Sunday, October 2, 2011

Bah, humbug!

I haven't posted here for a long time and a friend from California wrote to me that she misses reading my posts, but school has been back in session and I've been busy. Not just busy during the school day, which for me runs from 7:15 til 3:45 and sometimes until 5:00, but exhausted and unable to function outside of school. I haven't had the energy to exercise. I haven't been outside. In fact, since I work in an enclosed space with no windows, I don't see the sky for 8 hours. The sun may be shining, the rain pouring down, but I wouldn't know it.

Encased in this prison cell, I have only half an hour's break, if I'm lucky, to swallow my lunch.

No inspiration for art, my only desire when I stumble into our apartment in the evening is for whiskey and pajamas.

I'm not the only unhappy teacher in the school, and although I'm tempted to chalk this discouragement and exhaustion up to our particular school district's ugly, sly politics and poor decisions, I know that  universal factors have damaged public education around the country and we're all feeling the pressure.

1) The so-called recession means that we are understaffed and working longer hours. Teachers are insecure in our jobs. We're fighting to keep our unions and contracts.

2) The collusion of technology developers and big business has created a monolithic power that pushes schools to buy and use vast fleets of expensive equipment, with expensive upkeep costs, that are constantly being outdated by newer machines for us to buy and use.

3) Children are inundated with media messages, and live in a media-saturated, consumerist environment that robs them of fundamental social and academic skills, steals their curiosity about the world, negatively impacts their brain architecture, and limits their ability to listen, pay attention, learn, and remember.

4) Last, but hardly least, is the political imperative to standardize the educational experience, and in so doing, to standardize our children. High stakes testing is only one part of the dominator campaign to control public education. Teachers are all being asked to teach the same things, at the same time, in the same ways, and to test children with the same tests . . . but who decides what the content of this teaching will be? Not the teachers, not parents or communities, but a core of business and political elites, along with a few celebrity "educators."

Any failure to live up to these standardized results is being blamed on teachers and low test scores will be cause to fire teachers and close public schools. The profiteers are licking their chops at the thought of turning our vast public education system, like the once public prison system, into a private money-making enterprise.

No wonder so many teachers are discouraged and depressed.

Now, I don't want my friends to worry about me. I'm not depressed or even in a bad mood. I'm just angry at something worth being angry about. Can I do anything to change the direction of public education? I don't think so. I've come to believe that my efforts are moot and that the world will follow its course no matter what I do. Can I teach one or two children in between my tech-support and administrative tasks? Maybe. If I can get the printers working.

Timothy Leary makes more sense now than ever. Tune in, turn on, and drop out sounds pretty damned good to me.

Monday, August 29, 2011

Without Kinfolk

Summer is coming to an end, and soon I'll be back in the ordinary world. During the summer, I read widely, about psychology, art, culture and anthropology, and in particular, about the transition from kinship groups to political structures. Kinship seems to work best when in a limited population. Once a group reaches a certain size, two things may happen: A subgroup may split off, maintaining kinship structures, or the larger group may expand and develop political structures. Political structures are formalized relationships in a group that may or may not include blood relatives or that is too large for every member to see one another face-to-face.

I was particularly interested in Eli Sagan's At The Dawn of Tyranny (1985). I've been trying to pin down the turning point in human history in which the dominators took control, and Sagan may have nailed it. He describes the interim societies that are a missing link between kinship groups and the kind of political structures we call civilizations. He calls these interim societies "complex societies" and follows them from chieftainships to kingships—oh, the horror and violence that characterize them all!

Sagan's contention is that although political structures were necessary for humans to advance to higher levels of complexity and sophistication, the transition was fraught with anxiety. Humans evolved in kinship with one another and with nonhumans. Wrenching ourselves away from one another is terrifying. Thus, he concludes, we assuage our anxiety with godlike headmen, violent controlling power, and human sacrifice.

How many of us would be able to murder our own brothers and cousins to secure our power over the group? Only the most wicked bullies and psychopaths are capable of such an act, and these men became the first dominators.

There's lots more to the story, but I'll end it here, and move on to a thought provoked by the idea of kinship loss and anxiety. I come from a family that did not value kin—we were cut off from even our closest cousins and grandparents—and how I miss those relationships today! While my friends may complain about the annoyance of a nasty brother-in-law or that lousy drive up the coast for a wedding, I feel adrift in a sea of strangers and I long for family. But few of us enjoy extended families today and even nuclear families are broken apart by divorce and transience. My own kids, with whom I have wonderful relationships, live thousands of miles away. I'm lucky to see them once or twice a year.

Because of the internet, we've also come to a new turning point with regard to face-to-face relationships. Our friends may live on the other side of the globe. You, who are reading this, are connected to me by the thinnest of electronic threads. I wish you could come to my house. I would offer you the best liquor and cook meals for you, and we could talk late into the night. There's something good that happens between us when we are in one another's presence, and I believe that our anxiety in contemporary dominator cultures may be due in part to the lack of it. Lack of kinfolk. Lack of touch and face-to-face relationship.

Perhaps one way we can transform dominator culture is by re-establishing kinship forms through intentional community and building extended families. I would even venture to say that when we finally come to see every other human being as our kin, our anxiety would turn to peace and violence would cease.


Sunday, August 14, 2011

Thursday, August 11, 2011

From the front lines of midlife

It's been a summer of change.

I spent my life so far in the pursuit of "truth." I wanted to know the real from the manufactured. I wanted to know whether there was a big-G-god or gods or angels, and if there was life after death. What was human nature? Why did people act cruelly and selfishly? How could I manifest in the world and in myself the potential I saw in the 60s?

I had a desperate need to know, not only because I knew early on that my parents were clueless, but because I wanted to be good and do what was right. Right for the world and for myself. And in order to be good and do right, I had to know what was, objectively, ultimately real and true.

This summer, I changed. Now, I know that there's nothing to know. Reality just is. Whether it was created on purpose or randomly, it was created and now it just is. There's nothing to know. There's no right or wrong in the objective and ultimate, great and mysterious Everything. Everything just is. Once I saw that, the pursuit of truth that was the  purpose and meaning of my life just . . . disappeared.

I sent an email to my friends that some of you got, with a page torn from my sketchbook, in which I stated these ideas and then asked, "Why be good?" I was surprised to get many thoughtful answers. And many of those told me that the writer had come to the same conclusion at some point and had decided to choose the good. This is the existentialist answer. Of course, it begs the question of what is good, which may be answered in myriad ways.

Summer is coming to an end. I have a few trips to take and I know I'll learn things while I'm in other places, but it doesn't matter, not really. My art doesn't matter. This blog doesn't matter. One friend told me that it's our relationships that matter, and I sure as hell feel love for my beloved Jack and my kids and my friends this summer. I feel that love so deeply sometimes, it's like my heart's gonna burst. Does love matter when nothing else does? And if love matters, then does art matter? Do I simply choose to live as if my choices matter?






Saturday, August 6, 2011

Disempowering the children

Jean Twenge, author of Generation Me, writes that "we treat our kids like adults when they're children, and we infantalize them when they're 18 years old." I caught that quote from an article in The Atlantic this month, titled "How the Cult of Self-Esteem is Ruining Our Kids." But the cult of self-esteem is just one way we're ruining our kids.We're disempowering them, making them stupid, weak, and incompetent. Our children are being trained to be good consumers and unquestioning acceptors of the status quo, but they would be lost if the electricity went out.

There are lots of ways this is being accomplished. You can read about some of them in The Dumbest Generation, by Mark Bauerlein, or the Distracted: The Erosion of Attention and the Coming Dark Age, by Maggie Jackson, or The Shallows, by Nicholas Carr, or any number of new studies that are sounding a generally-ignored alarm about our children. Many of these books describe the negative impact of digital immersion and consumerism on our children. Some of the results of contemporary "screen" living, for example, include the deterioration of social skills, lack of empathy, inability to sustain attention or read, and lack of impulse control.

Advertising and other consumerist media have changed our children's values and expectations. Kids expect life to be easy and are easily frustrated. Ease and comfort are such high values that hard work is denigrated. In fact, any effort at all is too much effort and this laziness is contributing to ill-health. Speed is a virtue and anything new demands their money and attention. Their understanding of the world has been truncated by media, and reality and fantasy have merged, so that every drive is a video game, houses  clean themselves at the snap of a finger, food comes in packages, wars are entertainments, and wealth and celebrity are right around the corner. Wealth and celebrity are what our children worship and adore, and many young people have grand expectations for a Mercedes-Benz kind of life . . . although they haven't the faintest idea how to get there.

