Thursday, July 03, 2008

Cat's Spiritual Journey, Part X: When Babel Fell



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

Now the whole world had one language and a common speech...

But the LORD came down to see the city and the tower that the men were building. The LORD said, "If as one people speaking the same language they have begun to do this, then nothing they plan to do will be impossible for them. Come, let us go down and confuse their language so they will not understand each other."

So the LORD scattered them from there over all the earth, and they stopped building the city.

(Genesis 11: 1--8, New International Version.)
This is a painful post to write. The fact that the story is as old as human communities doesn't make it any better, but maybe it makes it more important to try to write it anyway. How many of us who have attempted to live in spiritual community have not known the confusion and pain of human failure and betrayal? How many of us who have loved?

I titled my last post in this series Felicia Hardy and the Tower of Babel because I wanted to evoke the Bible story of people coming together to try and build something wonderful, and failing in the end. And I'm illustrating this installment with the Tarot card which echoes the same image for the same reason, because this is the point in my spiritual journey when my utopian dreams came crashing down...and, like the people of Babel, I even lost for a while the ability to talk coherently to others who had shared those dreams.

It began with a dream of paradise...

When I left my first marriage and founded our complicated little group-home, coven, and family with Peter, I wanted to build a Pagan world, where everyone would recycle, respect women and children at least as much as they do white guys in suits, and no one would take more than their share either from the earth or from other humans. And I believed that the way to get there was to create a vast wave of people who wanted what I believed Paganism offered: connectedness, love, and community.

My model was my coven of origin—the Coven On Wheels, or COW, which really had offered me the first sense of home and community I'd had since I was very young.

COW worked because it was small--only six members had ever passed through our doors at the point I moved away, and no more than six members and attenders had ever circled together at once when the group met.

And COW was not a commune: we never had to fight over whose turn it was to take out the trash or decide what to watch on TV. And crucially, we were a collection of equals; those who joined might have more or less knowledge in a particular field of occultism, Paganism, or practical knowledge like herbalism, but each of us was well read on mysticism and religion, with extensive knowledge in many areas. We were all about the same age, from similar economic backgrounds, and with roughly equal access to resources.

All of these things I took for granted within COW, and failed to note when they were absent from my own later attempts to recreate paradise.

I wanted to build and live in my non-hierarchical utopia right away. And I saw everything and everyone through the pretty haze of that dream. Our coven was to be a non-hierarchical utopian coven, our group house was to be a non-hierarchical utopian community, the Church of the Sacred Earth and the local Pagan community...it was all going to fit the pattern of the tiny, well-read, well-adjusted and select little group that had called itself COW.

Reality did not reflect my preconceptions all that well. The community Peter and I formed together was never very like the group that COW, in its heyday, had been.

Felicia was younger than we were. She was in debt up to her eyeballs. Peter and I, on the other hand, were established in professions, with bank accounts and even the beginnings of retirement savings. So we were not on an even footing around money.

Peter was the beloved grandson of the owner of our home and I was his wife; Felicia was a tenant. So Peter and I had a marked advantage over Felicia in that part of our lives, too.

And when Felicia needed work, though it seemed logical all around to hire her to care for the increasingly frail Nora, that made her our employee--yet another power imbalance between us.

With a Smith College education, Felicia was certainly bright and well-educated, but in the arena of Pagan religious life, we were not peers either: Peter and I had almost a decade of Pagan leadership under our belts which she lacked. By the time we founded our coven—which she was the first to join—Peter and I were each initiates in two traditions of the Craft. She had been active in student groups.

We thought of ourselves as non-hierarchical. But, in hindsight, that was awfully naïve of us. The playing field was not level, the resources were not equal, and even a very grounded and mature woman might have felt insecure at times. And Felicia was not very grounded and mature--she was only in her mid-twenties, and sometimes seemed much younger than that.

