14 Relationships: Rites of Passage

This is proving to be a difficult writing topic.

Rites of passage must be about true passages. Not formal but meaningless passages that belong to a bygone age. Or to someone else.

What are the traditional passages? Birth. Naming. Puberty. Adulthood. Marriage. Childbirth. Menopause/midlife. Croning. Death.

I’ve gone through all of these save the last two, and I’ve assisted in both of those. But they weren’t the most central to making me who I am.

Here are some of the more profound passages I’ve experienced. First kiss. First sex. First drunk. First deliberate choice to disappoint my elders as an adult to follow my own path. First real job. First birth of a child. First death of a child. First extramarital affair. First divorce. First business startup. First business failure. First dream abandoned. First abandoned dream rediscovered. First diagnosis of malignant cancer. First declaration of “clean and clear” of cancer cells.

I could be wrong, but I suspect this is a more representative list than the first for most people alive today. How many of you remember “puberty” as anything but an extended period in Junior High Hell? But I’ll bet most of you remember your first kiss with crystal clarity.

The traditional passages all revolve around the individual within tribal community. Birth of a new child is another mouth for the tribe to feed. Naming means the child has survived early childhood, and merits consideration as a future member of the tribe. Puberty is the point at which boys and girls must be separated, lest the tribe face irresponsible pregnancies. Adulthood means the child is ready to take on first true responsibilities — hunting, farming, making war. Marriage is the community sanction to reproduce. Menopause/midlife is the beginning of the transition to elderhood and tribal leadership. Croning is the celebration of seniority. Death is the final loss of the person to the community.

Where is our modern community? For most of us, in this sense of shared ties of obligation and interdependence, there is no community.

This isn’t all bad. The bonds of tribal community bind in both directions. If the tribe says you may not marry, then you may not marry. If you defy the elders, you face exile. The community that helps you raise your children also tells you how to raise your children. Tribal society does not coddle dissidence. It can enforce brutal conformity.

Whether we crave this kind of community or loathe the very thought of it, the fact remains that most of us don’t have it.

So in the absence of such community, does a “rite of passage” make a lot of sense?

Our Druidic Circle is planning to discuss one small aspect of this next weekend. As one of the more-visible Druidic groups in Colorado, we occasionally get requests to perform Druidic handfastings for couples — notably, people we don’t know, who contact us through our web site.

It’s not that difficult to throw together an impressive-as-hell Pagan handfasting ceremony, but it raises an important pair of questions: who are we trying to impress, and why? More generally, what are we trying to accomplish by providing this “service?”

I would understand more clearly if a member of our Circle wanted us to acknowledge his or her developing bond with a partner. We’d be thrilled to participate in that. Conversely, we might find ourselves moved to offer some cautionary words instead. (“You want to do WHAT? With WHO? Are you nuts?”) Should we support the bond, we become a part of it, and should things not end well, we’d feel some of that pain. It’s not just something they should take seriously — it’s something that WE need to take seriously as well.

Perhaps.

Or perhaps we should just view all of this as a kind of Druid “fairy dust” we scatter on other people’s parades by request. Like a dance band they hire for the reception.

When I look at my list of life-changing events, they’re of peripheral concern to the tribe. As important as it was to me, I would hardly want a public rite of passage to celebrate the first time I had sex. Nor would the tribe care to celebrate that with me. But some of the others could bear a little Druid fairy dust.

Perhaps.

I don’t personally have much patience for fairy dust, Druidic or otherwise.

So I’m back to pondering what our real cultural rites of passage are.

The car keys are one of the big ones — the driver’s permit, followed by the license. It marks a true change of status for the adolescent. It also marks a true change of status when we are eventually forced to take the car keys away from our elders.

Forced retirement is another true passage.

Graduation used to be a true passage. Even up through my young adulthood in the 1980’s, school eventually came to an end. You graduated and then moved into adult life: you did not expect to ever see a classroom again. I’m not going to launch into a rant here on “lifelong education,” the academic marketing catchphrase of the 1990’s and 2000’s, but it’s clear that most modern young people don’t ever really expect to be free of school, and many are terrified to leave its confines.

Marriage is not a true passage, and has not been for a rather long time. People marry freely and consult no one but themselves: in Colorado, six bucks, two signatures, and some photo IDs are all that’s required to marry. Marriage is not required in order to have children, nor does marriage imply the intention of children. No-contest divorce is almost as easy as marriage. It occurs to me that one of the reasons gay marriage is such an affront to religious conservatives is that it spells out in large letters the loss of tribal “sanctity” that marriage lost so long ago.

