Beltane – In My Hands

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

The Pagan celebration of Beltane, May first and second in the northern hemisphere,  is a fire festival and also a very earthy and bawdy celebration of physical love and pleasure. It’s easy to think of Beltane in big terms: huge bonfires with whole communities dancing in ecstasy, both vertically and horizontally. For the moment, though, I’d like to put it in smaller terms based on something I discovered recently: the motion I make when I cup my hands around a candle to protect it from the wind is the same as the gesture I use to cup my beloved’s face before a kiss.

The full moon after Ostara (in 2011) was a “supermoon” when the moon was full at nearly the same time it was at perigee; its nearness to the earth made the full moon bigger and brighter than usual. I decided to do my personal ritual marking the full moon outside, on the rooftop patio of my apartment building. I took my portable altar kit upstairs and and settled down to watch the sun set and the moon rise. I was a little irritated by the fact that the densely urban area where I live creates a lot of light pollution, so the supermoon wouldn’t be as impressive as it would be elsewhere, out in “real nature.”

Well, Mother Nature must have heard me thinking, because she decided to remind me that even in the middle of a very human-constructed and human-influenced environment, she can still play tricks. Thankfully, she was gentle and only sent wind, but it was an erratic wind that snuffed my candles at frequent but irregular intervals, spaced out just enough to let me think I could relax and meditate a bit before another gust came. It became something between a game and a competition as I frantically relit candles from each other, and finally I let two of my candles go out, but sheltered the third one in my cupped hands to keep it going until the moon rose, majestic and beautiful and just exactly the same shade of ruddy yellow brilliance as the flame.

This was a good reminder to me not to let myself get caught up in “living room Wicca,” where we practice indoors and all too seldom actually experience the nature that we claim to revere. Living room Wicca leads to all sorts of silliness, especially from ultra-urban Wiccans who can get all overly romantic about the purity of nature. I’ve got news for people who think that way: the idea of the wilderness, and especially the idea that it is in some way better than the settled areas, is a social construction from the Romantic period. After the atmospheric nuclear testing of the 20th century affected the distribution of isotopes in the air and water of the world, there is no place on earth that is completely unaffected by humankind’s actions. Even the moon in which I admire one face of the Goddess has had men walk on it.

The purity of nature as distinct from humanity is a myth, just as the idea that humanity is distinct from nature is a myth.  Humans are creatures of flesh and blood, bone and sweat, tears and urine. What wildness does exist is valuable and a vital part of the planet’s biosphere, but it’s not necessarily nice or comfortable or beautiful, any more than humans are necessarily rational and logical creatures.

Anyone who actually lives there will tell you that it takes a lot more work to live in less-developed areas. It’s even a hard place to do ritual: the flames get blown out, nothing is level, the rocks are sharp, the ants carry off the sacred bread, you discover what a dead frog smells like, and when you start chanting “We all come from the Goddess / and to her we shall return / like a drop of rain / flowing to the ocean,” she takes you at your word. People who succumb to living room Wicca run the risk of being like the young Wilderness Explorer in the movie Up!, who complains that the wilderness is just too wild. It takes a keen appreciation of the ridiculous, as well as deep familiarity with your environment, careful planning, and a high degree of flexibility to do ritual outdoors successfully.

In that way, it’s actually a lot like making love. Robert Farrar Capon wrote that “the unrehearsed and unrehearsable ritual by which two people undress each other for the first time” was one of the few things “not worth describing seriously,” what  with all the fumbles and uncertainty and mishaps: clothing gets tangled, zippers stick, and jewelry breaks. Even after that, our bodies don’t always keep pace with our thoughts and emotions, sometimes zooming light-years ahead, sometimes lagging, frustratingly slow to respond. It almost never happens smoothly, as if choreographed; sometimes it hardly seems like it’s worth the trouble, and that it might be slightly ridiculous to bother about it at all.

And the ultimate ridiculousness can be found in Beltane’s opposite – Samhain, the festival that recognizes death and its place in our lives. After all, as Sir Terry Pratchett pointed out, “In the long run, we’re all dead.” So why should we bother, why take the risks, why expose ourselves emotionally to the dangers and difficulties of loving, let alone physically struggling with the acts of love?

And yet somehow, we still keep trying, and we believe it’s worth the trouble. Because here and now, we are alive, and in love.

These two great mysteries, love and death, are closely intertwined, although we try to separate them, to idealize the one and ignore the other. But no matter how much we try, they exist in dialogue with each other. The only real response to the fact that death happens is, “I love you.” And all I have to believe is that that’s enough. All I have to believe is that love can be the basis for me to build a meaningful life and relationships.

And this is true: we have proof that love is amazingly, tremendously powerful precisely because it happens in the face of silliness, and ridiculousness, and impermanence, and death. It is worth the trouble of popped buttons and of broken hearts, because love is what makes new life possible. This is true in the literal sense, obviously, of creating new lives, but it’s also true in a metaphorical sense.

