How did we come to believe that being mature and responsible means loving only the right things, in the proper order?
When a friend visited our new home for the first time recently, he observed, “Looks like you’ve got a mole problem.”
“We’ve got a mole,” I said, “I don’t know if that’s a problem!”
That’s how this post began, rather innocently, although it quickly veered into controversial territory. Or perhaps it started there already. I guess it all depends on how you feel about moles… Read more…
This post is going to start out fairly innocent, and quickly veer into controversial territory. Or perhaps it will start there. I guess it depends on how you feel about moles.
If you’re one of those gardeners who wages a private little war on moles every year, furiously spending hundreds of dollars on poisons, chemicals and traps in order to maintain that perfectly manicured lawn, I have some bad news for you: not only is this post probably going to annoy you, but you’re fighting a self-defeating battle. You’re on the wrong side of history, dear reader — or rather, the wrong side of ecology.
I, on the other hand, am a great friend to the mole people. When Jeff and I moved into our new house a few weeks ago, I was quietly thrilled to see a few molehills popping up in the newly-laid sod just outside our front door. (Have you ever seen a mole up close? They’re freaking amazing, miniature marvels of evolution!) Having spent the last several years living in a small apartment in a concrete condominium jungle, I was just happy to sink my feet into the soft earth and enjoy the company of my new non-human neighbors, even if they were mostly noisy steller’s jays and brazen gray squirrels. When people talk about wanting to attract wildlife to their yards, they almost always mean pretty little songbirds and maybe a few butterflies. Which are all well and good, of course! But I tend not to discriminate when it comes to wildlife — I’m just too excited to see all the wild and wonderful kinds of life there are — so long as I’m not encouraging the spread of disease or being irresponsible about my trash can.
When a friend visited our new home for the first time recently, he observed, “Looks like you’ve got a mole problem.”
“We’ve got a mole,” I said, “I don’t know if that’s a problem!”
“But it’s pushing up your flowers,” he pointed out.
“Well, they’re not really our flowers,” I said, feeling somewhat stumped on how to explain.
For one thing, the seller’s real estate agent had put the flowers there (along with the new sod) only a month or so earlier, to enhance the property’s curb appeal in online photos. If it were me, I probably wouldn’t have planted any delicate annuals in the shade and rain-shadow of the nine huge western red-cedars in our front yard, and I’m not sure how long they’ll really last before more drought- and shade-tolerant species (some folks call them “weeds”) start to reassert themselves.
But more than that, I find it difficult to think of the yard as something I “own.” The flowers — and the jays, and the moles — were all living here before me. At best, I am a new caretaker; still just a tenant, a guest on land that belongs to a whole community of beings who came before me, and those who will come after. Sweeping in and declaring my aesthetic taste to have some kind of authority just seemed… well, rude. As rude as leaving a note for the house next door complaining about their ugly patio furniture. (Side note: Our neighbors do not have ugly patio furniture. I’m just using that as a hypothetical.) Sure, I’ll need to dig out the English ivy that’s starting to creep over the fence into our yard and smother some of the Douglas firs — but that’s just basic maintenance. That’s just being a good neighbor.
I haven’t always called myself an animist, but this sense of living in a world full of non-human friends and neighbors has been with me since childhood. I can see it in my own stepkids, too — especially my oldest, S, who was equally excited to stalk ghost crabs and sand fleas as she was to watch the more showy dolphins and elegant gulls at the beach this summer. It’s almost a stereotype of idyllic childhood that kids can be perfectly happy spending the afternoon digging up worms and chasing pillbugs in the dirt, or getting soaked up to their knees wading through ponds looking for squirmy spring peepers. At some point, though, we grow up to become adults who think that cultivating a beautiful carpet of lawn shows how mature and responsible we are, dandelions and molehills be damned.
This is — if you’ll excuse my bluntness — an anthropocentric version of responsibility. The kind of responsibility that says, “Hey all you lesser beings, you couldn’t possibly know what you’re doing. Thank god I got here in time! Shut up and I’ll show you a better way.”
I prefer an animistic approach to responsibility: that is, response-ability. Before you can respond effectively and compassionately to the world around you, first you have to listen. (And before that, you have to get used to the idea that others — including non-human others — are worth listening to.) Before you declare that a mole is ruining your flowerbed, for instance, you have to wait and see what happens to the flowers. (And then you have to ask yourself how much it matters to you how pretty your flowers are — if your penchant for petunias is worth the life of a mole, and what kind of person that makes you.) In this case, my friend was wrong anyway: a month later, the flowers are doing just fine, still happily blooming.
I’m not surprised, actually. Because, as any good friend of the mole people would, I already knew that moles are good. We have this weird misconception that moles wreck gardens, but the truth is that having a mole or two in your yard is a sign that the land is in excellent health, that it has nutritious soil teeming with garden-friendly earthworms (a mole’s favorite meal). As insectivores and efficient underground predators, moles also eat grubs, slugs and other critters that we human gardeners might otherwise waste a lot of time, energy and money trying to get rid of. Their tunnels and molehills help to aerate the soil, keeping it loose and moist and excellent for sowing seeds. The savvy gardener can even take advantage of those unsightly molehills, harvesting them for free potting soil rich with nutrients that would otherwise be inaccessible. Can moles disturb plant roots sometimes? Only if those plants have shallow root systems — but as folks in California are finding out, yards bursting with delicate ornamentals that require constant watering aren’t sustainable in the long run anyway, with or without moles.
Still want to get rid of those moles? Good luck! People with “mole problems” always seem to have it worse than people who have a live-and-let-live attitude towards our underground neighbors. Why? For one thing, moles spend almost their entire lives in the soil and are supremely adapted to getting around down there — unlike we human beings. They can dig down five feet or more (one resource I have says up to nine feet!), so no fence you build will ever go deep enough to keep them out. Plus, moles are territorial. Depending on the size of your yard, you probably only have one or two moles on your property, but if you do succeed in catching or killing them, all you’ve really done is create a power vacuum. And since nature abhors a vacuum, you’re inviting more moles to move in. More mole movement means more of those dratted molehills cropping up everywhere. No wonder people who have a problem with moles always feel like their lawns are under siege! Better to make friends with the neighbors you already have.
