Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Circles, Cycles and Pulses: Pagan Values Blogging Month

Summer Solstice

Summer Solstice 2010: The Season of Light Nights

Summer Solstice 2011: Wanting to Be Up and Doing

This post is an entry in the 3rd Annual Pagan Values Blogging event, which I also wrote this years' Full Journey Moon post (self evidently titled June is Pagan Values Blogging Month) for.

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As I've been living into the solar power so palpable during this Summer Solstice season I am reminded of one of the core elements in my personal pagan values system: the fact that all of creation moves in circles, cycles and pulses. When I think about the things I disagree with Christian theology about the first is a need for a savior (I think I can do that within my own relationship with the divine, thank you very much). The second, and perhaps more important to me (though probably not to most Christians who would argue my first point), is the knowledge that time is cyclical with no set beginning, ending or singular event that never has been before and never will be again. Time isn't a straight line and neither is virtue, or anything else. It's all circles inside of circles, pulses and waves. Every coin has two sides, and neither is more important than the other.

One night last week I found myself listening to the Christian radio station and heard a pastor speak very passionately about evil. He sounded to me like a big brother warning his younger siblings about their father's strange and not altogether sensible rules and harsh punishments. He wasn't fire and brimstone like so many preachers, but truly heartsore and worried that we might fall into evil. It all seemed so foreign to me because, to be perfectly honest, I don't believe in evil. This is not to say I don't believe in Really Bad Things, or even Really Horrific Things That Defy Rational Explanation and Might Very Well Be Called Evil. I just don't believe in some supernatural power that causes evil. The Worried Pastor said he didn't know why a good god allowed evil to exist and that was just something we'd find out when we got to heaven. I know, though, to my own satisfaction at least, why there are things in this world that people call evil: imbalance.

Every impulse and action in creation has an opposite impulse or action and neither are Good or Evil, though some may be Beneficial and Harmful. Most just Are, though. Like wet and dry, neither is bad though both are harmful in their extreme. That same night I heard Worried Pastor I switched over to NPR and heard a story of Sudanese soldiers going door to door in the Nuba region of the country and killing members of any tribal group that had supported the South during the civil war. That is a pretty awful action, and one that I will never defend, but I still don't see it as evil. I see it as an imbalance in the impulses community affiliation vs. universal humanistic care and the impulses of protecting one's resources vs. sharing. It isn't wrong to lock your doors to keep intruders out, but it is certainly very harmful to kill neighboring people who compete for your food sources. Both come from the same impulse to protect what you need to survive.

One of the reasons I rejected Buddhism during my late teens was because I don't believe all life is suffering, and I also don't believe that detachment is the way to relieve what suffering does exist. Even at that young age I saw that the play between joy and sorrow was where the real meaty part of life is. It will be winter just as surely as it is now summer and cultivating an emotional detachment from that change seemed counter productive to me. As I began exploring paganism the image of a Medieval or pre-Christian woman, blonde and buxom, laughing and pouring mugs of beer for her husband and friends came to me. A woman who is not afraid of enjoying the good things in life while they are here, and bearing through the hard times that are just as likely to come soon. A couple years later I claimed that I gave up vegetarianism to become a hedonist. I think I gave up Buddhism for the same reason.

Community and self. Summer and winter. Festivities and solitude. Heat and cold. Joy and sorrow. Darkness and light. Growth and decay. Giving and receiving. Rain and sunshine. Fear and security. Death and birth. These are the peaks and valleys of the sine waves of life. We ride them like roller coasters as we move through our days and years. When the waves are too steep - the selfishness too selfish or the heat too hot - we find ourselves out of balance and off kilter. But when the waves are too shallow there isn't enough momentum to keep us moving forward. You can't draw a picture with a white crayon on white paper and you can't live a life of all growth and no decay, or all giving and no receiving.

