Holy Wild, Pacifism

Memorial Day, Motherland and Blood Sacrifice

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


This post was originally published on my former blog, Meadowsweet & Myrrh, on Monday, May 31, 2010.


memorial-day_david-yu

It’s Memorial Day here in the United States, and I find myself, once again and as usual, deeply ambivalent.

As a Pagan and a pacifist, as a peacemaking Druid, I know that I am not naturally inclined to celebrate holidays of militarism, patriotism and nationalism. This is simple and straight-forward. I find it easier to celebrate the values commemorated on Martin Luther King Day — those of social justice and the sentiments of equality and community, as well as the grief of injustice and of dreams mown down by hate and violence — than the adolescent indulgence in triumphant glorying and loud reveling that occurs each July on Independence Day.

Yet unlike these others, Memorial Day leaves me feeling disconcerted and conflicted. Every year, all through this holiday weekend I read passing comments and thoughtful reflections alike on the True Meaning of Memorial Day, all repeating and revolving around this singular, pervasive notion: that we must “honor the memory of the soldiers who fought and died for us.”

Honor is such a powerful word, and death such a vital reality. But there is a kind of emptiness, a hollowness echoing within that expression, one that takes for granted what our relationship is to the dead, what our responsibilities are to the living, what honor and memory truly look like, how they function, what they require of us.

There is a part of me that hears this edict, this charge to honor our dead soldiers, and responds with bewilderment and uncertainty. What could this statement possibly mean? What does it mean to honor these dead, and how do we do it? How do we demonstrate or act on this honoring and remembering? Far from rejecting the notion of such honor as mere misdirected nationalist pride or wrong-headed militaristic chauvinism, it seems obvious to me that something else is going on here, something similar to — and yet so different from — the process of grieving.

But when it comes to questions of how to respond to the cultural demand to “honor the soldiers who died for you,” I find that the problem is not so much that I do not want to comply, but that I literally do not know how. Assuming, of course, that our honor and memory should take a form other than silent complicity in the continuing violence and militarism of our government — what should my honor look like?

memorial-day-weekend_bill-dickinson_sm

More than anything else, I have come to understand Memorial Day as a day about families, shattered or wounded by loss, about children whose parents never made it home from the front lines and, perhaps most poignantly in the shared psyche of our culture, about mothers still mourning the death of their children. Those who would rage at me for my ambivalence (some would say cold-heartedness and ingratitude, though they would be wrong) do so, I believe, not really for the sake of the dead, who are by now beyond caring, but for the mothers whose hearts have been broken, whose tears might not even yet be dry on their cheeks, but who have rallied their strength, their courage and even their grief in order to “soldier on” here among the rolling hills and fecund valleys of the safe-guarded homeland, the soft and self-giving heartland that opens itself to sacrifice for the sake of life. It may be the soldiers who die, but it is inevitably their mothers, and their families, who survive to suffer and grieve, and yet sustain and carry on.

It’s no coincidence, I think, that our holidays of war and violence — Memorial Day, Flag Day, Independence Day, Veteran’s Day — occur during the lush, fertile months of the year, during seasons of growth, warmth and sunlight, culminating with fruition and harvest. At the height of summer, we see how death and sacrifice lay just under the surface of thriving, squirming life.* It is during this time of the year that we celebrate and honor (in repetitive, often shallow or thoughtless ways) the deaths of “service men and women,” who no doubt themselves played no small part in bringing about the deaths of uncounted and unremembered others while they lived.

In this way, we forge and reinforce this half-unconscious connection between the violence of war and death, and the prosperity and nurturing lushness of the protected heartland. This is the cultural archetype of the noble, grieving mother, who forever gives freely of herself so that others may prosper: it is she who gives life to the son, though he will grow up to break her heart and abandon her loving arms to go off to war; it is she who becomes the first teacher of this son, showing him what strength and courage look like through her unending patience and unconditional support; it is she who shares the risks of war and willingly accepts the burden of living with the wound that loss and death will surely leave; she who must, in the end, watch her children die even as, in her life-bearing role, she gives birth to new children and new possibilities for the future. She is, in short, the archetype of the motherland. She is the very thing, we are told, that our soldiers fight and die for. And she is us.

Rolling Hills

I honor the land in which and from which I was born, a land that I love deeply. I witness each spring, summer and autumn the dance of death and life taking place, rising up from the moist decay of mud and earth, shining through every bug-bitten leaf. I understand both intellectually and palpably, with my whole body, this relationship between the destructive and the progenitive, and the fearlessness it demands. I know that it is important to honor the strength and courage of the archetypal Great Mother, embodied in the life-sustaining and deeply vulnerable earth. It is important to celebrate our own capacity to withstand death, to bear witness to life as much as to bravely bear life itself. It is important to acknowledge our potential for destructive acts, to remember the real eventuality of our own destruction, and to engage with these possibilities in ways that render them creative, generative and meaningful. And it is important — by the gods is it important! — to grieve.

