed far enough in my own development to make a capable acting High Priestess for the group—over the year previous, through dreams, trance journeys, and finally ritual work, I’d deepened my relationship with the goddess I call “Rosie” (she has never given me any other name for her, though I have a few theories) and I had drawn down the moon for the first time at Beltane that year. Our coven, COW, had worked out enough practical techniques that we were actually running a small but productive Pagan study group, and we had begun to put out a tiny seasonal newsletter as well, Pagan Paths. Through a newsletter exchange and a series of classes held at the old Abyss occult bookstore*,I’d gotten to know this very interesting and earnest young Pagan writer, Peter Bishop. My knowledge of the Pagan world was becoming reasonable wide.

However, in some important ways I was only splashing along on the surface of things, enjoying the sparkly ripples, but with no real sense of the depths below me. I was mature in my Paganism, but mature the way a young man or woman is in their mid-twenties, when they have achieved some independence and a basic sense of purpose and place in the world, but before the challenges of middle age (troubled children, aging parents, health problems that herald the inevitability of aging and our own mortality) arrive to add darker hues to the palette of life. What’s more, having had a happy, middle-class childhood, and having married my high-school sweetheart, I was in some ways still a sheltered adolescent at heart: her daddy’s favorite child, the teacher’s pet, the quiet girl who sat at the back of the classroom and earned her A’s and B’s with little struggle.

I was ripe for a little ripening, in other words… and that is exactly what came next.

I was so enchanted with the wider Pagan community when I came home from Rites of Spring that I set about recreating as much of it as I could, literally in my own backyard, at this point, as we had by then moved to the old schoolhouse at the end of a rutted back road in Vermont. Out under the white pines at the edge of the yard I created an outdoor altar of slate and cinderblocks, and set out stones and plants and other found objects to symbolize the elements and the Lord and Lady. I also had fond memories of the morning and evening meditations around campfires—to this day, the smell of ordinary wood-smoke is the most powerful magickal incenses I know—and dug myself a small fire-pit. I would sit beside it, a small fire burning, and try to feel my connection to the tribe of Pagans, and wonder if other members of the same tribe were also sitting by campfires of their own, out in the world beyond my wooded hillside.

I kept in touch with Pagans I had met at Rites or in the class I had taken, but what I really wanted was more—more experience of life among Pagans, and more experience of magic and ritual and songs.

Of course I registered for Twilight Covening when the autumn came. Kirk and Doug did not—I don’t even remember why—but I was actually looking forward to immersing myself, on my own, in the experience of a Pagan village once again.

For those of you who have been hoping for a little Pagan wierdness in my story, get ready. Pagan wierdness, coming up...

As Beltane is a celebration of spring, so Rites is celebratory and festive, with merchants selling pretty toys and clothes, performers making music, dancing, and (of course) a gigantic May pole for over 500 happy dancers. But as Samhain is about the preparation for winter (and, by analogy, death) Twilight is an altogether more serious gathering. It is, in fact, a three day long ritual, with the focus on an inward journey to experience, claim, and integrate the shadow self. Attendees sign up to work in depth with one group of people—a “clan” in Twilight parlance—on one form of sacred technology. I chose a trance working clan, and I packed up my clothes, my wand, and my drum, and headed south, alone, to experience this deeper thing.

I had, unfortunately, neglected to pack my toothbrush.

I've since figured out that I have difficulty in making the transition both to and from a retreat--I tend to get very keyed up and anxious on my way in the door, and, back in the day, that translated to bitchy. So my entry to Twilight Covening was graceless, and rather than breathing in the scents of autumn in the woods, stretching my legs, and greeting the handful of people I knew from the previous gathering, my attention was focused almost wholly on the stale taste in my mouth. It was with deep relief that I welcomed the happy gift from another camper of a replacement toothbrush. (Talk about divine intervention! Who goes camping with an extra toothbrush? ) And I did meet up with at least one familiar face, that of a man I will call Afagddu (not his real or magickal name) for the purposes of this story. Afagddu had access to the kitchens, and knew how to brew up a potent kettle of amazing Cuban coffee, which he shared with me, managing to soothe my spirit and let me open up and relax at last.

The next day, Saturday, began well. I met the members of my clan, and, after some initial self-consiousness, began experimenting with the various forms of trance that were the focus of our workshop. By supper that night, I was actively starting to enjoy myself, and threw myself into our group's assigned kitchen cleanup with lively pleasure, singing and joking with new friends.

Then came the night that began unravelling the life I'd built so carefullly for myself in thirty years on the planet Earth.

It began innocuously enough, in a chance meeting with Peter, under the flaming oaks. He asked me to look with him at the results of a Tarot spread he had done earlier that day. Squatting at the side of the leafy path, he spread out the green cloth he used for readings over the ground and carefully set the cards out again in the same Celtic cross and double-sword pattern he'd turned up earlier.

As promised, I took a look.

My first impression was one of intense deja vu--it really looked to me for a moment as if Peter had just shown me a Tarot spread of my own, card for card. That was illusion, and a more careful second look made that clear. But all the same, an almost overwhelming sense of the spread being somehow mine persisted to trouble me with the thought that this was surely the height of narcissism... to look at another person's Tarot spread and see your own life in it! I shook the impression away, and tried to focus on Peter's question.

The spread was on what direction Peter's spiritual seeking ought to take in the coming year... and what he ought to leave behind. Hence the doubled sword: one column for what to reach for, and another for letting go. Interestingly enough, the card that turned up in the "house-to-leave" position in his spread was "The Fool"--that card of optimistic new beginnings. Other cards come back to me, in fitful remembering: the Two of Cups (was it reversed?) and perhaps some of the suit of Swords that were going to be so important in the near future. Neither Peter nor I can remember now, almost twenty years later. But the power of that first impression remains, like the memory of the smell of fallen leaves that goes with it.

Discussing Peter's Tarot spread led to discussing what, exactly, his spiritual practice had been like over the course of the previous year, and again, as he spoke, I had a powerful sense of deja vu.

Peter, like me, had a Pagan practice that involved a fair amount of trance journey work*--in his case, more formally conducted and Harneresque. I think he actually had a cassette tape of shamanic drumming, for example, and I relied mainly on my own breath and a few self-hypnotic techniques I'd learned as a therapist to get me to where I sought to go.*

Initially, Peter's work had focused a lot on Core Shamanism concepts like animal helpers and so forth. Gradually, he'd worked to use it to explore his relationship with the Goddess... but, over time, he'd found this bloke with antlers intruding more and more often into his journeys, usually with some kind of test or challenge. Initially, he had found it annoying, but it had come to be more and more important a part of his practice.