I have a heightened awareness of this problem because I work with middle school children. Their arrogance is stunning, but I feel so sad for them. Their world has been reduced to the size of a two-inch screen, and they think that friendship is a click on facebook. They haven't the wherewithall to  educate themselves and what they're offered in school has no meaning or purpose that they can understand. They "do" school because it's expected of them but they learn from electronic media.

The flip side of this is our kids' incompetence. They can't peel a potato or tie a knot. Many 12 year olds can't write their own names—they use keyboards only—or read a face clock or care for a sick relative or mow a lawn. The shop teacher in my school talks about how every year fewer children know how to hold a hammer or screwdriver, and if a button falls off a shirt, they wouldn't know how to sew it back on. Technophiles and futurists tell us that kids don't need to know this stuff anyway. They can buy a new shirt if the button falls off. They don't even have to know how to read, since they can get any "information" they might need on youtube.

Considering the way our economy is heading, our children might, indeed, need to know this stuff in the future, but there's a greater loss than this, because if our youth don't know how to read, think, make decisions, bond in nurturing relationships, or work or wait, they will not be able to control their own lives. They will be at the mercy of the dominators . . . just the point of this dumbing down, I assume.

Our nation's youth are on my mind right now because of three stories I recently heard of college-age youth who were not able to cope. They all attempted college, but couldn't succeed and they came home, all three of them, and malingered. One has an illness of unexplained origin. She lies in bed and plays video games. The others simply hang out, eat and sleep and party. In all three cases, the parents simply enable them. Their parents have infantalized them, as Twenge describes. As children, these young adults were given infinite choice and abundance instead of discipline and skill, and now they are paying the price. True self-esteem comes from competence. We are raising a generation of incompetent, insecure, and unhappy adults.

I read a while back about an elderly American Indian in the early 20th century who described how the white people had destroyed his culture. "They took our children," he said, "and made them weak. Our children no longer walk without shoes because their feet are too soft. They cannot hunt or grow their own food. They are incompetent and depend on white people's business for everything. They destroyed us by destroying our children." I would say that this is as true today as it was then.

Wednesday, August 3, 2011

Resist Apocalypse!

I'm getting frustrated with this "series" about my animist "practice." Heck, I'm just a human animal doing my thing. I try to live consciously. I want to see clearly. I want to grow in spirit and I want to die into Charlie's arms. My practice includes things like cooking nice dinners for my husband and spending my money flying out to California to see my beautiful older daughter and taking the creepy bus to NYC to see my beautiful younger daughter and helping to send my son to Germany with his band.

If you're looking for ritual, then, I observe the agricultural year, and I offer one day each week to the gods of love. That's my shabbos (sabbath) and I don't make or spend money on that day, and I make love and art and play on that day and take naps. I create and enact ritual when times need ritual, for example, to heal from sickness or celebrate an anniversary. I work magic when times need magic, but I have great respect for the forces I call upon and choose carefully and rarely when to work magic.

I talk to my gods and they talk to me on an ongoing basis. I'm awfully lucky that way. I can hear the voices of my gods whenever I call on them. I don't need a liturgy or church or even a ritual. I just say, "Hey! Charlie, watcha up to?" And Charlie tells me stories. I say, "Sun, you are one powerful dude." And Sun shines down on me. I say, "Green God, would you feed me today?" And damned if he doesn't feed me.

And several times each week, I enter into green space, define that as you will, and I make art, dance, sing, make love, hang out with my tree friends, and in other ways, I am in the joyful moment in the flesh. That's my practice.

Here's an animist practice: Resist the apocalypse of the dominators and their monogods. Do everything you can for the salvation of humanity in the flesh on this garden earth, and for the sustenance of this garden earth, for millions of years to come. Until the Sun goes Nova. Until the stars fall from the skies. Do it with joy.

Make a lot of love. Make love and be saved! How's that for a motto?

Make more love and make more joy and make more art and resist their damned apocalypse with everything you've got. 
How's that for an animist practice?


PS: You can help my son bring joy to kids on street corners here: Vermont Joy Parade.
PPS: The picture above is from a larger piece, 12 x 12, that doesn't cut off her shoe.

Thursday, July 28, 2011

All I want . . .

Without fear of losing my job. Without shame. Without excuses.

Saturday, July 23, 2011

Animist Practice: Walking Love

Back to animist practice: today's topic is the path of love. If relationship is the crux of animism—relationship with all that lives, human and nonhuman, biological and geographical, earthly and heavenly, fleshly and greater-than-human—then relationship will be at the heart of an animist practice. I've chosen to walk the relationship path of love.

You see, I'm not only an animist. I'm also a polytheist, and I worship and follow gods of love.  I believe that love is the greatest force in the universe. Love is the one thing greater than the dominators, greater than the gods of cruelty and greed. Tyrants tremble in the face of love, love triumphs over fear, and even death bows before the power of love.

My teachers tell me that to live a life of meaning, grow in spirit, please my gods, live with honor, and enter joyfully into the next life, I can walk no better path than the path of love. Jesus of Nazareth described this practice with stark and uncompromising clarity. One must love even those who would hurt you, even those who are your enemies. He said that love was the great commandment, and that love overcomes the fear of death, and he showed us that he did not fear death, but for the sake of love went to his death gladly. I look with awe at the teachers of radical love who lived their teachings with their final breath.

But, I can’t follow Jesus where he went. I’m not ready to take up my cross or sell all I have and give the money to the poor. I’d rather give my money to my kids, so they can cover the rent next month or travel to Berlin to make music, and I find it hard to believe that any loving god would demand we surrender to torture and murder in the name of love. So, what does the path of love mean to an ordinary, common sense, 21st century animist?

I think it means finding the balance between love of others and love of self. I take care of my health, for example, even if it means saying “no” to someone, but I make the effort to take care of other people even though it sometimes demands the sacrifice of my own desires.

It means that one always acts with loving intent, so when you vote, you vote for love, you work at your job with love, you care about other people, you are nurturing and kind.

We are all given humans and nonhumans to love, and instead of whining about the people I’ve been given to love, I do my best to take care of them. Yes, that even means my ex-husband. (LOL!)

My everyday practice of love is just an ordinary, prosaic kind of consistent unselfishness. I’ve made choices for the sake of the people I’ve been given to love that have worked against the manifestation of my own dreams, but Charlie tells me that nothing I do for love is ever wasted . . . and that brings me to the wonderful paradox of the path of love.

When I make a choice to take care of someone else, to do things his way or please her instead of myself, I’m generously rewarded. So, when I stuck out my lousy job so I could take care of my family, I was forced to change. I became stronger, physically and emotionally, and more competent as a result of this job, and I benefitted from the extra money, and it enabled me to learn new things, and it saved my marriage. I stuck out the job for love, not because I wanted to, but found myself the beneficiary of my choice, and this has happened so many times that I’m convinced that what I do for others will always benefit me as well. As the Wiccans say, what you put into the world returns to you three-fold. Love is a good bet!

I may not be able to save the world, the way Jesus attempted to do (and his results are dubious to say the least), but I have this tiny piece of the world in which to create a loving reality and I’m going to do my best with it. And what if, just what if, a critical mass of human folks chose to walk this ordinary unselfishness as an everyday practice? Doors would be held open, work loads would lighten, children would be cared for, and smiles would be exchanged in the supermarket checkout lines. Fracking would be voted down. Animals would be treated kindly. Gardens would be planted and Redbud Woods would still stand where a parking lot stands now. In ten thousand subtle ways, we would tip the balance of the earth towards love. I can hear my gods rejoicing just to think of it!

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Where have all the hippies gone?

I listened to Jefferson Airplane's Crown of Creation this morning, and I cried for the idealistic, passionate youth I used to be. I wonder what happened to my old friends, scattered now? Does anyone know Carol Shumacher? Did she kill herself with alcohol and drugs, or did she somehow morph into a suburban working mom and is she living now somewhere on the west coast, dreaming of retirement like I am?

What happened to us, Carol? Where did our hope and bursting creativity go? Why did that boomer generation, who dove into psychedelics and community and who could envision a future of love and peace, why did we lose our steam? Was it the end of the war and the draft? Partly, but it was also a tidal wave of consumerism and soft pressure from dominator interests.

