Yule – Sustaining Rebirth

I am continuing to republish a series of essays originally written in 2011.

Six months ago, I told a story of Litha being destruction averted, because although it is easy to associate warmth with the very energy of life, it is important that we not be overwhelmed by it. [1] Yule, by contrast, is a celebration of life being created anew, and created again, even in the midst of cold and darkness. It is a time when re-creation leads, appropriately, to recreation.

People in temperate climates have a long, long history of celebrating the days when the sun seems to stand still, halting its northward journey and then turning southward again, promising longer days and an end to winter, even if it is a long way off. [2] Midwinter solstice heralds a fresh start, and the promise of the whole world coming back to life – not miraculously restored after just a few days, but gradually reborn through the more mundane magic of germination and gestation.

Of course, this isn’t the only time of year we talk about new life coming into being, but it is one of the most poignant and symbolic times. I’ve seen so many rituals, both at Yule and other holidays, that speak to people’s desire for rebirth in their everyday lives. It’s easy to want a fresh start, a sudden and dramatic change – just like magic! – which will remove our obstacles and change our bad habits in one fell swoop. It’s easy to create a ritual that panders to the most unexamined form of this yearning for a quick fix, to assure people that if they simply want it hard enough, or light enough candles, it will happen. Worst of all, it’s too easy to let this devolve into the idea that the universe is a vast wish-granting machine, and that if you don’t get what you want, either someone is out to get you or it’s all your fault. A similar idea is at work in the secular custom of New Year’s resolutions, and they are famously ineffective.

The natural world doesn’t work that way. The sun doesn’t suddenly spring back to its position at the height of summer – and it’s a good thing, too, because that kind of transformation without transition would be incredibly traumatic. This is true for humans, too. Sudden changes and fresh starts do occur, but they’re not always something to be yearned for, and they’re seldom as easy as we would like to imagine. More often, rebirth is not an instantaneous process. Usually it arises not just from our wishing but from our working. New life and ways of life usually require that we make choices day after day, again and again, choosing anew and working in support of that choice.

We experience this in our relationships, too; they have to be nurtured on a regular basis. A marriage vow, for example, isn’t something that magically forges a lasting, loving relationship between two people. It’s choosing to live out that vow, again and again, choosing to love, to forgive, to be patient, that keeps the relationship alive, helps it be reborn day by day. It’s not that every single choice, or word, or action has to be perfect, but that enough of them are good enough to tip the balance. It’s not the making of the vow but the keeping of it that provides the warmth of love in the heart of the family, just as it’s not the single moment of Yule but the gradual lengthening of days that warms the world for springtime.

This kind of gradual progress can be frustrating. The day after Yule isn’t noticeably longer, and it’s going to go on being cold for quite a while. In the face of that, it’s important to celebrate the magical moments, like the days when the very sun stands still and then changes course. But often, our culture puts too much weight on the single moments, with unrealistic expectations leading to inevitable disappointments: the big dinner must be a time of jollity and familial love, the long-awaited present must be perfectly surprising and satisfying all at once, and so on.

Instead of trying to force Yule, or New Year’s, or any other single moment, to give me instantaneous transformation, I try to follow the Sun’s pattern. On this shortest day, I take time to pause, to stand still and just be present. Then, when I want to renew or re-create my life in some way, I do it gradually, gently, a little at a time. That kind of sustained rebirth, a daily, incremental newness of life, has a name: growth. Growth, and the precious knowledge that it continues, even in the cold and dark of winter, is what I celebrate in this season.


[1] At this time, the Northern Hemisphere is approaching the winter solstice, while the Southern Hemisphere is approaching Litha, or summer solstice.
[2] Solstice comes from the roots “sol,” meaning sun, and “sistere,” meaning to come to a stop. http://www.etymonline.com/index.php?search=solstice

Lunasa – John Barleycorn

But John Barleycorn proved the stoutest man
Though they did all that they could
So raise up your horn and praise John Barleycorn
And we shall drink his blood
Yes, we shall drink his blood!

– Heather Alexander’s version of old English folk song “John Barleycorn”

I’m continuing to republish a series of essays originally written in 2011.

