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Activism, elderhood, and public shaming

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Activism, elderhood, and public shaming

“… my own feelings of pointed outrage expressed in a meme without proper context are at risk of becoming a kind of “pitchforks and torches” rage, devoid of the truth behind the roots.” – Courtney Weber

YES, THIS. When this meme was presented two days ago, with the idea that I should join a social justice “action” by posting it as my profile pic for a week, I was uncomfortable because although the people posting are people I love and respect in their activism, I was not being given any context. I had to do quite a bit of research to figure out who the elders were who had triggered this outrage right at this moment. No one wants to “name names” out of some desire, seemingly, to protect some parties to the blow up through anonymity. Unfortunately, that makes it difficult for those of us who like to have informed opinions.

But one friend was willing, off the record, to tell me what had triggered the outrage. Two witches who have been teachers and leaders in some provinces of American neopaganism (avoiding the word elder as I’ll come to that later) signed on to a change.org petition to take the T out of LGBT – as in, requesting that the major LGBT rights advocacy organizations stop advocating for transgender civil rights. This is a huge act, because the text of the petition was quite ugly, advocating throwing trans rights and trans people under the bus so that by disassociation the LGB communities could gain more ground, since they wouldn’t have to contend with trans haters any more. As a statement of politically expedient strategy, it was cynically brilliant. As a civil rights manifesto, it was a complete failure of course. And as a public position for a Pagan leader and teacher? Hold that thought. We’ll be back.

At approximately the same time, a third such figure posted a bit of a rant on her Facebook page about the Kaitlyn Jenner “woman of the year” award or whatever it was, given by a magazine that should give any feminist the dry heaves anyway. This third Pagan teacher and leader wrote of her disgust that women such as Serena Williams didn’t get recognized, and that Ms. Jenner seems to think the hardest thing about being a woman is dealing with the makeup and clothing demands. When this person was called on the antitrans ugliness of what she’d said, since she had stated that Ms. Jenner is not a real woman, she agreed to look at the issue and learn and discuss with the council of elders in her tradition to talk about gender and power issues. I thought that was a reasonable reaction from someone who didn’t get it, when not getting it was pointed out, a good place to start. I am not ready to start waving the pitchforks until we see where she goes with that. I was told I should still be angry at her because she is not having that discussion with members of the trans community….but how do I know that? How does she know that? One thing about gender is that you can present, and people assume. I have no way of knowing who belongs to her circle. It is not for me to judge the process of a group of which I know nothing. I can wait to find out more.

Now, I want to unpack this whole thing a bit. There are some definitional issues that need to be explored. Who or what is an elder and what is their relationship to the community? What is the role of social pressure in generating “actions” and is it legitimate? How can our community find ways to set norms for behavior that uphold what little bit of shared belief or ethic we may have between us? (I will address some but not all of this in this essay, but I do believe we need to look at all of these issues as our community grows.)

So to go back to the first instance, of the two people who signed the anti trans petition. I will name them because I know them, and the anonymity feels bizarrely dishonest. They are Ruth Barrett, Dianic priestess, and Macha Nightmare, formerly of Reclaiming. I know neither of them well, but as I cross Macha’s circle by belonging to the Covenant of the Goddess (hence the deep thought I’ve been giving to bias by Pagans lately) I wound up being part of the chorus for the Goddess Alive! ritual at the Parliament of World Religions last month. I won’t say that I learned about their deep selves. I will say that they were good to work with, centered in their power, and doing a service to the interfaith community that was difficult for them to pull together due to personal and practical challenges. They were busy being priestesses and leaders in other words. In that moment, did I respect them? Very much. Did that make either of them *my* elder? Um, nope, absolutely not. We hardly know each other, and even within that ritual choices were made that made it clear to me that I have different ideas on some rather large issues. So, these are two leaders with whom I disagree on some key issues. Big deal. I was not comfortable with some choices made , but I didn’t figure out why or what I should have done until later. Such is life.

