Textual Arachne

A weaver of threads.

Saturday, November 01, 2008

Samhain sonnet

Winter caught me unready and wounded.
I'd thought to weather it at home, but now
I barely make it to a frozen cave.
No warmth, no food; but my chest torn open
is spared the wind. How will I last the night?
The cave leads deeper. I make my way down
past gypsum blooms on granite till I come
before the great last threshold; past that point
I would be bones and ash. She, vast enthroned,
takes me, holds me, shows me her face. Down here
I can survive the winter's ice and snow.
From here, I could resurface anywhere.
Perhaps a voice will call me home; perhaps
I'll wander anew. All refuges lead here.

Based on a Samhain meditation and the image of hibernating bears.

Monday, September 22, 2008

Balancing, spinning, moving

The equinox actually feels like the equinox this year. Although the leaves haven't changed color, there's a crispness in the air and a chill undertone to the breeze that hints of a long, slow descent into autumn. And it's time for the autumnal equinox.

Last week was one of excess for me: too many appointments, too much rushing around, too much joy, too much pain, too much food, too much work, too much to drink. It had kind of a Dionysian wonder to it that I was doing so much and enjoying it so fully, but it also played merry hell with my body and my mind. I trapped these pursuits in defined scheduled times and let excess reign within its allotted period. But I'm tiring of that approach. The summer was unscheduled and loose; the fall has been hyperscheduled and excessive. I want some other kind of balance than the one I've developed through obsessive scheduling and regulation.

I'm not certain what that would mean in practice. So I am turning to the equinox, the balance point, the twitch of oscillation between excess and starvation in my search. I want to find a balance that doesn't come from setting excesses at each other. What would that be like?

When we balance on one foot, we aren't at rest; a thousand tiny muscle corrections are constantly adjusting our posture so we don't fall over. When we walk, we're constantly correcting ourselves, catching each fall and turning it into a step. Even just sitting, as any meditation practitioner will tell you, is an active process. So balance isn't absence of movement, but rather the accumulations of many millions of movements. The equinox point is not just the abundance of summer poised against the absence in winter, but the million tiny changes that shift us from one direction to another.

A million tiny changes, rather than a great struggle between opposites. Yet how can I be sure that these are the right changes? A million tiny changes are also the same things that gradually petrify us, or accustom us to greater and greater pain till we no longer remember what it was like to live without it. How do we know that the tiny corrections we make are helping, not eroding?

What are we given? What do we give? I give my willingness to make a thousand tiny changes, a thousand tiny adjustments in my life, a small smile here, a moment of preserved calm there. More than that, I give my faith and trust that this is the right path; the way I am walking is the way I wish to be. What we are given in return in the sense of the center, the idea of balance as the still point: we cannot become still ourselves, but we can know what it might be and aim towards it.

Beloved Lady, I give you my trust in the unseen path, my daily mindfulness of actions aiming for that unseen center. Beloved Lady, I ask that the path be true, that you bring your touch to my corrections and move with me as I move in balance.

We are given the horizon of our hopes, and we give our tiny steps towards that far horizon. May it be the horizon we seek, or if not quite that, one that brings us joy nonetheless.

Monday, August 04, 2008

Still time

This marks the third of my Lughnasa posts, and the completion of a theme that I set myself at last year's Samhain: the idea that each of the eight holidays confers a gift upon us, and asks that we give a gift in return. It's odd to have made it through the year with consistent posting on this theme; although my fullmoon posts have dwindled, I've been keeping to this idea for every one of the holidays. Before Samhain I'll post a retrospective, thinking about what that progression has developed into and maybe finding a similar pattern for the next year.

I'm surprised that there's still time; that I've made it through the whole year, with the feeling of still having more to say and more to do. And that makes me think of what Lughnasa means to me as a holiday.

I know little about its roots: loaf-mass, feast of Lugh, second planting, first of the harvest festivals, celebration of the dog days of August...In comparison to the stories of Imbolc or the clouds of myths around the Big Days of Beltane and Samhain, Lughnasa feels like a date without a history. (No doubt a lot of that could be fixed with a little scholarship on my part.)

For me, its place in the wheel of the year is one of wonderful surprise. Like Imbolc, it seems to be about continuance--more winter to go, more summer left. With the turn of the light at the solstice, I tend to start looking ahead to the Equinox and the gradual decline into winter's sleep--and Lughnasa perks up to show me just how far away that time is.

