Monthly Archives: April 2007

On a Lighter Note

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All kids needs rite of passage ceremonies when they come of age. We planned an elaborate one for my nephew Alex, a small intimate one for my niece Rose (both of whom lived with us during their teenage years—long story), another complicated one for Bowen and a big community celebration for Lyra. The most important lesson I learned from crafting these rituals is that there is no “one size fits all” when it comes to rites of passage.

The boys both needed rites that included a long preparation period, tasks to accomplish, and a solo venture in the wilderness. Each one took an entire summer, start to finish. Rose and Alex were not Pagan at all, but they were part of our family and it didn’t take much effort to design a ceremony that celebrated their passage without “getting too Pagan” on them.

This year it was Jojo’s turn, the youngest, who is now 14. As a toddler Jojo was the most vehement, demonstrably Pagan child you could imagine. In her loud voice she would demand that we “give an offering to the God” at all sorts of inopportune moments (her sister’s piano lesson, the library) and during a Winter Solstice ritual when she was five, she marched into the center of the circle during the storytelling and pantomimed the whole story as it was being told, much to the delight of everyone there (she has always had a dramatic flair).

But that is ancient history as far as Jojo is concerned now, and the less said about her youthful follies the better. We talked about her coming of age a few months ago and she was adamant: “I DON’T want a ritual!” Okay, I said, but I do want to do something special with you, and I have to take you on a Mystery Ride.

We used to take our kids on Mystery Rides when they were young: we’d pile them into the car with little advance warning and go to some place like the Petrified Forest, or the beach, or for a hike in the big redwoods. Ice cream was usually involved, and the kids loved both the surprise element and the actual trip. So Jojo didn’t complain at all when I told her we were going to take a mystery ride for an entire weekend earlier this month in celebration of her coming of age. In fact, she was pretty excited about it.

What Jojo didn’t know is that we would be flying to Chicago to see Lyra for the weekend, staying at a fancy hotel, and that Rose would be joining us as well as my sister. It was a girls’ weekend out, and we had a blast. Every day there was a new surprise for Jojo: a friend of my sister gave us a private tour of the NBC studios, we went out for high tea, and saw the great Broadway show Wicked. She also got to spend a night with Lyra and her friends, going to a college party and a horror movie. Such a life!

Lyra and Jojo, Chicago 4/07 I am very happy about how it all turned out. It doesn’t worry me in the least that Jojo is anti-ritual at this point in her life. I think with her siblings gone, her parents split up, and just about to enter high school the girl has got plenty to deal with at present. There will be time enough in her long life for us to doRose & Anne admiring art ritual together of whatever sort seems appropriate. Meanwhile, here are a couple pictures taken from my sister’s cell phone camera when we were in the Art Institute Museum. The first one is of Lyra and Jojo, the second is Rose and me parodying ourselves being awestruck by a painting. (Which we were. That museum is incredible.)

Lyra has also posted pictures on her blog from our tour of the television studio. It turns out that the Chicago studio is where Jerry Springer and the Judge Mathis show are taped so the girls got to horse around on the sets, which was a lot of fun to watch. Tip for visitors: nobody who works at the studio uses the bathrooms closest to the Jerry Springer set. Just FYI.

Let the Sword Fall

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Several years ago I caught a segment of some TV documentary about Central American shamans. I only remember one scene, but it made a big impression on me. It was in the hut of a curandera who was doing a distance healing on someone. She went to her altar, chanted something, spoke some words, and lit a candle for the person. Then she left.

That was it. There was no checking back after five minutes to see how the candle was burning, no worrying whether she’d contacted the right spirits, no concern that maybe the ritual wasn’t going to work. She just went about the rest of her day seemingly unconcerned about both the process and the outcome. The level of trust she had was amazing to me. Oh, and incidentally, the healing worked.

Of course, seeing someone in a 5-minute film clip is no way to get an accurate reading of who they are or what they do. I did not know this woman or for that matter anyone else in her village or her entire culture. Therefore, I was free to project anything onto her healing ritual that I wanted. Knowing that I was using her as a hitching post for my own ideas on power and authenticity didn’t make the experience any less moving for me.

This chance encounter came at a time when I was questioning everything about ritual and magic that I had been taught. I was trying to come to a personal gnosis about what the essentials of ritual were, hacking away at any form that I could not justify with a felt sense of how it aided my intention. Seeing someone so plainly confident of who she was and what she was doing made me realize just how far away my own attainment of that state was. But it also convinced me that I was on the right search.

Now, several years later, I still feel like I am in the middle of that process of change and discovery. The difference is that the questioning attitude which was so helpful to me in the beginning has now become an impediment. There is a point at which you are fairly certain that you know what works. At that point, you just need to trust what you know and let it work. But the habits of self-doubt die hard, so I have been locked in another struggle lately: how to cultivate trust, which feels a lot like simply not caring. After lighting that candle, can I let it go out of my mind completely and turn to something else?

