Thursday, June 05, 2014

On Activism and Ordinary Acts

One of the dangers of being Quaker--or Pagan--is a privilege at the same time.

Quakers and Pagans share a somewhat counter-cultural view of our society.  In slightly different ways, most Quakers and most Pagans believe that human society is flawed in bitterly destructive ways that must be confronted and changed.  We look out at a world burdened by the selfish exploitation of whole nations of human beings, and of the ecosystem itself, and we know that things as they are are not OK.

David Shankbone 2011
The privilege and the danger that arises from this is that of associating with activists.

It's a privilege, of course, to have a chance to be inspired by those who are willing to risk imprisonment or even death to be faithful to their spiritual convictions.  This inspirational force is excellent for warding off complacency and the kind of internal self-congratulation that degrades possessing a moral compass into mere spiritual materialism and self-worship.

When I have done some small thing outside the norm for our consumer society, friends outside my spiritual communities are likely to comment on it, if they know.  "Oh, you're so good," they say.  "You're so kind."

What they mean is, I'm a moral freak.  I act in accordance with my compassionate urges; I trust my spiritual leadings enough to do... anything, anything even moderately inconvenient to myself.

What they mean is, "You do it, Cat.  I'm not going to--because I'm not 'good' like you are.  I'm not a saint."

And I get impatient with that.  I get impatient with it firstly because by praising simple acts of ordinary faithfulness, my secular friends are tempting me to think too much of my own "goodness" (which is, paradoxically, fatally destructive to actually noticing those small promptings toward doing right that got me to act in the first place).

And secondly, I get impatient with it for much the same reason my activist friends probably get impatient with me: because I hear the "opt out" in their praise, and I dislike it.

I admire deeply the principled activism of men and women like Tim DeChristopher, Sister Megan Rice, and Jay O'Hara.  I recognize the sacred nature of their work.  I hold them in the Light.  I hold them up as models to myself.  I sign petitions, circulate stories, and make donations where that's possible.  But I am not following in their footsteps.

I am not the one blocking an illegal BLM oil and gas rights auction; I am not the one breaking into a nuclear facility; I am not the one obstructing the delivery of coal to a highly polluting coal plant.  I'm not participating in Occupy Our Homes or Moral Mondays.

From the perspective of many of my friends who are activists, I'm sitting on the sidelines, cheering when I should be joining the team.  Some of them tell me so outright.  They want me with them, on the barricades along with every other warm body they can muster, because the world is in desperate danger right now, and I'm doing my laundry and posting pictures of my garden on Facebook.

So I get challenged by my activist friends. This is difficult, but useful.  I should be challenged.  I should be uncomfortable.  I should be bothered by the prophetic voices around me.  That, after all, is what prophets are for.  That's not the danger.

The danger is in listening too hard to their voices, lending too much recognition to their faithful work, and not staying grounded in my own.

If I join in their work, who will do mine?

I don't just mean, who will do my job and pay my mortgage--though I'd be lying if I said I didn't care about that. 

But I also know, in a deep place that I sometimes forget to listen to if I allow myself to feel too overshadowed by my prophetic friends, that there is work that is being asked of me, and I'm doing it. 

My work is small.  You will not see my photograph in the papers for it.  And it's implausible as hell I'll ever face jail or serious persecution over it, too.  What is my work?

I'm the one who teaches high school English in a small town in Massachusetts.  I'm the one who calls students on it every time they make a homophobic comment in my hearing.  I'm the one who teaches my freshmen what the Bechdel Test and Spike Lee's Magical Negro critique are when we watch movies in class.  I'm the one who hangs in there with a kid with a miserable attitude, until the day they do something right in class, and I can let my face light up like a lamp.  I'm the one who is trying to live in a consistent, every-minute-Zen sort of way, showing respect and compassion for every pain in the ass student, canvasser, dog-walker, or store clerk in my day, and when I fail, I do fail trying, and then I try again.

And I'm the one doing very ordinary acts of very ordinary faithfulness.  Recycling.  Writing my Congressmen.  Holding a friend while she cries. Cooking supper.

Does that even matter, in a world where climate change is made only more inevitable by the increasing inequalities that corrupt our political system?  Does that even matter, in a world where species are dying off at a rate unparalleled since the extinction of the dinosaurs?

Yeah.  Weirdly enough, it does.

