Wednesday, April 23, 2014

Intent & Impact: Cultural Appropriation

The last big topic that came out of my amazing week at the Art of Mentoring is cultural appropriation, but it's something the Pagan community ought to be discussing and thinking about as well.

Quick summary of the Art of Mentoring: a system of nature connection mentoring and cultural regeneration based largely upon the wisdom of several native cultures. The system notably uses the message of the Great Peacemaker, the Great Law that founded the Iroquois Confederacy. Training in the Art of Mentoring was an experiential learning process. We formed an ancestral village type community and were ourselves mentored as we learned the system and immediately applied that knowledge to mentor each other. This system was founded by Jon Young, who wrote the Coyote's Guide, which is a well-known and influential work in the environmental education industry. I attended this training to further my environmental education career.

As an ancestral village, we had a council of honored elders. Recently I have been discussing cultural appropriation with my spiritual community, and I was now presented with another case of cultural creation with native wisdom at the Art of Mentoring. So at one of the elder councils, I raised the question. Is it appropriate to use this native wisdom? How should we approach this? How do we show respect? When is it appropriate, and when is it not? What do these elders think about cultural appropriation in general?

This touched off a firestorm. Many people had opinions. Several program organizers sought me out. I felt that they were threatened. This amused me greatly as I intended no attack in my question. But it reminded me: back when I first started listening to the CDs from this same system, I thought "I don't need this, I already function in nature like a native. This is just for middle class white people who don't get it".

For the record, the organization has considered this issue extensively and has taken steps to see that they are sensitive and respectful about their usage of native wisdom and song. I still don't agree 100% that what they are doing IS appropriate, but I do jive with the message.

I'm still working through this part of the experience. For one thing, I have integrated many cultures into my spiritual practice, and have learned all sorts of wisdom along the way that has formed my worldview. To some degree, that means I think taking practices and wisdom from other cultures is valid when done respectfully. I feel that the culture in which I grew up failed me in many ways, spiritually first among them. But on the other hand, I myself have experienced racial, sexual, gender and religious bigotry and marginalization. For most of my life, I have felt like a minority, though I am an American and my ethnicity is considered white. So I have mixed feelings about this whole deal.

One of the elders advised me to seek out an elder of a tradition I was drawn to and to ask permission. Another remarked that some native cultures may not want to share any of their traditions out of anger for what was done to them. They have a right to their feelings, and others need to respect that and respect their wishes. Several people echoed this view: if someone says NO, you must respect it. Others said that with our world the way it is, we need to share what is helpful in order to keep evolving and growing as human beings.

The response that surprised me the most came from that magnificent African priestess I mentioned in previous posts. She basically said that what has happened has been tragic in many cases and yes, some people can be very disrespectful and some can be very bitter. But we have a lot more important things to do and worry about than this. She suggested that we help elevate each other and move on.

I don't purport to have the answers about this issue. What I DO know is that we need to talk about it as a community. Contemporary Paganism, as a faith in the process of creation, reconstruction and what have you, draws from many ancestral cultures. Some of us are scholarly about it. Many are reverent and respectful. 

But some are not. How many of us know a baby Witch who has studied the Craft for a short period of time, but who is already a Celtic High Priestess of Faery and Eldritch Magick? Or a WASP-y looking woman with long blonde hair who wears cheap-o touristy Native American jewelry and incessantly talks about her power animals? Or maybe the guy from Ohio with not one drop of northern European blood who reads one book about Heathenism and is now an alleged expert on Asatru and the runes?

Once again, I'm calling out the elephant in the room. Many of us are Caucasian. Many of us are working with cultures in which we did not grow up or with which we are not genetically linked. We need to think about this and understand that what we do has ramifications beyond our experience. We need to be respectful and responsible.

One of the Art of Mentoring organizers left me with a good piece of advice: consider the impact of your actions, not just the intent. Your intent in using a particular practice may be good, but consider how it may affect others. Did you get permission? Were you told not to use this practice? Do you know the history of the practice and the real meaning? How will this be received by your audience?

So let's talk. Let's facilitate some roundtable discussions. Let us renew our studies with respect first in our hearts. What do you say?

Tuesday, April 22, 2014

Happy Earth Day!

Happy Earth Day, one and all! Let's join together with our whole Earth family today and raise some powerful energy for CHANGE!

Tune in to this global meditation tonight at 9:30 PM EDT:

No Youtube? Tune in on the website here.

I'll be there, won't you join me?