The reason I love Annette Hinshaw's Earth Time, Moon Time calendar so much is that the very foundation of it is this idea of cycles at various levels. The cycle seen at the year level that starts with the Death Moon and Birth Moon and goes all the way around to the Harvest Moon and the Sorting Moon is the same cycle that happens at many other levels. It is the cosmic cycle of the creation that the Hindus think of as yugas or eras. It is also the cycle of the human life span, or of the lifespan of a business, or a garden year, the lifespan of a frog, a butterfly or a mayfly. It is smaller cycles, too, like cycles of digestion and breathing and photosynthesis. All these cycles within cycles, pulses within pulses are the engines that drive the brilliant and beautiful motion of the myriad things. This is deep wisdom and Annette Hinshaw has brought it to a beautiful and simple, hands on and practical calendar.

I hope that Worried Pastor figures it out so he can stop worrying. Evil isn't here against god's wishes, or to lure us into eternal damnation. The yin and yang of creation is here to keep us moving in dynamic cycles, circles and pulses. This time of year, when we have just seen the crest of the summer wave and are sliding our way down into the darker part of the year, is a perfect time to remember that core tenet of my pagan values. Circles, cycles and pulses literally make the world go 'round.

Read more entries in the 3rd Annual Pagan Values Blogging event HERE.

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Wanting to be Up and Doing

Summer Solstice

Summer Solstice 2010: The Season of Light Nights

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THE Willow-Wren was twittering his thin little song, hidden himself in the dark selvedge of the river bank. Though it was past ten o'clock at night, the sky still clung to and retained some lingering skirts of light from the departed day; and the sullen heats of the torrid afternoon broke up and rolled away at the dispersing touch of the cool fingers of the short midsummer night. Mole lay stretched on the bank, still panting from the stress of the fierce day that had been cloudless from dawn to late sunset, and waited for his friend to return. He had been on the river with some companions, leaving the Water Rat free to keep a engagement of long standing with Otter; and he had come back to find the house dark and deserted, and no sign of Rat, who was doubtless keeping it up late with his old comrade. It was still too hot to think of staying indoors, so he lay on some cool dock-leaves, and thought over the past day and its doings, and how very good they all had been.The Rat's light footfall was presently heard approaching over the parched grass. `O, the blessed coolness!' he said, and sat down, gazing thoughtfully into the river, silent and pre-occupied.

`You stayed to supper, of course?' said the Mole presently.

`Simply had to,' said the Rat. `They wouldn't hear of my going before. You know how kind they always are. And they made things as jolly for me as ever they could, right up to the moment I left. But I felt a brute all the time, as it was clear to me they were very unhappy, though they tried to hide it. Mole, I'm afraid they're in trouble. Little Portly is missing again; and you know what a lot his father thinks of him, though he never says much about it... He's been missing for some days now, and the Otters have hunted everywhere, high and low, without finding the slightest trace. And they've asked every animal, too, for miles around, and no one knows anything about him... Otter's not the fellow to be nervous about any son of his before it's time. And now he IS nervous. When I left, he came out with me--said he wanted some air, and talked about stretching his legs. But I could see it wasn't that, so I drew him out and pumped him, and got it all from him at last. He was going to spend the night watching by the ford.'

They were silent for a time, both thinking of the same thing--the lonely, heart-sore animal, crouched by the ford, watching and waiting, the long night through--on the chance.

`Well, well,' said the Rat presently, `I suppose we ought to be thinking about turning in.' But he never offered to move.

`Rat,' said the Mole, `I simply can't go and turn in, and go to sleep, and DO nothing, even though there doesn't seem to be anything to be done. We'll get the boat out, and paddle up stream. The moon will be up in an hour or so, and then we will search as well as we can--anyhow, it will be better than going to bed and doing NOTHING.'

`Just what I was thinking myself,' said the Rat. `It's not the sort of night for bed anyhow; and daybreak is not so very far off, and then we may pick up some news of him from early risers as we go along.'