I even know it does, when I dare to hear the small voice of truth inside of me.

I don't know if it's because my work--the ordinary human faithfulness of an ordinary human being--is eventually going to open hearts and minds in ways that may turn things around.  I don't know if it's simply that somebody has got to hold the Center, some sort of place of connection and respect and compassion in the world. 

I just know that it's my work, put into my hands, and I need to do it right.

For now.  If my work changes--if I'm supposed to drop everything and go chain myself to the White House fence--I freely admit I'm going to be very resistant to that.  I like my life.  I like my work.  I like the sense of purpose I have right now, in my own small way.

I can't be sure I'd even have the strength to pray to be faithful to those leadings, if they came.

David Shankbone 2011
But the key word is if.  For now, I'm right where I'm supposed to be: teaching school.  Doing my laundry.  Writing my blog.

I will try to be awake if a different call comes through.

Saturday, May 17, 2014

Praise Song

Praise the beauty of the world.

Up-tossed ancient lichened granite
Shaggy hemlocks' pools of shade
Spring explosions of forsythia
Matted needles under pines

Dark green rot from the first grass clippings
the neon green of seedling chard
Blush of green that tints the woodlot
Apple trees blooming among their thorns

Rabbit, black bears and turkey vultures
Shaggy horses beside the barn
Mice in the orchard, bees in the beehive
Raise your voices, raise your eyes

Praise the mud and rain and budding
Praise the beauty of the world.

Sunday, May 11, 2014


Source: Wikimedia Commons
Sitting in meeting for worship today, I had a notion come to me. 

I was thinking about all the ways, over time, that people have brought offerings to the temples of their gods.  That was the way it was long ago.  And that's the way it is today.  Pagans bring cans for a food pantry to a public ritual, Heathens pour blots, Wiccans set aside a portion from cakes and ale to offer to the gods, Christians put money in a collection plate...

And all of those can be quite sincere, of course.  But they are outward forms.  They can become empty forms, if we don't remember what it takes to fill them.

Thinking about the matter as a Quaker, I asked myself, what's the spiritual substance that informs those outward forms--at least for me, and in my life as a Friend?

That thought tumbled together with the idea of preparation for meeting for worship: the practices throughout the week that get us ready to share in meeting on Sundays.

I think there is a way that that is the offering.  It's not so much what we bring to worship once a week... it's the week that we live, in preparation for worship.

I don't mean time spent in prayer or meditation, exactly, though those can be part of how the real offering becomes possible.  Instead... I think I mean that our offering is made up of all the moments of faithfulness we have during a week, all the little moments of living fully into the Spirit of Love and Truth we worship on First Days.

  • When I looked up the other day to see a troubled student return to my classroom after an absence, and smiled, with a real and spontaneous upwelling of gladness to see her, in spite of our sometimes difficult relationship... that was part of my offering.
  • When I was able to respond to an angry confrontation with simplicity and presence rather than defensiveness or sarcasm... that was part of my offering.
  • When a friend made himself emotionally vulnerable by confiding something difficult to me, and I responded with a confidence of my own... that was part of my offering.

Some of the pieces were small, and no one, including me, consciously even saw them.  Some of them were large, and other people commented on them.  But each of those moments, noticed or not, was part of living in real unity with That Spirit I sense in meeting.

No offering I could put into a plate could possibly mean more.  I know that.  Maybe I know that because I'm a mom, and I know how it feels to be given the plain gifts of a child's heart.

In a week when I have done well, when I have remembered how to stay present with That Spirit, I am as happy when the time comes to make my weekly offering as any child would be, holding up a just-picked bunch of dandelions for Mom.

"See?" part of me is saying.  "See?  I made this for You."

I think She likes them.

Saturday, May 03, 2014

Resources: On Social Media as Spiritual Practice

NOTES from a workshop on using social media as a spiritual practice:

pdf notes from workshop.

SOME QUERIES on social media and spiritual practice:
  • What are the spiritual uses I regularly find for social media? 
  • Can blogging serve as ministry?  Rise from worship?   
  • Does the Internet enter into my prayer life, and if so, how?
  • Does my use of social media benefit my spiritual community/communites?  If so, how?
  • What are the dangers social media pose to faithfulness?  
  • How am I addictive in my own use of social media? 
  • Where do I need more accountability in my use of social media, and to which parts of my faith community/communities? 
  • When and how do I outrun my guide in blogging? And how does that feel different from being faithful when I write?