Death is not a passage, either. Or rather, it may be for the individual soul — each of us gets at least one fully authoritative reading on that — but society doesn’t much mourn its dead. There are too many of us, and no one is essential. We live long enough to become burdens on our children and on society, long enough to lose our memory and our wisdom as well as our health, so sometimes our passing is greeted less with mourning and more with relief. Funeral homes have taken over the sacred business of death, and the rites are often perfunctory and sterile. We no longer venerate our ancestors, and the custom of visiting the departed and sharing a picnic with them in the cemetery is long-gone.

Perhaps I’ll think of other true passages, but I think modern civilization is remarkably free of both passages and rites to celebrate (or mourn) them.

It isn’t clear to me at this point how Druidry could address this.

13 Relationships: Solar Festivals

Of the eight solar festivals celebrated by modern Druids, the four Solar Festivals or Sun Festivals are the most easily defined. They are based on specific astronomical events which occur predictably and measurably every year: the two solstices and the two equinoxes.

Practical daily timekeeping is most easily measured by the sun. Every day — except at extreme latitudes — the sun rises and sets without fail. It may be obscured by clouds, but the sun is so bright that even under heavy cloud cover, you can visibly tell day from night.

Our custom of measuring the day from noon, or its opposite of midnight, is a relatively modern phenomenon. In Renaissance Italy, the old clocks — such as the clock in Saint Mark’s Plaza — are marked with twenty-four hours, rather than twelve. Less well-known is that the clock measured the hours according to the hora italica in which hour twenty-four occurs at sunset, rather than midnight. The Druidic Celts measured the day from sunset, as did ancient and traditional modern Jews.

For longer periods, the moon has always been the obvious timekeeper. The period from one new moon to the next is approximately 29.5 days, varying by a few days from month to month. Most early civilizations and indigenous peoples measure the year by moons.

But all advanced civilizations — the Mayans, the Chinese, the Sumerians, and (of course) the Druidic Celts — developed very sophisticated measures of time that revealed inconsistencies in the motions of the heavenly bodies. The time from sunrise to sunrise grows shorter through the spring months, and then grows longer through the autumn months. The “inconstant” moon does not pass from new to full to new in exactly the same amount of time every month.

These cultures all discovered that the time from noon to noon — or from midnight to midnight — is the same every single day of the year, without fail. Season to season, year to year, generation to generation.

In the same way, they discovered that despite the inconstant wanderings of the moon, or the weaving dance of those “wanderers” or “planetai” like Mars and Venus, or the slow drift of the stars across the night sky through the seasons and decades, a steady heartbeat existed — the solstices and the equinoxes.

The summer solstice is the “longest day” of the year at any point on the earth other than exactly on the equator. The winter solstice is the “shortest day.” The equinoxes occur exactly halfway between the solstices, in spring and autumn, and mark the point at which day and night are (approximately) equal. It is always exactly the same period of time from summer solstice to summer solstice — 365.25 days, a magical number that most modern schoolchildren learn, but which, in more ancient times, only the most educated members of high civilizations knew.

It takes precise measurements indeed to pinpoint the solstices and equinoxes, the more precise as you venture closer to the equator, which is why their measurement and celebration tends to be considered one of the markers of an “advanced” civilization.

Today we have built upon this ancient knowledge to the point that we’ve reduced the prediction of these solar events to a fairly simple formula that I’ve used to place these events on the Treehenge website calendar. Those calculations are accurate to the nearest minute, and should be good for at least another thousand years. More complex calculations that take the small wobbles of the earth’s axis into account can reduce the error to a matter of seconds, or even fractions of a second.

This solar pendulum of seasons is driven by a very simple thing: the tilt of the earth’s axis relative to the circle the earth traces around the sun.

A peculiar thing about a spinning object is that its axis of rotation always tries to point in the same direction in space. So as the earth moves around the sun through the course of the year, its northern pole doesn’t keep pointing toward the sun — it keeps pointing toward the North Star. That means that on one side of the sun, the north pole is tipped toward the sun, while on the other side of the sun, the northern pole is tipped away from the sun into the dark night of outer space. When pointed toward the sun, the northern half of the earth gets more sunlight and longer days — when pointed away, the northern half gets less sunlight and longer nights. This is what drives our seasons.

