Word and Will: Devotion Part 2

Jul 31, 2006
One of the reasons I'm making some changes in my life right now is that I've realized that I seem to have different standards for Paganism than for other religions; or at least, that I seem to think of them in different ways. As a rule, I tend to think of most religions in terms of what practitioners do. Followers of Hinduism have large community rituals and food offerings and truly lovely devotional altars. Followers of Judaism keep kosher and the Sabbath. Followers of Christianity go to church and evangelize and tithe, either to the poor or to the megachurch. (Yes, to a different degree depending on the individual, but considering the devoted.) For my own part, though, I have been content to define myself as Pagan based on what I believe -- I believe in many gods, in the immanence of divinity, in magic and reincarnation and all those other things that Pagans believe.

Oh, I still associate Paganism in general with covens and group workings and events like Pagan Pride Day, but I've been isolated from the opportunities to participate in such things, and I've allowed that to become an excuse for my own lack of practice and devotion. (One of my first books was Cunningham's Wicca for the Solitary Practitioner; despite the general emphasis on covens in most witch books, I have very little excuse, really.) To be blunt, I haven't done anything in far too long. So I've been thinking about devotion.

Partially I blame my Religious Studies class; it was the first class outside the anthro department I took on religion since high school, and it gave me a lot to chew on, mostly concerning the day-to-day practice of many religions. It also really made me feel the lack of Pagan religious texts. There's a lot of history, ancient and modern, questionable and well-researched; a lot of magical theory, ancient and modern; plenty of basic introductory texts. There is not, however, a core holy text, or even a set of texts.

And I love words. I love the concept of the Jewish Tefillin, holy texts bound to the arm and forehead during prayer -- I find the idea of binding very powerful, and that of physical contact. I'm significantly lacking in holy texts, however. (I am toying with the idea of ogham and names, actually.) I love the power of words in the Buddhist tradition, where even one letter taken from a sutra has the power to perform miracles. I love the respect accorded to a Muslim who has memorized the Koran, because doing so preserves the Word of God.

I know, I know. I write; why can't I do it myself? Well, it's not the same. Other people have written often quite stunning pieces; why not use those? I'm not sure what the difference is between knowing that something was written by an unnamed poet five thousand years ago by the inspiration of God and knowing that something was written by Doreen Valiente forty years ago by the inspiration of the Goddess, but it exists in my mind nonetheless. I struggle even more with the genericness of so much Pagan writing: because there are so many gods, and because of the Wiccan tradition emphasizing the unity of all gods as the God and all goddesses as the Goddess, specificity is hard to come by. And, let's face it, a lot of Pagan writing can get pretty cheesy, and it's hard to feel properly worshipful when you're being distracted by your own cheese.

I have been trying to drag myself away from the idea of devotion as inherently tied to words. In the bible study group I went to in high school, we were encouraged to pray even if we had no words, but I have found that, for myself, this gives me even less structure than meditation does and in the end does nothing for my sense of connection with the divine. I have also been struggling with this idea that connection with the divine is something that happens only at a particular time, when you sit down to pray/meditate/what have you. As a Pagan, I know this is not true, but in real life, I often find that I wish I had that devotional ritual to re-focus my mind, remind me that whether or not my internet connection will be hooked up by next week is not the be-all and end-all of the Universe, that getting out of the house is good for the soul and the body, no matter how much of a nuisance it seems. I need a devotional ritual -- and since I've signed on for the type of Paganism that is, essentially, a massive do-it-yourself project, I have to come up with one.

That's the rest of this series, then; my wanderings through the potential of devotion and how I'm going to come up with something that makes me feel genuine, worshipful, powerful, and not full of cheese. Unfortunately, although the status of my internet connection is not the be-all and end-all of the Universe, it does affect blogging -- and since it might not be up for a week or two, posts might come a little farther between than I'd expected. I will try to get down to the library, though, when I have Part 3 ready.

Tomorrow I move my life up one state and to the right. And after that -- who knows.

Parenthetical: Productivity

I haven't had the chance to see Al Gore's An Inconvenient Truth yet, which I feel slightly bad about, but only slightly, as I'm sure I'll feel worse when I finish watching it. A litany of the ways humanity seems intent on destroying the planet might be necessary, but it's hardly inspiring.