There's still time, it says. Still time for another planting. Still time to enjoy the summer heat and the green growing world. Yes, the nights come earlier, but isn't that nice too? The relief from the hot August days comes in steamy cool nights, stars overhead even through the August humidity, turning from stifling haze into cooling dew as the night goes on. Did you think you'd wasted the summer? There's a whole turn left to go--a month before classes begin, weeks before the equinox, just as much time as before. There is still time to love what is here.

Like a day where I slept in with the alarm clock unplugged, and woke to find I was fully rested but it was still early; like realizing the night is warm enough for a long walk after dinner; like a fortuitous travel delay that grants me an extra day with friends. Lughnasa is the gift of still time, time we hadn't anticipated or banked on in our plans for the summer, when we saw it going from high summer to equinox-point in a blink.

The gift that is called from us in return is to use this time for what we left out before. Still time: did you work hard all summer because you couldn't spare a moment free? Lughnasa grants you long evenings to rest yourself. Still time: did you procrastinate on the work due at Solstice and resigned yourself to panic? Lughnasa grants you the days to rededicate to this work.

Second planting, second resting, second chances. There is more summer than we knew, and it stays longer than we had dreamed. Use this time well, for the things you could not or did not grant yourself in the first part of the summer.

Monday, June 23, 2008

Midsummer gifts

Midsummer is the high point of the sun, but not of the summer. At least not here, where June can consist entirely of mud and rain, and where hot days last long after Lammas. It's been long, slow, lazy days here, and I keep marveling at how late the light goes. I know that in December I'll be shuffling home in the dark as soon as I leave class, and now the sun is high in the sky even after we've finished dinner.

Midsummer is swimming in light. Unlike the crazy burst of energy I get at Midwinter, Midsummer makes me doze. I want to curl up under trees and listen to sounds in the park. I want to lie down and feel the earth turning. Life--work, school, plans, people--doesn't stop for this, but in Midsummer I can almost make it slow down.

What are the gifts of Midsummer? Beltaine was a great shuddering Yes! and the gift of life. In the days since, we're surrounded with life and light, "drowning in Summer's cauldron," as XTC put it. So what more could Midsummer give us?

The key is the thing I least like to think about at Midsummer: that this is the point where the light begins to lessen. At Midwinter, I'm all to eager to hold onto that reversal, and at Midsummer I can't stand to think of darkness resurging. I want more light, more long evenings and strawberries.

But if the light continued to grow, or even if it stayed at this point, we would soon die. We might love the first month of it, but then we'd start hungering for shade, for night, and even for cold again. We'd suffocate or burn, and what's worse, we might even come to hate the light.

A friend explained to me recently that a heatwave had caused the strawberries in her garden to rot on the vine. For things to ripen well, for crops to grow and animals to thrive, the descent from Midsummer has to start.

Midsummer's gift to us is restraint and limit, the upper boundary of sunlight and warmth. We don't know it yet--for weeks after Midsummer, we'll still be surrounded in green. So our gift in return isn't really a response to that restraint, the way that at Samhain we struggle against the limits of death. Instead, we give love for the gifts of summer. We aren't asked to mourn now. It might even be a little insulting to start crying for the loss of all of this while being so well off.

What we give in return is enjoyment of summer, beyond the acceptance Yes that we gave at Beltaine. Acceptance of the good things that summer brings, made even more important by knowing that they won't last forever. Knowing that each thing has its season isn't the same as being sad that they can't last forever: what's important is to really love them in the finitude of that season.

Thursday, May 01, 2008

Learning to say Yes

The summer holidays have always been hard for me to celebrate well. It's easier to think Deep Religious Thoughts about the world when it's under snow, or struggling through slush, or slowly turning the green into red and gold. During the summer I end up either enjoying myself and forgetting to consecrate the days, or wanting to turn a meditation on warmth and plenty into one warning of cold times to come, hinting at gloom and doom.

I suppose on one hand those are fine responses; the first an embrace of the moment, the second a way of uniting the year the same way that I look ahead to summer during my winter posts. But both somehow seem to miss the point of the summer holidays--the "be here now" of Beltane, Solstice, Lammas. And thinking about the recurring theme of gifts of the holidays that I've been writing about has made me more aware that I'm rarely able to give myself to a summer holiday completely. I'm either entirely inside myself and my own enjoyment (which is fine, but not ideal) or I'm looking back or ahead to colder times (which is also fine, and also not ideal). Considering Beltane in particular has made me confront this.

