Trigger Warning: Jesus is Lord, Francis is Pope

Pope Francis’s recent visit to the United States raised a lot of complicated feelings for me. On the one hand, I’m glad he walks the walk of his namesake. In the other hand, it’s far too little and far too late; nothing he does or says in his tenure as Pope is likely to repair the damage of my Catholic upbringing. Continue reading “Trigger Warning: Jesus is Lord, Francis is Pope”

Review of Mark of Voodoo, by Sharon Caulder

Cover image of Mark of Voodoo by Sharon CaulderThere are a lot of books on the market about pagan and neo-pagan traditions like Wicca and Asatruar. There’s a smaller number of books about Afro-Carribean syncretic religions like Santeria, Voodoo, and Candomble. This is the only book I’ve come across that is the personal story of a voodoo priestess’s own reclamation of her heritage. It’s fascinating for a variety of reasons. Caulder’s personal story is wrenching and compelling, her description of her trip to Benin to rediscover her Voodoo roots is fascinating as travel writing and cultural comparison, and her account of the cultural differences between African Americans and native Africans is eye-opening. It’s also a good foil to the many myths and misconceptions that surround a religious tradition that, like any religion, has the potential for both good and evil.

Thirteen Years After 9-11-01, How Are We Supporting Our Troops?

This is what lower Manhattan looked like at 8:30 am on September 11, 2001
This is what lower Manhattan looked like at 8:30 am on September 11, 2001

Thirteen years ago, I was working for a travel company whose corporate culture trended heavily toward Nordic beauty standards and J Crew clothing — I didn’t exactly fit in. I had a nemesis coworker who was fond of practical jokes, so when she said that someone had just driven a plane into the Twin Towers I thought she was kidding. It became apparent very quickly that she wasn’t. I will always remember the tide of horror, sadness, and fear that rose in my chest as I stood with coworkers around a TV screen and watched the first tower come down. It was a distant precursor to what I would feel in April 2013 when two brothers set off homemade bombs at the finish line of the Boston Marathon.

Both of these events make me contemplate rage. The rage of the men who hijacked those plans devoured their own lives. It devoured the lives of thousands of other people, too. Their rage took a symbol of Western hegemony — an airliner full of jet fuel at the start of a 3,000-mile journey — and turned it into a weapon used to destroy a symbol of Western capitalism. Their rage melted steel, one of the strongest building materials known to humankind. It killed the people in the planes, the WTC, and the Pentagon — some more innocent than others, but all people whose lives mattered.

In the wake of 9-11, Americans felt rage, too. Our rage (and the acts that caused it) sparked a war that is still being waged 13 years after the Towers went down. It bombed Afghanistan back into the stone age — Afghanistan, a failed state in the grips of a totalitarian regime, and one, I might add, which the US had decided to ignore up until 9-11, in spite of the horrific stories coming out about the Taliban’s treatment of women in particular, but also men who committed the blasphemous acts of shaving their faces and listening to music. It justified the invasion of Iraq two years later, leading to the deaths of more American soldiers than 9-11 did Americans not to mention hundreds of thousands of Iraqis. It drove Congress to pass the Patriot Act, a vile piece of legislation that erodes the civil rights and invades the privacy of American citizens — the very people it was designed to protect. It justifies the use of black sites around the world and the detention camp at Guantanamo Bay to torture people who may or may not be affiliated with our enemies — who can really say, because there’s no due process and no transparency. It sparked a conflagration of hate crimes against American Muslims who abhor the actions of Al Qaeda the same way most Christians abhor the actions of the KKK — and this in a country that prides itself on freedom of religion, no less. I could go on, but I think you get the idea.

photograph of the the Lower Manhattan skyline
This is what Lower Manhattan looks like today

Because we don’t have a draft, American rage (and the very justifiable fear underneath it) also means that our country continues to rely on the other 1% — the 1% of our nation serving in the Armed Forces — to wage war halfway across the globe. My partner is a veteran of the current conflict, an infantry man who left the service to become a nurse practitioner after his deployment to Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. He has spoken at length with me about his experience in the Army and what it was like to return to civilian life afterward: about the cashier at Barnes & Noble who asked him if he tortured people, about the fellow nursing student who suggested that veterans didn’t deserve PTSD treatment because they chose to sign up for military service. He is proud to have gone on two deployments, and he does not consider himself a victim. I am continually impressed with his clear-eyed view of the benefits and costs of his time in the Army. I’ve learned a great deal about his experience as soldier and a veteran while also benefiting from his love, his loyalty, and a level of emotional intelligence I’ve never experienced with any other partner — male or female.

