Wednesday, June 27, 2007

Getting hot, cooling off

Blogging has been light because I've had an unusually busy social calendar for the last week and a half, and I'm getting ready for my trip to Turkey. I leave one week from tomorrow!

Last night was one of those sultry summer evenings where it's still in the 80s at dusk. I remember those nights when I was a kid and it was too hot to sleep; my parents would let my sister and me get out of bed to swim. For several years, we lived in a modest house in a semi-urban neighborhood, and we had a pool in our backyard. Swimming at night meant getting to swim naked, the only lights shining from under the water. After 15 minutes in the pool, our bodies cooled, we would go back to bed and sleep all night.

Swimming naked, and swimming at night - floating on my back looking up at the moon and stars - are still just about my favorite things to do. I prefer lakes, ponds, and hot springs to artificial pools. (I’ve been skinny dipping after dark in the Baltic Sea; this is both cold and dangerous. Much more peaceful was floating on my back in the large hot spring at Orr, in California.)

(Indeed, hot springs are one of the few things my town lacks. That, and Ethiopian food. Okay, and a thriving independent bookstore. We’re not perfect.)

Last night it was hot, so Adonis, Lugh, and I set out for the gorge down the street, where the temperature is about 10 degrees cooler. We hiked in, not very far, and found a flat stretch where we could all walk around in the water. (It’s been dry this year, so the water is low; normally we wouldn’t be able to walk where we did.)

There was a lot of litter, which makes me so angry, but since dog walkers always have plastic grocery bags in their pockets, I was able to clean up the space we were in. In addition to the beer and juice bottles and cigarette wrappers, there was a pair of socks, some Styrofoam peanuts, a bag of empty take-out containers, and a dirty diaper. This isn’t the first time I’ve found a wrapped, dirty diaper in a gorge! People make such a misanthrope of me. I don’t understand how anyone can go to such a beautiful place and leave trash there. It breaks my Pagan heart.

I once knew of some Quakers who would carry a bag and pick up litter wherever they went. When someone would ask them why, they would say, “we’re Quakers; we pick up litter.” I think that’s a mantra that can express our most basic Pagan values. I say it to myself to counter my angry reaction: “we’re Pagans; we pick up litter.”

Thursday, June 21, 2007

Midsummer Blessings

Liberation is not an achievement. Liberation is the degree to which you are able to savor the ecstasy you already are.

Find the world enchanted. Magic is everywhere. Blessings on this longest day.

(Art by Mara Friedman; poster by Syracuse Cultural Workers)

Wednesday, June 13, 2007

Ritual, health, and changing self-stories

(Image: "Self-no Self" by Sandra Sunnyo Lee)

Fiacharrey at the Cypress Nemeton noted my recent post on the uses of life-narrative in changing the self, and my comment that ritual could be a powerful tool for retelling our life stories and reworking our sense of self. Fiacharrey discusses the idea of using ritual in these ways; s/he focuses on the role that externalizing a difficult problem can play in psychological health. According to the original NYT article, those who score highly on assessments of well-being describe their problems as something outside themselves, "villains to be defeated," rather than as persistent character traits. So, for example, someone who describes a period of depression as coming out of nowhere and external to the herself (e.g., referring to it as "the black dog"), scores higher on a well-being assessment that someone who describes herself as a "depressive." The study discussed in the article seems to suggest that it's healthier to externalize one's problems in this way. The way to externalize the problem is to tell a story about it, and presumably an individual has some measure of control over the kind of story she tells. So perhaps we can retell our way to a measure of psychological health.

Fiacharrey gives some practical tips on designing rituals that can help us retell our stories:
  1. “Externalize” the problem you are dealing with. Make it real and separate. Represent it with some tangible object that you can work with.
  2. Word spells in terms of overcoming obstacles. Word them with the problem first, then the resolution. Negative, then positive ending.
  3. Use third person instead of first person as much as possible.
And while Fiacharrey says s/he is "leery of reducing magic to simply a mind-trick we play on ourselves," I don't think that's what rituals of this sort actually do. If we accept Dion Fortune's oft-quoted definition of magic as "the art of bringing about change in consciousness in conformity with will," then taking intentional action to change the contents of our awareness and our underlying beliefs is magic.

But as Witches and other practitioners of magic (ought to) know, we can't think of the will in a common way. The idea of "willpower" - that I can make something happen by trying hard enough - is misleading. The will isn't about wishing something were so, or trying really, really hard; and it's not about forcing something to change. Indeed, it's an open question whether the will is terribly responsive to conscious, rational argument at all.

I'm not convinced that change happens best when we try to make it happen. While there can be a conscious decision to start telling one's life stories differently, after that decision is made, one may need to employ other means in the retelling. And that's where ritual can come in. Ritual is a form of communication with the unconscious, with the child-self, with Younger Self. The Feri tradition teaches that the only way to reach the Higher Self is by going through the Younger Self; that's why Wiccan rituals are often designed with Younger Self in mind - the pretty colors, the yummy smells, candles, nighttime, poetry, drumming, chant! We alter our everyday consciousness in order to reach something deeper. Ritual isn't about convincing the rational, everyday mind - the Talking Self - that something is so. Rather, ritual courts the child in us, and thereby connects us to the Divine.

To take it back to storytelling and psychological health: it's not enough to tell yourself a different story. You have to convince yourself of the new story. You have to learn to embody the new story. You take it into your cells, your bones. The new myth becomes alive for you. It's not a dramatic epiphany - at least, not usually. It's piecemeal. It's process. And it has to happen throughout your being, at every level, not just in the conscious mind. As is said: the mind is a wonderful servant, but a terrible master.

