Holy Wild, Mythology & History, Social Justice

The Wild Hunt for the Other God

stilllife_modified

Our knowledge, instead of leading us to certainty, betrays us…

Guiding us deeper into the confused complexity of the forest, the dark wilds of unknowing. This is holy bewilderment. This is the horizon that is forever receding and can never be reached; the periphery that is everywhere and nowhere. We find ourselves spinning in circles. We look for a centered self that isn’t there, and when we find it, it is deeply bizarre. We are confronted by an Other that can never be centered or normalized. This is the call of the Wild One. Welcome to the hunt…


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

Featured, Holy Wild, justice, Mythology & History

The Wild Hunt for the Other God

The ghostly stag flees, and I give chase, compelled as if by some enchantment or curse to follow. Drawn by the silent movement among the half-bare trees, like memory through dream, driven by the longing for that which is only half-glimpsed, half-imagined, an elusive intimacy, a wilderness so ancient it is unshakable, yet hidden, soaked into the bone. I am on the hunt for my god…

The Waincraft tradition names this god a Power, Father Wild, the primal power of Wildness itself. This deity was originally addressed as the Shaman-Father, but later the name was changed “in recognition of the plights of indigenous populations in which the term [shaman] originated.” There is an otherness to the Wild One, a seed of strangeness in the soul. It is anotherness so Other that it is even stranger to itself at times; and in experiencing itself as stranger, as Other, so it also participates in and shares the experience of the centered Self, looking out on its own elusive being stalking the edges of the liminal, in search of that which is everywhere and nowhere. Nothing is certain when you are face-to-face with the White Stag. That is the ambiguity of the term “shaman” as applied to this god, and the ambivalence the term provokes among modern Pagans. And so the hunt begins…

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The etymological origins of the English word “shaman” are complicated (no, more complicated even than that), and arguably the term may not have originated among the Turkish-Tungusic speaking tribes in eastern Siberia, those indigenous populations that the Waincraft tradition refers to in its honest expression of respect. The English term “shaman” comes, through the German “Schamane,” from the Russian “sha’man” — a phonetic borrowing from the Evenki “šamán,” the word used among some of the indigenous peoples of eastern Siberia for their priests.

However, to say that the word “šamán” originated in and is native to Evenki or the Tungusic language family is inaccurate. As best as linguists can tell, the word “šamán” in the Evenki language is itself a phonetic borrowing from Chinese, “sha mén” (meaning, a Buddhist monk), and the Chinese term is a phonetic borrowing from Sanskrit (through Pali) of the word “sramana-s” (a religious devotee or ascetic). Since the Evenki term “šamán” is most accurately translated as “priest” rather than “monk,” it seems the term had already begun to change in meaning as a result of cross-cultural borrowing by the time it entered the Evenki language.

In discussing the constructed nature of terms like “shamanism,” author Mariko Namba Walter notes that, “When these terms are applied to non-Western communities, then, as in the study of shamanic art, the approach must be self-consciously critical and sensitive to diversity among indigenous and prehistoric communities.”* Walter continues:

[T]he generic shaman […] has currency, so long as (1) it is clear that it is not a fixed, nonnegotiable, value-free term, (2) indigenous art is not directly compared with Western art, and (3) the “art” in question is examined in its specific social context.

While considerations (1) and (3) seem reasonable enough, (2) drives a wedge, invoked by the specter of scare-quotes, that continues to separate “us” from “them,” their “art” from our art. In her book Druid, Shaman, Priest: Metaphors of Celtic Paganism, scholar Leslie Ellen Jones examines how these kinds of assumptions have influenced the academic study of the ancient Celts**:

Malcolm Chapman argues that the label “Celt” is in fact nothing more than a marker used by the civilized world of Greece and Rome — the center — to designate “those savages to the north and west of us” — the Other on the periphery. “Because ‘the Celts’ have consistently been peripheral,” he states, “they have always seemed backward and strange to the center, from which our theories of the social world were typically constructed”. […] However, the inherent fallacy of “center and periphery” anthropological analysis is that the anthropologist invariably places himself at the center and the people being studied at the periphery. The whole notion of conducting fieldwork is based on the premise that the anthropologist makes this journey outward, bringing back insight from the realms of the fringe.

We see this fallacy repeated in the deconstruction and use of (or refusal to use) the word “shaman.” To claim that the English term “shaman” originated among the indigenous tribes of Siberia — and not from the Chinese, or the Sanskrit — is to draw a sharp dividing line between what we consider to be legitimate and illegitimate instances of language borrowing. Further, drawing this line at this particular point in history highlights Russian imperialism but ignores the extensive contact of Siberian indigenous tribes with Chinese culture prior to their contact with Western colonial powers (during which the Tungus and Mongolian peoples were just as often aggressors and conquerors as they were those being conquered).

