Saturday, February 23, 2008

Gone Away

I dreamed yesterday morning of the land where I grew up.

The land where I grew up was not a family farm. We're all allowed to romanticize a family farm. We see something admirable in families trying to maintain ties to the old homestead, when it's a farm that's been in the family for generations.

But my home was not on an old home place, just a two acre plot of woodlot, lawn, and garden with a somewhat boxy two story house put up in the sometime between 1920 and 1940, at a guess, with a beautiful oval rock garden, three tall clumps of lilac trees, four apple trees, two pears, and (when I was young) a plum tree. There were hemlocks, swamp maples, one sugar maple, and many towering ash trees standing guard at the edge of the property, along the tumbledown fieldstone wall.

Our house was brown, with a hardwood floor my father put in himself, and kitchen cabinets and formica countertops he put in as well. There was a porch that ran all along the back wall of the house, and even on a winter afternoon, the strong sun through the glassed-in walls could make you feel like it was summer again. There were two abandoned tree forts on the property--one in the woods, which I grew up trying to set right, and another in the giant maple tree that shaded our porch roof in summer, and which my mother warned me never to attempt to reach, as the tree had grown so tall since it had been built that only a circus daredevil could reach it now.

There was a cistern filled with mosquito larvae, and an old artesian well covered with boards which I convinced myself hid Jenny Greenteeth, and which smelled like the aluminum cups my grandmother filled with water for us, which tasted cooler than any other water ever could.

And last night, I dreamed all of that was for sale.

A friend of my family wound up buying it, a woman who had never owned a home before, and I tried to be glad for her. While struggling not to cry, I congratulated her, and reminded myself that the alternative had been someone else buying the place, probably to rip out all the beautiful, mature trees, to flatten the hills, tear out the remaining glacial boulders, and throw up yet another generic McMansion on the hill. The trees would have to go, of course, to open up more of the View--the long, panoramic view of the Pioneer Valley.

I grew up with that view, though screened through the boughs of winter trees, of twinkling lights against a blue horizon. It's pretty. But it's not as much a part of the land as the trees were.

As the trees were. Because, of course, when I awoke, I realized that, indeed, my family home has been sold--years ago in fact, and not to a family friend. Strangers bought my home, and leveled it, tore out the lilacs, the ash trees, the apples and maples and roses, and did put up another McMansion, on their new, bare, pristine green lawn.

But it's not a farm that I'm mourning, so no one particularly cares. I'm no Native American, whose ties to the land can be safely sentimentalized. I'm ordinary, and that plot of land was ordinary, too. It's just another two acre plot, one that hadn't been used to its full financial potential, like an investment not tended.

My society has no place in it for loving land, for being in relationship with it. My parents' child, I had no legal rights to the trees or the stone wall. In fact, after it sold, but before my home was leveled, I snuck onto the land like a thief, to bear away a single stone from the stone wall.

I have it still. I'd have preferred the worked stone step that led to the house, but that would have been too large a theft for me. I'm sure it was tossed aside in some construction dump when everything else came down, that stone where I sat, a child of four, gazing up in wonder at the tall trees overhead.

Mystery has no price tag, and so Mystery has no value. Childhood love has no profit or contract or name, and so childhood love is cheap. We are foolish, rootless people, and we have no homeland and no shame, because we will not see these things, or understand that they are true.

From Between Old and New Moons:
Who’s Participating

Please add this list to your Synchroblog post so that readers can find everyone’s posts.

The Aquila ka Hecate: King and the Land are One
Symbolic Meanings: Symbolic Landscapes of the Norse Mythology
Quaker Pagan Reflections: Gone Away
Executive Pagan: Nature and Me
Manzanita, Redwoods, and Laurel: The Importance of Local Landscapes
The Dance of the Elements: Landscape and Mythology
Pitch 313: Trancendental Experience Out of Doors Opens the Gateway to Magic
Druid's Apprentice: Landscape Synchroblogging
Paleothea: Ge, Gaia, Gaie: Earth
Mythprint: The Atlantis Legend
Druid Journal: Guest Post Merry Meetings
Between Old and New Moons: Chanting the Landscape

Any omissions are purely a matter of oversight; feel free to add your post to the comments section if you're participating in the synchroblog, and I'll get it up here as quick as I can. Comments on Mahud's post at Between Old and New Moons are being monitored, and I'll update this links section as often as I can.