Felicia had a lot of twenty-something habits. She was a night owl. She did not save. Even after her bankruptcy, she continued to crave expensive things: restaurant meals, nice clothes and hairstyles, nights out and videos in. She joined a cat rescue, but couldn't always afford the vet bills; she went to Pagan festivals, but couldn't afford to repair her car. Nothing terrible, and, after all, we were living in a non-hierarchical and cooperative household, right? Peter and I did not mind sharing. We floated her loans as needed, loaned her our cars when hers was in the shop, and tried not to mind when the weeks she did the grocery shopping were more expensive and less health-conscious than the weeks we shopped, or when she couldn't afford to pay her share of the rent or utility bills but could afford nightly forays to Taco Bell. We tried not to mind when her clutter overflowed from her room into the common spaces, or when repeated requests to change the litter box for her cats led to procrastination.

Felicia, in other words, was a high-maintenance kind of a gal. Nagging was not a part of my Pagan Utopian vision, but it became a daily--and fruitless--part of my life.

Like many people who are in positions of authority but haven't acknowledged it, I had a prickly discomfort with not getting my way, but because I didn't want to accept that I was not living in my non-hierarchical dream world, I couldn't see the ways that it was legitimate for me to lay down ground rules. Felicia and I were not equals in terms of life experience, finances, and power in the household, whether I chose to recognize that or not.

Felicia and I were not equals in terms of our stakes in the household, either. If life in our group house soured, Felicia could choose to live elsewhere (as could Two Bears, who joined our collective about two years' into our lives together). Peter, Nora, my daughter and I were stuck with it, for better or for worse.

That fact needed, as a purely practical matter, to give Peter and me, as heads of the household, more recognized authority. That it did not, at least in Felicia's eyes and my own, says a lot about how unrealistic we were. The theory was that all animals were equal.

The unsavory truth was, damn right, some of us were more equal than others. But I worked very hard not to recognize this growing realization. The result was increasing feelings of fatigue and bitchiness over not being able to will things into working out as smoothly and lovingly as they did in my imagination.

So Felicia and I did not cooperate smoothly on matters of the household. Eventually, we began to bicker, politely, sometimes in ways anyone could hear and see, and at other times in covert, strained silences. The whole thing was like a low grade fever that never quite broke.

This went on for about four years. Felicia did not get easier to live with--she got tougher.

I'll spare you the details. Probably everyone who has ever had a room mate has had the experience of this kind of escalating tension. But Felicia and I were not just room mates. We were coven mates, employer and employee and, landlord and tenant, family members caring for an elder and a child, and, I can't help but suspect, surrogate-parent and angry adolescent child. There was just no room in our lives for either of us to step back, breathe, and let the tensions go.

It became intolerable. Nobody's fault, really, but that's what happened.

By that time, Felicia was deeply involved with her long-time partner, a man I will call Tony Stark.

Tony was very young--still a student at Hampshire College--and a brilliant physicist whose intellectualized atheism didn't keep him from becoming fascinated with Paganism's take on community.

He and Felicia quickly became very serious about one another, and by the time tensions were peaking around our house, Felicia was actually home very little. She had virtually moved in with Tony, the two of them unofficially taking possession of an unoccupied room in his dorm, and Felicia was coming by the house mainly to use our computer and washing machine, feed her cats, and eat. They were actively discussing getting an apartment together at the end of the school year, when Tony would be graduating, and it seemed certain that she would be following him to whatever school he chose for his PhD.

At the point I realized that I needed Felicia to move out, she and Tony were planning to bring her home over the winter break, to introduce her to his parents. And, yes, it definitely was that kind of "meet my parents" situation, with the added stress of all taking a cruise together into the bargain.

It seemed like a pretty good time to begin nudging Felicia out of the nest, in other words--but not the exact moment to lay a big new source of stress on her shoulders. I talked with Two Bears and Peter about what I'd realized--I don't think either of them was remotely surprised--and decided to wait to discuss it with Felicia until after she returned from meeting the possible-future-in-laws.

Two Bears wondered if we shouldn't frame the discussion around our eventual plans to renovate and rent out as a separate unit the downstairs of our house; Nora had died over the fall, and Felicia's room, as well as the more usable of the two kitchens and most of the common living spaces, were in the downstairs half of the duplex. He was afraid that Felicia might not take things well. He was afraid she would take things personally if we let her know it was about the tension around the house, and not an impersonal financial force at work.