And this is where this post is about to take a controversial turn.
Because it’s my strong belief that being a “good animist” helps us to be better neighbors — not just to the more-than-human community, but to our fellow human beings as well. Practicing loving attention and respect for the wildly diverse other-ness of the natural world teaches us to have humility and patience in the face of diversity of all kinds, including our own internal diversity as a species.
This might not seem all that controversial at first. But recently, I’ve been seeing a surprising number of comments online complaining that compassion for non-human animals distracts us from focusing on social justice for fellow human beings, particularly people of color.
The other day, someone on Tumblr reblogged a rant accusing “white vegans” of being racists because they use terms like “animal rights,” “abuse” and “oppression” to talk about the horrors of factory farming. Saying that animals are abused or oppressed draws a parallel, the blogger claimed, between “mere animals” and people of color, which is inherently insulting to the latter. Then just this morning on Twitter, I saw someone make a similar complaint in response to the outcry about the killing of Cecil the Lion, a beloved beast in a Zimbabwe national park who was lured out of his lair, shot with an arrow and then left to suffer slowly for two days before finally being skinned and beheaded. “Why are white people more upset about a stupid lion than they are about the oppression of PoC?” the Twitter user wanted to know.
First of all, as a white person, I do want to point out that I can be outraged about more than one thing at a time. Twitter cannot contain my rage.
But nor can it express the breadth and depth of my compassion. Unlike the 140 character limit on Twitter, compassion is not a limited resource. The more we have, the more we share with others, the more we are challenged to expand our circle of compassion, the more there is to go around.
That said, there is good reason to be concerned about drawing comparisons between non-human animals and people of color. Historically, these kinds of insults have been some of the most hateful and harmful in the language of racism. The abuse, oppression and enslavement of people of color have been justified for centuries by comparing them to “lesser” beings such as wild animals or livestock.
Still, it seems to me that the power of these insults would be lessened — and the shaky ground of these justifications for bigotry and prejudice would be shakier still — if admitting we were animals wasn’t seen as such a horrible thing. If, for instance, saying “I am an animal” was no more controversial than saying “he’s gay” or “she’s a Muslim,” because after all, it’s perfectly okay and even pretty awesome to be any or all of these things. Not something to be ashamed of. Not something to hide. Wouldn’t it be nice if, like the poet Mary Oliver writes, you could “let the soft animal of your body love what it loves”?
When we were kids, we knew this — at least, in that idyllic version of childhood that none of us really had, we did. So what if Suzy loved board games, and Joey loved horses, and Leslie loved baseball and make-up and girls? Who ever said we all had to love the same things, and with the same intensity? When we were kids, it was okay to love simple things with the simple passion of children — and to know that, if you loved something deeply enough, that love connected you with everyone else in its own special way. But then somewhere along the line, we grew up to become adults who believed that being mature and responsible meant only loving the right things, only things really worthy of love, and to love them in the proper order, lest the love dry up and run out.
But between you and me, dear reader, I’m sick of a world that’s always trying to tell us we are wrong for loving who or what we love. I’m sick of a world where you can’t mourn a lion until you’ve finished mourning the whole of the human race, or where you’re only supposed to feel repulsed by the suffering of beings who walk on two feet and have the same number of eyes as you. It’s my opinion — and it’s not a very humble one, to be honest — that the cause of justice is never served by telling people they should cut themselves off from their own sense of compassion. I’ll say it again: Compassion is not a limited resource. The more practice you have in caring for others and working for their empowerment and equality, the better you get at it. The more you cultivate compassion, the more you see how it applies in every situation.
Not to mention how ridiculous it is to claim that care for the environment and the non-human beings who share it with us is a privilege only white people have. As if the marginalized, the oppressed and the impoverished aren’t the ones affected most by pollution and environmental degradation. As if people of color don’t also love their pets and enjoy watching the sunrise over the ocean. As if “urban” is an acceptable euphemism for “black.” As if fresh air, clean water and green open spaces — the chance to listen to birdsong, to smell the scent of rich humus, to see the stars at night — aren’t basic human rights that belong to everyone, no matter what color skin they have or what gods they worship.
Biophilia is a basic scientific fact of our species. We come alive when we see the natural world thriving, when we feel ourselves a part of it. Our connection with other animals is woven into our very DNA. We have so much in common with other non-human animals — especially other mammals — that our similarities far outweigh our differences. You can try to build a fence separating the human species from the rest of the planet, but you will never be able to dig down deep enough to keep the animal out.
And yes, people who love their cats but complain about the crows annoy me. Yes, people who are outraged by the death of a celebrity lion but scoff at giving a dollar to an anonymous homeless person because “they’ll just spend it on booze” make me want to bash my head against the wall sometimes. But you have to start somewhere. You don’t nurture compassion by pulling it up by the roots and trying to replant it in unfamiliar soil. You nurture compassion by deepening those roots until it cannot be uprooted even by the strongest forces of prejudice or the longest periods of doubt. You deepen those connections of love, respect and attention until they reach everywhere, into every corner of the world, into the heart of every being.
Then your compassion becomes a mighty oak tree, in a forest wide and wild enough for all kinds of love to take root and thrive.
But you have to start where you are. You have to learn to love the neighbors you have (even the silly or short-sighted ones who think tweeting about lions — for or against — is going to change anything). How are we going to make it to the mountaintop, unless we learn how to love the molehills in our own backyard?
While You’re Wondering…
What’s biophilia? What began as a scientific term coined by the biologist Edward O. Wilson in the mid-1980s has been slowly creeping into our morals and metaphysics ever since. As Wilson himself said: “Without beauty and mystery beyond itself, the mind by definition is deprived of its bearings and drifts to simpler and cruder configurations.” Check out this article on the theological complexities of biophilia in modern Paganism.
