Saturday, December 29, 2007

She's Twenty-One

At 5:08 AM today, I became the mother of a grown woman.

It doesn't feel any different...

I remember my daughter's birth so clearly. For weeks, I'd been unable to walk or sit for long without pain; my cartilage had all loosened up for the birth, and my pelvic bones rubbed together with a sensation of thunder and lightening. By the week before I had Hillary, I was already 4 cm dilated, but when my water broke, I took the time to wash my hair at the sink before heading over to the hospital. It seemed important to have clean hair...

It was a long night. There were only two bad moments--one was early on, when I thought I might be sick (and I hate being sick). The second came near morning, when I thought about how transition is supposed to be the stage in labor when it all gets really intense and overwhelming for a while, and if this is transition, then I'm all right--but if it gets much worse than this, I am so going to be in trouble. And it was transition, and it wasn't much later (because time gets very slippery when you're as busy as when you're giving birth is) that they were showing me my daughter.

I remember asking if she was a girl or a boy. You'd think I could have figured that out for myself: all the parts were there, after all. But it seemed to me that it would be a terrible thing to make a mistake about something like that, at the start of such an important relationship. I made the doctor tell me for sure.

I am not one of those mothers who, when their child is placed at their breast, feels a sudden outpouring of love and certainty. For one thing, the umbilical was still attached, and it didn't reach that far up my body. She was placed more or less on my belly, and I had to crane my neck a bit to take her in. Though it wasn't the sight of her that gave the scene it's unreality. I think it was the sudden change of focus. All those months about the inside of my body, about my inability to tie my shoes, my heartburn, the fluttering sensations--and poking, prodding sensations--coming from inside of me. I could sense her movements far earlier than the doctors and the birth books said I could... but when she was there, real, resting on my skin, I felt much more aware of the surprise of her than the familiarity.

Hello, there, small human. Where did _you_ come from?

Lots of memories of her over the years. I remember sitting with her in my lap, such a short time after her birth, the two of us watching the lights on our Christmas tree. Her first Christmas/Yule: my twenty-sixth. I remember walking her and walking her for long hours, night or morning, as time continued to telescope and slide oddly in the first weeks of her life.

I remember taking her snowshoeing, in a front pack and a bunny suit, her little face pinched with sleep. She loved the movement, and perhaps even the cold, Vermont baby that she was.

I remember taking her by the hand as she was learning to walk and to climb stairs, and walking down into the village with her, hand in hand, my muscles cramping as I bent so far over beside her. She had to climb every set of stairs we passed, up to all the front doors. I held her hand for each of them, the two of us equally solemn.

I remember taking her to secret pools and waterfalls on the back roads of Vermont. I remember buying her gifts for her first Christmas/Yule as an aware, reasoning being. I remember making her the black hobby horse with blue eyes she used so seldom, and putting her hair into pigtails.

I remember reading her her favorite books, and how she burst into fierce, fiery tears when we finished reading A Little Princess together, wild with anger that this, the perfect book, could end, until reassured that we could read it again as many times as we wanted.

I remember her jealously competing for Nora's attention when we first moved in here, and I remember her inconsolable grief when her great-grandmother died. I remember when I was the center of her world, and all my words were wisdom to her... and I remember the first time she used vocabulary she did not learn from me.

I remember the first time she stayed out past curfew; I remember the first time I rode as a passenger in a car she drove, and how very hard I tried to seem relaxed. I remember Peter teaching her: to tie her shoes. To use power tools. To drive that car.

I remember the smell of her little-girl hair when it needed a wash. I remember the feel of her infant skin when it was irritated by heat. The weight of her leaning up against me, napping or sucking her thumb when she was tired.

I can feel the warm skin of her baby scalp against my fingertips. I can feel it now, not just in memory.

And I remember watching her graduate: from high school, from community college. I remember a feeling of love and pride so intense it almost felt like it could kill me, burst me open at the seams.

I can feel that one now, not just in memory, too.

