Dec 292012
 

This bulk of this essay was curmudgeonly crafted on December 2, 2002 with some current updates added.

 

I have sometimes been described as “brutally honest.”

This could be considered bad.

I would agree that this would be bad, if I were to use the truth to intentionally hurt people in certain situations. For example, if someone were to give me a gift that I didn’t like, I wouldn’t go out of my way to tell them how much I hated it or how terrible it was. It is the thought that counts, and I would try to make the best of the situation. However, I also wouldn’t go on and on making up lies about it either — about how wonderful and perfect it was, if it wasn’t true. One distinction I make about “the truth” is whether or not it would make a difference to tell it and the harm or help that it might bring. I have less trouble pointing things out to folks if it’s something that they can do about it in that moment. You know – the spinach between the teeth, the toilet paper stuck to the bottom of a shoe… But if it is something that the person can’t fix in the moment – like a stain or tear or whatever, then unless they are showing off bits they don’t want to be sharing, I don’t say anything. There isn’t any point in making them feel bad or self-conscious about things.

So, I guess that I’m not brutally honest all of the time.

One place in life, though, where I have had to struggle, is this idea of compassion. I like to think that I am a compassionate person, and I think that I have gone out of my way to help those who have need. Folks who know me well, know that I subscribe to the notion that sometimes “Shit happens,” and thus people occasionally need help in dealing with what life deals them. I have always felt that it is part of who I am and of my religious beliefs — to help people less fortunate than myself.

But what happens when the misfortune to the person is a direct result of their own whims, wishes and desires? What if the bad things that are happening to them are a direct result of the choices that they have made? Where does my compassion lead me to in these instances?

I don’t know.

If you came on here looking for an answer to this one, I don’t know that I have it for you. For me, it always seems to come down to rationalization and the individual case – and I don’t know that that is necessarily a good thing, but that is all that I have at this time. And lest this whole discussion seem too intellectually “out there” I will use at least one specific example. You will probably disagree with some of my choices, but then again, I would be disagreeing with some of yours. So, let’s see how this plays out….and it is amazing how much guilt can play (unwittingly) into these choices if you really think about it….

It’s easy to act in a compassionate manner if a situation is caused by something utterly random or not caused at all by the person it is affecting. People who are hit by devastating weather conditions, an unexpected illness, a random accident. But unfortunately, that is not always the case.

I know a number of people who choose not to be regularly employed by other people (or necessarily self-employed, for that matter). For the most part these people either make their living off of their spirituality by selling goods and classes, or they simply don’t want to be bothered to be tied down by having a job where they have to be responsible to someone other than themselves. I can respect the fact that these folks have the right to make this decision. But there are consequences to this. What happens if they become sick and have no health care? What happens if their car breaks down? What happens if they happen to not find enough part-time, makeshift work to keep them fed in a particular season? What happens if they just cycle through money problems on a regular basis?

Now, let me preface this here…in this example all of these people to whom I am referring have employable skills and could hold down a full-time, good-paying job if they chose to. But they have decided that they didn’t want the bother, wanting the “freedom” instead. At what point am I obligated to support them as a result of my compassion? At what point are they obligated to make different choices so that others don’t have to take up their burden?

I guess I get a bit resentful. Alright, a lot resentful. I have what I have because I work a full-time job. I don’t have the time to do everything that I would like to do. I am earning retirement, disability, and have insurance. I have traded off a so-called life of “freedom” for the hope of some type of other security. I have done what I could to ensure that if something catastrophic happened to me or my family, we have done everything that we could to be self-sufficient.

Maybe that’s the crux of the whole thing. Self-sufficiency comes with certain amount of self-sacrifice. I don’t get to do everything that I want to do whenever I want to do it. I feel that these other folks make choices that are very selfish. They choose to do what they want, and then expect if something bad happens, that the rest of us are supposed to come in and cover their butts. But if I didn’t work as hard as I did, I wouldn’t have anything to help them with! Funny, how the reverse isn’t true. Those who choose to do what they want, also don’t have the resources to help others when there is a crisis. Often have I heard them fall back on, “Well, that’s sad, but I don’t have a job.” Or “We’re just getting by, I don’t have any extra to help.” Now isn’t that the ironic piece? Many of these folks expect help on a regular basis, but use the consequences of their choices to not reciprocate.