Beyond the addictive qualities of Facebook's Upworthy videos and Grumpy Cat memes, I'm aware of the ways my writing can be influenced by my creaturely hope of admiration.

I am aware of a temptation to write what may be reblogged rather than what is deeply true or important, and the temptation to be overly strategic in blogging--thinking of blogging frequency and length in terms of what will drive traffic rather than what is faithful--or, I wonder, is that OK on some level?

To what extent is being strategic around traffic or readership an interference with being spiritually present within the writing, and to what extent is it a different kind of faithfulness?


"I Blog Because I'm Happy, I Blog Because I Care" from John Madsen-Bibeau's Like it Matters.
  • John, a friend who is a therapist and UCC minister, ponders these queries.

"12 Pieces of Advice for Quakers on the Internet" from Jon Watts' blog.
  • Jon Watts considers ways to make use of the Internet in ministry--and some of the pitfalls.
"What Is a Quaker Ministry? (What Isn't?)" from Jon Watts.
  • Jon Watts reflects on his art (music) as ministry, and some of the potential pitfalls in that.

"Writing Out Loud: Blogging as Worship" from the Online Journal of Christian Communication and Culture.
  • Reflections on blogging as an interactive diary, from humility rather than self-promotion.

"On Writing from a Spiritual Center" from Cat Chapin-Bishop at Quaker Pagan Reflections.
  • My own reflections on my process when I write from a spiritual center.

"Screen Free Week: Reflections and Next Steps" from Joanna Hoyt at Living as if the Truth Were True.
  • Quaker Joanna Hoyt on what an annual week without the Internet shows her about her use of it.

"Vi Hart's Guide to Comments" from Vi Hart's You Tube Channel.
  • A humorous look to how we humans respond to online critics. 
"Gastblogschaft" from A Heathen's Day and "Gastblogschaft" from A Pagan Sojourn
  • Two perspectives on the Heathen/Pagan concept of Gastblogshaft, the mutual hospitality owed between a blogger and a blog's commenters.

Thursday, May 01, 2014

Ten Years Ago

So on the day that The Wild Hunt has covered the North Carolina freedom of religion lawsuit to overturn that state's ban on same-sex marriage, my copy of Boston Spirit arrived with its lead story, of course, on the tenth anniversary of the Goodridge case.

I look over the very ordinary, very middle aged photos of the plaintiffs, and I'm surprised at how deep my emotions run.

Why do I care so much?  Is it because I see myself in those couples' faces?  I, too, am past my youth.  I, too, have raised a child with a spouse I love.  Even the Goodridges, divorced as they are, posed with their now-grown daughter... I see myself in them.  I, too, am a divorced mom with a grown daughter.

I know there is so much to the story of growing up and living a life as someone who is gay, or lesbian, or trans, that is outside my experience or my empathy.  I was saddened, for instance, to read Heidi Nortonsmith's comments, on how, away from home when the Supreme Court overturned Section 3 of DOMA, her joy was not mirrored by those around her.
If I had been at home in Northampton, it would have been a nonstop celebration.  Instead I was back at my alma mater, 30 years later, feeling like on one hand we've come so far--and on the other, here I am having some of the same old experiences.  Everyone was talking about their kids and families, and when I mentioned mine, my partner in the program--someone I had been studying with, eating with, and getting to know for 45 days--heard what I said, turned on his heels and walked away.
I read those words, and I felt saddened... but I also felt surprised.

I'm a straight girl.  I get to feel surprised.

But also, I get to feel grateful.  The original story of the success of Goodrich v. Dept. of Public Health came at a time in my own life when I was struggling with health problems, a stressful new job and family issues that sometimes seemed beyond hope.  Goodrich was, oddly or no, one of the handholds I used to claw my own way up out of despair that year.  I was nourished by knowing that this one good thing had come to pass, the recognition of love as a thing my society should cherish.

I remember the tears flowing down my face, overwhelmed by joy in a season of fear.

The story of same-sex marriage isn't over yet.  Not just in North Carolina, but all across the country, all around the world, there is more to do.  And even when we have achieved marriage equality, there is more still--so many ways exist that people refuse to honor the sacred in one another.