On the inspiring end of that discussion, then, I found this video of architect & designer William McDonough (via Susie Bright's Journal a couple of days ago) talking about ways the situation can actually be improved. And most of what he's talking about is an ideological shift, a way of thinking about humanity not as a detriment to nature or even just as a part of it but as an active benefit to the rest of the world. Environmentalism always seems a bit Pagan to me, and I thought this was particularly inspiring.

On Being an Intermittent Pagan (Devotion Part 1)

Jul 28, 2006
(Playing blogroll tag the other day, I found Never Say Never To Your Traveling Self, a UU blog that makes me very happy. Huzzah, new blogs!)

I really thought I'd be able to keep up with the blogging in July, despite the fact that I'm preparing to move away from home and packing up my life into lots of little boxes. As it turns out, I've been completely mentally and emotionally incapacitated by the whole thing. (I'm marathon-watching Star Trek Enterprise, for cryin' out loud.)

The fact that I've realized that marathon-watching bad scifi is as emotionally unhealthy as living on TV dinners during the move has been physically unhealthy hasn't stopped me from doing it, of course. I'm doing them both for the same reason: I'm drained, and I don't want to put the effort into making/doing something that would be good for me, even though I know I'll feel better once I do.

I seem to treat religion in the opposite way from the stereotype; it's something I do when I feel good about myself, when I feel centered and happy and prepared. When I'm having problems, I knucle under and deal with them myself, usually without much of a support structure. It's a problem I've been working on in my social life, but it couldn't hurt for me to start working on it in my spiritual life as well.

Part of my problem, I think, is that I have a tendancy to confuse magic with religion. And given that magic is more associated with Paganism than anything else, and that I don't subscribe to a brand of Paganism particular enough to separate it in my mind from the broad spectrum of Pagan beliefs, I suppose that's understandable. It isn't what I want, though, not by a long shot. I think that magic and devotion should be interconnected, balanced, and mutually supporting, but that hasn't been a reality for me, not for a long time, if it ever has been.

This seems to have turned into an introduction to my devotion series without my intending it, so I'll go ahead and announce it now -- quite a while ago I started working on a long post about devotion and the practice of religion, and it's turned into something that will go better as more like half a dozen posts, which I hope to start posting on Monday. A little cross-cultural comparison, a little theory, hopefully something really productive by the end of it all. We'll see how it goes.

You'll find most people don't set foot outside their own heads much.

Jul 24, 2006
Shortly before I graduated, one of my favorite college professors gave us some job hunting advice. When you go to your interview, she said, don't bring your resume; it makes you look nervous and unprepared. Instead, bring some Raymond Chandler. You might be nervous about your interview for the first half-page, but when you reach a sentence like, "He stood out like a tarantula on a slice of angel food," your worries are insignificant next to the glorious strangeness of Chandler's prose.

I haven't had a chance to test this theory yet, as I haven't gotten to the interview stage yet, but looking for a job is nearly as stressful as the interview, isn't it? So to relieve that stress, I've been re-reading Terry Pratchett. Pterry gives you the same benefit as Chandler -- you can be going along all twitchy and nervous but then you hit a line like "A key to the understanding of all religion is that a god's idea of amusement is Snakes and Ladders with greased rungs," and then how can you worry?

Of course, I get an extra benefit from Pterry personally in this whole job-hunt-stress-relief game; I have the unfortunate posession of a degree which does not imply an obvious career. That is, I could go to grad school and get my PhD in anthropology and then I would have an obvious career, but I don't have a burning desire to become either a teacher or a specialist in corporate workplace design, so that path is a little less rewarding than it could be. I still don't know what I want to be when I grow up. This is a problem when looking for any job that pays more than $6.50 an hour, and occasionally slightly depressing.

Except I do know what I want to be when I grow up; I want to be Granny Weatherwax. I adore the witches in Pratchett books. I love Magrat's fluffiness which turns into a reasonably practical stock in trade (with a bit too many crystals for the older witches), I love Nanny Ogg's hedgehog song, I love Granny's "I aten't dead" sign. I love the way Granny thinks that believing in gods only encourages them, even if they do really exist; I love the way she has decided that the best way to go about things is to give people what they know they really need, not what they think they ought to want; I love the way she won't let a shiny ball of rock get in her way if something needs doing at the wrong phase of the moon.