Every holiday brings a gift, and every holiday calls forth a gift from us. Beltane is about learning to say Yes.

I don't mean acquiescing, allowing someone else's idea of Yes to pull you along with it. I don't mean saying "yes, but..." I don't mean saying Yes to pressure or coercion. A situation where you can't really say No is also one where you can't really say Yes, and vice versa. And it's not about saying Yes to a person or a plan or an idea.

It's about saying Yes to the entire thing.

I'm not good at saying Yes. I'm very skilled at saying "Yes, but...," prone to saying "Okay, if that's what you want," and occasionally good at saying No. None of these things are the Yes that Beltane calls out of us.

Yes in the Molly Bloom sense. Yes in the embrace of life outside and inside. Yes to who you are. Yes to what the Goddess, Universe, Gods, are in you. Yes in the maypole and the blooming apple trees, Yes to evening and morning.

The unconditional Yes terrifies me. And it should--in almost any case, it's a recipe for abuse, for heartbreak, for harm. Even if we know what's coming later in the year or where we came from in the winter, it's still going to hurt when we undergo it. But Beltane isn't asking a permanent Yes, just Yes for today. Tomorrow we'll figure out How and What Next.

In return, Beltane gives us life: life in its birth, blooming, sprouting, joyful springlife. Like the other holidays, I don't know which comes first. Do we respond to the gift of life with Yes, or do we announce our Yes and are given life as a result?

I don't know what your Yes will look like. Morris dancing, lovemaking, feasting, debate, fellowship, enlightenment, meditation, hedonism, charity...all of these and more could be Yes. But let it be Yes, and not "yes, but..." and not "okay, I guess so." I am slowly learning what this might be for my Yes today. May yours be blessed.

Sunday, April 20, 2008

Study and spring

In parallel to the post I made on the day of the first snow, this Full Moon post is about the first spring weekend. Friday, Saturday, and today have been brilliant warm days up here. I spent a surprising amount of them inside, with a brief exception of a few hours yesterday afternoon at a barbeque. Yet I don't feel that I've wasted the time, even as I know we're headed for a chillier week and this sundress I'm wearing now is going to have to wait a little while longer. Because I didn't spend the weekend inside lounging or being depressed (both have been options in the past). Instead I spent it working hard for the final weeks of the semester, and I feel more prepared and more centered than I have in weeks as a result.

Blessed are you, Lady of new green growing,
of the days of sunlight before the leaves unfurl,
of the crocus, the hyacinth, the oak's red flowers.

Blessed are you, Lady of craft,
of grey-eyed scholarship and the slippery word,
of sore wrists, hot tea, red editing pens.

May Your voices be counterpoints in a fugue of spring.

Sunday, March 23, 2008

Similar, different

The in-laws have headed off to Easter Sunday services, leaving the Pagan and her agnostic husband to a quiet morning. My niece is jealous that I don't have to get dressed up and sit for Mass today. Instead, I'm writing my Full Moon post (late, again!) and thinking about how syncretism works.

I'm a big supporter of interfaith activity. My time at the Pluralism Project and my participation in the Progressive Faith Bloggers Convention both emphasize that. And I understand that borrowing from other traditions is common: it's both a hard fact of religious existence and a factor in my own ceremonies and ritual tools such as my Tarot deck. At the same time, I want to draw a sharp line between cooperation, borrowing, and synthesis. I am not a proponent of the idea that "all religions are one, really."

Why not? First of all, it is not necessary for cooperation. The idea that we have to agree on a list of basic tenets has some truth; a kind of social contract is necessary for interfaith work, whether it's dialogue, mutual education, or acting for a shared goal. But agreeing on these 'rules of conduct' does not mean we have to agree on their grounds. We don't have to believe in one god in order to build a house together. We just have to agree not to hammer each other's fingers. The idea that religions, in order to cooperate, have to have some kind of vast underlying agreement, leads either to a stalemate (we'd have to agree on the nature of God in order to work, and we don't agree, so clearly we can't work together) or to an ecumenical reductionism (we'd have to agree on the nature of God in order to work, and we do work together, so clearly we must agree on the nature of God).