By the time we got to Woodstock, we were half a million strong, and everywhere there was song and celebration!

Half a million strong? No wonder we had to be silenced! Song and celebration? Happy people are powerful people. Satisfied people don't buy consumer goods. Joy mitigates the fear that enables us to condone war. For the same reasons they have to silence the wise plants today, by 1971, the dominators knew that the hippies had to go. The Kent State shootings showed that hard power would have repercussions, but the dominators had been increasing their ability to utilize soft power, and it was easy, when the time came, to destroy the hippie movement using alternative means.

With a little help from their friends on Madison Avenue, the dominators were easily able to convert our dissent into fashion and our ideals into consumer goods. Tempting us with SUVs and techno-toys, aggressively marketing selfishness, and marginalizing or pathologizing our spirituality, they pressed hard on the hippie movement until there was nothing left but mythologies. When I ask my middle school students what the hippies were all about, they say, "Hippies took drugs, right?" Right. Love? Peace? "I dunno," they say. "They wore bell-bottoms, right?"

Love and peace are words that now invoke disgust and condescension in my students. They're soft stuff. Violence is in fashion. Love is out of date. War doesn't touch them, so they don't much care. Community means a big friends list on facebook. Sure, I'm sad about it. But do we old hippies have to bow down to the "establishment" anymore?

Why can't we remember our dreams and start talking about love and peace again? Why not start a commune . . . it's cheaper than all of us paying rent? Why not return to the wisdom of the wise plants, love more than one person, explore, expand our minds, turn on, tune in and DROP OUT of the dominator culture? Aw, c'mon . . . let's get together at my house tonight. Bring your guitars and I'll bake a carrot cake.

Monday, July 18, 2011

Making war on our friends

Let's take a little side-trip from discussing animist practice for a moment, because I have seen death and disaster precipitated by the 80-year drug war and I am sick at heart. The drug war may be defined from an animist perspective as a war on a particular group of nonhuman persons. These nonhuman persons have been identified as enemies of the dominators and they are enemies because they are subversive to dominator power. They are subversive because they open human eyes, raise consciousness, offer solace and comfort, develop empathy, help humans build relationship with humans and nonhumans, overcome apathy and alienation, enhance creativity, and encourage play. All of these things are taboo, which is why these particular nonhumans are anathema and must be destroyed, even at great cost in human life and health.

But, I'm sick of it. I'm sick of defining "drugs" the way the dominators do and I want to speak up about what I see as an absurdity, since it is absurd to forbid my eating one kind of grass but not another, and it is absurd to deny me my right to friends who heal and nurture me while pushing dangerous manufactured drugs to the tune of 30 billion dollars per year. (Science Daily) The government, meanwhile, spends about $500 per second to prosecute its war against these nonhumans. (Drug War Clock) I want to speak up, but I'm afraid. Cancer patients have been arrested for using state-sanctioned marijuana. Grandmas and grandpas have spent their last years in jail for growing weeds in their backyards. (Some pending cases.) I'm scared to speak up.

The scientific evidence is overwhelmingly in favor of the legalization of psychotropic substances (see NORML). From the success of ecstasy therapy with PTSD survivors to the use of cannabis to shrink cancerous tumors, research being done around the world clearly indicates that these the wise plants have tremendous benefit for our physical and emotional health and well-being, but dominators will use science as they see fit. They ignore or deny science that doesn't meet their needs, even though science has been elevated to the level of the sacrosanct in other ways, and if the recent upsurge in arrests for medical marijuana users and growers is any indication, they will not hesitate to attack those who claim religious observance.

But for this animist, a relationship with the wise plants is an essential part of my practice. So, here we have come full circle. As I write about my everyday animist practices, I come up against a wall of fear. How can I encourage a practice which is against the law? How can I not encourage a practice which, as I mentioned above, opens human eyes, raises consciousness, offers solace and comfort, develops empathy, helps us build relationships, overcomes apathy and alienation, enhances creativity, and encourages play?

My Creator made me on purpose and he made the wise plants on purpose and he gave us chemistry that binds us, one to the other, and he bids us be kinfolk together on this earth. Psychedelic experiences have consistently been described in religious terms, and the religious use of wise plants dates back as far as we can travel into prehistory. Yet, although we pay lip service to religious freedom in the U.S., unconventional religious practices, including the use of plants deemed enemies of the state, are under constant attack. The Religious Freedom Restoration Act was enacted in 1993 to protect those practices, but it has no teeth and when invoked, the case is often dismissed for reasons of profit or the maintenance of government control. (Example from an Oregon Christian church.)

So, I had intended to share with you today a deeply moving and transformative religious experience, part of my animist practice, but because of fear, I talk about wars and laws instead.

Saturday, July 16, 2011

In the presence of the sacred

I live my life in the presence of the sacred.

Living the sacred life is part of my practice, but one can't call it an "animist" practice per se. In many traditions, humans have tried to live as consciously and in as sacred a manner as they could. Judaism has a particularly rich tradition of living in sacred space and time. All day long, a practicing Jew is praising his or her God, speaking words and taking actions that bring him or her back again and again to a reality which is filled with the intention and presence of the Creator. Jews praise their God when they rise up and when they lie down. They write sacred words on the doorposts of their homes, and bind sacred words to their foreheads when they pray. They wear a special hat and fringes, and give thanks when they eat, drink, see a rainbow, wash their hands, and move their bowels, to name just a few of the everyday activities that are made special through this conscious awareness of the divine.

I came out of this tradition, and I am also always praising my gods. I give thanks all day long, not just to the greater-than-human beings, but to all the beings that help and nurture me through the day.

I think this is what Jesus meant when he said that we should pray without ceasing. My practices, which include radical love, making art, appreciating beauty, consciousness of the sacred, and so on, permeate my day. There is no time in which I am not engaged in my practice, so as I write about particular practices—which may be related to animism or polytheism or simply being human in the body on the earth—my reader should be aware that they are not something I do in a formal, ritualized way, at least, not most of the time. Most of the time, my religious practice is fully integrated into my everyday life, so I am always engaged in the sacred reality.

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Building relationships with nonhumans

The most important practice of an animist life is to live consciously in relationship with nonhumans. This can take various forms. One can relate to The-Land-On-Which-One-Walks, which is not ancestral land necessarily, but the land on which you live right now. One can relate to the nonhumans who nurture and support you, who are commonly called food, water, building materials, fabric materials and so on. One can relate to animal people, or green people, or to the devas and forces, or to particular rocks or waters, to cloud people and other sky people, and to greater-than-human beings.

In all of these relationships, I would suggest that one not attempt to relate in structured, ritualized ways, but as one would relate to a fellow human being. So, consider, how do you interact and build relationships with your family, neighbors, and friends? With some, you become deeply intimate. With others, you have a more formal relationship. In every case, it begins by reaching out and communicating in some way.

Let's use friendship as an example. A friend may support and nurture you, but that's not why you are friends with that person. You are friends because you like him or her, you're drawn to him or her. You may enjoy the same activities, share tasks, offer one another wisdom and solace. Support goes both ways: she helps you get to work when your car breaks down, you bake cookies for her birthday.

The relationship doesn't appear out of thin air one day. Let's say you meet at a party. You talk and find you both love antiques. You call her when you're going to an antique show in a nearby city and she keeps you company. You have lunch one day, and then you get together for dinner with your spouses. You both want to lose weight and decide to exercise together. Your friendship grows. Twenty years down the line, she is the one you call when you get the bad diagnosis. She is the one who waits with your husband in the hospital waiting room, and the one who organizes the card shower and the one who cries with you because of your loss. Your empathy has entangled your roots. You can't imagine life without her.

Just so, a friendship with nonhumans is something developed over time with individuals. I have many tree friends, and feel like I've been accepted by the local green community. But it takes time to develop friendships with individuals, whether dogs or trees or humans. I get together with a particular tree. We talk and I learn about the world through his or her eyes. I sing to him or her . . . I find that trees love human singing. We hug. We hang out together, spend time, get to know each other. What is that huge scar on the trunk? How does he weather out the winter? I appreciate Mr. Tree. I share water and we drink together.

Discussing relationship building for various kinds of relationships with all the many different kinds of nonhumans would take a whole book, but this can give you the gist of it. You build relationships with nonhumans just like you do with humans. You have to put in a little time and effort, and respect him or her as an individual, not just as a type. Over time, you get to know one another and both of your lives are enriched.

