Sunday, July 28, 2013

Eleutherios (Lughnasadh 2013)

Bale'corn will soon die.

Do not ask Them if you would not know.

Earlier under the willow, reading.  How it was once seen, how we once thought.  Replace the confused words of desire from one with the archaic searchers of desire from people gone into the dark.

Later, under a pine.  What the tree asks, I do. My book, my thoughts, back against trunk, leaning against something which knows desire in a different time.


Do not look there if you would not leave.

In a cold house I was the only hearth, and she at it laughing. Not smothered, only smouldered, and here again the candles, here again the flame.

At Imbolc, when I left the tower, the web, the loom, after the mirror cracked, I walked through the gate to the forests and saw there a satyr.

"This is a tree. This is oxalis," he said, and fed me from blue-blossomed vines a nectar.  "This stone calms," he said. "This stone heals.  This is my fur," he said, "this is my heart beneath it." At Eiler, the first turning of the path we parted with oaths. "I can hear you from there," he said.

Under the pine, my back against the only thing strong enough, he said "I can hear you from here," and I smiled and rubbed my neck against bark.


Do not play to Them if you would not be heard.

John Barleycorn should die.

Wooden shield, sustainer of armies.  I played for him on an island, dark-winged birds wheeling. I thought they were birch, until I knew they were Alder.

Elk-tooth through the forest, in my hand, moss from one Grandmother to another (around which fires now rage, and I fear for her safety). Stag, moss, Alder.

I open a bottle of wine and leave it out for him, whom I chided, but I hold close to the branch he gave me.


Do not ask if you would not have Them give. 
 Do not ask if you would not have Them take.

At Beltaine I stared into her sky. The stars wheel, and there, her crown, her citadel, where I lost a name and took another.  He has been called inconstant, yet hanged her circle of light for us then to see.  She crossed over sea, away from him, over her father's threshold. There gave birth, there gave back to the sea, there took all away from the other to let him make himself.

I have been in her court, though I did not know her. I have been in her court, but I did not know myself.

An old woman under a willow breaks off a branch for her dog. A moment later, a young girl swings from a Birch, and I know it will break, too.  Fallen branch, wet into a pool of stars, water dripping like bells.

"I am the Queen of Witches," she says. Blue reflected in silver, her owl.  "You would know him?" she asks.  "Take this to protect from your own love, this to remember what you try to forget."

He loved her.  I did not understand this until I saw the stars through needled branches and felt his desire, pining.


Do not offer your hand if you
 would not have it taken. 
 Do not seek life if you would not 
know the death which gives it shape.
Do not seek light if you would not
 know the darkness which gives it birth

Jean Saint P├ępin serait mort.

I walked between houses which did not know me, under a scythe moon which would blood me.  Black-iron pot in my small rucksack, blackest of darknesses in my heart.

Her hideous son. Towers of glass, a recipe-book, a year of stirring.  The boy- he did not steal it, but you cannot know life if you will not know death.

There, his seed.  There the death.  There, then, the birth.

"You would know him?" She laughs.  "I will show you his death."

The Mothers

Don't.  Just don't, unless you mean it.  

I laid against him. Blood drawn from thorn of holly feeds pining roots.  "Quiet," he says, "they are greater than I."  

They demand, and I plead.  More blood, but I only have enough for myself.  More blood until flesh is drained.

It was only three drops, the boy had said, and yet this was enough, they had said.  But they spin and weave and cut, and so do I.

"You have my blood," I say.  Winged water-wisps pierce my skin. "Others feed on their blood," I say, "which is mine, for they have stolen it too.  'Three drops is enough,' you said, but my blood will now run forever in streams of flesh-eaten-flesh."

"True," they say, and laugh, and the threads are woven again.


By the pine where ale poured deep,
 just before the dance of desire-- 
ask about that dance. 
Ask about those howls to the stars in his forests.
  Ask as a friend and get an answer,
  as a child and get the truth.

Clad in green, with his hair around his eyes.

I ask.

In the place where we first met his arms are suddenly around me. He's not there, but he is behind me anyway. I did not know he was so tall.

"Tell yourself what I tell you," he says.  "Remind yourself in the morning."

"And look," he says.  "That man there knows me. He tends my shrine, he dances my dance. Use your words, like you did with Them when I told you to shut up and listen."

I stumble, wheel around him like her stars, throw myself into the dark roiling abyss, and surprise myself with my words.  They're the same words I'd tell myself.  "You already know this," I say, "but you're fucking beautiful."

In the morning, I try to piece it back together.  Hours of words by the hearth, but weren't we in a forest of pine?  There was dancing, but we were both still.  Satyrs laughed and fucked and howled at her moon, at her crown, by her springs, but we were still. 

In the morning, I wake and look at the wand of alder, the mug of tea.  There was a dance, and there's proof, but it was from another time.  There's the chalice with silvered vines, the wine.

"The Martyrdom of a Catastrophist," he'd said, as if talking about him. And why would I dare say he wasn't?

"Eleutherios," I'd said. And thunderer, and the howls are still here.  A depiction of a dance.  Poetic musings to a man elsewhere, that I know how to wield winter ('don't write poetry when drunk,' I tell myself still).

John Balleycorn'll die, his seed consumed, and me with it.

I know this story.
I am this story.
Again and-

Tuesday, July 23, 2013

Our Sister

There is nothing so beautiful in the world as the rising of the moon over mountains, reflected upon a lake as you greet it, except knowing that it reflects the light at the same time upon all those you love, close by or very far from you.

