A Year of Moving Forward – 2015 in Review

2015 brought many new experiences and growth in my spiritual path. I waded into new territory in many ways, and in a few cases, I waded back out again. For the most part, it was a year of growth and accomplishment.

I have continued to grow in my involvement in the Brotherhood of the Phoenix. In March, I joined the Council of Guardians for the Chicago Temple, specifically in the role of Warder. I am a part of the decision-making body for our local group and it gave me a role in rituals as well. I am the contact for those seeking initiation to become Brothers, and while I did not complete any initiations yet, I will be handling my first group soon.

I also took two different classes to learn new roles in Brotherhood rituals. I am a Celebrant and I have also been studying to manifest the Gods of our order. Every step of these processes has been fascinating and challenging and have brought me growth.

In my role as a volunteer at my alma mater Macalester College, I was the spark some time ago that caused our second Scots Pride LGBTQ Reunion, the first to take place as part of the regular Reunion. I was so thrilled that it came together and that it will be a periodic part of the Reunion, probably on a 4-year cycle. We had Andrea Jenkins, a poet, powerful speaker, and Trans woman of color activist, as our keynote speaker. We also had several panels and social outlets.

One of the panels was an interfaith panel about LGBTQ spirituality. This was the first time I ever spoke publicly about being Pagan to a group consisting primarily of non-Pagans. It was really ground-breaking for me in this way. It was a very supportive and open audience to my story and perspective, so it was a good experience.

Just this past week was another breakthrough in being on Magick Radio Chicago, talking about Veganism and Spirituality. Again, this was a kind of speaking that is not at all familiar to me. I think it went well. (You can judge for yourself by listening here)

Speaking of veganism, I started a vegan food blog in January called Hearty Vegan Cooking. “What’s this, you say? You never talk about that.” Well, I did it, and after a few months of working pretty hard on it and getting a tiny number of views, I realized that what I was doing there was not worth my time and effort. I was taking a lot of photos during the cooking and baking process to try to make it visually interesting and informative for those who may not be experienced cooks. This meant a lot of managing a camera while cooking, as well as editing and posting the photos themselves as part of the blog. I began to realize that what I was doing was somewhat unique, but not in a way that was going to drive a lot of viewers.

I write this Looking for Wisdom blog for myself, in a way (although I’m always glad to have readers), but that blog was meant specifically to attract viewers and it just wasn’t happening among all the other interesting vegan food blogs already out there. So, I have basically abandoned Hearty Vegan Cooking. The content I created is still there and will be for a while, but I haven’t added new content for months. Frankly, it just doesn’t seem worth it.

So, finally, this blog! I think I have created some interesting content over the past year. Some has attracted some attention. Some of it has succeeded in being the kind of thoughtful commentary that I strive for. Some of it may have fallen short. I am glad that it has given me discipline about writing regularly. It has allowed me to think through some topics that may be of interest. I hope that you, as readers have enjoyed some of it. I’m going to count it as a success.

As we, Janus-like, look both backward and forward, I want to thank you for reading my thoughts in 2015 and wish you all the best in 2016.

On the Radio, talking Veganism and Spirituality

Hello, friends

I just wanted to share with you that I was on Magick Radio Chicago on Saturday evening, talking about Veganism and Spirituality and covering some of the themes I have discussed here on this blog.

I was very pleased to be invited to join the show by Bishop Lainie Peterson, a local Gnostic bishop. I think it was a good conversation, even if I am not really used to speaking in this sort of context.

It is available in podcast form now. Just click on the link below:

Magick Radio Chicago Episode #62

Terra Mysterium’s A Midwinter’s Mummers Tale

I have just returned from another marvelous show by my friends at Terra Mysterium. I have written before about how much I love this company, which makes theatre based on Earth mysteries, often with a Steampunk edge.

The play, which only ran this weekend, is a retelling of A Christmas Carol, with a number of transformations. This is not a historical version of Victorian England. The names have been changed and some genders have been switched. Women own successful businesses and same-sex couples don’t merit any particular comment. And Christianity is not the dominant religion of the land. English folk traditions and pre-Christian religion is more the norm in this version of the 19th century.

This kind of revision is perfectly in keeping with my thoughts about Paganism and Steampunk – we don’t need to “follow the book” and we are free to take the parts of history that create a new culture and reject the prejudices and close-mindedness of the past.