John Barleycorn is one of my favorite versions of a god archetype that is particularly relevant at this time of year: the god of vegetation who dies and is reborn. There are innumerable versions of the poem and folk song that tell his story, including one by Robert Burns. [1]  The story is a metaphor for the agricultural cycle of barley, and by extension nearly any grain crop, personified in “little Sir John.” [2]

In the Northern Hemisphere, the Sabbat at the start of August is called either Lammas or Lughnasadh, and under either name it is a celebration of the first fruits of the harvest, and especially the beginning of the grain harvest. The consistent theme at these celebrations is thanksgiving that there is a harvest to be gotten in, and that communities come together to do the hard and vitally necessary work of harvesting. In the Southern Hemisphere, this Sabbat is Imbolc, which is also a festival of change, but in a different way, focusing on poetry and inspiration, and the end of winter, rather than preparing for the coming winter as we in the Northern Hemisphere must do at this time.

Lammas comes from the Old English for loaf-mass, the offering and blessing of the first symbolic loaves made from the newly-reaped grain, representing the whole harvest to come. Lughnasadh is the festival of the Celtic god Lugh; he is said to have instituted the celebration in honor of his foster-mother after her death. [3] As far as we can tell from surviving information, in old Celtic cultures this was a time for communities to gather and engage in games and contests of skill, especially martial skill, but it was also a celebration of the harvest.

The Lughnasadh festival was considered a good time for people to come together in more ways than one. Because the harvest assured people that they could plan for the winter to come, this time of year was appropriate for finalizing all kinds of arrangements, including living situations from renting lodgings to setting up marriages and handfastings. A handfasting, according to some sources, may have been a kind of trial marriage that lasted for “a year and a day” and could be dissolved without prejudice at the end of that time. [4] In a largely agricultural society, the gold of the grain was more important than a gold ring to making it possible for a couple to live together.

The song of John Barleycorn – a story of violence and death – may seem like an odd tune for these festivals of fresh bread and new weddings.  The conflict is resolved when we realize the story is not just about death, but death and rebirth. Little Sir John comes back in many forms, none of which are exactly the same as the life he lost. He is reborn, not resurrected.

John Barleycorn is another face worn by the Green Man, the god of living things that are green and growing, things that live and die and live again, year in and year out, around the Wheel. The Green Man or the vegetation god often appears in art, especially carvings, as a face made of leaves, sometimes with vines and grasses growing from his mouth or flowing as his hair. As I have found common in Paganism, he “speaks in leaves,” that is, in complex symbols without a single, simple allegorical meaning, so there is not just one story but many going on simultaneously as we try to read his story in the leaves and in his songs. [5]

In the song, John Barleycorn, the seed, is planted and buried, by men who are vain enough to assure themselves that he is dead. But because Barleycorn knows that the tomb is also the womb of the earth, he sprouts and begins to grow. As the grain begins to ripen, it is described in some versions as the figure growing a beard. This is a literal description of ripening grain, which grows long thin protrusions called the beard or awns, but it could also be a symbol of puberty, with all the attendant metaphors between sexual and agricultural fertility. In Burns’ version, though, he describes this growth as “pointed spears” that are Barleycorn’s defense, until he ages and becomes weak in autumn. In either telling, Barleycorn’s ripening marks the point that he has become useful to others, and by the same token, it is the time that he is beginning to be ready for his next death.

Then in great detail the story and song describe the cruelties inflicted on Barleycorn, all of which refer to the activities of preparing grain for human use: cutting the stalks, binding the sheaves, loading the grain, threshing, and milling. But here the song departs from the Lammas theme of the importance of bread. Burns’ version gives away the difference by including the step of malting the barley over a fire before it is ground, which makes it ready for brewing beer, which will be the ultimate rebirth of the barley. Some versions insist that Sir John was not only made into the everyday beer, but also into stronger stuff such as uisge beatha, the “water of life,” better known today as whisk(e)y.

