Monthly Archives: May 2005

The Sun Shines Today Also

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I have been in quiet revelation lately, caused by a little book of Ralph Waldo Emerson’s work (NATURE and Other Writings) that I picked up in the remaindered book section of Copperfield’s. The force of his language takes my breath away, as in the following:

Crossing a bare common, in snow puddles, at twilight, under a clouded sky, without having in my thoughts any occurrence of special good fortune, I have enjoyed a perfect exhilaration. I am glad to the brink of fear.

Or this:

I see the spectacle of morning from the hill-top over against my house, from day-break to sun-rise, with emotions which an angel might share. The long slender bars of cloud float like fishes in the sea of crimson light. From the earth, as a shore, I look out into that silent sea. I seem to partake its rapid transformations: the active enchantment reaches my dust, and I dilate and conspire with the morning wind.

People don’t write like this today. Nature poets like Gary Snyder, whose work I have read extensively, tend to be more Zen in outlook, less unabashedly revelatory. Mary Oliver has her moments, as do others, but the cadence is different—more modern, more informed and jaded. Reading Emerson is like reading the best of these, but set to classical music: uncomplicated, infused with light, a song of sublime exhilaration.

My lack of acquaintance with him can mostly be chalked up to having too many Humanities credits in college to take another Lit course, but I am so glad that I finally found a moment to experience his writing. It makes me see the natural world around me with a different eye. Of course there are things about his writing that make him a bit too dated for our age: the idea of a transcendent perfection of spirit within matter, as separate from matter itself, does not square well with the Pagan idea of immanence, for one thing. His notions of gender are antiquated, and his writing often gets lost in a search for absolutes that is SO pre-modern. I don’t find any of that offensive, though. He’s so quaint he’s cute, and well worth it for those moments of language which are absolutely ravishing in their simplicity, precision, and beauty.

Emerson was railing against a Tradition which had become moribund, suffocating all attempts to see the world anew. So he was all about seeing with a fresh eye, making acquaintance with the natural world in defiance of religious strictures or social habit. In the introduction to Nature, he writes:

Our age is retrospective. It builds the sepulchres of the fathers. It writes biographies, histories, and criticism. The foregoing generations beheld God and nature face to face; we, through their eyes. Why should not we also enjoy an original relation to the universe? Why should not we have a poetry and philosophy of insight and not of tradition, and a religion by revelation to us, and not the history of theirs? Embosomed for a season in nature, whose floods of life stream around and through us, and invite us by the powers they supply, to action proportioned to nature, why should we grope among the dry bones of the past, or put the living generation into masquerade out of its faded wardrobe? The sun shines today also.

I find it ironic, and pleasing as well, to find such freshness “among the dry bones of the past”, having lived half a lifetime at the peak of the age Emerson and others created. Too much relativism, too much glorifying of subjective experience, causes us all to search for our “roots,” to re-discover the jewels of our ancestors, buried amid the dross of their legacy that the previous generation fought to overcome. Yes, the sun shines today, but for me it shines brighter in concert with the reflected mirror of the past.

Abortion: Holding Life and Death

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What with the persistent attacks on women’s right to abortion and birth control in this country, I feel I must start clarifying my own position in the (falsely dichotomized) pro-life vs. pro-choice debate. I am both pro-life and pro-choice. I do believe life begins at conception, AND I do not believe it is a sin or a death to end that life before the fetus is born.

Because nobody is ever listened to these days without having to stand on their credentials, here are mine: 3 live births, 2 abortions, 1 miscarriage. 2 children adopted as teenagers. 4 children successfully raised to adulthood, one still an adolescent. Have attended births, deaths, fertility rituals, infertility rituals. Have friends who were adopted out as infants, friends who gave up infants, friends who adopted children. Have taught the kids of abusive and/or addicted mothers. Have counseled addicts and women who are unable to support themselves to have abortions.