Tuesday, June 12, 2007

Make love, not war

It sounds like it's from the Onion, but it's not:

A Berkeley watchdog organization that tracks military spending said it uncovered a strange U.S. military proposal to create a hormone bomb that could purportedly turn enemy soldiers into homosexuals and make them more interested in sex than fighting.

Pentagon officials on Friday confirmed to CBS 5 that military leaders had considered, and then subsquently rejected, building the so-called "Gay Bomb."

Edward Hammond, of Berkeley's Sunshine Project, had used the Freedom of Information Act to obtain a copy of the proposal from the Air Force's Wright Laboratory in Dayton, Ohio.

The documents show the Air Force lab asked for $7.5 million to develop such a chemical weapon.

"The Ohio Air Force lab proposed that a bomb be developed that contained a chemical that would cause enemy soliders to become gay, and to have their units break down because all their soldiers became irresistably attractive to one another," Hammond said after reviwing the documents.

Absurd, but kind of sweet, too.

For Scriv

"Fear defeated me. And yet,
not in faith and not in madness
but with the courage I thought
my dream deserved,
I stepped outside. It was gone.
Then I whirled at the sound of some
shambling tonnage.
Did I see a black haunch slipping
back through the trees? Did I see
the moonlight shining on it? Did I actually reach out my arms
toward it, toward paradise falling, like
the fading of the dearest, wildest hope ---
the dark heart of the story that is all
the reason for its telling?"

—Mary Oliver, from The Chance to Love Everything

(With thanks to Kim, who has impeccable timing)

Saturday, June 09, 2007

Graduation day

("Threshold" by the incomparable Joanna Powell Colbert)

Your task is not to seek for love, but merely to seek and find all the barriers within yourself that you have built against it.


Friday, June 08, 2007

The Land, a sense of place, community, and home

Part of my spiritual practice is to pay attention to the patterns that arise as I move through my life. The idea of community has been “up” for me for several months. My third year of the mystery school has been about learning how I am in community: what roles do I play? Where do I show up or fail to show up? How important do I believe my presence in the lives of others is? What defenses do I use to keep myself out of relationship? What role does community play in my larger life story? (I’m thinking of all those planets in the 11th house in my natal chart.)

Lately Pagan bloggers have been writing about community and place, and a friend has been writing me long emails about the concept of home. This morning, Garrison Keillor devoted The Writer's Almanac to Emily Dickinson, that poet who famously left home but rarely. He spoke about a time in Dickinson’s life when her community was disintegrating and she reached out, by letter, to Thomas Wentworth Higginson, asking him to be her mentor and friend. (It was clear from the way Keillor told the story that this guy had little appreciation for the kind of person who was reaching out to him, though their letters continued for the rest of her life. He didn’t like her poetry; he found her exhausting.)

As I pulled into work after dropping off Lugh at doggy daycare, I heard a song on the radio, a song that took on meaning for me first when I was 16 and my family moved from Michigan – where I had friends and community and a sense of place, however flawed – to southern Ohio, which felt foreign and hostile to me: Pink Floyd, Wish You Were Here.

Did they get you to trade your heroes for ghosts?

Hot ashes for trees?

Hot air for a cool breeze?

Cold comfort for change?

How I wish you were here.


I observe that Pagans as a people (the Pagani, as Sara Sutterfield Winn would say) attend to the question of community. Many of us practice as solitaries, and there’s the old joke that organizing Pagans is like herding cats. Many of us long for more, or better, community. We may chafe against the Pagan community we know. There are Witch Wars. Pagans get excluded from their communities. Our problems with building community – and I do think we have some serious problems with it – stem both from our novelty as a religious movement and our location within cultures like the U.S. where community is breaking down. We occupy a unique cultural moment in which community can’t be taken for granted as the place where you’re stuck and the people you’re stuck with. Community needs to be built intentionally – and I think that’s a good thing – but I also think that most of us don’t know how to do that.

When we talk about community-building in a general way, we’re probably talking about building relationships with people. But as Pagans, we also care about building relationships with the land and its inhabitants (material and immaterial). Feeling connected to the land is important to many of us, and many of our other values emerge from that feeling - or the desire for a feeling - of connection to the land.

Hecate writes about a connection between pacifism, the Land, and having a sense of place.

Kim Antieau writes about her longing for community and how freakin’ hard it is to build community. She expresses a bewilderment that I often feel.

Molly has made connection with her land and its inhabitants central to her life, and she seems to have a knack for building community.

Updates: Sara adds her giddy voice to the brew. Executive Pagan talks about choosing to be a local.

(The photo is of the entrance to the gorge four blocks from my house.)

Sunday, June 03, 2007

Mi sobrino

A year ago, my nephew was born in Bogotá, Colombia. The young woman who gave birth to him, already the mother of a young son, had hidden the pregnancy from her family. He was born at her home, and the next day she dropped him off at the hospital. From the hospital he was moved to an orphanage, where he lived for the next three and a half months, until my sister and her husband traveled to Colombia to welcome him into our family. Now he is a laughing, thriving, astute, beautiful, and happy baby.

This weekend, over 50 people gathered in my sister's backyard to celebrate his first birthday. It was a huge affair, catered with delicious food, with games for the kids, bubbles and sidewalk chalk, and 100 cupcakes made by the auntie who can bake (not me). I heard that there had been grumbling from some quarters that it was a ridiculously extravagant party to throw for a child's first birthday. My sister - Aries sun, prosecuting attorney, cancer-survivor - replied, with fierce mama-love, "no one was there to celebrate his birth; that will never happen again."

We drove six hours each way, and now we're home again to start the work week. Adonis and Lugh are fast asleep in bed, and I'm about to join them.

cumplea├▒os, mi sobrino. Te quiero.