Nor is the story my story--or, to the degree I share it, I am less than a footnote to the real story.
Still this is a story that has sustained me, given me hope in times that seemed very dark to me.  And maybe that's the place where I really come to feel joined with this story: I need to remember my own gratitude, and keep on working to secure that same gratitude and hope for everyone who is living through the darkness now.

I need to believe in hope.  I need to believe in love, and in the value of all its forms.  And I need to do what I can to pass them on.

Thursday, April 24, 2014

On Writing from a Spiritual Center

How does a person write from a spiritual center? 

I can't know for sure how other writers do it. I know which writers have sometimes moved my spirit in response to their words: Ally Lilly. Will Taber. Bright Crow. Peggy Senger Morrison. More Quaker writers than Pagans, I think, so perhaps there is something in how Quakers center themselves in Spirit in their work that feeds their words. 
Cassiodorus at the Vivarium

Certainly, Quakers are told to "take heed of the promptings of love and truth in our hearts," and to trust them as the leadings of Spirit. I know that the spiritual writing that moves me most seems to have been centered this way, and to comes out of direct, lived experience: “narrative theology,” as Peggy puts it. 

So how's it done?

While not every piece I write is this kind of writing, this is what I do, when I take on those pieces that I think of as spiritual writing--as "blogging in the spirit of worship," as our strapline used to say.

First comes an initial impulse. This could be anything: the shape of a tree branch against the sky, a feeling of sadness as I pass the place a friend used to live.  It's usually something small: a single image or feeling that snags at my attention like a fingernail on a piece of silk. The writing takes shape around that first detail the way a pearl forms around a piece of grit.

That grit might be frustration, or fear, or grief—grief is good. Joy is better. A lot of my favorite writing comes from my efforts to fit joy into words.

That first snag does not come to me in abstractions. It comes as body memories: how I felt the day that Forest's funeral was held. I think about it, and my eyes grow tight with the tears and glare of a morning forty years gone.  Suddenly, I feel my spine pressing against a pew in an unfamiliar church, my teenaged self sitting bolt upright at the first funeral I ever attended.

Or I remember the sight of a bear cub moving across my garden. Or the sensuous pain of a lake on the first of June.

Then I go further in, fishing for sense memories to flesh out the moment. What was I wearing at the funeral? Was it my blue skirt, the one with the flowers? Did it feel as stiff as I did, in my strange, new emotions in a strange, adult world?

What did I do, when I saw the bear? Did I lean into my kitchen counter, straining to see him through the window as he moved? Did my breath fog the glass?

Next come words. What are the words for the feeling of my best, my least-familiar clothing? How do I describe the twitchy quality of that bear cub's walk? Are there words for the smell of the lake in June? What life will fit in words?

Now I have it—that first paragraph, hopefully real and vivid. Maybe I even have a twist of unexpected words to catch hold of your mind as that first moment snagged at me. I have my “hook,” as writers say... except that's wrong, isn't it?

Because it's not a hook, not really. It's a touchstone, my touchstone, and it's the moment when the Light broke in and made me notice something something new. It's the moment the Truth grew out of, and I return to that moment again and again as I write. The rock of that sense-memory becomes the measure of my honesty: if I cannot trace my words back to that moment of lived truth, those words, I know, are not real, but “mere notions.”

Next I can wonder about meaning. Why has this image, this memory stayed with me?  What is it trying to say within me?  Did it open something in me that had been closed before?  I let myself wonder.

This part of the writing comes the quickest—words pour onto the page. I begin to see cross-connections, interrelationships everywhere. I grow abstract, drunk with words... I pile them in drifts, higher, higher... stopping now and again to lean against my shovel. I break my paragraphs then.

The first stage of writing is sculpting with clay, adding it on and adding it on. I am impatient; I am flying; I am fire. And then comes the slow part, the taking away, cutting back and back and back to the image at the heart, the image that is true.

If the first stage of writing is sculpting in clay, now the words are marble. My love of the words has hardened, and must be carved away to find truth inside. (The cutting away is hard.)

At some point, though, the path becomes clear: a circle leading back again to my starting place, that moment of clarity that snagged my spirit to begin with. The shape of an ending suggests itself, and I sketch it out... but then I must read it back, maybe read it back out loud. Have I been precious? Did I force the ending into a shape, or did I step out of its way and let it shape itself?

Most of all, as I finish my work, I wonder, have I been faithful?