Blessed be!

Thursday, February 21, 2008

Marcus Borg, Quaker Bibliomancy, and the Meaning of Myth

So here I am, back reading more of Marcus Borg's
Reading the Bible Again for the First Time
: Taking the Bible Seriously but not Literally. I'm making a slow job of it--in part because Peter has had the book for a while. Partly, though, I just find Borg... thin. I may have to stop every two or three pages when I'm reading a meaty Quaker writer like Lloyd Lee Wilson, just to reboot my head after I hit my personal limit for Scriptural references, but I can feel the weight of both thought and Spirit pulsing through the pages. Borg is easier to read, on the one hand... but less absorbing on the other.

I take it that he's the the theologian that fundamentalist Christians love to hate. His two big insights--that the Bible is most useful for it's metaphorical truths (what I, a Pagan, would call myths, in a positive sense) and for its metaphorized (mythologized) history of a people's relationship with Spirit--seem pretty straightforward to me. And the readings he's presenting so far (I'm only up to Exodus) don't seem to be pushing me to read much deeper into the stories than I am able to do from my memories of the children's Bible from my secular humanist childhood.

I had a flash of deeper meaning calling to me as I read his description of the story of Joseph, and his greeting of the brothers who sold him into slavery in Egypt. Joseph, for those who did not have the benefit of my illustrated children's edition of the Bible, was the one who dreamed true dreams, and helped Pharaoh prepare his people for a famine. I found it interesting that, when his hungry brothers showed up in Egypt, Joseph, that mystic dreamer, was able not just to forgive, but to embrace the experience and the mitzvah that experience allowed. Borg quotes Joseph as saying:
Do not be distressed [they might well have been afraid!], or angry with yourselves because you sold me here; for God sent me before you to preserve life... God sent me before you to preserve for you a remnant on earth, and to keep alive for you many survivors. So it was not you who sent me here but God.

This combination of a spirit of forgiveness and a direct experience of spiritual leading seems to me to be a very Quaker thing. And, while I'm most familiar with Friends' quoting from the New Testament and the letters of the early Christian church, it's kind of neat, stumbling across such a Quakerly way of re-reading this story.

On the whole, though, I'm not finding Borg's Bible terribly nourishing stuff. It's not that I disagree with his way of looking at the Bible... it's that it just doesn't seem to be enough. I compare it with Quaker readings of the Bible that I've been privy to, and I miss the quick flash of lived Spirit I've found among some Friends who quote the Bible. I may have to work to let the language in, but I do find those Friends often have something to say that makes it worth my while to try.

For instance, reading in Each of Us Inevitable, an anthology of keynote addresses given on GLBTQ concerns, I came across Jan Hoffman's essay, "Eros and the Life of the Spirit." Jan's retelling of the story of Moses and the burning bush, spoke to me--spoke to me clearly, in the heart of my Pagan experience. She writes about that moment that Spirit reaches out and grabs you by the scruff of the neck and suddenly--SHAZAM!--you are changed:
Moses was just wandering along. He saw a burning bush and turned aside, and when the Lord saw that Moses turned aside to see, God called to him out of the bush, “Moses!” It is indeed through our senses that the Divine gets our attention.

Once our attention is captured, dialogue becomes possible. Moses did not just stop at the bush, listen quietly to God’s command, and simply go away and follow that command; he talked back and negotiated with that Voice:

“You want me to talk to the People? Who shall I say sent me?”

“Tell them‘I am who I am’ sent you—that Presence which breathes life into

“Are you kidding? They’ll never believe that name!”

“Well, if they won’t believe words, maybe they will believe signs.Take up that rod and throw it on the ground.”

“It turned into a snake! Pretty impressive, but the People will think I’m just crazy, throwing rods around that turn into snakes. Can’t you send somebody else? I’ve got my dignity, after all.”

“Moses! Somebody else didn’t step aside to look at this burning bush; you were drawn to the bush; you go tell them about it...”

