Sunday, July 27, 2008

Peter on Reading Genesis (part V)

Part I: A freaky little book
Part II: A Convergent Conversation / Small Gods
Part III: The Human Face of God / And the LORD saw what He had made…
Part IV: A few things missing
Part V: An Evolving Covenant / The Initiatory Challenge
Postscript: The Expulsion from Eden
Afterward: Why does it matter?

This will be the last in the series of posts about Genesis, and I'm a slow enough reader that you shouldn't expect my posts on Exodus until Christmas at the earliest. Reading the Bible with this level of detail is going to wind up being a five or six year project. Worth it...but slow.

The Evolving Covenant

The last big surprise for me in Genesis is that the "covenant” between YHWH and his chosen people is established at least four separate times, and each time it’s a little different, with more conditions added.

The first time God approaches Abram, he's almost like Doctor Who picking up a new companion. He just sidles up to him and says, Hey, come along with me, I’ll show you the universe. No conditions. No obligations. Just:
Go forth from your native land
And from your father’s home
To a land that I will show you.
I will make of you a great nation,
Bless you and make great your name,
That it may be a blessing.
I will bless those who bless you,
And curse those who curse you;
And through you shall bless themselves
All the communities on earth.
(Gen. xii, 1-3)
He says it again in Gen xv 1-21, but this time with a little more flair. The covenant is sealed not just with a promise but with a potent magic ritual that gets described with hallucinatory vividness. But then later still, when Abram is 99 years old, God appears to him a third time and, as if the idea is occurring to him for the first time, he says, “I will grant a covenant between myself and you” (Gen. xvii 2). He announces a new name for himself (El Shaddai, or “God Almighty”) and he renames Abram and Sarai as Abraham and Sarah. And this time, the covenant comes with conditions:
And this shall be the covenant between myself and you, and your offspring to follow, which you must keep: every male among you shall be circumcised. You shall circumcise the flesh of your foreskin, and that shall be the mark of the covenant between me and you. At the age of eight days, every male among you, through the ages, shall be circumcised, even houseborn slaves as well as those whom you have acquired for money from any outsider who is not of your blood—yes, houseborn slaves and those that you purchase must be circumcised.—thus shall my covenant be marked on your flesh as an everlasting pact. An uncircumcised male, one who has not been circumcised in the flesh of his foreskin—such a person shall be cut off from his kin: he has broken my covenant! (Gen. xvii 10-14)
You can imagine Abraham asking, We’ve been together all these years and you’re just getting around to telling me this now? But of course, this is another of those continuity errors that comes of Genesis being quilted together by “the compiler,” who was trying to make one coherent story from the scriptures of two or three different traditions.

Later still, God seems to question his own decision and, as if looking for a way to reassure himself, puts Abraham to the test. Having given his barren 90-year-old wife a son, God tells Abraham to sacrifice him and Abraham agrees. Then God says:
I swear by myself … that because you have acted thus, and did not withhold your beloved son from me, I will therefore bestow my blessing upon you and make your offspring as numerous as the stars in heaven and the sands on the seashore; and your descendents shall take over the gates of their enemies. All the nations of the earth shall bless themselves by your descendents—all because you obeyed my command. (Gen. xxii 16-18)
The Initiatory Challenge

I’ve always wondered about that scene. It’s inclusion in the Bible probably signifies the end of the practice of human sacrifice among the Hebrews, yet it ought to raise deep questions for any believer in a biblically-based religion. Human sacrifice has always been the ultimate shocker in our culture, used by Julius Caesar to justify his extermination of the Druids, and turning up in the blood libel against the medieval Jews and again in modern paranoia about Satanic cults. Yet here it is, presented not as horror but as the final test that makes God's love fixed and permanent: Would you do even this for me? Would you kill an innocent child?

I have even wondered at times, was this an initiatory test that Abraham failed? Behind door number one, he found himself father to a great nation. But what would have been behind door number two, if he had answered, Men do not gather figs from thorns, nor grapes from a briar bush, nor could a God of love, mercy, and justice demand so great a sin?

God changes over time. He takes on new names, first YHWH and then El Shaddai, and also takes on new attitudes towards creation and towards his chosen ones. I know that by the time of the Prophets he becomes a champion of the oppressed, and by the time of the medieval philosophers he becomes That Being Greater Than Which No Other Can Be Imagined, but there’s no hint of either of those in Genesis. I'm looking forward to watching it unfold.

So...on to Exodus!

Saturday, July 26, 2008

Peter on Reading Genesis (part IV)

Part I: A freaky little book
Part II: A Convergent Conversation / Small Gods
Part III: The Human Face of God / And the LORD saw what He had made…
Part IV: A few things missing
Part V: An Evolving Covenant / The Initiatory Challenge
Postscript: The Expulsion from Eden
Afterward: Why does it matter?

