Monthly Archives: October 2014
I finished my tattoo, a memorial piece for the military dead, this evening. Three hours of ‘ow’ but all worth it. The red poppies are the symbol of remembrance, and the quote is from a poem of the same name by WWI soldier Wilfred Owen, who died in combat only a few days before armistice.
There is a level of suffering in the world that…I have trouble even wrapping my mind around. it devastates and mars our very humanity. It makes me ashamed to be human at times. My adopted mom used to talk about this–she felt the suffering of the world so intensely and I never understood. Lately, I understand exactly what she meant.
November is a month for remembrance for me. I ‘ve begun early this year, as I’ve been sensing the military dead so very strongly. This year is particularly special – the 100th anniversary of WWI. For the next four years we will be living in the shadow of those who fought and those who died. Each year, I begin my November period of remembrance with one of the most famous war-poems to come out of the Great War. I’ll be posting others as the month goes on.
In Flanders Fields
by John McCrae, May 1915
In Flanders fields the poppies blow
Between the crosses, row on row,
That mark our place; and in the sky
The larks, still bravely singing, fly
Scarce heard amid the guns below.
We are the Dead. Short days ago
We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,
Loved and were loved, and now we lie
In Flanders fields.
Take up our quarrel with the foe:
To you from failing hands we throw
The torch; be yours to hold it high.
If ye break faith with us who die
We shall not sleep, though poppies grow
In Flanders fields.
Day of the Dead celebrations are under way, and Samhain is just two days away, and many of us hold our Winternights around this time too. it’s time all around to honor the dead even more than we normally do. Let them feast, let them celebrate, let them be feted. Most of all, let them be well remembered. May all your celebrations, regardless of which ancestral celebration you honor, be fruitful and full of joy.
There’s apparently another brouhaha brewing around the issue of crowd funding. I haven’t been following it and don’t plan to beyond this post. For the most part, I don’t care one way or another. I mean, if you support someone’s call for help, great. Go and donate. If not, don’t donate. My understanding,however, is that there was some criticism of a colleague who was asking for help funding a religious pilgrimage that he plans to take in honor of Arianrhod.
My two cents on the whole thing is this: it’s not a new practice to engage the entire community in funding of this sort. If I looked hard enough, I could find numerous examples from antiquity through the early modern period of a community pulling together to help one of their own in religious endeavors.
The benefits to the community are many. For one thing, assistance of this sort can be done as an active votive offering to the Deity in question. For another, it allows the entire community to take part in a sacred pilgrimage. We don’t talk much about pilgrimages in contemporary polytheism, but they can be a tremendously powerful journey. I’ve gone on four in my life, three for ancestors and one for certain of my Gods and they’ve been life changing. Moreover, in many cases, the one going on the journey takes the offerings and prayers and petitions of his or her community along, delivering them to the sacred areas of the Deity or ancestors in question. He or she becomes a messenger of the sacred.
The community then benefits from the renewed spiritual and devotional connection of the journeyer when he returns, bringing the blessings of the Deity, Deities, or dead with him. He in turn is renewed and hopefully re-inspired in his sacred work. The person planning the pilgrimage for Arianrhod is a poet, a very, very holy role in Irish and Welsh tradition. Such a journey, with the support of the community, is not at all in breach of these traditions. Nor is what is the modern equivalent of busking. I think coming together to help our people reach their spiritual goals – particularly when we have been the recipient of their work, be it art, writing, music, leadership, etc.–has value as a means of building a cohesive community too.
Now I don’t support any pan-pagan measures such as those touted by Sam Webster over at the wildhunt. It all too often seems to me in such ventures that the Gods are an afterthought and it’s just another attempt to make socializing the central pagan experience. I don’t think this is right. I do however, think that it is important to build cohesive community ties. If we don’t support each other, who else is going to do it? I will do just about anything to see our polytheistic traditions well rooted and flourishing today, and part of that means investing in the spiritual devotion of our members.
(the image above is my work, titled “Street Musician, New Orleans 2013).
This is an excellent article by Dver on god-spousery/spirit-marriages. I don’t write often on this topic, and several folks have emailed me recently asking if i had any recommendations of sources. Well, here is an excellent one. Go. Read. 🙂
In August, I talked about Polytheist Community Outreach Month and part of my own work for my community, which I wrote about briefly, was organizing and running a fundraiser for the Beacon Cemetery Committee. We wanted to raise enough money to repair the headstone of a local artist named Alice Judson. Judson was a Beacon local and a critically acclaimed artist at the turn of the century and sadly, her stone had been knocked over either by the weather or more likely (we think) vandals. It had lain fallow for years and when the head of the Beacon Historical Society mentioned this, I asked for and got permission to run with my plan. Partnering with Riverwinds Gallery in Beacon, we dedicated the month of September to the Alice Judson Memorial Fundraiser. One of the co-owners of the gallery donated an original signed Judson painting and we sold tickets for a drawing. Diane Lapis of the Beacon Historical Society gave a fascinating presentation about Judson’s life and work and we held the drawing on September 27.