Capon argued that grace, which I regard as the ultimate manifestation of divine love, makes sin utterly irrelevant. For Capon, the grace of the divine love is forgiveness that not only settles the score but throws out the idea of keeping score at all. Although the concept of sin is no longer particularly meaningful for me, the concept of forgiveness still is.

For me, the most incredible forgiveness happens when I love someone enough that I want my relationship with them to go on, regardless of what has happened to hurt me. I’m so in love with them that I’m willing to let the old me die, so that the me who was owed a debt by the offender is simply gone, and the debt will never be called in. If we go forward into that together, our love can create a new life for us both, and for our relationship together.

That’s why this year, especially when Easter and Beltane are so close together, it seems appropriate that Beltane occurs at the new moon, not the full moon. It’s a reminder that both are celebrations of love over death, reminders of the love that transcends death and helps us make life meaningful, in the face of all the fumbles, and the pain, and the sheer ridiculousness of it all. Beltane and the love it embodies are about light, and fire, even in the darkest moments of a moonless night. After all, that’s why it is called the new moon and not the empty moon.

Even in those very dark moments, I find the newness of life in the simple motion of cupping my hands. I light a candle, rather than cursing the darkness, and cup my hands around it, nurture it just a bit more, get it to glow a little brighter. I cup my hands around the face of a child, and wipe away the tears, and replace them with kisses, nurturing the young life that is just barely taking hold but promises so much potential. I cup my hands around the face of my beloved, and nurture the flame of our love. And when I do, that brilliance blazes up into a light that illumines my life, and I have the answer right there, in my hands.

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.

Cuccinelli v All Acts of Love And Pleasure

My religion encourages oral sex.

Ken Cuccinelli, candidate for governor, wants to outlaw it.

Why am I not the new face of the brave fight for religious liberty?

Cuccinelli for Governor: Because oral sex sucks!
Image courtesy of the blogger’s partner (in crime, apparently). If you copy, please link back.

Seriously, though: Ken Cuccinelli, the current attorney general of Virginia and Republican candidate for governor has just launched a new website as part of his campaign that argues in favor of a law which criminalizes oral and anal sex between consenting adults in private.

This law is currently unconstitutional as a result of a Supreme Court ruling. But Cuccinelli is arguing that it’s a vital part of protecting children from sex offenders, which makes no sense. Moreover, it’s offensive to me as a woman, a Wiccan, and a feminist.

The actual case where the law was declared unconstitutional as a result of SCOTUS precedent involved at least one seventeen year old. I agree that there’s a metric crapton of potential problems with someone in hir teens having sex with someone in hir 40s or 50s. But if Cuccinelli has a problem with 17 year olds having sex, he could try to raise the age of consent, or prove that the situation was not consensual. That’s not what he’s doing. He’s specifically argued in favor of keeping the parts of the law (that are unconstitutional) that ban private consensual non-commercial adult (above the age of consent) behavior.

Cuccinelli basically says that the law won’t be used to prosecute adults doing what they want. But there’s no reason to believe him. That’s exactly what the law says, and in the law, you live and die (or convict and set free) based on what the law actually, very specifically, says. What kind of prosecutor argues that on the one hand, he desperately must have a law that criminalizes a wide range of behavior, but then promises that on the other hand he won’t prosecute what the law says, even when that’s what he’s actually doing? Not to mention, what kind of fiscal conservative says that it’s vitally important to spend precious government time and money to defend laws that have already been declared unconstitutional?

The homophobic kind, that’s who.

From Think Progress:

In fact, Cuccinelli is a major reason that the provisions of this particular law governing non-consensual sex were left vulnerable to court challenge. In 2004, a bipartisan group in the Virginia General Assembly backed a bill that would have brought the law in line with the Supreme Court’s ruling. They proposed to eliminate the Crimes Against Nature law’s provisions dealing with consenting adults in private and leaving in place provisions relating to prostitution, public sex, and those other than consenting adults. Cuccinelli opposed the bill in committee and helped kill it on the Senate floor.

In 2009, he told a newspaper why he supported restrictions on the sexual behavior of consenting adults: “My view is that homosexual acts, not homosexuality, but homosexual acts are wrong. They’re intrinsically wrong. And I think in a natural law based country it’s appropriate to have policies that reflect that. … They don’t comport with natural law.” As a result of Cuccinelli’s homophobia, the law’s text remains unchanged a decade after the Supreme Court’s ruling.

While Cuccinelli tries to spin his efforts as “Virginia’s appeal to preserve a child-protection statute,” this amounts to little more than his attempt to restore the state’s unconstitutional ban on oral sex.

