AREN interview and tepid Paganism

March 22, 2014

I recently had the honor of being interviewed for the lead story in the Alternative Religions Education Network’s ACTION newsletter. In it I blather on about the highlights of my most active period in the Pagan movement, from the mid-90s to the mid-00s. Christopher Blackwell, the kind and attentive editor, is hoping that others can learn from my experiences in organizing in the national sphere.

But today I finished reading Ancient Wisdom: Earth Traditions in the 21st Century by Vivianne and Christopher Crowley and I am reminded of what has always bothered me about contemporary Paganism: its tepid nature.

Constructing the ritual for the Summit was a wonderful intrafaith adventure, combining Ásatrú, Druid, and Craft elements. But the heart of the ritual just said, “Cairril waxes poetic” in the script. I knew I could summon up something dramatic (it is, after all, my nature), but I told the Goddess, “Only if it’s real. Only if I’m truly Called.”

Well, I got Called. Big time. I channeled the Goddess and went around the circle of 40 or so people and gave an individual blessing to each one. I used water from the communal cauldron (everyone had brought water from their homes to contribute, I can’t remember which tradition this drew on but it was lovely) and signed everyone there. I think I sang most of the time, but for certain people there was a specific message from the Goddess for me to give. The messages didn’t make sense to me but I trusted the recipients would understand. The song was one of the chants that came to me in private ritual space: “I stepped into cauldron waters / I stepped into cauldron waters / I heard Her calling out my name / And I felt my self reborn / And I found my self reborn.” (This is one of my favorite chants, since it switches meter from 7 to 4—thank you, Universe!) You could feel the intense power in the room. We were all blessed by it. Euphoric afterwards. Several people were blown away. But later, I thought, “Why? Why was that so unusual?”

I am a solitary, mostly by choice, so I don’t know how the majority of Pagan rituals go in the wider movement, especially outside the Craft. But when I read Drawing Down the Moon, Margot stated in no uncertain terms that Witches draw down the Moon! It’s what we do. Ecstatic trance. C’mon, people. Get on board here.

I generally eschew group ritual for two reasons: 1) I don’t like sublimating my desires/urges to groupthink and 2) almost every group Pagan ritual I’ve been to has been lame. Bless the Unitarians, but give me snake-handling Pentecostals any day when it comes to conjuring up some power. A local CUUPS rit I attended a couple years ago was rocked when I belted out my chant to Call the Earth. It’s an Earth chant. It’s loud. It calls the Earth. Come ON. Nobody knew what to do with it.

So yeah, I finished up Ancient Wisdom today, and it’s a survey of indigenous traditions from around the world, and the difference between the whole book and the two-page “Here’s your takeaway” conclusion was head-whipping. There I am, burbling along through circumcision, ritual scarification, tattooing, weather witching, curse-lifting, fired longships and the like, and then the last two pages talk about canceling Third World debt and considering our impact on the Earth. What are we, Presbyterians??

I used to be pretty rigid about ritual when I first started out but a kitchen Witch showed me some easy ways to weave my spirituality into my everyday life. So now when I cast a Circle, I may confine it to my temple space or I may include the kitchen and bathroom in case I want a break. No biggie. It’s all of a piece. When I finished boiling my eggs for my Equinox ritual, I poured the remaining water around the foundation of my house to ward off lightning. I like the books of Valerie Worth that are filled with charms like “How to Become Invisible”—I mean, this is the shit, right?

I am struggling through The Apple Branch: A Path to Celtic Ritual by Alexei Kondratiev. He starts with this breathtaking overview of Celtic history but then he turns into this haranguing harpy with serious issues with imperialist powers. He insists that you’re not practicing a proper Celtic path if you’re not speaking a Celtic tongue. Well, that lets out most of us. How many people have the resources to track down teachers and find a community to speak with? Anyway, today I read his outline of a Samhain ritual and I was all, “Where’s the yelling?” We’re talking about the Celts, right? The definition of a passionate people. So where is the juice?