Quakers ask that question a lot, meaning, have we been faithful to God? When I am writing, though, that is not what I mean--not quite. I think what I am asking is, have I been faithful to this piece of writing, to this work that was put into my hand? 

Of course, if I was responding to a leading, perhaps that comes down to the same thing: perhaps faithful to the work means faithfulness to Spirit.   Of course, I have other questions as I finish--the ones that must be pushed away, at least until I'm done.  Will other people like this? Is it good? Will anybody read it?

I push those questions aside, as best I can.  And of course I revise--less than I should, probably, but more than I enjoy.   And then... I publish it. I let it go.

Then, if I am lucky,  I may hear back from someone: a reader, or maybe even more than one, who found my words really connecting to something inside of them--something that just needed the words to be out there.  I read their comments, and my heart speeds up.

I feel joy, hearing their joy over words for a thing they needed said.

Saturday, April 12, 2014

Responding to Abuse in the Pagan Community: a Wild Hunt Guest post

My guest post is up over on The Wild Hunt; it's on how the Pagan community can respond to the issue of child sexual abuse within our community.

For those who may not know, I was a psychotherapist for about twenty years, and my main focus was survivors of childhood sexual abuse.  The focus of the Wild Hunt piece is on understanding the dynamics of childhood sexual abuse, and how to build in greater safety and responsiveness in our communities around this threat.

Monday, March 24, 2014

Sacred Fire: What Do I Hope to Build

We have a guest post running today, over at Sermons from the Mound, part of the ongoing March series on the future of Paganism.  If you'd like to read Sacred Fire, head on over and take a look.

Sunday, March 23, 2014

Meeting for Grieving

Meeting for worship was quite an experience for me today.

Of course, Judy Harrow's death was on my mind. I felt a poignancy to giving two Quaker elders their ride to meeting today--I was so conscious that what I cannot do for one elder, I am comforted to be able to do for another, so that even carpooling felt like an act of remembrance.

Then, as I sat down, and just as I felt myself give way to sadness, one friend left her usual place and walked across the room to sit beside me, took my hand, and gave me a hug. I was reminded that I was not alone in my sadness, but with yet another of my spiritual tribes. It felt as though my grief brought Judy into the room with me, that it made a link, not a division in my worlds.

And John and Mary Ellen were there. I had hoped they would be. John and Mary Ellen were caretakers at Woolman Hill back in the days when NELCOG used to meet there, and the fond memories go both ways; they remember their Pagans with love, just as they--and Woolman Hill--are remembered by them.  And I thought of how Judy had known and cared for them, and I thought about how they, like me, remember Judy. So that was another way I was not alone.

And then message after message spoke to grief. So many members of our meeting have been carrying losses. It was one of those times when not only are the messages threaded, but they seem as though they have been prompted by Spirit just for my benefit. I'm sure that's not true--at least, that it is not true only for me--but the messages spoke to right to my heart, again and again.

I sat in that meeting room, and I thought about all the communities, in all the long millenia of human time--of long-vanished communities, waiting for spring through endless gray winters, huddled around fires in long houses made of stone, or mud brick, roofed with straw or wood or mammoth bones.  It felt like that, to be with my people--one of my peoples.  It felt very old, this gathering together against cold and dark and sadness, watching generations come and go.  I thought of my life as just another in the long, long chain of lives going back as far as time... it it felt good to me, to think this way. 

When I got a little teary-eyed, Sara was right there.

And at rise of meeting, the children and Young Friends came in, and Abby sat down next to me on the floor, and leaned her head against me for a hug. So I guess she got the memo, too: friends of all ages, were circled there to hold me, to hold one another, in the Light.

And when it was time to give my name, I rose, and I spoke of Judy, my friend, the Wiccan teacher, who had just died.

I named her gifts to me, and her connections to our meeting--and I saw Mary Ellen smiling at the memories of visits years ago.  I thanked my meeting for holding me in love as I sat with my grief over the loss of a friend.

I am reminded: our hearts and our circles are always larger than we know.

Saturday, March 22, 2014

Judy Harrow (1945--2014)

I want to write about Judy, but it's too hard. It's like I'm standing too close to something, trying to take a picture. Nothing comes into focus. It's all too big to fit into the frame.

She was family. I guess that's what it comes down to. She could be maddening; she could be irascible. She sang off key; she made mistakes.

She had the most astonishing students you could imagine; she was smart and disciplined and passionate, and she adored reaching out to people she imagined might be more those things than she was. She was righteous to a fault, absolutely dedicated to Pagan movement and the Craft, and probably constitutionally incapable of compromising her ethics. She loved scholarship and scholars, she loved innovation and music... and she loved her community.

Photo used by permission:
Chuck Furnace 2014
She was the first person to call me a "Pagan elder," and her saying it was part of what made it true, what made me think I could maybe live up to that.

She loved Woolman Hill, the Quaker retreat center where NELCOG used to meet. We took her up there, years later, on a visit. We gave her a wand taken from the apple tree there.

Peter is on the board there, now. They're actually up on the hill tonight, for a retreat... I told Peter to bring back a twig from that apple tree to go on the altar. For Judy.

She was always afraid of being forgotten, and could never quite understand why she never would be.  I knew she was ill... but I could never quite understand I would not always get to share a world with her.

She was my friend.

I am not ready to put her face on my ancestor altar. I really am not.

Go in peace, Judy Harrow.  Go with the love of your extended family, which was always so much bigger than you knew. 

Tuesday, March 11, 2014

Pipes Lined with Fairy Gold

I wonder, sometimes, how much of my spiritual life is owing to the physical arrangement of books in the Wilbraham Public Library when I was small.

I learned to read early; I can't remember a time when I didn't know how to read.  And in the beginning, I'm sure read what every young child reads: picture books picked out by my parents.

The Wilbraham Free Library
But my memories of books begin in the Wilbraham Public Library--not the spacious brick and glass building they have now, but the late Victorian building that was torn down before I started school.  Built in 1875, it looked like a castle to my childhood eyes... which is almost all I remember about it, except for a glass display case for a teddy bears' dollhouse, and the fact that there was one particular little nook in the children's room that was just the right size and shape for my small body to feel cozy and enfolded.

And that small nook was where the fairy tale books lived.

It's only now, as an adult, that it comes to me how odd it was that a child who had not yet entered elementary school was curled up week after week with books by Andrew Lang: The Blue Fairy Book, The Yellow Fairy Book, The Red Fairy Book, The Brown Fairy Book... those books were my best friends.  Of course I loved Beatrix Potter's wonderful books, too (is anything more wonderful to a small child's hands than books sized just at the right scale for them?) but it was the Fairy Books, with their quaint Edwardian diction and detailed line drawings that really spoke to me.

Or perhaps it was simply that the books were shelved at the right height, in the right sort of comfortable
Ralph Fletcher Seymour, Bookplate
reading nook.  Who knows?  Even a bright child who reads early does not completely understand the reasons for the things she does, let alone understand mysteries like card catalogs and Dewey Decimal. But those were my books, and that was my place.

And then... they closed down my wonderful castle of a library.

After a year of book mobile books, the library reopened in a dazzlingly modern, enormous new building... and, uninitiated as I was in the ways of Dewey Decimal, I searched not for the folk tale section where my old friends would have been, but for the nicest reading nook, and so I discovered fiction.

As I write these words, I'm aware of the controversy that has raged this year over which Pagans are or are not "actual polytheists," worshipping "real gods."  The identification of an actual problem--the obliviousness too many Wiccans, Druids, and other well-established Pagan groups sometimes have about other forms of Paganism--has been muddled up together with a range of grievances and grudges.  In the midst of this muddle, a few angry voices have been raised to condemn Wicca for being syncretistic and "Romanticized"--having roots in the late flowering of the Romantic movement that popularized a host of idealistic notions of what pre-Christian Europe might have been.

I'm here to plead guilty to that last charge.

I'll go farther.  I suspect that I am Wiccan in part because it is syncretistic, and because it does have roots, in part, in the Victorian and Romantic projections of what a pagan past might have been... based, in part, on fairy tales, folk tales, and the speculations of people like the Brothers Grimm.

I didn't know it at the time, but when I was six years old and wolfing down as many fairy tales as I could, I was filling my mental and emotional attic with a certain kind of cultural furniture.  My dreaming mind is stuffed full of glass mountains no mortal can climb, fish that can speak and grant wishes, and assorted fairies, witches, goblins and dwarves who bring challenges to the hero of the tale--voices from an Otherworld, possessed of a tricky wisdom.