So many of these themes express themselves in Memorial Day and yet, as I said before, what we experience now is also tragically unlike true grief, honor and memory. What begins as a natural urge to honor and adore the heartland, the motherland of our birth and living, has become increasingly distorted, usurped in the name of the fatherland, the patriarchal nation, the government and the military. What we elevate and honor now is a kind of pathological disjoint that keeps us safe and cut-off from the violence occurring overseas. It is based not on the fearlessness of self-giving life, but on the paranoia and xenophobia of manipulative isolation and imperial bullying, the desperation to escape or postpone death at any price. We have substituted courageous living once again for the disturbing practice of blood sacrifice.

Through our praise and support, hardly less than compulsory in today’s political climate, we raise our military troops and armed forces to the role of temporary kings, investing them with idealized visions of strength, nobility and goodwill that they often fall short of truly possessing (those who succeed in embodying these projections become “real men” who are Army Strong™, while those who fail suffer debilitating stress and shame, leading to self-destructive behaviors, even suicide). We send these soldiers off to kill and be killed in order to secure our own stagnant luxury; through our complicity and patriotic rallying cries, we slaughter and dismember those very “service members” upon whom we have lavished such fantasies and flattery. And when they return to us, we consume them: their images, their trophies and memorials of war, all the while exploding pseudo-bombs above our heads from which these very real soldiers — these humans beings who come home to us wounded in body and soul — too often flinch and shudder. For good measure, we slaughter millions of cattle and pigs and throw their flesh onto the fire. This is the Fourth of July, the holiday in which we celebrate not our interdependence of the living community, but the independence of the nation-state, bought at such a high price.

And so, Memorial Day leaves me with deep feelings of ambivalence, frustration, and grief. The weather today has shifted through moments of heat and intense sunlight, and unexpected hours of rumbling, trembling heavens piled high with thunderclouds letting loose their torrents. While the cyclical nature of the seasons, the dance of life and death in nature, is one that brings with it the promise of new possibilities to experience love, gratitude and beauty even in the depths of difficulty, darkness and pain — the repetitive blood sacrifice of militarism and modern warfare promises little more than a nightmarish future of escalating violence. The debt owed to those sacrificial victims grows ever greater, the security for which they died ever more tenuous, and the past becomes bloated and heavy with abuse, denial and regret.

How can we possibly heal our wounds and overcome our sense of loss — how can we mourn openly and honestly — in such a distorted, unhealthy and unending cultural frenzy? How can anything grow in a field so thoroughly soaked with blood?

baker-county-tourism_sm


[*] Meanwhile, it is during the cold days of winter, those long hours of darkness during which we huddle together around flickering fires, our vulnerable skin bundled against exposure, that we remember and celebrate the values of peace and fellowship. On the darkest night, we honor the rebirth of light and the ideals of love and peace that will carry us through to spring. It is when we are most directly and viscerally confronted with the darkness and the silence and the cold of deep winter that we understand the vitality and necessity of peace, and we gather together, stringing up lights of our own to burn fiercely and lovingly in the night.


Photo Credits:
• “Memorial Day Commemoration,” by David Yu (CC) 2008 [source]
• “Memorial Day Weekend,” by Bill Dickinson (CC) 2012 [source]
• “Rolling Hills,” by Matt Hintsa (CC) 2006 [source]
• Baker County, courtesy of Baker County Tourism [source]


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

Holy Wild, Pacifism, peace

Memorial Day, Motherland and Blood Sacrifice

memorial-day_david-yu

This post was originally published on my former blog, Meadowsweet & Myrrh, on Monday, May 31, 2010.


It’s Memorial Day here in the United States, and I find myself, once again and as usual, deeply ambivalent.

As a Pagan and a pacifist, as a peacemaking Druid, I know that I am not naturally inclined to celebrate holidays of militarism, patriotism and nationalism. This is simple and straight-forward. I find it easier to celebrate the values commemorated on Martin Luther King Day — those of social justice and the sentiments of equality and community, as well as the grief of injustice and of dreams mown down by hate and violence — than the adolescent indulgence in triumphant glorying and loud reveling that occurs each July on Independence Day.

Yet unlike these others, Memorial Day leaves me feeling disconcerted and conflicted. Every year, all through this holiday weekend I read passing comments and thoughtful reflections alike on the True Meaning of Memorial Day, all repeating and revolving around this singular, pervasive notion: that we must “honor the memory of the soldiers who fought and died for us.”