I would be that light upon her face,
I would be the face that reflects such light,
I would be the myriad stars wheeling about her,
and the myriad dreamers under her gaze.

Sunday, July 21, 2013


Everything is fading in that pleasantly subtle violent way, death of summer obscured in bursts of colours which cannot be named.  Grey-blue mist rising from the lakes beside which no evil can dwell surrounds us with mystery beyond which only hides the world in which we dream.

In a false way I loom larger, lording over not as brutish but as giant the cup and spoon and pot.  Something shifts when I think I have noticed, moving out of place to remind me what I do not remember.  Only at such times am I again myself, no longer anything except that which cannot die by quiet.  --2002

This is not the first time I've left Seattle.  In 2002 I traveled east as my then-lover traveled south, he to university, I first to the basement of my father in a tiny, post-coal town in Ohio, then to Portland Maine for a short, very hard winter.  I've journal entries from the time just before I left, prose attempts to get at the strange in-between sense one has at the point after deciding to leave a place but before actually doing so. 

I returned, and for another 2 years lived in Seattle.  On the summer solstice of 2004, I flew to France for 3 months, and just before this time I gave up the place where I'd lived to couch-surf with a friend in order to save money.  Though I felt that same liminality even stronger this time, I wrote surprisingly little regarding it and instead wrote about the discovery of the will, something I've begun to understand happens near the saturn-return of most lives.

To say that self is but an illusion is not to dismiss it; rather, it is to put it into the world where we can truly celebrate it for what it is, a dream no different from the others with which we colour our existence with the hues of story and song.
Thus, to know the self is to gain the self as a tool, to use it as a canvas or a masque, to present to the world an incarnate dream upon which others might build.  To take up a self is to take up an art, to delve and delight in glamour and beauty, to act for the world a part of one’s own choosing, a subtle magic and a glorious feat. 

And most fascinating, the celebration of life begins in forests of dream in which each together unveil ourselves to find we are but mirrors of the world, that we are all each other.  --2004

And then--again. Back in the same house in the same room overlooking the same mountains and lake, attempting to make sense of all I'd seen of the world (and the terrifying reality that it was as brutally fascinating as I'd suspected).  This wasn't easy. Seattle was in the midst of another harrowing, a strange, fanatical rush of people to buy houses elsewhere, the first recent wave of destruction of old buildings, and the same sudden embrace of new technology the rest of America endured in the middle of the first decade of this century.

When I'd returned, something had changed.  The liminality I'd experienced before I left seemed to remain upon my return, or, more so, a new state of in-between had opened within me, and I could never quite find myself

Yet one more time, I left Seattle, to Vancouver BC.  Something felt relieving about this move, less dream-soaked, more practical.  My then-lover had gotten a full scholarship to a master's program at UBC, and I'd get health care for the first time in my adult life, get a new ACL torn in a work-accident.  That liminality was strange, because I'd left Seattle so often by then it seemed rather casual.  And a darkness had settled over my understanding of the world, years of struggle against societal change which left me alienated from everything but my memories of dreams.

More often than not, the pictures refuse to fade into the magic of memory.  The do fade from sight but, instead of the solemn trek to and into the sea, they linger awhile, hesitant to walk into the breaking waves.

By then my attention has turned elsewhere, but I cannot now look at this new thing: they have caught my eye and held it, by the corner, so that I cannot truly deny I’m going blind.  --2009

And back.  Nothing could ever quite pull me back into the world.  I felt forever in-between, trapped within the liminal without egress.  I often thought I was going a bit insane, feeling myself never at home, viewing the world from that same mist I wrote of in the excerpt with which I started this piece. 

In many pagan, magical, and indigenous traditions, liminality is an entry point to the Other.  The shore is a liminal space, just as the gloaming (the time between sunset and twilight) is liminal, and Beltaine and Samhain.  In the liminal, the interstices, the in-between, the world is both one thing and another, and we are caught within it.  Colors bleed to grey, the sea turns to land, the earth tilts from life to death.

All of life had become this moment for me.  Trapped between sleeping and waking, the place of the physical and the place of dreams.  Echoes of noises I did not quite hear, light from stars I could not see.

From what I've read of anthropologist's studies of "shamanic calls," and from the lives of mystics and unhappy poets, I think I recognize this phenomena.  I am no shaman nor saint nor mystic, nor is my poetry very good, but the similarity of experience is not easily mistaken in myself.  The longer one attempts to avert ones eyes from what one has seen, the more difficult it is not to focus on it in the mind's eye, and so one sets within oneself a cycle of frustration, a perpetual dissatisfaction, a suspended binary, an unresolved polarity: liminality. 

And here I am again, in another liminal space, another border.  Except--it's not quite the same.  In it, in the decisions I've made these last 6 months, some difference has resolved itself into a third option, a completed dialectic.  In the spaces in-between, one need not choose between here or There--one can stand in both and actually be in both while existing in a third space, that specific space in between.

On the shore, one need not be either on the sea or on land.  The shore is both and a third place.  In the darkening of the day, it is neither light nor dark, it is both, it is the gloaming.  And I'd extend this with a suggestion, one that may prove useful to anyone who experiences deja vu in a similar way.

Setting aside the scientific conjecture of the experience, a deja vu seems to be the future bending itself back into the past to be experienced in the present.  It is rarely for me the sense of having "seen it before;" rather, it is like having remembered a dream in the past from the future of the current moment: all-is-always-now. 