What I do not remember is how she got from there to here. It seems just as mysterious as that a small human being should arrive, suddenly, one December morning. Even with the umbilical cord intact, it felt incredible that I had anything to do with this process. And even with all these memories, I still have no sense of the process.

How on earth does it feel to be a mother? I'm still not sure I know.

Hello, there, grown human. Where did _you_ come from?

To my daughter: Happy 21st Birthday. May you be wiser than your mother, and at least as happy and beloved.

Friday, December 14, 2007

Terry Pratchett Has Altzheimers

This is extraordinarily sad news: Terry Pratchett has announced that he has a form of early onset Altzheimers.

Many Pagans (as well as sci fi and fantasy fans everywhere) are, like me, in love with his longrunning Discworld novels--36 and counting at the moment. Lots of Pagan women have taken as role models characters like Morgaine or Vivianne from Marion Zimmer-Bradley's classic Mists of Avalon book. Personally, I find them both a bit gooey and treacly. And so, like many another Pagan woman with a strong sense of humor, I've always wanted to grow up to be Granny Weatherwax. On the Discworld, as here, you see,
Unlike wizards, who like nothing better than a complicated hierarchy, witches don't go in much for the structured approach to career progression... Witches are not by nature gregarious, at least with other witches, and they certainly don't have leaders.

Granny Weatherwax was the most highly-regarded of the leaders they didn't have.

Sadly, experience and observation suggests I'm not doing much to become the astonishing Granny Weatherwax--those in the know suggest I'm more on the way to becoming a version of Nanny Ogg, the perpetually cheerful, plump and earthy witch who loves to have a little too much Hogswatch cheer, jump up onto a table, and begin singing all the verses to "A Wizard's Staff Has a Knob on the End" or that other Ogg classic, "The Hedgehog Cannot Be Buggered at All."

Terry Pratchett, for those of you who don't yet know, is one of the funniest writers of the the century. And for Pagans, he's our funniest critic, a man who clearly knows us thoroughly enough to make the best jokes. It's not just Pagans who come in for satire, though: Shakespeare, rock musicians, Machiavelli, The Phantom of the Opera, and even Death are funny when he does them.

If you've never read his novels, do start now, while he's still producing more to delight us. Try some of his Death novels--Reaper Man, perhaps. (Death is actually one of my best-loved characters, and if the Grim Reaper shows up for me with those baby blue eyes of Pratchett's Death, I'll go with him only after I give him a bear hug to show it.) Or you might try the seasonally appropriate Hogfather--Samhain and Yule/Christmas have their Discworld equivalent, it turns out, a very funny jumble of wierdly twisted familiar lore. If you're a Pagan and you've never read his novels, start with Wyrd Sisters or Witches Abroad, or perhaps the more recent The Wee Free Men or A Hat Full of Sky.

The point is, read Pratchett. Celebrate Pratchett. Appreciate Pratchett. And light a candle, hold him in the Light, say a prayer, chant a spell, or do whatever the voo doo is that you do particularly well, that he remain with us in mind as well as body as long as possible, because this guy is an international treasure.

As Granny Weatherwax used to say, via a badly lettered cardboard sign propped on her chest when she would go out astral traveling, "I aten’t dead."

And, as he pointed out in his announcement, neither is he. For which I am grateful. May he receive every bit of the medical expertise, adulation, love, and attention which he deserves. Or even (if that's possible) a tiny bit more.

Thursday, December 13, 2007

Christians and Idolators at Prayer

I had a somewhat interesting experience with spontaneous prayer today. Heavy snow is often good for that.