In other words, this interpretation of the word “shaman” only serves to reinforce a version of history defined by the Western/European perspective, in which Russia is a competing and/or allied imperial power, and indigenous peoples are assumed to be culturally isolated, unsophisticated and perpetually in the process of being conquered and disappearing. This version of history is most often put forward by the very Western academics who are themselves striving to be both accurate and sensitive to the cultures they’re studying. Yet, as Jones points out, they also often operate from the assumption of a “center and periphery” worldview in which the studied cultures are peripheral — the eternally marginalized Other. There is an irony in the fact that the modern Pagan’s desire to avoid using the word “shaman” out of respect for the indigenous peoples of Siberia ultimately rests on a foundation of Western academic navel-gazing which nevertheless (perhaps inevitably) perpetuates certain Western-centric biases.

deerskull_AlisonLeighLilly

Do we give up the hunt? Do we retreat into conceptual titles — such as Wildness, the Horned One, Lord of Animals — and risk losing the immediacy and intimacy of the god? Or do we seek out the culture-specific names — such as Gwyn ap Nudd, Herne, or Cernunnos, itself a reconstructed pan-Celtic etymological puzzle — and in doing so lose touch with the thrilling pulse of shared relationship that beats in our veins? I don’t know what to think — except that this absurdly complicated and almost-impossible-to-reconcile history of a name actually reflects the nature of this god (who might, perhaps, be well pleased to embrace the word “shaman,” if only to lampshade this complexity). In a sense, as a modern American Pagan, it will forever be impossible for me to “think my way out” of my cultural heritage. The navel-gazing of educated and culturally sensitive Western academics can still only take us so far. We cannot even safely assume that the indigenous peoples themselves can provide us with a clear-cut answer, for to do so would be to project onto them an overly simplistic, monolithic, reductionist view of these diverse tribes, as if they speak with a single voice, instead of acknowledging that they themselves contain diverse and unique individuals each with their own opinions and perspectives. There may be no straight-forward consensus.

My husband the linguist suggests, “Still, it might be better if we could find a native English word for the same idea…” and in the very same breath asks, “But, then, what is ‘native English’ anyway?” The word shaman entered the English language nearly 500 years ago. There are certainly plenty of words that are more recent borrowings which we consider to be unproblematically “native English” without batting an eye, usually due to our own ignorance about where those words come from. (My favorite — which is to say, most tragic — example is the word bikini, the skimpy two-piece bathing suit named after an island where the U.S. carried out nuclear bomb testing starting in the 1940s, after the forced relocation of its original inhabitants to another island where many of them later starved to death, unable ever to return home. Ad campaigns for the new swimsuit style bragged that it was “so hot, it’s radioactive!”)

How long does a word need to be incorporated into the English language in order to be considered “native”? Indeed, it is our very knowledge of the complicated history of the word shaman — highlighted and preserved by the very Western academics so often accused of its appropriation and misuse — that prevents us from considering it to be English in any uncomplicated way. But then, this is true of almost any word. English, especially American English, is particularly good at incorporating and borrowing from diverse other languages, and these borrowings are not always negative or the result of imperial insensitivity. The more knowledge we have — the more linguists can accurately trace the complex histories of words — the more English ceases to be a discrete and easily defined category. The idea of a “native English” seems to falter and lose meaning.

The language I speak is not even my language anymore. I am othered from my own native tongue.

Our knowledge, instead of leading us to certainty, betrays us — guiding us deeper into the confused complexity of the forest, the dark wilds of unknowing. This is holy bewilderment. This is the horizon that is forever receding and can never be reached; the periphery that is everywhere and nowhere. We cannot move from the center to the periphery without, in some way, bringing the center with us. We cannot reconcile ourselves to the perspective of the Other without becoming Other to our own selves and our own perspective — and yet, even this is not really to unite with the Other in its perception of itself, precisely because the Other is not other to itself. And so the very act of Othering ourselves in order to understand that perspective undermines our ability to do so.

We find ourselves spinning in circles. We look for a centered self that isn’t there, and when we find it, it is deeply bizarre. We are confronted by an Other that can never be centered or normalized, and because of the very fact that we cannot pin it down, we experience that Otherness as everywhere.

This is the nature of the hunt. It is the call of the Wild One.

Welcome to the chase…

hornedking_markcummins


*from Shamanism: An Encyclopedia of World Beliefs, Practices, and Culture, pp. 21-22

**pp. 27-28


Photo Credits:
• “Still life,” modified by Alison Leigh Lilly, original via Barn Images (CC)
• “Deer skull,” by Alison Leigh Lilly © 2015
• “The Horned King,” (CC) Mark Cummins [source]

Holy Wild, Poetry & Music

A Bureaucracy of Poets

Have you ever heard of a murder of crows? I strongly believe that the mass noun term for poets should be bureaucracy. Singly, poets have this reputation for being sensitive, articulate, deeply strange and haunted — not to say enlightened — creatures who drift through life with the veils lifted and the doors of perception open.

Don’t be fooled.

Their dangling earrings and hand knit scarves and I-can’t-afford-a-haircut hairstyles are only so many false eyes on the wings of a butterfly.

(Maybe this isn’t a good metaphor. Am I the only one who finds butterflies damn creepy? With their spindly limbs and their needlely mouths, their unblinking eyes always following you as they go drunkenly careening through space… But I digress.)

Butterfly by Tim Bocek
This is just to say I have eaten your flesh. Forgive me, it was delicious, so sweet and so cold.

The point is, writers are some of the most anal retentive, obnoxious, unpleasant know-it-alls around. This is doubly true of poets. When a writer is alone, all her bratty compulsive perfectionism is turned inward on herself. But put her in a room with even one other writer, and you’ve created a machine that can feed itself indefinitely on niggling debates over word choice, punctuation and obscure meta-narratives.