Honor is such a powerful word, and death such a vital reality. But there is a kind of emptiness, a hollowness echoing within that expression, one that takes for granted what our relationship is to the dead, what our responsibilities are to the living, what honor and memory truly look like, how they function, what they require of us.

There is a part of me that hears this edict, this charge to honor our dead soldiers, and responds with bewilderment and uncertainty. What could this statement possibly mean? What does it mean to honor these dead, and how do we do it? How do we demonstrate or act on this honoring and remembering? Far from rejecting the notion of such honor as mere misdirected nationalist pride or wrong-headed militaristic chauvinism, it seems obvious to me that something else is going on here, something similar to — and yet so different from — the process of grieving.

But when it comes to questions of how to respond to the cultural demand to “honor the soldiers who died for you,” I find that the problem is not so much that I do not want to comply, but that I literally do not know how. Assuming, of course, that our honor and memory should take a form other than silent complicity in the continuing violence and militarism of our government — what should my honor look like?

memorial-day-weekend_bill-dickinson_sm

More than anything else, I have come to understand Memorial Day as a day about families, shattered or wounded by loss, about children whose parents never made it home from the front lines and, perhaps most poignantly in the shared psyche of our culture, about mothers still mourning the death of their children. Those who would rage at me for my ambivalence (some would say cold-heartedness and ingratitude, though they would be wrong) do so, I believe, not really for the sake of the dead, who are by now beyond caring, but for the mothers whose hearts have been broken, whose tears might not even yet be dry on their cheeks, but who have rallied their strength, their courage and even their grief in order to “soldier on” here among the rolling hills and fecund valleys of the safe-guarded homeland, the soft and self-giving heartland that opens itself to sacrifice for the sake of life. It may be the soldiers who die, but it is inevitably their mothers, and their families, who survive to suffer and grieve, and yet sustain and carry on.

It’s no coincidence, I think, that our holidays of war and violence — Memorial Day, Flag Day, Independence Day, Veteran’s Day — occur during the lush, fertile months of the year, during seasons of growth, warmth and sunlight, culminating with fruition and harvest. At the height of summer, we see how death and sacrifice lay just under the surface of thriving, squirming life.* It is during this time of the year that we celebrate and honor (in repetitive, often shallow or thoughtless ways) the deaths of “service men and women,” who no doubt themselves played no small part in bringing about the deaths of uncounted and unremembered others while they lived.

In this way, we forge and reinforce this half-unconscious connection between the violence of war and death, and the prosperity and nurturing lushness of the protected heartland. This is the cultural archetype of the noble, grieving mother, who forever gives freely of herself so that others may prosper: it is she who gives life to the son, though he will grow up to break her heart and abandon her loving arms to go off to war; it is she who becomes the first teacher of this son, showing him what strength and courage look like through her unending patience and unconditional support; it is she who shares the risks of war and willingly accepts the burden of living with the wound that loss and death will surely leave; she who must, in the end, watch her children die even as, in her life-bearing role, she gives birth to new children and new possibilities for the future. She is, in short, the archetype of the motherland. She is the very thing, we are told, that our soldiers fight and die for. And she is us.

Rolling Hills

I honor the land in which and from which I was born, a land that I love deeply. I witness each spring, summer and autumn the dance of death and life taking place, rising up from the moist decay of mud and earth, shining through every bug-bitten leaf. I understand both intellectually and palpably, with my whole body, this relationship between the destructive and the progenitive, and the fearlessness it demands. I know that it is important to honor the strength and courage of the archetypal Great Mother, embodied in the life-sustaining and deeply vulnerable earth. It is important to celebrate our own capacity to withstand death, to bear witness to life as much as to bravely bear life itself. It is important to acknowledge our potential for destructive acts, to remember the real eventuality of our own destruction, and to engage with these possibilities in ways that render them creative, generative and meaningful. And it is important — by the gods is it important! — to grieve.

So many of these themes express themselves in Memorial Day and yet, as I said before, what we experience now is also tragically unlike true grief, honor and memory. What begins as a natural urge to honor and adore the heartland, the motherland of our birth and living, has become increasingly distorted, usurped in the name of the fatherland, the patriarchal nation, the government and the military. What we elevate and honor now is a kind of pathological disjoint that keeps us safe and cut-off from the violence occurring overseas. It is based not on the fearlessness of self-giving life, but on the paranoia and xenophobia of manipulative isolation and imperial bullying, the desperation to escape or postpone death at any price. We have substituted courageous living once again for the disturbing practice of blood sacrifice.