I’m not a pacifist. I’ve supported troops on deployment not by sticking a yellow ribbon on my car but by writing them letters once a week and sending them monthly care packages until they were back in the United States. One or two of them wrote back to thank me, but that’s not why I did it. I did it partly because I wanted to make some kind of a connection with the kind of person most Americans — and especially Americans like me, who live in deep-blue-state territory and have degrees from colleges with very little ROTC presence — never get to meet. I’ve done some reading about treatment for veterans with PTSD, and was struck by the statistics that show PTSD rates are much higher for soldiers sent to fight overseas than those defending their home territory.

I say all of this not because I think it gives me the ability to speak for soldiers, sailors, air(wo)men, marines, or military families who have endured repeated deployments. I say it because I want you to know that when I say that what I say about the Long War we have been fighting for thirteen years, I’m not some trustafarian from Williamsburg parroting the party line. I’m saying it as a result of many hours of thinking about what war is, what it’s good for, and what it’s not good for. As it says in Ecclesiastes, “to everything there is a season… a time to kill, and a time to heal.”

This is what I want to say: this war is not helping us. It is not making America more free, more prosperous, or more secure. It may have helped us gain a foothold in the Middle East, which helps our leaders further their strategic agenda. But it has plunged our country into debt and distracted us all from the increasing income gap (not to mention the shitty regulations that allowed the Great Recession that started in 2008) and the subsequent erosion of the American Dream. And on top of all that, it is creating a new generation of veterans, many of them men and women scarred by their experiences on deployment. Worse yet, most Americans don’t share in the experience of military servicepeople and their families. We shout “support our troops!” and “war is evil!” without ever thinking about the human beings who put themselves in harm’s way. Politicians and bloggers alike — on the Right AND the LEFT — treat military families not as people to be treated with dignity and respect but as object lessons to further their own arguments and political agendas.

Back in 2008 or so, I made what I thought was a fairly innocuous comment on the American Soldiers page on Facebook. Within the course of a few hours, my words somehow got misintepreted and twisted to such a degree that the page moderator removed my original post. All that was left when I logged in again were comments like “Support our troops!”, “Thank you for your service!”, and “This is to all ASSHOLES: fuck off and die.”

I guess I was an asshole for saying that I was grateful for your service, but I wish that my country did a better job of taking care of you once your term of service was completed. I guess I was an asshole for pointing out the difficulty many veterans have getting access to treatment for maladies associated with PTSD — maladies I am intimately familiar with, seeing as how I’m a card-carrying member of the PTSD-Having Society of America. I guess I was an asshole for expressing compassion for — to paraphrase the most reasonable response to my original post — Warriors Who Take Care of Our Own.

My partner provides health care to veterans. Every day, he sees people in dire straights, many of whom have service-connected disabilities. Some of them are old men who served in WWII. Some of them are angry Vietnam Vets (well, they’re less angry than they were 30 years ago). And more and more of them are veterans of Iraq, Afghanistan, and Guantanamo Bay. While Congress continues to pump money into the DOD, it fails to fund a system that’s struggling under the weight of the growing number of veterans who were promised benefits and care once they completed their tours of duty and rejoined civil society. The scandal in Phoenix was an example of some bad decisions made by people who weren’t given the resources adequate to their task (I’m happy to report that the Boston VA system has passed post-scandal inspections with flying colors). But instead of trying to fix the VA system, Congress used it as an excuse to continue its agenda of privatization — an agenda that, IMHO, is more about ideology than what might actually work best for our veterans.