Meanwhile, working with Garrison stone mason J. Benjamin, and vestry committee members of St. Luke’s church where Alice was buried, we began plans to repair the stone. Thanks to their dedication and hard work, and the commitment of Riverwinds Gallery and the local community, we were actually able to raise enough to fund the repair of *two* headstones: Alice Judson and Charles Davies, a mathematician, professor, and friend of Charles Dickens. The work was completed yesterday with the help of D. Eylers, a contractor and groundskeeper for St. Lukes. Check out the process (photos courtesy of J. Benjamin):
Mr. Eylers wielding the backhoe to right the Judson stone.
A huge thank you to everyone who participated and helped make this happen. For me, this was a very special project. I’m not a native of this town but caring for the dead is important to me. I believe we have a moral obligation to remember them well, and tend their resting places. It’s civic ancestor work, and part of what it means for me to be a contributing member of my town. I’m so happy to see this done before October’s end.
As of this afternoon, I’m currently doing work in two graduate departments. I was accepted into the doctoral certificate program in Medieval Studies, concentration Old Norse Studies. 🙂 So as I”m prepping for my comprehensive exams in Latin and Greek, Oral examinations in Classics, two special topic exams, and a German exam as well as prepping my dissertation, I’m going to be doing medieval studies course work, learning Old Norse, and prepping for two exams there as well. Wooo. I’m very excited about this.
I’ve been thinking a lot about the military dead of late and they have been oh so very present in my practice. More and more as October draws to a close, I’ve been feeling pushed to mark this November – a month when I give particular cultus to the warrior and military dead—in some special way, beyond what I normally do.
I’ve been reading quite a bit on customs of mourning and remembrance but many of those have to do with dress, and I already wear tokens for the military dead throughout November (usually the typical red poppy motif). I’m feeling pressed to do something more. So I’ve been thinking on the area that is one of my greatest personal challenges: modifying my diet.
As a former ballet dancer I have a rather…ambivalent relationship with food. While i can and have fasted for days at a time for religious reasons, I’ve not been permitted to do so for several years. It seems time now, not for a full fast, but for a period of abstinence from those things that give me the greatest emotional satisfaction with my meals, those things that speak of abundance and civilization, ease and pleasure. As I was thinking about this, my eyes fell on a book in my library: “Feasting the Dead” which I take as a particular omen confirming my intent. This book is all about Anglo-Saxon food and burial customs.
Food is such a powerful conduit of remembrance. So much family history and culture is bound up in food preparation. This is right about the time that I get pushed to make traditional ancestral foods (for me, Lithuanian dishes: vertinas, apple cake, a type of fried dough bliss called bow ties, as well as a few Swiss dishes), cleanse and reorder my altar, and spend an extensive amount of time, far more than usual, with my military dead. My father, a veteran of two wars and career soldier has been so very present in my thoughts and cultic devotions – a new development but a satisfying one. Sometimes I don’t know what to do with it all.
This I do know, at least for now, at least for this month of remembrance: I can take with my body a pittance, a drop, a shadow of the stress and strain they endured and while it is a very small offering, for me that involves fasting. So for the month of November, from sun down Oct 31 to sun up Dec. 1, I will abstain from those things I love best; sweets, wine, desserts, soda, any and all “munchies”, and six days out of seven, meat. Food was such a luxury for the soldiers in the trenches, and probably in any war, all the more so when battle was immanent. (for those interested, here is a site that I found that gives the standard military rations for WWI). Moreover, as a dancer, my way of learning and remembering was and remains inextricably bound up with my body and so often when I am engaging with the dead, I am inundated with their emotions and physical sensations. This is appropriate. I will offer the frustration and hunger as a votive offering of remembrance. With that I will also challenge myself physically and I suspect I have several long nights of vigil ahead of me.
I also suspect that this november will bring me deeper in veneration of the warrior dead than ever before and I welcome this. May they be remembered.
“They ask me where I’ve been,
And what I’ve done and seen.
But what can I reply
Who know it wasn’t I,
But someone just like me,
Who went across the sea
And with my head and hands
Killed men in foreign lands…
Though I must bear the blame,
Because he bore my name.”
(“Back” by Wilfred Gibson)
(the above image is my work, titled “Doughboy”)
So I was recently reading “Amazing Grace” by Kathleen Norris and while overall I found the book rather simplistic and at times naive, every so often I found a gem. One such was a brief discussion (p. 72) on something she terms “idolatry of the self.” I was struck by this passage because I think it nails so much about current threads in Paganism. We bring the poison of our over-culture with us, after all, even as we convert and it can be a damned difficult thing to root out. Here’s the passage that gripped me so:
“The profound skepticism of our age, the mistrust of all that has been handed to us by our grandfathers and grandmothers as tradition, has led to a curious failure of imagination, manifested in language that is thoroughly comfortable, and satisfyingly unchallenging. A hymn whose name I have forgotten cheerfully asks God to “make our goals your own.” A so-called prayer of confession confesses nothing but whines to God “that we have hindered your will and way for us by keeping portions of our lives apart from your influence.” to my ear, such language reflects an idolatry of ourselves, that is, the notion that the measure of what we can understand, what is readily comprehensible and acceptable to us, is also the measure of God. It leads too many clerics to simply trounce on mystery …”.