This seems such a simple and elegant concept, but even four centuries ago, no one in Europe wanted to believe that the Earth was an unmoored object that moved. The earth was clearly stable, and fixed, and the moon and stars and planets and the sun moved around it. Many great minds pondered the bizarrely regular, yet inexplicable motions of these heavenly bodies.

But while they could not explain these motions, they could certainly observe and record them, especially with the help of fixed earthly structures that let them measure exactly how these objects moved. The Mayans constructed towers along mountain ridges. The Chinese built large towers that could be used to line up and sight stars, and elaborate water-filled pools that could be used to precisely measure the lengths of shadows cast by the sun. And — of course — the paleolithic inhabitants of Europe had their great stone circles.

Another peculiarity of spinning objects is that the spinning axis doesn’t point exactly toward a fixed point in space. When a force pulls on it — such as the gravity of the sun, which keeps the earth tethered rather than allowing it to float off into space — the axis of rotation wobbles. Anyone who has ever spun a top and watched gravity pull on it as it spins has watched it wobble, slowly at first and then faster as it slows down.

The Earth is very large and is spinning — in astronomical terms — at a pretty good clip, so its wobble is very, very slow. It takes about 26,000 years to wobble just once. As it wobbles, the constellations of stars seen at the spring equinox appear to slowly turn through the heavens.

It takes just a little over 2000 years for the constellations to turn through one twelfth of the full circle of stars, each marked by a specific constellation and called one of the “houses of the zodiac” in ancient astrology. This is the basis of the expression “entering the Age of Aquarius” — the Vernal Equinox has been in the House of Pisces (one of the constellations) for the past 2000 years, and is now entering the House of Aquarius (an adjacent constellation). The point at which one constellation ends and another begins is, of course, fairly arbitrary — we could equally well have said that we entered the House of Aquarius a thousand years ago, and have another thousand years to go before we enter the House of Capricorn.


In meditating on both the Sun and the Fire rites of Druidry, what impresses me tonight is how the Sun Rites unify us, while the Fire Rites require us to acknowledge our differences.

I explored briefly yesterday how different our Colorado seasons are from the British seasons — how in many ways the agricultural and pastoral celebrations of old Europe make little sense to us in our high-plains desert at the edge of the mountains — the uniqueness of our wildlife, our trees, our planting and harvesting seasons. There is no difference in value, no “standard” to strive toward — only differences to be celebrated.

The Sun Rites are based on something common to everyone on the Earth. We experience these differently by latitude, but we still experience them. The Australians have Summer Solstice while we have Winter Solstice; for those north of the Arctic Circle, the sun never rises during the Winter Solstice, and never sets in the Summer; for those near the equator, the difference is only noticeable in that the north or south side of the house gets more or less light. But those who study the sun and the stars, no matter where they are, find the same unchanging constants in the midst of variation.

12 Relationships: Fire Festivals

Of the eight solar rituals celebrated by modern Druids, four are classified as “Fire Festivals,” while the others are called “Sun Festivals.”

The timing of the Sun Festivals coincides with solar astronomical events: the two solstices and the two equinoxes. The fire festivals fall almost exactly halfway between these dates, but they are not coordinated directly with astronomical events, but instead, agricultural and pastoral rhythms.

Imbolc, which falls around Febrary 2nd, is also called “Lambing Day.” It is, as I understand it, the time of year that ewes begin to lactate, anticipating the birth of lambs a little later in the spring.


Beltaine, which falls around May 2nd, is the spring fertility rite, a time to request of the spirits and the gods a fruitful summer, and strong, healthy children.


Lugnassadh, which falls around August 2nd, is the end-of-summer and first harvest, and traditional celebrations involve lots of food, games, and competitions.


Samhuinn, or Samhain, falls around November 2nd, and is the Last Harvest festival, and a final putting-up of the winter store. It was by tradition a three-day feast, beginning in late October.


As a modern, urban Pagan, I have never found these four Fire Festivals to have much personal immediacy or relevance. My food appears magically in the supermarket, and includes exotica like Costa Rican mangoes and Chilean grapes in the dead of winter.

Matters are made even more confusing by the local climate, which is nothing at all like the climate of Great Britain.


Here we see Colorado in February, weather that typically drags into March or even April. February is when we get our cold snaps, where the temperature plunges to 20 or 30 degrees below zero. As I write tonight, it’s reasonably warm — 32 degrees, right at freezing — but the wind has been roaring through the bare tree branches all day.


The images of Imolc in Great Britain are more appropriate to our Beltaine, shown above. By May, we are starting to see warm weather on a consistent basis, though Beltaine is typically a wet celebration, with cold rain or even snow. There is usually a chilly season in late May through early June, just before the summer heat sets in by mid-June.


