Thursday, December 16, 2010

The Three R's, Revised

When my daughter was 6 (she's a very grown-up 11 now) she came to me one day, huffing with indignation. She had discovered that only one of the fabled Three R's starts with R, and she wanted to know what kind of idiot was teaching this sort of thing to children. I had a good laugh then spent some time explaining my own version of the Three R's to her, a set of three concepts I had put together for my earth-centered spirituality students a few years earlier. For some time now I've been meaning to blog about my take on this time-honored set. Well, I'm finally getting around to it.

First of all, unlike the traditional Reading, 'Riting and 'Rithmetic, my Three R's aren't skills so much as values, ways to approach life. And yes, they all actually begin with R. My choices? Respect, Responsibility and Return.

Respect. That's a tough one for many people, because it starts with respecting yourself, and that's hard when everything from TV advertising to religious dogma tells you that you're inadequate, insufficient, broken. It took me a lot of years of soul-searching and emotional work to reach the point where I truly respected myself. The funny thing is, once I saw myself that way, I found it much easier to turn that respect outwards, to respect other people, their beliefs and opinions, their differences. I don't have to agree with them, but I feel I must go beyond simply tolerating others and honestly respect their ways and attitudes.

Respect also extends to the environment, the biosphere of which each of us is a living, breathing part. Sure, recycling is fashionable, but beyond that, we must see ourselves as integral components of the system. The Golden Rule applies here; if you were that forest, that lake, that mountain, would you want those things done to you? Respect, that's all.

Responsibility. We hear this word a lot in the media, mostly misused as a synonym for 'blame' or 'fault.' But that's not what it really means. It means that you do what you need to do, you own up to what you've done, and you think and act like a grown-up. Responsibility involves paying attention to the effects of your actions, preferably by considering the possible consequences BEFORE you do anything. I tend to think that the world would be a much different place if people focused on personal responsibility for their actions rather than hoping they can get away with whatever they're trying to get away with for just a little longer.

Responsibility also points toward that famous quotation about our actions affecting the next seven generations. Nothing happens in a vacuum. Everything you do changes the world, for better or for worse. Responsibility means doing your best, always. Granted, your best will vary from day to day, even from moment to moment, but if you always do your best, then you'll have no regrets.

Return. That's the one that always got me the quizzical looks from my students. Return is easy: What goes around, comes around. You get back what you put out there. No, I'm not talking about the twisted, punishment-and-reward misunderstanding of the Hindu concept of karma. I mean simply this: Everything you do generates an atmosphere around you, an energy if you will, that creates the 'vibe' of your world. (I know, I'm a child of the 70's; I can't help it. I say 'far out' and 'groovy,' too.) You will draw toward yourself the same sorts of stuff you exude. Misery loves company, remember?

'Return' doesn't mean you have to be a cheerful Pollyanna all the time. But it does mean that you should be mindful of the overall focus and direction of your life, and how that focus and direction drive your values and energy, and attract or repel people and opportunities. Use the first two R's - Respect and Responsibility - to help you judge what kind of Return your life will have.

As I discovered when I first introduced these Three R's, they can become the subject of hours and hours of discussion, even debate (but hopefully not argument). I think that means they have some meat to them, some meaning. I hope you find some value in them, and take the time to contemplate what they mean to you.

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

The Thankfulness Experiment

It's that time of year again, when we are asked to comment around the table, or on Facebook, or in school, about all the things we're thankful for. Little kids will list toys, pets, favorite foods. Adults will offer the usual - good health, family and friends, a safe place to live. And then, of course, everyone bemoans the fact that we aren't this mindfully grateful the rest of the year.

Well, I'm here to tell you, thankfulness (at least the way it's seasonally marketed) ain't all it's cracked up to be. And I think that's because we're going about it all wrong.

Before you decide I'm a spoiled, ungrateful brat and quit reading, let me tell you that I've spent the past year working on constant, mindful thankfulness. Yeah, I do stuff like that. I began The Thankfulness Experiment last year at Thanksgiving and it's coming to a close now. The experience was not at all what I expected.

First of all, I have to admit that my life is pretty good. I have a happy marriage, a lovely daughter, good health, great friends. I figured it would be easy to spend a year focusing on all the things I'm thankful for, thereby increasing all the positive energy in my life and improving my overall level of joy. Sounds like it would work, right? Well, the human psyche is a strange thing.

The more I actively, consciously worked to focus on things I'm honestly grateful for - everything from the smell of a spring breeze to a collection of wonderful friends to a hug from my daughter - the more I also noticed all the things I don't like about my life, things that are annoying, stressful, even downright dangerous. It's like, once I started paying closer attention to a few things, I could no longer choose what I paid attention to. Everything stood out in greater relief, both good and bad.

I began assessing this year-long experiment in the a few weeks ago, as Halloween passed and we began to prepare for another Thanksgiving. The more I thought about my experiences, the more I was reminded of the Kahlil Gibran quote: "The deeper that sorrow carves into your being, the more joy you can contain."

I really think that's what I experienced, sort of the opposite of the 'flattening effect' that anti-depressants have on the emotions. I chose to focus on just one aspect of my life but in the process the whole world became much more alive, more three-dimensional, more real. Including the ugly bits.

And you know what? As I reflected on the experience, without intending to, I found myself honestly being thankful even for the unpleasant stuff. No, I don't enjoy the darknesses in life. But somehow, in paying attention to them, I've discovered a kind of appreciation for them. Sure, I always understood (at least cerebrally) the idea that the brightest light casts the darkest shadow. But now, on a gut level, I really get it.

After reflection I also realized that, for me at least, the best way to do what I originally intended to do - be truly thankful on a regular basis outside the holiday season - is to just relax. The harder I work at being thankful, the more difficult it gets. So I've quit working at it, and the change is astounding.

I think most of us are naturally appreciative of the world around us and the many wonders it contains. Children certainly are; the good stuff stands out in their minds, in their hearts. If we just quit worrying so much about 'doing it right' - being appropriately, socially-acceptably thankful for the appropriate, socially-acceptable things - the world flows gently around us and we naturally respond to all the good things, the things we instinctively feel gratitude for. The good stuff.

So I've ended my experiment. I'm no longer working at being thankful, just allowing myself to be. And you know what? The bad stuff recedes into the background while the good stuff floats up into view. Even when I was standing in line this morning at the DMV to renew my driver's license. Now, if that's not true positive power, I don't know what is.

So this Thanksgiving I'm thankful for the opportunity to allow myself simply to be, and not require myself to be thankful for any particular tangible or intangible thing that people might expect me to express gratitude for.

Breathe in. Breathe out. So it is, and so we let it be.

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

The State of the System

Yesterday was election day. I voted by absentee ballot a week early so, with that out of the way, I got to spend election day and the few days leading up to it listening to other people comment about the State of the System - their worries about how bad things are and how bad they might get, depending on who is elected and which referenda pass.

Well, the election is over and we have a bunch of new folks in office and, as usual, everyone is complaining. Some people are even suggesting that the form of government we have is the problem; it encourages behind-the-scenes shenanigans, abuse of power, you name it.

I’ve thought about this subject for a long time, in fact, since I first registered to vote at age 18. I’ve studied the various forms of government people have had, around the world and over the millennia. And I’ve come to one inescapable conclusion: The problem is not with the systems, but with the people.

Here’s the thing: Pretty much any system of government will work well if all the people are ‘good guys’ - fair-minded, responsible, unselfish, not greedy or power-hungry. In fact, if everyone is a Good Guy, you probably don’t even need a system of government. The problem is, the human population has always had a sizeable proportion of Bad Guys. And they’re really good at finding ways to subvert the system, any system, for their personal gain, regardless of the consequences to everyone else.

This reminds me of a conversation I had years ago with the man who lived across the street from us. He spent about twenty years as the town chief of police, then did a couple terms as county sheriff before retiring. He asked me why we had laws. I suggested that the purpose of laws was to make people behave. He laughed. Then he pointed out something that staggered me, and that still rocks me when I really think about it.

The Good Guys don’t need laws; they’ll generally do the right thing simply because it’s the right thing. The Bad Guys ignore the laws and do whatever they want, regardless. About the only thing laws really do, in the grand scheme of things, is define which line the Bad Guys are crossing in a particular situation. Whoa.

Believe it or not, I’m not a cynic. I do think human nature has a powerfully positive side to it. It’s just that, throughout history (and probably through prehistory as well) the nasty bits of human nature have tended to float to the top, like so much greasy scum in a city puddle, and take over, simply because the nice bits of human nature tend to let them. Because they’re nice. Catch-22.

What’s the solution? Beats me. Maybe invent a better human being? I’ll check with God and get back to you about that. In the meantime, I’ll continue to surround myself with people who radiate those positive traits I mentioned earlier. I can’t change the world but I can sure as heck build a buffer between me and it.

Thursday, October 7, 2010

First Day of the Season - NOT!

Four times a year I watch my daughter get hopping mad about this. She thinks it should be 'taught properly in school' but I figure, if the professional meteorologists can't get it right, the school system definitely won't.