As Peter spoke, I found myself resonating, almost reverberating, to the images his words stirred up. I had had a relationship with Herne prior to that weekend--but it was really Peter's storytelling that found flesh for the yearnings and intuitions I had had up to that point. The aftertaste of our conversation was almost eerie. Suddenly, shadows were darker, and the light of sunset through the oaks was more brilliant than ever. Twilight Covening is conceived as a three-day-long ritual; however, I believe it was at that point, on Saturday night, that I really entered the Otherworld.

One of the core elements of Twilight Covening is something they call a "Releasing Fire" ritual. These days, it is held on Friday night, but I'm pretty sure it was not until Saturday night the year I am writing about. Before we went our separate ways, Peter showed me a stick he had been carrying with him all day, which he identified with the stick the Fool uses to sling his bundle over his shoulder in the Tarot card. I had not, to that point, had much of a plan for the upcoming ritual, but, as I left the clearing where Peter and I had been talking, I found myself responding to an intuitive pull to participate in it--to find a stick and charge it--I still didn't know with what intention--to cast into the fire with the other celebrants when the time came.

The idea of the releasing fire is simple. As preparation for the new year (beginning at Samhain, in Celtic and Wiccan tradition), participants should figure out something that they were done with. Together, we would all chant for a bit, focusing our intention on our little twigs and twists of grass or what-have-you, and then move in waves toward a central bonfire, cast our tokens onto it, and move away again. When everyone had finshed, the drummers would pull out their large and small drums, and the dancing and celebration would begin: out with the old, in with the new. That kind of thing.

One of the things I've always been good at, sometimes to Peter's terror, is yielding to a magickal impulse. Many Pagans take days to form an intention, do careful discernment and even divination on it, and only then do they act. Sometimes for better, and once or twice for worse, I've tended to be far more spontaneous in some of my most important workings. This was one of the good times, though, to be guided by impulse--or an Otherworldly leading, if you prefer.

The ritual was about to begin... the fires were laid, and the crowd was gathering. Unlike Peter, who had found his stick ages ago, and spent a day focusing on it, I picked a twig off the forest floor almost at random, and joined the crowd, still not clear on what it was that I was intending to do.

The chant began: something along the lines of "Free it, burn it, let...it...go!" and it quickly built in tempo and energy. And I found myself reflecting on the relationship I had with Rosie, my face of the Goddess.

I loved her. I trusted her. But how far? And how far did I trust myself? How real was I? How truthful and genuine was I?

Gradually, a sense formed in me of the many ways in which I was still so caught up in my brittle, self-conscious, people-pleasing adolescent self. I felt my incompleteness very clearly and very acutely, and I despised it, suddenly. And I knew that was it--that false, people-pleasing, placating self was what I needed to let go of. I needed to get out of my fairy princess tower, and go live a life. And so that was the intention I put into that twig.

I waited my turn, and I waited for the right moment, and then I cast my twig into the fire and let it go, feeling the warmth of the flames against my face and my body for just a moment before yielding my place at the fire to the next celebrant.

The next thing I knew, I had a sudden and overwhelming sense of grief and loss, and I saw what I'd let go of in a different way. Suddenly, I was no longer my daddy's beloved clever daughter. Suddenly, I was no longer the star pupil, the Good One who would always win the approval of those in charge. Being free also meant losing part of my self, I realized--the part of me that was always safe, or thought she was, because that's what being Good buys you in this world.

And with that, I flashed on what it really means to love a Goddess who is the Life Force of the world. Yeah, She's fresh growth sprouting from seeds, and the trust of new babies, and the joy of birds on wing... but She is also AIDS, and old age that cripples, and infants who die too soon. Life is not just a Hallmark greeting card. And that, that was what I was signing on to. That was what I had just given my allegiance to. And the Mother of the Universe
Can
Do
Anything
She
Wants...

To
Anyone
At All.

And suddenly, all I felt was fear.

Life is also death. I'd known it before--it's what the Pagan metaphor of the Wheel of the Year is really about, after all--but now I felt it running like ice water all through me.

She could kill me. Now. Tomorrow. Any time.

She could kill my family.

She could kill my three-year-old daughter, tucked up safe and warm at home with her daddy, and--

--and some thoughts are not really meant to be thought, are they? I began pleading, begging, praying to Her to not take all that She could; I understood that nothing I had, nothing I was, nothing I would ever know was anything but Hers, and it all belonged to Her and She was entitled to it, but please...

Lady...

Not
That.

And then I gave up. All I could do was ask, and I did ask, but...the power was not mine to make Her, to make the universe do anything at all. Having no choice but to understand this, I did; having no choice but to yield everything, I yielded it.

So, there I was, wrestling with fear and with the Universe, hanging back from the bonfire, surrounded by a crowd of happy, sweaty, post-ritual Pagans, with drummers just warming up for the big drum n' dance that follows such a ritual, when I got another tug. An awful one. It's as if a little voice began whispering: "You're yielding everything, eh? Yielding it all up to Me? Fine, fine... prove it! Dance!"

It may not be apparent to readers of this blog, where, I will admit, I tend to let it all hang out... but I'm actually not much for creating a public spectacle. Those who know me best will describe me as a quintessentially proper New England lady--tending very much on the side of reserved and shy, at least about some things. Joining in the public spectacle of a Pagan drum n' dance, especially in terms of being the first of the dancers in the ring, was really not in my character. Trust me--the last thing I wanted to do was get up and flail around in front of a group of strangers.

But that was what I was being told to do. Somehow, it really was necessary--the final act that made reality out of ritual. Taking up space? Living in my body? Something about setting aside my instinctive body modesty was part of what I had signed on for, and I knew it.

Crap.

I did it. It was early enough that some of the drummers were still warming up their drumheads by the fires--and one thing a sane woman never wants to do is to get between a drummer and the bonfire he's using to warm his drumhead! But I did it anyway... Listening to an inner beat, I focused on the fire, focused on She Who Is the Universe, and danced that circle round. I let Her dance me--with me and inside me and through me, beat upon beat upon beat.

It only felt like an hour before I knew it had been enough. Quietly, and as unobtrusively as I could, I moved to the back of the firelit circle, to catch my breath in the cool shadows, and let myself drift slowly back to a more normal state of mind.

The night had come. Outside the ring of dancers and drummers, it was full dark. Looking toward the fire, I could see sparks rising toward a starlit sky... a full moon beginning to rise...orange leaves lit from below.