This matters because it shows that Cuccinelli is willing to fight a dead letter over a culture war issue. It matters because he’s willing to mislead people with moral panic over child endangerment to do it. It matters because this anti-sex agenda is what Cuccinelli really thinks is worth working on, and it’s what he thinks will make him win. You’d better believe it’s what he’ll act on if he does win.

His culture-warrior stance runs a lot deeper than just oral sex. He’s been using his current office to move heaven and earth to restrict reproductive health rights in Virginia. In addition, his running running mate is one EW Jackson, a Christian pastor, whose aggressively anti-non-Christian attitudes and comments have been covered quite seriously at the Wild Hunt and with an appropriately large dash of sarcasm at Wonkette.

And quite frankly, my understanding of Wicca really does validate all kinds of consensual sex. It’s right there in the Charge of the Goddess:

All acts of love and pleasure are my rituals.

The idea of “acts of love and pleasure” is a very potent way of expressing my feminist ethic of consent to sex. I’m not going to consent to something that’s not pleasurable to me. If I can’t consent – if I can’t engage in love and pleasure – then whatever’s happening isn’t sex; it’s sexual assault, abuse, battery, or rape.

Cuccinelli is actually making a version of the Two Boxes argument about what kinds of sex are permissible and not permissible. Nearly all “slippery slope” arguments about marriage equality are versions of this. (Cuccinelli gets double Conservative SexHater Points for pretending that outlawing consensual adult oral sex is a way of “protecting our children.” Score!)

The Two Boxes argument says that the Christian god has designated certain kinds of sex as “good” and other kinds as “bad,” and that there is no other possible way to differentiate between allowable and not-allowable actions in our secular civil law. Therefore, if you allow one “bad” thing, you’re allowing all “bad” things. Slippery slope: people will gay-marry their dogs! The Two Boxes argument is extremely simplistic. By contrast, my ethics – both my secular civil reasoning and my religious understanding – tell me that we can draw a different boundary based on enthusiastic consent.

In the rest of this post, I am going to talk about the connections between my civil feminist understanding and my Wiccan understanding. There’s already been a lot of great feminist explication of this ethic of consent. I think that we should determine our secular, civil law on the basis of secular, civil reasoning. I am not trying to substitute my Wiccan standards for Cuccinelli’s Christian standards. I am trying to explain why my Wiccan standards coincide with my secular feminist standards. With that in mind, Cuccinelli’s efforts really are offensive not just on a human rights and feminist level but to me as a person with a different religion with different standards.

I think that the idea “acts of love and pleasure” contains the seeds of the concept of affirmative, enthusiastic consent. This concept differentiates between acceptable and unacceptable sex on the basis that some people can’t engage in love and pleasure. That might be because they’re not people: lampposts, dogs, box turtles; it might be because they’re incapable of consent: under the age of consent, handicapped, intoxicated, etc. Either way, the standard concepts of “love” and “pleasure” don’t apply.

Ultimately, my understanding relies on the idea that sex is a cooperative activity that is done by partners together. Sex is not a thing that men do to women as objects. Sex is not a thing that women have that men try to get or take. Sex isn’t just about men and women. It’s about people, and their consent, to acts of love and pleasure.

Those ideas, deep down, are what scares Cuccinelli, and his fellow culture warriors, spitless, pun intended:

People – consent – love – and pleasure

If you care about those things, whether for civil or religious reasons, or especially both, then you ought to find Cuccinelli’s latest actions reprehensible.

PS: Regarding the first statement: There. Now you can start blaming me, right after the makers of Witch-sploitation movies, for causing people to claim that they’re Wiccan when they don’t have the first clue what Wicca really is.

ETA: Think Progress also gives an example of a sheriff’s department in Louisiana enforcing a similar “anti-sodomy” statute which is equally unconstitutional and hence unenforceable. This proves that “unenforceable” does not prevent officers from arresting and detaining people. I don’t know the details of how arrest records work, but they may be different from court records. Certainly the news often reports that people were arrested on offenses in the past, and job applications may ask if the applicant has been arrested, not just about convictions. I hope I don’t have to spell out all the implications.

When love spells become rape

As I mentioned in the last post, there were many things that speakers said at Between the Worlds that I was glad to hear people saying, actively, in the Pagan/magical community. There was one glaring omission:

“Love spells” as most people think of them are a magical form of rape.

The panel on operative magic did discuss love spells. Everyone shared the basic assumption that “love spells” as popularly conceived – the kind of spell that Dick does so that Jane will love him and want to have sex with him – are not okay. Different speakers mentioned different perspectives on why these are ethically and practically not acceptable. People talked about how there is a more general kind of “love spell” which is ethical and acceptable – a spell to make oneself more lovable or to draw love in general into one’s life.

Everyone agrees that trying to magically coerce a particular person is NEVER okay – because it’s coercion. I was disappointed that none of the speakers said the obvious: that this coercion is never okay because coerced sex is rape.

