Monday, December 27, 2010

Guest Post by My Daughter 002 on Gratitude

We are all part of a very important speck that is on a very important marble that's in the bag of the galaxy that is made of the fabric of the universe.  So be thankful that you are here.  Be glad that you were born.  Be spontaneous because you are living.  Be happy that you are loved.


Words by my daughter, age 11
Image of a field near our house.

Friday, November 26, 2010

Happily Ever After

One of my favorite stories from my father's ministry is about the time when he was counseling a young couple preparing for marriage.

"You know in wedding ceremonies when the bride and groom each take a candle and light a third candle together saying that now their lives have become one?" Dad asked them.

"Yes," the couple say together, eyes all round and dewy, hearts all-a-twitter in their rush of love and commitment.

"Well," says my father, "That's bullshit."

The bride will remain her own person and the groom will remain his. No amount of love and commitment will make them into a composite entity.

We like to believe in happily ever after scenarios. Boy meets girl. Boy and girl engage in comical moments of sexual tension. Girl misunderstands zany circumstance and leaves boy. Boy runs after girl and publicly announces his love for her. Girl pauses dramatically to cause a few more moments of satisfying sexual tension before flying into boy's arms. Onlookers cheer. Everyone lives happily ever after. They never add what happens after the happily ever after. Girl finds that boy is inordinately pleased by the sound of his own flatulence. Boy discovers girl's latent self-loathing perfectionism. Girl meets boy's mother and finds her intolerable. Boy realizes that boy's mother is exactly like girl, tells girl so and then finds himself sleeping on couch.

And that's just for starters. Eventually the relationship will involve the inclusion of people the boy and girl love together- friends, relatives, children. And eventually boy, girl, and related loved ones will suffer tragedies, illnesses, set-backs and anxieties, addictions, disappointments, and death. Such is life. Falling in love doesn't shield one from sadness. In fact, falling in love probably will magnify it since now in addition to suffering through one's own fears and sorrows, one also has to participate in the suffering and sorrowing of others. Is it even worth it? Yeah. Why? I don't know. It just is. You deal with it.

I notice that people treat spirituality like a love story. When we find the image of the Divine that makes us fall in love, we want it all to work out perfectly. We want a happily ever after. We want God to be the guy on the white horse who always shows up in the nick of time sweeping us off our feet and carrying us to bliss. Well, good luck with that. When my husband was making deliveries of heavy appliances to evangelical Christians, they told him that if he only gave himself over to the Lord, all his physical labor would be easier. Despite what the evangelists said to my husband when he was delivering their big-ass refrigerators to their boiled hot-dog stinking homes, God will not make your physical burdens lighter. God will not save you from disease and death. God will not make you smarter, richer, thinner, or less addicted to cigarettes. We still have to obey all the rules of the world we live in. Gravity still applies. So does the need to use your head.

Bad things happen to good people. All the time. Praying doesn't change that. God doesn't save kids from dying because people prayed real hard any more than God makes kids die because their parents didn't pray hard enough. Human reason, justice, and hard work save us. Except when they can't. That happens too. To quote from the Princess Bride, "Life is pain."

"Well," you may say to yourself, "This was a very negative blog post. What's the point?" I guess my point is this: I believe that we fall in love because we witness that of God in someone else and feel called to commune with it. I'm not just talking about romantic love, but all kinds of love. Sure, there are the purely hormonal, biological, instinctive and selfish motivations of our attractions, loyalties and connections to partners, parents, and offspring. There's nothing wrong with that. That's how we survive. But there is something more there too. I'm convinced of it. Each time I fall in love with another human soul, my love for the Divine magnifies. Each time I more fully realize the uniqueness and difference of each beloved Life I encounter, the more deeply I rejoice in the Vastness of the Ineffable.

That's a recipe for Joy but not for happiness. Loving more deeply means deeper and greater pain. Only when we keep our love of the Divine at the selfish, hormonal swooning stage do we walk around in bliss . Let the love deepen and you'll find the Divine is the most tragically beautiful relationship of all because eventually, you'll be asked to love more and more and more until your whole being is caught up in it and your heart breaks wide open so that you cannot help but feel the raw tenderness and wild longing that has been drawing us to each other and toward the Source since the beginning of time. Pull back the veil and we reveal Darkness darker and Brilliance brighter than our little human minds can bear. So why not leave the veil unturned? Why not shield ourselves from falling so desperately, helplessly, foolishly in love with a Divine Spark that we know will burn? I don't have a clue. Wish I did. It hurts like hell, but that's the way the Story goes.

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Thanksgiving. Yuck.

Thanksgiving is upon us. I never liked it much. It joins the list of other holidays I never liked much. We don't celebrate Labor Day because my husband always has to work on Labor Day. We don't celebrate Veterans' Day because I'm a pacifist and it weirds me out. I don't celebrate Columbus Day because I think celebrating imperialism and genocide is gauche. Likewise, I'm not into Thanksgiving. Kind of a crappy holiday, don't you think? First off, we have the historically insensitive Pilgrims and Indians theme and since, as I've mentioned before,I'm not into a celebrating genocide, I'm not about to give my children a sanitized version of history. This makes sharing the story of the first Thanksgiving an exercise in perennial liberal rage.

And I'm not especially thankful this time of year. It isn't that I'm not thankful, it is just that I'm not especially thankful in November and I see no need to pretend that I am. You can't make me be thankful. (This gives me the same morbidly violent sensations I feel when some chipper person says to me, "Smile!")

The entire thing smacks of corporate and political manipulation. I don't want your damn candy corn nor your cornucopias made in China. I'm not interested in nationalism, or patriotism, or jingoism, or candied yams. And if I didn't spend time with friends and family earlier in the year, there was probably a reason.

It isn't that I'm against a celebration of plenty. I'm all into folk traditions. I enjoy ancient holidays arising out of the natural and agricultural cycles, but here in NY, harvest is well over. My family and I celebrate the harvest in August which is much more timely and therefore much more satisfying.

And then there's the whole "Turkey Day" thing which offends me as a vegan. You can imagine that as a pacifist vegan Pagan, I'm not so much into the butchering of living creatures to celebrate the implantation of the genocidal Calvinists into New England.

We could do Tofurkey. But then the other problem with Thanksgiving is the whole gender issue. Being female, I've watched the women in my family knock themselves out every year trying to make everyone happy. The house has to be clean. Everything must sparkle. The tablecloth and the center piece and the matching dishes for a bazillion surly, aggravating, conservative relatives who will not notice either the table cloth or the centerpiece but who will make a comment about my diet, my clothes, my child rearing style, and my politics. In the end, some long-suffering female person who normally is a community activist or a scholar will break down. "Oh my God! I've forgotten the effing squash!" No one needs that.

What is going on with this holiday that turns us into bitchy monsters? We're thankful so that means that the women work like servants all day so the men can sit around and fart? No. I don't think so.

And it isn't like the men want us to act like servants. It isn't like they even care. They would be completely content to have us join them in the farting and football watching. My husband, who insists on traditional food, is just as happy if it comes out of the box and if he's the one who prepares it. He doesn't care if I made the pie from scratch. The guys didn't ask for our servile behavior and obsessive compulsive interest in making the perfect cranberry sauce (which no one will eat anyway). We bring that on ourselves. Each year, generations of women who normally could giving a flying...er...fig...about cooking gather together to just "whip together" a banquet which of course stresses us out beyond our capacity for rational thought. Somehow, despite generations of feminist sentiment, we revert to this Victorian angel of the home mentality on holidays which can only carry us so far before we begin making snide comments to each other regarding who is doing the most work and whether or not the carrots are cut in the proper manner.

Imagining our sensitive, feminist husbands as Neanderthals who don't appreciate our domestic labor, we scurry around the house yelling at children who leave toys around. Happy frickin' Thanksgiving. Pick up your toys! Were you brought up in a barn?! And where is your father?! Then, in a paroxysm of martyrdom, we drag ourselves into the living area, flushed from the hard work of cooking and yelling at children to talk to the farting men as if they are infants, or as if they hated us or why would sit there farting when the effing squash is missing g@ddammit! And it doesn't matter anyway because I can't eat any of this because I'm so fat. I'm fat, right? You can tell me. You think I'm fat, don't you!? Bastard.

So some time ago, we decided that as rational human beings (most of the time anyway) with college educations and concerns that move us way, way beyond our kitchens, we would make peace with Thanksgiving and our remaining bewildering gender issues by ordering take-out food. We used to order Chinese take-out but now all the restaurants are closed on Thanksgiving. Now what will be do? Here's my solution to the entire holiday. I say screw Thanksgiving! Let's just skip it.

(The above is an exaggeration. We don't really ever get the house sparkling clean).

Monday, November 22, 2010

Slow Brain Drip and Blank Spaces

My blogging seems to have slowed down to a trickle. My family has been sick on and off for weeks and most of my energy has been dedicated to housekeeping and teaching. Additionally, I feel as though for the past three years my intelligence has been dripping out of my brain. Drop by drop, I become less interested and less interesting. Bit by bit I'm losing confidence in my abilities as a thinker. I suppose that's what happens after the doctorate is earned and real life sets in. I had a great deal invested in believing I was a smarty pants. Today I am far less convinced. The good news is that my entire identity isn't tied up in how clever I am. I love being a homemaker and a college instructor. My children and my students are funny and sweet, and they make me happy. I wanted to be brilliant but being maternal may be an even better deal.

I've also (maybe)temporarily removed the "Pagan" from my Plainly Pagan blog title. I'm still Pagan but the term is in the shop for repairs. One thing that may be happening is that I find that I don't feel that I share community with most Pagans in any way that is related to our shared Pagan beliefs. Part of that is because I'm not sure that I do share many Pagan beliefs with other Pagans. That's fine. Not being able to connect to their spirituality doesn't stop me from enjoying the words, wisdom, and friendship of Pagan friends. It just feels awkward for me to call myself a Pagan when I know that pretty much every single person will assume I mean something I do not. I like my words to facilitate rather than hinder understanding. Anyway...I've been working on those thoughts and I'll have to see where they go.