There seems to be general agreement that elders in paganism don’t have to be very old, although we all snicker at the idea of the self-appointed teenage “High Priestess” syndrome. Elders do…what? They teach, they lead. They work hard at offering service to the world and the Pagan community. They develop credibility by their service, by living lives that are shaped by their understanding of what it means to be a Priestess of God Herself (I am not leaving out men, by the way – in my coven’s practice we are all Priestesses, regardless of sex or gender identity, and therefore all such identities are welcome in our circle.) Some elders teach, some advocate, some lead, some form groups, some are public, some are private. They are considered elders because they have stuck with it for a long time, because many others have found their teachings and practices valuable, and/or because they are well known in some part of the Pagan world.

Not all Pagans believe the same things. I am not Dianic, and don’t buy into a lot of their stuff, including the trans exclusionary attitudes and actions. (No one should be surprised that a Dianic priestess who has been trans exclusionist in the past did it again.) Nor am I a black reconstructionist, although I know less of what that involves. That makes these people not my elders already, before this current tempest. But by dint of labor over time, and their choices to be public, these folks have gained the status of elder in the wider community as well as within their denominations.

So, what do they owe us, or we owe them? I think that is the heart of this matter. I do not buy into this celebrity idea that somehow we know people we’ve never met, like Caitlin Jenner for instance, and that they owe us something because we are the voyeurs to their lives. But in case you haven’t noticed yet….we never get to stop learning. Elders too. Teachers and leaders undertake those roles because we have growth and learning to do and those roles are part of that path. Not all elders are always right and wise, even within the boundaries of their own group – coven, “tradition”, mystery school, social justice group, whatever. The High Priestess who initiated me was awesome, wise, a powerful magician, psychic, and ritualist. She was also a Cancer who had trouble letting go of things, sometimes to the point where harm was done. She made some decisions for her group with which priestesses who she had trained did not agree one bit. Some of our relationships were very strained at the end of her coven’s life. Do I love her still? Do I honor what I’ve learned from her, even the part where my learnings came from her mistakes? Of course I do. She was my elder and my teacher and my friend, and had no obligation to be perfect in order to deserve my love and respect.

Do elders of all denominations have an obligation to represent their faith communities well, in the sense of demonstrating what it means to speak and act from that particular idea of center? Well, one would hope. But Christians have Pat Robertson and Pagans have Christian Day and the racist crowd in the Covenant of the Goddess. One elder in our local community has gone on record stating that she has intentionally tried to destroy someone’s livelihood because she doesn’t like him, although she has never had a constructive conversation with him about her concerns. This is well known to a lot of people, but she is still loved and treated as a leader. Me? I offer love and compassion for the shadows that drive such cruelty, but she will not be my leader ever again.

And that is where the circle comes around again in this. I am responsible for my actions and choices. Elders are responsible for theirs. You can’t really take elder hood away, as it forms by accretion over time. We can only affect choices in the now. In this type of situation where I have reservations about an elders’ ethics or ability to behave in the way I want my teachers and leaders to behave, I only get to decide what I will do, not what anyone else does. If a leader loses followers, that person is no longer a leader. My choice lies in not following; telling other people not to follow disrespects their free agency , and proclaiming that a certain person is “not an elder” is not my role. Who am I to judge, to weigh the hearts of these strangers and publicly declare them lacking?

I have increasingly been framing my ethics very simply. Her Law is love poured out on the earth. So what would that look like in this situation? I think it looks like reaching out to these elders and saying, I cannot support you in this. I think you have a lot of learning to do about feminism that comes from a place of love and inclusion. I hope you are able to change the way you are behaving, because we need less hate in the world. Whether you choose to undertake that work is not up to me, but until you do I won’t be able to support your leadership. I love you and see your beauty and all you have done for our world, but this thing I do not choose to learn from you. I choose to offer love, and work for change, and I hope you will too. But you don’t owe me any of that. You aren’t MY elder, you are first your own work and a child of the Divine. Even when you blow it, and boy oh boy have you blown it this time, you deserve love and compassion. And I am willing to wait and see what you choose to do, if anything, to change your course of action, because I hope all of us can be supported by loving community while we grow. In the meantime, I will not follow you on this path you walk which leads to cruelty.