Our Fulbright exchange teacher, Mr. R., carpools with me to and from work each day--a very reasonable arrangement, since I'm his mentor teacher this year. I've enjoyed the exchange of educational ideas a lot, and the cultural exchange has been pretty rich, too. The initial difficulties I had, trying to communicate with him around religion, have mostly resolved since my earlier post on the subject; on a day near Samhain, he was asking about American Halloween customs, and somewhere in the midst of my multi-cultural, multi-religious attempt at explanation, something clicked. He made the connection between Hindu traditions honoring ancestors and the dead from his native India, and my family's Samhain practices. There was a brief, deeply awkward silence--as a Christian and (I thank Marcus Borg for the terminology) a Biblical literalist, he disapproves of Hindusim--and then his instinct for politeness led him to change the topic while he digested the idea that his friend (for I am that, to be sure) and respected colleague was (I suppose he would think) a godless heathen.

Religion does sometimes rise as a topic between us on our drives. I am the advisor for our school's gay-straight alliance this year, and he is a frequent attender of the school's Bible club. I'm also really hoping to somehow take the training to teach a course in the Bible as literature at my school (and then arrange, somehow, funding for textbooks, and school board approval for the new course) both because I want to remedy my own Biblical ignorance and because I do find it sad how little knowledge of that part of our culture most of my students have. (Surely a familiarity with basic Bible stories is at least as much a part of cultural literacy in the United States as is a familiarity with Homer and the Greek pantheon?) Mr. R., meanwhile, is interested in comparing the ways that graduate study and pay scales are linked in contracts for American teachers--and, indeed, in the differences between the educational systems at all grade levels.

Not to mention, we are both deeply religious people, active in our respective religious bodies.

So the subject rises. We acknowledge it--and sometimes blink a few moments at the differences in our worldviews. (The gay-straight alliance was clearly somewhat shocking to him on many levels--though he is far too civilized to say so outright. I find it mind boggling, not so much that his marriage was arranged, as that he clearly expects to arrange his own daughter's one day.)

And then, today, it snowed.

I mean, really snowed. One of those really fast, hard onset storms, that leave the road a whitened wilderness within thirty minutes of the first flakes. School was canceled at 10:45, but I did not leave my classroom until 11:15. Mistake.

Mr. R., who has never seen snow until the last storm--a measly 1" of sloppy weather--did not rush out the door, because he knew that the storm had only started within the previous 30 minutes, and he assumed it would be no real difficulty. I had not sufficiently communicated to him the urgency of the situation. Mistake again.

I am not a terrific winter weather driver. (Great on muddy Vermont spring roads, though--honest!)

I decided to risk County Road. Yet another mistake.

My school is no more than a 25 minute commute from my home--in good weather, at least--but it is in the foothills of the Berkshires, and the roads are steep and winding. And I have all-weather radials, which are good...but not great. So there was a certain amount of fishtailing going on, even before we hit The Steep Part--a stretch of hemlocks, stone walls, and winter woods that is lovely when the road is clear, but a bit terrifying when it's not.

Granted, it's uphill, not downhill, so there wasn't much risk to life and limb. But my cell phone doesn't work along that stretch of road... and I really, really do not want to be stranded in a country ditch in a heavy snow storm, waiting for AAA.

So I did what comes naturally, and prayed.

I thanked the spirit of my car (whom I have named Viggo, after a certain extraordinarily attractive actor) and encouraged him to do his best for us.

I addressed the spirit of the mountain, assured her that I loved this mountain, respected it, and asked her to let us pass.

I spoke to the Lord of the Greenwoods, and asked Him to let us pass.

And I prayed, with spontaneity and sincerity, and right out loud, to Grandmother, Great-Grandmother, Lady of Winter, Lady of the Woods, Lady of the Wild Things, to please, please, help us up the mountain and let us pass.

Mostly, of course, this came out, as such prayers are wont to do, in sotto voce exclamations of one word or two: "Grandmother! Great-grandmother!" and the car would fishtail and grab hold once more. "Let us pass! Lady!" and the wheels would slip, fin, and finally hold.

Poor Mr. R. was probably frightened at my display--not so much, I think, for the display of spontaneous, up-close idolatry, as because he could not have known the situation was no graver than it was.