...This encounter was at the very center of Moses’ life; it informed his life and changed its direction. We often hear people say after similar encounters, “I’ll never be the same again.” No, thank God, we won’t. To be touched by the Divine is a gift, and it often attracts our attention in unexpected ways. Moses didn’t expect God to appear in a burning bush,and when he turned aside to see a bush and found himself in God’s presence, he at first resisted yielding to that Presence. Yet when he did yield, he found his life’s deepest integrity—that is indeed a gift.

Yes. Yes. Isn't this what a spiritual life is for? Suddenly, the Universe is speaking to us. We didn't expect it (though we may have longed for it). But having seen and heard the Voice of Spirit, whether in the near and familiar life of trees and animals and faces we love, or in a strange and sudden revelation, suddenly, there we are--in relationship, in dialog.

If we're lucky, or perhaps if we're wise, or maybe just if the Universe is persistent enough, we let that Voice in. And something about being in dialog makes us whole, or at least starts the process toward the kind of integrity that makes us whole.

So, OK. I suspect that some of my Pagan friends are cringing about now, thinking of other stories of Moses we know and find acutely distressing. (The story of Moses and the Midianite women comes screamingly to mind.) Yes, yes. The Moses of the Bible could be a right prick from time to time. (Rather like Zeus, if I put my feminist hat on,by the way.) And if we think of him as a historical human or an idealized moral model--well, sorry. He sucks. Patriarchy sucks--past, present, or future--and the myths of Moses are from a very patriarchal strata of world history.

But Pagans reclaim patriarchal myths every day. The Bible, though... the Bible is different.

What keeps those of us who are alienated from patriarchal religion from reclaiming those myths, too? Well, chiefly I think it is the fact that, unlike the stories of Zeus and other patriarchal Pagan deities, we are expected to take them literally, as absolute and historical reflections of the will of one supreme and rather vengeful god. Take it or leave it—this material, we're told, is to be swallowed down whole.

Pagans don't do that when it comes to Pagan mythology--we play with it, rethink it, re-envision it in art and music and theater. And, most of all, we experience it in the light of direct encounters with Spirit. In Quakerese, it might be said that modern Pagans read our myths "in the Life." And I think that's my point. Pagans read our mythology in something the same way that Quakers—at least some Quakers—read the Bible, not as a dead document with unchanging meaning, but as a kaleidoscope of meaning. Turn it, let the Light of Spirit shine into it, and you may see something new. Spirit--God or gods--may show you something new.

I'm not clear on the extent to which Quaker Christians see this kind of playfulness as legitimate. I'm not sure Quakers themselves are clear. At times, the creativity and openness I've seen demonstrated in Quaker readings of the Bible are breathtaking to me--though, from where I sit, it's done with an openness to Spirit that is more moving to me than any other aspect of the process.

Still, I'm sure the question gets asked--among Pagans and Quakers: can this playfulness toward sacred story—and, for a moment, to the chagrin of all, let me drop the distinction between the written god-stories of the Bible and the oral traditions of the Pagan world—can it be abused?

Well, sure. You know anything humans do that can't be, when we've a mind to it? I've read some marvelously creative and, I think, spiritually illuminating retellings of Pagan mythology over the years. Evangeline Walton's faithful retelling of the stories of the Mabinogion are a personal favorite. I'm also incredibly fond of Neil Gaiman's American Gods, chilling though it is in parts. But I've seen some ghastly-awful retellings of mythology, too. One achingly politically correct tale of a repentant former-rapist Zeus comes to mind at the moment, and I have to say: however little I admire the wielder of the thunderbolt, literary castration is no solution for the ethical challenge his myths pose for his worshippers today.

The answer, though, is not in slavish literalism, for Pagans any more than for Christians. How about we accept the possibility that our sacred texts reflect the people who told the stories, and are not perfect containers for the experiences of Spirit by those who handed them down to us? Our gods, just as much as the reality behind the creation stories and origin myths of the Bible, are badly served by fundamentalist literalism. But moving from literalism to mythological thinking will not be enough, for Pagans or for any other spiritual tradition, if we do not allow our interpretations to be guided by direct experience of Spirit. We owe it to our gods to be open to discovering for ourselves the meaning within the metaphors.

