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.

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