Saturday, February 27, 2010

The Irritating Crusader

Once again I have made a statement in defense of what I believe to be right and once again, I regret it. It isn't a big deal, just a comment on another blog. I wish I hadn't done it. This Friend is weighty and admirable. I know he can make short work of me if he acknowledges me at all. He is older than I am, more experienced and more intelligent. But there was an unkindness in his words that felt like a punch in the gut. There was an injustice in his message that I could not leave alone. Perhaps he did not mean it to be so but for all his intelligence and weightiness, he wrote as one who is too removed from the experiences of want, of need, and poverty to understand how deeply they cut. Though I admire him greatly, his plate is full and his words dismissed the shame and rage felt by people who fight all their lives for a few crumbs. And I could not let that stand. So I commented. I sure do wish I hadn't. Who cares what I think? How annoying everyone will think me. How out of control.

When I was a little girl, my family was strolling through a mall. It was a rural mall that appealed to rural people and someone had set up a display of taxidermy. Among the stuffed animals was a wolf. Earlier that year, I had read an article in the Weekly Reader about the attempt to reintroduce wolves to Yellowstone against the opposition of ranchers who shot and poisoned the wolves out of fear that they would hunt their livestock. For whatever reason, it struck me as grossly wrong that any creature should be threatened with extinction after a process of systematic vilification and misunderstanding. I read all the books in the elementary school library I could find on wolves then I moved on to the high school and public libraries. I even began a group of other little girls who got together to do research on wildlife and to write essays on our findings. We called ourselves the Society for the Restoration of Canis Lupus. My father's best friend owned hybrid wolves and I arranged to have him bring them to my elementary school to introduce the younger kids to the creatures. I knew that the Big Bad Wolf wouldn't stand a chance as soon as they got to touch and play with the real thing. I remember feeling so proud when I began to see happy pictures of wolves on display outside the primary school classrooms.

So there I was in the mall looking at this stuffed shell of a creature I had come to respect as kin and for whom I had taught myself to fight. The disgust I felt that someone had shot, disemboweled and displayed it as a prize threatened to overwhelm me. I don't know how long I stood there but I suddenly became aware of my father gently saying my name. "Come on, now," he coaxed as he led me away. I was small for my age and not in the least bit physical or athletic but I realized that my hands were in fists and that I had been moving toward the taxidermist. I'm not sure what I planned to do once I got there but I knew it was going to be ugly. My father knew, though I did not, that my body had a mind to go hit that man, to tear into him, to lay him low for his crime. I let Dad draw me away. He laughed at me a little bit as he always does when I start to lose my cool. "You have an acute sense of injustice," he teases.

It would not be the first or last time I would lose my cool in that way. Once, while sitting on my father's lap listening to my liberal father and my conservative uncle discuss politics, my uncle decided it would be fun to bait me by making disparaging comments about homeless people. I began to argue with him and he argued back as if I were a grown-up. It was a game to him but deadly serious to me and as he mocked poverty, I grew more and more upset until my father, stepped in. My father's voice held a warning in it when he told my uncle to stop. This was no longer a game. Sitting on my father's lap, I realized that he was physically restraining me from flying across the table and attacking my uncle.

I was the girl who took her eighth grade science teacher to task for his homophobia in front of the other students. I was the girl who got kicked out of homeroom for refusing to pledge allegiance to a flag. I was the woman who walked up to her department chair in a crowded hallway and told him that I was disappointed with his sexism and expected that he would correct the behavior (I also expected he would fire me on the spot). I was the woman who sent an email to the entire campus including the college president expressing my alarm at a racially insensitive fund raising drive then crawled into bed and cried all day as I waited for the angry responses. I hated all of these experiences.

Over and over and over again I do this thing and every time I've felt sick to my stomach and guilty and tearful for it. Even as I write or speak these things there is a part of me screaming, "Shut up, for God's sake!" But I never seem to be able to do so. This is not a gift. Others with finer tuned morality and greater understanding than I can ever boast will do much better things for the world. I will likely never hold a decent job or exercise any real power because I am never able to choose discretion when I taste injustice... and I taste injustice every day. I do not believe that my truth is universal but I do not seem to be able to withhold my truth when I think justice or compassion is insulted. If a thing is wrong, I say so...and often alienate everyone around me.