Maybe I’m just not hooked up to the right resources (highly likely). But I’ve been trying over the last year to ease my way back into the national movement and I just can’t find my place. Recently The Wild Hunt did an article on the theme of sacrifice and I just could not get in. The biggest problem is that these people actually believe in Gods and Goddesses. I don’t. I’m an atheist Pagan, a minority within a minority. I am comfortable saying, “There’s more going on than five senses can account for,” but I’m not going to talk about entering into transactions with mythical beings.

I checked into several of the big name Pagan magazines but the one that sticks out in my mind did its most recent issue on herbs. Still?? Isn’t this where I left off ten years ago? Not that herbcraft isn’t Witchcraft, it is definitely within the tradition, but I just pictured all these “Use mugwort to polish your crystal ball” articles.

My problem is I have a backlog of books I was sent when I was head of PEN and we used to do book reviews. No, actually, my problem is I don’t have any good recommendations for resources that will speak to me. I looked through Llewellyn’s catalogue last week but it still looked like it was catering to the beginner Pagan (it’s been nearly 10 years since I’ve looked at their stuff). Maybe that’s where the money is. Maybe once you get into more advanced practices you move beyond what books can tell you. But that can’t be right—other religions have advanced texts, why can’t we?

To my dismay, I have had to look to secular sources for ideas that feed into my evolving Craft. Like books on comparative religions. Interesting, occasionally inspiring, but often intellectual and safe.

I want Pagan sources that give me ideas for how to mainline pure joy, power, grief, tranquility, and song. Push me deeper. Stretch me. Help me become ever more a Witch, with a rich skill set to draw upon to serve my community.

Anyone want to teach me how to ride lightning?

The noble victim

March 16, 2014

We’ve all seen it: Bad Guys pound on doors, brandishing guns, yelling at the inhabitants to come out immediately. The oppressed weep silently, cower in fear, walk in groups surrounded by men with guns.

I’m sick of it.

Let me say up-front that my beef is with filmmakers, not with actual victims. What pisses me off is the continual narrative of the “noble victim.” “Those who do not fight back.”

Last night I reached my limit when I watched In the Land of Blood and Honey, Angelina Jolie’s film on the Bosnian war. It was like watching every movie I’ve ever seen about the Holocaust. At least, during the Holocaust, you could assume the oppressed weren’t resisting because no one really believed that genocide on that scale could be happening. But in a post-Holocaust world, how can anyone think they’re immune to the atrocities of civil war?

In real life, war is a messy affair. Even World War II was not always Good Guys vs Bad Guys. Some Jews collaborated with Nazis. Some Germans helped Jews. Some Americans profited from the Nazi war machine. As we can see in Syria today, the “resistance fighters” fight amongst themselves almost as much as they fight against the government. In Egypt, coup has followed coup and the US has struggled to figure out if they’re leading to democracy (good) or autocracy (bad). The law is written for this good/bad dichotomy, but public policy is much trickier than that.

In The Fifth Sacred Thing, Starhawk envisions a showdown between oppressor and oppressed where the mass of civilians goes forward to die one by one, calling out their names and the names of their families. They are telling the gun-toting oppressors that they are murdering human beings with meaningful lives, not just faceless enemies of the state. It touches the hearts of the oppressors, who can’t live with the carnage they’re creating.

While this kind of radical non-violence is unusual, it’s not completely unprecedented. It would take a lot of ground work and organization, but such a resistance movement could be organized. A little-investigated fact about the Holocaust is that mass cremation was hit upon as a solution because German soldiers were getting depressed at having to massacre so many civilians personally. It was bad for morale. So the command structure found a way to de-personalize the victims and sanitize genocide. Why doesn’t anyone look into this? It says there must be a limit to what people can stand.

After all, there are always more people to kill than people to kill them. All it would take is a coordinated effort on the part of the people without guns to overcome the people with guns. Yes, some people would die, but at least we would change the narrative and show a different side of the human spirit. At least we would see that there is a cost to rounding up civilians.

In the movie last night, there’s a scene where the Orthodox Christian Serbs are approaching a Muslim-held shack while holding Muslim women as human shields. The Christians are holding the women in place in front of their bodies, one at a time, with one hand on the arm of the woman in front of them. The Christians call out to the partisans to drop their weapons and come out. There’s a typical “tense” standoff—what will happen? Don’t we already know? Haven’t we seen this movie countless times?