Sunday, July 10, 2011

An Animist Practice

Heather has been asking about my animist practice. That is, “What do I do that characterizes and distinguishes an animist life?” I’d like to take several posts to explore the question, and I’ll begin with general concepts before describing particular practices.

Animist practice arises from an ongoing relationship with the Land-On-Which-We-Walk and the other nonhuman people around us. At bottom, it’s simply a way of living fully and graciously in the body on the earth. Traditional animist practices may have become habitual over time as groups of people discovered what worked to thrive in their environments, but traditional rituals and behaviors were not written in stone—they are not written at all—and they were sustained because they worked, not because they were commanded by a god or by the force of tradition alone. Animist practice, therefore, is not something one can learn about from a book, which at best is merely a snapshot of a particular practice in a particular time and place. Nor can it be learned from a “wise elder” or shaman. Animist practice, to be alive and potent, must emerge naturally from an individual’s or group’s ongoing experiences and relationships. Like all things in an animist reality, our practices are alive, and to be alive means growing, changing, dying and being reborn.

So, the question properly asked is, “What animist practices have I developed through my experiences and relationships?”

A key experience that informs any person's practice is his or her own traditions, the practices within which one has grown up. I’ve been influenced by my ancestors, of course, and I don’t claim any tradition besides my own. In some ways, my Jewish tradition is rich with nonhuman associations, the shaking of the lulav and the smelling of the etrog, the sensual rituals of Shabbos, the rhythm of sowing and reaping. In other ways, it's been singularly dissociated from the land. One thing is for sure: the Jewish attention to detail, our habitual awareness of the greater-than-human, constant gratitude, and sacralization of everyday life has left its mark on my practice. If you would develop an animist practice, I would encourage you to study the traditions of your own ancestors as they relate to the Land-On-Which-They-Walked as well as their culture, or ways of being in the real earth-world.



Next post, we can dive into particular practices and the seeds from which they've grown.

Wednesday, July 6, 2011

A Bit Stuffy, Don’t You Think?

Everybody calls me by my first name. In ordinary circumstances in the 21st century, we no longer address one another as Mr. or Mrs., and even doctors become Joe or Jimmy when they’re on the golf course. My closest friends use pet names, like “Lil” instead of Lillian, my kids call me Mom, and my lovers call me darling, honey, sweetie pie, and all those lovely appellations of endearment that help me feel beautiful and loved.

So, why, if we animists are hoping to develop a closer relationship with nonhumans, do we insist on formality of address? I’m talking about the “other-than-human persons” form of address commonly used in bioregional animism and academic circles. It just seems a bit stuffy to me. It’s like using the vous form of address in French when we’re really family and should address one another as tu.

Neighbors, friends, and kinfolk all have forms of address that express congenial relationship. The convention of having students call teachers by their last names lingers for the purpose of distancing, not of drawing closer. Does it indicate respect? One would hope so, and yet, respect is no longer indicated by formality of address: I call the cop “sir” when he pulls me over because of fear, not because I respect him as a person. So, are we scared of the nonhumans? Do we seek to distance from them?

And then, there’s the issue of naming by type. If I want to indicate the group of people with whom I work, I call them “teachers” or “my colleagues” or even “the folks in my building,” not “fellow persons with whom I teach.” How awkward that sounds! Even in indicating ethnic or subculture groups, the politically correct terminology is often awkward and distancing. The African-Americans I know, for example, call themselves “Blacks” or use other informal designations.

So, what’s up with “other-than-human persons?” In our zeal to show respect, have we become so formal in our relationship that the local trees are no longer our home-boys? The deer aren’t those pesky varmints anymore? Hell, y’know that damned carpenter bee who lives above the back door? I could tell you some nasty names I’ve called him this season!

But Bee is still a “him” to me and not an it. I know that the nonhumans are all alive, intelligent, and ensouled. Of course they are, but if I live in relationship with them, I know their beauty and majesty and their annoying habits. They’re whole people, like my husband or my kids, and like those human relationships we have our ups and downs, our times of closeness and our times of distance, and we call one another by name. My tree friends call me Puny and I call them by their names, to wit, Grandmother, Beauty, West Gate, Bee Tree, Foursome, and all the others. I don’t call them “other-than-human tree persons.”

In addressing people of great power or to whom we wish to show the most formal respect, we use titles. Mr. President, Your Honor, Your Majesty, and so on. Just so, I always address Uncle Karma by his full name, and I say “Yes, Sir” when he asks me to love. Grandmother Ocean, The Creator, Green God, all those with whom I have only the most solemn and ritualistic relationship, I address by their titles and their full names. But to refer to the bunch of them as “greater-than-human persons,” again, is awkward. The ruling elite serves to name our greater-than-ordinary human persons. Gods, forces, powers, and so on, work for me to collectively address those nonhumans who are immensely greater than I am.

So, let me humbly suggest that we ditch the formality. Calling my nonhuman friends “nonhumans” or “trees” or “cloud people” hasn’t seemed to insult them any more than their calling us humans “humans” or “those selfish idiots” has insulted me. Hey, as the ancient Greeks once said, let’s call a fig a fig, ok?

Tuesday, July 5, 2011

Glorious Imperfection!

A friend brought me a beautiful present this morning: an Olympia typewriter from the 60s. What a machine, a clickity clackity, solid and heavy machine. I sat down immediately to write my darling daughter a letter.

Then, I pulled the finished letter out of the roller with a decisive snap and examined my handiwork. The sticky "f" key piled up letters after it, and backspacing and retyping over my typos left a bit of a smudge here and there. I needed to reset the margins . . . do I remember how? But altogether, it was a glorious thing I had produced.

How I love the imperfection of the result. How I love imperfection! Our Creator must love imperfection, too, because he made everything unique. The left eye on every woman slightly different from the right. Each leaf a teensy bit different on every tree, and every tree bent this way or that, bark a bit peeled here and bumpy there, gloriously imperfect.

Perfection is a quality first defined by the ancient Greeks, but their word teleiotes didn't imply the abstract absolute flawlessness or "pinnacle of form or expression without blemish of any kind" that we associate with the word today. Humans will never be able to create a perfect product if we define perfection as an absolute. Only a machine can do that: create flawless smoothness, purity of sound, evenness of color, exactness of dimension. And it's the machine that's set the standard for us, and that standard has become more exacting as the machine becomes more powerful and its products more exact.

Few folks gather 'round the piano to sing anymore. Few of us write poetry, or even write at all. Students in my middle school have given up on handwriting. They use keyboards, and all their work looks the same. Digital recording of music and photoshopping portraits may give us results that appear perfect, but they don't look so beautiful to me.

Give me skin that's lived in, not flawless skin. Give me a song in the voice of my beloved. Give me the uneven line of colored pencils instead of digital infallibility, not because I have some bias against perfection, but because perfection hasn't got the spirit and character of real things.

Why do I think a typewritten letter is beautiful and a computer generated letter not so beautiful? If you ride a bike, why not a car? If you use paint, why not photoshop? It seems to me that the less of the animal there is in our work and the more of the machine, the less spirit there is as well. I use the simplest tool needed to do the job, and for letters to my Sophie, an Olympia typewriter, made in West Germany, built to last, marvelously mechanical, is just right. The letters have ever so much more spirit than computer fonts and my letter looks like a work of art. Now and then, I like to write letters by hand, because my spirit  lives in the curve of the line and the thickness of the ink. If you'd like a letter from me and my typewriter, drop me an email with your postal address.
love,
Puny

Friday, July 1, 2011

Joy as a Revolutionary Act

Not long ago, I went to see the Vermont Joy Parade perform in Ithaca. I was surprised by their happy, raucous show, since I know some of the performers, and I’ve heard them talk about their music as cultural transformation. I expected something more serious, a la 60’s Dylan and Jefferson Airplane’s “up against the wall!” But my personal experience at the show taught me that the creation of joy can be a revolutionary act in a reality that worships production and efficiency.

I’d come from work and I was feeling low. Exhausted. Discouraged. I only went to support my friends. And then, slowly at first, but with increasing excitement, the musicians of Vermont Joy Parade drew me in and wove their magic of joy. It was a Wednesday night. Most people at the bar had come to drink away the dominator day, but soon all heads turned to the stage. Then the band sang a song especially for me and Jack, and I was elated, and started to dance, and then I realized that others were dancing, and then Benny balanced a chair on his head, and then the band members were throwing jokes at one another, and then there were fifty people dancing and laughing and cheering.