I'm talking about the solstices and the equinoxes. I'm talking about how the Professional Weatherpersons announce, four times a year, that it's The First Day of the Season. It bloody well is not. And yes, I'll tell you why.
First, did it ever occur to you to ask why, if Winter Solstice is the first day of winter, the other common name for the occasion is Midwinter? How about Summer Solstice and Midsummer? There's a reason that calling something 'Mid-Season' collides directly with the concept of its being the first day of the season.

This big wad of confusion stems largely from the fact that over the course of the centuries, the four other seasonal festivals, the ones that fit in between the solstices and equinoxes, have been lost. Did you know there are four other seasonal festivals? If you're pagan, you probably did, but they've fallen off the Official Western Calendar over time because the astronomical settings they mark aren't as obvious as the four points in the solar cycle. In other words, the four in-between dates (pagan holy days, all) could be squelched but the solstices and equinoxes had to be given at least lip service.

So what are these elusive, missing calendar bits? They're called the Cross-Quarters Festivals and they fit into the calendar like this:

Samhain (October 31-November 2, Halloween and/or All Saints and All Souls Days)
Winter Solstice
Imbolc (if you're Catholic, it's Lady Day, February 2)
Spring Equinox
Beltaine (May Day - maypoles and all that jazz)
Summer Solstice
Lammas (August 1, First Harvest or Harvest Home)
Autumn Equinox
In the old European calendar, the Cross-Quarters Festivals were the beginning/ending days of the season. Samhain is the first day of Winter, Imbolc the first day of Spring, Beltaine the first day of Summer and Lammas the first day of Autumn. The solstices and equinoxes were the high points of the seasons. Yes, I said high points, as in Midsummer and Midwinter. Get it? Personally, I think it's pretty nifty.

Why have the Cross-Quarters dates disappeared from our calendars? Simple. They're pagan holy days and the Christian Church, in its many manifestations, prefers that they disappear. The Powers That Be spent centuries stamping out the pagan seasonal celebrations and erasing them from the calendar. As I noted before, the Cross-Quarters were easier to expunge than the solar quarters. If you're Catholic, you'll find the dates still on the calendar as various holy days, but they certainly aren't given the precedence they were in ancient times.

So there, I've done the teaching that my daughter wanted. I hope I've enlightened you a little. Now, if you'd just send an e-mail to the nice folks at The Weather Channel, maybe we can get them to announce it correctly next time.

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

What Supports the Visible?

I’ve been reading Joseph Campbell again; maybe that’s to blame. I tend to go all mystical and inward-looking when I’ve been reading his wonderful works.

If I’m honest, though, what triggered this particular round of contemplation was a question from a friend: How did I go from almost becoming a nun, to Wiccan, to ‘don’t-label-me-but-I-guess-you-can-call-me-pagan’?

Yeah, well, I’ll have to think about that one for a minute. Actually, I’ve been thinking about it for days now. It sounds like quite the amusement park ride, doesn’t it? My spiritual life has definitely felt like a roller-coaster ever since I was old enough to contemplate the concept of the Divine and pose embarrassing questions to my elders.

I was raised in a Protestant family; seriously studied Catholicism as a teenager, to the point of considering entering an abbey and taking vows; discovered Wicca as a young adult and worked my way through its three degrees; and finally emerged as a no-name pantheist with mystical and shamanic tendencies. Yes, I know there’s professional help for that kind of thing.

The weird thing is, I’m finally happy, spiritually speaking. I’ve found what I was looking for, even though for years I couldn’t articulate exactly what that was. Obviously it wasn’t a formal religious tradition; I’ve run through enough of them, heaven knows. But it was a definable something, and in order to answer my friend’s question, I had to find that definition.

Joseph Campbell talks about the invisible world that supports the visible one, the numinous eternity that all religions try to describe but inevitably fail, simply because words are inadequate. The human brain, in fact, is inadequate. As soon as we start to think about It, we limit It. But It was what I was searching for: that fateful point at which the invisible world and the visible world touch each other, interpenetrate, and allow us measly humans, caught in the linear time-stream, to experience timelessness. It is that point which we reach in ecstatic states, profound ritual, deep mysticism.

As I thought back over my own journey through spiritual experience, I began to think of the general restlessness of society today, of people’s need for meaning and purpose and their often-disappointing search for it in a wide variety of religious traditions. I remembered the first time I realized, somewhere in middle school, that a typical Protestant religious service didn’t ‘do it’ for me. I tried lots of different flavors - Methodist, Baptist, Episcopalian, Lutheran, UU, Unity - but none of them provided more than a social experience combined with a touch of teaching.

I shifted to Catholicism; my Protestant relatives had derogated it as ‘practically pagan’ so of course I was intrigued. But by the time I went to my first Mass, the liturgy had been translated out of Latin and the priest had turned around to face the congregation, ‘like Julia Child doing a cooking demonstration’ as Joseph Campbell put it. I could still feel the remnants of power, of the ability to push through the veil, but it just didn’t happen.

So I entered fully into paganism, first Wicca and then, following ancestral cues, into Celtic and Norse history and spirituality. Every now and then something would feel ‘just right’ and I would think I had found The Right Brand of Religion For Me. But then the feeling would fade and I would be left wondering what happened.

Well, it turns out it wasn’t the brand that was the problem. It was that point of Two-Worlds-Touching that I was seeking. I think, underneath it all, it’s what everyone seeks, whether they realize it or not. The experience of the numinous, the eternal, the Bigger-Than-We-Are (or perhaps, Bigger-Than-We-Can-Even-Comprehend). In the process of figuring out what I was seeking, I found it. And stayed in it. For a long time. Wheeee!

What really knocked me for a loop was the realization that I don’t even need a religious tradition to find that point. I have it within me to find it, through contemplation, shamanic journeying, standard traditional mystical practice. Oh, sure, ritual helps, I won’t deny that. But it no longer matters what kind of ritual, what flavor, what ‘brand.’

I think we all have that ability within us. Maybe it’s in our DNA or our souls; I don’t know. I just know it’s there. For some people, a formal religious service will ‘click’ and shift them to that point. For others, being in nature, or meditating, or dancing. As my uncle used to say, whatever blows your skirt up.

As long as you do it. Go there. Risk finding out what it is that underlies everything that we are, everything that is. I dare you. I’ll meet you there.

Saturday, September 4, 2010

The Instability of It All

As we head into Autumn, with the holidays looming not too far away on the calendar, I’ve started thinking about how much I miss being part of an organized spiritual group. I’ve had several conversations with friends lately about the volatility of informal groups such as covens and collectives, and the inflexibility of formal groups such as churches and temples, and I’ve come to one conclusion: Nothing is as stable as we’d like to think it is.

I grew up going to church (first Methodist, then Episcopal, then Lutheran) and always felt that those organizations, both the local congregations and the over-arching institutions, were somehow permanent. Enduring. Stable. That gave me a sense of security, even if I didn’t really agree with the concepts and beliefs the churches taught, even if I felt more than a little stifled by the rigidity and dogma.

Then I discovered the pagan community, that joyful disorganization and chaotic clamor of people following their hearts. Oh, what bliss! To be myself, to enact my true beliefs in concert with so many others who were delighted to enjoy the same experience. But there was no security, as I discovered when group after group crumbled due to personality conflicts, life overload, yes, even dogmatic disputes.

So I sat back and sighed in sadness, watching the two worlds of faith and belief go by, wondering how - or whether - it would be possible to combine the stability of institutional religion with the liberty of informal worship. I thought, surely there must be a way. But as I examined the details of organized religion more closely, I discovered that nothing is as stable or secure as I thought.

I reflected back to the Primitive Baptist church my great-grandfather founded in north Florida more than a century ago, and to the horrible, heart-rending dogmatic split that broke its congregation in two when I was a child. I recalled the dispute that tore apart a friend’s Methodist congregation a mere decade ago, right here where I live. I turned on the TV and watched as Sunni and Shi’ite Muslims aimed deadly weapons at each other, people whose ancestors had knelt side by side in worship of a God who loved them all.

So I took some time to look back through history at every major religion, not just Christianity. Where I thought I might find security and stability, instead I found case after case of division, discord, rupture. Sure, the edifice of the church or temple or mosque provides the illusion of constancy and permanence. But it’s only a building; the living beings inside it move, change, argue, leave. Once the dispute is over, the building still stands, giving once more the false impression of durability. Giving, also, a focus for the reconstruction of the congregation, but not the same people who were there before, and probably not the same beliefs and practice, either.

Nothing is as stable as it looks, at least not where human beings are involved, and especially not when people’s beliefs come into play.

Well, that’s a fine how-de-do, as my grandpa used to say. Sure, I have my personal faith and my private connection with Deity. That endures, always. It supports me and holds me up through the worst of times.

But being able to express that faith, that connection with Deity, with my fellow human beings, to celebrate it in an atmosphere of love and trust, that’s a good bit harder to come by. The decision between formal rigidity and informal chaos doesn’t look like much of a choice. But then, maybe I’m being too picky.

Yes, we all carry that spark of the Divine within us, that glowing core of perfection that inspires us to incredible heights. But we’re also human, fallible, imperfect. How can I expect an organization designed, administered and peopled by ordinary human beings to be perfect? I can’t. I can agree or disagree, join or depart, inspire change or leave it alone, but I can’t require something that can’t be delivered.

