Saturday, March 17, 2007

Great Waters Pagan Friends Gathering

For those interested in coming together in Quaker/Pagan community this Memorial Day Weekend, The Huron Valley Friends Circle is hosting a gathering for Pagan Quakers and Quaker Pagans. The gathering will last from May 25--28 in Ann Arbor, Michigan; most events will take place at the Ann Arbor Friends Meetinghouse.

"Are you a Quaker who experiences the Divine primarily through Nature, the Earth and Her seasons, the Divine Feminine, the Goddess and the God, or other pre-Christian Deities? Are you a Pagan who finds Quaker worship and Quaker testimonies – Peace, Simplicity, Equality, Integrity, and Stewardship/Earthcare – a central part of how you walk through your life?" the organizers write. "Come to Great Waters."

Though the costs do not include food or lodging (information on both, including camping options, are available at the site) the price is a very reasonable $45 for each attendee over age 5.

"Worship, worship sharing, ritual, meals, games, workshops and interest groups, time outdoors, and a visit with the Friends (Quaker) Meeting whose space we are renting," are on the agenda for the retreat.

If only Michigan were closer, or I could take a day or two off from school so close to the end of the year! Perhaps it will become an annual affair--wouldn't that be great? Visit the Great Waters Pagan Friends Gathering blog for details and news.

One at the Root

A little while ago, in response to a comment I left on his blog, Brooklyn Quaker, Rich wondered "what a Quaker Pagan is. Is it somehow related to nontheism or to polytheism or to both or to neither?" and I threatened to make a long post here in reply. (I made a pretty long comment as it was, and poor Rich could be forgiven if the eyestrain alone keeps him from ever wanting to read further!)

I'm not, however, feeling really moved to write about what it means to be a Pagan, probably because I've been one for almost twenty years now, and, though like a good marriage, it still holds plently of surprises and delights after all this time, it's also familiar enough that I don't often have a lot to say about it. For the most part, my Paganism fits comfortably into my self, and, as with my husband, I don't write as much poetry about it as I once did. The Quaker identity is newer, and so sorting out my relationship to it takes much more of my time and energy, and leaves me more to write about.

Still, it seems important to me to be able to answer questions about Paganism when they crop up, and hopefully more thoughtfully and from the heart than the somewhat intellectual answer I left Rich with. Paganism, though, is hard to describe--just as with Quaker practice, so much of what Pagans are is in the living, rather than the theory, that finding words to describe what we are about can be difficult.

Happily, reading Erik's blog at Executive Pagan, I just discovered that he did a very good job talking about how he (and to some extent, I) see and experience the Gods, in a post entitled Why Polytheism? Now, my own story is not the same as his--Erik describes himself as a "hard polytheist" and I think I probably fall at the other end of his spectrum, as a "soft polytheist"--my experiences lead me to believe that we are all "one at the root"--not the same as one another on one level, any more than apples and leaves are the same thing--and yet, they can be all connected parts of the same tree. I am not Erik, and he is not me, but, in other ways, we're both part of something bigger that joins us.

I think it's the same way with the Gods--that they both are and are not the same as this planet, our selves, and one another. I would never say that Jesus and Herne are just aspects of the same God... but I do think they both spring from the same sacred fountain... or grow from the same deep root.

What's especially nice to find on Erik's blog is his experience of the divine in more than one setting. One of the stops on his road to Hellenic Paganism was active participation in his local synogogue. Even though his world-view was already Pagan, singing in the synogogue's choir and attending services there led to his "next religious experiences, of the Presence of what I can only assume is the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob....That shook me up a bit, as you might imagine; but in a roundabout way it confirmed my tendency toward polytheism... ...While the Persons I encountered were clearly not identical, they were also clearly of the same Being-ness," he writes.

And for those who care to know, that story most definately speaks to my condition. Though my guesses about what the fundamental nature of Gods and the universe might be differ from Erik's in some ways, I agree with him emphatically that "whatever may be the true nature of What Is, we can't fully understand it." Given that, I think it's important to honor our direct experiences of God/s, whenever we are lucky enough to have them, rather than our preconceptions of what may be. (This seems to me to be a very Quaker, even more than a very Pagan, approach to religion, incidentally.)

I'll also join my voice to his when he writes, "I am also, at this point in my thinking, a pretty firmly convinced panentheist: I do think that there is some sort of ultimate Unity of which all things, including the material universe, the Gods, and us, are a part, and that It is more than just the sum of Its parts."