While she is referring to her own Christian experience, I think that the same trend is found in large part in contemporary Paganism and even Polytheism. We work so hard to make ourselves the limits of our Gods. Our comfort becomes the highest good, and we doggedly flee anything that challenges our fiercely held comfort zones. It’s not religion many of us are seeking but self-validation. Mystery challenges all of that.
Mystery is not about comfort. I think many of us talk blithely about “mystery traditions” without ever realizing what that truly entails. It’s a fancy word for experiences of the sacred that have the potential to tear one’s life to shreds. Mystery renders. It distills. It is an atomic explosion, Rumi’s knife in the dark. It is not the experience of a Deity in the bright, clarifying light of day, but rather the terror in the night that throws us down into the piss and shit of our own ugliness, that then rips us open and leaves us arched and bleeding on the dark empty floor of our souls. Then all of that is stripped away too, and we are brought into the heart of the Powers and spat forth again in dizzying ecstasy, mad dervishes whirling forth vomiting up color and poetry and song into a world rich only in its emptiness.
It always seems to come as a surprise when the focus of the spiritual experience is not on us. I think this is *the* point of tension within contemporary Pagan and Polytheist religions. Is it about us, our feelings, our morality, our wants or is it about something greater than we, something ancient, elder, and Holy? We whine to the Gods to reinforce the boundaries of the narrow worlds we’ve created for ourselves and condemn those Gods when They do anything but. We are self-absorbed children resentfully, petulantly working through mommy and daddy issues and wondering why our traditions aren’t’ sustainable at all. But then we shouldn’t wonder when we reject tradition in favor of feel-good exceptionalism and the illusion that we are courting ancient Mysteries. But when Mystery comes calling we piss ourselves trying to escape it.
This isn’t just a Pagan or Polytheist problem. I think it is the influence of modernity on all aspects of devotion. We have a culture in equal parts hungry for and disdainful of mystery. Norris noted in her book something that I’ve seen other Christian authors comment upon as well: the attempted erasure of mystery within Catholicism and other forms of Christianity. In many respects it was the protestant agenda. It certainly does make all aspects of religion accessible to everyone when Mystery is removed, accessible to everyone and truly meaningful to none.
In my opinion, a huge part of the problem is the ingrained arrogant belief that we are “evolved,” and superior to our ancestors. We want what we want on our terms, without any inconvenience rather than with the raw integrity and humility of actual engagement. Instead of looking at what our ancestors were doing right when polytheism was the world, we claim superiority and hold fast to the imprint of two thousand years of monotheism on our spiritual psyches. Throw in a little bit of contemporary self-absorption and one wonders why we bother at all. Polytheistic religions do not offer instant salvation. They offer a chance to right the breach of ancient contracts, to restore and renew and transform our world, to regain right relationship with Powers we can only begin to imagine. That is terrifyingly hard work, challenging work, rewarding work. It is work that reminds us that we are not at the center of it all, but merely one part of the problem and hopefully one part of its solution. It is work that reminds us there is indeed a hierarchy out there and it is good and natural. It’s work that begins with the first prayer uttered and the first offering made and ends in reverence for Mystery, Mysteries to which we may never be given entry; and in between is an awareness of our own pollution.
I don’t have any solutions to this. I only know that our traditions are worth fighting for, they are worth plumbing the depths of our cultural and spiritual pollution and fighting our way back to the right relationship our people once had with their Powers. It’s worth the attempt. It’s worth seeing clearly the abyss of emptiness that our culture terms ‘normal,’ and primes us to want with all our being. It’s worth rejecting that and seeking instead a path of integrity. The Gods are worth the fight. They are worth confronting ourselves for. They are worth fighting step by painful and wrenching step to be worthy of what Mysteries They bestow. Somewhere along the way, for the promise of salvation, for the lure of ‘progress’ we sacrificed ourselves and the wisdom and sacred rites of our ancestors. It’s worth the long hard battle to get them back. Perhaps that is what faith is: a long term belief that restoration is possible. In the end I have faith. I have faith that, though it may take generations, we can restore all that was lost. When it seems the most hopeless, I have faith because the ancestors are at our backs and the Gods above and below are there, waiting only for us to cross the chasm of our own self-absorption and fear. I have faith that we can do this uphill though the battle may seem. I have faith that when we fall at last into Mystery, should our Gods grant that it be so, we will have the courage to throw ourselves forward and carry those Mysteries back to transform the world and faith is stubborn, stubborn thing. Sometimes, it is enough.