Fear of Falling

It is the first unreasonable fear of every child…,

Before the boogie man and whatever waits under the bed…,

Before the cluttered darkness of the open closet…,

Before the things hot and the things sharp…,

Before stranger danger or scarlet fever…,

It is the first gift that our parents give us, after the fear of being alone.

“Don’t fall.”  “Don’t Fall!”  “DON’T FALL!!”

“You’ll hurt yourself.”

And we do.

But most of us get up again.

Only to fall again.

That’s okay.

And maybe, somewhere along the way, we might learn to enjoy the falling, just a bit.

We tuck into a ball as we plummet back into the soft spring of the mattress.  We crave the momentum in the downward arc of the playground swing, the stomach-knotting lurch of the rollercoaster car as it crests that first big drop, those precious seconds before the bungee cord snaps us back, the dizzy spin of the earth below as we wait for the parachute to deploy.

Most of us don’t go that far, of course.

We stay on the ground where we are safe.  And that voice in the back of our minds, our parents voice, and their parents, and the whole of society contained in a single strident whisper, telling us that it’s too dangerous, that we’ll hurt ourselves, that we will fall down.

Because falling is bad.

Falling means that we have lost control.

Did you ever wonder at the words certain people use to explain the human condition.

We are “fallen” my christian friends are so eager to remind me.

There is a story they tell, about the first two people: They lived in a garden where everything was perfect and (almost) everything was safe.  This couple had none of the worries that we face, on a daily basis, because their creator had not given them a moral compass with which to guide their actions.  What he did give them, was a free will, independent of his own.  This, one must assume, was a design flaw, because the very first time they exercised this ability, they were punished.  They were forced out of their perfect protected garden.

They fell.

And, we are told, they took the whole lot of us along for the ride.

As that story has spread, as it has been accepted as the root of all truth by so many, we have built a culture that is infected with a desperate fear of falling, a fear that stands in complete opposition to the most basic urge of our species.  A desire that is imprinted into our DNA as surely as it has been woven into the fabric of our spirit.

We are born with the desire to hurl ourselves out of our perfectly safe little nests and into the unknown.

Falling, we are told again and again, is bad, is terrible and dangerous.

But that, my friends, is a lie.

falling alice

The fall is an act of discovery.  Falling is how we open our minds to possibilities we have never known or imagined.  Falling is at the heart of the human experience.

Why else do we call it ‘Falling in Love’, if not for the simple fact that our perceptions of the world are changed and opened, even as our former illusions of control slip away?

There IS danger there, of course.

No journey worth taking is without risk.

But, I suspect, the more desperately we cling to our fears and our misguided perceptions of safety and control, the more perilous our eventual landing.

Better to take the leap running.

Falling is not punishment.

Falling is not failure.

Falling is Freedom!

Little Alice fell
d
o
w
n
the hOle,
bumped her head
and bruised her soul.

—Lewis Carroll

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Homeless

I’d just pulled out of the grocery store parking lot and into some mild traffic, this was early last week, when the passenger side window of the car in front of me opened and ejected what looked like a wadded up fast food bag, which came to rest on the grassy slope beyond the curb.

There was no way I could pull over to pick it up, and no way to properly express my outrage to the uncaring occupants of the vehicle in front of me.

The litter was just there, a little blot of ugliness in my both my rearview mirror and my stomach.

I found myself wondering in what sort of condition those people keep their home.

What, I wondered, was their problem?

Why not just dispose of the thing properly?

I called these folks “uncaring” a moment ago, but I don’t know that I believe that.  There has to have been some thought process, some mental calculation that would compel a person to open her car window and cast her refuse into the street.

I imagined these people as horrible slobs, leaving a trail of filth in their wake wherever they go.

But maybe they just didn’t want that trash in their car, they could, I supposed, be incredibly tidy, within their own four walls.

And there, in the midst of my conjecture, I think I may have hit upon the element that I was missing.

Home, for most people, is what we own, an area bounded by fence or walls that belongs to exclusively to us.  Everything beyond those walls is outside, outside of our control, outside of our responsibility.

