Saturday, April 30, 2011

I'd Rather Be a Pagan

There's another of the periodic discussions going on online over the word "Pagan" to describe a religious movement.  (These things tend to recur, like malarial fevers, every so often, despite the best efforts to settle them once and for all.)

As has happened before, the point has been made that Paganism, as a religious movement, is hard to define because there are so many things that can't be said categorically to define us all.  Some of us aren't polytheist (or theistic at all); others aren't earth-centered.  Some revere ancestors and attempt to follow their ways, while others don't.  And so on. 

As is probably clear, I find attempts to define the word "Pagan"--or to get us to abandon the word--frustrating.  Still, just because I keep having the same conversation again and again doesn't mean it isn't a good conversation to have.  And Scott Reimers, at Patheos, has a point when he says that, to the extent that Pagan is a label that defines us as what we are not (Christian, primarily) it is a label that dooms us to live in a certain amount of tension and distrust with our culture.  To the extent that this is true of us, it may indeed distort who are, and who we become.  I do appreciate Reimers' point that we need to focus on the inclusivity of our movement, rather than on a label that may simply hold us in tension with others.

But I like better Jeff Lilly's point, over at Druid Journal, that, while Paganism is a somewhat slippery and imprecise term, that doesn't mean that it is meaningless, or that it's only connotation is a negative one, as Reimers suggests.

In fact, Jeff sees the very process of reclaiming the word "Pagan" to describe us as part of a process of creating a community that has its own cohesion, with or without being easy to define.  And more importantly, like many words, the word "Pagan" has a "forest of meaning"--a rich, if imprecise, cluster of living and related ideas that are growing in relationship to each other, and to the community that claims that word.  "A word is a knot, a tangle of prototypes in the forest of meaning," Jeff observes, and I agree.

He continues, "In fact, the desire to hammer down the meanings of words, to draw sharp lines around concepts and say for sure who belongs in the club and who doesn’t, is antithetical to the Pagan aesthetic."

I think that he is right.  Deep within the core of meanings of Paganism, as I have lived it, is an organicity that evolves, shifts, and yet has a balance of its own--like an actual forest.  It is not static, not amenable to sharp borders and definitions, because its heart is dynamic.

I responded to Jeff's post in this way:
I, personally, need the word "Pagan."  Its meaning may be a cluster of loosely related ideas, but that's exactly why I need it--because my own religious identity is complex enough that less complex words distort it. 

Should I say that I am Wiccan, because I have trained in two Wiccan traditions?  While my Wiccan roots matter a lot to me, so do the bits and pieces of idiosyncratic ritual and lore I've accreted over the years--stray bits of shamanic practice, Hellenic traditions, rituals created by people I love, and insights gleaned directly from gods and spirits I've encountered in trance.  None of that is recognizably Wiccan to an outsider, but it's as important to me as my starting point.

Should I describe myself as a Druid, because my current theological and philosophical leanings are in that direction?  But I've never formally trained as a Druid, and I am, frankly, unwilling (at my age, but more importantly, at my level of experience) to go back to the beginning and train again in a new tradition, just to say I belong to it. 

Should I simply call myself a Quaker, and be done with it?  But I'm a Quaker who celebrates each full moon and the turning tide of every season, who leaves offerings to her ancestors and to the spirits of the local woods.  However many meetings for business I attend, committees I serve on, or Quaker journals I read, is it enough to call a follower of Herne and the Lady of the Spindle "a Quaker"?

I need the word "Pagan" the way my friend R., who married a man who later transitioned to life as a woman, needs the word "queer."  R. isn't lesbian; R. isn't trans.  But her life isn't summed up well by describing her a cis-female and straight, either.

Paths are sometimes convoluted, when you bother to explore them and follow where they lead, instead of sit down comfortably beside the roadsigns that mark them.
The older I get, the more Pagan I become.  What other word is wide enough to hold me?

Friday, April 29, 2011

Fresh Greens

Now that I have about six quarts of washed, tender young dandelion greens, the question is--

Sauteed with garlic, or in a salad?

(The chives are up and doing nicely, too.)

Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Thinking Of You Singing

I have good friends.

Knowing I've been wrestling with Hard Things this winter, my friend, the poet Penny Novack, sent me this poem--originally written for another friend, but, thinking of me recently, she said reminded her of me, too, and how she enjoys listening to us singing.

I'm honored.But also encouraged. And grateful to have such a friend.

