Sunday, November 13, 2011

The Empty Bucket

Recent conversations with Pagans, in person and online, are bubbling up for me this morning, bringing with them troubling thoughts.

Do we care more about our rituals than we do about our gods?

It's happened more than once, lately, that the response to some concern expressed among us has been a rather pat, "I wrote a really good ritual about that, once."  As though the authorship was the main thing; as though the performance of a ritual script was enough to settle whatever questions living posed us.

I'm not knocking a good ritual.  But surely, the point of ritual is communion, relationship, and change--not carving a notch on a staff or athame.  We seem to think that rituals work if they're good theater, if they move a human audience.

We rarely ask if they are of any interest at all to any other audience.  Indeed, I've heard Pagans go on at length about how nothing any individual one of us can do would ever attract the attention of a god, and that those who think otherwise are fools or deluded... and lucky, as the attention of a god would simply destroy our minds, blow open our psyches and leave us gibbering in a corner.

The gods don't care, the reasoning goes, or if they do, we're unprepared to encounter them in any case.

As for me, I don't see a lot to choose from, between gods who don't care or are unavailable to us, and gods who don't exist.  That polytheism that denies the possibility of a relationship with our gods seems sterile to me, pointless.

Incidentally, I don't feel that way about non-theism.  I know plenty of what might be called "juicy" Pagan non-theists: they may not have much use for gods or goddesses, but their lives are spent in communion with spirits on every side: spirits of ancestors, trees, animals, and places.  Their rituals are not merely theater for their own entertainment, but doorways.

Doorways that lead somewhere.  Wells that bring up water.

Photo by Zserghei
Sometimes I think that, for many of us in the Pagan world, we found a well that gave us water once, but when it ran dry, we neither searched elsewhere for water nor attempted to dig the well deeper, but instead sat down and worshiped an empty bucket.

Too much of the conversation I hear among Pagans strikes me as an invitation to worship an empty bucket, and that makes me sad.

The gods are real, and there is good water everywhere, if you know--not so much how to look, but that looking is a possibility.

Wednesday, November 02, 2011

Gardens Are Just Weird

And amazing.

This is tonight's harvest.  After several nights of frost, and 18" of snow in a blizzard that left us without power for about 48 hours.

Bok choi, carrots, Swiss chard, and mustard greens, gathered from the snow.

Saturday, October 22, 2011

The Saturday Farm

I love Saturdays.

I have come to think of the work that I do on Saturdays as "farming."  Now, I know it isn't farming--not really.  We have a medium-sized vegetable garden and two dogs, and that's not a farm, by any stretch of the imagination. 

But I keep thinking of a comment Joel Salatin made in Yes Magazine once, about how Americans have become used to thinking of our homes as centers of consumption, but how once, thinking of your home as a center of production (typically, a farm, for most of us for most of our history) was the norm.

And between trying to live with less plastic junk and trying to eat more sustainably and locally, Saturdays at home have become very productive days.  And that productivity--the willingness to substitute patience, skill, and thrift for consumption--I've come to think of as a species of farming.  (My apologies to actual farmers, whose work I increasingly appreciate.  But thinking in this way works for me, somehow.)

First thing this morning, after sorting the laundry and putting a load in to wash, I took a half gallon of local milk and put it into a crock to warm up to 86 degrees F.  While that was going on, I rinsed and repackaged the alfalfa sprouts I started on the window sills this week, and then I pitched the culture and rennet into the milk and set it aside to do its thing till tomorrow morning, when I'll put it into cheesecloth to drain and become next week's Neufchatel cheese for our bagels.

Then I took out the three bags of CSA veggies for the week, washed them and processed them, and set aside the share for our neighbor Janet.  By then, the first load of laundry was ready to take out and hang on the clothesline, giving me a chance to notice what an extraordinarily beautiful day it was.  Then I came inside, started the second load of laundry, and threw together the dough for two loaves of bread--enough to last us for about 2--3 weeks, at the rate we normally eat bread, so at least one loaf will wind up in the freezer.

After that, I put my feet up for a bit for coffee and a bagel, read a book, and hung out that second load of wash, by which time it was time to punch down the risen bread and form it into loaves.  While that was going on, I warmed up last week's vegetable stew--made with the whey from last week's Neufchatel cheese and the veggies we hadn't eaten from the garden and CSA share last week--and went out into the garden to get some salad greens to supplement the kale in the farm share.  We've got an embarrassing amount of bok choi, even given the predations of cabbage worms and the fact I've harvested about one a day to go into our lunches for school (rice and beans and some kind of vegetables, generally speaking) but there's a frost warning for tonight, so I picked some of the still immature green leaf lettuce, which may not survive the night, as well as some mustard greens and an icicle radish.  Threw in a bit of cilantro, too, just for fun, came back inside, added alfalfa sprouts, and served up soup and salad for lunch.

Regrettably, I decided that the remains of the autumn olive cobbler I'd made, then frozen, before our camping weekend, and thawed last week, was now too far gone to save, and I consigned it to the compost heap.  When I went outside to add it to the pile, I had a chance to wave to my neighbor Joyce, and ask about her health; she was raking leaves, but I know she has had cancer surgery recently, so I was anxious for an update.

Meanwhile, back in the house the newly-formed loaves of bread were rising, and after I did up the lunch dishes, I threw together a low-fat chocolate wacky cake to bake while I waited on the bread.  More coffee, more reading...  took out the cake, baked the bread, and here I am, writing this with the house smelling like chocolate and fresh bread.

This week's groceries, aside from our garden and CSA shares, will be the milk, butter, cheese and eggs from the coop.  Admittedly, we'll also be using canned beans, bulk rice, pasta, and canned tomato paste to supplement the fresh, frozen, and canned produce we put aside this week and over the summer.  But we've seen our grocery bills go down this year, not up, and I have to tell you, my house smells wonderful, and we eat like kings--vegetarian kings much of the time, but still... not much room for complaint.

And if we do get to craving some meat?  We've still got about 3 lbs of goose (drumsticks and wings) and a similar quantity of goose sausage we put up last spring.  A goose dinner whenever I wish--what royalty could ask for more?

