Wednesday, March 26, 2014

Bare-Breasted Warriors

It has come to my attention recently that there have been thoughtful pieces written by my colleagues here and here about whether or not a breastfeeding mother can be considered a warrior or a hero. I propose that whether or not a breastfeeding mother is a warrior for breastfeeding obscures a larger issue: an issue of basic human rights and the stand against their erosion.

A breastfeeding mom  in our times faces opposition and conflict, which can take a form anywhere from rude stares and clucking noises of disgust, to bullying, and to expulsion, public indecency charges, or even to violence. She faces all of these for a right which was so basic in ancient times, and even in the recent memory of our elders, that no one considered breastfeeding indecent or abnormal.  If we find ourselves debating whether or not a breastfeeding mother is a warrior, then it is a warning as to how deeply broken our society is.

A breastfeeding mother is not a warrior because she breastfeeds. Breastfeeding itself has little to do with warriorhood. She could be considered a warrior because she tries to take back the basic rights which have been ebbed away; she does this out of necessity and through the means at her disposal. Breastfeeding nowadays is a often act of civil disobedience to social mores and even to some indecency laws. What a breastfeeding mother does often takes courage, chutzpah, and a certain amount of...lactational…fortitude to face the conflict that will arise when she stands for this one normal basic right for the smallest and most helpless members of society. Usually, she is not trying to take a stand for basic rights or do anything revolutionary; she's just trying to do her job as a mother. Motherhood and raising the next generation of humans to be decent people is a monumental effort especially when even the matter of feeding babies in public is erroneously controversial.


The issue is not whether or not a breastfeeding mother is a warrior. The issue is not about the milk or the boobs, or formula and bottles, or good mommy/bad mommy. It’s not about loving-nurturing versus violence, or the subjective good-bad labeling applied to either concept whether one values loving-nurturing or violence more. It's not about liking or disliking mothers or babies, or humanity in general. It's not about liberal values versus conservative values.  No, this issue is more about basic human rights which have been eroded in our society(s), and the fight—even the small, quiet, everyday stands—to take back these rights.

It’s absurd and pathetic to have to take a stand for the right to feed babies in public. It is also absurd and pathetic to have to fight for the right to love, as seen in the matter of gay marriage. Yet here we are. If one has to even contemplate whether or not a breastfeeding mother is a warrior or a hero, it is because it is our society is wrongheaded from the foundations up and we have erred in creating and sustaining the situations where mothers must take a stand. Because of this issue and many more, we have everything to fight for. Everything. Even breastfeeding. Even love. And we have nothing left to lose when we can’t even hold hands with loved ones or feed hungry babies in public without conflict or the threat of conflict, arising.

We are all called* to be warriors, not because the word "warrior" has been watered down, but because we must  all take a stand for human rights even in small ways; it's our responsibility. Society is us, it is our creation, all the good and ill that comes out of it a result of our actions--not someone else's actions--our own actions. As such it falls on us to take a stand when things go wrong. Our society is so deeply troubled that it requires every one of us to take a stand to restore basic rights and restore our society with the means we have available in the capacity we can do so. *(Note that just because we are all called to be warriors that doesn't make everyone a warrior automatically. Warriors are the ones who do their jobs to protect, preserve, restore, and fight for rights by rising to this challenge; as such we should all strive to be warriors. Note too, that I am not saying that "just doing your job"--as in being mediocre and not giving a rip about others' rights--is warriorhood: it's not. What I am saying is that warriorhood is a job we must all take responsibility for and we must all try to do.)

Yay babies! Yay titties! Yay love! And yay for the warriors who fight for these rights in whatever capacity they do so, be that by piloting drones to blow up missile factories or by supporting a breastfeeding mum and sustaining her rights. (Note that I am not saying that these two activities are the same or of equal value. They are simply both useful, and they are both needed in different ways for different reasons.)

Also, feel free to take a look at this lovely image of the Canaanite cross-dressing warrior goddess ‘Anatu, who is not a mother, breastfeeding the twin gods Shachar of the Dawn and Shalim of the Dusk. 

Image Notes: The Republic by Honore Daumier. Public Domain.

Monday, March 17, 2014

Spins on a Dime

I was deep in contemplation in the wee hours this morning before finally going to sleep. Several many-petaled miracles have bloomed before me of late, that I am deeply blessed. The blessings haven't been all cake-and-flowers; there have been some difficult, painful ones to understand and come to terms with, but even difficult blessings are still blessings. Life and death spins on a dime.

It occurred to me in a moment of wonder, that deities must be moving heaven and earth and the underworld for me.

Then I realized that, no, they had moved me.

Then I realized that, no, they had helped me move myself.

By helping me move myself, my position to the heavens, the earth, and the underworld had changed. Because my position to the heavens, the earth, and the underworld had changed, the deities had thus moved heaven, the earth, and the underworld for me.

May they do so for you, too, if you wish it and if you ask for it.
And this sister just spared you a dime.

Saturday, March 1, 2014

God of the Meridian

God of the Meridian,
And of the East and West,
To Thee my soul has flown,
And my body is earthward pressed.
It is an awful mission,
A terrible division,
And leaves a gulf austere
To be filled with worldly fear.
Ay, when the soul is fled
To high above our head,
Affrighted we do gaze
After its airy maze
As doth a mother wild,
When her young infant child
Is in an eagle's claws--
And is this not the cause
Of madness? -- God of Song,
Thou bearest me along
Through sights I scarce can bear:
O let me, let me share
With the hot lyre and Thee,
The staid Philosophy.
Temper my lonely hours,
And let me see Thy bowers
More unalarmed.

I've been leafing through a beloved creased and flecked paperback volume of Keats recently and I came across this poem. The words spoke deeply to me of divine trauma--something a few of us have experienced when working with and honoring our deities. I thought I would share these words here that it may lift the day of someone who has experienced similarly. 

"God of the Meridian" by John Keats. Written prior to 1821, Public Domain.

Wednesday, February 26, 2014

Finding A Good Messenger

I recently received a few good heartfelt questions from a reader. Ms. A writes:

“I have no problem with the idea of having priests or shamans who are experts on certain deities for laypeople to go to for these sorts of things. The problem is I don't actually know any that I trust enough to give me this sort of information. Oh sure, I've met tons of people who claim to be priestesses or shamans, but in the modern pagan community, pretty much anybody can say that. I've been involved with the modern pagan community for over ten years, and I've lost count of how many 'priests' or 'high priestesses' or 'shamans' I've met at festivals, meetups, and so on. It often doesn't take long to find out many of these people are charlatans or narcissists and really are the last people I'd want to go to for spiritual advice.
And this was long before blogging became a big deal. I'm talking about just "in real life", here. After years of this, I get online, and there are all these blogs of people claiming to be priests and shamans and spirtworkers and so forth. Of course, given my previous experience, I'm immediately skeptical. Having a blog online where you can get even more attention seems like just the thing these types of people I've met IRL would love to do.
So how does a layperson sort that out ? How do I know which people calling themselves clergy are the real deal, and worthy of trusting with something so important as my relationship with my gods, and which are the untrustworthy ones?
(And I want to make clear here that I'm not saying that YOU are one of these charlatans. I actually only know you from this blog, which means that I pretty much don't know you at all, so you may be the real deal. I really don't know. That's the problem.)
My second problem is that the primary deity I worship is actually a quite popular one. In some ways that's nice, because there's tons of information on Him, and I have no shortage of people I can find online who are dedicated to Him. But what do I do when they conflict? If the deities are objective reality, they shouldn't conflict. I'm a biology professor, so I know how objective science works. The reason that the theory of evolution is accepted as fact is because all the evidence consistently points to it being true.
But what if one priest says deity X likes this, and another says actually deity X likes something completely opposite? How do I know which to believe? The name of my deity is actually used by some groups that are neo-Nazis and white supremacists, something I find completely abhorrent. But how do I know that they don't have the right idea, and my deity really does agree with all that, and those of us who are against all that are the ones who have it wrong?
The Christians already have a problem with this. Some say their deity is loving and compassionate, others say their deity wants wars and genocide. I'm afraid as modern paganism grows, we're just going to have more and more of this problem. Atheists sometimes use this as evidence that the Christian god isn't real, because if He was, He would be consistent. And to be honest, I can see where they're coming from.
I hope you understand what I mean here, because I really would like to have clergy I could trust. But then again I think of things like the Catholic Church's sex abuse problem. If a religion that organized can't manage to weed out untrustworthy priests, I don't see how modern paganism/polytheism is going to.”
Please let me know if I’m condensing this accurately: you’re feeling skeptical; you want to know of the priests, shamans and so on, who is the real deal; you see having a blog as a possibility for attention/self-inflation; what about conflict amidst priests; and what about problems regarding consistency with deities and their messages. This is a great deal of territory to cover in one post; I know I won't cover everything here, but I'll give it a go.

