Current Events, Holy Wild, Mythology & History

Can Clowns Save Our Souls?

This post originally appeared on Holy Wild, at alisonleighlilly.com


untitled-clown_neys-fadzil

“He was nobody in particular, yet everybody all at once.”

— Conrad Hyers

It is said that the Irish god Manannan mac Lir likes to travel in disguise. He roams from town to town, sometimes entertaining kings with heavenly music, other times baffling onlookers with clumsy feats of buffoonery. “One day I am sweet, another day I am sour,” he declares, as if to explain away his conflicting reputation as both wiseman and fool. His disguise is a familiar one: a hat full of holes, shoes that squish with puddle water when he walks, threadbare striped clothes, a cloak of many colors that shimmers like mist in the sun. It’s a wonder we don’t recognize him immediately. Figures like him have been with us since the beginning, holding up a funhouse mirror to our ordinary lives, mocking our heroes and transfiguring our bums. In short, Manannan mac Lir is a clown.

Clowns need no introduction, says professor of religion Conrad Hyers in his book, The Spirituality of Comedy. When they appear on the scene, everybody recognizes immediately what they are. “There are clowns who are silent and clowns who are subtle, but there are no incognito clowns.” And yet clowns are, by definition, difficult to define. Almost defiantly contradictory, they take upon themselves the myriad aspects of human society and human nature, throwing all of these elements together in astoundingly irreverent and incongruous ways. “In a kaleidoscopic identity,” Hyers writes, “the clown is many people and many moods, formed and reformed out of the same disparate pieces of humanity.” The clown is the Everyman, recognizable despite or, more accurately, because of his make-up and his mask. The clown is the familiar stranger: the god who travels in disguise under an assumed name, yet whose reputation always precedes him.

Big Shoes To Fill: A Walking Contradiction

Over the past few months, we’ve watched this pattern of embodied contradictions and oscillating opinions play out in real-time as a Creepy Clown Epidemic took the American media by storm. In earlier articles, I traced the evolving nature of this phenomenon — from the Phantom Clowns of urban legend, to the mischievous Stalking Clowns confounding police, to the public backlash and its impact on the professional clowning community. As media coverage returned again and again to this strange but eerily familiar figure, interpretations of the Creepy Clown’s meaning have swung back and forth, each new claim reacting against and building upon those that came before it. Were the clowns real, or just a hoax? Old urban legend, or new media meme? A coordinated effort by marketers, or a grassroots trend of rumors and copycats? Attention-seekers, or anonymous pranksters? Political commentary, or frivolous distraction? Harmless fun, or serious threat? Criminals, or victims?

The answer, of course, is all of the above…. and then some. “Clowns are not ‘simply’ anything,” Hyers writes. “The clown as ‘Everyman’ is the representative of the many-sidedness of our existence and the tensions between sides — not any side or set of characteristics. The clown is omnivorously human.”

greatest-show_classic-film

This undiscriminating lust for life in all its forms can itself be disturbing (think: the exaggerated mouths and the smiles full of sharpened teeth in so many of today’s creepy clown Halloween masks). There is something unsettling about the clown’s willingness to poke fun at anything, to upset the status quo. We might wonder: is nothing sacred? Yet throughout history, the spiritual role of the clown has always been that of trickster, the Wise Fool who can challenge social norms and bring the shadow-side of ourselves and our community out into the open to be confronted, laughed at, integrated and transcended.

In his exploration of the clown as a cultural and spiritual figure, Hyers notes that there are two distinct manifestations of the clown as a mediator of opposites. The more “complex and ambitious” type of clown, Hyers writes, is the solo clown, who brings these opposites together in his own person and contains the tension of polarity within a single figure. The motley, multi-colored outfits of these clowns speak to this radical inclusivity of contradiction. “If they wear oversized shoes, they will like as not wear an undersized hat. If they give themselves a gaudy smile, they will probably also add a tear. If they are graceful one moment, they will likely be jerky the next.” They might take exaggerated care to tiptoe across the stage, only to trip noisily at the last minute; or precisely measure the swing of their giant hammer, only to miss the nail and smash their thumb instead. One day sweet, the next day sour.

478px-paul_cezanne_060But there is another kind of clowning: the comic duo. Here, polar opposites are exaggerated and separated, embodied in two different characters who are nevertheless bound together, played against one another to hilarious effect. From the Koshare spring-summer clowns (sprouters of grain) and the Kurena fall-winter clowns (maturers of grain) of the Jemez Indians, to the suave Whiteface and clumsy Augusto of the medieval French pantomimes, such pairs are well-known throughout history. If one is tall and thin, the other will be short and stocky. If one is a wild risk-taker, the other will worry and fret. If one is restrained in word and deed, the other flails about and never shuts up. We see these odd couples everywhere in modern times, too, in comedy pairs like Harpo and Groucho Marx, Laurel and Hardy, Abbott and Costello, Penn and Teller, Tina Fey and Amy Poehler, Simon Pegg and Nick Frost, Troy and Abed… the list goes on and on.

To these pairs, we might add: Patch Adams and Pennywise — the “caring clown” and the “creepy clown” of modern American culture. Perhaps we need look no further to explain the Creepy Clown phenomenon than our culture’s changing view of the clown, from the ambiguous trickster of sacred ritual to mere kids’ entertainer:

Before the early 20th century, there was little expectation that clowns had to be an entirely unadulterated symbol of fun, frivolity, and happiness; pantomime clowns, for example, were characters who had more adult-oriented story lines. But clowns [are] now almost solely children’s entertainment. Once their made-up persona became more associated with children, and therefore an expectation of innocence, it made whatever the make-up might conceal all the more frightening.

Everywhere we find them, clowns are walking contradictions, polarities set in dialectical motion so that we may (re)discover our own wholeness. “Our whole being is put joltingly together by the simple device of slapping opposites against one another,” writes Hyers. With our recent overemphasis on the innocent fun and “light side” of the Caring Clown, perhaps it was inevitable that the darker Creepy Clown would eventually come calling.

One Clown, Two Clown, Red Clown, Blue Clown

But why now? There is something unique about the Creepy Clown Epidemic this year. Although the cycle of clown sightings has recurred fairly regularly since at least the 1980s, there seems to be a deeper sense of urgency, uncertainty and anxiety that has driven this fall’s hysteria.