I have not been neglecting you, dear readers, so much as I have been tending to the more urgent (and sometimes annoying) demands of biology. I’ve had to re-prioritize my various writing projects, and despite the conventional wisdom that scaling back on blogging and social media is career-suicide for writers these days, I’ve had to acknowledge that if it’s a choice between blogging, or focusing on the kind of contemplative writing that is better suited to non-blog form, I would rather be doing the latter.
But I do miss you all! So in the hopes of striking a balance, I thought I would invite you to join me in a little experiment. Send me your questions — either about my own practices and beliefs, or about Druidry, Paganism or nature-centered spirituality in general — and I’ll answer in 1,000 words or less (no mean feat for a verbose Gemini!) You can join in the continuing conversation by sharing your own responses, reactions and objections in the comments. It’ll be fun! So if you have questions, you can leave them in the comments below, send them to me directly or, if you’re on Tumblr, submit them through the Ask Me Anything page.
To get us started, and in honor of the day, I thought I’d share my thoughts in response to a question raised in a really interesting article on “Pagans, Polytheists and St. Patrick’s Day,” by Sionnach Gorm:
How do we, as devout polytheists, reconcile the historic reality that our ancestors (at some point in the 5th-6th century CE and with no evidence of coercion) chose to turn to a god of bells and tonsures, of monks and scriptures, of Rome and the Papacy?
If you want some more information about how we know with a fair amount of certainty that the conversion to Christianity in Ireland was a peaceful one, definitely check out the article. Unfortunately, after laying out the details of this history, Gorm leaves us hanging — shying away from that pressing question, “So… how do we deal with this history now that we know it?”
It’s a hard question to answer, because it’s not necessarily one where facts and figures will help us. Really, it’s the question we always have to ask ourselves when we are confronted with real diversity: how do we deal with people who are different from us not just in superficial ways that we can explain away or ignore, but in substantive ways that challenge us and our values at a fundamental level? It’s too easy to say that our Irish ancestors were manipulated or bullied into adopting Christianity, or to insist that they must have been naive or misled. To make those kinds of claims is to make the same mistake that Christians (and plenty of others) have made for so long in attempting to explain away the “primitive” traditions of ancient pagans and contemporary indigenous peoples. No, if we want to grapple with this question, we have to start by acknowledging that our ancestors were just as reasonable, insightful and complexly human as we are today.
Not only that, but if we want to honor the ancestors with intellectual honesty, we also have to confront the reality of our own inner diversity and complexity. We can’t retreat into cultural relativism and insist that some folks are just so wholly and completely different from ourselves that we’ll never be able to understand them. That excuse, too, has been used too often to explain away our own lack of imagination and the discomfort we feel when the boundaries of our knowledge are being pushed to their limits.
The fact that we are alive today means that, in some way, the biological and cultural lineage of our ancestors is a part of us and has helped to make us what and who we are. We are connected, no matter how strange or different our ancestors seem, and if we can reach out through the mists of history to find that connection and understanding, then we can do the same with people from other cultures and backgrounds who share the world with us today. Honoring the ancestors forces us to confront this diversity within our very own cultures and histories and so, hopefully, breaks down the all-too-common assumptions about cultural purity and religious legitimacy that tend to plague our community.
I have a confession: it really doesn’t bother me that some of my ancestors were Christian. In fact, sometimes I totally get it. Christianity has a lot of beauty and value to offer, and that was true then as it is today. Something many Pagans forget (or perhaps don’t know) about the historical St. Patrick is just how “counter-culture” and socially subversive his missionary work was in Ireland at the time, especially when it came to his strong stance against the common practice of slavery. Personally, I completely understand the appeal of a new religion asserting the values of universally shared community and equality in the eyes of God, that welcomed “men and women, slaves and nobles, free and unfree” alike, and how such a religion might take root in a tribal Irish society that was often fragmented and highly stratified. There are even times when I look at the modern Pagan community, so often thrown into a frenzy by the perennial debates over “proper ritual technique” or the “proper identity” of gods and their worshippers…. and I wonder if we’re not at risk of slipping back into a kind of uncritically fragmentary society ourselves, in which our differences and demographics are given greater weight than our shared relationships and communities. And yet, modern Pagans are so often also on the forefront of social advocacy, showing solidarity with marginalized communities who have suffered from oppression and bigotry. This fierce devotion to equality and radical inclusivity is something we actually share in common with some of those early Irish Christian converts. So yes, I get it. I get how issues of justice and equality trump nitpicking about theology and etiquette (but also how some subtle theological shifts can come back to bite us if we’re not watching).
I also get the ambivalence of my Irish ancestors who sometimes looked askance at Patrick himself, a foreigner who (having been held as a slave in Ireland in his youth and then escaped) returned to Ireland on a mission of cultural and religious conversion that was also, in a way, what we would today call cultural appropriation. A Christian who used the financial resources provided to him by his fellow Christians to make deals with pagan chiefs in order to buy influence in Irish society, but also to buy people out of slavery. A Briton who came to identify more strongly with his adopted Irish community than his fellow countrymen — even his fellow Christians, whom he admonished for being “ashamed” of his Irishness. Someone who was not even technically Irish, and yet became the first person in recorded history to articulate a sense of shared Irish identity. There is a strange elusive quality to Irish identity itself, and the claim to have “Irish ancestors” when those ancestors would not have identified themselves as such until the coming of Roman-influenced Christianity brought with it a sense of their own otherness. I recognize all of this in the on-going struggles within the modern Pagan community around issues like cultural appropriation, racial inclusivity, spiritual authenticity, the authority of paid and volunteer clergy, and the various ways we seek (or eschew) mainstream legitimacy. I recognize that giddy vertigo of searching for a solid sense of clearly defined community-identity and suddenly realizing there is no there there.
And so I can also understand my Christian ancestors who, sure, were on board with challenging certain political institutions and finding new ways of constructing social identity, who were up for experimenting with alternatives approaches to living in community together… but also still left offerings for the Fair Folk, still lit bonfires and wove golden-wheat crosses and made pilgrimages to sacred wells on holy days. Holding onto those things of value from their own heritage, instead of throwing the baby out with the bathwater (and maybe occasionally rolling their eyes at clergy who were more concerned with theological consistency and piety than with meaning and beauty). Yeah, I can relate to that.
