Sunday, 30 November 2014

How I Became An Iconoclastic Traditionalist, Part I

I was an only child with little in the way of extended family and even less in the way of the kind of social acumen that might have netted me another type of familial structure. Growing up amidst the polyester excrescences of 1970s America, I came of age without a firm sense of identity, history, or ethnicity. Even religion, when it came in my early grade-school years, was the blandest non-denominational Christianity, completely lacking in the color and drama and pageantry that my encyclopedias had assured me were features of other cultures' faiths. My life was singularly lacking in color and drama and pageantry, and I yearned for something more. Having tolerant, if bewildered, parents, I came in time to conduct little ceremonies of my own, but that still wasn't enough; I might have been a loner by choice as well as design, but I still wanted to be a part of something bigger than myself.

Unfortunately, it would appear that by choice and/or design, I am also somewhat unsuited to being a part of anything too structured. When I at last found myself an initiate of a Wiccan tradition with roots and structure and customs...well, the results were mixed.

It turns out that, even in a loose confederation of decentralized small groups, there are still self-appointed arbiters of the Right Way of doing things, and you run afoul of them at your peril. Having never been in in my life (beyond a brief foray with the French Club in high school), I was staggered by how easy it was to find yourself on the outs for what seemed the most trivial of reasons. I had run mostly unopposed throughout my formative years, my parents rarely reining me in unless grave bodily injury or death appeared imminent (and perhaps a psychologist would read in that the seeds of my innate need for structure and discipline), and suddenly finding myself surrounded by what to me were interfering busybodies telling me I had to do things This Way and not That Way or I couldn't be in anymore was maddening.

So what if I do this but not that? It's not written down anywhere!

(It's oral tradition.)

But I've heard/read/inferred that other people in a different city/lineage/coven do that instead of this!

(They're either oathbreakers or liars.)

But this is all petty details. WHY is doing/saying or not doing/saying this or that so far beyond the pale?

(Because this is how it's always been done.)

As you can imagine, these answers did not sit well with me. I was not at all, then or now, of two minds; on the contrary, I was and am entirely single-minded in wanting it both ways. I wanted both the traditional and the innovative, long-held customs with the freedom and flexibility to modify and adapt where applicable. It just took me an inordinate amount of time to figure out that there would always be resistance to that.

Secrecy, Mystery, and Transparency

The traditional forms of the craft predate the Information Age and were in no way designed to function optimally in such a wide-open field. If you'll indulge me in a bit of cane-shaking, back in my day when I made my first foray into the wider world of witchcraft and pagan practice, it was very much up to chance as to who you might meet and how and when. Lacking the internet with portal sites and seekers' email lists and Facebook groups, your resources were limited to word-of-mouth, the recommendation of a local shopkeeper, a flyer put out by a brave coven, or a discreet ad in the back of one of the few major periodicals available in the local chain bookstore. Even so, if you managed to make a tenuous connection, you were mostly on your own, with only your own instincts to guide you as to whether or not the people you met were legitimate initiates of X tradition; and your only knowledge of X tradition was likely to come from said people, written material being scarce and hard to come by. It's difficult to seek further information if you have no idea where to look for it, or even what questions you need to be asking. The tide was shifting by the early to mid 1990s when I was initiated into my first trad, thanks to the explosion of popular pagan and Wiccan books, but it was still a very different time. Secrecy and mystery were experienced in a far different way.

Here in the 21st century, information is out there--in books, on web sites, in blogs and podcasts and every other form of social media. Where in older times the prospective initiate was the one who was being interviewed for a position, so to speak, now it isn't at all uncommon to see seekers quite openly checking up on the bona fides of the coven leaders and teachers they meet. There are email lists and open Facebook groups that exist specifically for such exchange, allowing cautious cowans to ask questions about tradition-specific practices and even about the lineages of specific people. When I was new into all of this, such exchange was all but unheard-of, and perhaps in some cases it still is; there are traditions still in which one's initiatory lineage is a secret only discussed with other initiates, where even the craft pseudonyms of one's upline are not mentioned among those outside the trad, but in the free-market of ideas that is our modern age it is only going to become harder and harder to maintain such secrecy. Seekers today are far from the tabula rasa of those from earlier eras; they read, they listen, they interact in a vastly interconnected way, and they come to pre-initiate practice with ideas and understandings their predecessors lacked. The challenges, then, for the teachers and leaders of today are amplified over what their own teachers faced back in the day.

I'll admit that I do not know the best way to navigate these challenges; much of this is still uncharted territory, still changing every day. Each tradition, each group, each person will ultimately decide for itself how much to reveal, and to whom, and when. Because there are no central registries, or for that matter any truly unbiased sources, a vouch is not always going to be available; and some initiates will be unwilling to reveal too much of their background to a questioning stranger. Documents can be easily faked. Ultimately a seeker is left to his or her own instincts as to who they can trust, who they want to work with, whether or not they can ferret out any information about their prospective teachers beyond what those teachers themselves are able or willing to share. In that way, at least, perhaps things haven't changed all that much from earlier times. More information may be available in our age, but more doesn't necessarily equal better. If anything, the technological revolution has made it easier to create and distribute misinformation, lies, and rumors than ever before.