That reduction strips traditions of all the things that make them tradition, all the stories about who we are and why we do this. Instead, you end up in search of the "real, true religion" that is supposedly at the heart of every tradition, and you toss all the differences out the window, discarding them as crap that's just been added on to what really matters.

But those differences are what make the rich diversity of humanity. Without them life is a monotone hum; with them, it's occasionally cacophony or chaos, but it's also harmony, polyphony, multivocality.

In addition, there's a kind of subtle imperialism at work when we claim that all religions are one. It turns differences into costuming and places them on the market, so to speak. If you and I really are celebrating the same thing, then why could you possibly be upset when I start using your stories, traditions, symbols, language, etc. as my own? Or when I claim to understand them better than you do?

Instead of respectfully asking, or borrowing symbols while remaining aware of the web of connections and history in which they originally rest, this kind of syncretism dismisses any protest by claiming a better understanding of the "real, true religion." I don't think we can, or should, avoid the borrowing and sharing that goes on between traditions. But sharing between two groups is different from claiming that the two groups are really one, so what's mine is yours, and what's yours is mine.

(My strong feelings about this are probably related to me being a twin. I constantly have to emphasize that yes, we are very alike; and no, I'm not her, and she's not me. Similarity is not identity.)

This line of thought is particularly close to me at the holidays. For example, my thoughts on the Equinox--that it is a return to life, when what we thought was dead shows life--is pretty close to the Resurrection. Stretch it a bit and you might be able to harmonize it with Passover, too. And there are lots of similarities between my celebration of returning light at Yule and a host of other celebrations. But to reduce them to some single ur-Holiday is lazy thinking, and it misses the point.

The point is that we are different, and that these differences don't keep us from working together. They make it possible.

Thursday, March 20, 2008


Mmm, harmonious convergences. Tomorrow I'll be making another full-moon post, but tonight is the Equinox, and that means its own post.

Today signals growing momentum. From Imbolc to now, everything has seemed more or less the same: gray skies, occasional snowstorms. Since I'm on an academic calendar, it's also been more or less the same--the first half of a semester, in which everything is still a matter of getting a handle on new subjects and new classes. It can seem like stasis.

But today gives the lie to that feeling--sometimes comfortable, sometimes stagnant--of inertia. The first crocuses of the year have sprung up outside my house, warmed by the southern exposure heating the rock under their thin beds. The oak trees have clusters of red. If I were back in Indiana, there might be redbuds blooming already. Shrubs and trees have long shoots of new growth and tight buds, making their outlines hazy.

The bud (in addition to inspiring this poem, which spells it out better than I could...) is both past and future. Its presence means that what we perceived as stasis has been the coiling of a spring, the germination of a seed. The branch that seemed dead promises life to come. Winter recedes, and what seemed to have been killed by cold is revealed as not only sleeping, but preparing for this moment.

And it also points toward the season to come, promising green leaves and the sunlight through them, grass and vines and blooms. The bud cannot remain a bud, or it gives the lie to the preparation of the previous season and is truly dead. It is beautiful in its own right, but cannot remain only itself, just as none of us can be exactly preserved without ceasing to be. Extended far forward, the promise of the bud is not only leaf, but flower, and the fruit that follows after, and the seed in the fall, and the winter's sleep again. It is caught up in the wheel of the year, made and unmade by it.

In a few weeks the magnolias will begin to bloom. At first, the flowers will resemble thin white flames upright scattered throughout the branches. Then some will open into white and pink waxy blossoms while others stay tightly wrapped. I look at magnolias and think of a Tree of Life; but it is more meaningful, somehow, when I think of a Tree of Life and picture magnolias.

Every holiday brings a gift, and every holiday asks a gift from us. The gift we are asked to give at this Equinox is courage--courage to step into the wheel, not hold still, to grow or bloom or eventually die. Courage to take on the next stages of our lives. What the Spring Equinox brings is the realization that half of the preparations have already been made. Like it or not, we have been readying ourselves to take this step even without realizing it.

Thursday, February 21, 2008

Grounding my thoughts

This is the second of my Yule-resolution posts: writing at/near the full moon on topics about being Pagan publicly, rather than musings on the holidays. (I wish I could find some kind of metaphorical connection to last night's eclipse for this topic, but nothing's coming. On the other hand, I can feel a poem on the word "adumbrate" struggling towards consciousness.)

