If you don’t have anything nice to say…

I have been quiet on this blog lately. I have done some writing – I wrote and submitted a piece for a queer magic anthology, which I will have more information on in the future.

I have also been putting a lot of mental energy into my new position as Magister for the Brotherhood of the Phoenix, which I mentioned on my previous post. This has taken a great deal of mental energy, even more than I anticipated. We’re going through discussions that cut to the very core of our mission and which will redefine who we are as an organization. And they have been contentious and sometimes emotional. And that intensity looks like it’s probably not going to let up for months, at least.

So, I’m getting some hands-on learning about how to help guide a group through conflict. How do I foster an environment where everyone feels heard? How do we balance the urge to hold onto what we know and value, while opening up to a broader vision? I knew these conversations were bound to happen, but they weren’t in the front of my mind when I took this position.

One of the Four Powers of the Sphinx is “to keep silence”. I have been thinking about this a great deal lately. I think a lot of people in this noisy world find this to be a very difficult lesson. Without trying to boast, I think I am better at it than many (which still doesn’t make me particularly good at it).

In much of my adult life, I have not sought to take the spotlight. I gave up music and theatre that I loved during my teen years. I didn’t put any of my writing in the public eye for years after college, even though I studied Creative Writing. It’s only in the past few years that I have kept this blog and occasionally did talks to (usually small) groups. I really made the decision to restrain my own voice. I try to think about whether my voice will contribute something in a given context before I speak up.

Now, as I am trying to navigate a leadership role in an organization, restraining my own voice has seemed even more important. If I start off a discussion with strongly stating my opinion of our path and what we should and shouldn’t do, I risk stifling different opinions. I have to find the right balance of saying enough to get the conversation going without trying to dominate the conversation. And of course, I have to watch to make sure conversations don’t descend into something hurtful.

Another aspect of this silence is that when I think about something to write about, I have been feeling empty, and a bit helpless. There are so many horrors in the world, from American politics, which seems to be lurching from one crisis to the next, to the horrifying stories coming out of Chechnya, to environmental disasters and disastrous environmental policy decisions.

I often feel the urge to run away to a remote location where I can plant a huge garden and watch over and try to protect some patch of forest. I have no idea how to change people. I don’t know how to make people compassionate or conscientious. I don’t know how to make them stop harming others and the environment. And I don’t think my voice – whether it be a blog post, a chant and a placard at a protest, a public meeting – is going to open people’s eyes to reverse the disastrous course that we’re on.

March Update – Many Transitions

I’ve had many transitions this month in my personal and spiritual life. I wouldn’t have planned to have them all stacked on top of one another, but that’s the way it has worked out. Some of these are things that I don’t necessarily want to go into much detail about here: We moved my father into a care facility as his dementia has progressed to a point where living with family has become a problem. I’ve also been working to make some financial changes that will require sacrifice, but will hopefully lead to a more stable situation for my future.

I have mentioned in the past that I have been on the Alumni Board for my college. The expected term for that is coming to a close, and I had my last meeting earlier this month. It has been a great experience, but I am also relieved to step away from the obligations involved, particularly the travel. At the same time, it’s a loss of something that has been a part of my life for the past six years, so the change certainly has an impact.

Most importantly for the subject of this blog, I have taken on a new role in the Brotherhood of the Phoenix. The Council of Guardians for the local temple was elected in February and installed a little over a week ago. I am the only member of the last Council who will be on the new one. I am moving from the role of Warder (head of membership) to Magister (president), so it is a real step up in terms of responsibility.

The Council represents the temporal/organizational leadership, rather than the spiritual leadership. At the same time, the role of Magister comes with a defined role in ritual (so new scripts to learn) as well as channeling certain spiritual energies into the organization. I need to embody a sense of expansion and growth related to Jupiter, rather than the role of protection and vigilance embodied by Mars for my last position.

I hope that we are moving into an exciting time for our group. I am not saying this because I have such a high opinion of myself as leader. Last year in particular, we experienced a sort of slump. Several of the most dedicated Brothers either moved away from the area or stepped away to deal with personal/family matters. We had cancelled events, our Novitiate went on hiatus, and, although we kept to our usual schedule of public rituals, some of the internal activity fell into a kind of decline.

The new Council, a group of seven of us, are tasked with refocusing and re-energizing the group. I feel that we are ready for that task. Our installation left us feeling reinvigorated, and our first public ritual on Saturday, March 18th had a powerful energy.

Our March ritual is called Quintessence and it celebrates the Explorer. It’s a perfect energy for this kind of new beginning. The gift of the Explorer is Courage, and this is something that we can all use at this time, both within our group and within the larger community. As the mood of fear is causing a closing down of borders, stoking of distrust, we all need the Courage to reach out, welcome diverse voices, and embrace the challenge of the unfamiliar.