Friday, April 18, 2014


Honor is an often misunderstood and sometimes misused concept with a mixed reputation. Historically, those who claimed to live honorably have used their power for both good and evil. The Arthurian legends tell of medieval knights whose entire lives were dedicated to honor. They used their martial prowress and personal virtues to protect others and uphold justice. Renaissance era knights inspired by Arthurian codes of conduct also perpetuated horrific crimes during the Crusades. Samurai are another tradition of fiercely honorable warriors devoted to their ideals. When their aristocratic masters were just, this was a beautiful and effective thing. If not, not so much. On the more brutal end of the spectrum, there are also so-called "honor killings" of innocent female children in places like Yemen.

This points out an essential conflict with perceptions of honor. There are actually two concepts involved: honor and face.

Face is what many people mistake for honor. Face is about social standing and how one is ranked in the pecking order of the community. It is about what other people think of one's actions and reactions. The Yemeni father who killed his 15 year old daughter was far more concerned with face than he was with honor. He was worried about his daughter's reputation, and how that reflected on him. In this tribe's twisted way of thinking, he would "lose honor" if his daughter was even accused of being involved in anything improper before marriage. As if her alleged action could grant or revoke any of his honor.

Honor is about who you are and how you live your life. Honor cannot be taken from or granted to you. You must earn it. Every day, with every choice you make. What others think of your choices is not all that important, in the grand scheme of things. But what you yourself think of your choices is very important. Being authentic is powerful - each choice must resonate with rightness to your soul, to your innermost being.

To determine honorable action in any given situation, you must:

  1. Weigh the situation for justice.
  2. Determine your obligation.
  3. Formulate appropriate action.
To put it another way, honor is also about living up to a code of ethics, or living in alignment with personal values.

I think that especially as Pagans, whether we walk the warrior way or not, it's important to have a good sense for what your underlying values are and to live with honor. We are, after all, working magic, which is a big responsibility. Some of us, like myself, follow the Rede: 'and it harm none, do as you will'. That's pretty wide open. Not harming another doesn't always cover every situation. And what about those who don't live by the Rede? What code or ideal do you believe in?

My point goes back to the theme of cultural creation that I have been discussing lately on this blog. We're a relatively new (old) faith. We have the opportunity and duty to make it something wondrous and life-ehancing. But really, we can do anything. There is no central authority or ancient text. We are responsible for our actions. We and we alone.

Taking inventory of our beliefs and values is the first step. What do you believe? Where did that belief come from, and does it still serve you? Is it in the highest good of all? 

Step two is to examine those beliefs and then make any needed adjustments. Perhaps your old beliefs were part of a lower level of understanding, or were reactions to trauma that you experienced. Perhaps they are remnants of the faith in which you were raised, or simply common to your community. Inherited beliefs can be a beautiful thing, anchoring us with deep roots. But even these must be examined in the light of day with open eyes.

When tweaking values or beliefs, it's always a good idea to see if your beliefs support positive interaction in your family and community. Maybe you value acceptance - that's a belief that protects and nourishes you as well as others. Equality, tolerance, respect for all living things...all of these types of values are life-ehancing and supportive.

It's also a good idea to revisit values regularly. We all have obligations in life, appropriate to our age and abilities. No ageism intended here, merely pointing out that our role in life changes with age. As our roles change, the values that support our ability to meet our obligations will therefore need to continue to evolve and grow as well. 

After you've inventoried, examined and perhaps adjusted, it's time to act. Keep your code of honor handy, and refer to it when situations come up. Remember the guidelines of honor: justice, obligation and appropriate action. Breathe and just act

Protip: Honor is action, not dillydally, delay and inaction. Refusing to make a choice is, in itself, a choice.

Honor has been my path for many years. I have walked the warrior way for most of my life. I can remember being in kindergarten and already, protecting others was just part of the day's work for me. Official bee stomper, bully confronter and authority defier....that's me, always looking out for an underdog, or for a friend. I don't recall it ever seeming strange; it was just something I did. 

Later when I began to train in martial arts, I learned the values of courtesy, integrity, perseverance, self-control and indomitable spirit. In studying Yoga, I learned the Yamas and Niyamas, with such values as contentment (santosha) and non-violence (ahimsa). Throughout my life I studied philosophy, history and world religion, with all of its codes of conduct, philosophies, rules, manifestos, guidelines and laws. 

