Tuesday, December 30, 2008

An Important Article on Same-Sex Relationships and Religion

I don't normally make blog posts that are merely links to other people's articles. But , in reading Jason Pitzl-Waters' end-of-year roundup on the most important Pagan news stories of the year, I followed a link to The Revealer's nominations for the best overall religious news stories of 2008. Among them was an incredibly lucid, well-reasoned article on the struggle within the Anglican Communion. Garret Keizer's article, "Turning Away from Jesus: Gay Rights and the War for the Episcopal Church" is one that many Quakers will not yet have read. And though not everything on the plate of the Episcopal Church is relevant to Quakers as we struggle with our own understandings around same-sex relationships in the context of the FUM personnel policy, a good deal is.

I suspect that we Friends are going to be a lot closer to hearing what Spirit intends for us on this matter when we are able to set aside our certainties and convictions that we and we alone truly understand what is right, and learn to hear the many voices and experiences that are part of this discussion.

I'm not saying that homophobia is acceptable, and I'm not saying that acceptance of same-sex marriages is not ultimately going to be what is required of us all. I'm pretty clear on those things, actually.

But it's what I'm not clear on that ought to be my concern, especially when I speak with Friends whose understandings are radically different from my own. What are we each hearing that the other is not saying? What are we not hearing that the other is?

I want us to keep listening to one another, to keep sitting down at the table together, and to trust God to lead, and the people to follow. (I do not want us to simplify our lives by walking away from one another. I think that would be a tragic mistake.)

I do want us to be open to what we don't already know. I think this article does a nice job of cultivating that, at least within me. I recommend it.

Saturday, December 20, 2008

Snow Falls

Snow falls.

Wraps the silence
packing it well

accidental breakage.


Friday, December 19, 2008

Yule and the Loss of Youth

I saw a young man walking by the side of the road yesterday.

He had a fey quality to him, and I felt I instantly recognized something in him that I'd seen before: a kind of tentative joy and relief, the sort that's felt by the misfit adolescent who finds himself suddenly furloughed from the old routine of being shoved into lockers by thuggish peers or of hiding the humiliation of being the smartest boy in school who doesn't know what to do with something as ungainly as loneliness and desire.

He reminded me of many nameless young Pagans, young men especially, that I have known. And, seeing him bounding lightly over the snowy sidewalk across the street from me, I couldn't help but grin in delight just to see him there.

Just as I grinned, the young man glanced up and saw me; he grinned back, began to wave a cheery greeting, and then, a heartbeat later, with a hitch in his step, brought his hand back down.

It could not have been clearer if he'd shouted it, his unspoken thought: "Do I know you?"

No, no, you don't know me. Even if my hasty impression of you is right, and you are a Pagan, you wouldn't know me today. My days of active community work and leadership seem to be behind me now.

It was a smaller Pagan community in which I came into my spiritual adulthood, one in which we still imagined we could all know one another's names and hearts. I was in my prime when I married Peter and moved to Massachusetts, and it was at that Yule almost twenty years ago where I first felt that sense of being a young family, standing at the bright, warm heart of things, at the first local ritual we went to with my daughter. I wonder if she remembers it at all? Casual pick-up drumming in the kitchen, endless platters of potluck food, sleepy children in laps and overstimulated ones racing through rooms thronged with people.

Then the call to ritual. An enactment of the season: As we stood round, in the center of a room now darkened except for candles, one child walked into the circle holding a box. Solemnly, dead, dry autumn leaves were placed inside the box, and that child's father, with antlers on his head and a copper sun between the tines, bowed to touch the box once...twice...three times with his antlers.

The box was opened, and lo and behold, the dry dead leaves had become green and living. Yule was come, life was returning, and we all joined in the songs.

On the way home, my daughter fell asleep in the back of the station wagon, and Peter and I were still wrapped in the soft glow of candles.

We were young, but grown. We were parents, but parents of a young child. Everything was ahead of us then. Traditions were still fluid and in formation, and understanding seemed to sprout and grow like the greenery in the magic Yule box. Our job and our pride was to share them, to gather the scattered children of the goddess for ritual and study and potlucks and community. Our passion was participating in and shaping and invoking the mystery of Pagan community. And it was good, and warm, and it did seem as if it would last forever.

Time passed. We became the leaders of a coven, hectic and always planning. Our child stopped being the girl with a rag doll who sucked her thumb, and became a teenager, familiar with music we'd never heard, organizer of sleepovers and parties and a gang of friends who seemed immortal.

It deepened us in community to watch her reshape our traditions to fit herself. By the time she entered college and her friends scattered, I was teaching school, exhausted on a Yule eve that often fell on a school night. It was wonderful to watch her take charge of the traditions. "Come to our house," she told all her friends. "We always have cinnamon buns. You can help me make them. You can decorate the tree." And they did, and the house became so full of singing, laughing, cooking, decorating girl-bodies that there was hardly room to turn around. At times, I thought my head would explode from all the chaos and the heat and the noise.

Outside, the winter air was cold.

But I loved it. (There is that. At least I had the wisdom, even then, to know I loved it.)

But this year, my daughter will not join us in decorating our Yule tree. For the first time, her life's course has taken her away from us on that particular night.

We are adrift, Peter and I. We are no longer the young leaders of community, and we are no longer the wise parental figures at the sidelines.

We're just middle-aged, our parenting behind us, both in the Pagan world and in our own family.

It's almost Yule. And I am old, and cold, and a little sad. I recognize the joyful step of youth, but youth does not know me, any more.

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

American Quaker War Tax Resistance: A Book Review

American Quaker War Tax Resistance from the 17th through the 19th Century: A Documentary History. David Gross (ed). 2008. 500 p. The Picket Line, softcover, $24. (ISBN/EAN13:1438260156 / 9781438260150).

One of the wonderful things, for me, as a new convert to Quakers, is having 350 years of history to catch up on.

In American Quaker War Tax Resistance, David Gross has created, not so much a history of Quaker war tax resistance as a source book for those who seek help discerning their leadings in this area. Gross has brought together over a hundred historical documents, from Friends as weighty as John Woolman and Elias Hicks, to prominent critics of Quakers' practices such as Benjamin Franklin, who found Friends guilty of "A Variety of Evasion" to avoid entering into direct conflict between an outward show of support for the peace testimony and the military requirements of the state.

It is one of the strengths of this book that a full range of opinions and responses are represented. There are, as might be expected, moving stories of opposition to war. However, much as we would like to believe that Friends have always acted with integrity and uprightness, a closer examination of period sources shows, unsurprisingly, that Friends in the past have been as human as Friends in the present. This collection does justice to that truth, but in a way that does not keep it from usefulness to a Friend laboring today to discern what Spirit requires of him or her in faithfulness.

The introductory essay is particularly useful, at least to someone like me who is relatively unfamiliar with the details of how Friends, and how the United States, came gradually to understand the related ideas of civil disobedience, conscientious objection, and our peace testimony. It did, however, lead me to believe that a general reader, who is neither currently led toward war tax resistance themselves nor a historian by trade, might be happier with the editor's earlier book, We Won't Pay. Although We Won't Pay also contains a good deal of historical material, its focus on "tax resistance as an act of individual conscience and revenue refusal as a technique of nonviolent resistance," will probably appeal to those who find an anthology of historical materials, however moving, less useful than a modern reflection on them would be.

However, having paged through the source materials of the later book, I find myself deeply respectful of the care and thoroughness Gross brought to the project. This book may not appeal to everyone, but for the conscientious objector, the modern tax resister, or the serious Quaker historian, this anthology is a wonderful resource.

Monday, December 15, 2008

What to Do About Plastic: Watermelon Pickles and String Too Short To Save

There's an old joke about stingy, thrifty Yankees that deserves to make a comeback. If you haven't heard it, it goes like this:

The old man was known for his thrift and saving all his life. When he died, his children went up into his attic to see what he had kept up there. Neatly labeled, there were all sorts of things: boxes and jars of nails and screws, clothing long out of fashion, tools and books and cardboard boxes. Cardboard boxes labeled tin foil. Cardboard boxes labeled string.

And one box labeled, "string too short to save."

My grandmother knew how to make pickles out of watermelon rind, and I bet your grandmother or great grandmother did, too. I remember my mom telling me how, as a kid, they all loved when one particular mom made the tuna sandwiches for the school event. That mom only got six sandwiches out of a small can of tuna... as opposed to all the other moms, who could get ten.