My meme would say, “May we all be responsible. May we all continue to learn how to love.”

(Addendum: Macha revoked her signature on the petition and repudiated its contents yesterday.  I honor her for owning her mistake and taking a positive step. <3)

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Warriors, Free Expression, and the Love of the Goddess

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pentacle-seasons

As you know if you read my previous post, I am involved, increasingly passionately of late, in activism related to reproductive rights and individual privacy. This work increasingly brings into my vision the inextricably related tide of extreme sexism that has been rising in public life over the past few years.  The public voice for this movement comes from the obstructionist Republicans, those who believe the Tea Party to be a worthy constituency, who feel Rush Limbaugh is a worthy spokesman, and who feel empowered to declare this a Christian nation.  This faction has set about forcing us all to live by a fundamentalist, unkind (and, I believe, inaccurate) version of  Christian dogma in which the big government that is staying out of their corporate crimes is empowered to evaluate all personal decisions and impose cruel consequences on those that don’t conform and don’t have resources for the fight.

I won’t go into all the ins and outs of why it is clear this nation is not now, and never has been, a Christian nation.  Thomas Jefferson et al. said it better than I ever could.  What is written on a dollar bill is not determinate of our spiritual zeitgeist. If it were, we would all be Masons. People who busily deny all of biological history on this earth are easily capable of revising the past couple of hundred years of social and political history without even breathing hard. Arguing against them is a waste of time.

But I will talk about speaking out, and how advocacy is part of being a priestess for some of us. And I will talk about how our community too seeks to silence voices that raise uncomfortable truths and challenging perspectives.

I am a priestess of the goddess Hekate.  To me, she is a teacher and patroness.  In return for her loving guidance and her teachings, I offer up my service to her.  And what that really means is that I strive to bring every act and choice in my life into congruency with my understanding of how to walk on the Earth gently, with love and compassion.  Clear sight, and the ability to summon strength and focus are among her many gifts (along with an unusual tendency for large black animals to come into my life).  My offering in return is to be her hands, her voice, and her heart in this world. “All acts of love and pleasure are my [the Goddess’] rituals” (emphasis added) is part of Wiccan liturgy. (If you can call it that – Abrahamic models superimposed on pagan worship usually are a poor fit because they imply more uniformity and more obligation than would be accurate. We need our own vocabulary for these things. But I digress.)  We are charged to move in the world with “beauty and strength, power and compassion, honor and humility, mirth and reverence”.

Most pagans I know do really well with the mirth, and the reverence, and with honor in the sense of trying to generally treat others well.  It’s the compassion, strength, power, and other forms of honor that seem to cause problems. Those of us who choose to use our power and strength and sense of personal and spiritual integrity to advocate, to speak out against intolerance, or to hold up a mirror that reveals flaws, are not always supported by others in our community.

Paganfolk tend to sort into a few archetypal categories. We have healers, we have bards, we have artisans,  we have those who tend the earth and her creatures, we have priest/esses, and we have warriors.   Most of us are more than one of these.  Those of us who have been formally trained as Wiccans have been encouraged to develop skills and strengths in different areas.

Warriorship, though, is misunderstood by many and taught by relatively few.   And warriorlike behavior is often actively squelched because, somehow, it does not conform to pagan community ideas about how to be loving.  Warriorhood is seen as at best a necessary evil; a commenter on line who was seeking to support my activism said that she wished the warrior role was no longer necessary.

How can we eliminate an entire archetype?  Why would we want to? Each of our possible roles has a critical part in shaping our societies; each reflects another face of the divine. Warriors don’t need to be violent, or cruel, or fanatical.  Warriors can use their strength and honor peacefully and with integrity to support positive change and succor the weak.  Warriors enact what we Wiccans tend to view as the masculine aspect of divine love.

Neopagans generally view Love as an important aspect of the divine. “Love is the law….”, “…[the goddess’] love is poured out upon the Earth”, and other passages commonly taught affirm this.  But the understanding of love of course varies with the person.