What's more, it's fun.  It's satisfying.  And, while I know that there are a lot of people who don't enjoy cooking and don't enjoy gardening, it has been very satisfying to garden and to learning what to do with each season's produce.  And there's a change in how I approach my food and my home that goes beyond changing recipes.  There's a shift, and it's not one that has to do with an intellectual desire to eat seasonably.  More than anything, perhaps, it's a change of attitude--learning not to ask the question, "What do I want to cook, and what ingredients do I need to buy in order to cook it?" but rather, "What do I have on hand, and what can I cook with it so as not to waste anything?"

Making the most of what I have.  So, yeah, we buy coffee, and our spaghetti noodles are not organic.  I may change a recipe so that it's less gourmet, perhaps.  But it's also going to be more in keeping with where I live, and what the land is producing where I live now--this year, as opposed to other, hypothetical Octobers past.  This year, I have no winter squash--the field where they were growing was flooded by the hurricane--but I have an abundance of leeks.  So this year, I will not serve squash soup... but I will put sliced leeks onto my salad, along with the last of the lettuce, the mustard greens, alfalfa, and kale.

I'm adding value to ordinary things: vegetables, eggs, milk.  But I'm also relating to my world in a different way.  I feel more a part of the world I live in. And I like it.  And I love my Saturday farm--whether it really is "farming" or not.

Monday, September 26, 2011

So Much

So much of the pain in our spiritual lives, it seems to me, comes down to this:

It is bitterly hurtful to have our spiritual gifts rejected or ignored by the communities we belong to.

And yet, the price of bringing those gifts to those communities is being able to accept their guidance on where we are falling short, in error, or mistaken in how we use those gifts.  And that hurts, too--a desperate, sharp, shameful pain in the part of us that sees ourselves willfully rather than honestly, in ego and not in open-heartedness.

And then, for a lot of us, giving guidance that holds the potential to inflict such pain is almost unthinkable.  We are compassionate; we love, and we don't want to be the instrument of one another's hurts.  (And then, too, we don't want to risk losing the love of those we need to guide.)

And this turns out to inflict another kind of suffering: that of the lack of full and present receptivity and responsiveness to one another's gifts.

It is a rare gift, to offer honest, humble criticism in a spirit of love and kindness.  And it's not one much nurtured.

So there's the pain of rejection and the fear of rejection, the pain of honest feedback, and the suffering of avoiding that honesty.

So much of what hurts us in our communities is rooted in our gifts, and how we master our fears, and give and receive them honestly and with integrity...

...or not.

Wednesday, August 03, 2011

The Great Outbreath of Summer

This past weekend, sitting out on my porch in the long twilight of a summer's night, I noticed how, where a few weeks past, our lawn was spangled with fireflies, their lights have almost all gone dark.  I noticed, too, all around me in the night were the songs of crickets.  It was not so many weeks ago that there were no crickets to be heard, and now their songs of love and death fill the days and evenings both.

It must be Lammas-tide.

The long, slow gathered breath of of summer's beginning is over; the wave crests, and the outbreath is beginning.

Tomatoes are ripening in the garden we scurried to plant at the end of May.  Zucchinis mature in such numbers and size that I am challenged to put them all to use; the early lettuce has bolted in the heat, the raspberries are done, and the blueberries are blushing at the end of the garden.  Summer's end is coming, and anything that can bear fruit or give birth is hurrying to do so while it lasts.

This is not the summer I thought I would be having.

I had thought that this summer would be a lot like last summer: lots of writing, lots of hiking, lots of "quality Quaker time."

Instead, it's been lots of gardening, lots of canning and preserving food, and unexpected Pagan time: Peter and I were lucky enough to have surprise guests this past weekend, so we celebrated a pick-up Lammas out by our raised bed gardens.

The Pick-up Lammas ritual begins
We did a symbolic sacrifice and corn "harvest" (with farm-stand corn, as that is not one of the crops we grow) and roasted it on the grill, did a quick "wine" blessing with the homebrew, and feasted on an almost entirely locally-grown meal.  (The flour and barley for the bread and beer were not local.  But since I made them both in my own kitchen, they felt appropriately tied to the local land.)

We brought a share of the bounty out to the woods for the land spirits to share. The next day, everything but a few cherry tomatoes had disappeared.  (A good omen, surely.)

So it has been a satisfying summer.  And--despite the disappointing berry crop this year--a fruitful one.

But I'm not living much in my words.  I'm not writing very much.  I'm making pickles, getting dirt between my toes, or reclining in the shade of a favorite tree, its leaves rustling in the great outbreath of summer.

Saturday, July 30, 2011

New at No Unsacred Place: Disturbing Miracles

Some reflections on this summer's experiments in organic gardening.  Hint:  it's a jungle in there!

Monday, July 11, 2011

Pagan Values Month: Living in Relationship

The very fact that I am writing this entry for Pagan Values Month--June, in case you missed it--is a testimony to the importance of relationships in Paganism.  Despite the fact that we are now eleven days into the month of July, I can't bear to let Pax down.  Not only is Pax a kind and generous-spirited Pagan writer, not only did he invite me to participate this year, but he has become a friend, although we have never (yet) met in person.  We have that so-important thing in my religious life: a relationship.

So this one's for you, Pax--but also for the spirit of Paganism, that I think lives in our need to form and honor powerful relationships in the world.

*          *          *

My husband Peter, a biology teacher, has a classroom full of odd and interesting animals: a turtle, a gecko, two hamsters, and a ball python.  Next year, he's planning to get finches, to help him illustrate his annual evolution talks, and the references to the Galapagos Islands, and all the varieties of finches that can be found there.

He also has a dragon: a bearded dragon called Harriet.

While not quite as interesting a classroom pet as the kind of dragons Hagrid keeps, the reptiles known as bearded dragons are, in fact, quite lively and intelligent.  Now that it is summer, Harriet (and the rest of the menagerie) live at our house, where I get to observe both them and my husband's interactions with them all at close range.  Harriet is in a smaller tank than usual, in order to fit her into the house with all the other beasties, and by the end of a day, she is visibly bored--quite literally climbing the walls of her aquarium.  She wants out, and Peter often agrees, taking her out in his office, behind a closed door (so our dogs won't mistake her for a chew toy) and letting her run around to her heart's content.