Years and years of service to the community through mentorship, teaching, training, studying and volunteer work have taught me something very simple about honor. I'm not capable of living any other way. When I look in the mirror, I have to be able to meet my own eye. To like the person I see there. To know that I've done the best I could. To know that I have walked with honor.

Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Healing the Generations

This past week I spent time with an amazing community. One of the biggest things I worked with was healing the generations, everyone from our ancestors to our future generations. As we work together to create a new and positive spiritual community*, we need to include people of all ages, from wee ones to young ones, to young adults, parents, non-parents and most importantly, our elders. Today, I'm going to focus on ancestors and elders.

One of the biggest tragedies of our disconnected, constantly busy and rootless society is that we've lost connection to our anchors. Many of us no longer have an intact thread of heritage, spiritual tradition or eldership in our lives.

I believe this is having many negative impacts on all of us, especially the elders. We have a whole industry devoted to caring for senior citizens, which on the face of it, seems like a good thing. The reality is far different - disconnected from the broader community, deprived of purpose, with no responsibilities and nothing to do, our elders deteriorate much more quickly than they would otherwise. The rest of us are deprived of their calm presence, loving support and wisdom.

Meanwhile, with our generations disconnected, traditional roles are forgotten. There is a big difference between a person who is aware of the sacred role of an elder and someone who is merely old. Some of our elders are desperately clinging to youth as a way to hold on to value in this youth-obsessed culture. Others have no conception of how to give unconditional love and support. Younger people do not know how to honor and support elders. Traditional knowledge, customs and culture are shrinking every year. What I learned this week is that there are people who are working to regenerate a healthy elder culture.

Several elders spoke about honored elderhood as a role that is earned, and one that is reciprocal. One must be committed to serving the community, have some wisdom to share, and someone to share it with. Meanwhile, younger people need to include and honor these elders. We spoke much of coming to elders, addressing them by an honorific, offering gifts of service or goods and only THEN asking for something in return.

What would it look like if Pagan Pride Festivals, Pagan-themed retreats and conferences included circles of elders from all traditions? I think it would be fantastic. Imagine the storytelling, exchange of ideas/best practices, and support that would happen!

In the area of ancestors, my eyes were opened this week. I personally never thought about the effect that one's ancestral traumas has upon us in the living world. Perhaps our ancestors experienced racial injustice, or perhaps they perpetuated it. Perhaps they lived through a war, or the Great Depression. Perhaps there is a legacy of abuse in the family. It never occurred to me that we could do healing work around that. Turns out we can.

I was lucky enough to spend time with a priestess from an African tradition who is dedicated to the ancestral realm. She was very generous and shared a lot of information about how we can heal past trauma and build relationships with ancestors. We can begin with a table of light, to heal trauma. After we have worked through that process, we can construct an ancestor altar. Every day that we change the water, light candles, place fresh flowers or offerings of food upon the altar, we strengthen the cord of our connection to our ancestors. Once we have shown our commitment, we can open a conversation. Later, when a good relationship is built up, we can ask them questions through divinatory methods.

Working with ancestors can be a powerful part of our spiritual support system. This priestess I met said at one point, "who do you think responds to your request when you ask for angelic support? It's not always some random entity - IT'S YOUR ANCESTORS!" This thought had never occurred to me. The idea of working with angels has never appealed to me, surely in part because of the Christian concept of angels itself. But reaching out to my ancestors and asking them to join my spiritual team? That I can do!

As always, the Gods give me what I need when I need it. I have already begun the process of healing ancestral trauma this year. I have constructed a family tree and begun to reach out to extended family. I'm attempting to rebuild my family ties. I've gotten a quote for engraving my father's name on to our family headstone. I'm planning a trip to my birthplace. All this was already in process. Now I have the next piece of information, the next steps to take.

Connection. Continuity. A sense of rootedness. Healthy roles and community participation for all members of our community. Passing on sacred wisdom, customs and values. Mentorship and support. These are the things that healing our generations can give us. Who's with me?

*Here I'm referring to the broad umbrella of Contemporary Paganism.

Monday, April 14, 2014

UPDATE: Single Gender Gatherings

I just returned from a powerful week's class, and I have so many thoughts I want to get out!! So brace yourself, internets - I'm about to get all intense up in here for a while.

First off, in my previous post, Gender, Sexuality and Paganism, I addressed the question of single gender gatherings in the Pagan community. Should we have them? How does that impact our transgendered community members? 

During this class I attended, I got the chance to speak with a young person who does not identify with any gender and is biologically male. He expressed feelings of exclusion created by attending gatherings with perhaps only one variety of single gender gathering - the red tent for biologically female women. 