Through our praise and support, hardly less than compulsory in today’s political climate, we raise our military troops and armed forces to the role of temporary kings, investing them with idealized visions of strength, nobility and goodwill that they often fall short of truly possessing (those who succeed in embodying these projections become “real men” who are Army Strong™, while those who fail suffer debilitating stress and shame, leading to self-destructive behaviors, even suicide). We send these soldiers off to kill and be killed in order to secure our own stagnant luxury; through our complicity and patriotic rallying cries, we slaughter and dismember those very “service members” upon whom we have lavished such fantasies and flattery. And when they return to us, we consume them: their images, their trophies and memorials of war, all the while exploding pseudo-bombs above our heads from which these very real soldiers — these humans beings who come home to us wounded in body and soul — too often flinch and shudder. For good measure, we slaughter millions of cattle and pigs and throw their flesh onto the fire. This is the Fourth of July, the holiday in which we celebrate not our interdependence of the living community, but the independence of the nation-state, bought at such a high price.

And so, Memorial Day leaves me with deep feelings of ambivalence, frustration, and grief. The weather today has shifted through moments of heat and intense sunlight, and unexpected hours of rumbling, trembling heavens piled high with thunderclouds letting loose their torrents. While the cyclical nature of the seasons, the dance of life and death in nature, is one that brings with it the promise of new possibilities to experience love, gratitude and beauty even in the depths of difficulty, darkness and pain — the repetitive blood sacrifice of militarism and modern warfare promises little more than a nightmarish future of escalating violence. The debt owed to those sacrificial victims grows ever greater, the security for which they died ever more tenuous, and the past becomes bloated and heavy with abuse, denial and regret.

How can we possibly heal our wounds and overcome our sense of loss — how can we mourn openly and honestly — in such a distorted, unhealthy and unending cultural frenzy? How can anything grow in a field so thoroughly soaked with blood?

baker-county-tourism_sm


[*] Meanwhile, it is during the cold days of winter, those long hours of darkness during which we huddle together around flickering fires, our vulnerable skin bundled against exposure, that we remember and celebrate the values of peace and fellowship. On the darkest night, we honor the rebirth of light and the ideals of love and peace that will carry us through to spring. It is when we are most directly and viscerally confronted with the darkness and the silence and the cold of deep winter that we understand the vitality and necessity of peace, and we gather together, stringing up lights of our own to burn fiercely and lovingly in the night.


Photo Credits:
• “Memorial Day Commemoration,” by David Yu (CC) 2008 [source]
• “Memorial Day Weekend,” by Bill Dickinson (CC) 2012 [source]
• “Rolling Hills,” by Matt Hintsa (CC) 2006 [source]
• Baker County, courtesy of Baker County Tourism [source]

Current Events, Holy Wild, Pacifism

The Myth of the Neutral Tool: An Animist’s Thoughts on Guns (And Other Ordinary Things)

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


It has happened again. In fact, it is still happening, even now. If not here, then somewhere, in this country, in this world. There is almost no end to it. There is almost no space between one moment and the next, between the pain and the noise it makes.

What do we do now?

notintheface_DaveEdwards

There are times when I am so deep in anger, anxiety or sorrow that there is nothing else I can do but turn back to the animal I am, turn back to the earth and my own earthy body that is a part of it.

Outside, the rain is falling as fog rolls in from the ocean. Waves push and pull at the shore. There is almost no space between one wave and the next. I try to still my body, and listen. Back and forth. Rise and fall. My chest moves in ragged rhythm as my lungs fill with air and then empty again. My body pushes hard against its edges as if it might break open — then pulls back into itself, flinching, recoiling from the raw sensations of sound and sight and skin. The world pushes in on me, heavy and noisy at first, then pulls away again into the quiet, incomprehensible confusion of all that is beyond me. Push and pull. Filling and emptying. Rising and falling.

The landscape does its work on me, with fingers like a sculptor — pushing and pulling, pressing and smoothing. The rain falls and fills me. The mists rise and empty me. I am emptied and filled at once, both rising and falling together until there is space enough between to breathe deeply for a moment. The water, which is my pulse, draws close and retreats; my blood, which is the ocean, pushes and pulls against the shore.

This is where I start, with this kind of animal prayer.

This is the first thing we must accept: that the land is alive, and that it shapes us.

There is nothing which does not touch us, that does not leave its mark.

smokinggun_AppleDave

One by one, I peel off my jacket, my shoes and socks, my shirt, leaving each thing soaked with rain and ocean mist, turned inside-out on the sand. As I remove each piece of clothing, I am like Inanna entering the underworld to meet her darker self, turning herself inside out piece by piece, jewel by jewel.

All day I walk around with shoes on, the soles of my feet insensitive to the bare earth beneath them. All day I stare at my computer in noisy silence, other people’s words pinging in my brain as bright text flashes across the screen, other people’s lives recreated in all their argumentative complexity and reckless laughter and roaring grief inside my head. I am insensitive to the quiet of the wind moving through the aspen’s leaves outside. I am insensitive to the chill of the sun going down before dinner.