Penny wrote:
Thinking Of You Singing

You are woven into the falling leaf, the budding branch
The daffodil white with snow.
You are still running through bright leaves which the great tree
Of your life has dropped.
You are the day's end and dawn and carry water drawn
From rain pools of childhood.
You travel on a carpet of life laid down by all who lived,
All who died
And you are birthing futures which will be shaped
By your will and hand.

Never say when death or destruction sweep the world
That you have not shielded love
That you have not made music
That you have not mattered.

--Penny Novack
Photo: Zorba the Greek
Never say when death or destruction sweep the world/ That you have not shielded love/ That you have not made music/ That you have not mattered.

Reading those words yesterday morning, I nearly wept, I so needed to hear them.

To all my friends--and there are many--who have been struggling this winter too, I join with Penny.  Never say you have not shielded love.  Never say you have not mattered.

Sunday, April 24, 2011

On Hold

I have not been posting to this blog as regularly as in the past.  Partly that is because I'm writing other things in other places.  But that is not the biggest reason.

"A Silhouette of Sadness"
JinKY Lin
Truth is, this has been a really difficult year.  And most of what I write about on this blog is the way my spiritual life and my daily life intersect.  I write about what is hard for me, what I am wrestling with.

Unfortunately, I can't really do that this year.  Most of what I am wrestling with involves stories that are not just mine--in the sense that they are not mine to share.

One thing I learned early--the world is much less anonymous than we sometimes think it is.  If there is one person who should not see themselves discussed in public, you can count on their seeing any public discussion you put out there.  And I feel strongly that I can't write what it would harm or embarrass other people to write.

It's one thing to make myself vulnerable, another to make other people that way without their consent.

So here I am, actually struggling a lot this year with a kind of heaviness of heart and sometimes spirit, sometimes feeling overwhelmed and discouraged and at other times just dog-tired.  And I'm doing a lot of wrestling with feelings of failure, and what failure really means, and whether in fact thinking of life in terms like failure and success isn't really a symptom of some problem I'd be better off without, and whether it is possible to be a failure in terms of results--even important results--and yet have been faithful.

At least mostly faithful.  At least most of the time.

And I could go on, but in the absence of detail, how on earth is this anything but a litany of abstractions?

I am trying not to feel like not writing here is another sort of failure (or not) to judge myself on (or not).  After all, the point is not regular publication, but "blogging in the spirit of worship."

There are times I do not feel Spirit very close to me this year.  And there are times when I do, but I'm too tired to be encouraged anyway.

And other times when I am sure everything is going to be just fine--and when I remember that, in fact, it already is.

I'm not actually in despair, and I have good and loving support available to me.  But it's still been a tough year...  It's sort of like one of those days that you can get even in the middle of a glorious summer, when you're socked in with mist and there doesn't seem to be a lot of life anywhere but in the drone of mosquitoes.

This, too, is part of the journey.  I know it.  But it's a part I'm not well able to share at the moment.

I'm not experiencing the dark night of the soul.  More like... being on hold, waiting for something to break through the muzak that I can write about for public consumption.

I'll be back, when what my Spirit is wrestling with--or celebrating--is something I can share.

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Weigh In and Winter Veggie Report

Since March 26, our family has generated another 14 oz. of plastic waste (as always, including the recyclables, given the limitations of that process with plastic).

Two nights ago, I reached a sad landmark: the last of our edible carrots have been used.

Over the winter, the winter keeping systems we fashioned worked very well.  Of the thirty pounds of carrots we laid down in sawdust, we might have lost five in recent weeks to rot--all the rest held up nicely, despite the surface discoloration they had almost from the first.  They remained as crisp and fresh as the day we brought them home up until the last week, when the temperatures took a turn for warm weather at last.

I suspect that, in another, shorter winter, we'd have lost more of them sooner.  But, still, I was impressed by how close to our actual need for carrots thirty pounds turned out to be, and how effective it was to store them in sawdust in the unheated garage.

I was disappointed in the CSA's potatoes--they were very small and dirty, and I found myself reaching for the conventionally-grown local potatoes instead much of the time.  I didn't use them all up, and I think that, instead of stocking up on those, I'll just get more of the local, conventional potatoes next year in their stead.   So instead of thirty pounds of each, I'll probably go for thirty pounds of conventional potatoes... and store more of some of the veggies we couldn't get enough of, like the beets.

(Who knew how amazing beets were going to taste?  These have become my favorite winter vegetable.)

In any case, the potatoes have all begun to sprout now, and there are few, if any that are still usable.  (If I'd already begun gardening, I might have a use for them in the ground... but since I've never grown potatoes, and I have a pretty big learning curve ahead of me as a gardener already this year, I'm going to let that opportunity slip past me this year.)