The discouragement of the day slipped away. I felt my strength return, the power inside of me light up again. Paul wrote to the Thessalonians, who were under spiritual siege from their own dominator world, saying, “Encourage one another and build each other up!” We have to stay strong if the spiritual revolution is to take place and joy is where our strength is found.

The Charge of the Goddess tells us to “Sing, dance, make music and make love, all in my name.” The body chemistry of joy is good for us. Joy gives us hope, bonds us, reminds us of why it is good to be human in a body on the earth, and this is the crux of the animist cultural transformation.

Saturday, June 11, 2011

Naked was I made and naked I will return

My latest cartoon shows Puny and Little Judy on the beach. Puny has proudly baked a cake for her little one with chocolate icing, and the cake is made of love. Love, says Puny, is the key to insuring a future for our children.


What’s most important about this cartoon, however, is that Puny and Little Judy are naked and unashamed. I’ve been thinking a lot about nudity this week, since I have a friend who associates the naked body with sexual perversion, and I felt sad about that. I often draw my characters naked, especially when they are speaking for the gods or are filled with the holy spirit.

A fundamental belief of the new animism is that humans are spirits in animal bodies and that the animal body is good. The body is good when it’s engaging in sex and good when it’s doing the household chores, good in public and good in private.

Welcome is every organ and attribute of me, and of any man hearty and clean,
Not an inch nor a particle of an inch is vile, and none shall be less familiar than the rest.

                -- Walt Whitman

Of course, the body can be used to cause harm. It’s possible for a man to strangle a child with his bare hands and to rape a child, too. But the body does what the mind tells it to do, and it’s the man himself who chooses to use the body to hurt instead of love. In spite of this, the naked body itself is beautiful; fragile and strong as a hen’s egg, crafted, I believe, on purpose by the hand of our Creator, who saw that it was good.

In the Gospel of Thomas, Jesus' disciples ask him, When will you become revealed to us and when shall we see you? Jesus answers, When you disrobe without being ashamed and take up your garments and place them under your feet like little children and tread on them, then will you see the son of the Living One, and you will not be afraid.

Christian naturists declare that they are not ashamed to live in the “image and likeness of God” and neither am I. Not anymore, anyway.

I was brought up in a rigidly anti-body household. The body was ugly, evil, and disgusting. I was never to speak of its parts. This was an extreme situation, I know. I became physically numb. I lived in my mind and emotions, fine tuning them, but I had little physical sensation. This extreme shame and disgust with my own body, and my consequent dissociation from it, caused me great harm. It kept me from from caring for my body, beginning a lifetime of struggle with ill health. It set the stage for allowing my body to be sexually used in my youth. It let me deny the pain so that my appendix ruptured before I went to the hospital and I had three traumatic deliveries of my babies. If I had not experienced such deep shame and revulsion for my body, I might have enjoyed my pregnancies and had calm deliveries. I might be in good health today.

To see you naked is to recall the earth.   -- Federico Garcia Lorca

And then, I found earth-centered religion and the goddess. Always a religious person, I found in paganism a response to the body-hating of my childhood and the general social shame around the physical body. In all the earth-centered religions, including the animism I now practice, a key concept is the one-ness of the physical and spiritual. All material being is sacred and the animal body is good.

And you are free from slavery; and as a sign that you are really free, you shall be naked in your rites; and you shall dance, sing, feast, make music and make love, all in my presence. For mine is the ecstasy of the spirit, and mine also is joy on earth. -- from the Charge of the Goddess.

Paganism helped me understand that the body is good, and life in the body on the earth is good. It seemed so right, but how could I embrace this idea after such deep wounding around my fleshly form? All I knew is that I wanted to be free from shame, so I worked at it diligently. In many settings, I tested the waters and learned more about the body's goodness. At Brushwood, I skinny dipped for the first time. At pagan festivals, I saw real men and woman naked for the first time. I was amazed at their variety and beauty. Complicated by the disfigurement caused by my heavy pregnancies and abdominal surgeries, I struggled to accept myself. I had my body painted as a way to be nude in public while still having some covering. I participated in women's rituals of body acceptance. I talked and talked to people about it, and all this time, my pagan friends provided a compassionate and stalwart support.

Full nakedness! All my joys are due to thee,
As souls unbodied, bodies unclothed must be,
To taste whole joys.

 -- John Donne

After several years of this learning, my pagan family, The Stray Dogs, offered me an initiation. I didn’t know at first what they had carefully constructed for me. As I walked through one gate after another, they challenged all my fears and errors. My ability to laugh at myself was tested, and there were other gates leading to the fivefold kiss, a loving adoration of the body and its gifts. Then I was blindfolded and told to remove my clothes. In terror, but wanting to face my fears, I took off all my clothes, and when the blindfold was removed, I found myself by a blazing fire surrounded by loving, happy faces . . . and all my friends were also nude. See? They said. It's ok. It's good. You're beautiful. We're all nude. It's ok. It's ok.

From that moment on, the real work of body acceptance could begin. I'm still working on it, but I believe that as Adam and Eve were naked and unashamed when they lived in the light of their Creator, I too, can be naked and unashamed.

Your clothes conceal much of your beauty, yet they hide not the unbeautiful.
And though you seek in garments the freedom of privacy you may find in them a harness and a chain.
Would that you could meet the sun and the wind with more of your skin and less of your raiment,
For the breath of life is in the sunlight and the hand of life is in the wind. 
     -- Khalil Gibran

Naturists are folks who believe that nudity is more wholesome and natural than clothing except when clothing is appropriate for the weather. They believe that social nudity would erase a great deal of social hierarchies and create a more equal and just world. As Kevin Bacon said, Take away the Gucci or Levis and we're all the same.

Naturists make a clear distinction between nudity per se, and sexual arousal. Sex is a function of the body, like eating is, but naked genitals are not engaged in sexual acts at every moment, just as the naked mouth is not. We can kiss a child with love and we can kiss a lover with erotic intention, but we don’t hide the mouth in shame because it’s sometimes engaged in sexual acts.

I believe that body shame and disgust with nudity are perversions caused by denial of the animal body and fear of death. Naturists teach their children to have no shame about their bodies. In fact, they believe, and I agree, that body shame is at the root of sexual perversion and sexual disability. Our babies suckle at our breasts. Their naked bodies are washed clean in the bathtub. They love to feel the sensations of sand or wind or grass against their skins.

After half a lifetime of loathing for my own flesh, I’ve chosen to walk naked and unashamed the way my Creator made me. I not only accept this body. I celebrate it.

Sunday, June 5, 2011

The Great Monotheistic Error

This animist is also a polytheist. I believe in many gods. I have to be careful in talking about my gods and in using the "g" word at all, because the great monotheistic error confuses people.

Jack suggests that I use a word like “angel” to describe my gods in order to avoid confusion, but I stick to the word “god” deliberately, using it as the classical polytheists used it. My gods are very like the Greek or Roman or Norse polytheistic gods. They’re fallible, emotional, greater-than-human people, with personalities and a penchant for meddling in human affairs. They may live so long as to appear immortal to us lesser creatures, but they have vulnerabilities and can be hurt and will eventually, like all things, be reabsorbed into the great Everything-That-Is.

Everything-That-Is (ETI) is Mastery-Mystery’s word* for the Unknowable One (which is Jack’s word for it) which MM describes, in short, as “Everything That Is, Is Not, Was, Was Not, Has Been, Has Not Been, Will Be, Will Not Be and Could be and Could Not Be . . . " This Great Mystery of Everything Universe As God All At Once is way beyond human comprehension. I can’t experience it, hence, like the animists of old, I leave it alone. I don’t try to know it or define it. It’s not my big-G “God.” Since I can’t experience it, I don’t “believe” in it. I don’t worship it. I don’t relate to it. It’s way too big for this puny human.

But the monotheists believe in it. Not only do they believe in ETI, they think that ETI is their personal, book-writing deity and that it’s ETI who created them on purpose and that ETI has a personality and meddles in their affairs. In short, that ETI is their personal god. That’s the great monotheistic error. Monotheists call ETI big-G God, but their capital letter doesn’t fool me. They can’t have a relationship with ETI because no one can. It’s way too great for any of us and It would be way too great to give much of a shit about us, if It had any shit to give, which It doesn’t. Monotheists confuse their little-g god with ETI.

