Category Archives: Meaning

“Is Anyone Else Getting Weird Vibes?”: On Confirmation Bias and Emotional States

“Has anyone else been feeling weird vibes lately?”

“Am I the only one feeling the energy shifting here?”

“Three other people I know have gotten bad news in the past week. It must be a sign!”

“The full moon must be making everyone crazy.”

“Flat tire? Opossum attack? Breakup? Collapsed souffle? Must be Mercury retrograde again.”

“Man, I’ve just been feeling so worn out lately. Anyone else feel like the energy is being sucked out of you?”

“I don’t know, I just got a bad feeling and have been sad ever since, it must be because the energy is really weird!”

It’s time to pick up the thread I started earlier this year with my post Dear Pagans: Please Stop Abusing Science. In it I skewered a few patterns I’ve seen in paganism (and the New Age, etc.) like trying to prove magic exists with shoddily-designed experiments. One of the tools I use to critically think about my spirituality is the concept of confirmation bias, which is when people look for evidence that supports their claim while ignoring anything that doesn’t, even if they aren’t conscious of the fact they’re doing it.

Confirmation bias is at the heart of a phenomenon I’ve seen a LOT in my twenty years of paganism. What typically happens is one person will say something that boils down to “Hey, has anyone else been getting weird/negative/etc. vibes in the energy lately?” And then a bunch of other people chime in and say “Yeah, the energy has been really off the past few days/weeks/month.” Sometimes there’ll be an excuse given like Mercury retrograde or the full moon, or something more nebulous like veils thinning or energy shifting.

My response is generally: Well, yes–of course if you ask a big group of people if they’ve been feeling particularly sad, or angry, or happy lately, you’re going to get a bunch of them saying yes. There are 7.5 billion people on the planet. There will always be millions upon millions of people who are experiencing basically the same thing you are right this moment. Even in your own city/town/county you can likely find hundreds if not thousands of people who just happen to be in a similar emotional state as you. And this is true all of the time.

Moreover, I’m willing to bet you dollars to doughnuts that there are as many miscommunications and other unfortunate events going on when Mercury is direct as when it’s retrograde. We just expect Mercury retrograde to bring problems, and so we actively seek them out (if not consciously) because of our old friend confirmation bias. As to that old idea about the full moon having negative effects on behavior? There is absolutely no solid evidence that there’s any truth to it (remember, anecdotes don’t count because they’re rife with conformation bias, even if they come from emergency room workers and the like.) (For what it’s worth, there’s no solid evidence linking menstruation to lunar cycles, either, even in people who live away from artificial light.)

“But–but–lots of pagans I asked are feeling weird stuff right now!” Okay, so did you also ask how many weren’t feeling anything weird? How many didn’t say anything because they felt they didn’t have anything to add? Did you ask people who aren’t pagans? A bunch of anecdotes do not add up to anecdata, your sample size is too small and self-selected, you lack a control group, and I guarantee that if you repeat your “experiment” over and over again, you’re always going to get about the same number of people saying “yeah, I also feel sad/happy/angry” at the same time, no matter the circumstances or what you think the energy is up to, because there are always people in your vicinity/social circle/etc. who feel the same way you do at any given time.

Look, yes, zeitgeist is a thing; it’s a natural occurrence when you have thousands or millions of humans in contact with each other all trading social memes and other communications. Certain patterns of behavior and belief and other markers of culture are bound to come up again and again. And yes, I know that the primary source on synchronicity, Jung, was a highly respected individual in the field of psychology, which supposedly lends his theory of acausal connections some weight.

But neither of these is a reason to skip the search for a more mundane causality for what you yourself are feeling on a more personal, immediate scale, especially if it’s something like feeling good one minute and then all of a sudden feeling down. Why not respond to unexpected emotional changes by considering much more likely mundane explanations? “Hmmm, I feel kind of blah. When’s the last time I ate? Did I get enough sleep? Has someone I live with been kind of pissy lately and stressed the entire household out? Maybe I just have some kind of weird temporary hormonal shift that’s affecting my mood?” (By the way, people of all sexes and genders have hormonal cycles that can and do affect emotions.)

It’s okay to want to not feel alone in your thoughts and feelings. But remember that we humans share a lot of common experiences. We share joy, and sorrow, and anger, and fatigue. We share weird blips in our neurochemistry that can bring on what feel like unexpected mood swings. When we are hit by a daily barrage of negative news media and other exhausting input, then yes–it’s normal for our systems to get overloaded, even if we aren’t conscious of it happening at the time. And it’s natural for us to feel empathy for others in the same situation we’re in: welcome to being a social species of ape. We evolved this connection to each other over millions of years, and we share it with lots of other species, too.

If you want to adhere to a principle created by a famous white guy from Europe, set aside Jung’s synchronicity and take a look at Occam’s Razor: the simplest explanation for a situation or phenomenon is the most likely. The more direct evidence you have and the fewer assumptions and leaps of faith you have to make, the better. And when you find the actual source of the problem you can then do something about it. Talking to a bunch of people online about how you all feel sad today can help you feel better in that you don’t feel so alone and you get a chance to talk about what you feel, but it won’t necessarily get rid of the original cause of your sadness. If you still feel off, you might be a little depressed or tired, your hormones might be a bit wonky–or you might just need a sandwich and some water. Either way, know that no matter what you’re going through, there are other people facing the same challenges right this moment, and that what you’re going through is likely normal and okay.

On Paganism and Sin

I’ve been pagan for twenty years now. I was raised Roman Catholic, went to Catholic school for eight years, and I was even an acolyte well into high school. I discovered paganism in my latter teens; I was instantly intrigued by the notion that nature could be the source of the sacred, rather than just being a lower level of reality to be used and abused til Kingdom Come.

For the first few years after my conversion I would sometimes have this fear that really, the Catholics were right and anyone who wasn’t in the right religion would be condemned to an eternity of torture and flames. I think a lot of that worry, ironically, came because I was trying to plug pagan deities and practices into a fundamentally Catholic structure. I was supposed to be devoted and pious to my gods, and follow a schedule of rituals and observances throughout the year, and I wasn’t allowing myself to simply explore my path without worry I was “doing it wrong”. I was essentially swapping one dogma for another, fear of mistakes and all.

In Catholicism, fear of mistakes manifests itself as the fear of sin. To sin is to go against divine laws, however those are defined. The whole point of Christianity in general is this idea that humanity is by its very nature sinful and we need to be saved by God, through Jesus, or else we’ll suffer in hell forever, alongside murderers, and babies who died before they could be baptized.

And I realized that at this point in my life I simply don’t agree with that basic concept–that humans are inherently flawed. In my world, humans are just another sort of animal. We’re pretty amazing–we evolved these big, complex brains and opposable thumbs, upright walking and refined vocal apparatus, all as responses to the same challenges all animals face. But we’re not above other animals. We’re no more evolved than any other species that’s here with us today. We all got our same start 4.5 billion years ago, and each species of animal, plant, fungus, protist, etc. has a lineage that was equally successful in bringing it up to this very moment in time.

What we think makes us better than other animals is actually just our awareness of our choices and our ability to assign meaning to things. Sure, we’re really good at using these big brains. We have the ability to imagine what our actions are doing to another being. When a tiger attacks a deer it’s not thinking about how much its claws are hurting the prey, or how much fear the prey feels as it dies. But we can do that, with other humans and other beings. And because we have empathy, we create conceptions of “good” and “evil” that roughly correlate with “don’t hurt people” and “hurt people”.

The fact that we are capable of harming others doesn’t make us inherently evil or sinful, though. Every baby comes into this world a blank slate; each develops into an adult through a combination of genetic signals, and learned behaviors and social structures. We ALL have the ability to make decisions. There are mitigating factors–certain personality disorders and mental illnesses can have serious impacts on decision-making capabilities and risk awareness, for example. But even the best of us make some mistakes sometimes. We all lie, we cheat, we feel jealousy and envy, we hurt others either intentionally or accidentally. We also all feel love and care, we do kind things, we experience joy, we bring healing to others.