I know that this sounds bitter, and perhaps even selfish on my part. The classic act of compassion is to give without thought to oneself. Isn’t that the way that we have been taught? Am I supposed to judge whether or not a person deserves my compassion? So this begs the question on whether or not compassion is always deserving in all cases, and I have come up with the personal answer of “No.” We were given brains and I believe that we were meant to use them. I can differentiate between a person laid-off of a job and a person who chooses not to have one. I can give freely to help meet the needs of children in a poor home who need holiday presents despite the fact that their parents may have made terrible choices, because it’s not the children’s fault. I can make a difference in the life of women in the local battered women’s shelter who need supplies in order to help change her life situation. I can tell the difference in the needs of a family who are struggling with hospital bills because their child/father/mother has cancer and the person in the hospital with lung cancer because they chose to smoke 3 packs a day even when they knew it was bad for them.

I can’t save everyone. I have to make choices about where I put my resources and just who and what I support. Everyone makes these choices. And just because someone is a Pagan doesn’t mean that they automatically go to the top of my list. And although it should be my choice about how I support somebody in a time of crisis, it is interesting how I’ve been judged by others, particularly within the Pagan community, if I don’t give as much as people think I should – given the fact that I have a full-time job. It is an interesting twist in the comparative ethics of compassionate giving!

I have always believed that if you want something to happen, you better choose the actions that will have the consequences that you want, because it ain’t gonna happen any other way.

To those that have made poor choices and are living with the consequences of those choices, I don’t know what to say. Far from being the cold-hearted person that I may seem here, I have, believe it or not, actually supported some of these people. But what I have found, is that they have not changed in the slightest as they don’t learn any lessons from it! Once the current crisis is over, they go on making the same choices, bringing everyone, eventually back to the same place. It is interesting that these folks think that being compassionate is to give without expectations – regardless of the fact that they expect to be bailed out on a somewhat regular basis! In the face of this response, I can only believe that my supporting them is dysfunctional, codependent, ultimately not helpful and downright unhealthy!

So now I make choices, some different than I used to, and I have to live with the consequences of those choices. I will not fake things to make everthing seem wonderful. I will not spend all of my time stroking egos or pretending to be best friends with someone I hardly know. I now refuse to bail people out of the natural consequences of their life choices, even if it is personally painful for me.

If I seem too brutally honest, I guess then, that I too, will have to live with that. And I can too, since being brutally honest in the eyes of some folks simply means that I’m not a flaky, superficial person.

The most important thing to me is living a life of compassion — but not one of blind compassion. Can I live with the consequences? Only time will tell.

 Posted by at 3:44 pm
May 172012
 

We know plants are important in our lives, but do we know how important they are? Do we recognize this importance everyday?

People who lived close to the earth, from the hunter/gatherers to the agrarians, found many different ways to pass on information about plants and the seasons of the year. One important method was to associate plants with specific deities, myths and songs. Druids were said to have worshipped trees, specifically oaks and the mistletoe that grew on them. Trees were seen to be the connectors between earth and air and the cosmos. Groves of sacred trees were used as worship spaces. And although we know today that mistletoe is a parasitic plant, it must have seemed wondrous to these ancient people – for this plant seemed to grow out of thin air. (Although now I have it on great authority that the reason there is such a strong cultural connection made between Druids and mistletoe stems from the fact that a mistletoe gathering ritual is the only authentic piece of original liturgy left. But I digress.)