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The descriptions of the seasons and how the animals of the river bank experience them is one of the treasures I found when I came back to Kenneth Grahame's The Wind in the Willows as an adult. Toad's well intentioned self importance, Badger's firm leadership and Moley's innocent wonder still tickle me but Grahame's prose is downright magical. In the winter Mole and Rat get caught in a snow storm and take refuge in Badger's ancient subterranean home. While staying there they begin to make plans to reform Toad, but it is understood that they can not do anything until summer;

"No animal, according to the rules of animal-etiquette, is ever expected to do anything strenuous, or heroic, or even moderately active during the off-season of winter. All are sleepy -- some actually asleep. All are weather-bound, more or less; and all are resting from arduous days and nights, during which every muscle in them has been severely tested, and every energy kept at full stretch. "

When summer does come the animals find themselves fidgety, restless, "wanting to be up and doing by sunrise, if not before." Turns out, it's not only Ratty, Moley and Badger who find themselves feeling this way during the brief, rushing summer. Here in Portland many of us are feeling the same pull of the season. Cats, rats, birds, teenagers, Portland hipsters and critters of all kinds have been out roaming the late nights and early mornings - and I've been running into them on my own mid summer roamings.

I spent a late night out with friends last night, Summer Solstice night, and found myself amazed at the bustle and business of the night. First it was the cyclists and pedestrians all around the busy night life area of town I was in, and then it was people walking in my park. I walk in this park after dark most weeks of the year and I usually have the place mostly to myself. This last week, though, the place has been practically crawling with people in the midnight hours. They are mostly teenagers, looking for a place to do the things their parents don't want them doing at home (even if it's just hanging out), but there are others like me, walking their dogs in the pleasant but lively dark. Even the cats in my life, who are normally very sedate animals happy to sleep for days at a time, have been active at all hours this week. Mango was downright tweaky last night, coming in and going out and stalking whatever little crawling things were having their own midsummer festival in the lawn and hedges.

I didn't make it up for a ceremonial solstice sunrise this week, but have had a couple sunrise mornings quite unintentionally recently. This time of year it is relatively easy to be "up and doing", as Ratty says, and not even notice that it is 4:30 or 5am and the sun is coming up. One night this month I laid down with every intention to only read one chapter of The Hunger Games. It is an exceptionally intense book and I was very much lost in that world when I gasped, took a deep breath and seemed to surface out of the book-world. I had no idea what time it was but the first thing I noticed in the world of my bedroom was the noise - the dawn chorus in my bedroom was almost deafening. There was a different kind of sound to the morning traffic, as well, like the lightening of the sky had caused it to thin out and allow noise to travel further into my open bedroom window. I got up and stood on my front deck for a while that morning just listening to all that noise. Summer is here and it is a rocking good time.

To learn what Ratty and Moley found on their all night search for little Portly Otter, check out the etext of The Wind in the Willows at University of Virgina's EText Center. Even better, find a copy of the book in print with Ernest H. Shepard's wonderful illustrations.

In the mean time, what is rocking and rolling where you are? What is pulling you out of bed, up and doing by dawn or before? Where do the roving bands of youth go to congregate in your neighborhood? What has the cat dragged in to your house? What does Summer Solstice look like where you are?

Saturday, June 18, 2011

June is Pagan Values Blogging Month

The Full Journey Moon

Full Journey Moon 2009: A Journey for the Journey Moon

Journey Moon 2010: The Journey Moon

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"We must not be afraid to discuss the values and virtues and ethics we have discovered in our contemporary Pagan faiths. There are enough books on rituals and spells and prayers to last us a few generations… lets start writing works on confronting poverty and hunger from Pagan perspectives. Let us set aside the fear of prejudice, and the once glamorous but now tattered and worn mantle of the outsider and the rebel, and take pride in ourselves and our faiths, in our works and lives and worship and in our Pagan communities and our larger communities." - Pax, author of Crysalis

June 2011 is the 3rd Annual Pagan Values Blogging Month, a great project that aims to get pagans of all stripes to be both thoughtful and vocal about the things they care most about. Some bloggers have chosen to confront broad topics of historical pagan values, or the values and ethics of movements, traditions or denominations within contemporary paganism. From both a practical and ethical standpoint, I can not begin to discuss such broad and impersonal topics but can only speak as to my own beliefs and values. I am a pagan, but I am also a Quaker and Quakers put great emphasis on speaking only as far as your leading takes you; to not go beyond the measure of light that we have been given. I can only speak about my own values and beliefs, but I hope to be able to discuss how my background in both pagan and Quaker thought and worship have informed my values.