Somewhere along the line, between the string-saving generations and our own, we began to live a disposable lifestyle. And the planet (as well as our purses and our schedules) is paying the price. We've got to stop laughing at thrift and econonomy, and start admiring it again.

We've got to live as though this were the only earth we've got.

I'm absolutely as big a culprit as anyone else in this country. My concern with plastic is a recent one; I used to laugh at my in-laws, who are big savers, the type of people to carefully preserve and reuse gift wrap, and to rinse and reuse plastic bags.

And though, taken on its own, rinsing and reusing bags is not going to avert environmental catastrophe, learning to live in a way that sees even the rind of the watermelon as something too good to waste may. It is no one practice of ours that must change, but our way of living and seeing.

To start with, let's recognize some basic principles:

Everything is connected.

This is just basic environmentalism, after all. Most of us understand that the DDT we spray against mosquitoes today wipes out songbirds and eagles tomorrow, and us the day after that. But we need to understand that environmental problems and solutions are connected, too: it is not enough to adopt one cause, whether its global warming or plastics in the oceans, to the exclusion of others.

This makes things complicated, of course.

I began seriously rethinking my environmental practices after I got a wake-up call from my gall bladder that I needed to rethink my dietary ones. After I began to experience frequent physical pain from my typical high-fat, low-fiber American diet, I found myself forced to make some changes. They were easier than I thought, and, though I'm not as draconian in my avoidance of fat as I once was, I'm still careful with it, and I'm still benefitting from those changes.

One of the changes I made was to make sure that any foods I take in that are high in fat are also high in fiber, something that can help my body rid itself of the cholesterol that it produces in response to the fat. This seems to have been helpful. And it has been part of a strategy for making changes in what I eat: no more potato chips (mmm... potato chips!), but popcorn instead. No cookies--but high-fiber granola bars.

This has been great for my body--and in some ways, good for the earth. Success in dealing with this lifestyle problem gave me confidence to take on others. I wasn't sure, when I began it, that I would keep up with the more environmentally-friendly practice of hand-washing our dishes, but, to my satisfaction, I've actually begun to enjoy washing the dishes by hand. And, since Peter built us our triple-decker dishrack (in imitation of the glorious one at the Woolman Hill Quaker retreat center that inspired it), it actually takes less time to wash the dishes by hand than it did to rinse the dishes and stack them in the (now unused) dishwasher.

Isn't it a beauty?

Of course, if you look closely, you can see some of what has been wrong with my lifestyle changes. That plastic bin to the right of the dishrack holds little scraps of this and that we generate as we cook. And right on top is a white and gold folded bag for microwave popcorn. You know: those plastic lined, plastic wrapped, individual size bags of popcorn that cook up in a few minutes in the microwave.

When I changed my diet, I increased the number of convenience foods I substituted for other, high-fat processed foods in my diet.

So picture me now, standing in the supermarket, making my purchases. I have brought my reusable bags--no more plastic grocery bags for me, but I have since come to understand that, since the bags are made from polyester (yes, cloth is plastic too) and has a base of plastic, this is not anything like a perfect choice. (Cotton ducking would have been better for the earth, perhaps--though more expensive and, not being associated with reusing what we can, less successful as witness to other shoppers.) I hesitate over a loaf of bread: this one is bagged entirely in plastic, but this one is in paper, though the paper probably has a thin plastic lining to it as well. When I decide to go with the less-plastic packaging for the bread, I find myself in the next aisle over, pulling down a box of Orville Redenbacher from the shelf.

It contains individually plastic enshrouded, plastic-coated, bags of microwave popcorn.

If the contradiction between my struggle over the bread loaves and the selection of the popcorn comes to seem too great, I decide to go back to cooking my popcorn the old-fashioned way: in a pot on my stove, with popcorn sold in bulk. Problem: the bulk bags of popcorn are also plastic. It's a thicker, heavier plastic, and since the only way to assess the environmental impact of one plastic package over another is by weight, since densities vary so much, I hesitate briefly, then opt for the bulk bag anyway, reasoning that the quantity of food relative to the quantity of packaging is at least slightly better in the bulk bags; I select the largest bag I can, to maximize that effect.

All through the store, I make choices like this. Do I opt for the "fresh" broccoli (not local, trucked in under refrigeration which adds to global warming but does not require plastic wrap--I do not use the little produce bags at all any more, but rather store my produce in reused bags when I reach home)? Do I purchase canned vegetables (not wholly innocent either of energy costs for trucking, though they need no refrigeration, nor of plastic, which lines the cans... not to mention, I don't like them very much) or frozen? (High energy costs for transportation, plastic packaging even if I buy in bulk, but on the other hand, very little waste due to spoilage at my home or in the store...)

It's a complex calculus of interconnected environmental values, with no perfect answers, and if I insisted on a "right" answer for every choice, I would never make it out of the supermarket.

So instead, what I attempt to do is hold to overall environmental values, to remember that it is all connected, and to be open to trying new things as I find them. Some things I buy are heavy with plastic packaging; some things are not.

I am consistently inconsistent, as I try to remain open to seeing new places my life is contributing to the degradation of the earth, and try to avoid that.

By sticking to changes that do not make my life oppressive to me, but by seeking out new visions and ideas for change all the time, I encourage myself to go on, not to give way to despair and inaction. I find that for me, gentle change is best, so long as I return, again and again, to the question of whether or not I am living in the Spirit of loving kindness toward the earth.

Rather than give specific tips and tricks for energy conservation and waste avoidance here, that may or may not be helpful to you in your particular situation, let me share with you the broad outlines of a philosophy that is guiding me in making gradual and positive changes in my relationship with the earth.


I find that I am unable to live and work in a way that does not produce plastic waste. So I am trying to bear a different principle in mind: that of stewardship. Remember how they used to say, "A puppy is for a lifetime, not just for Christmas?" Plastic is forever. Try to confine the uses of it to ones where the useful lifetime of the object is significant in comparison to the thousands of years of waste it will eventually become. Care for plastic objects--cease to see them as "disposable"; because resin chairs will last forever as waste, do not be misled into thinking of them as unimportant because cheap to purchase; protect them from sun and weather so that they will last.

Stewardship relates to other things, as well. All our products and goods took a toll on the environment in their production. Care for them, maintain them, and keep them in service as though you could not afford a replacement, because the earth certainly can't.

And make purchases, when you do, with stewardship in mind. To the extent possible, pay more for the product that is durable, rather than buying the short-lived plastic version. My in-laws used to have an all-metal window fan. It was heavy as sin, and dated to the early 1950's. It was still running fine, even after thirty years. That cannot be said of the cheap plastic fans that flood the discount stores every summer.

This leads to the next principle:

Use it up, wear it out, make it do.

As you might guess, I love technology. I have owned exactly two new computers in all the many years I have used them. Ironically, one of the two new computers is past repair. Whereas our reconditioned, used, rebuilt, gutted and refurbished computers that have come into our homes seem to be eternal. They are like the axe that has been in our family for five generations: been through seven different handles and three different heads, that axe.

My point? Repair what you can. Upgrade rather than throw away, even in high-tech, if you can.

And in the low-tech field? I will acknowledge myself a mere piker among Quakers. Go to a Quaker business meeting--any Quaker business meeting--and you will discover women with needlework spread in their laps. They are mending, knitting, sewing. One of my favorite memories is of an older friend explaining how she carefully saves the worn-out jeans her husband wears, removes the lower pants legs, and then, when other pairs of jeans wear through in the knees, she grafts in the preserved lower legs over the holes.

All I do is knit... and I'll admit, I sometimes have yielded to the lure of cheap synthetic yarns, at that. Mending is kinder to the earth than playing with fiber... though, given my ability to knit my own, I will say I have begun to ask myself very seriously

Do you really need that?

I try to cultivate an attitude in myself that says that, if I can make it myself, from organic materials, it is cheating to settle for the machine-produced version. If I can do without it, why should I stuff my closets and drawers and shelves with more things I will one day have to cart to a landfill ( or, at best--albeit a good best--a used book or clothing store)?

It helps that I'm no fashion model. Books are my vice, and it is a thousand times harder for me to pass up a book than a blouse or a coat or a pair of boots. But whatever your priorities are, asking yourself that basic question--is this a need or a want?--is going to be helpful.

The recession is our friend.

Please don't hate me for saying this. I am well aware of the human suffering this recession is causing--near as well as far, as I watch friends struggle to cope with unemployment or the potential for it. And I know that it is much, much worse in communities here and abroad that have historically been poor, the last to benefit from good economic times and the first to suffer from bad ones.