All day, the ordinary tools of my life define me, shaping my perceptions, directing my gaze.

Without them, I become a little bit of a wild thing again. The jagged edge of a broken shell half-hidden in the wet sand slices into the side of my foot, and a cold pain runs up my calf. The rain is damp and hard on the back of my neck, running down my arms and hands like a child I cannot stop from weeping. Stripped down like this, I too am inconsolable. Without keyboard and computer, without speaker and microphone to amplify me, I am little more than a wave worrying the shore. My crying cannot fill the great quiet of the ocean at night.

Without my tools, the world comes rushing in on me from every direction and I am brought to my knees by the weight of it.

This is the second thing we must accept: that there is no such thing as a neutral tool.

Every tool shapes us even as we have shaped it, aspects of the land with which we live in intimate acquaintance. So close to us that sometimes we even forget them. There is no such thing as a neutral tool, a tool that we can wield with perfect abstract will, a tool that doesn’t change us. There are only the tools we can choose to put down, and the tools that have become so familiar that we’ve forgotten who we are without them.

What is a knife, for instance? A blade that separates one thing from another — the flesh from bone, yes, but also the flower or leaf from its stem, the wood and the thing it’s been whittled from, the tumor or boil or cancer from the suffering body so that it might find relief.

The blade that separates one piece into many so that it might be shared.

The blade that pierces, careful and precise, so that a thread might pass through cloth to make a garment to keep a body warm. Or a word like a blade, sharp and incisive, that allows an idea to enter the mind or compassion to enter the heart.

The blade that blocks or parries, that turns away the blow without returning it.

gun_GideonTsang

What is a gun, compared to this? A crude thing. A blind force.

A force that cannot distinguish friend from foe, but only what is in its way. A bomb in the palm of your hand. A power of too often imperfect aim, like the frantic angry mob — something you are only safe from if you are behind it, sometimes not even then. Did your father teach you how to use it? Did he show you the trigger, the safety and the sight? Did he teach you not to point it at anything you couldn’t bear to lose? And did he teach you how to choose, and what gives you the right?

What can you do with a gun, after all? The cold metal, the clip, the rubber grip. These are the parts, the way it works, but I am asking you what it’s for. A force that throws your will into the world quicker than the speed of sound, that devours distance in an instant and cannot be tempered or recalled. A force that obliterates the space between the pain and the noise it makes.

Don’t tell me it’s for protection. It is power, refined to a point beyond which there is no return. It cannot turn aside the coming blow, only forestall it with the threat of greater violence or revenge. This is not defense, it is denial. It is filling the barrel with bird shot or rock salt, so that the wound will burn and scar but just not kill, as if the lesson of savage suffering will be enough this time. But when is it ever enough? What can you do with such a force but amplify it, escalating, fear built upon fear? How can we defend against it, except by turning ourselves to stone?

untitled_EduardoVargas

This is something we must accept: A gun is not a neutral tool, it can only be a weapon.

What do I do now?

I have taken off all the jewels of my privilege, the smooth cool universe of lapis lazuli, the beads upon my breast. My clothes are lying limp and tangled on the shore. I am a wild thing again, small and fragile, weak with willpower before the great dark ocean of sorrow that pulls and pushes at my body. I am climbing up onto the throne of the Queen of Death like a child climbing up into her mother’s lap.

Who are we, when we are naked? Do we even remember?

We are strung up on the meathook of the underworld. Only grief and compassion can restore us.

There is no such thing as a neutral tool. Only the tools that tame us, claim us as their own — and the tools that we can still choose to lay down.

boyswithguns_MarkNye

This is not an argument. This is a story of remembering. Of putting ourselves back together again, piece by piece.

The memories that we have laid down from our childhoods, we pick them up again and they have changed. It is no longer enough that our fathers taught us how to pull the trigger and for the first time we felt powerful and proud. It is not enough that we were lucky, that we survived, that we have made it safely so far always on the right side of the blast. Now we have to ask: were the memories worth it? Is there something more that we’ve forgotten?

Not the memory of your best friend shuddering from the recoil as the gunshot echoes off the walls of the ravine and rips the world apart, but the memory of the moment just before, the two of you in the woods alone together in the early morning fog, stifling excited giggles and walking so carefully on the earth that your footfalls don’t snap a twig or stir a single leaf.

Not the memory of your brother hunting birds in the backyard, firing a shot into the air just to watch the fear ripple out from him in all directions. But the memory of the sound of a thousand starling wings suddenly opening at once and lifting off the ground, which is the sound of the ocean, which is the sound of the blood moving through you.