When I told people I was in Divinity School, I often felt as if I needed to qualify that statement by immediately saying I wasn't there for ministry. Now, when I tell classmates and professors that I'm a Pagan, I often feel a similar disclaimer following: that I'm not interested in studying only Paganism.

The first reason is that there are people out there who do it better than I could hope to: Sarah Pike and Chas Clifton are the first ones that spring to mind, but there are many, and they're excellent. They've got the mix of clarity and closeness that I find elusive. This work is already being done, and done well. I don't feel that I could add a lot to this discussion. And, to be truly honest, it does not interest me as much as learning how multiple religions collide and combine in the American public sphere.

I do feel that I can add a lot as a Pagan scholar studying non-Pagan religions and the interactions between faiths in America. (Of course, this work is also being done--I just think I can add more here than in the field of Pagan studies.)

I feel that it's important in some hard-to-define way that Pagans look back at the religions that look at us. That we act, speak, and think from a Pagan perspective (no, I don't have a good idea what that involves yet) when we perform our research or present our ideas. That we turn the gaze back towards a culture that wants to condemn, ignore, or exoticize us, and take our own stand. What would a Pagan study of Christian theologies look like? (If there are already some out there, by all means let me know--my head's stuffed full of coursework reading right now.)

Along those lines, I started drafting up some "Notes Toward a Pagan Anthropology" last week. Partially, this was a response to ideas about 'false consciousness' in religion--a concept I find very patronizing and prone to abuse. But it is also a way for me to spell out not the theoretical, but the moral grounds for why I want to do my work in the way I want to do it. It's still pretty crude, though I may post sections of it later on. Right now, it involves a constellation of Pagan ideas that should inform the way I work: immanent divinity, polytheism, feminism, interconnection, the fae/spirits/what have you, anti-eschatology, and embodiment. This isn't a matter of setting a research agenda that will blind me to other elements: it is a process of understanding why I do this work, why I believe it's important, and how I can make sure that I act ethically while in the middle of the hustle and bustle of research. More on that at another time.

Saturday, February 02, 2008


Imbolc, or Brigid, or whatever name it goes by, is the quarter-day holiday between winter solstice and spring equinox. It's probably closer to the middle of winter than Midwinter, and it usually carries a feeling of continuance for me. Nothing big seems to change around Imbolc; when winter feels like sleep, Imbolc is the snooze alarm that says things will continue to sleep, and when winter seems like a dogged slog through slush, Imbolc is like a half-way signpost. It was cold before, it'll be cold tomorrow. Right?

What this way of looking at Imbolc misses is the important changes under the snow. Last year I did a small ceremony that made me more aware of this meaning to Imbolc: right now, though we can't see it, the first push of growth is starting. We won't see bulbs growing for weeks, flowers not for months, and spring--well, spring depends on the whim of cold snaps and late frosts. But what we don't see is the subtle switch from the dormant seed to the preparations for growth: from mere survival to anticipation.

One of my favorite fables is that of Frederick. I was reminded of it by a few other Pagan bloggers a week or so ago (Chas Clifton, I think, though I've lost the link). It's a wonderful story, but looking at it during Imbolc makes me think that it's a good story for this holiday. The mice go from happy feasting to mere survival--they have more than enough food to live through the winter, but their days are gray and dull. It is the creative spark that Frederick gathered, the colors and words and sunlight, that enlivens the mice again and reminds them of the joy and beauty in the world.

This, I think, is why poetry, creativity, and crafting are honored at this time of year. We've made it through the dark times, and proved to ourselves that we can survive. But if winter is more than just a test, more than something to be endured, then it needs the words and colors and light that creative souls have gathered through the year.

So what is it that Imbolc gives, and what are we giving in return? Imbolc gives us what seems like the biggest gag gift of all: more winter! More snow, more ice, more gray skies and a long time before we'll see green again. But hidden in that is the miracle that continuance is change: that "more winter" is not just extra cold time, but time that wakens things and readies them to grow. What we give in return is our creativity and inspiration, turning "just more winter" into creations of words and images.

It is these gifts that transform winter from a test to be weathered into a season with its own mysteries and strengths.