June 2011: What do I value?

My personal value s are inspired and informed by my dual identity as both pagan and Quaker. I see the core of my values as a two sided coin with relationships on one side and self actualization on the other. The interaction of these two forces creates a motion that we physical beings live within, a motion and a force that does the work of building, rebuilding and healing our world.

As a pagan I see the root of my spirituality as a deep connection between myself and a mother goddess spirit, who in turn has a deep connection with every other person, animal, plant, and non living thing on the planet. The Mother loves me like her special child, but she loves you, that guy over there, this tree, my dog, the soil, thunderclouds, bushtits, spiny lobsters and wildfires just as much. I am bound fast to all the myriad things in that strong and vast web of loving connection. It is easy to forget our connection to the goddess and the rest of creation, but by constantly seeking knowledge, experience and wisdom we can become better citizens of this interconnected web.

Quakers see a similar web of connection through what they call the Light of Christ present in each person. By recognizing that God works through all people, all people must be listened to, cared for and treated as an agent of the divine. Coming out of that realization Quakers see personal authenticity and individual seeking as important components of a spiritually rich life. We can not listen to the voice of god if we are busy with unimportant things and practicing the fine art of discernment is highly valued in Quaker communities.

When I first started meditating on the question of what do I value the very first thing that came to mind was education. I spend vast amounts of time in my own personal life learning things so I can be a smarter, wiser and better person. I read voraciously, practice skills of observation and discernment, enjoy sharing what I know with others. I created a vision statement for myself last fall and used the phrase “I am an ambassador of the universal divine on a journey to explore life on earth and share what I discover.” It is my job to constantly work to get better, smarter, bigger, happier, and wiser. Quakers and other Christians call this becoming more Christlike. Some pagans call this becoming a priestess. Psychologists call it getting closer to self actualization and Havi might call it destuckification or biggification and Rob might call it cultivating pronoia. Whatever we call it, it is of the utmost importance to me.

In fact, I am prone to thinking it is more important than it is. I tend to value intelligence over genuineness, cleverness over bigheartedness and worldliness over simple faith. All virtues can become vices if taken to an extreme and I am grateful that I have been presented with a number of lessons to remind me that humility is a worthy virtue as well.

Many of those lessons come through experiences with community. Quakers believe that a true leading from god will be verified by the discernment of the community. My pagan theology says that nothing is truly virtuous unless it benefits the community, and nothing can be evil if it has benefit to some member of the community. Ed Espe Brown, the author of the Tassajara Bread Book and an early spiritual mentor of mine, wrote once that living in community is like living in a rock tumbler. He feels his time at Tassajara Zen Community was a time when he was rubbed against other people and his sharp edges were worn away into smoothness. I’ve met people who don’t have strong communities and I think of them as like the 40 foot long gypsum crystals in the Naica mine in Mexico. They are beautiful and perfect in their own way, but fragile, sharp and brittle. Tumbled rocks, rocks that have rubbed against other rocks in the community of a stream or a rock tumbler, are just as beautiful but with a sense that they have been tested and hold up against the forces of life. A community of seekers, acting authentically and with caring, can be that testing ground and polisher for a person. 

Relationships and biggification. Self actualization and community. The inward focus and the outward push. Like yin and yang or male and female, the pull between these seemingly opposing forces creates motion that propels us forward. In the end, I believe we will be judged by our actions but the impulse behind our actions is vitally important. All of the other things I value like safe and clean food, protection of the natural environment, equal rights for all people, the reduction of pollution and waste, the increase of beauty and truth are rooted in this interplay between an inward seeking and an outward connection. We must actively care for our communities, both human and non-human, and we must base that care in the interplay of inward and outward, benevolent altruism and informed self interest. What is good for the web is good for me, and what is good for me is good for the web. 