Not the memory of your father putting the weight of the rifle in your hands. But the memory of how the arms of a man grow stronger from carrying his newborn as she grows, month by month, and the profoundly gentle care of carrying that weight until she has finally grown into her wide round eyes, until she is too big for him to carry her anymore and he has to let her go.

This is enough. Put down the gun. You do not need it.

knottedgun_SariDennise


Photo Credits:

• “Not in the face!” by Dave Edwards (CC) 2009 [source]
• “Smoking Gun,” by AppleDave (CC) 2008 [source]
• “gun,” by Gideon Tsang (CC) 2004 [source]
• “Untitled,” by Eduardo Vargas (CC) 2014 [source]
• “Boys with Guns,” by Mark Nye (CC) 2013 [source]
• “Knotted Gun,” by Sari Dennise (CC) 2010 [source]


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

Current Events, Featured, Holy Wild, Pacifism

The Myth of the Neutral Tool: Thoughts on Guns (And Other Ordinary Things)

“Radical action can only begin
with radical contemplation.”

Ken Leech

It has happened again. In fact, it is still happening, even now. If not here, then somewhere, in this country, in this world. There is almost no end to it. There is almost no space between one moment and the next, between the pain and the noise it makes.

What do we do now?

notintheface_DaveEdwards

There are times when I am so deep in anger, anxiety or sorrow that there is nothing else I can do but turn back to the animal I am, turn back to the earth and my own earthy body that is a part of it.

Outside, the rain is falling as fog rolls in from the ocean. Waves push and pull at the shore. There is almost no space between one wave and the next. I try to still my body, and listen. Back and forth. Rise and fall. My chest moves in ragged rhythm as my lungs fill with air and then empty again. My body pushes hard against its edges as if it might break open — then pulls back into itself, flinching, recoiling from the raw sensations of sound and sight and skin. The world pushes in on me, heavy and noisy at first, then pulls away again into the quiet, incomprehensible confusion of all that is beyond me. Push and pull. Filling and emptying. Rising and falling.

The landscape does its work on me, with fingers like a sculptor — pushing and pulling, pressing and smoothing. The rain falls and fills me. The mists rise and empty me. I am emptied and filled at once, both rising and falling together until there is space enough between to breathe deeply for a moment. The water, which is my pulse, draws close and retreats; my blood, which is the ocean, pushes and pulls against the shore.

This is where I start, with this kind of animal prayer.

This is the first thing we must accept: that the land is alive, and that it shapes us.

There is nothing which does not touch us, that does not leave its mark.

smokinggun_AppleDave

One by one, I peel off my jacket, my shoes and socks, my shirt, leaving each thing soaked with rain and ocean mist, turned inside-out on the sand. As I remove each piece of clothing, I am like Inanna entering the underworld to meet her darker self, turning herself inside out piece by piece, jewel by jewel.

All day I walk around with shoes on, the soles of my feet insensitive to the bare earth beneath them. All day I stare at my computer in noisy silence, other people’s words pinging in my brain as bright text flashes across the screen, other people’s lives recreated in all their argumentative complexity and reckless laughter and roaring grief inside my head. I am insensitive to the quiet of the wind moving through the aspen’s leaves outside. I am insensitive to the chill of the sun going down before dinner.

All day, the ordinary tools of my life define me, shaping my perceptions, directing my gaze.

Without them, I become a little bit of a wild thing again. The jagged edge of a broken shell half-hidden in the wet sand slices into the side of my foot, and a cold pain runs up my calf. The rain is damp and hard on the back of my neck, running down my arms and hands like a child I cannot stop from weeping. Stripped down like this, I too am inconsolable. Without keyboard and computer, without speaker and microphone to amplify me, I am little more than a wave worrying the shore. My crying cannot fill the great quiet of the ocean at night.

Without my tools, the world comes rushing in on me from every direction and I am brought to my knees by the weight of it.

This is the second thing we must accept: that there is no such thing as a neutral tool.

Every tool shapes us even as we have shaped it, aspects of the land with which we live in intimate acquaintance. So close to us that sometimes we even forget them. There is no such thing as a neutral tool, a tool that we can wield with perfect abstract will, a tool that doesn’t change us. There are only the tools we can choose to put down, and the tools that have become so familiar that we’ve forgotten who we are without them.

What is a knife, for instance? A blade that separates one thing from another — the flesh from bone, yes, but also the flower or leaf from its stem, the wood and the thing it’s been whittled from, the tumor or boil or cancer from the suffering body so that it might find relief.

The blade that separates one piece into many so that it might be shared.

The blade that pierces, careful and precise, so that a thread might pass through cloth to make a garment to keep a body warm. Or a word like a blade, sharp and incisive, that allows an idea to enter the mind or compassion to enter the heart.