But I insisted on being direct. I said that it would be insulting and manipulative to pretend that there was no problem with our living together peacefully. Felicia was my friend, I said, and I owed her honesty.

Good instinct. Lousy timing.

If only I'd been wise enough to be more honest with myself, earlier, when I'd dug this pit to begin with; if only I'd been brave enough to be direct with Felicia, earlier, when the tensions were still manageable. If only we did not too soon grow old, and too late smart.

But I wasn't, and I hadn't, and we do. And after Felicia's return, when we met as a house, she immediately entered a stony silence. Here we were, saying things like, there's no hurry, we know it can take a while to find a good place to live; we'll help with first and last month's rent; you and Tony take your time--

--and Felicia sat staring at us, eyes narrowed to slits, visibly and even palpably hating us and wanting us dead.

It was awful. And it got worse.

Here's what I want to explain to you, and don't quite know how. What had gone before, in the petty provocations of daily life, was actually pretty blameless. People are like this, after all: we get on one another's nerves. We love one another, but sometimes we make each other unhappy. That's nobody's fault, really. Sometimes, it just works out that way--especially when you're young and idealistic.

But what came next, after we'd asked Felicia to begin making plans to move out, was different. While the day-to-day housemate stuff had no victims and no malice, just human friction, what followed was a concerted effort on the part of one human being to make another group of human beings as unhappy as possible.

I'm quite sure that Felicia saw it differently. I'm quite sure she convinced herself that we were bad people who were hurting her. But we weren't. We worked hard not to cause her pain. We may not have been good at it, but that was the goal.

She, on the other hand, began genuinely trying to hurt us, and she succeeded on a regular basis.

C. S. Lewis wrote that "there are dozens of ways to give people a bad time if you are in your own home and they are only visitors," and that is true. But it's perhaps even truer that there are even more ways to give people a bad time if they are in their own home, and you are only a visitor--with a legally protected right to be there.

When Felicia tired of the conflict, she would go home with Tony.

When we tired of the conflict, we would hope for have a night free of incidents.

I could laundry list the daily events, but it would miss the point: if I listed the details around money, or manipulation, or the lawsuit, it would sound like something understandably awful, but it would mislead you. It wasn't the money or the lies or the legal stuff that was really the terrible thing.

It was the being hated, every day, at close quarters, by someone we'd loved and trusted.

She sued us, she harassed us, she attempted to manipulate our daughter's emotions, she took stuff that wasn't hers. And when we tried to speak to other members of the community about it, she was right there, smiling sweetly and peacefully, and explaining that she "forgave" us the harm we'd done her. The fact that that harm was never itemized only made her seem sweeter, while we, clearly unhappy and angry, seemed to be the problem. Especially to a community that wanted this conflict to be without blame, and wanted our pain to just go away.

Even now, telling this story is hard for me in part because I don't know how to tell it plain: part of the hurt comes from being hurt on purpose. And part of the difficulty in achieving a genuine forgiveness of wrongs done us comes from having turned to a community that was unwilling to acknowledge that wrongs had been done at all--that there could ever be such a thing as malice or deliberate hurtfulness on anyone's part.

If there are no victims, there is no wrong. If there is no wrong, then whoever is angry or hurt is the person at fault. And I still don't quite know how to address this: that, though there was no single thing that Felicia took from us that we would not have given her willingly, had she simply asked for it, it was a very different matter to have things taken from us by force and in anger.

Have I told you enough that you can trust my statement that we were wronged? Or have I told you too much, and made you afraid that I'm attempting to use you as a weapon in a fight that has not ended? Tell too little, and my pain makes no sense. Tell too much, and it's a litany of petty spites--a list kept by a grudge keeper. It's a fine balance to strike. Is it even possible to speak of being wronged without seeming vindictive?

How can I forgive a wrong that is unacknowledged by anyone but myself? It's possible, of course, but hardly easy. And it seems important to me to include that part of the truth: that reconciliation is not served by a refusal to see when there are wrongs.

I believe my community failed me in that.

Here's how I failed my community. I did, in fact, attempt to use them.

