Posts Tagged ‘authenticity’

As I was looking around one of the local bookstores for books about Wicca, the selections seemed nauseatingly self-promotional: Let me enthrall you with the story of how I abandoned corporate America to become High Priestess of my own coven, moving effortlessly between privileged positions in two very different societies. That is not my kind of story, so I left the store without buying anything. A few days later, I looked up the Wicca books at the library where I work, and there was exactly one. This one.

I am not what you would call witchy. Raised in Manhattan, I confirm plenty of the stereotypes of a New Yorker: an overeducated liberal, a feminist, a skeptic long suspicious of organized religion, surrounded by friends – several of them artists, writers, and filmmakers – who consider agnosticism an uncomfortable level of devotion. I’m not prone to joining groups of any stripe, particularly the spiritual variety. I believe in something transcendent, but I’ve yet to meet someone with a convincing label for it.

At the same time, we each have a dimension hidden beneath our carefully cultivated surface, a piece of ourselves that we can’t shake off or explain away. For me, it’s this: I’ve always been drawn to the outer edges, the fringe – communities whose esoteric beliefs cut them off from the mainstream but also bind them closer together. As a writer, I took a stab at a novel about the life of David Koresh, in part because I envied the plain certainty of his followers; I cooked up thin excuses to report on a Billy Graham revival in Queens, visit a New Age commune in California, move into a convent in Houston. On one level, I’ve been driven by an easy curiosity, an attraction to the exotic and far-out – which the whole spectrum of belief has long seemed to me – but I’ve also been looking hard for those intangibles I might have in common with even the most alien congregation. As a natural outgrowth of this impulse, I am setting out to make a documentary about American forms of mysticism. Finally, through the drawn-out, painstaking production of a feature-length film, I’ll come to understand what I’ve been chasing, beat it into a tangible product, a neat conversation piece, and move on.

I’m not sure what I was expecting when I opened this book, but I sure as hell wasn’t expecting to find myself. Alex Mar is a very different person from me, with a radically different background, but this approach to belief is very similar to what I’ve been feeling. As I read the book and followed her journey through American Paganism, there’s a formlessness to her spirituality that I relate to very powerfully.

I want to stop sublimating this religious drive and instead embrace it, pitch forward into it, see how it might better serve me. Stop being this spiritual dilettante, a professional “seeker.” If I have a natural talent for belief, I must be a natural fit for something to believe in – some system somebody has laid out somewhere. I imagine a near future in which all my parts might align. For the first time, I find myself surrounded by people who assume just such a thing is possible.

I keep getting Poison’s song stuck in my head, asking the world to “give me something to believe in,” and I’m still working toward that. I’m figuring things out, a little at a time, and there are traditions in this book that seem appealing and others that don’t. Part of this is Mar’s own story, but she also explains the origins of the most common pagan traditions, and these stories all seem to revolve around a single charismatic leader, as I imagine most stories about the origin of belief systems do.

Gerald Gardner is the first of these leaders; he started Wicca in England sometime in the last century. He seems to have traveled around the world and cobbled together a practice, a lot of stuff from the Freemasons and traditional religions from Southeast Asia and Africa, and some of his own inspiration. There’s nudity and sadism and the kind of stuff Christians like to spread rumors about, but for most of the followers it’s about believing in power and accessing it through ritual, and some of those rituals involve sex and violence. His ideas spread around, and eventually led to the type of earth-loving mother-goddess worship we think of today.