8112010clown-phil_roeder_sm

You don’t need to scratch very far below the surface to discover what it is. Almost from the beginning, commentators have noted the strong parallels between the Creepy Clown hype and the American presidential election, in which many aspects of an increasingly polarized and dysfunctional political system are on full display. Art and film often anticipate and illuminate these trends through their social commentary. Take, for instance, the recently-released Rob Zombie horror movie, 31, which one reviewer describes as “perhaps unintentionally relevant” in the current climate:

[T]he free-loving carnies and the carnage-loving clowns all arguably ought to be on the same side, as they’re at the same level of income, and loosely connected to the whole notion of traveling shows. But they’re not, and indeed, it’s partly because some on the clown side are racist, sadistic, abusive, horrible people. Regardless, though, they’re all being played by rich jerks for some minor amusement, and even once they realize this and have a chance to break the cycle, or heaven forbid, fight the actual system, they can’t stop. They just hate each other too much, while the rich go back to their rich lives unburdened.

Robert Bartholomew, a sociologist at Botany College in New Zealand, links the rise in creepy clowns to two rising forces in the US: social media, and a fear of otherness. “Social media plays a pivotal role in spreading these rumor-panics which travel around the globe in the blink of an eye,” he says. “They are part of a greater moral panic about the fear of strangers and terrorists in an increasingly urban, impersonal, and unpredictable world.” Politicians have often played on the fear of otherness to rally their base and “get out the vote” on election day. We might even see in the Republican and Democratic candidates an echo of the tragicomic duo, a pair of opposites vying against each other, each one “playing the mask” of political showmanship while also trying to radiate personable authenticity. All of this might explain why Loren Coleman, who posited the Phantom Clown Theory, notes that creepy clown appearances often coincide with the election cycle.

new-york-daily-news-clown-1Still, this year’s election season has been one of the most vitriolic in recent history, with one candidate in particular invoking (and provoking) xenophobia, racism and misogyny as defining aspects of his campaign. For some, the explanation for this year’s creepy clown craze can be summed up in two words: Donald Trump. Yale School of Drama professor Christopher Bayes describes Trump as “all illness and artifice,” saying, “There’s something poison there. It feels malignant, and it freaks us out.”

With his uncanny appearance — the fake spray-tan, the wild orange hair, the gaudy sense of fashion, the overblown blustering and weird gesticulations on stage — Trump is the quintessential creepy clown. Equally preoccupied with stoking fear of outsiders and resentment towards insiders who’ve supposedly rigged the system against him, he is not easily categorized according to our usual understanding of political and cultural identity. Instead, he hides behind a mask of populist “everyman” rhetoric to conceal crass self-interest and, perhaps, something even more sinister. In light of numerous allegations of sexual assault, including the rape of a 13-year-old girl and his possible connection to drug-fueled sex parties with underage teens, it’s hard not to see Trump as the “killer clown” who leers at children on the playground and tries to lure them into the woods. Even his caught-on-tape boasting about how his celebrity allows him to assault women — “When you’re a star, they let you do it. You can do anything.” — seems like a sickening callback to the serial killer-clown John Wayne Gacy’s confession, “You know… a clown can get away with murder.”

Clown as Savior and Escape Artist

How do we rid ourselves of these creepy clowns, real and imagined?

First, it might help to know that much of the Creepy Clown hysteria is driven by media coverage and, like all such trends, it will eventually die down on its own (especially once Halloween and the election are over). Professor of psychology at Evergreen State College, Bill Indick explains, “That’s why it comes in waves. The media propagates it, creates it, feeds it and at a certain point, gets tired of it. The media then digests it and eliminates it. And just as quickly as it started, it’s over.”

We shouldn’t necessarily see this as a criticism of the media’s short attention span, however. After all, that is the clown’s deeper spiritual and psychological role in society: to help us confront our own contradictions, bring them to consciousness, and integrate them. Hyers writes:

What we are reluctant to acknowledge, but what the clown fixes on, is that we are composed of and dream of contraries. We fantasize about complete freedom and complete security, rugged individualism and social harmony, amorous adventures and marital bliss, higher wages and lower prices, something worth fighting for… and peace and tranquility.

The ever-shifting media narratives — about clowns, and about everything — can guide us through a process of navigating these contradictions, swinging from one perspective to another, discovering the complexity of the stories we tell about our all-too-human lives. Hyers notes that clown performances often end with the clowns being chased off stage, driven out of the shared community space and sent scurrying back into the mists of chaos from which they came. “What has been welcomed so clamorously, must also be put to flight somewhat ingloriously,” he writes. “The clowns who have indulged us vicariously, must also vicariously pay a price for their profanities. The scapegrace becomes the scapegoat.”

clown-session_laura-cuttierBut at the heart of this process is a longing for wholeness and a renewed sense of unity. With his colorful patchwork antics, the clown reconnects “the many fragmented shades of our existence, if only by tossing them laughingly side by side and calling their ephemeral combination a link between the heavens and the earth.” Liminality and impermanence are all part of the play. The clown straddles, skips and stumbles over the lines we draw to separate the mundane and the sacred, “mudhead and godhead,” order and disorder, stability and change, inside and outside, life and death.

In this way, the clown is also a psychopomp, leading us through fragmentation towards resolution and the redemption of a richer life. Says Hyers, “[T]he clown resembles a ghostly apparition from the spirit world, paradoxically seeking with grinning death-mask to renew life and revive our slumping spirits.” Why should we be surprised, then, to find ourselves brought face-to-face with this paradoxical figure during the season of ghouls and goblins, when the veils between the worlds are thin and the dead mingle with the living?

So maybe the solution is actually quite simple: to rid ourselves of the creepy clown, we need only rediscover the deeper complexity and ambiguity of the clown as a sacred trickster and spiritual guide. To live more courageously and playfully in the face of our uncertainty. To remember to hold our desire for categories of right and wrong, good and evil as lightly as we can. For though we might try to follow where the clown leads, we cannot hope to pin him down or hold him still. It is only when we stop insisting that the clown be just one thing that he is free to become the multiplicity of being that he really is.


Photo Credits:
• “Untitled,” by Neys Fadzil (CC) [source]
• Jimmy Stewart, Emmett Kelly, The Greatest Show on Earth, 1952 [source]
• “Shove tuesday (Pierot and Harlequin)” by Paul Cézanne [source]
• “8.11.2010 clown 209/365” by Phil Roeder (CC) [source]
• Frontpage June 17, 2015, New York Daily News [source]
• “Clown Session,” by Laura Cuttier (CC) [source]


Daily Prompt: Transformation


This post originally appeared on Holy Wild, at alisonleighlilly.com

Holy Wild, Poetry & Music, Rite & Ritual

Holy Adoration: Fire as Prayer

This post originally appeared on Holy Wild, at alisonleighlilly.com


“How do I pray without fire?”

– question asked once in a dream

Just the sound of the word reminds me of fire: adoration, the heart aflame.

This is the first kind of prayer I ever really learned. The prayer I come back to again and again.

burningwaxsticks_CaitlinDoe

The strike of the match on the box, the scrape, the hiss — and then the little wick of the candle catches and holds…

This moment, this motion — it is a word in itself, a softly-spoken mantra of devotion. Shivering there, changing a little from one second to the next. Sometimes wavering. Sometimes utterly still. Swaying around its center of gravity in the wake of my breathing-out and breathing-in again.