He says to him, that having single gender gatherings enforces gender roles that do not fit him. He feels that we ought to focus on a post-gender model of humanity. In my younger years, I would have agreed whole-heartedly. Back then, I didn't see myself as a feminist. I naively believed that feminism was a dead issue that creates division. Why don't we move past that and just try to be good human beings?

Maturity has shown me that as a culture, the USA is not there yet. We still have gender inequality. We still have segments of the population that are misogynistic. Feminism still has a role to play in healing our culture. We also now are seeing issues of violence and discrimination against our trans community. Perhaps we need some sort of movement to address that. I'm not the person to do it, but I did sense a real need for one. I want to see our gender fluid, transgendered, transsexual, asexual and other identifications of people be honored and given equality with everyone else.

My personal opinion is that we've made a lot of progress in the social justice arena. That's fabulous, and I wholeheartedly support current and future efforts to continue our work. But what that means for us right now is that we are in the process of re-defining our gender roles. 

As we Pagans know, what is present in the whole (nation) is also present in each part (Pagan community). What does it mean to be a man, woman, asexual, or transgendered person in this day and age? What does it mean for our society as a whole? What does it mean for our Pagan community? What should we do about it?

It seems to me that part of what's behind these questions is the impact of Paganism upon our work to re-define gender roles. In following the Pagan path, we are reaching back to ancient wisdom and ancestral ways of being, even if we do not have intact lineages to work with. And surely, men and women did have specific and different roles to play in life. A few cultures had customs surrounding people of other gender identifications/sexualities, but not many that I know about.

I don't think we ought to get too hidebound about ancestral gender roles. I certainly don't have a wish to go back to being barefoot and pregnant, for example! As I've been writing, we have the rare opportunity to learn from the past and to create something new and better. Why not consciously build in support for our community members who do not identify as male or female?

This will mean that we need leadership. Someone has to lead the charge. Someone has to create a space. But what will we call it? If we have men's circles and women's circles (Moon Lodges, Red Tents, etc)...what is the third category called? 

The young man I spoke with suggested a solution that he has seen at least once: having a Sun Tent (biologically male), Moon Tent (biologically female), and a Star Tent (everyone else).

I like it. It gives us a way to refer to the various groups without treading on any toes. 

What do you think? I'd really enjoy hearing some viewpoints on this issue. Any LGBT-savvy people with an insight? 

Friday, April 4, 2014

Faith, Trust & Letting Go

I hear a lot more Christians talk about faith than I do Pagans*. Maybe that's because we have no intermediaries between us and the Divine**. One doesn't need to have faith in something one has experienced.

But it seems to me today that what we do need to have is trust. We must trust that the Goddess and God will help us, hear us, love us.

When we send an intention out into the ether, whether it be through a moment of prayer, a full ritual or through spellcraft, the last step is release. Letting go.

That's the mechanism of magic - we create an intent, focus, raise energy and then...release. Let go and trust that the Divine will handle your request. Goddess and God will figure out the details.

When we have trust and practice letting go, all we have to do is put one foot in front of the other. Just keep walking. They have our back!

*Anecdotal, your mileage may vary.
**By this I mean no central authority, no one book, no formal structure that inhibits personal experience and wisdom.

Tuesday, April 1, 2014

Gender, Sexuality and Paganism

One of my colleagues in the Pagan Blog Project posted a request for opinions about sexuality, gender and Paganism. As it happens, I'd just been speaking about that with some friends, so responding to this request was easy. And voila, another post for the letter 'G' has been born...

One of the things I love about the Pagan community is that we're a group of misfits, outcasts, weirdos, eccentrics...none of those words sound particularly flattering, but they probably feel familiar. As such, I have found it to be accepting and welcoming. My opinion is that overall, we are supportive of a wide range of orientations, lifestyles, gender identities and beliefs. Are there conservative, gay-bashing Pagans out there? I don't know of any. Maybe. Any group of human beings is bound to have some shady characters in it.

I propose that we lead the way into the future by means of radical acceptance. What if we, as a community, accepted everyone that isn't harming others? 

It would be and is awesome, that's what.

I was asked about my orientation and how that affects, combines or causes issues with my Pagan beliefs. Here's another awesome thing about Paganism: there is no dogma. Without an organization or central leadership, it's up to each one of us to make of this faith what we will. That means that a person's sexuality is irrelevant. There is no opinion regarding homosexuality, gender identity in Paganism. I don't have any issues with my somewhat gender fluid, pansexual self and my relationship with the Divine.

Marketing opportunity: We're the faith that truly means it when we say ALL ARE WELCOME, without prejudice, without judgement. 

We don't mean "you're welcome as long as you sit in the back, weirdo", "you're welcome only if you believe everything we say without question" or "you're welcome as long as you believe you're going to our version of hell if you're queer", like SOME faiths I could name. I'm looking at you, Baptist church in my neighborhood. You and I both know what's up.

Next up we get into gender. I was asked about the compatibility of some Pagan beliefs, like male-female polarity and sexual orientation. Male-female polarity is the prevailing pattern of Nature (though there are plenty of homosexual/asexual/hermaphroditic animals too), and whether or not a particular person is oriented that way personally has nothing to do with their ability to worship the Goddess and God. If someone chooses to follow a Dianic path or other single-gender form of belief, it’s fine with me. We are all connected with the Divine, however we choose to worship.

I personally believe in and celebrate the feminine and masculine aspects of Deity, and I worship them in balance with each other. To me, the faces of Deity we put on the formless and unknowable Divine are both real in their own right and also metaphors born of the human need to relate to something that resembles them. I simply don’t take it a step further and believe that the Gods have to share my personal sexual orientation. Again, if it's healing and helpful for someone else to do so, more power to them!

I was also asked for my opinion about biological sex and gender. Are they connected? I do feel that gender is related to biological sex. It’s part of the package – the hormones related to our reproductive organs affect the way that we function as beings. Having said that, I know that some people don’t feel that they got the “right” sexed body, or that their gender identity doesn’t fit into female or male. I can’t speak to their experience. All I know is that I’m somewhat gender fluid, I got a biologically female body and I’m happy with my identity as a female. I have some characteristics of both genders, and that’s perfectly ok with me – my expression of womanhood is true and valid for me.

So how does this gender connection or lack thereof affect one's ability to worship the Goddess and God? I think it’s possible to connect to the Goddess/female and God/male aspects of Deity no matter what body one has or what gender identity one has. Remember that gender and sexuality are a spectrum - every human being has elements of male and female, straight and gay within them, in their own unique blend. Both aspects of Deity have something to teach each and every one of us – that is my belief.

Meanwhile, I just attended a Moon Lodge at a recent festival. We spent a lot of time talking about single-gender gatherings, the ethics of having them, how that affects the trans community, inclusion, etc. As a nation, the USA is still creating a new paradigm for gender roles, gender identity, and equality for all. The pendulum of public opinion is still swinging, and what that means is that we have a sizable group of people in the country who still aren't tolerant. But we also have a sizable (and probably much larger, but don't quote me on that because I don't have the statistics) group of people who are ultra-tolerant, who have swung too far into the realm of "political correctness", in the parlance of our time.

Inclusion and tolerance doesn't mean that you try to cater to every single member of a community with every single event. That is an impossible task. You can never meet the needs of an entire community all at once. I think it's perfectly ok to have single gender gatherings, all gender gatherings, trans gatherings or whatever combination people desire. Everyone deserves to have a safe space, especially in their spiritual practice. As long as there are some gatherings where everyone comes together, and everyone is getting their needs met, there is no problem.

The discussion at our Moon Lodge centered around women's gatherings. The consensus of our group was that there are times when biological women need to gather, just as biological women. That's not a judgement against trans women. It's an acknowledgement of the fact that yes, the parts we were born with do make a difference. There is something undefinable that happens when biological women gather alone. It fills some primal need within us. We all felt that we'd be thrilled to have ceremony that includes trans women too. 

The ancients had some things right, you know. There is a magic and a mystery about each gender and each stage of life. I would love to see men's mysteries, women's mysteries, trans mysteries, rites of passage for youngsters/mothers/fathers/elders, LGBT mysteries, co-educational programs and single-gender educational programs - in other words, Pagan groups and programming that represent the whole spectrum of our community. It's not wrong to have a group or gathering for just one segment of the whole. We're all part of the same circle, but that doesn't mean one circle meets all of our needs!

I propose that the Pagan community strive for balance in meeting the needs of our diverse population. That we include everyone as a whole, but acknowledge that individual segments of the population have the right to have their needs met individually.

So then. That ended up being a big post about big topics! These are my opinions; I know that lots of information about all this is out there. What do you think?

*Image comes from a local LGBT Pagan group, the Raleigh Fruitcakes. They are awesome and you should check them out, North Carolinians!