I don’t really see things that way.  Walls and fences have their uses, sure, but they are temporary things, in the grand scheme, and land ownership even more so.  The land does not belong to us, we are only its caretakers.

It is, I think, far more realistic to say that we belong to the land.

And so, last Sunday when I saw garbage indiscriminately flung into the street, it felt like a blemish upon my home.

Two days later, nearly half our population flung garbage into the presidency, and for the first time in my life, I felt homeless.

In the days that have passed since that seemingly endless Tuesday night, my emotional state has shifted from anger to despondency and back again more times than I can count.  I’ve listened to the speculation about the why’s and how’s, I’ve looked through the sorry demographics of who did and didn’t, I’ve listened to the explanations from those who voted for him, and I keep coming up with the same calculation that accounts for that wadded up bag on the side of the roadway.

This society is infected with a strange breed of selfishness that prevents us from truly seeing and empathizing with the world beyond that little patch that we imagine we own.

The problems and concerns of others, their very real fears about the future…, well, that’s on them, isn’t it.

And I don’t know what we can do about that attitude.  I don’t know how we can broaden the perceptions of people beyond themselves, except to continue to be who WE are, to continue to live in their world, and to open their hearts, one by one.

I suppose it would be easier, if I could just shut my eyes to it, but I can’t.

I wouldn’t want to.  I remember when I saw the world like they do.  I remember that, although less painful, it was a pretty empty way to live.

The anger is still there, but it’s at low ebb now.

The despondency, I’ve mostly replaced that with determination.

But I worry for my friends, many of whom are likely facing hard times ahead.

I worry for those of us who practice alternative religions, now that the evangelical movement has friends in high places, who have already expressed profound misunderstandings about both the Non-Establishment Clause, and simple human decency.

Mostly though, I worry about the land.

My ancestors believed that we were all a part of the land, and that the land herself was divine.

When they chose a king, he was symbolically married to the goddess of the land.

The success or the failure of that marriage could be seen in both the fruitfulness of the land and the prosperity of the people.  A disrespectful king could bring blight to the land and ruin to the governed.

Although the actual rituals of this marriage have not been practiced in many centuries, and never on this continent (so far as I know), I do believe that some vestige of this relationship, however unknown to our leaders, must still remain.  And the thought of it, of that man in THAT spiritual role…, frankly, it makes me nauseous.

Somehow, I don’t think a man with a reputation for using women and a well documented disdain for environmental protections will be the font of a bountiful union.  And if things go too badly, the goddess of this land may very well blame the society that put him there.  We may find that we are all homeless.

Goddess Statue

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Suddenly, a Witch!

Hillary Clinton, they are telling us now, is a Witch.

The truth, of course, is that folks on the Republican side of the American political fence have been calling her a “witch” for quite some time.  I’ve heard it mixed in there, along with every other disparaging word in the misogynist’s lexicon.

But then suddenly, a couple days ago, they started talking about the capital ‘W’ kind of witch.

Specifically, some folks on Drudge and other bottom-feeder websites began claiming that Clinton was a member of a circle of blood-magic wielding, satan-worshipping, cultists.

I mean, come on guys…, I’ve got so many reasons to vote for her already.

You don’t need to sweeten the deal.

Could it be, SATAN?!

Could it be, SATAN?!

For the last year, I’ve tried to keep this blog away from the American political meltdown, providing myself (and anyone who cares to join me), a respite from the insanity.  Plus, I already get dragged into enough political flame-wars, without stoking the fires on my own site.

But it’s the last day before the election, so what the hell, while the wackier fringes of the conservative movement are off trying to prove that ducks and witches are both made of wood, I thought I might take just a brief moment to explain my very favorite thing about the 2016 Presidential Election cycle.

It’s not a hard choice really, in the last year we’ve seen a lot of really nasty thoughts and beliefs come slithering out of the darkness and into the light of day – which is, itself, a good thing really, if hard to stomach from time to time.