Does this make me heroic? Maybe sometimes. Maybe. But mostly I think it makes me an ass. There are too many times when I make a grand speech and then realize that I jumped the gun, misunderstood, or used lousy judgment. I'm too hard on people, humorless, and impatient. I am, and this is no surprise to anyone who knows me, a judgmental person. I am embarrassed by this. But what else can I do when I know that someone weaker is being shamed or bullied? I know what it feels like to be in that position and then later to hear from a witness to the event, "I was going to say something but..."

I have wondered if I was made to be this way. It seems an awfully mean trick to play on a little girl. Aren't we supposed to be sugar and spice and everything nice? I just ended up bookish, moralistic, and socially conscious, a combination that earned me the distinct privilege of having other kids roll their eyes at me whenever I spoke and throw stuff at my head when I walked down the hall. Though the other children did not care for me, I cried and raged whenever I saw another kid treated badly by a teacher or the principal. Even the early stories from preschool seem to suggest an inability to accept hierarchy or injustice and as I age, though they promised me I would mellow, I find that I get myself into more and more outrageous situations. My father pulls me back whenever he can. He acknowledges the injustice that is tormenting me, but he gently reminds me to use my head and think before I act. I am now in the habit of seeking his counsel before communicating with wealthy and powerful folks since I am most likely to lose my temper with those who have nice manners, pretty cars, and lousy ethics.

On the days when I believe in God, I have asked why I continue to humiliate myself by telling off people who are so powerful that they need only dismiss me with a chuckle. Is all of this some part of the plan? And what kind of crap plan is that? Why do I believe that I am some kind of modern day David with slingshot in hand? Probably there is no plan am I'm just maladjusted. I'm no David. I'm much more like one of those little aggravating yappy dogs, nipping and growling as if to make up for its ridiculous small size. I suppose being told off by me is akin to dealing with an especially persistent fly. After each encounter, I am ashamed of the scene I made and quietly thankful that I was not crushed. I know one day I will not be so lucky.

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

You shouldn't complain

I want to quit my job.

It turns out that relatively speaking, it is a sweet job. I get a great deal of independence. I get to talk about history to captive audiences who give me great reviews and who do a great job stroking my ego. It pays very well per hour and gives me lots of free time. It is even fun most of the time and being a community college professor, I may even be making a difference every so often.

But it isn't enough. It isn't what my heart desires. It isn't my calling.

I'm an adjunct. Most of the full-timers (most of whom don't have a doctorate)treat adjuncts like we're part of the family but only as contemptible, backward cousins. We don't get benefits. We have no job security, no union representation, and receive only a fraction of the pay for the same work regardless of our levels of expertise. I feel that injustice every day not only when I try to pay bills but whenever a full timer gets to take over one of my classes at the last minute or doesn't bother learning my name despite the fact that I've been there teaching generally two to four classes a semester for several years.

There's no chance I'll advance. Hell, I tried to suggest that I could teach religion classes for them but was told that I wasn't qualified. (My doctorate is in religion studies. The head of that department has a master's degree in communications.) The library wouldn't even let me take out material I needed for my classes for some time until my father came and gave them hell for it. (He's a full-timer so they listen to him).

I shouldn't complain. Even though the pay is lousy and I have absolutely no job security, I get to read, research, and present material to groups of people. These are things I love. I love the theatrics of teaching. I love the conversations with the students. I love the challenge of learning new things every week. Sure, it was only meant to be a starter job for me until I got my writing career going. Turns out there's no time to write when one is teaching Western Civilization, U.S. History, African American history, and women's history, grading papers, and dealing with students. I'm just not organized enough. If I keep working, maybe I won't notice as my spirit bends to this new reality. Hell, maybe if I stay busy enough, I won't notice when it breaks. It was stupid to think I would be a writer one day. We can't all be writers, right?

