Chemo exhaustion is a thing. I can’t make much sense of anything in the deep isolation of snowstorms atop cancer atop COVID atop wtf ever you call the chickenshit behavior of almost half the US Senate.
“Wow, you people believe anything, doncha?”
How many pagans when trying to lay out what being pagan means in the 20th/21st centuries, have heard something like that from a member of the more dominant paradigm religions? As for myself, when I began leaving my belief IN the dominant paradigm behind almost 40 years ago I could have said the same thing to the religion I was stepping away from at the time. Feeling that way made me a tentative and self-examining “heretic” as I thought of myself back then. I didn’t know, back in pre-internet times, that Neo-pagan thought and movements were happening all around me. I was very alone, immersed in study of theology, mythology, anthropology, history, psychology and my own journey of exploration and terrifying mysticism.
I did not want to feel indicted by that snarky sort of question. I was ever one of those who hated the use of the word “faith” as a billy-club to mindless compliance. I never wanted to base my spiritual life on faith; I wanted to base it on experience that I didn’t have to question or defend constantly. I wanted rationality with my ineffable experiences, I had to understand what happened to me. It is an impossible dream sort of dichotomy.
But it stood me in good stead. I was ten years a quiet heretic, still taking my children to church for the social work and justice issues pursued there before I discovered the wider pagan resurgence in America. I came out to my family and stopped going to church. I began trying on traditions after reading Margot Adler’s first version of Drawing Down the Moon, followed shortly by The Spiral Dance.. I attempted magic for the first time.
Some of what I read was not a good fit, as I put it. I had trouble articulating precisely why for a long time. The enforced sabbatical of the killer combo COVID/breast cancer isolation popped it into high relief for me, however. Most magic that I encountered in the dozen or more books I sought and consumed originated in what is called Ceremonial Magic texts. Some dated by far older than the 20th century. All seemed dominated by males, of course. All had origins in eras where magic/witchcraft was literally illegal. Most ceremonial magicians therefore did label themselves “Christian” and used things like archangel names as proof that their actions were not witchcraft, but some kind of highly esoteric ritual of “good”.
Since much of the magic could revolve around the summoning of certain “forces” from far in humanity’s history – labeling was important. An old spell might involve invoking an ancient godling – but you labeled it as a “demon” bent to obedience to some angelic power, you see? Or you might call an “elemental” – a personified Being of one of the four archetypal forces of creation – Fire, Water, Earth, or Air. Books often referred to these clearly not-demonic Beings as “minor powers” in what seemed like a justification of forceful domineering magical behavior. Initially this struck me as male hubris – you summon and threaten a force you credit with being integral to the existence of life on the planet?!
Only later did it occur to me parts of it was protective stage dressing due to the Christian dominance over what was legal or not. Still later, once witchcraft was not illegal? These forms and suggestions for magical summoning continued. The stage dressing became inherent and stubbornly “superior” in tone. The Christian paradigm of a transcendent diety outside of the world and humans as the peak of Creation being something apart from Nature and meant to dominant all facets of nature stayed in modern Neo-paganism even when it sometimes called itself a “nature religion.”
You called a magical circle for protection. Against what, I had wondered? Against the entire natural world that I had long considered holy and treated as my personal refuge? Whatever forces you summoned to aid your magic within that circle, you called with a built in threat of punishment and fire if not obeyed? The domination I had shied away from in Christianity had been built into the spiritual escape I now sought? I asked questions of the ceremonial magicians I knew – mostly male. I was told that I “just didn’t understand.” I was talked down to and called a “tree hugger” and a “dirt lover.” I was told if I didn’t have the “strength to do it right” I shouldn’t do it at all.
Sooo, domination and misogyny then? For a long minute there, it felt like everything in the Neo-pagan world just came down to a semi-disguised dick-measuring contest. I stepped away. I was ever solitary minded and capable of searching on my own. I was not afraid to color outside the lines and clear off of pages at need. I did not step away from my belief that magic was something worth exploring, seeking, experimenting with – something linked to psychology and maybe other bits of science we can’t quite quantify yet.
But I left the brawling internet world of paganism and magic. I created, I explored. I found myself seeking not “powers” to dominate, enslave or create as slaves, but looking for allies. Allies in nature, in the refuge I’d long loved since childhood. I considered potion recipes for “elemental condensers” not a capture of an elemental, but a translating “telegram” TO an elemental. I did leave behind me the ages old, monotheist poison idea/belief that domination and enslavement is success. I ensconced myself in the idea of human embedding IN nature being the way. My nature can be a National Park, a distant beach, a plot outside my back door, or a pot on a tiny urban balcony – all of those things have sufficed for me.
My paganism did leave the belief that we all must be domineering fear-flogged bullies to attempt magic, to reach communication with the world we could live in with partnership and mutual benefit. “How it’s always been done,” does not have to be how it is now. Mankind did not achieve flight or moon-landings by continuing to believe the sky was not for us. We didn’t cure disease or create vaccines by saying (as was said for eons) “It’s the will of God, sickness and death.” It’s time for magic to say for itself, “There is another way, a way that does not involve thinking “might is right.”
