Yearly Archives: 2008

Oh, Life!

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I have been having a wonderful holiday, with my daughters around me and the house full of colored lights. Last weekend we gathered with so many friends in San Francisco and celebrated the Solstice in style. Two days later Jojo turned 16, the next night my family came up for a lovely Christmas Eve dinner, and of course yesterday was Christmas.

For the record, I don’t believe that being Pagan means we can’t celebrate whatever other holidays we please. In fact, one of the blog posts I started but never completed this year introduced my new rule of thumb: you should claim as yours the religion that you swear the most in. Which means I must have at least three religions, because who can resist an occasional “oy gevalt!” and a “Jesus f*@k!” along with the “oh my Gods!” and all the secular ones, too?

But I digress. The strange thing about this holiday is how the highs and lows have all been mixed in with each other. Usually there is a big high followed by a day or two of lows, and the season progresses on its teeter-totter until January comes and we’re onto the next thing. But this year the highs and lows have been both extreme and simultaneous.

For example, I was in the living room watching Lyra and Jojo decorate a fabulous birthday cake on Tuesday. They were being hilarious together as usual, and I was enjoying their banter, the music they’d chosen for the occasion (Nina Simone), and the opportunity to just sit and read email after a day of running around. In my email was an update about the mother of a dear friend who had just been diagnosed with stage four cancer. The update was that chemo was not going to work and her prognosis was for weeks, not years or even months.

The last time I had seen her was when I went to Grass Valley a year ago for my friend Darcy’s memorial. So then I had both of those sorrows floating around in my heart as I watched the cake take shape in the kitchen and my daughters, so full of life, taking pleasure in each other’s company.

Today is the anniversary of Darcy’s death. I have held her family in my heart all day, as Lyra and Jojo helped me prep two rooms for painting tomorrow. It is a project I have been wanting to do for months, yet another step in making this house my home and embracing my new life. I don’t think the girls fully understand how much it means to me to have their help with this. It has been such an exhausting year and I have reached my limit of what I can do alone. But by the end of the day tomorrow Jojo’s bedroom and bathroom will be painted new, vibrant colors, and a load will be lifted from my shoulders.

Is it just middle age, this cacaphony of good and bad all mixed in together? Is it the times we’re living in? Not enough fiber in our diet? Or just the inevitable counterpoint of our myriad life experiences, of which there is surely more to come?

I am ending this year with more questions than answers. I am genuinely curious and hesitantly optimistic about the year to come, and ready to greet it with hard work, determination, humor and a little grace. Especially if it is as full of great friends and loving family as this one has been. If anything, this crazy life has made me more committed to living every day as fully as I can. And here to remind us just how good that can feel, and sound, is the late, great Eartha Kitt. (This is not the best video quality, but just listen to that voice!)

Mercy Mercy Me (The Economy)

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I have never actually seen a ghost—at least, not the kind that leaves you shaking in your shoes, white as a sheet, with eyes as big as saucers in a face that looks permanently stricken. But yesterday I spent about 45 minutes watching someone who obviously had.

I thought I would try to learn something about economics, so I watched the video of Paul Krugman giving his Nobel Prize acceptance speech in Stockholm. I learned more in that one video than I ever learned in economics classes at school. Still, I would have to watch it twice more to really understand what he is saying. I was riveted by his facial expressions throughout, though. He looked absolutely exhausted, and not just from jet lag.

You can see it even more clearly in the 30 minute interview he gave beforehand. He’s trying to keep his game face on, and be gracious about being presented with the Nobel Prize for Economics. But he looks haunted with worry about the economy, wary of any conversation for fear of more bad news, and seemingly itching to get the hell back across the pond so he can keep consulting on various bailouts.

So here’s the dilemma: any serious reading of the day’s financial news—just pick a day, it doesn’t really matter which—can make the average person feel the same way. But when I do that, when I lift my gaze and really study the situation, I become practically incapacitated with fear and am no good for anything, least of all working to improve my financial situation. 

Staying lucid in this dream—or nightmare, really—for any length of time is beyond my skill level. I can manage it for a little while, calming myself down from the shock of what is happening long enough to write more, and work more. But this is big and getting worse, and it’s only a matter of time before I slip back into shock about what is going on in the world.