I, however, was to busy praying and finagling our way up the hillside to give much attention to the duties of a host. And when I heard Mr. R's whispered subvocalizations (far more discrete than mine, but clearly as heartfelt) I was glad to have the help.

The more prayers the better. And, hey, this Jesus guy he's so fond of may or may not be the same Spirit as the Light that enfolds me so often on First Day mornings in meeting for worship, right? The Light of meeting is all right by me--especially, I will admit, while praying through a snow storm.

I find it interesting, however, that whatever my ideas may be about God, when I am consciously making a request of the cosmos, I direct it first and foremost to the Mother of All. I suppose my Wiccan roots are showing...

I also find it interesting that, today, in prayer as I drove, I felt that same sense of a door opening in my heart I feel in meeting for worship among Friends.

It's as if, when I need to name or personify my experience of Spirit, I reach for the names and metaphors by which I first experienced spiritual life directly. But at the same time, I have been changed enough by my Quaker life and worship that I experience even that familiar touch at least partially through what almost seem like new, Quaker senses.

After we had passed the worst of the drive, I returned to hosting duty, and tried to convey the relative lack of danger we had truly been in. The route is not very wild, and we would hardly have frozen to death. Even had we somehow fishtailed into the path of an out-of-control oncoming car, we were all moving slowly enough that the accident would have been a mere fender-bender.

Mr. R. was perhaps no more than partially reassured. Poor man! He would have been much happier today in the car of a more confident driver--or at least, one with better tires and four wheel drive. But he was friendly, positive, upbeat--praised the school system for dismissing school early.

And acknowledged to me that he had been praying.

"I know," I said. "I could tell. Thank you."

I did not tell him I had been praying. Clearly knew. And I knew he was no more offended by my prayers than I had been by his.

"Look," I could have said to him. "You know this enormous Mystery at the heart of things by one name. I know it by many. But neither of us understand It. Both of us love and trust it. And it's fine that we are different--and when we need to, we pray together just fine, too."

I could have said this. But I didn't need to, so I did not. The sincerity of praying together had said all that needed saying. So, I concentrated on the road, and got us home in one piece.

But, as much as I disliked the nasty drive in nasty weather, I am grateful for the moment of clarity with someone whose ideas are often truly foreign to me--but whose heart is not.

I think he might say the same.

Sunday, December 02, 2007

Peter on Reading the Bible

I am reading a book called "Reading the Bible Again For the First Time: Taking the Bible Seriously But Not Literally," by Marcus J. Borg.

I’ve just finished chapter 1, and my pulse rate is up. If I were somebody who took blood pressure medication, my doctor would be telling me this book was bad for me. I am agreeing with Borg. His religious feelings are in sympathy with my own, and his outlook on history and on the nature of truth seem not only dead-on accurate but obvious.

Yet Borg is presenting one side of a debate in our culture, and it seems to me to be the losing side.

Conflict about the Bible is the single most divisive issue among Christians in North America today. And because of the importance of Christianity in the culture of the United States, conflict about the Bible is also central to what have been called ‘the culture wars.’ … The conflict is between ... a “literal-factual” way of reading the Bible and a “historical-metaphorical” way of reading it.

Maybe the fundamentalist side really is winning. Our president can get away with torture and treason and can send thousands of Americans to die in a pointless and ill-conceived war, and he’s still there because fundamentalists (most of whom are decent, moral, and loving people) keep voting for him because he supports Christian “values.”

Maybe it just seems like they’re winning because of my own history with them. I stopped calling myself Christian about 25 years ago after a summer program at a Christian community where the “literal-factual” way of reading the Bible was presented quite strongly. They convinced me that fundamentalists were correct in their interpretation of Christianity, but they also showed themselves pigheadedly ignorant about almost everything else. Most Christians, faced with such a realization, would leave the Church and start calling themselves atheist. I left the Church and called myself damned. I never stopped believing in G*d, but it was ten years before I found a door to the Divine that wasn’t barred and a communion that hadn’t been poisoned for me. And when I did, it sure as Hell wasn’t Christian.