Besides worship spaces, plants also were recognized as connected with deities and food. The importance of barleycorn, one of the oldest crops, was immortalized in the folk song, John Barleycorn (see below). The treatment of John is quite gruesome unless the listener realizes that he is the grain, specifically barleycorn, anthropomorphized. This song passes on information about planting, harvest and uses of barleycorn. I also believe that this song, although relatively modern, echoes a time when deity was even more intimately connected with plants. The concept of the dying and rising god, found throughout many cultures, was not only a representation of the sun, but also connected with the vegetation cycle. However, many goddesses were also associated with grains, vegetation or the earth: Demeter & Persephone, Ceres, Gaia, and Isis are just a few.

Many of our modern holidays harken back to a time when the wheel of the year was of paramount importance. Easter is celebrated in the spring, when all that seems dead suddenly returns to life. Thanksgiving celebrates survival through the sharing of the harvest and replaces, in our culture, many of the ancient harvest festivals. Other religious practices were also connected to vegetation, although most related to food. Lammas was the Celtic holiday honoring bread and grain. Dionysus was the god of the grape and he was honored with raucous parties. Religious practices abounded around the concept of fertility of the fields. Mayday and Midsummer (actually summer solstice) were the most well-known dates for such rites. And if we look into the roots of the communion, we find that it is an ancient honoring of the grain (bread) and the fruit (wine), recognizing that we take the life of plants and the earth in order to sustain our own.

Some of these beliefs have been shunned as mere superstition, others transformed into new religious or social packages, the deeper meanings nearly lost in antiquity. But I believe that we can learn something from the attitude of these older beliefs. In a world where food comes packaged in paper and plastic and styrofoam, people have lost their connection to plants and the cycle of life. By “stopping and smelling the roses,” we are reminded of the need to reclaim the wonder of spring, the miracle of a sprouting seed, the sorrow of the disappearing rainforest, the beauty of the roadside flower. Scientific understanding can deepen our awareness of the interactions between plant and animal and human, hopefully making us more appreciative of the importance of plants in this interconnected web of life. However we go about it, we need to reconnect, to find the “sacred” in plants and to honor the place they have in our lives.

 

John Barleycorn

*Traditional

There were three men who came out from the west
Their fortunes for to try.
And these three men made a solemn vow
John Barleycorn must die!
John Barleycorn must die!

So they threw him in three furrows deep
Threw clods upon his head
For these three men made a solemn vow
John Barleycorn was dead!
John Barleycorn was dead!

Chorus: Fa la la la, it’s a lovely day!
  Sing fa la la lay-o! 
  Fa la la la, it’s a lovely day!
  Sing fa la la lay-o!

So they let him lie for a very long time
‘Til the rains from heaven did fall.
And little Sir Johnny sprang up his head
And he did amaze them all!
He did amaze them all!

So they let him stand ‘til a midsummer’s day
‘Til his face was pale and wan.
And little Sir Johnny sprout a long, long beard
And so become a man!
And so become a man!

Chorus

So they hired men with the scythes so sharp
To cut him off at the knees
And they rolled him and tied him around the waist
Serving him most barbarously!
Serving him most barbarously!
And the hired men with the crabtree sticks
To cut stem from bone.
And the miller he served him worse than that
For he ground him between two stones!
He ground him between two stones!

Chorus

Now it’s little Sir John in the nut brown bowl
And he’s brandy in the glass!
But little Sir John in the nut brown bowl
Proved the strongest man at last!
The strongest man at last!

For the huntsman he cannot hunt the fox
Nor so loudly blow his horn
And the tinker he cannot mend his kettles or his pots
Without a little Barleycorn!
Without a little Barleycorn!

Chorus

* I have heard many other verses to this song, but these are the ones that I have heard used most often.

 Posted by at 5:09 pm
Dec 112011
 

Well, it has been quite some time since my last rant and although it is the holiday season of many religions, I do have to get something off my chest – so to speak.

Why the heck do I keep getting greetings from Pagans/Witches which say Merry Christmas???