He also takes her out, supporting her carefully from beneath all four legs to keep her from becoming anxious, to show her to guests, or to feed her chunks of apple he places up the length of his arms.

She is, for a lizard, a fairly charming being, and clearly pretty alert and interested in the world.  I don't in the least blame Peter for finding her interesting in turn.

But my husband, my rational and scientific husband, behaves somewhat oddly toward Harriet at times. Along with giving her room to run, exercise, and crickets and apples to eat, he spends time training her to accept affection.

My husband owns a dragon, and he is training it to be petted--to tolerate his fingers, not just holding her or moving her about as non-lethal elements of her lizardy world, but to accept those same fingers moving affectionately over her scaly sides.

Harriet will permit this.  But unlike the ability to run freely, to hunt crickets, to eat small mice or apple chunks, she doesn't seek it out.  In the world of physical affection, Harriet pretty clearly could scarcely care less.

Which makes sense.  Think about it: she's a reptile, a lizard.  Her kind do not cuddle one another or their infants for warmth or comfort.  They do not even touch when they reproduce.  More than we can ever appreciate, lizards are born alone, live alone, and they die alone... though not lonely.  It's just who they are.

We, however, are not like that.

There's really no practical need for a reptile to be trained to allow petting, even for a classroom animal.  This isn't really about Harriet's needs, or even Peter's students.  This is about who Peter is, by nature, by birth: a mammal and a primate, a being that constantly seeks out relationships and the powerful connections of touch.  We, not Harriet, experience the world through skin hunger, heart hunger, and a need to commune and experience closeness and connection.

What is true for my husband is true for me, for you, and for all of us monkeys.  We want to touch.  We want to soothe ourselves through connection.  We want to engage and we want to relate, and not with one another alone, but with the members of each and every species we can find: bearded dragons, but also dogs, cats, horses, even trees and potted palms.  It is who we are, by nature.

And we Pagans, whose religion includes reverence for and homage to the powers and forces of the natural world,  we bring our natures into our religious life.  We seek relationship, perhaps above all things... with one another, with the natural world, and with the gods.

Think about it.  How do primates establish relationships?  How do humans establish relationships?  There's food and there's touch, right?  Ask the girl out to dinner before you get physical.  Feed and cuddle the infants.  Groom the other chimps, and share with them your bananas.  It's how it's done.

And if it is difficult to touch a god, we've certainly done our best to feed them.  Perhaps the earliest of all Pagan rituals was the sharing of food.  What is a proper Homeric sacrifice?  Among other things, it's a barbecue where the gods are invited:  Hestia gets the first libation; the Olympian gods receive the smoke (if not the substance) of the grilling meat--the fat and the bones are theirs, but also the scent (which anyone can tell you is the best part--even vegetarians are drawn in by the smell of a burger or some bacon on the grill).

In the ancient world, the poorest citizens might only get to eat meat after a sacrifice.  What the gods did not take, the humans shared.

What act cements a relationship more, even now, even in secular society, than sharing a good meal?  It is how our animal selves understand that we are in this together: the sharing of food, of life.  And so our religious traditions include that shared meal: whether in the form of a blot to the gods of Heathenry, the final offering to the Goddess at the end of the Wiccan celebration of cakes and ale,  or the offering of milk or fresh bread made to the Good Neighbors on our windowsills.

We're seeking relationship.

Our legends, our stories, are so often about relationship too.  Women are seduced by gods or marry spirit animals; men marry deer or selkies, are taken as lovers by the Queen of Faerie or a tree nymph or a goddess.  Animals can talk to us, steal the sun or bring us the seeds of beans and corn, ask us riddles or punish us for our offenses against the gods.  The boundaries between humanity and nature, and between humanity and the world of the gods, blur time and time again.

We are in relationship with our world, with the spirits, with the gods.

Can you say, "anthropomorphization?"

Now... can you say it like it's a good thing?  Because it is.  It's how we think.  It's how we understand.  It's how we connect.

We are human.  Whether we are petting a lizard, or longing to embrace the sun on solstice day, this is how we touch the world.

We relate.

Monday, July 04, 2011

Happy Fourth of July

I remember when I first learned that war was wrong.

I was nineteen years old, in love for the first time, sexual for the first time, holding my lover in my arms.  I looked at his body, long, smooth, and perfect lying next to me, and I knew that it was Holy.  This body I knew so well, that could bring us both so much pleasure, was sacred for that, yes--but also because it was whole, and it was living and it was inherently a thing of beauty and goodness.

And war, it followed immediately, which could shatter that beauty in an instant, was a blasphemy.

All I needed to understand that war is a blasphemy was to love one human being in the flesh, as an adult.

The peace testimony is different; my peace testimony took many more years to come to me.  But I have known from the age of nineteen that war is a blasphemy.

          *           *           *

Yesterday, I was in my kitchen making pickles.  What with boiling kettles of water and processing pounds of vegetables and brine, making pickles is something of a lengthy process.  To keep my company as I work, I nearly always play the radio.  Yesterday, no doubt in honor of today's American holiday, the radio show Snap Judgment did a special broadcast on veterans.

The first story in the episode involved the suffering and courage of a Korean War P. O.W.  The second was the story of an army nurse.  Both stories, and the anecdotes by the announcer, were the sort of booster-ish, pro-military, upbeat stories of heroism, loyalty, and generosity by members of the military that Americans are most comfortable hearing.  I might have turned the show off, but my hands were wet--I was washing dishes as I waited for my kettles to boil--and I had half-tuned the show out, thinking that this kind of coverage happens every year, whenever there is a patriotic national holiday.

I hate those holidays.  I hate Veteran's Day--wear a poppy in your lapel and feel good about "supporting veterans," or lay a wreath and change your Facebook status to say, "Honor a veteran: post this status!"

To me, there is nothing easy or cheap about military service.  And not just because, as a Quaker, I am deeply and completely opposed to all wars.

