Between Ostara and Beltane

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I think it was around this time last year that I’d started reading a bit about paganism. It started with the realization that, while I’d been struggling with remaining a practicing Christian, I hadn’t really given any other religious practices fair consideration. In retrospect, this doesn’t surprise me. Christian churches tend to hammer home the point that theirs is the one true faith and all the others aren’t even remotely fulfilling. Of course, this point is typically assumed without consulting practitioners of other religions and asking them about their actual experiences. I was aware of this intellectually long before I could deal with the emotions behind it, but it was a deeply internalized idea and it took me a while to pull it out and discount it, even after reading something like Daniel Radosh’s Rapture Ready! (And no, I don’t get anything for linking it, I just really liked the book. Excellent examination of Christian pop culture; it was one of the first things I read where a non-Christian very explicitly pointed out the problems with assuming Christianity is better than other religious practices).

I started reading, got curious, and then it was Holy Week. On Good Friday, I found myself standing in line at Save On, and staring at the magazine rack. I think it was Time magazine, and there was a special Easter edition with a picture of a man wearing a crown of thorns. My visceral reaction startled me. I very nearly threw up and only just managed to get through my purchase and back outside, shaking a little.

The weekend just got worse from there. I hit the wall during the Easter Vigil service at the reaffirmation of faith. I couldn’t choke out “I believe in God the Father.” I slipped out of the sanctuary and stood in one of the rooms off to the side, in agony. I hadn’t thought it would hurt so much when the time came when I knew I had to admit my faith in the Abrahamic God was pretty much gone. But he was the god of my childhood, the god of my parents, and it was wrenching.

A couple weeks later, still in the period between Ostara and Beltane, I turned to Beowulf and said, “I think I might need to try being pagan.”

His response was “Okay.”

And here I am, a year later, getting ready to celebrate Beltane for the second time. A lot has changed, and a lot hasn’t. I’m still me, the kind of hippie, anxious geek, that I’ve pretty much always been. My current spiritual practice mostly involves growing plants and lighting things on fire (candles and palo santo, usually). I honour the Goddess, I honour the God, I remember my ancestors, I try to be conscious of nature and the earth. I’m skeptical a lot of the time, but have found that being skeptical about what comes after death gives me a lot more peace than believing in heaven ever did.

I’m not out to everyone. I’ve been selective with the people I tell about it, and that’s been a good experience. I haven’t been ready to tell some people, and I wanted to figure out what I was doing before I hopped out of the broom closet.

It’s been an interesting time, and I’m looking forward to what happens in the coming year.

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Walking the Labyrinth

 

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Years ago, my family went to a church that was a mix of liturgical and contemporary traditions. During Holy Week, one of the things they offered was a contemplative evening with a labyrinth walk. I borrowed my parents’ car and went on my own, walking the labyrinth spread out on the floor in the darkened sanctuary, deep in thought. I emerged feeling centered, refreshed, at peace.

A month or so later, I was telling a friend at the Christian retreat centre I once worked at about the experience. “Labyrinths?” she said. “Aren’t those New Age?”

Instantly, what had been a beautiful spiritual experience was tarnished, a source of shame and guilt that I had participated in it. In that world, anything New Age was probably of the devil, it was dangerous, and it opened the door to sin, possibly even to demonic possession.

A couple years later, I did a bit of research and ran across the tradition of medieval labyrinths. I pointed to that and went, “Hah!” The labyrinth walk I’d done was validated, no longer darkened by my friend’s assumptions. What I didn’t realize then was that I shouldn’t have needed to validate my experience to her.

In reality, labyrinths are ancient, occur in numerous cultures, and have spiritual significance in more than one tradition; they have been used in both pagan and Christian rituals. My friend’s take on it was a typical reaction for a conservative-leaning American Christian, one that she, at sixteen, had probably learned from her family or her church. It was unlikely that she had thought to investigate it further.

But I, at seventeen, didn’t think to immediately research what she said and process it critically. I let her assumptions and my own colour what had been a positive spiritual experience. At that age, I wasn’t ready to critically examine the religion I’d been raised with and see its inconsistencies (at least, not any more than I already had at that point).

I worry sometimes about what will happen when my family finds out that I’ve departed the tradition in which I was raised (worrying doesn’t help it, but that’s GAD for you). I know it will happen at some point, but I don’t know when, and I’m not ready to share that with them, because I know they’ll be unhappy about it. I honestly don’t know how they’ll respond. I’ve dropped hints here and there, but I haven’t said anything explicitly and neither have they. Recently my mom said something about she and I disagreeing on some things spiritually but that not screwing up our relationship, and I’m going to hold on to that.