What it comes down to, then, is that I must regard religious organizations the way I deal with my fellow human beings: With compassion. With patience and forbearance. All those things the great religions teach us about, even while they’re fighting each other over footnotes and details.

I can expect more, hope for more, pray for more. But when what I get is less, I have to accept that as well. Because we’re all every bit as human as we are divine. And no, that’s not a contradiction.

Thou art Goddess. Thou art God. Go in peace.

Monday, August 16, 2010

True Abundance Begets More

I've been thinking about the concept of abundance lately. We just passed Lammas (August 1) which, in the old European calendar, is the date of first harvest. Abundance is often a theme at harvest-time, and it's quite a concrete concept to those of us who have gardens overflowing with produce right about now. But then I thought, is that what abundance really means?

Well, to pre-modern peoples, it sure was. A huge harvest with plenty of grain sheaves, lots of fruits and vegetables drying in the rafters, meant a comfortable winter and the knowledge that you could make it without worry until the first spring greens pushed up out of the earth. Until recently in human history, abundance was food, pure and simple. The Irish goddess Tailltiu teaches us this; she was the foster-mother of Lugh, the god of light, and she provided her people with incredible abundance so they could be secure.
But over the course of the past century or two we've weaned ourselves away from the land and developed a complicated system of food production and delivery; few of us feel the power of row upon row of filled canning jars, the glory of a field full of wheat sheaves, any more. So what does abundance mean today?

I remember one of the first lessons my parents taught me about abundance, and over the years I've come to realize how wrong it was. It was simple, really: I wanted a big piece of cake and my mother demonstrated that if I chose a larger piece of cake, that meant my sister would get a smaller one. A cake is finite and concrete; its division follows the basic laws of classical physics.

Throughout my childhood my parents reinforced this concept over and over, the idea that if one person got more, other people got less. As I grew older I learned to feel bad when I did well financially because I was sure that meant that some nebulous 'other person' somewhere was doing worse because of me.

When I became an adult, I did reasonably well for myself. I worked hard, I behaved responsibly and I ended up with a lovely family and a beautiful home on a big piece of land, right next to a farm. And one day I found myself feeling bad that I had such a nice home, because that surely meant that someone else, somewhere, had to take something lesser.

And then Tailltiu thumped me in the head, and I realized how inaccurate that point of view is. I understand where it came from; my parents both grew up in poverty-stricken households. I'm sure everyone in their families looked at the wealthy and thought, "Look at how much they have. That's why we have nothing. They took it all."

But that's not really how it works, is it? Because that's not what real abundance is about. Abundance isn't a measure of concrete objects, whether it's piles of pumpkins or stacks of dollar bills. It's not a function of 'taking from others' - true abundance can't be like that, because it is a divine gift. A gift is not something you take; it is given, and you accept it. With gratitude.
Slowly, over the years, I've learned Tailltiu's lesson. It doesn't obey any of the 'laws' of physics or mathematics that we puny humans have invented, but I find that it is true nonetheless: When I open my heart to true abundance, I receive incredible gifts. And so do those around me. Everyone I touch, who also opens their heart to true abundance, receives more. Abundance pays itself forward generously.

We're not taking away from anyone. The underlying lesson of true abundance, its magic if you will, is that it is very closely akin to love: True abundance always begets more for everyone. It is infinite, and ever-increasing.

May you be blessed with true abundance in every aspect of your life, and may it radiate outward from you, like the divine love of which it is a blessed gift.

Monday, July 19, 2010

Oh No, Politics Again!

That’s the thought that runs through my head about this time, in even-numbered years, when hundreds of political advertisement signs sprout up along the roadsides near my home. This sudden ‘fruiting’ of the world of politics means I have some work to do. Our local primaries are tomorrow, with at least two runoffs expected, and then of course there’s the big election in November.

On a personal level I’m not too fond of politicians, and I’ll tell you why. When I was in high school I had to take an American Government class; your school might have titled the same class ‘Civics.’ One of the requirements for passing the class was to work twenty or more hours as a volunteer in a local political campaign. My parents were friends with a county commissioner who was running for re-election so I joined his campaign. Silly me, I thought I was participating in honest democracy.

My twenty hours of volunteer work had exactly the opposite effect my teacher had hoped. Poor Mrs. Landry, she just wanted us to experience the electoral process. Instead I discovered that politicians will say whatever they think the people want to hear in order to get elected. The guy whose campaign I was working on actually bragged about how smart he was and how stupid the voters were to believe him. He got a friend to join the race in order to draw votes away from an opponent. He had his volunteers go out under cover of darkness and pull up opponents’ signs. And it went downhill from there. I have to admit, one night after I came home from working in the campaign office, I just sat there and cried.

When I turned eighteen I dutifully registered and voted, but my heart just wasn’t in it. I realized that what I had seen at the local level only magnified as it moved up into state and federal politics. Thankfully, over the years I mellowed a little and the readings on my Disillusionment Meter dropped back into the normal range. As I learned more about human history, going back into ancient times, I discovered that people have always been this way. It’s nothing new. It must just be human nature. So I determined to outwit the politicians.

Some of my friends think I have an odd attitude about politics, and maybe I do. Here’s the thing: I never listen to what the politicians say. I learned, way back in high school, that politicians will say whatever the hell they want in order to get votes. So I don’t listen to advertisements, I don’t watch debates and I ignore the roadside signs. What I do is research.

I figured out that a politician’s previous voting record is a remarkably accurate indicator of how they will behave in the future. I also figured out that where their money comes from is the main indicator of how they might change their voting behavior (or maintain it). I find these two pieces of information to be vital to making a choice on election day. How do I find this information?

Project Vote Smart. It’s the single best source of accurate information on U.S. elections out there. Type in your zip code or browse through the levels of government (President, Congress, Federal, State, Local). Vote Smart is always my first stop when I’m researching candidates.

When I can’t find what I want on Vote Smart, I google the candidate’s name plus the words “voting record” or “financial contributions.” That usually gives me what I need. This works for any political race, anywhere in the world. OK, maybe not China.

I also discovered another trick to outwit the politicians-vs.-the-people system. In the 2008 election I had over thirty different offices to vote for, from local up to federal level, plus several local and state referenda. There’s no way I can memorize that many choices. So I ordered an absentee ballot.

Most U.S. states now allow you to order an absentee ballot without having to specify a reason for needing it. Check Vote411, a website run by the education fund of the League of Women Voters, for information on how to get an absentee ballot in your state (and how to register to vote online, find your polling place, determine election dates and more). Many other nations now also allow absentee balloting without having to justify your need for one; check with your local election officials.

Here’s what I do: I order an absentee ballot well in advance of the election so I’m not pressed for time. I sit down at the computer with the ballot and start researching the candidates using the methods I outlined above. In 2008 it took me just over an hour to find all the information I needed and make about three dozen voting decisions (VoteSmart was a big help in this regard). I figure, that’s time well spent. Just an hour every two years to make informed decisions that will affect my life at all levels.

When I’m done I simply mail in my ballot. Actually, I have to admit, I don’t mail it in right away. My husband copies my choices onto his ballot as well - now that’s real marital trust! But then, we have very similar political views, so it works out well.

I hope you can find encouragement here and do your own research for the upcoming election. It doesn’t matter what your political views are. The important thing is to find out what the politicians are really going to do once they’re in office, regardless of what they say on the campaign trail. That’s real, nitty-gritty information that will help you make decisions you won’t regret once the polls close.

Saturday, July 10, 2010

All Change Is Loss

That’s a really depressing title, I know, but it’s something I’ve been contemplating for a couple weeks now. At first I was afraid I was guilty of “if the only tool you have his a hammer, every problem looks like a nail.” But I don’t think so. Here’s what I’ve been thinking.

This all started out as I watched a friend get ready to make some big life changes: Graduation from seminary, first job as a full-time minister, moving to a new home. These are all things we think of as positive - stuff we look forward to. Things she has worked really hard for.

But over the past few months, as these changes took place, my friend has been exhibiting many of the common symptoms of grief. I’m very familiar with these symptoms, and with the classic stages of grief as defined by Elisabeth Kübler-Ross because I’ve been through them myself as well as learning about them formally when I took training to be a grief counselor.

You see, when my first child was born, she had severe physical disabilities, a condition called arthrogryposis. In my case it was caused by a bout of staphylococcal food poisoning I had when I was seven months pregnant. The toxins from the bacteria damaged my daughter’s motor cortex so she couldn’t move properly - her muscles simply didn’t respond to her brain. She was confined to a wheelchair for the five short years of her life.

When I took grief counselor training from Parents Helping Parents in Tennessee (Parent to Parent of Georgia is another great support group) I learned that the gut-wrenching, raw emotions parents of disabled children experience really are grief. No, your child didn’t die, but the child you expected to be born is gone, replaced by something you never expected. If your child (or any other close family member) develops a serious medical condition later in life, or is disabled due to an injury or illness, the same applies: You don’t have the person you expected any more, and you grieve for that loss.

Of course, when someone we love dies, the loss is obvious and the grief is expected. But what about other losses, big and small?

