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The State of Our Stuff


by: on January 25th, 2011 | 2 Comments »

While President Obama prepares for his State of the Union address, I thought I would spend my time contemplating the state of my various unions. The other night I was cooking dinner and listening to NPR (de rigueur in my marital union) when I heard a sound bite from a speech the president gave at a GE plant in Schenectady, NY. “We’re gonna invent stuff; we’re gonna build stuff.” I was busy sautéing vegetables or I might have run screaming from the room.

I know that American workers need jobs and that the last decades have seen the huge and devastating loss of manufacturing jobs to China and the many other places in the world from which we now purchase most of our stuff. But in my own union, marital – and through marriage with a beautiful, run-down property we are trying to preserve – sorting through stuff has become an overwhelming, sometimes guilt-inducing, all-consuming job.

My mother-in-law, an immigrant from Trinidad who came of age during the Depression, let nothing daunt her when people laughed at her ambition to work in coffee importing. Instead she became a teacher and convinced her husband to do the same. In 1945 they bought a farm for a song and eventually ran their own small eccentric school. Over the years, they added onto the original farmhouse and outbuildings in a haphazard, do-it-yourself (sometimes downright scary and dangerous fashion) and after his death my mother-in-law continued buying land and speculating in real estate. On vacations they managed to travel the world and wherever they went they brought back lots of stuff, making little distinction between gems and junk and never throwing anything away. As people from the Depression Era knew, you might need it someday.


What can we learn from the world’s oldest art?


by: on December 14th, 2010 | 20 Comments »

For Alex Shaland’s accompanying photographs of South African rock paintings by the indigenous San people on our art gallery – click here.

Secrets Hidden in the Rocks: The Spirituality of the South African Pre-Historic Paintings

by Irene Shaland

Rocks as canvas: the world’s largest open art gallery

A few hours of scenic driving from bustling Cape Town (and seventeen endless hours of flight from the US) will transport you into an other-worldly realm: the South African Cederberg Mountains, a massive rock wilderness where wind and rain have sculpted giant sandstone boulders, piled one upon the other, into bizarre shapes and towering surreal creations in every shade of rust red, brown, yellow, orange and white.

The Cederberg is the canvas for some of the oldest and most spiritual art ever created, and the mountains – home to the highest number of painted images per square kilometer – are one of the richest areas of rock art in South Africa – indeed the world. And, unlike France or Spain, where the well-known Stone Age paintings of the Lascaux and Altamira caves are located, in South Africa deep caverns are rare, so most paintings are in small shelters or rock overhangs. This means that most South African paintings are easily viewed, but they have also been exposed to merciless sun and rain for many centuries. They are pale remnants of once brightly colored images.


Requiem for a Holy Tree


by: on December 10th, 2010 | 19 Comments »

The Glastonbury Thorn. Photo by Matt Cardy/Getty Images

Arboricide. There really is such a word. It means “the wanton destruction of trees.” On December 8th, 2010 arboricide was committed against the legendary Thorn Tree of Glastonbury, a tree that is said to have sprung from the staff of Joseph of Arimathea some two thousand years ago. The tree, whose ancestry has been traced to the Middle East, blooms during the seasons of Christmas and Easter. Each year on December 8th a sprig is cut from one of the tree’s descendants in St John’s churchyard and sent to the queen for her Christmas table. Whoever attacked the tree was likely familiar with the custom and chose the day accordingly. The Thorn Tree that stands – or stood – on Wearyall Hill was felled once before by Cromwell’s troops during England’s Civil War. The townspeople replanted the tree from cuttings, as they no doubt will again.

For the first arboricides, the tree was a symbol of Papist superstition – and perhaps also the wealth and privilege of the established religion. Whenever I hear the word Papist, I know the other “p” word, pagan, is just under the surface. The Cromwellians also made war on Maypoles, Beltane fires, observances of saints’ days, all the old customs that had been baptized and renamed by the Roman Catholic Church. Until the current arboricide is arrested, we can only speculate on the motive.

Some accounts call the arboricide an anti-Christian act which I think is unfortunate and inflammatory. The great thing about a holy tree is that no creed is required for veneration. Whether or not the tree sprang from Joseph’s staff and whether or not the staff was made from the wood of Jesus’s cross, the Glastonbury Thorn Tree is sacred because it is beloved, because it is a place of pilgrimage where people bring their troubles as well as their homage. It is sacred because it connects faith and myth, past and present, nature and miracle. It is sacred because it is a tree, with its roots in the earth and its branches in the sky, because it mediates those two worlds and draws sustenance from both, because, like all trees, it shows us how to do the same.

The veneration of trees pre-dates Christianity and no doubt all organized world religions. The tree is a source of life, offering shelter, food, habitat, fuel, soil preservation and enrichment – not to mention breathable air. In places where trees are scarce or land has been cleared, the tree is a gathering place, a landmark. In a world where we are losing forest at an alarmingly rapid rate, we would all do well to venerate trees, believers and atheists alike. No matter the motivation or beliefs of the arboricide, let’s not forget that it is a living tree that was attacked and living forests that continue to be at risk. May this loss awaken us to our deep-rooted, sacred connection with trees.

