Wednesday, 28 October 2015

An Iconoclastic Review of Alex Mar's Witches of America

When I learned, through the Wild Hunt blog, of documentarian Alex Mar’s new book release Witches of America, I immediately went to read the linked excerpts; and finding the subject matter relevant to my interests, I got myself a copy and set about reading it over the weekend. During that time, I also began seeing reviews of the book cropping up, among them pieces written by people of the same type of demographic that Mar’s book chronicles, and was bemused by the tone that most of these were taking. Some were right on the edge of vituperative, and I found myself scanning the narrative more closely, looking at particular passages and their contexts while trying, and mostly failing, to detect the implied insults that these readers were seeing.

(I have a long history of being flummoxed by others’ perceptions of things, to the point where I often find myself wondering if I’m reading or watching or hearing the same thing [the answer to that being, of course, that we’re all experiencing the same thing from different vantage points, but that’s secondary to the subject here at hand]. I can remember once attending a screening of Gone with the Wind with a friend, thoroughly enjoying ourselves discussing [quietly, of course, we’re not complete boors] the historical context of the film, anecdotes about the production thereof, the general social milieu of antebellum and reconstruction-era America, etc.—then being surprised when the lights came up to find ourselves in a theatre filled with mostly weepy middle-aged white women, and noting aloud that we were perhaps getting something from the experience that they were not. I was reminded of that experience as I read Mar’s book, and the reactions to it from various corners of the online pagan community.)

The first thing I noted was multiple references, in reviews and comment threads, to remarks Mar made about certain older, heavier pagan women’s “pendulous breasts.” I re-read the relevant passages, and failed to find any implied insult or value judgment in what seemed to me to be merely descriptive writing—not to everyone’s taste, apparently, but not outwardly hostile. If the description was not especially flattering, neither was it particularly critical; but if we’ve reached the point in our discourse where only obsequious flattery is permissible, then we’ve put the stake through the heart of not only free speech, but creative writing as well.

Learning that Mar came from an Ivy League background helped to explain some of the antipathy she was garnering from certain critics, as well. Not all of us came from backgrounds of obvious privilege (and I hate resorting to that overused and overloaded word, but it’s the most appropriate), nor have the ability to jet all over the country in pursuit of enlightenment, and the fact that this author does can’t help but rankle. I too tend to be very wary of the wealthy, the elite, the 1%, and have to struggle with the impulse to stereotype and dismiss people on basis of their social and financial standings; but I also recognize that as being as limiting and dangerous as dismissing those at the lower echelons of wealth and power, and try to give people at least the opportunity to prove themselves to be worthy (or not) of respect. Obviously, some readers feel that Mar has proven herself, on the negative side of that balance; for the most part, I thought differently.

In this book, Alex Mar openly explores her own ambivalence and skepticism toward the very spiritual and esoteric subjects that also beguile her; a struggle that is very immediate and relatable to me, as I wrestle with these issues continually even after over two decades as an initiate and most of a lifetime of fascinated study. I can’t help but wonder if that openness is part of the problem some pagan readers are having with her. It may be that the author’s voice at times sounds too uncomfortably close to that little voice that some of us carry inside us, the one that questions, endlessly, the validity and the purpose and the reality of our spiritual experiences and pursuits. Certainty is a luxury that many of us lack, but even admitting that to ourselves is sometimes more than we can comfortably deal with. Like Toto pulling back the curtain to reveal the not-so-great-or-terrible Oz, Mar lifts the veil that separates us from the myths we tend to create around ourselves and our paths. It’s surely unnerving to some to see (or be forced to admit seeing) that the powerful witch priestess can also be a struggling single mother, or that the dark necromancer started down his left-hand path in the wake of youthful romantic disappointment. But if we (as pagans, witches, occultists, magicians, whatever label we choose) can’t accept and reconcile these seeming dualities, these apparently opposing qualities in ourselves and our acquaintances, what does that tell us about ourselves, or our level of awareness? If our self-created emperors are as naked and blind as we are, where does that leave us? That’s a frightening territory to map, and it’s the terrain Mar leads us into in this book. It’s not always a comfortable read, but it’s an important one, and in the end leaves us in much the same place as the author: with no concrete conclusions, no tidy wrap-up, only a host of new questions to join the ones we came in with. That’s a rare sort of fearlessness, and I can’t help admiring her for it.

