Holy Wild, Poetry & Music

Recovery: A Poem

Antiqued Wildflower

Recovery

The flattery bears
down on us, leveled like a weapon
in the shaking hands of frightened and starving
corporate titans groveling like great beasts before us, desperate
and drooling, to convince us that their teeth are brittle and useless and anyway not
smiling makes them cool, and meanwhile, we scrape along the earth as things keep getting worse
and the land is fractured and carcinogenic beneath us and the blood-money pools
and our children learn to practice fear with ugly disdain
for the suffering and our skins are covered
with boils and we have lost
everything.
Here they come
again, lifting their offerings: free
hair treatments, free manicures, free dessert
with each entrée, free kid’s toy, free tote bag with purchase,
cajoling and bargaining and growling and anyway they’ll do it with or without
our consent, and meanwhile we cannot see the stars anymore and we cannot swim in the oceans
and they tell us they do not need us, they will
eat the world and we have lost
already.
But they keep on
coming, begging and pleading
their arrogance and we can see them drooling,
salivating, starving, the bones of death pushing through them and anyway skeletal
is thin and thin is fit and fit is in, and meanwhile we are plucking our own old bones to make
music eerie in the twilight of our dwindling age and we have no more use
for wives or children or cattle or land, for we
have lost everything and still
we are dancing.
And we are dancing
because we can see it,
the last fear in their parasitic eyes,
that yes, we have lost everything after all,
and they hear us singing, fracking our hearts wide open
with the words, we have lost everything, everything, we have lost
the perfumed skin, the flattery, we have lost our desperation, and yes, lost the all-consuming
fear and need
of you.

Holy Wild, Science & Civilization

The Legacy of Steve Jobs

The outpouring of warm sentiments and fond memories on the internet today about the late Apple CEO Steve Jobs is a reminder that what we accomplish in this life is deeply colored by who we are. We are flawed, imperfect human beings. As T Thorn Coyle says, “You try to do good work in the world, and die when you die.”

This iMac computer that I write on is just a gadget, hardly better or worse than any other in the grand scheme of things. Many ethical and environmental compromises went into its making and marketing. Yet it has also opened up opportunities for conversation and community that wouldn’t have been possible otherwise. It was with this machine that I wrote my first love letters to my husband, back when he lived 500 miles away. Yet it’s also with this machine that I daily find myself plugged in to a network of strangers and acquaintances with loud opinions who sometimes drive me to the brink of misanthropy!

Every object, every gadget and technology in our world holds within it potential for both help and harm. The same is true of people. Computers, smart phones, frivolous gadgets and toys for the rich can be transformed into objects of inspiration and possibility, thanks to the passion, vision and creativity of a single daring, dying man. The public remembers Steve Jobs fondly, as a kind of modern day magician and creative genius. And yet, he was most certainly one of the top 1% that “the 99%” participating in #OccupyWallSt are so angry at right now. We hold within ourselves that contradiction as well — we, who willingly give our money for gadgets that promise a better life, we who fume in anger at the concentration of wealth in a few hands and at the deferred dream of equality.

When I hold gratitude and anger in tension, when I try see my crazy-messy culture with open eyes, that’s when I discover that the strange, unexpected animal of hope is everywhere stalking the streets, licking her lips and smiling.

Holy Wild, Theology

This Is What “Ex-Postmodernism” Looks Like

From “Postmodernism is dead,” in Prospect Magazine:

For a while, as communism began to collapse, the supremacy of western capitalism seemed best challenged by deploying the ironic tactics of postmodernism. Over time, though, a new difficulty was created: because postmodernism attacks everything, a mood of confusion and uncertainty began to grow and flourish until, in recent years, it became ubiquitous. A lack of confidence in the tenets, skills and aesthetics of literature permeated the culture and few felt secure or able or skilled enough or politically permitted to distinguish or recognise the schlock from the not. And so, sure enough, in the absence of any aesthetic criteria, it became more and more useful to assess the value of works according to the profits they yielded. Capital, as has been said many times before, accommodates all needs. So, paradoxically, we arrive at a moment where literature itself has become threatened, first by the artistic credo of postmodernism (the death of the author) and second by the unintended result of that credo, the hegemony of the marketplace. What then becomes sought and desired are fictions that resonate with the widest possible public: that is, with as many discourses as possible. This public can then give or withhold approval measured in sales.