What I don’t want to do is diminish the joy I’ve found in embracing a new way of understanding the world. The first time I took part in a circle, at Pagan Pride in September, it was wonderful. The delight I feel when I read books like The Spiral Dance is very real. The ancestor ritual I did at Samhain was deeply meaningful to me. I don’t want to allow myself to be so easily swayed by someone else’s opinions which may or may not be well-informed. I want to listen, yes, but I want to form my own take on the subject.

So next time I come across a labyrinth, I will admire its beauty, and remember the lesson it has taught me. To be myself. That all things in the end come back to their beginning. That the journey I walk was my journey when I was a teenager seeking the Spirit in the dark of the labyrinth, and it is still my journey when the labyrinth I roam is that path both ancient and new, and she who waits for me is one who encompasses the light and the dark.

“And thou who thinkest to seek for me, know thy seeking and yearning shall avail thee not, unless thou know this mystery: that if that which thou seekest thou findest not within thee, thou wilt never find it without thee.

“For behold, I have been with thee from the beginning; and I am that which is attained at the end of desire.” Doreen Valiente, The Charge of the Goddess.

 

practicalities

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“It might be doomsday, but it’s still wash day.” Penfold, Danger Mouse (2015)

The wisdom of children’s cartoons never fails to amaze me. I find myself wanting to base my ethics on My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic and dive into learning about the world in as many creative ways as possible, inspired by Magic School Bus. In reality, my ethics really got their start in Star Trek: Voyager and have been further affected by feminism, philosophy, aspects of various religions, and literature.

However, when I watch children’s movies and shows with Eowyn, I sometimes run across odd little nuggets that have found their way into the story. The above quote seems ridiculous when it’s delivered by a hamster in a spaceship who is frantically trying to do his laundry while Danger Mouse pilots them to the latest disaster, but he has a point. The laundry has to be done. Food has to be cooked, rent paid, the day-to-day business of survival must continue as best as it can.

I’ve been focused on living in the moment as much as possible lately; it hurts too much to think ahead to the future of the States, and other than calling the senators and representatives of the state where I’m registered to vote, it feels like I can’t do much. One day at a time, I work through it. There have been bad days and some pretty good days. Yet I still live as though the future will happen.

I make preserves for the winter; I do laundry so we’ll have clean clothes next week; I wipe down the bathroom with bleach so the mold that pops up everywhere in southwestern BC won’t take over. I plan Christmas presents, I think about what Yule’s going to look like this year. I light candles on the altar and draw sigils that look to the future. I make things for the Etsy shop. I take on editing clients.

I keep going. I don’t know what else to do, but I know the days when the depression tries to take over are the worst ones. And when everything feels entirely hopeless and that there’s no use in trying, those are the days when even just doing the dishes, because that means there will be clean dishes tomorrow, is enough to lift the cloud for a bit.

Maybe it’s doomsday. Maybe it’s not. But right now it’s time to move that laundry into the dryer.

Polytheism after Monotheism

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I was raised in a religion that has monotheism as a central tenet. Today I identify more as a polytheist, though I’m admittedly closer to soft polytheism than hard polytheism, in that I think the gods are probably aspects/manifestations/avatars of the abstract divine that jump-started the universe (well, that’s where I am today. It’s quite likely to be different tomorrow, since some days I lean closer to agnosticism, and others towards medium-soft polytheism).

The irony of Christianity is that many, though not all, branches adhere to a form monotheism in which God is represented through the Trinity: a single god with three distinct persons, who are all different and separate from each other, but are still one being. I was raised with the insistence that God is one, but is also three, and we mostly focused on Jesus and God the Father (who didn’t get a special name, though he does have an awful lot of epithets), and ignored the third part, the Holy Spirit, a lot. This isn’t a lot different from what I believe now on some days, except that there are a lot more gods. I don’t worship all of them, but I believe they exist in some form or another.

I don’t believe in omnipotent gods anymore, which is something I’ve written about before. I think I stopped believing in omnipotence a long time ago, and it only really hit me when Pulse happened. And now it’s hitting me again, as I see people I knew in high school complain on Facebook about how whiny the liberals are being after eight years of them complaining constantly about Obama. As, two days after the election, more people are being attacked because of the colour of their skin or their sexual orientation.

And I’m mostly safe here, in Canada. I’ve lived in Canada since the day I turned eighteen, all of my adult years, and yet America is the land of my birth. I’m still a citizen, though there’s a good chance I will have my Canadian citizenship and will have renounced my American citizenship (not because of politics) by the time the next general election rolls around. The way the US is falling apart right now is deeply frightening and it hurts to know that. It hurts that the electoral college system resulted in an election where a man who has constantly spouted racist, sexist, and ill-informed views throughout his entire campaign won, over a woman who, though not perfect, was a far better candidate for the position. It hurts to know how close the election was, that so many people voted for a man who has acted so deplorably. It hurts to know that so many people embrace enough of his views and those of his future VP that they were willing to vote for him. It makes me sick. And fearful.

