Saturday, October 31, 2009

Day 42 (Round IV) "In the trenches": Samhain edition

I live in a pretty fuckin' conservative place, and I've blogged about it before: the lunatics who will picket the yoga studio because even studying a body-work tradition associated with Hinduism is "an endorsement of demon-worship." Or some self-satisfied scumbag fundamentalist will decide that the sculpture of the "Windy Man", crafted to represent the perpetual fuckin' wind that defines this place, is another iteration of "demon worship" and so the only "Christian" thing to do is deface it beyond repair--no doubt the fucker bragged about it to his church congregation--and the City Fathers are such gutless punks that they throw up their hands and decide they can't do the sculpture. And let's don't even get started about the mindless fucking prejudice and stupidity they regularly manifest--and preach, G-d save their cancerous souls--toward my brothers and sisters of the shahadah.

But one thing that adversity indubitably teaches you is to hang tough when you're in the minority. And a second thing it teaches you is to find, bond with, and protect your friends, even if--especially if--you need to pursue and maintain your community underground. One of the missions of my life, especially in this stupidly conservative and just-plain-ill-informed community, is to use the (relative) clout and (comparatively impregnable) job security of a tenured post and a supportive boss to enhance the safety and security--in fact, the celebration--with which some of these communities and their own ritual traditions can come out from hiding. I'm not a practitioner of some of these belief-systems or lifestyles, but I will fight to the death to create a safer environment for their adherents--and especially my students--to practice same. I don't jam it into the fundamentalists' faces, but, as I say, I have the (comparative) security, and maybe some skills & tools, that let me be a (comparatively) explicit friend of same. Plus: the generations of my loud-mouthed wrong-sided Presbyterian ancestors are deep enough that I'm prone to taking the opposite side, if only out of contrarian orneriness.

Many, many years ago, when Dharmonia and I were living in Bloomington and I had started teaching as half-time adjunct (on a world music topic, which NASM required but which IU couldn't be bothered to treat as anything other than a resentful obligation), I was producing a radio program for the local NPR station (still get calls and random emails from folks who want to know if the show is on-air, or maybe archived somewhere). Its mandate was very wide (e.g., "One World"; e.g., "all" world music) and I had a huge amount of leeway in terms of format, content, theme, audio profile, etc. So, among many other one-off or atypical topics, I did a series of programs on pagan music. At the time, c1994-95, I didn't have nearly the same grasp of the pre-Christian roots of a lot of the music that I was playing and about which I knew a lot, or would have done much more on pre-Christian Irish, Scandinavian, Native American, etc musics.

But what I did have access to was people who were proponents of the "modern pagan" movement. I wouldn't pretend to have any particular such knowledge about that movement, or where it came from, or the demographics of its adherents, but the picture I got from those shows in '94-95 was pretty interesting. There were the computer programmers with the 5-pointed pentagram on the floor of the garage, who would insist that before they could talk to me, I'd need to sit cross-legged and silent in the center of the star for at least 20 minutes. Which I did: I was already a practicing Buddhist, and didn't see much need to be scared by observing my own mind or by whatever energies the programmer was dreaming up.

There was the small group of dancers, singers, djembe- and recorder-players who had recorded the occasional wobbly-voiced cassette of "neo-pagan" music--which, because like me they didn't much know better about, was the best they could do to try to recover the power and impact that they intuited music had had in the Old Religion.

There were the usual students and office workers and folks of various walks of life whose "neo-pagan" activities overlapped with their Dungeons & Dragons role-playing game or Society for Creative Anachronism medieval-reenactment activities, and which equally seemed to attract them because it represented some kind of more satisfying alternative to the lives they were living.

But what that round of interviews and tape-editing and script-writing and program-voicing really brought home to me was the very real loss that the genocide which had been practiced against the Old Religion in the European 16th & 17th centuries: the quite conscious and quite brutal attempt to stamp out any of the old magical practices that had hung on in the wake of Christianization. And it was intentional, and strategic, and it was, as ever, about power--the power of the early modern Church establishment to consolidate and enrich its own hegemony. That some poor old women, mentally-challenged persons, or foreigners should be interrogated, brutalized, tortured, and murdered was "collateral damage" and a negligible price to pay for the very real value of scaring the crap out of anyone else who might be considering a resistant belief system: really, the same practices, in pursuit of the same motives, in which the monsters and war criminals of the Bush/Cheney regime engaged.

And what it brought home to me, as a musician, historian, and teacher, was the magnitude of the cultural loss. Over and above and beyond--but never forgetting--the human suffering and death the witch trials brought, the loss of human knowledge, the practical psychology, expertise, and nature wisdom that the old religion had carried. That's what the research for the radio shows really brought home to me: the scope of the loss, as well as the suffering, that the witch trials had wrought.

And then there was the Elf-Lore family. Founded in 1991, they were (I think--it's hard to get information about the early days) an outgrowth of the late '60s back-to-the-land hippie/agrarian movement, which worked in some places (Lothlorien outside Bloomington, the Farm in Tennessee, various others) and didn't in others (the collective psychosis of Mel Lyman's Family in Boston comes to mind) . It worked pretty well in Bloomington, and a lot of that early success was due to the charisma, energy, and right intentions of Terry Whitefeather, one of the founders. When I met him, Terry was probably in his late 40s, and kind of fit the profile of a hippie patriarch: long graying hair, beard, wire-rimmed glasses, a very fast and facile riffing style of speaking. Leary was the same, and Ginsberg not far off.