In other words, increasingly, artistic success has become about nothing except money; and, increasingly, artists have come to judge their own success that way, too. This is the reason today that we feel the genre writer’s cry “I sold millions” so powerfully, even though in truth it can say little about the art form other than “it sold millions.” Changing disciplines, if we take this commoditisation of art to its natural limit, we arrive at Damien Hirst’s diamond encrusted skull, For the Love of God (2007). Commoditisation has here become the only point. The work, such as it is, centres on its cost and value and comprises also (I would say mainly) the media storm surrounding it: the rumours that it was bought for £50m, or that Hirst himself bought it, or that he offset his tax bill by claiming diamonds as tax deductible artistic materials, or that he didn’t buy it at all, or that nobody has bought it… And so postmodernly on. The paradox being this: that by removing all criteria, we are left with nothing but the market. The opposite of what postmodernism originally intended.

The whole article is worth a slow and careful reading (which I know is asking a lot for internet surfers these days, but I have to keep hope alive!) — but the excerpt above in particular put me in mind of the trendy “ex-postmodernism” talk that’s been floating around the Pagan online community for the past several months. Anyone else see parallels here? For instance, a parallel with arguments that the word “Pagan” is no longer helpful because it doesn’t attract enough positive attention, while serious explorations of the many diverse archetypes that nurture the Pagan community are shut down and simplified into the single accusation of “fluffy bunny Wicca” (itself assumed to be shallow precisely because it is so popular). Or the eerily eager insistence that social media networking can replace authentic in-person relationship and worship, and that customized spiritual journeys for the individual take precedence over the difficult work of nurturing community and building social infrastructure.

This is what “ex-postmodernism” looks like: it’s just postmodernism after all, but postmodernism taken to its extreme, itself turned into the very meta-narrative it originally sought to challenge and overturn, married to consumer capitalism in a way that replaces all conceptions of value, all narratives of meaning, with the overarching meta-narrative of the world as one big popularity contest. Where postmodernism engaged playfully and authentically with irony as a form of resistance and revolution, “ex-postmodernism” reduces irony to mere cynicism, and then claims to do away with cynicism once and for all by replacing it with feel-good, pseudo-optimistic pep talk in a grab for “broader audience appeal.” This kind of cynical, calculated marketing strategy in the name of “doing away with postmodern cynicism” is perhaps the deepest irony of all.

Postmodernism may be dead after all. Certainly “ex-postmodernism” is to postmodernism what the single-minded, uncreative zombified living dead are to the beloved dead, those Ancestors whom we carry with us in blood and bone and breath into the waiting future. As Docx points out, a healthy postmodernism in its prime taught us two deeply important and revolutionary things:

First, that postmodernism is really an attack not just on the dominant narrative or art forms but rather an attack on the dominant social discourse. All art is philosophy and all philosophy is political. And the epistemic confrontation of postmodernism, this idea of de-privileging any one meaning, this idea that all discourses are equally valid, has therefore lead to some real-world gains for humankind. Because once you are in the business of challenging the dominant discourse, you are also in the business of giving hitherto marginalised and subordinate groups their voice. And from here it is possible to see how postmodernism has helped western society understand the politics of difference and so redress the miserable injustices which we have hitherto either ignored or taken for granted as in some way acceptable. You would have to be from the depressingly religious right or an otherwise peculiarly recondite and inhuman school of thought not to believe, for example, that the politics of gender, race and sexuality have been immeasurably affected for the better by the assertion of their separate discourses. The transformation from an endemically and casually sexist, racist and homophobic society to one that legislates for and promotes equality is a resonantly good thing. No question.

The second point is deeper still. Postmodernism aimed further than merely calling for a re-evaluation of power structures: it said that we are all in our very selves nothing more than the breathing aggregate of those structures. It contends that we cannot stand apart from the demands and identities that these structures and discourses confer upon us. Adios the Enlightenment. See you later Romanticism. Instead, it holds that we move through a series of co-ordinates on various maps—class, gender, religious, sexual, ethnic, situational—and that those co-ordinates are actually our only identity. We are entirely constructed. There is nothing else. And this, in an over-simplified nutshell, is the main challenge that postmodernism brought to the great banquet of human ideas because it changed the game from one of self-determination (Kant et al) to other-determination. I am constructed, therefore I am.