But there HAS been a good thing come out of this election.

The inborn hypocrisy of the evangelical christian movement has never been more prominently on display.  It’s just there, sitting boldly on a pedestal, under a spotlight, for all to see.

“The Candidate took them to a very high mountain and showed them all the kingdoms of the world, all the schools and courthouses, he showed them the supreme court and a tattered copy of the Defense of Marriage Act, and he said to them, “All these I will give you, if you will fall down and vote for me…,”

And they’re doing it, in droves.

They’ll sacrifice themselves to a man that they know is not one of their own, who does not truly believe as they believe, who has built his fame and his fortune upon sin after sin, but who hands them empty promises to give them the power over our society that they so desperately crave.

These are not acts of faith or piety.

These are the votes of cowardice in the face of a world which will no longer bow to the singular lie that provides for them their only purpose.

It would be tempting to watch it happen, if for no other reason than to enjoy the whirling destruction that comes with any big train wreck.  But it is important to remember that this is a passenger train, and many of those folks didn’t know where they were bound when they boarded.

The folks who come crawling from that smoking ruin will need comfort, not condemnation.

And what better time to show them what the Witches are really like.

Get out there and vote, friends.

Our future depends upon it.

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Death Becomes You

The signs of the changing season are many and plentiful: there is a new crispness in the air, the days grow shorter, the leaves begin to fall, pumpkin spice flavoring has been injected into every consumable, and the yearly barrage of educational outreach posts from the Pagan community are making the rounds.

I used to do a fair bit of that myself.  The confluence of Pop-Culture Halloween and Pagan Samhain makes for a pretty tempting public relations opportunity.  Watch as we slide a little truth in there between your fun-sized Snickers and your yearly viewing of The Great Pumpkin.

I gave it up though, because mostly people don’t want to be bothered with it.

And of those who do show some interest, trying to explain Celtic Ancestor Night traditions to someone who’s cultural understanding of death is rooted in Western Christianity is a serious undertaking.

There’s just no easy way in.

Except that is for Dia de Muertos.

The growing popularity in the States, of the Mexican ‘Day of the Dead’ has, on several recent occasions, given me something a little more tangible to point to.

But still, the conversations tend to go something like this…,

Me: “It’s like ‘The Day of the Dead’ but without the Sugar Skulls.”

Them: “Huh?!”

So, it seemed like the best thing to do was to just give up again, when suddenly this…,

The Book of Life

The Book of Life.

It came out in 2014, and I’ve just now watched it.

How did I miss this movie?!

It is without doubt, the best representation of a modern cultural rite of honoring the dead, that I have seen on film.  The movie is cute and funny, even while treating the subject with a particular reverence, and most importantly, it is rich and beautiful to look at.

In a time when the rotting flesh and gnashing teeth of the zombie has become a year round staple of popular culture, it is nothing short of miraculous to see the dead depicted as beings of both whimsy and grace, who care for their living descendants as fervently as we should care for them.

Do not be fooled by the corruption of the grave.

That is not death.

Death is not something that happens to us, it is something we become, and in so doing, we carry away all that is beautiful within us into that next realm.  How could what we find there be anything other than glorious to behold?

Watch the movie.  Smile and laugh at the story, even as you catch a momentary glimpse of a truth beyond our mortal reach.  Do that, and maybe you’ll understand the things we do.

We dress the graves to honor them.

We kindle the fires to light their way home.

We share with them offerings of food and drink.

We remember them to each other in the stories that we tell.

And we pray that we will be remembered when we have passed beyond the vail.

Do not fear the grave.  Death becomes you.

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Sacred Space: Sacristy

In every Catholic Church there is a special room, hidden somewhere out of sight, where the tools of the Mass are kept.  There is a rack where the priests vestments are hung, and cabinets which are used to store the various tools of the Mass: the paten and chalice, ciborium and censor.