I'm not a Hellenic Pagan, and I've never attended a synogogue. But in some very important ways, Erik's story is my story, and I will let it speak for me for now.

Thursday, March 15, 2007

All Snakes' Day


So here it is, the eve of St. Patrick's Day--well, technically the eve of the eve--and I find myself in the annual quandry--what to do about St. Patrick?

You might not think St. Patrick would be much of a factor in my yearly calculations. After all, as a Quaker or a Pagan, what relationship could I possibly have with St. Patrick? Alas, this leaves out my place of residence. I'm a Massachusetian, and my state boasts a population that is 22.5% Irish ancestry. This means that we have a population of approximately 1,420,000 Irishmen and Irishwomen in the state, all of them proud to be so, and, interestingly enough, that means that, were Massachusetts a county in Ireland, we'd have the largest population of them all.

St. Patrick's Day is practically the Massachusetts official pride day, and its celebration is mandatory, not optional, wherever you travel... rather as cheering on the Red Sox is the official religion, hereabouts. In fact, celebrating St. Patrick's Day is _so_ important that, given the fact that the day actually falls on a Saturday, we're all going to celebrate it early, so nobody misses out. Thus, tomorrow, my school will celebrate "Wearing of the Green" Day; our principal and assistant principal will give out green carnation corsages, the student body will be awarded spirit points in the annual class competition for how many students are wearing green, and most of the faculty will arrive in their classrooms looking as if they'd been dipped those special green St. Patrick's Day shakes they sell at McDonald's. (Do they do that everywhere, or is that just a Massachusetts thing?)

Now, I've got nothing against my home state--in fact, I love it, and I've never really felt at home anywhere else I've ever lived. Nor have I anything against Ireland, Irish-Americans, or Irish culture generally. I like Celtic knotwork and the illuminations from the Book of Kells as well as the next girl, and Guinness rather more, perhaps. (Beer should be strong, rich, and dark. I allow a little more latitude in how men should be, but beer should be dark and rich. Period.)

My issue is with St. Patrick himself, and the well-known legend of his chasing the snakes from Ireland. I, you see, am on the side of the snakes.

How can this be? Well, in cultures that didn't tell stories about the Garden of Eden, snakes were an ancient symbol of wisdom... Pagan wisdom. Snakes protect your grain from mice; snakes shed their skin each year and keep on growing--what a symbol of rebirth that is--and snakes are mostly not remotely interested in harming humans, let alone tempting them to eat fruits and vegetables. So snakes and Pagans... we go way back. You know, Druids in white robes and all that. And, though the historicity of the story is more than a little suspect (as are most of the early saint stories) the story of Patrick driving out the snakes--and, not too coincidentally, Christianizing Ireland--is a pretty familiar tale. And, well, to me, ya see, that's not exactly something I want to celebrate.

OK, it's not the serious issue that Columbus Day is for many Native Americans (and those who empathize with them). And I do understand that the Christianization of Ireland (unlike, for instance that of some of the Scandinavian and Baltic countries) was peaceful and mainly voluntary. But, still... wearing green with no comment at all is not something I care to do.

And turning down or refusing to wear the damn green carnation feels rude--as well as politically maladroit.

There is something of a counter-holiday celebrated by some local Pagan folks. We call it "All Snakes' Day," and, while most of us have our tongues firmly in cheek, it's also a way to relate to all that nice Celtic-pride stuff without feeling we have to hide in a closet for the day. I know of at least one local Pagan family that sent their kids to school each year with bags of gummy worms--gummy "snakes"--to distribute to their classmates in honor of the feast. And another of my favorite local Pagan couples has a regularly scheduled All Snakes' Day party, complete with corned beef, green potatoes, and Ted's amazing ginger beer. (Home-made, and, even with no alchohol, quite a kick to it.)

I wish I had a snake pin or tee-shirt or earrings or something. On a green background, so nobody mistook my intention for an anti-Irish one. I'm not anti-anything.

I'm just pro-snake. (If only I were pro-snake with matching accessories...)

Wednesday, March 14, 2007

No Longer Chicken: News From the Home Front

My daughter has just returned from a trip to see her grandparents over her spring break. And we just concluded yet another of our ongoing mother-daughter debates on the future of the environment. "Debate" is a word that only applies because I'm her mom, mind you; this is an area where she knows enough more than I do that I pretty readily yield to her expertise--she just keeps arguing because, after all, she's used to it. Comes with the age--though it also goes with the age, meaning we now have fun talking about world affairs together.

