Monthly Archives: March 2007

Beltane Begins at Equinox

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Due to a plumbing emergency this week, I found myself out in my front yard two mornings in a row. My neighbor Joe was doing the fixing part under the house, and I was there helping by periodically handing him a tool or a rag when he yelled for one. The rest of the time, I could either wait idly listening to him grunt and curse, or find something else to do.

How fortunate for me, then, to live in a place where there are literally five things that need doing per square yard. The whole “lawn,” if you can call it that, would be best served by being ripped up, graded, and re-made with fresh sod. But since that is not in the budget for this year, I entertained myself during those hours this week by preparing to mow.

Yes, that’s right: preparing to mow. This is what you do when generations of wild mustard, weird pokey hedge plants, thistles, and other valuable members of the biosphere have ensconced themselves in the place where you would like to dance, barefoot, around a maypole in a couple months time. You fetch a trowel and a wheelbarrow and dig up the offending yet essentially blameless plants before you mow their little heads off. Because if you just rip into the “lawn” with a mower at this point, you will end up at Beltane with a field of sharp, menacing, but invisible little demons tormenting your guests, and no one will have very much fun dancing.

Joe of course thought I was insane. “If you want, I could just bring my weed whacker over here and do this whole thing. No problem.” He was trying to be friendly and neighborly, and to suggest in a non-threatening way that it was stupid to pull out your whole worthless lawn piece by piece when any decent weed whacker could do the job in a half an hour. I tried to explain to him that no, I had a lawn mower and was indeed going to mow it myself, but only after I’d completely removed the really obnoxious (from a human-centered standpoint) plants.

I mostly wanted Joe to fix the leaky pipes under my house, so didn’t want to go into the whole explanation of, “Well you see, I’m a Pagan, and we celebrate seasonal festivals such as Spring Equinox, which is today incidentally, and Beltane, also known as May Day. And on that day I’m going to have lots of friends over and we’re going to put that maypole up that’s lying over on that pile of wood. Yes, but we’ll take the old ribbons off of it and put new ribbons on, and then we’ll put it in this hole that’s still here from last year, and all the little kids will have their shoes off, you see, and we’ll have music playing…”

Launching into any part of that narrative would have meant a long, no doubt fruitful discussion, but one that was tangential to the more urgent task of fixing the plumbing. So I thanked him but politely declined his offer, and went back to pulling out wild mustard plants, unperturbed by knowing that for the moment my neighbor thought I was a bit daft. Yet such are the choices we make when we decide to cast our lot with developing place-based rituals.

I love hosting May Day at my house every year. I particularly like the mixture of witches and neighbors, family, friends, and friends of friends that show up each year. It is an unorthodox mix, and my Beltane rituals are decidedly unorthodox: casual, with no obvious ritual gear save for some smudge and a long wooden pole. We make it as beautiful as we can with freshly picked flowers and colorful ribbons, put it up in the middle of the yard, set an intention for our dancing, say a blessing, cue the musicians, and bring in the May.

In my opinion, that and some good food are all that is required to satisfactorily celebrate the beginning of summer. The circle casts itself with the dance, and the desired outcome is always achieved: sharing joy and celebrating the Earth’s beauty. I used to be worried that the mix of people wouldn’t work, that my kids’ friends’ parents would get strange, my neighbors would shun me, my new friends wouldn’t fit in with my old friends, etc. But year by year I’ve realized what a waste of energy that is. Almost everybody loves dancing around a maypole, and those that don’t generally enjoy watching other people do it. So it all works out in the end, and for weeks afterward I can look out my front window at the beautifully woven maypole in my yard.

Cultivating a seasonal ritual on your property takes a lot of work, though. Mostly it takes reminding yourself, as this week reminded me, that preparations for Beltane begin on the Equinox. The festival is not a single day, but a full season (or half-season) leading up to a single day. During that season we need to pay attention, heed the signs, and prepare in ways large and small for what will be, however informal it may seem on the surface, the sacred act of turning the wheel of the year.