Across from the fire, I saw Peter again. He smiled, and I joined him. We danced together for a while, off at the edges of the crowd, swinging playfully round and round like kids playing at getting dizzy. After a while, he saw other friends of his, and went over to talk to them.

I went down to the small lake below us, to watch the moon reflected in its waters. The moolight was cool, though the night was unseasonably warm, and the dancing had left me hot and sweaty. I dangled my feet in the water.

Only a few minutes later, my reverie was interrupted by Afagddu, who wandered down to join me in desultory conversation. We chatted about this and that...I laughingly declined a suggestion we go skinny dipping in the lake, but took him up on the offer of another cup of strong Cuban coffee, and we headed off to the midnight kitchen, where the two of us were the only living souls in a landscape of gleaming steel and quiet shadows. At first, the conversation continued as before.

This part is hard to write about, even after all these years, in part because there really isn't a word for what Afagddu did next. I don't want to overstate the case; but I also don't want to lose the horror of it...

He did not, at any time, raise his hand to me or in any way threaten me physically. He did not precisely even threaten me verbally. But he made it chillingly clear that, as I had been dancing at the bonfire, I had attracted his attention. He had then begun stalking me--his word. He said he'd felt the goddess in me, with me. And that had wakened something in him--what he called the Hunter, the horned one, and he'd decided he wanted me and he was going to have me, whatever it took. When I had been dancing with Peter, he described for me the fantasy he'd entertained of pulling out his knife, and stabbing Peter, perhaps killing him. And when I had left the dance, he had followed me down to the lake, and was chatting with me now, while making up his mind about what, exactly, he wanted to do. (With me? To me?)

He never said the word rape.

And he never touched me. But all I could see, in that kitchen that had felt warm and comforting minutes before, was the vast number of sharp things, hot things, and things that can cause hurt that were all around me. And I felt cold, cold, cold...

Here's irony. I'm probably at least half a head taller than Afagddu. Having grown up tusslng with a "little" brother who is now 6'4", you'd think I'd have noticed that, wouldn't you? But it would be weeks before that would even dawn on me. Something other than size made him scary to me for those long minutes in the kitchen alone.

He ended his little discourse by telling me that I would be more careful in the future, wouldn't I? And I would go home, and teach my daughter to be more "careful", too. Wouldn't I? And like a rabbit caught in the headlights, I smiled and nodded and attempted to act as though we were discussing the weather.

Somehow, the conversation ended. I think we actually said goodbye--I think, I surmise, because I certainly was not tracking that information at the time--and I actually headed back to my bunkhouse to try to sleep, only to realize, when I got back to the cabin (coed, though that had never mattered to me before, and I could not consciously frame the thought that it mattered to me now) that there was no way I could force myself to go into it, undress, climb into my bed, and lie down.

I wandered back to the firelight, where the last dregs of drumming were yielding to sleepy conversation over the embers of the bonfire. And I stayed there for a very, very long time, until finally I was exhausted enough to make myself go back to the bunkhouse to lie down and sleep.

The next day was nightmarish. No one I knew was anywhere in sight. Peter was off in an all-day sweatlodge with his clan. As to my own clan, they were suddenly strangers to me. Worse, about half of them were men, and, without articulating why that mattered, I found it almost unbearable to be in a room with them. Which I was, of course, going through the motions of what seemed suddenly empty exercises. And I was cold, cold, cold to the bone.

Despite having worked for years in rape crisis service and battered women's programs, it took me most of that day even to frame to myself what that unspoken threat had been, and that it was not men I was afraid of, but one man, one particular man, whom I had liked and trusted.

I can still see in my mind's eye exactly where I was standing, what was the slant of light, at the moment when I began to know why I was afraid.

It was almost enough. But some things can't really be known alone. Some things need the exoskeleton of language, spoken and heard, to be able to stand up and be seen. And I really, really needed someone to talk to.

And thank all the good gods of heaven and earth, Peter's sweat lodge finally, finally ended. And despite a feeling of utter voicelessness, I did manage to ask him to take a walk with me. He led the way... a winding path around the lake, away from the camp and the voices, everyone getting ready for dinner and the main ritual to follow.

Why wasn't I afraid of Peter? I don't know. I just wasn't.

It was so hard to talk. But Peter was able to listen with enough stillness that I was somehow able to let the tale tumble out. Till I got to the part where Afagddu had spoken of drawing down the Hunter, the god, as partial explanation for his impulses and his actions.

That didn't seem right to me. It didn't seem true... but I was not in a place where I could trust myself very well, and I knew--knew particularly clearly, after my own experience at the bonfire--that the gods of nature are shadow as well as light. I had to ask him.

"Peter..." I almost wailed. "Is that...Herne? Was that Herne?"

And he said no. And I don't remember if he held me with his arms, or only with the warmth of his voice, but suddenly it was all right--I could feel my arms and my legs and my fingers and my toes... and best of all, I knew that I could trust myself, and I could trust Herne. The chill began to lift. And I began to realize I was angry. Really, really angry--the cold kind of anger that has a very long shelf life.

We walked together back toward the dining hall. Peter left to get washed up, and I went out onto the little deck behind the building to look out over the water toward the setting sun, to think about Herne, and Afagddu, and being angry.

And a few minutes later, who should appear beside me but the man himself, Afagddu, live and in person. Coming softly up next to me, he spoke tentatively.

"Are you...angry with me?" he asked.

And I turned and and I smiled, and it wasn't a nice smile at all, and I hissed, "Yesssss..." And he fled. Just doubled back the way he had come and fled.

And then, gazing out again at the lake, I had the strangest feeling come over me...

It seemed to me that Herne was right there, not in body, but right there beside me nonetheless, patiently waiting.

I had a sense, suddenly, of something else, too--something hard to explain. It seemed to me that, somehow, by doing what he had done, and by invoking Herne in the doing of it, Afagddu had created a kind of a connection between the two of us. Today, years later, it is possible to be skeptical about this, but at the time, it was about as simple a perception as looking out across the lake and noticing the trees on the other side. I just suddenly had a sense of something in me that, because of this connection, could, should I choose, reach out (or in?) and... just squeeze down.

It seemed to me that I might very well be able to will Afagddu's death, and have it come to pass. And it seemed to me that Herne was simply waiting there, by my elbow, as it were, to see what I would choose to do.

Because I had another choice, too. Rather than acting myself, I could just hand Afagddu over, the whole, tangled, jangling, painful thought of him, to Herne. And he would become Herne's business, not mine.