Part of the fun, for me, is my pride in her. A few weeks ago, when the stock market had it's big drop, Hillary happened to be awake while I was getting ready for work. (This is somewhat unusual, as sophomores in college pretty much live in a different time zone from public school teachers. But, other than the awkwardness of sorting out who got the shower first, it was a pleasant change of pace.)

As a parent, you really know you've done something right when your twenty-year-old explains the Asian stock market to you at 6:00 in the morning.

I'm not entirely sure how I managed to raise a kid who is interested in economics--an incipient capitalist!--but I'm actually kind of delighted. My daughter's perspective on economics is tempered with her passion for environmentalism, and she makes out a fine case for economic strategies to improve the health of the planet. She almost managed to make me understand the way a cap and trade emissions policy might be used to reduce carbon emissions--no mean feat, given the depth of my ignorance in that area. And, though I'm about as well informed on endangered species and habitats as the usual Pagan-or-Quaker on the street, her knowledge is an order of magnitude deeper than mine. I really love being overshadowed by my kid--and on something that matters so profoundly.

Lest you should think this is all just proud-mama strutting, I'll pass along one way that my daughter's influence has changed my lifestyle recently.

Peter and I have long avoided red meat--me for longer than he has; I reached the conclusion at one point that it was unethical to eat any animal I would be unwilling to kill myself, and I knew quite well that, no matter how good a freshly-grilled burger smells on the first cookout of the year, I would not be able to bring myself to kill a cow. Ditto pigs, cute little lambies, and so on. (Truthfully, I'm not at all sure I could manage a chicken, either... though I will confess to slaughtering a certain number of fish, clams, and assorted crustaceans over the years without a qualm.) Peter gave up beef when he taught one too many Mad Cow Disease lessons to his biology students. However, we've continued to eat some chicken and fish--not much according to my in-laws, but a certain amount. And, what's more, since I became a teacher (and a chronically tired person) we've really gone in heavily for processed foods.

Well, according to some back-of-the-envelope calculations my daughter made, it turns out that, for a family eating an ordinary American diet, converting to a vegitarian diet will, over the course of a year, save the equivalent of trading in an SUV to drive a hybrid car! Whoa! And, she discovered, converting to a vegan diet will further reduce your carbon footprint to the same extent as trading in an SUV for a lifestyle of walking or taking public transportation at all times. So profound is the impact of feeding, sheltering, processing, and transporting meat from place to place in this country.

Now, I can't afford to buy a hybrid, however much I might want to. Nor can Peter and I both continue to hold jobs without driving our cars--while we'd love to be able to walk to work (and I used to do just that, when I worked for myself, here in town) our local school district has yet to offer us jobs. Nor are there busses that run to our respective schools. So we commute, and feel bad about it, but, hey, literacy is part of the good fight, too. We all do what we can.

But while I can't begin walking to work, I _can_ eliminate meat from my diet. I'm not there yet, for milk and cheese, and we're still doing our share of convenience foods--but I'm trying to have them be things like rice pilaf mixes, which are light weight and therefore less of a transportation burden, rather than frozen dinners. I'm buying what I can that's local--we have a local company that makes soy-based pseudo-meat stuff that's mostly pretty tasty--and I'll try to do more this summer, when time, as well as the weather, are more on our side.

It's a small thing, yes. But apparently a small thing that can have a significant effect. I'm all for that! And, yes, these are some really rough calculations we're talking about--this is not an official research finding, and I'm sure my daughter would not want me to misrepresent it as such. (The downside of a careful student as child.) But the basic principle is the same--thinking about the hidden pollution costs of the day to day decisions I make.

Even if I can't understand Cap and Trade policies completely, that much I think I _do_ understand.

Friday, March 09, 2007

Holding Back?

I’m realizing that I’ve been holding back from commenting on the Quaker blogs I read lately.

I don’t exactly “hold back” from commenting on Pagan blogs that I read. The conversation there seems to be a bit different. Pagan blogging seems, somehow, to take place in a larger “room” than Quaker blogging does. I suppose that makes sense, given how many more Pagans there are around than Quakers—over 400,000 in the United States alone , according to some recent data, compared to an estimated 123,000 Quakers in North America. But it’s not just that. Pagan bloggers seem to be writing in a more public vein, even when they write on personal experience.

Quaker blogs, though, seem to me to partake more of the tradition of journaling… or of a conversation of letters recopied and sent on, something harking back to eighteenth century norms and traditions. Maybe that’s a stereotype—being Quaker surely does not keep me from holding them—and there’s not really something old-fashioned in the Quaker way of thought. But there is something peculiarly intimate in how Quaker bloggers write, I think… at least, those I consider the best of Quaker bloggers. And there is assuredly a Quaker blogging “set”—a somewhat small circle of men and women reading and responding to one another’s blogs, in a conversational style.