The concept of sin only looks at the errors, and if there’s even one tiny flaw you just aren’t good enough. I’m reminded of a Catholic school book I had that said sin was like contaminants in pure, white bottles of milk. A sinless person was pure and spotless, someone who had committed venial sin had some black splotches all throughout, and someone who had committed mortal sin was black all the way through. That image stuck with me for many years, and I hated myself for not being pure and spotless.

It took me a very, very long time to undo that unhealthy idea that if I made any sort of a mistake it made me a terrible person. I spent entirely too much of my life racked with guilt that I wasn’t perfect, and it made me hypersensitive to any sort of criticism. And yes, it made me miserable–I wasted a LOT of time being unhappy over my flaws. The other thing that this whole idea of sin did to me was it robbed me of opportunities to learn from my mistakes. When you’re trying really, really hard to avoid messing anything up because mistakes reflect on your character, you don’t allow yourself to dwell on your screw-ups any longer than is necessary, and so you don’t take the time to learn from them.

And that ability to learn from mistakes is part of what makes us human! In my martial arts class I learn more from my mistakes than from my successes, just like I’ve had to train myself to be okay with making mistakes in other areas of my life. Other animals learn from their mistakes, too. Young blue jays that eat monarch butterflies learn very quickly that bright orange and black butterflies will make them sick, and so they avoid them. Baby elephants that are still drinking their mother’s milk will still watch what plants she eats so when they, too, eat solid food they know what’s safe. Juvenile cheetahs have to chase many antelope before they catch one–and they have to catch several before they actually figure out how to kill one.

This concept of sin erases our animal heritage, where we learn from our experiences, good and bad. We’re not allowed to be dirty and aggressive and full of mistakes. We have to feel guilty about enjoying sex and must speak of it in hushed tones. We aren’t allowed to have conflicts which are just normal parts of any social species’ existence, and we aren’t allowed to learn from resolving those conflicts because they aren’t supposed to happen in the first place. We aren’t allowed to be of this world.

Look, I know that this world can be really harsh and difficult and full of pain. That’s just the way it’s been ever since life began in hot, lava-tinged oceans billions of years ago. And with more complexity in life comes more complexity in suffering. So yeah, it’s really tempting to daydream about a “perfect” other world where nothing ever goes wrong and everything is safe and comfortable. It’s tempting to want to push people toward your idea of “goodness” by threatening them with sin and hellfire.

But I have no evidence that any religion’s afterlife is actually going to come to pass–I’m waiting til I die before I form any opinions either way. I have a limited time here, and for all I know this may be all I get. I’m not going to waste this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity being miserable because I make mistakes, or worrying that I’m not doing what someone else in my religious community says I should be doing, or trying to make people believe the same things I do because I think they’re wrong and I’m right. I accept this world and every being I share it with as they are, neither inherently good nor evil, neither perfect nor flawed. There is no sin tying us down the moment we’re born, putting us at a disadvantage before we’ve even opened our eyes for the first time. There’s only a lifetime apiece: a lifetime of experiences, mistakes, and choices. Each moment is an opportunity to appreciate and absorb this world in all its parts, and if we so choose, to try to ease others’ suffering and to bring about joy.

Isn’t that a wonderful thing?

If, like me, you find your path in nature’s beauty, consider picking up a copy of my newest book, Nature Spirituality From the Ground Up!

On Divination and Projection

I’ve been practicing divination for about two decades now. I started with Elder Futhark runes, and then tried tarot for a while before falling deeply in love with the Ted Andrews Animal-Wise deck, which I use as a totem card deck. I’ve tried a few other systems, and I’ve pretty consistently found that if I understand how the system works and what each component means, I can use it pretty successfully.

Some of this is because I have really good pattern recognition. It’s not surprising–I’m an artist, and I have a fair amount of visual-spatial intelligence. So once I know the lay of the land, as it were, I can pick up the patterns within it. I also possess a decent amount of empathy–not the sort where people claim to be able to sense others’ emotions even with no real contact with them, but the sort every emotionally healthy human has, the empathy that we evolved as part of being exceptionally social, communicative creatures and which we exercise through both verbal and non-verbal communication. You might be amazed how much active listening plays a part in good divination.

But what I want to write about now is the issue of projection. In its original psychological context it involves someone denying a quality in themselves while accusing others of displaying the very same quality. But the meaning of the word has drifted a bit over the decades, and can also mean when we imagine that the other person is experiencing or thinking the same thing we are, to include when we’re aware of it. I’m going to use that latter, less strict definition for the purposes of this post.

It is impossible to give someone a 100% unbiased divination. This is just the truth when it comes to filtering any information through the mind of a human being: we are invariably going to add our bias to it, no matter how slight. Sometimes it’s as small as what words get the most emphasis in your relaying of the information–or even what words you choose to use. Other times, a reader may make their bias very clear, even making suggestions as to what the querent should do.

Neither of these are necessarily bad in and of themselves. I’ve had readings where I needed to be very careful of what I was saying and how I was saying it because I needed to be sure the querent got as neutral a reading as possible. And I’ve had some where the best tactic was to be more directive, particularly when the message seemed urgent. As with anything, it depends on the situation.

But it’s important to be mindful of projecting your biases when you read. Let’s say you’re reading tarot with the Rider-Waite-Smith deck or one based on its imagery. The cards have some historical meanings, as well as others that have been built up over the years. The images in the cards also have certain cultural meanings associated with them. We know the Fool is the Fool because he is carefree, not really paying attention where he’s going, and looking like he might be about to walk off a cliff while his little dog tries to warn him in vain. He is not opening the mouth of a lion like Strength, or tumbling through the air from the Tower.

But we, in the end, add our own spin to these cards. Some people see the Fool as a shiny new beginning, a reason to step forth onto an untrodden path. Others view him as being too naive, and one should be cautious before blazing a new trail. He’s also been seen as someone wasting their time on frivolous things. It all depends on the reader and what biases we place on the Fool.

This is where projection comes in. A reader who sees Fool-ish people as lazy and directionless may urge a querent to move beyond the Fool’s part of the journey. Someone who appreciates the enthusiasm of youth, on the other hand, may tell the querent that the Fool is a great sign of energy and a return to innocence. All of these are potentially right, and it’s okay if your biases affect how you personally interpret a card and what meanings seem to fit it best. A moderate amount of projection is necessary in order to make use of any divination system; it’s part of what makes it your reading instead of a reading given by that other person at the next table at the psychic fair.

Where projection can become problematic is where our biases are too influential on what we tell the querent. It’s one thing to interpret a card; it’s another entirely to tell the querent whether this is good or bad. The reader who sees the Fool as too foolish may say “This card represents someone who hasn’t yet settled down and found their path in life; does that sound familiar to you?” rather than “The Fool is the card of immature people who can’t even figure out what they want to do with their lives, and maybe you need to get more serious about things.” Occasionally there will be a time when that latter, more hard-hitting message is appropriate to convey, but for the most part it’s better to at least open your discussion of that card with the more neutral statement and see how the querent responds before going on.

What we really don’t want to do is judge the querent themselves. Sometimes we get people coming in with really hairy problems. Sometimes, yes, they’ve made some bad choices, and they may not even be fully aware of how their actions have brought about consequences. While there’s that occasional querent who may benefit from a metaphorical two-by-four to the back of the head, it’s generally a good idea to err on the side of compassion and non-judgement. As a reader, it is not your job to fix the person or tell them what an utter screw-up they are. Instead, you’re conveying information, helping them understand it, and being a sounding board as they start to figure out what to do with it. (If you find yourself resembling Judge Judy or Gordon Ramsay, you’re doing it wrong.)

