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Word of the Year

I got this idea from a genealogy list that I follow (and highly recommend. Check it out here). Instead of making resolutions for the New Year, this genealogist suggests that one choose a word to be a focal point throughout the year. It represents your goals, what you wish to achieve, what you want to be the hub around which everything else revolves for the coming year. I really like this idea. I like having a single touchstone to guide one, a single point to which one can return again and again when chaos and stress threaten to derail one’s endeavors. I also like words. This is a win-win for me and maybe for some of you too.

So, I am choosing two, and may they work together like a pair of interlocking hands, each one supporting and strengthening the other: focus and devotion

I think one thing we upon which we can all agree is that 2020 was a really terrible year for so many people. 2021 has already begun, chaotic and terrifying. I write a lot about how it can be difficult to motivate oneself to begin consistent devotional practices, how we can all grow forgetful or obstinate in our devotions, how sometimes it’s just hard to organize oneself to stay the course. All of that is true (Gods know I’ve been through it all myself). What I don’t talk about as much as I should is that external pressures can be equally problematic, and sometimes more so. It can be very, very easy to fall away from one’s devotional practices, especially when anxieties are running high, especially when we’re busy, especially when we need those devotional practices the most. I also really think that devotion, religion, simple piety are all under attack in our world and that can create a terrible degree of resistance as we struggle to find and maintain our footing in our religious and devotional worlds. The key to countering this is to control the parts that are within our power to control.

Let me offer an example: If I’m having trouble getting up to pray in the morning and I really, really want to do this (or more importantly, I feel that my Deity wants me to do this), well, I can choose to go to bed earlier. (This is, admittedly, a very simple example, but use your imaginations and expand the metaphor). That involves something within my power to change and control. That’s not the case with a lot of external stressors so it can be helpful, I think, to have a by-word or touchstone to guide one along the way. It also gives one a lens through which to focus one’s meditation, which is also helpful. 

My devotion to the Holy Powers is the single most important thing in my life. I want to stay clean there, engaged – fiercely engaged, and focused. I don’t want to allow myself to get carried away on a tide of emotion, of frenetic work, of anxiety, stress, and most of all, I don’t want to fall prey to acedia. I have in the past and it is a terrible thing, a deep, dank pit from which the climb back to the light is hard and painful.  

That’s why my second word is ‘focus.’ I don’t want anything to get in the way of my focus, not only devotionally, but across all avenues of my work. Stress can wear a person out and Gods know the past year has been so, and let’s be honest, when it comes to stress, this year isn’t looking great either. I don’t want any of that to impinge upon my focus. I want these two words: focus and devotion to be emblazoned on my brain as something to strive to, to return to again and again, to cultivate, and hone. It gives me a reminder, something to guide my way back when I wander off my self-chosen path, and I’m curious to see the results. 

Excellence in anything, after all, must be (as Aristotle opined) conciously cultivated. It doesn’t just happen. We have a lot of power and potential to cultivate ourselves, especially in the intangible world of devotion. There are so many ways we can go to our Gods and venerate Them. There are always going to be external stressors that we can’t control. I think it’s important to focus on what we CAN. So, (leaving aside those words, you know which ones I mean lol) what are your words, my readers, for the coming year? 

A Zentangle drawing by Lynn Vaughn Allen — I love word art. I think this is just charming. I don’t know Ms. Allen. Don’t go harassing her now. I just found this image on Pinterest.

A Beautiful Tragedy – I don’t think so.

I started this pissy rant on Facebook, and then decided there was more I wanted to say so I moved it here.

So I watched a documentary about a girl who is now a soloist with the Maryinsky (she just did Swan Lake on their American tour to rave reviews.). It’s called “Beautiful Tragedy.” I saw it on youtube (I’ll give the link below) and both the title and some of the assed up comments there made me very angry.

I get so fucking tired of mediocrities whining about how hard the training is and how much these girls sacrifice and oh “let the children be children.” What bullshit. Excellence demands sacrifice. Period. Ballet is one of the most brutal of arts and if you want to excel you learn to suffer. There isn’t a dancer alive who doesn’t understand that and frankly, I think there’s a reason Russia turns out such phenomenal dancers and has since the early 19th century: the training. They choose the best raw material and absolutely no quarter is given. That is how it should be. That is what produces the best and highest of results consistently.

One of the commenters in the youtube thread said flat out that children shouldn’t be allowed to make such a choice (as to give their childhood over in the study of ballet) so young, and that even if her daughter wanted to be a dancer, she’d not permit it. I hope this woman has no children. No one, however young, should be denied discipline, the joy of following their dreams, acknowledgement of their capacity to decide upon those dreams, and their capacity to meet the sacrifices and challenges required, and the chance to be something other than mundane. Excellence has a cost. I’m glad there are those willing to pay it. We’ve enough mediocrity in the world as it is.

Moreover, the sacrifice of childhood is the price you pay for the *opportunity* to reach the pinnacle of excellence. It is no guarantee. It’s your god damned entry fee into the arena.

This, by the way is precisely why I dislike, in the extreme, watching American ballet companies perform ballets with the children from local ballet schools — or indeed any American school. Compared to those training at the Russian schools they are awful, sloppy, held to no standard other than that they “have fun.” We seem to idolize the cult of childhood in this country, treating it as something to be preserved at all costs but there are things so much more important. I still mourn the fact that opera no longer has its castrati. Oh I hear the arguments that this was cruelty and a horrific thing to do to a child, and how could any child consent but they could and either way art will have its sacrifices to the process of perfection. I started dancing at ten, after a year of working hard to convince my parents to allow it. That was too late, but I worked as hard as I could, sacrificed, bled, cried, and hoped. My body broke but I’d do it again in a heartbeat just for the opportunity. If you had told me that mutilating my genitalia as the castrati did would have ensured me a chance, just a chance mind you, for greatness in the art, i’d have done it without hesitation. I did damage my body and I knew from the very beginning — all dancers do, or at least the smart ones—that this was a very real, almost inevitable chance. We weren’t blind to that at all. It was the entrance fee and every whisper of pain was worth it.

I’m going to break this down very carefully:

those in service to such an art are greater than the sum of their parts. Their desires, their individuality, are only important in so far as it nourishes the art that they practice. Should they seek to nourish themselves creatively, spiritually, emotionally, yes of course but only up to the point that it nourishes their art as well. The moment it interferes with and stops feeding their art, well, at that point, their job — that they’ve taken on willingly— is to give themselves over fully to that daemon. Nothing else matters but that drive to excellence for the sake of this thing so much greater than any individual artist might be.

At their core, these arts (ballet, music, art, etc.) are the distillation of what is best in humanity. To step into service to one of these arts is to become part of something so much greater, so much longer lasting, so much more vital and important than one’s own individual self. Everything you are feeds the daemon of your art and that is how it should be. There is no excellence without suffering and sacrifice and anyone who says otherwise is deluded, stupid, or very, very naive. Besides, discipline is a lifelong gift and so much easier learned when young.

I object to anything that prioritizes the individual over the eternal. I object to anything that would tell you that being mediocre is ok, don’t even try to be anything more (this was actually said to me by a Heathen “leader” years ago “we should strive to be mediocre.” um, yeah, no. I don’t think so). The moment we are satisfied with being less than we have the capacity to be, is the moment we descend to depths even lower than that. We devolve spiritually, creativity, emotionally, intellectually, culturally and on and on. The push toward excellence is essential. I’ll tell you one more thing too, pursuing excellence in an art like ballet is a spirituality, a religion all its own. I suspect strongly that’s why I had to give it up.

I may return to this later, but for now, here’s the documentary I was talking about.