Dolores Ashcroft-Nowicki came closest when she repeated the oft-stated concern that this is “interfering with someone else’s free will” and went on to more colorfully describe that there are other ways to try to create a relationship with someone. But no one used the “r word.”

I think it’s vitally important that people who do magic and are feminists say this loudly and clearly: magic to get sex with a person is not okay because it’s rape. This goes beyond concerns about “free will,” a rather nebulous concept. This is about consent, and consent is what separates sex from rape.

In the wake of other examples of supporting rape culture, this is especially important to me. There is a big, bright, bold, clear line here. There is no room for “I did a spell to get Jane to love me, and I said ‘for the highest good for all!’ so it’s clearly a good thing!” There is no room for “She likes me, she just won’t go all the way, so I’m just doing a spell to help us along…” There is no room for “I know better than she does what she wants.” Those are rape culture in magic, plain and simple.

I know people want these kinds of spells. One of the speakers on that panel sells candles, and she pointed out that a “Become more lovable” candle – the ethical second-cousin to the kind of “love spell” that is really magical rape – didn’t sell at all. People don’t want to be more lovable. They want the person they want, and they want her (usually her) now.

That’s why this is rape. That’s why this conversation matters even if you would never do a spell like this. When we don’t call this out, we make space for rape culture. You know what rape culture produces? Rape.

The idea that someone else can be treated as an object of your will – whether in magic or not – is at heart the idea behind rape. Sex is something that people do willingly together. Rape is not.

I’m a big fan of Isaac Bonewits’ rule-of-thumb for magical ethics, which basically asks whether it would be against the law for you to do the mundane equivalent of whatever your spell is for. If you were doing a spell to have an honest debt repaid, the equivalent would be taking your debtor to small-claims court: totally legal. If you were doing a spell to have someone die, the equivalent would be murder: definitely not legal.

So if you’re doing a spell to get someone to have sex with you – and don’t bullshit me, most “love spells” are going to be judged a success based on whether or not you’re in bed with the person, not by a passionate but celibate exchange of letters for twenty years – then the mundane equivalent is coercing her to have sex with you. Rape.

In any sense, mundane or magical, the message is the same: Don’t rape.

Edited to add: I wrote more about why this matters in a potpourri post a few days later, but that post was such a mish-mash that I want to append this here as well:

I don’t think I said this clearly enough last time, but the reason that I’m so concerned about when love spells become rape is not just the magical implications, it’s the practical actions that we take as a result of the way we think. When we in the magical community fail to call out certain kinds of manipulative magic as part of rape culture, we’re enabling not just the thinking, not just the magic, but the actions.

If we say, loudly and clearly and repeatedly – because it’ll take a lot of repetition – that thinking of someone else as an object for your manipulation into bed is rape culture, we’re working to eliminate the so-called gray area where a lot of opportunity rapists operate.

If we leave wiggle room for people to think these kinds of spells are not rape, then that same kind of thinking is going to be used to justify totally mundane actions that lead to rape. If you’ve already done the spell to get her into your bed, why not offer her one more cup of wine after Beltane? What’s to stop you from seeing her stumbling, mumbling, not-really-consent as the manifestation of your magical prowess? Or maybe offering her a ride home, and then taking her to your house, or letting yourself in her place, and, well, encouraging her a little bit….that’s just taking action in accordance with your spell, right?

No. That’s rape. The magical actions and the mundane actions are products of the same thinking, and one will encourage the other. We have to discourage both.

This is very similar to the situation I encountered when trying to explain to people why things like DC 40 and other Christian Dominionist “prayer efforts” are dangerous. Even if you don’t believe in magic, these kinds of actions that specialize in raising emotional energy and directing it towards a purpose have tangible, physical manifestations. People vote based on Christian Dominionist thinking and actions. People rape based on rape culture. The thinking and the doing are both important, and if we’re going to change things, we have to work on both.

The Goddess and Weakness

I went into my lobbying efforts with a deliberate desire to put my ethics into action and to dedicate that work to the Goddess as I know her and as she exists in every woman and every man. That mattered to me, and it helped me do a good job. I had some interesting experiences along the way, which I share here for others’ interest; these are not meant to be definitive for anyone but me, but I was surprised at the ways I experienced things that matched up with what other people have talked about in terms of ethics and some of the best means of responding to injustice.

I meditated and prayed before I began; I repeated my personal oath, as I do every day, and I promised myself that I would work extra-hard to measure my actions by that oath as I went into this new and challenging effort. As I started out, I had a deeper measure of calm than I expected, and at times, when I was taking a deep breath and refocusing myself, I felt that I could slip in and out of in a very, very light trance state, one where my personal awareness of deity and the beings around me was heightened, and one where my personal ethical commitments were foremost in my mind.