It takes practice, but I've found that I can look around in those moments, pull myself out of apparently looping script and see something else.  A deja vu, like the shoreline, like the time before you leave somewhere but find your mind already there, may be a liminality. 

Then again, it may not be.  Ambiguity is also liminal. 

Still. I am here. I am elsewhere. I am in-between.

And I am absurdly happy. 

Friday, July 19, 2013

The Use of Racism


First: My Own Racisms

On the fourteenth floor of a skyscraper, I breathed in the electric smell of metallic ink dust.  Tall tinted windows filtered in the rose and violet light of the sun's setting and I, searching past the rows of machines, tried to divine which of the people gathered in one corner of the office was my supervisor.
For 6 months, I worked as a document-specialist, a modern, low-level scribe.  I was to stand before a massive photocopier and replicate pages of "legal discovery," perhaps the closest I've ever come to actual factory work.  We were supposed to wear face-masks, as printer and toner ink produce particles which will cause something similar to black-lung, but, well, there were no face-masks and the pay was good enough that one didn't care so much about the long-term effects of the job.
My first evening shift, and I was supposed to find a man named William, who was the night foreman and would assign me a work-station.  No one was wearing name tags, and I didn't know anyone yet, so I stood, disoriented, attempting to figure out who he might be.
A voice saved me from looking too much like a fool, both then and for the rest of my life. "Are you new?"
Relief flooded me as I looked at the woman who'd spoken.  Young like me, less well-dressed than the others--eminently approachable.
"Uh, yeah.  I'm Rhyd.  I'm looking for William?"
She told me her name, smiling, and then answered, "he's the one with the blue dress shirt. He's a nice guy."
And in that moment, I realised I was a racist.

There were maybe 30 people in the office, about 20 of them male.  There was only one man with a blue dress shirt, yes, but it took me an extra few seconds to identify him.  Something had short-circuited in my mind, because while yes, he was the only one wearing said color, he was different from the others in a few other ways, one of which stood out first to me--he was black.

By this point, I was already a leftist. I'd read much, I knew much, and I thought I understood much about how whites have utterly fucked-up most of the world and its people.  I had "black friends" (and I'll get to that bit of racism in a bit), didn't fear minorities, etc. etc.. But here, looking at the people in the office, I was confused.  Why hadn't she said, "William's the black guy?" Because all the other potential Williams (that is, the men) were all that special shade of white that only comes from living in Seattle or a cave, near translucent skin even in mid-summer.

Granted, William was also the tallest guy in the room, and when I thought about this later (that shift, and the next couple of weeks after), I tried to parse out why she had chosen shirt color to distinguish him from others rather than his height or his skin color.  A Truth had begun to take root in my mind, and it was horrifying. I looked at skin color as an "obvious" difference; she didn't.

A few years later, I became the chef at a popular dinner-theatre in Seattle, working for two uber-liberal, very progressive and eco-conscious people.  They'd bought a house in an historically black neighborhood in Seattle, renovating both it and the area where they built their theatre.  They publicly supported liberal causes, including the city council campaign of a black neighbor (hosting one of his fund-raising campaign dinners for free).  They were generally what one might consider paragons of post-racial Seattle, what we all should strive to be.

Except when the well-dressed, amiable, professional woman arrived one afternoon.  She pulled a resume from a very chic leather document case and, speaking to one of the owners, said, "I'm here to apply for a job?"

"Oh--talk to Rhyd," he answered.  "He does the hiring for the kitchen."

"Oh, I'm sorry.  I was hoping you were hiring for servers?"

"No, sorry," he lied.  "Not right now."

This is where I mention that this well-dressed, fabulous applicant was black. And I failed to confront my boss, because I wanted to keep my job.

A Brief History of Race

Hannah Arendt
The history of racism is sordid, but it can be parsed out and unwoven.  There's something you should know about it, though--race theory (that is, there are different "races," and the races are different from each other) is a new idea.  Hannah Arendt (a jewish philosopher, student of Heidegger before she had to leave Germany), most famous for her treatment of the political uses of Zionism against Jews (Eichmann in Jerusalem) wrote extensively about both the history and function of Racism.  In The Burden of Our Time, she traces the birth of "race-thinking" to the early 1800's liberal aristocrats in both Germany and France and notes how its spread did not occur until nation-states noted its usefulness as a justification for their colonial and imperialist policies, particularly in Africa.

Consider the implications of this, though.  There was slavery before the 1800's, and there was what we now call "racism" against non-whites before the 1800's as well.  But her argument is this: there was no widespread, universal ideology about racial difference and racial superiority before the development of racism (during the much celebrated "enlightenment.").   Before then, other justifications existed for slavery and for hierarchies of peoples, but they were varied and unrecognisable to most in america now.

One of the justifications for slavery and oppression of non-european peoples was levels of "civilisation" (and this still returns to our thinking when we bomb the fuck out of less-dark peoples, like Afghanis and Iraqis--consider all the talk of how backward, violent, and savage muslims were/are to their women and minorities, unlike our enlightened selves (because we'd never justify the killing of homosexuals or blacks, nor would we support the rape of women, right???).

Another justification was religious and pseudo-historical.  For those unfamiliar with the Bible, Noah is said to have had three sons named Ham, Shem, and Japheth.  Ham looked his father's nakedness, it appears, and so was cursed to be the servant of his two brothers.  Ham later went on to found the nations of Africa, supposedly (and Ham sometimes translates as "dark,"), so christian preachers in america and elsewhere used this story as justification for slavery (after all, the forefather of Africa looked at Noah's cock...).