In the early weeks, as the conflict began to escalate beyond reason in our home, I found something cold and reptilian within me that remembered having been the one to introduce Felicia to the Church of the Sacred Earth and the wider community around it. And I found myself thinking, in harmony with abusive parents everywhere, "I brought you into this world, Felicia Hardy. I bet I can send you out of it."

At that time, COSE and the wider community had listserves that were very active, and I became an email junkie. Self-employed, I could pry out time to hover by my computer, swooping down on each new email. And, as the news of the controversy began to spread, the temptation to massage and manage the information called out to me.

For a brief span of days, I found myself thinking about the ancient Irish bards, whose satires were said to raise boils on their victims.

"Aha, Felicia," I thought, "I'm the better writer of the two of us. Let us see whose words will shape this reality." And I set about courting public opinion. Like a PR shuckster anywhere in the world, I began evaluating the field, finding those swing voters, and working manipulativly to try to bring them around to my point of view: Cat=good; Felicia=bad.

I remember the icy feeling of opening a new email from an "enemy," and how my hands would tremble as I struck the keys. I remember the nagging feeling that I was letting too much of my life slip past me, waiting for the next message, the next opportunity to slip in a little more manipulation of my own, and I remember pushing that nagging feeling aside.

It actually didn't take long before I was so disgusted with myself that I dropped the attempt to turn my friends into weapons. And though it was harder still to stop the mad, compulsive round of emails, I eventually managed to eliminate those, too. But it was the ugliest chapter in a particularly ugly story of my life.

I did a lot of things during the six month siege of our home that I'm not proud of. I shouted threats. I swore a lot. I think on at least one occasion, when confronting Tony and Felicia, I was not only red-faced and shouting in my anger, but literally sprayed my invective. It was not a pretty picture.

But of all the things I said and did during this period of my life, it was the aborted attempt to use a spiritual community for personal vengeance that shames me the most. I was angry; I was ugly. I tried to use community, a force for wholeness, as if it were a weapon. I never want to do anything like that again.

So I dropped my attempts to manipulate public opinion. Felicia and Tony did not--they maintained a public cheer and veneer of goodwill that was more polished the more unhappy Peter and I seemed to be.

It's hardly surprising that so many members of our community found us the less pleasant companions--though I was still bitterly disappointed that men and women I'd known intimately for years did not know my character well enough to know that I would not be so angry over trifles.

In any case, when the dust finally settled, and Felicia moved away, I was unhappy with myself, unhappy with my community, and unhappy with the prospects of Paganism as a way to change the world in any meaningful way. I felt bitter and alienated, and my dreams and ideals had fallen into dust, and I had no idea when or how I would ever manage to trust anyone outside my family and my coven again.

The tower had fallen. My people were scattered. And in important ways, my community would not be able to speak to one another in a common tongue again.

12 comments:

Arachne said...

Unfortunately, an all too common story within the Wiccan/Pagan community. Our "Felicia" was our HPS and it seemed like it took forever for her to go on her way, and for the community to begin to heal. And it will never, ever be the same.

Yvonne said...

I wonder if people from other spiritual communities have stories like this?

In my similar situation to this, many Pagans did rally round and give us what we needed to get out of an awkward situation. But many other Pagans didn't want to know or get involved. I think it's human nature rather than specifically Pagan.

Cat Chapin-Bishop said...

Hi, Arachne,
Thanks for stopping in. I'm sorry (but not surprised) that you had your own experience with something similar. My community is not "the same" either... but healing has occurred. Now I've written Part X (which was a downer!) I've got to get on the stick and write Part XI--the part where the healing happens.

Yvonne, I'm sure this is a human thing, not a Pagan thing. There is a specific Quaker illustration of what I think is a similar dynamic at work which I'm thinking about a lot. I won't go into that one, because it's really not my story to tell... but I do think that readers in other religions besides Pagan will be able to relate to the main theme.

I thought of using Yeats' line, "Things fall apart; the center cannot hold" as the preamble to this piece. It is such a universal experience, I think--betrayal and loss within a community.