All the women have to do is drop to the ground. Drop to the ground and let the partisans shoot the Serbs. Problem solved. But of course that doesn’t happen. Because the Muslims are the victims, the Muslims get shot.

Again, I’m irritated by the filmmakers, not by the actual people to whom this sort of thing happens in real life. Because I think this endless parade of noble victims trains us to be passive in the face of weaponry and thuggery. Not passive in the sense of “passive resistance,” but “victims of fate.” But it’s not fate. We can fight back. We can run. And yes, we can die because of it, but is it better to be brutalized and scarred so that life afterwards is hardly worth living?

Obviously I live in a privileged position where it’s unlikely I’ll have to deal with much of this. I’ve been in several mass protests with heavy police presence and the threat of violence in the air, and I’ve been sexually abused, but it’s unlikely I’ll be faced with civil war or invasion. I know that in the times that I’ve been threatened, I’ve relied primarily on cunning to get myself out of it. I go on intuition and instinct to identify danger and then I use my brain to figure out a way out/around. I resist, though not violently. I walk away, but I do not run. I change the script. Isn’t that potentially more interesting than passively being rounded up like sheep?

In the movie Stage Beauty, Claire Danes’ character criticizes Billy Crudup’s portrayal of Desdemona in the murder scene with Othello, saying it’s all wrong because any woman would fight. This leads to the best playing of the murder scene I’ve seen on film, but you’ll have to check that out for yourself. My point is, that’s what I want to see. Fight—rise up. Like the people on United Flight 93, rise up and fight back. I’ll watch a righteous death over a zombie life any day.

World’s best description of depression

March 2, 2014

Read it here. Then come back.

I am not yet to the corn stage. Still hanging out with the fishes.

I think this blogger nails it when they talk about how difficult it is to be around cheery people who try to talk you out of depression. I know, I know, you feel helpless and you really, really want to help, and that’s very kind of you, but in some cases the best thing you can do is say, “I’m sorry things are so hard for you right now.”

Severe depression is an illness like diabetes: chronic, potentially life-threatening, and treatable. It can’t be overcome by simply talking to a friend. It takes treatment by a trained professional.

That doesn’t mean friends and family can’t help. It’s just important to keep in mind that severe depression is a long-term thing, not a three-day “I’m feeling a little blue and just need someone to talk to” sort of thing. So unless you want to exhaust yourself with continual rescue attempts, just offer support and turn to your friends for support for you. The depressed person isn’t going to make you feel better by—hey presto—changing behaviors permanently overnight.

I had a vision when I was 17 that “something very, very bad” was going to happen but that I would be all right when I was 23. Sure enough, my life began to spin out of control and when I was 18 I began having psychotic episodes. That went on until the day when I came within a hair’s breadth of going over the edge permanently and I just suddenly shut it all down. That’s a good story (good=interesting, not good=fluffy bunnies and rainbows) and I’ll have to tell it someday.

But anyway, my point is that I shut down everything. I became the walking dead. No feelings. No feelings whatsoever. It was my first experience with the all-pervasive grey that comes with severe depression. I remember my sister screaming at me, “You’re so cold, you’re like ice—” and my replying, “Paula, I’m afraid that if I start crying, I’ll never stop.”

Things went on. Again, a story for another time. Hallucinations, self-mutiliation, constant thoughts of suicide. You know. The usual. And the only thing that kept me hanging on was that vision that I’d had. So I hung in there. Hanging by a thread, but vaguely curious to see if the vision would come true.

One day when I was twenty-three I was setting on the edge of my bed. I leaned down to tie my shoes. As I got back up, whoosh, all my feelings came rushing back. “I can feel! I can feel.” I just sat there crying in wonder and gratitude. (Gratitude! A feeling!)

Who knows why it happened? After all, it’s not like I hadn’t worn shoes before. It was completely out of the blue—no warning. I wasn’t thinking anything in particular. Just putting on my shoes.

So I get what the blogger says about the corn. Sometimes all the medication and the therapy help, and sometimes it’s a mysterious juxtaposition of random forces that elicit change. I’ve been 14 years now in the wasteland and sometimes I still catch myself holding my breath when I tie my shoes. Maybe someday that will do the trick.