Gee, when those religious righters put up signs saying “Keep the Christ in Christmas” they have a point. Although Christmas has roots in Paganism, as does every other religion, when a Pagan says to me “Merry Christmas” I really don’t know how to react. It’s one thing to hear it in the stores, from co-workers and Christian family members, and from folks who just assume that everyone is Christian, but when I get a message or am greeted by Pagans who say this to me, I am pretty astounded at the lack of thought that goes with uttering what has become a common catch phrase.

Bah, Humbug!

It’s not that I don’t appreciate the sentiment. Certainly, when confronted with such a greeting from well-meaning folks, I usually respond with a “Happy Holidays to you too” – although there are times when I will sneak in a “Happy Solstice” – and receive puzzled stares in return. What to do, though, about Pagan Merry Christmas’s I haven’t quite decided – although my first reaction of wanting to smack them upside the head has been firmly suppressed on many an occasion.

I think my favorite greeting this season came from a novice witch who wanted guidance. She sent us an electronic greeting card complete with the title “Merry Christmas” with a Christian picture AND a Christian song attached. I think she really needs to do a lot more basic work before she can make a decision about this path. But it’s not just newbies who do this, but seasoned veterans as well. Have we become so conditioned by the dominant culture, that we unthinkingly mouth these phrases by rote? What does it say about our being witches – connected and observing of our path? If witches/Wiccans/Pagans greet each other with “Merry Christmas” with this little thought, then the religious righters might have cause to be worried about the submergence of their holiday into the consumeristic mecca that it has become. And although I don’t believe that “Jesus is the reason for the season” (they need to take a simple astronomy course here), I do believe that this can become a time when ALL religions can come together to celebrate peace and joy and giving and hope.

So let’s think about the meaning of this season. We celebrate the returning sun, the growing light, rebirth and reflection. Greet the dawn with thanks for the returning warmth. And try greeting your Pagan friends with something more in line with your beliefs. Believe me, changing this takes thought and effort.

Wow – a little Yule magick in the making.

 

This essay was lovingly crafted on December 24, 2001.

 Posted by at 2:14 pm
May 062011
 

The mailbox fills with seed and plant catalogs boasting the newest bounty of crops bred and born to meet our modern gardening needs. And I’ll be the first to admit that I browse effortlessly until that unique plant catches my eye. And I will also admit to having shelled out significant amounts of money for these new and unusual varieties and species. But some of the plants that I truly cherish are those that were handed down – the “old world fairy” rose bushes, taken from a house long gone to development; the forsythia bush and lilacs also saved from the very same development; the tomato plants, grown from the lovingly hand-pollinated seed, saved from year to year and given to me by my grandfather. These older variety plants are vanishing from our landscapes as we replace them with the “new and improved” versions. But all is not lost. Heritage societies are preserving our plant diversity, especially older variety plants.

Why is this important? Well, it is estimated that “within 50 years a fourth of the earth’s 250,000 flowering plant species could vanish because of habitat loss.” (National Geographic, Volume 192, #3, September 1997, pg 141.) While this is just an estimate, this loss of diversity could be devastating, not only to the environment, but to humans as well. We could be losing species that hold keys to medical mysteries. In fact, “a Mediterranean vetch yielded a protein that has helped detect rare human blood disorders.” (National Geographic) It really is in our own best interest to save the plants in these seed banks.

There are many seed banks around the world and most of them are working banks. They will send seed samples to researchers in agricultural institutes and universities. There are heritage societies where people can contribute their own heritage seeds and receive other people’s seed in return, in order to propagate these plants in a wide variety of locations. Not only do these plants hold potential value for use in the kind of medical research mentioned above, but some of the older varieties are resistant to the pests, insecticides and herbicides that plague the newer versions of plants. When a set of corn viruses nearly wiped out the crop in the 1970s, researchers were desperate to protect the corn from the main nine damaging viruses. With some luck and some looking, a perennial ancestor of corn, Tao sente, was found in a remote area in Mexico. It was resistant to seven of the nine corn viruses! Careful breeding back into modern corn has resulted in a much stronger, disease-resistant crop. But Tao sente grows only in a small area in a specific habitat. This plant could have easily been lost to us altogether if that very particular habitat had been damaged or destroyed. And along with a destroyed habitat, we also would have been destroying our own chances at survival. I wonder how many other such plants we have already committed to extinction.