And yet another was religious.  Anyone who's ever seen The Mission (and if you haven't, you should--Antonio Banderas and Jeremy Irons as bearded priests...) will be familiar with this theory--rules of decency, of charity, and of society only applied to other Christians, not to non-Christians.  This idea helped justify the European slaughter of Arabs and Jews during the crusades, as well as justify the plunder and slavery of Africa and Asia.

But all those ideas went a bit to the side when a new idea, a more useful ideology came about: there are Races of people, and some are better than others.  Springing from Nationalist and aristocratic thinking in the 1700's, along with the applications of materialistic science, came a new justification for the slaughter and oppression of people-not-like-us.

And now we live with this legacy.

Race and Privilege

I've read too many recent conversations on the internet regarding race and privilege lately (too many, because I've got a pilgrimage to sacred sites in France to plan, and also they've made me a bit ill) to be unable to address one thing which keeps coming up.

It's been expressed various ways, but the most common aspect of those expressions can be summarized as such: "Racism and Privilege are just ideas, and we're all one people, so stop throwing blame and guilt around."

Ideas don't kill, but people embracing Ideologies sure do (Nazis, anyone?)  The difference is both simple and profound--an idea is just a thought expressed within a person's mind; and ideology is a set of ideas which lead a person to beliefs about the world, and beliefs, when held, lead to action.  "Black men are untrustworthy" is a mere idea (and possibly racist), but "black men are untrustworthy" is an ideology when it is shared by many people who embrace it not just on the level of ideas, but of belief.  And the most powerful thing about ideologies is that they become invisible to those under its sway, except on the level of society.  And each person within a society holding to this belief reinforces the others, making the power of that belief that much more potent and that much more invisible.

Except, of course, to those who don't hold to the ideology, or those who are the target of a racist ideology.

One need not look at the individual beliefs of each person in a society to prove that Racism has power.  Rather, it makes more sense to look at the function of that belief within society, or look at the conditions of the targets of racism and discern whether or not non-whites have the same access to everything that whites do.

And, well, they don't.  And privilege is easy to explain--when someone has access to more things than another in society, not by their own virtue but by some sort of classification, than they are a privileged class.  Need examples?

When people talk about privilege, this is what they mean: whites are a privileged class in America: they have access to more rights, more security, more opportunity as a whole than non-whites.  Even if any particular white has less wealth and less opportunity than a non-white, in general whites have more.  It's a useful way of talking about the affects of Racism As Ideology as it functions in society, and people should really stop taking it so fucking personally.  That is, acknowledge that, in general, some people have more privilege than others, that Racism continues to exist as an Ideology even if you yourself don't feel privileged or racist, and that this Ideology and its functions are making the lives of millions of people really, really miserable.

"All one or none"

There's this...shampoo. Or soap. Or dishwashing liquid, or insecticide, or purportedly 30 other things, called Dr. Bronner's.  And I'm afraid people may accidentally be getting there politics and spirituality from the manic and incoherent prattle printed on the bottle.  Not the "Dilute! Dilute! Or Rinse Eyes Well!," but the repetitive claims that We Are All One.

Well, yes. But not at all.  Imagine sitting at a table where everyone is eating, and you are particularly hungry but by the time the food is passed to you, there's only a spoonful left and then the host proclaims, "I'm glad we all got enough food."  You didn't, and you're having trouble not staring at the person who got served first and took more than everyone else, but you don't want to speak up because, well, everyone did get some food, you just got barely anything.

This is akin to proclaiming that we are all the same.  We are not, because some of us are treated horribly, shot because we're a different color or not allowed to apply for a job because we're not white. We should all have equal rights, and we should all be treated equally, yes.  But this isn't the case, and until it is, there's no sense pretending that we're all equal.

This has too many implications to number, but one of the most obvious is the way that wealth is distributed.  And this is where one begins to see the implications of Race Theory, and specifically, why very little has ever been done about it except by disobedient people who end up in jail.  Minorities are--poor.  The richest people in America are some of the whitest, and whites are, on average, much better off economically than non-whites.

There've been a few attempts by some very horrible (white) men to justify this philosophically and scientifically by attempting to prove that some minorities have lower mental capacity by virtue of their genetics, or are unable to do certain kinds of work because of their cultural upbringing, or (in the less politic sense) because they are lazy.  These are all easily rejected, but two questions should present themselves immediately: 1. Why are they poor? and 2. Why are white men trying to justify non-white poverty?
Buffalo Slaughter

In Capitalism, wealth is generated by wealth.  If you don't start with wealth, and can't borrow wealth to invest, you have to accumulate it by selling your labor.  If your parents and grandparents weren't rich (and not many slaves from Africa came over with great wealth shackled along with them in the slave-ships), then you have to get a job. And if you aren't white, this is not an easy proposition (refer back to my story earlier).  The same goes for immigrants (who are often fleeing poverty, war, or oppression) and First Nations (who had most of their land stolen, most of their ancestors slaughtered, and their primary resource eradicated by government policy.

The Perpetuation of Racism

But to the second question.  Why do people continue to justify unequal distribution of wealth between whites and non-whites?  I'm not interested in individuals here, per se (though sometimes I want to shake a fool or five).  No--more interesting: what is the use of Racism, if it's wrong?

