Dec 21, 2008
It never ceases to amaze me, when I do finally pull off an all-night vigil, how different the world seems when the sun really does come up in the morning.

Happy Solstice, everyone.


Dec 12, 2008
What do you do when you've fucked up?

Doing wrong isn't a very popular topic in Pagan circles; I have to agree with Brendan Myers when he says that all too often, we gloss over the idea of what is and isn't right and we end up with a morality that doesn't have anything to say about our everyday lives.

I pretty well bombed a presentation yesterday in class, and it was my fault. Well, partly -- the professor was pathetically unprepared to teach the class she was supposed to be teaching, and was using someone else's projects as assignments, and did a piss poor job of explaining her expectations and offering support to us as we worked. But because the professor was so unprepared, I let my standards slide farther and farther, and by the time the project was over yesterday I knew that I could have made it a lot better without a lot more work, but I didn't.

One of the things I've always held as a virtue is doing my best possible work. Even when I was working at my horrible soul-sucking job, I was better at it than a lot of people there because it was wrong to me to do a bad job just because I disliked the work. And I've never slacked off on schoolwork this much before, so it was a little shattering when someone asked a question that I was completely unprepared to answer.

My other problem here is that I have very little faith in my own ability to determine responsibility for these sorts of things; I know I have high standards for myself, but are they unrealistic? Should I cut myself some slack because it was a group project, and I probably did more work than anyone else in the group and it still wasn't up to my standards? Should I cut myself some slack because it's my first semester of grad school and I've spent the whole term fighting with my foot injury and the weird wavering boundaries of depression on top of it? Probably. But it was honestly a little bit of a relief to take responsibility for the part of it that I am undeniably responsible for: I knew there was more work to be done, and I chose not to do it. I did wrong.

I made offerings last night in atonement (and who is the God of Library Students, after all?), and now I'm doing what I can to make it better -- that class is over and done with, and there's nothing I can do about that, but I still have one more paper to write, and at least I can feel good about that one.

What do you do when you've done wrong?

(happy) winter

Dec 3, 2008
I have this problem where the longer I go without posting the more I feel like the next post I make has to be really profound to make up for the gap. I'm trying to get over that. This is not profound at all.

I've been joking with people that I don't want winter to start, I feel like I have PTSD from last year (104.5 inches of snow, breaking a local record of some decades, not to mention a few delightful days of blizzards and/or freezing rain). It's getting less of a joke as the snow keeps falling, especially as this year I've quit my horrible job but I have finals stress to deal with instead. Oh, and thanks to the surgeon not warning me ahead of time what my followup surgery would entail, I'm back on crutches for a week. Yep, crutches. In the snow. help.

Which I think is why I was struck by a quote from a Vodou priest that The Wild Hunt posted a couple days ago:

This year, they spent what they could to honor the dead, while still trying to support the living, Josue said. 'I don't think the Gede [the spirits of the dead] will be offended,' Josue said. 'They will be concerned about the condition of the world, because they have a lot of work to do now.'"

Which I think gets at why I don't like the religion-only-in-a-crisis mode that I (and I think a lot of other casual-religious folks) was brought up with: if you only turn to your gods when you need them, you feel like you need to do a lot of work to earn that help, at a time when that work is hard/expensive/impossible; but if you've been keeping up the relationship all along, you just all pitch in together and pull through. Rather like humans do. All of which is to say that while the snow is still mildly traumatic, I'm in a much better place this winter than I was last winter.

Now if only I could walk.

Welcome to the political post of this year.

Nov 3, 2008
You know, I'd never thought before about how close the US election date is to Samhain, but it feels very appropriate right now. You know how sometimes, when the veil is thin and everything is just right, you can feel the world changing underneath you?

Right now.

If you can vote tomorrow, do.


Oct 29, 2008
I'm swamped with schoolwork and Samhain preparations right now, so in lieu of actual content, I'll finally respond to the Six Random Things meme Livia tagged me week?

1. I currently have approximately two dozen books checked out of two different library systems. I will never in my life find the time to read them all before they're due. But I just can't stop.

2. I really like making things, mostly fairly useless things unfortunately. Right now it's mostly cross stitch, but you should see the handbound book of the Shadow Unit finale I'm working on.

3. I am absolutely shit with romantic relationships. I've been asked out a grand total of twice in my life, and the second time I didn't even notice until I'd accidentally shot the guy down so hard he hardly ever talked to me again. (I am still really, really sorry about that, Rob.) But I never get bent out of shape about it unless my mom asks me if I have a boyfriend yet, so I try not to worry about it too much.

4. I'm getting a Master's in Library Science because I was too scared to go for my Master's in anthropology. That and I couldn't find an anthro school that did what I wanted to do, but let's face it, I didn't look very hard.

5. I only realized once I'd started at the library school that just because I'm getting a professional degree now that doesn't mean I can't get an academic one later.

6. I'm in fandom, and I honestly think it's the single greatest thing to come out of the Internet. (I know fandom didn't really come out of the Internet, but it did for my generation.) I almost linked to the Wikipedia page here for those of you who don't know what fandom is, but I read it over and decided I didn't like it. In brief: fandom makes stuff out of other peoples' stuff. Intellectual recycling. Reclaiming popular culture. And, okay, a significant amount of well-intentioned copyright infringement. But I love it, and it's awesome, and the people I've met through fandom are some of the best people in the world.

I'm not a fan of tagging myself, but if you read this, I'd love to see your responses, too. It's strange to think how much of myself I don't talk about on this blog, really, and I'm sure that's true for other people as well.

Back together again

Oct 26, 2008
Oh crap, it's happened again. My Genius Idea sat and festered too long before I wrote it down, and now it's gone all moldy and pretentious and no longer useful for anything but rearranging furniture in my head. Oh, well, it was getting a little stale in there anyway.

