Of Lughnasadh and solidarity

Over a plastic table at the university grill I laid out my case to two prominent members of the student government counsel about why we should show solidarity with low-income students as drastic cuts in federal financial aid were proposed. 

"That's exactly the problem!" one of the young men glaring at me across the table snapped. "That word."

Solidarity and harvest meme.jpg

What word? I combed back through my carefully prepared argument, trying to figure out what faux pas I might have committed in word choice. 

The other young man must have believed my expression of blank confusion. "Solidarity," he said. "That word makes you sound like a communist."

That was more than twenty years ago and it was the first time I heard that "solidarity" is considered a bad word. Unfortunately, that has not changed over the decades. 
Even today as progressives are making the word “socialism” halfway respectable, I still don’t hear this more personal term.
Solidarity isn’t charity and it isn’t socialism. It is much closer to the Pagan concept of hospitality. It means aid and comfort offered to the cold, the hungry, the wounded, the outcast and those whose harvest was poor last year or for many years, not out of pity but out of a deep understanding of our interconnection.
We are always saying that earth-centered spirituality is a big tent and we have very little if any common ground to base any solidarity on. And yet we all recognize "Paganism" when we see it, so there must be something that binds us.
Is it our acknowledgement of multiple gods of many different names and conceived of in as many different ways but still with suspiciously similar attributes across the world? Is it our yearning for something authentic, ancestral and rooted? Is it our understanding that the earth, not some man on a cloud, is the true giver of our daily bread?
Many of us with European roots wish to be acknowledged as a tradition en par with Native American, African or Hindu traditions that share these bits of common ground with us. But at the same time so many Pagans insist that politics and with it all social justice concerns have no place in our faith.
How so? What of that hospitality you speak so highly of? What of gratitude for your metaphorical harvest? What of your desire for native peoples around the world to acknowledge you as honorably seeking out your own ancestral connection?
What could the values of Lammas and Lughnasadh, the gratitude and the hospitality toward others possibly mean in today’s world that has been divorced from the land and agriculture, if not solidarity with those who have had hard luck, whether that meant being born in a war-torn and impoverished country or having less opportunity to obtain a secure living in our own country? What could it mean if not sharing what we have to ensure that the earth survives for another cycle of time?
You can claim with truth that we Pagans all believe different things. We do. We are vastly different. The words, the traditions and even our core beliefs diverge.

But if you hold some tradition of Lughnasadh or Lammas or even one comparable under some other name, then it is time to match your deeds to  your prayers and libations. Paganism is either real beyond your ritual circle or it is merely the teenage game some have accused us of.

I offer a poem for Lughnasadh and Lammas on the subject of solidarity:

Not to bow to sloth and greed
Nor to build walls of hate
Did Lugh ensure the seed
Or the Norns weave our fate.
You who claim the gods of old,
Who were silenced by crime,
Can least afford to turn cold
To those outcast in our time.
Honor you call for the great,
The ancestors of your blood,
And yet will you rise too late
To stand for right and good?
Odin wandered as it's told
In the guise of hard luck.
And Brigid of flame and gold
Always for justice struck.
Maybe tales are just that,
No more firm than mist.
Old warriors grow fat
And children are mere grist.
But if you call them sacred
And mean your oaths sworn,
It is time to battle hatred
And face the coming storm.
Hospitality for those in need.
Solidarity for those who fight.
The call of the heart’s creed
Is ringing in the night.

An earth-centered spiritual perspective: Why is there undeserved suffering?

When I was twenty-three, I traveled around Bangladesh and walked alone into a slum where a million people lived in cardboard and tin shacks on a plane of mud. There I met a woman who was little older than me but looked like she was 80. She was born there and lived her whole life in extreme poverty. She broke bricks with her bare hands for a living. I met this woman because her eight-year-old daughter rescued me from an angry mob. 

Creative Commons image from the Department of Foreign Affairs of Australia

Creative Commons image from the Department of Foreign Affairs of Australia

I found my new friends to be incredibly hard working, compassionate and all-around good people. And I was forced to consider the question of why they lived such terribly hard lives, amid constant misery and sorrow, while I lived relatively easily and had many things handed to me, even though I was born in a shack without an indoor bathroom myself. 