The thing about these transitions is that it will take a while to sink into the new reality, to build the transformed world. These steps have all been important, but the work is just beginning.

Art AIDS America Chicago – highly recommended art exhibit

Art AIDS America Chicago
through April 2, 2017
Alphawood Gallery |2401 North Halsted Street |Chicago, Illinois 60614
Free Admission |Timed Admission Passes Recommended

This past weekend, I went to an amazing art exhibition Art AIDS America Chicago. If you are able to see it here in Chicago before it closes in April, I would highly recommend it. It’s as emotionally gripping as contemporary art exhibitions come, and many pieces had me wiping tears from my eyes. There are works by well-known artists like Keith Haring, Andres Serrano, Barbara Kruger, and Robert Mapplethorpe. There are many works by artists whose names I did not know. It’s not in a larger museum. The gallery was built out just for this exhibit in a former bank in the Lincoln Park neighborhood, not far from DePaul University. The space works beautifully, and the curatorial decisions were spot on. There was also an element of community engagement, with free HIV testing and opportunity to contribute to oral history projects.

The AIDS crisis is a pivotal point in my life, even though I am HIV-negative. I came out as gay in Fall 1987. AIDS was still a virtual death sentence and the stigma and shame was overwhelming. Most of society linked it with gay sex, IV drug use, and immigrant populations. The messaging that it was God’s punishment on sinners was all over the media. The Federal government was doing very little to help those suffering with the disease or doing any kind of public education toward prevention.

This fear of infection combined with my uncertain and emerging sexuality and my Catholic upbringing to really mess up any chance that I may have had to develop a healthy sex-positive attitude. Even today, I feel a bit damaged around these issues. It has had a profound effect, even after decades of personal growth.

I seriously dated a man in the late 1990’s who was not only HIV-positive, but was a “Lazarus” case. He had lost his longtime partner to AIDS and seems to be at death’s door, when an improved drug cocktail caused his health to turn around. Being close to someone with that history and with an immune system that was still badly compromised was very enlightening. It made the personal reality of the disease so much more real.

Today, I have many friends living with HIV, but the treatments have improved so much that I don’t often think about it. The costs and struggles are still real for them, but it is not the kind of catastrophic tragedy that it was in the 80’s and early 90’s. Quite a few of the artists featured in the exhibition have birth dates not much before mine – and death dates in the 1990s. The desperate and beautiful creativity is still with us through their art. Their struggles, their loves, their anger, their sex, their kink, their hope – it’s still there for us.

I don’t have the skills for the casual economy

So here I am making another public admission. And it almost seems to verge on neurotic, but I have the feeling I am far from alone.

On one hand, I love the idea of supporting friends who make things and who provide useful services. I love the idea of buying local instead of sticking with the large corporations. I have friends who teach skills that I would love to learn. I love the ideas of local barter networks and skill exchanges.

I know that these casual economy exchanges can be so much more cost effective and fulfilling than always going to the formal, mass-market solution. I also know that these kind of exchanges can open opportunities for myself to make income outside of a traditional job. Friends have said since I am an experienced (though non-professional) vegan cook, I should teach cooking classes or make dinner for people in my home.

But the truth is, I have no idea how to make any of those kind of exchanges work, even on the most obvious, rudimentary level. I have had friends who are licensed massage therapists who do work from their home who just stop communicating with me when I try to set up a time for a massage. I have friends who make custom clothing who I would like to commission a piece from, but I don’t even know how to start the conversation. I’ve offered to show friends how to do vegan baking at my home for free on social media, but no one has ever shown even the slightest interest, so it’s hard for me to conceive of how people would pay me to teach them some of my skills.

Part of it is that it’s hard to figure out the logistics of how to communicate with people about this. When personal and business time are not clearly delineated, when do you reach out to ask people about this kind of thing? I’ve always had a job where I’m either “on the clock” or designated as “on call”, but my availability for work-related matters is always clearly defined, so I am not entirely sure how to figure out that question. Of course email should make this easier than a phone call, but it’s still not always clear. In fact, I am the kind of person (and of a generation) who, if I want to call, I usually email or text them first to ask if it’s a good time.

And I think I still very much have the idea ingrained in me that “if you have to ask, you can’t afford it”. I feel like I’m wasting people’s time to even ask about something that I’m not in a financial position to buy. But, of course, the casual economy doesn’t come with price tags.