The roots of Race Theory answer this question.  Arendt's theory--that ideologies don't take hold until they become useful as justifications of certain policies--is illuminating.  Racism is very useful if you want to hold on to power and are white.  Dividing the poor into (superficial, skin-deep) divisions which make them distrust each other is a very adequate way of ensuring the poor will never unite to take back some of that wealth. 

That is, we are being used.  When we repeat the refrains of a baseless ideology, we strengthen the rich and powerful.  When we refuse to confront this Ideology, we play into their hands.  And when we refuse to confront our own privilege, we are doing their bidding.  And many of my readers think not just of political implications, but spiritual matters, so I must add--to liberate ourselves from the materialistic forms which enchain us, we must learn how we inadvertently help the powerful enchain others.

Friday, July 12, 2013

Under the Pavement, the Stars

Our life is no dream. However, it should--and perhaps one day will--be.

 For a few days, I left the bustling streets of the city throngs, the culture and learning of the urban, and stayed in the village of Oak Grove, not far from Ravenswood.  The hearth which sheltered me, ringed by old pines, was a short walk from a quiet but strong stream which salmon use every autumn to spawn. To get to this stream, not far from where it becomes a river emptying into an ancient lake and then into the sea, one needed only to walk along a worn, weathered fence, pass through a well-concealed gate, and pick a way through old orchard trees and alder to a place where the bank slopes enough to walk down.

(where I sat)
There, listening to water, sitting upon a small beach formed by worn, rounded pebbles, I quieted, allowing myself to be open to what the stream had to say to me. 
"Hey," called the voice of the man on the other bank.  "How's it going?"
My journal was already open, but I set my pen aside long enough to say greet him back.  There was a tension in his voice, a forceful, assertive-agressive hail, but I ignored it, suspected I'd mistaken his tone.
After a while, distracted by the way the water lapped occasionally over moss-covered stones, feeling again at peace, I took up my pen.
"Watch out for that strange guy by the river," I heard, before I'd written my first word.
I looked up, disappointed, perturbed.  I saw the man talking to a maiden I presumed to be his daughter by her response. "Where, dad?"
"Not so loud," he answered, and then they both went out of earshot, into their expensive, suburban home.

I didn't mention that part.  Oak Grove isn't a village, nor is Ravenswood.  They're "living communities," probably with a TM somewhere on their websites.  I was house-sitting for some friends for a few days, hiding away from the great noise and dance of responsibility that has become my life in the city in one of the many old logging towns that have been transformed into "bedroom communities" in recent years around the city of Seattle.

A Brief (Personal) History of the Car

Every city has its suburbs, and I have avoided them whenever possible for the entirety of my adult life.  When I moved here, I swore off such places as dull, bourgeois, and ultimately anti-civilization.  Besides the usual reason why a gay man in his early 20's would want to be in a city (culture, ease of finding work, ease of finding dates), I've lived a very adversarial life to one of the two things which compel and create the existence of the suburbs.

I spent most of my pre-pubescent years in rural ohio, in the foothills of the Appalachians.  The WIC truck delivered, as did the government food truck, and I was reminiscing with a co-worker the other night about how perfect (and toxic) government cheese was--it made the best grilled cheese sandwiches imaginable, but turned your feces a strange color.  Also, powdered milk? Miserable.  Don't bother.

Me and an outhouse.
I lived in a worn-down A-frame house with a leaking sewer (the plants grew gorgeously tall above the iridescent-black sheen seeping through the leech-bed), a van on cinder-blocks (it was our shed), two old washers and one old fridge on the porch, and a fenced-off forest behind us.  The only industry worth talking about in that area was the paper-mill, and trees needed to be protected so they could be sold at a premium when the buyers came calling, so I wasn't allowed to hop the barbed-wire fence (that motherfucker hurt).

But we had a road, a paved one even (not many of those around), and sometimes my father would drive us "to town." My little sisters would brush their hair and put on a dress, I'd comb my hair and put on shoes, and, if the car started (half the time, maybe), my family would make the 45 minute drive to a town of 20,000 people, the center of life, excitement, and also groceries and, the most exciting element of all, K-Mart.  I cannot begin to describe the extreme disappointment I'd feel when we were strapped into our seat-belts, all primped for the big world, and the car didn't start. 

After a divorce, my mother moved my sisters and me to what seemed the opposite world.  I lived all my adolescence in a town in South Florida, near beaches and amusement and well-dressed people in gated communities (a few of which incorporated themselves into "cities").  Yet--I'm not sure I can honestly say much changed.  We didn't have a car, and though the 5 mile walk to the grocery store (in summer humidity, in south Florida temperatures) was possible, it was never fun.  The worst part? Crossing the 10 lane "streets" built to accomadate the inundation of cars sweeping into the southern lands to escape the balance of temperatures most people call "winter."

These "streets" have a peculiar adornment, more visible in the later months of the year.  White crosses covered in flowers, cards, images of the Virgin, always painted with a hispanic first and last name (yes, roadside-shrines are everywhere, but in Florida, they're majority Hispanic).  I was far from enlightened when I was fourteen, and I remember asking someone why "mexicans always seemed to die when crossing the street" and the answer jarred me brutally, pointing out my own idiocy and also my own poverty: "mexicans can't afford cars, stupid."

It was at this point I first learned both class consciousness and race consciousness, and I've never been the same since. 

Life without Cars

In a benevolent city, you do not need a car.  I try only to live in such cities, as I've never learned to drive and hope to live my life without needing to.  But such a decision requires a lot of loss--multiple jobs will never be available to me, and, as a particular quirk of American civil planning has it, I cannot get anywhere truly "wild" without being driven there by a friend. 

