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Elizabeth Cunningham
Elizabeth Cunningham
Author of The Maeve Chronicles.

Coming to Light


by: on December 1st, 2010 | 1 Comment »

Chanukah begins at sundown on December 1, the beginning of what I call the Feasts of Light, the observances and celebrations that carry us through the darkest time of the year.

I am sure I am not the only one to note the coincidence of the recent WikiLeaks happening this same week, leaks that “bring to light” what people in power had every intention of keeping dark. Whatever havoc the revelations may wreak, and however questionable a character Julian Assange may be, I doubtless join many in believing this exposure of secrets is a good thing. What is revealed has a chance, at least, to be healed.

I confess I have fallen out of the blogosphere recently, because I find it daunting to be topical, to make intelligent, inspiring or thoughtful commentary on events I can barely keep up with. I comfort myself that I am doing what I can to save the earth – a particular bit of earth called High Valley. But I admit that though I sign petitions and call representatives on this and that, it is easy to lose sight of the rest of the world.

Today I committed to participation in Amnesty International’s Write for Rights December 4-12 writeathon. Their site provides you with all the information you need for writing letters on your own or for organizing a letter writing event.

The Write for Rights campaign is way of bringing to light the suffering of individuals, groups, and communities, suffering that may be unknown to many or deliberately distorted or obscured by those in power. It strikes me as a fitting way to honor this season.

Joyous Feasts of Light to all!

The Dead Do Vote and Not Just in Chicago


by: on October 26th, 2010 | 5 Comments »

As the United States prepares for midterm elections (a phrase that recalls midterm exams and evokes much of the same anxiety) some of us are also preparing for Hallowe’en, the Eve of All Saints Day for Christians and for pagans, Samhain, a word that translates from Gaelic as Summer’s End. Many Mexican-Americans will celebrate Día de los Muertos. Though these holidays are culturally and historically distinct, they share the same time of year and many of the same customs, particularly the honoring of the dead, the acknowledgment of worlds and realities beyond our immediate ken.

However long term their effects, elections happen in the frenzy of a particular moment and climate, currently a desperate and divisive one. The holy days which precede this sacred, secular rite — the casting of the ballot — can offer a longer view, both comforting and profound in its perspective.


Fairytales: One Antidote to Bullying


by: on October 12th, 2010 | 17 Comments »

“Life is no fairytale,” people say, meaning there is a dearth of happy endings. But that last traditional line “and then they lived happily ever after” is not what the story is about. In most fairytales there are terrible perils and ordeals. The hero is often the victim of bullying and malevolence and must discover both internal and external resources in order to survive and ultimately triumph.

In many stories there are three sons or three daughters who in turn set off into the world to seek their fortune. Before any one of them has gone far, they encounter someone in need, an animal, a beggar, or an old man or woman. The hero is the one who stops to show kindness or to share whatever meager store of food he or she has. Later, in the time of trial, the act of kindness becomes a saving grace, and the animal or old beggar becomes a powerful ally. The bullies, or the ungenerous, generally come to a bad end, though sometimes the former victim chooses to help them and restore them to the human family.


Genetically Modified Salmon or Can this Marriage be Saved


by: on September 20th, 2010 | 4 Comments »

On Friday my husband and I cooked wild caught salmon over a wood fire. We enjoyed it with garden vegetables and maybe a little too much wine. When the subject of genetically modified salmon came up, I was surprised to find that we disagreed – vehemently on my part.

The Food and Drug Administration is currently holding meetings (for only two days!?) on whether or not to approve marketing of a species of salmon genetically modified to produce growth hormones all year long instead of seasonally. Proponents argue that this fast-growing salmon would be a significant new food source whose consumption would also spare wild salmon populations. Critics are concerned about allergens in this untested food and also about what could happen if genetically modified salmon were to escape. Would their rapid growth mean that they would consume more food to the detriment of existing wild species?