Skepticism is a healthy thing in that it can give us some space in which to view events and occurrences. However, skepticism can become a lens through which one views everything, even to the extent of casting doubt on what is known. For instance, a person can be skeptical to a fault: just because his feet have never touched the roundness that is a spherical earth, and just because he has never personally seen earth from outer space, the hardened skeptic might refuse to acknowledge the reality of the earth being spherical. That the earth is a sphere is an observable phenomenon, but for him to experience this he has to take the word of specialists in the field, be taught and learn to observe the phenomenon himself, or both.  The trick is in learning to navigate skepticism so it is helpful, but suspending it lightly so it will not become a hindrance. That’s a tricky tightrope walk, and it’s something we all somehow have to learn how to do in an era, in places, and in cultures that promote a skepticism about the deities that actually prevents us from seeing them, from seeing life-as-it-is, and from observing as life simply unfolds. This is a process of discernment.

As for a blog being a place for attention and/or self-inflation, that is always a possibility, however I would rank it typically a remote one. I’m not saying that this doesn’t happen ever:  it does happen. It is just that there are far, far more blogs that this does not happen to. Most blogs often find themselves in cricket-quiet cobwebbed corners of the internet, read more by friends, families, and coworkers on an occasional basis. For instance, even though you’re seeing my blog now and reading it (and I thank you!), this doesn’t mean that I have wide circulation. Also, just because a blog may have a number of “blog followers” also does not guarantee that it is being read frequently. But, this is superfluous, I think, to the matters you would like me to more fully address: figuring out when a priest or a shaman is actually doing his/her job well.

One of the issues you raise is that of inconsistencies regarding the deities, as in when you mention how the messages from the Christian deity/ies get garbled and appears incongruent. These inconsistencies stem not from the deities themselves, but from a faulty receiver.* Two radios can pick up on the same radio signal with the same message, but if one radio is a bad receiver all the listener will hear on the other end is a broken message and static. There isn’t a question as to whether or not the announcer is inconsistent: the announcer is simply giving the message, and the announcer can give the same message in a multitude of different ways from adding jingles, different allegories or illustrations, and different verbal expressions or emotions, and so on, in hopes of delivering a message the listener will understand well…but it is the same message at heart. If the radio doesn’t pick up that message well, or has difficulty in sending that through the speakers so the listener can hear it, there could be a problem with the radio.

There can also be problems with the person who listens to the radio: if a person is in the same room, she can hear a message on the radio clearly, but if she is in a different room or doing something loud like running a vacuum cleaner, she won’t hear the radio well or the message that the radio is playing. Maybe she was too involved in other activities to actually sit and listen fully to the message, or maybe she listened to the message with her own thoughts getting in the way or biasing the message one way or another. Our own thoughts often get in the way of listening. How often have we asked someone how his day is, then mentally focused more on what we wanted to say about our own day? Bias gets in the way when we tweak a message this way or that in accordance to what we may prefer to hear. All of us do these things, which is why practicing discernment and praying for guidance are practices of tremendously good use…for everyone.

In this illustration above, the radio announcer and radio signal is a deity, the announcement is the deity’s message, the radio is a priest, shaman, oracle, diviner, and so on (a messenger), and the person listening to the radio is a layperson.

There are two matters interwoven in this issue. How does a layperson know if the messenger is picking up the best, most accurate transmission from a deity and transmitting that message well? And how does the layperson know if she has received the message well from the messenger? Let’s look at the second matter, that of a layperson receiving a message, first and then come back around to the other matter of finding a good messenger.

For the layperson receiving the message transmitted by the messenger, the layperson must ask herself: Does she know the deities to be living and extant as individual beings beyond the confines of a mind, and as such acknowledge the deities as a part of objective observable reality? And if so, does she fully realize that the deities can communicate and do communicate with people?  These questions sometimes appear on the surface to have quick answers but they actually require time, honesty, contemplation, and prayer. Sometimes the questions even require a good deal of personal development and a soul-deep change.  Without this effort, it is difficult for a person to accept the possibility that any messenger anywhere could deliver any message from any deity ever—and that mindset will never allow her to see the wide selection of functioning “radios” all around her. It would be like our skeptic above who could not accept the reality of a spherical earth.  Working with discernment can help a layperson with these questions and begin to redevelop what we have lost since our removal away from our ancient polytheistic ways. Coming into this state is preparation to finding a good radio, being in the same room as the radio with the radio on and tuned in, the vacuum cleaner turned off, and the mind ready to listen clearly.  This is an ongoing process that ebbs and flows in life, and it isn’t just the messenger who has to do the homework—a layperson has responsibilities to the deities and to their messengers, too. When one goes through this part of the work, it helps pave the way for finding a good messenger.

Once the layperson has overcome her own hurdles to listening to a divine message from a messenger, it is useful to find a good messenger. To begin this journey, prayer is useful. One can petition the deities for guidance on the matter, that they will send a good messenger and/or bring oneself into contact with a good messenger, and ask for the deities to help oneself to know when this has happened.  When a person is looking, there are a few things to keep in mind.  A priest, shaman, messenger, has to be “clean”** and live in a good relationship with the primary deities that s/he works with and for. Some outward signs to look for or inquire about include the maintenance of taboos, guidelines, or restrictions. Most priests, shamans, and messengers observe some kind of taboos, restrictions, and guidelines that they must maintain anywhere from eating or not eating certain foods, wearing certain colors or clothing, personal grooming issues such as hair cutting, having a daily regimen of devotional observances, and so on. (However, these are only outward signs of what is going on with the priest or shaman inwardly: it should be cautioned that just picking up a few taboos, prayers, or clothing restrictions does not make a person a messenger of the gods, so in one’s search for a messenger, dig a little deeper. And on the other hand, if any one of my readers claims “Yeah but Ms. Tess says I can be a priest if I just have a few taboos and stuff, so I now have a taboo on picking belly button lint and I quit eating artichokes on Tuesdays!” I will rain upon them a scathing glare. Feeeeeel it buuuurn.)

Any messenger will be able to give concrete examples of how the deities have been present in their lives and the lives of others. Sometimes if a person is sensitive, and a clear conduit herself, and practicing discernment, she may feel something different about their presences from the presences of other people, feel different when in their presences, or sense an extra presence(s) near them. Sometimes weird things happen around them: sometimes electrical problems; sometimes erratic or calming behaviors in wildlife, little children, and the elderly; sometimes different bodily sensations such as heat, cold, comfort, or discomfort; sometimes animals or insects appearing; coincidences; sometimes constantly running into or hearing about the person; sometimes dreaming about the person; sometimes a particular song keeps playing; and so on. Look for the little things. If there’s something you see as unusual which crops up around the person, pay attention to it and take it into consideration, even if it seems really small and really insignificant. You can also ask about the person in question or if the person keeps a blog, read up on their recent works.

It's helpful to keep in mind that some messengers can cross-train with many different deities across more than one pantheon, but many tend to have deities and/or pantheons from whom they will hear better. Many messengers can pick up messages from almost any deity at any time particularly if that deity must make herself known, but messengers typically cannot pick up on messages from every deity all of the time, and most will have particular deities with whom they are more competent and compatible.