Esmerelda Pennywise is our transformed Scrooge, and Deb Miller plays this complex character wonderfully. She is the anchor to the show. Miller is an accomplished actor, who plays 19th century women including Mary Todd Lincoln, Jane Austen, and Louisa May Alcott to groups at libraries, schools and historical societies throughout the year. She has an imposing stage presence and voice, perfect for portraying both the bitter and miserly character at the beginning and the expansive, transformed version of Esmerelda at the end.

Keith Green, a founder, writer and regular on the Terra Mysterium stage, plays the cunning man Thomas Owen Morgan, who seems to set the ghostly visitations in motion after Pennywise’s hard-hearted response to a plea for help to those in need. Following the model of Dickens’ original, the first visitor is her former business partner, bound by the chains of his missed opportunities to help others. The next three have a flavor of pagan divinity.

The Trickster reveals Pennywise’s past – showing times when money was scarce, but joy abounded. We also glimpse a love match that ultimately couldn’t compete with her business ambitions. The ebullient Holly King shows Pennywise a peek inside the vivid lives that are going on around her – the happiness and the sorrow – that she may reach out and experience. The Dark Mother shows a grim future – a gravestone and an unmourned passing of a difficult woman.

Of course, Esmerelda awakens a transformed woman, and rushes to make right some of her wrongs and connect to those who would welcome her into their fold. The story is full of charming and heartfelt moments. The breakup scene from her past and her clerk’s family struggling with a child’s illness should bring a tear to the eye of nearly every audience member.

Woven into the storytelling are music and wonderful folk traditions based on wassailing and mumming traditions from the British Isles, including the appearance of the Mari Lwyd. Some songs were familiar (like the Gloucestershire Wassail) and others less so. The set was minimal, with projections and a few pieces of furniture helping to establish the scenes, but the costumes brought a reality flavored with history and a bit of magic.

You may wonder why I am writing up a full review of a show that just closed. Well, there’s some good news there. The company plans to mount the show again in future years, making it a kind of Yuletide tradition.  It is well worth a re-staging, and deserves a larger audience. My friends at Terra Mysterium have succeeded again at creating entertainment laced with Pagan content, but accessible to a general audience.

 

A Dark Goddess in the Trees

It was the Winter Solstice, I was home on winter break during my sophomore year in college. I was still learning to create a life that was different than the one my family and schools had dictated. I had become more open about who I was, created a life that had nothing to do with my childhood home.

I went for a walk alone in the neighborhood where I grew up. A few blocks from our home, there was a cemetery called Valhalla. It was a modest affair, in spite of the rather grand associations of the name. It is the kind of cemetery where most of the headstones are flat to the ground so they can just mow right over them. There was a section in the back that was undeveloped and unused. It was an empty field with a chain link fence on 2 sides and a line of trees separating it from the main part of the cemetery. The ground was rutted and uneven, the grass was scrubby and there were a few scattered trees and shrubs. Since it was December, it was all brown and leafless.

As I walked into the field and farther from the streetlights, I began to feel a presence in the trees. There was a woman – an older woman in a dark, hooded cloak. She didn’t speak, but I understood that she was communicating with me. She was letting me know that she was there. That she would always be there. Always watching. Always knowing. Always waiting.

I did not know her name. I did not know what she was there to show me. She was a presence in the dark, just beyond my reach. She felt like a strange dark comfort, a point of knowledge of something hidden, a fascinating mystery. With the Pagan readings I had done at the time, I thought of her as The Crone – one of the faces of the three-fold Goddess archetype. But in retrospect, and to my current way of thinking, she seemed more real, more concrete than an archetype. She was a Goddess, but one I wasn’t ready to know.

 

For my first year and a half in college, things had gone pretty well. I had come out as gay and felt the support of my college community. I had kept up well in classes, and I was fascinated by the study of eco-feminist philosophy under my first-year advisor Karen J. Warren. I had a number of great friends there.

But I was cracking, and I knew it. I had a desperate restlessness. I had begged my parents to help me take a semester to move to the UK and work. I had found a program where I could get a short-term work visa. I just needed them spend some of the money that they would have spent on my college expenses to get a plane ticket and some initial living expenses. They were against it entirely, and in retrospect, I can understand why. But they didn’t know that I was cracking. Something was going wrong in my head, and I wanted to try something radical to try to shake it off. In retrospect, traveling to a different country and being in unfamiliar surroundings probably wouldn’t have helped, but I wanted to try something, anything to shake it up.