On Paul of Tarsus and Terry Jones


by: on September 9th, 2010 | 11 Comments »

Everyone from President Obama to Angela Jolie has made a pronouncement on Pastor Terry Jones’ proposed September 11th Quran burning – publicity that Paul of Tarsus, a man who knew how to stage an event, might well have envied. Paul presided over the first public burning of books by Christians. In Ephesus, recent converts burned their scrolls on magic (presumably voluntarily) as a symbolic act of penitence as well as a literal act of destruction. Knowledge was more vulnerable in those days of hand-copied scrolls. Though the content of the Quran cannot be destroyed in this proposed fire, burning the Quran is a literal as well as symbolic assault on the Islamic faithful. In both cases, the book burnings are an aggressive assertion of the absolute supremacy of one religion through the demonizing of another.

Below is a fictional rendition (edited for brevity; for the juicy version read the novel) of the book burning at Ephesus from my novel Bright Dark Madonna (Monkfish, 2009, used by permission). The narrative point of view belongs to Maeve, the feisty Celtic Mary Magdalen who is nobody’s disciple:

Intent on my own thoughts, I did not at first notice a larger than usual crowd gathering in the center of the square, until a hush fell, and a voice I could never forget rang out.


Elemental: Why We are All Pagan


by: on August 24th, 2010 | 8 Comments »

“My family is Jewish,” he said.

“My family is Protestant,” she said.

“But we’re pagan,” he continued, “and we want our wedding to have some pagan element.”

“Only we want it to be subtle,” she added. “We don’t want our families to feel uncomfortable.”

That was back in the day when I used to officiate at weddings as an interfaith minister. (For why I no longer do so see “Mixed Marriage“)

“That’s simple,” I answered. “We’ll honor the elements.” A feature of most contemporary pagan rituals. “We all have to breathe. We all need light and warmth. We all stand on the earth that feeds and shelters us. We all need water to stay alive, whatever else we believe or don’t believe.”

The word pagan simply means country dweller, though many contemporary neo-pagans are urban dwellers as were many pagans in classical times. From the Judeo-Christian perspective, the designation came to describe anyone who was not a monotheist. Paganism isn’t really an “ism” at all. Pagan practices are specific to a time, place, and culture. Though Isis was at one time worshipped all over the Mediterranean world, and the Rites of Demeter and Persephone at Eleusis drew pilgrims from everywhere, no pagan community or practice (to avoid the charged word cult) has ever been hailed as a world religion. Yet all so-called world religions have pagan roots and practices that vary from one region to another. All the world religions have splintered into sometimes violently opposing sects. They also continue to make war against each other, or their more extreme practitioners do.

So who needs religion? you might wonder, as you hum John Lennon’s “Imagine” under your breath. I am not going to answer that question beyond muttering: “Religions! Can’t live with ‘em; can’t live without ‘em.”

Paradoxically in its particularity, attention to the local – this mountain, this river, this cycle of seasons – the pagan approach offers a way to recognize our commonality, not just with our fellow human beings but with all the life on this planet. For most of human existence, religious practice had to do with ensuring that there would be enough food, that resources would be preserved, that the gods (source) in the form of rivers, springs, mountains, soil would be honored and fed, replenished, so that the people would continue to thrive.

Whatever our religious beliefs or nonbeliefs, we know that we are made of the same elements as this planet. The sea is in our blood, the air is our breath, are bones are crystalline, the sun’s fire (in whatever form) warms us and fuels. Climate change, in which we play a role, has shifted the balance of the elements. Whether or not human agency is clear in every instance, we can’t help but be aware of elemental upheaval: tornadoes, hurricanes, earthquakes, the devastating flooding in Pakistan, fires in the Western United States. We have put diverse ecologies at risk as we compulsively drill for what is in effect primeval sunlight. A huge glacier just broke away from Greenland, and the seas are rising. Instead of regarding the elements as our enemies, something to harness, subdue, exploit or escape, maybe it is time to start honoring them again, restoring them, learning from them, aligning with them, recognizing that all life, not just our own, is sustained by the elements, of one substance with them. Maybe we are all pagans, urban or rural dwellers on this earth.

