A is for Answers

[Part of the Pagan Blog Project]

The world has relatively few absolute answers. Oh, yes, there are some things we’re pretty sure about. But compared to the things we don’t actually know for sure? They’re actually pretty tiny.

That’s why biology and chemistry and physics and astronomy are vibrant fields. That’s why we have history and sociology and anthropology and archaeology. That’s why we’re looking in the deepest oceans, and the furthest biomes, and the farthest reaches of the universe. And that’s why we have people who piece together the details of tiny beads, bits of pottery, and much more, to guess at all the things we don’t have writing about, and people who look at all the writing we have, and try to piece that together.

(And there are vast parts of the world we don’t have writing about. Even the places that wrote things down left out a lot – often they’re great at some parts and bad at others. We might have excruciating detail of household accounts, and no idea about their religious rites. Or we might have elaborate temple ceremonies, and no real idea how day to day religious practice or even ordinary family life worked. Or we know the religious parts, but what mattered in how you raised your kids or cooked your meals, not so much.)

And then there’s all the nuances. I learned Ancient Greek in high school and college, for a variety of reasons. And yet, much of what we have in Classical Greek is a tiny limited fragment of what there used to be. And what we have is mostly from a very small number of communities, authors, and perspectives. We see, in those bits, hints of other dialects and stories that were well known that we only see hinted at. But we really have no idea what we’re missing.

We know a lot of things varied by polis. But we don’t know which things, or how they varied, often. We don’t know what that meant for many religious festivals, or about representation of the Gods. Or how that changed over time. We have hints and glimpses and moments, but we don’t have certainties for vast swaths.

Imagine looking at your computer or ereader screen – the one you’re looking at right now. Now, imagine that maybe one or two pixels, one or two points of light on that screen, were lit. Could you tell whether the picture was Atlantis at the depths of the ocean, or Avalon, or Charon’s boat? Maybe you’re lucky, and the thing you’re looking at right now gives you more hints – the curve of a boat here, the reach of a tower beneath the waves there, a shadow of a well there.

There’s one other thing we don’t have, and it’s best summed up for me by a quote from Peter S. Beagle’s Folk of the Air:

“Because that world’s gone. The world where people walked around whistling that music. All the madrigal singers in the world can’t make that other one real again. It’s like dinosaurs. We can put them back together perfectly, bone for bone, but we don’t know what they smelled like, what kind of sounds they made, or how big they really looked standing in the grass under all those fossil fern trees. Even the sunlight must have been different, and the wind. What can bones tell you about a kind of wind that doesn’t blow anymore?”

The speaker then goes on to talk about how even in the times we have history for, we don’t really know what the street sounds were like, what the smells did to what we paid attention to, what the light and the street beneath our street felt like. We can guess, and guess better, the closer we are to the world we live in now. But there’s so much missing.

We don’t have many answers.

And yet, people like answers. They want answers, desperately and painfully. Because certainty is comforting, even if it’s a depressing certainty. (There’s a recent This American Life show called “Heretics” that takes that one on.)

And yet, most Pagan religions don’t have them on offer. Not about the ‘what happens after we die’ part, but often not about lots of other things. Why this works. Why that doesn’t. Why that does, but it’s a bad idea. (Well, we’ve got some answers for that, but they’re anecdotal, rather by definition.) All the laid out beauty of a composed and structured plan.

No, what we’ve got are whisps and bits and fragments of song and memories of dance and chants by candlelight and firelight and moments in time. It’s up to us to hold space for them, but to hold space for our present, too, and to find our answers – our own personal answers – going forward.

So what do we do? Hold space for what we know, and hold a gentle space for the things we guess at. The things that fill in the lines between the sparks of light we have. And in that space, we make things real for ourselves.

When we do it honestly, with integrity, we’re clear (with ourselves, and with everyone else) about which is which. What is fact anyone else can find, and what is the stuff we figured out to make it hold together. And we keep our eyes and ears and minds open to new information, even if it contradicts what we thought might be an answer (last week, last month, last year, last century.)

Because there’s new information all the time. And in the spaces in between – well, we have learn to be better at living in uncertainty.

(Like it or not, we’re going to have to do it, so we might as well get better at it.)

A is for Attention

[Part of the Pagan Blog Project]

I used to do a lot of horseback riding when I was a teenager, and a number of things from that time have stuck with me.

One of those was the way we pay attention. There’s a concept called “hard eye versus soft eye”. Hard eye is the directed focused attention, when you are honed in on a particular goal – pointing a horse at a fence, navigating an obstacle in a trail class, doing THAT thing right now.

Soft eye is letting things open up, to the edges of your peripheral vision. Being aware of that thing that’s coming up beside you – whether that’s another horse and rider, a branch, a random thing that will terrify the poor pitiful thousand pound prey animal you’d like to stay on top of. (With my beloved pony, that was sheep. She was terrified of them. Also deer.)

You need both kinds of vision – both kinds of attention – in your life sometimes, but in general, the more of your time you can spend in soft eye, the better it is for you. You take in more, for one thing. But you also are easier on your body. Things are flexible, gentle, open, able to respond to new input quickly. It’s harder to sneak up on you.