Instead I want to talk about how much better I feel about the world now that I've got my kitchen under control again. From the middle of July, when I tore the ligament in my foot, until just a couple of weeks ago when I got stable enough to stand for the length of time it takes to make dinner, my roommate had to deal with the kitchen. And I love my roommate dearly, but she is not a kitchen person. She knows it, and it shows. She doesn't particularly like to cook (although she's better at it than she thinks), and she has an even harder time keeping up with the even-less-fun kitchen things, like dishes. (Let's not talk about the state of the refrigerator, shall we?)

I've always thought of the kitchen as the heart of a home. When I was growing up, we didn't use the front hall entrance to our house but the kitchen door, so coming home always meant walking into the kitchen. It was where I got to spend the most time with my mom, who worked until she got too sick to keep working, helping her make dinner (although my most vivid memories are still of baking Christmas cookies, her absolute favorite). It's still where we spend the most time together, when I go to visit for holidays. And in my current apartment, the kitchen is literally the physical center of the space. I step out of my bedroom in the morning straight into the kitchen (and over to the coffee pot).

And yeah, it's still a strain to stand for an hour to cook or bake. But I've finally got the dish situation under control, and I've consolidated recipe boxes with the one I inherited from my grandmother earlier this year. Friday night I made Korean barbequed beef and gai lan for dinner, and last night was this year's inaugural Teresa Neilsen Hayden Savory Pie. (The leeks were a little bland, but the next one will be better.) And now the world seems to have sorted itself out into its proper place again. I must be more of a kitchen witch than I'd thought.

where I'm coming from

Oct 18, 2008
There are a lot of things going on in my head right now. (It's fall, that happens to me a lot.) I'm looking at Celtic Reconstructionism again, as I do every once in a while. It's inevitable for me -- I'm never satisfied with just learning something, I want to know who came up with it and where it comes from and what it meant to someone other than me, and since my abiding interest is in Ireland, I always circle back around to CR.

I'm taking a history class right now, too, and history always makes me think about the stories we tell ourselves, the stories we tell one another. That's what history is, after all, is stories. Humans are storytelling, pattern-making animals, and we turn our world into stories. That's what the gods are, too. Stories, and patterns. And gods.

I read this book for my history class this week, The Cheese and the Worms, about a miller in the sixteenth century who was tried for heresy. Twice. His heresy was so strange, though, that the first time around the Inquisitors stopped trying to convert him and started going, "Sorry, go back. You believe what now?" And Ginzburg, the researcher who put this together, thinks that part of the reason this guy believed such weird things was he got them from the oral culture of rural Italy, that they represented this pre-Christian ideology that still survived in the countryside.

I got really, really annoyed by that idea as I was reading the book (and subsequently writing the paper, which, guess what I'm supposed to be writing instead of this post?). Partly it's the vaguely condescending tone, but partly it's the recurrence of the phrase "pre-Christian." I think I'm sensitized to that phrase or something, whenever I see it I'm ready to be angry about the way it's used. And I've been trying to figure out just why that is, and I think for once I'm starting to get somewhere. And unfortunately it's long, and complicated, and I do still have that paper to finish. (And the other one for next week, and the draft for the week after that...)

A lot of people around the Pagan blogosphere have been talking about feeling the veil growing thin a little early this year. Yeah, I get that. It feels a little treacherous, a little brighter and clearer than it's really supposed to be. It's making it a little easier to see. (Now let's see if I can make it easy to explain.)

Watch this space.

Things that apparently take a long time to learn.

Oct 6, 2008
What comes to fruition in the harvest season is the results of your actions.

What happens when I feel myself come alive in the fall is thoughts.

It seems a little obvious in hindsight, but I've always wondered why I never felt the way I "should" about the autumn festivals, Samhain in particular.

(I have been Thinking Thinky Thoughts today. I think they will be interesting, once I have a chance to turn them into an argument and post them here.)

Book Review: The Other Side of Virtue

Oct 4, 2008
I finished reading The Other Side of Virtue by Brendan Myers sometime in August, and I just couldn't write it up at the time. Now I'm back in school and back into the swing of writing about difficult things, so here goes.

I'd heard good things of Brendan Myers before in my poking around at various forms of Celtic Neo-Paganism, so when The Wild Hunt did a writeup of this book, I was intrigued. For people who want books that go beyond Paganism 101: this is one of the guys to keep your eye on. (Though you could argue that an ethical structure ought to be part of 101, in reality, it pretty much isn't.)

What Myers has written here is more a theoretical book than a practical guide: not a criticism, but an observation, for people who might want to pick it up. It's a work in progress, a starting point for other Pagans to look at and start figuring out how to make it work in real life. Fair enough. I hardly expect any one person to come out with a synthesized Theory Of Pagan Ethics just like that.

I'd caution against using it as an only source for an ethical system, though. (I'd caution against using anything as an only source for anything.) The first section of the book is dedicated to historical examples of how people have theorized ethics and virtue, from the heroic model of chiefdom societies like the Celts to the social model of Classical Greece and Rome, up through the Romantics and Humanist ideas of The Good Life. It's an impressive span to cover, and you can see where his specialty is -- that is to say, it's not in anthropology, which is my specialty, and every once in a while Myers makes some broad sweeping statements that made me cringe. Overall it's a pretty good analysis, but it's better if you keep in mind the idea of ancient Greece instead of trying to equate Heroic Greece with Celtic society in general.

This is also not, I repeat, not the book to read if you're currently struggling with depression. "I recognize that depression is a medical condition," he writes on page 222, "not a deficiency of character. But I do wish to suggest that an ability to imagine a future, an ability to discern a purpose for one's life, can have a therapeutic effect on those who find their lives very difficult to bear." I've never been suicidal myself, but I have been profoundly, awfully depressed, and that sounds a lot like "just snap out of it" to me. That, coupled with the "Spirit" passage starting on 193, was what put me off this book for several months.