When a messenger is the  “real deal,” things occur—anything from the spectacular to the everyday miracles: look for these signs, and have (or ask the deities for) the openness to see the signs for what they are. But don’t expect a messenger to constantly agree or validate feelings: this is not their job. Their job is in communicating what the deities want a person to hear, communicating to the deities what a person wants to tell the deities, or both. And that process doesn’t often involve a bobble-head yes.

When I speak of everyday miracles, say for instance Cass has problems at work—his boss wants him to do something that Cass finds unethical and Cass has to figure out whether or not to go along with it or start looking for another job. Cass has told no one, and not even his coworkers are aware of what’s going on. In the meantime, Cass had the opportunity to pose his question to an oracle (a messenger): “Should I go along with what my boss wants or not?” He receives what to him at the time is a cryptic response—the deity, through the oracle, says: “You will know what to do about this matter when you see the rainbow.” Cass thinks “Yeah, great. That was so not helpful.” Yet one day the next week, it pours down rain and Cass has to take a detour because his usual route home is flooded. On the detour, the skies clear and he looks up to see a rainbow. When he sees the rainbow, he also observes a large billboard, an athletic shoe ad with a dramatic close up of a foot in a shoe and the slogan “Do the right thing.” Cass decides at that moment that “the right thing” means finding another job…and…he also realizes that he knew what to do about the matter when he saw the rainbow, just like the oracle said. Sometimes it is all about the miraculous hurled thunderbolts and disembodied voices, but more often it’s about the everyday miracles. In this way, too, our guinea pig Cass realized that the oracle, the messenger, was a good one. Sometimes these seeming-riddles resolve themselves swiftly, as it did for Cass, but sometimes they can take years to puzzle out—that’s part of the lesson, and part of the journey.

This finding of good priests, shamans, spiritworkers, diviners, and messengers is also a process that ebbs and flows with life, so it may help to remember that we’re speaking of dynamic (not static) forces at work. The deities, the messengers, and the laypeople—all of these beings are in a state of flux and change, ebb and flow and interrelatedness, so once a person reaches a conclusion, she should consider that this may not be the same conclusion or decision she will have for the rest of her life. For instance, a layperson decides to go with Priest Q, and this works for a long period of time but Priest Q goes through a rocky point where he cannot serve the way he had or he needs a sabbatical, or a different deity calls him, or he is going through some private difficulties which have his attention, or he is ill, or he is not the clear channel he once was—these matters can change. He can be just as efficient or more so tomorrow or a year from now than he was last week, or he could wane in efficiency. Or the listener herself is having a rough time with things going on in her life which make it difficult for her to accept and listen to a message. Thus the process  beings again or modifies as needs present themselves. As always one should pray for guidance, and one can ask for the messenger to pray for oneself as well.

What thoughts would you, dear reader, like to share with Ms. A about these matters...?

*The trump to this matter is trickster gods and/or gods of chaos. If one of these beings is communicating, then what looks as an inconsistency is perhaps part of the message. So we have to keep this as a possibility like a juggler keeps a ball in the air.

**What is “clean” to Dionysos may not be clean to Apollo. Clean can but doesn’t necessarily mean a state of physical cleanliness. The kind of “clean” I speak of here has more to do with the messenger being a clean channel for a deity—like a straw that is open and has no blockages. Especially if you are receiving a message through oracle work, sometimes this means that the spiritworker doing the oracle work cannot interpret or add anything  to what appears on the surface to be a riddle.

Image Notes: Picture of a radio by Sindre Skrede, released into Public Domain. 

Thursday, February 20, 2014

Praxis and "You're Doing it Wrong"

2 + 2 = 7 Right?
Of course not. 2 + 2 = 4

If a person were to ask me if two plus two equals seven, I would tell her that no, it does not: two plus two equals four. If a person were to ask me if certain practices in honoring certain deities were correct, I would try to answer as best I could—and sometimes that means with a “no.” The question of praxis, religious practice and performing duties towards the deities, has come up time and again. Many folks become quite heated at the suggestion that sometimes religious practices in honor of the deities can be done inaccurately. But let's take a moment to breathe, to unpack this subject, and to take a look at it.

There are some matters which are observable realities, such as human beings breathing oxygen. Deities are one of these observable realities. The deities do not exist only in the mind of those who would worship them. To think that they only exist in the mind, and especially to carry this opinion without fully realizing it, can lead to overly-relativistic thinking. (An “anyone’s reality is right because it is his reality and others should respect his reality as fully real” perspective.) It doesn’t matter if one believes the world is truly flat when observation can demonstrate that it is not. If when one believes that one is hearing the deities speak, but one is hearing useful advice that one would give oneself anyway, the chances are high that the deities may not be saying all of what one is hearing. This is where divination or speaking with an elder, a shaman, and/or a priest can be of aid, especially if this action is coupled with practicing discernment.

As the deities are objective reality, it follows that they have desires, designs, and preferences that are observable. Conscious beings have an external existence unrelated to our own minds and have their own preferences. For example: like everyone else, I have images in my head of my friends and my detractors. These images in my mind are a reflection of my own opinions and experiences of them. As such, the conversations I may create and have with these images are going to be different from engaging with the real conscious beings. For example, without objective observation and without realizing that my friend is a conscious living being that is not the same as the image I have of her in my head, I run the risk of thinking she really likes something when she really doesn’t, and that situation potentially leads to a birthday gift disaster in which I would give her something she hates. The same can happen with any conscious beings of any order in varied degrees from animals (including pets), to humans, to deities.

This is the same matter with praxis. Sometimes a deity likes some things and sometimes a deity doesn’t. If a deity doesn’t like something and a person does it anyway, then yes, the person is “doing it wrong.”  For those who would insist that I should apologize here: I cannot apologize for this any more than I could apologize for pointing out that two plus two does not equal seven. 

It's ok if someone makes a mistake in praxis because the person usually has the chance to correct the action and to learn from the experience.  Any number of things can happen if a person does something amiss. Sometimes a deity is kind and will forgive, sometimes a deity will ignore, sometimes a deity will guide the person (or try to depending on how open the person is to guidance), sometimes a person can get cosmically swatted (often in the form of “bad luck” abounding), and so on. It depends on the deity, and it depends on what the person did. Doing something poorly distances a person from a deity, but in that very moment of distance a person has the greatest chance of growth and of coming into a closer relationship with a deity when the person corrects his or her actions. However, consistently and willfully doing something wrong can lead to a permanent lack of communication or even a rift in relations with a deity.

In the case of a student learning math, a helpful teacher aids the student in realizing that two plus two equals four, not seven, not twenty-two, not four hundred twelve, and so on. A helpful teacher does not degrade or embarrass the student for misunderstandings, honest mistakes, or a lack of knowledge. I think that it is important for a few of us polytheists to realize that since our traditions are so broken and in the process of reestablishment, we must assume that the lack of knowledge is profound everywhere and therefore there is no base of common knowledge. When either teacher or student engages in emotions of anger or victimization about the matter of praxis-gone-awry, it can signal to the one who feels this way that a moment of introspection may be useful, especially in regards to into what opinions, prior memories and hurts, old habits and patterns, and subconscious subroutines of the mind are playing out.

However, a good teacher might also admonish a student if necessary if the student has demonstrated knowledge as to what the answer to the problem is but insists that in his reality two plus two equals four hundred twelve. Just because “two plus two equals four hundred and twelve” is the student’s perception of reality does not mean that the teacher has to indulge the student’s perception if it is way off the mark, and indeed doing so could be detrimental. A person can be respected even if his faulty perception of reality is not indulged. 

Image Notes: 

Sunday, February 16, 2014

Buttons...On Learning Discernment

The red truck is in the driveway.

There, above, I have made a statement. What thoughts do you have, patterns of thoughts you engage in, memories, emotions or conclusions you make when I mention this statement? Feel free to take a moment and think on it and jot down a few ideas because this may prove useful in a moment.

Maybe you like trucks, or don’t. Maybe you like red, or don’t. Maybe instead of a driveway, you’re thinking about a parking lot and how you’d like a driveway. Maybe if you have a driveway, you’re thinking about the cracks in it or how it needs new gravel. If you have a truck, maybe you like it a lot, or you hate the cost of filling the tank. Or you immediately think of a GMC, Chevy, Ford, or Toyota, and you think about what traits you associate with those brands or people who buy them. Or maybe you’re imagining whether or not the truck is new or old. Or maybe you’re thinking you don’t have a truck and it’d be nice to have one.