The more I think about it, the more I understand that any change, even a positive one, is a loss, in the sense that we’re losing the status quo and having to adapt to new circumstances. That’s why the Holmes and Rahe stress scale that I used for years with my naturopathy clients includes such ‘happy’ changes as marriage, marital reconciliation, pregnancy and outstanding personal achievement.

It’s funny how we humans cling to the status quo and are afraid to change, even when the change is a positive one. I guess that’s where the old saying, “Better the devil you know” comes from. When we make a change, we’re walking through a doorway and we can’t know for sure what the world will look like on the other side. That’s scary. We’d rather be miserable than lose control.

The Death card in Tarot encapsulates this concept: Life change means walking into the unknown. Robert Heinlein’s character Valentine Michael Smith called these points in life ‘cusps.’ They’re like crossroads, where we have to make a choice, and that choice will change everything from that point on. That choice, and that change, can be so scary that we freeze and get stuck at that crossroads, unable to move on.

My sister-in-law, a substance abuse counselor, has told me that this is a common problem among her clients. They’re already miserable, often in abusive relationships in addition to having to deal with their addictions, but they’re afraid to take that step, to choose which way to turn at the crossroads, so they just hover in that one spot, unable to move. In order to make a change to health and safety, they have to give up all they know. They have to let go - incur a loss - before they can move on.

I can’t think how many times my various spiritual mentors have recited to me that well-worn cliché about having to empty out your cup before you can fill it up again. Yeah, I’m right there with everyone else, not wanting to let go of the ol’ status quo. But what I hadn’t realized until now was why it’s so damn hard to empty out that cup in the first place. It’s a loss. It evokes grief. And no one wants to feel that, to go through that. No wonder it’s so hard.

But now that I understand what’s really going on inside me, why change is so hard - even positive change - maybe I can work my way through it with a little more ease. I can give myself the room to recognize the grief and honor it. And move on.

Friday, June 25, 2010

Winning the Argument Doesn’t Mean You’re Right

We all know someone who needs to get this message. Unfortunately, the people who need to hear it the most are the ones who will stare you straight in the face, uncomprehending, when you try to tell them. They’re right and they know it, and no amount of discussion with mere mortals will convince them otherwise.

I lived with someone like this for nearly two years. By the time I moved out, I was worn out. Why? He was good at arguing, and naturally assumed that his ability to easily win most arguments meant he was always right. Unfortunately, the two don’t follow.

I had a friend in high school, a brilliant young man on the school’s debate team. He once successfully argued that light is neither a wave nor a particle, but a technology from UFO aliens. He won the argument. Does that mean he was right?

I have recently run across several more people like this. Most of them are nice enough and mean no harm, but a few take arguing to Olympic sport level, leaving normal people strewn about the field like so many battle casualties. They have learned to listen for certain phrases and bits of information in conversation, latch onto them and launch into a (usually meaningless) argument. They use emotionally loaded wording that is inappropriate to the situation in order to goad people into joining the argument with them.

A recent example: I commented on a quote a friend put up on Facebook, suggesting that in certain ways, we really do create our own reality. One of these Arguers immediately responded, saying that I must mean that all those starving children in Africa chose to be in the predicament they’re in. It’s an emotionally loaded statement, designed to goad the other person into responding, and it’s totally inappropriate to the discussion at hand.

I have to admit, I responded. My own fault. I was multi-tasking, not paying close enough attention to what was being said, or I would have recognized the bait for what it was and ignored it.

One thing I have noticed about people who delight in arguing like this is that they all seem to have a black-and-white, fundamentalist mindset. Bear in mind, a fundamentalist in any field is someone who believes their own way is the right way, not just for them, but for everyone. In other words, whatever their viewpoint, they’re dead sure they’re right and everyone else is wrong. And their ability to win arguments reinforces their viewpoint. Not a good thing, if you ask me.

One of my favorite examples of this quality is Michael Shermer, infamous editor of Skeptic Magazine. I read somewhere that he used to be a fundamentalist Christian before he became an atheist (and a fundamentalist atheist, at that!). I can believe it.

Some of the most vicious Arguers I’ve ever met were fundamentalist Christians. They actually take classes to learn how to argue someone down - I’m not kidding. Anyone unlucky enough to end up in a conversation with these people doesn’t know what hit them until it’s too late.

All this arguing goes back to the classical Greek concept of rhetoric, a word we hear tossed around a lot during election years, usually with a negative connotation (“Don’t give me that rhetoric; just answer the question!”). Rhetoric is language carefully chosen for its emotional content in order to win an argument. That is its sole purpose: to win the argument. There’s nothing inherently evil about rhetoric. We use loaded language all the time in our daily lives, and politicians live off the stuff.

But sometimes people take it too far, like those who love to ambush someone with a loaded statement, win the argument hands-down and walk away chuckling to themselves about how superior they are. That’s a bullying action. The people who do this are bullies, though we often don’t recognize them as such because, as they’re quick to point out, they are only participating in ‘polite discussions.’

I get tired of having to keep constant watch for these people. I want real discussions about wide-ranging topics, conversations in which I might learn something new and expand my mindset and worldview. I don’t want an argument in which one person wins and the other loses. But in order to find the conversations I crave, I have to put myself out there. That means I’m occasionally spotted by these bullies, and they just sap my energy. I’ve often wondered if they don’t somehow vampirize the energy they generate when they upset people. They definitely delight in trampling us ordinary mortals in conversation, twisting our words to mean what they don’t and showing themselves to be oh-so-superior, at least in the skill of debate.

So what’s a mere mortal to do? I’ll continue keeping an eye out for those loaded statements, that bait, and do my best to ignore it, even when my gut response to these people involves words you can’t say on TV. Why? Because I like the conversation I have with people, the discussion of differing viewpoints - not to argue who’s right or wrong, but to appreciate how the world looks through someone else’s eyes. And maybe learn something from it. Not to be superior, not to win or lose, but simply to grow and share.

Monday, June 14, 2010

Making a Difference

My daughter is ten years old. She wants to save the world.

All right, not exactly save it, but at least keep us adults from ruining it for her and her children. We've been having a lot of conversations lately about what she can do to make a difference, a positive impact on the future. It's hard to come up with things an individual can do, especially a child, to change the world. But as we were talking the other day, I was reminded of a story:

An old man was walking along the beach after a storm. The sand was littered with hundreds, maybe thousands of starfish that had been blown up on shore by the wind and surf. As the man walked, he stooped and picked up the starfish, throwing them back into the ocean one by one so they wouldn't die. Someone came by and saw what he was doing.  They asked, "Why are you bothering. You'll never make a difference." The man bent, picked up a starfish and threw it back into the water. "I made a difference for that one," he said.

Well, there you go. We don't have to change the world, just our little part of it. If enough of us realize that fact and act on it, then all our 'little parts' of the world will join together and create big change. So we sat down, as a family, and brainstormed about how we could make a difference in our little corner of the world. Some of these are choices we had already made, but we came to see them in a new light. Others are new. Here are a few of them:

1. Switch our cell phones to Credo Mobile. If we're going to pay money for a service, we want it to go to a company that actively supports the same values we do, not to places like AT&T and Verizon that donate millions of dollars to anti-environmental lobbies. Credo members get to vote on the progressive social and environmental organizations the company donates money to, over $85 million and counting.

2. Likewise, we have chosen satellite (Dish Network, but DirectTV is good, too) over cable because the cable companies push huge amounts of money in Washington each year in an effort to limit consumer access to real information. Our roster of satellite channels includes such progressive/alternative sources as Democracy Now, Free Speech TV and Link TV. Unfortunately, the satellite providers don't offer internet service in our area yet. We're looking forward to that, so we can get totally away from the big corporations that extol 'virtues' we disagree with.

3. Grow our own garden. I've always had something-or-other growing, in pots or in the ground. But we've expanded our vegetable garden so we'll have enough produce to fill up an upright freezer at the end of the season. My husband doesn't mind if I take over more parts of the lawn - it's less for him to mow! We've also chosen the permaculture/edible landscaping route. We had two willow trees die and chose to replace them with butternuts. From now on, if we add something new or replace something that has died, the new tree/bush/etc. must be something that produces food. By growing our own, we're removing ourselves at least in part from the chemical and petroleum-laden grow/process/ship cycle of commercial produce. My daughter is actually willing to work in the garden with us, without being prodded, because she realizes the impact this simple act makes on the world.

4. Reduce, reuse, recycle. Yeah, I know, everyone does this these days. Or do they? On trash pickup day it's unusual for our garbage can to be more than 1/4 full. Our neighbors, who also recycle, have a lot more trash than we do; I still haven't figured that out. We recycle glass, plastic, cardboard, newspaper, aluminum, steel, junk mail and other paper, and phone books. Anything organic, including hair (human and animal) and paper towels goes in the compost. When I shred old bank statements and the like, the shreds go in the compost as well. We don't throw away clothes and household items; they go to Goodwill. We shop at thrift stores and used bookstores as much as possible to avoid buying into the resource stream.

We're adding more things as we think of them. Sure, we're just three people, but that's three more than were doing these things before. And my daughter figures, maybe if people see us doing these things, they'll do them as well. I'm thinking, maybe she's right.

Do you have any ideas for us? What do you do, or would like to do, to make the world a better place? Thanks for sharing.