Monotheists have got the market for gods on this earth cornered and monopolized in their corporate churches, and they’ve plastered their gods' various names all over the media for several thousand years. Therefore, a lot of people think their big-G God-of-Choice is the only way to think about deity. They think there only exists one big-G God (and it’s the God of their choice) and he has to be ETI. In other words, they deny the existence of any gods but ETI and claim ETI as their god.

That’s why I have to be careful. Because when I say the word “god” most people think I’m talking about some big-G God or other as my personal ETI. It’s not just traditional monotheists who get confused this way. Many new age folks and other ETI believers still think ETI is the only possible thing that can be called god, and that the ETI of their choosing (whether they call it One-ness, the Creator, Great Spirit, etc.) is their personal god. That’s impossible! ETI ain’t nobody’s personal anything. IMHO . . . in my humble opinion . . .

The great monotheistic error makes it difficult to be polytheistic in the contemporary world. As much as I disbelieve in a personal ETI, monotheists disbelieve in the possibility of any gods besides ETI. Many folks dismiss my gods as metaphors, emanations or messengers of ETI, mythologies (meaning fictions), or disembodied forces. Boy, it’s hard to convince even my closest friends that this highly functional, highly educated, professional person experiences real, embodied, greater-than-human beings with names and personalities. But I don’t believe in anything I haven’t experienced, and I’ve never experienced ETI.

Maybe you have, though, and I’d be delighted to hear your experiences and thoughts on this topic. There’s no right or wrong, after all. We’re all just puny humans struggling to understand what’s greater than ourselves.

*Thanks to MM for defining ETI and for letting me snag the word. At least, I hope he doesn’t mind. MM has his own understanding of ETI. You can check out his fascinating philosophy at Cosmic Rapture.

Saturday, May 28, 2011

Heather tells it like it is

I want to direct my readers to the Adventures in Animism blog, because Heather tells it like it is and I'm inspired. Yah! That's exactly what I see when I look around me, but her response is more courageous. I'm thinking that if I can't change anything, why bother responding to the evils of the world? Heather says that if we respond we can "hold our dead heads high" in the days to come. Charlie says that as long as I never give up, then I never fail. Jack reminds me that there's lots to live for in spite of the evils, and that the evils have been here for a long time, and that we shouldn't allow them to take away what little we're left with. Lee says that we should write a book. Vivi pulls out her camera. Sophie speaks her truth to power, while Ben travels the world with his merry band and lifts people up with his music. Hooray for the Christian Left, a growing uprising of love within the Christian Church. NORML carries on for the legalization of the Cannabis gateway to the gods. Maggie speaks out against fracking. And Dan and Joanne and Ruthie and Neil and Cecile and Jo C remind me that friendship alone is worth living for. Back to the drawing table!

Saturday, May 21, 2011

Charlie has his say

Went down the rec trail today, and found Charlie wondering down the hill, close to six-mile creek. Charlie says:

This is your moment. This is your moment, what you've been given in this fallen world.
It will never come again, this particular intersection of time and space that you inhabit.
Live in it fully.

Enjoy the tree people while you can.
Enjoy your health while you have it.
You're blessed to have been able to run across the back yards on long summer evenings in your childhood.
Be grateful for what you've been given in this fallen world.

Your task is to blossom. You're a one-of-a-kind expression of your Creator, the God Flower of three petals. The task with which he's charged you is to blossom for the blink of an eye, to be a tiny flash of light among the uncountable twinkling galactic lights.

Live fully and with integrity. That's the goal. If you accept the world as it is, as unchangeable, you'll be freed to choose how to live inside of it.

Accept the gift of this fascinating, complex, scary, beautiful moment and be grateful to have experienced this lifetime in the body on the earth.

Good ol' Charlie. He's never led me wrong.

The World As It Is: Part Two

The world as it is, as opposed to what? To the world as it should be? This is a page from my sketchbook from just a couple of weeks ago. You can see that I was, as usual, feeling miserable because of the way the world is. But since I can’t do anything about the world as it is, maybe it’s time to let go of that attitude and start accepting.

God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change;
courage to change the things I can; and wisdom to know the difference.


I have a friend named Steve who feels deep disappointment about how his life turned out and a great deal of hurt and sadness from people using him and treating him poorly in the past. I tell him (listen to me, full of good advice) that people are the way they are, so he shouldn’t take it personally. Their nastiness isn’t about him, I say. He can have compassion for them. Life never lives up to our expectations. Steve, I say, let go and be at peace.

Right.

I can see this when I comes to interpersonal relations and my own small life, but when I look at the world, I get angry. Humanity is wasting its potential. Humanity could create a world of abundance and peace. We worship money and power. We let criminals and bullies rule the world. Everything’s fucked up. It’s getting worse. On and on.

But what if I need to let go as much as Steve does?

From a historical perspective, Steve reminds me, humans have always been at one another’s throats, acting selfishly, trashing their own potential.

Not pre-historically, I say. Not before institutionalized religions and dominator control.

Ok, so for the past 8000 years or so, he concedes, human reality has been a rough neighborhood. That’s the way it is. You want to keep smacking your head against that wall? You’ll give yourself a headache. Besides, who died and elected you Savior?

Good point. Where did I get this idea that it was up to me to save the world, and if only I was good enough, and recycled enough, and sent enough money to the right candidates, and dedicated myself enough to the salvation of the world, the world could be saved. Where did I get the idea that it was up to me? I’m chained to a wheel by those easy-to-quote admonitions never to give up, that the only thing that’s ever changed the world is a small group of dedicated people, that the only thing needed for evil to flourish is for good people to do nothing . . .

Somehow I’ve taken on the burden of believing that if the world stubbornly refuses to transform, it’s because I haven’t done enough. But how much is enough? You can die on a cross to bring peace and salvation and the world will go right on being a rough neighborhood.

Lao Tzu says that we can only recognize good in the first place because there is evil. That good and evil, black and white, up and down arise together, and that if I was as smart as I say I am, I’d stop trying to fix it all. It’s not fixable. It’s the way of the Tao. So, Lao Tzu says, do nothing. Teach nothing. The ten thousand things rise and fall, while the self watches their return.

Is it time to let go? I sure as hell would be a lot happier. I’d have more energy to give to my family and friends, and my art and my gods. I’d be able to walk in nature without grieving for nature’s losses. I’d be able to help kids with the computers and not get angry at what computers are doing to them. Where’s the balance? Does one let it all go? Worry only on the weekdays and take weekends off? I’m not sure, but something’s got to give.

On the ruins of a church from the 14th century, there are some words carved above the portal that read: It is so. It cannot be otherwise.

It is so. It cannot be otherwise.

Friday, May 20, 2011

The Impulse to do Good

Inside of me, I feel an impulse to do good. I think most humans share this impulse, one that’s been explored through research into altruism, resilience, and the moral instinct. In firefighters, nurses, teachers, and others who dedicate their lives to community service, the impulse to do good has become a driving force. They want to care for others even at risk to themselves, at low pay, or in difficult circumstances. I include myself in this group. When I see something that needs doing, I want to do it. When something needs fixing, I want to fix it. I want to make life better. The suffering of others is like a fire in my own heart, urging me on, and the satisfaction I get when I succeed in serving and healing is a great joy in my life.

In fact, even a few moments of helping and making better are powerful enough to give me peace in spite of the cruelty and greed and evils that are too powerful for me to change. It’s the frustration of this impulse in my work the past few years that’s been the source of much of my unhappiness.

No matter what I’ve done for money in the past, I’ve been able to do good through my work: teaching at Planned Parenthood, raising money for heart research, helping folks quit smoking, making schools more diversity-positive . . . no matter where I was or what I was doing, I could offer service to the world. As I investigated my nostalgia for the 50s, it was easy to see that although the world is different now, it’s not better or worse. Humans are still struggling, some people are mean and some are kind. As LLB said, there’s sadness and beauty. So, why have I become increasingly discouraged, even depressed about the state of the world?

At least in part, I think the answer lies with my helplessness at work. I’m unable to inspire children to learn or help make their lives better. I haven’t got the time or opportunity to teach. Instead, I babysit, both the kids and the machines, and I’ve been given the role of “technology leader” when I believe that digital technology is hurting, rather than helping kids to read, think, and grow. Meanwhile, public education itself is oppressive. Our 11-14 year olds need to run and play. They need to build and work with their hands, be of service to their communities, do things that matter, interact with the natural world, follow their interests, horse around, and be in constant social interaction with one another. And what do I do? I tell them to stop socializing. I tell them to work on things they don’t care about. I keep them indoors and in their seats. I wear the face of the oppressor, and I can see the hurt in their gazes on my face. I am the enemy.