But then, a bureaucracy of one is a sad thing indeed. If a writer is left to her own devices for too long, the caterpillars of her self-doubt might very well shred all her lush green foliage into lace. Sure, it looks pretty. But it’s no way to live.


Photo Credit: “Butterfly,” (CC) Tim Bocek (source)

art, Holy Wild, Theology

Why I Cannot Tell You About My Gods

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“Losing the language means losing the culture. We need to know who we are because it makes a difference in who our children are.” — Dottie LeBeau

In his book, Metaphors We Live By, George Lakoff notes that when we talk about language itself, we tend to use particular kinds of metaphors. We say that we put our ideas into words (although sometimes they’re difficult to capture) and that our words are therefore packed with meaning. If you don’t grasp the idea I’m trying to get across, then my words might seem hollow or empty. (Or maybe our conversation is just going in circles or it’s gotten derailed.) In other words, Lakoff says: ideas are objects, words are containers, and communication is a kind of sending. This metaphor is built into the way we talk (and therefore, the way we think) about language.

So it’s no wonder that, when we talk about the gods or other sacred things, we have a sense that our words can’t do them justice. How could something so vast fit into such a small container? When my friend, author of Answering the Contemplative Call, Carl McColman says that language is tricky, and that God is bigger than the limits of the human mind, we might imagine our words are just so many rigged-up rubber bands, paper clips and packing tape with which we are, MacGyver-style, trying to capture a wild and mighty wind.

Yet our words are our own breath given form by our body and its movements, and where else have we drawn that breath but from the winds themselves? Our speaking is a shaping of the wind within us, released back into the wild to work its way into someone else’s body, moving with the ebb and flow of sound waves, pressing in against their eardrums, stirring the tiny hairs of their skin.

To talk about language this way is to break out of the metaphor of objects and containers, and to see words as experiences in themselves. Words do not merely contain meaning; their meaning, like the meaning of all experiences, arises from the cascading relationships of memory, color, taste and mood that they drag in their wake.

When I describe a chair, I am not sending you the idea of the chair, let alone the chair itself — I am not even sending you a part of that idea. I am not packaging a set of personal assumptions and expectations in a single, simple, boxy turn of phrase for you to unpack at your leisure. Rather, I am inviting you into an experience of the chair crafted of the words themselves. When I tell you that the chair is made of wood, I call forward all those experiences of wooden chairs that you have known: Your desk chair in second grade, etched all over with the graffiti of bored schoolkids, and the way it felt to slouch uncomfortably for hours in that stuffy classroom as the morning waxed towards noon with its promise of recess on the playground among the freshly fallen autumn leaves. Your grandmother’s rocking chair, draped with an ugly orange afghan whose fuzzy fringe was unraveling with age, and the way the armrests were worn smooth and bare from years of her worrying hands gripping as she rocked. The cheap, straight-backed kitchen chairs from the first dining room set you ever bought when you finally moved into an apartment big enough for a kitchen table, the ones that creaked and shifted when you sat down, their skinny legs bumping each time in the same syncopated rhythm against the uneven plastic tiles. Even chairs that were never real in the first place. Like the chair from that joke about the philosophy student who was asked a single question on his final exam — to prove that the chair existed — to which he simply wrote, “What chair?” and stood up to go.

Blue Chair

We might be tempted to say that the experience of these words is a shared experience, but this is not quite true. The experience of the speaker will always be different from the experience of the listener. Words move through our bodies in different ways, touching off ripples of mind and memory shaped by the histories of those bodies. Perhaps you didn’t have a grandmother with a rocking chair and worried hands. If I have done my work well, you will remember her nonetheless. My words will become an experience of such a grandmother, cobbled together from sensations half-remembered, half-imagined — the texture of wood and wool, the smell of wrinkled skin, the sound of rocking like a rolling pin against a cutting board or the opening of a drawer.

If I have not done my work well, if I have relied too much on the assumption of a shared history that does not exist between us, my words will be empty for you. You will not know what an “afghan” is or how a rolling pin sounds, you will not have ever examined the wrinkles of an old woman’s hands or seen the way that yarn snags on the rough grain of unpolished wood. When we can no longer speak to one another, we will know for sure that the cultures that shape our lives have parted ways. With the loss of every language, there is the mutual loss of the culture — the shared history of experience, sensation, movement and custom — that lends that language its context and meaning.

But even empty words are not completely meaningless. Your experience of these words will be an experience of emptiness itself — sentences haunted like an abandoned theater stage on which the actors never arrive, paragraphs vast and echoing like an auditorium filled with empty seats. The words themselves, stripped of memory and context, retain the artful curves and textured surfaces of breath. Words like gasp and river, drum and stone, move in and through our bodies, taking their meaning from the shape of our teeth and tongues, throats and lips. Within the experience of emptiness, we sense the meaning which is embodiment itself — the meaning that a bird has when no one is listening, the meaning that a mountain has when everyone’s asleep. What is it that we hear when we listen to the emptiness of a forgotten language? Within this very experience of emptiness, we might sometimes sense the wild winds of the sacred moving. E pur si muove!

I want you to know that this is perfectly okay.