Friday, June 4, 2010

That Part of Me Is Broken

I'm writing a book, you see, a novel, and that means I have to think about things. Not just plot and characters and dialogue, but values and ethics and judgment. Just when I think I have sorted out what I  think I know and understand, I have to examine why my characters act the way they do and then I get stuck in a bog.

Here's what happened: I was talking with a good friend, getting some advice and ideas about the novel I'm working on. The storyline involves a sheriff's deputy and her boss (it's a sort of inside-out murder mystery) as well as folk magic and Hoodoo. At one point the conversation with my friend focused on how law enforcement officers view victims and criminals. I found this part very interesting and started reading up on it from other sources as well.

We all tend to sympathize with crime victims, but apparently in certain circumstances detectives can come to sympathize with criminals as well, particularly in an abuse situation. You see, abusers were themselves abused. That's how they got that way. In other words, they started out as victims.

Once you understand the process, and the vicious cycle of abuse, you develop some sympathy for the abuser. The criminal. And obviously, this can cause problems for a detective who's trying to catch said criminal. So I should probably incorporate this ethical dilemma into my novel. But I have a little problem, since I like to imagine how my characters feel, and I can't manage to imagine this bit.

Apparently this part of my psyche is broken because I just can't stir up that sympathy. A number of years ago, when my mother told me how her father and uncle had abused and molested her, she expected me to sympathize with her and understand why she chose to abuse and molest me, but I just couldn't. And yes, I used the word CHOSE.

You see, I CHOSE not to abuse or molest my children. I CHOSE to break the cycle and not use my own childhood as an excuse to ruin someone else's childhood. Yes, it was hard. Damn hard. It required a lot of painful self-examination and healing work on my part. But I wasn't going to allow myself to become the kind of person so many of my family members are, doing something to their children simply because it's what was done to them. That's how 'fun' traditions like hazing manage to keep going - because no one takes responsibility.

So I'm going to drop my novel's protagonist right into this thorny dilemma. Who is really the victim, who is really the criminal, and what, if anything, does sympathy have to do with justice? She's not going to enjoy it. In fact, it's going to make her miserable. But maybe, just maybe, she'll discover where responsibility really lies.

Friday, May 28, 2010

Anonymous Behind the Wheel

Have you ever noticed that some people turn into complete ogres as soon as they get behind the wheel of a car?  People you like, your friends and family, who otherwise appear to be perfectly decent human beings? I have a theory about that.

When I was little and my grandmother caught me sneaking around, doing something I shouldn't have been doing, instead of yelling at me she told me this: You can tell what a person is really like by what they choose to do when no one is watching. (Yeah, Grandmother Crews was an immensely cool lady.) I think this is what happens when we drive.
Think about it. Unless you drive a convertible or live in a really, really small town (or both) the other drivers don't know who you are. They can barely see your face. They can't identify you by your license plate. So you can do pretty much whatever you want and get away with it.

I have a few friends and relatives (thankfully, only a few) who take advantage of this anonymity. I have begun to wonder about their true nature, how they really view themselves in relation to the rest of mankind, due to their driving habits. These are people who appear thoughtful and compassionate when in direct contact with other human beings but who morph into The Angry Driving Beast when they get behind the wheel.

You've met people like this on the road. They tailgate you because you're not going fast enough for them, even if you're already speeding. They cut you off. They lay on the horn when you don't zip ahead quickly enough the moment the light turns green. They speed like nobody's business, not just a little but a hell of a lot.

Here's the thing: When you get your drivers license, after you've passed the written and driving tests to prove you KNOW the law, you sign a contract. This contract says you will obey that law (you can't claim ignorance here since you've just passed the test) and will drive in a safe and courteous manner. Most people choose to do so. But there are a few who don't.

Do they think they're above the law? Maybe where they're going is vastly more important than where everyone else is going. Maybe they're angry that so many other people are out on "their" road, blocking their progress. This kind of driving behavior makes me think that these people believe themselves to be somehow better than everyone else. Otherwise, I just can't explain it - why would a decent person suddenly become indecent in the driver's seat of an automobile?

I've got to go take my daughter to a petsitting job now. Let's hope I don't meet too many of those drivers along the way.

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Wrestling with Demons, or How Not to Be a Nice Person

I'm a writer. It's what I do. I decided a couple years ago to shift from non-fiction to fiction. Nobody bothered to tell me that, in order to write good fiction, you have to become sadist and torture your characters.

Here's the thing: Unless you prefer overblown literary fiction, when you read a novel you want conflict. That's what drives the story, what pushes people to do things that make a difference in the outcome. Without conflict the reader might die of boredom. Or at least put the book down and never buy another title with your name on it.

Look at the classics. Huckleberry Finn. War and Peace. Wuthering Heights. Shakespeare. Heck, even going back to Homer, every good story has battles, either literal or figurative, between the characters. There's not always a clear-cut good guy and bad guy, but the central figures in the plot need to be at odds with one another in some fashion. Maybe they disagree about how to handle a situation. Maybe their values are very different, so different they can't find common ground. Maybe one of them is just a dirtbag.

So here I am, sitting at my desk, beaming over the great plotline I've thought up and tweaked with the help of illuminating conversations with friends and spouse. I've got a great main character - she's really three-dimensional, I know her backstory all the way down to her birth, and she has great motivation to do all sorts of interesting things in my story. Even though she isn't a flesh-and-blood person, I'm kind of fond of her. And in order to write the novel, I have to be really mean to her.

I have to put her in situations that encourage her to make mistakes. I have to make the other characters attack her, undermine her, plot against her. Maybe her first mistake is an honest one, something anyone could have done in similar circumstances. But what happens when we make mistakes and then panic? We make more mistakes, trying to 'fix' the situation the first one caused. The snowball effect ensues, bringing down disaster on my beloved main character. Yikes.

I hate this part. I guess I'm not really a sadist at heart (that's probably a good thing) but I know what is necessary to create a gripping story. I've read books that bored me to tears because the conflict didn't seem real or there wasn't enough (or any) of it.

So I have to allow my imagination to roam into the darker realms of meanness...if I were the bad guy, what would I do? How would I trip up an opponent, a really sweet woman who only wants to see justice done? What would I do to embarrass her, encourage her to make mistakes, push her to panic?

The good part is that I then get to figure out how she gets herself out of the mess. At least I have that satisfaction. After all, I do believe in happy endings.

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Have you done enough penance yet?

When I'm meditating (which I do regularly) my guides often 'pop in' and offer thoughts about whatever I'm concerned about at the moment. Usually it's just a hint to point me in the right direction, an idea that will help me move along in life. A couple days ago, however, one of my guides decided to apply the hint with a two-by-four.

Bear in mind, I do a lot of shamanic working so I'm used to talking to otherworldly beings. Yep, just like those 'invisible friends' you had as a kid, only I'm still doing it as an adult. And yes, I know there's medication for that sort of thing!
Over the past three or four years I've worked hard to heal the wounds from my childhood, forgive and release and move on. I've been putting myself back together, figuring out who I really am. I thought I was doing well with this process. So there I was, sitting in my favorite meditation spot in our art/sewing studio, which happens to be in the dug-in end of the basement, completely surrounded by Mother Earth. I began the meditation. I focused on my goal for that session and an image popped into my head.

I was in my Inner Chamber, standing between two pillars. Each one was topped with a clear box containing an item. One box gleamed and glowed, emanating a soft, golden light. Inside it lay a crown. The other box was dark. It just squatted there in the shadows, full of what looked like old, corroded hand tools. My guide appeared and told me that either box would get me to where I wanted to go, figuratively speaking. I looked at the golden box, turned my back to it and reached for the other one. I grasped the tools - they were heavy - and turned back to her, expecting confirmation of my correct choice.

She was staring at me, scowling, her hands on her hips.

"Have you done enough penance yet?" she asked.

Well, tie me to an anthill and smear my ears with jam.
Of course, I put the tools back and took the crown instead. But I realized, thanks to the two-by-four, that the ultimate healing comes not from identifying and releasing each individual bit of ick, salving each individual wound. The ultimate healing comes from recognizing our own worth, our own value. I realized that for much of my life I had chosen the old tools instead of the crown, figuratively speaking, because I believed I wasn't worthy of the crown. I've been doing penance for being imperfect, for being human. How very Calvinist of me.

Sure, I can point to all the horrible things that happened during my childhood as evidence that I had my sense of worth beaten out of me, literally. But I know a lot of people who are struggling with the same problem, people who had perfectly happy childhoods. What is it that causes us to shift from the young child's innate sense of worth, the sense of knowing they deserve every good thing in this world, to the adult's bad habit of self-criticism, of finding everything wrong within us instead of looking for what's right?

Little kids instinctively know that they come straight from the Divine, no question. They are, as the poet said, fresh from God. They don't stop to ponder whether they deserve every little thing they want - they demand it all, right now. Sure, we adults build up in our minds exactly what we want, how we would prefer our lives to be, and sometimes we even ask for those things, but there's always that little voice in the background saying, "Please give it to me only if I'm worthy." We step on our own toes all the time.