I also think that I'm thinking of my Paganism in the small p way these days. It has become an adjective rather than a noun. I don't think I am a Quaker-Pagan. I am a pagan Quaker. The adjective "pagan" modifies the noun, "Quaker". I'm also a feminist Quaker, a female Quaker, a maternal Quaker, a teaching Quaker, and a liberal Quaker. My beliefs are pagan because they are earth-centered, spiritualist, and pantheistic. (except when they are non-theistic and that's pagan too). But I identify with Friends. I'm not all that sure that they identify with me, but I have confidence that over time, I'll acquire a convincing Quaker patina.

That's all I have for now. *sigh*

Saturday, October 16, 2010

Friends and Educational Reform (Part 1 ?)

I just read an interesting editorial here Although I applaud any call to ease off on the national pastime of blaming teachers for all of our educational woes, the editorial ends on a sour note for me when it shifts blame to kids and parents. Blaming poor and working people for failing to provide the same educational benefits available to well-educated, middle-class, and upper-class families hardly seems fair either. Of course, I wish my students would take advantage of libraries, museums, and galleries and I wish they would read more and apply themselves. However, I also understand that academic success is a learned behavior that is not supported by the realities they face in their communities and families.

Our problem won't be solved by deciding who is to blame or who is responsible. We are all responsible and the solution will be complex. We might start with decreasing class sizes and increasing teacher independence. Politicians should keep the f8ck out of academics. Their job is to ensure that teachers get the funding, support, and tools needed to implement their plans. Peer oversight and development would allow teachers to actually utilize educational theory and practical experience without having to deal with some political ass who doesn't know pedagogy from pornography.

Parents can be better educational partners when they aren't dealing with being overworked, under or uninsured, and underpaid. Kids will learn better when they aren't hungry, poor, and stressed out by their parents' burdens. We especially need to reevaluate how we treat motherhood in this country. The poverty rate for women and kids is ridiculous. Maternal and infant mortality rates are shameful in the United States. Women's health issues continue to be a major problem, and the continued wage gap between men and women is especially troublesome as more and more families rely on women's incomes.

We also need to reassess the persistent message that the purpose of education is to get people jobs. This is dangerous when trying to motivate students. In a recession, if a kid sees that educated people are unemployed or making little, they see little reason to continue. If they know people who make "good money" and never went to college, they see little point in applying themselves. (My grandfather used to call people like me "college-educated idiots.")

If the colleges are inaccessible to working people (psychologically and financially), the antagonisms expressed between college-educated and working people will continue and will be exploited by reactionaries who seek to convince working people that intellectuals are a "liberal elite" who lack common sense and are therefore destroying the "American values" working people adore. Such bullshit, but it seems to be a pretty effective message.

Also, if we continue to focus on a message of education simply as job preparation, we ignore the fact that our economy and technology are shifting so quickly that the specific skills they learn for work will become obsolete before their careers are over. If they lack basic skills in literacy, cultural awareness, and citizenship, they may make a compliant workforce, but a very lousy citizenry. Our nation needs a competent, technologically savvy workforce, but it also needs a thoughtful, curious, and politically engaged population with a solid understanding of our diverse cultural heritage and a nuanced understanding of the institutions of government. Working people need the skills learned in the humanities to continue to advocate for themselves and their children.

We need to emphasize funding for the arts, humanities and sciences not only to give our people access to the intellectual wealth of our nation, but to emphasize a message that we actually care about ideas and learning more than we care about popular culture, making war, and scandal.

I can think of few areas of immediate community concern that are as in need of Friends' attention as education in general and public education in particular. If we are to live and grow toward greater spiritual integrity and grace within our testimony of equality, I cannot see how we can fail to address the growing educational chasm between the privileged and the poor in this country. The hatefulness and bigotry now being peddled as politics is an insult to Friends' belief in the inherent worth and divinity to be found in each human heart. If I believe in that of God in everyone, then I am also committed to serving that of God in everyone. I must be as concerned about poverty, education, and opportunity for my neighbors' children as for my own. Educational reform seems to be one of the proper spheres in which Friends may demonstrate the power of peace and equality. It is an excellent opportunity for us to show how it is possible to value the unique gifts of individuals within the context of corporate responsibility and integrity. Additionally, since Friends have such a proportionally high number of college-educated, financially wealthy, and academically connected folks in our Meetings for Worship, we are uniquely situated to provide important perspectives on this national debate. Friends who are not wealthy or as well-connected must also contribute from their experience and knowledge. Those of us who have much to offer but little power, must remind more culturally empowered Friends to work in service rather than in judgment.

I know that many individual Friends and groups of Friends are already engaged in this conversation. I'm looking forward to hearing more about some of that here. My perspective is limited. It reflects my own regional viewpoint along with my professional experience as an adjunct community college professor. I'm looking forward to hearing new ideas and perspectives from different parts of the country, from other countries, and from different vantage points on the educational continuum.

Sunday, September 19, 2010

A Boy in a Skirt

When I was a kid, a boy came to school on Halloween dressed in a skirt and a teacher had a fit. He was a nice kid, really quiet and a bit marginalized and she humiliated him as she made it clear that she would not tolerate boys dressed as girls. What I learned from that was that even playing at gender transgression (male to female anyhow) was apparently very upsetting to some people and that made me think hard about my value as a girl. If he had debased himself by looking like me...well then what did that mean for me?

It was also, I think, a beginning for a kind of core belief that to humiliate anyone regarding their gendered behaviors is inhumane. I think because he was the kind of boy who I would have characterized as gentle and even feminine, one of the few boys who didn't frighten me or mock me, I felt anger at his treatment than I would have otherwise. For some reason when *he* dressed in a skirt, I didn't feel like he was making fun of me. There was sensitivity in it somehow and I think that's why he made the teacher so angry. If he had been a jock, I really doubt the teacher would have come down hard on him like that. She probably would have thought it funny. But he wasn't *that* kind of boy. I sensed that for some reason, he was the kind of boy who could not be allowed to cross-dress because the idea of it wasn't absurd enough to be funny to the other jocks and that made it *dangerous*.

I was really angry that day with that teacher. Really angry. And I find, oddly enough, that I'm still angry about it today. Or sad. Yes. I guess the right word is "sad"- for him, for me, and for the teacher too. Just an old childhood memory. Funny how they haunt us.

Friday, August 20, 2010

In Praise of Depression

This post is inspired by a post by George Amoss about genes, depression, and spirituality found here
I was going to write it all in the comment section but it just got too darn big.


"We hold these truths to be self-evident!" she shouted, "that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.

"As she cried out the words she felt a mind moving in on her own, squeezing her brain. Then she realized Charles Wallace was speaking, or being spoken through by IT

"'But that's exactly what we have on Camazotz. Complete equality. Everybody exactly alike.'


"For a moment her brain reeled with confusion. Then came a moment of blazing truth. "No!" she cried triumphantly. "Like and equal are not the same thing at all!"



A Wrinkle in Time by Madeleine L'Engle

Dear George,

First I must tell you how really important this post is to me and how very much it not only resonates but inspires, as Poirot would say, "the little gray cells." And speaking of gray cells, I that anyone who is familiar with my own blog knows that I have struggled with depression and anxiety most all of my life. "Struggled", however, is not always the word with the right connotation. I have also noted in my dealings with many Buddhists, and Pagans, and Christians, and even with atheists that my sadness is often counted as a spiritual failing or at least as a barrier to my ability to be joyful/rational/successful. It makes people very uncomfortable to see my sadness. It makes them more uncomfortable, I think, that I am not very interested in ridding myself of it. Alleviate it? Retreat from it? Take a break from it? Sure. But rid myself of it? No way. To quote from Star Trek's boldest captain, "I need my pain!" It is the sensing device I use to recognize my call to service in a battered world. It does me no good to bend to the will of those who want me to medicate myself into complacency. My brain is different. It is not defective. Again from Star Trek (this time Dr. Crusher) "If there is nothing wrong with me, there must be something wrong with the universe."

There are those who counsel me that my tendency to melancholy and even to occasional bouts of despair is a disease to be treated, a spiritual barrier to be overcome, a darkness upon which light must be shed. But, I don't see it that way. I have seen my own depression and doubt not as a barrier between myself and "God", but my strongest connection. Every moment of profound spiritual revelation has come to me through this darkness. The world and everything in it comes to me in a very raw, heavy, painful way sometimes. But the flip side of that is empathy and compassion. I try to understand the world through my intellect, but the world comes to me through my emotions. Every decision I make is a result of the fact that I know that I cannot shut myself off from the world's pain. As a Pagan, I know the Sacred resides in the body of the Earth, in my body and in the body of my fellow creatures- all interconnected. What harm we do to another we also do to ourselves. I believe that, but also I feel it and so I am very motivated to confront it.

Lastly, I want to mention a few who have inspired me to believe that the brains we have, neurotypical or not, are the brains best suited to answering our spiritual calling: Hildegard of Bingen, Margery Kempe, Emily Dickinson, Matilda Joslyn Gage, Charlotte Perkins Gilman,Margaret Fuller, William James, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Leo Tolstoy...the list goes on. Surely their value in the world was not in spite of the pain they carried, but also because of it.

Thanks, George, for writing as you do, for thinking as you do...Thank you for holding up darkness and difference for healthy examination and for challenging our cheerful brethren to remember that black sheep happen too. Ain't nothing wrong with your brain.

With love,
Hystery

Wednesday, August 4, 2010

That Fear May Be Transformed...