Sometimes someone tells me I should quit. Such people are never the people who rely on my income. We barely get by on our combined salaries and my husband has taken a hit in both pay and insurance this year. I could write a book about all the horrible and unethical things that happen to working class guys like him. (And when I say "I could write a book" I don't mean it literally. I'd never have time and no one would pay me for it.) Even working twelve hour days he can't pay for my student loans and our medical and living expenses without my help meager as it is. Our budget has always been an austerity budget. No frills for us. No vacations or fun purchases. No carpets on the concrete floor. We have second and third hand mismatched furniture. One of the kids is on an old couch we make up at night for him. Another sleeps on a cot. My husband and I don't have our own bedroom so we sleep in the living room on a fold-out couch. The kids and I wear hand-me-down clothes. We shop only in thrift stores and buy second hand toys for Christmas. Without my parents' help, we'd surely need government assistance.

But I shouldn't complain. What other kind of job would let me stay home with my kids? That's a real luxury. I shouldn't dwell on the fact that the job requires a graduate education that cost six times more than what they pay me a year and I never mention that I've looked for other work but find that academics offers pretty slim pickings for people like me. If it weren't for this job, I'd be working in some office or doing not for profit work and that would probably kill me. I'm not a real "works well with others" person. I'm happy only if all eyes are on me or if I'm left entirely alone. Not big into having to deal with politics and human interaction. Yuck. I tend to become dangerously depressed in those situations. I've been dangerously depressed before so I tend to be pretty careful about putting myself into situations that might threaten a return of that condition.

I fear that I've never been much of a realist. In my dreams, they pay my husband a fair wage and give him benefits that actually allow us to see the doctors in our community without having to give up buying luxuries like food. In my dreams, I could use my doctorate to get a job teaching for people who recognize me as an expert. In my dreams, I have time to write- not just blogs and notes for class but novels and tomes and treatises. In my dreams, I would not fiercely regret my decision to go to college. I wouldn't wake up every day feeling sick and sullen. I wouldn't have aged as much in this last year from stress-related stomach pain, migraines, and body aches. I wouldn't have to witness my husband working in situations that have resulted in bruising, injuries, night terrors, and a diagnosis of PTSD. (All while putting a good face on it so as not to worry me.) And since I'm dreaming, how about a vacation? In almost fourteen years of marriage, we've only had one family vacation and that was a weekend in Buffalo. On the first day my son broke his hand and on the last day, I had to have an emergency appendectomy. I'm not complaining...I'm just saying.

So I shouldn't complain. Everyone else's job sucks too- probably worse than mine. I hear about it all the time. No one likes going to work so why should I? What makes me so special? I must think I'm some precious princess if I think that a person should be able to follow their calling. Turns out that we do what has to get done just to stay afloat. Life isn't fair and no one is going to make special concessions for little old me. As my paternal grandmother used to say, "That's called growing up." So I guess I'm growing up. I'm realizing that being an adult means living with a dull, aching unhappiness but remembering that lots of people have it worse. In the end, that's the take-away lesson. No matter how shitty life is, it can always get worse. You shouldn't complain.

Thursday, February 18, 2010

Martin Luther King, Susan B. Anthony, and Jesus

Jesus is important to my thinking and theology as a figure who provides me with inspiration and example but I do not think it is possible for me to believe that Jesus was a divine figure. I do not see him as the central figure around whom the fate of humanity is decided any more or less than a hundred other historical figures who populate my imagination. As I've read history, I've seen that his words of peace and love are neither unique nor original to him. He was a product of his community, his religion, and his circumstances. I am thankful for that confluence of influences that so magnified his beautiful message but that does not make him alone a Son of God. I am unimpressed with biblical "evidence" that he was uniquely divine. It is hard to take seriously documents that were written with the sole intention of proclaiming his divinity. We really don't know anything about him outside of what the gospel and epistle writers choose to tell us. Due to the various literary natures of the gospels and epistles that record the first and second generations' attitudes about him, we are not privy to information that people of our own generation might wish to ask. Outside historical and archaeological sources are limited in the extreme. Indeed, there is almost no historically credible biographical information about him at all. What we have about his birth and life outside his ministry is clearly apocryphal at best...and I'm being generous. What the gospels and epistles prove to me is that there were communities of people who believed in his divinity and that their belief was profound and life-altering. It does not tell me what Jesus felt about himself. It does not prove his divinity.