The song ends with a verse or two about how everyone partakes of Barleycorn’s reborn “spirit,” pun very much intended. This is why I describe Barleycorn’s process as a rebirth, rather than a resurrection; the parts of the grain that are used, whether for bread or for brewing, are completely transformed. Only the small portion reserved as seed will give birth to new grain next year. Even then, it will be cut down in turn, in the repeating cycle that closes the circle of the song and of the Wheel of the Year.

Now, I don’t focus on this song to imply that everyone ought to drink alcohol; although alcoholic drinks may have been healthier than plain water in the past, today that is (thankfully) no longer the case for most people in the developed world. And although beer, sometimes called “liquid bread,” may once have been an important source of calories, grain-based foods are seldom in short supply these days.

The important point is that the song ends with examples of people doing work together and celebrating as they share “little Sir John in the nut brown bowl,” or as Heather Alexander puts it, “raise up their horns.” This beer is more than a health measure, a source of calories, or an intoxicant. Its importance comes from its place in shared celebration. This sharing in the harvest is more than just a source of sustenance. It symbolizes the way we also need hilarity and opportunities to socialize, to join with other people in feast and festival.

From start to finish, the song subtly reminds us that we need each other. It’s not just one man fighting against John Barleycorn; it’s three men who plow him, and then all the different people involved in the processing of the grain. And at the end, when the singer or poet addresses the audience directly, it is an acknowledgment that we are all human together. Just as these festivals weren’t instances of individual and private devotion, none of the harvest tasks could be done by one individual alone. The cooperation of the entire community was necessary to have enough to eat, let alone extra to brew into celebratory beer!

We’ll see these themes of work, life, and rebirth played out over the next few Sabbats, culminating in Samhain and Yule, but this is the start of that process, and a clear sign that the Wheel is turning to such matters as the harvest and the very heart of some of the most human Mysteries of all. As we go into them, it is important to note that what matters is not that John Barleycorn is resurrected in some perfected, idealized, changeless form that will exist forever. What we find is rebirth, like the rebirth of John Barleycorn, the irrepressible spirit of life that continues to renew itself in myriad forms and through myriad generations.

That is what I worship about the vegetation god, and it is the starting point that helps carry us through the darkening part of the year. No matter what happens in those many deaths and rebirths, we remain children of Earth, connected to the cycle, and always alive in the sense that something carries on – although it may be greatly changed in form.

The deepest meaning of the song, to me, is that when John Barleycorn rises again, his spirit rises within each of us. When we eat bread and whether we drink beer, or tea, or juice, we are partaking of that spirit of irrepressible life, which flows into each of us to make our own lives possible. It is the very interconnections in which we live our lives, both in relationships with others and in relationship with the world around us, from which we draw sustenance and to which we will return. On this Sabbat, we come together in celebration to acknowledge that cycle and to reaffirm our role in the shared work and shared rewards of the harvest.

—–

[1] ^ This video has a good performance of the song with reasonable sound quality; you may want to listen while you read.

An Ulster variant speaks from the point of view of the barley itself in some verses, a good reminder that at times we are the harvester, and at times we are the harvest itself.

This Morris dance to the song has additional Pagan symbolism. The character in the center wearing mixed colors is Barleycorn and the four around the edges are the Elements. Yellow, in the East, is Air, red in the South is Fire, blue in the West is Water, and the brown-green in the North is Earth. (The video is taken from the south side of the circle, facing north.) At the beginning, the central character clacks sticks with each Element, invoking its power, and they all interweave in the dance, finishing together, centering on Barleycorn, to show the way all living things (and all things, really) partake of all four Elements.

Versions of the lyrics may be found here and here for the Heather Alexander ones.

Burns’ version and a comparison to a conflated version of the usual song lyrics is at this site.

[2] ^ Note that throughout this article and the tales of John Barleycorn, “corn” means grain in general, not specifically maize as it does in the US.

[3] ^ The god and festival are respectively spelled Lu (with accent) and Lunasa (which means the month of August) in modern Irish, and pronounced “loo” and “LOO-na-sah.” The tales of Lugh are many and complex.

[4] ^ This was also a marriage contracted by agreement between the couple themselves, rather than their families, with or without a specified length attached, and without the need for clergy. This type of marriage has a long and contested history in Europe. Contemporary Pagans have adopted the term for nearly any relationship commitment ceremony.