In Bangladesh, they had an explanation. Bad karma. Supposedly the little girl who rescued me--a complete stranger--from a crowd of men demanding to know why I had come into their slum, even though I had tried to dress modestly according to local custom, had been naughty in a past life.

Though her eyes shown at me with kindness and innocence, that is one accepted explanation. There was very little chance she would ever be able to go to school or eat a decent meal and if she lived to be 30, she would be haggard, old and fortunate to still be alive.

And something in my spirit rebelled. This idea of karma was no better to me than the talk of hell fire, I heard from Christians back home in America. I was brought up with an alternative spirituality, but I had not been given an alternative explanation of suffering. 

Even in much less extreme situations, good fortune appears to be random. I grew up among relatively poor people in rural, remote Eastern Oregon but I managed to travel to five continents and forge a good life for myself, partly because my parents, though poor, were fairly well educated and did not harbor the hopelessness of generational poverty. My experience, moving between many different social classes has shown that there is little correlation between hard work and financial success. The poor are every bit as likely to work hard as the rich, if not more so. Laziness, apathy, depression and addiction happen among the rich and the poor. 

Today, as the political battles over things like food stamps, universal health care and free education heat up in the United States, I constantly run across arguments, in which one side claims that poor people aren't committed enough to earning a good living and they just need to work harder or smarter. And the other side claims that the economy is rigged against them or that health, family or other circumstances made a higher income unreachable. Rarely does anyone in the verbal sparring stop to acknowledge that hardship is mostly random and the only real question to argue about is why that is and what, if anything, we wish to do about it.

Spirituality arose among the first humans for two reasons: first, to discuss what happens after we die and whether or not we are just meat with neurons; and second, to answer this question: why do bad things happen at random even to good, hard-working people? 

Modern earth-centered and Pagan paths have various but fairly standard interpretations of the first question. As for the second question, it is worth some thought.

If you are the kind of person who believes in gods, whether a primal earth mother, a vague universal spirit or a whole pantheon of gods, then you have to confront the question of whether those gods have any power to affect our lives. Many people today believe that gods are beings that only act through our connection to them or our enlightenment, whether they just all "in our heads" or not. Others believe that spirit or the gods pervade the natural world and are part of us and everything else in the world. Some believe in gods or spirits who are specific beings with relationships to specific humans and that they can give aid, withhold it or even cause harm as they choose.

Either way, it seems like spiritual beings should have some justice to them. What would be the point otherwise? Modern Pagans mostly don't beg their gods for favors in prayers. But we do--well many of us do--ask for help sometimes. And even if you believe that it is only in reflecting in prayer or magical work that you help yourself, you either believe that is beneficial or you're just fooling around with candles and pretty rocks.

And if you're a pantheistic sort of spiritualist, who does not believe in gods per se, but believes that divine energy infuses everything, that nature is filled with sacred energy, then you also must believe there is some reason to acknowledge that creative force. You may not believe that the universe is either benevolent or malevolent. But you still must wonder if there is any point to the randomness of misfortune in our world.

There are also humanists, who do not believe in gods or divine powers or believe that if they do exist they have no power or desire to intervene in our affairs. Humanists may subscribe to the traditions of a spiritual path whether Pagan, Christian or otherwise, but they believe that humans have to deal with our own troubles on our own. While these humanists may not have to deal with the question of why gods let good people suffer, they must in the end discuss the randomness of hardship as well.

It has taken me many years of study to arrive at my own answer to this question, but when I found it, it turned out to be incredibly simple.

Suffering and hardship are random, whether the gods willed it to be that way or not, in order to give us compassion.

I do not believe in karma in the sense that you are punished for some sin in one life by being born to hardship in another. Nor do I believe in divine punishment either in this life or in an afterlife. Certainly we can make our own hardship at times, but the greatest suffering that humans endure is usually acquired at birth and is non-negotiable. 