But we have been living, producing, and consuming as if there was no limit, and that's patently untrue. I've been struggling for years to reduce my "earths required to sustain it" lifestyle from the American average of 15 to at least the European average of 5. (I'm at an 11 now, thanks for asking.) But necessity changes us faster than reason. Just as I did not make lasting change in my diet until compelled to by pain, so humans seem unable to make lasting changes in our relationship with the earth until we must.

And just as, though gas prices have fallen from their historic highs, the demand for gas guzzlers has not risen in response, perhaps we can take advantage of this moment of falling production and demand to rein in... our excessive production and demand.

For years, economists have bemoaned the fact that the United States is in transition from a production-based economy to a service-based one. But, in truth, which economy can the earth afford? We don't need more HDTVs, SUVs and I-pods. We do need health care for everyone, art, music, education, and community. We need to make the transition from an economy based on stuff to an economy based on people. And getting weaned off the stuff is probably easier while we're all worried about money.

Will it prolong the recession? Probably. And I'm honestly sorry that it is going to hurt so many individuals. But so will the economic disasters that global warming and desertification of habitats are going to cause. This recession can be our early warning: we've got to stop our out of control consumption, or we'll kill our planet.

In recognition of this, let me suggest:

Why not serve instead of consume?

This year, my family has opted for token-gifts and charitable donations only. No scrambling through the crazy shopping malls, looking for some gee-whiz bargain to make an already jaded consumer's eyes widen. This year, the gifts are few, small, handmade, used, or even flat-out regifted. Why not? If I give you my favorite Yule tree ornament, are you really going to be so mean as to complain because I have loved it for years before giving it to you?

The money we save is going to charitable donations. I'm hoping our big Christmas day activity, while turkey is roasing, will be choosing which organizations we as a family want to give money to. I think the shared generosity is going to feel a whole lot nicer than opening up a box with yet another sweater or CD in it... don't you?

Of course, it helps that we have chosen to:

Kill the television.

We do own one. It's a third-hand model from sometime in the 1980's. Probably consumes a lot of energy--except it's rarely turned on. And when it is, it's playing DVDs. We do watch television--but not current television, unless its with friends who have chosen to share the television with us. And we do buy DVDs of television shows we love--but mostly used, and then we share them with other friends.

And we don't watch ads.

Television shows and ads promote a vision of America that is blind to pollution, hunger, and even how Americans really live. Look around! Does anyone really look the way everyone looks on televsion: slim, eternally young, perfectly lit, in glamourous architectural fantasies of houses that never need cleaning (or mortgage payments real people can't afford)?

Ads are brainwashing. But your brain actually becomes cleaner and clearer without them. Kill the television. You won't regret it. Or save its use for among friends, in community, because being surrounded by real people you love is a wonderful antidote for the brain-poisoning consumerism television promotes.

Speaking of which, don't forget to:

Cherish community.

The saddest thing about American life is the way we tend to retreat to our individual houses, close the doors, and commune with the big electronic eye (whether as television, video game, or computer screen). We are atomized as a culture, and we are atomized as families. Half of all American families have the television on during dinner; 40% of teens do not eat dinner with their families at least five times a week. But the truly ironic thing about this is that the electronic media we retreat to present us with an imitation of the friends and family we are missing! Even video games, such as World of Warcraft, are popular in large part because of the interaction of player characters with other player characters (or NPCs--"non-player characters"--the ultimate surrogate friends). What we are hungry for, it seems to me, are the very relationships that are being repackaged and sold back to us in the form of movies, computer games, and television shows.

Are computers and media always destructive to community? I would say no--the vast majority of the friends I've had for more than a decade are friends I knew first either through the Internet (or its precursor, the Echo Net) or through their writing. The difference is in taking the time to meet, to correspond, and to invest in one another. If we treat one another as disposable resources, to be discarded as we flip a dial from one channel to another, or flit from one Internet forum to another, then we are not cherishing one another, and we will never truly be friends.

Conversely, if we behave as though each human being we interact with electronically is as human and feeling as are we, we may find ourselves rich in community.

Those of us rich in community rarely need stuff to make us feel whole. It's a start.

Work less.

I'm horrible at this one. My job eats my life, from September to July. And there's something wrong with that: being a school teacher should not be a sixty-hour-a-week commitment. Over time, most of us in the United States especially have added more and more hours of "productivity" to our working lives--and seen our time with community, with family, and with Spirit dwindle as a result. Not only does the excessive work schedule I have committed to make me much more open to reliance on more polluting convenience items, but I have noticed in myself a tendency to want to substitute shopping--something that can be quick, spontaneous, and on my erratic schedule--for time with friends, and material possessions for the missing walks in the woods, time spent with community, and even quiet rest and thought.

I doubt I'm alone in that.

It is no coincidence that old-time Quakers like John Woolman so simplified their work lives as to have time for their communities. It is no coincidence that the lion's share of Quaker and Pagan bloggers and thinkers I love and admire today have, by choice or by necessity, downshifted work lives, working sometimes in part time or in low-paying retail or temp jobs by day, but reserving enough of themselves as humans to think, play, connect with Spirit and with others.

Our culture sometimes looks down on those who are not in high-powered professional careers. As a society, we admire the work-addicted stock broker more than the part-time carpenter.

Have I mentioned that our society is broken? Our society is broken. When you find your way open to downshift, or if you find yourself urged inwardly to do so, do not insult yourself as lazy, but realize that Spirit may have more important uses for your time than buying and selling. Let it go.

Bear witness.

There is not a one of us capable of solving this environmental crisis. But each of us, if we are open to them, will find ourselves receiving inspiration from others. Just as Peter saw, at Woolman Hill, a model of a different way to approach dishes, and we were moved to adopt it, how many of my readers will be moved today to try to find something new, something more to move toward environmental sustainability? When I bring out my (alas, polyester, plastic-bottomed, and thus, flawed) reusable shopping bags at the supermarket, often there will be an opening to discuss them as some shopper in line with me remarks that they'd like to use those, too ( but they "always forget them." "Oh!" I say. "I used to do that, till I started keeping them folded in my purse. Now I use them all sorts of places, not just the grocery store!").

We share with one another. We encourage one another. We suggest and advise and laugh with one another about the inherent inconsistencies and complexities about what we are trying to do. Most of all, we support one another in seeing another set of values for our culture than consumption and competition. Together, in our witness, we invoke a changed vision that can lead to a changed world.

I will admit to being more open to one-on-one witness. One of the areas of my life I need to work much more assertively to change (along with unplugging things not in use to prevent "phantom load" contributions to global warming, buying in bulk from the co-op in order to avoid plastic packaging, and so on) is my relative unwillingness to pick up a pen and write a letter to suggest ways to reduce waste.

Every time I open a package and find a product wrapped entirely in biodegradable materials, some one has been there ahead of me, witnessing. I need to be more proactive, and write more letters to corporations, local restaurants, manufacturers, and so on. If I am regarded by my culture primarily as a consumer, I need to point out my needs and desires as a consumer to those who see me that way.

But I need to do all this remembering:

Love is the first motion.

No one takes in much that is shouted at them. If I cannot speak in kindness and respect to the restaurant that brings me an unwanted plastic straw or container, the earth probably doesn't need my help. If I do not see those I witness to as fully human, fully deserving of love and respect, and if I do not keep Spirit at the heart of all my witnessing, not only will I most probably alienate those I wish to reach, but I will also shut myself off from the movements of Spirit within me, witnessing to me in a way stronger than any human voice, testifying to what I must do next.

As Carl Magruder of Confessions of an EarthQuaker wrote,
Jesus warned the Jews continually against a legalistic piety, on the one hand. On the other, he said things like, "Forsake thy mother and father and go with me," which I think is less about family relations than it is to say, "Even that to which you are most attached, and that it seems appropriate for you to be attached to is secondary to your living a faithful life." How, then, can I not Forsake my Isuzu and follow?
It is only in love--love of one another, love of the Spirit or spirits that guide us, love for the planet that nurtures us--that we will find our way forward.

We will find our way forward, friends. (We must.)

Excuse me, please. I've gotta go turn off a few more lights, and unplug a few more appliances that aren't in use right now.

Sunday, December 14, 2008

What's Wrong With Recycling? The Trouble With Plastic

I am increasingly troubled by the ubiquitous presence of something I used to take for granted: plastic.

I'm typing these words on a plastic keyboard, and watching them appear on a computer monitor that is largely made of plastic. At my left are a series of plastic notebooks I use to hold information on my work for my monthly meeting, and on my right a stack of DVDs I bought to show my classes in school. Plastic, plastic everywhere...