Let me tell you my woes. I was one of those "sensitive children" prone to worry and shyness. As an adolescent, I became depressed and flirted with eating disorder. As an adult, I continued with bouts of depression and debilitating anxiety even as I forged ahead with marriage, college, and graduate school. As a young mother, I had post-partum depression. I have an obsessive compulsive personality and multiple phobias. I have a license but haven't driven anywhere in years. I shake at the thought of having to call people on the phone and become panic-stricken at the thought of having to be near medical doctors. I am particularly nervous around male doctors and men I don't know well. I can't shop on my own and when I do shop or eat out, I avoid male salesclerks and waiters like the plague. I won't ask for directions and become agitated when anyone who is with me does. I live with general anxiety disorder and clinical depression. Most uncomfortably, I'm a hypochondriac which means that for me, every physical symptom, real or imagined, signifies my imminent death- and worse, my separation from my beloved family. In the past two days, I've been weepy as I calculate that if I survive for five years, my youngest child will not be quite 11 years old and may not remember me. Maybe it would be better for him if he didn't.

A bad spell of hypochondria puts me in crisis mode. My entire existence settles around the fear and the process of alleviating that fear. This might involve cruising the internet for evidence that I'm not actually dying (this generally backfires as the internet is full of horribly sensationally-phrased and worrisome "medical" advice that boils down to "whatever bump, tingle, discoloration, ache, or fatigue you have is cancer. Contact your doctor immediately, but it is probably already too late."

During an episode, I can't sleep well. For hours or even days at a time, my throat feels constricted, my stomach unsettled. I shake and cry. I am distracted and unsettled in my routines.

During these times, I drink calming teas and practice Qi Gong and meditation. I exercise and take extra supplements. When I am not too distracted to eat, I try to become even more mindful than I already normally am of my diet to avoid foods that trigger or exacerbate anxiety. Thankfully, over time, I have learned multiple ways to address the stress of "my condition" as we sometimes call it, but everyone in the family knows what is meant by the polite phrase, "She isn't feeling well."

In between these bouts which have been occurring more and more frequently this year, I turn my thoughts to mortality in general. Increasingly, the focus of my spirituality is in trying to reconcile myself to the overwhelming fear of losing my loved ones and myself to the inevitable obliterating process of catastrophe, disease, and death.

It is important for me to also share that there are moments of joy and laughter too for me even in the midst of anxiety attacks. I am still here. Contrary to the wretched commercials for anti-depressants one sees on television, I do not live in a world of muted grays barely aware of life around me. I still can laugh at life and at myself. I can still think thoughts that transcend my fear. I am still capable of loving, and hoping, and dreaming and all the good stuff. I am still productive, motherly, curious, and even happy. There is so much stigma and well-meaning misunderstanding about psychological difference that one fears disclosing one's "mental illness" (how I detest that term)for fear of losing the respect of friends and colleagues who may begin to see a disease rather than a person. Like living with a physical limitation or chronic pain, one who lives with chronic psychological limitations and pain also lives a full life. It may be quite different from others' lives, but I do love it and I am thankful for it. It has given me insights that would have otherwise remained hidden. I have become more attuned to others' suffering, and I often sense others' secret pain before they tell me. My dark thoughts are very dark indeed, but the joy of my life is far more brilliant as a consequence. I weep with joy at least as often as I weep with fear and sadness. Little things- light on a blade of grass, the silver underside of a leaf, a stranger's smile, are exquisitely beautiful to me. In my sometimes unsettled mind, I am almost always dying or overjoyed at being alive. For me, life is very raw, very miraculous, very tenuous. I take fewer things for granted.

But I do apologize that I am so needy and fearful and melodramatic. It is tiresome, I know, to those who love me and look after me. I am a "high maintenance" human being. Even though I know myself to be a reliable and competent worker long-used to navigating responsibility in the midst of fear, I have hidden my weaknesses as well as I can from most people (who would want to give responsibility for teaching and writing to a nutcase like me?) But I've chosen not to hide it from my readers. Spiritual writing that is not honest is also not effective. So I write this despite my discomfort. This is neither the first nor the last blog entry I will share here that exposes my inadequacies, weaknesses, and absurdities (although I will try to make it funnier next time).

Here is where I am radically honest. Here I expose the truths of my life. I have no patience for a spirituality that glorifies the Light of the Ineffable but ignores that S/He exists also in shadows. I still have great hope that my fear will be transformed into a deeper Love and Peace. So I offer my fear and lay it bare, ashamed as I am, with faith that this too can be transformed.

Tuesday, July 6, 2010

Part 2 of TheAlogy: A Spiritual Method of Inquiry: Stories as Vehicles of Truth

First off, I apologize for the fact that this blog post was written just as it poured out of my head. Very fast. The grammar and punctuation is a mess. Let's call this "an organic piece."

I think it is clear that people's stories themselves are very rarely representative of truth. In fact, so often, our stories are anything but. One thing I work hard at is showing my history students how our narratives and witness are always biased and distorted according to our cultural filters, our gender, our lived experience, age, sexuality, etc. If "fact" is so hard to determine through the vehicle of the human mind and words, then imagine how much harder it is for human beings to convey a perfect "Truth" with their words.

But that's not really what I meant by the use of narrative as a vehicle. I didn't mean that our words themselves convey the message but that the message is conveyed in the act of the telling, in the will itself to tell, and in the will to listen.

Clear as mud! LOL

The phrase that comes to mind (probably inappropriately) is "ears to hear." I used to listen to my father reading the gospels and would hear the words "whoever has ears to hear..." and I knew that this was when what Jesus was saying was really deeply important but was not immediately clear in a mundane sense.

I want to address two important components of my sense of narrative as a vehicle of spiritual inquiry. The first thing I want to address is empathy and compassion. When I'm listening to others in a normal context, I'm often upset by how absurd and imperfect they are. However,when I listen with my spiritual ears, I find that my sense of them shifts.

Understand there is *no* way I can explain how I do this. It is not rational in any way I can determine. When I listen to people in this way, I can often know things about them, a truth beneath their words. People are always telling us about their lives if we are listening. I listen to the way they pause or how their voices catch. I watch their faces.

As a child, people often told me things that they probably ought not to have disclosed to me. But I was the preacher's kid, so they weren't always clear about boundaries. I did learn how to sit with someone and hear them without showing anger or disgust. Once as a teenager, I said something about the uselessness of Vietnam. My uncle, who was trained as a medic but never went to war, exploded in anger at me. It was a curious moment. I never heard him raise his voice before and I have never heard it since. I listened to him rant some ridiculous conservative war-mongering stuff, but what I heard was his sense of profound guilt that he was safe when so many others he cared for died and his sadness and fear for his younger brother who did go and who still suffers today for it. It was an extraordinary experience for me. He was telling me a story but I might have just mistaken it for stupid anger if I hadn't been listening.

Another example from my family is when we asked my grandfather what happened to his sister who died in the '20s. "She burned up," was all he would say. That was all he needed to say. The memory of that shortest of stories, the loss and the horror and the pain of it, makes me cry even today.

Very often, people have disclosed information to me that they had kept hidden and I find that I already knew it. The only way I can think to explain this is that the words themselves, the desire for one human being to be known and loved by another human being opens a conduit between them.

I also find that one can listen deeply to written narratives. I like to practice this with primary sources. My students and I practice a creative analysis. Beneath lies and misdirection, banality, politics and pedantry, I often find this exquisite...what is it? Truth? No. Let's just call it a Song. It is a human song of desire and fear...so much like the cry of an infant.

And this is the thing that calls me to answer that of God in others, even when I find them cruel, or ridiculous, or stupid. I hear their imperfection and need as one hears a baby's cry and I find I cannot hate them. It is their need for each other and for the Divine that is "the Clue", "the Message in a Bottle" that directs me back toward the Sacred every time. We *need* each other- not just to stay alive in our bodies but to stay alive in our souls. The worst injuries any of us can receive is to have our ability to connect to others injured or severed. Those who are thus soul-injured are those who are most likely to bring hell upon the earth.

I also find that people will tell the most amazing stories of survival and love and justice. These are good stories to hear and this tells me that the human soul is resilient and just as well as injured and searching.

The next thing I want to share is the idea of metaphor. Here in the west, we have used vision-oriented metaphors. Feminist theory and methodology suggests that we need to also use metaphors of listening. Visual metaphors have focused on light and dark. What we see is the object of our sight. We consume it with our eyes. We measure, assess, and judge it.

The sight metaphors have de-emphasized interactions with the objects of our observation. The words themselves limit the suggestion of reciprocity between the viewer and the viewed. In essence, we create "I" and "it" Subject and object.

Now with a hearing metaphor, we begin to have an I and a thou. Both the listener and the listened-to are subjects.

So when two people are telling their stories, where is God? Is the sacred in my story or in yours? It is in neither place. It is not in the stories (both are only relative expressions of experience), but it is in the telling and the sharing of the story where the Divine exists. When I listen to you deeply and my desire is to love you at the level of your soul, then I am following Christ's commandment that I love other human beings. Not what you think or do or believe or say, but who you are. That part of you that is immortal and beloved. And this love leads us to the Love of the Source my friend, Daniel so often speak of with such stirring eloquence.

Btw: Madeline L'Engle does the most amazing job expressing this ability to listen beyond the words in her book A Wind at the Door. She calls it "kything."

Monday, July 5, 2010

TheAlogy: A Spiritual Method of Inquiry

My belief, as a Friend, is that the definition of theology as the study of a body of doctrines seems particularly incongruous with my belief in "that of God" in everyone. There seems little point in there being "that of God" in any of us if "The Answer" is simply provided in texts inspired by God. I also cannot accept that a faith founded on Love would content itself with a merely rational approach to understanding the Divine. Since when have the most profound Truths been wholly rational? I can only assume that there is a reason for us to have an Inward Christ and that this purpose might be that we may know "experimentally", if you will, by direct interaction with That Which is Sacred. Perhaps the reason for our communion as a worshiping people is to share these experiences with each other so that we may strengthen one another in our powers of love, generosity, and faithfulness to this Light. If that is the case, then I think we need to dispense with any reliance on systematic theologies as they have been historically defined.