It is enough: to sit before the altar each morning, to light the single flame, to watch it catch and hold. It is enough to show up to this act of intention. Without the need to grasp what cannot be grasped. Without the need to name what cannot be named.

To hold my heart like a candle wick, steady, upright, held open to the presence of my gods.

To hold my heart like fruit, or a flower, or a handful of seeds in an open palm, that they might arrive — might alight so gently, their touch barely felt — enticed, invited, uncompelled. To be eaten as the earth will one day eat me, slowly, bone by bone…

But then: sometimes it’s not enough. All this gentility — this steady, quiet kind of praying. The little bent wick sunk in its pool of wax, rooted in place, giving itself only just a little at a time.

“Let us pray with a good fire,” the Druids say.*

And so I pile up the kindling, some of it still wet from the rain. Under its skin, sap hisses and snaps where the fire licks it clean. Smoke slithers out between the splinters, unwinding upwards like incense. The husky whispers of my more selfish desires. I give it all to the flame.

It can take a long time for the damp kindling of my life to catch fire. I might sit for an hour making my inadequate offerings, poking here and there, wincing when a bit of wood shifts and suddenly the flame sputters out, suffocated, all but lost.

It is a ritual of unwavering attention, this kind of prayer. Arranging and rearranging, gathering in, working with what I have, trying to make room — opening up space for the fire to breathe. In a world that insists we fill every spare moment with progress, or at the very least a busyness that approximates it. It can feel like a radical thing to make space in my life for waiting and failure and stillness, to open up my lungs in song to my gods and let them breathe me empty.

It is not as clean and easy as a candle flame. It is the kind of prayer driven by longing, by frustration, by unrealized vision…

Until finally, I have sat before the smoking embers long enough, watched the wood turn first charred black and then white with a loose skin of ash. Watched the flame slip along each thin twig as if along a twining labyrinth of praise and recrimination, watched it run its course and meet its end and flicker out again. Until my whole body, my whole being has grown quiet and raw and I think, This is it, I have given everything I have and it hasn’t been enough…

And then, the moment I realize I was wrong.

blueflame_TracyRhodes

Sometimes what I want is a wild fire. A fire that roars. A fire that beats at the air with its bright fists clenched. Sometimes I want prayer like a fire that claims everything it touches. Prayer that ripples out across the rough dark surface of the world like music spilling down endlessly from the night sky, carrying the stars with it. Prayer that rolls over the vaulted ceiling of the heavens with thrilling impossible lightness — a fire round and hot like laughter, dragging the lush purples of faraway galaxies in its wake.

Prayer that turns over into adoration — into a joy that burns so hot, it blossoms like a blue flower inside every thrumming ember, unfolding its quiet petals one by one. As still and steady as an open palm.

Sometimes what I want is to give my whole life over to this adoration, to the hunger of the ones I love.

To be so bright inside that you cannot look, and cannot look away.

The Sufi poet Hafiz writes:

Love wants to reach out and manhandle us,
Break all our teacup talk of God.

If you had the courage and
Could give the Beloved His choice, some nights,
He would just drag you around the room
By your hair,
Ripping from your grip all those toys in the world
That bring you no joy…

You cannot get there with a candle flame. You cannot get there by wanting to be useful, reliable and tame.

You can only open your most secret heart like a furnace door, smoky-dark and so hot that to touch it — even for a moment — will leave a mark.

Only know that nothing is so precious it will not burn.

whatdoyousee_EileenMcFall


* Though they stole it from Hinduism.


Photo Credits:
• “burning waxsticks,” by Caitlin Doe (CC) [source]
• “Blue Flame,” by Tracy Rhodes (CC) [source]
• “what do you see in the flame?” by Eileen McFall (CC) [source]


This post originally appeared on Holy Wild, at alisonleighlilly.com

Featured, Holy Wild, Poetry & Music, praxis

Holy Adoration: Fire as Prayer

“How do I pray without fire?”

– question asked once in a dream

Just the sound of the word reminds me of fire: adoration, the heart aflame.

This is the first kind of prayer I ever really learned. The prayer I come back to again and again.

burningwaxsticks_CaitlinDoe

The strike of the match on the box, the scrape, the hiss — and then the little wick of the candle catches and holds…

This moment, this motion — it is a word in itself, a softly-spoken mantra of devotion. Shivering there, changing a little from one second to the next. Sometimes wavering. Sometimes utterly still. Swaying around its center of gravity in the wake of my breathing-out and breathing-in again.

It is enough: to sit before the altar each morning, to light the single flame, to watch it catch and hold. It is enough to show up to this act of intention. Without the need to grasp what cannot be grasped. Without the need to name what cannot be named.

To hold my heart like a candle wick, steady, upright, held open to the presence of my gods.

To hold my heart like fruit, or a flower, or a handful of seeds in an open palm, that they might arrive — might alight so gently, their touch barely felt — enticed, invited, uncompelled. To be eaten as the earth will one day eat me, slowly, bone by bone…

But then: sometimes it’s not enough. All this gentility — this steady, quiet kind of praying. The little bent wick sunk in its pool of wax, rooted in place, giving itself only just a little at a time.

“Let us pray with a good fire,” the Druids say.*

And so I pile up the kindling, some of it still wet from the rain. Under its skin, sap hisses and snaps where the fire licks it clean. Smoke slithers out between the splinters, unwinding upwards like incense. The husky whispers of my more selfish desires. I give it all to the flame.

It can take a long time for the damp kindling of my life to catch fire. I might sit for an hour making my inadequate offerings, poking here and there, wincing when a bit of wood shifts and suddenly the flame sputters out, suffocated, all but lost.

It is a ritual of unwavering attention, this kind of prayer. Arranging and rearranging, gathering in, working with what I have, trying to make room — opening up space for the fire to breathe. In a world that insists we fill every spare moment with progress, or at the very least a busyness that approximates it. It can feel like a radical thing to make space in my life for waiting and failure and stillness, to open up my lungs in song to my gods and let them breathe me empty.

It is not as clean and easy as a candle flame. It is the kind of prayer driven by longing, by frustration, by unrealized vision…

Until finally, I have sat before the smoking embers long enough, watched the wood turn first charred black and then white with a loose skin of ash. Watched the flame slip along each thin twig as if along a twining labyrinth of praise and recrimination, watched it run its course and meet its end and flicker out again. Until my whole body, my whole being has grown quiet and raw and I think, This is it, I have given everything I have and it hasn’t been enough…

And then, the moment I realize I was wrong.

blueflame_TracyRhodes

Sometimes what I want is a wild fire. A fire that roars. A fire that beats at the air with its bright fists clenched. Sometimes I want prayer like a fire that claims everything it touches. Prayer that ripples out across the rough dark surface of the world like music spilling down endlessly from the night sky, carrying the stars with it. Prayer that rolls over the vaulted ceiling of the heavens with thrilling impossible lightness — a fire round and hot like laughter, dragging the lush purples of faraway galaxies in its wake.