So, why am I talking about this in a post about Pagans and research and life? Because the same thing is true with research.

Continue reading

Pagan Blog Project

So, as part of my “No, really, I will blog more regularly in public.” goal. I am planning on doing the Pagan Blog Project, wherein one writes a post a week (based on alphabetical placement)

But because I’m me, and because – for more than one reason – I don’t really want to do “Let me talk about general Pagan stuff”, I want to turn this to a topic I’m about to dig into in much more depth (in hopes of producing functional long-form writing about it by the end of the year: for those of you who know me, this is the thing I refer to as the Better Pagan Research book I’ve been talking about for nearly a decade.)

So, I plan to use these blog posts to talk about aspects of research, learning, information, analysis, investigation, training, evaluation, and pretty much any other term you can think of for “taking in information about the world and doing something with it” as they intersect with Paganism. I’ve got a list of topics (yes, even for X, Y, and Z) though I may change some between now and when I actually write them.

You can also expect there may be some book recommendations (both Pagan and non) and probably a certain number of cooking metaphors. Because I’m like that.

Posts will be in their own category (Pagan Blog Project), and will get posted on Fridays, generally around 10am. Feel free to suggest topics you’d particularly like me to touch on, though the format (and frequency) may mean some things just don’t fit in blogging space as much as I’d like.

An odd anniversary

Three years ago, effectively (technically November 30th, but it was the Monday after Thanksgiving), I woke up feeling just as lousy after 5 days off as before I started.

The next six months were hell. Two months to get a diagnosis. Two more before it even started to kick in. Two more before I could see the faint glimmerings of myself behind the cloud of cottonwool and exhaustion. My job did not renew my contract.

It turns out that was an excellent thing. It took a year of being unemployed to begin to recover. I job hunted throughout, but these days, I am so very grateful no one hired me before my current job. I had a year of being able to sleep in until I woke, of taking a 3 hour nap more afternoons than not – but still being able to get things done, at my own pace.

(During that year, I turned out 4-5 detailed and individualised cover letters and other applications a week. Oh, and planned a Pagan convention, created my Seeking site, did a bunch of teach-myself-new-tech projects, and a fair bit else. But there was a lot of napping, and resting involved.)

And then I moved to Maine, and it’s taken me a year and some to feel like I have an idea where my limits are. I’m now at a point where I can work a full day, and do good things at work, and come home and have the brain and focus to write. Or clean for 30 minutes without feeling completely wiped out at the end.

It’s taken a long time to recover. It’s made me so very aware of the friends I can count on, and the ones I can’t. Of trusting my intuition looking for solutions in unlikely places. (I remain convinced that my Feldenkrais lessons saved my sense of self in ways I can’t begin to describe.)

There are still challenges: my religious practices (the formal stuff, not the little stuff that’s warp and weft of my life) has not yet recovered. The thought of organising public ritual exhausts me still. (Though I’m dancing around what it would take to do a Pagan coffee-and-talk gathering once a month.) The same thing is true with my social life: I like my co-workers (and am closer friends with one), but a lot of my social interaction is with friends in more distant places. I want to fix some of that this year.

And it’s taken a long time for other things, too. To not flinch and bury myself when I know I’m behind on work. (Because I now have a boss who is very reasonable and reassuring. And where I can get feedback for the asking, rather than meetings once a month that are prone to rescheduling and interruptions and other stresses.)

But this weekend, I was rereading Lord Peter, the collection of short stories by Dorothy L. Sayers.

There’s one in there, where – look, I’m spoiling a story that’s been in print since the 30s, okay? – that I’d not read since before my diagnosis. Of a woman, hypothyroid like me, and what happens when she doesn’t get the tiny bit of hormone she needs each day. And what it’s like when she does. The dawning of a life, again, that seemed loss. And the dawning of having the energy to engage with the world again.

I woke up today feeling not-great (I have the horrible cold that’s going around, I’ve had it since last Monday, and I missed a Thanksgiving gathering I’d really been looking forward to. My week was mostly sitting on the couch knitting and attempting to nap.) But I also know that I’m getting better, and it’s temporary.

Three years ago, I was not so sure.  And worse, not sure how to fix it, and who might be a help.

Thanks, again, to those who were. (You know who you were.)

One spirit in the dark

There’s a chant out there from the Spiral Rhythm CD I Am – that goes

One spirit in the dark, like a candle wavers.
Many spirits joined as one, burn with the power of the blazing sun.
There is strength in community, the circle empowers you and me.
The circle binds yet sets us free, as we will, so mote it be.

I listened tonight, as I walked home from my evening reference shift at work (random music shuffle is a form of divination and sometimes consolation) while I was thinking about a recent post on the blog Making Light which essentially asks “What happens when new spiritual experience opens up under our feet, and we’re not sure what to do with it?”

My answer is far too long for a comment there – and I knew this before I even started typing – so I figured it would be a fine post here instead. (Look! This blog still exists! Really!)

Continue reading