Magically speaking, this is a tremendous opportunity to increase our ability to stay present in both worlds simultaneously. When I get seriously off-center, I have a few tried-and-true ways to re-center myself and carry on. What I would love to hear are all the ways the rest of you have for doing this. Because surely there are some great techniques I don’t know about, and this is the sort of time when we can all use as many good suggestions as possible.

And while you’re thinking about what to post in the comments section, here’s a snip of the great Marvin Gaye, live at Montreaux in about 1980. Enjoy.

American Tune

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When I was in grade school we learned all the old patriotic songs. The Star Spangled Banner of course (which came in handy during the 1970s Oakland A’s winning streak). But we also learned America the Beautiful, the Irving Berlin tune God Bless America, Woody Guthrie’s great This Land Is Your Land, and a whole raft of other stuff. 

It’s one of those weird things, the hymns of your youth still live in your heart somewhere, despite all the things you learn in the meantime. Or rather, the feelings those anthems evoke live on. Of course, as Deborah pointed out recently there were really two Americas all along, and we only learned about the melodious one in those early years. When I became an adolescent and started to get cynical, I found a whole new crew of friends who shared my basic condition: being a shattered idealist in search of a new ideal to latch onto. But that’s another story.

I still sing the national anthem at baseball games, and when my kids were young I made sure they could sing it, too. Most of the other songs have faded into comfortable obscurity in my memory, getting hauled out occasionally for trivia games and ironic renditions. Yet there is one patriotic song that chokes me up still, every time I hear it.

It captures perfectly all the complexity of an idealism that died but still lives; the bitter disappointment and deeper hope which are intertwined in the soul of this country. When this tune comes on the radio, all activity must cease as I sing along. Paul Simon wrote it after Nixon’s re-election in 1972, and performed it again last month on the Colbert Report. If you missed the show, here is his performance. See if you can watch it without getting a little misty-eyed. 

Turning It Over

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Last week I took down my Day of the Dead altar. All the novena candles went into in a box, one with my father’s picture on it face to face with the likes of George Carlin, Abbie Hoffman and Isaac Hayes. I still challenge the old guy, even in death. The mini-altar of my old friend Raven Moonshadow, as well as all the other Samhain tchotchkes and pictures of my beloved dead, are stored safely for next fall. My mantle is swept clean of all but a few votives, waiting to be draped soon with the brilliant colors of Solstice.

The beautifully decorated sugar skulls from Oak went onto a plate near the front door, and there they sat while I waited for the right moment to come around. Two days ago it happened: I suddenly felt it was time to release the skulls, and it had to be into the ocean. It was a hazy afternoon, the warm sun filtered through high thin clouds, with a slight breeze. I drove out to the cliffs and found a private spot, then sat there and took my time sending them on their way.

The ocean was subdued, silver-blue like the back of a broad fish, and the sun painted a wide and bright track across it heading west. I had a lot to let go of into that shining water, and when I finally finished my heart felt lighter than it had in weeks. I had successfully made it through the first Samhain since my dad died. I went into the season wholeheartedly and came out of it at the right place and the right time, and the feeling was sublime. With a clear head and a sure step, I headed back home.

That is the beauty of following those intuitive signs that cue us into ritual time. All the while we are working, planning, stressing and strategizing about a million things, there is this whole other clock at work in our lives. Ideally, we are able to respond to both the rhythm of the outside world and our internal rhythm. Ideally, we grow strong and wise by learning to balance the two, giving each its due while keeping an ear to the other.

We do not live in ideal times. Many of us are hanging on by a thread to what we have; for others, that thread has long since frayed and snapped. Some people feel secure one day, only to find the next day that their world has fallen apart. All of us are scrambling, marshalling our resources, trying to get into the best position to weather the coming storms.

I often get caught up in what I call my “To-Do List” brain, staying awake at night trying to figure out things that are simply beyond my capacity to figure out. Sometimes I can convince myself that sleeping is more important than worrying, but not always. Still, there are moments when I am able to rise out of the incessant rhythm of the working world, and listen again to the pulse of that subtle clock.

In moments like that, I know beyond explanation that all will be well. Everything will be resolved in time, and each day, if I am listening, I will be able to hear those soft chimes above the din.

As we go about being thankful this weekend for all that we have, may we feel that sense of being held. No matter how much our bank accounts beg to differ, may we feel how we are even now being carried gently through time by an intelligence, a rhythm, greater than our own. If only for a second. And may we hold that feeling close like an ember through the dark of the year.

How Far We Have Come

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Friday I went to the opening night of my daughter’s high school play. They were performing The Crucible, Arthur Miller’s brilliant play about the witchcraft hysteria of 1692 in Massachusetts colony. There she was in the opening prologue, dancing and singing with friends in the woods like any good Pagan child. There she was a few scenes later in court, hysterically accusing innocent villagers of witchcraft. It was a very good performance, and I felt really proud of Jojo, but the play was extremely hard to watch. There was a knot in my stomach the entire time, and I had to coach myself to keep sitting there and not bolt from the theater. Drama mothers do not puke during their daughters’ plays.

It was very moving to watch them wholeheartedly portray such intense figures of fear and hatred, these children of über-tolerant Sebastopol. On the bulletin board outside the theater was an article about the African children scapegoated, beaten, tortured, and driven from their homes because of claims they were “witches.” Obviously the drama class had made the connection between the Salem hysteria, the McCarthy era witchhunts during which Miller wrote his play, and the current plight of children in several African countries where fearmongering in the name of God still leads to cruelty and violence against innocents.

I know these kids saw the play in part as an act of resistance to the ignorance which causes such atrocities to happen. And yet, I kept thinking about Sarah Palin palling around with Reverend Thomas Muthee. The sick feeling in the pit of my stomach was knowing that even today in this country, we came that close. That close. Thanks to John McCain’s VP choice and their unforgivable campaign tactics, we were one election away from The Handmaid’s Tale. In my lifetime. I still can’t quite believe it.

There is a sort of conceit in education, an agreed-upon rule, that you teach children history from the perspective that things are better now. Civil rights? Nobody is getting sprayed with firehoses anymore; we are making progress. Environmental education? Let’s raise money to help save the rainforest. It all has a positive spin on it, and for good reason. You don’t want kids to despair. You want them to understand where we are and where we came from, but at the same time feel like their lives matter, that they can make a difference.

The day after opening night, though, I had to break the rule. I had to be honest with Jojo about why I might not be able to see another night’s performance. All those things she’s read and learned about theocracy in the Massachusetts colony years ago? It is just by a hair’s breadth that we do not go there right now. Those tears we all shed on election night? It wasn’t only because we had finally overcome a huge racial milestone in this country. It was because, were it not for Obama’s brilliant campaign machine, things would now be getting much, much worse. The future, it turns out, is too close to call.

The Watery Depths of Dreams

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I had the pleasure of spending an hour in the studio with my good friend Thorn Coyle a few weeks ago. Thorn has been doing a great new series of podcasts, called Elemental Castings, where she talks to different people about how their magical and creative practice links in with a particular element. In my case, the topic of conversation was dreams and Water. 

It was a fascinating, and fun, conversation. Thorn asked a lot of really good questions and made some great comments, and I got to talk about some of the stuff that interests me the most about dreams: how dreams tie into consciousness, how re-entering a dream feels sometimes like settling into a yoga asana, and why dreaming feels so much like traversing the ocean. Thorn has all her podcasts up on iTunes for easy access, or you can just download it from her site. Enjoy!

What Rough Beast

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In the darkness before sunrise I got up, put the kettle on for tea, and went to the computer for a first pass at headlines and email. It was a bit early for poetry, but my eyes were caught by a snatch of it, in all places on the New York Times op-ed page. My favorite econo-guy Paul Krugman had titled his Monday column “The Widening Gyre,” and quoted the first three lines of the poem right up front.

What caused Krugman to think of Yeats’s famous poem while studying economic data? And did he think twice before summoning the spectre of some unnamed dread whose hour has “come round at last”? It is certainly a sobering metaphor for the economic crisis which is now spreading to developing nations, especially at 6 a.m. when one hasn’t even had a cup of black tea yet.