So, what's the problem? Plastic can be recycled, right?

Well, sometimes yes, and sometimes no... and actually, even when the answer is apparently yes, it's really no.

Here's what I mean: most of us who care two pins for the planet are by now familiar with the recycling symbol, with a number in the middle of an ouroboros of arrows. Setting aside for the moment the problem of plastic without the little symbol (not recyclable by any definition) and whatever plastics are not recyclable in your area, the chief difficulty is this: that little ouroboros is a symbol of eternity, of the snake that can eat its tail forever. And that implied promise is kept on materials like aluminum, steel, and glass, that essentially can be recycled forever. It is not the case for paper, but whatever paper is unrecoverable after repeated recyclings can, at least, be digested by microorganisms and return to feed the soil from which it came.

Plastic is never recyclable in this way. At best, plastic downcycles--it is reduced to a less and less useful form, until it reaches, in the end, an unrecoverable, unrecyclable end point... which is, unlike the grey cardboard box or the brown paper bag, as indigestible to the microorganisms that maintain our ecology as is plutonium.

And it may, ultimately, be as toxic.

This is not good news.

So what happens to the plastic that is not recycled, or which reaches the nadir of its recoverability, whether as a discarded bit of polar-fleece or as a bit of composite deck lumber? It does reenter the ecosystem, sometimes as windblown bits of plastic bag that whisk along the roadways until they are caught in a high tree; are tattered by the wind and sun until they are stripped from the tree; are ultimately caught up in streams or stormdrains or rivers, and are swept into the oceans, where they can wind up in places like this:
Photo by Chris Jordan

Or like this:

Photo: NOAA


Sorry to depress everybody with dead animal pictures. Somehow, it's hard for us to take things like the environment seriously unless we have something with eyes and a brain to empathize with, isn't it?

I've been unable to confirm the claims I've found online that "nearly every seabird on the planet has plastic waste" in its gullet--but it is clear that dead birds, fish, and sea turtles all too often prove to have ingested plastic waste. Kilograms of it, in the case of large animals. Enough to cause death through starvation, intestinal blockage or puncture, and so on, in all too many cases.

But here's the really bad news. That bit about the sea turtles and the birds? That's the good news, environmentally speaking. Because, yeah, we are seeing species dying off at a rate unprecedented in human history and maybe even in geological history, but, at least in theory, species that become extinct can be supplanted by new species that evolve. And there is certainly one hell of a selection pressure in operation here, to select for turtles, birds, whales, and dolphins that know the difference between a floating bit of plastic and their next meal. So, while we may lose some beloved aquatic species, there may, someday, be more to replace them.

If we haven't poisoned that entire ecosystem, of course.

Which is where the bad news really kicks in, because the dead sea turtles are the least of our problems with plastic. Plastic, you see, is really terrifying stuff: as far as we know, it will take geologic time to break down chemically: 500,000 to a million years. But it breaks down physically, into smaller and smaller bits, in a relatively short time--subject it to sun, water, weather, and it becomes tiny little particles.

This is not good news, even if it sounds like it is. To quote from one discussion of the often repeated (but little-supported) claim that plastic bags will degrade in "only" 500 years or so:
While polymers do indeed photodegrade, that doesn't remove it from the environment. The big pieces simply become smaller. This is mostly a minor irritant on land (where microscopic polymers will just become another inorganic component of soil), but poses serious risks to marine life, who can't distinguish indigestible polymer particles from food.
Thus marine organisms starve to death with guts full of styrofoam and PVC. This is bad enough when the creatures eating themselves to death are cuddly critters like sea turtles or pelicans, but as polymers degrade into microscopic bits the effect moves down the food chain, such that these particles are now replacing plankton. You can knock off the top of the food pyramid (turtles and pelicans) with little effect, but let's think really hard about what happens when you kick out the base.
All of which leaves aside the aesthetic issue of areas of ocean the size of continents that consist almost entirely of rafts of plastic garbage.
Those, by the way, look like this:

But it's not how they look that's the truly horrifying thing. It's how they act:
A study by the Japanese geochemist Hideshige Takada and his colleagues at Tokyo University in 2001 found that plastic polymers act like a sponge for resilient poisons such as DDT and polychlorinated biphenyls. Takada's team found non-water-soluble toxic chemicals can be found in plastic in levels as high as a million times their concentration in water.

In other words, we are starving out, poisoning, and crowding out the base of the ocean's food chain. Plastics are appearing in portions of our oceans at high enough densities to "smother marine life," and take the place of the plankton that feed all the other life forms of the sea--and which, taken as a whole, produce half our planet's oxygen.

Worried yet?

I am... an that's without taking into account the fact that, while too stable to break down naturally or fully by any biological process, plastics are also too unstable not to leach out vast quantities of toxic components used to stabilize, tint, or change various properties of plastics for short term use. So readily do plastics release poisons into the environment, in fact, that we are coming to understand that even in the short lifespan of a disposable plastic water bottle, it may well be leaching carcinogenic compounds into the liquids we consume. In fact, ironically enough, plastics break down so easily that museum curators, wanting to preserve some of the many pop-culture artifacts made from plastic in this century, find it exceedingly challenging to do so.
The problem...is that many of these components aren't chemically bound to the polymer chains. Thus, over time and under certain conditions, the additives can ooze out of the plastic. Studies suggest that many of these substances--including pthalates, flame retardants, and bisphenol A--leach from consumer products and cause significant health problems for humans.

Loss of these additives doesn't help the plastic, either.

I guess that's a concern when you're trying to preserve a forty-year-old Barbie doll. But, overall, I'd have to say its far more of a concern when you're considering thousands upon thousands of tons of this material, in the soil and in the oceans, creating biological deserts possibly for millenia to come.

Oh, yes--and did I mention that highly toxic processes involved in their production, as well?

We can't be having with this, people...

So what's to be done? Well. Let's talk. More tomorrow.

For more information, please see:
A Comparison of Plastic and Plankton in the North Pacific Plastic Gyre.
Marine Birds and Plastic Pollution.
Plastic Ocean.
Polymers are Forever.

Friday, December 05, 2008

The Dark

I have been very aware of the growing darkness these last few weeks.

It's not surprising. I rise (too early!) and am out the door and off to work just about the time the sky is starting to gray up from the full blackness of night. As I drive over the wooded hills between my home and my job, the sky gradually warms. I watch as the east turns dying-embers red between the naked limbs of oaks and swamp maples. By the time I pull into my school's parking lot, the buses are clearly yellow, and the soft smudges of shadow are just beginning to be visible. By the time I lay out the supplies for the day in my classroom, a yellow glare is starting to beat through my windows.

But when I leave again at the end of the day, once again the land is fading back to charcoal and ash. By the time I reach my own house, the light in the windows is an appealing yellow, and the sky overhead is soft and dark.

It's dark, my friends. Yule is almost here, and the wheel is still turning.

As a Quaker, I have learned to love the Light. Well, truth to tell, even in my earliest Pagan days, I loved it, too. There are so many meditations and magickal exercises that focus on moonlight, or on starry nights of this or that planetary conjunction. I did my time with these. But best of all, I found, was sitting in the full, red light of morning, and opening myself, my spirit, to that as well.

I was never a night-time only Witch.

As for the moon, I think modern Witches hardly understand why she is so lovely and so special. We relate, we moderns (whether Pagan or cowan) to the moon mainly as art or as icon. Lots of Pagans can call to mind the face of a somewhat gooey Lady of the moon from some Pre-Raphaelite, Goth, or Pagan artist. But how many of us could convincingly draw Her face, as it truly appears in the heavens?

And how many of us understand why She matters so much? How many of us understand, viscerally, that for millions of years, if you were outside at night, it was because She was there, overhead, to show you the way?

We worship (though we do not know it) the deities of electric light and power, giving them some of our best hours, our best time. And lighting a token candle or two, chanting and pouring a libation to a moon whose phase we know merely from a calendar can give us no real sense of what the moon meant, to men and women whose experience of Night was of two things only: Moon, and Dark.

Without the moon, the Dark is all there is.

Now, that's not a bad thing. Frightening to us sometimes, because we know Dark (we moderns) no better than we know Moon. We think it must be full of terrors, and we are sure, if ever we enter the natural world, to bring mighty weapons to hold it at bay: flashlights and Coleman lanterns and floodlights.

But, you know, you can walk a trail in the woods in the dark--in the full dark, the real dark, the dark without the moon--if your feet are wise, and if you know your way.