That we are truly equal, and that we are mutually self-created and self-creating. These two lessons persist, and they have only a little to do with cynicism or consumerism. Already, Docx is seeing a turn in our society towards authenticity as the new guiding spirit of our age. Creative skill expressed in deeply personal and masterful ways that renew our sense of meaningful community with one another — these are what come to be valued as postmodernism takes its place alongside the many other philosophies of history as just one narrative among many, contributing to the depth and complexity of the world…. just as it had always intended to do.

Featured, Holy Wild, Theology

Religious Branding

Star Foster of Patheos Pagan Portal has asked some of us for articles responding to the latest flurry of debate surrounding the issue of who call themselves “Pagan” and why. I’ve weighed in on this question before, and my partner, a linguist by trade as well as by nature who has nearly two decades of experience in the field, has written on several occasions about how language and labels function and evolve, especially when it comes to religious community. But the topic keeps coming up, and I keep finding new reasons to find it silly. Here’s yet another one.

When I was growing up, things were simple. I was Catholic. With a little brother on the way, my parents moved our small family into a house on the cheapest, oldest edge of the best school district they could find and at two years old I went from being a city-dweller surrounded by people of all religious and ethnic backgrounds, to a suburban kid with a swing-set in the backyard and streets that were wide and safe enough to learn to bike in, surrounded by other (mostly white) suburbanites. My mother, who has a funny sense of loyalty in an age of social mobility and product placement, kept on sending my brother and me to the same day care center in the city (where my father still worked) until we were old enough for school, and my favorite teacher for those first few important years of my life was an elderly Hispanic women named Mrs. Iris, who taught me poetry in Spanish.

When I started attending school, everyone was Christian (except for Ramsi, who was Muslim, and the other Allison, who spelled her name with two Ls and was Jewish, and Jeremy and John, who were atheists and anarchists and played trombone in the high school marching band). As a Catholic, I was Christian. This didn’t matter much, because no one in our yuppie school had much of a mind to religion. Soccer was important, and dominated our lives three times a week for practice plus Saturdays. The church my dad took us to on Sunday mornings was full of young couples and new parents with screaming babies, interested in doing right and looking for a quiet, gentle reminder that suburban life wasn’t the end-all of existence — but who were mostly worried about how they were going to get the kids to soccer practice after school the next day. I took a certain amount of pride that I wasn’t just Christian, wasn’t just Catholic, but was Irish Catholic, which seemed to my young self to carry a flavor of nature mysticism and deep roots in the same way that the air by the ocean seems to carry the taste of salt into every crack and crevice. I loved that mysticism and that poetry, and I explored my spirituality through the lens of aesthetics and poetics, all the while devouring books on mysticism, metaphor and mythology from every exotic culture I could get my hands on. None of that made me any less Catholic. It just deepened my Catholicism into something more meaningful and uniquely personal.

It was only when I got to college that I met for the first time people who believed Catholics weren’t Christian, who were surprised, amused and maybe a little bit scandalized at the very suggestion. We had too many saints, for one thing, and we took the whole Trinity thing a bit too seriously and mysteriously. Plus, the Pope, I mean, come on. In fact, some of the folks I met in college insisted that Christianity wasn’t a religion. It was a “way of life,” a transformed existence. Religion was what happened to other people, it was what you got when you turned to silly things like prayer and candles and rosary beads and incense, before you got Saved. Once you were Born Again, you didn’t need religion; you had everything you needed in Jesus Christ.

Needless to say, as someone working on her degree in comparative religious studies, I found this perspective fascinating. And while I was busy meeting people who said I wasn’t Christian because I was Catholic, at the very same time I began to meet people who thought that, because I was Catholic, I was incapable of being intelligent, informed or broad-minded. There was mild pressure within the academic community to disown any personal religious affiliation and step out into the realm of “objective observer.” But more intense was the pressure from my friends studying physics and chemistry, the nerds I naturally gravitated towards, who thought religion in general was a bunch of silly nonsense. You didn’t need religion; you had everything you needed in Star Wars, punk rock and Dr. Pepper.

Star Wars, punk rock, Dr. Pepper, Jesus Christ, Manchester United. In the end, it’s all about branding. American culture still struggles with the consequences of ideals like freedom, pluralism and diversity. If we can accept that communities or cities or college campuses can be diverse places, we still expect that complexity and diversity to be named and delineated, categorized and branded. In some ways, this naming is essential — the ability to name one’s own identity can lend strength and foster solidarity in communities struggling against misunderstanding or oppression. The sacrality of naming can create a small haven of understanding and relationship in the mad rush and noise of the American mainstream.