This is okay, though.  I hate cars. I hate the car's waste of resources, its brutal impact on the planet, and its brutal impact on society.  I don't like running to cross a street because someone isn't looking (and are instead looking at one of the other technologies I've grown to despise, their smartphone).  I dislike having pets squashed on the street, I loathe the searing heat coming from seas of parking lots, I get depressed when I compare European cities to ours, and I am disappointed that there are places I cannot go without one. 

Though my own choices and admittedly strong opinions regarding automobiles probably disqualifies me in the eyes of some to talk about how cars have damaged our world (both outer and inner), there's something I hope to convey here.

Return for a moment to my account of sitting by the river just outside "Oak Grove."  If I painted it correctly for you, perhaps you imagined what I was trying to imagine while I was there-- that is, the ideal beneath the forms, the "world below the pavement."  It should not be hard to imagine such a village, not only because we want such a thing (and thus the archaic names for housing developments), but because there have been such things in the world.  Not only that, but there are still, for there are (believe it or not) a few places in the world where the necessities of the car did not trump the already-existing societal structures where it was introduced.

I'd argue, with the slow decline of industrialised society that I think is occurring (peak oil, capitalism grinding down, etc.,) we will have to adopt such old forms again.  North America will likely have it harder than most other places because so much of what we do, what we've built, relies upon the existence of cars.  The rest of the world has been quite accustomed to villages and cities interacting without cars, or at least for most of the last several thousand years.

The suburbs in North America are not like the villages in Europe or elsewhere, unfortunately.  They sprung up primarily because of the car and what was called "white flight" in 70's and 80's; whereas in the rest of the world, villages were emptied by industrialisation, in North America villages were transformed by both racism and industrialisation, aided by the handy "chariot of freedom" known as the automobile. The suburbs as they exist now function both as overflow for cities (though, now, in many places, they are becoming a refuge for the poor and immigrants who cannot afford the "white return").  And though the suburb's legacy is one of racism, there are plenty of people who choose to liver there for other reasons, not just fear of difference (though, in the case of the man who warned his daughter to beware me, it probably was).  I've also begun to be aware of something else, a way that the city damages us.  

Telling an Other Story

I can't believe I'm saying this, actually, but there's this: cities, with their press of peoples and noise, the primacy of commerce and consumerism and the destruction of nature, create a massive wall between the part of us which can experience the Other and the part of us who experiences the material.  Though I'm far from being extremely perceptive of such things, the more I've opened myself up to such experiences, the harder living in a city has become.  I've heard that people who are very good at listening to the subtle senses are able to block out all the noise, but these are high priests and mages, not normal people like me trying to awaken the old gods and work a full-time social work job (I won't even begin to tell you what working with schizophrenics is like now...).  Downtown gets...difficult.

Still, I don't think we should destroy the city, though.  Nope--far from it, for anyone who's ever had a deviant thought in her or his life knows quite well that the suburbs and rural areas are not friendly places to deviants.  Nor do I think we should raze the suburbs, with their symbolic village life.  Instead, I suspect we need to change the stories we tell about both.  Draw out from the suburbs their faux-archaic names and hold them to it, draw out the cultural and civilising promise of cities and demand it. 

The world has become dis-enchanted.  It's hard to find the magic in things, the whispers in nature, the voices of the Gods, the ancient paths that lead to Other worlds.  There are a myriad of reasons for this, and I intend to write more on one of the biggest reasons later.  But the fact of this dis-enchantment should not be allowed to stand, nor should our ability to re-enchant the world be forsaken.  We can re-weave the world with our stories, and one of the places I think maybe we should start is with the cities and villages in which we live.

And while telling this Other story about the places we live, we can begin to transform those places.  The cities are noisy and crowded and full of strife, yes, but they can also be places of wonder, with markets full of exotics from far-off lands and towers full of learning.  The suburbs are often closed-minded and fearful of outsiders, yes,  but they can be villages full of wise folk closer to nature and the old ways.   Not only can they be, but they ought to be, and it'd probably be best for all of us if we got started, learning to re-enchant the world and each other so that, when the world we've created around the car starts to crumble, there's something more enduring to take its place.

Friday, July 5, 2013

Reclaiming the Hidden Sacred

All fixed, fast-frozen relations, with their train of ancient and venerable prejudices and opinions, are swept away, all new-formed ones become antiquated before they can ossify. All that is solid melts into air, all that is holy is profaned, and man is at last compelled to face with sober senses his real conditions of life, and his relations with his kind.

There are multiple ways of telling the history of humanity for the last three-hundred years.  We all know at least a few of them, and embrace at least one of them. Whether we are consciously aware of the narrative we've chosen, it affects not only how we see history but also our current society.

For a person of european descent living somewhere besides Europe, there are various tales we tell or have been told regarding how it is we happened to be in the lands we were born.  I won't go into every one of them, and I've little interest in addressing what one might term "conservative" narratives (that is, God led our forefathers across the ocean, etc..) here, nor do I think many who hold those ideas would be reading this.

We choose these narratives both consciously and unconsciously, inheriting them from our cultural and educational history (parents, media, church, friends) and refining them or adopting new ones when they no longer seem to fit our need to understand both our history and our current world.  The dominant one in America seems often enough that europeans (and others) came across the ocean in search of "religious freedom, "better lives," and "opportunity."  Whether or not you accept this idea, I think it's interesting to note what isn't said in the narrative: "what were they leaving?"