The next piece was about a gang member who joined the military in order to regain his sense of honor and purpose in life.  He reminded me of the students I teach, several of whom have entered the military as a way out of poverty or into lives of service and care for others.  I pray for them--privately--and I admire them in their uniforms when they return to show them to me.  And I want to tattoo the phone number of the G.I. Hotline or of Quaker House to the backs of their hands, but I settle for telling them, amid my admiration and support,  "You know, if you ever want to get out--if you discover that you believe that war is wrong--there are people who can help you."

And I mention the G.I. Hotline.  And I mention Quakers.  And then I pray, along with prayers for their safety and their hearts, that they will not forget.

And that we will be there for them if they call--that we will not let them down.

And then came the piece about Chris, who joined for all the most honorable reasons, who was stationed at Guantanamo, and who saw and did things that chipped pieces away from his heart and his soul.  And then I couldn't make pickles any more, because I was weeping too hard to see.

I know Chris.  Not Chris himself, the individual soldier, but with a different face, a different name, and a different story that is still, somehow, the same.  On some level, I think that every veteran is Chris--or could have been, in the blink of an eye, a wave of a bureaucrat's pen.

This is the part of patriotism and veteran's holidays we want to forget: what the cost of military service really is.

How common is Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder?

So common, I have come to believe, that it is a travesty that we call it a "disorder" at all.  PTSD is simply what happens when human beings see, experience, and do things that should never have happened at all.

How common is Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder?  My own sense is that most of the men and women in the military who have ever been under fire, and virtually all of those who have ever aimed and fired a gun or directed violence at a human target are traumatized by it.

War makes scars where it does not kill outright.  And we lie about this, as a society, as a culture, all the time.  We are in massive denial about the true costs of war.  And it makes me angry, and it makes me want to howl in anguish, and it makes me resent like hell cheap patriotism, cheap peace testimonies, and the way we can all pretend to care without losing a moment's sleep over what we do to soldiers--ours or the other side's.

It makes me think of my friends who have served in the military, and it makes me think of my friends who have suffered real hardships to oppose the actions of our military and our government.  And it makes me angry over those whose idea of a "peace testimony" is to heap scorn on soldiers who have been confronted with choices we've safely managed to avoid.

People enlist in the military for all kinds of reasons.  But almost never without an ambition to serve, to be selfless, to be honorable.

George Fox and James Nayler, the guys who created Quakers, with our so-precious peace testimony, were veterans of war--of a bloody and terrible civil war.  I find that well worth remembering.

In my experience, no one hates war the way a veteran hates war.  They know the beast.  They have seen it bloody-fanged and dreadful, and if some of them prefer to cloak its horror in red, white, and blue, and pretend that it is noble, they have at least earned that right more than I have the right to judge them or to judge their service.  I hate war, but the deeper I go into my peace testimony, the more deep and powerful is my feeling of respect and compassion for the suffering of veterans.

Veterans with a peace testimony are not abstract about it.  Nor do they mistake other soldiers for their enemies.

Disrespect shown to those whose hearts and bodies have subjected to war dishonors the cause of peace.

I am thinking of one childhood friend in particular, this Fourth of July.

I've known him most of his life.  I knew him in high school: watched him grow up, fall in love, skip classes, get a job... and eventually join the military, serve for years, experience battle and injury, disability and trauma.

I knew him when his first marriage ended, and I've grieved with him as his antagonistic ex-wife has worked hard to estrange him from the child of that marriage, his only daughter. 

This daughter is now older than he was when I first knew him, college-aged and an adult in years, if not experience.

She has been raised to think of him as having abandoned her; she has been told (erroneously) that he did not pay child support.  He did; in fact, disputes over his ex wanting checks early, or a loan against the next month's support, or whether or not checks had arrived at all eventually caused my friend to simply sign over his benefit check to his ex-wife.  And now that his daughter is ready for college, he has taken pains to make sure she knows how to receive the benefits that, as the daughter of a disabled veteran, she is entitled to to help pay for her education.

Recently, she took him to task for that.

"That's not really your money," she told her father.  "That money doesn't come from you.  You don't earn it.  That money comes from the government."

The mind boggles.

That money is not from you.  You didn't earn it.  That money comes from the government.

How in hell does that child think her father qualified for those benefits?

This is a man who lives in terrible and chronic physical pain every day of his life.  The street value of the medications he has been prescribed to attempt to control his pain would, were he the kind of man to sell them on the street (which he is not) possibly even satisfy his ex's monetary desires.  He has been through medical crisis after medical crisis, multiple surgeries, not just to try to ameliorate his pain but to save his life.  He's been near death more than once, and I've watched his mother sit white-faced, watching the phone to find out whether or not the most recent medical crisis is cause for her to attend a funeral or a sick bed.

But his pain is also emotional, mental, and spiritual.  He is a deeply private man, and he fights not to impose his pain on others, so perhaps this daughter of his is unaware of the memories and emotions he struggles to make peace with. (My own knowledge of them is fragmentary at best, and has come to me in tiny pieces here and there, gathered over the years, and often secondhand or by inference.  But I know he experienced combat.  And I know he fired a gun, and that he is fairly sure he has taken life.  There's more--but that's surely enough.)

Perhaps she doesn't know that, with a heroism I would sing songs of loud praise for if I could, he's entered therapy to deal with those most terrible of wounds--those of the spirit.

Probably, he doesn't know that he describes his therapist as "little--tiny, and the most terrifying woman I've ever met."

Because, of course, with her help, he must remember what his daughter does not, or will not remember: exactly what price her father paid for her veteran's benefits.

It is not my place to scold this daughter; I don't know her.  But I want to shake her, and I want to shout at her, and I want to tell her: don't you ever put a poppy in your lapel on Veteran's Day, don't you ever wave a flag or get misty-eyed at a Fourth of July parade, until you understand just how expensive a thing you have received at your father's hands.

To us all, pacifist or not, I say: don't you ever say you hate war and heap derision on those who, believing they acted on your behalf, with love and honor in their hearts, were committed to that grave for you.

I have no room for  a peace testimony that does not see soldiers as casualties, soldiers as human sacrifices.  If you are opposed to war, but only care for the civilians who have suffered, you've missed half the horror of it.