Prayer that turns over into adoration — into a joy that burns so hot, it blossoms like a blue flower inside every thrumming ember, unfolding its quiet petals one by one. As still and steady as an open palm.

Sometimes what I want is to give my whole life over to this adoration, to the hunger of the ones I love.

To be so bright inside that you cannot look, and cannot look away.

The Sufi poet Hafiz writes:

Love wants to reach out and manhandle us,
Break all our teacup talk of God.

If you had the courage and
Could give the Beloved His choice, some nights,
He would just drag you around the room
By your hair,
Ripping from your grip all those toys in the world
That bring you no joy…

You cannot get there with a candle flame. You cannot get there by wanting to be useful, reliable and tame.

You can only open your most secret heart like a furnace door, smoky-dark and so hot that to touch it — even for a moment — will leave a mark.

Only know that nothing is so precious it will not burn.

whatdoyousee_EileenMcFall


* Though they stole it from Hinduism.


Photo Credits:
• “burning waxsticks,” by Caitlin Doe (CC) [source]
• “Blue Flame,” by Tracy Rhodes (CC) [source]
• “what do you see in the flame?” by Eileen McFall (CC) [source]

"Glastonbury, Chalice Well," by The Mask and Mirror
Conservation, Featured, Holy Wild, Rite & Ritual

Bless the Waters Thrice: Making Environmentally Sustainable Offerings

In the days of the ancient Celts, a devotee might have honored the gods of her people with a votive object — a torc, a piece of intricately-wrought jewelry, a small statue of a god or goddess, a bent silver coin — given in offering to the clear-running waters of a river or wellspring, or deposited in the murky waters of a marsh at a dedicated sacred site. In the same way, a warrior might have offered up his sword or shield, ritually broken to render it useless or perhaps forged specially to be a sacrifice, never to be used in battle.

But those days are gone.Blessing the Waters, An Environmentally-Safe Method for Making Offerings, by Alison Leigh Lilly

"Glastonbury, Chalice Well," by The Mask and Mirror

Now, when I walk along the creek that runs through the city park near my house, it is the glint of discarded beer cans or the ripped foil from a cigarette carton that catches my eye, pressed into the muck of the streambed. On misty spring days, the smell of sewage is thick in the air. The water is polluted with urban runoff, the chemical waste from homes and businesses, fertilizers, pesticides and bacterial blooms, while oil slicks and other toxins leach into the surrounding soil. It has been almost one hundred years since the salmon who once overflowed the banks of this stream every autumn have been able to survive here.

These days, we are constantly confronted by the reality of how humans impact the planet. We cannot toss a piece of jewelry into the local stream without knowing that this is an act of pollution no less harmful than that of those who leave their beer cans behind. We cannot leave food or drink at an outdoor shrine without considering how it may endanger the health or safety of local wildlife. The ritual practice of “silvering the water” takes on a sinister, sickly meaning in a modern world where large-scale industrial mining for precious metals and minerals has caused serious, far-ranging environmental damage, including the release of toxic heavy metals into our already threatened waters.

As Pagans, we often have a love affair with the past that leads us to try to model the rituals and practices of ancient times as closely as possible. But we live in a different world today. Despite the ornate beauty of certain approaches to Druidic ritual, I wince if the officiating priest uses tiny single-serving bottles of whiskey or wine as an offering, pouring one for each of a half-dozen gods into an offering bowl (or worse, onto the ground). What else can we do at the end of the ritual, but dump that bowl of booze down the drain and toss all those little plastic bottles in the trash?

Can this really be what the gods want from us? Are we so busy trying to do ritual “correctly” that we fail to do it right?

"Burning Incencs," by Richard IJzermans

This question isn’t unique to modern Pagans. In China, Taoists and Buddhists face similar challenges as they grapple with the dire problem of air pollution, and how it impacts the traditional practice of burning incense, candles, paper and fireworks as propitiatory offerings to gain favor with the gods. The founder of the Alliance of Religions and Conservation, Martin Palmer explains:

[T]hey “were getting overwhelmed by the smoke—and were really offended by the gross consumerism of this.”

So the Daoists teamed up with the Buddhists and began the “Three Sticks Movement.” When people enter temples, they are urged (or, in the case of the Ling Yin temple in Hangzhou, required) to limit their incense to three sticks: “one for heaven, one for earth, one for you.” The movement has little impact on macro-level air pollution, but the revolution is intended to be a cultural one, Palmer says.

“What’s fundamental about that movement is that it’s saying ‘simplicity.’ It is saying that extravagance, that excess, has no place in a more compassionate, more spiritual world.”

Whether the Three Sticks Movement will have a wider cultural or environmental impact remains to be seen, but already some monks have begun to notice that only a few years after adopting the practice, “the curtain of smoke around temples was removed” and the birds had begun to return.

"Kenai Sunrise," by Eric

The ancient Celts held a special reverence for water. The mists that blew in off the sea, the wellsprings that rose up out of the earth, the rivers and streams that wound their way through the land providing fresh water and swift passage, the bogs and marshes that could be treacherous obstacles to the unwary and the lost — all of these were seen as liminal thresholds, doorways to the Otherworld. It was with good reason that votive objects were so often deposited in such bodies of water, given over to the realms of the gods, the fair folk and the beloved dead.

These days, this same reverence for the element of water compels me to rethink some of the ancient rituals that I seek to embody in my modern practice. Rather than deposit offerings in local waters, which are already strained by the heavy burden of human pollution, instead I make an offering of water itself. I use a minimal amount of clean water (no oils or other additives), blessing it three times — once for the ancestors, once for the spirits of the land, and once for the gods — before I pour it in libation:

By the warmth and work of my hands,
I bless this water
As an offering to my ancestors.

By the sound and song of my voice,
I bless this water
As an offering to the land.

By the breath that moves me and gives me life,
I bless this water
As an offering to my gods.

May this thrice-blessed water be accepted as an offering
of my love, gratitude and praise.

By the Three Sacred Realms,
by Land, Sea and Sky,
so may it be.

Like the proponents of the Three Sticks Movement, I believe that this compassionate simplicity is offering enough. I look for no other silver in the water than the salmon’s annual return.


Photo Credits:
• “Glastonbury, Chalice Well,” by The Mask and Mirror (CC) [source]
• “Burning Incense,” by Richard IJzermans (CC) [source]
• “Kenai Sunrise,” by Eric (CC) [source]

Adaptation of "Tea Cup," by Dory Kornfeld (CC)
Holy Wild, justice

Q&A: Are the gods immortal? (Are we?)