I'm pretty sure the Source of All that loved us into being thinks we're worthy, KNOWS we're worthy. So I'm going to turn around now and face who I was as a child and find that sense of value again. It doesn't come from what we've done or what other people think of us. It's built in. If you believe in a holographic universe then it's in each and every cell of your body, each and every molecule of matter everywhere, everywhen.

I'm going to go try on that crown now. I'll let you know how it goes.

Friday, May 7, 2010

Curses, Foiled Again! Plotting Against Myself

Yesterday I had the wonderful experience of sharing writing time with my 10-year-old daughter. We were both in my office, on separate computers, working on our stories and occasionally tossing out comments and questions to each other. I had a great time and actually got a good bit of writing done. I'm hoping these 'write-ins' become a regular part of our daily life.

What I found most interesting is that we were both facing the same issue in our writing: The Dreaded Middle Part. I can come up with a great beginning to my story and I know where I want it to end up, but getting from Point A to Point B can be dodgy, especially when I include the necessary psychological changes in my characters as I go along. My daughter's story is about elves and fairies in a made-up galaxy. Mine is about human beings in North Georgia. But we faced the same dilemma.

Somewhere in the course of our conversation, when my daughter was sounding way more deep and grown-up than a 10-year-old is supposed to, she asked a profound question: How do you get from Point A to Point B in real life? The same process should apply, she suggested, to characters and their storylines.

Whoa.

First of all, I don't know many people who apply themselves to life with the mindfulness necessary to even identify Point A and Point B, much less figure out how to get from here to there. Sure, most of us follow the standard go-to-school-and-get-a-job plan, but my daughter's Point A and Point B included more than just the practical bits of reality - she meant, how do you get from the person you are at Point A to the person you want to become at Point B?

Sure, no problem, kid, I'll just outline the process to you in three easy steps. Not.

Thirty seconds of conversation yesterday morning has kept my mind busy for more than a full day now. I've identified my own Point A, who I am and where I'm at right now. I've identified Point B, in both practical and philosophical terms. Now I'm patiently waiting for insight as to the path between the two points. All right, not entirely patiently. But I'm filling up the time by working on those same points and the path between them for my novel's main character. I know who she is when the novel starts. I know who she is when it ends. Now it's my job to present her with situations that force her to change, to undertake the process that moves her from Point A to Point B on an inner level. It won't be pretty. Life rarely is. But I'm sure it will be satisfying. I hope I'll be that fulfilled when I reach Point B, too.

Monday, April 26, 2010

Put Down the Seat AND the Lid!

I can't believe I'm really blogging about this, but sometimes life is stranger than fiction. When several people in a row ask me the same question over the course of a few days, I figure it's some kind of divine intervention pointing me toward that subject. This time the question is, "Why should I bother putting the toilet seat down?" And yes, I do think the gods have quite a sense of humor.
Of course, we all know that the toilet seat issue is a sticking point in personal relationships. Over the century or so since the commode became commonplace in people's bathrooms I'm sure it has acted as the last straw in numerous marriages and, since the Enlightenment of the Sixties, quite a few live-in partnerships as well.

Instead of berating men for not bothering to put the seat back down, I'm here to thank them for lifting it in the first place so I don't have to use a bespattered toilet seat afterward. In addition, I'm going to instruct EVERYONE in proper toilet etiquette. Yes, really. It doesn't have to do with manners so much as with hygiene. Seriously.

First, let's have a little physics lesson here. Everyone knows what a tornado looks like. It's a swirling vortex in the air, which sucks things up into it and spews them out the top. That's how you end up with the living room sofa balanced on top of the neighbor's chimney once the tornado is gone. Well, guess what? A toilet makes a vortex, too. When you flush and the water pours into the bowl from the tank, it swirls around in a watery vortex before it goes down the drain. The toilet's vortex acts exactly like a tornado: It picks up things from within the toilet bowl and spews them out the top. I kid you not.

If you're really brave, flush a clean toilet and put your hand over the bowl, level with the seat. You'll feel a cool spray. Those tiny droplets have been flung into the air by the vortex in the toilet bowl. Now, if you've just used the toilet and it's not so clean, the swirling water is going to pick up tiny bits of whatever you just deposited and spray them out. Eeeeeew. So what should you do?

Put both the seat AND the lid down BEFORE you flush. That will contain the spewing droplets of you-don't-want-to-know-what so they don't fly up into the air and blanket your bathroom (yes, they're light enough to float quite some distance before landing). Putting the lid down is also a handy way to keep the dog from drinking out of the toilet bowl, and it tends to limit unpleasant accidents like the time you were fussing with your favorite earring and it popped off, landing you-know-where.

So there you have it, etiquette and hygiene all in one. Everyone puts the lid down, everyone's happy, the bathroom doesn't look like a giant petri dish.

Oh yes, and make sure you finish up before you pass out.

Monday, April 19, 2010

Eaters of the Dead

I'm a fan of Michael Crichton but he's such a productive writer, I have to admit I haven't read all his books. This week I finally got around to reading Eaters of the Dead. It was originally published in 1976, before I even knew who Michael Crichton was, but a reprint was issued last year for all of us who are still discovering the vast range of his writings. The niftiest thing about this book is that it's a retelling of the story of Beowulf from the point of view of an outsider: an Arab diplomat who is kidnapped by a band of Vikings while on a mission to the king of the Bulgars.

I read Beowulf for the first time in 9th grade. I remember thinking, "This would be a great story if it were told well." Translation is a hard thing in any case, and the poetry of the original Anglo-Saxon (yes, it really is poetic) is generally lost in the rock-em-sock-em versions in modern English. I read two more translations before diving into the original Anglo-Saxon version in grad school. Yeah, I'm a glutton for punishment, but it was really marvelous to read it out loud, as it would originally have been performed, and hear the sounds the language made, how they colored the story itself. Modern English never quite cut it after that. At least, not until I read Michael Crichton's version.

I love reading stories of cultures encountered by outsiders - a different point of view does wonders for the texture and depth of a tale. One of my favorites is Creation by Gore Vidal, and Crichton's work definitely measures up. Imagine being an urbane, educated, cultured Arab at the height of Arab civilization. You're a diplomat, used to courtly manners and world-class cuisine. Then you're kidnapped by a gang of Vikings and dragged along with them on a quest to save a Scandinavian settlement from a horrendous enemy.

Sure, there's blood and gore, but the narrator spends rather a lot of time commenting on the Viking warriors' personal cleanliness, table manners (or lack thereof) and sexual practices as well. I'm sure such a person in real life would have been continually appalled at his circumstances, but in the book his reactions act effectively as comic relief to an otherwise incredibly heavy story.

Besides the outsider-narrator, Crichton's other twist on the traditional tale is to identify the Viking settlement's attackers (the monster Grendel, his mother and a dragon in the original tale) as members of a proto-human group of cannibals living in the area at the same time. There were, indeed, many stories of 'not quite human' hominids living in proximity to human settlements throughout Europe and Asia for centuries, many of them antagonistic to the humans. There is some reason to believe that we Homo sapiens were not the sole survivors of the hominid line, at least for a while, so I don't find this plot device at all far-fetched. I am, however, uncomfortable with his association of the aggressive, filthy, primitive, cannibalistic proto-humans with the well-known headless female figurines like the Willendorf Goddess.

Maybe it's just my romantic notion of the kind of culture that would create such works of art, but I have to wonder whether a hominid group could do such a thing. Neanderthals, sure, I wouldn't be surprised if they made sculptures like that - they're really not the brutish creatures so long caricatured by modern society. But hominids? Hmmmm.

I do like that he brings up the issue of cannibalism. It's one of the more 'squirmy' bits of our very human past, something we don't like to look at. Did you ever wonder why every group's name for itself means 'The People'? You see, very early in human prehistory, each little collective considered itself to be People and everyone else to be Not People, or Animals. Fair prey. Most cultures moved away from cannibalism early on in an effort to increase cooperation with other groups of people. A few maintained at least token cannibalism into the 19th and early 20th centuries. It's not something we like to think about. Heck, even the pagan Romans thought the early Christians were disgusting with their 'symbolic cannibalism' communion ritual.

So I guess I'll go back and read the original Beowulf again. I have to, now, to compare it to Crichton's version. I'm itching to do it. That's one thing I love about his writing. It weaves so many threads into a single story, I often find myself closing his books only to open others, to follow a few of those threads further. Then I'll go back to the list and see what else he's written that I haven't had the chance to enjoy yet.

Tuesday, April 6, 2010

Spring Renewal

Even though Spring actually begins at Imbolc by the Old Calendar (regardless of uneducated meteorologists who seem to think the Equinoxes and Solstices are the starting points of the seasons) it hasn't really felt like spring until the past week or two. For most of February and March it was cold and rainy. The buds stayed tightly furled on their branches. Birds shivered and shook off the frost. Even my plantings of cold-weather-loving veggies refused to sprout. Then someone flipped a switch and suddenly it's SPRING!! This is the flowering quince hedge along the front of our property, home to a very happy year-round resident mockingbird and his new bride:
And suddenly I'm bouncing around the house like a little kid again, with my own child letting me know in no uncertain terms exactly how 'seriously grown-up' I had been all winter. I guess the energy of the seasons really gets to us more than most of us care to admit.