So how do you keep your projection in check while making the most of its usefulness? Primarily be being aware of it. First, look at why you assign a particular meaning to each card or other component of your divination set, and if there are certain interpretations and patterns that keep coming up whenever it arrives in a reading. This is especially important with divination systems where each component can have multiple interpretations. If you keep records of your readings, check for those same patterns where you keep assigning the same or similar meaning to the same card/symbol/etc.

The other part of awareness is to consciously pay attention to your biases as you’re reading. The next time you give a reading to someone else, pay attention to how much of what you say is your bias or judgement being laid out on the table versus straight information about the card/etc. in relation to the querent’s question or situation. How many times are you interpreting the card for them versus letting them decide what it means for them?

And finally think of whether that querent wants you to tell them the answers, or whether they just want information that they can then chew on a while. A good way to gauge this is to convey the meaning of the first card as neutrally as possible, and then ask them what they think. Some may have a lot to say about it, but there are also those querents who say “Well, I don’t know…” With time you’ll be able to gauge not only how active a querent wants to be in their reading but also be able to adjust your amount of projection as the reading proceeds.

Did you enjoy this post? Consider having me give you a totem card reading!

Maiden/Mother/Crone, Youth/Warrior/Sage, and Strict/Gender/Roles

I got to go to my very first Pagan Spirit Gathering earlier this year; between it and my second-ever Heartland Pagan Festival, I was strongly reminded of why I love Midwestern festivals. Both events had an appreciable roster of rituals throughout their time, but I was particularly impressed by the number of rites of passage at PSG. This isn’t surprising; after 36 years, the Circle Sanctuary organizers have had plenty of time to create a crucible for people to step from one stage of life to the next. There were rites for young people just entering their teens, and others for elders. Most of the rites of passage weregendered towards women or men (based on identity, not genes), though the Wild Hunt was an ordeal open to people of all ages and sexes (by necessity participants were chosen from a hat full of names since there wasn’t enough room for everyone who’d want to participate.)

While I was pretty busy with guest of honor activities, I did look into what would have been available to me if I’d had the time. I’m a woman in my mid-thirties, and my choices were:

–Motherhood Blessingway: a blessing for all women who were pregnant or had become mothers (to include through marriage or adoption) in the past two years. Nope, no kids here and no intention to have them, so that doesn’t fit.

397px-thumbnail–Daughters of the Dark Moon: “a group of women past the Motherhood stage of life but who do not yet identify with the Crone stage of life”. Well, that’s only open to members of a particular online group that have been putting a lot of preparation into this ritual for the past year. No gate-crashing this time!

–A Circle for She Who is More than a Maiden but Not Yet a Mother: for women who have “left childhood far behind, but don’t yet have the responsibility of motherhood (literal or metaphoric)”, with some non-reproductive alternatives to Mother offered up for consideration. I really, really wanted to see what this one was all about, because I spoke briefly with people involved in it and it actually sounded awesome, but I had a workshop I had to teach at the same time.

MMCYWS as Limiting Factor

I am in no way faulting PSG for making some use of MMC imagery. Again, their attempt to have something for just about everyone was really impressive, and I know a lot of people who participated in the rites got a lot out of them. In fact, I think they should be a good model to other groups and events wanting to offer similar rites of passage.

But a LOT of pagans are still using what I consider to be a very limited and outdated model of human development: Maiden/Mother/Crone and Youth/Warrior/Sage* (which I will from here on out abbreviate as MMCYWS.) MMCYWS started out in Wicca as a way of viewing the Wiccan Goddess and her Consort in their various phases, but worked its way into the greater pagan community as a way to answer the lack of rites of passage for human beings in the United States and elsewhere. We celebrate things like getting your driver’s license or reaching legal drinking age, but it’s not usually a big community affair where you’re formally brought into a new stage of life by others who have already been there, done that, and who explain the responsibility not just as an individual but as part of the community. (Usually the meaning of these two rites is limited to “Wheee, now you can give your car-less friends rides!” and “CHUG CHUG CHUG!!!!!”)

The problem is that people are a lot more complicated than three phases and their rites of passage can account for. As you can tell from my personal experience, it’s not always easy to pigeonhole someone into one particular archetype. And we all have major shifts in our lives that have nothing to do with our age–for example, the ordination of new Circle Sanctuary ministers that is held at PSG each year. But MMCYWS is convenient for a general audience, isn’t it?

MELLIN(1850)_p1.156_ODENWell, convenient, yes, but accurate? Not necessarily. Maiden/Mother/Crone is the older of the two triads; Youth/Warrior/Sage was added on later to have an analogue for men. These go back to the idea of the Goddess as the keeper of the Earth and plants and being receptively feminine, while the God is the lord of wild animals and hunting and virile masculinity. And MMC is dreadfully uterus-based, not surprising when you consider Wicca is a fertility religion, but still unacceptable when dealing with diverse, flesh and blood women who may not even have uteruses. Moreover, look at Youth/Warrior/Sage: those aren’t based on whether the guy had sex and made babies or not. They’re about roles within the community. MMC, on the other hand, is all about reproductive powers. “Maiden” either refers to a woman who has not has sex yet, or one who is unmarried. “Mother”, of course, is a woman who has children. A “Crone” is a woman who can no longer bear children because she’s hit menopause.

My development as a person has had only tangential relationship to my physical body, particularly after my late teens/early twenties when my brain and body finished growing and developing. I remember my menarche, and I honestly felt it had less to do with my development as a person at the time than my confirmation as a Catholic a couple of years later. Everyone in eighth grade at my Catholic school was confirmed and brought more fully into the community of the church. It wasn’t about whether I could make babies or not, but how much I’d learned about the faith I was raised in. Sure, you could argue that because no one made a big deal out of my menarche of course I wasn’t going to see it as a rite of passage. But even back then when I was told “Well, now you can get pregnant”, I didn’t particularly care because motherhood just wasn’t something I ever wanted. And menarche celebrations are still just ways to say “You’re an adult now because of your reproductive powers.” They’re specifically tied to that one change in the physical body, no matter how else you dress it up.

And that’s my biggest gripe with MMC in particular: it still follows the dominant societal script for women of “You grow up, you get married, you have babies.” We’re surrounded by that message from a young age. I never had role models in my life who deliberately chose not to have children (but still had relationships), and there were no female characters in stories and shows who didn’t have children because that was what they wanted. (But there were plenty of male characters running around who didn’t have the “burden” of a wife and kids, and a few who had off-stage families who didn’t interfere in their adventures.) Most female characters were mothers or grandmothers, or were too young but were some guy’s love interest, or in a few cases were heartless shrews that no one would want to reproduce with in the first place. The few times childlessness was ever addressed it was through infertility, not choice.

And so as a childfree woman who has no intentions of changing that lifestyle, the Mother part of MMC is particularly frustrating, as even my spiritual community isn’t free of the ideal of women-as-baby-makers. I know that most women do end up having children, and I have no problem with them having blessingways and other rites–being a parent is a BIG change in one’s life, and it should be treated as a big deal. But why should the men have their middle phase be “Warrior” instead of “Father”, while women are universally stuck with “Mother”?

Possible Solutions?

There have been attempts to try to shoehorn every woman into the MMC model, particularly that persnickety Mother stage. “Oh, Motherhood isn’t just giving physical birth! It can mean nurturing other people’s children! Or nurturing creative projects, or careers!” Nurture, nurture, nurture! That’s what women do! But men aren’t said to be “nurturing” anything–they’re warriors. The message is clear: women nurture, men protect, even if they’re working on the same damned things. And that’s the issue: you’re still trying to work with a model that is based on outdated gender dichotomies that place women in gentle, passive, nurturing roles, and men in active, assertive, protective roles. That’s not to say that there haven’t been attempts to make rites of passage for women that include our more active, protective qualities, or rites for men that remind them that they, too, can be nurturing and gentle. But as long as we keep trying to uphold MMCYWS as the gold standard for pagan rites of passage, we’re going to keep running into the stark limitations that this model has.