Right now our web is sick and hurting. There are bright spots of self actualization, healing and beauty but there are more places of bleakness, brokenness and despair. I believe that we are here, in the physical, mental and spiritual form we are in because God needs this form to do some specific work. There are things that can only be done with our human bodies, human minds and human hearts and we must find out what those things are and do them. The dual impulses of becoming more authentically ourselves and becoming more authentically in community is the way forward to find that work and successfully do it.

Friday, June 3, 2011

Perseus and the Journey Moon

The New Journey Moon

New Journey Moon 2009:
Journey Moon is New

Journey Moon 2010:
The Journey Moon

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Once upon a time, an oracle in the Greek city of Argos told the king that he would be killed by the son of his daughter, Danaë. The king quickly shut his daughter and grandson, Perseus, in a wooden chest and set it adrift in the sea. After two days and two nights the wooden chest made landfall and was broken open by a man named Polydectes
, the brother of the king of this new land. Danaë and her son lived on this new island for many happy years and one day Polydectes asked Danaë to be his wife. When Perseus, now a young man, objected Polydectes sent him on a quest to bring back the head of the Gorgon, Medusa. Perseus promised to bring the head as a wedding gift for his mother, but Polydectes was sure the young hero would never return.

When Perseus had made his promise, he went out from the palace and sat on the cliffs of Seriphos. While he was gazing at the white-capped
sea, Mercury, the messenger of the gods, appeared before him and promised help from himself and from Minerva, the goddess of wisdom. Minerva would lend her shield, Mercury offered his sword of light, and both agreed to guide him to the land of the setting sun, where the three Gray Sisters lived. These sisters would tell him the way to the home of the Hesperides. The Hesperides were beautiful nymphs who had three magic treasures, which Perseus must get before he could reach the land of the Gorgons.
Leaving Seriphos, Perseus began his long journey to the land of the setting sun. When he arrived there he found the three Gray Sisters. They were the strangest beings that he had ever seen. They had among them only one eye and one tooth, which they passed in turn from one to another.
When Perseus reached their dwelling the door was wide-open, and so he walked in. He was overjoyed to find the three sisters all taking a nap, with their one eye and one tooth lying beside them; and he quickly seized both these treasures. That done, he awakened the sisters and inquired of them the way to the home of the Hesperides. At first they refused to tell him, but when they found that he had their eye and tooth, they quickly told him how to go. He then gave them back the eye and the tooth. It did not take him long to reach the home of the Hesperides. It was an island in the Western Ocean. The nymphs had been told by Minerva that he was coming. So when he arrived they gave him welcome and agreed to lend him their magic treasures.
"The distance across the sea to the home of the Gorgons is great," said one of the nymphs to Perseus. "Take therefore these winged sandals of gold. With them you can fly through the air like an eagle."
"The Gorgon's head," said another of the nymphs, "must be kept in this magic wallet, lest you look upon the terrible face and be turned to stone."
"To get near the Gorgons," added the third, "you must wear this cap of darkness, so that you may see without being seen."
The hero then slung the wallet over his shoulder, put the sandals upon his feet, and the cap upon his head, and vanished. As swift as lightning, he crossed the dark waters and reached the home of the Gorgons. They were all asleep. Without looking at them Perseus held up the shield of Minerva and saw reflected upon it the frowning face of Medusa. With one blow from the sword of Mercury he struck off her head, and without looking at it placed it within his wallet. Then he hurried away from the weird place.
The other Gorgons awoke at once and followed him in furious haste; but as he wore his cap of darkness they could not see him, and with his sandal wings he flew so fast that he was soon too far for them to follow.
As he was flying along the coast of Africa he heard the sound of weeping. He looked down and saw a beautiful girl chained to a rock at the water's edge. Hastening to her, he took off his cap of darkness that she might see him and exclaimed, "Fair maiden, why are you chained to this rock?"
"Alas!" she said, "I have been offered as a sacrifice to Neptune. You cannot save me, however much you want to."
Her words made Perseus the more determined to help her. "Why is Neptune angry?" he asked. "And who has dared to treat you so cruelly?"