[5] ^  King, Laurie R. The God of the Hive. New York: Bantam, 2010, p 48.

A simple ritual: Moon shadows

For this month’s ritual, I want to suggest a simple activity which can be as elaborate and engaging or as quiet and meditative as you want: looking at your moon shadow.

The weather is nice enough in most places at this time that going outside while the full moon is high doesn’t mean flirting with hypothermia. So why not get yourself out of doors while the full moon is the main light source and spend some time with your shadow cast by moonlight?

Shadows are curious creatures – appearing and disappearing, images of ourselves but shaped by our surroundings. Shadows cast by moonlight are even more rarely seen, unusual and perhaps revealing.

Turn your back on the moon and do ritual with your shadow as your partner. Can you feel it? What does it look like? How does it engage or not engage?

Meditate with your shadow. What does it have to show you, to tell you, to be for you?

Animal signs

While keeping up my series of posts on divination at the time of the new moon, I’m going to mix things up today and write a little bit about a kind of divination that is not nearly as systematic as Tarot or runes or other methods. It’s less systematic, and in some ways more open to chance and to individual interpretation, because it relies on nature for its signs. Specifically, I’m going to share a few experiences I’ve had with observing the appearances and behavior of animals that have carried spiritual meaning for me. If you’ve had similar experiences, I’d like to hear about them, too!

There are formalized systems of animal divination, or at least collections of the suggested interpretations of particular animals and their appearances or behaviors, but I haven’t studied any of these. So far, my work with animal signs has been primarily an extension of connection with the landbase and finding the divine in the immanent all around us.

The most powerful signs for me have been the animal form of a deity making an appearance, such as when I encounter ravens and crows and sense the Morrigan at work. These signs are often a gentle reminder of her presence – sort of like saying, “Don’t worry, I’m here with you.” On the other hand, they can also be a reminder to consult with a deity or power that I haven’t interacted with in a while – sort of the equivalent of that “Hey, we haven’t talked in a while. How are you doing?”

This kind of interpretation is an area that relies heavily on intuition and one’s existing relationships with spirits and powers. It can also be significantly improved by a working awareness of one’s landbase and its other inhabitants. Anything out of place or unusual is more likely to be able to carry divinatory meaning. For example, seeing eagles at the zoo is probably not a sign from Zeus or Athena; seeing eagles in the wild is more likely to be.

In addition to deity forms, I also draw on the stories or qualities associated with specific animals to interpret signs. I once went to Teddy Roosevelt Island and saw turtles in two widely separated places. That day remains the only time I’ve seen turtles there. That was a strong message for me to endure and be patient but persistent, and it bore out.

Now, not every appearance is going to have divinatory meaning. Even behaviors that seem unusual can be perfectly natural, just unfamiliar to you. It’s always important, with this as with other forms of divination, to reflect on how and why you’re interpreting the message the way you are, and to think critically about whether the message is significant at all. On the other hand, a natural cause doesn’t rule out a symbolic meaning; one time that I observed a very active stag during the rutting season, I knew he was out and about because of the rut, but his appearance was also a meaningful message to me to remember the masculine divine and the way the urge for life continues even near Samhain.

Finally, don’t restrict yourself to the charismatic megafauna (the big interesting animals) only. Don’t be bummed out if your power animal or the animal forms of your deities don’t live in your local environment. Try paying attention to what is present in the world around you. Does that cheeky cardinal in your yard show up more often at times when you need to let your own colors shine?

If you have worked with this at all, share some wisdom: How do you work with signs and meanings from the animal world? How do you develop this kind of awareness?

Earth Day – Romancing the Landbase

In honor of Earth Day, Tuesday April 22nd, consider romancing your landbase.

Romancing? Well, yes. Deepen your relationship, or if you like, begin to develop your relationship with your landbase. If you would rather see yourself as a friend of your landbase, you can. Friendship is a wonderful, beautiful kind of relationship. But for me, the more I work with my landbase, the more I fall in love.