And that’s how, as a modern-day animistic polytheistic Irish(ish)-American Druid, I come to terms with the choices — and compromises, and inconsistencies — of my Christian ancestors. I relate to them. I don’t try to exactly imitate them, or justify all their choices, or explain away our disagreements. I just try to seek relationship, a meaningful connection that transcends our differences even as it reaffirms them. That’s how I honor my ancestors.
In his recent blog post, John Halstead seems to say that there is. As he muses over his own children’s apparent distraction and lack of appreciation, he wonders why they do not share the same awe that he feels during times when he is immersed in the natural world:
This past weekend, I hiked with my family up a mountainside to show them a beautiful meadow and a vista I had happened upon. My kids, now 11 and 14, enjoyed the view for all of 10 seconds before becoming distracted. The same thing happened on the drive through Glenwood Canyon west of Denver. It was a struggle to tear them away from their electronic devices to appreciate the magnificence all around them. I could blame it on the technology, but I know it is more than that. Parents have been dealing with this phenomenon long before there were iPads (although I’m sure the technology exacerbates the situation). How many parents have driven their children across the country to see the Grand Canyon, only to hear them say, “Wow! … Can we go home now?” [emphasis added]
Certainly mine have. I was in my preteens when my family made the trip out west from Pennsylvania to visit some of the most well-known and awe-inspiring national parks in the country. After days of driving, I had come to loathe the endless, flat stretches of farmland and dull, dusty ranches that were all I could see from the backseat — to this day, I feel a special kinship with Dorothy and her dislike of the state of Kansas, which to my childhood self seemed to go on forever and consist solely of people trying to drive through it or get out of it. When we finally arrived at the Grand Canyon after the interminable days of driving, I was sick of looking out the window from a cramped back seat and sleeping in cramped hotel rooms while my parents watched TV at night. I was itching to stretch my legs and explore, to feel my body moving again. My parents, middle-aged suburbanites who had long grown used to spending all day mostly sedentary in an office environment, were content to park the car along one of the many popular scenic overlooks and stand gazing into the gaping landscape before them. After about ten seconds… I knew there would be no adventures beckoning us that day.
John proposes that only adults can truly appreciate nature, because children lack the knowledge, the perspective, the patience and the awareness of their own mortality. In his words, I hear a vague echo of Richard Feynman, the theoretical physicist perhaps most famous among non-scientists for his insistence that a scientific understanding of the world does not diminish our appreciation, as some poets and artists might complain. Rather, science can very often enhance our sense of beauty and awe. Whether we are gazing at vast bejeweled starscapes or modest springtime blossoms, we can see not just the color and form in front of our eyes, but the patterns of atoms and evolution and gravity and death and desire that interconnect this small piece of the universe to everything else. As an adult, I can understand how this kind of appreciation for nature is something that has to be learned, cultivated through patience and quiet attentiveness.
And yet, as a step-parent of kids I’ve watched grow from four to fourteen, and who have always been as active and eager about exploring the natural world as I remember being myself when I was their age, I find myself surprised that John would assume that “appreciation” of nature must always so passive and abstract. That any real appreciation of nature lies in understanding it as a symbol, a sign that points to some other, deeper truth. John is bemused when his son compares a beautiful sunset to a picture, saying:
Shouldn’t it be the other way around? For me, and I think for most adults, there is a significant qualitative difference between experiencing a sunset first hand and seeing a picture of one.
And yet, it seems that John’s appreciation of nature holds much more in common with an appreciation of art than anything else — it is to be witnessed and contemplated — it is a receptive, interior experience more than an active, exterior one. If there is a difference for him between a sunset and a picture of a sunset, it’s not clear what that difference is, except perhaps that the “real” sunset is a fully immersive experience that engages all the senses at once. Or perhaps the difference is precisely that it is not a picture, and for many adults (and I include myself in this indictment!) who spend our days staring at right-angled computer screens or looking out right-angled windows at a hedged-in world, not being a picture is enough of a novelty itself.
As a parent, I’m surprised at Halstead’s odd assumption that all children are the same, and that in general they can’t appreciate nature, when that so obviously contradicts my own experience with my stepkids. But as someone who still remembers vividly what it was like to be a child, I’m also surprised to discover that I’m actually a little bit angry. That child who still lives within me balks at his woeful misunderstanding of my childhood dissatisfaction and restlessness. If I seemed bored of the Grand Canyon after ten seconds and wanted to go home, it was not because my appreciation of nature was somehow deficient.
For my childhood self, “home” had never been a place of humdrum ordinariness to be taken for granted, as it seems to be for so many adults these days. Home was, rather, that place of freedom where I had hours to spend exploring the world around me in immediate, visceral adventure and discovery. Home was where my brother and I built forts among the branches of the trees in the autumn and snuck through golden tunnels of blooming forsythia in the spring. Home was where I could wander down the block to the park to spend an entire evening contentedly catching fireflies, or dawdle away an entire afternoon stalking field mice and grasshoppers or digging for crayfish in the creek, while the adults in my life ran errands or planned dinner parties or watched television and just generally treated the world like it was something to be used and consumed — either for work or for pleasure or for spiritual enlightenment — rather than a sacred place to experience, to dwell in just as it was.
The Grand Canyon might not have impressed me, and yet at home I could derive great enjoyment on a summer afternoon from dancing through the sprinkler in my bathing suit, to scramble out onto the hot, dry sidewalk just to watch the way the water dripped off my body and trickled across the cement in chaotic, darkening rivers that followed the minutest cracks and contours. And if the adults asked me what I was staring at so intently, how could I explain to them my fascination with this minute landscape beneath my feet? How could I make them understand that it was enough simply to watch the patterns of the universe unfolding in front of me, without having to understand it or control it or articulate it as part of some other truth? And how often did those adults simply shrug, or smile distractedly from the heady heights of their grown-up perspective, and turn their attention back to the work of being in charge of their own lives…
To John, perhaps the Grand Canyon is an abstraction, a symbol of humanity’s smallness. Having honeymooned among the great red rocks of the midwest only a few years ago, I understand the unique beauty that such landscapes hold. The solitude and solace they can evoke in the soul as one sits looking out across those far distances that draw the eye into a contemplation of infinity and emptiness. But back when I first visited these places, I was a child. Smallness was no metaphor for me. I did not need a symbol to remind me of how large the world was, how fleeting life could be. Life was overwhelming, it was speeding by all the time, faster than I could process, but always beckoning. Not content to merely sit back and consume beauty, I was restless with longing to be in the thick of it.