Fortunately, I have the advantage of cross-training to help me out. I practice aikido, which is a singularly helpful pursuit for anyone trying to embodySaotome sensei with sword magical principles. We were doing sword strikes one day, which like most basic moves in aikido are seemingly quite simple. You grip the wooden sword (bokken) just so, raise it above your head, and bring it down fast. But within that framework lie myriad complexities that make even masters of the art perpetual students. That day my focus was on making the sword cut as straight as I could. My teacher David Keip came over to me and said, “Looks good, Anne. But don’t try to control the sword on the way down, just let it fall.”

It was one of those moments when you hear something that you’ve probably heard hundreds of times before, but somehow it sinks in for the first time. Just let the sword fall. All that preparation of focusing my energy on the strike, getting the sword in the right position, feeling the alignment of intention and power—all that is just preparation for trusting the sword and letting the strike go free.

Needless to say, “let the sword fall” is a principle that is finding its way into every aspect of my life right now. Walking my dog is a meditation on each leg kicking forward freely before landing on the ground. Every conversation is a study of how my thoughts are gathered and then expressed. “Cut to the chase” has taken on bold new meanings, and anyone who might have thought me blunt before will be surprised at how much better at it I have become. Thank goodness that aikido is also a non-violent art!

So, back to the candle. Preparing for a strike and then letting it go is a very good way for me to conceptualize doing any kind of magic. It gives me a kinesthetic sense of the largely mental process of asking the spirits to manifest something. And it has helped me understand that there is a middle ground between worrying and controlling something on the one hand, and ignoring it on the other.

In aikido, even though I am not controlling the sword as it falls I am still responsible for where it lands. To turn away in mid-strike could be fatal. Likewise, trusting the candle to do its work while I leave it alone does not mean I am not paying attention on some level. I have an awareness of the work in progress, but that connection comes from my center, not my head. It feels like listening to the energy, instead of tinkering with it or tuning it out.

For me, the synthesis of aikido and magical practice has huge potential. It helps me resolve some of the ethical dilemmas I have with magic, and increases the potency of any acts I choose to do. It is a challenge to distill these principles and articulate them in a way that makes sense to non-martial artists, so I hope this blog post wasn’t too obscure or difficult to read. Because I am actively trying to figure out how to teach this stuff in ways that don’t involve making people fall down, I will probably write more about it in the future. Hopefully this is good news to at least some people out there. For those of you who are groaning at the thought, one tip from my years of training might come in handy: a dose of ibuprofen before reading, followed by another dose afterwards, should blunt any pain or swelling. And tomorrow you’ll feel good as new!

Wars on Children

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I finally got around to watching Jesus Camp last night, and while I was horrified at how these kids were being brainwashed I also recognized some disturbing similarities between different brands of “spiritual” childraising. Watching Pastor Becky Fischer in action, I couldn’t decide whether she ought to go to prison or a mental health facility for how she bullied those kids into crying and being ashamed for their “sins,” then turned around and filled them full of crap about being the “chosen generation” to lead Christians through the “end times.” It’s a bi-polar emotional feast, and it left me wondering just what skeletons in her closet have caused her to be such a militant.

It was hard not to wonder at these ministers’ private lives, what with Ted Haggard on the screen prancing and preening like some sick john whose public persona is about to give way, revealing just how twisted and hypocritical his evangelical preaching is. I’m so glad I saw the film after his infamous downfall, because otherwise I would have been shaking in my boots thinking that they might actually succeed in their mission to create a “Christian” nation here. Instead, I could breathe a little sigh of relief knowing that their influence on this nation may have already peaked, and they are all on their way back down to wingnut minority status.

Yes, the comparisons to Islamic fundamentalism and the recruiting of children as martyrs were obvious—even more so because they were made explicit by Pastor Fischer herself. Whipping kids into a frenzy on emotionally-charged half-truths, getting them to dedicate their lives to causes they don’t understand, keeping them isolated from other kids and viewpoints, to me that crosses the line. I mean, we all teach our children our beliefs, try to get them involved with causes we are passionate about, encourage them to think of themselves as powerful, special, loved. But we don’t all tell our kids that their generation was put on the earth to usher in a holy war of terror against all unbelievers. That is sick.

Blog Against Theocracy Apparently I missed the Blog Against Theocracy weekend extravaganza, but there’s never a bad time to write about what a horrible idea theocracy is. I’m against it. And while I would like to dismiss the evangelical army of pre-teens in the movie as next year’s disillusioned teen runaways, we can’t afford to be so smug. Jason over at the WildHunt blog has a great summary of all the things we need to stay vigilant about, for instance how this will play out in the next presidential election and why there are so damn many kids at these churches in the first place. For me, this phenomenon underscores the need to not compromise with the Right on issues such as the restoration of habeas corpus, separation of church and state, sex education and contraception in high schools, and access to safe abortion for all women, among other hot topics. But it also leaves me unsettled over how we are raising our own kids.