Ursula LeGuin has a wonderful article (“The Princess”, an address to NARAL in 1982 collected in Dancing at the Edge of the World) where she writes, in response to the ridiculous claims of the Christian Right that every pregnancy must continue to birth, that as a young woman she got pregnant accidentally. Because she was in no position to raise a child, because she chose abortion and finished her schooling, she then went on to create a stable relationship and have three very wanted children. But if she’d had to raise that one, none of the other would have happened. So with the abortion, it is still a net gain of 2 babies. Following the Right’s crude mathematical logic, this should be cause to celebrate, right?

I don’t have the patience to write so craftily in response to this right-wing assault as she has. I am plain furious that our government keeps narrowing the birth control and abortion options for women both in this country and abroad. I hate that they think this is good for social ills of any kind. And I am furious that reasonable-minded people are letting this happen. I don’t like the fact that the Left keeps letting itself get out-flanked on the issue, and I don’t like that by saying I’m pro-choice I’m not supposed to admit that life begins at conception. As a Pagan, there is no contradiction here. Our religion teaches us to hold both death and life simultaneously.

I have trained for many years to sense energy, to feel what is going on both inside my body and in the spiritual realms around me. Each time I have gotten pregnant, it took very little time for me to make contact with the spirit of my unborn child. For me, that connection was so instantaneous, so deep and intimate, that the thought of bearing a child and then giving it up once it was born was not an option for me. That would have been far more devastating than having an abortion.

Each time I had an abortion, it was because I knew I did not have the time and energy to raise that child to my own childraising standards. That is a knowledge borne out of the experience of many, many hard years of mothering. I was completely clear that aborting the pregnancy was the best thing to do. Where I part company with the pro-lifers is here: it is not murder to abort a fetus. The child at that point is a spirit, not a body. It resides only occasionally in its little, developing fetus body. Mostly, it hovers in and around the mother, feeling what we feel, remembering where it’s been before, riding the changes in its consciousness and ours in a completely non-judgmental way.

When it is time to abort the fetus, I have felt the spirit around me strongly. I have said good-bye in a tender, loving, deeply grieving way. The fetus is expelled, and the spirit just drifts away. It does not die, it is not harmed. I know this to be true. It goes back to the spirit world to wait for its next opportunity to come through, hopefully richer for the experience of our having been so close for a short time. That is what happens, yet even with this outlook abortion is deeply traumatic for women, something to be avoided if at all possible. It is not an easy process, even when we want it.

In a term pregnancy, usually the child’s spirit fully enters its body at birth. So from a spiritual perspective I can see why pro-choice folks rally round the credo that life begins at birth. But for me, acknowledging that life is there at conception allows me to take the pro-choice argument a step further: it is a woman’s birthright, this ability to judge which spirits pass through our wombs into life, and which pass through into death. That is part of the deal, part of the package of being born a woman.

We have that power, and we need to claim it, learn how to use it wisely, and guard it ferociously. We need to teach our daughters about their birthright, and be comfortable ourselves talking to them about birth control and our own deepest experiences with our fertility. If we give up the right to choose when we want to have children, either by apathy or by struggle, we will be giving up power over our own bodies AND an important part of our spiritual power. Women are the gates, and the gatekeepers, between the born and the unborn. We hold life in one hand and death in another, and that is how we are meant to be. This cannot be neatly parsed into the ridiculous boxing match of pro-life vs. pro-choice. Abortion should be legal, and extremely rare. We achieve this through realistic sex education (I’m not talking about abstinence-only here) and by providing free or low-cost birth control and abortion services to all women of childbearing age. End of story. Now, just how do we go about making this the law of the land?

The End Zone

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Ross and I once went to a workshop with Jack Rosenberg and Beverly Morse where they talked quite frankly about being in the “end zone,” as distinct from being in middle age. According to Jack, once you cannot double your current age to arrive at an age you are likely to achieve, you’re in the end zone. From that day to this, I’ve thought a lot about the middle and end of life, and how people cross that line from middle age into the end zone.