Ben asks a question inspired by the science fiction writer Douglas Adams and his too often under-appreciated novel, The Long Dark Tea-Time of the Soul:

What do you think about the gods being immortal?

As I see it, the old ones like Ra and Zeus and the river dragons of China all are immortal beings that are still a part of this world, but roam it like middle management, never getting any acknowledgement for the work they still do. We call them to help us and then they go back to their work, kinda like a waiter. In a “we call them and they come” mentality. Or somewhat slaves to our whims.

I know that this is a dim view of the mental state of the immortals and their working with us. What do you think? Am I overthinking things by imposing our mental, moral, and equality views on them?

It is a dim view, Ben, though understandable considering the bleakness of Adams’ humor in this novel. It’s not called The Long Dark Tea-Time of the Soul for nothing! In fact, like so much of Adams’ humor, the jokes come on so fast and are so densely layered with cultural references, they can be hard to tease apart. In the title alone, not only do we have a reference to the religious experience of lost faith and the obscurity or absence of the divine, but also to the peculiar cultural implications of “tea-time,” that quintessentially British custom built on a history of colonialism, imperialism obscured in the guise of unassuming domesticity. The title tells you everything you need to know about the themes pervasive in this book: it’s all about marginalization, exploitation, and the lingering (potentially redemptive) guilt it provokes.

Adaptation of "Tea Cup," by Dory Kornfeld (CC)

What’s curious is that, of all the gods Adams could have chosen for his book, he chose the Norse gods — gods who actually aren’t immortal, whose mythology includes a story about the death of the gods. According to some interpretations, Ragnarok (unlike many eschatological myths) concerns events that have already happened — and are always happening, and will happen again. In a sense, the Norse gods are already dead. Adams even makes passing reference to this in a scene when Thor explains himself to his mortal companion Kate while, off-stage, her downstairs neighbor plays Wagner’s Götterdämmerung (“The Twilight of the Gods”).

So let’s set aside polytheist theology for a second and assume that when Adams writes about immortality, he’s not actually talking about the gods themselves. Then what’s he talking about?

Back in grad school, I wrote a poem (this is related, I swear) that began with the lines:

This is your god: at the peak of the mountain, nothing but worms.

And ended with the line:

The horrifying fact that life continues.

There is a way in which we revel in our mortality, our finitude. We imagine that death — even if it does not offer us a literal heaven — can at least offer us an end, an ultimate escape.

I think that Adams’ book is about the “horrifying fact that life continues,” even beyond our ability to grapple effectively and meaningfully with the consequences of our choices. (Actually, I have a feeling most of his books are about this in one way or another.) One of the major themes of the book is how we marginalize and ignore those who don’t contribute “productively” to society in ways we deem acceptable — people with mental or physical disabilities, people who are old or infirm, people who are homeless, people who do not have the proper paperwork to obtain a passport or a credit card or an airplane ticket, people who are constrained in their ability to express themselves or communicate with others, even people who clearly possess extraordinary psychic abilities but that aren’t easy to exploit or control. What is most moving to me about the scene in which Thor laments the immortality of the gods is when he points out how people avoid making eye-contact with him on the streets. Kate asks, “Is this when you’re wearing the helmet?” (that is, the huge viking helmet with horns), and Thor replies, “Especially when I’m wearing the helmet!”

In another scene, the “holistic detective” Dirk Gently is stuck in a city traffic jam and gets out of his car to wander up and down the busy-but-unmoving lanes of traffic looking for the clue that his subconscious is smugly refusing to point out to him — when he is suddenly struck by the thought of the gods being like whales. He reflects how sounds carry so very far underwater that today there is nowhere in the entire ocean where you can escape the pervasive noise of motor boats and human activity. The whales can no longer hear each other singing. In other words, it is not the gods who are immortal and all-powerful: it is us. We underestimate our power, our ability to shape our world and the far-reaching consequences of our actions. And as a result, we drown out the song of the gods, without even realizing what we’re missing.

The bleakness of The Long Dark Tea-Time of the Soul is its critique of our willingness to treat each other (and the gods) like vending machines, here to serve our needs. The person (or god) who can’t serve us is as useless and incomprehensible to us as a Coke machine with an “Out of Order” sign taped to it. It’s no coincidence that Adams portrays the gods as vagabonds who have to sleep in an abandoned train station, while the villains of the book are comfortably middle-class characters who use money to buy the luxury of ignoring “all the mess.” Luckily, I don’t think most modern Pagans actually treat the gods this way! In my experience, modern Pagans care deeply about equality and social justice, honoring the gods and other human beings with respect and generosity.

Whether our gods are immortal or not, whether they’re supernatural powers or manifestations of natural forces, I agree with Adams that the only real “solution” to the problem of marginalization is to stubbornly insist on paying attention — to pay attention even when what we see makes us uncomfortable, implicates us as guilty, or leaves us grief-stricken in despair. To pay attention to the unexpected and the impossible, to be open to the intimacy of the other and the strangeness of the familiar. If the gods are a part of our world, we owe it to them (and to ourselves, and to each other) to pay attention to this world and take it seriously. To honor even the worms on the peak of the mountain as essential participants in creating a world worth living in.

Have you ever experienced a “long, dark tea-time of the soul”? How did you cope with it? (And if you’ve read the book — what do you think of Adams’ portrayal of the gods?)


Have another question for the Q&A series? Leave it in the comments below, ask me on Tumblr, or email me.


Photo Credit:
• Adaptation of “Tea Cup,” by Dory Kornfeld (CC) [original]

"Cosmic Dance," by Prabhu B Doss (CC)
art, Featured, Holy Wild, peace

Art, Entertainment and the Technology of the Sacred

Or,
Satire, Irony & the Discourse on Pagan Diversity

Recent health issues have prevented me from doing much blogging this winter, and so I wanted to take this opportunity to revisit an essay I wrote almost two years ago but never published.

By the time I had gathered my thoughts and written this post, much of the controversy which originally inspired it had calmed, and the conversation in the larger Pagan community had moved on. Yet many of the issues at the heart of that controversy remained only half-articulated, and as a community, we’ve continued to encounter many of them again and again, albeit in always shifting forms. Most recently, talks and events at this year’s Pantheacon — including those involving a satirical newsletter mocking racist organizations (written in part by a Pagan of color), and the unintended but very real hurt it caused to some other Pagans of color — echo the themes I attempted to address in this essay when I wrote it almost two years ago.