What was coming was that I was about to have the first of several deep depressive episodes that I experienced during my college years. It was the kind of depression that caused me to sleep 20 hours a day for a month, lose touch with friends, and fall disastrously behind in my classes. I had no idea at the time, of course. I had never experienced anything like that before that time. I still have no idea why it happened then, and several more times over the next few years. I have a couple theories, but they are really only guesses.

As you may know, depression is not “feeling sad”. In the depths of it, it’s not feeling anything. Music isn’t enjoyable. Food is not interesting. Friends don’t seem important. Friends who desperately try to “cheer you up” seem irritating. And for me, I was tired, overwhelmingly tired. I slept long hours, got up, showered, unenthusiastically ate a little something, and then went back to bed. Nothing engaged me. Nothing brought me out of it.

When I finally started getting myself back, I realized everything that I had neglected had turned into a serious problem. I was in trouble in all my classes. Many of my friends were angry with me for my neglect and rude avoidance. Fortunately, I was living in college housing, so paying bills and such weren’t an immediate problem. I was still not quite right, and not feeling capable of digging myself out of the hole I had dug. I tried to reengage in my classes, but didn’t have much experience with being a struggling student. I had always been a good student, or at least a competent one. I really didn’t know how to recover when I had messed up. I tried to revive friendships, but some relationships never recovered.

 

Before that time, I thought I knew darkness. I even thought of it sometimes as friendly, useful. I had lived so much of my life not revealing myself, allowing myself to be a mystery to people. I knew cynicism, I knew that the world was full of lies and betrayals. I knew that people’s generosity had a limit, and even those who seem kindhearted could harbor prejudices. I thought I understood the world.

Of course there was so much more to learn, and much of it through painful experiences. The bouts of depression were bad. It took me a couple years of delay and some significant maneuvering to finish my degree after the academic challenges it created. Then, my parents began to experience health problems. My father had a heart attack and bypass surgery. My mother began her slow steady slide which eventually ended with her death. Financial setbacks and some unlucky choices also have challenged me.

I have come through it transformed in many ways. I have gone from being an extrovert to being very introverted, or put differently, from being dependent on the presence of others to being happy with my own company. I have rediscovered my spirituality, and as this blog attests, I have been growing and exploring that path. I have been shaped by dark forces, as I think we all are.

 

I still wonder what that Goddess wanted, what she wanted me to hear that I was not ready to hear. Perhaps she appeared as a warning of things to come, a warning that I could not understand. Perhaps she was trying to see if I was someone who could do her a service. Perhaps I was just randomly stumbling upon a place of the dead on the darkest of dark nights and I glimpsed a rare gift from the divine.

She touched me, though, in ways I don’t entirely understand. Until a few years ago, that night was one of the closest brushes I had with a divine presence, and it opened a door within me. It took me years to walk through it, though, and accept my relationship with the Gods and Goddesses. Perhaps I still don’t truly understand what it brought and what it will mean.

I am not really interested in Islam, however…

I am a polytheist. Not all people under the “Pagan Tent” are, but I am. The idea of a unified godhead seems intuitively wrong to me. There is nothing that I can see or have experienced that implies a single intelligence that controls the universe, the earth, or even the project of being a human. There are multiple powers that are greater than humans, and they may or may not work together. I see the spiritual world as a complex swirl of interactions between powers, large and small. Think of one of those giant dynamic weather maps of the world, where storm systems and pressure cells interact and combine to form constantly changing conditions. Some areas get slammed and others stay calm, and tiny variables can set off a whole chain of events. No one is “in charge”. Everything is in flux.

The idea of an all-powerful, beneficent God is fraught with major logical contradictions to anyone who is paying attention. The idea of a single book, or set of books, as “the word of God” is deeply problematic. Books in particular, and language in general, are culturally specific. Without negating the power of a message given by a particular writer or prophet to their audience, they can hardly be expected to provide precise advice and messaging to people in other cultures and in other times, facing specific problems the prophet couldn’t even imagine.

As someone who was raised in a monotheistic religion, namely Christianity, and who moved away from it, I really have no interest in spending time learning about any monotheistic religion at this point in my life, particularly not one that 1.) is based on everyone following one text, 2.) compels people to proselytize, 3.) rejects my identity as a man who loves men, and 4.) treats women as a secondary class, prohibited from equal opportunity with men.

Further, I will not put myself in the position of defining or defending Islam, whether to Christians or Atheists. It is not my place to inform people that “Islam is about peace” as the decidedly non-Muslim President George Bush once did. I am not the person to define the purpose of Islam or the goals of Muslims, whether in this country or in another.