At the time, we were in our 30s with five children living not-so-harmoniously together under one roof, and though we had a lot of burdens I did not consider us middle-aged yet. Now, in our mid-40s, middle age is definitely upon us, and much to my surprise it is great! Somehow my ability as a young woman to imagine myself in later years had included a romantic view of retirement, but not much detail on the nitty-gritty years of middle age. But at 43, no longer burdened with the angst and questioning of my 20s and 30s, with children moving into adulthood and out of my daily care, I feel vigorous, confident, and ready for a new, more independent phase of life.

Now it appears that at least for the time being that new phase o’ life includes caring for a father-in-law in the end zone, even as our youngest daughter Jojo has barely caught the kickoff in her own life, and Ross and I are hovering somewhere around the 50-yard line. Bill, Rosses father, is in his early 80s, and for the most part has remained fairly independent and capable of taking care of himself. But in the past couple weeks he has had either one or a few TIAs, or small strokes. The simplest things, like changing clothes, can confuse him, and often his replies sound more like koans or inscrutable prophecies than the result of logical thought processes.

Caring for someone in their final years is similar to caring for someone in their early years, except everything runs backwards. Their age of mental functioning goes downward, not upward. Rather than graduating from diapers to toilet training, people in the end zone do the reverse. And in my limited experience with dying people, it seems they go out rather like they came in: if they were hell on wheels as a 2-year-old, chances are they will be difficult to manage, stubborn and unreasonable, as they fade out of this life. Fortunately, Bill was a pretty easygoing child, so he is taking all of his new adventures in stride, letting us take care of him without too much resistance.

The resistance usually comes from within us, anyway. At least once a day I balk at some aspect of Bill’s caretaking, and only rarely can I match my friend Robert Sanoff’s prescription to “just do the next thing” without judgment. I am a person who always wants to know how long things are going to take. In the hardest days of raising my teenage nephew, I would tell myself little lies, like “only three more months” in order to keep going and hold the worst of the stress at bay. Having a pre-adolescent and an old man to look after is a lot easier than looking after four teenagers, but the same rule still holds: there’s no knowing when it will end. And while you can always say to a teenager, “I wish you would grow up!”, it’s a lot less socially acceptable to say to someone in the end zone, “I wish you would die!”

So while society at large struggles with issues of death, disability, and the end of life, I ponder them daily in a more personal, immediate fashion. What is good care? When do you take the person’s word for how they’re doing, and when do you substitute your own judgment? Is it a conflict to support someone’s life while they’re dying, while at the same time praying that their dying won’t be long and agonizing? Or is that just compassion?

Under the Weather

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I have not been feeling well lately. It’s nothing overt or Mahlerian, just a consistent feebleness, and an inability to eat without feeling mildly sick and feverish. I’m reduced to yogurt, with a few cereal flakes thrown in for fun. I really hardly notice it unless I try to work or think really hard. So long as I can just putter about doing errands and chores, resting occasionally, and having my own thoughts on my own time, things are fine. Too bad life in California in the early 21st century just isn’t like that. I’m not sick though, I’m just under the weather.

What a curious phrase that is: under the weather. Is there ever a time when we’re over the weather? Or can we be in some sense with the weather? Maybe if I were more accepting of my mild delirium, cruising along at half-speed with a Zen attitude, then I’d be with the weather, even though in my reality of striving and straining I’m still under the weather by any measure. Is weather just a state of mind?

Wednesday I drove up to Harbin Hot Springs for an overnight writing retreat. This is something I did regularly while writing my dissertation a few years ago — the enforced solitude helped me crank out the chapters and finish the whole project on time. Now that I’m working on turning that diss into a book (proposal), I need that space again, with no dogs to tend, no meals to cook, no wireless DSL to distract me.