Some folks could take this statement the red truck is in the driveway and reinterpret, even reinvent, it a variety of ways:

“Tess has a red truck.”
“Tess has a driveway.”
“Tess has a paved driveway. Tess lives in a suburb or in a big place in a city, because that’s where you find more driveways.”
“Tess has a gravel driveway. Tess lives in the country because that’s where you find gravel driveways.”
“She sees the truck on television. Tess has television. Tess is watching television right now. She probably has a better television than I do.” Or, “I’ll bet her television is not as large and hi-tech as mine.”
“She sees the red truck outside. Tess is in a place that has windows and she is looking out a window right now.”
“The red truck is shiny and new. Because the truck is new, she must live in a ‘good’ part of town.”
“The truck is a rust bucket on blocks, and can’t move from the driveway. The truck is junk and therefore she lives in a ‘bad’ part of town.”
“Tess needed a truck so she bought a truck.”
"Tess likes red: she's a Republican!"
“Tess has a truck and is therefore a political conservative because rednecks have trucks and rednecks are conservatives. Tess is a conservative and therefore she is closed-minded and an angry fundamentalist."
"Tess is a conservative and therefore is pro-blue-collar worker."
"Tess is a conservative and is therefore fascist, hates minorities, and only likes rich people.”
“Tess has a truck to haul stuff like dirt or mulch. Therefore she’s a tree lover, and a liberal. She is pro-feminism, pro-choice, she’s a ninety-nine percenter, and therefore hates rich people and white males from the ages of 40-60."
"Tess is a liberal and therefore a socialist.” Or, “Maybe she’s actually an anarchist!”
“Tess bought a truck and therefore is a rampant materialist and supports wage slavery.”
“Tess likes trucks.”
“Tess likes trucks and hates cars, buses, vans, scooters, or motorcycles. Tess is anti-biker and anti-van-driving-soccer mom.”
“Tess says the truck is red, therefore she must hate blue. If she hates blue she may dislike the restive qualities of blue. And if Tess hates the restive qualities of blue, she probably hates peace.”
“Tess mentions a truck. Trucks are gas-guzzlers. Therefore Tess hates political ecological movements. She wants to destroy the environment, hates planet earth and wants us all dead. I’ll bet she even opens up a dozen aerosol spray cans a day just so she can bring on an environmental apocalypse.”

This is why an overdose of relativistic thinking—of the “My reality is what I think it is and think it into being. What I think is reality itself because it is real for me, and you should respect my reality” variety—is hazardous. Very, very few of the above statements have any accuracy to them and most of them are flat wrong.

We know that the red truck is in the driveway, but that’s it. In supplementing this factual statement: the red truck is not mine, it is newer and well-cared for but frequently used. It is in a driveway across the street. It is a truck used for a small business. I have no idea what the person who owns the red truck thinks about materialism, political opinions, ecology, war and peace, red or blue, traits regarding truck brands, if the person who owns the trucks likes that specific truck or trucks in general, or what the person thinks about bikers or van-driving soccer moms. And before someone asks, "Well, which one of those is true? What do you think about (trucks, ecology, politics, colors, or soccer moms)?" recall that this exercise isn't about any of's about the red truck in the driveway and what conclusions you make and project on to me (or the truck owner) about the matter

Recall the patterns, thoughts, memories, associations, and emotions that came to your mind when you read The red truck is in the driveway. It’s interesting how many thoughts, assumptions, and conclusions (accurate or inaccurate, both in varying degrees) could arise in response to a simple statement. See how one subjective assumption snowballs into a host of associations which lead to conclusions? I have nothing to do with the truck, but assumptions have been made about me (or the truck owner), and thus without further objective observation, a person has formed an image of me (or the truck owner) which has nothing whatsoever to do with me (or the truck owner). To varying degrees, we all do this with other people and situations in our lives.

Everything else you may attach or associate with that statement about the red truck reflects your views, patterns, emotions, memories, and subjective thoughts. Subjective thoughts are a part of how our minds function; and it is best when we can identify these for what they are…and what they are not. They are not objective observation. An objective thought about this statement may go like this: “The red truck is in the driveway. I have no further information than this. All of these ideas or conclusions I have in my mind that I associated about myself, the truck owner, Tess, the color red, driveways, trucks, people who drive red trucks or have driveways, and further derivations on the topic, may or may not turn out to be true and it is useful for me to keep conclusions in a state of suspension until I have further information.” (Translation: "I know there's a red truck in a driveway. Other than that, I don't know anything. I'm guessing. I should remember guesses are often wrong.") Easier said than done, but not impossible. The "trick" is to run herd on these thoughts and separate what you know and observe from that which reflects your own internal monologue, thought-patterns, emotions, memories, and subjective thoughts.

This process of understanding what is going on in your own head is necessary. In observing then learning how you think, in understanding which are your subjective thoughts and which are your objective observations, in becoming consciously familiar with your own processes of thinking, you are then able to understand when you are experiencing a deity and when you are hearing your own mental dialogue only with a new mask on it. This is called discernment. It takes a tremendous amount of ongoing practice and diligence, and both a compassionate and brutal self-honesty.

There are many ways to begin to understand what’s going on in that grey area between your ears. However, it is helpful to keep in mind that these techniques are tools…and they are tools not to be confused for religion or as religion. These tools can be found in many places from modern psychology (even in Jung and his archetypes) to Zen meditation. One technique I like to use is called “labeling.” I use this in a variety of ways from thought-labeling to activity-labeling.

Activity-labeling uses verbs, usually ending in ‘-ing’, to describe and focus on the activity at hand. For instance, you are getting dressed:

You lift an arm to put on a shirt, “Lifting.”
You bend an elbow, "Bending."
You put your arm down, “Releasing”
You put your other arm in the shirt, “Lifting.”
You set the other arm down, “Releasing.”
You button the shirt, “Buttoning.”
You open the closet door, “Opening.”
You look for a pair of pants, “Looking.”
You find the pair of pants, “Finding.”
And so on.

This technique causes you to leapfrog over associations of these actions or objects with your subjectivity or with your perceived sense of identity. It is not “I am buttoning my shirt,” which can lead to a cascade of subjective thoughts. It is merely “Buttoning”. This takes the conscious mental acknowledgement of the activity out of the grip of subjective thought by creating breathing room between objective observation and the “I” element of perceived identity. That "I" element is a medium in which subjective thought blossoms, and that "I" element is the very thing you want to herd.

Activity-labeling, a basic technique, focuses you on what you are actually doing, on objective reality, in that moment. It is an act of mindfulness, and concentration. It helps you see the superfluous chatter in your mind which may or may not be useful or related to the task at hand. It is surprisingly difficult to engage this simple exercise.

I don’t know about you, but my mind goes “Gaahh. I hate that shirt. It won’t go with the pair of pants I had in mind, if I can find that pair of pants. I need to do laundry soon. Oof, hauling that basket of laundry down all those stairs. Do I have enough laundry soap? Where did I put that shopping list? There’s that other shirt. It’s got a button missing—I can’t go out in that. Or maybe I can…the button was on the bottom of the shirt. If I just tuck it in… What’s the weather like; do I need an extra layer? Oy I have a lot to do today. Did so-and-so ever get that email I sent? Where is she? Like Peru or somewhere? Maybe she just doesn’t like me. Well, maybe I don’t like her either. Wait, maybe I made her mad. What did I say in my last email? Crap. I mentioned my yummy homemade bread and she’s gluten intolerant. I hope she didn’t think I was rubbing it in her face that she can’t eat wheat products any more. How could I be so insensitive? Am I a bad person? Nah, yeah, Idaknow. I wonder how her dog is. I like dogs. I think I like Westies better than…what kind of dog does she have? That large kind with the pointed ears, the police dog-kind? Oh. No, I can't like Westies. Too many little old ladies like Westies and I don't want to look like a little old lady. Note to self: like Westies, but don't often admit aloud to liking Westies.” Blah, blah, blah, like my brain just vomited in print. Some of the ideas even are in direct conflict with each other; that’s normal. Mental dialogue like this happens all of the time to all of us.