And yet, it was during that same trip when I was just a kid that I found myself enthralled by the haunting hoodoos of Bryce Canyon and the lush valley paradise of Zion. It was the same trip that brought tears to my eyes when we entered the mighty, green mountains of Wyoming — a landscape that seemed like a wash of cool relief after the unyielding reds of the desert. If I asked my parents over and over what the names of these places were, it wasn’t because I was more interested in naming them than I was in experiencing the scenery. It was because I knew one day I would go back there, as an adult, on my own terms — free of that watchful authoritative presence that sought to mediate my experiences for me. It was that same trip so many years ago that I, like John, saw the night sky in Utah and felt like I was seeing the universe for the first time…. And again, on a mountaintop in Maine when I was in college, and then again later, the same experience watching the sun rise out of the ocean the day before my wedding, the week before my honeymoon would take me back to those landscapes that had so moved me fifteen years before. Are such experiences really only limited to certain times in our life? Are they really only accessible to certain people?
John entertains a healthy skepticism about writers who would hold up childhood as an idealized time of attunement with the natural world. But he goes too far, I think, when he calls into question the very ability of children to experience awe and beauty, as if children do not possess a rich and complex interior life all their own. If John cannot trust the memories of writers like Annie Dillard and Rachel Carson, he’s unlikely to be impressed by my words. But I have spent most of my life working hard to learn how to articulate the wonder and awe that I experience, precisely because my life has been full of people seemingly indifferent to those experiences — first because I was a child, and now because I am a woman. (It has long been a tradition among white males to suggest that women, children and people of color lack the aptitude for contemplation and self-reflection necessary to “truly” appreciate and understand the world; when such people express sorrow or grief, it is assumed that they are only small sorrows which pale in comparison to the woes of men, and when they express joy or wonder, it is only because their simple minds are overwhelmed by what they cannot fully understand.)
As a writer myself, it’s a blow to see some of my role models accused of constructing false memories of their own childhoods. If John is reluctant to trust to memory alone, I wonder how much faith he would put in the extensive paper trail I have left in my wake: boxes stacked upon boxes in the closet of my old room at my parents’ house, full of thousands of pages of childhood journals, half-finished poems and school projects… From the rain-soaked, moody-landscape love poems of my teenage years, to the naturalist journals and biology textbook notes I kept in middle school, to the minutes for an Endangered Species Club I started with friends in grade school…. to my first ever “published” story that I wrote when I was five years old, a story about how playful fun turned suddenly into tragedy as I watched a couple of classmates tossing pebbles into a pond accidentally strike and kill a duckling. My first confession as a little girl attending Catholic Sunday school was to admit how angry I was that the adults in my life didn’t seem to understand why this story was so important to me, my frustration that they could not see the ugly little tragedy because a duckling, like a child, was too far below their notice. And my anger at myself for not being able to explain it to them, for failing to have the right words at my command. And the kind old priest smiled distractedly from the heady heights of his grown-up perspective, and told me to say three Hail Marys. And I wondered if he shouldn’t have told me to think of the accidental killers and spare a prayer for them.
It wouldn’t be too much of an exaggeration to say that I have, ever since, been saying a prayer for those accidental killers and trying my best to make my words worthy of the messy, crazy, beautiful, ugly, stupid, awe-filled world we live in. Maybe I was a weird kid, more enamored, more sensitive than most, and as I’ve grown up, my perspective has changed and evolved. But that this is true only convinces me all the more of how important it is to appreciate the diversity of experiences and the many voices that strive to share them, and not to be too quick to dismiss certain experiences or perspectives as less valuable or insightful than others.
Is there only one way to appreciate nature? I can’t believe there would be just one.
Yes, there is contemplative appreciation — that which takes root in silence and patience, which blossoms only with time and age, and which pries open our hearts with its gentle but persistent fingers until the walls of busy-ness, purpose and control that we have built up are eroded away and return to the soil of our uncultured souls. There is the appreciation that gives us back to the world as a river gives itself back to the ocean, and the ocean gives itself up to the sky beneath a warm sun, and the sky too eventually pours itself out over the land and returns to the rivers again. We watch this cycle from the warm, dry comfort of our make-shift shelters, knowing that one day we too will give ourselves up to the land, the sea and the sky. Knowing that we stand aside from this endless movement through life and death only for a moment, seeing the whole spiraling dance in all its beauty. Yet we do stand aside. We watch.
But there is also a kind of appreciation that is active and curious and immersive. It is self-forgetful and inarticulate, but that does not make it any less real. It is the appreciation of skipping across hot concrete in soft, bare feet. It is the appreciation of wriggling your limbs in falling rain just to see the spray, just to participate in the movement of falling and splashing, just to feel your skin go rough with goosebumps. It is the appreciation of someone who has not yet spent a lifetime building up walls, and so has no use for sitting around with such sad wisdom contemplating their dissolution. An appreciation that, in the face of old ruins reclaimed by weeds on the edge of town, would rather build a clubhouse among the crumbling walls, baking mudpies and gathering leggy bouquets of dandelions, than think quietly about the grim reality of decay and neglect. It is the appreciation that builds sandcastles for the singular pleasure of kicking them down and watching the waves reclaim them — and that, if scolded and told to sit still and “just enjoy the beach,” bristles at the self-contradiction of such a command! It is the appreciation that cramps like an unused limb after too many hours in the car. It does not simply look, but feels the tides and rhythms of the natural world in blood and bones and breath. It would rather chase the river, ride the ocean waves, and soar before the storm than merely sit back and observe such cycles from a clean, dry place.