My Hekate is a dark goddess, and her teachings are about the mysteries of the inner places, of the borderlands between light and dark, presence and absence, life and death, growth and decay.  She has great compassion for all the world’s creatures, but that does not mean she will stop them from working and going through trials of learning.  Her love is the active form, the one the Greeks called αδαρε.  Agape is intentionally applied love, meant to bring balance and healing when events have created loss of well-being.  This, for me, is the love of God Herself.  Acting from a place of center, with clarity about my own roles, reactions, and ego boundaries, cultivating self-possession and reaching out from that strong core to help others, acting as a responsible steward of the beautiful earth and all its children, are the work of my priestesshood.  Warrior actions, including activism, are one way to do that work.

The Goddess’ love is also, to me, often “tough love”.  Balance exists in all things, and we don’t get to experience the rewards without doing the work and facing the challenges. Witches generally understand that digging into one’s own shadows, seeking self-understanding and compassion for oneself, is the central process in learning to find one’s divine strengths.  But when a member of the community holds up a mirror that shows some of the less than appealing stuff and asks them to think about changing it, they tend to react with complete affront.  I can’t count how many times I’ve been castigated for not being “nice” because I said something when witches were acting in ways that were damaging those they thought they were helping.

I have been recently chided again for speaking. I was told that I must have terrible and tragic “anger issues”, and then virtually ostracized through indirect comments by a pagan on-line group because I called out a member for using sexist language and assumptions as the basis for posting negative comments about a woman who most of us don’t even know.  Well, what was said was, prima facie, sexist.  And we are usually better than that. But how are we going to be better than that unless we allow our Warriors to speak up when they witness injustice?  If we are not willing to examine our own behavior, and consider changing it, we aren’t being honest, or honorable, or humble.

Another member of said group told me that divine love is completely accepting (thus snarkily implying that I was a failure as a priestess because I did not quietly accept what had been said).  He seemed to think that if I wanted to act out of love, I would just ignore the sexist cultural assumptions that are rising like alligators in a swamp all around me.  Because accepting would mean I wouldn’t upset anyone by pointing out that their behavior in perpetuating these cultural assumptions is part of the problem.  And upsetting people isn’t “nice”.

This version of all accepting, “nice” love reminds me most of the Buddhist concept of “idiot compassion”, where the actor’s ego issues compel them to afflict others with help that actually harms in the long run.  Idiot compassion is not based on true understanding of the others’ needs. “Idiot compassion is the highly conceptualized idea that you want to do good to somebody. At this point, good is purely related with pleasure. Idiot compassion also stems from not [having] enough courage to say no.”  –Chogyam Trungpa (emphasis mine)

Well, I am blessed by my Goddess with the courage to say no.  I am formed by many many years of working with the dying.  I know that not speaking because you don’t want to upset anyone is manipulative and self-serving; you withhold valuable perspectives and truths from them based on your own desire to avoid emotional challenge.  I know that being nice is not the same thing as being kind, or honest, or honorable, or strong.  I know that true loving compassion grows out of respecting others enough to tell them the truth, to challenge them, to hold them to a high standard. The goddess did not charge us to have “niceness and social harmony” among us. She charged us to compassion and humility, honor and strength.  She charged us to be her Love. She trusts us to be her Voice. She wants us to act as her Hands.  Turning away from those imperatives because we are afraid to rock anyone’s boat, because we think preserving people’s damaging illusions helps anyone, is a spiritual failing.

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And now for something a little bit

different…I’m laughing tears and can hardly

type. Enjoy!

Motley News

I subscribe to Oddee, which is a site that puts together lists. All kinds of lists. For example, “9 Amazing Facts About The Earth,” “13 Coolest ‘Just Married’ Photos,” and some really STRANGE ones, too… like “10 Craziest Foreign Objects Found Stuck In A Rectum” (that one was quite enlightening – link is at the bottom, I don’t want to lose you just yet).  

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Are we done in Newtown?