In using activity-labeling, we train the mind to observe all of the blah-blah-blah without getting caught up in or becoming the mental dialogue. We cease associating and identifying our identities with—or even worse…as—the mental dialogue. When we activity-label, we become conscious of our mental processes and we become conscious of how little attention we give to what’s really going on. Consider again the exercise: the red truck is in the driveway. Remember all the things listed as going on in conjunction with that statement, the stuff you jotted down, and the stuff I came up with above? Most of these are not based on objective observation, but based instead on subjective thoughts and unexamined auto-pilot subroutines, associations, and opinions in our own minds. When we focus on activity-labeling, we notice the mental chatter which was business-as-usual but which smoke-screened, even filtered, our objective observations. So many times we're on auto-pilot with mental dialogue instead of focusing on what's really going on outside our heads; and the mental dialogue even obscures what's actually going on in our heads, too, with it's look-at-the-monkey distractions. Sometimes when we operate the mental-mouth too much, we draw inaccurate conclusions instead of observing openly first and then drawing conclusions. I know because I've done this, been there, bought the t-shirt.

So how does a person practice activity-labeling when those pesky thoughts keep coming up…because those pesky thoughts will come up, in great numbers, and they’ll usually bring extra guests to the party whether you want them to or not…? When these thoughts arise, we engage in thought-labeling by labeling that mental activity as “Thinking” then playing back the thought in its entirety, mentally saying each word (if there were words). For instance, in the example of activity-labeling above, I’m putting on a shirt and in the process of buttoning, I label the activity “Buttoning,” but I think at the same time “Gahh, I hate that shirt.” I would then consciously say in my mind, “Buttoning,” then “Thinking: 'Gahh I hate that shirt.' ”

When you do this, something interesting will start happening: you may find yourself contemplating previously unexamined associations which had been unconscious. “For what reason do I hate this shirt? Oh. I hate it because I dislike the color. I dislike the color because it was the favorite color of that one teacher I hated in third grade…the teacher who told me I was a bad person. Oh, that’s also why I didn’t like that bedspread. So I'm basing my dislike of that shirt and that color on a situation that doesn't even matter any more and I'm replaying an old perceived hurt and experiencing the hurt again whether I am conscious of it or not. Wow, self, thank you for telling me that. I'm sorry you went through that. Let's redirect and engage a different pattern.” This way, you are more aware when these matters (such as the color, the shirt, the third grade teacher, or the "bad person" issue) come up again, and in your awareness you are no longer unknowingly its hostage. You can redirect and choose to engage in a different, perhaps even new, pattern. Be aware that this isn't for the faint-of-heart: when you engage this process, you will find familiar faces but also many-headed-hydras you didn't know you had.

From then on, you can begin to resolve old hurts, rote reactions, and stagnant habitual patterns which have silently directed your responses and activities for ages, and from then on you have the opportunity to reassess these matters. Processes like these return to you the opportunity to redirect your thinking and allow you to act on your own free will. Discernment only runs efficiently if you do this work of keeping your head clean. You can only hear the deities for themselves if you can understand, identify, and manage your own mental patterns.

I want to be very clear here: subjective thoughts are not “good” or “bad.” They are a normal and a necessary part of thinking. What is detrimental, however, is in mistaking our subjective thoughts for objective reality or in basing our identity on these subjective thoughts and emotions. (I’ll try to tackle more on discernment and perhaps even emotions in another post.)

This is the beginning of that all-important practice of discernment often talked of but seldom talked about in polytheistic practices….

Image Notes:
World War I brass uniform button, Royal Canadian Army Medical Corps. Photo by Lx 121. Used under CC-GNU license.
A circa 19th century handmade Blandford Cartwheel button. Photo by Andy Dingley. Used under CC license.
Button from a 19th century Dutch uniform. Photo by Btns, uploaded to Wikimedia on Winter Solstice 2013. Used under CC license.

Saturday, February 15, 2014

Ham and Cholent, A Parable

Once upon a time in a small town that boasted four stoplights and a two-story brick meeting hall/church, two neighbors lived. Christina had lived in the town most of her life, but Judy had moved in only a few years ago. The town had tried to make Judy feel welcome and had Christian drop off pre-printed pamphlets inviting Judy to town hall meetings and suppers. Christina would stick these in between the screen door and the front door while Judy was at work, but Christina never seemed to catch Judy at home. It was always the wrong time. By the time Christina would see Judy’s car was in the driveway, Christina would be skillet-deep in making dinner, or fingers covered in glue on a scrapbook project, or she was sweaty from an evening jog.

Every second Tuesday of the month would roll around, and Christina would go to the town hall meetings and suppers, and she would hope to see Judy. One such evening, over the customary ham dinner and all the trimmings made to 100-year-old recipes handed down from the town’s founding couple, Christina’s friend urged her to make the extra effort to go invite Judy face-to-face. Christina thought this was a good idea.

The next month rolled around and again, each time Christina thought about knocking on Judy’s door, something would come up. The second Tuesday rolled around too fast and Christina resolved knock on Judy’s door that evening. She watched for Judy’s car to pull into the driveway and she waited for Judy to go in the house before she walked next door. Her hesitant finger jabbed the white button and the doorbell sounded throughout the bungalow. Judy came to the door, still dressed in her khaki business suit, but in her stocking feet.

“I know this is really short notice but there’s a meeting and dinner at the town hall tonight…I’d love it if you came.”

“Oh. I just got off work.”

“I put a flier at the door last week.”

“That was you? I didn’t know who it was and I didn’t know if it was something everyone got or if you wanted me to come along or what. I’m sorry. I just got off of work and it was a rough day.” Judy hesitated for a moment. Her feet ached from being on them all day and her head was starting to ache too.

“Yeah, that was me!” Christina smiled warmly. “So you’re coming, right?”

Judy really didn’t want to go and had wished that instead of assuming she’d go along, that Christina had instead asked, “How are you today?” and followed up with “I can understand tough days at work. If you’re not feeling up to it tonight, you are welcome to come to the next one.” But Christina was extending an overture of friendship and Judy did want to take her up on her offer. Together they walked, despite Judy’s protesting feet and stiff business clothes, a block over to the meeting hall.

Everyone shook Judy’s hand and greeted her, some complementing her on the flower garden she tended in her front yard. The all made small talk, introducing themselves, hobbies, jobs, asking each other about relatives, who’s in the hospital, how are the kids, did that couple ever take that vacation to Arizona yet? Much of the conversation was such that Judy couldn’t join in, but she expected that and was patient. The business meeting lasted all of fifteen minutes as they intermittently discussed the timers on their stoplights. Afterwards, they gathered around a table laden with their traditional ham dinner and all the trimmings.

Judy sighed inwardly. She couldn’t touch the dinner. There was so much conversation going on around her that she hadn’t been able to warn them ahead of time that she was Jewish and kept kosher laws—and that ham was specifically off the menu. They begged her to take a bite, but they never paused in conversation. All Judy could get in was “I’m sorry, I’m just not hungry,” Though her stomach growled loudly. The time could not pass fast enough. Eventually everyone said good night. Christina walked with Judy home and asked her why she didn’t eat. Judy had only time enough to explain that she was Jewish and that she didn’t eat pork. Christina assured Judy that they’d try to do something different next time and she urged Judy to come to another meeting.

The next month passed again. A few days before the meeting, Christina talked to the ladies who cooked and told them that Judy couldn’t eat pork; she asked the ladies to cook up something different. The ladies protested, “But this is how we’ve always done it. Everybody eats this. It’s good food! She’s turning up her nose at our town founders’ recipes. How rude! Besides, why is she so special that we have to make something different just for her?” But Christina calmed them down, and told them that she would cook. She had just the right thing. Judy couldn’t eat pork, so Christina had clipped this marvelous beef stroganoff recipe she found in a magazine.