I had it right at the age of nineteen, when I held my lover's pure and perfect body in my arms.

Wednesday, June 29, 2011

New at No Unsacred Place

Cat has a new post, over at the Pagan Newswire Collective's nature blog, No Unsacred Place, "Not Greener-Than-Thou" on the hazards of trying to build up a repertoire of of environmentally friendly living skills.

(It turns out to be possible to make very expensive organic compost.  Details here.)

Sunday, June 26, 2011

Peter's Spiritual Journey, Part II: Leaving Home

The Spiritual Journey so far:
Prologue I: Peter In Kenya
Prologue II: A Liberal Christian With Balls
Part I: A Refugee Looks Back
Part II: Leaving Home
Part III: Who Am I?
Part IV: Learning About Race and Gender
Part V: Watching My Students Drown
Part VI: Animal Bones

As a child, my mother and grandmother took me along with them to St. Andrew’s Methodist Church. The people there were all very nice, very sincere Christians, but it was a little bland. I think back on it and my most vivid memories are of the annual church picnic which was always in my grandmother’s back yard, overlooking Long Island Sound.

The closest thing to religious fervor in our household was my father’s agnosticism. You hear the word agnosticism and you probably think of something wishy-washy, a sort of intellectual shrugging of the shoulders. But that was not my father. He was finishing his doctoral dissertation in astrophysics and beginning a career as an academic, and he had a fierce integrity around intellectual honesty, including honesty with oneself. He was adamant in his assertion that we DO NOT KNOW if there’s a God. He didn’t strongly object to the practice of religion, though. I remember him once saying to my mother that he didn’t mind her going to church any more than he minded her eating yogurt, as long as she didn’t ask him to. He also didn’t object to her bringing me with her. The one thing he felt strongly about regarding my religious upbringing was that I not be baptized until I was old enough to make that decision myself.

I liked Christianity when I was growing up. I think what I liked most was that it brought people together to help them live good lives. But it lacked…something. I couldn’t put my finger on what, but it was a bit like a steady diet of oatmeal. You could eat until you were bursting at the seams and still be unsatisfied.

When I went away to Yale University, I began to explore. I took courses in world religions. I learned about Hinduism and Buddhism and I read the Tao Te Ching. I also dropped in on all the campus ministries—the Lutherans and the Baptists and even the Quakers (where I found I could not sit still through an hour of silent worship without literally twitching by the end of it). I spent most of my freshman year worshiping with the Congregationalists. They had a Wednesday night communion service and discussion group that I found nourishing, but at times I got kind of frustrated with them. It seemed like whenever things started to get really interesting or spiritually deep, they’d shy away.

I remember one night, one of the regulars told how his professor had said Hinduism and Christianity were really very similar in many ways. He was baffled by this, because Hinduism is so baroque, with all those gods and yogic practices. The Chaplain explained to him that it made sense because the professor was Catholic. “Protestant spirituality is very dry, by comparison,” she said. It was around that time that I came to wonder if there were mother loads within Christianity that I had not yet tapped.

The Catholics were the one campus ministry I’d steered clear of. The whole papal infallibility thing made it a non-starter for me. Plus, both my parents were astronomers; I’d grown up hearing about the Church's treatment of Galileo and their violent opposition to the heliocentric model of the solar system.

But it turns out there is a place outside the Roman Catholic Church where you can still find that juicy, baroque spirituality that Protestantism so lacked. Towards the end of my sophomore year, I signed up for a weekend retreat at an Episcopalian Benedictine monastery in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

It was like a child’s first taste of ice cream.

This wasn’t any Protestant oatmeal. Here, they had frankincense. They had Gregorian chant instead of those stolid Wesleyan hymns. And this wasn’t a little commemorative bread and wine; this was a freakin’ Eucharist!

Ice cream? No, it was more like some vital nutrient that my body had always lacked, and suddenly I’d found a food that gave me a rich source of it. That Easter I was baptized into the Episcopal Church at Yale, and I spent the following summer at another Anglican monastery, St. Gregory’s Abbey, wearing a cassock and testing my vocation to be a Benedictine monk.

For six weeks, I woke each morning for Matins at 4:00. Often I’d catch another hour’s sleep afterwards, but some mornings I’d walk the grounds with a wool blanket safety-pinned over my cassock like a cloak, and watch as the black night sky turned grey and then pale blue, before heading back indoors for Lauds at 6:00. Every day had a rhythm of prayer and meals, of work and rest. I learned how to use a pitchfork, how to weed a flowerbed, how to feed pigs, and even how young bulls were castrated. In the afternoons, we paddled out to the raft in the middle of the pond and skinny dipped—a terrifying experience, at first, to a young man prone to spontaneous erections, but after a couple of days I found I could relax and trust my body—at least that much. I swept and vacuumed, washed vegetables and dishes, and in its own way, everything I did there was deeply sensual. The Ordo slowed our lives to a pace that allowed us be fully attentive in each moment.

The monastic schedule looks rigid on paper, but I found it liberating. It freed me from distractions and offered me—offered everyone there—the freedom to go deep. Deep into prayer and thought, deep into reading and writing, and deep into the physical pleasure from ordinary things like strawberry jam on homemade bread or the smell of books in the library. I felt like a kid in a candy shop in that library. I’d brought a dozen or so books of my own to read, but left them aside when I discovered on their shelves writers like Carlo Carretto and Thomas Merton, and also Martin Buber and Franz Rosenzweig. (A little odd, perhaps, that I spent so much of my time among Benedictines reading about Judaism.)

St. Gregory’s fed a deep hunger that I felt for a life that was orderly, focused, and centered, but more than that, the monastery fed my hunger for meaning. Life made sense at St. Gregory’s. It’s where I learned that there were such a things as spiritual communities, and people who lived their whole lives centered on the deepest levels of meaning. It was another of those major turning points in my life, and I think I might have signed up for the novitiate on the spot if it weren’t for one or two little things. I should finish my college education first, of course. And there was also the small matter of…


At age 20, the thought of taking a vow of celibacy would have been about as easy as… I don’t know… scaling a 50-foot wall with my bare hands. I mean, people have done it. But standing at the foot of that wall, I couldn’t really see how.