It’s easy to see Earth Day as an intellectual observance – the environment is important, so we should plant a tree or use less electricity or protest a pipeline. Yes, we should absolutely do all those things, to the best of our abilities. Tomorrow, I think, is a time to acknowledge those things but also to experience the ways I am drawn to live in relationship with my landbase which is not solely intellectual; this relationship is emotional and spiritual as well.

Developing a relationship with one’s landbase is a powerful part of recognizing and working with spirit as it exists in the physical world, and thus a fundamental part of my work as a Witch. “Landbase” is a word I use to describe the convocation of all the beings who participate in my physical environment, especially my local environment. It could be called my local ecology, my watershed, my bioregion, except that I am also including and invoking the spirits of place, the spirits of the land and water, plants and animals. All of these together, the physical and immanent, make up my landbase.

These are the ones I relate to. As in other relationships, I set aside special times to honor and enjoy that relationship; tomorrow is one of those times, and the anniversary of me moving to this place is another. Use the idea of relationship to shape what you do tomorrow. If you’re working on developing a relationship with your landbase, think of how you would develop a relationship with someone you’re just getting to know: enjoy a beverage, spend some time, talk with them. If you’re especially kind, you provide the beverage. So take some water out to your landbase, pour it out with intention, and spend time introducing yourself and listening to your land.

Making offerings is one of the simplest and most profound parts of relationship. It says: “I acknowledge you. You exist, and I value you.” If you are just beginning, this basic opening is a gentle and effective introduction that paves the way for deeper work. Whether it is with a deity or any other kind of spirit, making an offering is always a wise place to begin.

If you already have a deeper relationship with your landbase, then just as with an existing relationship, you might have some idea what the other party (and oh, isn’t the landbase a party at this time of year!) would enjoy as a gift. If you do, great; if you don’t, then it is still a truism that the value of a gift in a relationship has more to do with the attention and intention imbued in the gift and its giving than any physical value. We cannot put a price on quality time that deepens relationship with our human friends and lovers; in the same way, what the landbase desires above all is you.

Ourselves are a gift we always have available. The gift of our attention and awareness is one we can give on a regular basis, wherever we are, just as people who live in the same space acknowledge each other. A simple good morning to my partner is a tiny gift of myself and a vital piece of acknowledging, maintaining, and even deepening our relationship over time.

This ability to maintain relationship is one good reason to work with one’s landbase close to home. It is not as effective to find a gorgeous national park within your bioregion and visit it once a year to acknowledge the grandeur of “pristine” nature as it is to greet the tree outside your window in all seasons. It is incredibly difficult to maintain a long-distance relationship; thankfully, “nature,” in the landbase, is all around us (and within us), so that kind of effort is not necessary. Don’t spend time introducing yourself to a place you’ll only visit once a year; say hello to the plants you pass every day.

In this spirit, romance your landbase tomorrow. Give water, or corn meal, or whatever you are called to give, but above all, give yourself. If you can plant a tree, wonderful; if you can’t, but you can find time and energy to work on the relationship, you may find that the land answers you back, and that when it does, you are filled with more than you gave, as happens in the best relationships. When the land fills you, you will have more to give in turn: to give to yourself, to give to your loves, and to give to the land, especially in caring for the environment on all the days of the year.

Magic for the buds

Tonight I’m snuggled up and trying to stay warm while (yet another) snowstorm hits, here in February when we might expect things to be getting if not spring-like then at least a little milder. Tonight I will chant the names of plants and animals, and include many a prayer for the ones I do not know. Tonight I murmur over the unknown names of the people who are out of doors for any reason. Tonight I chant the names I know of my landbase, and include silence for the names, to borrow Eliot’s words,

…the names that you never will guess;
The names that no human research can discover—
But the land itself knows, and will never confess.

Tonight I say the names, and I keep the silence, and I pray my prayers to the nearly-full moon, and to all beneficent powers, to be merciful to the buds which have just appeared, and to the people who are out of doors, and to the land.

budsWhat are you doing to turn the Wheel?