Victor Anderson is another important leader, this one from the Pacific Northwest – you know, suicide country. He brought forth the Feri strand of Wicca, something more primal and less old-man-sex-fetish. There is sex involved, but there’s a stronger element of consent, and you can complete that part of the ritual with your regular partner in the privacy of your own home. The name hints of the old-world traditions about Little People, but the connection there is more related to the sense that nature is wise and magical and unforgiving, not so much to tiny people with wings. When I first came out six years ago, a couple of friends (who don’t know each other) suggested I go to a retreat, and I think it was Faerie rather than Feri, but they both presented it as a weeklong gay orgy in the woods. As if I have ever had the money for a weeklong retreat of any type. I’ve often marveled at the fact that people think they know me and yet think I’d be okay with that, as if I would be comfortable having several partners in a single day, as if it doesn’t take me a great deal of contemplation to move from one to the next. Yes, there’s a lot of power in sexual energy, and I do enjoy it rather a lot, but I think I’d be too easily overstimulated. It’s an intense experience, so it takes time for me to assimilate it. I’m just not promiscuous. And while I enjoy going skyclad in the privacy of my own home, I don’t think I’d like it in public. I feel a little outré just taking my shirt off at a public swimming pool.

The chapter about Dianic Wicca, the part that grew out of the feminism of the 1960s, feels less strongly dominated by a single overwhelming personality, and that actually makes a lot of sense. In our culture, we’re taught that women are more communal and less ego-driven than men, so a religion born in our culture that doesn’t focus on men logically should reflect those values. Notable names include Zsuzsanna Budapest, Selena Fox, and Ruth Barrett. As one of them remarked, this movement isn’t anti-men, it’s just not about us. There’s a little blip of a hetero wedding ceremony in this chapter, so men aren’t excluded, and even those few lines had me in tears. If I ever get married again, I want it to be like that.

Will you cause him pain?

I may.

Is that your intention?

It is not.

There are some areas of the faith that make space for men, but there are others that don’t. I agree that it’s important for women to create their own spaces where they can feel comfortable without any men around. I taught a class a few years ago where all the students were female, and it had a dramatically different feeling than my classes usually have. I try to treat my students as equals, because that creates a camaraderie that I respond well to. It sometimes involves swearing in front of the class (informal language creates a sense of intimacy) and giving the “tough love” that tells them that I have confidence they can do more and be better than they are. But with the class of women, there was no question of equality. It was more like having a non-sexual harem – there was an element of submission before authority that I am unused to, and it evoked a much gentler response from me. As the only man and the teacher, they all looked to me to lead the discussion and make pronouncements from on high – there’s nothing natural about this. What I’m saying is, even one man in the room can disrupt the sense of community and produce a strong sense of conformity to gender roles, no matter how gay he is. There’s a freedom that can only be found in single-gender environments.

The last of the big names from the past is Aleister Crowley (of course). I’d heard his name in literary criticism – late Victorian authors were really into the paranormal, and Crowley dated a friend of Aubrey Beardsley and joined the same order as W. B. Yeats. He quickly spun off and started his own thing, though; his order is a very explicit reaction against Christianity, much more directly than the others. It is anti-Christianity, with the parody of the Mass and the liturgy, flipping it into a worship of gods Christians would consider demonic. Crowley was also really involved with the tarot, and it sounds like some elements of his Mass are living representations of the pictures on the card set he designed. This chapter was the most troubling for me – reading it felt a bit like sticking my finger in an electrical outlet, the electric charge and the sense that something is wrong – which either means (a) it’s definitely not for me, and I’ll never join this group, or (b) I’m not ready for it, and now is not the time. The thing that bothers me most is the way that it defines itself in opposition. The description of the Mass felt like enacted hatred. I understand that all of these groups were started in supposedly Christian countries, and so to some extent they’re all at least slightly reacting against Christianity, but Crowley’s crowd were the only ones I thought were nasty about it. When she describes the people she meets there, they do seem like nice people, but that service is clearly meant as a Fuck-You-Jesus in a way the others are not. It’s presented as much more temple-oriented, less natural.

Throughout the book, the most important figure (beside the author) is Morpheus, a priestess from California. She’s in the now, not the historical parts of the book. Over the course of their friendship, Morpheus goes from a more nature-centered approach (she built her own henge) to focusing primarily on one of the ancient Irish Goddesses, the Morrigan. As she’s described here, I do not connect with the Morrigan at all. She’s a warrior queen, and I have no ambitions to be either a warrior or a queen. I’m much more likely to follow a wise woman gathering herbs than a sword-wielding shield-maiden, despite my near-total ignorance of botany. While I don’t identify with Morpheus’s journey, I do think that she gives Mar excellent advice:

I also don’t think everyone’s experience is the same or should be. Just because you may not have had a dramatic moment of being chosen by the Goddess doesn’t mean the Gods don’t want you, if you know what I mean. […] So I think it isn’t always helpful to look for a dramatic “calling” or marking experience . . . If the tradition speaks to you in a meaningful way, that is a good place to start.

Which is important to me, because I don’t have a strong sense of vocation right now. I’m looking for starting points.

Skepticism can be really toxic, because it makes you not trust your own lived experiences, the evidence of your senses, without outside verification.

Which is also important to me, because I’m coming out of a time of skepticism back into belief, and trusting myself is an important part of that.

There’s a footnote that I’d like to comment on:

It’s unclear how a graphic book on the Craft made it into the library of a very Christian town – though I’ve heard similar stories from a few people around the country.

It’s because librarians are magic. Even those operating in the Christian tradition seem to have something witchy about them. There’s something about libraries that seems to promote free thinking and a distance from societal expectations, which creates a space for witchcraft even in the rural South.

I’m here, there’s no holding back.

I don’t feel converted to the types of paganism I saw in this book, except maybe that early bit about the henge. Looking in the spaces between, though, I think there would be room for me in that community, if I chose it. I have a friend who describes herself as a “kitchen witch,” and that phrase makes a lot of sense to me. If there’s magic in the world, isn’t it a more worthwhile practice to pour love into the food you feed your family and friends than to hex the bitch who is trying to steal your man? Obviously, one practitioner can do both, but I disagree with the metaphors people use to justify cruelty. Frankly, it seems like many people get into witchery for the sake of doing spells, accessing power for its own sake rather than for the purpose of doing good. Magic represents a bending of natural laws, and that’s not something I want to do. I want to feel whole, to understand my place in the Web of Wyrd instead of trembling it. The emotional cleansing that is deemed necessary before training really appeals to me – I want to feel connected to the earth and to myself; joining soul to ground by means of the body may be more of a martial-arts thing than a Pagan thing, but they’re not mutually exclusive. I want to spread beauty and make the world a better place; I believe evil has to be healed, not punished or destroyed.

I also believe very strongly that dead people should be left alone. Don’t bother them with your problems; being dead doesn’t make them smarter than you. And if it’s someone you love, then let them go. Don’t bind them to earth with your pain. That’s not a kindness to them. There’s a guy she meets that goes around robbing graves – decapitating the body and turning the heads into oracles – and I know he’s probably not using those skulls for sexual purposes, but it still feels like he’s raping corpses. One more reason to be cremated and use the ashes as fertilizer. After I’m gone, I want my body to rise up as a tree.

I think this is a great book as an introduction to Paganism in contemporary America. Many of the experienced practitioners, on the other hand, were rather angry about it. They felt it was exploitative, like she was an identity tourist who betrayed them by only pretending to be sincere. I didn’t get that feeling, though. She threw herself into the Craft as much as she could, and I don’t blame her for not finding an identity there. Five years is a good length of time; if she didn’t find her niche, maybe she doesn’t have one in that community. Some others complained that the historical sections weren’t academic enough, but I don’t think that was really her goal. This is a deeply personal book, so she tells the history the way she understands it. I have the same response to those people who didn’t like the way they were portrayed in the book – other people don’t see us as we see ourselves, they see us through the lens of their own experiences and emotions. So when someone tells a story about me, I don’t always recognize myself in the depiction (Early on, The Ex used to say, But it makes a better story this way). If you didn’t write the book, if it’s not your journey, then of course you look like just a flat character in someone else’s story. That person only saw a small part of you, so they can’t write you the way you really are, in your fullness. For that, you’d need to write your own story. Think back to what she learned about faith: you have to be true to your own experience, and I think Alex Mar was that. The problem people have with her book is that her experience doesn’t match theirs, and I think it’s unfortunate that they would expect it to. How can we see things the same way when the lenses of our experience are different?

In the end, she’s still an outsider. She hasn’t found a shape for her belief yet, which is something else that makes me feel close to her. I think I’m not the only one that this formlessness would appeal to; when you’re on the outside of a tradition, it can be hard to read a book about it by someone who’s on the inside. Authors writing about their own religious beliefs are usually writing for their own community; there’s something incommunicable and unapproachable about spiritual experiences that we as readers have not experienced, kind of like how hard it is to carry on a conversation about Saudi Arabia with someone who’s never left the South. How can I describe air that is so dry it has no life in it, when you live so much with humidity that you don’t notice how nourishing your breath is? How can I share the feeling that my value in the world was reduced to a single activity, one which I valued less and less?  How can I make you see the discomfort of living in a society that rejects you without repelling you so much you end the discussion? How can I give you a flavor of the foreign that is still real enough to you that you can understand it? So yes, in some ways the book ends up being reductive because it’s intended for a specific audience, one that doesn’t have experience with the rituals and magic of modern American Paganism.

There’s a lot of conflict and competition in the occult subculture. They’re still just people, so they think that what’s right for them is right for everyone. Many of them also make their living through teaching or practicing, so they become defensive and protective of their livelihoods, just like traditional priests and pastors. I’m not jumping straight onto the Wicca bandwagon just yet; I’m trying to be deliberate and understand what I believe before I take any initiations or that sort of thing. This isn’t an energy I want to take lightly.

Advertisements

I don’t really understand J. D. Salinger’s intense popularity. I first read The Catcher in the Rye in my late 20s, and I was really disgusted by it. Holden Caulfield has more money than problems, and that itself is becoming a problem in his teenage life. He lands himself in a mental institution, apparently so that he can finally suffer authentically. I spent my teenage life suffering in poverty and isolation, so it’s really hard for me to relate. However, I have friends who really get behind Franny and Zooey, so I gave it a try. It’s much easier for me to get into – much less whining and more of a struggle that I understand.

Franny and Zooey is basically a story of three conversations. Since the book is two hundred pages long, the conversations are a bit lengthy. This is not the sort of book to read if you’re into action; more My Dinner with Andre and less Andre the Giant. The main issue is that Franny is trying to ‘pray without ceasing,’ as the Bible recommends. But it’s really stressing her out and not really enlightening her.

The book begins with Franny meeting her boyfriend Lane for lunch. They’re a couple of college kids (attending different schools; this is the 1950s) who are having lunch before a football game. Franny feels kind of sick, which pisses Lane off. Franny’s preparing to drop out because everything is so fake. There’s the established conformity, and there’s the equally established bohemian alternative conformity, and no one is really himself, not even the professors. She’s looking for some kind of authentic experience, so she looks to religion. Religious writers have been saying for centuries that repeated chants can induce a trance state that fosters mystical experiences, and that’s what she’s doing. She found a book in the library about a peasant that wanders around Europe saying The Jesus Prayer (Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy on me, a miserable sinner), so that’s her mantra. Franny’s spiritual search is played off of Lane’s materialism: he focuses his attention on objects, what coat is she wearing, what does she order for lunch, that sort of thing, and he reflects with satisfaction on the fact of being seen in the right restaurant with the right sort of girl. Too bad Franny’s behavior is becoming erratic; she’s not the right sort of girl after all. She just looks like it. A sample of their conversation:

“I don’t know what a real poet is. I wish you’d stop it, Lane. I’m serious. I’m feeling very peculiar and funny, and I can’t – ”

“All right, all right – O.K. Relax,” Lane said. “I was only trying – ”

“I know this much, is all,” Franny said. “If you’re a poet, you do something beautiful. I mean you’re supposed to leave something beautiful after you get off the page and everything. The ones you’re talking about don’t leave a single, solitary thing beautiful. All that maybe the slightly better ones do is sort of get inside your head and leave something there, but just because they do, just because they know how to leave something, it doesn’t have to be a poem, for heaven’s sake. It may just be some kind of terribly fascinating, syntaxy droppings – excuse the expression. Like Manlius and Esposito and all those poor men.”

Lane took time to light a cigarette for himself before he said anything. Then: “I thought you liked Manlius. As a matter of fact, about a month ago, if I remember correctly, you said he was darling, and that you – ”

“I do like him. I’m sick of just liking people. I wish to God I could meet somebody I could respect. . . . Would you excuse me for just a minute?” Franny was suddenly on her feet, with her handbag in her hand. She was very pale.

I like Franny’s ideas of poetry, particularly of mid-twentieth-century poets. I wish more artists were interested in making the world a beautiful place, instead of merely reflecting the fuckeduppedness they see around them. The world is beautiful, and there are lovely things in it, and I’d like to contribute to that. I want the world to be more beautiful for my having been in it, not angrier.

The second conversation takes place a few days later, in the bathroom. Zooey is reading a letter he received years ago from his brother Buddy while sitting in the tub. Buddy steps forward for a few minutes to identify himself as the narrator and to explain a bit about the family – five brothers, two sisters, just like mine, two dead, not at all like mine. Salinger writes about this family in several other stories; Seymour seems the most important, he being the oldest, and the rest of his family’s stories seem to revolve around him, or the lack of him. He commits suicide in 1948. Seymour and Buddy are only two years apart, and they seem to have been inseparable. Buddy’s narrating the stories might be why Seymour seems so paramount. Seymour and Buddy were in college when Zooey and Franny were young, and they taught their youngest siblings all about Eastern philosophy when they were young children. Franny and Zooey have often felt like freaks ever since, but when Franny has her religious crisis, Seymour’s the one she wants.

I feel more than one pang of envy when I read about the Glass family. Yeah, we have the same complement of boys and girls, but my family is closer in age and further in character. The scene where Zooey goes into Seymour and Buddy’s room hits me the hardest – the two oldest Glass kids had all the same reading interests, so while their room is odd, it’s clear that it is the result of two minds that work in unison. I don’t have that in my family. The brother closest to me in age told me he’d rather have me dead than gay, so he pretends that I am. At almost exactly fifteen months, he and I are the chronologically closest in our family, but we’re pretty far removed in terms of priorities and values. The next older is almost three years older than me. When he flunked out of college and came home in disgrace, we discovered that we had a lot in common. Upon reflection, I think a lot of it was isolation and the need to connect. A few years later he came to the same university I was attending, and over the next three years it became clear that we weren’t quite as similar as we had thought. Eventually I felt like I was valued so long as I was his Mini-Me; when I asserted myself, we tended to drift apart. In general, my family tends to think of me as a useless sort of blank slate. The ex really helped for a while; she presented me to my family in a way that they could understand and like; my solitary visits post-divorce have reminded me that I really do need an interpreter between me and my own family.

Anyway, this second conversation is between Zooey and his mother. She’s concerned about his television career (both parents are old vaudevillians), and she wants him to talk to Franny about whatever’s going on with her. Like Lane, Zooey seems to swear with unnecessary force at strange times in the conversation. Also, they favor the religious swear words, the ones I never use. I will say shit or fuck with somewhat reckless abandon, particularly when upset, but I never use goddamn, and seldom damn or hell. I also do not swear in my mother’s presence, so Zooey swearing at his mother puts me off. I can understand his desire to get her out of the bathroom while he’s in the tub, but the rudeness he uses to accomplish that (which fails, by the way – this conversation is about twice as long as the previous) makes me feel uncomfortable. There’s another treasure trove for the thing theorists when she opens the medicine cabinet – so much useless stuff crammed into a little space.