That said, what I do think Myers does very well is present a vision of virtue that doesn't exclude people. That doesn't mean he's come up with a way to look at the world that means that everyone is virtuous: far from it. But he's come up with a way to look at the world that means that people who disagree, people who are in active opposition, hell, even people who flat-out hate everything that the other stands for, can both be virtuous at the same time. Virtue, in Myers's conception, is in the way you look at the world, not in the ideas you have about it. Virtue is when you look at the world and think, "That is so fucking awesome. I have got to be a part of that." And that, I think, is an excellent place to start.


Sep 21, 2008
It's a terrible shock to look back at this year and realize that yes, my plans really did come to fruition. I quit the job I hated that was causing me so much grief, I started school, I've got two new part-time jobs to back me up, and the world is a much brighter place than it used to be.

It's strange to think this, as I'm still recovering from a broken foot, as one of my friends struggles with replacing most of her worldly possessions lost in a flood (while still unemployed) and another is fighting depression and a terrible economy in an attempt to get out of her horrible job situation; as the economy falls in on itself and the Republicans field what might be the worst possible ticket imaginable and still their poll numbers don't go down...but I'm doing okay. I can feel the rest of the world holding its breath, but I know I can weather it.

Strangely enough, I almost feel like this is a result of feeling more connected to the world, not in spite of it. It's as if by taking my place among these events, by taking some responsibility for them, they become less scary and uncontrollable. Not because I feel like I can control them, but just because I don't feel like they can control me. We're all part of the same system, pushing and pulling one another, but I've got my claws in deep enough that nothing's going to shove me out of my place in the world. Not just yet.

It's the Equinox, and things are turning over. Time to hold on tight.

Tell Me a Story

Sep 11, 2008
(This post has been brought to you by the winning entry for PanGaia's Pagan Fiction Contest. You're kidding me, right?)

If I read one more Pagan conversion story, I am going to scream. "Once upon a time I was not Pagan but I was unhappy and then I discovered Paganism and everything was WONDERFUL." Oh, the Augustinian conversion story, how I loathe you.

I'm not saying that story isn't true for the people who tell it. (I've told a similar one before, and I stand by it as my lived experience. It was indeed what happened.) But – it's like this. When I was in therapy, one of the questions on the entry form was about your religion, and I put "Pagan." The therapist asked me about it – I think her exact words were something like "Tell me about that." And I started telling her my conversion story.

I think a lot of people do this; it's a way of explaining process, making our Paganism seem less strange to cowans because we give them logical reasons for every step of the way. But I've started to wonder if it's really the best model at hand.

For one thing, it's also a hugely familiar story, particularly to the kind of people who like us least (Evangelical Christians). Now, I don't mean to say that something is bad just because Evangelical Christians do it (I for one enjoy oxygen, for example), but I do think there are some theological underpinnings to the conversion story that make it, at best, questionable for Pagans.

The key event in the conversion story is the conversion. It's the climax of the narrative structure: the narrator's dissatisfaction with the religion of their birth is the plot, the conversion is the climax, and the description of their current belief the denouement. This structure makes the religion – the Paganism – the least important part of the story, the aftermath of other, more exciting events. It's a happy ending, but how much do you care about a happy ending to a story other than that it's happy?

Conversion makes sense as a central point for a Christian, because Christianity has a focus on salvation. For Christians, the moment of conversion is a moment of grace, the point at which not only their life changes but literally their entire existence, their afterlife, the fate of their soul is determined. There's not a lot of theological unity among Pagans, but I don't know of any who consider the salvation of their soul to be a key aspect of their conversion.

Sure, the point of conversion is an important time for a Pagan too. It's a moment of self-realization and epiphany, and it often comes with an amazing sense of freedom. But most Paganisms are mystery religions; most of us have other stories of personal epiphanies that are much more meaningful to us than our conversion. Not all of them are suitable for sharing, certainly, but some of them surely are.

There's a lot of talk about Pagans genericizing themselves into meaninglessness in order to "fit in" with the mainstream. And while I'm uncomfortable with the idea of public circles that look more like church meetings than anything else, I'm even more uncomfortable with the idea that the stories we tell about ourselves don't mean anything, either.

Back to school

Sep 3, 2008
It would be that the year I finally seem to be emotionally in tune with the season change is the year that I go back to school. Most of me is winding down for the autumn and winter, and the rest of me is going, "Readings! Classes! Work! Think! AAAAH!" Wow, going back to school after two years off is harder than I thought it would be.

On the plus side, I'm now at a huge university, and working in the central library (in the reference department, no less!), so what does that mean? Oooooh, research. I am delighted to discover that we have not only a giant stash of books that seems to cover most of the CR FAQ reading list, but also delightful things such as the minutes of the Gaelic League from the late 1800s on microfilm. Which, okay, is less of Pagan interest than of general geeky interest, but my god, this collection. As soon as I get off my crutches I'm going to just go play in the stacks for an afternoon.

In the meantime, injury recovery time seems like a good time to be doing research. I've been having strangely vivid and unusual dreams lately, and I've discovered I know very little about the role of dreams in a traditional Celtic system. And now, I have the resources to help me find out...

A post of links

Aug 20, 2008
I don't usually cross-post from my Livejournal, but this is driving me crazy.

So. This thing happened recently.All about asking the presidential candidates what they think about, y'know, Jesus and stuff.

(Including questions like "The Bible says that integrity and love are the basis for leadership" and "You've made no doubt about your faith in Jesus Christ; What does that mean to you?" To draw from the first couple pages of the transcript.)

And the liberal blogs think Obama shouldn't have done it, because evangelicals are McCain's base, donchaknow. Or maybe he should have, to prove that Democrats Are Religious Too.

Aren't we all missing something here? Some larger issue beyond Who Loves Baby Jesus Most?

Oh, yeah.

(Thanks, Jason.)