Photo Credit:
“Blue Chair” by Doug Wheller (CC) (source)

Holy Wild, justice

Abuse and the Language of Privilege

Trigger Warning: In this post, I am going to be talking about emotional and psychological abuse. Rarely do I write about things that I believe require a trigger warning, and I do not intend to write about this topic in a way that is graphic or disturbing. But I wanted to let you know. Not because I want you to avoid reading this post altogether, but because I want you to feel safe and respected in this space, and I want you to know that I believe in your strength and courage in having this conversation. If at any point you find that you need to step away, I want you to know that I will understand and I will be here waiting for you and ready to listen, whenever you’re ready.


Snow Clings to Wildflower II

What I want to talk about in this post is not privilege per se, but the way that the language of privilege is used in certain kinds of conversations. The topic of privilege is a complex one, and Daniel Grey shares some excelent insight into this in a comment on Teo Bishop’s recent post, “Privilege: The Other ‘P’ Word“:

“Privilege” is not a bad word. It should not be understood to mean stupid, bad, or worthless. Privilege /does/ mean that we act sometimes with blinders on because we are not capable of seeing what others in a lesser position go through. Or rather, it takes a /concentrated effort/ to change our naturally acquired ways of thinking and processing the world around us and /purposefully choosing/ to acknowledge our privilege. I tweeted to you that struggling with privilege is good for us; but more importantly, I believe we should do it /for each other/. We live in a society which privileges some and oppresses others. We live in a society which is unjust, unfair, and sometimes quite cruel. I want to live in a better society, and it’s not going to change overnight. It’s going to change with /my words/, my actions, my beliefs, my willingness to struggle with the supremely difficult questions…

What Danny is describing here is an essential aspect of the human condition: we are inherently limited beings, because that is the nature of physical embodiment, and our knowledge reflects those limitations because it is conditioned by our own experiences and our perspective as physical, embodied beings. This has always been true, and the language of privilege is just the latest way that we have of articulating this fact. We can work to overcome the limitations of our knowledge through conversation with each other, and through imaginative empathy with those who have different experiences and different perspectives. But even these efforts will only take us so far. We will never reach a place where we can know, understand and speak for All People. Our first misstep is to think that such a thing is even possible. While I admire Danny’s optimism for a world where the marginalized and the vulnerable do not bear the weight of cruelty and injustice, I also know that justice is not the same thing as flawless understanding. We will never live in a world where our differences don’t matter. To be matter, to be physical beings living in a messy-crazy-beautiful physical world, is to be different, to be unique, to be individual. Sometimes that means being misunderstood, or feeling alone, but on the whole, our individuality is a good thing. And it gives us an opportunity for conversation.

So while the language of privilege is important in learning to acknowledge and talk about how our limitations can sometimes lead us, even inadvertently, to participate in and perpetuate injustice — even the language of privilege has its limitations. We cannot, simply by talking about it, expunge or diminish our differences or the differences of others. If that is our goal when we use the language of privilege, we have already made that first misstep.

What does all of this have to do with abuse?

When I was in college, I met a girl (let’s call her Sally, though that isn’t her real name) who had suffered for years from psychological abuse at the hands of her mother. It is a stereotype in our culture that the relationship between a mother and a teenage daughter is always bound to be strained, and that teenagers are generally rebellious, reckless and rude. For that reason, it’s often hard to recognize when a relationship crosses the line from normal, healthy conflict into abuse. Sally’s family didn’t recognize the abuse for what it was, and their silence seemed to her to legitimize it. Like many people in situations of domestic abuse, for a long time Sally believed that she was the problem, that if only she could be a better daughter, if only she was better at self-control and self-censorship, then things would be okay.

Sally’s relationship with her mother cycled through the typical stages of domestic abuse: building tension, incident, reconciliation, calm and rising tension once again. During the first phase, tension would build in the household as Sally’s mother made casual insults mocking her intelligence, insinuating that her friends were losers who didn’t really like her, and suggesting that she would be incapable of handling life on her own if she ever moved out. Eventually, the tension would build to a breaking point, either because Sally would push back against her mother’s passive aggressive behavior or because she would seek to escape it by avoiding her entirely, sometimes running away to a friend’s house. Sally’s mother would fly into a rage at these acts of perceived disrespect, threatening to kick Sally out of the house permanently, sometimes threatening to call Sally’s teachers or the parents of her friends to “let them know what a bitch” Sally was (in other words, threatening to sabotage her support system). Sometimes, her mother would become so angry that she would slap, hit or scratch Sally. There were times when she even threatened to take Sally to a psychiatrist and have her put on medication because she was “so out of control,” trying to shame Sally with the stigma of being “crazy.” (In college, Sally began going voluntarily to the college’s free counseling service. When her mother used to threaten her with therapy in high school, she would ask for all of them to go, as a family, so that they could work things out. But they never did. The free counseling service provided by the college was the first time Sally was able to seek out therapy for herself, without having to rely on her parents to pay for it, and without the fear that therapy would be used as a weapon to stigmatize and/or drug her.)

Many of these outbursts ended with Sally’s mother in tears, berating Sally for being such a difficult daughter and causing these horrible fights. If Sally pleaded with her mother to stop screaming at her or to calm down so they could talk things out, her mother would accuse Sally of “trying to control her feelings.” She would insist that she had a right to her rage and would declare proudly that she refused to be bullied into silence just because everyone wanted her to “shut up and be nice.”

