Having Not a Christmas Tree

“Blessed Midwinter, my friends, keep we now a vigil for the sun.” I am alone when I speak this aloud, because there is no one else save my roommate around me who keeps the eight holidays of Paganism (and he has fallen dead asleep), and no one else nearby who celebrates it in the same way I do. I am speaking to spirits unseen because there is no one to whom I could wish a blessed Midwinter.

I’ve flippantly stated that this time of year makes me uncomfortable. Last year, I escaped Christmas by hiding in a Jewish neighborhood in New York. I think my reasons bear expounding upon, the reasons I felt the need to flee. This year it is not different, except maybe they strain harder on my nerves. This year I am working in retail.

I am a craftsperson in every sense I can think of. I must carefully craft my response from all my skill at the craft of wordsmithing, to cover my association with the “Craft of the Wise.” Every transaction from open to close: “Merry Christmas.” This sounds different from well-wishing on my ears; there is nothing merry about it when my response is forced. There is an assumption in it: we are all Christians here, right? Right? “Happy Holidays!” I said once or twice. “No! Merry Christmas,” and there is spittle in the hiss. Why is it so threatening, to even half-heartedly acknowledge that other faiths exist?

“What are you doing for Christmas?” It’s a loaded question. I am walking in a mine field. I lie. “Oh, not much. I’m going to spend it with family.” “What did you get for them?” The real answer is nothing. Gifts feel strange, this time of year. But I will craft another lie, keep up the status quo.

Can I get Midwinter’s eve and the day after off from work? Will I have to work back to back with no sleep to keep the vigil? Yes, I am able to reserve the day, this year. I can sleep after I greet the dawn with an orange offered in my hand to the disk of the sun as it creeps over the horizon. I do not pretend this is a unique dilemma of being a Pagan; too many Jewish friends have been accorded no consideration for the High Holidays. And I’ve heard a response to these complaints, too. It is not very sympathetic. “Well you were the one who chose to go against everything that’s normal. Deal with it.”

I am a Pagan today because that is where my soul rests easy. I have no better answer than that, but yes, it is in some ways, I suppose, a choice, so far as needing to belong to a faith which heals one’s own soul is a choice, or that the habit of breathing through one’s nose is a choice, or the need to make sense of the world around you is a choice for most. It’s the same kind of choice as being a Christian– it is the soul’s answer. If I must justify being a Pagan to the Christian who asks, why does not the Christian have to justify their faith to me? I know the answer. I know you know it, too.

I have been a Pagan since my fifteenth year. I wrote a year ago of my “homecoming” as a teenager (as some Pagans think of their conversion). I’ve spent almost half my life in a tradition which doesn’t think of things in the ways I learned to take for granted as a child. I was born into atheism, but I was still part of the mainstream, still part of the Christian majority, in that it was Christmas, and I celebrated it.

As a wishy-washy atheist, my experience of American atheism was to just go along with the flow of consumerism, and Christmas was simply a thing which one celebrated. It meant presents. It signified winter. There was a fat man in a suit of red velvet. There was no church-going to contextualize it until I hit eleven. There were no rituals that I could see at the time that encapsulated the idea of “sacred” or “holy,” though now I would say “dinner” is ritual, “balloons under tree” is ritual, and so is the gift-giving dance… but I didn’t see these things then. I could eat anything placed in front of me that I wasn’t too finicky to handle, as I had no dietary restrictions based on religious law or spiritual conviction. I was a part of what people called “normal.” Given things are not often questioned. Normal is unspoken.

But here in this country as a Pagan, I am shut out of the “normal” that once embraced me, and it is cold outside those arms. I learned very quickly what it is to lose a privileged status (it is privilege to be able to assume everyone else is like you; it is privilege to be able to expect to be greeted “properly” on the right days and in the right season). It hurt. It was very easy to find myself the target in conversation of bullying. I was the “crazy Pagan.” I took the name as my own, self-deprecating, “I’m the crazy Pagan.” I think they found me threatening… Is it that my presence made people consider that there were folk in the world who didn’t do the same things they did? That people worshiped differently than the way that they were taught to worship, people who did things other than what they learned is “right?” Perhaps that is its core.