And, I’m realizing, I feel like a pest when I comment on Quaker blogs—like I’m butting into a conversation where I’m not entirely welcome. I imagine the owners of the Quaker blogs I read reading my comments or my posts and thinking to themselves, “Oh, not again! There she goes, still talking about _that_!” The way one does when a Friend with a history of offering frequent political speeches in meeting rises and begins to speak.

I feel as if I’m constantly in danger of wearing out the welcome of my audience. In the case of whatever Quaker audience I may have, I fear wearing out my welcome with my language—my brass-balled temerity in calling myself Quaker at all. To some extent, that’s a fear I wrestle with at my meeting, too, though there the issue is much less troubling. There may be some at Mt. Toby who consider me to be a crank, or at least think some of my ideas are wrong-headed. But I’m pretty clear that there are many members who, even if they held such opinions, consider me to be _their_ “wrong-headed crank.” Even the minority (and I’m pretty sure they are a minority) of folks who may find my ideas pesky in my meeting do, I’m pretty sure, own me as a member of that community. Overall, in fact, my sense is that for those who know me best through worshipping together, words in themselves just aren’t important enough to be troubling. I like that.

I’m sure I alienate some of my Pagan audience as well. Language, again—there, it’s probably the conviction (shared by plenty of Quakers, to be sure) that all Quakers are Christian that grates… or, perhaps even more, my increasingly frequent use of the word “God” in the singular. My polytheism is suspect, and since Pagans rely on that concept so heavily to support ideas about the rightness of diversity, that’s surely an issue to those who don’t know me.

Again, though, I think the trouble is more likely to lie with those who don’t know me—and those who are new enough to Paganism to be dogmatic. There are “weighty” Pagans, even as there are “weighty” Friends (a concept I wish Paganism would borrow—the closest the Pagan lexicon comes to that idea is “Big-Name Pagans”… or, less reverently, “Big-Nosed Pagans,” mainly published, well known authors and emphatically NOT the same thing.) Weighty Pagans are far more willing to wait, read, think, and reflect before rushing to judgment based on a word.

Wait, no. It’s not even about not rushing to judgment. Pagans who have been around the block a time or two have typically had the experience of standing in circle with Pagans whose pantheons, understanding of what a “god” is, what a “spirit” is, and what ritual is for all differ wildly… and having it work. Wiccans, in fact, are sometimes rather resented by other Pagans, for the reason that they are less likely to have had such experience, and thus more likely to over-generalize about the beliefs and experiences of others. Still… my formative years as a Pagan, I routinely circled with a charismatic Catholic Goddess-worshipper, a self-taught Wiccan with an appreciation for ceremonial magick, a self-described Erisian who quoted Rumi constantly, a shaman turned priestess of Aphrodite, and a number of Judeo-Pagans for good measure.

The Gods didn’t seem to mind our heterogeneity. And, while our little band proved quite unstable in some ways, it wasn’t our theology that divided us, so much as our newness at community process. More to the point, though the original groups I circled with have changed drastically over the last fifteen years, most of us are still quite close and committed to one another.

My experience, and that of most of the Pagans of my generation, is one of the possibility of spiritual unity (note to Quakers—yeah, I am using the word “Unity” in _that_ sense) among people with diverse perceptions. There are ways I rely on that experience among my Pagan readers—and trust, very comfortably, that the majority of experienced Pagans out there have had it, and are used to bridging the gap that language can impose on people. It makes it hard to be shy.

It also tells me something about the importance about being willing to be present with my differences. Maybe I will be seen as a pest. Maybe people will mentally take a deep breath when I begin to speak from my weird little both-and perspective on the world. But that experience of finding one another despite difference, of being surprised by unity in the midst of apparent difference, is precious. I’ve had it; I’m blessed to have had it. Maybe I get called to “be a pest” as a way of carrying that experience to others.

I will try to be braver, and to reach out to online Quakers as well as local ones and Pagans.

Saturday, March 03, 2007

Salty Goodness

Two posts in one day? Holy Herne and Hecate, Batman, what is this blog coming to?

It was SO GOOD to have a snow day close my school yesterday. Amazing what a little bit of time off can do for your soul...