But it was one or the other. I couldn't do both.

I sat with the knowledge for a bit. Turned it over inside me for a bit. And...chose.

"Herne, you old bastard," I whispered, "take him. He's Yours." And I let go.

And heard the sound of wild geese far overhead--Gabriel hounds, the Wild Hunt in motion.

It was time for the main ritual to begin.

(To be continued...)
Now Azure Green, an online store and wholesaler—a hugely successful business which has left the days of the humble storefront and monthly Pagan potluck brunches far, far behind them.

"Trance journey" means a lot of different things, depending on the Pagan you are talking to. For Peter and for me, it refers to a state that is not as uncontrolled as dreaming, nor as deliberate and conscious as day-dreaming. Neither of us are big on "guided meditation," where someone reads a passage out loud to you and you are supposed to carefully follow their directions in your imagination. But neither are we likely to be in the kind of trance that movies depict, or that I have known a very small number of practitioners routinely to experience, where, for all intents and purposes, "the lights are on, but nobody is home." I would use more precise terminology if I could, though I will say that, in my experience as a psychotherapist specializing in work with dissociation, the more I was taught about "altered states of consciousness," the less clear the whole business tended to become. I'm not sure there are any experts, anywhere...

Yes, thank you, I am well aware of the controversies regarding Michael Harner, "core shamanism", and cultural appropriation. Now, do you want me to describe how I learned how to talk to my gods, or not?

Saturday, June 23, 2007

Cat's Spiritual Journey, Part III: The Fool's Journey



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

When I first became Pagan, I was extremely idealistic about Paganism and what it could do for the world. I was profoundly affected by vision's like Starhawk's ecofeminism--the idea that most of our present ills are a result of a patriarchal world view that objectified women and the planet, sacrificing things of spiritual and lasting value for short term gains for the few, those few being mainly white guys in suits. Pagans were going to resacralize the earth, renew real respect between genders and races, and build a new ideal based on community. And our ideas were going to spread, because anyone from the mainstream culture who glimpsed the beauty in our relationships with one another was going to want to sign on.

Do I hear snickers from the back row?

For those who know me now, and who are aware of my ready acceptance of modern scholarship on Wiccan and Pagan history--that we do not trace our lineages unbroken to the paleolithic era, that there is no evidence for a universal peaceful matriarcy in human history, etc--I don't want to come across as more cynical than I am. Though I no longer believe in that mythic neolithic feminist utopia of peaceful goddess worshippers living in a perfect balance with nature, I do think that equality between the sexes has peaked and ebbed throughout history, and that gender equity isn't a recent invention, with no precedents in the ancient world. I do think that communal values are part of some cultures more than others, and that patriarchy, amoral economic competition, and lack of value for the earth and the environment are not historical inevitablities that can never be changed. If I am less starry-eyed than I was once, and see the struggle to change humanity as more difficult and complicated than I once thought it would be, I still think that cynicism accomplishes nothing of lasting good, either for the cynic or his world.

Paganism helped me to become a Fool--and in the spiritual world, that's a good thing. Most of us stay home, lock the doors, and hope for the best for ourselves individually. The Fool sets out boldly into the world, and even if it looks as if his journey is hopeless, it really is better to be The Fool, even if sometimes you get a little battered on your journey... Like a Fool, then, I set out optimistically, believing that magical possiblities were all around me.

There was so much to know! And I wanted to learn everything, read everything--I think I kept our local bookstore in business single-handedly, through special orders alone. I had to read about herbs, of course (something I'd been facinated by as a kid) and to begin stocking a kitchen full of simples: peppermint for nerves or indigestion, lavender to disinfect wounds, sage to dry up post-nasal drip... and so on. And I sent away for mail order Wicca classes--incredible horse hooey, I ultimately decided, but only after devouring the first wave of assigned readings and diligently working the assigned "psychic development exercises" (which were not such horse hooey, overall). I read garbage about ancient Celts, antiquated archeologicial writings about matriarchies in Crete, Charles Godfrey Leland's Aradia from a cheap little feminist Wiccan booklet full of footnotes about what the text really meant, and the occult fiction of Stewart Farrar, on loan from a friend.

No one who has entered Paganism since the advent of the Web can have the slightest notion what all this was like, though all the old-timers will remember vividly. There was no Amazon.com, no Witches' Voice with thousands of essays and links to resources. I can't describe my joy when I discovered that Kirk possessed a stack of a dozen tattered copies of Circle Network News, complete with the sappy drawings of willowy goddesses that characterized Pagan artwork at that time.

Every now and then, a Pagan friend with access to computers would print out (in tiny dot-matrix letters) a few gleanings from Fidonet: lyrics to songs that would one day be famous, scraps of rituals, arguments between groups over proper Wiccan ethics or circle ettiquette... you never knew what you would wind up with, but over the creaky modem connections of the day, you grabbed what you could, and strained your eyes looking for something of value.

Ultimately, Kirk, Doug, and I formed the core of a boot-strapped coven and study group. We pooled our information, shared our books, chants, and rituals, and taught one another anything we happened to pick up from whatever source. These days, a determined seeker can find more useful information online in an afternoon than Kirk, Doug, and I worked out over the course of a year or more of earnest research. But the advantage to a modern seeker is not as clear cut as you might suppose. Because there was so little information available, we had to read widely, in history and comparative religion and women's studies and ecology... and when we gleaned a few shards of Wiccan writing, we could never know much about the source they came from. Every piece of information had to be weighed, tested, experimented with before adding it to our practice. Since we had no ready-made Book of Shadows, we were not tempted to accept anything at face value. Everything was tested, compared with what we already knew, or--best of all--made to work through trial and error, sometimes in ways the original liturgists would never have foreseen.

The Coven on Wheels (COW for short, in a tip o' the hat to the Vermont dairy industry) had almost no formal liturgy, and that stolen and modified from a variety of sources. But what it lacked in ritual trappings, it made up in groundedness and integrity. Because we were always experimenting to see what worked, we became deadly honest with one another about what wasn't working, and we altered it or abandoned it. We also became better and better at taking risks in front of each other--there's nothing like waving your arms in the air, breathing funny, and intoning Hebrew names in front of someone to build a sense of trust! Seriously, it took real trust to set aside our worries that we were making idiots of ourselves. But by doing so, we built up quite a fund of intimacy... as we did working in Kirk's woods to clear land and move stones for outdoor ritual space, and camping together around a bonfire at the end of the day.