The blade that blocks or parries, that turns away the blow without returning it.

gun_GideonTsang

What is a gun, compared to this? A crude thing. A blind force.

A force that cannot distinguish friend from foe, but only what is in its way. A bomb in the palm of your hand. A power of too often imperfect aim, like the frantic angry mob — something you are only safe from if you are behind it, sometimes not even then. Did your father teach you how to use it? Did he show you the trigger, the safety and the sight? Did he teach you not to point it at anything you couldn’t bear to lose? And did he teach you how to choose, and what gives you the right?

What can you do with a gun, after all? The cold metal, the clip, the rubber grip. These are the parts, the way it works, but I am asking you what it’s for. A force that throws your will into the world quicker than the speed of sound, that devours distance in an instant and cannot be tempered or recalled. A force that obliterates the space between the pain and the noise it makes.

Don’t tell me it’s for protection. It is power, refined to a point beyond which there is no return. It cannot turn aside the coming blow, only forestall it with the threat of greater violence or revenge. This is not defense, it is denial. It is filling the barrel with bird shot or rock salt, so that the wound will burn and scar but just not kill, as if the lesson of savage suffering will be enough this time. But when is it ever enough? What can you do with such a force but amplify it, escalating, fear built upon fear? How can we defend against it, except by turning ourselves to stone?

untitled_EduardoVargas

This is something we must accept: A gun is not a neutral tool, it can only be a weapon.

What do I do now?

I have taken off all the jewels of my privilege, the smooth cool universe of lapis lazuli, the beads upon my breast. My clothes are lying limp and tangled on the shore. I am a wild thing again, small and fragile, weak with willpower before the great dark ocean of sorrow that pulls and pushes at my body. I am climbing up onto the throne of the Queen of Death like a child climbing up into her mother’s lap.

Who are we, when we are naked? Do we even remember?

We are strung up on the meathook of the underworld. Only grief and compassion can restore us.

There is no such thing as a neutral tool. Only the tools that tame us, claim us as their own — and the tools that we can still choose to lay down.

boyswithguns_MarkNye

This is not an argument. This is a story of remembering. Of putting ourselves back together again, piece by piece.

The memories that we have laid down from our childhoods, we pick them up again and they have changed. It is no longer enough that our fathers taught us how to pull the trigger and for the first time we felt powerful and proud. It is not enough that we were lucky, that we survived, that we have made it safely so far always on the right side of the blast. Now we have to ask: were the memories worth it? Is there something more that we’ve forgotten?

Not the memory of your best friend shuddering from the recoil as the gunshot echoes off the walls of the ravine and rips the world apart, but the memory of the moment just before, the two of you in the woods alone together in the early morning fog, stifling excited giggles and walking so carefully on the earth that your footfalls don’t snap a twig or stir a single leaf.

Not the memory of your brother hunting birds in the backyard, firing a shot into the air just to watch the fear ripple out from him in all directions. But the memory of the sound of a thousand starling wings suddenly opening at once and lifting off the ground, which is the sound of the ocean, which is the sound of the blood moving through you.

Not the memory of your father putting the weight of the rifle in your hands. But the memory of how the arms of a man grow stronger from carrying his newborn as she grows, month by month, and the profoundly gentle care of carrying that weight until she has finally grown into her wide round eyes, until she is too big for him to carry her anymore and he has to let her go.

This is enough. Put down the gun. You do not need it.

knottedgun_SariDennise


Photo Credits:

• “Not in the face!” by Dave Edwards (CC) 2009 [source]
• “Smoking Gun,” by AppleDave (CC) 2008 [source]
• “gun,” by Gideon Tsang (CC) 2004 [source]
• “Untitled,” by Eduardo Vargas (CC) 2014 [source]
• “Boys with Guns,” by Mark Nye (CC) 2013 [source]
• “Knotted Gun,” by Sari Dennise (CC) 2010 [source]

Contemplation & Meditation, Holy Wild, Story & Song

Further Reflections on Death & Fire

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


I’m usually somewhat solemn around this time of year, sitting quietly at my desk listening to the quiet rain and even quieter fog outside my window, enjoying the damp quiet day in my own little way as my not-at-all-damp-thank-you cat quietly looks on….

But not this year. This year, something’s gotten into me. A bit of trickster spirit, maybe. A bit of fire. I find that I can’t sit still and write solemn, poetical things. (Which is a problem, because I have at least three deadlines for solemn, poetical things due to various editors who have always before been able to rely on me to be solemn and poetical on schedule.) Instead, my fingers want to tap out snark — while my heart quails like a small fat bird in the underbrush (you know, like a pheasant) at the thought of being thought merely snarky.

