Textual Arachne

A weaver of threads.

Saturday, September 23, 2006

Autumnal Equinox

As a solitary, my celebration of the equinox is, of course, idiosyncratic. There are two main parts to my celebration of the quarter days; lately, I've been able to spread that into the half-quarter days as well, as I get more conscientious and dedicated.

The first part is meditation and ritual. I put down a favorite cloth, wash myself, and strip. (I've done these while clothed, too, but I prefer the vulnerability and change in nudity.) I set a circle and invoke the directions, reflecting on each with the appropriate tool. Then I sit and either pray aloud, offering thanks for the things I've been given, happiness in the joys that I have, and praise for the start of this next quarter.

(One thing I don't do is talk about things I've done wrong or faults I want to overcome. Though after reading Velveteen Rabbi's teshuvah poem and discussion of the Days of Awe, I think that needs to change.)

Then I move to silent meditation. Most often this is an internal trance, tending my internal landscape; sometimes it takes me out of myself and into the larger world, into the black earth or the sky. Finish, offer thanks and honor, hug myself, and open the circle.

The second part of my equinox celebration is something like sympathetic magic, and it takes place over the whole course of the day. Each quarter is a new beginning, even as it is a return to an old familiar cycle, and the first day thereof marks a change in tone. I want my actions during that day to be the setting for the rest of the quarter, and try to change what I do to make that day an exemplar.

Today, for example, I'll be doing academic work once I finish my meditation. Working on the grad school applications, reading more commentary on Genesis, setting up my calendar for the fall semester. Then I spend time with my lover planning our wedding. Then we spend time with the family. And before I go to bed, I'll meditate again, briefly. Throughout the day, I'll try to be clear and concise, but not harsh, to keep my emotions under control while making sure I show those close to me how much I love them, and to remain focused on whatever task is at hand.

In contrast, I spent Midsummer and Lughnasa on entirely different projects: creative and hand-work, most often, but also loving and self-care. This bit of sympathetic magic (the small affects the whole, the first affects the later) has worked well for me.

So what does the Equinox mean, other than its position as one of four splits in the year? Sojourner has an evocative post about food (harvest time) and balance. The Wild Hunt has collected a great array of writing about it. And for a lovely visual take on it, Hoarded Ordinaries has some pictures that make me want to go leaf-peeping.

This year the holiday has another set of associations, because it overlaps with Rosh Hashanah, the start of the Jewish New Year and the Days of Awe, and the beginning of the Muslim month of Ramadan. All of which, in a way, describe a new start. (And it makes for good interfaith blogposting!)

Some of it is balance: equal day, equal night. It is also a change from starting things--planting, watering, giving birth--to drawing back in. That means feasting (woo! pumpkin pie!), but also recognizing that some of what we loved so much in the summer, thick green leaves and bright flowers, are on their way out. We draw our own strength back in to direct it toward the things that will survive the winter, and in the process we will lose things that brought us joy. But they're not lost yet! The summer is waning but not gone: this makes them sweeter, like the last picnic or the last walk-on-a-warm-evening. We start hoarding for the skinnier times we know will come, but they're so far away; it's worth celebrating what we have now, knowing that "nothing gold can stay."

Of course, as my Australian friends remind me, this view of the wheel of the year is only good in certain parts of the Northern Hemisphere. Over there, they are tipping into spring, looking ahead to a hot Christmas season and thinking about when swimming might be possible. And it bears mentioning that the feeling of September as a start to the year is a by-product of 16+ years of school, during which the year really began in September and ended in June, leaving summer outside of time. The language of harvest and leaves turning looks a little arbitrary.

Why, then, do I use nature terms to describe how I feel about the turn of the equinox? Does this mean that my Paganism, as far as it gets defined at all, a nature-based religion? I'm not the first one to ask whether Paganism is nature-based, and I won't be the first to say "sort of." If you dropped me alone in the woods, I'd probably panic and do something unpleasant. I live in a built-up city, not surrounded by nature. I walk on concrete and watch inclement weather from inside my study with a mug of cocoa. How does this count as nature-based?