This week I completed several essential tasks; next week I will do more, and still more in the weeks to come. Closer to the day, I will invite Joe and his wife and a few other neighbors to come over and join us. It is my way to invite people to the party and save the long discussions for later, after they’ve met my friends, seen me in action, and experienced the magic of a maypole dance. Because in the long run, it’s not what we believe or what we say but who we are and how we live our lives that makes a difference. And that ability to build bridges, to change perceptions and forge alliances, is easily worth a few weeks of toil each year, especially now that the plumbing is fixed.

City By the Bay

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Well, it’s been a busy week since I came back from my trip. I think I’ve caught up with everything essential, even plowing through the dreaded FAFSA form for Lyra’s financial aid. Ugh, I absolutely hate that thing, but I’ve filled one out for various kids for several years running now. You’d think it would get easier with time…but then again, my mother always told me I’d learn to like peas when I got older, too.

On the flight home I had the opportunity to play my favorite plane game: Name That Landmark. We flew south into the SF Bay Area on a clear night, and the first thing I noticed out my window was blackness with here and there a cluster of soft lights and no lighted roads anywhere. Then there was one curved, lighted bridge expanse, very short, leading from nothing into nothing. Must be a levee over the Delta.

More clusters of light followed, and here and there a straight line of road. I’m a little hazy on my Solano County geography, so I was waiting to see something like the Carquinez Bridge, or Highway 37 heading west from Vallejo into Novato. But for some reason I never saw that. Then the plane window gave me a huge hint: a very long, well-lighted bridge with a rise on the Eastern side, and on the West a peninsula of intense floodlights. Easy: the Richmond Bridge and San Quentin Prison, locus of human cruelty and suffering. Even from the air with the advantage of distance it looks hideous. But the lights outlining the hills and the vast, black Bay are still absolutely breathtaking to me.

It’s not always easy to love the Bay Area. I grew up here, and think it is the most beautiful place on earth. But I’m always happy to drive home after my frequent visits, back up to the North Coast where the traffic thins out and there’s room to think. I’m glad I learned to drive down there during the ’70s when there were probably about a third as many people on the roads; today I’d be in constant fear of my kids’ lives if they were teenagers out on the highways.

Once we passed the Richmond Bridge the game became pretty easy: Lawrence Hall of Science. The Mormon Temple. Lake Merritt! The Bay Bridge, Alameda with its little curlicues of housing development streets right up to the water’s edge.

I have very little respect for Alameda but I love Oakland, my hometown. There is something very right-sized about Oakland. There’s the best and the worst there, with rarely any margin between the two. If you’re from Oakland you can’t really put on airs. There are beautiful neighborhoods, sure, with high-priced housing and high-end shopping districts. But you’re still in Oakland. You still have to stay grounded and keep your wits about you. Yet even in the worst parts of town, I experience Oakland as being a softer city than San Francisco. Maybe it’s something in the air, having more of a buffer from that salt spray.

I also spent a fair amount of time in Berkeley growing up, as my best friend in high school lived there and we always drove to her house when we cut class. You can travel anywhere in the world, and if they ask you where you were born and you say “Berkeley,” it is immediately understood: you stand for something. They don’t know quite what, yet, but they will watch you closely and assume that sooner or later your radical stripes will emerge. Whereas if you say you grew up in Oakland you have immediate street cred, even if you grew up in the hills like I did, and people will generally relax and assume you’ll be comfortable anywhere. That part comes in handy.

Oakland is gritty and urban, but not as jagged feeling as San Francisco. In Oakland I like the feeling of being able to head East into the hills and find solitude. If you’re in San Francisco with no access to a bridge and you need to leave, you either have to swim or head south into the death pit of San Jose and the South Bay. Not that I plan my travel to the Bay Area with planned escape routes in mind, but the reptile part of my brain doesn’t rest easy for very long in the City.

Still, I consider myself bi-coastal. Yes I know, there are those who say that’s a cop-out, that you should choose a coast and be happy with it, that everyone who says they’re bi-coastal secretly is more one coast than the other. But I can honestly say that I love both coasts of the Bay: San Francisco and Oakland/Berkeley. So which is my City By the Bay? I may have to take that secret to the grave with me. It is a fact, however, that that song by Journey was going through my head as we landed, even though I thought the band went downhill after Steve Perry became lead singer. But what’s a Bay Area girl to do?