Landbase whispers: Spring is here

My landbase told me that spring arrived last Tuesday.

cherry blossoms in bowl

On Monday, I was walking in the rain, and I thought about something
Michael Smith mentioned at Sacred Space, alluding to the way a
religion that recognizes the divine immanent in nature has sacred
times not just marked by the predictable things measured on calendars
but also unpredictable sacred times that arrive in nature’s good time.
I was reminded of the way my friend Hecate is a keen observer of her
garden’s time, and how she wants to have impromptu parties to
celebrate the organic events that mark the times of the landbase.

One of my favorite of those organic timekeepers has been the first
flurries of snow. If I were to borrow and rewrite some of the
religious language I grew up with, it might read: “It is right and
salutary that we should at all times and in all places give thanks and
praise to you, o land, and especially to honor the first snowflakes by
dashing madly outside, running around with our mouths open to try to
catch a snowflake with our tongues, all of us, not just the
children…”

On Monday I realized that there is another of these childlike (but far
from childish) observances that I had forgotten, though. The rain on
Monday was the first rain that felt like a spring rain. It felt
different because it was the first time I hadn’t felt so bitterly cold
that all I wanted to do was bundle up and hide. I could keep my head
up, and look around me, appreciating the way the rain and wind played
together, pattering down gently enough to seem like a call to the land
to reawaken.

Comparing the two observances, and the way snow is coming less often,
but more dramatically when it does, make me worry about how these
organic timekeepers are affected by climate change. Will the next
generation of children have the memories of gentle snowflakes as
harbingers of winter, or only as the very wrath of winter’s teeth?
Will they appreciate the first warm rain as a respite from winter’s
cold, which is what makes it magical for me, or will they see is as
the harbinger of summer’s dreaded onslaught?

Now, I have no doubt that if there are people, and there are people
who are paying attention to the land – and there will always be
children who are paying attention to the land while they are playing,
because they haven’t learned to do anything different yet – then
people will find their own sacred organic time markers. I am not yet
such an old stick in the mud (although I may be becoming one) that I
will say that my time markers in this place are the only right and
good ones, and anything different that comes after me is a decay. But
I am afraid for these children of the future, because I am afraid of
the pain and heartache that are here now because of climate change,
and which will get worse before they get better.

But enough of my maunderings…on Monday, I felt the cool-warm rain,
and I remembered enough of my misspent childhood and listened enough
to the land’s sigh of relief that it was a time marker for me. And
then Tuesday…

Tuesday was supposed to be more rain all day. One of the consolations
of losing the wonder at every moment that is a hallmark of childhood
experience is the gain in perspective; “April showers bring May
flowers” was nothing more than singsong when I was splashing through
the puddles that I remembered on Monday, but now it is a statement of
promise, a different kind of wonder at the cycles of the year. But
Tuesday afternoon there was a break in the rain, and the sky opened,
and it was warm enough to go out with only a light coat.

That’s when I discovered that the cherry blossoms in the park near my
home are blooming already. Not peak bloom, and I’m sure they’re ahead
of the Tidal Basin, but enough and more than enough to fulfill all the
hope and promise of the rhyme. And the land – oh, the land was awake,
pattered into spring’s rising by the fall of raindrops as gentle and
persistent as a mother’s kisses on the forehead of a sleepy child.

And what a good reason to awake! The sun and sky made love to the land
with warmth after the rain that was enough to make the drowsiest
plants send out new shoots to savor the freshly-washed world. Some of
the cherry blossoms were knocked down by the rain, of course, but
plenty remained, and they were being nurtured with what they needed to
grow further.

Those that fell were a gift of grace, from the land to the land, and
to the people who live with the land. The land whispered, “Spring is
coming…spring is here!”

Dupont Henge today

The Express had a little article on Friday saying that today at 12:30 the sun will shine directly down the tunnel of Dupont Circle’s south entrance. Anybody want to go see?

I should have kept a copy of the article, because now I can’t find it online. From what I recall, an attentive Metro rider noticed this phenomenon one day and then calculated when it would happen again – once on either side of the winter solstice, it turns out. He went to the occurrence in November to confirm his calculations, and it worked.

The article quoted him as saying a couple of interesting things about how observing natural phenomena like this has been linked with seasonal celebrations. For me, it was neat to see people discussing that kind of awareness of how we shape our relationship with the natural world in a non-Pagan context.