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.


The Use and Misuse of Names


by: on October 22nd, 2010 | 23 Comments »

I intuitively feel that these experiences, mystical but also sensual and embodied, are the core of spirituality and the foundation that religions build their vast tottering edifices upon: these experiences that work for us, that we then work hard to name and explicate in full logical or fantastically elaborated detail. Naming is not only important but unavoidable … but once the naming develops into major exclusionary truth claims, … and once these get identified with the worldly power involved in religious organization then all the power of the experience gets harnessed to the groupthink and the powerplays (exclusions, repressions and crusades) and we have the worst of religion.

Dave Belden in response to How I Became a Pagan

Reading Dave’s comment, I was reminded of Deepak Chopra’s saying “God gave humans the truth, and the devil came and he said, ‘Let’s give it a name and call it religion.’” There is an inescapable tension between experience and the words we use to describe that experience, which cannot help but remove us from the experience itself. Ted Hughes warns us eloquently: “In a way, words are continually trying to displace our experience. And insofar as they are stronger than the raw life of our experience, and full of themselves and all the dictionaries they have digested, they do displace it.” Yet Hughes as a poet chose to use words to create extraordinary experiences for his readers. How do you communicate without words? How do you guide people on a spiritual path without names for the landmarks they are passing?

On the vision quest I wrote about, Oriah was certainly conscious of that tension. When we came back from the vision quest, we were not allowed to talk to anyone about our experience, because once we did it would become a story, and we would remember the story and how we had told it rather than the experience. After a day, we met as a group and shared the experience of our vision quest with one another, in mime. No words allowed. This was (radical understatement) a challenge, but it forced us to focus on the physical, emotional, and spiritual experience rather than moving into the intellectual world, which I at least certainly do all too easily. I remember one woman, who simply sat in the centre of our circle, and peeled an onion, layer after layer, as tears rolled down her face. When I go to sweat lodges in my tradition, we are always encouraged not to speak to any one for seven days about our experience in the lodge, so that we have time to process the experience before it becomes a story.


How I Became a Pagan


by: on October 16th, 2010 | 29 Comments »

Paganism. The name itself has a certain wild and crazy sound to it, a sense of scribbling wildly outside the lines of the establishment. Much as I’d like to claim that aspect of the word, that sense of neo-medievalists dancing naked in the spring moonlight before they copulate in the furrows so that the crops will come again this year, that isn’t me, and it isn’t my paganism. I’m an urban middle-aged man, ex-school teacher, born and raised Jewish. What has brought me to a spiritual place where I can assert my religion is pagan, (or primal, to use Huston Smith’s more encompassing term) ?

I’ve always had an interest in the spiritual, in how we form a bridge from ourselves to something that is bigger than ourselves. Judaism is a community religion; the Talmud says that one cannot be Jewish in isolation, and there is no story I know of a Jewish hermit living in a remote cave by himself seeking G_d. But my family lived in a small French-Canadian town, and even when we moved to Montreal and later Toronto we were never part of a Jewish community. So perhaps that’s the reason that I never felt any twinges of spirituality around Judaism, never felt a personal connection to Something Greater when I was in the synagogue listening to people chant something in Hebrew, a language I was able to memorize enough of to stumble through the form of a Bar Mitzvah but never understood. I read the Bible, cover to cover three times in Grade 5, and while I liked the stories, and absorbed the ethic better than I realized, I was never a believer in the theology. But my spiritual need was still there. Had I been raised by Kabbalists, I might well have found the catalyzing power I was seeking there, but those were not the cards I was dealt.


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?


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.

The Empowerment of Your Own Wisdom


by: on August 13th, 2010 | 7 Comments »

I led a nature divination workshop in the University of Wisconsin Arboretum a few years ago. I asked the group first to ground and center, then remind themselves of their oracular question, and then simply look around at the marshland where we had gathered. One woman decided to ask two questions rather than just one.

She stationed herself on a boardwalk overlooking the marsh, closed her eyes and asked: “How can I find the time and energy to enjoy my life, given the fact that I am extremely busy with work right now?” When she opened her eyes, she immediately noticed the swaying grasses and rushes in front of her and realized that she, too, could be flexible like these plants. She could go with the flow and fit pleasure into the small cracks in her work life.

Then she closed her eyes again and asked: “What should I do about my nephew?” Opening her eyes on the same scene less than a minute later, she noticed a large tree in the middle distance that appeared sturdy and deeply-rooted. Yes, she thought to herself, I could provide this teenager with the kind of stability this tree represents if I open my home to him.

My student’s experience exhibits the extent to which her insight depended on her own perception. Because she was looking for different types of feedback, at the same place and at almost the same time, she noticed two very different images.

To see more divination cards, visit the Tikkun Daily Art Gallery.

This is exactly the type of experience I wanted to foster when several years ago I proposed a project to my daughter, the painter Linnea Vedder. My idea was a deck of divination cards that helps people access their own insight. Linnea illustrated the cards and I wrote the accompanying book. We call it The World Is Your Oracle.


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