That means I also don’t support the idea of turning the men’s triad into Youth/Father/Sage. Making BOTH triads dependent on one’s parenthood status doesn’t fix the problem. Instead, I want to see more community-based rites of passage that do away with MMCYWS entirely. I don’t mean get rid of gender-specific rites entirely (though they need to be open to everyone who identifies as that particular gender, not just women’s rituals for women with fully functioning uteruses as one example.) There’s something to be said for being able to explore how you feel as a person of your sex/gender and where your place is in the greater community, especially because we are gaining more freedom from the strict gender dichotomies of the dominant culture. But we need to stop trying to shove women into Maiden/Mother/Crone. And we need to stop trying to create a similar limiting analogue for men.

Marble_statuette_of_Hecate_depicted_as_a_triple_goddess_surrounded_by_dancers,_from_the_Mithraeum_at_Sidon_(Colonia_Aurelia_Pia,_Syria),_Louvre_Museum_(9362315337)So what do we do instead? Well, you can have rites of passage based on gender and/or age, but don’t limit them to MMCYWS. In fact, drop the archetypes entirely, and let the participants themselves inform what they feel they are growing into. Why does everything have to be shoved into labels anyway? I’ve seen people try to come up with alternative roles for the middle stage of MMC–Queen or Warrioress instead of Mother–but there’s still the uterus-based movement of Maiden into Middle Stage, and then Middle Stage into Crone.

And question what you feel you can teach boys and men that you can’t teach girls and women, especially for the boys and girls. Puberty is really when the different treatment of girls and boys gets into full swing, and girls often get the short stick when it comes to things like practical skills. My Girl Scout troop honestly sucked pondwater, because our meetings were mostly sitting in a basement singing songs and making woven potholders, while Boy Scouts my age were getting to go camping and learning how to build fires. (I even had a subscription to Boy’s Life magazine for a number of years because I just wasn’t getting to learn enough in my scouting “adventures”.) And while I’ve met a few women whose Girl Scout experiences were more active and adventurous, a lot of women had experiences similar to mine, because girls were supposed to do domestic things and not get dirty or do anything dangerous.

If your rites for boys and girls are different–WHY? What can you possibly teach boys that you can’t teach girls, other than how to approach the societal expectations that our dominant culture tries to shove on each group? And if your rites for grown men and women are different–WHY? If the men get to go off into the woods to have solitary vision quests, but the women are expected to stay in a circle and talk, why? Is it just a matter of different organizers with different ideas for rites in general, or is there gender-based bias going on? Even crones and sages–are the crones just talking about how much hot flashes suck, or is there a reason that all these elders aren’t celebrating their coming into elderhood together? I’m not saying don’t have gender division in these rites–but I AM saying to question the reasons why. Furthermore, question whether they’re necessary, and whether you’re bringing assumptions about the supposed differences between men and women into play. Having a group of crones-to-be talking about how society views older women and how to change that is one thing; treating the crones as geriatrics who might break a hip while letting the sages have one more adventure before settling down is another.

Beyond that, consider rites of passage that have nothing to do with one’s gender or sex. A few years ago I wrote about Bill Plotkin’s Wheel of Life as an ecopsychological alternative to MMCYWS. You’ll need to read his book Nature and the Human Soul to get the whole effect, but the short version is that it’s a gender-neutral eight-stage cycle of growth that is based less on physical changes, and more on psychological growth, and one’s relationship to both community and environment. There’s a lot of potential fodder for rite of passage inspiration.

And for pity’s sake, there are LOTS of pagan ritualists out there who have created some really amazing celebrations and transformations. Surely that wellspring of creativity can come up with something that doesn’t use MMCYWS. We’ve created incredible handfasting/wedding rites, funerary rites, baptisms, and other celebrations. I bet we can come up with other ways to mark important thresholds that don’t involve trying to pigeonhole human beings into limited gender roles.

To that end, I’d love to hear any experiences people have had with working beyond MMCYWS in rites of passage, particularly gender-based ones. I know you all are out there–I invite you to share in the comments!

* To be clear, PSG didn’t use the Youth and Warrior terms for the men’s rite of passage, nor the Maiden term for the young women’s rite. But Youth/Warrior/Sage still has a pretty strong influence on the pagan community, with Warrior/Father/Sage being a less common interpretation.

Dear Pagans: Please Stop Abusing Science

Okay. I’m putting on the Cranky Pagan Hat. You have been warned.

When I was a kid, I always wanted to be some sort of STEM major, whether it was veterinarian or biologist. Unfortunately, my terrible math skills barred me from anything but the humanities. Even my psychology degree is more geared towards counseling practice than scientific research; in grad school, my research methods and statistics classes were specifically for not-math people, just enough to be able to understand the latest studies in counseling-related psychology.

But it was enough. Many of us in the United States get a cursory look at the scientific method in public school, but most of us forget it after we’re done. This is a damned shame, because it’s one of the most important processes in our world today. It is meant to allow us as close to an objective look at phenomena as we can get, in spite of our human biases. Revisiting research methods in my early thirties reminded me that there are reasons we know the things we do, and it’s not just a matter of “feelings”.

It also helped me shake off the last vestiges of “woo” in my spirituality. I’m theologically an I-don’t-care-ist; I don’t especially care whether the spirits and such exist outside of my own psyche or not. What’s important to me is that my spiritual path is both personally fulfilling, AND encourages me to give back to the world that I am a part of through service and love. When I can find wonder in the process of photosynthesis, or the delicate trail of a doe through the tall grass, or the perfect spiral of a lancetooth’s empty shell, what need have I of anything beyond that? The stars are themselves fonts of the numinous, without having to be gods on top of it.

I also don’t especially care about the details of what others believe. You’re welcome to believe whatever you like; I have friends whose theological perspectives range from monotheist to polytheist to atheist, and I think they’re all awesome. One of the things I love about the pagan community is the diversity, and I think we need to keep encouraging that.

However, what I do strongly disagree with are the utterly wrong interpretations of science within paganism (and, by extension, the New Age and the like). I’ve collected countless examples over the years; the following are just a few of the most egregious.

Pagans and others claiming that quantum physics proves magic exists

Okay, look. I know physicists have been coming up with some really cool stuff as of late; particle physics leaped into the limelight a few years ago with the Large Hadron Collider’s role in confirming the existence of the Higgs boson particle. However, even physicists don’t always know exactly what the hell they’re working with, never mind the greater implications of their research. So when quantum physics is translated into laypeople’s terms for the media and popular books, there will be a lot of details left out. We’re getting the Cliff’s Notes version at best, which is okay because for the most part we non-physicists don’t need to know the implications of the Higgs boson on our understanding of the vacuum energy density of the universe.

But we need to stop trying to cherry-pick quantum physics for things we think explain magic and other supernatural occurrences. A great example is quantum entanglement, a phenomenon in which two or more particles that are nowhere near each other still affect each other. I have seen more than one pagan try to claim that magic works because if subatomic particles can be connected at a distance, that must be the mechanism by which burning a green candle makes money come into your life.

However, there is absolutely no evidence that that’s what’s happening. Observing one particle mirroring another far away does not equal a force that makes twenty dollar bills mysteriously appear where they weren’t a moment before. People are making these HUGE assumptions about the implications of a quantum phenomenon that even the experts barely understand. And that is not how science works, nor should we be trying to justify a belief in magic thereby.

Claims that piezoelectricity explains the healing power of crystals (and energy in a broader sense)

So I ran into this post over on Tumblr claiming piezoelectricity is the energy that emanates from crystals at all times and which supposedly has qualities like healing, protection, etc. I had never heard of piezoelectricity, but it took me about two minutes of Googling to get enough information from academic-level sources that showed the original post writer had a very incorrect understanding of the phenomenon. You can read my complete teardown of the “theory” at that link, but the short version is that piezoelectricity is the transfer of energy from a physical stimulus like pressure, to an electrical charge, or vice versa, and only certain natural and synthetic materials can do this. You can squeeze a quartz crystal and the pressure will cause the crystal to release a very small bit of electricity–nowhere near enough for us to detect with our own skins, and definitely not enough to have any actual effect on our bodies. A quartz watch works in the opposite direction: the battery in the watch releases electrical charges at one-second intervals; each charge causes the quartz to vibrate, and this makes the watch tick.

