Monthly Archives: May 2007

Pile o’ Books

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Book Pile, 5/28-07What? A challenge from another blogger to take a photo of all the books I’m in the middle of reading? That sounds like a lot more fun than all the other things I planned to do this morning. And it comes after a recent purge, where I put back on the shelves all those books (and there were several) that I was in the middle of reading but hadn’t touched in over six months. That’s the rule: I can’t really claim to be reading something if in fact I never actively read it.

Also not appearing on this list: the Harry Potter books #1-6, which my daughter has locked up in her book pile. With the last one in the series coming out in July, I figure it’s only right that I should re-read the earlier ones before treating myself to the last. Don’t want to let a clue go by, dontcha know! And now if you’ll excuse me, I have to finish watching the 2nd Pirates of the Caribbean movie, in preparation for watching the new one at the theater this afternoon. Ah, the life of a thinking blogger!

Thinkers Among Bloggers

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We’re in the thick of it now: Memorial Day weekend on the California coast. People are driving in from all over, the campgrounds and trailer parks are filling up, as are the local restaurants and gift shops. Today the temperatures in the Central Valley are reaching 90°, while here we are up into the low 60s, overcast with a very light breeze—near-perfect weather conditions in my opinion. I am mercifully free of travel obligations this weekend, aside from a day trip tomorrow to the Bay Area for various meetings. Today I get to putter in the garden, chat with neighbors, cook what I like, write a little, play some music, and update my website.

Website maintenance is a near-continuous process, something they don’t tell you in those seminars about how easy it is to put up a website. When I first realized that having a website meant I had to figure out how to fix it when it was broken, I was filled with dread. Over the years, though, the process has gotten easier to manage. I chalk it up to my Philosophy of Dreadful Jobs: when faced with any daunting task, if you actually start it at some point, then continue until it eventually is completed, it becomes less daunting. Who knew?

Thinking Blogger AwardAnyway, the task I face today is a daunting one. I was surprised last week to get a post from Cosette at Pandora’s Bazaar, who has tagged my blog for a Thinking Blogger Award. This is basically a “Tag, you’re it!” award that is staying non-ludicrous by focusing on blogs with actual content. When someone tags you as a thinking blogger, you’re supposed to come up with a list of five blogs that make you think, and pass on the favor.

This is harder than it looks. I read—well okay, I skim—a lot of blogs each week. Many I read because they make me smile, some even make me laugh. But making me think is a higher order of persuasion, since it takes more energy and focus on my part. Why think when I can be entertained instead? Well, there are some really important reasons why we have to keep thinking, keep reasoning, and keep acting out. I’m in a bit of a women’s rights mood today, so you’ll see there is a definite gendered slant to my five picks. I wanted to add Joan Walsh and Nora Ephron, but I decided that was cheating since they’re paid to have opinions and that’s kind of different than blogging.

So here, for various reasons, are the five sites that make me think, make me angry, and make me proud:

1. Feministing

2. Wonkette

3. Whirled View

4. Feminist Law Professors

5. Abortion Clinic Days

Hidden In Plain Sight

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Our top story tonight: Jerry Falwell is still dead.

Moving on. I have always been a big fan of open book tests. That’s when, in high school and college, you are allowed to bring important books with you during a big test to help you answer questions. The theory is that for most subjects, memorizing information is less important than knowing where to look for that information when you actually need it. I think this is an excellent philosophy not just for school but for life itself. It also, conveniently, gives me a clever excuse for collecting probably more books than I actually need. You just never know when you’ll be faced with a pop quiz on any number of subjects, really. It’s best to be prepared.

As a Pagan, having a large reference library puts me in good company. Most Pagans I know are voracious readers with sizeable libraries. One of the first things I like to do when going to a friend’s house is to head for the shelves and side tables to see what books are there. More often than not, I’ll find a new book or two about Paganism in with the fiction, financial advice, and tarot for dummies books.

It is an odd time to be a Pagan. We have books written by all sorts of practitioners of different traditions, talking about their spirituality. We have writers who look at these books and write their own books drawing general conclusions about trends and so forth. Then we have writers who read both kinds of books, and comment on how and why people have come to the conclusions they have about the first people’s books. When I pick up any new book on Pagans nowadays, it’s as though I’m looking in a funhouse mirror with multiple reflections, and if I couldn’t look down and see my own body I’d get hopelessly lost.