However…

I do not think that Islam is significantly worse or more dangerous than other forms of monotheism. It includes a broad range of people with a broad range of beliefs, most of whom are simply interested in pursuing their own interests with their own families and friends. In terms of proselytizing, they are far less aggressive around here than the Christians. Within the last week I had two different people attempt to engage me in conversations about the Bible. I don’t think I’ve ever had that happen with Muslims and the Koran, and yes, there are Muslims in the area where I live.

Islam is traditionally hostile to LGBTQ people, treats women unequally, allows slavery, and has aggressively converted people, even with the threat of death. Every single one of these is also true of Christianity. Of course, many self-professed Christians today in America don’t endorse any of these traditional views. The same can be said of many Muslims.

If Islamic groups from around the world consider the United States and Western European powers evil, that has everything to do with our foreign policy and very little to do with religion. For many decades, the United States has been playing chess games in the Middle East, supporting oppressive and unpopular regimes, toppling other regimes and leaving power vacuums filled by warring factions that destabilize areas. We are pulling strings and sending bombs and then we’re surprised when the people on the ground living with the results resent us.

But for those living here, one of this country’s greatest strengths is the Freedom of Religion. As a member of a small minority religion, it is extremely important to me that this freedom applies to all, and not only to certain Christian sects. The rights to believe in varied religious traditions (or none at all) and practice religious rites within the confines of the private spaces are and should remain protected. No government, Federal or local, should favor one religion or exclude any one religion in terms of participation or benefits.

We should be free to display religious symbols on private property and wear religious symbols and dress on our bodies without being harassed or attacked. No books should be banned based on religious beliefs.

And specific to recent proposals that are being discussed in our political sphere, there should be no religious test for immigration or asylum seekers into this country. There should be no religious registry based simply on religious belief.

I am not interested in Islam for myself, but I will defend the rights of Muslim Americans and those of any tradition to live without any extra restrictions and persecutions in this country. The increase in harassment and physical violence against Muslims (or people perceived as Muslim, even if they aren’t) in the country is alarming and should be confronted wherever it happens.

Nostalgia and the Problems of the Past

I don’t recall where I first heard it, but there is an idea that all nostalgia is basically racism. As someone who indulges in various forms of what may be called nostalgia, I took this personally and had to ask myself some serious questions. I dress in neo-Victorian/Steampunk style with several groups of friends. I read a lot of “classics” – set in the 18th and 19th century. I am endlessly fascinated with ancient Rome and love to read about Roman religion and daily life. I listen mostly to classical music and opera, much of which was written over 100 years ago. And yes, I love “period dramas” in film and television with gorgeous costumes and sets from another era.

So yes, I was a bit touchy when many of my interests were all called racist.

A recent poll sparked some particularly topical versions of this question about nostalgia. This piece in the Washington Post by Janell Ross hit some of the themes that I am talking about. Another piece by Kali Holloway of Alternet hit many of the same themes.

The nostalgia part is a poll question asking if American culture had changed for the better or for the worse since the 1950’s. Around half of Americans, and 57% of white Americans believe that American culture has changed for the worse since the 1950’s.

Taken on its own, the ways in which American culture has changed are myriad, and some of these are definitely not for the better. I don’t personally think of the 1950’s as an ideal time by any means, but I can think of a number of ways in which our culture is worse.

Since the 1980’s, news sources no longer have a legal obligation to tell the truth, which has caused a proliferation of opinion sold as news and downright lies in the mass media. Our food culture is dependent on fast food, packaged food, and junk food – packed with sugar and sodium and lacking in many healthy nutrients. Americans cook very little and are not well informed about nutrition. Compared to the 1950’s, the last few decades have shown increasing violence in much of America. It has varied – spiking in the 1980’s, declining somewhat in the 1990’s, and increasing again in recent years.

And this doesn’t even touch on cultural things like taste in music, film or television, where some people’s preferences may run toward those popular in the 1950’s. That is largely personal taste, though.

But there has been obvious and huge improvements in American culture – racial and ethnic discrimination and segregation that was the rule of the land in the 1950’s changed, through the Civil Rights movement, the legal changes of the 1960’s and the gradual, but significant moves of African Americans, Asian Americans and Latin Americans into greater visibility and power in our cultural life. I am not saying that there is true equality – certainly there isn’t – but as an example, African American visibility in politics, media, sports, and many other areas has increased dramatically for the better. There is greater gender equality in employment and in many areas of culture. There has been a dramatic improvement in the legal status and cultural attitudes around LGBTQ people.