Mar goes places far beyond what you’d expect of a journalist scratching the surface of a subculture for salacious copy. This is a work that spans years of study, travel, and expense. This is no Rex Nemorensis redux, no shill going amongst the pagans to run a hatchet job in the press later; either Mar is genuinely seeking something among her subjects, or she is a most brilliant and convincing sociopath. In reading of her experiences, I marveled at her willingness to throw herself into things that would’ve had me balking instantly: hundreds of dollars spent on monthly witchcraft lessons, hundreds more on weekend retreats, multiple days spent camping in a goddamn Louisiana swamp with strangers, awaiting an unknown initiatory fate! This speaks of a dedication to ones’ craft above and beyond the ordinary. And while I can see the questionable ethics involved in sharing swathes of personal correspondence, if Mar was upfront with her subjects about her intention of writing about her experiences, then everyone involved should have known that anything they said or did could potentially end up in print. She did take pains, so far as I could see, not to reveal anything she was asked not to reveal, including peoples’ mundane names, oathbound material from the traditions she studied, or specifics of locations mentioned in the book. I’m not sure what else can be expected of a journalist.

So, in short: I found this a fascinating and valuable book, for all the reasons that are making people quite uncomfortable. It wasn’t always a comfortable read for me, either, far from it. And that, I reiterate, is why this book is important.

Thursday, 15 October 2015

Get Out The Pitchforks (or, Weighing In On The Controversies Du Jour)

The "calling out" of white American pagans—almost exclusively by other white American pagans—is tiresome and overplayed. It’s been the featured sport in the Oppression Olympics for a while now, and given the extremes to which it has gone, I think it’ll play itself out entirely before much longer, thus making room for the next great source of outrage. The pagan Web has always been a minefield, of course, so the current debates over “cultural appropriation” and what seems to be a push for the redrawing of traditions’ boundaries are nothing new. Flamewars never go out of style; they merely find new and more exotic places from which to erupt.

I do wonder, though, how some of the noisiest hardliners ever find time to get anything spiritual accomplished, when so much of their time is taken up with policing others’ practices.

To some, you dare not wade into any pagan practice unless you have some kind of ancestral connection to it; for others, even that isn’t enough, and unless you grew up immersed in said culture in its country of origin, you have no right even to consider taking up its religious customs, even if the culture is long-dead and its customs long overtaken by others. For most of us here stateside, taking that hard a stance would leave us bereft of much of anything—as even Christianity would be out of bounds, coming as it does from another culture in another part of the world to which most of us have no ties of any sort. So much for the melting-pot, United-Colors-Of-Benetton, desegregationist world in which I grew up!

Even more bewildering is the furor over atheist/non-theist/humanist pagans. How on earth does another person’s perceptions of the subjective in any way threaten, cheapen, or damage your own? I mean, I can look around me right now and point to at least half a dozen examples of other pagan types doing things that I feel debase, degrade, or insult things that I hold sacred—but while I may even rant about those things, I will still continue to uphold those peoples’ right to do as they will, even if I find it repulsive and dangerous. Why? Because it’s not my business to police others’ practice, or make a determination of correct behavior or belief. I have and can and will warn people of possible pitfalls—i.e., if I meet someone and they are interested in pursuing a path that may make potentially dangerous demands of them, I will counsel them to be aware of those possibilities, but I generally won't straight-out say “Those People over there are bad/wrong/evil/fake/whatever”--and I absolutely won't make personal, individual accusations publicly. Whoever has the time for fuckery at that level needs to find some positive new hobbies to occupy their time.

I’ve stayed out of the debates and I will continue to stay out of the debates, because I have no solutions to offer and no interest in engaging with hardliners and extremists. Fundamentalism of that stripe gives me a rash. I have no comprehension whatsoever of how, say, a white lady "smudging" in Hoboken is taking anything away from a First Nations man in the American southwest, or how a person who is seven or eight generations out from the Old Country (whatever it may be) is misappropriating cultural artifacts when he takes up what scraps he can find of what his ancestors might once have done. (I’m a little afraid that even saying so here in the privacy of my own blog might be misconstrued by some as an invitation to come and TELL me how.) If you're not misrepresenting yourself, or using an ersatz spiritual authority to take advantage of the credulous, or in some manner physically taking something away from someone else to whom it rightfully belongs, then I fail to see the problem. While such creeds are far from universal, I think Do what thou wilt, or an’ it harm none, etc., are still applicable, along with mind your own business, and don't be a dick.