How do we grapple with the sacred ambivalence of art, poetry and satire, in our theology and in our politics? How do we distinguish between healthy cross-cultural borrowing through art and other forms of communication, and harmful cultural appropriation? Between respect for historical accuracy and unique cultural contexts, and an obsession with cultural purity that so easily gives way to exclusion and racism? How do we express ourselves and explore our uncertainties freely and respectfully in the context of difficult conversations, especially about issues of injustice and inequality when the stakes are so high and the pain so raw? Two years ago, some Pagans objected to the characterization of ritual as art/entertainment because to them it implied that their religion was not being “taken seriously” by others. Today, some Pagans (not all of them the same) are suggesting that there are some political issues that are “too serious for satire.” I hope that examining some of the parallels between these conversations, separated by time and subject matter, might give us some insight into the deeper themes that our community is struggling to articulate during our long, slow coming-of-age, and how those themes are reflected in conversations about sometimes vastly different issues.

Over the past week, I’ve done some gentle editing on this essay, but for the most part it remains how I originally wrote it. For that reason, the references are almost entirely to the events surrounding the “pop-culture Paganism” controversy of two years ago, and do not directly reference current events. However, I’m a strong believer in learning from history; in this case, our own (very recent) history. I hope that this essay can offer all of us in the Pagan community who care deeply about these issues — especially those who, like myself, feel that art, poetry and satire are sacred forms of expression capable of provoking deep healing and great transformation — something to contemplate as we move forward in healthy and healing ways.

My heart aches with the weight of the racism so prevalent in American society, and in our own community. But I’m also concerned by references I have seen recently to satire as “weaponized poetry” and its elision with the use of irony as a way of obfuscating, manipulating or directing violence against others.* I’m concerned by claims that satire is only appropriate when “everyone understands” it and the satirist “understands everything” about the issue — which is another way of saying that it is never appropriate, for who could possibly claim to have such a comprehensive and complete understanding, or such control over the understanding of others?

A community that cannot tell the difference between poetry and propaganda, between satire and scorn, is a community at risk of losing its grasp of the real political power of art. It is a community at risk of sliding into the brittle literalism and harmful intolerance of fundamentalism that is actively hostile to expressions of ambivalence, uncertainty, mystery, curiosity and, in the end, diversity itself. In light of these concerns, I wanted to share this essay as a robust defense of the sacred value of art, poetry and satire within both our theological explorations and our political discourse. It is my view that ambivalence itself can be sacred, for it opens us to authentic experiences of others which may be unexpected or challenging, and so we can appreciate this ambivalence and the art forms that express it as powerful and meaningful aspects of our relationship with the numinous, and with each other.

"Cosmic Dance," by Prabhu B Doss (CC)

[dropcap style=”font-size: 60px; color: #038c4a;”]I[/dropcap] met the gods in a high school auditorium.

It began with a clap of thunder, a ripple of woodwinds and the words, “There is an island where rivers run deep…”

And then the whole vivid magic of the musical Once On This Island blossomed on stage. It was the spring of my sophomore year, I was almost sixteen, and I was coming into my own. I had finally quit the soccer team I’d played on since grade school just to please my parents, and I was writing poetry and learning guitar and generally throwing myself headlong into becoming the true artsy hippie chick I’d always wanted to be. I couldn’t sing, dance or act worth shit, but when a friend mentioned that the high school theater group had a spot open on the lighting technician crew, I signed up.

That spring I spent hours squirreled away in the tiny, dimly-lit lighting booth at the back of the theater, up among the dust and stacks of moldy, half-forgotten storage boxes just below the roof access ladder. I flipped switches and swung the spotlight across the stage, and a whole world came to life below me full of sound and fury and laughter and music and dance and so much color. And every once in awhile, the old light board would short out, plunging the stage into darkness, and I’d have to show it some tough love with a well-aimed kick or strangle it into submission with some electrical tape. But that’s how my art has always been — not glamorous and center stage, but just on the awkward side of nerdy, and done mostly in the dark.

I wouldn’t attend my first Pagan ritual until I was in college a few years later. But when I look back at that spring of my high school sophomore year, what I remember is the dawning sense of the sacred that seemed to bubble up from among the trilling flutes and rumbling drums in the orchestra pit. I remember the costumes swirling and flashing in a riot of color, set against a minimalist background of black-cardboard silhouetted trees. I remember the kind-hearted giggles among the dancers at their missteps and mess-ups as they learned their moves, and the soaring sense of awe when the singers hit those high notes, voices swept up on a surge of adrenaline and startled pride. I remember the itch to dance moving through my body like an unspoken prayer as I sat alone in that dark little booth.

And I remember watching my fellow students down on the stage, belting out songs in honor of the gods of earth and sea, love and death, and wondering… What did it feel like to sing praises in honor of gods you didn’t really believe in? I wondered if the more conservative Christians among them were wincing, or doing penance after rehearsal each night. Somehow, I doubted it. It was all just good entertainment, after all.

But then, truly good entertainment is never just that. Art is sacred. It shapes the way we see the world. It tunes us to new ways of being and thinking. It moves us to love, fear, grief and longing. It opens us to the realities of our own mortality, and to the possibilities of a life fully lived, set loose by death into the realm of memory and legacy. Storytelling, music, dance — the living arts of body and community — the preserving arts of pigments and paints, clay and stone.

"Asia Global Belly Dance Competition 2012, held in Singapore," by Matt Paish (CC)

Pagans With Hammers

There has been a perennial debate in the Pagan community about art, entertainment and theology, and their influences on modern Paganism. There have even been times when I’ve found myself caught off-guard by the ambivalence towards art and poetry expressed by Pagans who I would have thought would be strong advocates for its inclusion and celebration — a response that has challenged me to examine my own complex reactions to this topic. One such response came from Christine Hoff Kraemer, who wrote:

As someone who makes her living largely at a computer screen, I know I already struggle to be present with my little square of earth and its particular flora and fauna (including the human fauna who are my neighbors). […] I worry that fiction can have an escapist quality, and that engaging with it too directly in my spiritual life might distract me even further from the local. [emphasis added]

It struck me as strange that Kraemer would elide fiction and “time on the computer.” I could at least understand the Reconstructionists’ theological argument against newly-invented gods (even if I didn’t agree with it), but there was something unsettling to me about this notion of putting fiction, and art more generally, at odds with an attentive engagement with the natural world.

In another post, a response to an interview with secular atheist Pagan Amy B. that appeared on Jason Mankey’s blog, John Halstead shared his concerned reaction to Amy’s comment that she viewed ritual primarily as a form of entertainment:

When I read that, I thought, “Crap! This will confirm the worst fears of theistic Pagans about non-theists.” I commented on Jason’s blog and expressed my concern, and I was glad to see other non-theists speak up as well. […] Many non-theistic Pagans, including myself, have a deep sense of spirituality and treat ritual as something sacred.

Reading the rest of Amy’s interview, I wondered if “entertainment” was really the word she was looking for. She goes on to speak about the power and beauty of ritual done well, and the social and psychological implications of a shared physical, aesthetic experience. It seemed to me that she was speaking not so much of “mere” entertainment, but of the power of art.