I used grounding and centering techniques repeatedly throughout the day. This was extremely helpful in dealing with the nervousness that comes from doing a new and challenging task, and especially when learning how to talk to staffers and present myself. When I did a quick review after each drop-in visit, I first grounded and centered, and that moved me right past the “I can’t believe I fumbled that word!” and “Oh my god they probably think I’m an idiot!” and on to the useful, important matters of how to improve for the next time. Of course, grounding and centering is also the best way to prepare before starting the next such encounter, too. It helped me not get trapped by anger or frustration or hopelessness.

Most of all, grounding and centering let me speak not just from my place of strength, but from my place of weakness. When I made the one real connection that I counted as achieving my personal goal for the day, I made it by speaking honestly and openly about how truly frightening these proposals are to me, and how truly dangerous they are to me. I was able to be strong in my weakness rather than try to cover it with anger.

Oh, I’m angry, too, and sometimes I showed that, but most of all, I wanted to show people that they’re not just causing anger, they’re causing fear, and they will cause harm if they continue on this course. Anger can be answered with anger. But a heartfelt admission of fear, especially a well-justified fear, is often harder to dismiss, harder to meet with cruelty and ignorance and abuse. Weakness became my strength.

In a lot of ways, I used the same approach when I went to silently counter the anti-abortion protesters. I couldn’t have done that, and certainly couldn’t have been as (minimally) successful as I was, without the grounding I relied on. If I hadn’t already thought deeply about the ethics of the situation, it would have been all too easy to get drawn into an argument with them, or to be shamed, or hurt, or appalled, or infuriated by their lies and hurtfulness.

And to tell the truth, I did feel all those things. But using the intent I had established for myself ahead of time as a touchstone let me feel, first and foremost, a kind of grace and peace that surrounded me, enfolded me, and healed all those hurts so that I could go on to do what I wanted to do. I exposed my weakness to them in a different way, by being silent, by not justifying myself or engaging with them, but simply being there. It sounds trite to say that their responses proved me right and reinforced me in my endeavor, but it was true for me.

Chanting very quietly to myself helped me ignore them physically and mentally, but it was also the perfect exercise for why I was there in the first place. Pulling up part of that light trance state helped me see the man yelling at me as not just someone who wanted to hurt me, but as also someone who has been hurt, who is trying to do the best he knows how, who also has a connection to the divine within him. As a result, I was able to focus on the feelings of sorrow and hope for his healing, to be filled with mercy and grace even as he yelled at me. He, too, comes from the Goddess, and to her he will return.

I was able and willing to be weak, and silent, and to let my fear become also part of the grace, because of the absolute conviction that what I was doing was right, and necessary, and worthwhile. I paid the cost, and paid it gladly, and would do it again. And by approaching it that way, the cost was made almost nothing.

I realize that can sound kind of condescending to the anti-abortion protesters. In fact, I’m pretty sure I heard them praying something about asking Mary to forgive sinners very loudly right behind me, with the clear intent that I was the sinner they had in mind at the moment. (The particular people I saw seem to have been part of a tiny fringe Catholic organization.) I’m not saying that I had the right to be condescending to them and they didn’t; I am saying that I tried to make my external actions not condescending (while theirs were more so) and that this understanding helped me do something that I think, on an external judgment of impact, was an ethical action.

I can’t say that the Goddess was acting through me – in fact, even though I prayed to Ogma for eloquence and assistance in my speaking, it was precisely when I was talking to staffers that I felt not at all trance-like – but I do think that I succeeded in dedicating my actions to the Goddess. Some of the basic energy management techniques I’ve been exploring were a huge help, not just grounding and centering, but also the idea of a shield that automatically earths or transmutes negative energy sent at me. It was amazing how quickly the situation got easier for me, especially with that visualization in mind.

I have no training in nonviolent protest or civil disobedience beyond a bit of light reading, but what I felt was truly wonderful and powerful. It was also deeply spiritual, much more so than I expected. I can see myself doing that again in the future.

Finally, I want to send a huge thank you to the friends and family who sent me good energy and prayed for my endeavors that day. I felt it, (again in ways I didn’t expect!) and it helped, and I couldn’t have done it without you. This is what the work is about – and we are doing it together.

Act III: Paging Nurse Empathy

This series was started by an odd confluence of events: I saw the performance of Dr. Horrible, and shortly thereafter I ended up on one of those random Web-walks exploring doctors’ and nurses’ blogs. It started with ER humor, but I found myself drawn into blogs by regular floor nurses, like my mother.

Medical humor is often black humor, grisly humor created by people faced with a Sisyphean task (people do keep getting sick, after all) that all too often leads to compassion fatigue. What do you do, after all, with the third person this week with an iPod in a body cavity? (Have the Nanos made that any less of a problem, I wonder?) Or the thousandth person who comes to urgent care for antibiotics for their cold? Or the ten thousandth? And nurses get the worst of it: they are the front line of care for patients and families (nurses care for whole families, not just the person in the bed – just ask), which puts them at the interface between the medical system – usually doctors – and the people who are actually in pain, or dying, or depressed, or confused and combative, or throwing up, or all of the above. All too often, doctors shove the results of their compassion fatigue down onto nurses, and families who are in unfamiliar settings with scary things happening to loved ones amplify their anxiety up, sometimes in the form of defensive anger. Nurses get the brunt. And who else gets a college degree to spend most of their days wiping butts?