Book Review: The Shark God by Charles Montgomery

Aug 18, 2008
I bought this book – it must have been June, because I'd decided to buy myself a book for my birthday, and after I'd picked something out from the highly unsatisfactory collection of Patrick O'Brian novels, I wandered back into the history and travel section. This is always a bad idea for me. I have a terrible weakness for good history and travel memoirs. So when I saw The Shark God on the shelf – memoir, travelogue, and Melanesian syncretism – what was I supposed to do?

The Shark God is the story of Charles Montgomery's search for adventure, magic and family history in the chaos of culture, religion and politics that is Melanesia. His grandfather had been a Protestant missionary there in the late 19th century, and as a boy Montgomery had invented great stories about his grandfather's exploits, risking life and limb to bring Christianity to the poor, brown natives of these islands. As an adult, Montgomery knows that his childhood imaginings are probably unrealistic and definitely more than a little bit racist – and he's left Christianity in the meantime – but he feels a connection to the place and wants to learn more. So, as a travel writer, he does the only reasonable thing: he gets a contract to write a book.

Montgomery admits that the thing that intrigues him most about Melanesia is the apparent paradox of Christianity and native belief still existing side by side. Although almost all Melanesians are Christians of some stripe, a number of pre-Christian traditions and beliefs still have a great deal of influence on peoples' daily lives. They believe in witches and curses, in magic stones and dances, in ancestor spirits and shark gods.

I think my favorite thing about this book was that Montgomery never really seems to get it. He has a genuine interest in the religious situation, and he does his best to empathize with the people and understand what's going on. He learns that his English Protestantism is far from the only valid form of Christianity, and he really believes in at least some of the magic that he meets. But he never gets syncretism, never seems to be able to move beyond “but that's not how Christianity works” and “but that can't really be real,” even though he obviously really, really wants to. The epilogue tries to come to some kind of conclusion, but it's patently false and too much like a moral.

There are no morals through the rest of the book, just stories that mean something. Like the Anglican Bishop who lives in a house with a constantly shifting population of locals who refuse to let him live alone, because that's no kind of life at all. The priests who use the magic of Christianity to fight the magic of evil sorcerers and exploitative criminals alike. The spectacular moment when, having talked a group of rebellious young men to take him to see the famous thunder stones on an isolated island, Montgomery makes it rain.

Overall, I think what makes The Shark God a success is that (excepting that awful epilogue) it's a book written with compassion, respect, and a genuine attempt at understanding. Montgomery knows that he doesn't know better than the people he's talking to – or the people he's writing to – and while he's looking for answers that makes sense to him, he doesn't discount the answers that seem to make sense to everyone else.


Aug 10, 2008
The sprain is a break after all, and a serious one at that -- so instead of spending Lugnasadh doing nothing, as I'd planned, I spent it unconscious, having foot surgery. I'm no longer in much pain, just frustrated from being unable to move the way I want to. Disability activists refer to the rest of us as "temporarily abled" people, and you never really realize how true that is until you're faced with a flight of stairs to get into your apartment and only one functioning foot. On the plus side, it looks as though I'll be walking again by mid-September, instead of Samhain as they originally predicted. Whew. (That's in time for PPD! Woohoo!)

I went to visit a friend a couple of days ago, once I was able to get around a little bit again, and she hugged me and said, "I'm sorry you're broken." My first reaction was denial -- I'm not broken! it's just my foot! -- but as I turned that idea over in my mind I realized it isn't quite right. The idea that "I" is something different from my body is part of this Cartesian dualism thing that I am actually just not in favor of. I am the person who inhabits my body right now, and my body and my mind are part of the same system, not to be ripped apart and talked about as if they were totally separate things.

Injury can really bring that into focus, actually. I've been working with attention a lot lately (based on some exercises from Evolutionary Witchcraft, which I cannot recommend highly enough), and it's been interesting to see where my attention goes on its own. Except for the part that's writing or watching TV or stitching (most of my activities these days), it's mostly divided between my foot and my back, which is impossible to get straightened out what with the having to sit with my foot propped up all day. It's an improvement, though. Last week I couldn't think about anything but my foot.

So yeah, I'm a little bit broken right now. But it's doing okay, and I'll get better. That's the best part about bodies, they fix themselves remarkably well, all things considered.


Jul 28, 2008
I can't do magic when I'm injured.

I'm not sure what it is -- a combination of things, most likely. My focus is bad, because I'm thinking about the pain/trauma. I'm pretty self-centered naturally, but when I'm injured it gets even worse. I feel bounded by my body, stuck in a malfunctioning machine with no connection to the wider universe. And there is that tradition, that the High King had to be physically without blemish in order to rule. It isn't the same thing, but the connection tugs at me.

It shouldn't feel quite so much like a loss, I keep thinking, because I haven't done magic in months. My job was busy sucking my soul out through my eardrums, and when I did have days off, either I had people visiting or I was too busy catching up on sleep to do much of anything else. So I quit my job a month and a half before school started so I would have a chance to catch up. Breathe. Enjoy all of the things that my work was making it impossible to enjoy.

And then I fell, and the doctor is giving a three-month recovery period and possible surgery. (Probable surgery. I need to stop pretending I know more than the doctors about whether or not I should have surgery and just prepare for it.) So much for enjoying.

I saw the Dalai Lama speak last weekend, and he said the way to deal with problems is just to breathe. Meditate. Let your mind calm down, and look at it from all possible perspectives. Don't panic. Deal with as much of it as you can...and then blame the rest of it on the gods. Makes sense to me. (But if I find out someone did this because they thought it would be funny to watch me hop around on crutches for three months, I am gonna be pissed.)

To-do list

Jul 26, 2008
Let's see...I've quit my job, finished my class registration, sent out resumes for fellowships, set up my hospital appointment so I can make sure I didn't break my foot falling down the stairs last week...don't I have something else to do? Surely I have something else...