So, how the question is answered really depends on what aspects of culture are foremost in the minds of the person answering the question.

Janell Ross links this question to another question on the poll and uses this link to indict white American’s nostalgia. The other question whether discrimination against whites is as big a problem as discrimination against other blacks and other minorities. Around 60% of white Americans said yes.

I wholeheartedly disagree with this one. There is no widespread discrimination against white Americans. I think that the American middle and working classes have seen a disintegration of opportunity overall in the past couple decades. Well paid manufacturing jobs are very difficult to come by due to a combination of products being manufactured in other countries and the erosion of the power of labor unions. Median household income has slid downward in the last decade, even as the politicians and media are touting the economic recovery. The stock markets are high and unemployment is down, but the quality and pay of jobs is lower. The recovery has been for the rich and not for the middle or working class. So the pie, so to speak, has been shrinking, and yes the proportion of opportunities for African Americans and other minority groups have improved. But this doesn’t add up to discrimination against whites. It means white Americans are getting a more equitable share of a shrinking set of opportunities.

I have seen this nostalgic link that Janell Ross is making. Even in the mid-1990’s, when I was newly graduated from college and it seemed like 90% of my friends were working at temp jobs with no benefits and no security, I had older people tell me “there was a time when a bright young man like you could write his own ticket, but not anymore.” Implied was that I was a young WHITE man, and that I had to compete with women and people of different racial and ethnic minorities. But I do not long for a time when things would be given to me simply because of my race and sex. That is just discrimination.

So yes, I agree that there’s a kind of racist nostalgia that happens among white Americans. I also see that certain troubling populist politicians are using themes like “make America great again!” play into this and have a racist undercurrent. When Donald Trump is talking about making America great, he’s also calling for a registry of Muslims and calling Mexican immigrants rapists. He is not appealing to some ideal of American pluralism. He’s playing on white American fears of those different from them and linking it to the real experience of loss of economic opportunity.

But I don’t think that nostalgia necessarily comes with that baggage. Janell Ross states something that points to where nostalgia and racism can split and don’t necessarily mean the same thing. She states:

Yes, nearly 60 percent of white Americans believe that life in America before the advent of the cassette tape, the ATM, IVF, the hand-held calculator and the bar code was better than it is today. Apparently life was very good for these Americans, when segregated public facilities were a legal requirement in the South and Southeast and a social norm in many other places. Most people of color could not obtain credit or a loan from most “mainstream” banks.

And here we have a link being made between the technology or fashions of an era and its moral failings. This is a common habit, and it’s completely nonsensical. Somehow cassette tapes and bar codes furthered the cause of racial equality? Of course not. Are poodle skirts and cars with tail fins necessarily linked to segregated drinking fountains? The question is absurd.

John Michael Greer, one of my favorite bloggers addressed this sort of question recently in a couple blog posts here and here where he brings up how inflamed people become when someone chooses to opt out of some currently popular technology.

Then there are the people whose response to the technology of an older time is to yammer endlessly about whatever bad things happened in those days, even when the bad things in question had nothing to do with the technology and vice versa. People like the couple I discussed in last week’s post, who prefer Victorian furnishings and clothing to their modern equivalents, get this sort of bizarre non sequitur all the time, but variants of it turned up in my inbox last week as well. Here again, there’s some heavy-duty illogic involved. If a technology that was invented and used in the 1850s, say, is permanently tarred with the various social evils of that era, and ought to be rejected because those evils happened, wouldn’t that also mean that the internet is just as indelibly tarred with the social evils of the modern era, and ought to be discarded because bad things are happening in the world today?

John Michael Greer advocates specifically for all of us to step back from our dependence on every new and energy intensive gadget and to learn skills and habits that will help us in a coming period of energy scarcity. I agree with this thinking and I am trying to move my life in this direction (which I am finding a challenge in many ways).

But I also am a fan of taking inspirations from the past and recognizing in a clear-eyed way that we don’t need to adopt the social attitudes and blind spots of prior eras along with their technology or styles. I wrote about that with regard to Steampunk a couple years ago and I firmly believe it today. If we want to learn to bake like our great grandmother or retell grandpa’s stories, that doesn’t mean that we need to agree with the social attitudes of their day. Racism, sexism, anti-LGBTQ attitudes, intolerance of those who have different languages or religions – these are all things that don’t deserve our nostalgia and we can leave them in the past.