Too easily, though, the holiness of naming is mistaken for the manipulative convenience of branding. Branding makes it easier to consume, easier to sift through the cultural loyalties of the people we meet, easier to choose who we’ll befriend and who we’ll pass by. Branding allows us to create our own image and advertise our community allegiances with prepackaged customizations. Is your iPod black or red? Is your cell an iPhone or an Android? What do you drink? Are you a good ol’ fashioned, All-American Pepsi kind of girl? Are you a fitness nut, chugging down Aquafina by the gallon, sipping your Ocean Spray grapefruit juice at breakfast, maybe indulging in a Lipton Diet Green Tea for lunch? Do you like the caffeine rush of Mountain Dew or AMP Energy or a carmel Frappuccino to wake you up in the morning? Winding down with a caffeine-free Mug Root Beer or Sierra Mist? Or maybe you’re a bit of a hippie, chilling out with a SoBe or a Tazo? And how much does it matter to you that all these drinks are made by the same company?

There’s a reason the Pepsi-Cola company downplays the relationship between all these different brand names. There’s a reason they don’t call it “Pepsi grapefruit juice” and “Pepsi water” — just reading those names has probably conjured up some pretty gross concoctions in your imagination (they definitely do in mine!). And that’s the point. Each name brand has its own associations and assumptions. Challenging those often superficial characteristics is much harder to do than simply creating a new name whenever you want to target a new demographic or capture a new market.

So it’s not surprising to me that there are people in our wildly diverse community of outsiders, fringe-dwellers and envelope-pushers who have grown increasingly dissatisfied with the “Pagan” brand. It tastes too much like Wicca(nate), they object, it’s too fizzy and fluffy, it’s bad for your teeth. There may be many reasons why an individual or small group who leaves the “Pagan” name behind suddenly find themselves more appealing to the American mainstream — for the same reason that, as a Catholic girl, I read about Sufism and Buddhism and Taoism and Hinduism and Mossflower of Redwall and the Dragonriders of Pern. There is something appealing and tantalizing about the exotic and the strange, something that seems to promise ancient wisdom or harken back to more intimate times…. especially when that something is a brand that can be tried on for style, taken up and discarded again, without demanding anything of you, without expecting you to change.

But that’s also the problem with branding. It’s shallow. It’s ephemeral. It’s easy. It obscures not only the deep connections that we actually share with one another, but also the very real and more intricate diversity that is a part of any community no matter how apparently homogenous on the surface. We struggle with acknowledging just how diverse a community can be while still retaining its coherence, I think in part because we are so used to an “Us versus Them” mentality that takes for granted that “They” are always a simple, easy to categorize Other. This remains true even when we find ourselves drawn to that Otherness. We imagine that maybe being Other is easy, or that it will meet some need in ourselves to be other, to be unique and different. But when Otherness is merely a brand that we slap onto our tee-shirts and stitch into our shoes, that we advertise with our jewelry and our bumper-stickers, we’re likely to find that it fails to satisfy, it ceases to tantalize and soon enough we’re searching again for a new style.

When it comes to “Pagans who aren’t Pagans,” I’ve noticed two patterns that seem to come up again and again. The first is the Pagan-Who-Isn’t who has wandered from religion to religion maybe for years, hardly staying with one tradition or community long enough to decide he isn’t satisfied before moving on again to the next. He may praise Paganism (or a Paganism-That-Isn’t) for its flexibility and plurality, for catering to and upholding individualism, while at the same time pointing out how much he regrets that so few (other) Pagans are as deeply rooted in real, authentic ancient tradition as he is. That there might be some sacred tension or paradox here between individuality and community, between freedom and rootedness, doesn’t seem to occur to him. Roots are not something you grow by deepening your practice, but something you acquire by seeking the right community with the right name. Community is not something you build, but something you win, something akin to popularity or fame.

The second is the Pagan-Who-Isn’t who settled down into a tradition and grew roots and built community, and who for one reason or another fell under the impression that she was the only one who did. For her, the name “Pagan” has come to signify the early stages of her growth, like an old skin that now feels a bit too scratchy and tight for comfort. She sees her old Pagan self in all those neophytes wandering the eclectic Wiccan(ate) mish-mash, just getting their feet wet, sampling from here and there and not yet settled down. She might even see other Pagans-Who-Aren’t as part of the problem, folks who wander from one tradition to the next looking for some satisfaction in the superficiality of the name they choose.

