Monday, January 25, 2010

Of Athames, Swords and Ploughshares

Recently, I blogged about my enjoyment of a sport I'm no longer able to practice: kendo-style sparring with padded swords (boffers, to those in the know). The same back injury that keeps me from sitting down as I type these words took the sword out of my hands for good--though the glory--at least with my 9th grade students--lives on.

I shared that story on the blog partly because it keeps my spirits up, in this long and pain-filled winter, to think of myself as active and athletic, rather than as injured and middle-aged. (Perhaps it's most accurate to admit that both are true.) But I also enjoy the irony of apparent contrasts: the aging Quaker lady, peering through spectacles on the bridge of her nose, who enjoys the immediacy and physicality of whacking somebody with a great big implement of destruction--while trying not to get whacked in return.

But there have been a number of thoughtful questions in response to my story, both here and in person. Wasn't this before I was a Quaker? one friend asked, with the implication that, surely, I would not engage in such a sport now. Doesn't this kind of thing undermine my pacifism? asked another.

The questions deserve serious thought. And nine years into my Quaker practice, maybe it's time to take stock of the state of my peace testimony--the thing that brought me into the Society of Friends to begin with, after all.

So--to start with the first question that occurs to me--if I could wield a sword again, would I?

Hell, yes. In a heartbeat.

Well, OK. Given the fact that whacking people with great big swords is not something Quakers are generally known for, why? What makes me miss it so much?

Well, it's physically exhilarating, the way skiing down a steep, icy mountainside, on a clear and bitterly chilly morning is exhilarating... that feeling of being on the edge of disaster, and the only thing that staves it off is being utterly and entirely present and in my body, reacting to my environment physically long before my brain can form any conscious thoughts about it at all.

For a very, very verbal person, perennially in my head, those moments of being forced to be wholly in my animal self are very precious.

And it's... beautiful. There is an element of grace in any sport done well, perhaps. But they call the composition of stage combat "choreography" for a reason: it is a dance. And perhaps I did not dance as gracefully as some, but I did love it, and for many of the same reasons I love to dance. It just feels... beautiful.

Finally, sparring also calls on my reserves of physical courage. Unlike a lot of women, I grew up spending most of my time with a brother, and the two of us fought like cats and dogs for years.

Now, the fighting I do regret--and I'm grateful we did outgrow the bitterness of our childhood battles. But the fact that our fights were often physical has meant, for me, that I'm a bit like my bichon frise dog in temperament: Priscylla Charybdis, who grew up with an English mastiff for a companion and chew toy, and has no fear of dogs or men. By the same token, I am not easily intimidated by people, including men, who are larger, stronger, or more aggressive than I am. I know what it feels like to get hurt, and, you know, it's not so terrible. You just get up and keep going.

And boffers, though padded so as not to do real injury, do hurt when they connect. They sting! And, well, for the sake of keeping this blog rated PG, let's just say that the rather silly looking armor they often depict Valkyries in doesn't look so silly after a few rounds getting stung by boff swords!

Now, don't get me wrong. The pain is not the point. But knowing that pain won't kill me, that it is transitory, and that I do not need to be paralyzed by it... that has been very important to my sense of who I am as a person.

I think that the cultivation of my physical courage, through sparring and through sports like aikido and karate (also no longer possible for me, alas) has helped me cultivate a kind of spiritual courage as well: the courage to face my shame at knowing when I have been wrong, and my willingness to risk openness and vulnerability really do feel connected to this willingness to take physical risks. I know how to hurt, how to take a blow and not panic, and in more than a physical sense. This has almost certainly nurtured me as a writer. And in my spiritual being, my willingness to go deep, to question myself, and to be open to embracing radical change all somehow have roots in this physicality.

However, there is a more direct spiritual connection with my Paganism, in my relationship with the horned god.

For years now, my primary relationship with a Pagan god has been with Herne, god of the hunt, of wildness, and of the exchange of life and death in the natural world.