By Lugnassadh, summer is already finished and the first cool weather is setting in. When I’ve celebrated the solstice in the mountains, it has sometimes been warm enough to sleep outside, under the stars. By August, when we gather for Dragonfest, you need a sleeping bag and your poly-wool underwear. And maybe an extra blanket.

 


In late October, the cold has returned: the traditional Halloween candy-crawl with the kids is often canceled due to the first snow of the season.

 

 

 

 


Although we celebrate the traditional British versions of the OBOD fire festivals in our Druidic circle, we have been slowly adapting them to our own rhythms of nature. We speak of the bison, not the bear of the North. In the West we have the trout, not the salmon. The South is the domain of the elk, rather than the stag. Only the East is unchanged: here we also have the hawk, and the eagle as well.

Our trees depart even further from the British norm. There are no mighty oaks here — only scrub oak, and most of that is further south, toward Texas. Our mightiest trees are the blue spruce in the mountains, and the cottonwood in the lowlands, both of which are very different from the oak. One of our most magical trees is the aspen, which has no real match in the British Isles. Or the mysterious lodgepole pine, the grove in which I initiated my journey into the Bardic path years ago.

We have only barely begun this adaptation, but it seems right to me that as people of the land, of the earth, who claim to be at home in nature, we should adapt to the earth as it is — not as someone has remembered it in a story from a thousand years ago in a land nearly halfway around the world. It is good to remember that world. But remembering should not stand in the way of fully celebrating this one.

11 Relationships: Ritual and Worship

The sun drops toward the cleft. To its left, I can see only the shattered end of the ridge that thrusts into this valley and ends abruptly at the deep lake; from here, the ridge seems to rise out of the lake like a volcanic cone. To the right, a more distant fold of mountains rises, outline softened by thick pines. The sun will set almost directly in the notch between the ridge and the mountains in this early autumn season, giving long light and longer shadows.

I stand in the nervous, fluttering cluster of people. They chatter like birds. I’m no less nervous, but nervousness usually makes me quiet, not talkative. Tonight I have a question, for the first time in all the years I’ve sought audience. A cryptic question, but a simple one. A simple yes or no.

I don’t know what answer I will receive: I’ve thought through both answers, what they mean. One answer tastes of sour despair, and leads to more questions: demands even, for explanation and guidance. The other answer is bitter in my mouth: it also leads to questions, but those are questions I will not ask, because I know the answer is to live the questions — not ask them.

I throw the hood of the light wool cloak over my head and face, blocking out the sunlight, the bird-chatter of the other Walkers, the feel of the breeze in my hair. The polypropylene-wool blend of long underwear itches in a familiar way, and it has grown uncomfortably warm under the wool cloak. That will change once the sun sets. I ignore the warmth and the itching.

Stillness. Darkness. Quiet.

Who am I? Let it go.
What do I want? Let it go.
What will happen tonight? Let it go.

Feel the air in my nostrils. Reach for the deep energy of the earth — I envision roots growing from the bottom of my torso, extending into the earth, drawing up energy. I feel each chakra flare as the energy moves up. Weakly at some: my second chakra barely flickers, fourth is guarded and shadowed, fifth is almost dark, sixth is blurry. No surprises there. The past three years have been devastating.

Let it go.

I turn to my partner-Walker. She’s one of the chirping birds. She stops chattering when she sees my face, my eyes.

“I am ready,” I say.

This is, after all, sacred theater. That is its purpose — to draw us out of the mundane world of blunted corners and smoothed paths, into the world of the gods. In the mundane world, I would say, “I’m ready,” or “Let’s go.” Contractions and idioms. Familiar patterns of speech that mask the fearful wonder of the world.

I am ready. Formal words, spoken formally. I am in character, now. Ready to face the gods. To ask my question.

She stumbles a bit, thrust unprepared into her role as guide, but she recovers well. “Then come,” she says soberly, and leads me up the hill.

Her urge to chatter overcomes her halfway up, and she tries to make small talk. I ignore her, as gently as possible, and she flutters back into silence. My mind is on this journey. My body works its way up the slope, but my soul takes a longer path. Each step of the body is a league to the soul.

We approach the tent. She has chosen white, and her long red hair makes a strong contrast. I see but do not see her assistant dressed in black, the one who stands behind her and holds and contains the energy of this place. He is essential, but not important. I approach, and kneel. This is not an act of penitence, but merely of respect: there is a pillow to guard my knees from the hard earth and sharp stones. It is part of the theater. I look up.