This phenomenon of relentless self-observation is due to the fact that apparently we Pagans are part of a New Religious Movement (as opposed to a vestigal Stone Age religion—but that may change again next decade, so stay tuned) which boasts among our number a large quantity of academics interested in studying New Religious Movements. In any given workshop or ritual these days, chances are that there is at least one insider/observer in attendance collecting data for her master’s thesis at Podunk University. In fact, I’d bet money that someday this very blog post will end up as a footnote supporting someone’s rigorous research suggesting that modern Pagans are ironic and enjoy making fun of others.

As an overeducated person myself yet not motivated enough to be a true academic, I find this trend amusing and instructive. I have several really smart friends who are academics, and I like to read at least the introductions of their books when they come out. I figure so long as I understand the general theme of the book and have a passing acquaintance with the table of contents, I will be well-prepared for any pop quiz on the subject that comes my way. This is especially true for my dear but (just between you and me) misguided friends who write about cyborg theory. But enough (please God) about cyborgs for now.

her hidden children

All this is really just an introduction to what is supposed to be the point of this whole post, namely that I have recently read an excellent book on Paganism that I would like to review here briefly. Her Hidden Children: The Rise of Wicca and Paganism in America by Chas Clifton (AltaMira, 2006) is a fascinating history of Paganism in the U.S., with a wide historical view yet particularly focused on the 1960s and 1970s.

Chas seems to have two main goals with this book. One is to expand on Ronald Hutton’s The Triumph of the Moon, which gave a bang-up version of the history of modern Witchcraft from a British perspective, by delving more deeply into how the Craft changed when it came to North America. Somewhat akin to how African tribal music came over with the slaves, turned into jazz, and then was exported back to Africa to create even newer styles of music, Chas details how Paganism went from “the Old Religion” in the UK to “Nature Religion” once it took root here, and in turn changed the focus of British Paganism on its return.

The second goal I see in this book is to reclaim (ah, irony!) early Wiccan history from feminist revisionist Witches. Chas states, and rightly so, that once feminism met the Craft, and Z Budapest and Starhawk found their audience, not only did the tenor of the movement change, but so did its popular history. I really enjoyed the backstory he covers in great detail, from the Transcendentalists through Swedenborg, Theosophy, the Sierra Club and Earth Day in 1970, the Green Egg magazine and CAW, Wilhelm Reich and “orgone energy”, the SCA, right up to the point in 1979 when Margot Adler published her groundbreaking Drawing Down the Moon and Starhawk published The Spiral Dance. Anyone interested in exploring the scaffolding from which feminist Wicca launched itself would do well to delve into this thorough and well-organized history.

The two things I most abhor in academic books are a snotty attitude and bad writing. Happily, Chas’s book displays neither of these unfortunate tendencies. He thinks critically about his subject matter but does not indulge in excess criticism of many of the eclectic thinkers whose careers he chronicles. His writing is clear and precise, educated without being overly dense, detailed without lapsing into obscurity.

While on the whole this is an even-handed and much-needed portrait of early Wiccan history, I do detect a subtle note of pointedly taking some of the darlings of popular Wicca down a notch or two. Margot Adler, Isaac Bonewits, Tim Zell, Church of All Worlds, Feraferia and the ADF all get a mention in the glossary. But curiously, Starhawk is not mentioned, though she is referenced in the book as much as the others. I noticed this tendency too in the otherwise excellent Paganism Reader, edited by Chas Clifton and Graham Harvey. In this valuable compilation of important writings about Paganism from Classical times to the present, they have a couple excerpts about eco-feminism by relatively obscure writers, but none by one of the most influential Pagan writers of this age. I wonder why this is.

Small quibbles aside, I find Her Hidden Children to be a very valuable addition to my bookshelf. I may not remember all its detailed history a month from now, but I have high hopes that should anyone ask me a question about Wicca in the U.S. in the mid-20th century, at least now I’ll know where to look to find the answer.

Remaining

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So what do you call it when you grew up in a tradition, learned a lot from it, owe a lot to it, but have moved away from it in significant ways?

Reclaiming is like a quick-rising bread. If you want to experience the potential of energy and magic, it’s all there at your fingertips without too much effort. It is a great entry-way into the wider world of Pagan spirituality, and has spawned some of the most talented energyworkers, organizers, priests and priestesses I have ever had the pleasure of working with.

It is long past time, however, for me to join the ranks of my esteemed colleagues who have spent years in Reclaiming and then moved on to bigger and better things. In saying this, I want to be clear about what I am NOT saying:

• I am not saying that Reclaiming is no good.
• I am not denouncing any Reclaiming person, place or thing.
• I am not saying that all Reclaiming communities are doomed.
• I am not saying that I will never practice Reclaiming-style magic.
• I am not saying that I will never teach Reclaiming-style magic.