And Herne is a god, among other things, of physical courage. He's the stag that is hunted and killed to feed the village, and he's the hunter who brings home that kill, all at the same time. He offers life and he takes it, because here on this planet, that's the deal. We all--even vegetarians--live at the cost of the lives of others. So Herne is the god of facing difficult truths, like what it really costs to be alive... and the fact of our own mortality.

I first undertook to study the sword as a direct outcome of my relationship with Herne, and as a result of an experience with a sexual predator in the Pagan community. After being threatened with rape in the context of a Pagan religious retreat--the very setting where a Pagan woman should be safest--I took a good hard look at what I had been taught about the athame, the Wiccan ritual knife used to symbolize will and the intellect, which is never, ever used to shed blood. So clear is this taboo, in fact, that some Wiccan traditions take it farther, and don't allow the use of an athame for any practical cutting at all, and have a completely separate blade (a boline or white-handled knife) for mundane tasks like chopping herbs or cutting up a dish of brownies to be handed round the circle during cakes and ale.

But part of what I took away from my painful experience was that I was not willing to sign on to an obligation to a passive kind of personal non-violence. I felt strongly that fighting back against an immediate physical threat was something it was OK to do. And it was in response to what I had been through that many of the male members of my then-congregation of Pagans created for me both an athame and a ritual that symbolized my right to defend my body--and the obligation of every man present to respect a woman's right to say no, and to defend her body's integrity. In giving me that knife, the men who participated in the ritual explicitly recognized my right to use it, to use it on any one of them, let alone on a stranger, if it were necessary to defend myself.

The athame itself was a physical manifestation of my relationship with Herne. Not only was it ground from high-quality steel to a very sharp edge, but its handle was made from the antler of a stag, Herne's own animal. That was in no way a coincidence.

It is hard to express what that knife meant to me. I had been made to feel powerless by one part of my Pagan community. Another chose to affirm my power--my right, as a living, breathing animal, to defend myself from predation.

This makes sense to me. Herne is the god of the animal world, and of the animal self. (As a Pagan I reject the notion that animals are "fallen" or soulless, or less than humans are.) And animals do use violence, though not for the kinds of motivations humans fall prey to: vengeance, envy, or spite. Moreover, when animals use violence, it is almost always either in order to eat, or to fend off an attack. Animals rarely resort to lethal violence against their own kind; their aim is life, not death.

As an animal, I feel that Herne recognizes my right of self-defense.

But also, as a human, I feel that Herne recognizes my right to choose. I have the option of using force--or not. The gods also are alert to issues of justice and injustice, and I may choose not to act in my own defense, for many reasons.

But as far as the god of the hunt is concerned, I certainly may.

It was out of this sense that I began to train in the use of a sword.

The athame I was given was sharp, hard steel. But a weapon on its own is only a symbol of power or will, and symbols that are not immediately experienced in the flesh stay mere abstractions in the mind. To really take on the power of choice that the weapon was meant to convey, I had to take it up physically in some way, and learn its use.

Using live steel was out of the question. My aim was never to learn street fighting--I had previously taken karate and aikido, after all--but to grant myself a more mental, emotional, and spiritual skill. So I chose the most dramatic, showy, symbol-laded weapon I could think of, a sword. And, because actually hurting myself or someone else was not the point, I chose a padded sword, a boffer. I sought out teachers from the members of my Pagan church who had training through the Society of Creative Anachronism, a group that also does not use edged weapons in combat, but wields them with force just the same.

And I practiced. High blocks, low blocks, parrying that led to blows inside my opponent's guard, how close we could stand before we were within striking distance. (If the swords are close enough to cross, you are in killing distance.) We practiced two-handed strokes, one-handed strokes, European hand-and-a-half style and Japanese kendo style... whatever my teachers had to offer.

The hard part was never receiving blows. The hard part was learning the level of relaxed alertness that led to control, and balancing relaxation and power. (My lack of that balance was what eventually caused me to injure my back, and cost me my ability to engage in the sport ever again.)