It is no surprise that, with a subconscious filled with the stories of my Western culture's longings and with a syncretistic vision of a past that never--quite--was, it would be the figure of the Witch that would beckon to me when I found my own mystical bent.  I graduated from Lang to Frazer's Golden Bough and W.Y. Evans-Wentz's The Fairy Faith in Celtic Countries, and eventually found my way to Margot Adler's Drawing Down the Moon and Leland's Aradia.  I'm sure her descriptions of modern-day Witches had resonance for me in part because of the borrowings of those earlier authors.

Did they distort what they borrowed?  They did.  Did their projections of a shining Celtic Twilight, lost in the mists of time, serve to hide the very real abuses of an Imperialist age, as American myths of the "noble savage" hid the racism and oppression we acted out on American Indians?  I rather think they did.  Which is a sad and bitter thing to own, when I look with my historical eyes, and I do understand those who reject the syncretism of my ancestors--my Victorian and Edwardian ancestors, whose ideas formed the matrix from which modern Wicca flowered-- because of it.

I am a product of that culture.  I feel compelled to own its excesses as well as its beauties as my own, for better and for worse. 

Moreover, I didn't first encounter my culture as a historian, reading with the mind of an adult.  I first encountered these repackaged myths and stories, not as a little Imperialist, but as a five year old girl, with an unformed mind and a heart already longing for Mystery.  This is the soil from which I grew.

Mystery comes to us in the shapes we're ready to see.  My mind was not formed for the historically correct, precise scholarship of today's Reconstructionist Paganism.  My mind was formed by the stories of my culture, here and now, the glorious and the ignominy of who my Western people have been.  Conquerers, apologists, poor scholars, perhaps.  But Lang opened my mind to Frazer, who opened my mind to Evans-Wentz, who opened my mind to Yeats... and to Wicca and the whole modern Western occultist strain of mysticism.  

(Thank goodness I was born before the era of the Disney home video.  How on earth do children furnish their minds out of Disney home videos?)

The culture that I grew out of, the mental and emotional compost of everything that the developed world was 100 years ago, is a soil uniquely appropriate to me, a modern American woman.  This is the collection of symbols that formed the language that my gods now use to speak to me--gods, land spirits, spirits of the natural world, and all the other Shining Ones around us in the world.

I am not saying that the gods are archetypes, or figures of my unconscious.  I don't believe that.  However, I do believe that the gods can speak to me through archetypes, through dreams and visions that were formed by my unconscious... as Wicca was formed by those same symbols, that same layer of cultural sediment.

I am not saying that those who choose a more scholarly path are doing something wrong.  I can't really speak for anyone's spiritual experiences but my own, and I'm not trying to do so.

But I do see it as legitimate, to eat and drink spiritual food grown in the same cultural soil that grew me--as legitimate as it is to eat the tomato that grew in my backyard this summer, despite the fact that tomatoes are not native to my New England soil.  The tomatoes that are growing here now?  They're native, now, for me, in a way no older, purer food could be.

Quakers have a saying, with regards to vocal ministry, the practice of giving voice to the promptings of Spirit felt within a Quaker meeting: "The water always tastes of the pipes."  Meaning, even inspired ministry, faithfully transmitted, is going to use the vocabulary, the knowledge, the basic understandings of the minister.  Even while we communicate something outside ourselves, we lend it a flavor of ourselves.

In the case of Wicca, this is one of the attractions of the path.  The gods probably are not as I understand them, through the distorting lens of Victorian spiritual projections, with all that added cultural baggage.   

But since the gods are probably not understandable to human minds at all, that does not seem nearly as much a liability to me as it is an asset, the power those symbols have deep in my earliest life.  The gods--whoever, whatever they are--seem perfectly able to use those symbols to speak to me down deep, underneath my notional self, down where my roots are.

For me, the water tastes of pipes lined with fairy gold.  And that... is just right.

Saturday, January 25, 2014

Bears Eat My Lettuce

I love where I live;  since moving to our new home four years ago, I've been able to build a relationship with a piece of land for the first time since I was a child.  It's everything a dirt-worshipping Pagan could ask for.  I have a garden, and I grow much of my own food, and that is as much a spiritual delight as a taste treat.  And I have woods again as neighbors: glacial boulders, white pines and black birches, owls and white-tailed deer.

And bears.

And the bears eat my lettuce.