In a related attitude, I don’t trust things that are up for negotiation. If the price is different for everyone, how do I know that I’m not getting a bad deal because of some kind of bias – against strangers, against queer people, against people who aren’t knowledgeable, against those who look like they have money? Or the uncomfortable possibility that because I’m getting a better deal by being white or being a man.

I realize a lot of this is about my background as a middle class American. I am a child of food coming from grocery stores and restaurants that have prices on the menu. The internet has been available for most of my adult life, which took the old system of the yellow pages and ads in the newspaper to a new level. Now I can go onto a company website and see what a product or service might cost. 95% of my questions can be answered without even talking to a person.

I didn’t grow up in a culture where you trade with your neighbors. Helping relationships didn’t go much beyond buying pizza for friends in college when you asked them to help you move.
So yes, I feel like a have a huge hurdle to get over when it comes to making my life better through the casual, non-corporate economy. I think that it doesn’t help that most of the people around me are not much better off when it comes to these skills. I really feel like we all need to figure this one out together and shift our culture around to help ourselves and one another more effectively.

I guess we just had a Pagan holiday…

I have to admit I’ve never had much of a connection to Imbolc (or the various permutations of the pagan holiday around Feb 1st or 2nd). It doesn’t line up with anything that I’ve ever celebrated culturally or any celebrations that I grew up with (Groundhog Day is kind of a *meh* holiday).

I do like bonfires, but I don’t think I’ve ever been invited to an event this time of year centering on one. I’m not aware of any sacred wells around here. And as for the lambing time – lambs are pretty darned adorable, but as a vegan, they don’t form a part of my financial or agricultural world.

I guess all that’s left of that is the association with the beginnings of Spring. But I have to honest, early February doesn’t typically feel much like the beginning of Spring around Chicago. Most years, we’re still in for a full month or more of hard winter. This year, of course, we had an unusually mild January, so I don’t even have that severe Winter fatigue that normally accompanies this time of year.

I do like the Irish story of the Cailleach, the sacred hag, associated with the day. On Imbolc, she would indicate whether the winter was ending soon or if it would hang on for a long time. If there was still some harsh winter in the future, she would cause the weather to be bright and clear so she could gather more firewood to last the rest of the winter.

In the Brotherhood of the Phoenix, it is the beginning of a new cycle in our year. In our upcoming event called SpiritSong, we celebrate the Divine Youth, after celebrating the Elder in January. The Divine Youth gives the gift of Wonder, and that is an important one in this season of year, when the plants are dead and the skies are often gray. It is also important to remember in this political season, as so many threats seem to be lurking at our doorstep and the ungenerous hearts are the ones that lead us. We are building walls and cutting off assistance for those in need. We are lifting the protections to the environment and taking away funding from schools and the arts.

Wonder gives us the gift of seeing beauty in the simple and everyday things. It allows us to break the mundane unthinking patterns of our life and appreciate what we take for granted. It allows us to appreciate the marvelous talents that people have, and the skills that can seem almost magical. It is bound together with Gratitude and Joy. It makes us appreciate the many things that are provided to us, the bounty that surrounds us.

This gift of Wonder, tapping into something within ourselves that improves our outlook – this is something I will celebrate.

Starhawk’s The Fifth Sacred Thing

Starhawk’s 1993 novel The Fifth Sacred Thing has been on my to-read list for a long time. One of the biggest names in the Pagan community, her nonfiction works The Spiral Dance and Dreaming the Dark were some of the earliest Pagan works that I read back in the late 1980’s and they really opened my mind. Her vision of an inclusive, feminist, environmentalist, body-positive magic was deeply appealing.

The Fifth Sacred Thing takes many of her spiritual and social ideas and gives them life in a post-apocalyptic near-future. She also wrote a prequel and more recently, a sequel City of Refuge.


So, here is where I admit being a little bit lazy. Most of my “day job” involves reading. It has sucked some of the fun out of pleasure reading, so I don’t read nearly as much of my to-read list as I would like to. One way around this is audiobooks – I can listen to them while I drive or while I am cooking or cleaning. It is a wonderful way to “read” without the eye strain.

So I was thrilled when it was announced that The Fifth Sacred Thing was (finally) coming out on audio. It is wonderfully read and professionally produced. And at last, I have experienced The Fifth Sacred Thing

I have to admit it was a slightly rough start for me – and this is no reflection on the book. After the election, I was in a grim state of mind, and the book opens following a brainwashed prisoner and a healer battling in the depths of an epidemic ravaging her city. It was not helping my mood or my view of the world, and I did pause a few times. But I kept up with it – and I’m so glad I did. The richness of the world, the resilience of the people, the searching after justice and magical transformation were ultimately exactly what I needed in this current climate.