Sitting at a cold altar

Have you ever tried sitting at a cold altar?

By cold I don’t just mean temperature. My altar where I do my regular devotions has symbols of the Elements on it: a stick of incense, a small candle, a dish of water, a dish of salt. It also has deity figures and sometimes seasonal decorations and other things. Preparing my altar is part of the process of devotions: sweep off the old incense ash, check the candle and wick, refill the water if needed, light the candle and the incense. Then I sit down…

But in this cold season, when the Earth herself is sere and sleeping, perhaps it would be more appropriate not to do some of those things.

What would it be like to chant my devotions to Fire with an unlit candle? To connect with Water in an empty bowl?

In my way of reckoning the seasons, we’ve just passed Midwinter, and this is still the season of Earth. The bowl of salt and a stone, the presence of Earth on my altar, requires minimal tending – so little that it can be easy to pass over. Perhaps letting my altar become sere would help me concentrate better on that quiet, deep Earth in this its season.

I know we’re all excited that the sun is reborn, and I look forward to Imbolc as much as anyone. But the anticipation shouldn’t cause us to live in the future so much that we neglect the present. Winter has a ways to go yet, and around here we’ve barely had a taste of real cold so far. Our landbase needs the cold, and perhaps we need some time to acknowledge the cold, to honor the darkness even as it begins to give way to increasing light.

I’ll try it. As Hecate says, I shan’t be gone long; you come too.

The Illogic of Straight Lines and asking hard questions

After a lot of consideration and discussion with Anne Newkirk Niven, who edits Witches & Pagans magazine and oversees the Pagan Square collection of blogs, I’ve decided to refocus my blog there to be more of a Pagan Studies endeavor. The first post from my newly renamed Refractions is about the illogic of straight lines, where I start with the observation that the programming of my GPS is stubbornly committed to the idea that a straight street, with lots of traffic lights, will be faster than a meandering parkway with no obstructions. Taking this as a spark of illumination for refraction through the academic lens of closed vs. green worlds, I argue:

One of the great gifts Paganism has to offer the world is the restoring the value, in our own minds and hearts, of green space. Not just physical green space, but this kind of metaphysical green space, a green world, which we desperately need. Taken to extremes, many forms of rationality will turn inwards on themselves until they become self-defeating and even self-destructive, threatening the very safety of the creators ensconced inside the structures they thought would protect them from uncertainty. Sealing ourselves away intellectually is inherently dangerous; we have to live with some openings, and we have to go back to the boundaries to refresh ourselves with the green world.

I wrote this post as a totally apolitical statement. In fact, my move to Pagan Studies was motivated in part to get away from mixing politics and Paganism in certain ways. But rereading this, and especially reading Hecate about how the truth will out, (go do that – I’ll wait), it sounds political. In the wake of Tuesday’s election we’re being reminded that wishful thinking is not reality, flapping your arms does not make you fly, and math is the best way to count things. We’re seeing that being sealed inside an intellectual bubble away from those realities is unhealthy, futile, and dangerous.

I want to repeat Hecate’s call for Pagans and Pagan organizations to take this to heart, and not just in the sense of criticizing others. I was recently at a gathering where the ritual role of Dragons in the Reclaiming tradition was brought up, and one of the things that was discussed was the way Dragon work can be about asking the hard questions: do we have the people, do we have the resources, and are we using them in the best possible ways? Sometimes just asking those questions is enough to make one unpopular, and answering them with a firm “no” can be enough to get one ostracized.

Of course, this can be a lot less of a problem for Pagan organizations where perhaps the worst possible outcome is that an endeavor fails, than it is for the Republican party who are threatened by their own looming irrelevance, or than it would have been for us as a country if we had swallowed Republican falsehoods and cleared the way for rape-excusing, gay-hating politicians to make more oppressive laws. But it’s still a problem. And in this season of introspection between Samhain and Yule, I suggest that we put this twist on our usual examination of what we need to release. Ask the hard questions; try to be objective; get an outside opinion. What truly isn’t working, and what are you being unrealistic about?