I've got a blog. When did I update that last? Wait...what do you mean, April??

Ugh. I really didn't mean to go on hiatus there. (I never do, did you notice?) I just...well...haven't had that much to say. (I wonder if this makes me a bad Pagan. I mean, I tell people that I consider myself a very religious person, but that's mostly because I know my worldview gets filtered through something that most of the rest of the world considers insane, and that's the socially acceptable term for that kind of worldview. "Very religious." It doesn't seem to mean that I can think of something to say every day, and I sometimes wonder if it should.

Forget that parenthetical, then, and let's talk about Lugnasadh. It's coming up soon, you know. I've never quite known what to do about it as a holiday. I mean, I don't live in a farming community, so the harvest aspect of it doesn't seem to have a lot to do with me. (Well, except for the fact that I can get sweet corn 3/$1 at the farmer's market. Woohoo!) It's named for the god Lugh, who some people associate with Apollo, but aside from Greek and Celtic gods having pretty much nothing to do with each other I don't think that gets at the whole of it.

Lugh did everything. That was his thing; when he showed up at Nuada's court and asked if he could see the king, the gatekeepers asked him why the High King should bother with him. Lugh responded that he was a great warrior, but they told him they already had the best in the land. Lugh said that he was also a great harper, but no, they already had somebody for that. Poet? Yep. Goldsmith? Yeah. Sheep-shearer? Uh-huh. And so on down the list, until finally Lugh said, "Well, do you have anyone here who can do all these things?" And the gatekeepers admitted that they did not, and let Lugh in to meet the king.

I tend to not have formal rituals for most holidays, but to put into work some aspect of my own life that has to do with the mythology I associate with it. So for Lugnasadh, I tend to do a little bit of everything that I do -- I cook, I sew, I write, I code. Honestly, I'm having trouble with that right now. Even with a computer in front of you, there's only so much you can do when you're stuck on a couch with your foot in the air, waiting for a sprained muscle to heal.

And like a lot of women, I have this problem where I try to be all things to all people, and when I can't do it, I feel like a failure. I've been apologizing to my roommate for not cooking this week. See above, I can't even stand. But I'm home all day and she's not, so I feel like I should be contributing more, even though the best thing for me is to stay right here and heal.

So for this Lugnasadh, I'm going to honor the holiday by not doing everything. Maybe I'll write a little, just to keep up with the daily goal, and maybe if I feel up to it I'll cook some of that amazing sweet corn (in the microwave, so I don't accidentally pour boiling water all over my unbalanced self). But I don't need to do everything; we've already got somebody who does that.

Gloominous Doom

Apr 29, 2008

I have learned the name of my Nameless Anxiety.

That's what I've been calling this creeping feeling that I get, the certainty that I've forgotten something important, the worry over things out of my control, the knot at the pit of my stomach that appears for no reason at all. The result of spending too much time with my own brain and not enough with anyone else's.

It's a hard feeling to dispel, when you place a lot of faith in your own intuitions. The difference between Nameless Anxiety and intuition is actually pretty stark most of the time, but a part and parcel of the Nameless Anxiety is a little voice that says that ignoring this feeling is just wishful thinking, pretending that my fears aren't true. Even with the little voice I can usually distinguish between that and proper intuitions. But the voice is still there.

In Faerie to know the name of something is to have power over it. I actually just finished reading a book on the subject; The Mind and the Brain by Jeffrey Schwartz. Dr Schwartz, trying to find a treatment for OCD that didn't rely on drugs or on traumatizing the patient out of their obsessions, found an answer rooted in the Buddhist philosophy of mindfulness. He taught his patients to recognize that their compulsions came not from their selves but from faulty brain wiring, to name OCD thoughts as OCD thoughts instead of as truths about the world, and to act on these thoughts by specifically turning their minds to something else and doing something more productive. It worked, to the tune of producing brain changes demonstrable by MRI, and he cites similar treatments working similarly well for sufferers of clinical depression. To know the name of a thing, even of a thought, is the first step toward binding it, or banishing it.

"Don't be ridiculous," I told my Nameless Anxiety -- the Gloominous Doom, and isn't that a ridiculous name -- "there are three more days in April, the papers from the grad school are not late yet. It doesn't matter if you miss your first bus this evening, you don't have a curfew. Your landlord thinks you're awesome and will not throw a fit about something that you did not break in the first place. And what do you really have to be worried about, anyway?" And he looked at me with sad, fishy eyes and slunk away.

image by Brian Froud

A quick link, and a ...something

Apr 19, 2008
I found this post linked from a political blog today, and I really think it ought to be required reading for everyone; it expresses eloquently many things I've been thinking about religion in the news lately. (Those would be the small, "bad" religious things; not the big, "political" religious things. The things I think about having a "Presidential Candidates Forum On Faith" are really not suited to public airing.)

It's spring, and I've been reading more, thinking more, and writing less. I'm not sure if it's an aspect of depression, this form of uncertainty that makes me unwilling to post freely about my own opinions, or if it's just part of the cycle of things that I have to absorb a lot before I can put myself out there again. At any rate, know that I've not abandoned this blog, and I'm still reading other peoples' writing, I just...don't have a lot to say at the moment.

Not like I have an answer or anything.

Apr 2, 2008
This weekend the news was all full of the story of an eleven-year-old Wisconsin girl who died of diabetes, untreated by traditional medicine because her parents were Christian Scientists and believed in healing through prayer. They were discussing it on NPR the other morning -- with a pediatrician as a guest, possibly not the best choice there guys -- making this the second NPR show in a month I've had to turn off to make the stupid go away.

Stories like this make me hugely uncomfortable, and it's hard to explain why without people assuming that I think parents have the right to abuse their children in the name of religious freedom, which I don't. By the gods, who would?; children don't get to pick their parents' religion, and there are some things that just cannot be condoned under any circumstances.