One strain of the anger and frustration that I saw on some blogs really started to bother me. It’s often hard for nurses to deal with people with major health issues that are caused or exacerbated by the person’s behaviors. Noncompliant diabetics who are obese, and going blind, and having amputations, sometimes in their 30s, are some of the most vivid examples. Diabetes is a terrible disease, but it is largely controllable – if. If the person will make the changes. If the person can make the changes. If the person isn’t trapped by the culture of the Diabetes Belt combined with, and including, her own personal circumstances.

The point when attitudes go beyond black humor, beyond compassion fatigue, is often marked by one signature phrase: “My tax dollars at work.”

It’s absolutely true that a lot of the people who need repeated health care for major medical problems are on public assistance, whether that’s disability, welfare, Medicaid, or combinations thereof. And so, yes, when a nurse is frustrated beyond words with a patient who is drinking herself into an early grave with sugared sodas, and as a result is so sick that she’s on disability and Medicaid for the repeated procedures that won’t halt the course of the disease and may not even delay it much, it’s true, the nurse’s tax dollars are paying for that person’s living allowance and medical care.

But the subtext is more than that. The subtext is usually: “I wish I wasn’t paying for that person.” Sometimes there are varying degrees of anger wrapped up in this, or greed (“My taxes wouldn’t be so high if…” If what? We just let them die?) or other unexpressed factors, but a lot of it is compassion fatigue, especially when there are degrees of personal responsibility involved. It’s exhausting to see people contributing to hurting themselves, especially when you know (but they may not) that there are alternatives, there are other choices they could be making. From your point of view, those choices may even look simple, or easy, or at least the only rational path to take.

And the nurses, especially, are tired of being the superheroes trying to swoop in and save people from the trap of the Diabetes Belt. They’re being superheroes from 7a-3p, 3p-11p, and 11p-7a, day in, day out, sometimes with the same patients, over and over again, up to their elbows in crap and paperwork and staffing cuts. They wish that some of their patients would stand up for themselves, and not be falling into the superheroes’ waiting arms over and over again. Their arms, and their hearts, are getting tired.

But the existence of the Diabetes Belt shows that this is about culture, not just about personal choice. If we want to change this, we’re going to have to change the culture. What kinds of food are available? Affordable? Accessible? What do families teach their children to eat? To cook? To enjoy?

It’s not that individuals don’t have responsibility, it’s that individuals don’t bear their responsibilities alone. We have to change the context and create opportunities for different kinds of responsibility from the top down, as well as demanding it from the bottom up. Because really, the “top” and “bottom” are parts of the same social, economic, and cultural web of interactions, and no one person can change the web alone. Even a superhero.

Even a villain. When he was trying to become a villain, Dr. Horrible believed he could make a difference. He believed that what he worked for would have the results he intended. He was horrified to discover otherwise: “You think your world’s benign, and justice has a voice, and we all have a choice…” When confronted by that horror, he realized that he had forced himself into a heartless position, and he allowed it to empty him out, he accepted that he had become what he hated. He only truly became a villain when he put on his nemesis’ gloves.

We are confronted with similar tragedies every day in the Diabetes Belt. What will we do in response? Will we embrace the role of villain, willingly becoming part of the problem, withdrawing and becoming heartless? When black humor crosses the line into suggesting, even implicitly, that we should withdraw public assistance from people, that we don’t want helping those people to be “our tax dollars at work,” that advocates one course of action. That’s Dr. Horrible’s course. That’s picking up the black gloves.

Act I: Dr. Horrible

On Friday evening, Spouse and I saw a live performance of Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog. It was very cool, and the staging gave me more to think about. Spoilers below the fold!

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TRI cleanup: Personal reflections

I’d like to share a few personal reflections on the Teddy Roosevelt Island cleanup. First, I’m deeply touched that so many people thought this project was worth their time and effort. I respect organizations that require community service or volunteer efforts as part of their membership policies, like The Firefly House, and I am surprised there’s not more of this kind of putting our words and wills into real, direct action going on in the Pagan community. I’m thrilled that OHF is considering starting a volunteer program and I hope that such efforts will spread. I think it is absolutely necessary for such efforts to happen in order to keep our beliefs and practices authentic and meaningful.

I tried to express in my opening prayer how I saw this action as an integral part of what it means to me to be Pagan in general and Wiccan in particular. We recognize the divine in everything around us; it is our Mother Earth, on whose body we stand, in the Horned Lord who watches over the wild animals, in the Green Man, the very spirit of the vegetation beginning to awaken after the long winter sleep, and it is in the very spirits of the river and the island, the spirits of the place.