The familiar refrain of the abuser is, “Why do you make me so angry that I hurt you?” In Sally’s case, the pain was emotional and psychological, and her mother justified the pain she caused to Sally by claiming a right to express her emotions however she wished, no matter how it might affect others or who it might hurt.

Kindness is not a form of oppression.

In his post, Teo wrote:

Encouraging anyone, especially people whose lives I don’t really understand, to be anything other than what they’re already being, even if what I’m encouraging is a little more kindness and compassion, places me in a strange position of authority.

When I read that, I thought of Sally.

Sally was not in a position of authority or power over her mother. Sally’s pleas for kindness were not, as her mother claimed, an attempt to “control” her mother’s feelings. They were Sally’s way of expressing her own vulnerability and pain, of asking for the kindness and respect that could keep the situation from escalating and preserve some possibility of real reconciliation.

What I learned from Sally was this:

Do not let anyone tell you that asking them for kindness and respect is a form of oppression.

Do not let anyone convince you that how they choose to act on their anger is your responsibility.

Many of us know what it’s like to have our words ignored or our perspectives marginalized because we didn’t use the right “tone.” We get angry, often for perfectly good reasons, we use harsh language, and then suddenly our use of the word “fuck” is all anyone can talk about and it’s an excuse to ignore whatever point we were actually trying to make.

As just one example: I remember an extended conversation I had on Facebook a while back when, after a day and a half of carefully outlining my arguments, I finally lost my temper and responded somewhat flippantly with a “what the fuck?” — at which point, the person who was arguing with me took it upon himself to tell me that “maybe the reason nobody takes you seriously is because you use words like ‘fuck’ instead of talking like a mature adult.” Fuck him, I thought. I’m not a fucking child who needs a lesson in using my “indoor voice.” But I didn’t write that. Instead, I pointed out to him the hundreds of words I’d already spent trying to “talk maturely” with him, admitted that I had spoken out of frustration, and then followed up with a linguistic analysis of how the word “fuck” can intentionally be used to undermine the social norms established within a given conversation. When someone speaks to me like a child, I double-down on being a mature, intelligent adult (because you know what? fuck them).

But what I did not do was blame him for how I’d chosen to express my anger. I owned my anger, and I owned my expression of that anger. It is my outrage, and no one can take that away from me.

But because I own my anger, and my expression of that anger, I also take responsibility for it. If I have the power to act on my anger, then I have to acknowledge that I also have the power to cause harm to others. I doubt that my use of the word “fuck” was really traumatizing or hurtful to this person on Facebook. But you know what? I don’t get to decide that. If I want to be in conversation with people, and if I want them to listen to me, I have to be willing to listen to them. Even if I think they’re full of shit. I remember Sally, and how she felt when no one would listen to her when she tried to explain to them that her mother was abusive. Sally wasn’t always a very easy person to get along with, and she could be kind of a bitch. She’d had some pretty shitty examples of how to handle conflict growing up, and so she did a pretty lousy job of handling conflict in her turn. But none of that meant that the pain and abuse that she experienced wasn’t real, or that she somehow deserved it. When I think of Sally, I remember what it was like for her to be in a perceived position of privilege in which abuse was masked by stereotypes about how obnoxious and ungrateful suburban teenagers always are. So I make a choice:

I don’t want to live in a world where we are no longer allowed to ask each other for kindness and respect. I don’t want to live in a world where one person’s anger is more important than another person’s pain. I don’t want to live in a world where our only recourse if we want to be heard is to raise our voices more and more loudly and force our anger onto others.

I would rather learn how to turn my anger into something beautiful and powerful that cannot be ignored, than to waste it in ways that can be dismissed because of my “tone.” I would rather turn my rage into an agent of compassion, than use it as a weapon against those who have hurt me.

Which means that hell yes, I pull my punches. When someone cries uncle, I ease up. Even if I think they’re faking it. I don’t drop my guard, and I don’t let myself get distracted, but I’ll be damned if I’m going to put myself in the position of bully or brute. When I choose to acknowledge and respect other people’s expressions of pain and vulnerability, I show my strength and I set an example of how to be strong in a way that doesn’t require others to be weak. This isn’t about asserting my privilege — it’s about discovering my sovereignty as someone who can be strong, kind and compassionate even when I am on the receiving end of bullying and injustice.

I don’t know what it was about Teo’s post asking us to “be nice” to each other that sparked accusations of privilege. I do know that one lone blogger crying out in the wilderness of the internet asking us to be decent to each other is a far cry from any form of active oppression. And I believe him when he says that he didn’t see encouraging kindness as an exercise of privilege, and that he wasn’t seeking to strengthen one side of the debate by silencing the other. But I also think he is mistaken if the lesson he learned was that it’s not okay to ask people to be kinder to one another. (I think it’s much more likely that the “privilege” he was accused of had more to do with the size of his readership than the content of his post.)

Kindness, compassion and respect are indispensable to conversations about privilege. If we want to listen deeply to others, appreciate their unique perspectives and experiences, and feel that our own perspectives are being heard, we all need to hold kindness, compassion and respect as vital.

We will never live in a world without limitations and differences. If we want to live in a world that is fair and just despite those limitations and differences, we need to understand how real conversation and reconciliation are built upon values like kindness and respect. We need to believe in our own sovereignty and strength, even — no, especially — when others try to deny it or take it away. We need to own our anger and take responsibility for how we express it. We need to embrace our power instead of giving it away to those who would demean or dehumanize us. Because you know what? If every time we see a person asking for kindness and respect, we accuse that person of “privilege,” then we risk relinquishing our claim to the greatest assets we have in our work towards justice and equality.