The sun has grown lower still and taken on a golden color. A mild breeze passes across the lake below us, and the sunlight glints from the ripples. I see a brood of ducklings follow their mother — they cut a sharp vee in the water, and I hear their broad honks, faintly. Tiny white clouds dot the clear sky, which is pale gold in the west; it shades rapidly to pale blue that deepens to cerulean above my head. The face of the looming peak lies in deep shadow. I smell pine on the breeze, and woodsmoke from the camp.

All this impresses itself on my memory in a timeless instant that stretches to eternity.

To see a World in a Grain of Sand
And a Heaven in a Wild Flower,
Hold Infinity in the palm of your hand
And Eternity in an hour.

My eyes return to the eyes of the priestess who sits before me. The sunlight flickers through her breeze-stirred hair, lights the diaphanous white of her robes with warmth. Her eyes startle me — I am accustomed to the cornflower blue that makes such a pretty contrast to the red of her hair in the camp below, but here, her eyes are pale, gray-blue, almost white. I can feel the energy of Presence, quivering deep in whatever organ senses such things — it is like the boundless excitement I felt as a small child when Mom agreed to take us to the amusement park.

I draw upon the earth to steady myself. Long ago I followed a god who demanded submission in the pattern of the Roman patronage within which the religion was born. The Great and Mighty would permit certain liberties to those beneath them, but only so much and no more. We had our place, and we were expected to know it and submit to it. There was no greater crime than to seek parity with our betters — for such offense was humankind exiled from Eden and Lucifer cast down from Heaven.

Patterns of subservience are hard to break, but they dishonor the gods I seek now; I struggle for a moment before I feel the answering surge of godhood within myself. I take a deep breath, straighten my back, and look ancient Isis squarely in the eye.

We speak then, in that eternal golden moment. I ask my question, and receive the bitter answer, not the sour. The answer I had already suspected was true. She embraces me — unusual in such settings — and I thank her.

I stand and let the guide take me back down the hill, as my soul follows the longer path. We meet, my soul and I, at the grounding area, and I touch the earth with my fingers to remind myself that I am here, in the real world. But I don’t come all the way back, not yet. I still have my duties as a Walker.

As the sun sets and the night grows dark, I guide dozens of seekers to Isis for their own audience, serving as Walker, as Psychopomp — half in the sacred world, half in the mundane world. A strange feeling grows in me, and at last I recognize it: service given in love.

As the feeling grows, I look within and see that my fourth chakra, the heart, is opening like a flower.

A fresh beginning.

10 Relationships: Spirits of the Land

I prefer the term “Spirits of Place.”

I’m a bit of an animist. An animist is someone who believes that everything is alive and has its own soul or spirit.

My animism comes from a rather strange place, which is the rarified realm of physics.

I was thinking about this just last night in a different context. One of the issues with intelligence is that it necessarily violates conservation laws, including conservation of energy and momentum.

Consider a ball that someone has thrown. It describes a perfect parabolic trajectory under the (almost) constant, homogeneous gravitational influence of the earth. Conservation of momentum keeps it moving forward. Gravitational potential energy converts to kinetic energy as the parabola steepens, conserving energy. You can even compute the frictional influence of the air it passes through, accounting for laminar flow using elegant (if difficult) differential equations, and turbulent flow using a number of successive approximations. The mathematics are elegant, the predictions as precise as you care to make them.

Then the bat hits the ball and knocks it out of the park in the opposite direction.

“That’s not fair!” the physicist complains. “You introduced energy into the system from the outside.”

Well, yeah. That’s exactly what “intelligence” does.

The seventeenth-century scientists viewed the universe as a vast clock, an intricate whole made up of fitted parts, crafted and wound-up once a long time ago by the Great Clockmaker — God. They pushed the question of intelligence into the distant past and called it a Mystery.

Modern theorists have settled on a more specific event, the Big Bang, which they posit occurred some sixteen billion years ago, give or take. This is their version of the bat striking the ball, and what caused the Big Bang remains a Mystery.

I think the Mystery is much more present than either the seventeenth century scientists or the modern theorists claim.

I can demonstrate a completely different outcome for every laboratory experiment ever performed with nothing more sophisticated than a big hammer and a little free time. One friend had a PhD project where simply standing up and walking across the room would have given him different results, so sensitive was the equipment. No hammer required.