Specifically, the ideas of principled, creative resistance are beautifully illustrated. And this is something that is so inspirational just now. The story also has satisfying characters and plotting, so don’t worry that it’s all world-building and high concepts.

According to news reports, City of Refuge will also be produced on audio, so I am very much looking forward to more. In the meantime, I recommend The Fifth Sacred Thing in whatever format you prefer.

Starhawk’s website

A recent article on The Wild Hunt on The Fifth Sacred Thing.

This is a video created to promote a project to make the book into a movie. More recent news indicates that it may be a television series.


What lies ahead looks like what I have seen before

As I was reading this article about the incoming Cabinet appointees, I couldn’t help thinking that I see what is ahead of us. It looks a lot like a place where I have been before.

I came out in 1987, in Reagan’s America. Only a handful of states had non-discrimination laws for employment or housing. No one even dreamed of legal same-sex marriages. A major epidemic had taken hold because the Federal government thought it only affected gays and drug addicts, who frankly deserved to get sick.

It was a common fear for children to be disowned by their parents or forced into therapy for coming out as gay, lesbian, or bisexual. It was common for people to lie to themselves and their spouses and live lives that looked like everyday American families, but were really a kind of silent hell.

For Trans people – well, it’s hard for me to even imagine. There was so little hope for support from home, school, work – so little awareness and so little sympathy for their identity that they knew in their hearts.

For LGBTQ people of color, who faced multiple intersections of discrimination around sexuality, race, ethnicity, and religion – the challenges and complications went far beyond what I ever experienced.

And so many brave and beautiful souls persevered.


It won’t look like it did before. The 1980’s didn’t look quite like the 1950’s, even if that’s what many in power aspired to achieve. LGBT communities had become established during the freer years of the 1960’s and 1970’s. Anita Bryant took her anti-gay crusade around and succeeded in getting quite a few places to roll back anti-discrimination laws (including St Paul, MN, my home at the time I came out). But the community still existed and grew stronger in spite of the disasters it faced.

The “Moral Majority” was in full swing – as was the “Satanic Panic”. There was a backlash against the open religious exploration of the 1960’s as well as the increasing secularism of American culture. Here, too, the counterculture was established enough that it held on, even if it was only in casual, personal ways. Neopaganism continued to develop, although it took on a “New Age” cast that was more about self-improvement than creation of an alternative spiritual community.


I was too young to really understand it at the time, but the 1980’s were also a time when environmental progress was rolled back. The move toward energy conservation through the 1970’s was reversed. Protected lands were opened to logging, drilling and mining. The EPA was weakened in favor of “business friendly” policies allowing more pollution. See more about Reagan’s environmental record here

The 1980’s saw a dramatic step up in the War on Drugs, which meant increasing incarceration of nonviolent drug offenders. Of course this had a racial component – much of the enforcement was in communities of color, even when drug use was just as prevalent in primarily white communities. See more about the War on Drugs here.

It was also the time when standards of honesty and integrity of the press was eroded. Reagan played a critical role in rolling back the “Fairness Doctrine” and other safeguards to hold media responsible for their reporting. This deregulation, along with the proliferation of cable news and then the internet news sites, has led to most news outlets being highly partisan and in many cases portraying opinion and sometimes even lies as news. See more about the changes to media in the 1980’s here.



We seem to be facing all these social currents again (or, in some cases, still): Anti-LGBTQ legal actions; Religious xenophobia and fear; Environmental protections being rolled back; An increase in racialized policing; A news media system that continues to fail in bringing reliable and balanced information to the American public.

I hope the cultural shifts of the past 20 years around all these issues will be enough to hold us together through the next decade. I am worried that if I get fired from my job because of my sexuality or my religion, the Federal legal system is not likely to help me out. I am even more worried about the climate of religious and ethnic discrimination that seems to be rising. And I am most worried about the fragile balance of the environment and the climate, which already seems to be on the verge of tipping.

Political Uses for Fear and Safety

Of course they're looking out for your safety (image source http://villains.wikia.com/wiki/File:Junglebook-disneyscreencaps_com-6101.jpg)

Of course they’re looking out for your safety (image source http://villains.wikia.com/wiki/File:Junglebook-disneyscreencaps_com-6101.jpg)

In Britain’s dark days of World War II, Winston Churchill famously said “We have nothing to fear but Fear itself.”

There was a good deal to fear at the time, including the possibility of a German bomb dropping on one’s home, the U-Boat attacks on shipping, the lives of armed service members, and of course the threat of a Nazi invasion of Britain and all the horrors that would entail.