And the hardest part of all was that, in my lack of control, I would sometimes strike my opponent illegally, with a forbidden head-shot, or a wild smack to the neck or face. Even with boffers, injuries are possible. Even with boffers, it was horrible to hurt another person--much, much harder than being hurt myself.

And this is one of the things I think is true of women in our culture. Men, perhaps, are overly ready to turn to violence in their affairs. Women, however, are too often so afraid of hurting others--and not just physically--that we actually can become clumsy, and wind up causing more pain, to others as well as ourselves, than if we were less cringing about the possibility of pain.

I learned--or began to learn, because I have still got a long way to go--to allow others to be in the game with me. Taking risks myself I was already pretty good at. But I had to learn to allow others who were willing to do so to put themselves at risk, too. For, in the final analysis, we were not on opposite "sides", my opponents and I. We were dancing together, both delighting in our movement and our skill and our courage, and both equally willing to face the risk of momentary pain.

There's a lot in human relationships that is like that. I think I learned a few things about being honestly and fully present in relationships in my time with the sword. And while I'm unsure these are lessons that everyone needs to learn, or would learn in this way, I feel clear that the ability to accept another's willingness to risk himself or herself, in love or in play, is a gift. And not the least of the gifts I have had from the horned god, either.

Sparring is play combat. For me, at least, it led to real growth.

I mentioned that it was not an obligation to use force that I felt Herne offered me, but the option. That is an important distinction to me. As I grow in my Quaker identity, I try to listen carefully for the ways that Spirit is leading me in the peace testimony. And while I try to be alert to leadings around the use of physical force and violence, I have not so far had a clear sense that physical force in all forms is always wrong. I am not clear that physical violence in my immediate self-defense is wrong, particularly if I do not take life.

I do feel very clear that I should never take up weapons or go to war in any cause whatsoever. Moreover, while Herne may have given me a sense that I have the right to some forms of self-defense, he does not shield me from the consequences of such an act. As a Quaker, I think that those consequences include not only the possibility of increasing the frequency and severity of violence in the world, and a risk of damage to my spirit, but in some ways worst of all, that I would sadden and burden the God of Light I have since come to know.

My peace testimony began in my revulsion and despair at the destruction of 9/11, and with the sudden and powerful stop to my sense of the acceptability of organized violence between societies.

It has not grown, this stop, to a sense that the use of force--limited and the least possible force--on the part of police officers is wrong, for instance. It has not grown to a sense that I must not use non-lethal force in my own immediate defense.

And it certainly has not grown to a sense that my enjoyment of what might be called play violence, either in sparring with padded weapons or in attacking imaginary dragons and orcs in role playing games, is wrong.

* * *

It might be fair to ask, how has my peace testimony changed my life, in that case? If there are spiritual gifts that are rooted in my participation in mock combat, are there others that have been cultivated since? And are there ways that my actions, however they may not be in conflict with my inward peace testimony, may mar my witness in the world?

These are still open questions with me, to some extent. But as I said earlier, it is perhaps time to take stock of where I've come on this journey so far.

Along those lines, I will continue this exploration, in another post, focused on how I have been changed by the Spirit of Peace during my time among Friends.

Sunday, January 17, 2010


I am annoyed with myself.

I like to think of myself as a warm and compassionate person; I like to have a sense of my own concern and tenderness for the people around me, and especially in my meeting.

At times I live up to that sense of myself. But among the many things that I dislike about physical pain is the discovery that I'm a lot more self-absorbed than I liked to think. My world has narrowed to be like a radio station in a very small town. There's nothing much else on the dial: it's all me, all the time. How's my pain level today? Is the new physical therapy exercise working? How will I feel after I drive my car/work all day/grade these papers/sit through this meeting?