Acts of intelligence aren’t rare or elusive. To the contrary, scientists have to work very, very hard to remove the pervasive and disruptive interference of intelligence from their experiments. Random interference can be filtered out of the results; acts of intelligence cannot. Acts of intelligence tip over the entire applecart, then set fire to it.

Intelligence redirects vast amounts of energy. It does so all the time. How it does so is a Mystery.

If people exhibit intelligence, what about dogs? Parakeets? Paramecia? Elementary particles? What about forests, groves, caves, rivers, mountains?

People have long observed — not theorized, but observed — that some places are special. They have a “feel” to them, and most people who visit those places pick up on the feeling and tell similar stories. They sense a presence, an intelligence.

A spirit of place.

I’ve always been fascinated by the energy — as most of us Pagans call it in casual conversation — in various churches. We call it “energy” because that’s our first impression of it — something moving, vibrating, humming — and because we’ve just encountered it, usually, and haven’t taken the time to get to know it.

We have a lovely Episcopal church here in town with a sweet pipe organ, good architecture, nice acoustics — and the place is as energetically dead as a Best Buy or Wal-Mart. I’ve not visited a lot of churches here in town, but I’ve not found any nor heard of any here that resonate strongly with a spirit of place.

By contrast, there is the Cathedral Church of Saint Paul in Boston. I visited Boston in 1998, and simply walking through the front doors was almost overwhelming. When we left, it was like pushing through the surface of a bubble — the energy inside the church stretched around us into the street for just a brief instant, then snapped back.

I don’t know a lot about Boston or the Cathedral Church, but I do know that most Christian Churches in Europe are built atop old Pagan sites of worship, which were most likely there because the spirit of place was already present.

When you sit with the energy of a place, come to know it and love it, you find your love returned. This is something that every person who has ever had a love-of-place knows.

As a pragmatist, I think a little bit of animism is a good thing. Humans are rude and abusive of their environment. They are positively cruel to strangers. They are quite a bit better to their friends.

Those who make friends with the spirits of place will be, I think, a little better to and for those places.

At least, I hope so.

9 Relationships: The Ancestors

I don’t know my ancestors.

On my father’s side, everything ends with my grandfather, who died when my father was still in school. Dad spoke seldom of his childhood in Manhattan, New York. He remembered horse-drawn ice carts, for the old “ice box” refrigerators. He was seven when the first radio station, located in Pittsburg, obtained its license and went on the air. He and his brothers camped in Central Park.

His father was an immigrant shoemaker from Hungary, an older man who had already been married, raised a family, and been widowed before he met my grandmother shortly after she arrived from Budapest. I don’t know anything about that relationship: perhaps it began as a marriage of convenience, the “old hand” in the Americas who took the sweet young girl under his wing, and then one thing led to another. Perhaps it was True Love at first sight. I don’t know. Dad never talked about it. It wasn’t clear he really remembered.

Grandma would have been a trove of stories, despite her thick accent, but we lived a thousand miles from her. Stroke took her mind when I was fourteen.

Before my grandfather and grandmother, all is blank. I’ve sometimes thought, half-heartedly, of trying to learn more. But both grandparents were Ellis Island immigrants, and both clearly left the Old Country with little love for it, and a strong desire to become Americans and forget the past. They deliberately cut themselves off from their ancestors. All I have left is the common Hungarian surname, Nemeth, potentially linking me to the sacred groves of the Black Forest in Germany. Or perhaps not.

On my mother’s side, the lineage is clearer but tangled. Grandpa was an Okie farmer who had his roots in the late 1800’s. My grandmother died not too many years after I was born, and I don’t remember her at all. The family, like many farm families of that era, was large. One of Mom’s cousins had eleven children. The last time I spoke with her, decades ago, she had sixty-three grandchildren and had given up trying to remember their names.

Theirs was the horrid little country fundamentalist Christian sect that would have viewed me, a Pagan Druid, as a Satan-worshipper; they would doubtless have tried to cast out the demons in me. They were all farmers, true people of the earth — not the play acting “people of the earth” that we city-dwelling Pagans pretend to be. Farming had already become an inviable way of life by the time I have clear memories. My understanding, growing up, was that the farm subsidies Grandpa received from the government were intended to keep him from growing too much wheat — not the usual economists’ description of it, but reasonably accurate. He was paid to not-farm his land. Grandpa’s brother, who lived down the road a few miles, found oil on his land and switched to “oil farming.” Grandpa eventually found oil on his land, too, and that, combined with the government subsidies, provided his principal income. The farm itself languished as he got older. The pigs, the cows, the chickens all went away. They raised a little alfalfa on the land, an unspeakably boring crop. Family dynamics were complex and often spiteful, built on an unstable foundation of decades-old grudges and slights.