And you can deal with the dark, the growing dark, the Midwinter Dark, as our ancestors did, once upon a time.

How did our ancestors live, back in the days before electricity banished the darkness?

Peter and I started an experiment one year with just that question.

Peter had read somewhere--I don't know where--a study of some group of humans, the sort anthropologists love to write about--who lived communally, in a world without artificial light beyond firelight and the moon. And those who studied them noted how they dealt with the dark time of the year.

They slept. A lot.

Moderns are mainly sleep deprived. We nap, or sleep in for long hours when we vacation, but mainly, we do without. Unimaginable, then that entire groups of people would curl up and go to sleep when the sun's light fails. That, by five or six on a winter's night, whole families are at rest...and will stay so until six thirty or seven the next morning.

Except they don't. Sleep is different, it turns out, when it is not artificially staved off by lamplight, but allowed to run the full length of a winter's night. At times, it was more like a light doze, or a meditative wakefulness. And then, with little to divide it from waking, sleep would return again. People roamed in and out of dreams and waking several times each night. There was a different quality to it, not just a different quantity.

When Peter told me about this article he'd read, I was fascinated. I found it hard to imagine how my life would feel if we had such a deep, such an intimate connection to the Dark.

So, to the best of our ability, we tried it.

We knew we had to work within the confines of our modern lives. We had still to cook our food in a modern kitchen, not over an open fire. We had to wake artificially, to make it to our assigned working hours.

But to the extent that we could, we decided to set aside the time between Yule and Imbolc--February 2nd--for the Dark. We would use no electric light, no computers, no television, no telephone except for emergencies, and no radio for that time. Oh, at work we would use such things, as we had need, and we set aside a room in the house for our daughter (then a very independent eleven year old) to use such modern conveniences when she liked. But to the extent we could, we did without them.

We did not go to bed at sunset. Again, we had a very modern eleven year old in our family, and it was not at all an experiment she was willing to try, to go to bed at seven at night! But we led our evening hours only by candle-light and a little bit of lamplight. I discovered that I was sensitive to lamp oil burned indoors, and could not tolerate much of it--but candles are much dimmer than you think, when you need to rely on them for all your illumination. They'll do to wash the dishes--but not to read a book, unless the print is quite large.

We did read. A lot, and out loud--a nineteenth century habit that we had always enjoyed to some degree, but which became important to us in our quiet and our shadowed house. It was intimate and soothing, and I have fond memories of what I read that winter.

Our Jewish friends Saundra and Mike, tired of being unable to reach us by phone, took to dropping by to spend time with us in the evenings. Saundra called us the "Shabbat house." I was touched.

But we also slept. Whether it was the dimmer lighting, the quiet of a life without email and television, or simply ceasing the struggle against the Dark, we found ourselves aware of our sleepiness. We might not have gone to bed at seven, but we often were asleep by eight or nine.

It was good. The nights were soft, and the Dark was gentle.

And when, by Imbolc, the days were lengthening and the nights were growing shorter once again, we felt the returning light, in a way that's simply untranslatable unless you have also lived a season with the Dark. Each tiny sign of the return of spring--not the opening of the buds, but the swelling of them; not the disappearance of the snow, but the thinning of it, and the way it reflected the fire of the sunset later every evening--became pronounced.

This is the power of the Dark.

As a child of the Light--in the Quaker ways as well as the old, Pagan ways--I will always revel in the full light of day, and in the ways it echoes in me the stirrings of Spirit, of God and of the gods.

But I also love the Dark. Winter dark, earth-dark, void-between-the-stars Dark. The darkness that is not Light's enemy, but its lover, its best beloved, its refuge and its friend.

I am a child of the Light. And I am a child of the Dark. I love and I embrace them both.

Blessings of the season of soft rest and shadow to you all.

Saturday, November 22, 2008

Good Quakers are Retired

This morning, Peter suggested we call a landscaping company to see about raking up our leaves. Now, our yard is pretty small, but the leaves haven't shown any signs of raking themselves up, any more than the yard has tidied itself of fallen branches in the last few weeks, or the fence gate repaired itself. His suggestion is a practical one, and, if we're not rolling in dough, still, we probably could swing it.

But it feels wrong, so very wrong. What about simplicity? What about being close to the earth? Shouldn't I at least want to get out there in the bright light of morning, put in my couple of hours of yardwork, and bask in the glow of homeowner satisfaction?

I said as much to Peter.

"Good Quakers don't hire someone else to rake their lawns!" I said to him. "Good Pagans don't hire someone else to take care of their yards!"

"Good Quakers are retired," he observed. "and good Pagans are students."

Damn. He has a point.

We used to do these things. I remember being out there in that yard, mulching in the compost I'd made into container gardens for tomatoes and green peppers. I remember splitting my own stovewood in Vermont, for that matter, and feeling the better for it.

I remember having time for community, for walks in the woods, for lingering over a journal in a cafe, too. Where did the time for that go? Into teaching. Into fifty-five and sixty hour work weeks with the need to grade papers during the weekends. (If we just had the weekends, I often think.) I know that plenty of people think teachers work from 8:00 to 3:30 and that's it, but I can't help that. For neither Peter nor me is teaching a mere "full-time" job, and those summers off are really just comp time for the extra hours we put in during the school year.

Teaching school is only hard if you're doing it right, perhaps.

One question Peter and I have been asking ourselves a lot recently is whether jobs like ours are incompatible with being a Quaker--or a Pagan. How is it possible to live simply when each night sees us falling into bed exhausted, with scant time for ourselves, let alone community, friendships, committees?

If God had a leading for me today, how quickly could I act on it?

When we heard about my mom's accident, it took us eight hours of flat-out, full-bore preparation and arrangements to get the car out of the driveway and on our way to the hospital.

That was a bit disconcerting. As emergency response time goes, it sucked.

Our lives are anything but simple, anything but free. But surely the work we do is worthwhile. I know I am doing it well. I can feel it making a difference--feel the change it makes in the world, palpably on some days. Not many people can say that.

And yet, and yet... it is so hard to stay rooted in community. It is so hard to have a life in the body. It is so hard to make time for Spirit.

Peter's words are shocking and they're funny and they have a painful grain of truth embedded within them, like the cutting grain of sand at the heart of the pearl:

Good Quakers are retired. Good Pagans are students.

What this is saying about religion, work, and the hard job of discernment is anybody's guess. We're just asking the questions around here.

Sunday, November 16, 2008

Personal: A Request for Prayers and Spells

I hope you will excuse my being off-topic on this one.

Yesterday, my mom was badly hurt when she was struck by a car as she was walking down the road. Happily, the driver stayed with her and called for help; she was thrown by the impact some distance into the woods, and might not have been found if he/she had been less conscientious.

So already, there is something to be grateful for.

Medical stuff: I'll update or correct this as I have web access and better information later--but the bottom line at the moment seems to be: she hurts, she's going to have a long recovery, but she's going to be OK.

My mom has a number of broken bones; the worst is her leg and ankle, but she also has several broken ribs, a broken arm, and some cracked vertebrae that, thankfully, are not expected to result in long-term damage. No head trauma. She's lucid and clear, though on a morphine drip for pain and in the ICU, and she's going in for surgery on the leg this morning--they want to be sure of circulation to the foot.

Peter and I are going to go up to Maine to visit her and spend some time with my dad, so I can't be sure of being able to update this blog immediately on her condition. However, the current picture is pretty good; my mom is a very young and athletic seventy, as is my dad, and we have family in the area that are already looking out for both of them.

But your prayers, candles, spells, and just holding in the Light are welcome.