At the time I was deciding to become a Friend, I was also writing my dissertation in the field of Women's Studies in Religion. This meant that I was very deeply engaged in research methodology and inquiry into the nature of spirituality from the feminist perspective, and more specifically, from a radical spiritual eco-feminist perspective. In short, I was looking into how an individual's experience with the Divine could be defined through the hermeneutics of embodiment, through culturally feminine metaphors and through direct experiences. I am interested in the approach to and method of inquiry far more than I am in any particular answers one might find. In the end, it was Story, or narrative that most seized my attention. It is in story that we wed our experience and imaginative interplay with potential with our ability to organize and convey that information. Basically, the point of contact between your reality and mine is through Story. That is where we find Truth together. Whether it is the story of one's faith or the story of one's day, we begin to know ourselves as creatures both embodied and spiritual through the stories we tell.

It was the embodied metaphor and the personal narrative that was most interesting to me. In addition, I found that act of questioning fascinated me as both evidence of the tenderness and humility needed to acquire knowledge for oneself and the willingness to be open to the witness offered by "the other." One thing that attracted me to Friends was a focus on the experiential and their use of queries rather than texts. The queries, I think, are a good example of how one facilitates a narrative-based faith of continuing revelation.

I noted in my Meeting that the queries were never answered in any formulaic way but were presented as a means of deepening the atmosphere in which we drew together in silence. Out of that deepening came ministry that was clearly both in response to collective inquiry and a manifestation of the speaker's unique experience. Had the queries had specific answers we were all to know by rote or by predetermined and standard methods of inquiry, we would have been shut off from that rich, embodied, and unique ministry, from those experiences and narratives of the Divine's work in our lives. We may joke of "daffodil ministry" but I have found profound revelation in seemingly banal statements received as spoken ministry in meeting for worship. Again and again I am moved to tears and find myself trembling in the knowledge that I am actually in the presence of Something (don't ask me to define it) that I could never come to through intellect alone. There is no good rational way to explain this. It is just so.

I also frequently find the spiritual practice of narrative, first-hand witness in Friends' blogs. These narratives do not define the nature of God for other worshipers, but rather invite other worshipers to participate in equally authentic experience with the Divine. And so as a blogger in the community of bloggers, I have found myself responding to (deepening to) queries and engaged in the telling and hearing of stories. I wander about my "real life" as one affected by these stories I read online. Fear, grief, pain, mourning, loss, renewal, urgency, faith, love, patience, awe- all of it echoes in me and calls forth from me an authentic response. They are all singing love songs to the Divine and I find that as I have developed relationships with them and with their stories, I cannot stop myself from joining them in the song.

My academic curiosity kicks in and I also cannot help but see how this relates to my study of feminist thealogical inquiry. What I find is that it all fits in rather nicely with standpoint theory and other feminist methodological positions variously called "autography" or "autoethnography" in which the act of writing self-reflective and emotionally engaged pieces becomes a form of exploration. Blogging, I would say, is a typical form of autography which we distinguish from autobiography because it is more concerned with detailing the contours of the emotional/spiritual life than with cataloging the events of a life. Friends' blogging, therefore, was immediately interesting to me in the context of my research because it provided me with such fascinating examples of autography and autoethnography. Of course these are secular terms, but when applied to the spiritual life, the result is a kind of narrative-based process in which the goals of objectivity are de-centered in favor of methods of inquiry long considered questionable, marginal, and irrational.

Let me be very clear that I do not advocate a reversal in which we discount rational inquiry. I'm rather a fan of rationalism actually as I hope has been made clear in other blog posts. I do think that rationalism does not, by itself, provide us with all of the answers that humanity seeks. We are also emotional and intuitive creatures (both qualities long associated with the feminine- a cultural trick that I should probably address in another post.) Any theo/alogical perspective that does not incorporate the intuitive and experiential nature of the human brain can never give us all that we seek. When we dismiss that which we "know experimentally" as irrational, emotionally-driven, "merely anecdotal" and therefore unworthy of being called true knowledge, I believe we are turning our back on the Light. So many of us, myself included, are so mired in our training to ignore any source that does not prove its rational qualifications. But the Light is too powerful for us and will find us anyway. We will feel its warmth even if we are too afraid to turn and face it. We would do better to move toward it, to participate with it, but we are wary. We explain it away. "Perhaps it was just a feeling," we say to ourselves. "It will pass." Sentiment and intuition make us uncomfortable. We scramble for hard definitions and comfortable systematic, formulaic, intellectual definitions of "God" or "Science" or "Philosophy" or "Culture". We want to know. We want to be in control. We do not wish to be swept away in a rush of feeling. So when I sit there in meeting and hear a Friends' gentle, simple ministry, I am furious with myself for the tears that run down my face, for the trembling in my limbs, and for the sense that I have been plunged far more deeply in the human experience than I truly care to venture. This thing that Friends do together- this defies all the old rules. Any outsider might laugh at us. "So a few words were spoken in the silence. So what? You know nothing more than you did before and yet you fall apart in tears as though you have no control!" But as standpoint theorists Bochner and Ellis ask, "Why should caring and empathy be secondary to controlling and knowing?"

Friday, July 2, 2010

The Discipline of Listening as Tool for Christian and Pagan Friends in Conflict

Oftentimes I have read Christian Friends' comments regarding the frustration of Meetings and online conversations that are, if not openly hostile to the Christ-centered Friend, at least not supportive of him/her. This is a serious concern and a hard thing for me to hear. It is especially hard when Christ-centered Friends suggest or even openly advocate that Friends be limited to Christians only. My perspective is often the opposite and so I want to argue and bluster when I read such things. To hear these things makes me feel unwelcome and defensive.

On the other hand, I have sympathy with the desire to worship only with Christians although it makes me sad. There are times when I want to only be around women (I went to an all women's college not because I disliked men but because I knew I'd grow better without their presence in the classroom). Sometimes I only want to be around my immediate family who knows me so deeply I do not have to fuss with defining and redefining terms. If I were a Christian Friend, wouldn't I want a place where I wouldn't have to be careful about speaking openly of my devotion to Christ? Wouldn't I weary of having to use terms that made others comfortable but missed the core and spirit of my meaning?

What I hear from some Christocentric Friends is that I am welcome in the greater community and I am a part of the family but that there are times when they wish to exclusively use a scripturally based, Christ-centered faith and practice and that having to include other faith traditions becomes a burden. Christian Friends should not have to always pretend they are OK with my Pagan language any more than I should have to pretend I am always OK with their Christian language.

But I still think we need to find a way to be Friends together in a way that not only transcends those differences but is honest about them. You don't transcend anything by ignoring it.

I am troubled when folks skim over differences and pretend that everything is fine. Respecting differences does NOT mean pretending they don't exist. It doesn't mean insisting on some kind of bland language that will cause no offense. "Great Spirit who is all things to all people or who may not exist at all...and that's cool because it's all cool..." There is no true peace possible when we will only hear those stories that make us feel good and that agree with our own experience. We must also have the strength to hear ugly things, discordant things, outrageous things.

There are many, many times when we listen faithfully and do NOT come to a place of agreement. We aren't clones and we aren't all right. If we could immediately find Truth without discipline and discernment there wouldn't be much point to any of this. This is work as well as blessing. The fact that I keep colliding against the hard edges of other people's truths keeps me from getting soft.

So I'm not suggesting that the point of listening deeply to others' stories is to develop an "it's all okay" attitude. Far from it. When I am listening to someone's spiritual statement, whether that person is New Age or Christian or Pagan or Buddhist, or a freethinker or whatever, I ask myself the following questions:

What led them to this statement? Do they make it in a disciplined and thoughtful way or are they feeling cornered and frightened into it? What are their experiences? Am I having trouble understanding because of language, ethnic, cultural, gender, differences?

Most importantly, I ask, "What are the fruits of their belief system?" Although I may find them "goofy" or "conformist" or ""jaded" if the fruits of their spiritual journey are full of the kind of love I still call "Christ-like" then I can be content with the differences in our personal approaches. If on the other hand, they talk a good game but I see that their spirituality is unethical, mean-spirited, contemptuous and lazy...well then I have another choice. I can labor with that person. Perhaps I have misunderstood. Perhaps they were feeling cornered or were in a state of awkward transition. Perhaps I was. Maybe I was the one being undisciplined, mean-spirited, contemptuous and lazy. (It happens.)

And sadly, maybe the answer is that I can't always share community with every soul I meet.

My very first Quaker experience was a conference led by a Friend. He called it "Spirituality and Silence." In attendance was an African immigrant Christian who was once a Muslim, two Buddhists, a Benedictine nun, an Eastern Orthodox priest, another Friend, a Christian, and me, a Goddess-woman from a strong liberal Protestant tradition. Actually, it was almost good enough to be a joke..."A priest, a nun, two Buddhists and a pagan walk into a conference..."

Before we arrived, we had each written an essay about the topic "Spirituality and Silence." We had no other guidelines. Throughout the conference, we were given readings on methodology and theory and asked to periodically read our essays out loud. We engaged in the "Quaker process" (a new one for me at the time) of waiting in silence after each person spoke.

We did not agree with one another. Not even close. But it was one of the most profound spiritual experiences of my life. Silence bracketed hard words, grieving words, thrilling words. At first our desire was to overlap each other, to jump down each others' throats, to seek to gloss over differences or to dismiss one another. Then as we grew used to the practice of silence, we began to actually hear each other. And then we actually began to hear ourselves. The discipline of deep listening removed us from the lazy practice of just blurting out belief statements. We weren't so careless about our own messages. We were more honest as we became more interested in being authentic and allowing others space to be authentic than we were in "getting along." Our questions were more intelligent, our challenges more helpful, our entire process more disciplined.

More importantly, our process grew increasingly more loving. There was a greater integrity at work in that room of diverse believers as the goal of winning the argument fell away and was replaced by the desire to speak clearly and listen carefully.