The ancestry is there, but on that side I have my paternal grandfather’s outlook: it is an ancestry I’ve walked away from.

In the deeper sense of ancestral ideas, my entire life has been one of deconstruction: the attempt to understand how my intellectual ancestry has hobbled my mind and spirit. It’s an old habit, now, deconstruction, and I haven’t yet found any rest from it. It was necessary for the survival of my mind in my escape from Christian fundamentalism. It was necessary for the survival of my soul in my escape from scientific reductionism. It is still necessary for the survival of my happiness in my ongoing escape from American consumerism.

It appears to be necessary, at a much deeper level, for the survival of the human race. The ways of our immediate ancestors — the myths, stories, attitudes, and systems passed down by our parents and grandparents — simply don’t work any more. Theirs was a very short-term way of life, unsustainable on any inter-generational time scale.

I will relate one specific story of my mother’s father, which I think is relevant.

Their fundamentalist sect forbade all interactions with doctors: they were “faith healers.” The term “doctors” had a broad scope that included optometrists. I’ve been profoundly nearsighted since I was a young child, probably as a result of that whiff of pure oxygen they gave me as a newborn infant to raise my APGAR score, but I didn’t get glasses until I was around sixteen. (I note that my mother “backslid” into the modern world about the time I was born, which is why I was born in a hospital. When I was three, she saw the error of her ways and returned to her milk religion, and shunned all doctors.)

I became very good at compensating for my blurry sight. In particular, I could shoot a gun, and often hit the target. I couldn’t actually SEE the target. But if I squinted, I could locate it, and then I could estimate pretty accurately from the blur I did see.

It confused my folks, and my grandfather. I couldn’t see things right in front of me if they were more than about twenty feet away. But if I could find patterns — a distinct color, block letters on a sign, distinctive logos — I could sometimes figure out what they were before they could, especially if I could guess what they were. And it was important for me to do so, lest I be viewed as a “cripple.”

So one day, my grandfather decided to take me hunting. He loaned me a .22 caliber rifle, and we went out for quail, or rabbits. We came to a bridge, and grandpa spotted a rabbit down in the culvert. He pointed it out, and though I could not see it, I could see a blur that I thought was the rabbit, and did my best. I hit it.

He sent me down to collect the rabbit, and when I got there, I found that I’d only wounded it. It was in shock, and didn’t run when I approached. I had no idea what to do, so I picked it up the way any child would pick up a pet. I stumbled back to the road with the bleeding rabbit cradled in my arms.

When I got back to grandpa, he seemed a bit disgruntled. He took the rabbit from me, hung it by its back legs, put his heavy boot on its head, and pulled its head off. Then he let the blood drain, and when we got back to the house, he showed me how to dress the rabbit, and I had it for dinner. One rabbit makes a rather small meal.

I’ve never hunted again since that day. Though I wasn’t young enough to be completely traumatized — I’d understood from the start that I was going out to kill something — the images have remained with me as a contrast of two totally different worlds.

My world — the diverse, antiseptic, New Age Sensitive Guy world of the cities, where our meat comes wrapped in clean plastic as unidentifiable, bloodless, unliving food product — clearly lacks any but the most tenuous connection to the real world. Our prayerless consumption of food and every other resource is without soul.

Grandpa’s world — the rural, septic, Tough Guy world of the farms carved out of earth soaked with the blood of those it had been wrested from, where farm accidents routinely remove fingers and entire limbs, and rabbit is a crop-devouring pest that happens to be good eating — clearly lacks a sense, or at least any expression, of the sacredness of the circle of life. The long prayers offered over meals to an uninvolved God who gives us sinners our undeserved ration of daily bread doesn’t — in my experience — bring us any closer to the sacred circle of life than our profane secular gobbling.

Could Grandpa have accompanied me into that culvert, instead of sending me down by myself to “be a man?” Could he have handed me a sharp knife, and taught me a prayer to say over the still-living creature as I mercifully cut its throat and drained its blood back into the earth? Does such reverence exist anywhere except in the pages of novels that romanticize the Noble Savage?

Is there anything in my ancestry that speaks to this?

I don’t know.

8 Relationships: Gods/Deities and Spirits

Back in the writing saddle.