After digesting all these thoughts, I am still a craftsperson, and I have crafted my responses carefully at work. I do not know who among my customers is Buddhist. Jewish. Muslim. Pagan. Christian. Atheist. There is no way to know unless they wear an outward sign, mark it for the world to see… mark it for the world, and in turn, for the world to know what that mark means. I never say “Merry Christmas,” now. I don’t cop out to feign a glossy multicultural glow and bubble “Happy Holidays.” No. Instead I tell them this: “Have an excellent day.” And I mean it, every time it leaves my lips.

Learning to Walk, Learning to Speak

When I was little, I was unafraid to learn things. I didn’t care what people thought of my learning because I didn’t know yet that one was supposed to care. And one is only supposed to care, in this culture, when the “appointed time” for learning is over. I think the reason people say it over and again, that “you’re never too old to learn,” is because the baseline assumption in American culture is that there is a time in one’s life that you are “too old” to learn things, and that people learning things out of their “time” is laughable, or scary, or subversive, or admirable because it is also all of those other things.

I was told by a new love this week that he is completely unintimidated when it comes to learning, to other people, to that which life contains. With a statement like that, one can only hold it in one’s hand, a stone, neither accepting nor rejecting. It does not matter if it is provable, or if his self-image differs from the way he presents himself to the world– the statement itself is powerful.

I had to pause, mid-dinner, and fitfully reflect upon those words. When had I last felt so uninhibited when it came to learning? Since graduating high school, at least, I’ve felt constrained by internal “can’ts.” I can’t learn that, I can’t do this other, I haven’t the background, I haven’t the training, it’s out of my reach. Yes, it was all out of my reach. I had defined it as so, and in this very specific way, my thinking had shaped my reality. By imposing a hurdle where there could have been none, I had stymied my own progress before it even began. This is very different from the idea that “positive thinking” will fix all my problems– I loathe this notion, and its lingering taint in the Pagan community, but that shall have to be expanded upon another time. Instead, this notion is one of thought behind action, of beliefs reflected in the doing and beliefs that shape the doing. If one does not see an option, one cannot take that option.

Why had I for so long slunk about in the dark? I feared what I would look like in the process of learning something new, how I would appear to others who already knew what I was learning when I didn’t yet grasp a concept. I am being disingenuous. I cannot place “fear” in the past tense; it is still there. I still dread this. I still dread the accusations that I don’t comprehend something because I am female, and the implication that I will never be able to simply because of my gender and sex. Bound to this body, battle lines have been drawn even in my learning process. I did not catch the basics as a child because it was thought unimportant for a girl to know; I did not learn it “in my time.” I am older now, and I am a novice: a novice bladesmith, a novice woodworker, a novice with electronics, and a novice in the math that I am relearning. There is a great resistance to my learning– old novices are judged harshly.

To cope with that resistance, I will relearn something else. I will relearn a lack of intimidation. Even if that state is unattainable in its fullness, the attempt itself is valuable: it will cause me to approach learning differently. The difference, then, is in the doing.

Tungsten Carbide is a Girl’s Best Friend

Being the little social sciences fiend that I am, I tend follow Sociological Images. It is an excellent blog. Recently, a post appeared there discussing a DeBeers’ ad, that along with a link to an article in The Atlantic that a commenter added to the mix, got me thinking about a recent conversation a friend and I had a few weeks or so ago. She was picking out jewelry with her father; it was a gift from him to her. She had fallen in love with a pair of ruby earrings. The sales person asked as they entered the store, “Is this purchase for someone special?” My friend smiled, nodded, in that pleased way that a person can when they feel flattered.