I have more to say about these myths and stories that are being tossed around both consciously and unconsciously these days. Much more, especially given the threads I spoke about in my last blog post. But one thing at a time here at the Blog o’ Gnosis, and right now I have to pick up my daughter, walk the dog, and make dinner. Life does shuffle on, with or without the slouching.

Stopping on a Paradigm

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Yesterday in a Sebastopol parking lot I ran into an old acquaintance who, like me, drives an aging car. I joked with him about the fact that we were still keeping our jalopies going, when he came over to me with a conspiratorial smile.

“I don’t know what you believe, but there’s this website…” Oh no, I thought. Please don’t start talking about 9-11 conspiracies. Please, please, please. “…where a lot of people are finally coming out with their UFO experiences.” Okay, UFOs. Are we going into crop circle territory? Or chemtrails? Please no, please no.

My friend continued, “Anyway, they say that any day now there could be a huge electromagnetic blast from the sun, and if that happens all of these,” he gestured with his arm at the late-model cars surrounding us, “will get their electronics fried. And the only cars that will still work will be ours!” Trump card in hand and still wearing a satisfied smile, he strode off on his errands.

It strikes me as highly unlikely that our old cars, increasingly held together by rust and duct tape, will save us in some post-apocalyptic Chitty Chitty Bang Bang scenario. Sure, they get better mileage than most cars on the road, but will there be gas to put in them if a rogue solar flare eats up the world’s electronics? Even in a perfect, pre-doomsday world, just how much longer can we keep them running?

One is hard-pressed to know where to start in refuting some of the claims overheard in Northern California towns these days. I am rather proud of the fact that I manage to stay friends with good people who hold what I consider to be lunatic fringe ideas. Yet I am frankly alarmed at what passes for reason among intelligent, well-educated people who ought to know better.

I saw another eco-activist friend in town recently, while the bailout bill was being debated in Congress. Her greeting to me was an enthusiastic, “The Empire is falling!” This is a woman who lives so close to the margins of solvency that all I could see was the great gray bricks of the Tower falling right on her head. And she was elated, obviously unconcerned with just how she was going to survive if her sidewalk stand ran out of paying customers.

Tracking world events while having almost daily exchanges of this nature has caused me no small amount of cognitive dissonance. I am struck by how easy it is to lapse into belief when thinking is just too complicated. Marx may have considered religion the opiate of the masses, but had he been alive today he would have quickly revised his notion: around here, “paradigm shifts” are definitely the opiate du jour. And things have only gotten worse with the spread in recent years of the leftist version of Christian Endtime predictions: the 2012 prophecies.

I recently met an accomplished businesswoman some years my senior who told me in all seriousness that “these times” demanded a new way of thinking. She was convinced that the “old way,” defined by competition-based, hierarchical, either/or thinking, was on its way out. In order to survive in the years ahead we all had to embrace the new paradigm, which emphasized supportive social networks, enlightened cooperation, and “both/and” thinking. Again, she had that conspiratorial tone to her voice, but it was overlaid with the lustre of knowing that she was somehow sent here to help shepherd people from one bank to the other, across the ruinous tide of “these times.”

I have heard versions of this scenario so many times now that I really must ask the question: if the new paradigm is about both/and thinking, why does it hinge on throwing the old paradigm out? Shouldn’t a both/and paradigm have room for the old paradigm, too? In fact, by its own definition it must have. Therefore the internal logic of the idea doesn’t even make sense, and only proves that anyone who embraces it either never learned to reason, or is desperate for a way to believe in doomsday while not being a Christian. And because this is now a both/and world, I assume that both my conclusions are correct.

There is no doubt that huge, unprecedented change is taking place on our planet. Climate change and the spectre of global economic collapse are ample reason for us all to be running for whatever safe haven we can find. Yet having lived through the dawning of the Age of Aquarius, the Harmonic Convergence, the Oral Roberts Death Watch, Y2K and Bush v. Gore without having any major appliances explode or noticing any Rapture-like behavior, I simply cannot believe this is anything more than a very difficult period that we will live through somehow.