Christina had told Judy just to meet her over at the hall, for she would be helping with the cooking. The meeting again took about fifteen minutes and covered the town’s fundraising raffle. They gathered around the table, and Judy planned on declining dinner again, but hoped that her presence would help support the goodwill they wanted to share. They passed the dishes—the ham, the buttery potatoes, and Christina’s stroganoff. Christina noticed that Judy didn’t take a bite of the stroganoff, either. The cooking ladies stared at Judy, special little snowflake Judy, through their slitted eyes.

On the way back home, after an awkward silence, Christina said, “You didn’t eat anything.”

“Yes. I abide by kosher laws. I’m not as strict as some people about it, but there are some things that I can eat, and some things that I can’t eat together at the same meal.”

“I thought you just didn’t eat pork.”

“No, there’s more to it than that.”

“You didn’t eat the stroganoff.”

“It has milk and meat together in it. I can’t eat dairy and meat together at the same meal.”

Christina said: “It sounds complicated. You should have explained more about your food issues.”

Judy said, “You were providing hospitality. You could have spent five minutes and looked up ‘Jewish’ and ‘food’ online, or you could have posted a question on Facebook.”
Each one of them fell silent for a moment as they realized that they both could have made a better effort.

Christina said, “Look, I’m sorry. I don’t want to fight.”

Judy said, “Me either. I know you put a lot of effort into that meal; thank you. How about I show up next time and I bring a dish I can eat and share, like potluck.”

Christina brightened, “Yes, that’s a great idea!”

So the next meeting rolled around and Judy arrived with her snap-tight crockpot in hand filled with hot, fragrant cholent, and balanced on top of the lid was a fresh loaf of bread. So it wasn’t Shabbat, but Judy couldn’t resist the siren song of challah dipped in the spiced stew. She was excited to share with her neighbors at the meeting. But tragedy struck. At the dinner, when Christina went to serve herself some cholent, she used the same serving utensil that she had used on ham. Now, even Judy couldn’t eat her own meal, and no one else bothered. Christina loved it though, and asked for the recipe. Judy uncomfortably realized that mixing and matching dinners was not going to work.

On the way home, Judy asked Christina what the problem was with the other neighbors, for they had avoided her and her cooking.

“Oh. Them.” Christina said. “They, uh. Well. They were annoyed that you didn’t eat anything that they cooked. They thought that you were being snobby.”


“Hey, relax. It’s just their problem. Don’t take it personally. The ham dinner has been traditional for a long time here—the recipes were even handed down from the town’s founders. Just give them time.”

Judy didn’t want to give them time. They hadn’t bothered to understand her concerns and they didn’t respect her religion. But there was another problem too, she was “new” and they were just doing things the same as they had done from the beginning. Being “new” she realized that they expected her to conform to their ways, and not to bring her own ways, regardless of her own religious convictions—and why shouldn’t they? This was their meeting; she was the stranger. She didn’t want to be so much trouble, so she didn’t go to the next meeting. The problem was that when next meeting rolled around, they thought she was snubbing them completely. They thought they had been open, welcoming, and inclusive by extending their invitation to Judy; it was Judy they saw as slapping away a kindhearted hand.

Then followed four more awkward weeks of conversations that would end abruptly around her, accompanied with curious stares and occasional glares. Judy figured she should nip this nonsense, and her best way to do so was to help educate Christina, since sometimes they would listen to her. Judy invited Christina to an evening dinner at the synagogue.

Christina, delighted, took her up on the invitation, “Great! Besides, how different can it be from regular church?”

Judy sighed. “Regular church? What do you mean?” Although Judy kind of knew what Christina meant and didn’t hold much hope for the rest of the conversation.

“Christianity came from Judaism, so how different can they be? I’m sure there’s lots in common.”

Judy rubbed her temples. “Uh, there are plenty of differences too. And sometimes what looks like the same on the surface really isn’t when you consider the deeper meaning, practices, and symbolism involved.”
Christina just nodded her head; but she determined otherwise.

It’s easier to accept things that seem the same rather than accept the differences. It’s easier to forge a “common ground” by molding differences into one common template instead of forging that common ground on a commonly held respect for difference.

At the synagogue dinner, Christina made an effort to create a common ground from things she thought they had in common. She pointed out that the star of David comprises of two triangles, and the triangle was a symbol of the Trinity, so it was amazing that Christianity was a part of Judaism. Judy furrowed her brow and tried to explain that the Magen David, the Shield of David, didn’t have anything to do with the Christian Trinity. Judy insisted that it did, or that it at least could, and wasn’t it great that they could come together on common ground? Judy furrowed her brow again. Christina thought to herself, “I’m really trying here. Why won’t she meet me in the middle?”

Christina helped herself to the roasted chicken at the dinner and silently mulled on the idea that it would be so much better if it were smothered in thick creamy gravy. She thought about asking for the chicken recipe, too, for she wanted to try it at home and douse it in her gravy. It occurred, though for her to ask Judy: “Why do you avoid mixing milk and meat?”
“We have rules against it.”

“But why? It seems a bit backward. I mean, if it was because of milk and meat food storage problems, we don’t have those problems nowadays.” What Christina wanted to say was that “It seems superstitious and unenlightened,” but she knew that wasn’t the best way to frame the matter. After all, she wanted to help her new friend move into the twenty-first century.

Judy however, in the word “backward” could hear the unspoken words “superstitious and unenlightened.” There was no twenty-second sound bite she could possibly put together to describe the nuances and symbolism of these holy, deep-seated practices. She could only simply say, “It is our way and I ask you that even if you do not understand it, please try to respect it. I can answer some questions, but I don’t know if you’re up for a weekend Kosher 101 workshop—and even if you did, you still would not know everything there is to know about our religious food practices. If you really want to know, it would require years of patient and willing study to understand the matter.”

Christina shrugged, and thought that maybe the cooking ladies were right: Judy was being elitist by not sharing information instantly and breaking it down into little absorbable pieces. Maybe Judy just didn’t realize how superstitious and backwards it was, so she hadn’t answered the question because she didn’t want to think about it then look bad. Or, Judy wasn’t even trying to help her understand. She had thought Judy was her friend…

Judy thought to herself, “I’m doing all I can to help her understand, but there’s some work there that she’s going to have to do herself before she will understand. I’m only one person. I haven’t time to give free lectures on the entirety of Judaism, or even on something as intense and complex as kosher laws to an entire town who already refuses to listen to an explanation. Or worse, to neighbors who force my explanations into a common symbolism that doesn’t exist instead of respecting them on their own. They’re not listening clearly anyway. I thought Christina was my friend…”

And the tale continues…

This is a story, only a story, and as such, “All characters appearing in this work are fictitious. Any resemblance to real persons, living or dead, is purely coincidental.” It is, however, meant to illustrate some of the difficulties polytheists have when entering into some interfaith situations with Pagans, but I put the tale in the context of Christians and Jews because this is a familiar context to many, and it gives Pagans and polytheists the opportunity to consider these similar issues in another context before applying them to interfaith matters between Pagans and polytheists. It is a way to step back and look at the situation in a different manner; an opportunity to step away from trenches and into to conversation. The tale is a metaphor that has to do with respect and interfaith effort in action. Food taboos, Judaism, or Christianity are mere vehicles, symbols, which carry metaphor and provide the activities in which we can examine respect and interfaith efforts. However, the kosher laws, Christianity, and Judaism are not the crux of the metaphor. (Remember, metaphor means something is like something else. "The snow glistened like sugar" does not mean that the snow is sugar. If you don't believe me, please feel free to test this theory. Well, technically, since this phrase uses "like" or "as", it is actually a simile more so than a metaphor, but they belong in the same family of techniques of comparison.) The tale provides a hypothetical scenario in which we can place ourselves and examine our thoughts regarding our actions, emotions, and patterns around respect and interfaith effort in an environment which has nothing to do with Pagans and polytheists--and in this way, I hope to allow space for a Pagan or a polytheist consider these matters. Instead of a Christian, a Jew, and kosher laws, I could have used a squirrel and a frog, and tree taboos.

