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From the Greenwood

We live in a strange and lovely world...

I am typing these words from my laptop, sitting outside the tent we're sleeping in in the middle of a hemlock wood in the Catskill Mountains. Let me describe the scene for you. I hear the soft, sweet soughing of the wind in the leaves over my head, a late-summer cicada very slowly marking time, distant shrilling of frogs, and a thread of flute music drifting in from across the stream very much like the leaves that are drifting down from the canopy over my head. I look around me and I see two... no, three other tents, a high, savagely grey ledge of stone, carpeted over with fallen leaves, and the stained-glass contrasts of yellow maples and hornbeams punctuated by green-black hemlock trees. Beside me is a rotted stump that is as textured and intricately carved as a Georgia O'Keefe skull...

The last of the afternoon sun is slanting through the forest giants atop the ridge, and I can see that same sun warming the sides and roofs of the cabins across the pond. Sounds of a bodhran that come and go, of a pickup basketball game, morris dancing, and laughter...

This is the setting from which I write today.

I am at an annual Pagan retreat which will remain nameless here, because it is a closed retreat. Unless you know someone who invites you, you will never hear of this one, not because we are such special people that we don't want to know you, but because we are a committed community of "dirt-worshipping tree huggers" (as the bumper-sticker says) and we know that there really are no shortcuts to creating community. We know each other. We watch each other's kids grow up (lots of people have been eager for news of mine, who is not in attendance here this year) and we look out for one another, stay in touch with one another, mourn with one another at need, and celebrate each other's triumphs when we can. We're not open to the public for the same reason a family is not: because that's just now how this kind of human connection works (though we'll be delighted should you meet one of us, fall in love, and "marry in", metaphorically speaking.)

There are about 150 of us here this year. The weather is amazing, and the mood is friendly and warm.

Wandering around the grounds today, skirting the edges of at least one Maidening ritual, a dance tutorial, a workshop on Hindu deities, and any number of intimate conversations, I found myself thinking that this is how I like to think of us in the Pagan movement.

Peter and I have been doing Quaker-Pagan MFW each morning--sparsely attended this year, in comparison to some, but having met Quakers who show up and keep meetings running week after week with only three or four attendees at times, I find I don't at all mind it. I like to think that keeping the space available for those who need it, when they need it--that just knowing it's there, never mind someone starting the day holding the retreat in worship--that that's enough. Usually, since it's such a small group, it tends to be pretty quiet. Today, though, Joan was with us up the hill at the pavilion, and first I, then Peter, and then Joan had a message. Hers comes back to me now. She said she thinks about world events since 9/11, including recently the school shootings, and it seems to her that evil, human evil, is out and about in the world, and needs to be challenged. This is a somewhat remarkable thing for a Pagan to say--officially, we don't have much use for the concept of evil as it's own force. But what she said next, about hoping that both she as an individual, and we as a religious community, needing to be present and active, to stave off a sense of the human world being "rotten at the root" felt important to me. As it did after meeting, when Joan said she hopes that we Pagans are accomplishing more than entertaining ourselves, dressing up and playing together. And I knew just what she meant. There it is again: that need to balance the inward, spiritual experiences and the outward, active, acting in the world part of life.

I think that here, at this particular Pagan gathering, we're cultivating human connection first. There is a sacrality to community. It's slow, and it's not marketable or easy to package and distribute, and, by itself, it isn't clear how it will change the world. But I think that changing how humans relate to one another is going to be the key to how we find our way out of the messes we've made on the planet... Learning to live in community, including all the ugly bits: finding a way to reach out to (or at least tolerate) people who have (inevitably) hurt us in the past... finding a way to deepen spiritually even when the person next to us is getting, well, frankly, silly and self-promoting, as certainly does happen.

Pagans generally shape their beliefs around a central testimony (to use the Quakerese) of earth-stewardship... though I think we are, as a movement, rather less good at actually _living_ according to those lights than Quakers are at living out our peace testimony.

But for myself, despite my love for woods and the non-human world, and despite the near-physical force with which the peace testimony propelled me into Quaker meeting, it's human connection on the most personal level that seems to be my own core testimony.

My most powerful worship experiences over the last few years, in the Quaker world and the Pagan one, have been mostly about connecting with--through?--other humans. The worship sharing Peter and I set up today, on the subject of connecting with Spirit, brought me to that deep, bright-lit place for the first time this weekend. I had been fighting off a certain sadness, a feeling that I was no longer able to connect fully to Pagan people and Pagan ritual. And it's true that ritual doesn't generally do much for me any more. But when others spoke from the heart about their deep truths, well, just as happens in Quaker meeting, suddenly I wasn't striving to get to a place of connection with Spirit. I was just there.

My path has been a strange one. It has wound through lots of varied landscapes: Wicca, Paganism, the Quakers, and just plain folks. I have a sense that I'm standing where I need to be at the moment. It's a bit frustrating that I can't really express how to get here, to another person. I could teach you how to be a Witch. I'm beginning to be able to teach (a little) how to be Quaker, or at least what that means. But I have no recipe for becoming whatever it is that I am. I'm a little bit different than anyone else, including even Peter, who at least shares my ritual vocabulary.

But perhaps, when we get where we're supposed to be, each of us, we find ourselves on the Path With No Name, learning what can't be taught, because it's just for us.

Hmph. I may be maundering. It's so hard to rely on words to try to communicate the Big Stuff.

But I will say that it is a priviledge and a joy, to be sitting here in the gathering chill, in a hemlock forest in October, surrounded by people who, silly or wise, grumpy or serene, are a People to each other and to me. I am quietly, happily grateful.

This has been a good retreat, even if I do have wait till next year to try the morris dancing myself...

Chef Michael, known and loved to all of us at the nameless gathering, added his comments; I've given them their own post, which you can read here.


Zach Alexander said…
I enjoyed reading this.

Every so often, I have thoughts (idle and serious) about starting something different among Friends – a worship group or monthly meeting that did things differently, or even something that only claimed to be partially "Quaker."

And I've often thought along simliar lines as what you described here -- this Pagan gathering as mostly closed, like a family, for the sake of building stronger community. I think there's something very true in that.
Of course, it's very easy for me. I have a home both in my closed, intimate and family-like world of Pagan community, AND in the much more open and (in some ways) challenging world of Quaker meeting. And I do think that it's important to have spiritual work and insights be in the world, not cloistered from it, as closed groups can be.

But I also don't think I'd likely have grown the spiritual skills and sinews that made it possible for me to become Quaker outside the somewhat more sheltered and intimate world of small and medium sized Pagan groups.

Mind you, there are certainly small Quaker meetings that, though open, are as intimate as any small coven or grove. And I'm definately not holding out the workings of my Nameless Gathering community as perfect or a model for all people everywhere...

I'm lucky, though. Sometimes I think I sense an alienation in the voices of Quakers, especially Young Quakes, talking about their relationship with their spiritual community. Paganism's intimate connections do seem to prevent that--though there are specific issues there, too, like the disillusionment that sometimes sets in when the wonderful sense of being enfolded by an ideal family meets the harsh reality that these are just people--and not always wise, kind, or generous people--too. Pagan alienation is more like the estrangement after a hard divorce than the feeling of being alone in a crowd, in my experience.

Of course, Quaker groups probably get that at times, too, and I'm sure that there are Pagans out there who do feel alone in a crowd. I guess my sense is that there are some common threads that run through all human experience of community, but also some broad patterns that go with different types of community structure.

If you do pull together your "something different", Zach, I'll be interested to read about it.

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