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

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.

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?

Ostara salt scrub

Happy Ostara!

I haven’t developed this into a full ritual yet, but here’s an idea you might try: an Ostara salt scrub. Why not try a little “spring cleaning” on your body as well as around the house?

Seriously, though, when I look at the imagery of Ostara, all those eggs and seeds, there’s a piece of the story that is seldom told. The first thing a chick does is break out of its shell. The first thing a seed does in order to sprout is split open. My beloved cherry blossoms start as buds that burst open to unfurl their tender petals.

And for all that vigorous language – breaking and bursting – it’s often made possible by a softening. We see this in the plant life. With many seeds, with many kinds of buds and blooms, the prerequisite is a change in the surrounding tissues, which become thinner and softer, so that the opening is more gradual and gentle.

A salt scrub is a simple way to experience this in your own body. Take relatively coarse-grained salt, like kosher salt, and mix it with a little oil, just enough to make a paste. When you start your shower or bath, before you turn on the water, rub the paste gently across areas of your skin that you want to exfoliate and soften. The coarser the grain, the stronger the scrub will be, and you can scratch yourself with this, so go slowly. When you’re done, wash with soap and water, and the skin should be refreshed – it might even be tender.

That tenderness has something to teach us. Think about how the new buds feel when their coverings are peeled away for the first time – they are tender and delicate, easily hurt. The transformation of Ostara isn’t just a process of scrubbing away or breaking through, it’s a process of softening into the change, and continuing that softness, that gentleness, afterwards as part of nurturing the new things that are coming into being.

If you want to make this into a ritual, I suggest you do it for your hands and feet. You might want to soak your feet to soften the calluses, then dry them off and do the scrub. Think about what you’re scrubbing away, but also think about how you can soften, how you can open to new possibilities in gentle ways. Take care of your softened, renewed skin by putting a little moisturizer on it, and think about how you’ll need to care for whatever this new thing in your life is.

When you’re done, ground and center – and if possible, go outside and put your scrubbed feet on the ground to do it. Feel how the refreshed, softened skin is much more sensitive. Maybe you’ll feel a new ability to root down into the ground, growing a few more tentative tendrils like the new shoots of springtime seeds.

Feel the new sensitivity in your hands, too. Think about the new possibilities available there. What are you aware of when you touch the world around you that you couldn’t feel before? Maybe you will put your hand to a new task. Maybe you can reach out in a new way. Whatever you do, be gentle with it. Remember the tenderness you feel; remember that other kinds of new life, new possibilities, new alternatives, feel just as tender and tentative in their own way.

Ground, gently, and renew yourself. Reach out, gently, and nurture the newness around you. Blessed Ostara!

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?