In the tale, Christina thinks she’s going out of her way to be helpful and solicitous to Judy, but her efforts are not as good as she thinks because she doesn’t realize just how different Judy’s ways are. Judy has a difficult time explaining to Christina these differences because she knows how vast the divide that separates them, and she also has a hunch that Christina doesn’t realize it. Judy struggles to navigate her religious practices in different situations, and she’s met with the cooking ladies’ misinterpretation and hostility. All Judy’s trying to do is to honor her God(s) and her religion in a situation that is every bit as awkward to Judy as it is to Christina and the people at the meeting. Consider for a moment that this is what happens when a polytheist goes to a Pagan gathering that tells her that she is welcome: only this time, it isn’t just food differences but experiences, traditions, lore, rites, and even more.

Christina dipped a utensil that had been used to serve pork in the cholent. Should Judy have told her not to do that? Probably, but there are so many do’s and don’t’s that she takes for granted and navigates, that it didn’t occur to her to say something. Should Christina have bothered to look up a little bit more about kosher laws? Probably, but she took it for granted that she already knew what she needed to know, and that Judy would inform her if she was remiss. In this instance, there was a lack of information flowing, and neither Judy nor Christina realized just how deep was Christina’s lack of knowledge or efforts to fill that lack of knowledge. Christina may not have even known what questions to ask Judy about the matter…but it’s Christina’s responsibility to try to ask questions, even as Judy tries to tackle the matters as they present themselves. At the end of the day, Judy’s not a mind reader and cannot answer unasked questions.

When Christina is confronted with kosher laws at the synagogue, she thinks that these ways are “backwards”--she doesn’t respect them, and therefore views the matter as insignificant despite it being of major importance. Notice again how Christina tried to make the Star of David into something that reflected her own ideology. This is similar (not the same, but similar) to what a polytheist faces when bringing non-polytheists to their religious gatherings: sometimes our ways are viewed as backwards, or are reenvisioned in the eye of the non-polytheist to reflect a symbolism not present in the polytheist’s situation, and then used as a “common ground.” That reenvisioning can take a variety of different forms--symbolic approach, or it’s hammered instead into a failed attempt at armchair psychology, or armchair psychology used in place of religion.

I’ve heard eye-witness accounts of non-polytheist visitors unknowingly disrespecting a polytheist rite out of these sorts of misunderstandings. (Example: A visitor doesn’t bow towards the deities’ images at a rite and furthermore takes it upon herself to explain at the rite how misguided and backwards were the people who genuflected. Yes, this really happened. This is the same—and even worse--as dipping a pork-covered utensil into a Jewish kosher dish. There may have been no malicious intent, but harm is done anyway.)

Christina, a fictional character, is not a bad person. Her greatest folly lies in her lack of knowledge…and in her failure to realize how big that lack of knowledge is. Her second misstep is in trying to make things the same in order to accept them: things do not have to be the same for them to be respected. One doesn’t have to understand something for it to be, and for it to be important. Lastly, she pushes the responsibility for her lack of knowledge onto another person. Recall that this is metaphor and fiction here: not all Pagans are Christinas.

Judy, a fictional character, is also not a monster. Her greatest problem is in thinking that there is a standard basis of knowledge that people already have. Her challenges lay in the townspeople misunderstanding and misinterpreting her actions, and in being only one person without the time or the resources to educate a village about her religion. She can do what she can do, but at the end of the day, it will never be enough and her efforts will still be confronted with misinterpretation and a veil of preconceived notions. Recall again that this is metaphor and fiction here: not all polytheists are Judys.

My point is this, dear reader, if you are still with me in this long post: interfaith efforts are difficult when the gulf between us is overlooked, misunderstood, or even reenvisioned as similarity. Interfaith efforts between Pagans and polytheists are also problematic when both sides fail to realize that they are not part of the same movement, ideology, or religion, and when either side assumes a common basis of knowledge. If either side forgets or ignores these matters, and speaks as if Pagans and polytheists belonged in the same familial category, then Pagans and polytheists view interactions between the groups through a lens of perceived similarity. Feelings of betrayal can arise when those similarities prove absent. Misinterpretations and miscommunications abound after that, and no real interfaith communication can arise in that environment.

Image Notes:
Still Life with Ham by Ferenc Ujhazy, 1870. Painting in Public Domain.

Saturday, December 28, 2013

Bikkies and Tea

Recently someone gently brought to my attention a specific matter which I would like to address here. In a recent post, I discussed pouring a 40--I had intended this to illustrate a matter of honoring the dead, even as times or situations are difficult. Intending harm was furthest from my mind, but through my own denseness and my poor choice of words, I othered people--and that is harm. I apologize. I shall work on being more cognizant of these matters, and sensitive about them, in the future. I thank you for your patience and your kindness, and I appreciate your good grace in gently pointing these matters out to me when necessary. 

On a different note about recent affairs,  this conflict has brought up many important issues for discussion, and the opportunity to do so. As in keeping with Dver's Experiment, I would like to remind ourselves in the many interacting communities (polytheism, Paganism, and so on) that these conversations don't have to take place in adversity, conflict, and drama, unless we want them to. These conversations are always available for the asking. We don't have to have electric cattle prods at blood-and-mud volleyball tournaments, unless we really want to. Sometimes we can discuss these things like the amazing people we can be over metaphorical bikkies and tea.(I'm pouring a cuppa right now, want to join me?) What are some ways we can further important topics of conversation in a constructive matter? Better yet, what are some burning questions about polytheism and/or process you'd like to discuss? I'd like to hear from you, dear reader. And yes, really raw beginner's questions are just fine, too.

Furthermore, the topic of cursing someone over internet conflict--conflict which could actually be useful and constructive without resorting to these actions--has come to my attention. What are the ethics of cursing? Alternatively, when is blessing appropriate? Are cursing and blessing two sides of the same coin? These are interesting matters and worthy of contemplation.

Friday, December 20, 2013

Sipping Pina Coladas from the Skulls of Enemies

It seems I have activated a nerve with a Taser. Again.

For suggesting the people can leave a few drops of libation to the gods without drinking those drops themselves, I've been called many unsavory things of late..

Well, let me set the record straight.

I'm just like any other normal person. Except that I drink piña coladas from the skulls of my enemies, with bright paper umbrellas sticking out their ocular cavities. I keep packs of enslaved corgis in my basement cranking my spit of roasted sacrificial goat.  I urinate on homeless street kittens--the really cute kind with the abnormally large, sad eyes. I have considered taking up telemarketing as a hobby. I am the prototype for Joan Jett, Severus Snape, and Gru, so pass me a chianti and some fava beans. And I take a moment to pour out another piña colada in offering to my dark primordial gods of war, chaos, firmament, death, destruction, plague, holy dread, and fate.


I do much of my shopping at second-hand stores or from local artisans so I can reduce the support of sweat shops which are the modern-day equivalent of slavery. I recycle. I donate money to quality charities like the World Health Organization and local food pantries. I buy cloth that I have sourced to factories and agriculture that make no use of sweat shops and which do use better agricultural practices and fair trade. I make things, and sometimes I do without. I help out people where I can with sharing goods, donating money, and/or sharing hospitality. Sometimes I give food to homeless folks on the street. I even make offerings on behalf of those who are destitute and cannot make any offerings themselves. I hug old people and kids, and sometimes even people I don't like. I pray for people and the whole crazy state of affairs our world is in.

I'll leave you to sort out which is true.

So you just keep spouting your nonsense which makes you appear rabid and actually detracts from the causes you would champion. Casually flinging around a word like "racism" or "privilege" as conversation-enders when one just wants to discredit the other person because s/he just disagrees with that other person, detracts from issues regarding racism and privilege. In this circumstance using these terms is intended to manipulate people's emotions to override their common sense and discredit me. People don't like being manipulated. Worse, it detracts from situations where racism and privilege are occurring. (Just watch. I'm gauging that these folks will use the "Hitler defense" next in a cartoonish attempt to make me look like the mustache-twirling villain in the black hat while they're wearing the shiny Dudley Do-right sheriff star.It's a classic and unimaginative tactic.) You know, I almost find it amusing how you seem to think I'm your piñata-girl.