Where are the gods? Well, it’s not like they’re all-powerful, and even if they were, it’s not necessarily their responsibility to get us out of the dilemmas we make for ourselves. I may have prayed and lit candles for the Goddess, and poured a libation for Loki, but I also voted, and encouraged other people to vote thoughtfully. I probably could have done more, but that’s a lesson learned.

I admit it’s easier, not believing in a single omnipotent god who always acts for the best. That hurts too much. It doesn’t make sense. It doesn’t work. There are too many times when the best just doesn’t happen and you can’t argue that “God works in mysterious ways” because there is no way to make those situations better.

If there are gods, they don’t always act. And they don’t always have the power to do so. Sometimes they are silent. And sometimes they speak out of the darkness.

Frustration

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Recently, an old friend posted the American pledge of allegiance on Facebook, with the phrase “under God” in all caps. The ensuing discussion included someone who thought that the American founding fathers intended the country to be a Christian country. I felt compelled to jump in to point out that no, freedom of religion did not mean one religion ruling the country; it meant freedom of religion for all and no, the US is not intended to be a theocracy. The response? “History is awesome!….And the whole world should put Christ at the centre!” It was like she didn’t even read what I had written.

And I realized suddenly that I am now numbered among the “must be converted” for Christians of that ilk. I don’t know this person, but judging by her words, and my own familiarity with that subculture, she would believe that I am going to hell, and that it would be her job to dissuade me from my sinful beliefs and lifestyle. After all, I’m not only no longer a Christian, I’m also bisexual AND pagan.

The conversion factor is one of the things that always bothered me about Christianity. It was one thing when I was a kid, blithely and awkwardly trying to share Jesus with my cousin, whose family didn’t attend church. I think my aunt may fall into the spiritual not religious category, and my cousin periodically attends a community church with her kids these days, but mostly it’s not a big thing in their lives, which is fine with me now, but seemed like the end of the world to seven-year-old me who believed in hell. It was another thing entirely when people seemed to expect me to chat up strangers on a street corner and ask them if they died tonight, did they know where they would spend eternity?

I even wanted to be a missionary for a number of years (mostly for the linguistics factor available through Bible translation missions), but hated the thought of preaching at people and telling them that their culture was somehow wrong because my version of God said so. I figured I could sort of ease around that and encourage a free exchange of ideas while doing linguistics instead. Then I went to grad school at a university whose linguistics program was intertwined with Wycliffe Bible Translators, got to chat with actual Bible translators about what it was like, and realized that it really wasn’t for me. The linguistics stuff at the school was still awesome, though I found myself liking the professors who were in the process of leaving Wycliffe best.

Christianity, particularly evangelical Christianity, puts a strong emphasis on converting people to the religion. One of the the many things that attracts me to paganism is that conversion isn’t a factor. I’m sure there are people under the pagan umbrella who do try to proselytize, but it doesn’t seem to be common. What I’ve gathered so far is that it’s assumed that if you’re supposed to be pagan, you’ll find your way there. I plan to teach my daughter about what I believe, and she’ll learn about what her dad believes, and her extended family, and what other faiths believe, and she can choose for herself when she gets older, whether she wants to be religious or non-religious, pagan or Christian or other.

I’ve grown to be frustrated by the proselytizing in the Christian religions. It comes across as rude, inconsiderate. It’s based on the idea that “we’re the one true faith” and I keep wondering why so many Christians don’t seem to stop and wonder if they’re wrong. I had moments, but it took me years to get to the point where I was able to seriously question the essentials of what I believed and that too I find worrying…that it was so crucial to who and what I was that I couldn’t question it safely.

The other thing is that it makes me sad. The emphasis on “saving” people for the hereafter means that we lose focus on what’s important in the here and now. Another recent Facebook post from a very fervent Christian friend included the notation that we can “make health into a god” (which is considered bad, because it’s putting your health as a higher priority than what [the Abrahamic] God wants you to do…presumably he wants you to suffer for his glory, though how that reflects well on him, I don’t know). I didn’t respond to this one, since I didn’t want to open myself up to that discussion. This is a person whom I care deeply about, who was my mentor for a couple of years, and next time I see her, I will need to gloss over how I’m doing spiritually if I want to maintain the relationship (and yes, she will ask). I can’t tell her that when I walk past the altar in the living room, I feel happier and more at peace. I can’t tell her that delving into non-Christian folklore has become more spiritual than reading the Bible. I certainly can’t tell her that my Bible now lives in the closet, or that I feel tense and anxious in most Christian churches while I feel safe in occult shops.

Is it worth it, letting go of the faith that nurtured me as a child, in exchange for a path that I was told not to walk?

I look up at the moon, at the sun, at the trees, and breathe deeply. I think it is.