And here's the crucial point. If we truly believed that everyone deserved what they got, either by karma, sin or sloth, and that the world gives everyone an equal, fair shot, then you would have no compassion. And you would be justified in that. It would be correct to have no compassion. It would be foolish and enabling of wrongness to have compassion.

The only reason for compassion is the understanding that much of the pain, hardship, loss and suffering of others is not a result of their cruel, stupid or lazy actions or inactions.

It just is. 

No god, goddess, spirit or karma put them there and none will rescue them without our energy and intention. Prayer matters. Physicists can demonstrate it. My personal polytheistic belief is that our gods do care about suffering and may in fact give solace or aid when our intention is strong and positive, but it is not in their nature to banish all suffering. And I am not sure that they would if they could.  

When I come closest to my matron goddess at moments of despair, I feel great compassion and caring from that source. But I also have heard a signular message. No one with the power to stop all undeserved suffering in the world would use it. Suffering is terrible, but it is not as terrible as a world of entitled, compassionless light without any understanding of darkness would be.

Journey to the Dark Goddess - Pagan Book Review

Journey to the Dark Goddess: How to Return to Your Soul by Jane Meredith is a startling combination of a spiritual guide book and a very practical how-to manual. It is almost more self-help than a spiritual book, although you can take it in a Pagan interpretation.

Here in one book are the myths of the Dark Goddess and those who journey to the Underworld to meet her--Inanna and Ereshkigal, Persephone, and Psyche--as well as the explanations of why and what these myths mean spiritually and psychologically, personal experience stories and clear instructions for rituals to consciously choose your journey of transformation.

Meredith sees the Dark Goddess as that which has the power to transform us through inner work. Because most people avoid deep inner reflection, we are usually brought to it through hardship, disaster, illness, loneliness, grief or depression. Meredith's concept is that a person can choose to take the steps necessary to meet transformation on our own terms--before it is forced upon us through circumstance or, if necessary, during such circumstances. 

Overall the concept is solid and well explained and executed. There is some moderate repetition but for those inexperienced with the concepts and ritual format, it will likely be helpful. The sections are well labeled and it is possible to navigate in the book, if the repetition does bother you. 

The writing is clear and enough flexibility is left in the instructions for the steps to be practical for a wide variety of people. If there is one thing that left me concerned in this book, it was the author's wise assertion that individuals consciously undergoing such a passage should always have support persons lined up in advance with specific instructions for helping the seeker should she get stuck in her process.

Primarily this includes reminding the person on the journey to the dark goddess to eat, sleep and exercise regularly. It also means providing compassionate moral support. While this is excellent advice, there was very little in the book on how to find such support or what to do when it is lacking. In today's world, it is not always easy for individuals to find authentic support and a large reason for seeking out such a book could well be isolation and social alienation. 

It may simply be that the author has no answers for this particular conundrum. She does not claim to have all the answers and in fact uses examples of her mistakes along the way as useful teaching tools to show how the steps of the journey should and should not be done. 

Using the book

Over the past month, I have experimented with the rituals, imagery and myths in this book. It just so happened that this book arrived on my doorstep at a time when I had to enter a dark and frightening situation consciously. 

I have been legally blind all my life, but my eyesight has largely remained stable. To others it may seem very weak, but I am very glad for what I have. Suddenly in the past year my sight started to fail due to cataracts. And I was told that I am in a high risk category for cataract surgery. I could become totally blind very quickly if the surgery didn't go perfectly... and there is a lot that can go wrong.

The surgery had to be scheduled at the darkest time of the year--November and December--to minimize risks. And so while I normally guard myself against the harsher parts of life at this time of year, I now had to face them fully. I also had a support person available both for the surgery and for the journey to the Dark Goddess.

It was quite a coincidence that the book arrived at just such a time, so I decided to go through it in a practical way. I have been through some dark periods--depression, social ostracism, infertility. So, I know what Meredith means when she describes a journey to one's personal underworld. 

There are a dozen rituals described in Journey to the Dark goddess but not all of them are mandatory for such a journey. I did some of the preparation rituals and exercises with curiosity but little deep connection. Then when it came time for me to consciously descend into the dark, I combined the ritual of the seven gates to the Underworld described in the book with a ritual sauna in an underground cellar and a time of utter silence.