I'm also not keen on the notion of assigning divinity to other human beings regardless of how many profound lessons they have offered humanity. In my research in feminist theory and history, I've seen the deification process approached in figures like Susan B. Anthony and Martin Luther King. Every year, there's a new batch of literature glorifying these folks. Within their own lifetimes, the process of deification was already underway. Why? I think it is partially a natural reaction to thanks for their accomplishments and grief for their loss. I think it also has a great deal to do with political expediency. The glorification of the individuals most closely associated with an unpopular or struggling cause has been an effective means of promotion for said cause. The unfortunate side effect is that the darker, more complicated, and more radical elements of the deified individual's work and personality are usually downplayed or intentionally obscured to maintain the popular image of special (and politically tolerable) human value. No one wants to hear that Dr. King was a sexist or that Susan B. Anthony undermined the work of more radical feminists. No one wants to know about their temper tantrums, their grandstanding, their inability to acknowledge or make good use of the talents of others.

Think how carefully one must tread today when speaking of either of these Americans who have been dead for a mere handful of generations. I have been attacked by people who did not care to hear me speak one critical word about these individuals. Although my criticisms grow out research dedicated to social justice for women and people of color, I am perceived as a danger to the integrity and strength of black history and women's history by certain members of my audience who believe that any criticism of their heroes profanes the cause. But these folks, however famous, were not perfect. In fact, like all people everywhere, they could be sorrowfully flawed.

On one occasion when I was giving a speech about Matilda Joslyn Gage (whose history and contributions were willfully undermined by Susan B. Anthony), I included uncomplimentary historical facts about Anthony that were pertinent to my presentation. A woman stood up and chastised me for including this information. Even in her life, Susan B. was known as "Saint Susan" and boy, oh boy, some people won't let me forget it. Following the presentation, the woman sought me out again and, after first indicating that she didn't know much about history, said that it was a shame that people like me were spreading such "lies". It was as if she feared that the entire suffrage movement would fall apart if dear Susan turned out to be merely human after all. (Imagine if I'd told a group of people that I think Jesus probably had sex!)

One sees the same reactions at work with Dr. King. Very little effort is put toward understanding how his belief that women were inferior to men undermined the work of his female co-workers such as Ella Baker who was, arguably, at least as important to the Civil Rights movement as Dr. King himself. One hears little about the role that male clergy played in stymieing the work and obscuring the accomplishments of African American women. Sure, within academic circles, such things are open to discussion but what would happen if such a thing were to be expressed in a popular forum? With so many outwardly racist Americans still resentful that we have a Martin Luther King Day, is it wise to criticize him too loudly? I think that may be the fear at work in the case of these American figures who are currently undergoing a process of near-deification in popular sentiment. It irritates me because it ignores the truth and the truth, however ugly, is better than a pretty lie.

I also call for disciplined study rather than deification because such shallow and romanticized views of our leaders undermines their humanity. Not only their flaws but their radicalism, their relationships, and their fears become lost to us. When we sanitize them, we lose much of the blood, grit, and passion that made them worthy of acclaim in the first place. "I could never be like one of the suffragists," say my women's history students sadly. "They were different. They were braver than we can be."

Bullshit.

I've read too many letters and journals of these "superhuman" women to believe that. I happen to know that they were scared to death, overwhelmed, overworked, bitter, angry, frustrated, selfish, self-glorifying, self-loathing, insecure, scattered, ordinary, tired-to-the-bone human beings. They weren't angels. They were human. And that's OK! What good does it do to glorify a saint? Sigh in enraptured admiration all day long and it won't accomplish a thing. But what if you were to emulate the hard work of another human being who you know to be imperfect...just like you? They made terrible mistakes and kept going. So can you. They suffered shame and loss and kept going. So can you. They were defeated again and again and suffered moments of faithless despair then kept on going. So can you! Angels don't make footprints for us to follow. People do.

So I don't believe in making gods of men and women. I'd rather shine a light on their failings as well as their feats. Don't ask me to rhapsodize over any historical figure no matter how glorious their reputation. When people get all glassy-eyed and reverent, I'll just roll my eyes. So if my job is to go knocking heroes off of pedestals, what do I think about divinity itself? Don't I have any faith that there are certain people who are especially chosen and in whom dwells a fierceness of Spirit that leads humanity forward out of the darkness?

Well, I do. Sort of.