But not taking a child to a medical doctor isn't abuse. It is neglect, although it's also worth noting that it's entirely legal in the state of Wisconsin to rely on prayer instead of medical attention. Mostly what this is is a violation of social norms: our society places an extremely high value on medical science and a relatively low one on the efficacy of prayer, and when presented with people who not only feel otherwise but act as if their beliefs are really true, there's a bit of an outcry.

I'm not saying the values of our society holds about healing are arbitrary; they're supported by a good deal of experience and trial-and-error. They're also values I agree with and support myself. It's not so much that I'm on the side of the Christian Scientists as that I'm put off by the people who are against them. The NPR callers were going on about how irrational this decision was, how it showed a lack of common sense. Look, people. Their daughter died. I doubt that they didn't consider the possibility. Maybe they have a different definition of common sense.

I don't want to dismiss the fact that this isn't just a theological dispute but one that has -- had -- very real consequences, but that's part of what gets under my skin. Why is it that so few theological disputes do have consequences? And I definitely don't want to make it a noble-sounding thing to let your child die of diabetes; there's an air of martyrdom that can creep into the discussion there. I just don't find the parents' decision particularly irrational.

All it is, is here's a minority religious group with some fringe beliefs (and some very mainstream ones; they are Christian Scientists after all) that a lot of people, myself included, believe ought to be legally prevented from following all the tenets of their religion. And that makes me uncomfortable.

Happy Equinox

Mar 20, 2008
From here on in there is more light than darkness. Until September. And unless it rains. You know what I mean. Yesterday I was starting to believe in Spring again -- actual belief, that is, instead of just a faint, vague hope.

So far today here in sunny Madison, Wisconsin we've gotten a good four to six inches, with another one or two overnight. And then maybe a little more on Sunday. Because really, we haven't had enough yet this year.

If you need me, I'll be in bed with a cup of hot tea, pretending this isn't happening again.

Book Review: Savage Breast

Mar 19, 2008
Savage Breast is a complicated book to describe, part personal revelation, part historical and archaeological description, part feminist theory and gender studies. It was a book that obviously took a lot of personal courage to write, and for that Tim Ward deserves praise; I couldn't write something like this on my Livejournal, much less publish it as a book. The book follows Ward and his girlfriend (later fiancee, still later wife) through a trip around the ancient Mediterranean civilizations, Greece and Minoa, Turkey, and even a bit up into Central Europe, while Ward attempts to relate to the Goddess in all her forms and try to understand just what's wrong with the way he relates to the human women in his life.

First off I want to apologise for the archaeology rant I had in my last post; while I stand by my theory, I don't really think it had anything to do with Savage Breast in the end. By the time I reached the end of the book, I realized Ward had repudiated most of the arguments I was disagreeing with so vehemently while I was reading the first half of it. That said, I do still think there's a problem with the structure of the book in that sense. Savage Breast is a story of personal revelation, but where that structure works brilliantly -- and very subtly -- for conveying opinions about gender, social status, and one's own shortcomings, it works less well when discussing scientific and historical theories.

Might as well get my issues with the science out of the way, then; I do still have some problems with the way the archaeology and history are treated in the book. Ward has, for one thing, an overwhelming tendency to universalize that I think does a disservice to the cultures he's writing about. Again, this isn't key to the book but it's a pet peeve of mine. People are always using the past to validate themselves and their ideas, but every time the past is simplified in order to make a point it makes understanding what *really* happened that much more difficult. It boils down to a philosophical question of science: would we rather be able to decipher the genuine past or just use it as a metaphor for contemporary life? As I said, this has hardly anything to do with the actual content of Savage Breast and isn't nearly as drastic as I'm making it out to be here, but it did distract me enough that it was practically all I could think about until I sat down and got the rant out of my system.

Now for the book itself. This was a hugely difficult book to read. It is fundamentally a very personal book. Ward isn't addressing just a generic male relationship to the Goddess, here; he's addressing, directly and sometimes with uncomfortable frankness, his own relationship with women in general, one woman in particular, and Goddesses both generic and specific. And sometimes that's just profoundly depressing. When he contemplates joining the monastery of Athos (so sacred to Mary that no females are allowed on the island) in order to escape the troubles of (sigh) women, I considered doing the same myself. I'll move into Macha's caves in the west of Ireland, I thought, and pray for the Curse of the men of Ulster to fall on the whole world. The book is written toward men, to a certain degree; particularly in the Hekate and Artemis chapters, there's a kind of boy's-club, conspiratorial sense of, "Aren't women weird and scary?" Well, no. But it's never meant meanly, and though there's real hostility there's also an understanding of the unfairness of it all that makes it bearable most of the time. As someone who's never come face-to-face with a lot of sexism in my own life, maybe it was exceptionally shocking -- not surprising, but really like feeling a physical blow -- to hear a man articulate some of these things. Maybe it would always hurt to hear ideas like that expressed. I don't know.

Because it's so personal, there are a lot of points of view missing from this book, and it can sometimes seem a bit gender-essentialist, but after all, two people (really, mostly one) can only give so many perspectives. That's not a failing of this book so much as a failing of the general lack of books like this in the world. And as I said, I still take serious issue with some of the historical and archaeological information. But despite and because of its failings, I do think this is an important book, although I shy away from actually recommending it on a Pagan blog. (Were this a feminism blog, I'd be bashing you all over the head with it telling you to read it.) If nothing else it provides some serious and occasionally profound food for thought.

Please, not that again

Mar 1, 2008
I'm trying to read Tim Ward's new book, Savage Breast. (I even got my library to buy a copy!) It sounded fascinating when I heard of it: a man with a personal history of mysticism and religious seeking tries to unpack the problems with his relationships with women through attempting to understand the Feminine Divine. And as far as that part of the book goes, it's great. Unfortunately, he's using as a basis of the book something that's driving me insane. Let me try to explain it without sounding like an anthro term paper.