Queen of the Road

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(With apologies to Roger Miller.) I have been enjoying myself out on the road this week. There’s been no boxcars or broom pushing involved, but thanks to the largesse of old friends and the interest in dreams and other workshops I give, I’ve been able to partake of early Spring in the Northwest, a rarefied kind of beauty. The cherry and plum blossoms are out in Seattle, there are fresh violets rising from the forest floor in Olympia, and tomorrow I get to see what’s blooming in Portland. Life is good.

I have also made a startling discovery about travel in general: Greyhound has it over flying coach these days. Taking a 90 minute bus ride yesterday, I discovered that I had more legroom, enjoyed better air quality, could bring a water bottle with me from outside the station, and didn’t have to wear a seatbelt the whole time. Plus, if we crashed I would be falling from a height of roughly ten feet instead of 40,000, and would likely survive.

Aside from the singular advantage of speed, airplanes are no longer a more pleasant way to travel. At the Oakland airport the security personnel told me I had to put my small shampoo bottle in a ziplock bag if I wanted to bring it with me. Then they informed me that they had no ziplock bags, but that I could buy one at the gift shop in the next terminal over, a ten minute walk.

The whole premise of restricting liquids in carry-on luggage for security reasons is ludicrous in the first place, as is the practice of removing our shoes, to which we are now inured. But as I stood looking at the security guy smiling as he told me my options I realized that this was just the tip of the iceberg. We are being trained to accept life in a police state, thanks to the Orwellian vision of Homeland Security. I have often denigrated coach flights as being “the Greyhound of the skies”, but I never dreamed that I’d actually prefer the bus. Amazing!

Still, there is something heady and delightful about travelling. I tell people to pay particular attention to dreams while travelling, because they often include a unique birds-eye view of our lives back home, sort of like looking back at the Earth from space. Things fall into perspective from far away, and if we’re lucky we can resume our work with renewed energy and focus when we return.

I remember once about ten years ago, Starhawk and I were teaching together or protesting somewhere and I was talking about how much I loved travelling. She said to me, “Well, good. I think you should write about it, describing at great length everything you love about travelling. Don’t leave out a single detail. That way, when you’ve travelled as much as I have and are completely sick of it, you’ll be able to look back and remember fondly the days when it all seemed so fresh and exciting.”

Happily I am not yet sick of it, though I do understand what Star was talking about. I am midway through my trip, catching up with good friends and meeting new and interesting folks along the way. It is Spring all around, and even the rain seems to carry clarity and the promise of great things to come. This weekend I get to meet two brand new babies, visit my son Bowen, and have more fascinating conversations with other Pagans. In spite of everything, life is very, very good.

The “El” Word

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Okay, time to fess up. We’ve all heard the word bandied about. We’ve all applied it to someone we think is one, or have argued heatedly against applying it to someone else. We think we know what it means, but aren’t sure that anyone else would agree with us. It’s tremendously important, but also a huge trap.

What can it be? (insert Jeopardy theme song here)

That’s right – What is…an “Elder”! I’ll take Loosely Defined Terms for $500, Alex.

What do we mean when we call someone an elder? Or Elder, if you’re being formal about it. Well, there’s the fact of age. Anyone who is old enough to get a discount at the movie theater could by rights be considered an elder. Any woman old enough to go through menopause would have achieved elderhood. At its most loosely defined, anyone who is older than myself is in some sense my elder.

But relative stations of age is not really what I am interested in writing about with regard to Elder. I’m curious about how we go about identifying those people for whom we have respect in our spiritual tradition. Most Pagans I know are phenomenally authority-averse. So many years of repeating “I am my own spiritual authority” have made it exceedingly difficult to find external sources of trusted spiritual authority. In Reclaiming particularly, years of seeing ourselves as the edgy “vanguard” have yielded a generation or two of uppity practitioners, but only a few have what I would consider the depth of knowledge and wisdom for me to call them an Elder.