My experience of the seven gates to the Underworld was quite different from what Meredith describes. It was a very powerful ritual, but I felt somehow detached from my emotions, which are usually rampant. It was almost as if I was watching myself from outside myself, watching this person I barely knew falling and disappearing into the gloom. After an entire moon in which I underwent two surgeries, a month of enforced rest and near isolation, and much upheaval in my relationships and household, I finally felt the flickering of returning energy .

Those things I had relinquished on my way to the Underworld--attachments to family, home, status and cherished skills--had reordered themselves and taken on a different significance. In the end, while my experience is not the same as Meredith's, it was very helpful to follow her guidelines and concepts. 

Bullying, exclusion and a healing story for children

I walk onto the playground and check my posture, my expression, my clothing. A group stands on the sidewalk halfway to the gate. I approach, carefully crafting a mildly pleasant but not overly enthusiastic smile. 

Original image by Lee Haywood, text by Arie Farnam

Original image by Lee Haywood, text by Arie Farnam

My stomach tightens in knots and I concentrate hard, trying to find the dim blotches of eyes on pale oval faces. I can’t see them, but they can see me. Like a perpetual foreigner in a land whose language is beyond my physical capabilities, I try to play the game of eye contact and greeting. 

I’m not a child on this playground. This time I’m a mother. My kids spin away from me toward the playground equipment, yelling to their friends, as I join the loose circle of grown-ups on the sidewalk. A man is handing out forms. That’s good. Maybe this is the leader of the mini-Scouts group I signed my kids up for. That’s the purpose of my trip to the school today and it would be great if I could find the group so easily. 

I lean a few inches toward the woman beside me. “This is the mini-Scouts group, isn’t it?” I ask. My white cane is in my hand and most of these parents know me anyway. They know I can’t see much. My question should be self-explanatory.

But the woman edges away and pretends she didn’t hear me. 

The man handing out the forms has become flustered and the circle is losing cohesion. The man talks to a couple on my other side, turning his back to cut me out of the conversation. I wonder if he thinks a random blind person has wandered into his group and he doesn’t know how to handle it. Many people can’t conceive of the idea of a visually impaired parent. 

I could almost laugh about that, but the knots in my stomach tighten. By the man’s words and explanation to the other couple, I glean that my guess is correct. This is the initial meet-up of the mini-Scouts. Now to get one of those forms without a major public humiliation. 

Creative Commons image by Diego Sevilla Ruiz

Creative Commons image by Diego Sevilla Ruiz

I wait and try to make out if I know anyone in the circle. The woman who edged away from me seems to be a neighbor from a few streets over. I’ve heard that she’s signing her daughter up. We’re on okay terms in private, but she still won’t exactly say hello in public. 

I know I’m dressed well, clean and groomed. I don’t wear makeup or dye my hair, so some moms will turn their noses up over that alone. But mostly the shunning has to do with my eyes. They’re squinted half closed all the time. My eyes are small and raggedly, restlessly moving, rarely ever even appearing to make eye contact. 

They make people uncomfortable. I don’t entirely blame people for feeling that way. I know that strange-looking eyes bring up a primal response. People usually aren’t trying to be cruel, but my whole body is tense now. 

The man with the forms turns away from the couple and rocks back and forth. I can make out the blurry bulk of his shape craning to see other parents he’s missed. I’m three feet in front of him, but he pretends not to see me. I greet him anyway, forcing a smile. My words are drowned out as he calls to someone behind me and swerves around me toward a woman approaching with a stroller. He hands her a form and starts explaining about pick-up times again. 

A roaring, buzzing sound seems to have taken over my ears. I feel dizzy and a lump is suddenly blocking my throat. Why is this so damn hard? If this happened once in awhile it would be one thing, but it has been happening again and again.  I want to give up and walk away. I would if it were anything I could forgo, but my kids want to be in this group and they’re still too little to be expected to take the brunt of these situations. 