Although Ward does admit that the actual evidence for ancient matriarchies -- that's societies ruled by women, not egalitarian ones or ones where women bestow lineage -- is scant to nonexistant, he nonetheless uses this theory as the dominant paradigm throughout the book. (Of course, he is focusing on the Hellenic pantheon, which is a great example of goddesses being shoved aside in favor of gods at a later date -- but that's not evidence of a matriarchy, just evidence of more patriarchy.)

What always annoys me about the matriarchy hypothesis, though, is that it feels like giving in. I mean -- rule by women is not inherently better than rule by men. (Look at Margaret Thatcher.) Matriarchy is just patriarchy in reverse; you're still keeping somebody down. Assuming that there must have been a matriarchy before there was a patriarchy, to somehow "balance things out," is dualistic and wrong-headed, and it sounds to me like a theory made up by people who can't think of any other reason for the patriarchy to exist: either men really are better than women, they seem to think, or there had to be a matriarchy first. Why else do all societies that exist today or that we have any evidence of at all tend to privelige men above women? (They do, unfortunately. Even in societies where there are practically no stable status differences, men have higher status than women as a general rule. Sad but true.)

Okay, so how does that make sense, if no one is inherently better than anyone and it's not a matter of men banding together to overthrow a vast feminine monopoly of power? Well, how about this -- In waaaay ancient times (possibly, based on recent evidence, going back as far as Neanderthals and early Homo erectus), there's no such thing as permanent status. If you're good at one thing, you become the Important Person for that one thing, say you're a good singer so you always lead prayers and dances and things. Doesn't make you a priest, just means you're the best at it so that's what you do. Similarly, there's no difference between men and women, so far as status; everyone does what they're best at.

Probably the women take care of childcare. After all, a child definitely belongs to its mother, but only maybe (or probably, if you're monogamous) belongs to its father, and besides, the bottle and formula hasn't been invented yet and Mom has a better shot at breastfeeding the kid. So women are handling the children. And one of the fundamental tasks in a society like this is to gather food; you need to eat. You're probably omnivores, you eat lots of plants and nuts and growing things but also some game. Gathering growing things, that's safe, predictable work, not necessarily physically easy, but not hugely dangerous either. Hunting, on the other hand, is high-stress, high-danger, relatively low-yield work -- it can involve staying away from camp for a long time, and you run the risk of being attacked by whatever you're hunting (or whatever else is hunting it). It makes sense for the women to gather plant food, which they can do while taking care of the children who depend on them, and for men to do the more dangerous stuff; after all, the men are slightly more expendable. Of course, some women might have been hunters because they were good at it, and some men might have been gatherers because they were good at that. But as a general rule.

But then, as the society grows more complex (for whatever reason, environmental change, population growth, charismatic leadership, there's a whole body of literature on the subject of why complexity happens) status becomes more sticky -- instead of just being the Important Person for what it is you do well, doing something well causes you to become an Important Person. And as previously mentioned, gathering work is predictable, varying little from one instance to another -- it has to be, otherwise you'll deplete all the resources and starve to death. So while one person might be better at gathering than another, there'll never be a huge difference between them. One hunter, though, might come back with a squirrel while another kills a mastodon that'll feed the clan through the whole winter. A hunter might kill a dangerous predator and save dozens of lives. The potential status differential in hunting is huge.

And over time, since the majority of hunters are men, the few high-status female hunters lose their importance, and then finally the direction status flows switches again: instead of men being high-status individuals because they're good hunters, hunting becomes a high-status job because men do it (and gathering becomes low-status because women do it). Ta-da! Patriarchy -- and we haven't even gotten to agricultural societies yet.

This status-flow switching, the change between what just is high-status and what bestows high status, isn't necessarily hugely logical -- but it is how our brains work. Language evolves in exactly the same way; we see a pattern and we continue it, and we don't much care whether we're extending it in the right direction or not. (Yargh, now I can't find the citation for the book I recently read that made this point. I'll get back to you on it.)

So patriarchy isn't about fairness, or about who's "better" than who; it's about uncertain parentage and who's more likely to get stepped on by a mastodon. I'm not necessarily attacking Ward specifically for espousing the ancient matriarchy theory, because it's been pretty popular, with everyone from Victorians fond of trying to prove that society is constantly improving to modern-day feminists who are more interested in politics than evidence. (I have nothing against feminism! I am a feminist! But like all other movements, some of its adherents are silly.) I do think that the ancient matriarchy theory is damaging, because it skews our view of both history and the future. Does one gender really have to rule over another? Is the only way we can manage rights for women to put them in charge of everything? Status, remember, is not a finite resource: you don't have to be stepping on someone else's neck to have status and power. If we're going to idealize any ancient practice (that may or may not have existed), let's go back to the free-floating status model, not one that's just what we have now only backwards.

Pretty Important .3%

Feb 26, 2008
I saw similar stories in both of the daily papers today (alas, not a statement I'll be able to make for much longer), reporting the Pew Forum's new U.S. Religious Landscape Survey. And I gotta say, at least they managed to escape sounding panicked about the results.

Researchers also found such a sharp decline in American Protestantism that "the United States is on the verge of becoming a minority Protestant country."


As Jason at Wild Hunt points out, the survey is good news -- or at least interesting news? -- for Pagans in that it's the first formal survey to estimate our population at over a million in the United States. Maybe next time around, if we're lucky, we'll have demographic results of our own, instead of just as a chunk of the "other" category. (Although I have to say, the demographic breakdown of the "other" category is pretty interesting.)