There is a sort of New Age parallel to the evangelical message that today’s children are Christ’s army: the whole “Indigo child” movement. According to these true believers, the creative, insightful, difficult to control kids of today are here to clean up the earth, wake up humanity, restore integrity to all social institutions, and so on. Except as an army to combat the Jesus Campers, these kids would fail miserably. Why? They’ve been raised to be total narcissists, believe the world revolves around them, have never been taught basic social etiquette, and have no respect for any authority but their own. In short, they’re as much a worry as the Bible-thumpers coming out of the Christian evangelical movement.

There is also a disquieting similarity between the inflamed anti-abortion rhetoric of the evangelical kids and the passionate diatribes I’ve seen environmental activist kids get swept up in. Now, I happen to agree with most environmentalists about what is wrong and what needs to be fixed. My kids are not strangers to demonstrations and political activity. But it makes me nervous when political action is generated by overpowering emotions combined with a fundamentalist certainty that someone has the one right and true way. And I think when children are taught that they are on a holy mission to restore the planet’s ecosystems, little good will come of it.

Our children need to understand what it means to be participants in a democracy. That involves having passionate beliefs, and accepting that others will have passionate beliefs that are counter to theirs. They need some sense of connection to the Sacred, whatever we call it, and they must understand that belief in God is something that in this country is completely separate from the way the country is run. Most importantly, they need to see adults take responsibility for restoring our democracy and our environment. This is not something that should be put on the shoulders of our children, no matter how mystical or righteous we make it sound. It is our war, our generation that sits in the seats of power. If we can’t fix it now, by the time our children grow up it will be too late.

The World Inside a Sugared Egg

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When I was growing up, on Easter morning we’d come out to the dining room to find lovely big baskets full of malted milk ball eggs, chocolate bunnies and marshmallow chicks waiting for us. Later, my mom would hide jelly beans in the green shag rug of the living room and we’d go searching for them, a little less enthusiastically. Can there be anything less exciting, really, than finding a crushed lemon jellybean full of rug hairs and dirt? Fortunately there was chocolate to eat, so none of us had to dwell on the unfortunate jellybean portion of our second favorite Christian holiday. (I dimly recall earlier Easter egg hunts out in the grass, but I think in later years she got too tired to do that and downscaled the whole outdoor component. WWJD?)

I remember one Easter when I found in my basket a beautiful yellow sugar-coated “egg,” with a clear plastic window on one end looking into a bucolic scene of Springtime goodness. Green paper hills in front of a robin’s-egg blue sky with puffy white clouds in the background, flowers in the foreground, and a little bunny with a blue jacket (of course) hiding painted eggs in the grass. I thought it was the most beautiful, creative thing I’d ever seen. The fact that it was not to be eaten didn’t dampen my admiration of the egg, and I kept it on my dresser for weeks afterwards, peering into it whenever I had need of a happy thought. I don’t know what ever happened to it, but even favorite things in our house tended to disappear eventually, due to my mother’s executive judgment that they had worn out their usefulness or were attracting ants.

Every year thereafter I looked in my Easter basket with great anticipation for another sugared egg diorama, but we never got them again. I would see them in the stores and look longingly at the scenes inside, but I also noticed from year to year how their workmanship seemed to get increasingly shoddy. The seams of the outer eggshell showed, the window was loose or falling out, and the paper scene inside had a slapdash quality to it, poorly printed and carelessly glued. It might have been true, but it also coincided with my growing teenage disaffection for Christianity, and was no doubt a symptom of how difficult it was for me to have a happy thought during those turbulent years.

Fortunately, I could walk outside and within moments be standing alone on a wild hillside. By just sitting on a rock overlooking the bay, watching the deer graze and the vultures circle, I found a contentment similar to my earlier egg meditation, but on a scale that suited my growing mind and restless spirit. In time, as I left Christianity and began wandering through philosophy and world religions, I measured all religious experience against the feeling of beauty and expansiveness I experienced alone on that hill. In fact, I suppose I still do.

None of this ancient history would have come to mind, let alone found its way into a blog post, were it not for the everchanging Spring diorama that I find myself living in right now. Driving into town is a twenty-minute reverie of tender green hills, carpeted with brilliant yellow mustard flowers and orange poppies. Red-shouldered hawks perch on the telephone wires waiting patiently for gophers to peer up out of the soft earth. Above me the sky is impossibly blue, painted with a light hand and dashed with creamy swaths of cloud. The air is lightly misted, giving the whole scene a decoupage glow. Every moment is a new dawn of creation.

“Another day in paradise,” we say in greeting as we walk our dogs in the neighborhood. Nobody who lives here takes the natural beauty around us for granted. We know we’re incredibly lucky, and gratitude seeps into every conversation, even on the windiest, most bone-chilling days. This morning having a leisurely Palm Sunday breakfast at my kitchen table, I felt the interplay of sun and shadow on my back as the fog spread its way thinly across the incredibly blue sky. The wild roses across the street have offered their first fragrant pink blossoms, and I picked some for a bouquet along with flowering sage and purple daisies. I was born on Palm Sunday 45 years ago, and though today isn’t my actual birthday, I couldn’t have asked for a better time to come into the world, in such a beautiful season, on such a beautiful spot on the planet.