What I AM saying is this:

Reclaiming—the tradition and the community—is not enough to sustain me over the long-term. It can be part of a healthy diet, but is not a staple.

I feel personally empowered, have found my heart’s desire, and am not scared or distracted by challengers of any sort. I have reclaimed just about everything that I might want or need from my personal, karmic, and collective past. I know who needs to be initiated, and who does not. I know my work in the world, and how to do it. I have allies and friends I can always turn to for assistance, and we are committed to upholding our vows and helping others who are coming up through the ranks.

I think abolishing hierarchy is stupid and a waste of time. If you are interested in equality at all costs, you should never have gone looking for your power in the first place. Holding authority with integrity is more important than making others feel good.

I like using consensus, especially with people who know how it works, but I don’t think it is the only meaningful way to make decisions. I think oppression is real, but that doesn’t mean we’re always being oppressed. I have developed an allergy to holding meetings in sacred space. And finally, I don’t think Pagans are going to change the world. Intelligent, passionate, well-informed people who know how to work with others are going to change the world.

So what does that make me? Not post-Reclaiming or anti-Reclaiming, because I still care about what happens in the name of Reclaiming, still teach with Reclaiming, and still have a voice in the community. I’m not turning my back, betraying, or attacking anyone. I just feel like I’ve moved on in some major ways, so that I’m not quite Reclaiming anymore.

I finally decided that what I am is Remaining. I’m not going away. I’m staying connected on my own terms, choosing my battles, and letting the rest go. If people want to study with me or do magic with me, that’s great. But I am not teaching solely to advance the cause of Reclaiming, or the Craft in general for that matter. I just think there are bigger fish to fry.

We need to develop our leadership capacity, our listening skills, our ability to respond creatively in so many different situations. We need to expand our awareness, and not just by changing consciousness at will. We need to educate ourselves, increase our fluency with symbols and languages, get practical with our dreams and visionary in our daily lives.

The whole “Remaining” thing started out as a joke with some friends of mine as we were searching for a name for an organizing group. Please, don’t anyone say that there is now a new tradition called Remaining, or I may have to commit seppuku. I just like how the word flows from Reclaiming so easily, yet is not about constantly losing something to find it again, or blaming someone for keeping something from us. It is a good word for how I feel in this moment: strong, committed, and done with bullshit. I’m ready to move on, with whoever wants to join me.

Idol Warship

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Okay, I’m sorry, this is it. For those of you who weren’t watching, and even for those who were, we have just witnessed the countdown clock begin to tick. That sound you hear is the imminent end of American Idol’s fifteen minutes of fame.

At the end of a great show tonight (we’re voting for Blake and Melinda), the Idol producers absolutely blew their franchise by allowing the Bushes to come onscreen and congratulate the show for raising money to help children in poverty. Yes, that’s right. The president, who let New Orleans drown, who has cut aid and services to the nation’s children his whole term, was thanking a TV show for raising money to help them.

The show has teetered on the brink of self-parody all season with the weird Ryan Seacrest unable to play it straight but uneasy about playing it for laughs. (Or maybe he’s just uneasy about not being straight.) But now Idol has stepped right into the script of the film American Dreamz, itself a parody of both American Idol and the Bush presidency. The film posits an incompetent, unpopular president making a personal appearance on a popular TV talent show in an effort to boost his own ratings. Mayhem ensues.

Sadly, not even a completely lame scripted video moment will keep Bush afloat, not on the anniversary of his “Mission Accomplished” moment and with a 28% approval rating. But now we know that he will be dragging the country’s most popular reality TV show down with him. The show, such a corporate icon and music industry hype machine, has always been able to overcome pure crappiness because some of the singers are genuinely great. It’s a feel-good moment for the rest of us to watch these kids harness their talent, work hard at what they love, and get out of dead-end jobs at K-Mart or the bank.

I just don’t think anyone is going to take the show seriously at all after tonight, and that’s a shame. For American Idol to endure the sneering of cynics and survive another season or two, it had to not sleep with everyone who needed a little career boost. But now, by sharing its bed with the worst president in American history, it has proved that it will sleep with anyone. It may take a while for the numbers to really reflect it, but I predict that the show is on its way to being a national laughingstock. This year’s contestants may survive unscathed, but if I were a talented young singer looking for a break, I would think twice about hitching a ride on the Idol machine after tonight.