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I posted this to a pagan mailing list to which I subscribe this morning:

I would like to respectfully and loving suggest that we consider where our donations should be going in order to truly support the victims of ALL the gun homicides in our nation. It sounds like Newtown will be swimming in teddy bears for years to come.  Cute, but not actually helpful in any comprehensive sense.  If you still have the urge to act on this issue, please consider donations of goods or funds or talents to:  your local domestic violence shelters and intervention  programs; your local gang prevention/ high risk teen intervention programs; or the advocacy group of your choice targeting issue such as mental health treatment parity, supportive outreach to single mothers, or gun control.  Look for organizations that seem to avoid demonizing those with whom they disagree, as that approach is unlikely to meet success and is clearly part of the problem in this situation.  Offer your kindness where it seems it will make a meaningful impact.  Do it in the name of the Newtown children, or do it in the name of the thousands of nonwhite nonaffluent forgotten victims who are getting killed all the time with little media fanfare.  Just please do what you can, rather than letting the surfeit in Newtown convince you that this issue has been handled.

This post I’m writing now elaborates on the last point, about not letting ourselves think the situation has been handled.

I am very touched to see the flood of material and moral support offered to the town of Newtown CT by the world community.  This kind of connection and kindness is where our hope lies for a shift to the positive growth of the next bak’tun.

I fear that the announcement that Newtown cannot handle anymore donations will cause people in our country to turn away from dealing with all the issues that we have been discussing since this massacre.  Remember, we are the ones who failed to help Haiti beyond a few short weeks post-earthquake because they fell off the media radar.  And we failed to even notice their renewed distress during the recent Hurricane, presumably because if a disaster hits us directly, the rest of the world’s devastation just doesn’t matter as much.  Inundated with unimportant stories presented with great fanfare , we are fooled into thinking they are important. We worry about the Kardashe-what sister’s lip enhancements.  We watch consumerism run amok with “news” coverage of “black Friday” insanity.  We worry about the royal babies and which public figures are secretly gay (gee, why would they hide that?  but I digress….).

It’s just too easy to see the ordinary American getting a warm fuzzy feeling about Newtown because of all this sending of memorial donations and teddy bears and decorations to change the look of the school.  And then going back to watching the tube, until instructed by the media to get “involved” in a new crisis.

We need people to stay engaged on this one.  We need to actually deal with the multiple contributing problems that result in our status as the disaffected-and-unstable-young-white-man-mass-murderer capital of the world, as well as the developed world’s leader in the more conventional single-victim gun murder.

Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Ca) will introduce a new assault weapons ban in January, a more comprehensive ban that includes limits on the capacity of magazines and closes some loopholes.  It would also seek to track the guns sold during the post-expiration period from 2004 to present, and possibly to recover them from the owners (a buyback program, no storm troopers “takin’ mah gyuns” the way the Tea Partiers seem to fear).  (My source about this bill is the Senator’s website as well as multiple media outlets in the US, all online).

I find it very disturbing that this is the only substantive move made by anyone yet to address these issues.  Why aren’t there 8 different gun control proposals out there so that there could be meaningful discussion representing multiple approaches to the problem, resulting in an effective and practical law that achieves broad support?  Why aren’t we hearing about how states are going to tool up to provide comprehensive family support programs for at risk people, how they are going to stop blocking the development of mental health coverage parity?

For all the people I’ve discussed these issues with on-line, I am aware of only 4, beside myself, who have done more than discuss amongst ourselves – who have written emails/letters, or called, legislators on these issues.  Who’ve chosen to donate resources to organizations such as I described up above.   If so few of us act like this is important enough to stick with until we’ve fixed it, it won’t get fixed.  And the next time it happens, the public will again ask how this could have been prevented, the same way we have asked ourselves that again and again, increasingly frequently, over the past 20 years.  Please, let’s not go through that ever again. Honor all victims of violence in our land by preventing the otherwise inevitable similar future tragedies.  Please help, please keep this on your priority list.

Tragedy and compassion amid the short attention span society

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On Friday, a gunman went into an elementary school about 40 miles from where I grew up.  He got through the locked security door because they knew him: the school was where his mother (whom he had already murdered) had worked.  On gaining entry, he systematically murdered more than two dozen people, most of them children under 10 years old, before killing himself.