Respect and kindness are not luxuries that only the privileged can afford. They are the very things that make us human and that connect us in community.

Current Events, Holy Wild, Muse in Brief

Hipster Paganism

I’m working hard to make Hipster Paganism a thing. Now that Pagan means Wiccan, and polytheist means Pagan, it’s only a matter of time before the People We’re Embarrassed By start calling themselves polytheists and recons. (It’s already starting.) I for one am embracing this endless cycle by bringing “Pagan” back… but in, like, an ironic way.

Since I owe my editors over at Aontacht Magazine my next Wild Earth feature column by the end of this week, naturally I’ve been procrastinating a lot today by hanging out on Google+ instead of writing. The above quote came about during a complain-a-thread (I just made that term up) complaining about Pagans complaining about Christians (and Pagans) complaining about Christmas being pagan and/or secular and/or consumerist. Because when I procrastinate, I like to go meta.

For your reading pleasure, I have devised a list to help you determine whether or not you are a Hipster Pagan.

Hipster Pagan

Things Hipster Pagans Say

  • “I celebrate an obscure harvest festival. You’ve probably never heard of it.”
  • “I worshipped Jormungandr before it was cool.”
  • “All of my ritual offerings are organic.”
  • “I’m wearing this huge shiney pentacle ironically.”
  • “I post all my instagram altar pics on Tumblr.”
  • “I used to like Damh the Bard’s early stuff, before he sold out.”
  • “I got this hooded robe at Goodwill for only $5.”
  • “Have you read Anaxagoras?”
  • “I love the bodhrán. We should start a drum circle.”
  • “Do these jeans make me look Christian?”
  • “Starhawk is just too mainstream.”
  • “I always bike to rituals on my fixie.”
  • “Isn’t Chaucer’s Mead the best?”
  • “I made my wolf-fur headdress from refurbished vintage coats.”
  • “I don’t go to Pantheacon anymore, it’s just gotten too big.”
  • “Let’s have a ‘Halloween’ Party for Samhain this year and watch ‘The Craft’ — that’d be so retro!”
  • “All of my candles are rechargeable LEDs; incense is so bad for the environment and beeswax is basically like animal cruelty.”
  • “My black Pagan friend told me it’s pronounced ‘Vodoun’.”
  • “I don’t like labeling people.”
  • “I’m not a Hipster Pagan.”
Holy Wild, justice

Embarrassment: An Invitation to Growth


Embarrassment has been a hot topic in the Pagan blogosphere this week, and it has me thinking about my own relationship with the Pagan community. But it also has me pondering my relationship with embarrassment itself.

The question of how we relate to our own embarrassment is not something I’ve seen discussed in any of the many interesting and provocative posts being shared on this topic by people like Teo Bishop and John Halstead. These posts focus, instead, on how the behaviors and beliefs of other Pagans are a source of disappointment and sometimes cause for concern about the maturity of the community. For instance, John writes:

Paganism for me was a rich and complex tradition with the potential to transform consciousness and, dare I say, save the soul of the world. But the public face of Paganism seemed to me silly and naive. […] I was not embarrassed about my Paganism. I was embarrassed by “their” Paganism. I was afraid of being associated with the public face of Paganism as I have come to know it.

I can’t say that I’m unfamiliar with this feeling of embarrassment. Unlike John, my introduction to Paganism was not in books or online, but through actual, in-person engagement with other Pagans. While working on my thesis, I attended Pagan rituals and interviewed participants as part of my field research. The Pagans I talked to tended to be earnest and studious about their work, pulling all-nighters in the run-up to a scheduled ritual doing research into the gods and goddesses they planned to invoke and their associated cultural contexts. But the rituals themselves often fell flat. (The choreographed sword fight that dragged on twenty minutes too long. The moment when all the lights in the circle were doused to evoke the mystery of the Earth’s tomb/womb, only to be disrupted by the ritual leaders fumbling around for props in the dark.) And the post-ritual wrap-ups, when the organizers gathered together to discuss the pros and cons of the event, were often filled with comments that sounded a lot like justifications for screw ups. (The strong presence of the Powers of Air served as an explanation for why the priestess couldn’t get her long plastic grill lighter to spark and catch on the altar’s candle. The challenging riddles of the gods, as an explanation for why the rune divination after an offering turned out to be nonsensical, irrelevant or in direct contradiction to the ritual’s theme.)

But while I was doing this field research and meeting Pagans in person, cringing sometimes at the lack of polish and professionalism, I was also reading. The philosophies and theologies that I found in my reading excited and intrigued me, and the aesthetic qualities of nature-centered ritual moved me in the same ways that great literature and poetry inspired me (even if the realization of this aesthetic was not always easy to pull off in practice). I was pretty young and feeling rather spiritually experimental myself, and so it was a combination of these direct experiences of Pagan ritual and my own reading that spurred me to start exploring Paganism in my own life. I vividly remember a conversation I had at the time with a Pagan friend: I mentioned my excitement over some of the simpler, personal rituals and how I saw in them the potential to challenge our deeply-held assumptions about the world and to connect more directly with Spirit.