So I didn’t stay. But I left feeling nourished and awakened in a way I’d never been before. I held onto the idea of maybe coming back when I was older, when I’d experienced more of the world, maybe slaked a few of my appetites and allowed the hormones of adolescence to subside a little. It wasn’t a definite plan, just a back-burner idea, but one that I kept gently simmering for quite some time. Decades later, no longer Christian, I still feel a connection there—enough to correspond occasionally with the guestmaster (now the abbot) and to read the Abbey Letter cover to cover.

But the inability to commit to a life of celibacy really bugged me at the time. It’s not that the choice was wrong; it’s that I didn’t really feel it was a choice. I felt I was simply too weak, that it had been a failure of courage, a lack of integrity.

Fear—facing it, owning it, and beating it—turned out to be a major theme of my spiritual journey.

To be continued…

Photo: Self-portrait at St. Gregory's Abbey, summer 1979

Monday, June 20, 2011

Peter's Spiritual Journey, Part I: A Refugee Looks Back

The Spiritual Journey so far:
Prologue I: Peter In Kenya
Prologue II: A Liberal Christian With Balls
Part I: A Refugee Looks Back
Part II: Leaving Home
Part III: Who Am I?
Part IV: Learning About Race and Gender
Part V: Watching My Students Drown
Part VI: Animal Bones

My spiritual journey has not been a straight line. It has looped and twisted, sometimes out into non-Euclidean n-dimensional hyperspace and sometimes down into Hell and out the other side. But it has had two or three big turning points that were defining moments. You know, like when that Mesopotamian storm god first appeared in the whirlwind and said to Abraham, Go now, leave your family and your home and wander in the desert. Don’t worry about where you’re going; I’ll let you know when you get there.

So I’m going to tell my journey in medias res, beginning with a turning point at a Southern Baptist commune in rural Georgia when I was 22 years old and discovered I could no longer be Christian.

First came the Fundamentalists

The thing is, they were actually very nice fundamentalists. They were good, kind, compassionate people doing humanitarian work in the world, with a particular calling to refugee resettlement work. They were actively working to become the best, most righteous and loving people they could be.

I suppose their only failing was that they’d lost the ability to think critically about that process or about their religion.

They were fervently committed to surrendering all their pride and greed and willfulness to God, replacing their own will with God’s will, their own truth with God’s truth, and they turned primarily to the Bible for guidance in finding that truth. And this put them, at the deepest core of their being, in close company not primarily with other good, kind humanitarians, but with other Bible-believing Christians. I mean, sure, there was some overlap between the two groups. A lot of overlap. A great many Christians are inspiring examples of humanitarian compassion.

But where they didn’t overlap—where Christians occasionally came down on the side of bigotry and hate, and the humanitarians had the misfortune to have come from other faiths—their loyalty was clear: God’s truth, not our truth; God’s love, not our love.

This should not have thrown me as much as it did. I came to this Southern Baptist intentional community as a liberal high-church Episcopalian and as a vegetarian organic gardener at Oberlin College, one of the most persistent remaining strongholds of the countercultural values of the sixties.

I should have just gone back.

Instead, I listened to what the fundamentalists said. I don’t mean I took it all in unquestioningly or uncritically, but I listened very deeply. I looked at their arguments. I re-read the Bible through their eyes. I was shocked and horrified at a lot of what I found there, but I could not deny seeing it once it was pointed out to me.

Next came the brainwashing

And it wasn’t even meant to be brainwashing. Like I said, these were very nice fundamentalists. There wasn’t any autocratic leader living high on the hog by exploiting his followers; they genuinely functioned as a community, giving according to ability and taking only according to need and making decisions (at least among the permanent members) through a process that probably wasn’t very far off from Quaker corporate discernment.

They never set out to brainwash anybody.


There are places in the human psyche that few of us ever explore. I’ve never been to outer space, but I’ve read about weightlessness enough to know that there are predictable experiences that the human body and mind will undergo in that condition.

At age 22, I had never lived in a commune, but I’d read about them enough to know there are some predictable experiences there, too. I remember a line from a textbook in a course in Christian Utopias and Communitarian Movements that I took at Oberlin, where a hippie in a 60’s commune said something like, “Man, you’re all inside my head and it’s freaking me out!” Reading it, the year before my own experience with intentional community, my reaction was, Wow, that sounds really interesting. I wonder what that would be like?

That summer, in the thick of it, the sensation was almost physical. My interpretation of Christianity was being remade through the intensity of the communal experience in a fundamentalist setting, and it almost felt like fingers inside my skull, probing down into the sulci of my brain.

I should have just gone home. The problem was I didn’t really have a spiritual home.

Photo: Jubilee Partners Summer Volunteers, 1981
I am third from the left in the back row.

Monday, June 13, 2011

Peter Meets a Liberal Christian with Balls

Metaphorically, at least.

Yesterday, Cat and I drove to Boston to hear the annual Weed Memorial Lecture at Beacon Hill Friends Meeting. The speaker was Peggy Senger Parsons, the pastor of Freedom Friends Church in Salem, Oregon, and for the second time this spring I've met someone and think, If I'd known someone like that when I was 22, It's possible I'd still be Christian.

I picked up a copy of FFC's Faith and Practice while I was there. (For the non-Quakers in the audience, F&P is sort of equivalent to a catechism or a Book of Common Prayer.) There's a passage that she read aloud in response to a question from someone in the audience. I'm just going to quote it here for now. I'll get much more in depth about what it means to me over the course of the summer as I write my spiritual journey.
We renounce the intolerance of religious fundamentalism in all its forms. Free Christians need only to live according to Gospel Order and hold up Christ, in order to fulfill The Great Commission. We believe that God calls human souls in more ways than we can imagine, and that God abides with anyone who seeks God in spirit and in truth, regardless of how they name God. We can and will make clear the truth and power that has been given to us, our Gospel path, but in no way do we think that we possess the whole, or only, truth. We prefer to live in relationship to the Truth. We believe it to be blasphemous for a human, or human group, to claim to hold the whole truth.