I asked that we dedicated our work as an offering to the divine, in recognition of the holy trust that has been given to us, when the divine entrusts us with not just our bodies but our environment as well. The work of caring for that environment is part of that relationship: it is a way of creating that relationship, repairing it where it has been damaged, and strengthening it. I asked that the divine blessed and empowered our work for that relationship.

And that work is so badly needed right now. It was in some ways deeply depressing to see so much trash, so much thoughtlessness and carelessness embodied in drifts of styrofoam and plastic water bottles, Starbucks cups and potato chip baggies. And, yes, so much sheer laziness: who scoops their dog’s poop, neatly ties the baggie off, and then leaves it carefully by the side of the trail when there’s a trash can every quarter-mile or less on that island?

There is no such thing as “unspoiled” nature or areas “untouched” by humans; the whole idea is a social construction that romanticizes the present and ignores the past. But the idea that we are embedding plastics in the geological record is deeply disturbing to me. We are making more and more things that are taking resources out of the natural cycles for tens of thousands of years, if not longer. This has never happened before on the planet. And these things, these nearly indestructible remnants, are what we treat so casually that their fragments float down our rivers in the hundreds and thousands.

I also know that my very life depends on parts of our material culture that use plastics and weren’t available fifty or sixty years ago. But when those resources aren’t just being used to make IV tubing and respirators to save lives but to make plastic eating utensils that are just a few cents cheaper than the biodegradable counterparts, I have to ask myself whether that is a good thing or not. And I can’t find a way to understand my relationship with the earth that makes styrofoam carryout containers a worthwhile thing.

The fact that we live in relationship with our environment, whether we acknowledge it or not, and whether we imbue that relationship with spiritual meaning or not, means that both parties affect each other. We have to ask ourselves whether we are treating our partners in that relationship in a way that makes the relationship likely to continue. The cleanup effort on TRI affected me much more deeply than I imagined, and has moved my relationship with the land, and with immanent deity, to a whole new level. I know, viscerally, in a way that I never did before, how and why waste matters, why petroleum-based plastics are a problem, how my individual decisions make a difference.

This kind of awareness can’t be gained through meditation or prayer. This is the kind of awareness that comes from truly and openly engaging with the other parties in a relationship. I can’t get to know my partner better by staring at his photograph, or thinking about him. Those things only reflect back to me what I already know: I’m relating to my ideas of him, not to the real him, the human being I love. The real person does things I could never expect or imagine; interacting with my ideas about him doesn’t give me that challenge, the kind of challenge that makes me grow, and keeps our love alive.

I fear that many Pagans and Wiccans who do not challenge themselves, who do not make a point of offering their work and engaging actively in their relationships with the land and immanent deity, are relating more to their ideas about the environment, and their mental pictures of it, than with the real thing, with the world they want to love. So I challenge you: go on a date with the world. Don’t make it easy for yourself by doing another guided meditation. Get out into the world where something that you could never imagine might happen, where your love will surprise you, maybe in positive ways, maybe in negative ways, because having that real interaction is the only way to sustain your love, to keep your relationship alive and growing.

Objective fear, Part II

In Part I, I talked about how a conservative Objectivist mindset transforms the existence of those in need into a perceived threat. The catalyst for this weird transformation of perception is fear, the fear which is the touchstone and the key element of the mindset I’m trying to describe. This fear became more clear to me recently because of a conversation where someone influenced by this mindset felt safe enough to reveal the way a true, deep fear of not being able to provide for his family’s needs in the future constrained his desire to give to charity. This fear is entirely reasonable for someone who realizes that social policy based on the Just World fallacy, combined with the very real risk of bad things happening no matter how hard one tries to be good, means that just being good isn’t enough: one has to conserve every advantage one gets, hoarding the good things that happen, because the destruction of social justice means that one is right to fear for the future. This approach to the world encourages, even forces, otherwise charitable people not to give. If I am truly afraid of living on catfood in retirement, because I know that social justice is lacking, then I have even less reason to donate now. The system becomes self-perpetuating.

Something similar happens in morality when a religion relies on the threat of punishment as the primary motivation for doing good. This is why a type of Christianity based on a fear of hell is a lousy kind of Christianity and ultimately counters its own precepts.

Objectivists like to position themselves in the posture of Nietzsche, as defenders of “real” morality against the thievery and “mooching” that they think Christianity pushes. (Aside: they would make the same criticism of any morality or system of ethics that encourages feeding the hungry, housing the homeless, etc, but I’m going to stick to Christianity here because it’s the dominant one they rail against.) The Objectivist caricature of Christianity is that Christians think that people in need want to punish those who are well-off. The Objectivist viewpoint sees itself in opposition to a perverted Christianity where Jesus wouldn’t just want the homeless to be housed, he would insist that if those with houses don’t house the homeless, the houses should all be burned down to punish the evil people who have houses to begin with. This is not what Christianity teaches, but some versions of Christianity come perilously close by relying on the fear of hell to motivate positive action.