Note that this is NOT the same as “this piece of rose quartz is full of love and healing energy! Carry it for good vibes!” Piezoelectricity is not an ambient force that’s there all the time, and it does not come in flavors like “amethyst” and “malachite”. It is a very specific response to a particular stimulus. Electricity leads to vibration, and vice versa, but on such a small and limited scale that it’s certainly not going to have any effect on our health and well-being–beyond knowing what time it is, anyway.

This goes for all other sorts of energy, too, ranging from the heat we put off through metabolism to the radiation exuded by everything from living beings to bricks to quartz crystals. Familiarize yourself with how these energies work–but don’t then say “That must be how crystals work!” Scientists have a pretty good idea of what’s going on with various and sundry energies, and if the minute amount of radiation put off by granite* had undeniably been found to shrink tumors as effectively as chemotherapy, cancer patients would be carrying rocks in their pockets instead of being subjected to a remedy that’s often worse than the disease.

Groups of practitioners (usually a small number) who all do the same spell or ritual and then compare “results”

Picture a coven of thirteen witches sitting in a circle in the priestess’s living room. Last time they met they decided they were each going to do the same spell, at the same time, on the same night, using leaves from the same plant, etc. Now they’re discussing their results. Each person tells their experience in turn. Some of them sound remarkably like each other, especially as more stories come out. The consensus is that the spell was a success and they’ve proven magic works with their experiment.

A few years ago I wrote a detailed post on all the various problems with the design of this experiment (if it can be called that), ranging from confirmation bias to a sample size that is laughably small. Let’s say the spell in question was a money spell, and everyone got some amount of money after they did it, whether it was expected (a birthday card with a check) or unexpected (a ten dollar bill on the ground). There’s no control group to compare the coven to–and no, “everyone else in the world” is NOT how you create a control group. No one is factoring in confounds like “this person was more likely to get money because they overpaid their phone bill three months ago and the phone company finally noticed and sent a check”. No one is comparing the rate of “finding money on the ground” between people who did a spell beforehand, and people who didn’t.

And there’s our old friend confirmation bias, in which people look for the results they want, even if not consciously. If everyone in the group secretly wants the spell to work because they want money and to prove magic works, they’re more likely to look for any possible proof, no matter how slim. And as the coven members take turns reporting their results, there may be increasing pressure on the later reporters to make sure their results match with the group’s so they aren’t the lone naysayer. If a medical trial were set up with as shoddy a structure as this “experiment”, the researchers would be out of a career.

We can say one thing about all three examples…

NONE OF THESE ARE SCIENCE

Here is how science ideally works. Let’s say we have a hypothesis, which we will call A. We test A with a rigorously designed experiment (or in some cases multiple iterations of the same experiment), with a solid control group, dependent and independent variables, accounting for confounds, etc. In those experiments we get a consistent result, which we will call B. So we can go from point A to point B through a path which can be repeated again and again by different researchers.

What too many people are doing is saying “Okay, so A leads to B–that MUST mean that B leads to C, and therefore A proves C!” C is usually something like magic or energy or the irrefutable existence of ghosts, or some other thing that scientists have tested for but not gotten conclusive evidence of, not in the same way we know antibiotics kill bacteria or plants convert sunlight into sugars. I used to work in a microbiology lab plating specimens. If I put the urine of someone with a urinary tract infection onto a petri dish and kept it at about 98.6 degrees, within a few days there would be colonies of the offending bacteria on the plate, which proves that A (I bet there’s bacteria in this pee) leads to B (yep, just look at all them little suckers in the dish.) It does not then follow that C (I am the life-giving god of these bacteria who shall build tiny bacteria churches in my honor until they overpopulate and eat up all the agar and illustrate the end result of overpopulation of a species).

Yes, that last result is hyperbolic, but it illustrates the grand leaps in logic people try to make when attempting to use science to prove spiritual matters. Which begs the next question…

Why Is This So Darn Important?

Two words: scientific literacy. American culture in particular is woefully prone to pseudoscience and science denialism already, and our clinging to bad science doesn’t help. When we replace scientific literacy with non-scientific explanations for things in this world, we are making it easier for people to spread and utilize misinformation. We also make it harder to disprove their claims and to get people to stop supporting them. We increase the societal view that scientific literacy isn’t important for anyone except scientists. And that leads to some really bad things.

It’s relatively harmless to believe that seeing a hawk is good luck. But a lack of scientific literacy can also have more dangerous outcomes for those supposedly sacred animals. Poor scientific literacy also contributes to everything from faith healing deaths to support of subjecting QUILTBAG** people to so-called conversion therapy to people with albinism being murdered because their remains supposedly have magical powers. People are voting for elected officials who make big, important decisions to include on matters ranging from climate change to medical care. The widespread lack of scientific literacy leads to both voters and politicians not fully understanding the ramifications of their choices–and often voting with their religious and/or emotional biases, not their logic and reason. This then leads to choices detrimental both to us and the world we live in.

Science isn’t perfect, and I’ll be the first to state that. After all, it’s run by humans, who are full of mistakes and biases and sleep deprivation. But if there are mistakes that deviate from the scientific process of inquiry, the answer is not to even more deliberately deviate from it with wishful thinking and “this just feels right”. Pharmaceutical companies missing an important side effect of a medication and having to take it off the market does not mean that it is somehow okay to start ingesting essential oils to medicate yourself instead just because you think essential oils are “natural and good”. Two wrongs do not make a scientific breakthrough.

Am I a meanie who hates religion? Of course not. I have a deep spiritual path that gives me a structure for personal meaning and creating a place for myself in this world. But my work with totems does not overwrite my understanding of the physical animals, plants and other beings out there in the world. If anything, it is natural history that informs my deeper connection with the spirits I work with, because I know where they’re rooted.

Whether you’re a polytheist or a humanist or a duotheist or an animist, I encourage you to (re)familiarize yourself with the scientific method and with the basics of research design and statistics. I encourage you to look at the ways in which sloppy, bad science has affected everything from the environment to human rights, historically and now in the 21st century. I encourage you to look at ways in which good science can support our spirituality–how spirituality can lead to a healthier, more positive outlook on life, for example. And I encourage you to consider being both a spiritual person, and a scientist (even if you’re a citizen scientist like me, rather than a full-time professional scientist!) In doing these things, we can set a good example by being a spiritual community with a firm grasp on the differing bailiwicks of science and spirit.

*The soil in your yard emits more radiation than your granite countertop. Neither of these have been found to either cause, or cure, tumors.

**QUILTBAG – A delightful acronym that stands for Queer, Undecided, Intersex, Lesbian, Transgender/Transsexual, Bisexual, Asexual, Gay

Did you enjoy this post? Consider picking up my latest book, Nature Spirituality From the Ground Up, a natural history-informed approach to pagan practice!

A Prayer of Gratitude

I don’t do a lot of praying; I tend to do more acting, being and observing. But occasionally I want to take a moment to appreciate something that I have, so I send out a prayer of gratitude. There’s one that I wrote years ago that I say every night before I go to sleep:

Thank you to all of those who have given me this day,
All those who have given of themselves
To feed me
Clothe me
Shelter me
Protect me
Teach me
And heal me.
May I learn to be as generous as you.

When I wrote it as a newbie pagan, I felt that I’d mostly covered the bases on what others (human and otherwise) gave to me so I could go on living each day. Now that I’m older I could think of other actions in addition to feeding or teaching, but I love the flow of this prayer as it is. It’s like an old story–Italian, I think?–in which a man comes across a group of little fey ladies coming out of a hill, singing “Saturday, Sunday and Monday”. The man then sings out “and Tuesday!” and the ladies curse him because he ruined the cadence of their song. Sure, I could add another line or two, but it’s currently perfect in its rhythm and timing for getting me back into touch with all those who have contributed to me getting another day on this Earth.