There’s good reason to feel uneasy about equating art with entertainment, or fiction with “time on the computer.” In his book Amusing Ourselves to Death, Neil Postman explores the differences between entertainment and what he calls “enchantment,” drawing heavily on Marshall McLuhan’s theories concerning the relationship between various media, the experiences they provoke and the ideas they communicate. Postman’s focus in this book is on the effects that the medium of television had on the many different forms of cultural discourse — from politics to religion to family life — in the modern Western world, particularly leading up to the mid-80s. But in his 1998 talk, “Five Things We Need to Know About Technological Change” (pdf), he anticipated the coming digital age of smart phones and social media when he noted:

Perhaps you are familiar with the old adage that says: To a man with a hammer, everything looks like a nail. We may extend that truism: To a person with a pencil, everything looks like a sentence. To a person with a TV camera, everything looks like an image. To a person with a computer, everything looks like data. […] The writing person favors logical organization and systematic analysis, not proverbs. The telegraphic person values speed, not introspection. The television person values immediacy, not history. And computer people, what shall we say of them? Perhaps we can say that the computer person values information, not knowledge, certainly not wisdom. Indeed, in the computer age, the concept of wisdom may vanish altogether. [emphasis added]

What can we say of a culture in which access to the multi-media cacophony of the internet has become ubiquitous, instantaneous and interactive? To a person with a smart phone, everything looks like a Tumblr post. (And warrants the same call-out culture response.) As Postman rightly points out:

Technological change is not additive; it is ecological. […] A new medium does not add something; it changes everything. [emphasis added]

"dancing with lights," by petros asimomytis (CC)

The debate over pop culture and theology that has raged in the Pagan community seems to me to be a debate about how technology has changed everything, including art and entertainment. One of those changes is that, at a basic level, the carefully constructed division between the two has begun to break down. We’re no longer sure where “mere” entertainment stops, and true art begins. We now live in a world where we make our own entertainment: from internet memes that seem to take on a rollicking life of their own as they crowd-surf the crowd-source, to painstakingly edited YouTube videos of autotuned local news reports and comic artists who spend hours on cartoons that intentionally mimic the look of a five-year-old who can’t draw. We live in a world where the best forms of entertainment are often meta-commentaries on the medium itself, where the sacred art of satire rubs elbows with the laziness of cynicism and sarcasm, where sincerity is in constant rivalry with irony, and everybody’s a hipster who doesn’t care if you care that they actually care.

Why We Tell The Story

So what are the “worst fears” of some polytheists that Halstead worries will be confirmed when they are confronted with the beliefs and opinions of other polytheistic and non-theist Pagans?

Perhaps most important to this conversation is Postman’s “fifth idea,” which is worth quoting in full:

I come now to the fifth and final idea, which is that media tend to become mythic. I use this word in the sense in which it was used by the French literary critic, Roland Barthes. He used the word “myth” to refer to a common tendency to think of our technological creations as if they were God-given, as if they were a part of the natural order of things. I have on occasion asked my students if they know when the alphabet was invented. The question astonishes them. It is as if I asked them when clouds and trees were invented. The alphabet, they believe, was not something that was invented. It just is. It is this way with many products of human culture but with none more consistently than technology. Cars, planes, TV, movies, newspapers — they have achieved mythic status because they are perceived as gifts of nature, not as artifacts produced in a specific political and historical context. When a technology becomes mythic, it is always dangerous because it is then accepted as it is, and is therefore not easily susceptible to modification or control. [emphasis added]

As much as the polytheist debate has been about theology, it has also been about the mythic place of media in our religious practices.

In some reconstructionist and devotional polytheists who argue in favor of historical accuracy, scholarly research and deity-centered ritual, we can see a parallel to Postman’s “computer people” who value data and information as the primary organizing principle of reality. From this perspective, it matters at a fundamental level that the gods are “real,” external, discrete, identifiable — in short, the gods are matters of fact. Their existence is a piece of information, a point of data, that must be taken into consideration, factored into whatever code we live by if we expect that code to function properly. The growing emphasis on piety, ritual efficacy and right relationship among some Pagans reflects this desire to organize and manage the “data” of the gods’ existence in a way that will not break down or return inexplicable error messages that bring our engagement with the real world to a grinding halt. From this perspective, ambiguity in our language is an obstacle to clarity and precision that can quickly derail our attempts to live devoutly.

To “smart phone people,” however, data no longer represents inviolate truth. Facts make up the messy, quantum sludge of the collective, crowd-sourced mind out of which a consensus reality congeals. Given the overwhelming and sometimes self-contradictory milieu, there is not necessarily any way to “function properly” in the midst of this onslaught of information, no way to factor in every stray data point. Attempts to write the perfect code end up too brittle to keep up with the pace and unpredictability of change, and no matter how good your phone’s data plan, sometimes you just can’t get a signal. In fact, the task of distinguishing the signal from the noise is ultimately the work of a lifetime, a creative process of individual exploration and self-expression. From the viewpoint of some pop-culture Pagans, there is simply no reliable way to differentiate the gods as external “facts” from the socially constructed and mediated experiences of those gods. For these polytheists, ritual is like the Double-Rainbow Song — a spontaneous response to awe, autotuned, imitated, parodied and adapted into a thousand unique derivations and expressions, some of which are really quite beautiful and reverent. To “smart phone” Pagans, theology is Wikipedia.

Of course, these are not strictly defined and mutually exclusive categories; none of us are always and only one or the other. We may be “computer people” about some things, and “smart phone people” about others. At other times, we may be “television people,” “pencil people” or even “pigment-and-paintbrush people” or “hammer-and-anvil people.” All of us find ourselves in a matrix of multiple-belonging, and so many of us often feel the pressure to adjust ourselves to more neatly fit into only one category, to be only one kind of person.

Because It Might Lead To Dancing

There is an old joke that goes: Why are Southern Baptists against sex outside of marriage? Because it might lead to dancing. At the risk of ruining the joke by explaining it, the punchline works because it flips on its head the assumptions about the goal of a particular religious group and its authority figures. The joke plays on the realization that dancing itself can be subversive in its own right, perhaps even more so than sex. The act of dancing can radically shape our perception of the world around us and how we relate to it. And so by extension, it can influence (and be influenced by) all of the ways that we experience the intensity of intimate relationship. It can let joy, pleasure and rebellion leak in where figures of authority would prefer to enforce conformity in the name of “seriousness.”