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Yet Another Meme: Six Bad Books

This post is at least partly Cosette's fault. She named me in a perfectly good meme over at Pandora's Bazaar--the Six Random Things meme. But I'm feeling a bit twisted today, so I'm going to twist it. You ready? The new, twisted rules are these:
  • Link to the person or persons who tagged you.
  • Post the rules on your blog.
  • Name 6 obscure books that you honestly love--but think almost no one else could. (You must really love the books; you must think most people would hate them. No cheating with books you think other people will love, too!)
  • Tag 6 people at the end of your post and link to them.
  • Let each person know they’ve been tagged and leave a comment on their blog.
  • Let the tagger know when your entry is up.
So, here are my Six Bad Books I love. (Really. I think they're awesome. But don't take that as a recommendation...)
  1. Clarissa, by Samuel Richardson. This epistolary novel from the 18th Century is the longest novel in the English language. (And you thought that was Joyce's Ulysses!) It is almost out of print, and the only reason it isn't is that it gets assigned to graduate students. Even in its heyday, those who really enjoyed it spoke of it as "that great, still book." It has almost no plot--it's nothing but agonized soap-opera ruminations on Puritan morality put to the test under the most artificial and contrived conditions possible. I adore it. Trust me--you wouldn't.
  2. Sir Charles Grandison, by Samuel Richardson. Even fans of Clarissa normally dislike this book, which is Richardson's attempt to depict a perfectly moral 18th Century gentleman. This one is out of print--but if you can score me a complete hardcover edition at less than museum collection prices, I will love you forever. The way I love this book. But don't be tempted to keep it for yourself--you won't like it, I promise you.
  3. Frances Hodgson Burnett's adult romance novel, The Shuttle. You know how Burnett's children's books, A Little Princess and The Secret Garden have a timeless appeal? Her adult romances do not. They read like toothless dilutions of Edith Wharton, only without the style. This book is actually a sequel; I like it better than the original. Yes, I really like it. Quite a lot. Sad, but true. I like a bunch of her other adult books, too, but that's really cheating, since they are so much alike. So instead, I'll move on to:
  4. Fanny Burney's Evelina. This one is kind of cheating, because you can find critics, even today, who like this book. And, hell, this one is worth reading, even if you're not me, just for the biography of Frances Burney they'll tuck in the front. On some levels, it's a typical Austen-esque story of trying to get a girl well married... but just a little bit more reality sneaks in around the edges than Austen would have been comfortable with. So, well, if you like Jane Austen, you might like this book. Possibly.
  5. But don't, under any circumstances, try Burney's The Wanderer, which does not work--kind of a failed attempt at a proto-feminist novel. But I love them both... cross my heart.
  6. Harriet Beecher Stowe's Uncle Tom's Cabin, or: Life Among the Lowly. Yes, it's sentimental. Yes, Stowe totally underestimates the toxicity of slavery and racism, and is blissfully unaware of her own stereotyping. Yes, she ladles treacley-sweet dollops of 19th Century piety over the whole. But, you know what? She's funny in some places, and engaging in other places, and, on the whole, I really liked climbing inside her Victorian mindset. (I'm trying to get hold of a copy of her other, edgier, much less popular book, Dred. I bet I'm going to love it even more... and that most normal human beings would like it even less.) No reading a Classics Illustrated or abridged version of this one and claiming to like it. If you haven't chewed on Harriet Beecher Stowe uncut, you haven't really had the full monty. But don't stay for the whole show unless you are truly stout of heart--and don't blame me if you don't love it, too!
So that's my six. And I'm going to inflict this meme on Cosette, because it's her fault; Bright Crow of Wallhydra's Porch, because Surly Librarians surely love them some dreadfully bad books; Brightshadow over at Enchante, because he actually tried to read Clarissa (poor brave soul!) knowing how I love it--not to mention the sheer obscure genius that creates a libretto based on Casablanca for Verdi, a mere 107 years after his death; Kevin, at Quakerthink, because he writes too well not to love a few bad books; Ali over at Meadowsweet and Myrrh, because sensitive and well-read poets clearly have a few bad books they cherish stuffed under the mattress somewhere; and Peter, because, reading this post over my shoulder, he has already begun to compile his list of six.

Wednesday, November 05, 2008

Long Time Coming.

I know it's not over. I know that the hard job of governing the country has not yet begun, let alone the harder job of uniting a country divided by a long and polarizing campaign.

But I know, too, that I am not the only person out there who has been hearing, in Barack Obama's victory speech, echoes of an earlier speech:
We've got some difficult days ahead. But it really doesn't matter with me now, because I've been to the mountaintop.

And I don't mind.

Like anybody, I would like to live a long life. Longevity has its place. But I'm not concerned about that now. I just want to do God's will. And He's allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I've looked over. And I've seen the Promised Land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people, will get to the promised land!

And so I'm happy, tonight. I'm not worried about anything. I'm not fearing any man!

Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord!!
As Obama said, it's been a long time coming. But I am more grateful than words can say that the time has finally come that an ancient promise to Americans has been kept.

So many have died to keep this dream alive.

May we all strive to be worthy of it, to live together in this day, at this time in history, to take hold of one another's hands and heal one another's wounds, and honor together those who have brought us this far.

No, it won't be easy. It never was. It never is. But we mustn't let that, or our cynicism and fear, keep us from moving toward healing and freedom together in love.

Let's try simply to be worthy of our times. Welcome to the Promised Land, brothers and sisters. Now let us go, and live together in it in peace.

Tuesday, November 04, 2008

A Little Bit of History

I don't think I have been as moved by the act of casting a ballot since I turned eighteen.

I began to realize just how different this election felt to me as I left school. In spite of my eagerness to learn about voter turnout and to begin the election night past-time of trying to scry the vote, I turned the news off as soon as it came on and rode home in silence. It just felt wrong to clutter my mind with commentary on the way to do something that, I suddenly grasped, had an importance to me that was more than usual.

I did miss voting one year. I had injured my back--pretty seriously, as it happens--and I was in a lot of pain.

Other than that, I've kept my dates with history, but I do forgive myself for standing the country up at the polls that one time. Life happens.

But, I realized, I was not going to be OK with it if anything kept me away from the polls this year.

Not if I broke down by the side of the road. Not if I were in the hospital. Not if some weird little glitch developed with my registrations somehow. Nothing was going to be acceptable to me if it interfered with my ability to exercise my vote today.

Here's the thing: I live in Massachusetts. It really is pretty well a foregone conclusion how Massachusetts is going to vote. And the likelihood of some last-minute interference with my voting, regulatory or through direct tampering, is also pretty remote. You could make a pretty good case that my vote doesn't matter much, and it would not make any real difference if I didn't show up at the polls today for whatever reason.

But, oh, it would have mattered to me!

I was a little freaked when I got to my normal polling place and found, not the usual sign-holders just beyond the precinct limit, but signs telling me the polling place had been moved. I'm still a little worried--will it have flustered my daughter out of voting? I know that it will not. But mamas stay nervous for a lifetime, I guess. At least for the big things.

This is a big thing.

On the way out of the polls, I felt a huge sigh of relief escape me. An older man, looking on, smiled.

"Now you can rest," he said.

Yes. Oh, praise heaven and history, now I can rest.

Now I am part of history. Now I can tell my grandchildren--it really feels as though I will be able to tell them, one day--

"I voted for the first black President of the United States."

It's been a long time coming. But I think something very good is near.

I wept as I went got back in my car.

Thursday, October 30, 2008

Plain Peace

If I were a Christian Quaker, I would be strongly drawn to the tradition of plain dress.

Perhaps it's good that I'm not, in that I don't have to do the difficult work of discernment that I probably would if I were. It does seem to me that plain dress, like all the Quaker testimonies, needs to have its seed in a spiritual leading, and I cannot be sure that my inclination toward it isn't merely personal. Pagans as a group are, after all, awfully taken with costume and theater, and even if I am extremely plain for a Pagan, I can't be entirely sure that part of my attraction to plain dress isn't simply to yet another cool set of threads.

The real issue is probably deeper than that, though. It is my desire to live absolutely, visibly, and identifiably as someone with a peace testimony.

Another of my favorite students is entering the military. He has done early enlistment and will be leaving us at midyear, and he brought me in a picture of himself in his fatigues.

I am thrilled, honestly, with this kid's pride and sense of accomplishment. He has overcome so many obstacles in his life, and his decision to enter the military represents, on a personal level, some wonderful, wonderful things he has cultivated within himself with great struggle: idealism, ambition, a desire to serve others. He is a good, good boy and he has decided he wants to become a good, good man.

I suppose that's startling to hear from a Quaker, but it is the truth as I see it. For this particular young man, the decision to enter the military reflects a level of growth and integrity that I can only honor.

And grieve. I want him to be traveling to foreign lands to feed hungry kids, and build bridges and schools, and serve humanity in the ways of peace. But that is not an option for my student; yes, I'm aware of counter-recruitment efforts and counseling, and they work wonders for lots of kids. But even if they existed at my school, even if I were not the lone voice for peace, none of the initiatives I know of are a good fit for this particular student at this particular time. All I can do is try to slip into one of our 30 second hallway conversations the fact that, should he determine, down the road, that he has a conscientious objection to war, there are people who will work with him to help him leave the military.

The various alternatives to military service will not work for this student.