I’m less naive than when I first wrote it, though. Take the line “To feed me”, for example. Back then I was thinking of the people who helped bring food to my table, from farmers to grocers to my own family. As I got older, I not only thought more about the plants, animals, fungi and other living beings involved in the complex food creation and distribution systems, but also the people who were more behind the scenes and often neglected: migrant farm workers, slaughterhouse employees, late-night cardboard box factory employees. And I thought of those ecosystems that were polluted by industrial fertilizers or torn down to make room for one more monocropped wheat field (even if it was organically grown).

So the whole prayer is a reminder to me that I am part of an incredibly complex web of connections, most of which I will never personally observe, but which I have an effect on in my everyday life. And it’s why the last line is bittersweet. I can never be as generous as a pig killed in a slaughterhouse for pork chops, and I will never know the experience of working fourteen hour days in a strawberry field under the hot summer sun, underpaid and worried about deportation. But I can at least give back in awareness, education, and trying to make better choices–like growing my own food when I’m able to, supporting fair trade practices and organic farming where I can afford it, and reminding others–even through this simple prayer–that nothing is as simple as “thank you”.

Did you enjoy this post? Consider picking up a copy of my newest book, Nature Spirituality From the Ground Up, which encourages the reader to be more aware of their bioregion and all the beings they share it with.

Mine is a Paganism of the Body, Part I

Early June 2015, north side of Yocum Ridge, Mt. Hood Wilderness, Oregon

Don’t look down. Don’t look down. Don’t look–

I am bellied up against a massive pile of fine glacial till the size of an overturned cargo van, draped over it like laundry laid out in the sun. This late landslide has all but swallowed the narrow mountain trail my hiking buddy and I have been traveling, an alternate route of the Pacific Crest Trail that saved us a harrowing river crossing thousands of feet below.  We’re three days into our backpacking trip, my first mini-through-hike, and his opportunity to add another section of the PCT to his already impressive record.

The surface of the till is gritty, all sand and no rocks–and no handholds. As my feet balance precariously on the six inches of trail width left uncovered, I lean hard into the mound, a task made more difficult by the forty pound pack on my back that raises my weight again by a third and lifts my center of gravity by several inches. I dare not straighten myself to rest my back or resettle the straps, because my toes and my balance are all that are keeping me from pitching backward down a hundred-foot drop at the edge of the half-foot trail. It makes no matter to me later that no one has actually died there in recent memory, only had to be pulled up from their long slide down by rescue teams. As far as I’m concerned the draw of till below me is gaping open to swallow me alive–and soon dead.

My friend calls to me encouragingly; I don’t register the words. He’s only a dozen feet away, safe on the other side of the washout, but he may as well be on the other side of the Muddy Fork valley. I’m halfway through: backward to known territory, or forward into the unknown. I hesitate, feeling the precious few inches of soil beneath my feet and the scrape of grit against my belly, shirt pulled up as I sag just a little.

If I panic, I’ll die.

I don’t even think to still my breathing or consciously calm myself. I’m terrified, but I know the cost of hasty actions. I look to my friend. “Stick your butt out more, and move your feet side to side. Keep your toes against the wall!” I do what he says, and I instantly feel my balance shift inward toward the side of the ridge. The pull of the pack back into empty air lessens, and I begin to move in a slow crab-crawl to my left.

It could have taken only seconds or days, I’m not sure. In those moments all that matters is the careful placing of feet and hands, the sensitive registration of my body’s weight and gravity as my balance shifted along the uneven surface of the till-hill. I become nothing more than a series of muscles, bones, tendons, lungs to breathe air and senses to choose the next action. There are no thoughts, no decisions, only the instinct to live. I am more aware than I have ever been in my entire life.

And then I am there, back on the undamaged trail, taking my hiking poles from my friend and moving away from the ordeal I just passed. A few feet pass and then we both stop to rest and breathe. He may have been through this sort of thing before, but he is shaken as well. We compose ourselves, have some water and rice crackers, and then continue our way along the trail toward the Muddy Fork of the Sandy River.

Before we arrive at the first crossing, we will have traversed two more of these landslides, with a third, lesser one on the far side of the valley.

November 2015, home, Portland, Oregon

I awaken in the dark of the morning; without my glasses I guess that the clock is beaming three-oh-something. Beside me my partner of several years is fast asleep; I’ve always envied his ability to spend the entire night in deep slumber while I wake and fret periodically.

Of course.

My bladder has decided to be unmerciful, and so I crawl out into the cool room to make the too-long journey down the hallway to the bathroom. I’ve done this so often I don’t even bother to turn on the light. It almost seems a waste of precious energy and heat to peel my arm away from where it’s wrapped around my ribs just to flick a single switch. I make it to my destination unscathed, and in mere moments I am ready to make the trek back.

Upon my arrival back at the bed, my lover has sprawled across my portion of mattress. Were I still in situ, his elbow would be laid across my head–not for the first time, either. I crawl back into the covers and attempt to salvage whatever heat I left. His ribs, on the other hand, get a bit of a nudge, and without breaking a snore he rolls back over onto his side.

…let the soft animal of your body/love what it loves

I curl up against his back, my feet tucked between his calves, one arm under his pillow and the other wrapped around his waist. Mary Oliver’s wild geese couldn’t get between us now. I take a few moments to settle, and then let my mind drift off into the daydream-land I’ve created for my very own bedtime stories, lulling myself back into safe slumber.

May 2010, Providence Portland Medical Center, Portland, Oregon

The pain is bad enough that I am openly crying, something that hasn’t happened since I was a child. This is no ear infection, or the bone in my hand I fractured when I tripped and fell in a spontaneous race with a friend. No, this has potentially worse consequences. Over the past couple of days I’ve had a growing sharp pain in my abdomen, first a general discomfort all over (indigestion, perhaps) but then worsening, and localizing in the lower right quadrant. I don’t think I’ve misplaced my appendix; all my other organs are as they should be. But the doctor has decided to send me to stay overnight for IV antibiotics, close monitoring, and possibly surgery.

I call my recently ex-husband, with whom I will only live a few more weeks until my new apartment is ready, to come pick up our car, and would he please bring me my laptop? Even on the phone he sounds more resentful than concerned, an increasing trend in our strained–but thankfully temporary–living situation. I am settled into a wheelchair and taken over to the care unit; although I could have walked, the nurse insists. This simple action of denying me my own mobility suddenly makes me feel weak and vulnerable in a way I have never been before, not even as a seemingly invincible child. The surgeon on duty terrifies me with threats of removing a section of intestine if I don’t get better; one of the diverticuli has burst open and I have a raging infection that could kill me. He has the bedside manner of a vulture.

I’m so scared.

I keep my sanity through my connections online, keeping in touch with people who are unable to visit but who care nonetheless. My closest friend visits as often as he is able, but obligations pull him away the next day. My tiny veins reject first one IV needle, then a second, then a third, then a fourth, until all the veins on the tender undersides of my elbows are blown and the nurses must resort to my more sensitive hands. I barely sleep; someone is in every hour to take my vitals, though my heart still beats and my temperature fluctuates less and less.

I rage at my body, as the restlessness eats at my mind. How could it betray me? I was only thirty-one; I’d been running three times a week for a few months now, a way to cope with the disruption of my life story that was divorce. I should be out there in the warm spring sunshine, my feet slapping against sidewalks in the wetland park, shaking off the trauma of the previous few years’ travails. Instead, I had doctors telling me I was closer to death than at any point in my existence; only the needle in my hand would know for sure whether more drastic measures should be taken.