I believe all of us are that person in the right circumstances. I'm no especial fan of Dr. King or Susan B. Anthony but I celebrate their good work. In fact, I'm thankful for it whatever flaws I find in their histories. I think both were occasionally and disappointingly self-serving but I know they also served the Good. If I deny any attempts to deify these "larger-than-life" characters, I do not deny that there is an intersection between their work and divinity. Their communities created them and used them. Were they also used by the divine Source? I think they were. I think we are used in spite of ourselves and I think Jesus must have been as well even when he didn't want to be. ("Take this cup away from me" and all that jazz.)

But I also think that it is a mistake to view any of us as having any uniquely salvific qualities. We do not exist outside of the context of our histories and communities. King did not work alone but was upheld, celebrated, taught, and magnified by his community, a community that was already in engaged in the intellectual, legal, and social struggle for justice long before King was a twinkle in his (also impressive)daddy's eyes. Susan B. Anthony didn't invent suffrage. She was a product of her Quaker upbringing and education and her immersion in a community of suffragists who taught her the ropes of the movement, wrote her speeches, and sustained her efforts. Likewise, Jesus a product of his community who for thousands of years developed the ethical and spiritual richness of Judaism. They raised him up, called his personality into being, taught him from childhood, supported his ministry, then magnified his work. He was not dropped into human history out of the sky. He was one of us. Nothing more and nothing less. And you know what? It was enough.

Thursday, February 11, 2010

A Message from a Quaker Gen X Woman to her Elders on Kicking Ass and Taking Names

I'm a woman and I'm a Quaker. Knowing only these facts, one might think that I must be a pretty "nice" person. But I'm also a member of Gen X which means that I was reared in a generational context that benefited from the work of Baby Boomer feminists who challenged the expectations of female behavior. Unfortunately, those very same Baby Boomer women who raised and educated my generation have not completely escaped the strictures placed on their own behavior when they were little girls.

I'm going to make a blanket statement about liberal female people of a certain age. I know it is not completely true because my good friends and my mother also belong to this generation and this statement does not apply to them. If it doesn't apply to you, don't worry about it. I'm not talking about you. But it does apply to some of you. Here it is.

You have a problem with anger. You still buy into the idea that women should refrain from showing aggression. You are too nice. Worse, you insist that younger women be "nice." You take perfectly good kick-ass social justice crusades and make them unpalatable with your washed-out, saccharine, Hallmark card approach. You alienate younger women when you look down on our tattoos or our colored hair or our combat boots and piercings. You squelch our enthusiasm (Don't you remember your own 1960s enthusiasm?) with polite committee work and the insistence that we watch our mouths. God forbid any of us express rage and hurt at the injustice in the world. God forbid any of us use off-color language.

Here's an example:

As the youngest member of an interfaith group, I was excited about a woman who publicly challenged the Roman Catholic Church by becoming a local Catholic congregation's priest. She and her entire congregation were excommunicated but they kept right on serving their community. They refused to surrender their claim to Catholicism. They refused to back away from their faith in human equality in the body of Christ. I was mightily impressed and inspired. That woman has guts. This is a woman who was not afraid of offending. Offend the pope himself? Why not? The pope is wrong! Get kicked out of the church for the sake of her faith in Jesus? Bring it on! So I said, enthusiastically and with deep admiration, that she "kicks ass" and I was excited that we were going to meet her.

During the next meeting of the board members, of whom I was the youngest by decades and the poorest by a long-shot, I was admonished for supporting violent language patterns that undermine peace in the world. Was I acknowledged for the presentations and programs I had recently organized and worked despite the financial burden it was on me? Nope. Was my oft-expressed commitment to pacifism and women's rights acknowledged? Nope. Was I labeled "angry" and intentionally embarrassed in front of the other women on the board for using the expression "kick-ass"? You betcha. 'Cause apparently, that's a problem. Their spending habits that actually support injustice in the world? Not a problem. Their big old gas guzzlers and inhumane diets? Not a problem. Their failure to support any "interfaith" program that "might offend local Christians"? Not a problem. But me using the word "kick-ass"? That kind of language, apparently, is really the foundation of violence in the world.