But nonetheless, there’s an important lesson in this statement. When we are overcome with fear, we often forget important things we want to protect. We give up our freedoms to a strong leader who promises to keep us safe without much thought about whether we actually trust this leader and what are circumstances under which that leader surrenders those powers.


Keep a watch on how politicians use fear and a desire for safety to advance their own agenda. Be critical about what they tell us to fear. Be critical about what they tell us will bring safety.

One of the most dramatic uses of fear was Hitler’s use of the crisis of the Reichstag Fire to cement his own autocratic power. The event is an extreme example, but there are many others in recent history that also serve to illustrate this type of seizure of power in reaction to a fear-stoking event. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Reichstag_fire
The George W Bush administration used the climate of fear in the wake of the 9/11 attacks to launch a war in Iraq (which had no connection to those attacks and none of the claimed Weapons of Mass Destruction). He also created the USA Patriot Act and a vast increase in the mechanism for monitoring electronic communication, even for US citizens on US soil, something typically seen as illegal overreach.


Recently the Army Corps of Engineers issued an eviction order to the Standing Rock Sioux and their allies that the water protector camp in North Dakota is to be closed “to protect the general public from the violent confrontations between protestors and law enforcement officials that have occurred in this area, and to prevent death, illness, or serious injury” from the winter weather.

This is a definitely example of an appeal to safety that seems plausible, but coming from an organization that has fired rubber bullets and water cannons (in below-freezing temperatures) at members of the group, the concern for preventing death, illness, or serious injury rings hollow. They have already deliberately caused serious injury to dozens of people at this site.


In China, the government is dismantling up to ¾ of the town of Larung Gar because it has become a center for Tibetan Buddhism, and the government fears the potential political power. Again, the pretense is that the housing is unsafe. However, their solution is simply eviction and tear-down without any plan for replacement of the housing.


The incoming Trump administration, which has already threatened to institute a registry for Muslim Americans and stricter enforcement of immigration laws, could easily use the fear associated with some dramatic event in our near future to enact draconian laws around these issues. Many commentators have warned that we should watch out for Trump’s Reichstag Fire moment – a large scale terror attack or riot to be blamed on immigrants and/or Muslims that he will use to suspend regular processes of law.

For those of us who live in diverse communities, elbow to elbow with immigrants and Muslims, we know that these people are not a threat. They are typically regular people working to improve their lot and help their families. But it seems very likely that the powers of the government will be turned against these people to make their lives more difficult. And a little bit of fear is all it takes to shut down dissent from those who will speak against such policies.

Don’t let those excuses based on fear and safety stand when they are being used to destroy our freedoms and supress our neighbors. Be critical about reactions of attacks – will new restrictions, new spying programs, or new military actions really make us safer? Or are these just ways to give up our power to an unscrupulous leader?

Is this new government going to turn me into an anarchist?

I am in a rather grim mood about our future today. I know people think of me as normally balanced and reasonable. But without any real hope, my reasonability is feeling pretty strained.


A year and a half ago, I wrote this article about why I am not an anarchist.

The thrust of it was that I believe that the best argument for a strong Federal government is to provide effective regulation and restraint to those who are destroying the environment. I do not see any other institution that will effectively prevent people from literally trashing the wild places, forests, water supply, oceans, and air. I do not see any other institution with the power to reduce our society’s love affair with producing greenhouse gasses.

With the recent election, I guess it is pretty clear that the new administration and Congress will have no interest in using their power to protect natural areas, curb hazardous practices like fracking, limit or reduce carbon emissions.

I have a growing certainty that we are already past a point of preventing significant effects of climate change, and we keep hurtling down this path to use as much fossil fuels as possible – while we destroy forests and pollute water along the way. Turning away from this path could mitigate, but not prevent climate change – and yet we as a country are determined to ignore the changes needed.


I have sometimes said that I am not an anarchist because I don’t have an optimistic view of people’s motives, compassion, or even really about their ability to see what’s best for their own middle-to-long term future. I don’t think that view has really changed. Most people don’t really think about their impact on those around them, the future generations, or the environment.

Unfortunately, my faith in the federal government to protect us from the destructive actions of others is now destroyed. My main reason for supporting the idea of a strong federal government has been flushed down the toilet. Wild areas will be logged and mined with abandon. We’re going to keep getting more electricity from coal and less from wind and solar. The EPA will be slow to enforce whatever regulations are left, and polluters will feel quite free to dump and spew in whatever way benefits their bottom line.

I am still not optimistic about people’s ability to not destroy the environment, but that no longer seems like much of an argument for a strong federal government. It just seems like a recipe for drought, storms, poisoned water, and flooded cities. And no governmental authority is willing to take the action to stop it.

Here are some articles about where we’re headed on the environment: