So Last Night, I Was Talking to Inigo Montoya…

…and we discussed a problem with a word. He didn’t think it meant what I thought it meant, and I think he thought rightly.

That word is “worship.” We also discussed “faith.” “Belief.” And “religion.” These are all concepts with which I toy, and use like foundations for elaborate thoughts… except, what I’m building is way over there, and he thought those words lay in this field here. Problematic.

See, I’m an atheist. A mystiskeptic. A funny little Pagan chick (cheep, cheep). And I “worship” “gods” who don’t exist. They’re ideas. Metaphors. Pure poetry. The things that guide my morality aren’t set down in any books, except maybe the Bokononist texts, and those never stopped being written (I am writing them myself, you are writing them yourself, we are weaving together at the loom, pulling out each others’ stitches, bowing the warp, following different designs, but we’re doing it together).

Of gods, Le Guin said it: “I talk about the gods, I am an atheist. But I am an artist too, and therefore a liar. Distrust everything I say. I am telling the truth.”

Of morality, Vonnegut said it: “Hello, babies. Welcome to Earth. It’s hot in the summer and cold in the winter. It’s round and wet and crowded. At the outside, babies, you’ve got about a hundred years here. There’s only one rule that I know of, babies—God damn it, you’ve got to be kind.”

Worship, the noun, as defined by the American Heritage College Dictionary, means “1.a. The reverent love and devotion accorded a deity, an idol, or a sacred object. b. The ceremonies, prayers, or other religious forms by which this love is expressed. 2. Ardent devotion; adoration.” The verb? Transitively, it’s this: “1. To honor and love as a deity. 2. To To regard with ardent or adoring esteem or devotion.” Or intransitively: “1.To participate in religious rites of worship. 2. To perform an act of worship.”

Worship, then, is not exactly what I do. But I play loose and fast with words, the rope spinning out of my hands, out of control. I am not devoted to a deity. Deity is a figmental mystery, deity is this universe, whole, including me, including you, deity is a metaphor and a damned good one, a completely inadequate one, a cliché, a sham, a reflection of everything we hope to be, a well of ideas… I make them up as I go. The only firm thing about deities that I can profess with any accuracy is that I can find nothing literal about them.

So how do you worship a thing like that? I esteem lies, adore artifice, and I don’t pray. Not to inventions. Worship is a rite, yes, and it is religious– but am I a religious being? Faith is blind. I like my eyes open, my ears perked, my nose full of air, my tongue tangled over syllables, my fingers holding earth. Faith… is a leap. Though I am a gazelle, I want to rough out where I will land. Belief? I believe in a universe. I don’t trust my senses. They are an artist’s senses. Philosophy tells me that even empiricism has its limits. Descartes does not tell us that we are; does thinking require an agent? I don’t believe anything. I believe everything.  “I believe, regardless, I believe in everyone.”  Oh, Joanna.

Tangled skeins aside, when I say worship, I mean something very specific. I mean to take part in wonderment. The universe is, and it’s vast, and this is a wonder and a mess. Worship is an act of reverence not for a thing in particular, or a single idea, but for all that is. It’s not about unquestioning devotion, but adoration of the fact that, hells, we’re here. My sacred object is everything, all I have learned, all that science unfolds, all that philosophy ponders. Worship is the stuff of ritual, of rite. Everything I do is ritual, a symbols game. Every act is worship.  Every inaction is worship.

And faith? Most take faith to mean the stuff of blind leaps, to accept axiomatically things which bear argument, to inhabit dogma, to follow without question. The given definition is “to accept without proof.” But what is to accept?  All things are in doubt. We are in a state of never knowing. Faith might be letting the possibility that the sun will rise tomorrow guide your plans to drive to work and maybe take a stop for a glass of orange juice along the way. Faith for me is in the hesitation. That heron wasn’t there yesterday. Because I do not know if the sun will rise, because I do not know if Huitzilopochtli has received a sacrifice these 52 years, I think I will stop to worship with the heron instead of taking that glass of orange juice.

Fightin’ Words

I head south on I-75, getting on at Fletcher Avenue in Tampa. “Fletcher.” One who fletches arrows, placing the feathers on the back end so the arrow flies true. I fly like an arrow southward. Until… I see it, a billboard, looming over the highway on the passenger’s side. “This is a Christian nation.” Red on white, attributing it to the Supreme Court. It reads like a shout. My right hand goes from the shifter to the pentacle at my neck, and I am suddenly small.

I can know that it is referencing the 1892 Church of the Holy Trinity v. United States decision, I can know how this decision is viewed by justices today, and I can know that Justice Brewer, who was involved in the decision, also upheld Oregon’s limitations on the working hours of women not because of worker’s rights, but because women’s child-bearing health was considered a thing to be protected. I can know these things. But they don’t help when a large billboard in red towers over my drive, telling me I’m not wanted in the country of my birth because my religion isn’t right.

How do Muslims, Jews, Buddhists feel driving under that billboard? As small as me? Smaller? Angry? Indignant? How do atheists feel on their way to work, looking up and being told “you’re not wanted here”?

It is a tactic employed by a select group to make others feel “othered.” Like the young man in the Smithsonian calling the timeline of European history “bullshit” because it didn’t conform to the Bible, there is rage and anger in this billboard’s outburst. There is a fight here. It isn’t a fight about the soul of the nation, though some would have you believe it. It isn’t even about which religions are socially okay to practice. No, it’s about privilege. It’s about who gets to feel comfortable all the time, and who has to walk around feeling ashamed of themselves because they are secretly or not so secretly part of a pariah group. It’s about who gets the freedom to express their religious devotion publicly, and who has to fight to get days off to worship. It’s about belonging.

The sign had its effect, though: I drive under the shadow of the billboard, curled inward on myself, nursing a mental punch to the gut. “This is a Christian nation.” And I am not a Christian.

Edited on 2/24/11 to add clarifying detail.

An Altar Made of Bone

Two years had passed and there He was, still as massive as a bull elephant. Triceratops. A proper name. His old bones unshaken, I was small before Him again, overwhelmed. A brief flash in the annals of the universe, He was older than I could imagine (I am a universe to the microbes of my skin, older than time itself).

It is strange to me how every time I stand before Him I am fixed in place, a microbe myself before his ancient form. It is strange to me that the tremors never cease, that there is no lessening of the force of His presence– repetition makes things familiar, yes? Should I be a jaded brat before his ossified mass? No. Some things are too sacred.

A whole earth to my microbes, I dared a photograph. Is there blasphemy in a faith taken on instinct? But holy, holy are impermanent things. The digital is ephemeral; I will delete it when I am home, erasing my footprints as I walk forward.

I heard a calling, His bones to mine: “Be open. Stay open.”

Tears would have pushed me under, but my love touched me on my shoulder, an electric jolt into another universe. Is there blasphemy in the temple of the moment, before the river of time? The instant was undone.

“Be open. Stay open.” The echoes are a wave.

From Small Seeds

I planted on Lughnasadh. I planted okra and I planted pumpkins. I planted aubergines. And in no more than four days’ time, there were sprouts. And after a week, one week, they were four inches tall. That’s some magic for you.

What makes me marvel most, though, is that for large projects around the house, I drag my heels; they are start-stop-start affairs. My garden? It doesn’t matter how huge or outlandish the project, I simply do it, in pieces if necessary given my tight schedules these days, and the world feels a better place when I’m out in the dirt and weeds and plants. That, too, is a kind of magic. It’s a magic akin to renewal, and my pantheon has a place for words and history, truth and lies, stimulants and geekery– but not yet one for the green growy things of the earth.

I will sit by my garden-goyle and wait, today. I will absently weed my late-planted tomatoes. And I will ask to know what garden Gods guide the forces of my plant beds, the vast expanse of Myakka prairie, the tunnels of rhododendron of Tennessee. Demeter/Ceres doesn’t fit, for the garden is a wilder place than people give credit. Pan does not play well with Caffeina and Triceratops. I will wait until I see a vision of soil-stained hands and hiking boots. I will wait until the tree roots encircle my heart, until the river, tannin-brown, brings to me leaves from a book I cannot read. Then, I will know. Then, I will know.

A Liturgy for Caffeina

It is a ritual for a Wednesday: the last of the previous week’s roast steeping in the press, and I stand, preparing the green coffee beans for this week’s worship. I am a novice in this ritual. Caffeina does not rank her followers, but each task has its own order. I am an adept of the all-nighter, the brain-storm, the last-minute-writing-to-deadline-rush. I am an initiate of the mystery of the bean. I am merely a beginner in the rites of roasting.

As clumsy as I am in this, as uneven my roasts, I have to tell you, anything which can still my flurry of thoughts, which can tame the hydra of my mind, has got to be a holy thing. My head is never quiet. Not until this nectar of the Gods passes my lips. I am at the mercy of the bang pop clatter crash of the notions welling up–tasks left half-finished, tumbling into incoherence. An exercise, an example? Stop thinking linearly. Geometrically, imagine that every thought you have is equidistant from your current thought, a sphere of notions. They exist all at once, or perhaps rapid fire, creating this web of ideas linked only by the stimulus that spawned them. The statement “cheddar is pretty good,” logically follows the question “what soda had you liked best as a child?” because the soda was root beer and the first time you had it, your aunt served it with party appetizers, including various types of cheeses– of which Swiss and cheddar were among– and you had an abiding love of cheddar since before that time. And all of this remembering occurs in a split second, along with a great deal of other thoughts and memories, like the décor at your aunt’s party, and the taste of the Swiss which made you twitch in disgust, and that time that you asked for muenster on your sandwich and your friend made it with Swiss instead, not knowing… so you see, cheese is the logical topic to discuss when soda is brought up. This mode of thinking is my native land. Every sentence births a seething mass like this, and nothing but that black brew can stem the tide.

Caffeina bless this task. I sip my coffee plain before I set the beans in the preheated pan. There is something of Zen in this doing: I am whole and here as the roasting begins, a rhythm of moving the skillet, a pattern to turning the beans. This is my calm, my center. I smile at the first crack, watching these seeds go dusty green to gold to chocolate. For the first time all day, the chattering is still. These are the gifts of Caffeina: sharpness, presence, clarity.

I pull the roast from the heat, step outside to blow off all the “chaff.” The beans tinkle against the sides of the glass jar as I pour them in to set. I will at first leave the lid off. I will seal it firmly tomorrow. Caffeina bless this task.

And the Oxford English Dictionary Said unto the Poet…

A mystiskeptical seeker, my faith is strange. The spiritual truths that I have I know are mine alone, and they have been hard-won. Believe me when I tell you that I am aware of how silly this stuff can sound. Then again, from the right perspective, everything can sound silly. And I am quite fond of silly things.

I am a priestess. There are many who say that all Pagans are clergy, and while I wouldn’t quite put it that way, I don’t entirely disagree. I don’t claim a fancy title, but perhaps I am competent to listen to problems, and I know I am competent to conduct my own rituals. With a little work, I can lead a circle. It’s a skill more than anything else. But a priestess in popular conception is a priestess of a Deity. Maybe more than one.

This is where it gets sticky. If you laugh, I promise I’ll pretend I didn’t hear. I promise I won’t stumble through it, racing to have it done and to await your giggling, your snickers. See, my Deities are not the Greek Gods. They are not Roman Divinities. They aren’t Celtic, Norse, nor Egyptian. I do not worship the ancients of Sumer, nor do I appropriate Hindu Gods. I could make this list a lot longer but… you get the picture. I found my pantheon preserved in fossils, reading myths on the slant then watching the spiders weave. I discovered them in coffee grounds and in reference pages. They are Gods that span my world, and maybe I didn’t uncover them. Maybe one by one, they discovered me.

I call on them when I need them, when I dream them, when the moon is right, when my throat opens up and they are there. Metaphors a like that. They abound because they are bridges, balloons, and maybe pumpkin carriages, too. I call them by name: Arachne. Triceratops. Caffeina. The Oxford English Dictionary. It all seems so serious until I break out the bibliomancy, crack a page, set the maggot-frying-lens, and the definition upon which my finger has fallen is “mirth.”

Maybe it’s that all religion is really quite silly and it’s the traditions and trappings that let us think otherwise. If so, there’s no reason not to invent new ones, raucous with absurdity, riotous with glee. In that case, I’ll stick with a mirthful smirk and a coffee in hand, watching the spiders work and dreaming dinosaurs.

But for Fear, I Would Be Lost

A friend has loaned me a book. Common enough occurrence. I was skeptical from the start, but she told me it was good: Conversations with God. I accepted it because I think it’s often prudent to withhold judgment on things I’ve not tried. I took the book home. Actually opening it to begin reading took quite a long time. I am glad I did, though.

No, I do not like the book at all–its didacticism tired me and the simplistic formula of continually repeating, “no, I don’t follow you,” or “say that again?” was tiresome. Then in the first twenty pages it hit upon something, a big something, a powerful something. Neale Donald Walsch postulates that everything that motivates human kind stems from one of two emotions and only one. These two that he puts forth are love and fear. He holds them up as opposites, a duality, poles not on a continuum, but absolutes, for the so-called “Sponsoring Thought” of any emotion can have root in only one of these. He says that “fear-based love” is rooted in a lie, and that fear “contracts, closes down, draws in, runs, hides, hoards harms.” he says of love that it “expands, opens up, sends out, stays, reveals, shares, heals.” Opposites in every way. Is it all rooted in love or fear? Does he mean for me to believe that righteous indignation has its root in love, and anger over abandonment in fear? Anger has but two flavors? Or is it that there is no such thing as anger at all and one only experiences it as an outgrowth of fear be cause it’s a “negative” emotion?

What then, I wonder, is awe? In this model there is no space for the sheer terror, smallness, wonderment and joy that is wrapped up in this sensation. There is no room in this schematic to encompass all the strange whorls of emotion, everything from dread to hope that can be swept up in standing before a thing so much greater, older, wiser, deeper, stranger than oneself. What was it I felt before the great Triceratops in the hall of the Smithsonian, I tiny and trembling, shaken to the core and crying like a child, voices echoing through my very bones? These experiences had root in neither fear nor love. They were of awe. And I would say hope has no place in his diagram, nor curiosity, glee, selfishness, a sense of ease, anger, or peace. These are all emotions in the human scope. We feel moved by things sometimes for which we have no name. To call them all fear or love narrows the breadth and glory of joys, shames us for our pain and misery, blames the victim of poverty for their own aching. No.

And of fear alone? Fear can, yes, make one shrink, draw inward and hide. Fear also shows us where the boundaries are. Fear can dare us to test them, fear can keep us safe. And while I do not agree with everything she has written, Starhawk does say this well: “where there’s fear, there’s power.” In the roiling pit of fear lies the well of transformation.

As for the book? Though I am not enjoying it for its own sake, I will continue to read. I have learned the hard way not to discount lessons wrapped in contrary packages. This lesson learned, however, is one which must often be repeated.

Imbolc & Oranges

Winter kisses this place, too.
You don’t believe,
but last week, we scraped
frost from our windshields
and the oranges were killed.

It’s strawberry season,
and Plant City’s rise to
our lips.
We come home to hot
coffee and chocolate, treasures
from afar, paid in sweat
and blood: a net that
spans the globe.
We sweeten them with Florida
sugar, despite corn’s lobbying.
We wish for warmer days
(or revel in the chill).

Us? Our forge has sat quiet
in our garage until cold nights
brought it back to life,
and now we work in words
and steel, offerings to Neighbors,
friends, and Brigit.
It is the season
for Renaissance Faires.

There are no lambs for lambing,
but cold mornings catch
cattle huddled, breath clouds
steaming. The next morning
sees fog, clumped, along the highway.

It is Imbolc, even in Florida:
Miami, Tampa, Pensacola.
Light the fires
Key West to Tallahassee.
Our seasons shift slow
in the sculpted tropics of Orlando.
In Fort Myers, Gainesville, Jupiter,
we are home.

Creative Commons License
Imbolc & Oranges by Story Boyle is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 United States License.

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.

Forgetfulness Is a Luxury

Not being a Christian, it stands to reason that I don’t celebrate Christmas. The holiday in itself does not annoy me. The Christmas carols in themselves are kind of cool. It’s nice to have holidays that one celebrates with others of a like mind, with friends and family, doing traditional things whether they be religious or familial in origin. But Christmas is bigger than these things. Christmas, dear friends, is a machine. This is not a new observation. You’ve all see the garish red and green festooning the signs in stores advertising HUGE HOLIDAY SAVINGS!!!! BUY NOW!!!! You’ve heard the same songs on endless loop since November. You may or may not, depending on your own religious (or non-religious) leanings, have had that same argument with the cashier at the grocery: “Merry Christmas!”

“Happy Holidays!”

No, I said Merry Christmas!”

And then you inch carefully toward the door, fearing to upset the cashier or provoke more venom.

When I realized that I had finally gotten sick of my favorite holiday music, the Nutcracker Suite, I knew then that I had had enough. That is part of the reason I fled to New York. Don’t laugh. I avoided Manhattan like it was a horse plop in the road, and instead settled myself into a friend’s apartment (oh, glorious north eastern cast iron radiators!) in the middle of a Jewish neighborhood.

In an Orthodox neighborhood, I didn’t fit. There were many little rituals with which I was unfamiliar that I watched the people around me take for granted. It is a sweet luxury to be part of the norm. The fact that I didn’t observe them marked me an outsider right away. There is a pattern to life there, like a dance, and I didn’t know the steps. It was nice, though, to be watching a different dance.

I woke up Christmas morning and, for the first time in my life, did not remember it was Christmas. A call from my grandmother was the only thing to remind me of the date, and my family’s well-meaning choruses of “Merry Christmas, Merry Christmas.” But I forgot it was Christmas. I forgot. All the neighborhood shops were open, no mention of the day, no silly plastic decorations in red and green. I went to a party that night, and none of the attendees celebrated Christmas.

The nicest part of the whole day was spending the bulk of it in a small neighborhood café, lingering over good coffee and even better conversation. I almost escaped the long arm of Christmas. Sadly, even there, leaning over my breve, I was subjected to the piped-in horror of elevator versions of my least favorite Christmas music.