But not all of those hippie patriarchs were either opportunists, charlatans, or incipient suicide cult-leaders. Terry had some perspective on what he was doing and on the energies that he was potentially playing with, and he was a pretty careful and conscious steward. The first time I met him, he had just finished what was actually a pretty impressive night-time fire ceremony involving two broadswords and a lot of hollering. When we were introduced, he stuck out his hand, and said "I'm Terry--I've heard about you." I told him I was impressed with his swordsmanship (I was a student of Northern Shaolin kung-fu, including weapons forms, at the time), and he grinned, and said "Well, you know, I'm just tryin' to get some energy going."

Which, as a teacher, performer, and more than a bit of a charlatan myself, I recognized and appreciated. We talked for a long time, and he was acute, articulate, well-informed, un-full of himself, and, most importantly to me, grounded in a sense of history of the traditions he was working with. It was a pleasure to talk to him, and one thing he said, near our parting, stuck with me--not only into the production of the radio program, but in the years since. Terry said, "You know, I deal all the time with people who want to call themselves 'pagans', and yet they've never planted a garden. How the hell are you going to 'worship Nature' if you don't even know the annual cycles?"

Which, since, has remained something of a litmus test for me with anybody who claims to be a follower of the "Old Ways." It continued to resonate with me as, over the years, I learned more about my chosen musics, and the cultural contexts and history out of which they came. Until I've come to the understanding that, like literacy itself, the contemporary specious belief that Nature can be "controlled" or "subjugated" is a blip on the historical horizon.

Humans have been talking, singing, miming, and worshiping Nature for 40,000 years: that over the past 300 years we've succumbed to the idea that we can "control" her may be enough to doom us (because we're so lazy, mindless, greedy and stupid that we're infinitely faster and more efficient at destroying the Earth than protecting her), but even if we end ourselves, that period of Nature-illiteracy will have been a blip on the historical time-line.

And maybe we won't.

At any rate, meeting Terry Whitefeather, and hearing him riff on things that I also had intuited about the motives--but also some of the limitations--of the "neo-pagan" ethos, opened me up. I was, am, and will continue to be a Buddhist, through many cycles of rebirth, because of the profound sanity I have found in its practices and the profound inspiration of its practitioners (nobody every really learns a true religion except by direct, person-to-person example), but certain individuals certainly helped me find the wisdom in the Old Religion as well.

I was reminded of it again when, one of those first students in the world music class, right in that same era, turned out to be a member of the Elf-Lore family--and asked me to be a participant in his wedding. It was way early in my career as a classroom teacher, and such a request hadn't come my way as often as it later would, but I was touched and gratified that this kid thought enough of my impact on his life to ask me to be part of this wedding (I had played enough tasteless, ill-advised, or dysfunctional weddings by that point to be pretty cynical and pessimistic about "young love"). But I hadn't realized that this was going to be a full-bore pagan wedding--not that I knew, at that time, what such involved.

In the event, it was quite touching: held in a relatively secluded corner of a large wooded public park, it involved passing over water and through fire, an oath upon (and witnessed by) a tree, an exchange of rings, and one of vows in three languages. Though a pessimist about young love and something of a skeptic about "recovered" religion, I was (as I later commented to Dharmonia, who was also present) quite moved by the realization that, for these young people, "neo-paganism" simply represented the best, most apposite, most emotionally-real expression of a very profound, entirely-too-uncommon desire: that is, the desire, and the commitment, to live a sacred life.

A life in which worship is not compartmentalized apart from the "prosaic" world; where the ethics of the spirit do not differ from the ethics of the body; where a set of religious principles propounded are also practiced; where ideals of compassion, awareness, gratitude, and connection find their expression in the relationship of the person to all persons and to all beings, including Gaia. I had not previously grasped that about modern neo-paganism--but those people and the experiences they gave me helped me to understand.

So, to my Brothers and Sisters who have fought to maintain and recover a sense of the sacred in the green world that surrounds us, that gave birth to us and to which we will all return as part of the--we hope--endless cycle of death and rebirth--that is if we can manage to arrest the careening course of greed, violence, and destruction--and on this Night of all nights, when the Horned God rides and the boundary between this world and the Other is especially thin, I'll say,

Thank you: "an it harm no one, do as thou wilt."

Blessed Be.


sunshine said...

as one of the majority (who might still be in the minority), I sincerely apologize for the behavior of those who believe what I believe. and maybe with enough prayer and acceptance, we can hope that not all of us act that way.

happy Samhain.

CJS said...

You're right, Sunshine: I've got no business or intent to condemn people--only behavior. And I agree with you about the prayer and acceptance. For all.

sunshine said...

That is certainly very fair of you, but I meant it--nothing you have said is wrong. Truth is truth, and I won't make excuses for it. We still have to deal with people, I suppose, as good and as bad as that is. (I'm sorry, the wind statue? *what* the hell??? That was a beautiful piece of art) In fact, I wish that I could apologize for the past so many hundred years, but it's hard to believe that it would do any good coming from one small person.