At a doctoral seminar, European American Buddhist women scolded me for expressing anger about social injustice. I was not enlightened enough. And we're not talking about me stomping around and shouting. We're talking about me making the point that it is inherently unjust to make statements indicating that those who suffer in the world do so because they have failed to "draw positive energy to themselves". When I insisted that poverty, sexual violence, warfare, hunger, and abuse are inflicted upon the weak by the powerful, I was out of line and that many of our privileges and powers in the West are undeserved, unjust, and even indecent, I was being negative. I was being angry. And that's not "nice."

Well, f--- "nice".

Now don't get me wrong. I don't think we should go around swearing and cussing for the sake of it. Vulgarity gets old fast when it is overused. But I'm all for vulgarity if it accurately expresses a feeling or propels a person out of apathy and into action. It also acts as a release valve in an increasingly tense social context. As my father always said to his daughters, "They are just words. They have only the power we give them and I'd rather you girls swore than hit someone." And believe me, swearing has prevented me from hitting someone on more occasions than I can count.

I want to make it clear that I don't believe that we can be careless with words. They do hurt. I know that. In fact, it is a big part of my work as a feminist academic, but I believe that we are called to use language that honestly reflects our experiences and feelings even when those words are rough to hear. While I also believe that we are called to refrain from terms that are cruel or which undermine our brothers' and sisters' humanity, I do not believe we are called to ensure that other people feel comfortable.

So for all you female Baby Boomers out there who have told me to play nice, tone it down, and watch my mouth let me remind you to live up to your own legacy. You are the generation that produced the Bitch Manifesto. You shouted against war and shook your fists at patriarchy. You marched and protested. You broke the rules and beat down doors. You were radical, uncompromising, glorious and proud. You kicked ass and took names.

So shove over and give me a turn or join me here with your fist in the air. But don't tell me to be "nice." It ain't gonna happen. Not in this generation anyhow.

Saturday, February 6, 2010

In which I contemplate dropping my Quaker and Pagan spiritual labels

Note: This blog entry is written by an arrogant, judgmental, unpleasant woman who very likely has hormonal problems. It is full of stereotypes, off-color language and offensive characterizations. If you are very precious, highly evolved, or in a foul mood, you might not want to read this.

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I am a Quaker Pagan. Some people might call me a "Quagan." But not me. I wouldn't because though "Quagan" is a fun word to say and oh-so-cute, as a general rule, only other "Quagans" know what the hell I'm talking about. "Quagan" is a fun label but not very useful when one is trying to establish one's spiritual character among those who are neither familiar with Quakers nor Pagans. It was ever so much easier when I was a Methodist back in the days before my father threw a enormous clergical hissy fit and became a Congregationalist (a few years before he decided to chuck it all and become an atheist. Who knew Congregationalism was the gateway denomination to unbelief?) Back when we were Methodists, I never had to explain anything (except maybe why it was that we, the minister's family, never prayed in our house. That always confused people.) Labels are so much easier to carry when they are well and adequately defined. Has anyone ever in the history of the world had an adequate definition for the beliefs and character of Quakers or Pagans? No. I thought not. Major pain in the ass. Maybe I'll drop them both. I'm so sick of explaining myself.

Or maybe not. Why would I want to drop my Quaker label? Why would I want to keep it? Very selfishly, being a Quaker makes me safer than being a Pagan makes me. In a room full of religious hostiles, being a Quaker provides me cover. No one ever threatens to take your kids away because you're a Quaker. I've seen that happen to Pagans. Also, people are more likely to assume that you are Christian or at least in community with and friendly to Christians (which in my case is quite true). This makes it easier to communicate with them since they are not already pissed off with you before you get started.

Being a Friend means that I can rear my children within the recognized context of pacifist community. That means a great deal to me. In fact, it has been critical. Being a Friend places me within a context of lengthy, respectable radicals. (They were outrageous in the 17th century, irritating in the 18th, pompous in the 19th, and endearing in the 20th ("So quaint, so peacable, those Quakers and their dear, funny hats!") When I say that I'm a Quaker people don't think kinky sex and funny velvet robes. Quakers don't wear funky, off-putting jewelry of naked women (which actually I see as a point against them. I loves me some funky Goddess jewelry.) When I say that I'm a Quaker, no one wonders if I'm going to perform blood rituals or sacrifice a goat. I find it relaxes me to be able to identify my spiritual orientation without having to disavow the worship of the devil. (Important note: Pagans don't worship the devil.)