I feel like a doctor, vowed to do no harm, who goes to work and is told to mutilate instead of heal. No wonder I’m depressed. No wonder it seems like there’s no hope for the world. I’ve become caught in the dominator wheels, and I come home too exhausted even to make art.

So, I’ve decided to do something about this: I’m going to speak a little piece of the truth. At the next faculty meeting, for which I’ve been charged to teach about technology, I’m going to talk about digital immersion and how it’s hurting our kids. Digital immersion (interaction with digital or electronic media for the majority of a person’s free time) is changing our children’s cognitive abilities, making them less capable of sustaining attention, less able to read, process information, and thinking deeply. Digital immersion is hurting our kids. The loving and kind thing to do would be to give them a break from it, not increase their screen time, as we’ve been told to do.

I’m sure some folks will call me a Luddite, but I suspect that the majority of my fellow teachers have already recognized that something's wrong, because kids can’t sustain attention through a single page of text or sign their own names. I believe, after studying the subject for the better part of a year, that digital immersion is part of the problem, not part of the solution, and I’m going to stick my neck out and say so. Just thinking about doing this is giving me hope. Sometimes, in order to do good, a person has to take risks, for low pay, in difficult circumstances, but then this fallen world might be nudged, ever so slightly, toward the light.

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

The World as It Is

I found Aron's comment on my last post Why I Love the 50s so provocative, I wanted to explore it more, and I'll ask for your comments this time, because I surely can't find the answer on my own. Aron wrote, I guess my biggest problem with nostalgia is that it mostly removes you from present moment. Every pro about how things used to be has its cons of how things are right now and visa versa.

And I responded Well said, Aron and true. For me, the present really is pretty awful, and I don't want to be here. Whether in the woods in trance or at my drawing table or remembering my childhood, I seek to leave this world as it is, and enter an alternate reality.

What got to me about this, so that I woke up thinking about it, is that the world really is awful for me. I'm heartbroken at the cruelty and greed. It's a fallen world, as the Christians would say, and there's really nothing I can do about it. Oh, yes, I can have an impact on my immediate reality, but that's an uphill battle, too. Our school district has been without a contract for three years. The children are struggling with the effects of digital immersion and many of them can't sustain attention through a single page of text. The gas companies threaten to frack. The college kids desecrate the old cemetery.

I'm not bitching about this reality or being mindlessly negative. I accept it. It's what's real, but can I avoid nostalgia and live fully inside of it? Can I have compassion for this fallen world and find true peace in it? I escape at every opportunity into my beloved woods or the artistic trance. Can I stay in the present moment of techno-consumerism? More to the point, do I want to?

I remember when I was 18, sitting in a McDonalds with Neil, munching burgers that tasted like ambrosia to me, and declaring that I would never remove my children from the real world, the way my mother had removed me. My children would be fully a part of the sparkling, delicious, contemporary moment, and watch the latest movies and eat fast food and live in the city. I was young, and the young see the good.

But the latest movies make me cringe and assault me with violent imagery and the burgers I loved have made me sick and the city is ugly and noisy. I've come to terms with it, but do I want to be fully present in this present moment?

Do you like it here in the present moment? Do you enter into it fully? Can you imagine something better or do you, too, escape into alternate realities? Thanks, Aron, for asking me to think more deeply about nostalgia, and thanks to readers for sharing your thoughts about this, and best wishes to all,
Puny

Sunday, May 15, 2011

Why I Love the 50s

No, it’s not just nostalgia. And yes, I know everything that was wrong about the 50s. The world was on the brink of nuclear disaster. Are we less on the brink of climate change disaster? Racism, suspicion of “the other,” and class differences intruded on the post-war peace, but if we are honest with ourselves, there is as much hatred and suspicion today as there was mid-century, and if bullying gay kids to the point of suicide is not as awful as hounding socialist sympathizers then I’ll be damned. I’ve heard it said that conformity was oppressive in the 1950s and we have more freedom today, but in truth, we’re still being pressured to conform. Today’s conformity is less about fashion and more about our beliefs and behaviors . . . is this better or worse? And while it’s true that mid-century women were forced into limited roles, today’s women are forced to work that second job because a family can’t support itself on only one. Today we haven’t got the choice to stay home and raise children. We hand our children over to the dominator controlled media instead. Is this better or worse?

In the 1950s women smashed their tender flesh into girdles . . . aw, hell. I’ll concede that point. I’m really happy to wear my leggings out to dinner and don sneakers for work instead of stockings and heels. So, let’s just leave this argument alone. Why bother? Every generation and era has its benefits and liabilities. Sometimes, I long for the uncomplicated, short, and bestial life of my Neanderthal ancestors and I definitely prefer the 1950s environment to this 21st century techno-consumerist wasteland. Call it nostalgia, if you like. Call it a preference for the devils we had then instead of the devils we have now, but here are some of the things from the 50s I wish I still had:

There was more community and neighborliness. People knocked on your door and there was a whole lot less fear of your immediate neighbors.

Less consumerism. Yes, the advertising business was in full swing, but we were more conscious of it, and advertising was less sophisticated and subliminal. We loved buying stuff, and we had the money to buy it, but we appreciated it more, took better care of it, and expected what we acquired to last. We didn't look to our stuff to fill our hearts: we had families and friends to fill our hearts.

We experienced more interpersonal relationships, and had way more face-to-face time with our family and friends. We spent more time entertaining one another and participating in group activities and informal sports, and way less time in front of screens or interacting with electronic machines.

I suppose that many marriages were unhappy, and I’m not suggesting that people stay together who would be better off divorced, but yes, we aimed for stable families and families were more stable. We really did value families and children more then than we do now, as reflected in the mythologies of television stories from the 50s and today and the punitive corporatism that takes away community responsibility for the general welfare, and despises the poor, the sick, the elderly, and the fatherless children . . . Maybe the echoes of the Depression in the 1950s were being felt as compassion for the  less fortunate.

We sure as hell had more hope and faith in the future. We expected science to serve the common good instead of corporate profit. We believed in the potential for generosity and goodness in humanity and imagined a world without war for our grandchildren, a family of nations, and the ultimate success of the project to create a world of peace and abundance.

We valued hard work, saving money, sharing, building, creativity, trying new things, children and the elderly, hobbies and leisure time, eating meals together, politeness, taking the time to do a good job, and other fine things now faded into jaded obsolescence, and these values were actively taught to children through religion, education, media, and other institutions of culture.

We were given a better education in public school. We read more and felt a stronger impact from intellectuals as well as socially aware and forward thinking social commentators.

Children had more freedom and responsibility. Children were healthier and more active.

It was a cleaner, less polluted, quieter, slower world.

We ate mostly real food instead of plastic food and ate at home more and with family more.

There was more artistic freedom, because art, music, and other aspects of creative culture were less controlled by commercial interests and the entertainment industry. We made our own more and talent was still the foundation for commercial success in the arts. Art was able to be critical of cultural norms and was having a tremendous impact as social critique.

Last, on a personal level, I love the aesthetic of midcentury, both the challenge of abstraction and expressionism, and the colors and forms of vitalism and modern functionality.

One might argue that I don't know what the hell I'm talking about, but I do. I lived it.

Monday, May 2, 2011

Humility is the road to peace of mind.

There’s a line from the prophet Micah that was included in the Shabbos service when I was a kid:

He has shown you, puny human, what is good. 
So, what is it that your Creator requires of you? 
Just this: to act justly, to love mercy, and to walk humbly with your God. *

Perhaps this line became important to me because it was a particular favorite of my dad’s, a just and humble fellow if there ever was one, but that word “humble” can be tricky. People mistake humbleness for humiliation, and seek to avoid it. Or they think that humbling oneself is to lay oneself low. The dictionary defines it variously as meek, modest, deferential, submissive, having or showing a low estimate of one’s own importance. Well, now, there’s the problem, right there. Isn’t there another way to understand the concept of humbleness?

Mother, whose heart hung humble as a button on the bright, silver shroud of her son, do not weep, war is kind.

This poem by Stephen Crane brings tears to my eyes every time I read it. That one line in particular . . . humble as a button . . .