"let's dance! Mevlevi Sufi Whirling Dervishes," by Tinou Bao (CC)

Art has always held a controversial place in relation to authority, in particular religious authority. It can be used to shore up this authority and to reinforce worldviews, to elevate some aspects of reality to the realm of untouchability while dismissing others as merely frivolous and so justifiably ignored. Art always involves an active, intentional participation in the world; it shapes and changes that medium within which it participates. Without an appreciation for the potential power of art to shape our relationship with the world around us, art as “mere entertainment” can become something that distracts us from engaging more deeply with the world-as-it-is apart from its re-creation within the aesthetic experience. As a species, we are capable of constructing works of fantasy that are self-referential and appear to be self-reaffirming. Because works of art can present us with a sense of wholeness and coherence, balance and completeness, we always run the risk of mistaking the work itself for a comprehensive view of reality — we can become convinced that a particular artistic representation is a “matter of fact.” In short, when we no longer recognize art as art, we risk taking it as reality. Works of art cease to be cultural artifacts and are instead perceived to be, as Postman put it, “gifts of nature” that have achieved mythic status.

If sex can lead to dancing, the Southern Baptists of our joke might worry that the joy and pleasure of the aesthetic act of dancing may come to be seen as synonymous with sexuality and sexual relationship itself, obscuring aspects of sexuality that are not, in fact, very much like dancing at all (such as the ethical and biological implications of sex and its potential long-term results). We can laugh at this joke because it highlights extremist and fundamentalist attitudes that fear pleasure and aesthetic self-expression even more than sex. But this potential confusion between works of art and the realities with which they play fast and foot-loose is an issue we can see even in more open and inclusive communities. If modern Pagans intentionally mythologize works of art or entertainment, might they not risk placing these cultural artifacts “beyond our control,” reimagining them as “gifts of nature” rather than as products of our own human hands? To intentionally mythologize a work of art or entertainment may give undue authority to the human creators of those works, allowing the particular worldview that their work embodies to rise to the level of “reality” or natural fact.

Yet art can also be used to deconstruct or challenge this authority as well, and to undermine current mainstream worldviews. The very basic process of making art does this: the artist must learn how to effectively and meaningfully engage with a physical medium that is not infinitely malleable, a passive subject to the human will, but which has its own limitations and puts up its own unique forms of resistance. Making art puts us in touch with the “real world” around us in a very immediate and undeniable way — art is engagement. Great art does this not only for the artist, but for the audience as well, forcing us to come to terms with the constructed nature of the work itself by calling our attention to its own artifice. The political potential of such art lies in its ability to show us the ways that our own presumed worldview is itself “artificial,” a cultural artifact that is the product of a specific place and time. In reminding us of the constructed nature of our experience of reality and forcing us to confront the natural limits of the media through which we communicate with each other, art can open doors to a deeper appreciation of the world around us. It can be a doorway to the gods, breaking open worldviews that have become too self-referential and stagnant.

Which way you view the role of art and entertainment in modern Paganism depends on where you stand and what you have at stake. Does art undermine “serious” belief in what is actually real, or does it crack open stale notions of reality to let in a fresh breath of spirit? Does it deliberately obscure the processes of meaning-making, or does it expose those processes and invite fuller, more self-aware participation in them? There aren’t necessarily any “right answers” to these questions — only complexly overlapping views with a wide variety of (sometimes unexpected or unintended) consequences.

"Traditional Kandyan Dance," by Gwenael Piaser (CC)

Gods in Disguise

Where do I stand? Somewhere between the “smart phone people,” and the people who still see the function of art as rooted in a community of storytellers, gathered together around the hearthfire at night whispering old familiar tales into the darkness, giving life to the heroes, gods and sacred landscapes of memory and myth through the movement and music of our own bodies in a cooperative, participatory experience…

Modern social media and technology allow this kind of storytelling to take on new forms, and we often find ourselves retelling old stories in new and surprising ways. When I met the gods in high school, I did not know them for what they were.** They were gods in disguise, gods acted out and embodied by people who did not really believe in them (except, perhaps, for their shared belief in the beauty and value to be found in good art). These were gods hidden behind the veil of “mere entertainment” — but that did not keep them from being gods, and sparking in me a deep longing to explore the mystery of the Many that I sensed unfolding before me. An important aspect of my relationship with the gods is the long-standing belief (confirmed by experience) that the gods are so much more than I can possibly conceive or control. They will find their own ways into the human heart and mind, even if it means that on occasion they have to take a detour through Hollywood.

The musical “Once On This Island” still in many ways defines my sense of connection and the spirit of my own approach to worship. My heart hears the song, my feet move along, and to the music of the gods, I dance. And as the song goes, much of the time I feel that I am “dancing just to stay alive.” This is how essential, how absolutely vital art and poetry are to my spiritual life.

"Dance like no one is watching," by Heather (CC)


* The differences between satire and irony are subtle, but crucial. Satire relies on the intentional use of ambiguity and uncertainty to question the presumed authority of current systems of power, while irony asserts itself as a superior frame of reference, often through the use of cynicism, sarcasm or disdain. While irony can be used as one (of many) techniques in satire, it is in no way synonymous with it, nor can the political function of satire be reduced to a simplistic one-to-one comparison to irony, cynicism, propaganda or sophistry.

** I was also not yet familiar with the complex issues of cultural appropriation and racism that potentially arise when stories about people of color are retold by a mostly white teenage cast. I note this here, not to denounce the choice of the adult supervising staff to put on this particular musical at my high school — being involved in the production profoundly influenced me in many ways, ways that I believe have helped me become more sensitive to and passionate about issues of justice and equality — but I want to acknowledge my own ignorance about the broader implications of these issues that this choice took for granted or failed to address at the time. This is made all the more complex by the history of cultural borrowing underlying Once On This Island itself, which is a musical adaptation of a novel by a Trinidad-born American writer who herself had drawn from Hans Christian Andersen’s “The Little Mermaid” and Shakespear’s “Romeo and Juliet” for inspiration. Even now, with more awareness about these issues than I had then, I’m still unsure about whether my high school’s choice to put on this play is to be criticized as insensitive, or applauded as appreciative of diversity.


Photo Credits:

• “Cosmic Dance,” by Prabhu B Doss (CC) [source]
• “Asia Global Belly Dance Competition 2012,” by Matt Paish (CC) [source]
• “dancing with lights,” by petros asimomytis (CC) [source]
• “let’s dance! Mevlevi Sufi Whirling Dervishes,” by Tinou Bao (CC) [source]
• “Traditional Kandyan Dance,” by Gwenael Piaser (CC) [source]
• “Dance like no one is watching,” by Heather (CC) [source]

Gods Like Mountains, Gods Like Mist, by Alison Leigh Lilly
Muse in Brief

Meme Me…

Hey look, someone on Twitter made a meme out of me! I feel honored! (Does this mean I get to start wearing a “Ask Me About My Meme” button on my lapel?)

//platform.twitter.com/widgets.js

From my post, “Gods Like Mountains, Gods Like Mist.”