The members of my Quaker meeting have been terrific in supporting me. They've recently taken on making the whole meeting room more accessible, not just for me, but for anyone else with a disability. I've gotten supportive phone calls, emails, cards, and even a visit--from a member of my meeting who was actually recovering from surgery of her own. But nothing seems to break through the crust of my self-involvement for long...

Today, on my way into meeting, many people said how glad they were to see me back after my absences the last two weeks. They commented on how well I was walking, and congratulated me on being stronger and healthier. And they're right; I'm definitely on the mend.

But like a kid halfway through their recovery from chicken pox, I'm cranky and whiney and restless--in my head, if not out loud.

Walking has not been the problem. Walking has been the comfort and the oasis. It is sitting that is torture, whether in a car or in a chair. Even my Lafuma chair is painful after a half hour or so.

Can you believe I'm whining about this? There are people whose pain comes from arthritis, that will only worsen, or is part of a disease process that has no cure, or even is part of a far more serious back problem that might require surgery--with or without the certainty of relief at the end of it. I know all this.

And yet, in my head, as people were cheerily welcoming me to meeting, letting me know I had a spring in my step and they saw it and they were glad about it, because they were concerned for me and they cared about me, the spoiled child in my head was snarling, "Walking isn't the problem, you jerk! I still can't sit down, you maroon!"

Nice! Very nice.

I knew I was being irrational. People go out of their way to be kind, and I'm sarcastic toward them in my head because they aren't up on the details of my petty health problems? These are people who have busy lives and worries of their own, who are offering me kindness, and it took work to remember that, in another life, I love them, too?

It seems I am more human, and less saintly, than my fantasies make me out to be. Dammit.

I had such a hard time sensing God today. I know She's there, like a blue sky above me. Something inside me is just having a really hard time accepting that it is my job to raise my own head, to look up, and see the stars.

I know She's there. I know my friends love me, and that, when I am less crabby and self-pitying, I'll remember how to love them back, and that tenderness will restore itself to my world-view, like a missing color from my palette. (I can feel it, even now, that River of Kindness and Life, roaring invisibly beneath all things, making them tremble with its power and strength.)

But I know, too, that sometimes loving-kindness, or even simple reasonableness, is a grace I do not have. Like all grace, it's not mine of my own creation--it's only ever just loaned to me, from time to time. I don't get to own it, or command it, or take it for granted.

It's a bit humbling to discover how much that grace is not me. I'm really not happy to find myself so very small.

Saturday, January 16, 2010

The Swashbuckling Quaker

If one plans to become a middle-aged female teacher of high school English, there is no better preparation than the study of the sword. Seriously.

Yesterday, as I was packing up my materials to leave school for the weekend--an enterprise which, since my back problems flared up, has required a lot of student assistance--one of the small tribe of students who had been staying after in my room, playing online games and discussing zombies with one another, asked me a question.

"Ms. Bishop," Randy asked. "Is it true you hurt your back sword-fighting?" He looked at Josh and Jake, his friends and (presumably) the source of this rumor which Randy hardly dared to credit.

"Yep," I was able to answer. "Yep, it's true."

Although this recent flare-up (worse than the original injury, by far) seems to have been due to nothing more exotic than the H1N1 flu, it is true that I got my original injury sparring, kendo-style, with boff swords: foam-rubber padded swords often used in LARP games, because they allow for realistic athleticism, without realistic injuries.

I have never been in any LARP societies, nor have I ever, like the friends who taught me to wield a sword, ever been active in the Society for Creative Anachronism. Indeed, the only SCA event I ever attended struck me as monumentally boring--other than the clothes, which were, I'll admit, drop-dead gorgeous. But I was fascinated with the grace and (I might as well admit it) romanticism of learning how to use a sword, and in my thirties, back in the days when I had time for such things, I loved sparring with a boffer. I was never very good, but I did get to the point where I was good enough to injure myself: a little too much energy and enthusiasm in an explosive, twisting action, combined with a little to little grace and flexibility, and the result has been that I'll never fence again--or take up golf, I suppose.