In our experience, Fundamentalism, which we define as asserting the absolute truth and completeness of one's own beliefs and practices to the deliberate exclusion of possible truth in other beliefs and practices, often leads to pride, judgmentalism, strife, rancor, and in the extreme, to hatred and violence. We believe that religious fundamentalism is incompatible with holy living and grace, and we renounce it as sin.
It comes a bit late for me. I've found other paths to God, first as a Wiccan and Pagan, and more recently as a liberal, non-Christian Quaker. But it's surprising how powerful I still find that renunciation. And how angry it makes me, even today, that no one anywhere in the Christian Church had the balls to say that in 1981.

Prologue I: Peter In Kenya
Prologue II: A Liberal Christian With Balls
Part I: A Refugee Looks Back
Part II: Leaving Home
Part III: Who Am I?
Part IV: Learning About Race and Gender
Part V: Watching My Students Drown
Part VI: Animal Bones

Tuesday, June 07, 2011

Peter Goes to Kenya, Part VI: Paths I Might Have Taken

Part I: Culture Shock
Part II: A Society in Upheaval
Part III: Fairy Gold
Part IV: Oppressor and Oppressed
Part V: Speaking in Meeting, Kenyan-Style
Part VI: Paths I Might Have Taken
Peter's Spiritual Journey Begins...

As a missionary in Africa today, Eden Grace doesn’t see herself as “bringing God to Kenya,” the way early missionaries would have, but rather as coming to Kenya to find the ways that God is already at work there. She accepts, with open eyes, all of the failings and all of the harm done by missionaries before her, and sees that still, on the ground, there is work to be done.

Eden gets both halves of the contradiction: the Bible is her source of strength and inspiration and guidance and inspiration and connection with God, and the Bible is full of fables and fallacies and failings and corrosive, destructive teachings. Eden has grasped both polar opposites and holds them both, where, when I was younger, they tore me apart. One thing I realized while I was in Kenya was that if I’d had a mentor like her when I was 22 or 23, I might still be Christian.

At the time of my religious crisis, there were only two kinds of Christians around me: There were fierce, Bible-believing evangelicals who worshiped The Book as if The Book were God, as if every word of it were a verbatim transcript of God’s personal instructions for each of us. And there were the nice, reasonable Christians—intelligent liberals who were largely oblivious to the Evangelicals and who didn’t understand why I couldn’t bring myself to recite the Apostles’ Creed or take communion any more.

It’s not relevant to me now, the way it would have been thirty years ago. Today I am not Christian simply because I am something else. I sit at the table with Christians and the fact that I was once one of them rarely comes up any more.

Christianity is deeply flawed. (A Christian might use the word “fallen.”) Christianity helped create a lot of the problems in Africa that Christian missionaries are now struggling to solve. But Christianity remains, providing health care and hope, when so much else of Africa is just gone.

Americans want to take the braid of God’s Word and God’s work and separate out the strands, holding onto the threads that seem untainted and discarding those that embarrass us by reminding us of our history. That’s not the answer. In Africa, there are no separate threads. The answer that I saw in Kenya is simply to be on the ground, doing the work.

When I began writing this series, I had imagined that this last installment would answer a lot of the questions that commenters raised about my feelings around Christianity. I realize now that instead, it serves as a jumping off point.

It is time to write my spiritual journey.

Stay tuned…

Maternal Health Outreach Clinic by Peter Bishop
Mr. Bishop with Mission Statement by Vika K.

Wednesday, June 01, 2011

Join Our Celebration!

Today marks the one year anniversary of following a leading to dramatically cut our plastic waste.  We're celebrating over at the PNC nature blog, No Unsacred Place--come read about a year of living with less plastic, more local food, and more fun.

One Morning

I love living where we do.

This morning, in the early gray, just after the alarm clock went off, I found myself stretching lazily to the sound of geese flying overhead--non-migrating Canada geese.  I see them gleaning in fresh-turned fields or in the stubble of newly-mown hayfields at nearby farms, together with the local wild turkeys.

Such a sweet, wild music, the song of wild geese.

Moments later, Peter urged me out of bed.  "Oh!  Come see!  There's a bear--two bears, a mama and a cub in the back yard!"

And so there were.  Ambling along quite unhurriedly at the edge of the woods, down to our partially-rehabilitated perennial bed.  We crowded the bedroom window, watching them out of sight.  (Judging by the size of mama, the bear I saw last fall must have been an adult male.)

We decided to let the dogs out late, today.  We trust the fence we built for their yard, but there's no point in tempting fate.

Such a persistent miracle, a glimpse of wild thing, living their lives in parallel with our own.  As I think I may have mentioned, I love our home.

Tuesday, May 31, 2011

And that's a wrap!

Over this, the last week of our first year of attempting to eliminate plastic waste in our lives, we generated another 8 oz in recyclable and non-recyclable plastic trash... and discovered a cache of another 2 lbs, 5 oz of packing materials from construction and repair projects around the house. 

Everything, everything around here needs repair!  And everything, everything, seems to come swathed in plastic.  Sometimes, when we need to special order hardware for things around the house, we get just what we ordered, plus a whole lot of plastic packaging.  It can get a little discouraging...

However this does mean we have a final weigh-in of 2 lbs, 13 oz of plastic waste for this last week.  And our grand total for the year that began on June 1, 2010, and ends today, May 31, 2011, weighs in at 30 lbs., 15 oz.

This puts us somewhere between 12% and 18% of the national consumption of plastic, per person.

It has been quite a trip.  (More on that tomorrow, over at No Unsacred Place.)

Things do do better with next year:
  • Advocacy work with individual local and national companies, to get them to stop sending me so much plastic.
  • Buying more of what we need locally, in order to avoid extra waste from shipping (as well as to better support local businesses).
  • Buying less new stuff, period, while cultivating more ways of reusing and repurposing old stuff.
  • Continuing to reduce food waste, and to find ways to encourage sustainable and local agriculture--including our own garden, and perhaps preserving more of our own food.
  • Making more things ourselves in order to reduce packaging and buy local foods--starting with making our own cheese!  (Yom!)
  • Communicating how much fun it is to become more earth-friendly in how we're living.