I think our veterans deserve better than that. They deserve to be greeted back into civil society not only with empty thanks, but also with the honest to goodness tools they need to make that transition. And they deserve to stop shouldering the burden of this Long War alone. That’s what I think, anyway. I’d love to hear from actual veterans what they think.  Or, if you’re a veteran and you’d like to have a good laugh instead of debating foreign policy, maybe you’d just rather go read the Duffel blog. Please just do me one favor: if you’re going to call me an asshole, give me three or more pieces of evidence that back up your thesis.

Beltane 2013: Union and Loneliness

Beltane fell on a Wednesday this year. It’s my favorite holiday, but even though it is a holiday of union, this year it leaves me feeling rather lonely. On Sunday I’d intended to rise early and make the trip across the river to my old church for the annual Beltane service — a tradition I resurrected when I was a part of the congregation and the Women’s Sacred Circle. It’s good to know that it still happens without me, but bittersweet. Even before M and I took the plunge and moved in together, I’d begun to pull back from the community at First Parish. It’s hard to say exactly why, although it’s definitely for more than one reason. Since the church is in Cambridge, there’s a regular turnover in membership. People finish their schooling and move away, or they pair up and move off to more affordable parts of the world. Once I’d looked on those people with disdain, but like so many of the people whom I’ve judged in my life, I came to find myself following that same natural progression.

I still remember the incredulity and joy I felt the first time I walked into the First Parish Cambridge Meeting House on a Sunday morning and heard an old, white man in a black robe saying things from a high pulpit that I actually agreed with. Things about the inherent worth and dignity of all people, the interconnected web of existence, the importance of social justice, the free and responsible search for truth and meaning. There was a banner above the door that said “Support Marriage Equality — We Do” — and this was long, long before the tipping point of public opinion on that issue.

Before I ever made it to the Meeting House on a Sunday morning, I’d attended the CUUPs rituals in the Barn Room. Two warm and wonderful Texans I’d met at a public ritual on the Boston Common brought me to my first Yule in the Barn Room. Then later, after I’d left Quick and moved to Cambridge, after I’d reveled in my freedom for a while and dated lots of people, after the rather disastrous end of a rebound relationship, I found myself sinking deeper into depression and isolation.

A woman I met on Craigslist–a recovering Southern Baptist–took me to the rounds of potlucks and parties in the winter. It sounds trite, but those potlucks and parties saved my life. At the time, I was looking up the lethal dosage of my medications, seriously considering death as an option. But I had a party to go to instead. One night, the movie I Heart Huckabees convinced me not to end my life. That same woman started rousting me out of the house on the third Friday of the month for Women’s Sacred Circle. I’d known about the group for years, but was intimidated by the fact that it was closed to new members except for once a year. And Fridays are tough in general, but Fridays in October, the month they open to new members, are brutal.

The community at First Parish was so cohesive and yet so varied. College professors, software developers, non-profit do-goodniks, menstruation rights activists, environmentalists, atheists, pagans, Buddhists, old-school UUs with Puritan pedigrees, a few token queers (I was one), believers and doubters and  folks who showed up for the community and the cookies — all these people came together to the Meeting House for a service where they sang hymns like “For the Beauty of the Earth,” and listened to sermons about Martin Luther King and the importance of comprehensive sex education. It was a place where anyone, even a woman, even a lay person, even me — sinner and witch and lapsed Catholic that I was — could organize a service. It was the first place I truly felt that I belonged since I moved to Boston from Hartford almost 5 years before.

After a year or so, though, the bloom came off the rose. Some members of the thirtysomethings group decided to invite all the “cool” people to a Christmas party the same weekend as one my girlfriend was throwing. I noticed the stranglehold of the current leadership of CUUPs; they said they wanted new members, but they didn’t actually let the new members participate in any planning decisions. Friends paired off, got married, moved off and had babies, never to be heard from again.

Even the Women’s Sacred Circle, with all its magic and mystery, began to feel like a chore instead of a place of union and spiritual growth. During my stint on the leadership council, it was not unusual for meetings to run for five hours. And I realized, as perhaps all of us realize as we push on into our late 30s, that my time and energy were sadly finite. I wondered where else I might be spending it.