I also like being able to describe my spirituality without having to talk about "the Goddess" or faeries or spirits or any of that jazz. You can be doing so well with a new acquaintance but just watch how tense the conversation becomes when you mention your devotion to a Goddess. Whoo, boy! Let me tell you, I've been there! But who gets weirded out when someone proclaims their profound respect for integrity, equality, and peace? Note the difference.

"I value integrity." (No smirks. A few enthusiastic nods of approval.)

Contrast that with:

"I honor the Germanic Goddess of Death." (Major smirks and a few uncomfortable coughs.)

See the difference?

Friends' testimonies and their emphasis on the Inner Light resonate profoundly with me. Friends' conversations, intellectual challenges, and spiritual insights animate me. And I like Friends. I just do. I like them a lot and I want to be associated with them. I like their intellectualism and their liberalism. I like that they seem dominated by aging, idealist baby boomers, who are, let us be honest, among my most favorite human beings in the world. I love to be around people who speak of vegetarianism, liberalism, feminism, and pacifism without apology and without stinking of patchouli. It makes me happy down to my toes when they want to be around me.

So why would I ever drop the label? Well, I guess it could be boiled down to this one thing: I've never been good at group work. It is usually so much easier for me to do my work, including spiritual work, on my own. There are times when the exquisitely slow and deliberate pace undertaken by Friends makes me want to bounce their sagely, pacifist heads together. Oh, yeah, I guess I should add that I'm a little angry and so I'm always having to watch myself around Friends. I like to cuss and use colorful language and posture and bitch and Friends look askance at such behaviors which only makes me want to shout "F--- You!" even louder. Kind of reminds me of my sister when she was a teenager when our Grandma said, "You're hair is always getting into your eyes. Doesn't that bother you?" to which my sister replied cool and calm as can be, "No, but it bothers you and that's why I do it." Sometimes, Friends make me want to be an asshole.

But these reasons for choosing to drop the Quaker label are pretty weak and pretty juvenile. The funny thing about juvenile desires is that they tend to fade as one matures. I don't stomp around in combat boots anymore. I'm not the same girl who stood up abruptly and threw her chair against the table when the president of our college came to sit with us. I'm not the same girl who skipped graduation so I could march up to the second story of an academic hall in an old circuit rider's clergy robe, combat boots, and a World War I army helmet just so I could lean out the window and flip off all my graduating classmates, the faculty, and the administration beneath.

I've mellowed. It has been several years since any nurse has had to threaten me with security and I haven't yelled at a salesperson, made a scene in a doctor's office, shouted at hunters from my car, or sassed a judge in years. Now, that's not saying I won't go berserk ever again. I just might. I have these itty bitty seizures that make me lots of fun if you push the wrong buttons but as I age, I am less and less likely to tweak and more and more likely to respond appropriately to stress. (Note, no nurses, doctors, salespeople, hunters, or judges were ever hurt in the making of my temper tantrums ... and I feel much better now.)

I might think that my tendency to fly off the handle at people makes me a bad Friend. Except that's ass backwards...er...I mean to say, that's misguided. The Light shines whether we want it to or not. It shines when you swear and it shines when you fight. It shines when you tell the whole world that you do not believe in Light and that shining is for sh!theads. The Light can survive temper tantrums and dark moods. It is unaffected by cynicism and acid wit, and unmoved by drama. It shines and shines and shines on you, and in you, and through you, and in spite of you and even if you kick and scream, when you hold yourself in the Light long enough, you'll start to grow. You will lean toward your Source. Friends are good at holding people in the Light. Sure, they overuse the expression but that doesn't negate the fact that they do, in fact, hold people in the Light. They have discipline. They have method. That's a cool thing and I want it. I'll put up with an awful lot of smugness, arrogance, and middle-class judgment from Friends if they'll just keep holding me in that Light.

