Reflections of Things I Didn’t Know I Knew

I could play the bumpkin. I could smile like a mooncalf over these pleasures (but this I do already). I could “gosh” and “gee” at what New York has shown me… if it weren’t so simple a thing. It is a very simple thing. I haven’t set foot in Manhattan except for a few parties, and already this place is feeling like home. What has enamored me so?

The Flushing branch of the Queens library. It isn’t that it’s big (it is, but Selby isn’t small either). It isn’t the number of books (there are many, but I’ve seen more in one place). It was that I’ve never seen so many people in a library before. There was a small sea of folk milling about, perusing books, and waiting in line to check out their finds. And this was a slow day, my host told me. And where would two geeks go in such a place but straight to the graphic novels? We sat on the floor thumbing through comic books, talking about the history of the medium, discussing what was good and what I hadn’t yet read when one more small thing captured my attention, or perhaps my heart.

At the end of the row, there sprawled a small Asian boy, close cropped hair and wearing a thick blue and yellow winter coat, intently reading a comic book. Superman, in fact. I couldn’t help but smile, even though there were many things churning in my head. I wondered how that little boy felt about Superman’s straight, white boys-only tales, wondered if he would feel alienated, as I had felt being a young woman reading other comics when I was little– it’s something you can’t discuss as a kid, when you have no fancy words to name it, and the fancy words get tangled even as you get older. I wondered if he would savor the stories, and what he would go on to read. For all the problems of representation in comics (and this is changing as the medium does) there is something of pure joy in reading them.

And you know what? What right have I to speculate about his mind, as he sat there reading? All these thoughts simmering in my academic mind didn’t matter a lick to the little boy sprawled at the end of the row, absorbed in tales of Superman.

Under the Air

There is life outside of the office. I act as if I never knew. In some ways, I guess I didn’t until this moment, walking into the local coffee house, past the metal café tables filled with smokers hunched over chess games, pushing open the heavy glass door.

What revives me? The smell of mediocre coffee. The people crowded up by the counter. The sound of NPR on the radio. Did you know? There is life outside the office.

There are faces here, instead of blank walls, familiar ones: my favorite hippie Adonis, who to my spiked bracelets says “Namaste.” No, he says it to me, not my clothes, not the shell. And the man in line, a comedian, a cancerian, who used to have his septum pierced when he worked at Burger King, but they didn’t like that very much, he’s talking to me, not my job.

“Hello, this is the Office of Campus Space Scheduling, this is… this is… this is…” They always hear “Dory.” There is no “d” in my name. There is a girl on the couch here with a shock of red-gold hair, and she’s talking to a boy with a guitar. He’s playing slide as I wait for my cup.

They are out of paper cups, so my coffee is held in the blue roundness of a bowl-like mug. I abandon the handle and hold its curve in the cup of my calloused hands.

The woman outside is smoking in a red pleather jacket, leaning over a Scrabble board, and we make eye contact as I ease into a metal chair. We smile at each other and I realize with ferocity that there is life outside the office… and that I am alive.

Coffee, Sugar, Thread

Little things you do every day can be like threads, tugging backward on old textiles that unravel before us. It’s odd to see their structures, these old pieces of cloth. They used to make up the fabric of our universes, and they fall apart under scrutiny when we’re grown.

I used to hate coffee. A New England child, this was simply not allowed. Milk came in three varieties in our elementary school cafeteria: whole, chocolate, and coffee. Grandma used to make baby coffee for us, which was mostly milk and sugar. Grandpa once ate all the ice cream, leaving only the coffee flavor for the rug rats. Perhaps it was moving away from this that made me start to like the stuff, perhaps trying to gain favor with a group of coffee-swilling friends in high school. I grew fond of baby coffee, and lattes were soon to follow. I drink great coffee black, but the rest needs milk and sugar.

Now, in New England, the next thing a child learns aside from the love of coffee is thrift. Combining the two isn’t always good, but it can lead to some spectacular developments… like my seven dollar Goodwill Senseo. Love my French press, the Senseo is damned convenient. Okay quality coffee, at the push of a button, in mere moments on my way out the door. For seven dollars plus the cost of coffee pods. Grandma would be proud.

As handy as that coffee machine is, old coffee in pods is something I will never drink black. Milk already on hand one morning, the sugar I reached for was brown. It tastes good brown and raw, better than that processed cocaine-like powder stuff. Unbidden and out of context, the Rolling Stones burst into my head, because, hey, “brown sugar, how come you taste so good?”