Here are a few things that are flatly missing from Genesis:
There is no definition of marriage as between one man and one woman. Most of the patriarchs either had two wives or a wife and a concubine, and YHWH clearly had no problem with this.
There is no individual salvation. When YHWH tells Abraham that he’s passed all the tests and won the big payoff, what he promises is “I will therefore bestow my blessing upon you and make your offspring as numerous as the stars in heaven and the sands on the seashore; and your descendants shall take over the gates of their enemies. All the nations of the earth shall bless themselves by your descendants—all because you obeyed my command.” (Gen. xxii 16-18)
There is no afterlife, or at least no eternal life in Heaven. Characters in Genesis describe dying as going to Sheol, a hollow place deep underground. The word is often translated as “Hell,” but, it’s not a fire-and-brimstone Hell where you go to be punished; it’s just the place where people go when they die. It reminds me much more of the underworld of Odysseus than of Dante. It’s not even that going to Heaven is prevented for some reason; it’s just not something anybody even thinks to ask about.
There is no devil. I know that Satan shows up later in the Bible, but he’s not in Genesis. The snake in Mesopotamian culture symbolized wisdom, not evil, and Genesis never describes eating the apple as a “fall.” The only side effect of following the snake’s advice is “that the man has become like one of us in discerning good from bad.” The serpent never lies, and the strained relationship that develops between God and the first couple is only because they heard and believed the truth. I’m not making this up. You don’t believe me, go read the book.
There is no original sin. Eden is centered around two trees that humans are told not to eat from. One gives wisdom and the other gives immortality. Once humans developed a sense of right and wrong, God had to expel them from Eden before they became immortal as well, which would have made them—the implication is clear—Gods in their own right. The actual punishments for disobedience are relatively light; childbirth will hurt, and farming will be hard work. Oh, and people won’t like snakes any more. God does end by saying, “dust you are, and to dust you shall return,” but this is only a reminder. It was already true. In the very next passage, “God Yahweh made shirts of skins for the man and his wife, and clothed them.” (Gen iii 21) The way it’s described, you can almost see him sitting cross legged on the ground with a needle and thread. It’s as if, in the middle of the expulsion from paradise, he stops to say, “You’ll be cold. Bring a sweater.”
This passage is supposed to be about the damnation of the whole human race, and it’s the foundation of the doctrine of original sin. But read on its own terms, it’s a surprisingly small and intimate story about a loving parent whose children learn by making mistakes. The whole thing can be read as a metaphor for a child growing into a young man, beginning to make his own decisions, and finding he has to leave his parents’ home to go make his own life.
More tomorrow.

Friday, July 25, 2008

Peter on Reading Genesis (part III)

Part I: A freaky little book
Part II: A Convergent Conversation / Small Gods
Part III: The Human Face of God / And the LORD saw what He had made…
Part IV: A few things missing
Part V: An Evolving Covenant / The Initiatory Challenge
Postscript: The Expulsion from Eden
Afterward: Why does it matter?

This series of posts began as entries in my journal, and I had some concerns that publishing them could seriously offend people. I’m glad to see that the comments so far have been positive. More than that—I’m glad to see that I’m not being taken as just sarcastic and cynical.
The Human Face of God
People talk about the God of the Old Testament being grand and majestic and cosmic, in contrast to the New Testament where Jesus takes on human form so that we can relate to him. And, yeah, the chapters prior to the Flood have God doing things like creating Heaven and Earth and establishing day and night. But those creation stories really seem like an afterthought. Gods seem to pick up creation myths the way saints pick up miracle stories. It’s sort of a literary convention, to show that your guy is the real deal. In Genesis, it’s only after the Flood when YHWH picks up Abram that the dramatic narrative really begins. And what floors me all through that narrative how YHWH keeps walking around the landscape and striking up conversations with people like just another character on the stage. God gets mistaken for an ordinary human, even at points in the story when you’d expect him to be at his most fearsome and godlike. When YHWH and two angles of destruction go to Sodom to turn the whole city into a smoldering crater, they get there by walking. They walk for days, long enough to get hungry and thirsty and tired, and Abraham stops them and offers refreshment and a shady spot to rest their weary feet. He doesn’t realize who they are, and when one of them (who turns out to be YHWH) prophesies Sarah’s pregnancy, she actually laughs at him. He’s so down-to-Earth with his hosts that he makes Jesus at his earthiest look kind of stiff and awkward.
And the LORD saw what He had made, and said, “Oh crap!”
People often criticize the God of the Old Testament for being violent and vindictive, but you never hear about him being indecisive or insecure. Yet he keeps changing his mind. He creates the world and sees that it is good…but it’s missing something. What is it? I know! “It is not right that man should be alone. I will make him an aid fit for him.” (Gen. ii 18) And then later, “Yahweh regretted that he had made man on earth, and there was sorrow in his heart. And Yahweh said, ‘I will blot out from the earth the men that I created, man and beast, the creeping things, and the birds of the sky; for I am sorry that I made them.’” (Gen. vi 6-7) But then he hems and haws and decides to obliterate only most of them.
But what you really never hear people talk about are the times God actually feels threatened by human potential. But they’re there, clear as day. Why the expulsion from Eden?
God Yahweh said, “Now that the man has become like one of us in discerning good from bad, what if he should put out his hand and taste also of the tree of life and eat, and live forever!” So God Yahweh banished him from the garden of Eden, to till the soil from which he was taken. (Gen. iii, 22-23)
And why the scrambled languages at the Tower of Babel?
Yahweh said, “If this is how they have started to act, while they are one people with a single language for all, then nothing that they presume to do will be out of their reach. Let me, then, go down and confound their speech there, so that they shall not understand one another’s talk.” (Gen. xi, 5-7)
And weirdest of all, why the Flood?
Now when men began to increase on earth and daughters were born to them, the divine beings saw how beautiful were the human daughters and took as their wives any of them they liked. Then Yaweh said, “My spirit shall not shield man forever, since he is but flesh; let the time allowed him be one hundred and twenty years.”