So this is my message to all my dear Christian f/Friends. I do NOT want to change you. I'm so glad you are who you are. I do not need you to think as I do. I do not always have to understand you and I do not always have to be understood for our relationship to have value. Your faith in Christ brings strength and illumination into my life. I want to listen to you more carefully. I want to know you better so that I might glimpse the Divine shining through you. And I hope, very much, that you might also see it in me, for all my difference.

Country Girl in a City Meeting

I missed Meeting again this week. My husband only has every fourth Sunday off so we have limited opportunity. This week we thought we'd go to the urban meeting because my youngest has wanted to go to "his school". We don't have a First Day School at our Meeting so the kids like to visit the city where there are so many other kids. On their website they indicated that their summer hours are different than their ordinary hours. Since it is not summer yet, I thought we'd arrive there quite a bit early. We were twenty minutes late. I have a personal policy that I do NOT walk into any meeting for worship or church service late. Oh well, it was probably for the best. I don't really belong there.

The Meeting is a liberal Meeting in an urban setting about an hour's drive from our house. Although we've attended on and off for two or three years, I can't seem to get comfortable. In fact, I feel like a foreigner in their midst (much as I do amongst other bloggers). When they speak, they speak of events and assumptions with which I cannot identify. Their metaphors and illustrations are all about large crowds of people, about pavement, tall buildings and busy schedules. They are urbane and I am provincial. They speak of organic food co-ops and of flowers struggling through cracks in the sidewalk. I live a short walk from the nearest farm amidst a riot of flowers, grasses, and trees against which our sidewalks struggle to survive. Theirs is a world of street traffic and fancy restaurants, of parks and shops and traffic- and mine is a world of vineyards and orchards, of greasy spoons and tractors.

The meeting is full of professional women and men who speak casually of things that I know cost more money than I earn in a year. Most significantly to me, they do not seem to realize that their meetings, their retreats, their conferences, and their vacations are not accessible for most people on earth. Why should they know? We're as mysterious to them as they are to us. Their city is a very isolated urban area in the midst of vast stretches of rural landscape. While there is much reason for those of us in the country to travel to the city, there is little reason for them to venture far afield. No one comes to my village. They pass through it. "You live where? Oh, yes, I think I drove through there once!"

Funny that there should be so much difference between their home and mine. Travel for any more than half an hour in any direction from the city, and you're in the countryside where we don't have therapists, gurus, yoga instructors, and chemical sensitivities. We have family doctors, schoolteachers, exercise videos, and headaches. Life moves at a different pace. Don't get me wrong. We are just as busy but the business has a different flavor. There's no rush hour traffic where I live and we don't have quite so many sirens. We have a noon whistle and the church bells play hymns for the entire village to hear.

You'd think that such differences wouldn't matter. It isn't as though I'm a complete hick. I have lived in cities and I have plenty of friendships with folks from all walks of life. So why do I feel so insecure and off when I attend that urban Meeting? After Meeting for Worship, my husband and children go off to enjoy the hospitality hour. I wander off on my own and look at the brochures and booklets. Sometimes I make a show of speaking happily to my children or husband so that people can see that I am not completely sour and unsociable. I make an art of moving between my family, the front hall and the cloak room in a manner calculated to appear to look purposeful although its only true purpose is avoiding conversation with anyone.

I'm terrible at small talk. Awful. I have no interest in discussing nothing in particular--but one can't launch into deep conversations with strangers unless one knows the rules. "Hello. Nice day isn't it? I wonder if Mary Magdalene and Jesus had a sexual relationship?" or "Thank you for your message in meeting today. What do you think about process philosophy? Postmodernism? Semiotics? Star Trek?" Right. People who are good at talking to other people about the everyday things of life and who know how to laugh and share a few words over coffee cake don't realize what a gift that is. I might as well be walking around with a name tag that reads, "Tedious Insufferable Nerd."

I can hear that the city folks share so many of my values, my politics, and my beliefs but for some reason when I am amongst them, I find myself craving home and the people who live there. I think part of the problem is that I don't know the rules of city small talk. (You city folk may not think you have rules but you do!) I overhear the conversations and am just baffled. What are they talking about? I may as well be in a foreign land. They mention streets and projects and committees and events with which I am completely unfamiliar. And I just feel lost.

I think of Dad's country churches peopled by elderly ladies with snowy heads of tight curls and big red-faced, jovial men who clap each other on the shoulder with work-roughened hand. "Well, how the hell have you been!" I think of green bean casseroles eaten in slightly musty church basements with folks who wear "slacks" and sit on "davenports" and whose families have lived in those villages for "pritti-near ta two hunnert years." I know how to behave with these people. I know to speak fondly of my grandparents and assure folks that they are doing well. I know to laugh with the ladies about how loud the little boys are and how there is always laundry. I know to mention the weather and how beautiful it is but shouldn't we have a bit more rain? And yes the kids are growing fast and no, it doesn't seem as if we need another traffic light in town. I know to talk about the festivals and the road work and the colors of the leaves this fall and whether or not I think the snow is any deeper this year or if the raspberries ripened early.

One would think I'd feel more at home talking to people who share my beliefs, politics, and educational background as so many people in the city do. Don't get me wrong, I have enjoyed great conversations both online and in person with "city folks." The deep conversations, the academic, intellectual, and passionate conversations are almost always with you folks from more urbane settings and/or with folks like me who are country-bred but university-influenced. And I do get lonesome here in the country. No one wants to hear me talk about process philosophy and feminism here in the country any more than they do in the city. In fact, I'm pretty much a puzzle to the folks around here. They are kind to me, but they laugh at me too. That's OK. At least here I'm home. I'd rather be an ugly duckling here in the country than a swan anywhere else.

Monday, June 28, 2010

Spirit Addict and God Genes

Check this out. The God Gene

Isn't the idea of a "God gene" interesting? And horrifying? If such a thing exists, then I must for sure have it and it is troubling to me. Problematic. Concerning. I'm not supposed to be so spiritual. I'm supposed to know better. Except when I'm supposed to know better than to buy into the idea that just because something "makes sense" it equals Truth. Except when I'm supposed to know better than to attribute that which exceeds human knowledge to some divine sky buddy. Except when I'm supposed to know better than to buy into simplistic jackass dismissals of profound religious experience. *sigh*

I can imagine Yoda right now, "The God gene is strong in this one, it is." (The fact that I use Star Wars to illustrate my spirituality is, I imagine, yet another of my problems).

In uncomfortable honesty I say that I've been struggling mightily with my spirituality. I carry it around like a mental illness and I try to laugh it off. There are times when I envy the orthodox because they do not seem rationalize their experiences, but as a member of a liberal community (spiritual liberals and intellectual liberals), I find that my form of religious experience is suspect even to myself. I treat my spirituality as one might treat an addiction. I cannot stop myself from it, and yet I am ashamed of the attraction. I crave spiritual writing,tarot, meditation, contemplation, prayer, sacred texts, holy images...and believe none of it.

The relief I experience when other Friends actually admit that they have an emotional, body-centered experience in meeting rather than just a vague sense of liberal satisfaction in the goodness of the universe or the potential of humanity or whatever is a profound relief to me. If I am mentally ill, at least I'd like some company.

Damn God genes. Blessed God genes.

Thursday, June 24, 2010

Calvinists, Quakers, and Spiritualists. Oh My!: A Breathless Account of Local Religious History

If you ever watch Star Trek (and everyone should), then you know that one little change in history can have unexpected consequences (Ask Captain Kirk after he lost Edith Keeler). In history, we like to play with sci-fi scenarios but we call them historical counterfactuals (mostly because our students stop taking us seriously when we endlessly quote Klingon proverbs). Here's one (a counterfactual not a Klingon proverb): what might have happened if Calvinists hadn't so wretchedly committed to the idea of infant damnation?

As it turns out, I'm not going to entertain that counterfactual because I find it much more entertaining to tell you what happened because they did not abandon that notion. Wacky things happened. It led to Spiritualism and Paganism and Witchcraft and radical, wise-ass Quakers. It led to free thought and free love and communes of all kinds. So hurray for the doctrine of infant damnation! Without you, American history would not be worth my time.

(Note that this blog entry is grossly simplified because this is the kind of topic that flings me off in all kinds of tempting directions that will be of no interest to most human beings. Seriously, I've written hundreds of pages on this topic. Imagine how dull!)

*1*
There are (at least) two currents of religious thought in the U.S. by the early 19th century that interest me. We have Calvinism with which we are pretty well familiar. Miserable stuff. We also have more liberal traditions which, because they are liberal, are also diverse so it is difficult to lump them together. There were the deists, of course, about whom we hear so much in our history of the Revolutionary War and there were Unitarians who evolved from Calvinists and the Transcendentalists who evolved from Unitarians. There were the Friends who have a long history of annoying Calvinists and there were wild and crazy Baptists and Methodists too. By no means was there monolithic agreement on what it meant to be Christian in antebellum America.

*2*
Two very interesting things happened in the 1820s. The first was the schism between "Hicksites" and "Orthodox" Friends. I put these terms in quotation marks because neither group chose their own designation and both designations are not quite accurate. The "orthodox" Friends were actually decreasingly orthodox inasmuch as they were increasingly connected to the methods and values of American Protestant evangelicalism (See *3*) and the Hicksites, including Elias Hicks, thought it really cheeky of the "orthodox" to attempt to characterize them as all blind followers of Hicks as if they were all intentionally a bunch of wayward schismatics. They felt that they were being orthodox too. Indeed, except for the fact that the "Orthodox" had more power and money and numbers than the Hicksites, we might just as easily say that the "Orthodox" Friends were being schismatic and not the other way round. One could very easily argue that the Hicksites were reacting to increasing tensions created by wealthy and powerful urban Friends' desire to get cozy with the wealthy and powerful evangelical Protestants. So who was schismatic? It all depends on perspective.