I began to direct it elsewhere. Slowly but surely, M and I began the careful steps to bring our households together. Settling in took longer than I thought. I mourned my old life in Camberville: the friends an easy T ride away, the streets, the back way from Arlington to Harvard Square, the Trader Joe’s at the Fresh Pond rotary, the summer meadow just beyond it, next to the Fresh Pond Reservoir, the water itself enclosed in a chain link fence. Some of them I still keep in touch with, but the meetings require planning, long drives. Weeks and months might pass before we see one another. Sometimes one or the other of us cancels, and so more weeks and months pass. We keep in touch on the Intartubes, but there’s no substitute for physical presence.

Nine months after the move, I joined a poetry workshop one of my circle sisters has been attending for years. The critiques were tough, but I appreciated the focus on concrete results — publication — and the practical tips given and shared to help us all achieve the same goal. In December I had my first success: my work was accepted at Lyrical Somerville and will be published next week. In April I read at Porter Square Books, and I am scheduled to read again at the Newton Public Library in October. After the reading, the workshop leader said “you surprised us!” She’d never seem or heard my finished poems, only the unfinished ones I brought to workshop. Buoyed by the praise I’d coveted for so long, I submitted to two journals.

Finances demanded that I take a hiatus from the workshop for a few months. With the world’s sap rising, I find myself composing more and see how my own eye has changed, my writing more careful — sometimes for the better, and sometimes not.

As I write this, the sun shines in the back courtyard on the forsythia bushes, all yellow in the bright spring light. Birds come and go from the feeder I installed last year; this spring I know most of their names. The leaves and spines of my garden wave in the breeze. The cats wander in and out of the treeline. For the first time ever in my life, I have a room in my home that is three walls open air, the solid brick behind me. The oaks have just begun unfurling their leaves, but for now the sun shines unimpeded on the bed I planted one week ago, on the pots I brought with me from Camberville. A nature-worshipper, I have access to more actual nature than I’ve ever had before. It’s right outside my door, front and back, and yet I’m a five-minute drive from Jamaica Plain, Boston’s answer to Cambridge.

It’s not the same, though. I am too far from my old circles. It’s a distance through both space and time. We’ve scattered and settled elsewhere. The bonds grow weaker. And I’m not sure I have the energy, the strength, or even the inclination, to build another circle from scratch around me here.

I don’t regret the union I entered into when I moved to this new green and alien place. I bathe in it every day, and the water is sweet. But I do regret the interconnected web of existence I left behind in Cambridge.

Virtue (draft 2)

virtue used to be the force
that drove the green fuse through the flower
used to pulse with its own power

used to drive the edge of the knife
through the waiting flesh

faded to smooth brows and veiled heads
drained its juice and power to become

empty pulp and obedience
pap for the baby boy
smack of a ruler in a nun’s hands

Samhain and the Shedding Skin

Of all our holidays, Samhain is the most obviously pagan in its origins. Halfheartedly assimilated by Christians as Halloween (or “All Saints’ Day” for the truly pious), the focus on the underworld — on death and dying — is hard to reconcile with a tradition that promises everlasting life.

The thing that makes this holiday essentially pagan is its acceptance and observance of death as a natural part of the cycle of existence. Like the Death card in the Tarot, it does not mean stagnation and decay. Rather, it symbolizes the difficult yet rewarding pain of transformation — think of a snake shedding its skin. At Samhain, we shed the remains of what we’ve harvested in the previous year and turn toward the inner work.

It’s a time of endings and beginnings. With darkness encroaching but not complete, it is the twilight time — not one thing nor another. In the half-shadows of the shorter days, with the final flare of the summer sun alive in the changing leaves, and the chill of late autumn in the air, we become aware of the thinning veil between this world and the next. We remember those who have passed before us, grieving their passing and celebrating the brightness they have brought to our own lives.

This October as we strolled under a corridor of yellow leaves, I bemoaned the passing of summer’s warmth and light to a friend.