But let's be honest. This isn't about me at all. I'm just the local target. Really, it all comes down to how some polytheists have standards in worshiping deities, and how other people (often not even polytheists) believe that anything goes and they don't like hearing that others disagree with that. It's about how some folks think the deities are only in one's own head so it doesn't matter so long as you think happy thoughts, have a sincere heart, and sprinkle everything with a heavy dose of glitter and pseudo-psychological relativistic faux-academic post-modern bullsh!t. Disagreement is not oppression. The deities are not inhabitants or facets of your own mind. You're not at the epitome of creation. And sometimes (most times) you do not eat the food offerings made to the deities.

At any rate, the conflict and extra traffic open valuable conversations on topics of vital importance to polytheists--topics like the nature of offering, the nature of our communities, the natures of the deities, and so on.

Keep pouring it on and let me feast on those salty sweet crocodile tears...after all, they are the secret ingredient in my skull-dashed piña coladas.

If there are a few of you who have no idea what I'm talking about, here are a few helpful links:
This is my post which started it--advice on what to do if a god calls, and some suggestions on what to do if you really don't know that god and have no foundation to start from. My post also involves a word on making libations to the deities and not drinking said libations oneself.
Take a look at this interesting bit of locura in response to my post above.
There's an amazing rant against me here in the comments section of my response. 
Dver has a great article on the nature of offering. Feel free to read the not-so-great comments, though.
The Thracian's profanity laced tirade brought a curving smile to my day.
Sannion's post opens up some good inter-community dialogue.
And Galina drops the mic. In case you worried, "mic" (pronounced "mike") as I have used here is short for "microphone" and is not intended as a racial slur against the Irish.

Thursday, December 19, 2013

Of Whine and Wine

I've been getting some unpleasant feedback from my previous post about context, discernment, and getting to know a deity that you're only just meeting.  The feedback stems from the audacity of my suggestion to pour out the offerings to a deity instead of consuming them yourself. In this situation, if you do not know who the deity is who is contacting you and if you have no context at all, it is always better to err on the side of respect and caution: do not consume the offering. So...let's break down what I had said in my previous post:

"If you can’t seem to find any context..."
That is, if you cannot immediately discover the name of the deity whom you are experiencing, and you do not know from which parent culture, pantheon, or religion that deity originates. It's ok not to know which deity is communicating. Sometimes we must live in that uncertainty for a while.This happens often.

"...if you can’t seem to find any help..."
That is, if you cannot find other polytheists to ask, forums to post on and read from, books, useful websites or blogs, and so on.

"...if you can’t seem to find any way to address the deities who have called you..."
That is, you can't find a prayer which is typical of a particular context, no particular rite or method, or you have no oracle or diviner to ask.

You can
"a)ask around even more—aloud, in public or private forums, to people, and b) you can try this:
Find something to represent the deity in question: picture from the internet, a symbol, a rock, a book, a cup, a doll, whatever. Set the image up on a table. Pour wine, vodka, good fruit juice, olive oil, milk, beer, kefir, perfume, or another fine beverage or liquid in a bowl or cup before the image. (Unless the deity in question has a history of wanting something like kool-aid or soda pop, you may want to avoid these.) If you’ve not been able to find out what liquid would be appropriate, go with your gut feeling. Bow down, prostrate yourself before the deity’s image, and pray. If you’re in this situation, the best prayer you can make is the one that is honest—there’s no formula here, no magic words, no formulaic incantation."

Furthermore, "do not consume the liquid that you pour for the deity. Wait a cycle of a full day and night, then pour the liquid into the earth outside. Yes. Pour it into the earth. It is not 'wasteful'--it was given to a deity and the deity consumed the essence of the liquid. By pouring it out, you are completing the process of sending it on to the deity. By drinking it instead, you may have interrupted this process (again, it can depend on context)." That advice I give about a cycle of a day and a night is there for a reason: some deities are more connected to day and others are more connected to night: if you do not know the deity who is communicating, and you do not know if they prefer day or night, leaving out the offering for 24 hours is a respectful and useful practice.

Did you notice that parenthetical comment at the end? "Again, it can depend on context." If you have no context, no name, no pantheon, no culture, nothing to go on, then it is best to err on the side of respect and do not consume the offering. It's that easy. I'm not proposing a revolution...but considering some reactions and some hesitation in this regard, maybe what I propose really is that revolutionary in this day and age.Viva la resistance, and hand me another bottle.

If you are so destitute that you cannot even pour out a shot glass--or even mere drops--of wine, olive oil, beer, milk, or juice to the deities I am truly sorry. Granted, I would assume that you are also on food stamps at that point, that you do not have an I-phone (I don't have one), you use a library's internet connection, you have questionable housing arrangements if any, you buy your clothing at a second hand shop (I often do), and you do not spend excess money on shiny silver jewelry with amethysts and amber (I often don't). If you are truly this destitute, please let me know and I will make an incense offering or a small libation on your behalf to almost any deity, even if you do not know who your deity is. With what money and expenses I have, would I rather pour wine to my gods and sometimes to yours, too, than have an I-phone? You bet your beer goggles I do.

If a person living in an inner-city ghetto in a gang war zone can manage on occasion to pour out a 40 to his homies, chances are high that you can afford to crack open a juice box of 100% pure fruit juice and pour it in honor of the gods. Sweet Ancestors, people, it's not the blood of your firstborn child. It's juice. Pour it. Into the ground. Seriously. The grape juice police will not accost you. I promise.

It's a sacrifice. That's what sacrifice means. It means that you are letting go of something in order to give it to another--and in this case, that "other" is a deity. I like how a friend put it--you can share a meal with the deities, but you don't eat off their plate, just as you wouldn't eat off of a friend's plate, because it's rude.I would go further and say that it is like eating from the plate of royalty. You'd be kicked out of Buckingham Palace for trying that at the Queen's dinner--"Hey, Liz, you gonna eat that?"

Unless you are operating from specific instructions through context, oracle, divination, or rite, you just don't do this. If a modern rite says you can do this, and that modern rite claims to be based on ancient rite, look up the ancient rite. Chances are you'll find out that the specific ancient rite involves priests partaking of the offering, or predetermined segments of the population according to the situation, who consume the offering--not everybody, and generally not laypeople at a home shrine. (Hey, it's ok just learning this--I myself have made this mistake before, of eating an offering in an inappropriate situation..It's a common mistake in Western culture, and it's a common mistake that I think stems from any of us with Depression Era relatives, and all of us with recession minds. It's a product of living in scarcity-mindset. Heck, I've made plenty of other mistakes, too, such as offerings of bacon-wrapped dates to deities who hate bacon. Oy. We all have a learning curve.)

Besides, why the Hel should the deities give a you anything if a you don't have the courtesy to share with them anything you aren't taking back through consuming it yourself or using it for your own personal reasons? After all, the gods are not your personal biatches. That's not an offering to the gods--that's a gift to your own id. If you don't believe the deities are real beings separate from yourself, a) you're not a polytheist and this post won't matter to you anyway, and b) why not cut the middle-man and just buy items outright for yourself instead of pretending they're offerings to the deities. It would be a lot easier. And at that point, at least there's honesty in the dealings.

In many places of the ancient world, it was customary for offerings to be collected from people as a part of taxes. Those offerings would go to the temples and the offerings would be burned in their entirety such as meat and grain or incense, or poured out if liquid, or kept as a sort of treasury in case of drought or crop failure, or sometimes shared with segments of the population, or in part consumed by the priests. If you are not a priest (to the point of obeying grooming rites, food taboos, and that which goes with the role) and you are not keeping a temple, if you do not yet have good abilities of discernment to hear what the deities are saying, if you do not have an established relationship with a deity, and if you do not have an oracle or divination to ask, it is prudent to avoid consuming the offerings. It is my experience and understanding that this is common across the board, be that deity Canaanite, Thracian, Greek, Egyptian, Sumerian, Babylonian, Akkadian, Hittite, Hurrian, and even Norse.