And she's cranky and controlling and mostly illiterate and very distrustful of Forn Parts. Well, there might be some improvements to be made. But at least I'm setting reasonable goals for myself, right?

One of a Million

Jul 14, 2006
I wish I could say I haven't been posting because I've been having fantastical, ecstatic religious experiences that have drawn me away from the computer. I even wish I could say I haven't been posting because packing and arranging things for the move and the new apartment are eating my life. Instead, I haven't been posting because I've been sleeping a lot and geeking out with other geeky friends about Pirates of the Caribbean 2 and the new Doctor Who finale. I'd be ashamed, except for the way the past four years have been an attempt to stop being ashamed of my geeky love for things.

I have also, though, been thinking, fairly abstractly, about community. As Sojourner pointed out in reference to my last post, community is an important part of ritual and of our lives in general. I've never felt much of that, to tell the truth. It takes me a long time to feel integrated in a community, which means that both in high school and college, about the time I started to feel as if I belonged somewhere, it was time to leave. The town I grew up in holds very little attraction to me, and the sense of community here is so tied to church attendance that I have had very little sense of belonging here since I left the church when I was in high school.

I still have a strong, if muddled, sense of community with a variety of people from college, including a variety of friends, professors, and staff people, but now I've graduated and most of us are dispersing to various parts of the Midwest, those networks are bound to be a little stretched. I'm moving into my new apartment with a friend I've known for years, from the summer geek camp I used to go to in high school, another group of people I have a weird sense of community with, despite not having seen most of them in years. (They still reappear in my life from time to time, though, and we always seem to know each other on sight. The mark of a geek is eternal?)

I've definitely never had a Pagan community I've felt a part of, though I'm starting to carve out my own corner of the Pagan blogosphere. (There was an abortive attempt at a Pagan society at college once, but it seemed to crash and burn after a particularly poor Samhain ritual.) And while I love the blogging community, I'm looking at this move as an opportunity to find a physical Pagan community to connect with, if at all possible. My problem being, mainly, that I'm both choosy and easily put off by negative comments from others (despite the fact that I know the amount of negativity flying around is usually entirely excessive). I'm moving to Madison, Wisconsin, quite close to Circle Sanctuary, and trying to decide if I want to put the money and effort into a festival there; I'm looking for other groups and circles as well, and being a little surprised at how few I find. I shall keep looking, and hope that I know what it is I'm looking for when I see it, because I certainly have no idea now.

Rite of Passage

Jul 10, 2006
I signed the lease on my first apartment on Saturday, and the check went out in the mail today. It's the biggest financial commitment I've ever made (my parents being kind enough to pay for college), the most ambitious step I've taken in my life so far, quite possibly the most exciting thing I've ever done. And terrifying, too -- I'm moving to a new city where I don't yet have a job and to live with a friend I know and love but have never actually lived with before. I'll have a home of my own to care for, my own dishes to wash, my own carpets to vacuum, my own light bulbs to change. We move in on Lugnasadh, which seems appropriate, as this will be the fruition of my summer's work.

One of the weird things about anthropological training, especially the post-modern kind advocated by a couple of my professors, is that you begin to see your own life in ethnographic terms. What I have just experienced is called a rite of passage, an instance of changing roles from one stage of life to another. Graduation is the classic example, but graduation ceremonies have always seemed like more of a nuisance to me than anything else. College is really the rite of passage there; graduation is just where everybody else acknowledges that. This, though -- this was important on its own merits. One signature and the state of my life changed. I am no longer a student or a twentysomething bum living with my parents. I am now a Young Professional. (Or, given my still-unemployed status, a Young Bohemian.)

In Paganism, a rite is a ritual, an act of magic and devotion, causing change in the individual and possibly the wider world as well. And the lease-signing, really, it was that too. It was hardly the formal sort of occasion I'd vaguely come to expect from people throwing the term "lease-signing" around; my roommate and I had met up to see the new Pirates of the Caribbean movie, and we sat down with the papers after lunch in the mall's food court, reading through all the details and dating and initialling like mad for half an hour. When we were done, we sat in silence, staring at the lease, mentally adjusting our bank balances, processing the decision we had finally made. And then we pretty much exploded in excitement and had to go take a circuit around the mall before the movie started.

A couple of days later the excitement has worn down, and I'm starting to add up the costs of all the other things that need done, and getting anxious about packing and moving and no longer having a permanent address in the house I grew up in, but that's life, isn't it? We change ourselves and we keep moving, even when it gets a little terrifying in the in-between spaces.


More Out There

Jul 7, 2006
When your browser crashes because you've got too many tabs open, it's time for a links post.

I've started reading Tim Boucher's Pop Occulture Blog again, and I can't recall why I ever stopped. His post on visualizations gave me some hope for myself -- I, too, have always had an overactive imagination, and visualization seems a little pointless as a result. Don't Stop Believin' was the highlight of my week, though.

From Real Live Preacher comes an essay on divine creativity -- and on creating ourselves through the divine. I'm usually the first person to object when someone argues that all religions are the same, really, but it's things like this that remind me that the differences, while important, are not always fundamental.

Finally, Ampersand gives a good sociological analysis of the situation in Delaware that I posted about a couple of days ago. It's a sensitive and thorough explanation of how and why these things happen, which I think is important for everybody to understand. Rarely is systemic discrimination explained away by simple bigotry, though that's definitely a part of it.

I wish I didn't have to wonder if I should write this

Jul 5, 2006
This is absoultely sickening.

A Jewish family in a small town in Delaware was basically chased out of the school district by an aggressively Christian curriculum, and because they feared persecution for the legal suit they're now bringing. (Good for them.) They and another family, who have decided to remain anonymous, are being represented by personal lawyers who are working with the ACLU.

The list of complaints is a long list of tiny things -- and I mean that not to be dismissive in any way, because a long list of tiny oppressions is a terrible thing, but really they don't seem like things that would be difficult to change. And that's the problem. Don't bring Bibles to school to give to your students? Pray in the name of God instead of Jesus? Are these really awful concessions to make?

My experience in a very Christian community high school wasn't nearly as bad, but some of the things on the list spark memories. (My biology teacher was required to teach two days of religion because half the class threatened to walk out when he introduced evolution. I was shocked when I went to college to find that this sort of experience was so rare.)

Most especially, though, I remember the Indian girl I made friends with my sophomore year. I was already flirting with Paganism by then, but my experience of other cultures was minimal, and I was enthralled by the Hindu altars around her apartment when she invited me over for tea after school. I never got to know her very well; her family had moved to town because her dad was hired by the major local employer, but they couldn't deal with being the "weird ones" any longer and they moved to a larger city. My sister just graduated from the same high school, and while it seems there's a little more diversity now, a dozen instead of two non-WASP students is a small improvement.

The situation in Delaware seems to have been malicious, at least after a certain point -- an awful sense of entitlement that crowded out any sympathy these people might have had for the family they were ostracizing. But it isn't always malicious; most of the oppression going on at my high school was out of neglect more than anything else. It's awful to think, though, that it's so easy for some to cross the line from entitlement into anti-Semitism. I hate to think what Pagan teenagers would do -- in many cases, probably are doing -- in a school like that.

Literary Paganism

Jul 4, 2006
I'm not really tech-y enough to claim a Technopagan identity (just like I'm not Reconstructionist enough to claim a Celtic Reconstructionist identity, or witchy enough to claim a Witch identity...), but I have to say, William Gibson does truly magical things to my brain. I was into science fiction long before I was into Paganism, but the two things seem to share space in my head somehow, and they occasionally start running together.

Technopagans have heard this all already, but -- I read Gibson's Count Zero for the first time for a class my final semester of college, and I had to restrain myself from doing little Pagan dances of glee through all the discussions. Fortunately most of the class was relatively familiar with basic magical concepts (it was a class designed by and for geeks of all stripes), and the professor had done her homework, so we got to move fairly quickly through explaining the nature of loa and into why the idea of loa emerging out of the global Internet and taking on full existences of their own was just so. damn. cool.