Those things that are common and useful, and not arrogant or flashy, those are humble things. Let me be useful, and I’ll be happy. Why should there be shame in serving others? Why not be a button? There’s a whole lot of pressure to be extraordinarily beautiful, to achieve greatness, or perform amazing feats. Reality TV is about catapulting ordinary people into the glorious light of celebrity. Maybe celebrity is a lie. Maybe it’s enough to be ordinary. Maybe its wonderful to be ordinary.

The gods certainly love ordinary. They made a whole lot of it. My gods disapprove of human pride because it’s a source of so much sin. In various cultures, blanket weavers and quilt makers and potters and house builders leave some imperfection in their work, so as to assure the gods that we know our place and our place is humble. The ancient Greeks held hubris to be a particularly onerous sin. Hubris is an arrogant pride that sets one person above another and that sets humans above the gods. Oh, how many men are guilty of hubris in our world today, thinking that they can possess everything, rule over the the globe, decide for others what is right and wrong, rape the earth and plunder our resources with lofty aplomb.

One Sunday morning years ago, I heard a kind pastor preach about humility. He said that true humility was accepting our limitations with grace. We're limited by our nature and we are limited in the particulars of our person. How much I fight against this awareness, afraid to be imperfect, ashamed somehow not to have risen above the rest, never to have sold my art to a museum or written a definitive philosophical tome or pop best seller. I’m not so special, except in the specialness I share with every blade of grass of oak tree leaf. And that, of course, is special enough. But the pastor didn’t end there. He said that there were two sides to humility, that we are also all wonderful creatures, thrilling in our expression of the Creator’s will and amazingly unique. He said that there’s a certain dark pride to be found in self-deprecation, and certainly, when our self-esteem is low, we can’t fulfill the potential of our sparkling humanness.

To be humble, therefore, was to be clear about the truth of oneself and to accept that truth with grace. I'm limited, it’s true. I’m also a fantastic person with many blessings. That balanced humility is where peace of mind can be found. I can just be myself, in all my beauty and disaster. Funny how I keep growing into my name.
Best to you,
Puny Human

*my translation . . . can you tell? LOL!

Thursday, April 21, 2011

We are all animals

This girl tells the truth. Look at her! Skin and bone and blood, muscles and mammary glands, hair and fur. This is a mammal if I ever saw one. She's an animal and so are you.

The first principal of animism is that we humans are animals. We are also spirits. Other mammals are also both animals and spirits. We tend to think of animism as a belief in spirits, and that's a big part of the anthropological definition of animism, but animists don't believe in disembodied spirits. We believe in embodied spirits. It's all material. It's all spiritual. That's why the stone can be intelligent. It has soul.

Separating matter and spirit, that's the mistake most people make. We think that we're either truly-animal (so say the scientists) or truly-spirit (say so the religionists). We only have these two choices available to us if we hope to find a niche in the contemporary dominator world, but it's a false choice.

It wouldn't be such an awful choice if it didn't damage us so much. In fact, the religious disgust with the flesh and desire to be rid of it is a source of great suffering among humans. We hold the flesh cheap. We bomb it, feed it plastic and pollution, reject its pleasures and hide it in shame. The scientific view that we're animals only, and that our intelligence is an epiphenomenon of chemical activity in the brain, and that there is no immortal soul is sad, but not so harmful. It can make us careless with one another, though. We may confuse people and things.

Go around for a day with awareness: we are all animals under our clothes. Look, you work with animals, eat with animals, there are animals running the cash registers and driving the automobiles. Oh, what glorious flesh!

Monday, April 18, 2011

They can't have my soul . . .

Here it is, spring break.
Here is my spiritual work for the week: slow down, take my time.

After a lifetime of focused attention, producing, consuming, driving, hurrying, shopping, working for the dominators, doing doing doing, I can still hear my mother's voice scolding, "Don't dawdle!"
You're wasting time.
Get going.
Stop sitting around like a bump on a log.

And now, today's world is moving ever faster. Faster computers, faster meals. Drive as fast as you can.

And in my work, like many of us, I'm pressed to accomplish more in less time, to make up for the people who were laid off and never replaced. More content to teach more quickly. More machines to fix. No time to take a break, no time to sit down for lunch.

I am so sick and tired of running so fast. When I cram in my exercise before getting to work at 7:00, I can't really enjoy it. When I rush through the grocery store, I don't have enough time to catch the scent from the bakery or choose each orange carefully. It's the pleasures of life that are sacrificed in our great hurry, and that's what I want to reclaim.

I don't know how I'm going to do it, but I vow, today, to slow down and take back my time from the dominators. Consider it an act of resistance. The Slow Movement aims to be subversive and I aim to join them.

Slow down, you move too fast. You gotta make the morning last. Just kicking down the cobblestones. looking for fun and feelin' groo-vy!

Saturday, April 2, 2011

Conspiracy?

The dominators* are making fools of us all, setting us at one another’s throats with weapons, churning our momentary existence here on earth into the kind of profit that buys power, and with that power they tighten the noose. Do I think there’s a conspiracy? Not exactly. I think that the great crime families of the nations and religions are fighting it out for global domination and we’re the pawns. They don’t give a shit about us. To them we’re no more than service animals, churning out cannon fodder for their violent games.

They may claim to represent a loving god, but by their fruits they are easily known, and their fruits are cruelty and greed and fear and scarcity. They may claim allegiance to a particular nation, but this is merely a matter of convenience. When a nation is no longer useful to them as an army and a breadbasket for the army, they will discard one nation in favor of another, or of a combination of nations, or of none of them. The World Bank, for example, is a transnational dominator institution. Communist, capitalist, socialist, theocracy, democracy, monarchy, fascist state, drug cartel . . . they don’t care the political model through which they work or the type of economy they work with — any one will do if it can be used to control and direct people to dominator ends. What crumbs they’ve thrown us from science or medicine they would gladly take away if they could get away with it. Will we let them get away with it?


*for a basic definition of the dominators, click HERE.

Friday, April 1, 2011

The Animist Reality

In my last post, I described the dominator reality. Its defining characteristic is the domination of the many by the very few in a mechanistic universe. An animist reality, on the other hand, is defined by the paradigm of a living world. Humans are a small, even insignificant thread in an enormous web of life. There is no ultimate authority beyond the consequences of our actions, what some people call karma, and the mysterious workings of the universe, or chaos. In an animist world, all material being is infused with spirit, and all spiritual being is made manifest. Therefore, spirit (or non-materiality) and matter are intrinsically the same, as inseparable as the crown and underside of a mushroom.

The values and institutions of animist realities reflect these beliefs, and include a humility and empathy that is missing from dominator cultures. Aware of the interconnection between all life forms, and knowing that the survival of humanity is dependent on other life forms, animists seek an existence that maintains the planetary environmental system, the garden that grows our food and shelters us. Although competition is the norm in dominator cultures and comes highly endorsed by science, cooperation is the intra-species norm throughout the natural world and in non-dominator human societies as well. Extra-species cooperation may not respect an individual’s needs, but it maintains the balance between all life forms. We eat and are eaten. Trees breath out oxygen and humans breath it in.

An individual animist is not only cooperative in his or her social life, but also participates in the collective life of humankind, and understands him or herself as alive in the family or community. He or she will survive as the collective survives, even if the individual dies. If human nature is self-interested, or at the very least survival oriented, then this earthly collectivism is the animist road to survival, and cooperation in the interest of the human collective is the animist way.

I want to be clear that I am not defining animism as a religious form. Religion is a dominator institution. Animism is the experience of a material world that is alive, ensouled, and intelligent. It is a consensual reality, and the animist reality is filled with people of all kinds, from grass seeds to gods. In a dominator culture, a person is, by definition, a human person, and personhood is bestowed on us by virtue of characteristics deemed uniquely human, such as individuality, character, and most of all soul, those aspects that are not defined by material existence. In a reality in which all life forms share these characteristics, all life forms claim personhood. Smaller-than-human and greater-than-human life forms are persons, quickly-moving and slowly-moving life forms are persons, what dominators define as material-only and what dominators define as spirit-only are still fully unified persons.

The earth world is a community of persons in infinite variety―bacterias, rocks, puppies, cows, trees, mountains, angels, demons, and yes, even the gods, are all people. One doesn’t need religion as a separate institution in such an integrated world.

I do not think that the animist reality as I've defined it is the only alternative to a dominator reality, but I do think that the dominators are leading us down a violent, tech-paved road to hell. An alternative has to be found if humanity is to survive as a species in our bodies on this earth. As Charlie says, "Humans, it's time to love or you will surely die."