His response was one of embarrassment: He was embarrassed by me.

This was the first time I was struck by how powerful a force embarrassment was within the Pagan community. My enthusiasm seemed to this other Pagan to be as “fluffy bunny” and poorly informed as some of the rituals presented by his very own Pagan group had seemed to me, and his response to my enthusiasm was to distance himself from it (and in doing so, to discourage me from expressing it). In fact, as our conversation continued, I came to realize that my own embarrassment at some of the over-blown, overly-serious rituals I’d attended had been interpreted as a failure on my part to fully grasp the deeper nature of those rituals. My enthusiasm and embarrassment alike were simply signs, to others, that I had not yet attained the cooly competent attitude of the “serious” Pagan. But it also seemed to me that this was really just the same detached, post-cynical “professionalism” that had led to the dull sermons and condescending intolerance of so many modern mainstream religions, the very problems I had so hoped Paganism would be able to challenge in the first place.

I can’t help but hear echoes of this experience when I read these recent posts about Pagan embarrassment. While John locates his love of Paganism in the feminist and process theologies that have informed his understanding of deity as the nondiscriminating All-of-All, it seems his response to his own embarrassment is to step back into the role of the discriminating gentleman of refined tastes who finds himself discomfited by the overly-emotional and seemingly irrational exuberances of his fellow Pagans. In other words, he is disturbed by evidence in our community of the messiness of the nonrational psycho-spiritual experience, when his own theology says he should be celebrating it. After all, this is the very aspect of the religious life that feminist theology encourages us to embrace as powerful and transformative, rather than dismissing it as “mere superstition” and therefore less authentic or less relevant than the rational, analytical part of our religious life. (And don’t get me wrong, I really like John’s writing in general and I have a lot of respect for him. This is more about our lack of self-analysis when it comes to the dual nature of our embarrassment and how that embarrassment sometimes reflects a lurking inconsistency in our own beliefs.)

Making Friends with Embarrassment

Growing up with an incredibly pale complexion that flushed as brilliant red as a tomato at the least bit of discomfort, I couldn’t avoid developing a personal relationship with my own embarrassment. I learned early on that when others perceived my embarrassment, they almost always assumed that it was because I was ashamed of myself, and I was encouraged — in all the subtle ways that culture shapes the individual psyche — to turn a critical eye on my embarrassment and question how it might reflect my various flaws. Maybe this is because, in our culture, male embarrassment is more often perceived as a value judgment about others, while female embarrassment is interpreted as a response to personal failing.

ConscienceAnd maybe this was unfair (no, scratch that, it was definitely unfair), but one thing it did was force me to confront the personal psychological aspect of my embarrassment directly. I had to learn to befriend my embarrassment, to allow it to be my teacher. Because embarrassment would be so clearly written on my face, I had to hunt down my embarrassment with a certain ruthlessness. If I wanted to interview for that job I wanted, or get along with those relatives who enjoy Fox News a bit too much, or simply be taken seriously as an intelligent, articulate person. I would have to master my embarrassment if I wanted to get through life without others constantly assuming I was ashamed of myself.

The result was a deep familiarity with the psychological sources of my embarrassment. Sure, there were times when I was embarrassed by something I had done or said, mistakes I’d made or social faux-pas I’d tripped into in ignorance. But just as often, I was embarrassed by what others were doing or saying — and it was this embarrassment that I had to grapple with if I was going to function as a socially well-adjusted human being, because the truth is, no matter how polished we might make ourselves, we don’t have control over how other people behave or what they think, and half the time, we don’t have enough information to form an accurate opinion anyway. When we stop and ask ourselves why we feel embarrassed, we soon notice that embarrassment arises from an anticipation of pain or discomfort.

Embarrassment is really all about fear and insecurity and, on the other hand, strength and flexibility.

I came to realize that my own moments of embarrassment almost always resulted from a shallow engagement with the person who was causing me embarrassment, and an impoverished relationship with my own sense of self. The more I was able to engage with other people and relate to their perspectives, the more my own embarrassment subsided because I felt more secure in my ability to anticipate and navigate social tensions. The times when I felt most worried about being judged as shallow or silly because of my associations were the times when I was least secure about my own reasons for doing and believing as I did, unsure that I had the strength or presence of mind to connect with others beyond trivial first impressions.

This isn’t exactly a startling new insight. Anyone with teenage kids (or who has recently or not so recently been a teenager themselves) knows how powerfully the experience of embarrassment is tied up with the tumultuously evolving self-identity that comes with adolescence. Teens are mortified by how stuffy and out-of-touch their parents are, and parents in their turn are embarrassed by the way their messy, emotional, irrational teenagers seem to parade around all of the family dysfunction in public. Teens are also deeply invested in belonging to the right in-groups that will guard them effectively against embarrassment, in part because all of their energy and focus is engaged in the very difficult, radical work of testing out new skills and developing new talents. They earn allegiance in a peer group through a strange mix of conformity and bold rebellion, and they do it in order to shore up their personal boundaries during a time when their self-identities are undergoing enormous change and they’re discovering the kinds of roles they will play in adult society. They need to do this work safely, in a peer group that will support them and even admire them for their messiness and experimentation, instead of judging them for their failure to have already become competent (stuffy, boring) adults.