My social sciences training was in anthropology, where we sneer at surveys as tools of the weak -- after all, people lie on surveys. Admittedly, religion is a hugely personal thing and I'm not going to accuse anyone in particular of lying on the survey because as far as religion goes, what you say you are is pretty much what you are. But anthropologists like to study how what people do conflicts with what they say they do, so from an anthropological standpoint -- How many of those people who marked themselves affiliated with a particular church really spend a lot of time with that institution, and how many of them are what my grandma used to call Christmas & Easter Christians? Does that break down differently over denomination? And does that have any impact on the way people live their lives? Anthropologically I'd be willing to bet America is already a minority Protestant nation. (I wish there was a good way to study that, but ethnography requires spending time with a particular group of people, and it'd be hard to find a group of Christmas & Easter Christians., I could get very insulting there, and I won't.)

I hate to get into a debate over who's a Real True Christian and who isn't (especially as I no longer have a vested interest in the argument) but surveys always raise these questions in my mind, even though I know there's no good way to answer them and it's not like the answers would prove anything anyway. Maybe it's because I feel guilty. My therapist asked me how important religion was in my life, and I said "pretty important" -- what does that mean, that I meditate every day, that I turn to magic and the gods to help me with myself, that I celebrate the quarter days and give little offerings every once in a while and always say hello to the crows in case Macha is watching her children today? Is that what other people mean when they say their religion is "pretty important," or do they mean something else? That's a question that a survey can't answer, but without that answer, how do those numbers mean anything beyond the broadest possible strokes?

This is why I tend not to take surveys, myself. I think about them too much.

Oh, wonderful timing.

Feb 8, 2008
I don't read through my Pagan blogroll as often as I would like, whereas I read my political blogroll every day. Apparently I like the intellectual rush that comes from reading someone saying something really stupid and then dissecting (usually very vocally, to my unsuspecting roommate) how stupid that just was. (I use NPR in the mornings for an adrenaline rush in much the same way.)

But today I got that from my Pagan blogroll too, as a series of links led me to an article that managed annoy me about watered-down mainstream 'spirituality' (It can be embarrassing sometimes, when you've got everything but what you really want you don't have.), anti-religion bullshit masquerading as atheism (Westerners tend to “revere" Eastern religions as a reaction to Western colonialism, and that some readers, “will be shocked to learn of the existence of Hindu and Buddhist murderers and sadists."), and completely gratuitous anti-feminism (Why is it that women, in overwhelming numbers, are now indulging in this silliness in a way that men are not?). So I had a very theraputic ranting diatribe at my roommate, then went back to reading my Pagan blogroll, only to discover that Dianne Sylvan had already said it, and with much more wit and economy, as usual:

My conclusion: there is nothing spiritual about an asshole.

Brigid in Cyberspace

Feb 2, 2008
And in honor of Brigid, the third annual Brigid in Cyberspace Silent Poetry Reading -- a small favorite.

A Drinking Song, by Yeats.
  WINE comes in at the mouth
  And love comes in at the eye;
  That's all we shall know for truth
  Before we grow old and die.
  I lift the glass to my mouth,
  I look at you, and I sigh.


Jan 30, 2008
Imbolg has always been my favorite holiday. (Well, other than before I was Pagan when it was Hallowe'en, of course.) There's no equivalent Christian or secular holiday that really gets any acknowledgement, so it feels a bit like an extra excuse for a party in the middle of winter. And, of course, it's the feast day of Brid, Lady of the Flames, the triple goddess of healing, smithcraft and poetry; a goddess who made a really remarkable transition to a Catholic saint and whose Pagan and Christian identities are so intertwined there's no real way of separating them.

Like Brid, Imbolg is liminal -- in celebrating Brid's aspect as a fire goddess, it carries on the Festival of Lights from Yule, but its name ("in the belly") and the timing in its climate of origin ties it to the first lambing in spring. Not to mention that around this latitude Imbolg is about the time you can start to really notice how much earlier the sun is coming up, and how much later it's going down. Winter might not be over in February in Wisconsin, but it's backing off at last.

My practice seems to be in a constant state of flux from one year to the next, and I'm terrible about getting anything resembling a liturgy written (although I would like to give it a try, I always seem to remember about it two days beforehand...), so I don't have a strong sense of ritual continuity. Except with food.

I don't remember where the recipe came from anymore -- off some defunct mid-90s website, I'm sure -- but the loaf of thyme bread I've always baked for Imbolg is seriously one of the tastiest things I make. I always tell myself I'm going to start baking bread at the beginning of winter, when it's no longer insane to have the oven on for that long at a time, but I never get around to it until it's time for the Imbolg loaf. The smell of it is as powerful a reminder of the holiday as gingerbread cookies are for Christmas. (And I rather like the terrible pun involved...Brid is the triple-goddess of healing, poetry, and smithcraft, that's a lot of multitasking, she must have a great deal of thyme on her hands...oh, I'm sorry.)

It's Brid's aspect as healer I have been focusing on this season, as I fight my way through depression that's gotten worse and worse as I tried to pretend it wasn't happening to me. Of course, one of the weapons I've been using to wage that war is the pen, as I go back to writing for the first time in too long...and with spellwork, as I search for ways to bring more energy in my life when I've run out of my own. Brid always seems to have a finger in every aspect of my life, and I thank her for it.

[Other Imbolg posts in the pagan blogosphere --
Wild Hunt's overview, great as always; Fiacharrey's done a Youtube video; Cosette posts about making changes in this time of year; Inanna posts about her annual poetry reading. Let me know who I've missed!]


Jan 19, 2008
Winter causes all of us to draw inwards a little, I think; it's a fallow time, after all, aided by the fact that it's not really advisable to leave your toasty warm apartment when the windchill is fifteen below. (Hey, it's warmer than it was earlier this afternoon.) Since the brief burst of activity that is Yule and the associated holidays, I've been feeling that a lot more. It isn't, for once, seasonal depression (and I've been seeing a therapist for the more longstanding kind) but more a sense that I ought to sit back and absorb things for a while instead of shooting off my big mouth. Watching instead of doing. Waiting, it feels like.

It's two weekends until Imbolg. I wonder what will happen then.