It’s a little like being in love. Except from the other side. And it’s been going on since March…

Which is when I reread Terry Pratchett’s book, The Last Hero, which begins like this:

The Last Hero

‘Ah, well, life goes on,’ people say when someone dies. But from the point of view of the person who has just died, it doesn’t. It’s the universe that goes on. Just as the deceased was getting the hang of everything it’s all whisked away, by illness or accident or, in one case, a cucumber. Why this has to be is one of the imponderables of life, in the face of which people either start to pray… or become really, really angry.

Since March, which is when Sir Terry Pratchett died, a part of me has become really, really angry. Another part of me can’t stop praying.

I have spent a lot of time thinking about Pratchett this past year. Too much time for someone who is usually rather disdainful of folks who go gaga over celebrities and authority figures. Too much time for someone who would never in a million years call herself a “pop culture Pagan.” Too much time for it to be anything but love.

I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about Commander Samuel Vimes, too, wondering why I relate to him so strongly as a character. Vimes has a Beast inside him that is capable of killing, something capable of terrible hatred and violence and fantasies of revenge. What makes him a good man (and a great character) is that he keeps it chained, he holds it back, he calls on it when he needs it and then he reigns it in. He makes friends with the Dark.

I don’t think I have that kind of Beast in me. Lots of people like to think they do, but I don’t. I don’t think I’ve ever wanted to hurt someone, not deliberately, not just to see them suffer. On my honor, I am not a violent man. I’ve been a self-described pacifist ever since I read Gandhi when I was twelve. (And I remember the night my best friend’s dad got annoyed with my idealistic anti-war ramblings and tried to take this snotty pre-teen down a peg by growling, “Yeah, well, Gandhi’s fucking dead.” And I remember wondering what role models had been dead for Gandhi. And why that matters.)

If there is a Beast in me, it’s not one of violence or hatred… it’s a Venusian lioness, languishing in the tall shadows of the grass.

In loving memory

And I wonder: why am I so afraid of what that love might do? Is it that society has taught women that our love is dangerous and destructive? Is it our patriarchal culture that fears the raw vulnerability of passion and the inconveniences it might cause? That carefully packages eros to sell off as commodified “Grrl Powr,” so that when we most want to be taken seriously we find ourselves dismissed, reduced to the stereotype of reactionary adolescent irresponsibility?

So I wonder, what if I stopped being so afraid — what if, instead, I got angry? Ah, but it is irresponsible, it is dangerous. I don’t think you understand. I love you. I love you like a serial killer who wants to rip you open and paint portraits of delicate flowers with your blood because I really, honestly believe with all my heart that you are more beautiful on the inside. I love you with a love that would first embarrass you and then make you feel rather worried, until eventually you stopped returning my phone calls. These things happen, I know.

Second person narration is a dangerous thing. Like the lion in the grass who has been stalking you, watching you, and knows that if she comes too close you will start to run. If I tell you I think you’re beautiful, you will not believe me, you will think there’s something wrong with me that I could be so wrong about you. Or you will think I’m a liar, because no one who loves you would also analyze you, no one who loves you would be okay with there being so much blood. (Or worse, you’ll think it’s about sex. “As if that’s all you can do with something beautiful, / as if that’s what it means to govern your life by it.” Gods, wouldn’t it be easier if it were just about sex?)

That’s why I’m sarcastic. That’s why I stay home most days listening to the damp, quiet rain doing my best to be solemn. That’s why every once in awhile I get defensive about idealists and say things that someone, somewhere, is bound to take the wrong way. That’s why I stand with my fists clenched and my arms crossed tight across my chest every time you go to hug me. There’s a lot going on in here that you don’t know about. It isn’t all about you. (But sometimes it is.)

So I’ve been thinking about Pratchett a lot this year, trying to learn from him and his life and his work and his death. Trying to learn how to walk the line between “sell out” and “obscure and unpaid,” between “tactful” and “passive aggressive,” between “takes herself too seriously” and “just doing it for the attention.” How to be professional in a world where “professional” means we all agree not to make fun of each other’s neckties or be honest about our pain. Trying to learn how to make friends with the terrible Light, how to make it useful.

ancestor_altar

In my new home office (which I am calling the Rather Yellow Withdrawing Room), next to my altar to Brighid, I now also have an altar to Sir Terry Pratchett as an honored role model and Ancestor of Spirit. On the one hand, Brighid stands with a sheaf of wheat in her hands and a fire in her head. On the other, there is the hourglass, the huge fake ruby, the bottle of booze, all those symbols of what can distract us and steal us away from the work….

…and below, the lit candle, and above, the sprig of lilac. That I might always remember the beloved dead, and the anger that arises from love.

#TerryPrachett #TheLastHero


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