Of course, it was another doctor who told me that my running routine was part of how I managed to rebound so quickly from the threat in my belly. My immune system, depressed for so long from too many hours in closed office buildings, and an increasingly stressful living situation, began to recuperate as my muscles firmed and the blood flowed more quickly through my veins. So now that effort pays off, as a mere twelve hours into the IV antibiotics the pain lessens enough that I am able to bend at the waist again without screaming. I even wheel the IV cart into the hallway and show the nurse on duty how, standing on one leg, I can pull my other knee up to my chest and it only hurts a bit, really!

It will be another day and a half before I am released, allowed to run–or at least limp–free, back to the new life I am creating. It is a life more aware of mortality; though the asthma I’ve had since I was young has limited my activities in cold weather and sometimes even curtailed my warm-weather running, it’s never tried to kill me. My gut, on the other hand, quickly flooded me with deadly bacteria with just the tiniest pinprick of a hole.

I listened to that breach, and I attended to it–thankfully I still had insurance at the time, or I might have become one of the thousands of uninsured who die from curable diseases each year for fear of crippling debt. But it left me scarred, in mind if not body. Now, even six years later, any tiny twinge in my midsection makes the hairs stand up on the back of my neck. I go back to that helpless feeling, tethered to a sterile hospital bed by tubes of medicines, made impersonal with the thin drape of fabric they call a “gown”. And so I keep running, hoping to outrun that experience again, and I lift weights, ready to fight should it lurch across my path once more.

January 2016, Planet Fitness, Portland, Oregon

I just turned thirty-seven a couple of months ago. I went back to the gym for the first time in years just a few days before my birthday, though I paid for the membership weeks before then. I’m a bit of a procrastinator.

I hate the treadmill. Running in place never has the same appeal as wandering city streets and traversing parks, and it’s tougher to keep myself focused. The bounce of the belt below my feet never felt natural, and I long for grass and a bit of uneven terrain to challenge me. No hope there, though. So I make myself run a mile and a half–that’s it. I’ll just try to run that 1.5 faster each time.

Finally.

I step off the treadmill and, with a stop by the drinking fountain, I pop open my locker for my weight gloves. A long walk around the herd of ellipticals brings me to the rack of barbells, my first stop. I’ve left behind the twenty-pound weight, and pick up the thirty for a round of arm curls to get me started.

This is not the fast-paced churn of running, legs tangling and untangling with greater speed. No, here I get to watch the muscles work in slower motion as I face the mirrored south wall. I’ve never been especially strong in my upper body, but over the past two months I’ve already put on a respectable bit of muscle. My ritual includes closing out my night with a protein bar and some jerky, easily thirty-five grams for my body to grow on.

But not just yet. Now I am moving the metal bar up toward my chest and back down; I can feel where the muscles in my back and shoulders and arms and chest have all responded to this old-new stimulus. Seventeen-year-old track runner me would have been jealous; I’m already planning for when I move up to the forty pound weight. I’m squatting forty later tonight, and my quads tense in preparation.

I ran faster when I was younger; I don’t know that I could do an eight minute mile now. But what I lose in speed, I make up for in strength and stamina. There is no peak to my body; there is only change, and evolution. And, yes, eventually there will be decline in more respects than speed–but that’s an opportunity to become more proficient in other body-ways.

Perhaps in my golden years I shall explore the fine art of being slow.

Star Wars, Despair, and the Future of the World

Over Christmas, I did my nerdly duty and saw the new Star Wars movie, The Force Awakens. I won’t spoil it for you who haven’t seen it yet; suffice it to say that it had more than enough high-speed escapes from TIE Fighters, dramatic twists, and splashes of humor to remind me why I’ve been looking forward to this film. But by the end of it I was feeling despondent, and not just because I have to wait a loooong time to see the next one.

Despite the fact that Star Wars happened “A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away”, 99% of space-based science fiction asks us to imagine forward, not back, so it’s easy to forget that it’s not a futuristic tale. And I found myself thinking when I walked out of the theater, “We don’t have a future”. Although I try to limit my media intake to what’s necessary, and balance it out with things like cute animal pictures and video game breaks, I’m still all too aware of the critical point we’re at with regards to climate change, ocean ecosystem collapse, loss of endangered species, and other environmental disasters. And so when the movie ended, so did my distraction from these overwhelming problems.

Beyond the distraction and the drop, The Force Awakens (and plenty of other movies) presents a massive enemy with potentially planet-destroying capabilities, something we know all too well. But everything works out in the end, the enemy is routed, and the whole story wraps up neatly in less than three hours. What should happen is that I should come out of the theater inspired to go fight the good fight anew. Instead, I found myself in deep despair.

It’s the same thing that happened to me after I went to see Tomorrowland earlier this year. In the same way the Star Wars franchise shows ways to defeat the Enemy (even as it regenerates in many disguises), Tomorrowland asks us to imagine a positive future, the possibility of better things than the current media-driven dystopia we seem to be hurtling toward. I hate that it was a box office flop; a lot of people could have used the messages it conveyed about how we don’t have to give in to the inevitability of an ever-worse world.

Yet even I can’t grab hold of that optimism. I’m not fooled by movies’ promises of simple answers to complex problems. As soon as the credits roll, I feel the weight of the world settle back onto my shoulders, and it hurts. I grieve. I get angry at the idea that all we need is the right heroes to come along and save the day. And I start to drown in perceived helplessness; I have no X-wing starfighter that miraculously avoids getting hit by enemy fire. I have no super powers, or advanced technology funded by Stark Industries or Wayne Enterprises. There no Q or Professor X to hand down much-needed information and wisdom to those who work to save the day.

So each time this happens I turn to my partner, my beloved, who knows my weaknesses and flaws and loves me anyway. He is an eternal optimist, but a realist. He knows the worst humanity can do, and yet believes in us anyway. I lay my sadness on him, and he carefully opens it up to see where it comes from. And then he gives me balance and perspective. Yes, there are horrible people with too much money and power, but there are also those who use their resources for the benefit of others. Yes, cynicism is often well-deserved, but that should not be the end of hope. Yes, our problems can’t be fixed with a well-aimed barrage of lasers and proton torpedoes, but there are people who are trying to enact very real solutions, just at a slower pace and smaller scale.

And then he tells me to go read the stack of publications that the various environmental groups I support send me each month. He says to focus especially on their victories and successes, and how even in the face of a battle lost they never give up the war. And so I immerse myself in the good news, often on conflicts and issues that they’ve been working on for years. I have to remember that sometimes I just have to sit back and enjoy the win, without letting the specter of “But the bad guys will attack again” loom over me. I go back over the positive messages of the movies I watch, and I absorb them, and I let their idealism inspire me.

I still often feel overwhelmed by the enormity of the challenges we face. It’s the price I pay for being aware of them, and refusing to spend my entire life in an ongoing search for more distractions. But I’m slowly trying to regain the optimism of my younger days, when I was less tired, and temper it with the experience I’ve had as I get older. There are still no simple solutions to complex problems; I don’t even believe that much in “good guys vs. bad guys” any more, only seven billion humans stumbling around trying to figure out what the hell is happening.

And so as I prepare to step into the new year, I resolve to keep taking care of myself, including in–especially in–my times of despair. I continue to heal the ongoing trauma of the destruction of my world, even as I fight to save it in my own way. I will still have the times when I have to ask for help. But that’s okay. In the movies every hero has support, and in the real world every person fighting to make things better has their allies. I need not carry all the weight of the world on my shoulders; we’re all carrying our own piece of it, and even if we can’t find a way to put it down for good in three hours or less, it doesn’t make us any less strong.

 

Book Review Roundup

I wish I had more time to read; sadly, at least until the Tarot of Bones is done my time is going to be pretty chewed up with work. I have managed to finish a few books, though, and I wanted to offer up a selection of mini-reviews for your enjoyment!