A voice penetrates. The woman with the stroller has called out to me. “Arie,  you’re kids are going to be in this too? That’s great!”

I can’t recognize her at ten feet but I could kiss her whoever she is. I grin and wave. The man with the forms turns back around, confused. But the woman with the stroller moves to make me part of her conversation with him. Now he has to acknowledge me. I greet him again, forcing my voice to stay steady. Now he returns the greeting and hands me a form. 

How bullying really happens - Creative Commons image by Serge Saint

How bullying really happens - Creative Commons image by Serge Saint

The mini-Scouts meeting is the tiniest of incidents. I’m not complaining about it, simply telling it like it is. These types of routine social interactions are often like this for me. This one was only unique because of the woman who made it clear to the leader of the group that I belonged there. It could have been much worse. 

That woman is one of those people who understands about social exclusion or simply is conscious about her own reactions to appearance. But three of my near neighbors who stood in the group did not say hello or give any indication that they knew me. This happens. And among adults it usually ends at that, a bit of exclusion but nothing overtly mean. 

Among children, however, difference and social exclusion can easily lead to more—to bullying. 

A story for healing: Shanna and the Pentacle

I’ve always been legally blind—thus an oddball as a kid—so I’ve dealt with my fair share of bullying. My family was also very alternative, including in spiritual matters, so my brothers and I got flak for that as well. My brothers were harassed about having long hair or different clothes. Back in the early 1990s my mother told me her job could be at risk if people found out about our alternative spirituality or using Tarot. I was never harassed about not being Christian at school, because I was never dumb enough to let anyone find out.

That’s why I chose bullying and social exclusion motivated by prejudice as the key issue in the second book of the Children’s Wheel of the Year series. 

Illustration by Julie Freel

Illustration by Julie Freel

Some people have questioned my choice to make the theme of the book something “negative.” It’s supposed to be an Ostara story, after all. My take on it is that the bigger the problem is, the greater the relief when we come into the light. Beyond that, the issue grows directly out of the concept of new beginnings. It arises for the children in the story, because they enter a new school.

The issue of bullying and specifically the issues that children from earth-centered families face in a society where some large groups of people truly believe that our symbols and beliefs are “evil” are reality for children. Silence about these issues from trusted adults doesn’t shelter children. It only makes them feel alone.

When I hear about children who are ostracized or even censured by teachers for wearing Pagan or earth-focused symbols on jewelry or clothing—something that I do hear about every month or so—I know in detail how difficult it is. Most Pagan children who face bullying or prejudice at school will encounter only a bit of it and will not be completely isolated by it. But there are cases today, especially in religiously conservative areas, where harassment can become serious. 

It is crucial that kids know first that this kind of prejudice isn’t acceptable and that if they are targeted by it they aren’t alone or to blame. Portraying common stories in fiction is one way to give kids a sense of connection to others who may deal with the same issue. It also helps to teach sensitivity and empathy. 

The best kind of children’s books are those that have a strong story, a conflict or adventure that children can relate to. And when they teach something, these stories should do so in a way that is sensitive to the feelings of children. The story shouldn’t stop in order to teach and it shouldn’t talk down to kids. 

The Children’s Wheel of the Year books do teach. In particular the upcoming book Shanna and the Pentacle shows ways of dealing with bullying--both things a parent can do to help and things a child can do alone, such as talking openly about the problem and focusing on those peers in a classroom who are open-minded and friendly. But these books teach through providing a good model and creating a suspenseful story around the issues.

In Shanna and the Pentacle, the upcoming Ostara story in the Children’s Wheel of the Year series, Shanna and her brother Rye are the new kids at a larger and more diverse school. One teacher and the popular girls are convinced that pentacles are Satanic and Shanna runs into trouble because of the pendant her best friend gave her before she left her old school. New beginnings aren’t always easy, but Shanna can find ways to celebrate her new life and the Ostara holiday even amid these tensions. She also learns how to keep her own equilibrium in difficult situations, how to stand up for her beliefs and how to make friends despite differences. 

Shanna and the Pentacle is the second book in the Children’s Wheel of the Year. It will be published later this month.