If people need a new laudanum to get by, then fine. The marketing of 2012 fantasies is, after all, the Mother’s Little Helper of the aughts. Yet it should never be mistaken for more than that. In fact, my personal preference for doomsday scenarios is the Rapture, for one reason only: at least in the fundamentalist Christian world view, they are all raised up to heaven while the rest of us get to keep the planet. In the New Age version nobody gets teleported, and we are stuck listening to crap about new paradigms until we die. This is not intelligent design!

Things that Shift in the Night

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Like so many others, I have been glued to the screen over the past few weeks. Debates, opinions, news of the economic collapse, cowpies from the election trail—it is all so important, and so crazy, that I consider it a survival skill to understand what is going on as best I can.

Along with this, coming from the margins on both sides, have been both predictions of doom and visions of justice served. On one side is the raving, hate-filled mob stoked by fear, and on the other the wackiness of 2012 prophecies. The tension between these two poles of true believers is more than we should have to bear, given that there are so many actual issues that need our full attention. But it is all part of the zeitgeist, part of the craziness that is swirling around and through every conversation, every interaction across the globe right now.

I spent the past few days writing a really funny post about awful New Age jargon. But the longer I wrote the less funny it seemed, and the more serious and philosophical I got. Eventually I realized I had to write something completely different. There comes a time when making fun of the obvious is no longer useful or even enjoyable. Now is one of those times. The world feels like a vast echo chamber this evening, where the ripple effect of all our words is magnified greatly, for good or ill. So I will choose with care what to send out into the chamber tonight.

After my dad died this summer, I took from my shelves Robert Moss‘s The Dreamer’s Book of the Dead. I had been meaning to read it, and this seemed like an opportune time to ponder the many pathways between the worlds, and where one might wander on the way from this one to the next. I skimmed the first section, read carefully the second section where he talks about William Butler Yeats being his spirit guide through all sorts of adventures (Golden Dawn fans, take note), and skimmed again the third.

One thing the book helped me with was imagining where my father’s spirit was during the weeks and months after his passing. I have had visitations from the dead several times in the past, notably with my friend Raven Moonshadow who came to say farewell to me as well as several others just two days after his death.

My father has been much more difficult to track. Early on I saw him waiting on an observation deck, looking down at all of us planning his funeral and dealing with his remains. He was watching it all, accompanied by a couple close friends who had met him there, and was waiting until after our ceremonies had been completed before taking off on the longer leg of his journey.

Then I lost track of his spirit for a while. I had dreams of him walking away with his back turned toward me, or actively trying to exit his life but not quite getting there yet. There is a way that the dead feel like their old selves for a while, then suddenly they change. They let go of their old personalities and become joyful and free, like how we always wished they could be. For Raven that didn’t take long at all. For my father, and for many others, it is a slower process.

In the last day or two, though, I have felt the shift. Suddenly I feel a lightness around him, like he has remembered what he loved about my mother and is looking after her as best he can. I can sense his unconditional love for his daughters and grandchildren beaming through as well. That in turn helps me to simply cherish his memory, and say goodbye in a deeper way. With Samhain coming on, I am grateful for the change.

Why is this what I choose to write tonight? Because at a time when all the news is lit with neon, it is easy to get lost in the bright lights. Particularly if it is our retirement that has vanished, or our job that is on the line, and when the future of so many countries hangs in precarious balance, we are gripped by urgency and cannot easily break away.

The dominant narrative is powerful and pervasive, riveting, life-changing. Yet the subtle flows of power and feeling are still at work too, and can help us if we pay attention to them. In times like these, every heartbeat is a prayer. Every breath taken in freedom, every lightening of the spirit, is a blessing. Let us not forget these.

I don’t think we are entering easy times, but I also don’t think we need to succumb to fear. We can take time throughout the day to feel the life force supporting us, buoying us from underneath and opening the way ahead. There are paths of possibility we can follow, if we have the patience and courage to listen for them, whispering to us from the dim corners of the echo chamber. May our eyes and ears be open, and our feet find the way.