Moonshot: The Indigenous Comics Collection, Volume 1
Hope Nicholson, editor
Alternate History Comics, 2015
176 pages

I was a backer of the Kickstarter that funded the publication of this incredible comics collection. Over two dozen indigenous writers and artists came together to share stories from their cultures; some are intensely personal, while others are community tales little told outside of their own people. Despite a wide variety of writing and artistic styles, the collection has a strong cohesion, and flows from mixed media poetry to science fiction to traditional storytelling like a well-worn riverbed. I highly recommend this collection to anyone seeking an excellent read, whether you’re normally a comics reader or not.

Rats: Observations on the History & Habitat of the City’s Most Unwanted Inhabitants
Robert Sullivan
Bloomsbury, 2004
252 pages

I borrowed this one from my sweetie, who recommended it highly. I’m a sucker for detailed looks at individual species, but tailored for the layperson so there’s more of a narrative to it. This exploration of New York City’s brown rats successfully blends natural and human history with anecdotes and humor, and is at least as much about the city itself as the critters hiding in its corners. It’s not always a nice book; there are descriptions of plague and death, extermination and suffering. Yet if you’ve felt that the intelligent, resourceful rat simply hasn’t gotten its proper due, this may be the book to wave at people who want nothing more than to see them all poisoned and trapped to extinction. I certainly came away with a greater appreciation for my quiet neighbors that I occasionally see when out on late-night walks.

The Ancestor’s Tale: A Pilgrimage to the Dawn of Evolution
Richard Dawkins
Houghton Mifflin, 2004
688 pages

I’m not going to get into Dawkins’ views on religion here, so let’s just leave that aside. What I do admire is any attempt to make science accessible to laypeople without excessively dumbing it down, and despite being almost 700 pages long, The Ancestor’s Tale does just that. I have a serious love for evolutionary theory, and what this book does is present the long line of evolution that led specifically to us, starting with the very first spark of life on this planet. Better yet, Dawkins draws inspiration from the format of Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales and as each chapter introduces a new ancestor or very near relative in our past, we are given the image of an ever-growing pilgrimage to the dawn of life. I was absolutely fascinated by every page in this book, as I learned about everything from the first tetrapods to how sexual dimorphism developed, from evolutionary explosions and extinctions to the very first multicellular animals. And because we get to start with ourselves, everything is made more relevant to us, keeping our interest even more firmly invested in who we’ll meet next. A must for any of my fellow nature nerds out there.

Rituals of Celebration: Honoring the Seasons of Life Through the Wheel of the Year
Jane Meredith
Llewellyn Publications, 2013
336 pages

Some of us know exactly what we’re going to do when each Sabbat arises. Others…not so much. If you’ve been stuck trying to figure out how to make the next solstice more interesting, or you need some variety as you bring your children into family spiritual traditions, this is a book full of inspirations! Meredith takes the time to explain each Sabbat in more depth than many books do, and offers up anecdotes of her own sacred experiences. Rituals and activities flesh out the book in a more practical manner, offering readers concrete ways to incorporate the spirit of each Sabbat into their own celebrations. A fabulous book both for beginners, and those wanting to shake up their established practice in a good way.

Refuge: An Unnatural History of Family and Place
Terry Tempest Williams
Vintage Books, 1991
336 pages

You would think that as much as I love nature writing I would have read one of Williams’ books before, but somehow she eluded me until recently. I should have caught up to her sooner. In Refuge, she weaves together the tumultuous existence of a wetland on the brink of extinction, her mother’s battle with cancer, and the intricate threads these events entangle into the lives of Williams and her family. Three is spirit, there is nature, there is history, and yet all these seem as though they cannot be separated from each other. Just as in an ecosystem, the part is little without the whole. If ever there was a doubt that we were still a part of the natural world, Williams puts that doubt to rest. Prepare to cry, and to reflect, but please–do read this book.

On Being a Part of Something Bigger Than Myself

Over the years, my spirituality has shifted in the nature of its practice. For a long time I was a dedicated ritualist. I spent hours before my altar, altering my state of consciousness through chants and dance, and working myself into an endorphin-fueled high that helped me to break out of my own headspace. It was during those times that I felt most at one with the rest of the world, or at least some portion of it not bounded by my own skin. I had some pretty incredible experiences, and on occasion I’ll still indulge in more elaborate practices when the situation calls for it.

More recently I’ve become dissatisfied with ritual as my primary vehicle of connection. It can be time-consuming, it isn’t always practical, and it sometimes leaves the ordinary parts of life looking–well–ordinary. As the animal totems I’ve worked with have urged me deeper into their ecosystem, engaging with the totems of plants, fungi, waterways and others, it’s given me cause to rethink my approach to the world around me. The more I understood about the interconnectedness of ecosystems, the less I felt I had to put myself into a special place and time to feel I was a part of something greater.

And so these days I quite easily slip into that sense of unity with the universe. I touch a leaf, or pick up a stone, or gaze at the wide blue skies over the Oregon sagebrush desert, and I know in that moment that I am anything but alone, isolated and detached. It is only human hubris that led me to believe anything else, the Catholic upbringing and consumerist setting that both told me “You are more than an animal; you are something special; you deserve to take whatever you want from nature”. That elevated status may sound like a place of power, but in reality the pedestal can be an incredibly isolating place to be.

1024px-Tiktaalik_roseaeWhat I understand now is that every living thing is my relative. Every piece of substance on this earth shares something in common with me, be it life, or elements, or merely the fact we are composed of atoms. There is nothing on this planet, nothing in this universe, that is truly alien to me. I am a part of a larger community; I always have been. Every being that has come before is my ancestor. I watched a video of David Attenborough examining the forelimb of a fossil of Tiktaalik, one of the first amphibians to walk on land. He pointed out how, like humans, this 375 million year old creature had a humerus, a radius and ulna, and a constellation of wrist bones. Even if Tiktaalik isn’t a direct ancestor by genes, it is of my family nonetheless.

Do you know what one of my favorite things to ponder is? Consider the trillions of cells that make up a human body. These cells are the direct descendants of independent, unicellular life forms that, billions of years ago, joined together and worked in harmony in order to meet the challenges life threw at them. This may have happened independently as many as four dozen times throughout the history of this planet, and each multicellular revolution resulted in a different sort of being. One begat the line that would become animals.

So we are really composed of trillions of tiny lives. They’re each so specialized and enmeshed as to be utterly dependent on the entire organism, and die without its support. We think of ourselves as more hardy than that–but don’t we, too, ultimately die without an ecosystem to support us? We just take longer to expire than a few skin cells scraped off on a jagged branch on the trail.

We don’t have definitive proof that the planet is a living organism in the sense we think of it, nor the galaxy, nor the universe. But we can take a certain symbolic, poetic stance in that regard. And I think it’s a valuable shift in mindset that melds romance and science. Not that science is without romance of its own. Most scientists are not cold, 100% rational people; they have emotions and biases, too. And many scientists I’ve met have been ridiculously passionate about the parts of the world that fascinate them–if not everything that exists, starting with their own specialty.

A_witch_holding_a_plant_in_one_hand_and_a_fan_Wellcome_V0025806ETScience is not the enemy just because it says there is no clear evidence of planet-as-organism. Science is a lens onto the mind-staggering intricacy we have found ourselves in the moment we are born into this world. If it does not indulge in speculation beyond ideas to be tested, that doesn’t make it lacking in imagination or wonder. Those who say there is no magic here because life isn’t like a fantasy novel haven’t been paying attention to the unfolding story of the world that the sciences are uncovering. Read enough books, watch enough documentaries, walk out into the world enough times and observe with curiosity, and you too will likely see things that are magical without being supernatural.

And really, life itself is the grandest immersive experience any of us will ever get. If I only considered the moments most soaked in endorphins to be where I was truly alive, think of how much I’d be missing out on! I got tired of chasing that connected feeling in fleeting moments of euphoria, and instead decided to seek it in every moment I live and breathe.

So, no. I no longer need rituals to fuel a connection to something bigger. Just taking a moment to consider where I am–where I really, truly am–in the grandest scheme of things is enough to shatter my relatively tiny, daily perception and pull me into the ever-spiraling dance of the cosmos in all its parts.