In the past week I have found innumerable excuses to be outside. We've moved our home schooling out to the deck. The laptop works just as well in the fresh air as it does in my four-walled office. I find it necessary to check on the garden several times a day. Heck, I'll even empty the trash cans throughout the house just to be able to take the garbage out to the big can by the driveway.

I have yet to figure out how to cook dinner outside, though, since our gas grill met its demise a year ago. We're toying with the idea of a cob-built combination barbecue and bread oven out back - getting back to our primitive roots with this ancient building technique. I've had Becky Bee's book (The Cob Builder's Handbook) for years but never actually started a project. Now that my daughter is pushing to do something with cob, I think we'll give it a try. Of course, I'll post a write-up of the project here. If you're interested in finding out more, google the phrase 'cob building' and you'll be amazed.

But for now, that's too organized and responsible a project. I'm still feeling springy...still buoyed by the amazing appearance on Easter morning of four beautiful does in our back yard, grazing on the chickweed and deadnettle that have grown up in the unweeded garden beds. We stood and watched them for quite some time as they enjoyed their breakfast. I ached to reach out and touch the soft fur on their ears, the cool dampness of their black noses. Eventually they trotted back toward the pond in the woods, had a quick drink and bounded over the fence into the field with our farmer-neighbor's cattle.

Later inspection divulged that these particular deer are also quite fond of dandelion flowers, since they managed to nip off every single one of them in the entire garden area! Oddly enough, though, they didn't bother any of the purpose-planted veggies in the garden. I've got English peas, broccoli and broccoli raab seedlings, and full-grown kale, collards and lettuce out there. They didn't touch a bit of it - just the weeds. A little Spring miracle, maybe?
It's slated to get up to 90 degrees F today, so my outside time will definitely involve shade. And these lovely little lavender flowers, which have decided to sprinkle themselves all over the front yard. They're sneaky, too - just short enough that the lawn mower doesn't touch them, so the yard has lovely little pale purple speckles all over it.

Time to head into the back yard and peruse possible cob oven/barbecue sites. And listen to the birds sing. And inhale the marvelous perfume of crabapple blossoms. I'll get to work eventually, I promise. But not just yet.

Monday, March 29, 2010

All Life Is One Life

I've had fragments of this conversation with a number of different people over the years and have finally decided to put it together all in one place. The tag line: I may be the only person in the world who quit being a vegetarian after studying Buddhism.

OK, you're either laughing or cringing in horror now (or maybe both at the same time). Please take a deep breath and allow me to explain.

I grew up in a world of violence. I was beaten and abused daily; my parents proudly supported every military action the U.S. ever thought to propose and gleefully watched horrific, bloody images on the news every evening; my relatives fought with each other constantly, occasionally escalating the battle from scathing words to actual blows. And I helped on my grandparents' farm when we slaughtered animals.

Bear in mind, this was a small family farm, not a big industrial operation. The animals were treated well, respected while alive, and killed swiftly and without suffering. But by the time I reached high school, my personal 'violence meter' had reached epic proportions. I became a vegetarian because doing so affected the only source of violence in my life over which I had any control. Of course, my decision generated even more conflict within my family (surprise, surprise) but I stood my ground.

Over the years I came to believe I was doing the right thing, choosing not to eat meat in order to respect other life forms. Friends encouraged me to expand my mindset in this direction by studying Buddhism, which has nonviolence as one of its central tenets. So I did. I learned the history of the different sects, read Buddha's teachings, practiced mindfulness. Then one day, a little fragment stuck in my head: All life is one life. What a fascinating concept.

I was so fascinated, in fact, that I devoted a full year to meditating on that idea. To say I was changed at the end of that year is a serious understatement.

That year also happened to be the year I started studying herbalism with two very gifted teachers. One of them did something that astounded me, and opened doors in my worldview that I didn't even know were there. At a weekend herbalism retreat she pointed to a plant in the side garden and said, "Go sit with it. Meditate on it. Tell me what you find out."

I have to admit, at that moment I thought she had gone off the deep end. I was used to learning about plants from books or from presenters in workshops, not from the plants themselves. But I had deep respect for her so I undertook the assignment. I felt really silly at first, sitting there staring at a plant (it was a yellow dock, but I didn't know that at the time). Then I began to feel at home with the plant, feel a connection with it. I felt its life force, so similar to mine.

On a whim I thought at it, "How can you help people? What are you good for?" Immediately it responded, "Good for the blood. Good for healing burns, too." I reeled. I was communicating with a plant and I was completely sober.

I had a number of similar experiences over the course of that weekend, then over the ensuing weeks and months as I explored the green world around me. I began to understand why the Hindus say every plant has a deva, a living spirit. I watched as a neighbor had two pine trees cut down in her back yard, one healthy and one diseased. I felt a huge sigh of relief from the diseased tree as it fell to the ground. The healthy tree, though - I still get cold chills as I remember watching the final cut, feeling in my bones that it was screaming.

So I continued to meditate on All Life Is One Life. And I started doing a little research, looking for scientific articles that might shed light on this concept (or perhaps dispel it so I could shake the uneasy feeling that kept growing in me, the feeling that I needed to pay more attention in more directions). I learned that every living thing on earth has DNA, from the tiniest bacterium to the hugest whale and everything in between, including plants. I learned that the only difference between a chloroplast in a plant and a hemoglobin molecule in a human being is that the chloroplast cradles a nitrogen atom at its center while the hemoglobin holds iron. I learned that plants have something that looks like a nervous system (http://ds9.botanik.uni-bonn.de/zellbio/AG-Baluska-Volkmann/plantneuro/neuroview.php) and they respond to stimuli as if they could sense temperature, pressure and pain.

All life is, indeed, one life. I had to examine my choices, then, everything from what I ate to what clothing and household goods I preferred, my mode of transportation, everything. I came to a single conclusion: Any choice I might make is a value judgment. Choosing to eat plants but not animals says that animal life is more valuable than plant life. Choosing to eat grain-finished beef rather than grass-finished beef, or to eat any meat in large quantity, says that my tastes are more important than the natural cycles of the land I live in. Choosing to buy new, sweatshop-produced clothing rather than gently-used clothing from a consignment or thrift store says my fashion desires are more important than the health of the environment and the well-being of my fellow humans. Choosing to purchase a packaged CD, made from petroleum and trees, rather than downloading an MP3 says the same thing. And on and on it goes, with the embedded refrain of personal responsibility echoing throughout.

So I started eating meat again, but with a different attitude, a gratitude I'd never felt before. I began truly to understand what my Native American ancestors meant when they thanked the spirit of the deer before they ate it, and why they also thanked the spirit of the corn just as sincerely.

Some of us may decide to eat meat, others not. That's a private, personal value judgment and one I won't argue with either way. But the aftermath of that year of meditation has stuck with me, even gained momentum over time. I see connection everywhere; I feel communion all the time. All life is one life. And you are my other self.

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Juicy Wildness

I spent several hours in the garden yesterday, pulling weeds and otherwise getting a couple of garden beds ready for planting with lettuce and spinach. As often happens when I'm working quietly in the garden, I started thinking about all sorts of things, especially how we place value on various parts of our world. And, as also often happens, I couldn't stand to toss out a lot of the weeds I was pulling, so I saved them for food and medicine.

Then my ten-year-old daughter joined me in the gentle spring sunshine, wanting to help out with the garden chores. I explained that I was pulling weeds. Sure, no problem, she would help. The catch: The two garden beds we were cleaning out still had cold-weather crops in them (kale and lettuce) that shouldn't be pulled up. Her question: How do I know if something is a weed? Should I throw away everything except the cultivated crops? She cast a suspicious glance at the clumps of chickweed and yellow dock I had carefully piled at the corner of one garden bed. Gee, kid, you sure know how to turn a bit of yardwork into a philosophy debate.

What's a weed? Well, there's a can of worms. Most people will tell you a weed is a useless plant that's making a pest of itself. Some gardeners insist that a weed is any plant growing where you don't want it. By that definition, a prize rose bush is a weed if it's sticking in the middle of your pristine lawn. But to most people, weeds are simply the garbage of the plant world, whose only purpose in life is to be dug up and tossed aside to make way for more worthy plants. To many herbalists, however, especially those with a more (ahem) feminist or militant bent, weeds are valuable food and medicine and powerful emblems of the bits of modern life that civilization has got wrong.

I ran across numerous examples of this dichotomy of values in my naturopathic practice. Take garlic, for instance. It's a fabulous internal and external anti-infective, lowers blood pressure and cholesterol - it's the one herb I would want with me on the proverbial deserted island. But suggest to a client that they chop up and swallow a fresh clove of garlic, purchased from the produce section of the supermarket for mere pennies or dug from their own garden, and they recoil. No, they want a pill, a processed, sanitized, colorfully-packaged pill. Which brand, they ask, is the best? The one that costs twenty dollars or the one that costs thirty?

I soon learned not even to consider suggesting 'yard salad' to clients. Sure, a fresh bowl of chickweed, violet leaves and blossoms, young dandelion and hawkweed leaves and onion grass will give you more vitamins, minerals and micronutrients than you can shake a stick at (tasty, too!). But no, they want something from a store, something processed and extracted and labeled, preferably a pill, though those odd liquid tincture thingies might do in a pinch. Sigh.