But what about my Pagan label? See, that's a whole 'nother story. To be a Quaker, I need to be a part of group. I need to learn to love within the context of corporate worship and growth. As a Pagan, I'm allowed to make sh!t up as a I go along. Very appealing. Also, I'm good at it. I also get a great deal out of being a Pagan that I'm not likely to give up. If I dropped the Quaker label, I wouldn't stop believing in equality, simplicity, peace, or integrity. I believed like a Friend long before I ever heard of them. By dropping the Quaker label, I would be making the statement that I no longer care to worship with these people. I do not choose to accept the discipline of this community but I would not give up the beliefs. But if I drop the Pagan label, it wouldn't have anything to do with community. I don't have a Pagan community and I never have. I'm a solitary practitioner. I became a Pagan on my own, did the research on my own, and worship on my own. Not surprisingly, I find that I have very little in common with most other Pagans, particularly Wiccans. I respect them fine but we just don't have that much in common. They assume things I do not. They believe things I do not. They do things I do not.

So maybe I'm not a Pagan? Hell, yeah, I'm a Pagan. I'll be just a little arrogant and say that maybe my graduate degrees in heterodox spiritual studies qualifies me to make that call. I'm just not an orthodox Pagan. (Note: there really aren't any orthodox Pagans-- just annoying people who think they know more about truly subjective experience than others.) I often call myself a Protestant Pagan in that I pretty much set aside all the superfluous (they used to call it "popish" in the bad old days) qualities of most popular forms of Paganism and bring it down to a direct and simplified awareness of the connection between Spirit and Nature. O.K. So that's really not that uncommon among Neo-Pagans but the stereotypes of Pagans as theologically sloppy, New Age goofs wearing unnecessarily silly costumes and playing with unnecessarily silly pseudo-medieval toys is so strong that I continue to feel the need to distance myself from it.

When I want to ditch the Pagan label (but not my Pagan awareness and practice) is when I've been to a Renaissance Festival and seen just one pair of heaving, velvet-clad boobs too many or hung out in some shop that sells magickal paraphernalia (made in China) or I've read some blog or heard some person tell me something about what the faeries like and don't like and that we're still in the "Burning Times". These are times when I want to walk around with a big old sign that indicates that I am NOT remotely as silly and undisciplined as these people.

All right, calm down. I can hear the cotton-crunching sound of a hundred panties in a twist. I'm not saying that you other Pagans who read this blog are silly and undisciplined. I'm saying that lots of Pagans are and that it gets really, really old to a liberal Pagan in much the same way that liberal Christians get really tired of listening to fundamentalists. I also get pretty sick of undisciplined Christians as well (although that's another post). I know and you know that there are a good number of us who do good research and approach our spiritual paths with discretion, honesty, intellectual integrity, and compassion. But there are so many fruitcakes tripping merrily around frickin' maypoles and believing (uncritically) in angels and totems and ghosts and the power of positive thinking and moonbeams and buttercups that it is hard for anyone to buy that Pagans actually have discipline and method. Bottom line: It makes it hard for me to get a decent job in academia and I sure do love food and housing and other perks of employment.

It is all so unfair. As it turns out, Neo-Pagans, like Friends, tend to be an exceptionally well-educated crowd. Pagan scholarship, though overlooked and undervalued, is cutting edge. Our spiritual and ethical relationship with the Earth is a model of justice the world desperately needs. Even so, I continue to hear Pagans contrasted negatively with Christians. Pagans, according to these critics, lack the well-developed ethics of the Christian community. And whenever I hear this, I launch into my speech about process thealogy, standpoint theory, environmental justice and...that's when another Pagan comes running into the room using words like "widdershins" and "sky clad" and I throw my proverbial arms in the air (my real ones are probably engaged in obscene gestures) and I tell myself that I should swear off Paganism. But I never do.

Here's why. *sigh* Because I still believe that the Paganism I practice counts for something and because as a Friend, I believe in integrity. Paganism is a critical part of who I am. The Light that shines on me dances as it passes through a Pagan prism. The Voices that call me and the Images that beckon me are Pagan Voices and Pagan Images. I could try to stop that from happening but I'm kind of thinking I'm not the one calling those shots.

So perhaps this is just a cross to bear. Quakers don't get me. Pagans don't either. I don't fit in anywhere and I'm uncomfortable with the labels. I'm a little sick of explaining myself and I'd like just to slink away. But what kind of minstry would that be? If there is a foundation to the ministry I've been called to do it is in these two things: Know yourself and tell the truth.

So the Quakers are smug and the Pagans are silly. Oh, well, sh!t. So am I. These are my people like it or not. Grimace, scowl, roll my eyes and keep on loving them. Labels stick for a reason.