The third conversation, the one you’ve all been waiting for, is between the two titular characters. Zooey tries to talk Franny into a better frame of mind, and by ‘better’ we mean ‘more similar to his.’ I think that taking on her discontent with academia is a good start, probably because I get frustrated with it too. I think that my frustration may come from my perceived rejection from it – I applied to doctoral programs for years, and never got accepted. In the end, I gave up, because they’re not interested in giving people time and space to develop ideas. They’re interested in finding people who are going to contribute to The Profession and training them to do it properly. Not much caring for The Profession, I don’t get accepted to their programs.

Way back in the early Aughts, I saw a sign up for a demonstration against the impending invasion of Iraq. I (still) think it is/was a bad idea, so I went to the protest. I was fine and happy as long as we were protesting against war, but the person with the megaphone then started making personal attacks on the president and going on about environmental policy. I was never a big fan of Bush Jr, and I’m a big fan of conserving and protecting the environment, but I wasn’t there for that. If we’re here to protest the war, let’s focus on the war instead of mixing the war into a mass of other issues that just foster Bush-bashing. Keep a clarity of purpose. Zooey accuses Franny of making the same mistake.

If you’re going to go to war against the System, just do your shooting like a nice, intelligent girl – because the enemy’s there, and not because you don’t like his hairdo or his goddam necktie.

Haircuts and fashion sense don’t make someone a good teacher. Yet, when students dislike a teacher, they seldom think through precisely what they disagree with. Instead, they’ll launch into this sort of personal attack, as if style were the essential thing. I remember one of my favorite teachers in high school was once criticized for wearing a brown belt with black shoes. To his face.

I think it’s much more important that a teacher feel a vocation to teach. I think that’s what Zooey is trying to get at in this section on ego.

Take your Professor Tupper. From what you say about him, anyway, I’d lay almost any odds that this thing he’s using, the thing you think is his ego, isn’t his ego at all but some other, much dirtier, much less basic faculty. My God, you’ve been around schools long enough to know the score. Scratch an incompetent schoolteacher – or, for that matter, college professor – and half the time you find a displaced first-rate automobile mechanic or a goddam stonemason. Take LeSage, for instance – my friend, my employer, my Rose of Madison Avenue. You think it was his ego that got him into television? Like hell it was! He has no ego any more – if ever he had one. He’s split it up into hobbies. He has at least three hobbies that I know of – and they all have to do with a big, ten-thousand-dollar workroom in his basement, full of power tools and vises and God knows what else. Nobody who’s really using his ego, his real ego, has any time for any goddam hobbies.

When I was in school, I liked just about everything, and was good at the academic subjects. It’s great for being a student, but terrible when you have to specialize. I don’t think there’s any one profession that could consume my entire life like Zooey expects it to. Besides, as much as I like handcrafts, I don’t think I could support myself and my kids with my knitting.

I notice that the passages I’m pulling out are decidedly Zooey-heavy. The story is like that, but I’m a little too close to Franny’s mental state to derive much benefit from her. I’m kind of in the market for a spiritual guide, but I keep rejecting the ones that are available. I’m afraid that I’m going to find something that works for others in my independent reading, try it for myself for a while, then go to pieces when it doesn’t work for me. And,

When you first felt the urge, the call, to say the prayer, you didn’t immediately start searching the four corners of the world for a master. You came home.

I’d like to go home. We can only handle a finite number of stressors at one time; going to a familiar place reduces the stress from the environment. This is an important strategy when internal stress runs high. Mine is becoming problematic, and I’d like to go home now.

Franny and Zooey is a good book. Franny has a major religious crisis, but it remains unresolved, potentially unresolvable (how very 1950s-bohemian). Personally, I’m looking for a little resolution right now, so I may need to file this with Demian as good, but not what I need at the moment. Maybe if I read some of the other Glass family stories; they seem like interesting people, and I’d like to see more of them.