Halloween and the Fear of Death

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I was a fearful child. My anxiety disorder found numerous ways to manifest itself, but one of those was an overwhelming fear of death and pretty much anything related to the topic. My younger brother’s fascination with things like mummies and skeletons just sent me into a panic, particularly whenever he shoved a picture of mummy or a skull in my face to get a reaction. A trip to the art museum to see a traveling Egyptology exhibit terrified me because, of course, the centrepiece of the collection, at the start of the exhibit, was a mummy. My dad had to take me out while my mom went through with my brothers and then they swapped places so my dad could see it. Halloween was scary, too, the way people decorated their lawns like graveyards and dressed up like witches.

Death and that which accompanies it provoked fear in me. That fear stayed with me into adulthood, though I grew better at managing it. Still, I remember cringing away from a Halloween display in a shop at 18 or 19, trying to explain to a friend who adored Halloween why all the skeletons bothered me. I hated the celebration of the creepy, the dark, and death. It made me deeply uncomfortable.

Being raised Christian didn’t really help matters. Death is both glorified and demonized in that religion. Death is the enemy, and Christ has conquered death, so we’re not supposed to fear it anymore. To die is to pass into the next life, and supposedly, if you believe the right thing, “have Jesus in your heart,” you’ll go to heaven. Otherwise, you’ll go to hell. I tried not to think too much about hell. The thought of there being nothing after death scared me even more. Oblivion being what it is, it’s not as though I would know, but the thought of ceasing to know, just not being, sat with me and kept me awake at night.

The reality, of course, is that we don’t really know what happens to us when we die. We can talk all we want about what happens to our body, but we don’t really know about our consciousness, if there is such a thing as a soul, if we just wink out the way we winked in, if this is it, if we’re reborn into new bodies, if there’s an afterlife, if we become something else entirely. This lack of certainty is probably one of the reasons for the proliferation of religions: some, though not all, purport to tell us what happens next, when we go through this mysterious thing that we all know we must experience.

I still fear death. I think most of us do, one way or another. But someday I will die, and death is as much a part of life as being born. Both are necessary in the world in which we live. And embracing paganism, with all of its uncertainties and possibilities, has made the thought of death easier to live with. Maybe reincarnation is real. Maybe Summerland is real. Maybe Valhalla is real. And maybe it’s not, and maybe I will go to my rest someday and that will be all of my experience done. But death is an intrinsic part of the cycles of nature, and I too am part of nature. I don’t need to be completely terrified in the face of death anymore.

And now Halloween, with its skulls and spiders and darkness, and shining a light into that darkness to frighten away our fears, means a bit more to me. I’m looking forward to my first Samhain as a pagan. We’re doing our annual potluck Halloween party the Saturday before (costumes, mulled cider, sometimes a pinata), so I can have the time to do something for the actual holiday without trying to navigate around a houseful of people. I don’t know what it’ll come to signify to me, but I look forward to finding out.

Friendship

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I recently told an old friend that I was a pagan now. Her response was, “Wait, what? Me, too!” I laughed and wanted to cry a little. The world is a wonderfully strange place sometimes.

She and I met in grade eight, and became friends. We bonded over Star Trek: Voyager and our irritation with the obnoxious thirteen-year-old boys and our love of books. Over the summer we talked on the phone and emailed each other back and forth, rushing to the computer after every re-run of Voyager to discuss our opinions of the episode. Together our discussions helped us formulate our nascent understanding of ethics (at least it did for me), and in her I found a friend that I could truly be myself with.

We now live in different countries, and I haven’t gotten to see her since I got married eight years ago. But every time we reconnect, whether through email or IM or letters or IRL, the years melt away. A lot may have happened in the intervening time but we are still ourselves and that friendship is still there, just waiting for us to come back to it.

It’s funny sometimes, how we’ve taken different paths but come into some of the same things. We had some similarities in our upbringings – middle of the road (sometimes left-leaning, sometimes right) Christian for me, right-leaning Christian for her, and homeschooled. We were those geeks who loved Star Trek and Simon and Garfunkel, who took Latin in high school because we could, and who fell for boys with the same name for a while just because (phone conversations would be “So, how’s your Matt?” “Fine, he still isn’t in to me. How’s your Matt?” “Same.”).

And then life changed us. We didn’t date, until we did. We were all for premarital abstinence, until we weren’t, trying to admit it to each other in a phone conversation, each hoping the other wouldn’t be upset. We both developed anxiety problems, problems that were probably present when we were in high school together, even if we didn’t realize it at the time.

And oh, we were really into Jesus, until suddenly we weren’t.

It’s not really a sudden process, or it wasn’t for me. I can’t speak as to her process since we haven’t gotten the chance to discuss it much yet. But we’ve ended up as pagans, both of us. It’s one of those odd coincidences that happen and seemingly must be there for a reason. I think it means that somehow, despite time and distance, we’re meant to always be friends.