This appreciation, too, can be as still and silent as a stone…. if it is a stone that has captured it. But it can also be as wild and flighty as a dragonfly, or as smooth and sharp as a blade of grass, or as distant and subtle as a cloud. It revels in the taste of the world and its many scents, eager to plunge into the next moment for whatever new wonders it will bring, not concerning itself with loss and death just yet, for the world is still too full for there to be any room for mourning — and even mourning, when it comes, will be just another kind of wonder to explore.
And these are not the only ways that we appreciate the world. There are many others. Some may belong more to children, some to those busy adults neck-deep in earning a living and raising a family. There are some that may belong uniquely to the very old, the elders who see the folly of youth as no worse than the folly of maturity. If poetry for old men is “powerful emotion recollected in tranquility,” should it be any surprise that there are times when our children can only describe their own intense delight by comparing it to the art that such men praise, leaving a better explanation for the tranquility that will inevitably come with time?
But there is time enough for tranquility and its beautiful words, the child in me cries with a cascade of giggles and a raspberry or two — let’s not waste any more of our delight while it is here!
• “i might have lost it, but it’s never been lost,” by Shirin Winiger (source)
• “Live For Adventure,” by Conor Keller (source)
• “Discovery,” by Adam Graddy (source)
• “Nature love,” by talkingplant (source)
Trigger Warning: In this post, I am going to be talking about emotional and psychological abuse. Rarely do I write about things that I believe require a trigger warning, and I do not intend to write about this topic in a way that is graphic or disturbing. But I wanted to let you know. Not because I want you to avoid reading this post altogether, but because I want you to feel safe and respected in this space, and I want you to know that I believe in your strength and courage in having this conversation. If at any point you find that you need to step away, I want you to know that I will understand and I will be here waiting for you and ready to listen, whenever you’re ready.
“Privilege” is not a bad word. It should not be understood to mean stupid, bad, or worthless. Privilege /does/ mean that we act sometimes with blinders on because we are not capable of seeing what others in a lesser position go through. Or rather, it takes a /concentrated effort/ to change our naturally acquired ways of thinking and processing the world around us and /purposefully choosing/ to acknowledge our privilege. I tweeted to you that struggling with privilege is good for us; but more importantly, I believe we should do it /for each other/. We live in a society which privileges some and oppresses others. We live in a society which is unjust, unfair, and sometimes quite cruel. I want to live in a better society, and it’s not going to change overnight. It’s going to change with /my words/, my actions, my beliefs, my willingness to struggle with the supremely difficult questions…
What Danny is describing here is an essential aspect of the human condition: we are inherently limited beings, because that is the nature of physical embodiment, and our knowledge reflects those limitations because it is conditioned by our own experiences and our perspective as physical, embodied beings. This has always been true, and the language of privilege is just the latest way that we have of articulating this fact. We can work to overcome the limitations of our knowledge through conversation with each other, and through imaginative empathy with those who have different experiences and different perspectives. But even these efforts will only take us so far. We will never reach a place where we can know, understand and speak for All People. Our first misstep is to think that such a thing is even possible. While I admire Danny’s optimism for a world where the marginalized and the vulnerable do not bear the weight of cruelty and injustice, I also know that justice is not the same thing as flawless understanding. We will never live in a world where our differences don’t matter. To be matter, to be physical beings living in a messy-crazy-beautiful physical world, is to be different, to be unique, to be individual. Sometimes that means being misunderstood, or feeling alone, but on the whole, our individuality is a good thing. And it gives us an opportunity for conversation.
So while the language of privilege is important in learning to acknowledge and talk about how our limitations can sometimes lead us, even inadvertently, to participate in and perpetuate injustice — even the language of privilege has its limitations. We cannot, simply by talking about it, expunge or diminish our differences or the differences of others. If that is our goal when we use the language of privilege, we have already made that first misstep.
What does all of this have to do with abuse?
When I was in college, I met a girl (let’s call her Sally, though that isn’t her real name) who had suffered for years from psychological abuse at the hands of her mother. It is a stereotype in our culture that the relationship between a mother and a teenage daughter is always bound to be strained, and that teenagers are generally rebellious, reckless and rude. For that reason, it’s often hard to recognize when a relationship crosses the line from normal, healthy conflict into abuse. Sally’s family didn’t recognize the abuse for what it was, and their silence seemed to her to legitimize it. Like many people in situations of domestic abuse, for a long time Sally believed that she was the problem, that if only she could be a better daughter, if only she was better at self-control and self-censorship, then things would be okay.
Sally’s relationship with her mother cycled through the typical stages of domestic abuse: building tension, incident, reconciliation, calm and rising tension once again. During the first phase, tension would build in the household as Sally’s mother made casual insults mocking her intelligence, insinuating that her friends were losers who didn’t really like her, and suggesting that she would be incapable of handling life on her own if she ever moved out. Eventually, the tension would build to a breaking point, either because Sally would push back against her mother’s passive aggressive behavior or because she would seek to escape it by avoiding her entirely, sometimes running away to a friend’s house. Sally’s mother would fly into a rage at these acts of perceived disrespect, threatening to kick Sally out of the house permanently, sometimes threatening to call Sally’s teachers or the parents of her friends to “let them know what a bitch” Sally was (in other words, threatening to sabotage her support system). Sometimes, her mother would become so angry that she would slap, hit or scratch Sally. There were times when she even threatened to take Sally to a psychiatrist and have her put on medication because she was “so out of control,” trying to shame Sally with the stigma of being “crazy.” (In college, Sally began going voluntarily to the college’s free counseling service. When her mother used to threaten her with therapy in high school, she would ask for all of them to go, as a family, so that they could work things out. But they never did. The free counseling service provided by the college was the first time Sally was able to seek out therapy for herself, without having to rely on her parents to pay for it, and without the fear that therapy would be used as a weapon to stigmatize and/or drug her.)
Many of these outbursts ended with Sally’s mother in tears, berating Sally for being such a difficult daughter and causing these horrible fights. If Sally pleaded with her mother to stop screaming at her or to calm down so they could talk things out, her mother would accuse Sally of “trying to control her feelings.” She would insist that she had a right to her rage and would declare proudly that she refused to be bullied into silence just because everyone wanted her to “shut up and be nice.”