Sincerity, Competence and Risk

And here we are again. The old, ongoing debate about sincerity versus competence. Despite what some have claimed, it’s been my experience that those who highly value sincerity within the Pagan community almost never advocate (or even excuse) incompetence. On the contrary, they are more likely to admit to incompetence, especially their own, and confront it as an opportunity to learn. They are more likely to push beyond the shallow judgement of externalities to look at the underlying influences that shape our actions and expressions, understanding how the latter give rise to the former. They often show a great appreciation for the talents and skills of others and are as enthusiastic in their support for others’ explorations, experimentations and successes as they are about their own. Sincerity is an attitude of honesty, openness and a lack of duplicity (even about one’s own faults); it shares etymological roots with words like “crescent” and “crescendo,” words of process and growth.

On the other hand, I’ve noticed that those in the Pagan community who worry overly-much about the competence or incompetence of others are often just as embarrassed by expressions of sincerity, regardless of the competence with which that sincerity is expressed. (Indeed, being enthusiastically sincere can sometimes be taken as a sign that you must therefore be incompetent, by people who have no other criteria on which to base their judgement!) This is not because sincerity is actually a sign of incompetence. Although someone who is honest with themselves and others about their own imperfections might provoke our embarrassment as we anticipate the potential for failure, it’s perfectly possible for someone to be both sincere and competent. They might just be more interested in cultivating and refining their skills, and more willing to push themselves to try new things, than they are in resting comfortably on the competencies they’ve already developed. But we need people like that, who are willing to push themselves to grow and risk failure, risk embarrassment.

I Promise Not To PeekBut I think this embarrassment about sincerity also has another explanation, beyond simply our aversion to risk-taking. I think it actually stems from the unchallenged attitudes of mainstream society itself, which equates the emotional, nonrational aspect of the self with what is “feminine,” and views it as less valuable than detached, professional, rational — that is to say, “masculine” — aspects. In this view, these feminine traits are supposed to be kept in the home, a private matter, and only masculine traits like polished competence and educated reason are deemed acceptable for the public forum. People are perfectly welcome to experiment, take risks and mess up, so long as they do it privately and present only their best, most composed face to the rest of the world. So concerned are we with this distinction that we’ve even invented a term to mark the difference between private exploration and community acceptability: Unverified Personal Gnosis, or UPG.

Making a Mess of Community

The irony here is twofold. First of all, we cannot engage in building community and navigating social tensions in the privacy of our own minds. This kind of work has to be public. If we want a strong, flexible, mature community, than the process of our exploration and experimentation has to take place publicly. There’s just no other way to do it.

Furthermore, the obsession with embarrassment, this fear of incompetence, is itself the biggest stumbling block to the process of maturing into a serious, spiritually authentic community. There is a very good reason why teenagers balk against the stuffy, boring restrictions of adulthood — plenty of adults really are out of touch with their own creative processes because they’ve allowed themselves to become overly concerned with their fears of embarrassment. Creative endeavors falter under the yolk of constant editorial critique and oversight. If we cannot allow ourselves to be whole, messy people in public when we are in community with each other, then our spiritual community will remain largely an excuse for private posturing and play-acting.

It is when we confront our own messiness in the presence of others that we are forced to grow, but to do that we have to first overcome our fear of being seen as messy. And that means confronting our embarrassment at the thought of being perceived as messy-by-association. Like adolescents (for we are a very young community), we need a safe social space within which our experimentation and courageous rejection of old norms is not only welcomed and supported, but applauded and admired. Otherwise, we remain children trying to dress up in our parents’ clothes.

And that also means we need voices like John’s and Teo’s (and others’) to remain part of the community, to bring their sober perspectives and their appreciation of complexity to bear on the ways we express ourselves and communicate with each other. I might not agree with John’s take on Paganism, but I’m disappointed by the reactions to his piece that suggest he should stop calling himself a Pagan unless he’s willing to accept all aspects of Paganism uncritically, or that he can hang out under the Pagan Umbrella so long as he doesn’t jostle anyone but leaves each person to their own private devices. These, to me, sound like the reactions of people who haven’t come to terms with their own sources of embarrassment and do not want to be confronted with the mirror that John holds up to their practices and beliefs.

But even though creative work is hindered by constant criticism and self-analysis, it is equally handicapped if attempted in isolation. Creative work engages with the resistance of the medium, and the creative work of community-building absolutely demands that we overcome our embarrassment to have real conversations with each other about the things that matter, and that we do that openly and publicly. We can’t do that if we are politely escorting those who disagree with us to the exit, but we also can’t do that if we expect those disagreements to be pleasantly shelved for the time being while we all light candles and hold hands in a circle together. The one is a recipe for intolerant theology, but the other is a recipe for shallow practice.

Ritual gives rise to theology, and vice versa. There is no scenario in which we can practice together without that practice both shaping and being shaped by our shared beliefs.

We have to learn to be friends with our embarrassment, because the only way we can engage in the deep work of the authentic spiritual life as a community is if we allow ourselves to be vulnerable and messy in the full awareness of our awkwardness and the awkwardness of others. We’re all just going to have to get used to seeing each other naked.


Photo Credits:
Numb” (CC) Khan Mohammad Irteza
Conscience” (CC) KnockOut_Photographs
I Promise Not To Peek” (CC) Jari Schroderus