But I did hurt myself originally while swinging a sword, and I do know people who have earned a living making suits of armor (plate armor, in fragile-but-comfortable aluminum, available enameled in your choice of fashion colors).

And I think zombies, orcs, and medieval weaponry are all kind of neat.

In a wholly fictional sort of way, mind you.

I admitted all this.

"Cool!" said Randy.

And then he, Josh, Jake, and I proceeded to discuss medieval armor and weaponry--the original arms race--all the way out to my car.

I stopped halfway across the parking lot, midway through an earnest discussion of the effects of a crossbow bolt on a suit of plate armor.

"You know, this is an odd sort of a conversation for a Quaker English teacher to have with her students on a Friday afternoon," I remarked.

We all grinned.

And, you know, it's really much, much easier to teach students who think you're the last word in cool than students who think otherwise.

I owe a lot to my dueling scars.

Sunday, January 03, 2010

Turning Our Backs on Jesus: A Humble Request

Warning: You are entering a rant. Brace yourself.

This one is directed at the Pagans among us. Can we talk? Because I would like to humbly propose we make 2010 the year we leave Jesus out of it.

Now, I'm not addressing myself to those of us who have an ongoing relationship of some sort with Mary's baby boy. I'm not disparaging (or praising, so purists please don't get your knickers in a twist here) those who consider themselves Christo-Pagans, Judeo-Pagans, Jew-Witches, or Witches for Jesus. Nor am I talking to those who have had a past relationship with Jesus who are still sifting through what that means to you personally, as you explore a Pagan religion; nor to those who have been Pagan who find yourselves drawn, for whatever reason, into relationship with Christ. I am not, in fact, addressing myself to hyphenated Pagans of any kind in this post.

Nope, I'm talking to those of you who espouse a Jesus-free Paganism, whether Wiccan, Khemetic, Asatru, or Hellenic. Whether Druid or Recon, New Ager or shaman, I have a request to you:

If Jesus is not part of your religion, if you don't have a relationship with him you are interested in pursuing or exploring, can you please, please, please shut up about him already?

I find it valuable and interesting to read about personal spiritual encounters of any kind--Christian or Pagan, or any of the other various flavors in which we experience the presence of Spirit, and find ourselves in living relationship with it. You will have my complete and undivided attention for every post in which you explain to me why you love Odin, Fortuna, Bast or the Tao. I will thrill to the description of your sense of the numinous in your latest blot, procession, circle, or trance journey.

But when you take the time and trouble to write, not of your encounters with the gods, nor even of your personal journey from Christianity to Paganism (for I note that most of the offenders on this one are ex- but not post-Christian) to give me news bulletins about how uniquely terrible the religion of Christianity is, perhaps I may be excused for wondering how much room you have in your spiritual life for your own gods, if you must spend so very much of your time howling at the gods of others?

Please--and not just for Christ's sake, but for the sake of every Pagan and Pagan deity out there we purport to worship--can we just give Jesus a miss this year?

Let's make 2010 the year when Pagans turn our backs on Jesus.

We now return you to our regularly scheduled blog.

Saturday, January 02, 2010

On Not Being Good

I like to knit, but I hate the beginning of the process. Because I am not a standard size, and because I often knit from homespun yarn, I can never simply take a pattern and knit it according to the directions and hope it comes out right. I have to knit a gauge swatch, and then measure it in several places, and do the math. I have to do the match for how many stitches I get per inch, and then again to figure how many stitches to cast on, to add or reduce or how many pattern repeats come closest to the right size for my project (which, as I said, is never standard), and then I need to re-measure once I've knit three or four inches up from where I cast on, and again before I cast off, and...

You get the picture. I have learned through bitter and sometimes comical outcomes the absolute necessity to do the math. In life, too, as in knitting, I've learned to take as much control of any project as possible, from the very beginning.

Always Do the Math. Even if you hate it. Especially if you hate it. Life has taught me this.