It was then that the Nephilim appeared on earth—as well as later—after the divine beings had united with human daughters to whom they bore children. Those were the heroes of old, men of renown. (Gen. vi, 1-4)
That phrase “divine beings” is elohim, the same Hebrew word that gets translated as “God.” All of the commentaries I’ve ever seen insist that while elohim is technically plural, it’s clearly being used to signify a singular God. Except here, where (get this!) YHWH decides to destroy humanity because the other elohim are having sex with his humans and siring a race of half-God, half-humans. The Greeks would have called them Titans, and made them the subject of some of their most powerful stories, but in the Bible they’re sort of like the madwoman in the attic that no one wants to talk about.
What do I do with a story like that? Where does that leave me in trying to understand the writers’ experience of their God?
Two things, maybe. One: People’s understanding of their Gods changes over time, and even assuming I've understood the writers' intent, the writers of the Bible may or may not have correctly grasped the motivations of their God. And two: The Gods themselves may change over time, growing and evolving in response to their relationships with us.
More tomorrow. Thanks again to those who commented.

Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Peter on Reading Genesis (part II)

Part I: A freaky little book
Part II: A Convergent Conversation / Small Gods
Part III: The Human Face of God / And the LORD saw what He had made…
Part IV: A few things missing
Part V: An Evolving Covenant / The Initiatory Challenge
Postscript: The Expulsion from Eden
Afterward: Why does it matter?

Fair warning: I am a starry-eyed neophyte in the area of Old Testament theology. I’m reading the Hebrew Scriptures for the first time, and while I’m gobbling down several commentaries along with it, my observations here are anything but scholarly.
Fair warning #2: I'm going to be a bit irreverent at times.
So many of the stories and anecdotes in Genesis are as familiar to me as Cinderella or Little Red Riding Hood, and when they’re told out of context, they have that same kind of storybook quality as the Grimm’s Fairy Tales, but when the stories are read within the whole book of Genesis, but without all of the pious Christian preconceptions that I grew up with, there are some profoundly startling things that pop out.

A Convergent Conversation
First, of course, is the whole J vs. P vs. E issue. Almost all of the familiar stories in Genesis are told twice, with very different emphases and often with contradictory details. I’d heard about that before, but the Anchor Bible highlights the specific passages that belong to each source. It’s a patchwork, and once you’ve seen the pieces that don’t line up (what an editor would call “continuity errors” if the book were being written today) they stick out like a sore thumb. Genesis had at least three different authors, and then, much later, a fourth person, a “compiler” who cut-and-pasted the document we have today. So already at the time of the writing of Genesis, we see a convergent conversation between branches of a religion that has had time to spread out and diversify. That’s kind of cool, and it makes me want to dig back even farther and learn about these three different communities—their common roots and their different perspectives.
Small Gods
Another thing I’d heard before, but hadn’t really seen with my own eyes until now, is that the monotheism of Christian thought owes more to the Greek philosophers than to the Hebrew Scriptures. Today, monotheism is such a deeply ingrained habit of thought among believers and atheists alike that it’s hard for most people in our culture to imagine God as anything but the One, the Only, the Creator of the Universe. The most rabid Bible thumper and the most arrogant rationalist will agree completely about what “God” is, even as they fight like alley cats over whether or not He exists.
Now, Let me say again that I am a very unusual reader of the Bible. As a Pagan, I’m comfortable with the idea of polytheism. The Gods may all emanate from some single divine Ground Of All Being, or they may not, but they certainly manifest as separate and distinct. At the same time, as a Quaker, I acknowledge YHWH as a God and I worship in a tradition that traces its beginnings back to that God and his little extended family of followers.
But reading Genesis on its own terms—letting it speak for itself, instead of viewing it through the lens of later writings—YHVH sure looks like one of your basic Mesopotamian Gods within a thriving polytheist matrix. You can almost see him as a young upstart God, hustling to make a name for himself in the pantheon, laying his money on this one guy, Abram, and his fairly unpromising family (Abram's wife was barren, after all) and then busting his butt to protect his investment. Most of Genesis is really a very small story, not about the creation and destruction of worlds, but a family epic of love and betrayal and the building of a financial empire. I almost want to call it “Dallastine.”
More tomorrow.

Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Peter on Reading Genesis (part I)

Part I: A freaky little book
Part II: A Convergent Conversation / Small Gods
Part III: The Human Face of God / And the LORD saw what He had made…
Part IV: A few things missing
Part V: An Evolving Covenant / The Initiatory Challenge
Postscript: The Expulsion from Eden
Afterward: Why does it matter?

I have begun a serious re-reading of the Bible. It’s been a while. I stopped being Christian rather precipitously about 25 years ago, and even back then, I was focused almost entirely on the Gospels. This time around I’m starting with Genesis.
Cat favors the King James translation. She’s an English teacher, so the archaisms of the language don’t bother her and she likes the way the KJV can really make the poetry sing. Back when I was Christian, I read Good News For Modern Man in high school and then took a liking to the Jerusalem Bible when I was in college, and eventually took a year of ancient Greek, hoping to read the Gospels in the original.
I don’t remember more than half a dozen words of Greek now, and anyway it’s the Hebrew Scriptures I’m interested in this time. So I’ve decided to take off the gloves and go for the Anchor Bible. They give you about a page and a half of the actual text, followed by a couple of pages of footnotes (mostly about the meanings of specific words in Hebrew) and then about three pages of commentary about what we know of the history of the text—when and where it was written and then rewritten, as well as the parallels with other Mesopotamian texts (like the Epic of Gilgamesh) and the ways that it does and does not correspond with the archaeological record.
Unlike Cat, I’m not reading the Bible for poetry. I want to know what it says. I think I’m a pretty unusual reader of the Bible in that I find myself reading it as a writer, and what I want most to understand in the Bible is the mindset and the experiences of its writers. I’m not reading it to understand G*d, I’m reading it to understand the writers’ experiences of G*d. That distinction is important, because so many readers of the Bible bring to it a crushing burden of pious preconceptions. Modern Christian (and Jewish) understandings of G*d grew out of traditions that changed and developed over time, and these traditions left Biblical texts like breadcrumbs along the path. But those texts have been interpreted and reinterpreted since, so thoroughly and so often, that it’s very hard for a modern reader even to hear the writers’ original words over the heckling of later critics from St. Paul through Thomas Aquinas and right on up through Jerry Falwell and his ilk.
As a writer, my prejudice is: Let the writers say what they meant to say. Agree with it or disagree, but don’t try to warp it or twist it or rewrite it to your own liking, because that, let me tell you, is the most violent, the most discouraging thing you can do to a writer.
And I’ve got to say, reading Genesis on its own terms, it’s a freaky little book. More on that next time.

Thursday, July 10, 2008

Cat's Spiritual Journey, Part XII: This Forgiveness Stuff

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

In some ways, what I have written on how my community, my family and I reacted to the divisions in our household seems grandiose to me. In truth, I'm a really lucky woman. In a world where domestic violence, child abuse, warfare and the violence that pits neighbor against neighbor are all commonplace, what, really have I got to forgive? What do I know of betrayal or suffering on any large scale?

Not much, honestly.

I know that my insights on hurt and forgiveness are small ones compared with the insights of a Nelson Mandela, a Gandhi, or many of the survivors of abuse and violence I've known over the years. But it seems to me that honoring my own small learning curve is one way to try to live up to their legacies.

Rather than putting the peace-makers of the world on a pedestal as noble but essentially Other, I have wanted to share with you the story of how a basically very ordinary, sometimes arrogant, rageful, self-absorbed piece of humanity --me-- responded to a very ordinary human conflict.

I know that one of the most maddening things in dealing with the conflicts that tore our community apart was the feeling that no one quite understood what I was trying to say--including myself. Just exactly why did what was happening hurt so much?

I've felt the need to write about this chapter in my life partly for the same reasons I used to compulsively talk and talk and talk about the it at the time with anyone who seemed remotely willing to hear me out. I've needed, myself, to find the answer to that question, why does this make me so angry and afraid?

I'm grateful to all the people who helped me to find language to express why the conflicts in our home and coven were so bitter.