On a practical level, we gradually pieced together ways of casting a circle, raising energy, entering trance, and learning about and communing with our gods that have stood the test of time; each of us has gone on to some sort of further magical training (Kirk in so many traditions even he has a hard time counting them all) but I think we would each tell you that what we worked out together was at least the equal of what we learned later in formal traditions. Trial and error, combined with common sense and a willingness to do our homework, turned out to be a pretty effective set of teachers.

At the time, I think we all felt a bit apologetic about the ways our practice was home-grown... and I know we were all pleasantly surprised by how favorably it compared with other, more established traditions, when eventually we went out in the wider world of Paganism and Wicca.

Picture this: the three of us have registered together for the EarthSpirit community's premier Pagan gathering, Rites of Spring. Knowing, as we do, that many groups will be present in their ceremonial best, with matching robes, cloaks, banners, and occult jewelry, we decided that we, too, would put on a bit of a show, and we've purchased our own ritual regalia: matching sunglasses, and the blue Ben and Jerry's ice cream tee shirts, proudly emblazoned with our coven emblem, the black and white Holstein cow. The three of us can hardly keep from laughing out loud, striding through camp in our ceremonial finery.

Rites of Spring was a high point in my Fool's journey. When not giggling with my buds, I got my first taste of the wider Pagan world. I learned a dozen new chants. I bought my first piece of Pagan ritual gear, a crescent moon crown that was like a promise (to myself? to the Goddess?) to take my priestessing seriously, even if I kept on laughing at myself. I attended my first-ever drum circle, sweat lodge, and large public ritual.

There were moments of great beauty at that Rites. I attended my first forest wine ceremony, and loved it--the chalice going round and round the circle, with celebrants coming and going, giving thanks upon thanks with each new toast. I spent time in something that I could swear actually called itself a Crystal Teepee--a canvas-sided teepee with carefully arranged chunks of quartz crystals, ranging from fist-sized knobs of rose quartz to Thanksgiving-turkey sized geodes lined with amethyst. Supposedly all of these crystals were arranged in a pattern that optimized vibrations of peace and love; I don't suppose I'd go near such a thing nowadays--I'm rather more sensitive to B.S. But I did spend time there during that Rites, and whether it was because of the crystals, because of the quality of the light diffusing through the canvas sides of the structure, or because of the serene hippies who went there to meditate, I found it a very peaceful place to be.

Even getting a sunburn was a delightful experience. I had carefully covered up most of my person for most of the time, but, alas, I had not thought to cover up my feet, of all things. By the second day there, I had the most amazingly red, sore feet you can imagine. But a stop at the Healer's Hut introduced me to Ellen Evert Hopman, who set me up with some kind of greenish herbal goo that--I am not making this up--flat out cured my sunburn.

At Rites of Spring, I learned that COW was not the only group of Pagans with a sense of humor; I saw the feminine and the Goddess honored everywhere I turned; I listened to harps, drums, dijeridoos and bardic circles. And I decided that Pagans were just about the most wonderful, loving, compassionate, and enlightened people on the planet.

Perhaps you can see where this is headed? I couldn't, of course. But such is the nature of the Fool.

(To be continued...)

Sunday, June 17, 2007

Cat's Spiritual Journey, Part II: Coming Home

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

So, now... where was I, before I so rudely interrupted me? ;)

When we eventually left graduate school, my then-husband and I settled in a small town in Vermont, where he was hired on to teach in the electrical engineering department of a small college, and I began looking around for work--in social work, not in law. Things were pretty much perfect: surrounded by beautiful countryside, saving our pennies for the down payment on a house (which we eventually bought together), planning a family, and starting to build our individual careers. We practiced amateur astronomy (I under his careful tutelage) and moved from watching Sagan's Cosmos to James Burke's The Day the Universe Changed, and began the quest for edible pizza in Central Vermont. Life Made Sense.

And then two things happened that changed all that: I got pregnant, and I found a book.

I got pregnant, right around the time I discovered Lost Mountain Books, realized that I couldn't stand my job (or the wierd twinging in the ribs my pregnant body decided I would have anytime I sat for more than twenty minutes or so) and quit.

I've always been a bookstore groupie. But when you're living in a tiny town where you have no friends, no job, and you discover that the local bookstore not only has excellent books, but friendly owners and serves the best coffee within twenty miles, well, that bookstore becomes pretty important. Marie and Kevin were my first real friends in town. Sometimes they let me babysit the bookstore for them when they had to travel, in exchange for book credit. They would special order titles for me. I began to spend a fair amount of time there, perched up on a stool next to Marie, who was also pregnant, chatting about her son Christopher's potty training and manners.

And that's when it happened. Remember how flaky I thought all those sisterhood-is-beautiful feminist Wiccans were when I first encountered them? Well, I wasn't pregnant then. Now, sitting next to Marie while she minded the bookstore, I felt this wierd, wordless connection between us. Something about my pregnancy and hers, developing side by side, changed how I felt in ways that just didn't fit my picture, then, of who I thought I was.

The second happening, as I said, was a book: a book club copy of the 1986 edition of Margot Adler's 1979 classic, Drawing Down the Moon.

By the time that book arrived in the mail, Hillary had been born. I remember sitting out on the balcony behind our house, breast-feeding Hillary, and reading and reading and reading. I still have that original copy--I picked it up and paged through it, just now, looking for the particular words that did it for me--that breathed out that I had come home. I can't find them; I can find the stars and asterisks and underlining I added to the book, especially in the resources section (incredibly scanty by today's standards). But I really can't find any single set of words that led to that powerful feeling. I just remember setting the book aside, bringing my daughter up to my shoulder to burp her, and looking incredulously out at the horizon, whispering, "You mean there are more of me?"

And that was when I became a Pagan--again.

After all, Paganism was what I'd even called it, when, as a child, I'd tried to find some way to connect to the things in the world that had a spiritual pull for me: rocks and hills and trees. (Especially trees!) And here were people who not only felt as I felt, and responded to the same longings, but came together in mysterious and possibly ancient ways to celebrate them. It was breathtaking.

There is a scene in C.S. Lewis's second Narnia book, Prince Caspian, which captures the longing I'd felt for so many years. I'd suppressed it, sublimated it with a love of science and the mind, but as soon as I read the stories of others who had felt what I had felt, it all came back in a rush:
...Lucy's eyes began to grow accustomed to the light, and she saw the trees that were nearest her more distinctly. A great longing for the old days when the trees could talk in Narnia came over her. She knew exactly how each of these trees would talk if only she could wake them, and what sort of human form it would put on. She looked at a silver birch: it would have a soft, showery voice and would look like a slender girl, with hair blown all about her face, and fond of dancing. She looked at the oak: he would be a wizened, but hearty old man with a frizzled beard and warts on his face and hands, and hair growing out of the warts. She looked at the beech under which she was standing. Ah!--she would be the best of all. She would be a gracious goddess, smooth and stately, the lady of the wood.