I am old enough that I recall the beginnings of Amazon. I was not impressed, I was scandalized that bookstores I loved had to worry about being price cut out of business.
All these years later, I’d be lying if I didn’t confess to using Amazon in the last few years – especially the last year as we have COVID isolated. But I’ve hated it more and more. This week was the end of for me. The last straw was reading how Amazon had taken money given as tips to delivery drivers – several million dollars in tips. One of the richest men in the world stole tips from folks driving delivery vans?
How incredibly grasping, nasty, petty and tacky is that? I cancelled my few subscription item orders. I found other places to order these things, at least two of them local curb-side pick-up. I changed my profile to note I’d be shopping less because I disagreed with the labor abuse and the anti-union stance of a man with more money that he can possibly spend in his lifetime. Amazon informed me my profile (and several of my product reviews as well) violated their terms of service and would NOT be displayed. You don’t talk bad about Amazon on Amazon, apparently. Criticizing labor practices where other customers might see it is a big no-no.
I bet calling Amazon a monopoly is a big no-no, too. Amazon did on the Internet on a huge scale what Walmart did on the ground. You call up an item and may see three or four third party sellers with your choice. But the cheapest price, at the top? Always Amazon undercutting their own insider-competitors, the small businesses trying to use the platform to survive.
Well, being the abuser of employees is a big no-no to me. Getting rich off people who often make such poor money that they virtually live in a van in the parking lot is a big no-n0. Before COVID Amazon was the “last resort” thing – if I simply couldn’t find something somewhere else, I ordered it there. Now? In nine out of ten of those possible situations? If I can’t find it somewhere else, I will do without it. It is time for me to show my blue collar spine instead of seeking convenience as a balm against the COVID isolation and inconvenience.
Six or some years ago, I read many of the pagan bloggers definitions of their own desires and beliefs. What I did not see was what I often find myself contemplating when I consider my own paganism: what I do NOT want my ever-tentative spiritual path to become.
Working, for lack of originality on my part, from an “alphabet” standard, I don’t get to begin with a “web of being” like the photo above – but with some ambivalent “a” items. So be it.
I don’t want my pagan way to become an anodyne. Why not, you ask – since that means “painless”? Yes, that is one meaning and in this screwed up seemingly post-factual, crazier-than-rabid-bats world, who wouldn’t want something painless? Alas, of late it is the search for something pain free that seems to deny reality. But that is not the meaning of “anodyne” I am worried about in the main.
Anodyne also means “unlikely to cause offense or disagreement” – meaning an ultimate sort of banal blandness. Until I re-read a newest edition of Margot Adler’s “Drawing Down the Moon” late last year, I was not worried about that sort of washed out thing happening to anyone’s paganism. But I barely recognized the book I read decades earlier as American paganism began to step out of shadows and broom closets. Instead I found a soft-soaped gloss of “We are all just religious witches, utterly harmless!”
I had found my own pagan evolution to be revolutionary and freeing. It was not taking my sensibilities out of a Victorian underwear drawer to tuck them into a Neo-Victorian lingerie chest! I thought freedom would encourage change and stepping up to fight the sorts of horrors loosed by domineering monotheistic religions? But no, it felt like all that is just to go away in the name of safe banality. You know what they say about banality, right?
This dislike of watering something down to the point of nothingness in the name of social acceptance ties to another thing I do not want my pagan searchings to supply: an afterlife. I don’t seek a spiritual path because I want a guarantee of something beyond death; I want my spiritual path to inform my living on this earth. I consider any religion with a primary focus on post-life, after-death events to be a decayed faith. To me, anything that wants to be more concerned with beyond-the-corpse events instead of the vibrancy of actual life has its perspective skewed.
There may be something after death, but I don’t believe we can “know that from here” so to speak. Let that be the adventure then, and live our lives now and here instead of quaking in fear or worrying about the taste of purported pie in the sky! If we live well enough, does an afterlife matter? Perhaps an afterlife is only needed if you fall into a boring safe anodyne instead of engagement?
Maybe Joni Mitchell had it right all along: “A good slave loves the Good Book, a rebel loves a cause!” My paganism is a cause. That “good” book promises painlessness – like some pretty famous opiates.
If the new day starts at midnight?
January melting away by night,
The night sky is velvet blue,
The Heaven’s prom dress splendour,
But February dawns like a dove,
Gray as a Quaker lady to Meeting,
Warning us the storm’s not done,
Brace then for ice and pain?
Plan for spring but ready for cold,
Blue and Gray have fought before,
Did we not learn from that road?
Let not spring blossoms mark headstones,
Is there no sun to bright the sky?
To light minds and lift the hearts?
Struggle, oh struggle to hold the ford,
Beat Winter’s bitter glooming doom,
Make safe crossing for hope and Spring,
The Light must win or all is lost,
Oh, pain and fear flogging all,
Is there no courage left to reach,
Small fires against encroaching Gray,
Step by step foot by foot gaining,
To a bluing dawn for all.