Maybe it was using the piano keyboard in the picture for the last entry, but I was abruptly overwhelmed by the need to re-perform my piano concerto using my new music workstation. It turned out very well.

I have a respectful but somewhat stand-offish relationship with the gods. Part of it was that I was severely abused in my first divine relationship.

My father was a lapsed Roman Catholic who had little use for churches, religion, or gods. He took us to church to keep my mother happy.

My mother was raised in a little fundamentalist cult in rural Oklahoma, and she had seen the face of God. That vision probably took place during a psychotic break triggered by post-partum depression after my younger sister’s birth. Old letters indicate that mental problems were not a new thing for her. What I don’t venture to guess is whether the mental illness created her god, or if her god created the mental illness, because her god was a monster.

I grew up with that god, and reached my forties before I could look him straight in the eye and say, “You were and are a monster. I will not feed you any longer with honor, nor with worship, nor with fear, nor even with hatred. I write you completely out of my life. I ignore you so completely that even your memory will be lost.”

So as you might imagine, I’m a little distrustful around all gods.

A couple of weeks ago, I spoke with Hades, Greek Lord of the Underworld. The priest had channeled him the night before, so only an echo was left, but I could hear that echo in his voice and his choice of words. I heard none of the blustering wrath of my mother’s god — Hades was compassionate and very approachable.

I’ve spoken with Isis a number of times, again through a channel, as well as with other goddesses who did not identify themselves by name. Those were invariably beautiful, moving experiences, and I have always been treated with great kindness and gentleness.

I’ve spoken with the collection of dead guys that call themselves Abraham. They very rarely speak of individual futures, but they made an exception for me, as an act of compassion. I was skeptical, even angry with them for making such a prediction, but I’m happy to say that the future they predicted — which was a good one — started to unfold within two months of that conversation.

I’ve had my own inner connections with many levels of beings, large and small. I’ve held conversations with Jesus — I have no issues with him, only with his dad. A river full of playful Niaids. A reclusive but friendly tribe of not-people living in the shadows of a dark forest at the foot of a jade-green cliff. Several unnamed goddesses. A tribe of plains warriors. The Wolf spirit.

I don’t pretend to know what the gods are.

They are, in an important and objective sense, quite real. The monster-god of my mother holds sway over millions of people within sects of Christianity, and I can speculate it is the same god who dominates similar sects of Muslims, Hindus, and other faiths under different aliases. The figures of the goddess, whether you call her Nemetona, Isis, or Mary, have come to the aid of many millions when comfort was needed. Hades, as he told me himself two weeks ago, waits patiently for each of us, to help us through death into what comes after.

Shared experience provides the foundation — indeed, the only evidence — of what we call “reality.” When someone silently passes wind in an elevator, no one questions its reality because we all share the experience. When a goddess visits a grove and leaves a sweet peace in the place that can be felt and described in similar terms by many who visit for years afterward, how can we reasonably consider it any less real?

On the other hand, the gods are suspiciously anthropomorphic.

One explanation for this, accepted without question by most people throughout history, is that we are made in the image of the gods: it isn’t that they are like us, it is that we are like them.

This was easy to reconcile with the old creation myths, but very difficult to reconcile with the modern story told by science. We are now told that two-legged erect hominids didn’t exist even two million years ago, which is only a shallow scratch on the age of the earth. Modern humans are only a few hundred thousand years old at the most.

What were the gods for the billions of years of earth’s history prior to our shallow scratch of time? What were the gods in the relatively recent age of the dinosaurs? Did they not exist back then? Did they take dinosaur forms? Or are we to believe the conceit that the gods have always had human characteristics, and it simply took them sixteen billion years or so to push and shove the world into its “proper” shape so that we could take on their forms as the ultimate expression of their natures?

The gods appear to and through our senses, inner and outer. Whatever the gods are, we see them through the limits of our perception and imagination. I believe this is the reason — and the only real reason — they seem so human to us. If the field mice experience them (and I suspect they do) they doubtless see the gods as other field mice.

This is the best we can possibly do.

The ancient Chinese Taoists had the saying, “The Tao you can name is not the Tao.” In all humility, the same must be said of the gods. Whatever they really are — like the real Tao — is not something we can see or describe or even imagine. We are, as I like to say, merely hairless pink apes with delusions of intelligence and a penchant for big hats. The Tao and the gods alike are out of our league.

Yet we sense something of them: a flicker of light, a flash of joy, a phrase of music, a wavering but welcome image in a darkened mirror. And their touch changes us.