"Oh Trees, Trees, Trees," said Lucy (though she had not been intending to speak at all). "Oh Trees, wake, wake, wake. Don't you remember it? Don't you remember me? Dryads and Hamadryads, come out, come to me."

Though there was not a breath of wind they all stirred about her. The rustling noise of the leaves was almost like words. The nightingale stopped singing as if to listen to it. Lucy felt that at any moment she would begin to understand what the trees were trying to say. But the moment did not come. The rustling died away. The nightingale resumed its song. Even in the moonlight the wood looked more ordinary again. Yet Lucy had the feeling (as you sometimes have when you are trying to remember a name or a date and almost get it, but it vanishes before you really do) that she had just missed something: as if she had spoken to the trees a split second too soon or a split second too late, or used all the right words except one, or put in one word that was just wrong.


Even the longing was precious to me.

I love the world. I just do... and all I ever really wanted was to be able to talk to it, and to tell it that--and to have it answer. I wanted to live in a living and spirited world, not a dead, material one. And at last it looked as if there was a way.

What came next would be simpler today, when a budding Pagan can just hop onto The Witches Voice, surf on over to the Witches of the World contacts page, and start emailing people. Simpler--but not simple, even now, because for every solid Pagan circle or grove you find online, there must be three that are either pompous, or disfunctional, or fraudulent, or (most commonly) defunct. Pagans form groups and communities quickly and easily, but we tend to overidealize them (maybe it's that coming home feeling) and then blow up at each other when the inevitable disillusionment follows. And we're new--really new--so that it's hard to find elders who really are. (It wasn't until I became a Quaker that I had much experience with being guided in my spiritual growth by people who were actually significantly older than I am. I know that Quakers often bemoan our graying population...but this has it's up side, too.)

The first Pagan "teacher" I found was a jerk. No--really. One of those folks who invent fancy sounding titles for themselves, talk endlessly about how important they are and how many important Pagans they know, when all the time, their main spiritual interest is in being admired and jumping the bones of young women like me. Ick.

Happily, I kept looking. Eventually, I encountered a human interest story about this fellow named "Kirk White,"of all the ridiculous monikers--clearly a pseudonym (White Church the Pagan leader, yeah, how clever). Only it wasn't--I'm not sure how long it took me to figure that out. He actually lived only one town over from mine, on a rambling old farm that had been in his family since the Revolutionary War, and he was (and is) one of the kindest, wisest, and funniest human beings I have ever known. (You haven't lived until you've stayed up until 2:00 AM with this guy, making stupid puns and singing even stupider filks.) Kirk had been searching for and cobbling together Pagan community in Vermont since his college days, and it was he who invited me to my first ever Pagan ritual, a summer solstice ritual and camping weekend on his farm.

To say that I was afraid to go would be understating the case. On the one hand, I was going to meet real Pagans for the first time ever, and I was desperate to make a good impression. On the other hand, I was more than a little nervous. Who were these people, anyway? Sure, none of the books I was reading supported the idea that anything unsavory was going to happen that night, but how did I really know? I made sure my husband had the contact information for where I was going before I left that afternoon. I remember talking with him about when to notify the police if I didn't return!

When I got there, needless to say, I didn't find anything that was remotely scarey, except for the Pagan tendency to arrive late and not plan ahead. The day proceeded on PST--Pagan Standard Time--and the mid-day ritual honoring the Sun at his strongest actually happened at dusk, with fireflies twinkling around us. There was also a full share of Lame Ritual-itis--I contributed to it myself, when I was asked to help "dance" the circle (rather than casting it).

But there was also music--Jeanne and Kirk, both future covenmates, singing together The Pretenders Hymn to Her--and ritual that really, really worked. I remember Lindy S. drawing down the Goddess... and being able to feel her aura suddenly become much, much deeper, and almost to see it, deep indigo and violet, rushing up from her head and shoulders to touch the sky.

I left as people were setting up their tents in the darkness (typical Pagan planning!), and Kirk showed me down the hill in the dark. Neither of us had a flashlight, and the pine woods we passed through were dark as a cave by then. But I didn't mind in the least, because, really, I knew about being lost, and that night had been the opposite of being lost. That was the night I was found.

(To be continued...)

Saturday, June 16, 2007

Cat's Spiritual Journey, Part I: Getting (And Losing) That Old Time Religion

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

From time to time, someone does ask about my spiritual journey. Mainly, it's Quakers, asking about what Paganism is, though sometimes it will be a co-worker, wanting to know more either about how I came to call myself Quaker, or what on earth I mean by Pagan. I should probably mention that, despite my best efforts to be discrete about my religion at work, I was outed as Wiccan within six months of becoming a teacher by kids who know how to use Google. This blog, which at least features current information, that reflects my beliefs and practices in the present, is at least partially a response to that.

In any case, when I'm asked to explain my spiritual life, it's often in a setting where either there's no time for more than a sound-bite answer, or where socially, more than a sentence or two of explanation is inappropriate. Not to mention that sometimes, especially in a Quaker setting, I'm in a frame of mind that doesn't lend itself to a lot of words. Sometimes, it's hard even to know where to begin.

So here's what I remember of the odd and curving path that led to where I stand today. From the beginning, then:

When I was eleven or twelve years old, I used to tell all my friends that I was a Pagan. I lived, you see, in a very Catholic town, and most of my friends were getting ready for their First Communions--white dresses and solemnity. It was always very clear to me that I could not possibly be a Catholic. Was it the post-Vatican Two astringency of the local Catholic churches that made that clear? I don't know. Nor did I know anyone else who felt as I did about religion and about the world. But I felt very strongly that I most certainly was a something, even if I didn't have any way of explaining what to the other kids around me.

I didn't really get the whole churches and Sunday School thing, but I had once been sent to an Episcopalian summer camp. The Episcopalian part was pretty much invisible, except on those handful of Sundays when we all trooped out to the outdoor chapel. It had a fieldstone altar, and weatherbeaten wooden benches, and it sat in a grassy clearing in the woods. Most of the other kids seemed happy to be racketing from activity to activity all day long, but I really longed for quiet thinking time. Probably I was the only kid there who loved our enforced daily "siesta" in the afternoon--the only time I got to curl up with a book, and soak up the warm wood smell of the cabin while quietly paging through The Chronicles of Narnia.