I think that at least some Quaker writers would tell me that the trouble is with human communities--that "covenant communities", where the relationship with God is the center hold better. As I understand the matter, this is what the disciplines of Quaker process are about. I do see them failing around me, but I regard it as an open question whether they may not--or putting it another way, whether having the Spirit of Peace at center in our community life may not--hold out more potential for hope than other ways of being in community.

It's one of the things that keeps me Quaker--the bare possibility of something better. But whether or no, I think it's something all people, in all forms of community, must struggle to cope with: those times when our towers fall and our languages fail.

cheerfulblues said...

Nice job. You know my perspective on the whole situation was very different than yours (being that I was nine) but I know how hard it must have been to write this post. It's been so long since I've spoken to her that "Felicia" seems now more like a (pretty good) childhood dream than someone I used to know.

The funny thing is, reading this, I realize that this is how it would be if one of my live-in nanny friends had a blowout with their house mates. Fortunately for everyone, this hasn't happened yet. Maybe we're just smarter than y'all, what do you think? Or more likely the towers don't fall until they are built.

Anyway, it's strange to consider this from the point of view of an "adult." You know I had honestly forgotten all the legal bullshit before I read this post? Time and money just didn't register as important to me back then.

So anyway, nice post. And awesome choice of names... "Tony Stark"... perfect!

dmiley said...

I have a few thoughts, none of them particularly pagan or Quaker.

One thing that I tell my son is to understand his life strategy. Are you going to be the one who works the hardest or the one who works most consistently or is the most reliable or comes up with the "big idea." One example I didn't give was to find a way to worm your way into a relationship with individuals and groups in such a way that all your needs are taken care of - the cuckoo strategy, using other peoples natural nurturing impulses to your own advantage.

I know a drug/alcohol/sexual predator counselor who is also a recovering alcoholic. He is a deeply compassionate man who devotes a considerable amount of his off duty time to helping folks. I've also watched this - he knows when to let go when a co-dependent situation starts arising. The change from intensive commitment to letting go seems as easy for him as a child letting go of his mother's hand. Its like he knows that the problem is one that cannot be helped without a total commitment and without personal transformation and he knows he's not in a position to midwife that transformation.

I'm not that mature in compassion and may never be. I certainly don't want to go through the hell of an addiction in order to get there. But the ability to truly see character and really do the right thing, instead of one's heart's promptings, seems to be true compassion.

David

Pitch313 said...

Sometimes lots of friction and heat arise from the little things we do to nudge the world into a little better shape. I gotta say that on those occasions that I've tried the hardest with the best intentions, the friction and heat have grown the hottest.

Paganism does offer a vison or several visions of a different, better world and how to live in it. Or I probably wouldn't be a Pagan. But, as you point out, the world we live in does little to give us the tools and skills to go from there to a Pagan Promised Land. Mostly, we deal with this world problems using this world means and goals and self images.

break ups can ge hard...as hard and hurting as we want them to be.

One thing that kinda puzzles me is why Felicia stayed for so long after you'd asked her to move out? Was it mostly to be difficult? Or did she have no place else to go?

I appreciate the honest effort of this series of change stories. I'm looking forward to the next chapter.

Riverwolf said...

To Yvonne's point, I agree it seems more human nature than specifically Pagan. I've never been part of a cohesive Pagan group, but I have been a member of many Christian churches, and I've witnessed the same type of situations. The dynamics are slightly different, but I've seen entire congregations split over relatively minor things.

There's a lot of guilt on your part from this experience. Rather than worry over who was right or wrong and why the Pagan community is fallible (every community is, as you've pointed out to me!)--focus on what this experience taught you and how that knowledge can make you and any communities you encounter in the future much stronger and more aware.

Letting go of the outcomes--that's one thing I'm learning right now. Dreams are wonderful, but sometimes we get so caught up in the dream that we become unable to live or deal with reality.

Cat Chapin-Bishop said...

Thanks to all for stopping by.

I think we all have within us the potential to do good things and... let's just say, not-so-good things. I don't think it would be fair to characterize Felicia's approach to life as that of the cuckoo, David, though I understand the analogy. And I agree that its possible to watch a lot of people experiencing hardship as they learn that some of the wounded birds they rescue are really raptors, quite capable of removing a finger or two when they feel threatened.