In any case, in the early 1820s, Presbyterian minister, Eliphat Wheeler published a challenge to Quakers in the Christian Repository to which Friend Benjamin Ferris responded. These letters are published as the the Letters of Paul and Amicus and are over 500 pages long. They are well worth reading despite their length because they so excellently delineate the key differences between Calvinist and liberal Quaker religious thinking of that time period and address issues not only of predestination, infant damnation, the divinity of Christ, the Trinity, the sacraments of communion and baptism, atonement, and the role of clergy but also issues like slavery, colonialism, missionary work, bible societies, and comparative religious studies. The letters regarding "Hindoos" in India are most interesting and show important distinctions in Quaker and Calvinist approaches not merely to missionary efforts and colonialism but to attitudes regarding diversity and the value of non-Christian perspectives.

In reading Amicus, one is amazed at how very readily he might fit into a contemporary liberal Christian Quaker context. Amicus was clearly influenced by the emergent popular availability of scientific and philosophical works both secular and sacred. He obviously read widely and deeply (and he reminds me that I should watch less television and spend less time online). In fact, as I read him, I think, "Hey! I would have fit in with Friends even back in the day." But I would be premature in this assumption. The problem was that Amicus hadn't considered how much his thinking didn't fall in line with the most powerful Friends of that time whose thinking on many key issues was more in line with Paul. Such Friends were particularly distressed by the fact that Amicus was not clear about things like the divinity of Christ and they were a bit put out by his comfort level with other religious traditions.

By 1828 Friends had split in two. Not everyone who sided with the Hicksites was a rip roaring radical but lots of them were and those people continued to challenge the country's religious status quo with all their new-fangled ideas about social equality and diversity. Friends like Lucretia and James Mott, Martha Coffin Wright (read out of meeting for marrying a non-Friend), Mary Ann and Thomas M'Clintock, Amy and Isaac Post, Jane Hunt,Rhoda de Garmo and Daniel Anthony were among the more radical Friends. These were the folks who got themselves involved in such capricious activities as abolitionism and woman's rights. They worked with those crazy Methodists and Baptists I mentioned earlier who shared in their belief that it was high time Christians stop condemning everybody to Hell and start creating the Kingdom of God on Earth. Which brings me to...

*3*
The Burned-Over District. In 1825, New York State opened the Erie Canal and the commercial and cultural destiny of the entire nation was irrevocably altered. Indeed, I would say that the Civil War was won in 1825 (but that's a whole 'nother post which you'll never see here because I'm really not that interested in it.) Western New York went from backwater to bustling in a matter of months. Indeed, Rochester became the fastest growing city in the nation.

Folks from New England and Pennsylvania (Calvinists and Quakers)arrived in large numbers. Imagine sending off your son or daughter to the wilds of the west. (But, Mother! I'm going to Rochester, not Timbuktu. They have post offices and stores and churches there and everything!") Fathers and mothers didn't listen and they fussed and worried over the state of their kids' souls. As well they should have. There were far more bars and brothels in western New York than there were churches...at first. So they sent along itinerant preachers. Scores of them. Evangelists rained down on Central New York like a cloud of locusts. Of these, Charles Grandison Finney was the most popular and the most influential of the evangelical revivalists but he had lots of competition for the souls of Upstate New Yorkers.

Because there were few long-established centers of religious authority in the region, new religious and spiritual trends could develop relatively unmolested by established denominational hierarchies. Mormons, Shakers, Christian socialists, Millerites, Spiritualists, and many other groups either emerged from this transitional cultural milieu or moved there to escape more restrictive environments. In the developing urban centers of such places as Troy, Syracuse, Utica, and Rochester, the rapidly shifting population of working people, including many moving onto points even farther west, discouraged the development of a centralized societal authority and community-mindedness. While the old families, churches, and political parties of New England could command a certain amount of respect and compliance, there existed no such structures in New York State to prevent a proliferation of dissenting opinions and religious strategies. Into this environment, evangelical preachers of all stripes came to spread whatever word they believed the people most needed to hear. The people responded by the thousands to a multitude of spiritual leaders, lecturers, and innovators.

*4*
Meanwhile, a group of abolitionist, free thinking Hicksites who had grown too radical even for Hicksite tolerance levels were sharing meeting for worship at the Junius Ponds meeting house. Persons associated with this group were the Posts, M'Clintocks, Hunts and a young attender, Elizabeth Cady Stanton. Lucretia Mott, on one of her frequent visits to sister, Martha Coffin Wright, was helpful in their organization and sympathetic to their aims but she never belonged to this group who would rename themselves Progressive Friends in the 1850s (with a young woman named Susan B. Anthony as one of their early clerks). This group of Friends, as loyal readers may recall, was also the group primarily responsible for organizing the first women's rights convention in Seneca Falls in 1848. They were also behind the emergence of Spiritualism as we shall see in *5*

*5*
1848, two young girls and their parents move from Rochester to a rented house in Newark, N.Y. where they begin to report hearing spectral rapping noises. They visit the Posts in Rochester where Amy and Isaac become convinced of the legitimacy of the rapping sounds and interpret them as a manifestation of the divine Spirit. Spiritualism spreads through the ultraist Quaker population in Upstate New York, then onto other strongholds of liberal Quaker population. Quaker meeting and Spiritualism share characteristics. In both there is a period of expectant, waiting worship sometimes punctuated by a ministry given by an individual who acts as a mouthpiece for the Spirit. In both, the ministry of women and girls is recognized and encouraged. The fundamental assumption is equality of souls. Both Hicksite Friends and Spiritualists react strongly against Calvinist teaching of predestination and infant damnation. In a time during which the death of loved ones (particularly children and women in childbirth) was relatively common, Spiritualism offered formerly Protestant believers an alternative view of afterlife. One's loved ones were not only well and well-loved in Divine care but could continue to communicate their love for those they left behind.

Friends were the first to attribute religious significance to modern Spiritualist manifestations. I believe one can still see their early imprint. Nineteenth-century Spiritualists were actively involved in the free-thought movement, in abolition, women's rights, and other human rights reform movements. When the Spirits spoke, they always seemed to side with the downtrodden. They were always champions of the lowly. It was not long before Spiritualism began to draw converts from the Protestant denominations. People, especially women, were weary of dark Calvinist sin-centered doctrine. As women had particular care of infants, children, the disabled, the dying, and even of the bodies of the dead, they were particularly motivated to take up a spiritual system that denied concepts like eternal damnation or the damnation of infants. Women also flocked to a faith that not only allowed, but encouraged female leadership and public speaking. As Spiritualism grew increasingly popular throughout the English-speaking world, audiences grew accustomed to seeing women public speakers address all the important and controversial topics of the day (often under Spirit trance). Free speech, free produce, free thought, free love: all were topics addressed by Spirit. The early American civil rights and Spiritualist movements were inextricably connected in these early years.

*5*
Over time, the Spiritualist movement evolves in various directions. Some of these directions are just silly and freakish (women pulling fully formed apparitions out of their what-nots) but others are significant. The Theosophical Movement grows out of Spiritualism and provides a popular forum for interfaith research and comparative religious studies. Theosophists combined American Spiritualism with an interest in Eastern philosophy and mysticism. The introduction of Buddhism and Hinduism to American religious liberals irrevocably changed the history of religions in the United States. Significantly for the human rights movement, leaders such as Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Matilda Joslyn Gage shifted their suffrage focus to serious criticism of phallocentric religion by the close of the nineteenth-century. As a result of her involvement in Spiritualism and Theosophy, Gage became a prototypical American Neo-Pagan and suggested that women should begin referring to the Goddess as well as to God in their systems of personal spirituality. Together, she and Stanton wrote extensively about their religious ideas. Their challenge to the patriarchal Christian Church was applauded by the more radical, intellectual members of the suffragist groups but drew condemnation from most including Susan B. Anthony who feared their radical spiritual position would alienate more conservative suffragists.

Susan B. Anthony has her way for awhile but over time, fragile thread by fragile thread, we weave a history of "alternative spirituality" in the United States. It is a parti-colored tapestry. The strands are not always clear. I've had to spend some time teasing out the connections, searching out private letters and rare quotations and references. Often I find an individual has a sense that they are evolving away from the religion of their youth in isolation but I do find that there are predictable references to certain movements, traditions and authors. One of the predictable references is to liberal Hicksite and Progressive Friends whose history is so neatly interwoven into the fabric of American religious liberalism.

Some may say that radical Friends lost their way. I don't think so. I think that the growth that resulted from the schism had significantly positive outcomes for humanity. I think that what happened here in the Burned-Over District was a manifestation of obedience to the Light that resulted in an elevation of the rights and dignity of the human being. I'm proud that I have inherited this crazy history. I recognize that it is not "Friends' History" writ large. Friends in Ohio or Kenya or even England might think this was just some peculiar or even perverted understanding of Quaker belief and practice. Progressive Friends' influence on the development of American Buddhism, Hinduism, Paganism, Freethought, and Atheism is atypical Friends' history. But it did happen. Friends invented American Spiritualism. Spiritualism morphed into Theosophy. Theosophy informed the beginning of American Paganism. All the above religious movements were intricately interwoven in the emergence of feminist spirituality and human rights activism. It may be a wacky Friends' history peculiar to this wacky place I call home, but it is Friends' history nevertheless. It did the world good, and I will not apologize for it.

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Definitions

Since I began hanging with Quakers, I've found myself wonder whether or not I am a Christian.

So I found a whole mess of definitions. Here's the first:

–adjective 1. of, pertaining to, or derived from Jesus Christ or His teachings: a Christian faith.

Um...actually, this one isn't particularly helpful since it is a wee bit vague. Let's move on to definiton #2


2. of, pertaining to, believing in, or belonging to the religion based on the teachings of Jesus Christ: Spain is a Christian country.