Even though the full variety of the seasons doesn't penetrate the city, they do change, and force us to change to adapt to them. Even though the cycles of the seasons are different from place to place (monsoons, anyone?) , the cycles of nature are bigger, stronger than us. They are the clearest place to look for Her, who is everywhere, because they are both constant and constantly changing, because they don't have the distractions that human-created things and human beings sometimes have when we look for Her in them. The cycles of the year are different in every place, but they are present, and they are shared among us and among all things.

Blessings on you and those you love, in harvest and in abundance. May you celebrate the things among you that will sustain you, and the things that will soon depart.

Friday, September 15, 2006

Immanence and separation

For me the keepers of convicts shoulder their carbines and keep watch,
It is I let out in the morning and barr'd at night.

Not a mutineer walks handcuff'd to jail but I am handcuff'd to him and walk by his side,
(I am less the jolly one there, and more the silent one with sweat on my twitching lips.)

--Walt Whitman, Song of Myself, section 37. From Leaves of Grass, 2001 Modern Library paperback edition, p.91.

Song of Myself often makes me think about the concept of immanent divinity. This is a song about every one--but not about Everyman. The language Whitman uses in the entirety of the poem is often very specific: a runaway slave, a cart-driver, a dying commander. A prisoner. A mutineer and his jailer.

The 'I' here, to me, is not a vague Everyman, bland and able to take on every possible trait, but something else. Something able to be both young man bathing in the river and cholera patient dying alone, without turning them into the same person. Someone that is both mutineer and jailer, without stripping away their differences.

That paradox is central to my ideas about immanence. God is everywhere and everything. But everything is different. We are both divine, you and I: but I am not you. The things that make me who I am make me something separate from my neighbor, experience, thoughts, and so on. I am necessarily separate from you, from the world, from someone long dead or someone far away. And yet there is something in me that is also in others, or is part of others (something related but not the same as the capacity for empathy and imagination).

The finitude of our lives is something to give thanks for. It allows us to be not Everyman, so hugely inclusive as to be featureless, but ourselves, bounded in time and space and understanding, the product of this memory and this experience and this gene.

The immanence is something else to love, for it lets us connect to each other and recognize familiarity in each other, to reach that common ground between us. It means that the specificity of our experiences need not be isolation.

And God, or Goddess, or Divinity, is the combination of both that wondrous specificity and the great generality. Watching the sparrow and the spiral nebula together.

I know that this combination, this separation and immanence, is somehow related to why justice and mercy become necessary. But I do not yet know how to say that.

Thursday, September 14, 2006

Start the web

When I began this blog, I intended to use the model of a lection for sermons or Torah reading for the week. I would choose a quote or a block of text that appealed to me or teased my thoughts on a subject related to faith, religion, or Paganism. Then I’d write about it, what it meant to me, what its context might mean, what it might mean for others, and so on. I’d draw it out into a possible line of thinking; a thread. I’d compare them as I brought in more and more, and start putting one line of thought next to or against another.

Hence the title: textual arachne. Weaver of threads drawn off of texts.

(Perhaps a metaphor of silkworms is more accurate: the tiny bundle, with the threads that can be pulled and pulled for yards and yards out of something no bigger than a thimble. But, continuing the metaphor, that means the silkworm is dead in there somewhere, and…nah. I prefer Arachne. Spiders have shown up in my trances, anyway.)

But I haven’t done much of that on Arachne in the last few months. I’m fine with what I’ve written here already, and I’ll probably keep going with that style. There’s an entry in particular waiting to be written about my sense of vertigo about where the country is heading. However, I think I want to add more of the ‘lection’ style, too.

I hope, as my classes begin, to start pulling quotations from my readings and using them as starting points. Fiction, nonfiction, research on religion, prose, poetry, plays, stuff that just catches my eye, even misreadings that fascinate me.

Time to fire up the spinnerets.

Pentacle update

Nevada state veterans officials have approved the placing of the Wiccan Pentacle on the grave marker of Sgt. Patrick Stewart.