So the need for secrecy--though I would personally term it confidentiality--must be weighed against the equally-vital need for transparency, and a balance must be struck. I would argue that there are things that a prospective initiate absolutely has the right to know upfront, things that trump concepts of "it's a secret" and "that's oathbound"--for if your oaths require you to lie to people about what will be expected of them, then that is an unethical oath, and you become an unethical leader by upholding it. (For the record, the oaths I've taken were all rather damnably vague about just what the "secrets" I was to be keeping were; oral tradition, I suppose, with variable mileage between trads and lines!) There are things that people want, and need, to know going in, things that in our modern age particularly simply cannot be swept aside as being degree-specific secrets. A balance between maintaining sufficient confidentiality to neither reveal too much of a trad's practices (thus spoiling the esoteric effects thereof) and allowing adequate accountability so that the seeker goes in confidently aware of what will or will not be expected of them (primarily in those areas about which seekers are always most concerned: sexually, physically, psychologically, monetarily). If your trad works heavily with entheogens, for example, and their usage is expected and required of initiates, then those seeking initiation need to be clearly aware of that upfront; and if they have read of the trad's usage of psychoactive substances and ask you about it, only to have you deny said usage categorically, then you have acted unethically, and betrayed your position as a leader. Denying things that are now common knowledge makes you look untrustworthy when the time comes that the truth is revealed.

Balancing the need for confidentiality, the desire to preserve mystery, and the necessity of transparency and accountability is difficult, but not impossible. It requires discipline, honesty, and integrity, all of which are important qualities in an initiate. You can preserve tradition, preserve the craft, and still be an ethical person, upfront and accountable.

Monday, 14 July 2014

It's Been Awhile

Almost a year? About three months after that last post, I lost my mother--a lovely capper to a sensationally craptastic year. (I will point out that, true to form, just days before she went into hospital I saw the first episode of Buffy I'd seen in years, walking into the room where it was playing just at the point where Buffy discovers her mother--who shared a name with mine--dead. FML times infinity.) But I'm still here, still functioning, and maybe even finally coming out of the fog of depression and exhaustion. I say maybe, because I'm frankly afraid to say much of anything at all. Talk about sleeping with the metaphorical lights on.

I do have some things to put up here, so I hope you'll stick around. I will try to be back before another year goes by.

Saturday, 31 August 2013

Hindsight and Other Tricks of the Mind

We lost our eldest cat in the first apartment we moved to after leaving our house. The second-oldest cat died in the next apartment. When we decided to move again, I remember half-jokingly saying something along the lines of "So far we're two for two; I'm almost afraid of what will happen if we move to a third apartment."

Yeah.

In a short period before what happened with Fergus (yes, three for three), these things happened:

1) A Tumblr post came up in my feed, a photoset that I'd never seen before or since, of a selection of scenes from children's films that were heartbreakingly dark in retrospect. One of them, from a film unknown to me, showed an adult person looking at a child and saying, simply, "The kitty had to go."

2) There was a rerun of an eighth season episode of Bones in which one of the subplots dealt with Dr. Sweets' breakup with intern Daisy Wick. At one point Ms. Wick confesses her feelings to Dr. Saroyan, who tells her that they had something alive and vibrant which is now gone, and that the sadness she feels is because she's grieving that. When Daisy asks if perhaps it couldn't be brought back to life, Cam says As a scientist, have you ever seen anything come back to life and be as good as it ever was? She then goes on to counsel Daisy: So feel sad. Cry. You lost something wonderful, but keep moving forward. It'll get better. I promise.

3) I kept seeing, in my mind's eye, the 5 of Pentacles from the Tarot of the Cat People deck.
This is what my brain does to me.
Note that it depicts a wild-haired woman mourning the loss of her small striped cat, while the cat's spirit glows down upon her from what appears to be a stained-glass window above where she sits. (If I've never posted a picture of Fergus here, well, he was a small, brown tabby American Shorthair cat. And my hair isn't white, but left to it's own devices it's about as wild and poofy as that.)

Sometime later (afterward) I was dozing on the sofa, and in that threshold state between awake and asleep I saw him, reclining on the living room floor as he often had, awake and alert and looking at me; the vision startled me awake, though not in a bad way. I had dreams of both Warlock and Autumn after their deaths, in each case seeing them first as adults and then in subsequent dreams in kitten form, so perhaps the pattern will hold with Fergus as well.

Still, fuck my life.  :(

* * *

Addendum (some time after the above was written; I've developed a bad habit of not dating my hand-written notes):

I had another dream a while later. At one point, I was reclining with Fergus curled up on my chest, above my heart; the next thing I remember is being beneath a tree, holding him, and a woman--unknown to me but not unfamiliar, if that makes any sense--saying, very gently, "You have to let him go, you know."

"I know," I said, and I did; I recall feeling peaceful enough, if a little sad. I put him on the ground, and he ran off along a path/road leading out and away from where we were standing. At the far visible end of it he stopped, looked back at me, then turned the corner and disappeared from sight.