"I am Andromeda, daughter of Cepheus and Cassiopeia, king and queen of this land," replied the maiden. "My mother boasted that I was more beautiful than any nymph in Neptune's palace. Her pride enraged Neptune so that he raised great storms and sent a terrible monster to devour our people. The priests said that if I were offered to him the rest of the people would be spared."
Then with the sword of light Perseus cut the chain which bound Andromeda to the rock. At this moment the monster, huge and ugly, came plowing through the water. Perseus could not be seen because he had put on his cap of darkness, and before the creature could harm the maiden its head was cut off by the sword of light.
On his swift-winged sandals Perseus, with Andromeda in his arms, now flew to the palace of Cepheus and Cassiopeia.
There had been many glad weddings before that of Perseus and Andromeda, but none was ever more joyful. For he was admired as a wonderful hero, and everyone loved the girl who had been willing to give her life to save her people.
After the wedding Perseus went back to Seriphos, taking Andromeda with him. When he reached the island Polydectes was in his palace feasting, and Perseus hastened at once to the banquet hall and said to the king:
"See! I have brought that which you desired."
With these words he held up the head of the Gorgon. The king and his courtiers gave one look and were instantly turned to stone.
The Gorgon's head had now done its work; so Perseus carried it to a temple of Minerva and there offered it to the goddess. Ever after she wore it upon her shield, and its snaky ringlets and frowning face are to be seen upon her statues. The sword of light was given back to Mercury, who also returned the winged sandals, the magic wallet and the cap of darkness to the Hesperides.
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Faithful readers of my blog will know of my recent enjoyment of the Percy Jackson and the Olympian books. I have a real soft spot for young adult fantasy novels and these are some of the best examples of the genre I've ever read. In these kinds of books the authors can use the cover of the fantasy elements to present and explore The Big Questions In Life that teens are beginning to grapple with. If I didn't feel such a strong calling to be a math teacher I would want to be a middle school literature teacher so I could explore issues of parent/child relationships, friendships, loyalty, duty, life calling, reciprocity, betrayal and revenge that permeate the Percy Jackson (and so many other YA Fantasy) books.
One element so clearly present in these books is the theme of the hero's journey. Joseph Campbell, in The Hero with a Thousand Faces, describes the hero's journey as an archetypical myth in which "A hero ventures forth from the world of common day into a region of supernatural wonder: fabulous forces are there encountered and a decisive victory is won: the hero comes back from this mysterious adventure with the power to bestow boons on his fellow man." That pretty much sums up Percy Jackson in 50 words or less.
One of the reasons that Annette Hinshaw's calendar has remained such a deep well of inspiration for me is that each month is an archetype that resonates with both the outer experience of the season as well as my own inner life at any given point in the year. This month is called the Journey Moon, that time in early summer where it is easy to imagine setting off on a quest of your own and a time to examine the quests you are already on. No matter how tame we may see our lives as, we are on a journey through life. It can be very useful to have the stories of outer journeys to foreign or magical lands to help us frame our own, often more tame, journeys through relationships, jobs and daily life. There are fabulous forces all around us, and we all come back from our adventures with the power to bestow boons. They just usually aren't as spectacular as the Hesperides or a Gorgon Head and can often be mistaken for luck or nothing special.
What journey are you undertaking this early summer? What supernatural forces are aiding you a long the way and what wonders have you already found on your quest? What is your favorite Hero's Journey tale - are you more a Odysseus and Beowulf fan or a Star Wars and Harry Potter fan? George Fox or Guatama Buddha? Spiderman or Bilbo Baggins? Whatever kind of journey you are on, god bless you and keep you well as you wander this summer. Bring back souvenirs! :)
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The first three images come from Olive Beaupre Miller's The Adventures of Perseus found in her 1920 The Treasure Chest of My Bookhouse. They were accessed through the Florida Center for Instructional Technology Clearninghouse clip art library. Search for the keyword Perseus. The photo is probably copyright of George Lucas or something, just don't tell anyone I used it, OK?