It may also be, if not amazing, a little odd for such a self-consciously Pagan Quaker to want to encourage you to read a post that ends by reflecting on what "we - - as His disciples - - ought to be," but despite the clearly Christian language, I think one of the things my Quaker and my Pagan friends have in common is a deep desire to live lives consistent with their spiritual leadings. Which is what Brooklyn Quaker's post this week, It Needs a Little Salt, is talking about.

Something that has been coming up for me again and again in meeting for worship is the way I need to let go of working so hard to be virtuous and good. When I work at making a difference, I get tired and frustrated, or, if things are going well, I slip into self-congratulatory mode, and while I'm not a fan of self-abnegation, when you're working with people and you start patting yourself on the back for how well your'e doing it, you tend to piss them off, to say the least. (Very few people enjoy thinking of their problems and tragedies as your spiritual self-improvement opportunity, or like to consider their lives as a "Good Cause.")

And, you know, working against global warming and the destruction of ecosystems is certainly one way of living out my relationship with the Earth. But I think the Gods want more from us (speaking as a Pagan here) than to care for the planet. I think they want us to be in relationship with Them, too. The first priority isn't fixing things--or people. That makes everything into an object, and it distracts me from what really comes first--being in love with God. Because, when you're in love, and you're with the beloved and attending to him or her, you don't have to work at trying to do right by them. You're going to do your absolute little human best for them, just because you can.

Crap. I sound like a lousy greeting card. I sound watered-down and saccharine, which is not how it feels. Brooklyn Quaker says it right:

"...The question can be asked - is all this stand-taking a form of faithful witness, or just self-indulgence? Do we really promote peace by being "for" it?... ...if I knew how to really have an effect on the war in Iraq and to shorten the suffering by one day or save a single life, then the argument could be made that it would not be faithful to neglect... one effective action and turn my back on that one life or that one day of suffering.

"[E]ffectiveness" and "faithfulness" may not be antonyms. But neither are they synonyms. We can't be faithful just by trying to be "effective". Perhaps one can't even be effective just by trying to be effective."

There's more. Just... what he said. (Oh, OK. In Quakerese: "This Friend speaks to my condition.")

Since Rome

I just heard an interview on NPR's Morning Edition with a singer named Jai Uttal. Raised in Brooklyn (if my memory is correct) with a father in the music business who had a particular affection for R&B, Jai discovered Indian music at the age of 19. Middle aged now, he's known for a form of musical devotion known as kirtan--sacred chant--but he also performs in concerts with a kind of fusion of Western and Eastern musical forms, and has released CDs that are often used by those who practice yoga to help them center.

New Age music, I guess. And New Age music has such a bad rap among musicians, as the New Age does among most serious spiritual students.

But as I listened to his strong, plain, unapologetic voice leading a more traditional sounding chorus with Indian drumming in the background, chanting names of Hindu gods, I felt my head opening out. Pagans have a funny kind of love/hate relationship with Eastern mysticism, both studying and teaching it with some frequency and complaining about its pervasiveness among us, since its history is unrelated to Western Paganism (at least in the last 1,000 years or so).

I've chanted mantras at Pagan events... spent hours at it (since that's the only way to really go there) and I've felt it working in me. So Utal's chanting reminded me strongly of that experience, and even in the few seconds of play time it had on air, I felt again what it is chant can do. The reason Pagans work with it, of course, is that it works--at least when done with seriousness and care. Despite all the suspicion Pagans (like others) feel toward spiritual borrowing, what works works, and in a practice-centered religion, that means something.

I know there are spiritual tourists out there. I know that it's reasonable to prounounce "New Age" to rhyme with sewage. But when syncretism is a product, not of curiousity or a cafeteria mindset, but of deep listening to the call of spirit, great things can happen, and do.

We are all so afraid of losing our spiritual purity. As it was in the days of ancient Rome, so it is today--we have come into contact with the myriad ways to spiritual depth that humans have, and the pull that "foreign" ways have on some of us strikes many of us as decadent or shallow.

Yes, spiritual syncretism can be misused... as can any spritual practice. The difference is depth, integrity, and listening not to our egos or an advertising campaign, but to the part of us that recognizes truth and will not be misled.

Listening to the spiritually charged Hindu chanting of a man from Brooklyn, and feeling it touch the part of me that has touched that truth before, I felt something precious to me that is closer to me than my own skin and deeper in me than my own bones. Syncretism is not a dirty word--despite the fear we've had of it since the days of Rome. More, in a world that grows smaller every day, it's the path we're all walking down, if we're honest about it. Because there's no point in being "faithful" to a label. We've all got to be faithful to the power that's being labeled, and not let the names of things separate us from God.
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