The familiar refrain of the abuser is, “Why do you make me so angry that I hurt you?” In Sally’s case, the pain was emotional and psychological, and her mother justified the pain she caused to Sally by claiming a right to express her emotions however she wished, no matter how it might affect others or who it might hurt.
Encouraging anyone, especially people whose lives I don’t really understand, to be anything other than what they’re already being, even if what I’m encouraging is a little more kindness and compassion, places me in a strange position of authority.
When I read that, I thought of Sally.
Sally was not in a position of authority or power over her mother. Sally’s pleas for kindness were not, as her mother claimed, an attempt to “control” her mother’s feelings. They were Sally’s way of expressing her own vulnerability and pain, of asking for the kindness and respect that could keep the situation from escalating and preserve some possibility of real reconciliation.
What I learned from Sally was this:
Do not let anyone tell you that asking them for kindness and respect is a form of oppression.
Do not let anyone convince you that how they choose to act on their anger is your responsibility.
Many of us know what it’s like to have our words ignored or our perspectives marginalized because we didn’t use the right “tone.” We get angry, often for perfectly good reasons, we use harsh language, and then suddenly our use of the word “fuck” is all anyone can talk about and it’s an excuse to ignore whatever point we were actually trying to make.
As just one example: I remember an extended conversation I had on Facebook a while back when, after a day and a half of carefully outlining my arguments, I finally lost my temper and responded somewhat flippantly with a “what the fuck?” — at which point, the person who was arguing with me took it upon himself to tell me that “maybe the reason nobody takes you seriously is because you use words like ‘fuck’ instead of talking like a mature adult.” Fuck him, I thought. I’m not a fucking child who needs a lesson in using my “indoor voice.” But I didn’t write that. Instead, I pointed out to him the hundreds of words I’d already spent trying to “talk maturely” with him, admitted that I had spoken out of frustration, and then followed up with a linguistic analysis of how the word “fuck” can intentionally be used to undermine the social norms established within a given conversation. When someone speaks to me like a child, I double-down on being a mature, intelligent adult (because you know what? fuck them).
But what I did not do was blame him for how I’d chosen to express my anger. I owned my anger, and I owned my expression of that anger. It is my outrage, and no one can take that away from me.
But because I own my anger, and my expression of that anger, I also take responsibility for it. If I have the power to act on my anger, then I have to acknowledge that I also have the power to cause harm to others. I doubt that my use of the word “fuck” was really traumatizing or hurtful to this person on Facebook. But you know what? I don’t get to decide that. If I want to be in conversation with people, and if I want them to listen to me, I have to be willing to listen to them. Even if I think they’re full of shit. I remember Sally, and how she felt when no one would listen to her when she tried to explain to them that her mother was abusive. Sally wasn’t always a very easy person to get along with, and she could be kind of a bitch. She’d had some pretty shitty examples of how to handle conflict growing up, and so she did a pretty lousy job of handling conflict in her turn. But none of that meant that the pain and abuse that she experienced wasn’t real, or that she somehow deserved it. When I think of Sally, I remember what it was like for her to be in a perceived position of privilege in which abuse was masked by stereotypes about how obnoxious and ungrateful suburban teenagers always are. So I make a choice:
I don’t want to live in a world where we are no longer allowed to ask each other for kindness and respect. I don’t want to live in a world where one person’s anger is more important than another person’s pain. I don’t want to live in a world where our only recourse if we want to be heard is to raise our voices more and more loudly and force our anger onto others.
I would rather learn how to turn my anger into something beautiful and powerful that cannot be ignored, than to waste it in ways that can be dismissed because of my “tone.” I would rather turn my rage into an agent of compassion, than use it as a weapon against those who have hurt me.
Which means that hell yes, I pull my punches. When someone cries uncle, I ease up. Even if I think they’re faking it. I don’t drop my guard, and I don’t let myself get distracted, but I’ll be damned if I’m going to put myself in the position of bully or brute. When I choose to acknowledge and respect other people’s expressions of pain and vulnerability, I show my strength and I set an example of how to be strong in a way that doesn’t require others to be weak. This isn’t about asserting my privilege — it’s about discovering my sovereignty as someone who can be strong, kind and compassionate even when I am on the receiving end of bullying and injustice.
I don’t know what it was about Teo’s post asking us to “be nice” to each other that sparked accusations of privilege. I do know that one lone blogger crying out in the wilderness of the internet asking us to be decent to each other is a far cry from any form of active oppression. And I believe him when he says that he didn’t see encouraging kindness as an exercise of privilege, and that he wasn’t seeking to strengthen one side of the debate by silencing the other. But I also think he is mistaken if the lesson he learned was that it’s not okay to ask people to be kinder to one another. (I think it’s much more likely that the “privilege” he was accused of had more to do with the size of his readership than the content of his post.)
Kindness, compassion and respect are indispensable to conversations about privilege. If we want to listen deeply to others, appreciate their unique perspectives and experiences, and feel that our own perspectives are being heard, we all need to hold kindness, compassion and respect as vital.
We will never live in a world without limitations and differences. If we want to live in a world that is fair and just despite those limitations and differences, we need to understand how real conversation and reconciliation are built upon values like kindness and respect. We need to believe in our own sovereignty and strength, even — no, especially — when others try to deny it or take it away. We need to own our anger and take responsibility for how we express it. We need to embrace our power instead of giving it away to those who would demean or dehumanize us. Because you know what? If every time we see a person asking for kindness and respect, we accuse that person of “privilege,” then we risk relinquishing our claim to the greatest assets we have in our work towards justice and equality.
Respect and kindness are not luxuries that only the privileged can afford. They are the very things that make us human and that connect us in community.