I'm grateful to Maureen, for instance, who put our experiences into the Hellenic context of the ancient duty of hospitality--the sacred relationship between guest and host without which the ancient world could not have functioned. (Sacred, in part, because connections between communities would have been impossible without the mutual care and respect of hosts and guests, given the total absence of Ramada Inns, freeways, and ATM machines.) There was something in that idea that did reflect our experience: there is an intimacy in any relationship between you and any person you receive into your own home that does make both host and guest vulnerable.

This was just one of the ways community members who listened deeply, and reflected back the ways they saw our story, helped us to see it, too, and helped us begin to heal.

Likewise, I'm grateful to those who have lovingly shared with us their perceptions of how difficult it was to be close to us at that time. Brightshadow, for instance, has reflected on how unsafe our anger made him feel. "I kept waiting for that anger to be turned on me," he once told me, "though it never was." Watching us react with such emotional violence pained others, who did not often know how to respond. And when friends reached out to offer their best wisdom--your anger hurts: hurts you and hurts us--we felt judged and rejected.

Sometimes, those who genuinely felt for us and wanted to help refused to listen to us, for fear that hearing us try to describe why we were angry and what we were feeling would just act as fuel for the fire, and make matters worse. Many of our friends felt lost, and wanted us to move into forgiveness (or at least amnesia) without ever finding words for what went wrong.

I see others caught up in this same kind of pain, and I want to offer my experiences as a lifeline, to other Felicias as well as other Cats, Peters, and Two Bears in the world. We need to better understand how individuals find peace with one another, and how communities can help them with it.

Not listening, not helping others find words, is not helpful. Insisting that there are no victims is not helpful. Helping people who feel betrayed to find truthful, clear ways to frame what happened to them, and why it was wrong... that is helpful.

I have written that I don't know what forgiveness really is, and that's true. But I do have a sense of what it isn't.

For instance, in my work as a therapist, I have come across a number of stories like this one: an adult woman, sexually abused by her father throughout her childhood, is invited each year to the family Thanksgiving, where she is seated next to the father who abused her, and who has never acknowledged the abuse, nor sought help for his behavior in any way. She is required to do this as a condition of her family accepting her, and as a token of her "forgiveness" of actions no one has ever publicly discussed.

That is not forgiveness. That is tyranny.

And maybe the woman can find it within herself to find whatever it is forgiveness might mean in such a context--but if she does, it will be no thanks to her family.

One of the things I learned, as a therapist, was the importance of discussing the perpetrator with their victim.

This went totally against the grain of what most psychotherapy is about. In most psychotherapy, the therapist is trained to turn discussion relentlessly back to the client's own feelings and thoughts. After all, those are the only part of any social equation we have direct control over. There's logic to that.

But in the case of those who have been battered or emotionally abused or raped--especially by someone they knew--there really is a need to discuss the perpetrator. Because, no matter how clear it may be in the abstract that what was done was wrong, it so often doesn't seem clear when it happens to us. I once knew a woman who had been raped at the age of five, for example, who blamed herself for the incident because the perpetrator took her out and bought her a treat immediately afterward. She accepted the treat--ergo, she had been paid for and had consented to the assault. Such is the logic of the human heart, and we need compassionate help, often, to confirm what another part of us knows: that we have been harmed, that we have been wronged. And, so often, only looking at and discussing the perpetrator and his actions allows the victim to see what another person could see clearly.

But if we won't discuss a perpetrator, for fear of encouraging vengefulness, we're not helping that person work toward a clear vision of their experience.

And I don't think we can "forgive" what we have not yet seen, fully and clearly. I think that's as true with the small things--like overcoming a breach between housemates--as it is with the large ones, like child rape and genocide. First we see and try to understand. Then, and only then, can we hope to move beyond.

Of course, it's possible to speak about our wounds in ways that encourage deepened anger and vindictiveness, and it's possible for listeners, especially those with unhealed wounds similar to those of the speaker, to encourage deepening the spite. That's especially true among those who suspect that, actually, they have done something wrong or even unforgivable--something some of us feel irrationally, and others because we really have committed grave and terrible acts.

I think of this, and I think of the dream of Corrie and Betsie ten Boom, sent to a concentration camp for their role in hiding Jews from the Nazis. The ten Booms dreamed of, after the war, opening a different kind of camp, for reconciliation between the survivors and the prison guards. This dream ultimately failed, and I find it easy to understand why. Not only would it have demanded extraordinary heroism for survivors of the camps to participate fully and honestly in such work, but it would have required a moral courage and self-knowledge almost beyond human capacity for the guards to have done so.

Knowledge must come before forgiveness, let alone reconciliation. Knowing how hard and long a process it has been for me to come to terms with my minor little pains, I have greater respect than ever for the survivors of childhood abuse I worked with for so many years. It truly can take a lifetime to take in what has been done to us. There is no shortcut to forgiveness, and just knowing takes years, even with the most empathic and sensitive support.