And the heart of my message is, must be, that I am proud of the way this young man has turned his life around. He hasn't had nearly enough people being proud of him in his life. We, his teachers, are it. And nothing, nothing else is as faithful a service of the Spirit of Peace as I hear it speaking within me as communicating to this young man my deep and real respect for his decisions, deeply though they pain me.

I know what I must say to this young man when he hands me his picture.

And I know that I will place his picture on my altar at home, burn candles for his safety (spiritual and emotional as well as physical) and grieve and grieve and grieve that he will be going off to war.

I want for my opposition to war to be as obvious as my gender. I want it to be so clear and self-evident and beyond question that it is always there, as the subtext, when I am telling this student that I am proud of him. I want him to hear the message of caring from my mouth and to see that in my eyes, and just to know, without my having to distract from the core message of deep respect, that I wish he would find another way. That he would somehow serve peace, not war, with his newfound honor and dignity.

Wearing a peace symbol is a fashion statement. Half my students who wear it support the war. Peace slogans on bumper stickers and buttons and posters strike many as sentiments fit for a greeting card--the notion that anyone takes literally that "there is no way to peace--peace is the way" is something that never crosses most moderns' minds.

It seems to me that only by visibly and consistently placing myself outside modernism and liberalism and political sloganeering will I be able to be the kind of visible beacon for peace I long to be.

I cannot harangue my students into pacifism. I know that is wrong--spiritually wrong, never mind how it might affect my teaching career. I know that it would sabotage the real work of building up spirits that is the heart of public school teaching. Which is my calling, my leading, at least for now.

So I can't do that.

Plain dress: wearing a kerchief or something on my head and wearing a skirt of some kind, while avoiding ostentation in dress... that would do it. Slowly, over time, my school would come to know that my peace testimony, my deepest spiritual convictions, are why I "dress funny". And I would be speaking my testimony faithfully even while silent.


I'm not Christian.

And the other thing that plain dress says, culturally at least, is that here stands a conservative Christian.

So no plain dress. Just a photo on the altar, and a sense of pride.

And anguish.

May all the good gods bring this child home safe in his spirit as well as in his body.

So mote it be.

Friday, October 24, 2008

Memories and Not

I keep thinking I'm gonna give up memes, and then there will be one I just can't resist. Like this one... Which I flat out stole from Bright Crow (and he, in turn, stole from Igraine).

If you read this, if your eyes are passing over this right now (even if we don't speak often or have never met), please post a comment with a completely made up, fictional memory of you and me.

It can be anything you want - good or bad - but it has to be fake.

When you're finished, post this little paragraph in your blog and see what your friends come up with...
Well? How about it? Anybody remember the time our flea market booth specializing in Hollow Earth artifacts was raided by Atlantean Customs officials? How about the prank with Captain Scarlet and the Voice of the Mysterons? Or that embarassing incident with the yak?

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

On Ecstasy

Came across this quote the other day:
Ecstasy doesn't last. But it cuts a groove for something that does last.
--E.M. Forster

Yet another reason to love that writer...

Sunday, October 19, 2008

Teacher Grace

Teaching has been both easier and harder than ever for me this year. It has been a really tiring year; I don't remember having such long days since my first year in the classroom. Probably that's because I'm teaching a course I've never taught before, and I'm putting in enough extra time developing my own approach to it that I'm just putting in more time day by day.
It's been satisfying, though. In three out of my four classes, I basically never have a bad day—once the kids are there in front of me, I'm having fun. The fourth of my preps is more challenging, but not in any horrible, what's-wrong-with-our-civilization way. They're just kids who aren't always wild about being in English class by the end of the day. But not a one of them is mean, and not a one of them is without an endearing trait or two. There's always a class or two that's tougher to teach than the rest—that's the law of averages, I think. But though we have had our rocky days and moments, even that class is fairly satisfying to teach. And (as is often the case with the more difficult classes to manage) some of the relationships with kids in that class already look likely to be the kind that make teaching a satisfying profession; the connections that sometimes take the most work (on both sides) to forge can wind up being the most meaningful in the end.
That's the day to day situation. But every now and then, I'm feeling something new. I don't quite know how to describe it without sounding stuck on myself, and that's honestly not how I'm feeling about it. But what I'm feeling is a kind of shift or change in myself, owing in part to having been a teacher long enough now that I can approach my work with humor and calm instead of self-consciousness. I am able to be more present, and that is a big part of what is making this a good year to teach.
But I'm also, I think, enjoying some of the fruits of actively working to become more open to and more guided by Spirit in my life. The sweetness of meeting for worship has begun to flow outward into my 9 to 5. (Well... my 7 to 5. But who's counting?) I believe that I have begun to experience some moments of something I might call “teacher grace.”
I need to back-track a little to explain. Bear with me.
New England Yearly Meeting was a particularly deep and powerful spiritual journey for me this year. I'm not sure how it happened, but from our opening worship, I found myself open to, almost drenched in, the experience of God.
I have come to treasure this experience—those moments when I know: I don't have to be wise, I don't have to be good, I don't have to be smart. While I'm sitting in the Light, all I have to be is open and faithful, and it will all be OK.
Peter C-- remarked to me at NEYM this summer that Quaker worship is a deeply sensual experience, and I knew exactly what he meant. That sensation of being cherished and held up is as direct and physical a sensation as any I can imagine. It's not about thinking about God--it's about being with God. It's warm and strong and deep. And I had a lot of it at NEYM this year. Which was wonderful.
I had a lot of something else, too, that was a little staggering, though I have had glimmerings of it in Pagan contexts from time to time. I was not particularly led to vocal ministry... but I did have a sense, much of the time, that Spirit was right there, sort of sitting just over my shoulder, and from time to time giving me a nudge this way or that way... kind of gently tugging me into the places and company where I needed to be. Sometimes there would be a conversation, and I would find that I knew how to listen and what to say. Sometimes it would be a moment of connection in passing—maybe not more than eye contact—but I knew that it was what I was Supposed to be doing.
Sometimes it was for my sake. Sometimes for someone else's. A lot of the time, it would have been hard to break it down like that. I don't think you call that “ministry”, exactly. In my Pagan life, I might term it being “cloaked.” But I also think, perhaps, you could call it “grace.”

It makes me remember a science experiment I read about (but never did) as a kid: where you take a needle, magnetize it, and use it to pierce a bit of cork you float on the surface of a bowl of water. The idea is that the magnet will be drawn to point North, and the cork, floating so lightly on the surface of the water, will create little resistance to that needle, and the whole thing will act as a compass.

I can't vouch for it as a science experiment, but I've felt it as a spiritual experience. Sometimes, if I can become light enough, bouyant enough in my trust in Spirit, I can be pierced, for a moment or a day, by something that knows how to find True North. Sometimes, when I am pierced this way, my hands are not entirely or only my own hands, my heart is not only my own heart, and the kindness and concern I feel for others runs just a little bit cleaner and purer than it normally does. And I find myself drawn to wherever it is I am supposed to be.

I won't lie. I enjoy the feeling of giving vocal ministry. I like feeling like a string of a great piano or guitar, continuing to quiver or vibrate when the Spirit is done and I sit down again. I love that the depth and brilliance I sometimes feel in worship can spread outward due to something I spoke, when the words were real and spirit-filled ministry. (I'm also insecure enough and needy enough that I am beyond grateful when seasoned Friends confirm to me after such experiences that I have been faithful. I am still very new in ministry, however seasoned I may have been in priest-craft, and I need my eldering!)

I admit it--I enjoy giving vocal ministry.

But beyond that, I am grateful for those moments of grace. Perhaps they are invisible to others. They are certainly quiet. And I don't know which sounds less humble, to pretend that I really am able to be as present and what-was-needed on my own, or to impute that extra measure of synchronicity and compassion to, not just any old spirit, but the Holy Spirit.

But I know it's not me. Presumptuous or not, I think I have been favored.

That's hard to admit out loud (or in print). I get a little nervous claiming this gift.

But what is blindingly, breathtakingly, and very, very quietly glorious is that it is starting to happen--a little--outside of worship.

Teacher grace.

Simple stuff, like knowing when to laugh, when to walk up to a kid and start a conversation at break, when to be silly and when to be quiet.

It doesn't last, and it doesn't happen a whole lot. There have maybe been two or three days all year this year that I've felt it. But it makes the openings that somebody--maybe me, maybe a kid who wasn't even part of the original interaction, or some other teacher entirely--will get to move through to create hope and change.

Vocal ministry is cool.

This is cooler.

Even if it never happens to me again, it has happened this year. There are no words for how grateful I am for that.