When did we learn to value human-processed items over unprocessed ones? Packaged over unpackaged? Cultivated over wild? I've watched people in the grocery store - they bypass the loose produce and pick up the stuff wrapped in plastic. That is, if they buy fresh produce at all.

I have to admit here that my values may be skewed by the fact that I spent much of my childhood on a farm. We picked and ate, out of hand, whatever was around when we were out in the fields or woods. I realize that these days that's an unusual experience, but maybe it's something we need to get back to, for the health of our bodies and the health of our values. You know, eat outside the box. Literally.

Of course, I wouldn't recommend picking a salad from a roadside where the plants have soaked up exhaust fumes and heavy metal-laced runoff. But what about that chickweed in your chemical-free lawn? Or the dandelions and violets in your flowerbeds? Did you know that the entire daylily plant is edible? When did we become afraid of anything that hasn't been sanitized and packaged and presented to us with a slick marketing campaign?

I have to wonder if we're not losing an essential, wild part of ourselves by denying the value of wild stuff in our yards and gardens. Life isn't neat and tidy. Why should our food be?

We had a delicious yard salad with homemade pizza for dinner last night. After dinner I scrubbed the yellow dock roots I had dug from the garden, chopped them up and jarred them with vodka to make a mineral-rich tincture that will save me having to buy iron pills. I'm keeping an eye on the baby burdock plant that volunteered behind the side deck, eager for the day this summer when I can dig it up and cook its delicious root in some soup. That will be about the same time that the wild elderberries and blackberries are ripe. Then, in the fall, I'll dig up some of the arrowhead roots from the pond out in the woods and cook them for dinner, along with some sumac lemonade or maybe goldenrod tea.

Weeds? Yeah. Juicy wildness.

Thursday, March 11, 2010

You're Planting WHAT, WHEN??

I thought I got a lot of weird looks when I told people I like to weave, spin and cook over a fire. Turns out, I get even weirder looks when I tell them I'm planting by the signs this year. "You're doing WHAT?" they say.

First of all, I need you to understand that I've been gardening since I was a kid. I spent much of my childhood on my grandparents' small family farm and my parents always had a big garden in the suburbs. Once I was grown and on my own, I gardened in containers on apartment balconies and then in the yards of the various houses I've lived in. Vegetables, herbs, flowers, you name it. I feel naked without a garden. But my gardening hasn't always been uniformly successful.
For some reason I've been unable to fathom, my gardening has always returned mixed results. Sure, something does really great every year. My freezer is still half-full of the green beans and tomatoes that grew like wildfire last summer. But no pumpkin in that freezer, because the pie pumpkins absolutely failed to produce a single fruit. And some of the marigolds came up like crazy, while another planting of them petered out to nothing. One year the corn grew 14 feet tall (really, I have photographic evidence) and other years it stopped at 5 feet and hardly produced a thing.

I do all the right stuff - organically amended soil, plenty of water from a rainwater catchment system, garden beds situated for optimum sun - so I tried to figure out what was missing. And I started thinking back to my childhood, those days on the farm with my grandparents. They always had a calendar on the wall of the living room. It was a freebie given out by the local feed store during the holidays every year. It had all the usual info - dates, holidays, moon phases. But it had something else as well: the zodiac sign the moon was in each day. My grandparents used this information to time the planting of their seeds, both for cash crops and for the family garden. They swore by it.

As a child I never did quite understand my grandmother's explanations about planting by the signs. Then as I grew older and began to study esoteric subjects, I questioned the accuracy of modern tropical astrology. After all, it's frozen in time, based on the positions of the planets thousands of years ago when the sun did indeed rise in the constellation of Aries on the Vernal Equinox. I've found sidereal astrology (based on the current, correct positions of the planets) to be astonishingly accurate but hard to come by. And what about this moon sign issue - how might it affect my gardening?
 My grandparents were hardworking and, as is so often the case with small family farmers, never particularly well-off as far as cash was concerned. But by golly, their crops always did well. Sure, there was the occasional late frost or insect infestation, but as far as the stuff actually growing vigorously and producing copiously, you could count on it. When I asked my grandmother about her gardening success she always credited planting by the signs.

So I did some research. Hauled out my Old Farmer's Almanac and my Foxfire books. Noted all the correct signs for planting each different kind of herb, flower and food crop. Checked the ephemeris and figured out dates for each type of seed. So I now have a date book of sorts, a list of days I'm obligated to go out into the garden and plant things, regardless of the weather. I still remember Grandmother fussing about having to plant in a storm, because it was the right day for it.

And we'll see how the garden turns out. Maybe it won't make a difference. Or maybe I'll have more uniform success. I've already planted broccoli, broccoli raab, English peas and leeks. Next weekend I'll start the carrots, then a few days later the lettuce, spinach and coriander. I'll let you know how it turns out. If it's a success, would you like a few zucchinis and tomatoes in about July or so?

Monday, March 8, 2010

Don't Believe It If It's on the Internet!

Recently I mentioned to a friend that I had taught my 10-year-old daughter how to look things up on Wikipedia when she wanted to find out more about a subject and had exhausted our home library. He commented that I should have directed her toward a 'more reliable source' and that Wikipedia was known for its inaccuracy because it 'isn't written by experts or published for real.' By a more reliable source he meant something like the Encyclopedia Britannica, that half-ton, multi-volume bastion of elementary school research reports.

That conversation got me thinking about the accuracy and reliability of any source we use for research (online or offline), especially given some things I've read in the EB over the years that are patently inaccurate but that the publishers of that esteemed work wanted people to believe. For my pagan friends, look up Wicca in any but the most recent edition and you'll see what I mean. Even the most recent edition says Wicca's followers 'see it as a religion' (I know, I know) but at least they put it in the religion section of the EB and don't call it a cult any more. And of course we have all the authoritative published sources, from encyclopedias to textbooks to medical journals, that have told us for years that women are weaker, less intelligent and less competent than men. But I digress...

Some people have a notable bias against anything posted online unless it's by one of the old, established in-print names (Britannica, Webster's and so on) since it is assumed that Joe and Jane Public don't know what they're talking about. After all, they usually don't have advanced degrees. They're not professionals in the subject. They don't work for a big corporation that can afford to print warehouses full of books, advertise them all over the place and store them until they get around to selling them. Therefore, the usual logic goes, they must be wrong. There are two hidden, implied 'truths' in this argument and I don't agree with either one of them.

First, there's the assumption that anyone who isn't an expert (that is, a professional) can't possibly have accurate knowledge about a subject. Second, there's the assumption that anyone who is an expert, a professional, an authority figure, must necessarily be right. Do you agree with these two assumptions? I'm betting you don't. So why do we continue to apply them to the information that is disseminated in our society, regardless of its form or source, but especially online?

OK, before you burst a blood vessel, let me assure you that I don't assume everything posted online or printed between two covers is correct. But neither do I automatically assume it's wrong. Do you believe everything in corporate statements, newspapers or government press releases? Me, either. Then again, I don't discount it all out of hand. These bits of information are generated by people and people aren't perfect. They have agendas, conscious and unconscious biases, spoken and unspoken goals and desires that influence what they say and how they say it. This is true of all of us, you and me included.

We've all heard the research about how two different people witnessing the same event will have different 'takes' on it simply because they're two different people. They have different backgrounds, life experiences, attitudes. I run into this frequently when I'm researching a book. My first two books were non-fiction, one centered around earth-based spirituality and one around holistic health. You can bet I found plenty of conflicting information - in print, online and in person - when I was doing that research. Every single person I talked to, every single author I read, was certain they were right. I began to wonder if there is such a thing as an uncontested fact that no one will argue with. I've come to believe there isn't.

I'm working on fiction right now and I'm running into the same issues. Since I'm setting my stories in the real world (not fantasy or sci-fi) I have to do some research about locales, professions, spiritual traditions, even the psychological makeup of my characters. I have a little more latitude in this regard since I can simply choose whichever set of information works best for my story, but still, I have to sift through all the different sources and opinions, and you can bet someone's going to criticize my choices somewhere down the road.

For a while I felt really overwhelmed by all the conflicting information, annoyed at the self-proclaimed authorities and a bit depressed that there didn't seem to be any single source of accurate data. But lately I've come to see this issue as a reflection of the wonderful variety within humanity, the incredible ability of the human mind to form a unique worldview based on experience.

Maybe it's not such a bad thing that there's no single authority to turn to, since I'm not sure we could trust one single source, either online or on paper - or even in person. The myriad of conflicting sources (just google global warming  or women's rights and you'll see what I mean) requires that we use our inborn intelligence to critically examine whatever is put before us and make up our own minds. The fact that someone can write a blog, publish a book or buy TV advertising doesn't make them right, but it doesn't automatically make them wrong, either.

So what have I taught my daughter along with the skills for looking up information on Wikipedia or anywhere else, for that matter? I've taught her about critical thinking, about examining the source bias and the intent of the writing or advertisement. Yes, folks, kids can understand these concepts, and I expect she'll look on the world with a critical eye, not to find what's wrong with it, but to find what's right. Most important, she'll learn to gather information and make up her own mind rather than automatically bowing to any authority, no matter how many volumes they have in print.