Monday, May 30, 2011

Peter Goes to Kenya, Part V: Speaking in Meeting, Kenyan-Style

Part I: Culture Shock
Part II: A Society in Upheaval
Part III: Fairy Gold
Part IV: Oppressor and Oppressed
Part V: Speaking in Meeting, Kenyan-Style
Part VI: Paths I Might Have Taken
Peter's Spiritual Journey Begins...

Our last day in Kenya was Easter Sunday. It began with hiking to the top of a mountain to watch the sunrise and to pray, asking for the blessings of Mother Earth.

Later, after breakfast, most of my students stayed at the guest house or went hiking to see a waterfall, but I had asked Eden to bring me along to experience a Kenyan-style Quaker worship service.

My own Quaker meeting, in the heart of New England, is unprogrammed. It’s what most people imagine when they think of Quakers: silent, waiting worship without a preacher, without a pulpit, without hymns or sermon. The pews are arranged concentrically, and messages are delivered when worshipers feel moved by Spirit to stand and speak. We sit at one end of a continuum of worship among American Quakers. At the other extreme are programmed, pastoral meetings that look and feel very much like Protestant churches, but there are many permutations in between.

Theologically, we also sit at one extreme end, with probably less than half of our members and attenders identifying themselves as Christian. One of the things that is most precious to me about the Religious Society of Friends is our ability to sit in worship together and experience Spirit together in spite of thinking about Spirit in radically different ways. Quakers seem to get it that religion is about encountering the Divine, not about espousing a creed.

Intervisitation with Quakers from different traditions within the RSoF is one way to keep that kind of corporate worshiping across doctrinal lines alive. The controversy I wrote about earlier concerning the Friends United Meeting personnel policy makes it especially important, in my view, between liberal American Friends and Friends in Kenya.

I’d been warned that such things often last for four or five hours, and that was on an ordinary Sunday. Purely by coincidence, the one day our schedule would allow me to visit a Friends Church was on Easter. Eden assured me that it would be fine for us to come and go. It would probably already be in full swing when we arrived, and would go on for hours after we left.

We were called up to the front when we arrived, to introduce ourselves. I conveyed greetings from Mt. Toby Monthly Meeting in America, and Eden made it clear that we just wanted to sit in the regular pews, not the facing bench behind the pulpit. It hadn’t occurred to me that, as exotic foreigners, we might be expected to sit in a place of honor. I was very grateful we didn’t; it would have been much harder to leave gracefully from the facing bench.

The service meandered from hymns to committee reports to more hymns and then a sermon. It wasn’t in English. In fact, it wasn’t even in Swahili. It was in a “mother tongue,” one of the local tribal languages. Someone—he seemed like a deacon or something—came and sat between us and leaned close to translate for us.

It was very long, and with only a few key phrases being translated, it got a bit tedious. We were beginning to pick up our things and get ready to stand and leave when the preacher all of a sudden looked directly at us—at me—and asked a question. Our deacon translated: “Do people in America lead good Christian lives, or have they gone off the tracks?”

It took some time for Eden to clarify, first for herself and then for me, that in fact we were being asked to stand up and offer comment. While we were figuring all this out, the preacher asked two or three more questions: “If your husband took a second wife, could you welcome her into your house? If your husband had a child by another woman, could you welcome the child as part of your family?” Eden and I, in whispered conversation, went back and forth a few times about whether I wanted to field the first question? She could stand up and do all the speaking if I preferred. She may have been a bit nervous about what I, as a non-Christian Quaker, would say to such a question. But I told her I wanted to take it on.

The message I delivered felt right. It felt true. It felt like it had the *crack* of a baseball sent arcing out to the stands.

I had to turn around to face the congregation. We were near the front of the church, and I hadn’t realized how many people had entered since we first sat down. I said, “You have asked if Americans are living good Christian lives, or if we have gone off the tracks.” I paused for our deacon to translate, then went on: “The message of Jesus, as I understand it, is that we all go off the tracks at times, but that God is always ready to welcome us back.” They smiled. They loved it. Boy, did it feel weird as a Wiccan/Pagan Quaker to be preaching the words of Jesus to a bunch of Evangelicals, but they carried truth. I’d found the thread within Christianity that isn’t about sectarianism, and reminded them of it.

I didn’t need to speak up for Paganism. That’s not what it was about. And if I’d tried, I would have hopelessly muddied the waters, lecturing to people I didn’t know and whose culture I didn’t understand. It would have been disrespectful to our African hosts, every bit as bad as standing up in, say, a Hindu temple or a Shinto shrine and shouting at them about Jesus.

Further, one of the things that makes Paganism unique and precious is that it grows from the land and it sinks its roots into the land. Paganism isn’t about a set of beliefs; it’s a way of being. It celebrates the material—the Earth and the body—as well as the wheel of the year and the cycles of life. Paganism is not served by wealthy Americans jetting around the world to harangue subsistence farmers.

Instead, I found the spark of tolerance and universalism within their tradition. Speaking from a place of centeredness and truth, I reached out from where the Light touches me to where it touches them.

And I left it at that.

Eden handled the questions about polygamy. She had been puzzling over whether the minister’s sermon was about the need for women to be submissive—Eden would have had a very hard time with that—or whether his preaching was more about forgiveness. Eventually she figured out that what he seemed to be saying was that even when terrible things happen (and for a woman in Kenya, her husband taking a second wife is terrible indeed) you should trust in God, because God will care for his children.

She said afterwards that I’d done well answering the question. She’d seen other American Quakers in similar situations try to talk about how America is multicultural and not everyone there is Christian, and it’s just not a message that’s easy to convey clearly here.

I think it was actually easier for me, as a Pagan Quaker, to simply speak the words of Jesus as they moved me than it would have been for a liberal Christian, rather the way speaking in a foreign language can feel more natural than trying to imitate someone else’s accent in your own language. These were my Quaker sisters and brothers, and yet their religion was as profoundly different from my own relationship with the Divine as their mother tongue was from my English.

To be concluded…

Friends Church by Peter Bishop
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