In some churches, the Sacristy is equipped with a special sink which drains into the earth instead of into the sewers.  This sink is used to clean the vessels used during the rite of Communion, it being important that no part of the body or blood of their savior, having been washed away, should come into contact with human waste.  This is a part of the sacrament that no one sees, but is every bit as important as all the pomp and circumstance of the Mass.

If the true drama of the church takes place at the altar, before the eyes of the attendant faithful, we may think of the Sacristy as the backstage, a space both sacred and utilitarian, dedicated to the mundane needs of the priest and the fulfillment of his office.

While I grew up in the Church, I could never believe in the miracle it all hinged upon.

The rituals however, the mechanics of it all, these things were always fascinating to me.

I suppose some of the other christian churches must have Sacristies of their own, but I have observed that the further removed a denomination is from its Roman roots, the less likely it is to believe that an object can be imbued with holiness.  In these churches where the pulpit has replaced the holy altar, the robes are simply robes, and the weird little glass dixie-cups that they serve grape juice in are just weird little glass dixie-cups.

If a church like that has a Sacristy at all, surely would be in name only.

Of course, I could easily be wrong on that point.  I happily admit that my knowledge of that end of the Christian spectrum is somewhat lacking, and I am sure that someone among my friends or readers will correct me if I have muddled the details.

Still, it seems to me that if you believe that the tools of ritual are blessed, you must need a sanctified space in which to store them and to prepare them for use.

If you do not believe, or if the nature of your belief is such that you have no place for tools or ritual, the need for such a space is equally absent.

But what happens at the other end of that spectrum?  What if your belief is that everything has a living and sacred spirit, that every rock and tree, that the air we breath and the soil beneath our feet, is all of it inspirited, all humming with power and presence?

If all the word’s a stage, where do we hide all the props and costumes when they’re not in use?

 

As usual, we’ve got it backward.

“Nature is My Church” is a popular saying among pagans.

There are lots of variations of this sentiment, but it is almost always coupled an image of some pure wilderness setting, the idea being that the majesty of the forest canopy or the wind carved arches of desert stone are the pagan equivalent of a cathedrals walls.

And while I freely admit that many of my most deeply spiritual experiences, come from moments spent in a wilderness setting, I don’t think that this is what that phrase means, or what it should mean.

We have worked so hard, as a species, to compartmentalize our world and our lives.  “Nature,” we think of as a place apart from home and from work.  It is another place we might choose to go, instead of the mall or the gym.  Maybe we make daily visits to the jogging trail at the nearby city park, or we could save up our money for that once in a lifetime chance to gather the family head ‘cross country, basking in the majesty of some National Park.

But ‘going’ to church is what the Christians do.

Nature isn’t a place, and it is not a thing.

Nature is a force, and like gravity (or Facebook), it’s pretty much everywhere.

The trackless miles of old-growth forests are no more or less a part of nature than a few blades of grass, peeking up from a crack in the sidewalk.

Grass in Stone

We don’t go to nature.  Nature finds its way to us, always, crashing through whatever feeble barriers we might like to erect against it.  If nature is our church, then that’s the whole of it.

The world is OUR temple.

But does it feel that way?

Probably not.

If you are anything like me, what you feel, most of the time, is a great weight pressing you down, threatening to suffocate you beneath the endless minutia of the every day.

Oh, we can break through it from time to time.

We can steal a few moments of meditation.  We can light the fires on the special days, breathing  in the smoke, and feeling our lungs clear like we were bursting up from a deep dive.  We can calm our minds with a walk in the sunshine, or the rain, or beneath the light of the moon.

But these are fragmentary moments, and when they pass, we’ll still have to deal with pressure that comes along with the day to day grind of existence.  And most people call this “life”.

But I’ve found another word for it.

 

I call it Sacristy.

All the world is a Sacred Space, all of it, but we have made of it a storeroom.

We have, all around us, the tools of worship, but we seldom take them up.

Instead, we tuck them away in their special cubbies, lest they become misplaced.

Our spiritual selves we leave hanging on a rack, waiting for those ever so special occasions when we’ll slip them on and take ‘em for a twirl.

A couple thousand years ago a new religion, born of an unlikely marriage between a messianic cult and the religious methodology of ancient Rome, began to sweep across the land.  With its arrival the gods were banished from our day to day tasks, and the spirits of field and forest were ignored and eventually forgotten.

Because religion became a separate entity unto itself, and everything beyond the cathedral walls, profane.

And here we are, those of us who are working to resurrect the old ways, still burdened by this terrible idea: church is a place we go, religion is a thing we do, and most of our lives are spent backstage, just waiting for the next scene.

I work, and I pay my bills, and the list of things that need to be done just keeps piling up, and not the least bit of progress on the little temple that I’ve sworn to build behind my house.

Because where would I find the time, or the energy, or the money for materials, when everything else needs doing first?

It has become emblematic for me, my little temple project, of a much bigger problem.

A little more every day, I grow tired of living in the Sacristy.

****

This is the tenth post in this series, following the thoughts, planning, and (I hope), the eventual construction of a small temple space on my property.  If you wish to follow along, you may see other posts in this series by clicking here.

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Where Nothing is Sacred

I have placed these two pictures together for a reason.

pipeline in sacred ground

Some people might look at these images with a sense of pride, taking from them a message that sacrifice and hard work are what make a nation great.

Others might find this particular juxtaposition somewhat uncomfortable.  There is, after all, a serene perfection in the image of Arlington National Cemetery that we in the West have come to expect in our monuments.  The mirrored layout of the two photos, however, might suggest that someone could tear into that hallowed ground, that the one image could somehow become the other.  And this corruption, this desecration of the sacred, should I hope, put us ill at ease.

And yet, we are even now gouging into the Earth, plowing a petroleum pipeline through sacred land in North Dakota, stripping away the dignity of the honored dead and despoiling the environment, all in the interest of the mighty dollar.  We are beating, gassing, and arresting the people who stand bravely in the path of this desecration.  We threaten them with guns and loose attack dogs on them.

And I wondered, just for a moment, how WE would react if the shoe were on the other foot.  What if it was something WE considered sacred that was being ruined in the interest of corporate greed.

And then I wondered if we, as a people, hold anything sacred at all.

And I am being very liberal with my use of the word “we” here because I don’t think any of us are clean from these particular sins.  If ‘you’ or ‘I’ am offended by these latest outrages against the heritage of our native peoples, we have benefited, willingly or no, from countless others.  It’s something we were born to, I’m afraid.

We are raised in it.

Or do we not still teach our children the old lie, that Christopher Columbus sailed out from Spain in the spirit of adventure and exploration?

Maybe we’ll tell them later that he actually sailed off looking for cash and prestige, and that when he failed in his quest to discover a new and more direct trade route with Asia, he settled instead on exploiting the unfortunate natives he encountered for their gold, and then selling them into sexual servitude and slavery.

The church didn’t like it.

They eventually jailed him for it.

But he still gets the bloody parade, doesn’t he.

We honor him, butcher that he was, and with good reason.  The impressions made by his boots on the shores of the ‘New World’ have never really faded, and for over five hundred years we have followed in his swaggering stride, sweeping across two continents in our hunger for the resources therein.

And the people who were already there?

We did what he did.  We slaughtered them, starved them, displaced them.

And when the folks back home became uncomfortable with the carnage, we displayed our great civility and generosity by writing and signing treaty after treaty, only to break them before the ink had time to dry.

What DO we hold sacred when no bond restrains us, neither word nor contract.

So what is the difference, really, between a rough circle of stones in a weed choked field in North Dakota, and that field of crisp white markers on a perfectly manicured lawn in Virginia?  Is it just that when WE hold something sacred, we throw money at it until it is suitably majestic.  Is that what makes it a holy place?  Or is it the bones of our fallen that lay in the dirt, that give the place its power over us?

Are we really so blind that we cannot, as a people, see the spirit in the land?

Or is it really just the money that we worship after all?

I’ve been following another story.

There is a proposed development project at the Grand Canyon in Arizona, a 420-acre resort complex, complete with hotels, restaurants, and upscale shopping on the canyon rim, and a tramway designed to carry tourists by the millions down to the canyon floor.  There at the sacred confluence of the Colorado and Little Colorado rivers, if the plans go through, the rugged beauty of the canyon floor will “improved” by the addition of a restaurant, a river walk, and a several thousand seat amphitheater.

Welcome to America, where nothing is sacred, except for the dollar.

Columbus wins.

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More than Skin Deep

“What’s that say on your wrist?”

Sometimes I miss the good conversations.

The other day I missed a doozy, and by mere inches.

A friend and coworker was chatting with a customer when the woman paused their conversation to ask her about her tattoo.  Well, one of her tattoos, she’s got a whole sleeve of them but I guess the crisp letters on my friends wrist made for an easier point of inquiry.

“Release,” my friend answered, “It’s a tribute to one of my favorite Bob Dylan songs, ‘I shall be released’.”

“And,” the suddenly inquisitive woman continued, “do you know the history of tattoos?”

“Well, it depends on what culture you’re referencing,” my friend managed before…,

“NO!”

“It’s a PAGAN ritual!”

“It’s a PAGAN ritual for the dead!”

(softer now – dismissiveness replacing the forceful tone)

“Sometimes we just do these things on a whim, without realizing the history.  We just don’t realize the importance of history.”

All of this, I was sad to discover, happened just outside of my earshot.

Had I only known, I might, as the Pagan in the room, have interjected on our customer’s behalf.

Because, she wasn’t wrong when she said tattooing is of pagan origin, it surely is.

As, I might have offered, was all the makeup and the hair dye our concerned advocate was wearing.  Also, the custom of adorning oneself with jewelry, that came from the pagans too.  Oh, and agriculture, and roads, architecture, the manner in which we measure time, drama, art, language, mathematics, both democracy and the republic…, In fact the vast majority of stuff that makes her intolerant little life possible, have their origins among the various pagan tribes and peoples of this wide and wonderful Earth, and would have been understood by those people as being inseparable from what we today would call their ‘religious beliefs’.

The good news for our tattoo fearing friend, and everyone like her, is that wearing the trappings of the ancient pagans, be it makeup and hair dye, or a little creative ink injected into the skin, does not make one a Pagan, anymore than going to church every Sunday and reading the Bible would makes one a Christian.

No, it’s not so simple as that.

Paganism is not a thing that one may wear.

It is not a bangle or a bead.

It is not, I think, even a belief or a practice, although we use those words often and all too interchangeably.

Oh, and it is nothing to do with faith.

It runs deeper than that, or it should, and deeper by far than some ink in the dermis.

My paganism hums in me, in my bones and my blood, it shudders at the touch of a breeze upon my skin, reaches down from the soles of my feet into the rock and soil upon which I trod, and it crackles between my fingertips with the approach of a summer storm.

We turn with the great wheel, but the wheel turns within us as well.

Come this time of year it gnaws upon me, my skin feels stretched almost to the point of snapping, my muscles grow tight, and a deep restlessness takes hold of me.  The antlered god, growing older again within his fleshy prison, wants to rake his thorny horns against rough tree bark, he wants to run, to fight, and to rut before the winter comes and the great raven arrives again to pick at his scattered bones.

We walk daily among the gods and the spirits of this world, and if we are very lucky we are aware of it, of them, passing near us, through us.

It is beauty and pain made one and it doesn’t happen on a whim.  And it’s certainly not something that happens by accident while having some work done in a tattoo parlor.

We spend so much of our lives dressing ourselves up to meet the expectations of others.  Yet the urge to express ourselves, our loves and our sorrows, is part of who we are.  It’s a human trait, not just a pagan one, and life is too short to just set it aside for the sake of base conformity.

Of course, there will always be those who are frightened by such freedom.

To them I say, “a superficial faith breeds superficial fears.  If a little ink is enough to get your religious fervor going, the problem is almost certainly more to do with you.”

Cernunnos Tattoo

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