Now, the internet is alive with all sorts of memes and debates. The categories I’ve noted so far are: pro and con gun control; prayers and condolences to the families and community most directly affected; social commentary on why these things happen;  and, amazingly, discussion of whether it is “respectful” to the bereaved to even talk about how to prevent such things.  Some folks have “acted” abruptly:  the Michigan legislature immediately “tweaked” their gun laws to allow teachers to carry guns in the classroom, stating that this would “prevent” such things as happened in Newtown.

So let’s talk about prevention. Let’s talk about gun related violence in our society. Let’s talk about mental illness, and the fact that we do not have any effective system for identifying and treating people who are high risk for violent outbursts.  Let’s talk about the growing inequities in our society and how they breed alienation and violent behavior.  Let’s talk about how we glorify murderers and other monsters in the press, giving the otherwise anonymous the fame that so many of our people seem to crave like crack.

But we better do all this quickly. Because the tragedy of the week will wane. People will think they did something because they posted a meme of a child/angel or a candle to their Facebook wall.  Politicians will object to “politicizing” this problem, because they would have deal with it that way, and they are far too interested in sucking up to their donors rather than serving their nation.  They should be leading us into solutions for the dreadful social conditions and access to murderous tools that cause these episodes to happen over and over again, but instead they will keep taking money from health insurance companies and gun manufacturers, from all the big money interests who are growing rich from the tragic status quo.

A few weeks down the road, the families who lost their children, the town that lost its innocent belief in safety, will still be reeling, but the American public will have moved on to the next episode of whatever the media tells them is important at the moment.  Few if any of the internet commenters who claim it’s time to do something will ever even bother to send an email to a legislator about this tragedy.   And we’ll keep not dealing with our social problems, and not dealing with reasonable limitations on the availability of weapons, because we just don’t  actually want to do the work to tease apart the underlying issues. We will stay mired in our factionalism, unable to come together productively even on such a no-brainer as “mass murder  is wrong and should be prevented”.

I’m not going to tease apart all the issues, and tell you what my perfect solution would be (and imply that you’re some kind of idiot or moral failure if you don’t agree with me).  There are plenty of people out there on the internet doing just that, if that’s what you want to read.  I am only going to ask one thing of any of you who are talking about this mess:

What are you, personally, going to DO?

Hello world!

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So….here I am, blogging.

I have been told by so many people over the years that I write well, that I have an interesting life,  that they would like to read what I write about my life and my reflections on the world around me.  They probably say these things because I’m weird, and thus intriguing. I have found myself writing  short essays about why I live as I live, or about my daily activities and choices and the ideas they inspire, or just funny anecdotes about my animals and gardens.  This blog is a first step toward organizing some of that kind of material and making it available to….whoever might be interested!

I am a witch. I am a priestess of the goddess Hekate, and a coven leader, and a teacher and mentor to some of my fellow witches.  My spiritual path defines me, and is central to the way I live: my choices, my attitudes, my judgements, all spring from my interpretation of what it is like to live a life in which every choice is a spiritual one to some degree.

There are many other things that I am besides a witch, of course. I’m middle aged; I’m bisexual; I’m an educator; I’m a nurse; I’m a white blonde who lives in a Mexican neighborhood.  I’m Leo with Capricorn rising. I’m a superb cook, and a fair hand with tools.  I am a horsewoman, and an animal lover.  I love to sing,  to laugh, and to think.

I have a small property, about a half acre, in the South Valley of Albuquerque, New Mexico. Over the three and a half years that I’ve been here, I’ve been turning it into a very small farm.  The process of doing this, and the reasons for it, have become an ongoing exploration.  My relationship to life, and to death, and to my community, and to my body, and to work and money, are all being explored in this laboratory of mine. Along with my relationships to food, and to how-to books, and to vermin and pests, and to tools, and to county regulations, and to thrift stores, and to public utilities. And to chickens.  It’s all constantly up for re-evaluation, all in motion, all evolving.  I am a work in progress. I invite you to witness my changes, and enjoy them with me.