The Great White Hope of Puritans
The question of (early) religious freedom is easily addressed: several religious groups, particular the Puritans, were expelled from the places they lived because their repressive ideas were no longer welcome in certain cities.  Few think of this: the Puritans had to flee from England after Oliver Cromwell lost power, went to the Continent for a little bit until they were expelled there, and then finally settled in the Colonies.  

But if people were looking for better lives, opportunity, jobs, work, and all of that, why weren't they finding it in Europe?

Displacement and the Sacred

We all mostly learn the story of the rise of industrialization in Britain from high school.  The story goes as such: we were once all living under Feudalism, slaving away for little to anything of our own, and then suddenly the factories came about.  Our ancestors had a new way to live, and fled from the countryside in droves to towns where we no longer had to live such horrid, menial lives.

In the towns, they learned ideas, they learned to read, they learned that they didn't have to live under Feudalism anymore.  The towns got bigger, the markets got full of new, shiny things that we didn't have to make ourselves anymore.  And because there was a "new land" across the ocean, people left Europe to flee from crowded towns to wide-open spaces with even more economic chances.

Essential to this narrative are two things: progress and choice.  As far as progress is concerned, the story says that things have gotten better, we went from monarchy to democracy and from hand-sewn to factory-churned, from cramped huts on the edge of the forest to better homes in the cities, and from oppressive religious societies to open, tolerant societies.

And regarding choice--well, how much choice did our ancestors really have?  Though we say "we no longer had to make our own things," we forget that "we no longer can."  We don't have the time to do so anymore, for the only way to make a living is to work for someone else.  Though we "don't have to" grow our own food anymore, it is also true "we don't have the land to," nor can we survive on what we grow (remember, people used to do this All the Time, and not just thousands of years ago). 

That is to say, we have no choice in the matter now, nor really did our ancestors.  We had to sell our labor in the factories, we had to rely on stores and markets for our food and clothing, and living a simple, self-sufficient life is now only possible if you've the money to buy land.

The market, in essence, replaced much of what we did "for ourselves," and while we usually tell us that we were freed from the constraints of the old ways, we forget that we now have no choice in the matter.

And thus far, I've only been speaking of material matters.

The False Narrative of Progress

Though Max Weber, in The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, is credited as being the first to describe capitalism's "dis-enchantment" effect upon social and spiritual relations, another well-known writer did much of the work beforehand.  Karl Marx's Das Capital and The Communist Manifesto are both rife with descriptions of how the engines of capitalism disrupted social relations, and I intend to write more in-depth on this in another post. 

Suffice it to say, for now, that as people were displaced from their lands (usually because they could no longer afford the rents), moved into the cities and began working in the factories (whole families, not just men), their relationships to each other, to their ancestral knowledge, to the land, and to the sacred changed.  Enlightenment thinkers and those inspired by them typically see all these changes as being good, and it is from them that we derive the very notion of historical Progress.  It is telling that none of them worked in factories.  But no-one wants to be against the Enlightenment and Progress, right?

Maybe we should all be.  Attempting to find the Sacred now is incredibly difficult, and all most of us ever have to rely upon is The Market.  We may have found certain books that inspired us to look on the world as a more magical place, or maybe music or films, rarely a teacher.   I know for many people my age, it was Loreena McKennit or Dead Can Dance which got them into paganism, or maybe (the incredibly problematic) Braveheart.  The Market has, from time to time, managed to disseminate ideas to those of us who may not have come to them from our families, friends, or personal revelations.  But this is not a good thing; this is a consolation prize, and worse, the capitalists get to claim that it was because of them that we discovered our ancestral knowledge.

We should counter, rather, with this: it is in spite of Capitalism and the displacement of our ancestors, it is despite the homogenizing affect of materialism and the market that we have found and fought for the Sacred.  And despite the narrative of Progress attempting to re-write our histories into a story that asserts "we are better off now," we have begun to recover the histories of the sacred that linger just beyond the pretty, meaningless words.

Worker's Maypole
Other things which get caught up in the Progress Narrative include Rights: Capitalism and its narrative claim to have made life better for us all, particularly minorities.  Women's rights, Abolition, gay rights, etc., are all supposedly derived from the transformational force of industry, commerce, and capital.  We should do better by our ancestors than to believe this.  People who fought and died for the 8-hour work day, for the right to vote, for the right to love who they want--they didn't do this because capitalism made it possible.  In many instances, they had to fight directly against capitalism.  And, interestingly enough, many of them were both "radicals" (usually socialist or anarchist) and also occultists.  One of the early founders of the Druid order to which I belong, MacGregor Reid, was a socialist who'd spent much of his time helping to organize dock-workers in NYC.  The painter of the Rider-Waite Tarot, Pamela Colman Smith  (who's name is sadly rarely mentioned), was a Suffragette.  Much of the early history of worker-resistance in the UK and the US was rife with pagan imagery, there was a vast nexus of relationships between the Golden Dawn and Anarchists in England (and by nexus, I mean Oscar Wilde--see Lela Ghandi's Affective Communities), and many of the early gay rights pioneers, particularly in Europe, used the pagan gods to justify their love (see this fascinating paper).

Recovering Without Theft

Much of the rest of the world are fortunate enough to live near the relics of their ancestors. In America, unless we are First Nations, we are not.

It's tempting, because of our history of displacement and the scrubbing of our history, to give up completely on the search for historical veracity.  When everything seems to have been taken from us, it almost makes sense to either make it up as we go along or to borrow from whatever authentic-traditions are on hand.  The first option is lazy, and the second one is called appropriation.