My idea of a perfect time at Harbin is to have the pools to myself, to find the perfect well-lighted table in the restaurant where I can sit undisturbed with a good meal and a good book, and to never have to see anyone walk past my room while I’m in there working. I was hopeful that at least some of those conditions would occur, because not only was it the middle of the week, but it was pouring down rain the whole way up. Yes, thanks to the jet stream which has been taking a more southerly route across the west coast this year, we are having a very wet Spring around here. It’s been wonderful—green and lush, cool but not too cold, moderate winds, and when the sun comes out from behind the clouds it feels like warm honey on the skin.

There were only a few stalwart souls in the pools at Harbin Wednesday evening. I was just drinking it in—the warm, almost carbonated water, the stillness of the air, the gentle but insistent rain on my head and on the surface of the pool. I felt under the weather in a really good way then. Under it, exposed to it, and basking in it. The rain from above, and the volcanic heated water from below. It was the perfect fusion of elements, and while I noticed that my energy was a little off, it definitely felt like soaking in the weather was good for whatever ailed me.

Of course, the soaking was so healing and relaxing that I slept for 12 hours instead of writing like a maniac, but sometimes that’s what happens. Whatever this little bug is that my body is conversing with, I’m really glad it’s given me a few days of spacey-brain time, where I just have to lie around sometimes and appreciate the changing weather around me, and within me.

That Beltane Glow

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What to say? The day was delicious, absolutely delicious. The garden, after many weeks of pruning, weeding and mulching, looked more vibrant than it’s ever been. The entire front and back of the house was swept clean, all windows washed, the interior thoroughly smudged. The food came in great heaping piles of goodness, the beer was great (tip o’ the hat to Russian River Brewery’s Parking Violation Ale), the strawberries well-dipped in chocolate thanks to Jojo the careful cook, and the lamb, oh my!

We actually roasted a fresh, local lamb on a spit this year, with help from a local guy who’s in with the Greek Orthodox community. It was acquired by calling CK Lamb in Healdsburg and asking for one to be butchered and ready by Saturday. But it’s one thing to have abstractly-shaped cuts of meat on the barbecue, and another thing entirely to have a whole animal (sans head) over the fire, for hours. It was a little unsettling for me at times–were we freaking out our vegetarian friends? Had we gone “too far” in demonstrating that taking life in a respectful way is okay?

It is very intense to participate in the cycle of life and death so intimately. Making choices of life and death for other living beings is part of our heritage as homo sapiens, a responsibility that we should learn to hold with ethics and values that make sense. “The sanctity of life” is only part of the picture. There is also the gift of sacrifice, and the life of the spirit whether in corporeal form or not.

Hmmm, I can see this is getting into a longer rant on life and death, and the tragic choices that are our burden, and our birthright. I must be coming down from the high of Beltane! That’s probably good, because it was really hard to concentrate at work today, and I have to do it again tomorrow, too. But the glow of the holy day is still on the land so strongly. The garden is absolutely vibrant, the maypole an epiphany of color and pattern repeating infinitely. The house is clean again, our fridge is full of wonderful leftovers, and our freezer is full of bags of lamb bones and meat, ready to be turned into wholesome, healthy lamb stew. And not just any lamb stew, but a stew full of the magic of the first day of summer, and the incredible gift of life that nourishes life. Blessed be!

Faith-based Lefties

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I’ve been thinking for a while how to help get the American left out of its little secular hidey-hole. We all know that the much touted “people of faith” come in all political persuasions–Pagans included! But how can Pagans contribute to the creation of a coherent stance on matters of faith in leftist electoral politics? A good article in Salon today is helping me think about this issue. The gist of it (the article is mostly an interview of Jim Wallis, author of “God’s Politics: Why the Right Gets It Wrong and the Left Doesn’t Get It”) is that if you’re going to talk about religion, you have to be authentic. You can’t just be spouting a line you don’t feel, because these are matters that speak to the heart, not the head.

I have a lot more to say about faith and politics, but for now heads up on a (long) thought-provoking article.