Some of my favorite people in the world are this second kind of Pagan-Who-Isn’t… people who continually struggle with the loneliness and complexity of that sacred tension between individuality and community, freedom and plurality. People on the edge of throwing up their hands and saying to Hel with it, but who have enough self-awareness and self-reflection to see just how mired in Pagan aesthetic and modern Pagan history they really are, whether they like it or not. People interested in asking themselves, and each other, what that relationship with the name “Pagan” really means.

Just the other day reading Erynn Rowan Laurie’s book on the ogam, I was struck by how much some of her meditative practices were clearly influenced by ceremonial magic… the same ceremonial magic she took pains to distance herself from earlier in the book. She describes Celtic Reconstructionism as a tradition rooted in ancient Celtic lore and culture but still relevant to today’s society, but then that’s exactly how my Neopagan/Revival Druidry order describes itself. And our practices, though different in some ways, are also very similar in many others, and the academic and cultural sources of our inspiration that inform and shape our practice are barely distinguishable. Writers, teachers and leaders in the CR community are admired and appreciated among the Druids I know — and their occasional insistence that they’re Not-Pagans is taken in stride as not being all that relevant, especially since they continue attend and teach at Pagan festivals and gatherings and participant in the Pagan online community through blogs and forums.

It seems a bit silly to me that we have a collective habit of bemoaning a lack of “beyond Pagan 101” material out there, as though we should expect “Pagan 202” to drop into our laps neatly packaged as a simple, single tradition. In college, I didn’t go from taking “Comparative World Religions 101” to “CWR 202.” I started taking courses called things like, “The Protestant Reformation in Europe” and “Holy Texts and History in Rabbinical Judaism” and “Religion and Violence” with numbers like 224 and 315. I took advanced philosophy and politics courses like “Middle Eastern Relations” and “Political Philosophy in the Socratic Dialogues” and “Word and Image” and “Philosophy of Consciousness” and “The History of Family”— not “Philosophy 202” and “Politics 202.” But the idea that because these advanced courses had a specific name and particular focus, they were no longer part of “politics” or “religion” but had become something else would have been foolish… as foolish as those Christians who told me I wasn’t Christian if I was Catholic, or that if you were truly Christian then you weren’t religious.

Part of deepening is discovering that diversity can exist even within coherent, larger communities, and that coherence and camaraderie can exist even where there seems to be endless plurality and difference. Part of the difference between a name and a brand is that a brand is shallow and simple — in fact, a brand relies on being shallow and simple and at least superficially different from all the other brands out there. But a name — a name is something that embraces a certain delicious ambivalence and fascinating complexity. A name is something, like a seed, that grows with nourishment and cultivation, that continues to evolve and change while still retaining some basic essence that weaves it together into a kind of tenuous wholeness. (“Think of the fierce energy concentrated in an acorn! Bury it, and it explodes into an oak! Bury a sheep, and you get nothing but decay.” – Shaw)

If we want the name “Pagan” to be something more than just a brand or a fashion statement, some of us are going to have to stick around and own up to it when the going gets tough. We’re going to have to be honest with ourselves about our roots not only in ancient cultures but in the so-soon-forgotten history of the recent past, the last couple hundred years when the theosophists and the Freemasons and the deep ecologists and the feminists were all conspiring to become our embarrassing old uncles who show up uninvited at the family reunion. The word “Pagan” doesn’t come prepackaged with its own meaning — if we want “Pagan” to mean something, we’re going to have to make that meaning, to build that community and grow those roots through our effort and our outreach. And yes, it will be more difficult and it will challenge and change us in the process. And no, it won’t always make us popular or trendy.

And yes, sometimes it will mean throwing in our lot with the over-enthusiastic neophytes and the High Priestess Lady Shimmering Fairy Wolf Moons out there. Every community has its converts and beginners. Personally, I don’t mind. I’m not all that invested in telling people they’re not good enough to share a name with me, that they’re not deep or real enough to be called what I call myself. And that’s what you’re in for, as soon as you start trying to shed the name “Pagan.” The name exists because there is a community here that requires it, that demands — quietly, insistently — to be named. As soon as we try to move away from the name “Pagan,” we’ll find a new name cropping up in its place (maybe it will be “polytheist” next, that seems to be catching on). And in a few decades time, we’ll look back to find ourselves still having this conversation, with different names but the same furrowed brows, the same wringing hands… and no closer to a solution.