I loved chapel.

I loved the place, I mean. Father C., the fellow who ran the camp, and must surely have conducted the services, seemed to me to be distant, gruff, and unimaginative--though it may be simply that he didn't catch my childish imagination. I remember nothing whatsoever of the services there, except for the place itself, and the slightly embarassing detail that, having no idea what was going on around me, I did get in line for communion along with everyone else. Probably chewed the host like a graham cracker, too--I would not have had the foggiest idea what the ritual symbolized. (I was, at that age, what people of my grandmother's generation would have termed "a perfect pagan"--small p--meaning my parents had given us no religious education at all beyond Christmas trees and hot cross buns.)

Anyway, between the camp chapel, The Chronicles of Narnia, and the woods I grew up in, I came to recognize that the focus of my inchoate spiritual longings was outdoors, in quiet places full of trees. How I figured out that the word for that was "Pagan" I do not know. I do know that I spent many Saturday mornings cross-legged on the floor of the public library, wolfing down chapters of James Frazer's The Golden Bough. Yes, at twelve. I'm not claiming to have understood much of what he had to say, and certainly I had no idea that his real aim was not to honor Pagan religion, but to debunk Christianity. But he wrote about magic, and he wrote about mythology, and he wrote about religious life that involved the outdoors, the woods and trees and nature spirits.

It wasn't enough--not nearly enough--for a solitary girl to be able to create an entire religion for herself, alone. But I tried. And I called what I was trying "Paganism."

I think I finally gave the label up when one too many people told me that I couldn't be Pagan as a religion, because "Pagan" meant "against religion" (or against Christianity, which, in the view of my childhood peers, was the same thing). I never stopped longing, but I did stop naming the longing. And when I was in high school, that whole part of my being went dormant. There was only one religion--or at least, only one that anyone in my country could really ever learn or enter--and that was Christianity. And while reading books like The Screwtape Letters did give me a superstitious, looking over-my-shoulder nervousness about heaven and hell, Christianity as I knew of it did absolutely nothing to evoke that awe and delight I felt, for instance, at Woodland Dell Cemetary (home to the biggest and most stately trees I knew, and to a velvet silence that drew me day after day once I found my way in one summer afternoon).

Christianity, to me, was church basements and linoleum tile, friends who gave up candy bars "for Lent" and my copy of a children's Bible that taught me all of the stories, but absolutely none of the "why" about that particular religious tradition. It seemed (still seems, with apologies to those who find it otherwise) such a thin gruel.

So Paganism was a closed door, because I was the only one, and I couldn't quite figure out how to "be" Pagan all alone, and Christianity was a door I had no interest in whatsoever.

And then along came secular humanism, in my late teens and early twenties, in the persons of my high school sweetheart (eventually first husband) and his family of science geniuses.

Well, OK. Maybe not geniuses. But these guys--my boyfriend, his brothers, and his dad--so loved the world of science and research and intellect that it was a revelation to me. Dinner conversations frequently centered on astronomy, or geology, organic chemistry, or (my favorites, because I could understand them best) biology. And it was like discovering a new planet and a new muscle, all at the same time. I'd never spent much time with people who found such joy in simply thinking, and I really liked it. I liked it even better when, at college, I took some science courses of my own, and discovered that my mind was stronger in those areas than I'd previously thought. Indeed, the farther I went in college, the more science courses I took winding up, my senior year, taking more courses in bio than in my major, English. When a friend, another English major, decided in the second semester of our senior year to join a graduate program that took humanities majors, like us, and turned us into premeds, I was almost tempted myself.

I had learned to love science, and in a way that almost--almost--filled my spiritual hungers. It probably helped that my new father-in-law was not only one of the kindest men I have ever known, he was one of the most spirit-filled. A Unitarian who attended the local UCC/Methodist church to please his wife, he was the first human being I ever knew who had that quality of almost visible Light shining from his eyes... For him, the Light spoke through geological strata, through trillobites and the puzzles of chemical research into the Mystery of life. So it was a scientist who never, in my hearing, spoke a word about God or an afterlife who first showed me what it was possible for a human soul to become. I will always be grateful to him for that.

I didn't become a scientist, however. It was law school I entered after college (newly married to my science-loving high-school sweetheart, who, in turn was studying electrical engineering and quantum physics).

I entered with a fierce joy in the human intellect. My new husband and I, newlyweds on a grad-student budget, had a host of inexpensive traditions in those days. I think my favorite was our Sunday evening pancake supper, as we watched Carl Sagan's Cosmos on PBS. Together, we read publications like The Skeptical Enquirer, bought texts in disciplines neither of us had studied to read for enjoyment, and took long, long walks in the dusk of our university town, talking and talking and talking. It was a wonderful life, even though neither a legal career nor that marriage were going to be permanent parts of my life.

It was during that time that I first was exposed, in person, to Wiccans.

If I had had the opportunities, when I was younger and actively seeking a way to be Pagan, that modern Pagan kids have, I don't know how things would have gone. I did run into some of the very early, 1960's Witchcraft literature when I was still a kid. I think I must have read Sybil Leek's Diary of a Witch when it first came out. It was interesting, I guess, but not very Pagan--not very religious, and mainly, I could see even at the time, about a woman who really wanted to be famous for something. It definately didn't seem like anything I could adopt myself, even without all the claims about ancient family traditions. Certainly, it didn't seem to have anything to do with my own small life in my own small town.

But today? With access to decent, reliable, and even spirit-filled Pagan writing online? I know I would have been conducting rituals in a cross-quartered circle in my back yard. (As it was, I did what I could, from dancing in the moonlight to private, self-created little rituals in my bedroom, all through my early adolescence.) I'm sure I'd have participated in forums open to teen seekers, learned to meditate a decade or two sooner than I did, learned to dowse, and so forth. Though I don't think that the deepest, realest changes that Paganism made in me would have come any sooner than they did. Some things just can't happen before a certain amount of lived experience readies you for them.

Would I have thought the first Wiccans I met were as silly as I thought them back then? Well, yes. More than likely. In grad school, the Wiccans I had some exposure to--this was the early 80's, so Wicca was just starting to catch on in a big way--were Dianics: feminist Wicca. Lots of history of the ancient matriarchy, sisterhood-is-beautiful stuff. Though I hadn't yet read much ancient history, even back then it seemed pretty clear to me that most of the claims they were making were ahistorical as all get-out. Honestly, I took them for flakes, and dismissed them at first glance.