On another subsequent night, I dreamed I had gone to a park, and there came upon a kitten: a small boy, eyes still blue, coat of a dark plushy grey with white front paws. Near him was a large book, and when I opened it (of course I opened it!) I found a paper explaining that if I'd found him, then he was my cat, and outlining the responsibilities thereof. It read like some kind of cross between a cat breeder's kitten adoption contract and a "please take care of my baby" letter written by a distraught mother putting their kid in a basket on a random doorstep.

So what else could I do? I picked him, the letter, and the book, up, and took them home with me.

Sunday, 23 June 2013

Keeping Vigil

Just over four months ago, I watched the decline of my older cat, Autumn, and ended up keeping vigil with her on her last day, which was also my mother's birthday. I really had no idea that I would be doing another such vigil again so soon, and for my youngest, dearest little Fergus. He's not even eight years old; his birthday isn't until the end of July.

He's a special cat, and a cat with special needs, having been prone to intermittent seizures since he was very young. I always knew that it could potentially foreshorten his life, but that was just part of the deal; he was my cat. (Is my cat; he's still alive as I write this, or at least he was half an hour ago when I last checked on him. But I'm upstairs at the moment and he's down and out of my line of sight, so perhaps what I have here is a pitiable Schroedinger's situation.) The seizures were never of sufficient frequency for him to require daily medication. He hadn't even had one since last August, when he was stressed from an eye injury.

He apparently had one, or perhaps more than one, or possibly even a stroke, while we were at work on Thursday or Friday. He seemed rather off on Thursday evening, but then better on Friday, then progressively worse on Saturday evening; not walking well or wanting to walk, exhibiting ataxia, etc. He drank water and used the box yesterday, and may have eaten a bit as well, but he moved into a position between the sofa and the balcony door last night and has not left it since (unless he did so overnight while we were sleeping). He's been there all day today, and has grown less responsive, although he will still move a bit, and he purrs when I stroke him and talk to him. I'm afraid that he may not be coming back to me.

I was going to go to an event with my husband and father in law today, but I stayed here, just in case. There's nothing I can do, of course, but...well. I've spent time today giving him as much love and sweet words and soothing energy as I could, telling him what an amazing cat he is and that although I wish he could come back to me, if he can't, I understand. But my gods, how I'll miss him.

I sang him a song, earlier--inadvertently, I was just listening to a CD to help center myself a bit, but realized there was something appropriate about some of the lyrics. Did you know that it's very difficult to sing and cry at the same time? About as hard as it is to cry and type, like I'm about to be doing.

The song is from the new Blackmore's Night album, and appears in two versions; I was singing along with the acoustic one, "Somewhere Over the Sea (the Moon is Shining)." I was doing pretty well until I got to this verse:

Oh, the stars stopped glowing
On the night that you left
Oh, the wind stopped blowing
All I could hold was my breath


Still I have to believe
You will return to me
Oh, the stars stopped glowing
On the night that you left 

And now I wait, and I keep watch, and I check on him periodically, because there's only a couple of ways that this can go now: either he pulls out of it, or he doesn't. And the hits just keep coming. The old proverb says something along the lines of fall down seven times, stand up eight, but seriously, some days it seems smarter just to stay down since it's obvious I'll be going back there again shortly anyway.
He's the sweetest, best little cat in the world, and almost everyone who ever met him fell madly in love with him. The unfairness and randomness of existence is never clearer or more heart-crushing than in times like these. 

Fuck everything about this.

Wednesday, 12 June 2013

On Second Thought

Actually, I don't really want to talk much more about it--"it" being what I would term pagan fundamentalism. I've talked myself purple on the subject in the past, for what good it ever did me or anyone else; it changed nothing, because some people will always be inclined to the my-way-or-the-highway approach, and nothing I or anyone else says or does will alter that one whit.

And I realized, while reflecting on what I've been reading lately, that I'm all right with that. I don't care. If some people want to be fundamentalist pagans, let them. It has zero impact on my life and my practice. Sure, when I was battling it first-hand in my trad wiccan days, it was difficult for me, and I came out of that with more than a few scars; but those days are done now, and those people and those attitudes have lost the power they once held. You can't take it away from me if I don't want it in the first place! The sound and fury emanating from people I don't even know and don't give a damn to know signifies less than nothing in the grand scope of my life. I won't attend their rituals or read their blogs or concern myself with their life choices, and they are cordially invited to do the same in regard to me.

Life is precious and life is short, so why waste it on bullshit witch wars? Ain't nobody got time for that.

Monday, 10 June 2013

Quick Thought on a Current Controversy

The pagan blogosphere (gods, did I just say that?) is lately abuzz with a new/old us-vs-them controversy, one that's been relevant to me since my very earliest days. I want to talk more about it, and I will, but I haven't the time right now to do more than say this:

It's as pointless to get angry with a non-theistic pagan (be they atheist, humanist, naturalist, etc.) for not perceiving and interacting with deity as you do, as it is to get angry with a colorblind person for not loving the color green like you do.

More later. I have work (of the tangible, objective, paycheck-earning kind) to do first.