Let's look at the evidence. I was born into a Christian family. I was baptized by my clergyman father. My family history includes several other Christian ministers including my Great Uncle George and my cousin Emily (a pioneering woman ordained as a Methodist at the turn of the century), and even Jonathan-Sinners-in-the-Hands-of-an-Angry-God-Edwards. I went to a Christian seminary (where I had a 4.0 average btw) and I have a personal library chock full of bibles, biblical commentaries, concordances, ecclesiastical histories etc. I went to Sunday School. I taught Sunday school. My mother and sister taught Sunday school too. I studied Christian theology and history in my spare time as a teenager. I studied it formally as an undergrad and in graduate school. I attended church at least once a week and sometimes as often as three times a week. I even married a man whose middle name is Christian, one of the prettiest masculine names ever if you ask me. I read my children bible stories and buy them images of Christ and Mary and take them frequently to places of Christian worship.

So maybe I am a Christian. Certainly I would maintain that I am culturally Christian. Let's move on. Here's definition #3.

3. of or pertaining to Christians: many Christian deaths in the Crusades.

OK. Distinctly unhelpful. #4,5,and 6 may be more helpful:

4. exhibiting a spirit proper to a follower of Jesus Christ; Christlike: She displayed true Christian charity.
5. decent; respectable: They gave him a good Christian burial.
6. human; not brutal; humane: Such behavior isn't Christian.
–noun


I still frequently use the term "Christian" to refer to behavior that I consider especially merciful, gentle, compassionate, peaceful and loving. In this sense, I try not to behave in a manner that is "unchristian." I try to imitate Christ as I understand him. This is why I am a pacifist. It is why I refuse to work in any endeavor that I cannot square with the notion that humans are meant to be servants to one another. Does this make me a Christian? Let's move on to definition #7.


7. a person who believes in Jesus Christ; adherent of Christianity.

Ah. This is where we run into problems. I do not believe in the special divinity of Jesus of Nazareth. But then neither did many of the first generations of Christians. I do not like to conflate the historical Jesus with the mythological/metaphorical Christ. I am much more likely to embrace an interpretation of Christ as an energy in which all human beings may partake which was exemplifed rather nicely by the "historical" Jesus (and then the historical Jesus is really a literary Jesus really but that's a whole 'nother issue for a whole 'nother blog entry).

So do I believe in Jesus Christ? Sort of. My belief lies somewhere in the range between liberal and radical interpretation. If you were to ask me to say that this metaphor has to be my primary metaphor of deep meaning, then all bets would be off.

How about this definition?
8. a person who exemplifies in his or her life the teachings of Christ: He died like a true Christian.

Couldn't a person who had never even heard of Jesus fit this definition? As I understand it, humility, compassion, and profound love for humanity are all very Christ-like. Very few Christians I have met are Christian according to this particular definition whereas a good many people who don't identify as Christian truly do fit under this category. I'm not sure I qualify for this definition. I think my recurring passionate desire to punch Sarah Palin in the face may exclude me.

And I'm a pagan. Surprise!

1. one of a people or community observing a polytheistic religion, as the ancient Romans and Greeks.
2. a person who is not a Christian, Jew, or Muslim.
3. an irreligious or hedonistic person.
–adjective
4. pertaining to the worship or worshipers of any religion that is neither Christian, Jewish, nor Muslim.
5. of, pertaining to, or characteristic of pagans.
6. irreligious or hedonistic.
One who is not a Christian, Muslim, or Jew, especially a worshiper of a polytheistic religion.
One who has no religion.
A non-Christian.
A hedonist.
A Neo-Pagan.

Huh. Interesting.
I am not a polytheist nor do I belong to any community of polytheists. I am not hedonistic. Do I have a religion? That's difficult. I don't suppose I do. I have a spirituality which is not, perhaps, the same thing. I'm not a Christian, Muslim, or Jew but on the other hand, I've established that I may be at least marginally and nominally Christian given my strong cultural background in Christianity. I would have a hard time justifying myself as a Pagan based on this definition but then this is not a definition written by Neo-Pagans.

Turns out that these days, definitions are not very helpful for describing where a soul belongs. Maybe they've never been very helpful.

Rooting Around for my Calling 2/ (an old post just now published)

Yesterday I traveled for almost two hours to deliver a speech on the relationship between women's spirituality and women's rights to a chapter of the American Association of University Women. The speech was well-received which pleased me considering that I had developed laryngitis after a week of the flu and had a much-diminished speaking voice. Still, after speaking in barely a whisper all day, I put on my nineteenth-century dress and bonnet, stood before them and managed to project that raspy voice across the room for the duration of the speech and then for the questions and conversation that followed. The event began at 6:00 and we finished up after 10:00. So I'm tired today and my throat hurts but...

There is something about speaking in front of groups that fills me up in ways that I cannot describe. I feel strange taking a check for the work because I feel they have already paid me. That a group of people will allow me in their midst, will hear me, will let me move them...I owe such a debt for this gift.

When I was little, I watched my father don his clerical robes before the service. As I watched him, I saw him transformed from "Daddy" to clergyman. The most impressive were the black robes with their rich fabric and black velvet trim that emphasized the sweep and flow of his gestures. As he stood before the congregation, I was enthralled by the force and beauty of his baritone voice which projected easily to the back pews. There were times when he spoke of God and raised one hand toward heaven just as a ray of light streamed down from the stained glass windows.

How could this be the same man who, when dressed in jeans and sweatshirts would be far more likely to ask me to pull his finger than to turn to God? It just was. People in our congregations were sometimes troubled when they realized that he was not a saint. Over the years, there was an accumulation of injury to my father's gentle soul perpetrated by those who thought the role of a minister is to a sacrificial lamb to be exploited and used up. There were few to feed him. Few to hold his spirit in the light and finally, he burned out. There is a special brutality reserved for country preachers by their congregations. Today my father, who calls himself an atheist, would tell me it was all just theater. It was all "bullshit", an act and nothing more.

But I don't buy it. When I was a baby, my father had a dream that changed his life. As he and my mother sat in church one Sunday, he turned to her and told her he had something important to tell her. "You're going to join the ministry." she said unexpectedly. He could not understand how she had known. Turns out that she too had a dream that night. From that point on, my parents and I moved from home to home so he could complete his M.Div. and then provide service to multiple country churches. Being a Methodist minister's kid is a bit like being an army brat. We moved around a lot. The bishop would call and we would move. It was not until I was older that my father became a Congregationalist and we were able to settle down. Even so, the church was at the heart of everything we did. Until it wasn't.

When my father left the church, it was life-altering for all of us. It was, in fact, a relief. All members of a clergyperson's family are pressed into service. No getting around that. It was good to have some fresh air, to say "f-u" to all the nastiness and vindictiveness of those churches. It was good to have the freedom to explore our spirituality away from the confines of even the limited orthodoxy of the liberal Protestant tradition.

It was also jarring in a way that I am just now beginning to explore. What does it mean to me that my father has rejected what he always described as "his calling"? Was it all some grand delusion in which my entire family, our congregations, and communities participated in for almost twenty years? And what of my calling? What of that? Am I deluded there too? or is there something More at play here

A Personal Genesis Narrative: Relationship between my Paganism and my Christianity

It has been noted by some (Daniel) that I come to Paganism from "a deep faith in the God of Jesus." The question put to me basically was how and why that happened.


Childhood

Of course, as many already know, I was reared in a very liberal Protestant household, the daughter of a country minister. I was a small child when my father was in seminary and lived on campus at Colgate Rochester Divinity School and Crozier Theological Seminary. Dad graduated from Colgate Rochester the same year that Martin Luther King Jr.'s nephew graduated and the King family was in attendance. There is a very strong Civil Rights connection at that seminary. Additionally, Walter Rauschenbusch (the Social Gospel) was also at Colgate way back when. That's my genesis narrative.

Following seminary, my father served several rural communities as a Methodist minister before he switched to the Congregationalist Church (UCC) when I was a teenager. His final church, which he served just before I entered college, was a dysfunctional church. It was after a really painful and public experience there that we "left the church." At first blush, it would look like this was the painful experience that led me to a rejection of my faith. Let me say, however, that it wasn't quite as simple as that.

Throughout my father's ministry, he grew increasingly liberal (a neat trick when you start off as a long-haired anti-war protester). We always said that our family was doing a dance along the spectrum until we finally dropped off the left-most edge. He started off introducing inclusive language and feminism to his churches in the '70s and ended by marrying a lesbian couple in the '90s. In the end, what we believed was that the institutional church discourages Christianity. Our faith in Jesus was never tested. Our faith in the Church was destroyed.


There Really Isn't Much Difference Between Me as Christian and Me as Pagan
or
I Had A Way Leftist Christology to Begin With

So is this where the Paganism comes in? Well, almost. It is important to note that from the beginning of my religious education, I was surrounded by my father's academic experiences. I watched him doing his research with his concordances and his interpretations and as I aged, I began reading these books too. At age 13 I received my calling to ministry and throughout my teen years was reading his seminary books, histories, sermons and theologies. He had lots of unorthodox stuff too so I was early introduced to the Nag Hammadi Library and the idea of Gnosticism. Dad didn't dumb down his conversations with me so conversations with him might be about the historical critical method, ethics, the Priestly author, or Jesus' sexuality. Not ordinary Sunday school stuff. By the time I was an undergrad, I had a really unusual view of the church, of religion and its history. And on top of this, I spent lots of time studying religious history with a particular interest in the development of Protestantism in the United States.

I mention all this because the idea that I lost faith in the God of Jesus assumes a couple things that aren't exactly true. Because I was taught to view Jesus' God (or at least the God of the primitive Christians) as an historical composite of multiple ancient traditions upon which generations of believers from multiple cultures overlaid their own assumptions, values, and interpretations. In short, I believed that the God of the Bible was an invention. I challenge the notion that the Bible was any more inspired than any other spiritual narrative. This belief was strengthened by my seminary and graduate work in religion studies. Because I was trained from day 1 to doubt the perfection and superiority of the religion of my childhood, I never experienced a crisis of faith as I've heard many other Christian to Pagan converts have experienced. My love for Jesus is as strong today as it was in my childhood; more mature and complex perhaps, but just as strong.