They proceeded to look at the rubies. But the sales person would not be deterred– for you see, for women there are only diamonds. He showed them diamond after diamond, and my friend kept asking to see rubies.

Finally my friend boiled over. “I like these!” she fumed, to which the sales rep replied, “I know you like those, but does the special lady?” I report, with mixed emotions, that the sales person lost no limbs in this exchange. After having thoroughly disabused the clerk of the notion that a father could not be shopping for his daughter with her present, she walked out with her rubies birthday boxed.

The little anthropologist in me sits, antsy and preoccupied: despite the efforts of DeBeers, there is at least some resistance to the diamond. After all, there is counter culture, and this same friend has an emerald engagement ring. I myself would accept no ring when I had briefly been engaged so long ago– not because a diamond could not be afforded, but because… well, diamonds make for pretty ugly, lack-luster jewelry. Give me a hunk of amber, that which was once living tree-blood, worked into strange silver meshes, glowing golden in the light, any day. Even then, sparing, sparing, not too much: one piece I crafted myself, learning to work silver, learning the work of soldering, perhaps.

It is difficult to resist diamonds in this culture, due to DeBeers’ decades of marketing. The inability of the sales clerk to grasp why anyone might prefer another gem, and the flak my lack of one drew during my engagement (he doesn’t really love you if he didn’t get you a diamond; you’re not really engaged without a rock) leave a sour taste in my mouth. I will leave you with this, then, I suppose. I am not totally opposed to diamonds. You could afford some for me, if you like. Just be sure that they are incorporated into high quality cutting and abrading tools. Those are diamonds I could really use.

Spellbound

I rarely got to do things on my own time, for the longest while. It was like having a pocket full of dimes, each one nicked in turn, until the pocket turned out empty. I imagine that others struggle under the weight of this theft, too, minutes carved out by small necessary things, hours snatched in hunks by jobs, whole days stolen when one isn’t looking. At least, that’s the narrative spun by American culture. Living in the US, we here hear it on the way to work in our cars, the TV parrots this to our faces in programs and advertising, and the packaging of products we consume regularly manage to tell us, over and again, how busy our days are. Is it the same elsewhere? Do others notice this too? Everything sold on the basis of how busy we are, upon the premise that our lives can’t fit another thing in them.

I think it was this notion that finally broke, and not me. It had outlived its usefulness, and as cultural narratives go, I didn’t like it very much to start with anyway. So I took some time, stole it back, put it in my pocket with some trail mix and water in place of the dimes. I wore pants with very large pockets, that day. At the park, I even managed to fit a trail map in. My roommate came along, with a Camelbak full of water, and his pocket full of cookies. Ginger snaps, to be precise.

And we set off, slowly, deliberately, out into the woods of Myakka. The air was made of gold dust, and the tall spikes of golden weeds promised lascivious things to the bees. Finally, out and free of clocks, of stingy time, of credit report ads displayed on screen with funny dancing figures. The world was made of oak hammock and Florida prairie.

Ah, but the sun sets early these near-winter days, and here in Florida, its gold-orange disk dips so quickly below the horizon. Daylight reclined after awhile, and the air became thick with evening glow. And on a barely beaten track through prairie grass pollen plants, that’s when we saw her.

The doe didn’t so much as glance at us, nosing around for low growing leaves, but we stood stock still barely breathing, places traded for once. A full three minutes passed before she sauntered westward, across the trail, and disappeared under the palmettos.

“How far away was she from us? Twenty feet?” I asked my roommate.

“About that,” he said in wonderment.

Two grown adults, no strangers to venison, two logical thinkers, held fast by the presence of a deer. We resumed our conversation, slid back into our hiking gait, and rounded a sharp bend in the path.

Then, there she was again. Face to face with us, she started skittishly, but stayed, looking back at us with eyes of liquid black. Three breaths before she turned and retreated, and two too-busy city mice were awed to have been so thoroughly appraised… and been deemed worthy.