The local onions also held up well--I've got the last of those in the fridge now, so they won't sprout any more than they already have.  Again, thirty pounds of onions was just about the right amount, and the place we found to hang them seemed to do the trick.

Other things I've learned, about storing vegetables over the winter:
  • Frozen zucchini rocks.  I'd thrown some into the freezer last summer just as an experiment, not thinking I'd enjoy it very much when winter came around.  But I learned that just a handful of chopped, thawed, zucchini, thrown into a spaghetti sauce before serving, brings the taste of summer to a plate of pasta.  I probably froze only two or three pounds of zucchini last summer--I will probably triple that this year.
  • Dilly beans are awesome.  Again, I made this just to see how it would taste.  We found ourselves chopping up the beans and adding them to our lunches--rice and beans--every day until they ran out.  Dilly beans have a lot of flavor, a lot of crispness, and they really made those lunches delicious.  I put up about two pounds of beans last year, but this summer, I hope, again, to double or triple that amount.
  • Zucchini pickles were not worth the trouble.  Despite my childhood memories of how good my mom's were, I won't bother with these again.
  • Pickled cabbage is fantastic! I told myself that this was a waste of time.  After all, local cabbage is not hard to obtain for most of the winter, so making dishes like braised cabbage is easy enough all winter long, right?  Wrong.  I'd reckoned without the exhaustion of a heavy winter teaching load.  While they lasted, the quart jars of pickled cabbage (I used basically a sweet pickle recipe) were among my favorite convenience foods.  All I had to do was open a jar, take out some cabbage with tongs, and put it on a plate.  Voila!  Instant vegetable.  (Fresh cabbage I saved to go into salads, together with sprouts from the windowsill and, once they were available at the winter farmer's market, fresh spinach.)
  • Home-made sauerkraut This was a "funny once."  I've done it.  It's amusing to see how it works.  But the end result is not tasty enough to be worth the effort.
  • Kale kills.  Well, not normal people, of course.  And I love it.  For that matter, so does my husband... but it interferes with his blood thinner, so there will be no more kale at our house.
  • Chard is boring.  At least frozen chard.  Which is too bad, because kale, which isn't so boring, isn't a possibility.  Ah, well.
  • A girl can't have enough frozen blueberries Though frozen raspberries are a second best.  Canned berries, however, are a waste of effort and shelf-space.  (This is not to be confused with the jams and jellies I put up last summer, which were popular with us and made nifty presents, too.)  But those blueberry pancakes and pies were... amazing.
Perhaps the most important discovery, though, was how very possible it is to be a winter locavore, with a little advance preparation, access to the co-op and to the winter farmer's market.  And it didn't feel like deprivation... rather, it helped me to discover a whole seasonal palette of foods I would not have ever noticed, back in the days of year-round grocery-store lettuce salads, frozen peas, and frozen spinach.

And I bet those first real fresh tomatoes are going to taste astonishing, come July.

Peter and I have joined the CSA for this summer, so we'll get to enjoy local eating at its best, having made it through most of the winter on local and seasonal produce.  I think it's going to be a blast.

Sunday, April 10, 2011

No Unsacred Place

This is just a quick note; I've joined a new project of the Pagan Newswire Collective, their new nature and Paganism blog, No Unsacred Place

I'll be blogging there on an irregular basis, probably about twice monthly, in a column of my own, Earth Matters.  But there's a host of amazing bloggers who will also be writing regular columns and opinion pieces there, including Ali Lilly (whose project it is, and whose own blog, Meadowsweet and Myrrh, has long been one of my favorites), Heather, of Say the Trees Have Ears, and Ruby Sara, of Pagan Godspell.  In addition to several of my particular favorite writers, there will also be contributions by geologist, environmentalist, and Druid Meical abAwen; by the very talented Pagan writer S.C. Amis; and by the Druid of the sacred in suburbia, John Beckett.

I suppose the trick for me will be focusing each of my blogging projects appropriately.  I don't think that will actually be so difficult, in fact; Quaker Pagan Reflections will likely stay focused mainly on what's fairly obviously spiritual material, whether Pagan or Quaker in outward form.  Chestnut House I will probably refocus to be quite practical, focusing even more on the nuts and bolts of living as plastic-free and non-polluting a life as I can.  And the newer space, Earth Matters, I think will lend itself more to the hows and whys of environmentalism, and perhaps (my fingers are crossed) to a few interviews with local farmers, activists, and environmentalists of various sorts.