My professor tried to draw a connection between that and C.S. Lewis' Space trilogy, to say that both featured higher beings that amounted to the same thing, but to me the respective cosmologies kept getting in the way (for all that C.S. Lewis is the most Pagan of all the Christian authors). Lewis writes Good and Evil with capital letters -- in That Hideous Strength, for example, the leader of the forces of Light (who simply drips Christ figure in a way that's strangely evocative of Aslan) stages an elaborate formal ritual to call down the eldils, higher angelic forces who represent the souls of the various planets. The embodiment of Venus in particular appears in both her benevolent and terrible aspects, and there is no question that she will be benevolent on behalf of those who called her down with good intentions, just as there is no question that those intentions (and the action taken to satisfy them) are good. It's a little bit Pagan and a whole lot Kabbalistic. It also comes off as very elitist; Christ-figure and Merlin, whom he's awakened from his sleep to help with the ritual, do their work in the drawing room upstairs, which is where the manifestations happen, while the rest of his followers congregate in the kitchen. They feel the effects of the summoning, and you could argue that they have some effect on it, but they're clearly well out of the loop.

Gibson doesn't give us a lot of direct interaction with the loa, but from the way people talk about them, they're something very different. (And here I hauled out my class notes to write a blog post; I've completely fallen into the depths of academic geekdom now.) "Voodoo [...] isn't concerned with notions of salvation and transcendence. What it's about is getting things done. [...] In our system there are many gods, spirits. Part of one big family, with all the virtues, all the vices. [...] Voodoo says, there's God, sure, Gran Met, but He's big, too big and too far away to worry himself if your ass is poor, or you can't get laid." And when the loa show up, they're liable to act unpredictably, to pursue their own ends, to actively get in the way of the people who brought them there in the first place.

I'd be lying if I didn't say both of those worlds ring true to me. (And from what I know, they're very true to their respective traditions as well.) The writing in both is good enough to give me goosebumps, I'll admit, but it couldn't do that if I thought it stretched its gods too far. They ring true enough that they have come to reflect the ways in which I view the Universe -- not that I didn't believe such things before I read these books, but that they've given it shape and contour and texture. I haven't yet decided if they're incompatible, but for the moment they do both seem to be working.

This is what I mean when I tell people that I get half my theology from science-fiction and fantasy novels.

Change in the Weather

Jul 2, 2006
We haven't had a drop of rain in almost a week, though the storms keep passing by to the north or south or east or west, taunting us with the electricity in the air and the faint hope of a change in the weather. It's not been hot enough to really be worthwhile, that kind of satisfying world-destroying heat you get in the end of summer, when all anyone can do is sit around and complain about the heat and speculate about the egg-frying capacity of the hood of the car, but it's been far too sticky and uncomfortable to make getting out of the house an enjoyable experience.

I gave up this evening; the constantly changing fronts and the oppressive recycled quality of the air conditioning drove me outside, in spite of the heat. Warm, almost comfortable outside after the air conditioning, but ten feet from the door I was already regretting wearing jeans instead of a skirt, for all going for a walk in a skirt is both uncomfortable and slightly odd. I went on anyway; had to find some way of working the extra energy out of my system if the weather wasn't going to break and do it for me. I've always loved the start of a storm, the bigger the better. The tension builds as the sky changes color, to finally be broken by lightning that seems all the brighter for the unnatural dark in the middle of the afternoon. Everything relaxes after a storm in a way that just isn't possible before it happens.

Hot and sticky an hour later, with my knee giving me warning that it wouldn't be happy with me tomorrow if I kept on (injury from high school marching band, no, don't laugh, the way my director wrote drill it was nearly as dangerous as football), I had to have a shower when I got home. As I turned off the water the sound of it falling didn't stop so much as shift -- and as I stepped to the window the thunder cracked. It was pouring, and other walkers with timing less precise than mine were running for shelter all down the street, even as the limp flowers in front gardens started to perk up.

Ten minutes later as I post this, the thunder's mostly stopped and the rain has settled down to a light shower; it'll go on like this for another half-hour at most, and then next week it'll do the same, and the next, until it dries up almost completely in August and starts getting more dramatic about things. It's the combination of predictability and unpredictability in the weather that I love so much about the Midwest. It'll do the same things, in the same ways, over and over again, but you can never be sure when the tension is finally going to snap.