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.

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.