If you head over to Earth Matters at the moment, you will find two posts ready and waiting for you.  But do take the time to explore the rest of the site, too; there's a lot of talent assembled there at the moment.  And for anyone who loves this planet of ours, listening to so many wise voices for change should be a real pleasure.

Saturday, April 02, 2011

A Different Kind of Knowing

The woods are so much more naked now than at any other time of year.

Yesterday, we had an April Fool snowstorm that left enough on the ground to close the schools.  Today, it is nearly all gone--only a few rags remain in shady corners of the woods to show where it had been the day before.  Today was warm, and sunny, and though I really should have been doing a hundred other things, I stole away for two hours late in the afternoon, to hike in the naked woods.

The wonderful thing about this bare and barren time of year is how far I can see through the trees. Even from the house, the effect is noticeable, but in the deep woods, it is easy to leave the established trails and explore.  Deer paths, not even noticeable once the green comes out, are almost as clear and plain as highways--highways marked by darker brown along the ground, where their droppings slot between the rotting leaves, and by drifts of hemlock needles, chewed off the nearby trees in such profusion, it looks as though a mad topiarist has been at work off in the middle of the woods.

I am becoming quite familiar with stretches of wood I had not even entered a year ago.  There's a spot where an old woods road--which will be obscure and hard to follow in a month or two, but at present is practically an airport runway peppered with stumps and mountain laurel scrub--passes between granite boulders the size of golf carts and small sheds.  One of these huge rocks still bears the scars of an attempt by some long-gone farmer to split it.  I cannot imagine why.  To clear the slope for farming?  So many other rocks remain, it hardly seems worth the trouble.  To obtain building stone?  Surely there are rocks as useful downslope, nearer to whatever needed rock.  It remains a mystery to me--and a landmark.

Today I took the faint tracing of a deer track that continues when the woods road fades away all the way down to the flat and shadowed valley at its foot, a grassy space of interlacing streams, quiet and secret-seeming (though I have seen the tracks of other hikers there).  It rests between two ridges of wooded hillside, and today for the first time I made my way up the steep slope across the farthest stream, past stands of mature beech and oak, as well as the everpresent hemlock.

Over the crest of the hill, I saw the sky.  Seeking further, I glimpsed two houses through the trees, and a little ways from both,  a fenced-in hillside pasture.  The ground fell away steeply from the little gate at the top of the pasture, and the view was astonishing--waves of bruise-purple wooded hills, punctuated by the taller, greener spikes of white pines, and beyond those, the startling blue of the Mt. Holyoke range of hills, far away against the eastern sky.  A deeper shade of blue may have marked the Connecticut River, winding past the mountains. 

The sun was at my back, and I could see, far away across the valley, white spires of churches, and down the hill from me, the occasional flash of sun-glare, caught by a passing car at the road at the bottom of the hill.  No sound rose up to me from where I sat, however, and the little farm whose pasture it was looked like a toy farm, almost to pretty to be real.

I have not been so startled by the beauty of a view since I left Vermont.  Both the height and the slope of that pasture reminded me of Vermont. 

I sat for several minutes, letting the sweat of my scramble up the slope cool, appreciating the faint scent of woodsmoke on the wind, and hearing alternately the rush of wind through hemlocks, and the negotiations of a pair of chickadees.

On the way back, I missed my deer track, but I had no fear of getting lost.  I knew where I was, if not well enough to be sure of avoiding inconvenient thickets and streams, well enough to be sure of striking my trail before very long.  And indeed, I did, but not before I learned a little more of my woods by heart.

I thought, before we bought this house and moved here, how much I would like the chance to live in the woods again, and know again as I did once as a child how every fold of the land looked and felt at every season of the year.  I think so still, and I notice how much more of the world around me I can track consciously than I could as a child.  Now, as I walk in the woods, I can identify species of leaves on the ground, different animals' droppings, tracks, and signs, and a little of the geology and history that is written on the landscape that I see.  I may guess which stumps are oak, and which are hemlock, and I have theories about what may have caused a scar on a tree trunk, or the odd shape of a pine.

But there is another, deeper, wordless kind of knowing of the land, and that I had when I was young, as the deer have it still.  That is the kind of knowing I am seeking for--the kind of knowing that runs deeper than words, that recognizes the beloved even in the dark, by touch, by smell, by unconscious bonds of relational knowing.

I think it will take a lifetime to properly learn even this one small New England forest. 

I'm grateful for the chance to begin.
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