Pitch, to answer your question, I believe that Felicia stayed as long as she did because she needed to punish us into admitting that we were bad people who owed her something; I think that some of us accept the idea early in life that, whatever goes wrong in the world, SOMEONE is to blame. And unless you can securely assign that blame to somebody else, you're never really safe from it being your fault.

Another way of framing it might be that she was hoping to punish us into loving her again? I admit this makes little sense, but it's something that perpetrators--batterers, etc.--do a lot. I'm not calling Felicia a perpetrator, by the way... but I bet the dynamic is similar for those who are actually abusive: that sense of fear and anger and someone witholding something you absolutely deserve to have--love--and being unable to accept it in part because it's so hard at times to feel loveable on their own. One of those wierd things: how people will act in a way that destroys love, by being so unwilling to let it go.

And, Riverwolf, I would not characterize my feelings as guilty. But it's my story, not Felicia's, and I want to explore my spiritual growth. Grappling with my demons--with questions on my responsiblity, and (watch for Part XI!) my dawning realization of how much human beings need to develop a capacity for forgiveness--is what I want to focus on here.

This is one of the times in my life when I screwed some important things up. I'm not blaming myself for that, but I definitely want to learn from it, and not just thrust it behind me unexamined. The fact that I've screwed up is important because, for me at least, it's been the places where I've bungled things that have wound up teaching me the most.

The epoch this story reflects is one of those times.

Bright Crow said...

Cat,

Bless you for lowering yourself (in the Quaker sense) so honestly and publicly.

The process you've allowed to take place in yourself—in order to acknowledge and then write about and publish what you write here—is at the painful, healing core of Quaker faith and practice:

Allowing the Light to shine into our darkest corners, not to punish, but to reveal, so that we can let go of our dismay with ourselves and "move higher up" (Luke 14:7-11).

Reading your story reminded me of some of the angry, manipulative, shameful things I've rationalized as justified, things I haven't yet found to courage to acknowledge publicly.

[Walhydra is barely scratching the surface.]

Thank you for that reminder.

I also recognize in my own history that 60s-70s longing for the "ideal communal community"—as well as the naivete with which I carried that fantasy.

You write:

"I think that at least some Quaker writers would tell me that the trouble is with human communities—that 'covenant communities,' where the relationship with God is the center hold better. As I understand the matter, this is what the disciplines of Quaker process are about."

I suspect this is true.
Even so, such a community is intensely difficult to build, nurture, sustain—because we all continue to be human beings.

It's so easy to fall from real Spirit-centered communal life into heirarchical imposition of right doctrine and right practice.

Look at the schismatic history of Quakers (or any other movement to build divine community on earth).

In any event, the honesty, the tender vulnerability you are willing to expose here in this post, would have to be central to the daily faith and practice of folk in such an extended family.

Again, bless you.

Michael Bright Crow

Cat Chapin-Bishop said...

Dear Michael Bright Crow,
"Lowering" myself--in the Quaker sense, as in "keeping low to the truth"? Yes! That is the term for what I was trying to do--that's it exactly!

As to how well I succeeded, well, that's another whole question. It's hard to be sure of such things, ever. But thank you so much for putting the words to the experience.

It literally took me months to write this post; I have six months of drafts that I trashed before I got here. I definitely did spend time praying about this one in Quaker meeting... and, no, I'm still not sure I got it all right--stayed faithful and low to the truth.

But I tried. And it's so rewarding to have you read it and get what I was trying to do, let alone that you tell me it gets you thinking through issues of your own.

Thank you.

Robbin said...

I get it, I totally get this post and it is good to hear it right now even though the experience that I had like yours is long past. I understand internally what you are saying and find some peace in your saying of it.

Thank you.

Cat Chapin-Bishop said...

Robbin--I'm so pleased my words spoke to your experience. I think that a lot of us are familiar with the experience of pain and feeling betrayed within community.

In the years since this experience, I have gradually worked to find a sense of tenderness for the person I was at odds with--and the community I felt betrayed by, too. I know that the love I felt for both Felicia and my community were right and good, and I am grateful to have arrived (finally) at a place where I can be in touch with that love again.

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