Which is pretty funny, actually, given that it was a "sisterhood-is beautiful" insight that eventually led me back to Wicca, and to Paganism, to stay.

(To Be Continued)

Friday, June 08, 2007

Peter's Book Pile



I spent most of the day catching up on reading blogs and then journalling. Nothing I feel ready to share, yet, at least with anybody but Cat.

In the mean time, here's my own book pile. I've cheated a little bit and included some books that I've just finished and one that I'm about to start, but it's all within a two-week window.

I had brain surgery, what's your excuse? is an autobiographical account of humorist Suzy Becker's recovery from a brain tumor. It's laugh-out-loud funny and heartbreaking at the same time, and I'm wolfing it down in huge mouthfulls.

Xenocide satisfies the craving I often get for hard science fiction. Well, can any story that features faster-than-light travel and telepathic communication with a sencient computer really be called "hard" SF? It was good, though. A fun read, but also pretty thought provoking.

All of Anna Quindlen's books, regardless of plot, are really about people in mid-life thinking about their relationships as they deal with shit raining down from Heaven. I listen to her in the car a lot. Audiobooks are great for my hour-each-way commute to work.

Stephen Hawking is another audiobook favorite, A Briefer History of Time was a bit too brief for me. I can't actually do the math for quantum mechanics, but if you do it in front of me I can sit back and watch the pretty lights, and even understand a little of it.

Entanglement: The Greatest Mystery in Physics was given to me by my father, who teaches physics. It's been sitting idle, half-finished, for a while but now that I'm done with Hawking I can pick it up again. It's just right for me--as meaty as you can get without requiring me to solve my own wave functions.

This week's audiobook is a BBC radio series about Dante: Poet of the Impossible. I read (and loved) the Inferno when I was in high school. It wasn't a school assignment--I picked it up after reading a science fiction novel by the same name by Larry Niven, which I also recommend.

Hermann Hesse was a German pacifist in World War I. I loved his novels when I was in my 20's, but this is the first time I've read any of his essays.

Lloyd Lee Wilson is the next Quaker book on my list, as soon as my wife is done with it. I haven't done nearly as much Quaker reading as Cat has, and I'm beginning to feel my lack of familiarity with Quaker history and thought as a significant deficiency. Quaker Vision of Gospel Order was Cat's recommendation for a good place to start.

And then there's Batman. Gotta have Batman.

And when I'm not reading, I'm writing at least a little, at least in my journal, and some of that will eventually find its way onto this blog. Marshall, I haven't left our conversation; I've only paused to think.

Saturday, June 02, 2007

The Bubbling Book Pile


This is in response to a challenge from another blogger, Pagan scholar Chas Clifton, author of the influential and entertaining blog, Letter From Hardscrabble Creek.

I think a lot of us have a "book pile"--that jumble of nightstand books that we are actively reading on a daily basis, dipping into every few days, reading for recreation/reading for work, or anticipating reading and have just peeked under the cover for the first chapter or two... At any rate, I do. Maybe it's just a reflection of my jumbled mind.

Maybe it's a reflection of my jumbled mind that, though this picture was only taken a day or two ago, the contents have already changed! The fluid nature of my book pile makes it hard for any one snapshot to stay accurate for more than a few days--kind of like pictures of really little children that way.

In my stack, you can see R.A. Salvatore's Dark Elf Trilogy, which I'm reading partly in response to a student reader in my 9th grade English class who loves the series, and partly because I'm enjoying it too. J.R.R. Tolkien's Children of Hurin is in the stack in the picture, though I have since set it aside to wait for summer's more relaxed pace--it's in the style of The Silmarillion, one I don't especially enjoy. I'm only about 20 pages into it, and I keep getting bogged down, so I have set it aside for now.

Not in the stack, but definately on my daily reading pile is Judith Moffett's Penterra, a sort of Quaker-utopian science fiction novel (with some heavy pagan overtones so far) which I'm enjoying in a very different way than the swords-and-sorcery Salvatore novel.

The Quaker classic, Barclay's Apology, in Dean Freiday's "translation" is there because I had to see what all the fuss was about... though I wish the copy our meeting has that is in the original 17th Century English were in circulation, because I don't find that language off-putting at all. (I'm too cheap to buy a copy, though.) I've only just dipped into that.

Lloyd Lee Wilson's Essays on the Quaker Vision of Gospel Order is in my stack because, when I'm not finding his Christian language extremely challenging, a lot of his material on the experience of Quaker worship speaks to me strongly. I'll finish with Wilson soon, but it has taken me a long time to read, not so much because I set it down frequently, as because I read it differently than I do most books. In a way, it's a bit like reading poetry; it's not enough to read and understand the surface meanings of the words. I often have to sit with them, and observe their effect somewhere around my solar plexus before moving on from one paragraph to the next.

Quakers in Conflict is in the stack because it's so hard to find good histories of the Hicksite/Gurneyite schism--in part, I think, because even a century later, Quakers are still unwilling to reopen the old wounds. Anyway, Peter and I have both been banging our heads against this one, off and on, all this year. (Unlike Thomas Hamm's The Quakers in America, which we picked up around the same time, Quakers in Coflict is very slow going... some chapters seem like little more than lists of Quakers who were prominent in the disagreements. What, really, they were disagreeing about is much harder to find out.)

Also in a religious-studies vein, I recently picked up again John Michael Greer's A World Full of Gods:An Inquiry Into Polytheism, partly in hopes that it would help me find some words for how I am beginning to conceive of "god-stuff." I'm finding it pretty heady, though--more likely, perhaps, to appeal to my more philosophically-inclined husband than to me--and that he has a relatively un-nuanced notion of both monotheism and polytheism that I'm not finding helpful... he also persists in seeing them as utterly exclusive categories, and since, as a "soft polytheist"--maybe--I'm not finding that very helpful in fleshing out my own perceptions. I may set it aside... or I may dive in again. Not sure yet.

Finally, at the bottom of the book stack are two RPG game manuals, for the Forgotten Realms campaign setting, and for Champions of Valor (I have a weakness for playing paladins and paladin-like characters). It has sometimes occurred to me to wonder if it's possible, really, to mix pop-culture activities like RPGs and Buffy the Vampire Slayer videos with Quaker simplicity--or if it's possible to fully participate in Pagan culture without them. In any case, there's hardly a gamer in existence who doesn't have some kind of a manual sitting on the nightstand most of the time. Since some of my deepest and most meaningful friendships have been nourished over a set of twenty-sided dice, I can't say I feel too much shame to show them to you here.

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