The first option implies a sense of despair, or embraces the narrative of Progress and Capitalism that the old ways are either lost or unworthy of our attention.  The question of pagan continuity is thorny and debated, but there are enough "reconstructionists" around that no one really needs to look very far to find people who've already done much of the work on digging up the traditions, beliefs, rituals, and gods of our ancestors.

The second is what spurred me to write this post in the first place.  The question of cultural appropriation came up in this blog, as well as a few other places on the Internet where it was re-posted.  The reaction to the writer's piece was surprising to me, because I live in a hyper-sensitive, "liberal-left" environment where people break the windows of stores that sell Ghettopoly and "Navaho Underwear", both undisputedly racist products.

But products are just products, items outside of ourselves, easily disowned.  Beliefs are stronger, are considered not just part of ourselves but integral to who we are.  And the search for spirituality is deep within many of us, as is the desire to have authentic spiritual experiences.  In the Northwest, where I live, Buddhism (or what some have termed "Western Buddhism") is very popular, though much of it reflects only the outward rituals of the practice, as with Yoga, which was a preparatory ritual for spiritual work, not the spiritual work itself. I sometimes play a game at the local organic food co-op, called "find-the-non-white" in Eastern-Mysticism magazines.  The game is this: you open up the magazine and flip through the pages until you see the first photo of a non-white person not in an advertisement.  I usually get to page 50.  I once modified the game (I should note, I do this aloud, boisterously) to find the first non-white person who was photographed in color, and gave up.

Um, yeah.
This is very rude of me, I admit, but there's a point to it.  We white, european-descended spiritual seekers face not only the displacement of our ancestral lines into a land that was stolen from the indigenous inhabitants, but we also suffer in our search for authentic spiritual experiences from our own racist perceptions of other cultures.  That racism filters and mediates our approach in multiple ways.  We tend to approach the Sacred in the other as something frozen in history, something from an ancient past that no longer exists (we are not the only ones guilty of this, by the way--I remember the utter shocked delight when I told a pagan friend in Europe that not all the natives were dead.  She asked me "have you seen one?" and seemed likely to die when I told her I knew many).  A lot of the appropriation in Western society comes from our refusal to acknowledge that there are still living traditions around, and not very far off from where we live, and that there are still people who can teach us about spirits, the gods, and traditions of magic.

The other problem we encounter is just as negative.  We are the inheritors of a dominant culture, of political, cultural, and economic imperialism.  Capitalism originated in England in the 17th century, and from then on, white Europeans, displaced willingly or unwillingly, have been part of the destruction of other cultures.  We have been the dominant one, and are horribly unused to being changed by cultures we encounter.  We encounter Buddhism and Hinduism and suddenly plaster billboards with pictures of white women, seated lotus-style, in front of their laptops checking their bank balances on-line.  We encounter a Mayan time-keeping system and foist our own apocalyptic fantasies upon it.  We see Native sacred crafts and fill our living rooms with them.  (And here, Capitalism and its consolation, The Market, rear their heads again.)

The problem isn't the search for authenticity.  The problem, I'd argue, is the refusal to allow ourselves be changed by the cultures who birthed the spirituality we embrace.  We pick and choose what we want to cobble together a system that does not actually change our way of life, and when the teachers of some of those beliefs demand the right to teach them to us, we hide behind pretty notions of truth belonging to all people, of universal teachings, or just utterly deny our condition altogether.

There are better ways to go about this.  The fact that there are still indigenous traditions, real, living traditions, means that we actually still have access to people who can teach us.  And in the experience of many people I have known, these teachings are willingly given, but they aren't given out in pamphlets or books or seminars.  A former lover was invited to partake in such things, but the expectation was not only that he be open to the teachings but that he maintain a connection to and take on a responsibility for not just the teachings but the tribe who offered it.  As far as other traditions go, the situation is similar.  Also, there are many orders who focus on reconstruction of traditions and avoid taking from others unless it is offered or given.

And maybe even better, we can reclaim our own Sacred.  Not just the folk-ways of our ancestors (not many of us can even accurately be certain who our european ancestors are), but the still-living traditions hidden in our current culture.  One of these is the pagan resistance still evident up to the early 1900's in America and Europe. Besides the aforementioned examples, it was recently brought to my attention that the Molly Maguires posted eviction notices to landlords in the name of local land gods. Also, despite all the horror that Catholicism has wrought, pagan gods are still worshiped as saints within their traditions and can be re-discovered and reclaimed from there, and is some of the work I hope personally to do in September when I go to Bretagne.  (And as an aside, for those following the saga of my impending pilgrimage,I recently learned that I'll be traveling to Europe on the day of one such hidden-god, St. Dionysos, revered on September 6th)

Nature is also a great place to look.  If gods or spirits introduced themselves to people 100 years ago, it seems unlikely they would have stopped now.  But we must be careful with this, because almost every spirituality teaches that one must first delve into our own mind to find what is hidden there, what motivates us and what prevents us.  Learning to hear the Sacred requires learning to distinguish our own thoughts and their foundations from what is outside of us.  Relying on established traditions is an important safeguard against both appropriation and error.  Making it up as we go along is sometimes necessary, but it should not be our only method of finding the Sacred, otherwise we are merely "making it up."

*the source of the quote at the top: Karl Marx and Fredrich Engles,  from The Communist Manifesto