My mother used to be a lot of fun sometimes. She would sing old songs and not so old songs to us, and we’d sing with her on good days– things that had been popular when she was a kid, things she had picked up along the way. One day, I must have been all of thirteen, she burst out with “Brown Sugar” while we were cleaning up the kitchen. And we sang together, because I was going through my classic rock phase. We sang without thinking, as privilege allows. When we got to the chorus, she belted it out: “Brown Sugar! How come you dance so good?”

“Mom, it’s ‘taste’ so good…”

She stopped. She looked at me hard, with that knowing adult smile. “Oh?”

“Yeah. I know what it means there. ‘Dance’ doesn’t make the same sense. And the whole song is… well…” I wanted to say “racist,” I wanted to say I got that context, I wanted to say that I knew about sex and coercion and… then the sentence just stuck. I couldn’t finish it.

And her smile faded. Melted right off her face. We never finished the song. And we never sang together again. And in understanding that song, or layers of it, I haven’t been able to sing it since. What did I expect? Perhaps in her world, two grown adults don’t play and sing together. And knowing even the surface of something so harsh, the privilege of ignorance is lost.

So I sat down, grown and scrutinizing, took the pile of unraveled thread, and sipped my thrifty coffee.

To Test My Wings (Part 4 of 4)

I discovered Paganism by accident. If you believed the Chick tracts, you’d think that I stumbled upon it through the “horrors” of Dungeons and Dragons. In reality, it was a book mis-shelved in the fantasy section of a very standard book store that did it. I was looking for something to read. Beware the smart children; they discover all sorts of things while you’re underestimating them.

The book was D. J. Conway’s Celtic Magic, which is a terrible book. But it exploded my little pre-teen world: this was a whole other way of believing, of seeing, of engaging in religion. Intrigued, my inner academic wanted to know more. My inner cat was all curiosity. And so I researched.

What I found changed the way I be within the world, as profoundly as had that first candlelight service on a Christmas Eve so long ago, when I tried so very hard to be a Methodist. Here was a religion connected to the ancient past– or so said the authors who wrote about it– the turning of the seasons, to the land itself, with no concept of sin, no sexual shame, and a Goddess who was all Goddesses here present in the world I could touch. Or that’s how it was presented on paper.

Things are never just as they appear on paper. Truths hide in margins, they hide in the doing, and they hide in the places we come from. Sin isn’t in religion alone, but in the culture one is raised in; sexual shame exists in staunch atheists for reasons none other than that the culture accepts it, teaches it, passes it on.

I know what really happened. Gerald Gardner invented Wicca. But then, the English invented the kilt (Trevor-Roper 2006: 21-23). Never tell that to a Scotsman. But the narrative of Neo-Pagan history, like all tales told round the fire, is not a thing spun of fancy, but a thing of yearning. Wicca has more to do with the secret societies of the nineteenth century bourgeoisie than with Paleolithic shamans, more to do with Aleister Crowley than with women cruelly burned at the stake during the Inquisition. Gender essentialism abounds, even though many authors claim it to be equal and feminist. But the claims made about the religion say something about where Paganism wants to be within the world.

I know where Paganism wants to be, I think, but where do I want to be? Not tangled in strict-gendered concepts of an “earth momma” goddess and an over-endowed jack-o-the-green god. Not waving crystals, trying to conjure some semblance of prosperity from a few unhappy stones. I want to be here where I am, dirt-twixt-toes and staring in wonderment at the ugly bug landed on my finger. I want to be taken on my own terms, unrepentant heathen and devout Pagatheist, believing nothing and everything at once. The thing that keeps this umbrella of a label, “Paganism,” above my head is the fact that there is room to grow under here. For now, there are so many fewer expectations attached to that label. I can stretch out in this shade.

And brushed close to so many religions, affected powerfully by faith and ritual, what happened to the atheist child? She never went away. She couldn’t have, sitting so close to the bone, whispering in my ear about what made sense and what didn’t. She did learn the art of accepting poetry for poetry, though. Skeptimystic, standing in the gap between one way of being and another, learning to be silent in the presence of a Mystery, but never ceasing to question. After all, it’s just another metaphor. A likeness to stretch the boundaries of what we can say, can question. I learned the art of holding religion like a stone in my hand, not evaluating the weight of it, or the shape, but simply holding it, without accepting and without rejecting. Such is the art of moving between.

Trevor-Roper, Hugh. 2006 (1983). “The Invention of Tradition: The Highland Tradition of Scotland” in The Invention of Tradition edited by Eric Hobsbawm and Terence Ranger, 15-42. New York: Cambridge.

*Edited 2/6/10 and 2/24/11 for grammar and flow and structural connective tissue.