Saturday, October 11, 2008

Simony and NRMs, old and new

I'm up to Acts in my blitzkrieg tour of the Bible. (Clearly, there's a whole lot of prophets I've missed and will need to go back for--this Biblical literacy notion is not for sissies. )

I don't believe I've ever read Acts before. Though I was not raised Christian, still, I've dipped into the Bible once or twice over the years. I've done my time in Deuteronomy, having had it quoted at me by the soapbox preachers at my colleges; I've waded before through the Sea of Reeds (or the Red Sea--both are fine by me) with the Israelites heading out of Egypt--first in a children's Bible I read as a girl, and later in the King James I borrowed from the public library. (And with Charleton Heston, of course. How many of us owe our limited Bible literacy to the Omega Man?) I've skimmed the occasional psalm, and made it most of the way through the gospels thanks to an adorable little palm-sized book another campus Christian group was handing out for free.

But Acts is new to me, and has a freshness to it I hadn't expected.

It's the story, after all, of a long-ago NRM--New Religious Movement--and I have a personal sense of what it's like to take part in one of those. I recognize the excitement in the rapid pace--event after event after event--and the sense of being part of something that is growing too fast for the human eye to follow. Certainly, that's the Pagan history I know, from my own twenty years of it. So I read the breathless pace of Acts, and I nod my head. This, I can understand.

But Acts speaks to me in more ways than that. For instance, I read that, in the initial, heady days when the movement was starting to catch on in Jerusalem, not only did the sick and the troubled throng to the apostles for cures, but that the visitors to the city would actually lay the sick out along the streets, "so that at least Peter's shadow might fall on some of them as he passed by."

His shadow??? The dude was so revered, they thought his shadow falling on someone could cure what ails them?

I'm reminded of the John Lennon quote about the Beatles being "bigger than Jesus." After all, Jesus was only thought to be able to heal with the hem of his robe (and a little bit of faith). I don't think anyone credited him with shadow healing!

I find myself reflecting on what it is like to come under the intense adulation of a crowd caught up in that level of religious ecstasy.

I think I almost understand that position. I think I've seen it in action. I have not been the priestess at the center of a crowd of a five hundred ecstatic Pagans, but I've known a few of those in my time.

I've watched what happens to the leaders who get cloaked with spiritual numen and lit up by the enthusiasm of the crowd until they almost glow in the dark. I've seen how hard it is to keep your balance on that tightrope, and I've certainly felt myself wobbling with the few baby steps of that kind I've taken myself from time to time.

I've watched what happens to my friends when the crowds turn hostile, and I've watched the exhaustion that steps in when the borrowed glory goes home. The crowds are never done--they keep on pressing closer for that small brush of the hem of the robe, or the chance of a shadow blessing them as you walk by. But, avatars of the gods aside, human beings cannot sustain that voltage very long. Those who do not find a way to disconnect from the crowds and the heat and the momentum sometimes go mad, sometimes go bad, and sometimes (if they are lucky) fall down exhausted until a friend takes them someplace cool and dark to ground and find their center again.

So I'm not without sympathy for Peter (or John Lennon or James Naylor or George Fox, for that matter) because not only can all that intensity push you past the limits of human capacity, but it can really mess with your God-sense.

By which I mean, the excitement and the rush of the adulation is like a powerful current, ready to pull you off your feet. In the Pagan community, we call it "High Priestess disease" when it does so in obvious, ego-inflating ways, as it did for John Lennon. But it can mess with your center in less obvious, more subtle ways, too: when you spend enough time up on the mountain with God/the gods, the thin air of spiritual communion can make you a little giddy. Too much time graced by grace, and your humanness can start to show up in all kinds of disorienting little ways: getting cranky, getting clumsy, losing your common sense... losing not only your groundedness in reality, but your ability to recognize that you are losing your groundedness.

This, of course, is why Peter and I typically bring comic books to New England Yearly Meeting. Too much time in prayer, centering down as deeply as we can into the Light, we notice we get a little strange. Not a good, Quakerly-peculiar strange, either: more a, hey, let's step off the edge of a building and see if we can fly now strange. Yes, I'm exaggerating. But I really have no impulse to see by how much, so I try to bring along some very Mere Mortal things to do on such a spiritual occasion: hence, the comic books.

We need to find ways to recognize and honor our very limitedness, in the face of all that limitlessness, or we might begin to imagine very stupid things indeed, and think them wise.

I'm not saying that the apostles either had or needed comic books in the early days of the Christian church. But I do think that the rush of spiritual power and energy was overpowering for at least some of the new converts.

This is where Simon comes in.

My ears pricked right up when I encountered the story of Simon the Sorcerer in Acts 8:9. To begin with, it's a terrific name. (The old-style rendering, Simon Magus, is pretty awesome, too. I mean, talk about a great Dungeons and Dragons character name, right?) But also, I know Simon, at least by reputation; I've taught him--sort of--in the context of teaching Chaucer to 12th graders. One of the characters in Canterbury Tales is guilty of the sin of simony--so, of course, I had to learn what simony was and be able to offer that context when we discussed his tale.

The dictionary definition of simony is "the buying or selling of ecclesiastical privileges," and of course, it was a major concern for the medieval church.

But of more interest to me now that I've read the original story, is a more personal moral of Simon's tale. Let me sum the story up, for those of you who, like me until this week, haven't read it before.

Out in Samaria, in the time of the apostles, there was a magician who had built up quite a rep for himself as a miracle worker. That was Simon, and (like many another I know in the Pagan community) "he boasted that he was someone great, and all the people, both high and low, gave him their attention... They followed him because he had amazed them for a long time with his magic."

However, the news about the new religious movement comes to town, and preachers show up talking about this Christ fellow. Phillip rolls in and starts working miracles, and eventually, there is so much enthusiasm in Samaria that the apostles send Peter and John out to help these crowds of enthusiastic new converts receive not just baptism but the Holy Spirit. Simon is there, and he watches as the apostles lay on hands, and he is just impressed as hell.

You might think that Simon would be annoyed not to have cornered the market on miracles and religious awe, having been the talk of the town (and pretty self-important, too) for years. But no: he doesn't want to compete with the newcomers. He can see that they have brought something new and wonderful to town, and he wants to join them, and to get whatever it was they had hold of.

Unfortunately, he sees new things through old eyes. When he saw what the apostles could do by laying on hands, he wanted the ability to do what they did--but he did not understand it. We know that, because he approached them and "he offered them money and said, 'Give me also this ability...'"

But the ability to pass along the real Spirit of any god is not a thing to be bought and sold. Peter rejected him. "...You thought you could buy the gift of God with money! You have no part or share in this ministry, because your heart is not right before God."

This is the part of the that story speaks to me. From where Simon is standing, what he's asking for isn't anything so terrible. He wants to be the guy laying on the hands. It's new, it's beautiful; he values it. He's willing to pay for it, after all. What's wrong with that?

What's wrong with that?

It is not so much about the money, per se. It's about commodification.

Spirit comes as it will. We love it, we seek it, we cherish it. But when we treat it as an object that we own, a commodity that we can possess or buy or sell, we forfeit it.

Just like love. Just as anyone who believes that they can buy (or sell) the love of another has no sense of that human relationship, so anyone who thinks that they can obtain, own, stockpile Spirit has lost the sense of relationship that is the core of that reality, too.

The sin of Simony, as I see it--as I see my own human temptations reflected in it, at least--is this: it is possible to become so drunk with admiration of spiritual fruits and goods that we seek them out as if they, the fruits, were the point of the exercise. We relate to the gifts of Spirit in that same old way we have always related to the world of objects and of things, rather than in the deeper way, the truer way. We cease to join in wonder with Spirit in relationship when we begin to grasp at the gifts of Spirit as though we could possess them, own them, show them off.

I hope I do not reduce God to an object. I don't think I often do, at least.

But I know how easily I can be tempted, particularly when I am already off-balance from an aura of spiritual exhilaration all around. With the best of intentions in the world, it is very hard not to go a little crazy when the voltage gets turned up, either in terms of the intensity of the contact with God or the intensity of attention from a crowd.

Perhaps this is one reason I am drawn to Friends, to a quieter way and a slower way, though a way, still of hopefully continuing to encounter Spirit directly, face to face, day to day.

I do not denigrate the work done by the talented and reverent Pagan priests and priestesses I know. But I also know that I am deeply relieved to belong to a community that worships corporately, collectively, so that the burden of discernment and of remaining centered and open to the Light--of not stumbling and getting lost in the mazes of my own self-importance--is one I share. For me, the Quaker way of worship is a better way.
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