This picture has been Photoshopped. This is not real!

I'm not kidding about that.  Oh, it's winter now, and the bears are huddled up in their dens.  But this past spring, I grew lettuce.  Award winning, gorgeous lettuce: three different kinds!  They were nourished to extraordinary size and succulence by the cool, wet weather we had, and each night, I would gather just a few outer leaves, knowing that careful tending would mean tasty salads for months.

And then, over the course of three days, the bears ate every single one of my lettuce plants.

It was the adolescent bear cubs that raided the garden.  Our next-door neighbor caught them in the act; a whole bear family spent the spring and early summer walking through our yard as calmly as though it were a public park, just for bears.  There was the mama bear, the two no-longer-baby bears, and, hulking through the woods nearby, a brand new papa bear.

Our next-door neighbor's theory was that the new papa bear was ready to push those teenagers out of the den, to make room for him to have a little alone time with their mama.  And the teenaged bears were hungry.

I can attest to that.  Though I never saw them raiding my garden, I did see them passing through, and those cubs looked like puppets, like unconvincing bear puppets, with fur draped over sticks as they stilted across the yard.  There was no plumpness to them at all.

It had been wet, you see, and cold.  And the berries were slow to come.   And probably those are the perfect conditions for tempting adolescent bears into a lettuce patch.  Still, my compassion was limited by my sense of impending loss.  Would lettuce-eating bears mean I had to let go of keeping a garden at all?

Deer raiding a garden are a nuisance, and can wipe out an entire crop.  But deer can't take a bite out of you, and maim you or even kill you.  If bears decide that something in your yard is an all-you-can-eat buffet, what can you do?  There's not really any such thing as "bear proof," and we all know that bears can be dangerous.  We all know, for instance, what happens if we get between a mother bear and her cubs.  It looked as though the only thing to do might be to shut my garden down.

I hated that thought.  And for about a month, I hated those bears.
We tried everything: cayenne pepper and garlic powder, pie pans suspended over the garden to hopefully frighten the bears away.  Nothing worked.  Except for running out of lettuce; they left everything else alone, and seemed to go away.  And I went from panic-stricken to complacent, writing it off as a fluke.

Until fall, when I planted another crop of lettuce.  And--yeah, that's right.  The damn bears came back and ate all my fall crop of lettuce, too!

I remember the night I came outside to harvest lettuce for our dinner salad.  It was early October, and already beginning to get dark, so I didn't immediately see it: all our lovely lettuce, chewed to stumps.

I stormed.  I raged.  I shouted to the woods words that young children should never hear, and I waved around my paring knife, brought out to cut herbs for the salad, and threatened any bear fool enough to approach me with immediate death and destruction.

For those few moments, I was utterly convinced that no bear--not the cubs, not the mama, and not even the 600 pound papa--would dare defy my rage and enter the garden that night.  I was, for the sake of a half-dozen heads of Romaine, ready to do battle with an animal many times my size, and I was quite, quite sure, that I would be the winner through sheer force of will.

Actually, I was probably right.

It turns out that a lot of what we humans "know" about bears is not true of black bears, the species that I share my woods (and my lettuce) with.  A black bear mother, for instance, is much more likely to flee from a human than defend her cubs.  All black bears are more likely to flee from humans than confront us; their evolutionary history is entirely different from that of the grizzly bear, the source of many of the things we falsely believe to be true.  And while I am not actually fool enough to want to enter a confrontation with a bear of any size, in point of fact, the black bears of New England don't want a piece of this action, either.

Even when I'm not enraged and waving a kitchen knife.

I know this because I finally got motivated to research black bears.  My initial response had been fear, and anger, but it turns out that if you follow the science and not the legend, there's no more reason for the one than the other.

Since this fall, I've discovered a wonderful research center in the Midwest that focuses on what my black bear neighbors are really like.  I can't say enough good things about them--the North American Bear Center, in case you're interested--and I'm happy to say that I've become a supporting member of their center.

I'm happier still to say that, as I get to know what the bears in the woods are really like, I'm much more comfortable with the fact that I share my home with them.  (There's a reason they used to call this part of town Bear Hill, I suppose.)  And I get to keep my garden.  Even if bears do come calling, they are much less terrifying than I'd initially supposed.

However, I'm not going to share my lettuce with them this year.

I'm going to plant kale.

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