“Maybe it’s important to focus not just on what’s passing, but on what’s germinating,” she replied. “This is the time of year for apples, and cider, and gathering inside with your tribe around the fire.”

As I continue through a major life transition, I see my tribe changing and shifting. I’ve had to shed some things in order to make room for others. The empty spaces leave me trembling and terrified. But even as I weep and grieve, I see how the Goddess fills those spaces with new life, new energy. I look ahead to what is germinating, trusting in the the wisdom of all the crones who have gone before me, and who gather with me now behind the Veil.

Gratitude — and why do you hate Jesus?

I go in and out of the habit of posting gratitude lists on this blog. I usually include the word “gratitude practice” in the title of these posts, but I wonder if perhaps that sounds pretentious. People refer to a yoga practice, or a meditation practice. I think it’s important remind myself that order to retain certain skills I must practice them constantly. It’s one thing to know in theory how to align the parts of the body in order to achieve a particular asana (yoga pose). It’s another thing to experience the sensation of that alignment — and all the individual variations of mind and body over the course of days as I practice it again and again. Likewise with meditation practice. Likewise with physical exercise. I can’t keep being able to run a mile in 10 or 15 or 6 minutes unless I continue to do it every day.

And gratitude is the same thing. It’s a practice. It has benefits in the same way that aerobic exercise has benefits. If you practice gratitude yourself, perhaps you’d like to articulate those benefits in the comments below. For me, one of the major reasons I practice gratitude is so that I will refrain from behaviours that are harmful to myself or other people.

Someone — a woman I’d never met in person, but interacted with on the internet fairly regularly for a few months — once characterized my comments as “preachy.” I suppose the reason her words cut me so deeply were because I know that I often talk about spiritual matters and spiritual practice. But if you met me in person, you’d know that I do so because I’m a very earthy person. I sit with my legs open more than a ladylike lady-girl should. I wear a size 20. I like things like sex and food and digging in the dirt. And I have other tendencies that have gotten me into a lot of trouble in my life. So if I focus on spiritual practice in my posts on this blog, or on Facebook, or on GooglePlus, it’s because spiritual practice is something I need to remind myself about constantly.

Which brings me around to Jesus. In theory, Jesus and his teachings are quite wonderful. But whenever I hear or read someone describe themselves as a Christian, or as someone who trusts in Jesus, I can’t help but have a certain knee-jerk reaction to same. I don’t hate Jesus (despite what the title of this post might imply), but I have had many unpleasant interactions with many of his followers — including the Catholics who first taught me about things like God and souls and whatnot. Because of certain accidents of birth, I’ve also found myself at odds with the teachings of conservative, Evangelical Christians. When it comes to the culture wars threatening to tear this country in two, it’s pretty clear what side of the divide I belong on. In the 20-plus years since my Confirmation ceremony, I’ve come to terms with this negative-Jesus-association. But on some level, I think that words like “Jesus” and “the Lord” will always evoke a visceral response in me quite different than the one that might be intended by Good Christians(TM).

I went through a brief period of atheism in my early teens, but soon after I was introduced to the notion of a God of my own understanding. It was an incredibly freeing notion, and after much soul-searching I realized that almost none of the things the Catholic Church had to say about God had much to do with my own understanding of the Divine. The God of my understanding today is infinitely vast, infinitely complex and unknowable. In spite of God’s, vastness, I have a relationship with it. And I have directly experienced God’s infinite love for me, personally. I believe that God cares about me and my own well-being. And I don’t care if that belief is true or correct in some objective sense, because my spiritual beliefs and practice are fundamentally pragmatic.

I do and believe what I do because it makes me a better person in the world. It makes me more useful to my fellow human beings. And that is one of the reasons why I practice gratitude. Because a grateful heart is a generous heart. When I pay attention to the things I do have — gifts that were given to me regardless of whether or not I earned them — I’m more likely to find room in my heart to be of service to others. Sometimes being of service just means showing up to work on time and doing my job, or listening to someone who needs to talk. But it’s always easier to do these things when I feel replete. Feeling and being useful is something I’ve been focusing on lately, when I pray to the God/dess of my own understanding.