Saturday, 26 September 2015

Name Change

I felt that it was finally time to change the blog name. After my last post about identity, I decided to go ahead and embrace this one fully, and see where that leads.

Tuesday, 23 June 2015

A Question Of Identity

Identity has always been an important concept, though lately it seems to be coming more to the forefront of cultural awareness and discourse, even if only because we moderns have a media machine ready and eager to seize upon any facet of the zeitgeist and thrust it forth as the Most Important Thing Ever. The current trend seems to be to parse one's identity down to the rarest levels of minutiae, even while adhering to a perception of fluidity, the end result being generally incomprehensible to anyone but the individual doing the self-defining. It may be a generational thing (although a cursory glance round the interwebs would indicate that it's taken hold beyond the bounds of the younger set), and it may not be a bad thing unto itself; taking the longer view, it's not that difficult to see how this cultural pendulum will swing back eventually, settling into a territory at once less diffuse than the current one but more expansive than what was envisioned before. Still, as someone who came of age eschewing "labels" as being constraining and constricting of my full self-expression, much of what I see these days is head-scratchingly odd to me. (Since I now have a lawn again, I will soon have to purchase a cane, so that I may go outside and shake it furiously at the sky while muttering imprecations against These Damn Kids.) 

Spiritual identity is also a thing these days, with people out here in the provinces of Alternative Religions also indulging in the same extremely precise parsing that we see in the realms of sexuality (and of course, there is plenty of overlap). There have been times when I've attempted it myself, coming up with mocking and self-conscious descriptors like "Celto-Kemetic Zen Dru-witch," but labels like that seem hopelessly entangling and inaccurate; either they're too all-encompassing, or they're still inadequately broad. I'm mostly content to go with "Pagan" and let that enfold all the facets of my practice and study, despite my occasional flare-ups of agony over what I see parading under that banner often looking rather markedly different than what I perceive myself to be. It often appears that people want, simultaneously, both the right to define their own identity, and to police the boundaries of others' (lest they step beyond the acceptable parameters of a particular definition). If I had a dollar for every time I've chafed under another's inference that I was not Doing It Right by their definition of "It," I'd have more than a few dollars, and I'd still have a rash from rubbing up against the irritant of others' expectations. If you, dear reader, have been at this for any length of time, chances are you have experienced this, too. 

Some twenty years ago, my husband/partner and I decided to break away from the tradition we'd both been initiated and elevated in, and form our own based upon a synthesis of what we'd learned and inherited and gleaned, but filtered through our own philosophical and ethical viewpoint. We put a lot of time and care into its development, and in time met people and trained them and initiated them. We were upfront about our antecedents, and in some cases, a funny thing happened: the identity we'd presented them with was no longer acceptable to them. They started clamoring to be initiated into our parent tradition, perceiving it as being more "valid" for whatever various reasons. (All of this led us down a rabbit-hole, the story of which is not relevant to the present discussion.) Looking back on that now, I find that I am surprisingly offended, in ways that I wasn't at the time--if only because I lacked the experience and the perspective that I have now. It's like we'd baked a beautiful cake, based on our interpretation of an older recipe, and given that cake for free to people that we cared about and with whom we wanted to share it--and they said, "That cake is OK, but we want the REAL cake that we know you had, so bake THAT for us and give it to us." In hindsight, I think we might have done better to take back the uneaten remains of our cake and show them the door. 

Don't think I'm painting myself as an innocent little snowflake; good gods, I had the social acumen of an abandoned wolverine when I first started in this biz, and probably had the least amount of business trying to run a coven or a tradition or anything else of nearly anyone I've ever met. (I got better.) But at the heart of that was identity, you see, and what that meant to others and to their self-perception and to their perception of a thing's worth. I've fallen afoul of the identity trap myself, being bullied in the past into not identifying as something because I defined that identifier differently than did others. I feel sometimes as though my/our current practice lacks a definite identity; my partner and I have initiated people who have gone out and in turn initiated others, and their practices have stayed aligned with ours in some ways and morphed interestingly and sometimes dramatically in others. We're the same and different simultaneously, so how do you define that? It has a name to identify it, given to it by those initiates; and it's been called a tradition, and although perhaps it's not a "tradition" in the sense that many seem to use that term, there is absolutely a family resemblance and a bond there. I am inclined more to thinking of it as a "lineage" rather than a "tradition" that we have passed on. That may be as clear an identity as I can concoct for it, and for me.

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.