I've Never Sacrificed a Goat


So why Pagan? First off, to be more accurate, I am Neo-Pagan. The distinction is important. Paganism was brutal (as was ancient Judaism if we are to believe that any of the Bible was historically based). I am a New Pagan and we don't go in for things like sacrifice of people or animals. In fact, most Neo-Pagans are more gentle than most Christians I know. Lots of pacifists and vegetarians. Lots of people who literally wouldn't hurt a fly. (Do what you will shall be the whole of the law so long as you harm none and all that jazz.)

Also, My methodology is standpoint theory and I'm a postmodern thinker (can't help it. I was an undergrad in the '90s! lol). I am intentionally creating a spirituality from historical and mythological sources. But those are only some of my ingredients. With other "Goddess women" and spiritual ecofeminists, I am also brewing this new spiritual tradition from social justice traditions (feminism, civil rights, gay rights, animal rights) as well as stuff like midwifery, "alternative" medicines, natural health, environmentalism, pacifism, and psychology. Because we are doing this so intentionally, this gives us a good bit of freedom to discard elements that are inappropriate to our time and condition and to reshape others. While there are some Pagans who are attempting to faithfully recreate a Pagan past, my understanding is that most Neo-Pagans are highly aware of the creative process of creating a new spirituality out of old metaphors. We really wouldn't go back to the Bronze and Iron Age Religions any more than most Christians would really want to go back to first century Palestine. On the other hand, we do tend to elevate (and this is a topic for another day) Neolithic prepatriarchal religions. Paganism most folks know is a degraded form of an earlier, more egalitarian period. The anthropological jury is still out on this theory but we know enough to indicate that as well as having nasty and brutal ancestors, we also have peaceful and gentle precursors. How much of the Goddess Religion is based on supportable evidence and how much is based on wishful invention is not something I want to address here, but if we're going to make up a Pagan past to emulate, that's the one I'm going for! (For readings in this feminist branch of Neo-Paganism look to Marija Gimbutas, Carol Christ, Charlene Spretnak, and Mary Daly.)

Quakers in Funky Pagan Clothing

But I can't speak for other Neo-Pagans. We're too diverse. I will say that Neo-Paganism is dramatically different from the classical Paganism most of us studied in high school. Pagans and Friends have a lot in common at the practical level. They share deep concern for environmental and social justice; they share profound respect for the individual's direct communion with the Divine; and they deemphasize or reject the power and importance of professional clergy.

I believe (and have always believed) that the Divine Energy is imminent and that there is, in truth, no difference between us and God/dess. I very comfortably integrate my Christian ethics into my Neo-Paganism because there is no conflict between the command to love unconditionally with my Neo-Pagan fascination with cultural difference and ecofeminism. Finally, I am a process theo/alogian which puts a different spin on my ideas of the relationships between the Divine and the Mundane (which are all intertwined, merged and certainly non-hierarchical).

The Gods are Me. I am the Gods. And the Force is Still With Me.


I speak of Hel and Hecate in the same way I speak of Job and Mary Magdalene. The psyche is peopled by characters who teach us what it is to be human. Just as I never took the Christian scriptures literally, I never take mythology literally. I recognize that these were stories told by ancient peoples with pre-scientific worldviews. Such views continue to be helpful despite their apparently irrational origins. Indeed, they are helpful because of their irrational origins. I play with myths the way an archetypal theorist does. I find also that as a woman, I benefited from work with feminine archetypes from the Virgin Mary to the chthonic crone goddesses. Exploration of the Dark Mysteries, the Female Mysteries, is what helped me through miscarriage, pregnancy, and clinical depression. In fact, I am certain that this spiritual perspective saved my life.

None of this play means that I worship any of these figures above the One. I may be a complex monotheism or a pantheist (or maybe a pan-en-theist? It really depends on my mood), but the Force is still with me. The Divine remains inscrutable, ineffable, or as my first religion studies prof. said, "God is not some cosmic bellhop." I don't mistake either Christ or Isis for the Divine any more than I mistake myself as Humanity.

I had this dream about flying...


I had dream once in which I was in my Dad's church and I discovered that I could fly. I rose up to the ceiling and realized that I must fly higher but could not find a door out. So I smashed the stained glass windows and soared into the sky. The Church could not contain me, but I never forget that it is there that I first took flight.

So I sing hymns every single day and read my Bible. I also play with my tarot deck, speak to the spirits of my ancestors and wear an image of the Serpent Goddess around my neck. I write and teach about the connections between Paganism (out of which comes Judaism and Christianity) and Neo-Paganism (which arises out of Christianity and Judaism.)I find no conflict in this. I reject any Paganism that undermines my belief in the fundamental teachings of Jesus and I reject any Christian message that undermines my belief that we all (people and animals and plants and rocks and trees)belong to Mother Earth and that we share both Soul and Body. Practically what this means is that I am called to Love. No changes there.

My crisis has nothing to do with an interruption or violent breech between the faith of my childhood and my spirituality as it is today. My crisis arises out of motherhood, out of the maturation of my ability to love to a point just this side of terror. What if it is all an illusion? What if my religious experiences (which led to all that academic study and debt) are all just products of seizures and wishful thinking? What if like good old Granny Weatherall, I'll just blink out, forever divorced from the Soul and souls I love and to whom I've dedicated my entire life? This is the worm that twists in my heart and subject of a future post.

Thursday, June 10, 2010

A Pistol Made of Toast

My mother-in-law warned me that boys are different from girls. "I never bought my boys guns," she said, "but they'd chew their toast into the shape of a pistol." Of course, I assumed that I would never have her problems. My boys would be perfect angels far more interested in Botticelli and Brahms than with bazookas. "Come read to us from the works of Emerson, Mother!" they would beg. "Can we please listen a little longer to the sonata?" Right. Not so much. Every day I listen to the sounds of starship battles and the clanging of imaginary swords. I hear the shrieks of the dying and the battle cries of enraged warriors on the great, bloody battlefield of my living room sofa. What happened?

I was raised as a pacifist and I am raising my children with the same values. We speak frankly and frequently about our concerns with interpersonal and international violence, and we challenge our children toward compassionate and creative problem-solving. Just this past week my son brought me great pride when he stood up, for the first time, to his great-grandparents' thoughtless patriotism out of his concern for America's involvement in the wars. I have made it very clear to my children that violence is unacceptable and that there is nothing honorable about warfare.

But I do not discourage my children from reading, talking about, or engaging in fantasy battles. Here's why:

For both kids and grown-ups, play (whether in acting out roles or experimenting with metaphors and symbolic thought through art and language) is an essential human process allowing us mental space to experiment with emotions and situations we may face physically and psychologically. Literary and mythical descriptions of violence help us learn to identify and deal with aggression, sorrow, and betrayal. Examples include epic battles and martyrdom in classical and spiritual literature as well as within children's literature. The utilization of these linguistic and artistic symbol forms should not be confused with the manifestation of these symbols. I would not want my kids to engage in actual sword fights against evil nor would I want them knocking over money changing tables and driving people out of temples. I would not want them to literally surrender their bodies for martyrdom, or to literally jump on a white horse to champion a lost cause... but I do want them to use this imagery to understand how one gathers up emotional energy for the "battles" they will inevitably face in life. I want them to use fantasy and play to practice with emotions involved in intellectual and emotional conflict. In this I think of my mother, a champion of the rights of sexually assaulted women and children. On her office wall is a picture she drew as a child in which she made herself a knight with a sword ready to slay the dragon. My mother is a pacifist, but make no mistake, she's a fighter too. She carries the dragon-slayer within her.

Another reason I've learned not to fuss overly much about play that uses violent imagery is that it seems to help my male children deal with their anger. Our son is much larger than an average child so we have been particularly careful to train him as a pacifist. We do not allow him to play with toy guns because we do not wish to support an industry that glorifies and institutionalizes violence. On the other hand, we don't interrupt their play with guns and swords they make with sticks. Talk about a losing battle! Just as my mother-in-law warned, I have learned that a piece of partly eaten toast, a funny-shaped rock, an index finger or an upside down toy dinosaur all make excellent toy guns. What's a pacifist mom to do? My boys are gentle as lambs yet they seem to gravitate toward this play.

I don't worry because the men who are raising them also played at these games when they were children and are now pacifists and feminists. Also, in watching them "play fight", I see them engaged not in violence but in restraint. I see them practicing verbal negotiation, muscular and emotional control, and even a kind of cooperative choreography as they carry out their "battles". They are learning how to withdraw and how to stop. They are learning how to control themselves. It takes a lot of effort to stage an epic sword fight complete with dramatic vocalizations and sound effects (what is it with boys and sound effects?!) and have no one get hurt in the slightest.

I see this play at work with my older son and his little brother. The five year old has no fear of "fighting" with the twelve year old. It is all a dance. The twelve year old has great control. He learned it from rough housing and playing with the older men in our family. Indeed, when boys play with older, more powerful men, they are not just learning about power; they are learning how to refrain from using it. Long ago I read how important it is for male children, who will one day occupy powerful bodies, to learn about restraint in the process of learning about their increasingly muscular and powerful bodies. Within a context of loving discipline and education, the adult demonstrates restraint in play and teaches the child the same. When they wrestle together, or play in sports and other physical competitions, the child is learning that body has power that is controllable. To quote Mr. Rogers who advocated that children physically express their anger through words and play in his song about anger, "I can stop when I want to. Can stop when I wish. I can stop, stop, stop any time!". The body is a strange evolving creature, a constantly new challenge for a child who must become familiar with its sensations, emotions, and powers so that they can use them responsibly.

That is the point of play. People who will one day have the power to hurt or kill smaller, weaker, more vulnerable people, also need to have lots of practice understanding their bodies' and emotions so they will not be tempted to do so. When anger overwhelms my children (as it does all human beings at some time) I hope they will naturally fall back lessons learned in play and realize that they have choices. They have restraint and intellect as well as strength and speed. I hope that within those inevitable moments of violent temptation, their bodies' will recall lessons of restraint and control and give their brains just enough time to recall themselves to peace.