But for the past nine years, my spiritual life has been encouraging me to let that go, and do the unthinkable: surrender the math. Accept that I am not in control.

This back injury of mine seems to be saying the same thing. Let me explain:

When I first became Quaker, in the initial flood-tide of my peace testimony, I would sit in worship just braced for a series of powerful demands from Spirit. I expected I would be told to turn my life upside down, and to rededicate my life to activism. And, while I was not eager for this to happen, I was at least ready for it.

And that's not what I heard. Week after week, when I would center down and listen in for God, what I heard instead was something more like, "Go slow. Breathe. Be here." And most of all, I heard the unthinkable: "Do less."

Do less? You're kidding me, right?

But I was hearing all these things about not outrunning my leadings, and teaching school was consuming more and more of my time, energy, and creativity anyway. I tried it. How faithful I was to that leading is difficult to say, actually--being told to walk barefooted over hot coals would have been something I was better suited to, constitutionally. But I at least tried.

Week after week, I would come in to Quaker meeting, slow down, center down, and listen for God. And after a while I began to feel present in a way I hadn't felt present in my life in a long, long time. I began to feel small inside, but in a good way. I began to feel a sense of trust, in God or in Something, that I hadn't let myself in a long time. And after a while, it was as if I was hearing a voice, saying to me, "You don't have to be smart. You don't have to be strong. You don't have to be brave. You don't have to be good. All you have to do is be here. Take my hand; trust. It's going to be All Right."

It got so that, sometimes, I'd find myself repeating those words to myself like a mantra at the beginning of meeting for worship. I don't have to be smart. I don't have to be strong. I don't have to be brave. I don't have to be good. And a feeling of relief would wash over me in waves.

I don't mean that Quakers, or people generally, don't need to summon strength or courage on occasion, or that becoming a better person isn't part of what we're hoping to do. And on one level, the words of my mantra are confusing to me, like the message to Do Less. (What do you mean, "I don't have to be strong?")

But there's a part of me that somehow has gotten into the habit of thinking that, without my help, the sun won't rise each morning, spring rains won't fall, and bread will forget how to rise. It's more than trying to be the leaven in the loaf--part of me thinks that I am the loaf, the whole thing.

It's kind of a burden, having to make the sun rise every day. And working so hard at, it, focusing so hard on being strong and brave and clever and good, tends to blot out whatever else Spirit may be trying to tell me.

I'd thought I was doing pretty well with this lesson, on letting go and trusting Spirit a little more. (After all, it's not as if I enjoy doing math all day long.) But I'm learning it again, or more, or deeper, since hurting my back.

Last week, in meeting, I settled into worship in my special chair--not really a chair, the Lafuma tilts effortlessly back into the approximate position in which infants sit in car seats, with as little strain on the spine as possible. It takes up a lot of room, and a lot of members of my meeting have gone to significant trouble to rearrange our entire meeting room--not just for me, no, but for me and the two wheelchair users and three Lafuma occupants who attend Mt. Toby. Benches have moved, and people can be very attached to where they sit in meeting each week. My settling in required a certain level of "unsettlement" on the part of others.

And I move slowly when I first emerge from a car. I physically can't get to the members of the various committees in charge of this move to double-check that my chair is correctly placed. I have to trust: trust Peter to set it up, trust Jan or Nancy or somebody to let him know if it's not in the right spot, if it's going to block access for somebody else or cause a problem.

All I get to do is sit.

I can't do the math. I can't be sure I'm right.

I have, in fact, lost the option of trying to rush ahead of the consequences of all my actions and all my choices, double-checking and thinking everything through. I rely on others, and we may get it wrong, and all I can do is say, "Thank you."

And, again, as I was sitting in my chair, trying to get beyond my fear of my own inadequacy, I could hear that Voice of Spirit, reminding me," I don't have to be smart. I don't have to be strong. I don't have to be brave. I don't have to be good."
My meeting loves me anyway. And so does God.

No math required.
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