As for those who have done terrible things to others, like the camp guards... well, that is knowledge that only the bravest will ever acquire. It is asking so much, this self-knowledge. I understand why so many fail even to begin.

What this means to me, as a member of two spiritual communities, is that I want to urge us all to remember how hard the process is.

It's not that I do not value it--it's that, I think, having fought so hard and so long in what Quakers call "the Lamb's war" to know my own anger, and to open up even a willingness to forgive, I am utterly unwilling to accept forgiveness's counterfeit. False forgiveness, the willingness to pretend to a love and an openness we don't really feel, is an act of violence against truth. It is ugly and it does not lead to healing, to knowledge, or to compassion.

In fact, only the real thing will do, and the real thing does not come cheap. Communities need to hold those of us struggling with forgiveness tenderly, and be willing to suffer with us in spirit as they do so, rather than fortifying themselves behind platitudes.

We need to accept that the road to forgiveness is long and sometimes confusing, and be willing to be patient and confused right along with those who are suffering from hurt and betrayals. We need to be willing to hear painful truths, and not to dismiss what we think is trivial; at the same time, we need not to enshrine a sufferer's current understandings as holy writ, incapable of changing or growing in wisdom with time.

The mission is the same wherever we are. It differs in difficulty, certainly. My task has been easier than the task of a homeless Untouchable in New Delhi, or the survivor of genocide in Bosnia. It's a long hard job, forgiving. And it's a long hard job, supporting one another through betrayal, anger, and fear. It only looks easy from a distance. Up close--I gotta warn ya--it's gonna be harsh, painful, and rough.

But it's our job.

As a Friend, I have come to understand that forgiving one another--seeing each other and ourselves clear and whole, in order to love one another properly--is our work. We are all called to it, without exception, though it will not be easy. I am no kind of master of it--my story makes that clear.

But this is my notice to the world: I will try. Even knowing I have little talent for it, even knowing how much I flat out suck at living rightly and acting in love, I will trust in the Spirit of Peace to lead me. And I will try.

(You try, too.)

Afterward: It should be obvious by now, but just in case it isn't, let me repeat myself. The fact that I make connections between my small experience of hurt and forgiveness and the process of forgiveness for victims of criminal or global acts of violence is not in any way a comparison of Felicia's very ordinary human failings with acts of violence or abuse. That is not the quality I am comparing, and any implication otherwise reflects my failings as a writer. (I sure hope that's clear!)

Tuesday, July 08, 2008

Cat's Spiritual Journey, Part XI: Community, 2.0 OR: How Do You Mend a Broken Heart?

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

This past weekend, Peter and I visited our old friends, Kirk and Amy, at Laurelin Farm, host to so many meetings of the Church of the Sacred Earth. Though my experiences with Felicia Hardy alienated me from that community for a long while, the story does not end there. Walking the land at Laurelin this weekend gave me some reminders about what Pagans (or any people, really) are capable of when we are gathered together in love.

As I said, I felt disillusioned by our community over how it responded to the schism within our coven and our house.

My coven was, at that time, a member of the Church of the Sacred Earth, a group of perhaps twenty to thirty regular members and attenders who gathered three or four times a year for camping and ritual retreats. There were campfires and workshops and Pagan sing-a-longs--sometimes good and sometimes lousy--and it was in this group that I got to revisit my old covenmates, and spend time in the stone circle we'd built together up in the woods at Laurelin.

Beyond that group, there was the nameless community that had coalesced around an annual invitation-only retreat held in upstate New York. This is the gathering which, at this point, has been going on long enough that kids who were raised attending it are beginning to bring children of their own; its mailing list is now around five or six hundred Pagans and family members, and it has been described as a kind of Pagan Brigadoon: a magical village that appears for only one weekend each year. There is a lot of love and connection in that group, as relationships have built up slowly over the course of decades.

Felicia and Tony left our house, but they did not leave our communities. In fact, it seemed as if, in those first few years, they made a point of digging themselves in there as deeply as they could, despite the fact that they shortly moved out of the New England region entirely. At least in the first few years after the break, I believe that the knowledge that their presence made us deeply uncomfortable was the main point of their active participation in our community. And it was painful in ways that the rest of our community largely didn't want to see or acknowledge.

Nobody likes conflict, of course. And the conflict with Felicia and Tony hadn't ended when she moved out; it had just gone underground. But we were the only ones who were willing to recognize that it was even going on.

We came up with a saying at our house, around this time: "When you play with the pit bull, and the pit bull bites you, you don't want to play with the pit bull no more." It was made pretty clear to us that, since our personal pit bull wasn't going anywhere, we were expected to get down on the floor and play with her. And we just didn't want to.

So we stopped going to community events for a while, because we could not negotiate a way to feel safely engaged with the group. We missed our friends, but when we were with them, we always wound up feeling bad.