The VA continues to stall, stonewall, and otherwise obstruct the recognition of this symbol. According to Circle Sanctuary in the nine years that the pentacle has been "under consideration," symbols for six other religions and philosophies have been approved.

You can read more about this at Circle Sanctuary's history of the veteran pentacle movement.

Wednesday, September 06, 2006


I am fairly attached to the tools I use in my rituals and in my prayers. All of them are battered or banged up: no shiny-bright athame or pretty crystal stuff, no nice pentacle and polished goblet. Half of that's carelessness, and the other half is a weird reverse vanity. My Tarot deck is one of these tools, and my morning shrine another.

There are four directional-elemental tools, adaptations from the Tarot suits and some Starhawk/Scott Cunningham reading from long ago. A grey cup, probably an aluminum alloy, that always gets dented out of its sleek chalice-style lines. A black-handled knife, the kind made by a blacksmith at the Engine and Tractor Show in my hometown. A piece of driftwood, smoothed by the lake, straight and sleek, about eight inches long. A black cast-iron cauldron, only about 4" in diameter, which I picked up at a shop in Salem about six years ago, stuffed full of things I keep meaning to burn away. Cup, knife, rod, cauldron.

(I've never quite figured out how to sharpen the knife. Since it can represent the intellect, this isn't a good sign for a wannabe academic!)

The leftover Calvinist in me is appalled that I'm so attached to my tools. You must rely on your faith alone! she cries. What is this ritualistic fooferaw? Can't you be a Pagan without these?

Well, yes; and then again, no. Of course my beliefs and my faith exist outside of this particular set of items. Of course She's bigger than a bit of steel and wood. But although the tools themselves are subject to change, the use of tools isn't. They represent the concrete face of a belief, the connection between the will and the physical.

That's why I call them tools, not ritual objects or holy things. They are functional, like a pen or a hammer. You could do the same work without them, but it would be much harder and much more clumsy, like writing or hammering without the proper tools.

And these, in particular, are tools that I have come to know, to invest with additional meanings and strengths. Like a loom that you've used long enough to know where the thread catches, or a computer that you've customized.

Prayers and rituals and tools serve this purpose. Yes, we can love Her without them, we can reach out to each other and act upon the world without them. But they make it so much easier, as long as we don't mistake the tool for the intention, the ability to accomplish something with ease for the ability to accomplish something at all.

Friday, September 01, 2006

Focus on the rollercoaster

Classes start very soon, and I'm not ready. I mentioned to my boss yesterday that I wasn't yet up to facing the semester, and--she stopped me. "Facing the semester?" she said. As if it were an ordeal to be overcome or an unpleasant chore!

Yes, it's been those things at times, but I want to respond to it with the same glee that overtakes me when I pick up academic books at the library. (Oo! "The Ethnography of Reading"! Oo! "Faith and Narrative!" Oo! Oo!) After thinking about it, crying a little with my lover last night, and talking for most of the evening, I came to a few realizations.

It's not that I dread the classes. When I think about taking classes this fall, I'm excited and curious--I can't wait for the first week, to sort through syllabi and see what comes up, to check out reading lists and start poking at the topics. Whenever I think just about what's coming up, I'm eager to start.

What is upsetting me is my current work, or rather, my inability to get it all done and ready. My Second Planting isn't ready yet! I want to be the fool in the field, and yank up the seedlings to help them grow...I want to have it all done and ready by equinox, and that's simply not possible.
It reminds me of the same dreariness that tends to overtake me in my second year of a job. I don't manifest anticipation and joy for the future, because I'm so aware of the undone work of the past.

But life doesn't fall into neat parcels, with each new event tidily packaged and all loose ends tied up in between. There are no chapter breaks, as much as I love narrative. And therefore, one of my hardest lessons is to keep at a good work, even under the weight of unfinished projects or past mistakes.

It is the second day of the long walk: muscles complaining about yesterday's travel and the landscape losing its novelty--but never its beauty. There will soon be the second wind and the rush of momentum. I have to be a Janus, looking forward and hungry for the new semester, and looking backward to accept and continue the work that isn't yet ready.