I was recently involved in a conversation about the parable of the rich man and Lazarus. They both die, and Lazarus finds himself in comfort with Abraham, but the rich man who had ignored Lazarus while alive finds himself in torment. When the rich man calls out to Abraham and asks Abraham to send someone back from the dead to tell his rich brothers that they ought to look after the poor, Abraham refuses, says that even if someone came back from the dead to tell them so, the rich wouldn’t want to give to the poor.

Some people in the conversation I was in insisted that the point of this parable was that if people sin (by not providing for the poor), they will be punished in hell in the afterlife. They said that if there wasn’t any punishment, then the whole parable loses its impact: that without the threat of torment, there is no story. This is ridiculous, both based on the story, and based on the real-world examples of what fear actually motivates. Notice how in their telling, the parts that I italicized become a mere side-note. Fear of hell only creates fear of hell; it doesn’t drive people to go find out what’s in that side note and put it into action.

When I was Christian, I found it crucial to understand that this parable was being told by Jesus, who would soon die and return from the dead. This is a story that’s not meant to be taken on its own. It only makes sense after the fact, in light of Jesus’ death and resurrection. In Christianity, Jesus is the man returned from the dead, just like the rich man suggests in the story. Jesus is saying, “I know you won’t listen to me, and in fact, I’ll tell you a story about how you won’t listen to me, because what I’m telling you is that taking care of the poor is the right thing to do. You already know that, and you don’t want to hear it.” That was how I understood it, and that makes the whole story a marvelous joke, a valid ethical message regardless of whether you believe in Jesus as the savior, and something that is not at all about hell or even about the afterlife. If Jesus wanted people to believe or to act morally because of fear of hell, he would have shown them hell. He didn’t: according to Christians, what Jesus did show was his own resurrection. This isn’t a story about what happens after you live. It’s a story about how to live, which is why Jesus came back to life.

But some Christians insist on taking the Just World fallacy too seriously, and pervert the religion into a story about how God will make the Just World fallacy true in the end. Instead of holding up the threat of being left out in the cold, being hungry and naked and poor, they hold up the threat of eternal fiery torment. Why stop at the little threat when you can go all the way? If a small threat drives people to do a few good things, this thinking goes, a bigger threat will drive even more good things! But when we look at the result of the fear instilled by hard-core Objectivism, we realize that fear is a lousy motivator. It doesn’t motivate people to do good things; it motivates exactly the opposite, and in the process, it creates a response of defensive anger that becomes self-hate and eventually hatred of others. When the existence of those in need triggers that fear, defensive anger lashes out at the trigger, not at the source of the fear.

Fear isn’t the answer. Love is. Fear is about death. Love is about life. Threats tell us about how we will die and introduce creeping rot into every aspect of existence. Love creates life, love teaches us how to live, and love gives us the courage to go out and do it.


Coda: As I’ve said, I am no longer Christian, and I do not want to dictate to Christians how to be Christian. But I think that any morality, secular or religious, based ultimately on a threat of punishment has a similarly destructive outcome, and this example was a good illustration. The idea that humans are depraved and deserve to go to hell is one of the reasons I’m not Christian any more. I think that a form of Wicca that uses the Rule of Three or the idea of karma as a similar threat is equally wrong and bad. Life is about love, and love about life.

Gender essentialism has no place in Wicca

Since Wicca tends to view the divine through the lens of dual deities, one masculine, one feminine, one of the unfortunate tendencies in some oversimplified approaches to Wicca exaggerates that dualism and applies it to everything in the world. Whole lists get made of dualisms, with each pair having a “God-associated” and a “Goddess-associated” member. You know: rationality is masculine, emotion is feminine; deduction is masculine, intuition is feminine; aggression is masculine, passivity is feminine; and so on, until the whole world has little pink-or-blue tags attached to it. This isn’t an understanding of the world consonant with the relationship of God and Goddess; it’s denying the complex realities of sex, and gender, and sexuality, and divinity, and the world itself. The God has his passivity, and the Goddess can be ruthless; the God has deep emotions, and the Goddess can be as aggressive as you can imagine – and then some.

Worst of all, for a religion that tells the myth of creation through the act of divine love and sexuality between God and Goddess, to say that each gender has only one kind of sexuality which is the same for everyone is to deny the beauty and wonder of what brought creation into being and breathes life into it at every moment. The relationship of God and Goddess is complex, ever-changing yet always present, and is worked out in myriad roles and situations. Claiming to have the whole truth of that mystery, and expecting others to adhere to your narrowness, is a kind of denial that verges on deliberate spiritual blindness, within Wicca.