And as for Christianity—well, who am I to judge? I suspect that many Christians, reading my words here, are understandably reluctant to entrust me with any sort of reading of the Bible. I regard the Bible with no more reverence, inherently, than I do the words of Homer: I don't “believe” in either, in the sense that the Evangelicals who ring my doorbell mean the word. Which, for the majority of Christians, would seem to settle the question of my fitness to even think about the Bible. I have no "standing" (to borrow a legal term) to argue for or against literalism or playfulness in approaching its stories.

Well, the Bible is in no danger from me as yet. It remains, when placed in my hands, a lifeless thing, without voice. But I am intrigued by how, placed in the hands of Quakers moved by Spirit, that book of old and often troubling stories can speak to me. It seems to me, outsider though I am, that Quakers have a knack for reading the Bible in the Spirit, and that allows a Light that I can't help but feel is too large for any creed to capture to illuminate it's pages, at least for them—or for me, if I am very daring, very open, and very wise.

At the very least, it seems to offer more meat than the thin reading I am finding so far in the liberal Christianity of Marcus Borg.

Thursday, February 07, 2008

Two Poems on Teaching

Teaching World History II

The voice weaves in
through my open doorway
from the classroom down the hall.

Like talking wind,
or seeking vines,
or blackberry canes with thorns.

He's a midway barker,
a sword swallower,
a fairground carnival ride.

Yesterday, I saw him juggle
One orange, partly eaten
A paper-clip, and
a single battered copy of
Glencoe's World History II.

Child Left Behind

You ain't got nothing to teach
me. No, I don't got to sit down.

I hate this class. I hate this school.
Why can't I go to the lav now?
I ain't got nothing to learn.

All I was doing was looking.
What? I wasn't doing no
thing. That wasn't fair. It wasn't me.
He did it first. That wasn't mine.

Why are you just such a bee--
All I was doing was laughing.
No, I don't got to sit down.

You ain't got nothing to teach me.
I ain't got nothing to learn.

Won't let you have nothing
to teach

Don't wanta have nothing

to learn.


Friday, February 01, 2008

MetaPagan: A (Deservedly) Shameless Plug

I have been enjoying the conversation swirling among several Pagan blogs, at least partly in response to the Spontaneous Blog Carnival that I wrote about on MetaPagan. It has taken a while--about six months, by my rough reckoning--but MetaPagan seems to be doing what its founders hoped it would do: facilitate a thoughtful, intelligent conversation in the Pagan blogosphere. Comments are up--cross-posting is up--and Pagans are listening deeply to one another as we talk about things that matter to us.

But one thing may be missing from MetaPagan--your participation.

What is MetaPagan? It's a daily roundup, not of links to Pagan writing or to stories about Paganism, but of the very best of Pagan blogging. Participants learn how to use our tag system--it's not hard, and we've got a guide to get you started--and whenever they come across something that's truly outstanding, they flag it for you to read.

There are hundreds of Pagan blogs. But--can we talk?--a lot of them aren't very good. And none of us write something earth-shaking every single day.

But with a service like MetaPagan, instead of being overwhelmed by the sheer numbers of Pagan blogs out there, or of essays posted each week on The Witches' Voice, you can focus on the posts that have gotten readers interested and excited--the ones that are contributing to the ongoing conversation about Pagan religion, Pagan culture, and Pagan activism.

You can join us in promoting the work of other good Pagan writers on your own blog, by installing one of the MetaPagan widgets on your web page or blog. It's free, and it's easy: simply click on the blue "Get Widget" button below the MetaPagan feed blidget on our sidebar, or on the sidebar of any of the participating blogs already carrying the feed. (You can get our feed as a Facebook app, or a Google Gadget, too.)

Feel overwhelmed by the volume of good posts recommended by MetaPagan? Consider mounting a sidebar blidget for one of our specialized categories, like Pagan Books, Pagan Parenting, or Interfaith work. Your participation can be as broad, or as specialized, as your interests.

MetaPagan has the potential to become a powerful tool, linking Pagan writers together in a web of online community. We'd like you to be a part of that. Please consider installing a MetaPagan feed reader on your web page or blog today. And, next time you come across a story that's really first rate, consider tagging it, for the whole Pagan world to read.
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