That might seem like an odd question for a Pagan Druid to be asking, but it’s the title of a new book by Daniel Meeter that caught my eye.* I like to take up these challenges every now and then, in part because remembering the religious tradition that I came from helps to remind me why I left, and what lessons or insights of value I want to hold onto and carry with me into the future, even if I no longer call myself a Christian. After all, I remember being a Christian. In fact I was, if I may say so, a really fantastic Christian. I Christianed the hell out of that shit. So what happened? It’s a long story (with a few twists and turns). Suffice it to say, I’m in a different place in my life now, and that place gives me a different perspective on the purpose of the spiritual life and the assumptions we bring to it. That’s why I wanted to read Meeter’s book. To stretch my muscles a bit, to remember what it’s like to think about the world differently, and to keep my interfaith work bilingual and useful.
So, did Meeter’s book live up to its title? In lots of ways, yes. Meeter gives a robust run-down of reasons to check out Christianity, or to stick with it if you’re on the fence. Chapter by chapter, he outlines some of the benefits that he believes the religion of Christianity has to offer (while noting that lots of other religions can provide them as well). His style of writing is conversational, inquisitive and non-confrontational. Sometimes so much so that it can be hard to pin down exactly what it is that he believes, and how he grapples with apparent contradictions or inconsistencies. But he makes no pretense at giving complete answers or thorough theological arguments (and he includes a list of interesting books for readers who are intrigued enough to want to follow up on questions that the book raises).
Meeter divides up his text into chapters, each devoted to exploring one reason why someone might want to be a Christian. Since I’m not a Christian, and quite content and secure in my religious identity, I thought it might be an interesting exercise to approach each of these chapters by asking two questions: What insights into Christianity can I learn from this chapter? and Where does this reason fall short for me, personally?
What’s up with Hell?
Throughout most of his book, Meeter devotes one chapter to each of his seventeen reasons for being Christian — but when it comes to hell, he has a lot to say, so it gets two. You could probably guess from the title that Meeter holds to the belief that nobody goes to hell, and he’s well aware that for centuries, fear of hell has been a motivating factor in convincing folks to make the safer bet (Pascal’s Wager, anyone?). Without the fear of eternal damnation, what reason could you possibly have for wanting to be Christian?
Meeter’s Insight — For Meeter, believing that there isn’t a hell after all is itself an awesome reason to be a Christian. He points out that having to believe in a cruel, sadistic God who gets off on torturing people for eternity has been a huge stumbling block for people who otherwise find the Christian message of love and forgiveness really appealing. He wants to “clear the path to the front door” for those folks, and he does so by exploring the history of the Doctrine of Hell and its lack of support in the Old and New Testaments. He says, “It’s good news for you good-hearted and kindly people who believed that conventional views of hell are biblical, and therefore true, but wished they weren’t. […] It might be reasonable to believe in hell, but it’s not biblical, and that’s the best reason not to believe it.” (emphasis added)
Why I’m Not Convinced — I was raised not believing in hell in any case, taught that hell was a “state of mind” rather than an actual place people went after they died, so I’m with Meeter up to a point. Where he loses me is his emphasis on biblical accuracy and inerrancy as the test for spiritual truth. Fact is, I can’t think of a worse reason to believe something than merely because the Bible says so. (Seriously, have you read that thing?) I might agree with him that believing in a literal hell is not all that reasonable, and that it stems from a belief in the disconnection between the body and the soul instead of a worldview that sees body and soul as co-emergent and interpenetrating. But as soon as he starts arguing that we should put aside “reasonable” beliefs because they’re not biblical, he’s made a huge misstep. It doesn’t much help his case that he goes on to assert that “everyone already knows” that people are “special” and above other animals, so he won’t bother making a case for his assertion. (Still, kudos for trying to make people feel better that their pets won’t go to hell without them.)
To Be Spiritual
I’m a word nerd, so when Meeter starts getting technical in this chapter about the difference between “soul” and “spirit,” I geek out. (However, if you want a fascinating and thorough exploration of the question, check out Bill Plotkin’s approach in his book, Soulcraft.)
Meeter’s Insight — “The purpose of Christianity is not only the worship of God, but the restoration of humanity. […] Christians believe that the restoration of humanity requires a healthy spirituality, and a healthy spirituality requires the cultivation of the soul.” Meeter takes some time to point out that the cultivation of the soul is pretty much the raison d’être for all religions, and that different religions have different ways of approaching this work. “If you want to learn the practices that help connect your soul to God as Jesus connected with God,” he says, “then you would be a Christian.” And he goes on to explain that engaging in these practices, taking Jesus as your example, is also likely to lead you to engage with the world as Jesus engaged with the world.
Why I’m Not Convinced — Actually, I’m pretty much on board with Meeter here. I think he makes a very important point when he notes that picking and choosing practices from different traditions and cultures can quickly become problematic. Not only can it be hard to “get beyond yourself” without a cohesive, supportive community to challenge you and push you beyond your comfort zone, but it’s also a slippery slope into cultural misappropriation (something Meeter doesn’t mention). The reason I’m not a Christian? Firstly, the Christian community I used to belong to didn’t do a very good job of supporting the cultivation of soul through practices of love, so I had to look elsewhere whether I liked it or not. Secondly, practices from other religious traditions — specifically those that were grounded in reverence for the natural world and engagement with the mysteries of the earth, like Druidry — called to me much more deeply and powerfully than the example set by Jesus (who had always been most intriguing to me anyway when he was spitting in the dirt and talking about lilies in the field).
To be continued….
Hopefully this gives you a taste of Meeter’s approach, some of his insights and some of the weak spots of his arguments. I’ve broken up the rest of the chapters into a series of blog posts, and at the risk of boring you, I’ll be sharing those throughout the rest of the month (in part to keep this blog chugging along while I finish my novel… squeee!). So stay tuned….
* Yes, I received a review copy of this book for free (through SpeakEasy). Although I know you dear readers trust my intellectual and ethical integrity enough to know I would never give a positive review of a book in exchange for financial perks, I am legally obligated to remind you that bloggers are a shady bunch who need to be held to higher standards than print media, who review books all the time without having to point out that they’ve been provided with copies of those books in order to do their jobs.
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 inon this questionbefore, and my partner, a linguist by trade as well as by nature who has nearly two decades of experience in the field, has writtenonseveraloccasions 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.