So while we may ooh and ahh over the latest developments in plant genetic manipulation and the careful pollinations of plant breeders, it takes a bit more heart to find the value in the older species. The modern designer plants? They have their place. But in my book, they take a back seat to those older varieties which remind us of the strolls in our grandparents’ gardens. After all, haven’t our heritage plants been crafted over time? Do we have the time to recognize that our plant diversity is disappearing? Do we have the heart to save them from extinction – if only for our own sake?

 Posted by at 4:11 pm
Apr 032011
 

What is leadership? Is leadership about having power? Is it about being the center of attention? Is it about authority? For some people it is all of these and more. But in my opinion, leadership is about taking responsibility. This is a hard lesson for some folks to learn – so hard, in fact, that they never learn it. Choices come from taking responsibility and that is the real power – being able to make your own choices. But the ironic twist is this - being responsible also places boundaries on those choices, because your choices have to represent the good for all, not just what you personally want.

The stereotypical HPS (high priestess) is incredibly psychic, she knows what is going on in everyone’s head, she says jump and everyone does. She is the ultimate authority, never wrong, never with normal human foibles. She is all-wise, all-powerful, at the center of the circle. She directs the power of the circle, because each person raises it and hands it over to her. Many folks who are interested in forming a coven, think that by becoming the high priestess that they will somehow become transformed into this person. (Or if they are incredibly self-deluded they think that they already ARE this person.) They like being the end-all, be-all of their witchy universe. In order to maintain this fiction, a couple of things can happen. I should note that this is applicable to males too. They enjoy playing the high priest, and in the most extreme cases, act as though the high priestess role is secondary or unnecessary. I will continue to write this in the feminine. Just be aware that you could easily substitute HP (high priest) and he/him for the HPS, she/her.

Beware of these Leaders & Structure Types!

Lots o’ Newbies
If you have a lot of people new to the craft, then they generally come in with this preconception of the HPS. The HPS can keep some of her older members by putting them in higher positions or making them her trusted advisors. Basically she needs to get folks to buy into that structure (with her at the top) and she does that by giving them their own positions to protect. This structure can actually last for a while, especially if it is in an area with a very transitory population (i.e. college towns). It usually breaks down when 1) her trusted advisors start challenging her because they want to be at the top or 2) there aren’t enough positions for the newbies to transition into. This structure depends a lot on very delicate balances of power at the top. This balance can turn into a full-fledged struggle for power.

The Weaker the Better?
An HPS can maintain her fiction if she only gathers weak people around her – people who want to be told what to do, how to do it, etc. They aren’t confident in their own abilities and the HPS actively works at keeping them in that space. With lots of weak members, usually the HPS spends a great deal of time and energy in manipulation. What makes these members weak is that they will abdicate all of their power and responsibility to the leaders. The payoff for the HPS? She has created a coven that actually feeds off of her energy!

Form, collapse, form again, ad infinitum…
Some never get it. They form a group. The group collapses. They blame the former members of the group. They try to form a new group. The new group collapses. They blame the latest members. They continue this cycle over and over again. Usually between the group cycles they go through the “I am a proud solitary” thing. This is not to say that being a solitary is not a fulfilling practice, because it is. But they keep coming back to the coven/group formation stage. They desperately need to be at the center of things, thus they keep trying to form a coven to meet their own personal needs. The members in the group eventually come to the realization that the group isn’t there for everyone, it is there for the leaders so they can be leaders. A note here – very often these folks will cycle through different traditions with each group formation. There aren’t enough witches, so they try Asatru or druidism or OTO or CAW or (fill in the blank).

 

What to Do?