Let me tell you about my friend Chuck.

One of the things that Peter and I have often discussed is the way that some people seem just naturally good at growing communities around them. Sometimes they are notable for their warmth, or their charisma, or their creativity. They may not be perfect people, but they are people who just, somehow, make it more likely that communities will form in their vicinity. Peter and I call them "seed crystals"--they're like the string put into the pot of sugar solution, along which rock candy crystalizes. They're often the hubs of small, local communities, and when they are good at linking with and respecting other seed crystal folks, they encourage the growth of warm, caring, and connected communities.

I've known a lot of seed crystals, seeds of community, in my time. I'm pretty sure that Peter and I are seeds. Kirk is one; my friend Beth is one. Laura Wildman is one in a big way.

And Chuck was one, too.

How to explain about Chuck... Not tall and not short; trim of build, hairy everywhere but on his head, cheerfully lewd, inappropriately funny, and possessed of a love of music matched only by his inability to sing anything in a single key, Chuck is just one of those people who gathers others to him. He's been the warm, laughing center of one of the longest running covens and magical lodges I know about. (Such groups are notoriously short-lived and volatile.) And his friendship was the bridge that brought his group, Ouroborous Isis Gnosis, into the ranks of the Church of the Sacred Earth, and then brought the Church of the Sacred Earth within the fold of the nameless gathering. So: not just a seed for community. Chuck was also a web-weaver, who brought people who would like one another together. It is a rare and important gift.

Chuck is also a superb ritualist, and a natural leader and teacher. And when I finally returned to attempt, gingerly, to reconnect to community after having stood apart from them for a time, it was natural that Chuck would take it on himself to check in with me about it.

There's no doubt that Chuck meant well.

But when, in the first conversation the two of us had privately after Felicia moved out, he smiled benignly and asked me, "What have you learned from this experience?" I wanted to smack him across the face (smug bastard).

"What have you learned from this experience?" Ah, yes. The question of the New Age to kids in Darfur, the question that reminds us that we "choose our own realities." It's all karma, baby. You know you asked for this/earned this in a previous life...

To be fair, I really don't think that's what Chuck was trying to convey. I think he knew he was one of the wisdom figures in our little Pagan community--what Quakers would term a "weighty" member--and he was probably just trying to live up to his reputation.

One of the worst things in the world, I've finally figured out, is to know that you have a reputation for wisdom or insight, and then try to uphold it. This is one of the many reasons I stopped being a therapist--the temptation to try to live up to my reputation for being oh-so-wise was overwhelming, some times. And when any of us start buying into our own press kits, drinking our own Kool Aid, we're in big trouble. So I have a little empathy for Chuck.


Ten years later.

At the time, I didn't believe I would ever trust him--or any Pagan outside my immediate family and coven--again.

Then he had his heart attack.

I remember the day vividly. We had gathered, not at Laurelin, but at Laura's, for a weekend of camping and rituals and workshops. Alexei discoursed on some Celtic theme; I gave Maureen a long-promised Reiki attunement. There was music; there was sparring with foam rubber swords. It was fiercely hot. I got sunburned. Felicia and Tony were there with members of a brand new coven, but enough other people I liked were also in attendance that it was not hard to avoid them. I had a pretty good time, got tired, and came home with that familiar post-festival fatigue and satisfaction.

I don't remember the phone call, but Peter does. He remembers me answering the phone, getting very serious, and then breaking off the call long enough to tell him that it was Catherine on the phone, and that Chuck was in the hospital. Peter says he had a candle lit on the altar before I finished the call.

My husband also remembers that, when I hung up the phone, I looked up at Peter and and said, "I guess we weren't done with him, after all."

There's nothing like almost losing someone to remind you that you love them.

Chuck did not do well. An unlikely candidate for a heart attack, he had always been physically fit and trim. But a second heart attack followed the first, and his heart became more and more damaged. Released from the hospital, he made the dietary changes he was told to, lost weight, and followed his physical therapy like it was his new religion. But even following his doctors' advice scrupulously, rather than becoming stronger, he became weaker.

His heart was broken, and he needed another. He became far too weak to travel. We did not see him anymore. Only on the lists was he still a presence--still irreverent, still optimistic, still insistent.

He would defy doctors' order, sometimes, and go up or down a flight of stairs. It hurt him to be as dependent on Catherine as he was. Always vigorous and strong the way a young tree is strong, Catherine just picked up more and more of the weight. It was totally clear--Chuck would not die on her watch, if human love and human strength would prevent it.

This business of waiting on a transplant list--knowing you must not be too sick when the possibility of the transplant arrives, that at any day you may be called into a surgery that is itself life threatening. You know that the heart you may receive comes to you only from a death. You know that the heart that comes to you can come to no other. What do you hope for? Pray for? Surely, it must have been like holding their breaths for the months and months of that waiting.