So maybe I just feel like the Christians with a “historical-metaphorical” approach to the Bible are on the losing side because they already lost—I already lost—when the battleground was me.

OK. Deep breath. Let’s read on:

From [the fundamentalists’] point of view, allowing nonliteral interpretation opens the door to evading the Bible’s authority and making it say what we want it to say.

But, quoting from another author, L. William Countryman, "Biblical Authority or Biblical Tyranny?" :

These Christians imagine that the nature of biblical authority is perfectly clear; they often speak of Scripture as inerrant. In fact, however, they have tacitly abandoned the authority of Scripture in favor of a conservative Protestant theology shaped largely in the nineteenth century. This fundamentalist theology they buttress with strings of quotations to give it a biblical flavor, but it predetermines their reading of Scripture so thoroughly that one cannot speak of the Bible as having any independent voice in their churches.

I’m nodding here. In fact, I’m almost jumping up and down and shouting, “Yeah! Yeah! What he said!”

I’m a Quaker now, and as a Quaker I’m worshiping alongside Christians and I’m encountering the Bible as part of the milieu of spiritual writings that we read and discuss, and there’s some good stuff in it. But the Bible is a body of writings with life and breath, with seasons and moods, with hope and despair and poetry and mysticism, and when “Bible-based” Christians insist on the literal truth of every word, they kill it. And there’s just no way to tell them that.

There are some truths that language cannot contain. Words collapse under the weight of some meanings. I’ve known that for a long time, and the strategy I’ve developed for coping is: Stay centered, stay grounded, be real. Or as a Quaker might put it, Let your life speak. Borg identifies this as “postmodern”:

Postmodernity is marked by a turn to experience. In a time when traditional religious teachings have become suspect, we tend to trust that which can be known in our own experience. This turn to experience is seen in the remarkable resurgence of interest in spirituality within mainline churches and beyond. Spirituality is the experiential dimension of religion. … An obvious point that has often been forgotten during the period of modernity: metaphors and metaphorical narratives can be profoundly true even if they are not literally or factually true.

That’s me in a nutshell—my personal faith and practice in five simple sentences—and the first bit could just as well have been a quote from George Fox with the language updated and the thee’s and thou’s taken out. But trying to talk about spirituality to a fundamentalist is like walking into a crowded, lively room and discovering I’m a ghost. Scream, shout, wave my arms in front of people’s faces or walk right through them and they just won’t see me.

Last summer, at NEYM Sessions, I had the chance to dialog with hundreds of Quakers from all over the theological and political map, and it really seemed like a lot of the Christian-identified Quakers believe that if you’re not Christ-centered, you don’t have a center. Once in a while something like that gets stated explicitly. Jeanne over at Social Class & Quakers published a guest post by Bill Samuel in which he said:

I have a theory that the class homogeneity among liberal Friends is related to their lack of a clear spiritual center. It has been my experience among Christ-centered Friends and other Christ-centered churches that class is less of an issue, because the uniting factor is Jesus Christ. Without a clear, explicit uniting factor other than something like class, a group tends to gravitate towards becoming a club more united by socioeconomic and cultural factors.

And I want to say, “Lack of a clear spiritual center??? Excuse me??? Hello-oh!!! Sitting right here! In a meeting covered by an ocean of Light! In case anybody was wondering. Or paying attention. Or cared.”

In the midst of the conflict over NEYM’s relationship with FUM during Sessions last summer, Chris McCandless, the clerk of NEYM, said something along the lines of “Unity does not mean we are in agreement; unity means we are girded about by the bonds of love as we labor together.”

But how do you labor together with someone who is deaf and blind on all the wavelengths you use to communicate?

*sigh* I'm not actually as discouraged as this post makes it sound. The way you labor together is you worship together in gathered meeting, and when someone speaks, you listen not so much for the words as for the place the words come from. There's a reason I'm Quaker.

Wow. All this just from reading chapter 1.
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