We the People: Are We in Charge?


by: on August 3rd, 2010 | 27 Comments »

Last night my husband Douglas Smyth, who writes about politics and economics, mentioned Paul Krugman’s op-ed piece in the New York Times “Defining Prosperity Down.” Krugman expresses concern that “those in power will soon declare that high unemployment is “structural” — a permanent part of the economic landscape.” Where is the public outrage at this cavalier government acceptance of high unemployment, my husband wondered? People, he said, have become so passive.

At which point, I became outraged. Who is passive I wanted to know? Aren’t many of us signing petitions and making phone calls to representatives almost daily? And before the invasion of the Iraq, didn’t people take to the streets in large numbers in almost every small town and city in the country not to mention the rest of the world? Don’t people organize and join boycotts? (I had just that day written to CEOs at Target who are now exercising their rights as a “corporate person” to buy elections.) Don’t people volunteer in the political campaigns of those they believe will make a difference? I make no claim to being a model activist. But I am not passive or indifferent, and I don’t believe that most people are no matter what their political stripe or lack thereof.


The Feast of Mary Magdalen: Celebrating Incarnation


by: on July 20th, 2010 | 10 Comments »

Mary Magdalene and Jesus

On July 22nd, the height of summer in the Northern Hemisphere, fruits and vegetables ripening, sun baking or steaming, cool waters beckoning, warm nights full of stars and fireflies, when our senses are so engaged, the Roman Catholic, the Anglican, and Eastern Orthodox churches all celebrate The Feast of Saint Mary Magdalene. Or Magdalen, as some prefer. I know her as Maeve, the Celtic Mary Magdalen. This summer marks the twentieth anniversary of my first encounter with what might be described as an archetypal force, or, as one reader called her, an imaginary friend.

Mary being even more incarnate: Jules Joseph Lefebvre's 1876


Mixed Marriage


by: on July 18th, 2010 | 4 Comments »

Not long ago we celebrated thirty years of mixed marriage. Some people said it couldn’t last, and it’s true: we come from radically different cultures whose members have battled each other off and on since pre-history and still struggle today. But we persisted. We beat the odds. Statistics vary, but some sources say close to fifty percent of marriages like ours will fail. Yes, a marriage between one man and one woman, a mixed gender marriage, which proponents of California’s proposition 8, among others, insist is the only kind of marriage there is.

I am not only a thirty year veteran of a mixed gender marriage, my husband and I are also minority members in our immediate and extended family. When we gather for family celebrations, more than half the company is gay. When I consider my circle of friends and my wider community, the same is true. The difference in our minority status is that no one discriminates against us, passes moral judgment on us, or deprives us of our civil rights.


Sacred text(ing): Staying in Touch with Adult Children


by: on July 13th, 2010 | 20 Comments »

When I became a mother, I’d heard plenty about the terrible twos and the anguish of adolescence. The phrase empty nest syndrome was also well-known to me. But nothing and no one prepared me for having fully grown, independent children in their twenties who don’t consider it compulsory to call their parents once a week.

With my mother, the once a week call was an ironclad, if unspoken, rule. If I failed to call, she would call me, her voice cool, subtly reproachful, unsuccessfully denying a need which I now understand all too well. Sometimes I ask my children (with mock-incredulity) how they dare to flaunt this law of the universe? Occasionally I am more direct: call me once a week. So far it hasn’t happened.

I once had lunch with an advice columnist for a local paper. “Ask me something,” she said. “I get tired of making up my own questions.” OK,” I agreed. “How do I get my adult children to call me?” This veteran mother and grandmother looked at me as if I were an idiot: “You don’t,” she told me. “Leave them alone. They’re busy.”