But then again, that’s my own uppity nature showing itself. Why can’t I just go ahead and consider anyone who has been practicing for more years than myself my Elder? After all, in my other spiritual tradition, aikido, the word “sensei” means more than simply teacher. It means “gone before,” as in someone who has been practicing for longer than I have. There is a built-in humility to that word, and in the context of aikido I have less of a problem calling people who are teaching “sensei.” But maybe that’s also because I don’t choose to train in dojos where I have little respect for the sensei. I choose to train with those whom I respect, and in that respect lies the key to being an Elder.

The fact is, being an Elder is a title that is bestowed by others; it cannot be solely self-applied. Declaring that others must respect you because you are knowledgeable and wise is the surest way to achieve infamy, but it will never give you the respect you seek (unless you are, in fact, knowledgeable and wise). And, in the case of traditions such as Reclaiming where there is very little continuity between communities and generations of practitioners, respect is something that must be earned over and over again; it is not enough to rest on your laurels because someone five years ago declared that you were an elder.

Why is it important to have elders? Because we ourselves want respect. Humans are naturally social creatures, and part of our instinctive nature is to create social organization, i.e. hierarchy. We can almost intuitively identify who among a group of people is most respected, a condition closely associated with but not identical to who holds the most power in the group. Perceiving this web of relationships helps us know where we fit in, what positions are open to us, and what we can learn from the group. In the absence of any true sense of respect or deference among individuals, the amount we can learn from the group is limited. And if we are looking for a little respect, chances are that we will not find it in a group of people who do not respect one another.

So if clamoring for respect doesn’t result in being respected, what does? One of the things that makes me stop and pay close attention to someone is if she or he is a deep listener. In a group conversation, I find myself most interested in the words of those who clearly exhibit that they are listening closely and reflecting on what is being said. I give that person’s words more consideration, hold her in higher esteem – in short, I tend to respect her right away. That quality of deep listening is not something that is taught as a magical skill to the degree that I believe it should be. It holds so much value if we can stick with the practice. It takes us down all kinds of internal roads where we learn how to trust and deeply listen to ourselves, how to feel if something is true, how to really integrate body and mind.

Learning to listen is one way to gain respect. Mastering a craft is another – and I would argue that mastery in any craft centers on a quality of listening. And then there is the path of credentials. In many lineages, where they probably don’t go around saying “I am my own spiritual authority,” achieving respect is as easy as 1-2-3. A third degree initiation means that you are qualified to teach teachers and initiate others. You can be the high priest or priestess of your own group, and earn or demand a de facto degree of respect.

When Margot Adler spoke at PantheaCon this year, she created quite a stir by declaring that we should all get rid of our lineages, that obsession with rank is what was wrong with the current Pagan movement. I understand her concern, but I don’t think that burning diplomas or certificates will achieve what she is after. She is talking about (as I understand it, having heard about her talk from someone else) a return to a more organic system of organization, where respect is bestowed and exchanged on the basis of having earned it – a meritocracy, for lack of a better word.

Maybe she was actually proposing that we don’t need leaders or elders at all, but I don’t think she would go that far. And I simply don’t believe it is possible, or desirable, to advocate that type of system. I have spent too much time coming to understand the hierarchies which arise in ostensibly non-hierarchical groups to even entertain the idea for a second. Better by far to admit that we are mammals that create social organizations – it is something we are good at. We instinctively seek out those we can learn from. We listen to, and respect, those we feel have something we would like to learn.

I know there are many groups out there which are struggling to define what it takes to become an elder in their tradition. I have taken part in that same discussion a few times myself, and it has never seemed to bear much fruit. The reason for this is that we did not start out by speaking the truth: that what all of us really wanted was respect, and we were looking to each other for clues on how to create that for ourselves. So coming up with a set of external criteria – take x amount of courses, teach y amount of students, practice for z amount of years – was a complete distraction from where we should have started the conversation: whom do I respect? What quality does that person have which I desire? If I take more time to listen and reflect, will I be able to water the seeds of that quality in myself?