Then the miracle: the brand new heart that saved Chuck's life. He had his second chance.

Chuck began to sign his emails, Chuck 2.0.

But still, we almost never saw him. He had a succesful transplant, but not a recovery. Chuck's body tried to reject the heart he had been given. He battled that rejection with drugs that made his own immunity so weak he could go nowhere, save clad in a surgical mask.

I remember the first annual gathering of the nameless community after his transplant.

Each year, we gather for a weekend retreat in the Catskills. Each year, we cast a circle around our community--at the end of our time together. Like the Quaker meetings that say that the service begins as soon as the worship has ended, our community asserts that our circle lasts all year long--and is closed and then renewed when we meet again the following year.

So each year, once the tents are pitched and the babies are settled in to their bunks, the first order of business is the "closing" ritual. That's followed by the welcoming circle, when we sit in a big circle and go round the room, sharing our names, reminding one another of our coven or grove associations, and perhaps also sharing a word or two to recognize the big changes that we've been through during the year.

That first year, Chuck 2.0 could not be present in body; his immune system was just too weak. But his coveners had brought a tape recorded greeting, and--this is so Chuck--a whimsical stand in for himself: a life-sized photo of his head, mounted on a popsicle stick, and held up in front of the face of the covener who pressed play on the machine.

When Chuck's voice greeted us, apologizing for his absence, and thanking us for our spells and our prayers, I cried. (I'm crying now, as I remember.)

And the later year when Chuck himself returned to us, my gratitude was so much deeper than my anger had ever been. In fact, Chuck led us in a workshop on body image and illness, held skyclad in the meditation room. And that was the first time I participated in a ritual with Felicia and Tony after the schism: naked, in a small room, our own hearts opened along with Chuck's.

I don't mean to deceive you. Felicia and I are not comfortable with one another. I doubt that we will be in this lifetime. But, at least partly through the understandings that came to me in the wake of Chuck's illness, I can wish that we were.

What is forgiveness? If it is the amnesia that my community seemed to be demanding of me, then perhaps Felicia has forgiven me; I have not, by that measure, forgiven her. When I share a space with her--skyclad or fully clothed--my pulse races, my palms sweat, and I feel the fear of betrayal in my body.

But if I sit patiently, and allow my pulse rate to return to something closer to normal, it gets better. These last few years, Felicia and I have been able to hold civil, even interesting conversations about our work with one another. She teaches writing; so do I. Student writers have so much in common, no matter what the grade level or setting. It is something, and it is even something new which we can share.

We never discuss the events that led to her departure from our lives.

I can't help that my body remembers. But it does, and I don't in any way want to return to being her covenmate, her housemate, or an intimate friend.

I do wish, however, that we could speak to one another more naturally. I wish that we could talk freely and honestly about old times--not to set the record straight or make amends or change anything about the past. I just wish it were possible to be ourselves with one another. So far, that has not been possible, but I would be glad if that could change.

Is that forgiveness? I don't know.

I do know that, as a Pagan, I saw no real imperative to forgiveness. "There is no Pagan doctrine of forgiveness," I used to say. And whether that is true or not, it is the case that seeing forgiveness as a good in and of itself was something that had to wait for the peace testimony to seize me by the spinal column, the day I began to be a Quaker.

But there was something else I had been learning, even before that day. So--let me lay my cynicism and anger and defensiveness aside, and finally answer Chuck's question, asked so many years ago:

What have I learned from this experience?

I have learned that love is never wrong. I have learned that the day I stood within Felicia's heart, and saw it as a green and growing forest, was the truest seeing I will probably ever have of her.

I have learned that, yes, people are assholes. They will hurt you, betray you, snub you, and break your heart. All of them. All communities--all the gatherings of humans you will ever find, or shape, or stumble upon in a long lifetime. People suck. They're gonna let you down.

Love them anyway.

Love them anyway.

Love them anyway.

And that is the way that you mend your broken heart. Welcome to Community, 2.0.

Thursday, July 03, 2008

A Huge Sigh of Relief

I am so massively relieved to have finally put up Part X of the Spiritual Journey series, I actually feel a bit dizzy.

I've honestly been working on that sucker since October--October!--and I've lost track of how many drafts I've thrown out over the months. It's been hanging over my head like an unkept promise the whole time. And to think I started this project last summer because I thought it would make an easy series of writing prompts! Just a little light writing project to get me over the quiet dog days of summer.

Oh, man...

I'm sure I'll find things to rewrite in this one. And I can only hope I struck the right balance between fairness and detail--what to leave in, and what to leave out. Even after all these years, it's still really hard to write this particular story.

But at last, at long last, I'm done writing it! And I never have to write it for the first time again. Woo hoo!

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 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.
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