In all of the above instances, there is usually a great deal of psychic vampirism or energy sucking. The leader needs the group because it feeds them in some way. Sometimes it is energy, sometimes it is other things. Look, having a group shouldn’t be a substitute for the missing pieces of yourself. That is something that you need to work on to be a whole, balanced person. People who use groups to avoid working on their weaknesses are hurting themselves and their coven mates.

What is true for everyone else in the coven is the same for the HPS. She should be working on her own issues. Sometimes there is a backlash from the people in her own group who have put her on the pedestal. The pedestal can be quite high and the fall can be quite devastating. And fall the high priestess must, because she is just a human being. Problems can eventually arise when the newer members of the coven come to find out that she isn’t – can’t – fulfill the role of the stereotypical HPS. They become hypercritical because she isn’t perfect – the Goddess incarnate. In some cases the newbie, who always thought that being a high priestess was forever out of reach (because they had very outlandish ideas about what a HPS actually is) then becomes convinced that they are better suited to the job and that they should be the HPS. This is an interesting reversal. The new member does not recognize all of the other skills that come into play when leading a group. Power within and power over are really different things. Sometimes people have trouble distinguishing the differences. They see power over as a manifestation of good leadership and power within as being weak when the opposite is true.

In our group, every member has the right to veto anything. This is truly shared power. Because I do not act as the stereotypical HPS, many people have thought that I am weak, and that the group was just waiting around for them to personally step in and be the leaders. I would laugh if it weren’t so distressing. These folks see the group as ripe for the picking and an easy way to get their own power needs met. They are usually frustrated when they realize that they won’t get their own way.

If you are thinking about becoming the leader of a group, you need to be prepared for what will come at you. Being publicly known can be even worse. It can arouse jealousy and then the rumors start flying. Many years ago, a couple of people started rumors about how terrible of a high priestess I was. They added (big surprise) that they could do much better. They also said I didn’t have any power, couldn’t do effective magick, etc. But then, the same people started rumors that I was causing all sorts of bad stuff to happen – some of it unimaginably bad. They even credited me with causing things to happen that I didn’t even know about until years later. Some of these accusations were very hurtful and were by people that I had really trusted and thought of as close friends. Personally, working through the hurtful feelings and the subsequent damage took a lot of time.

In spite of the hurt I felt, I also thought this was pretty amazing. On one hand I am weak and worthless, and on the other, I can affect all of these lives with my magick!

People can be irrational and personally vindictive. There really isn’t much you can do except to continue to be the person that you are. The detractors eventually run out of steam and hopefully, an audience. Usually they are into some sort of power trip and if they don’t get their satisfaction from you, they will turn their attentions elsewhere. Unfortunately there really are some bad groups out there. But what I am trying to say is that gossip won’t always tell you the truth. Meet folks. Listen to your intuition. Decide for yourself.

 

Why Bother At All?

With all of this said, you might wonder why someone would even be a HP/S. I guess I would have to say it depends on where your gifts are. Some people are just naturally good at handling leadership roles and developing/running rituals. I used to think that anyone with the right training could handle the ritual end of things. I don’t believe that anymore. I have seen rituals from many, many different people – from complete beginners to experienced, trained ministers and just about everything in-between. I have found that more training does not necessarily mean better ritual. Don’t get me wrong, I think that people can always improve these skills. But it does seem that some folks have a natural knack for it and others don’t. Creating a ritual is not simply about writing down some words and assigning some parts. (Alas, this is another essay!) Also, dealing with group dynamics is part of the skills necessary for facilitating a group. Being able to teach is very important too. In Janet and Stewart Farrar’s book, A Witches’ Bible they state that, “She [the high priestess] is expected to be a combination of teacher, psychiatrist, nurse, mother-confessor, referee, scapegoat and reference librarian.” When I read this description I smiled, because of how close to the truth it is. It doesn’t mean, though, that a HPS can do all of these equally well, just that she has to do it at one time or another, and hopefully with some success.