Testing and Gratitude

Thanksgiving. Leaving aside all the political questions around the holiday, it’s nice to have a day set aside for us to honor that which makes us thankful. This year kind of surprised me.

Today I am grateful that I grew up dirt poor. Food was often scarce, and I lived without transportation, electricity, and even running water for months at a time. But it taught me the difference between “want” and “need”, how to creatively use the things in my environment instead of going to the store every 5 minutes, and that a comfortable home has nothing to do with the stuff you put in it.

Today I am grateful for my mother. She felt so powerless in her own life that she drank herself to death – and I didn’t speak to her for three years before she died. But she taught me that the road to happiness begins with taking responsibility for my own life, that all addictions are dangerous, and that a person is only as powerful as they believe themselves to be.

Today I am grateful for my first “Mistress”, who shattered my spirit worse than anything before or since. I lived for her for about three years, with her for about two. She was my sun and moon, and when she threw me aside for reasons I didn’t understand my entire world went dark. But she taught me that oaths go two ways, that loyalty is a precious gift, and that shame lies not in crumbling but in refusing to try again.

Today I am grateful for my late husband. Getting married at all was a horrible decision on my part, getting up the courage to leave was difficult, and having him unexpectedly pass before any resolution was reached made everything so much worse. But he taught me that what I require in relationships is not standard, that being true to myself extends even into the bedroom, and that saying “no” doesn’t make me a bad person.

Today I am grateful that being “out and proud” about everything extends even to my family. Being open about everything, even as I’m still figuring it out, has been traumatic for all involved. But it’s taught me that “family” is less about blood than it is about love and care and concern, that my chosen family is amazing for knowing me and loving me anyway, and that my honor and self-respect are more important than fitting someone else’s ideals.

Today I am so, so grateful to have been tested. Whether I passed or failed the test doesn’t even matter. Emerging from both still able to live and love and hope is all the victory anyone needs.

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Further into Simplicity

I started this whole journey into vastly simplifying my life a month ago. A progress report seems called for.

The overall theme seems to be “awareness”. I am aware of so many things I wasn’t before! And as I’ve simplified, the things I’ve never noticed before are affecting my life in some fairly significant ways.

Take weather. Before now weather hasn’t really affected anything but my commute. I went from a climate-controlled home to a climate-controlled car to a climate-controlled destination. Now, though? My walks and transportation are getting colder as we turn to winter. I also work in a very computer-dense office that’s kept cold as a result. Frankly it seemed a bit silly to spaz about climate control in my apartment when I can’t do that everywhere else (I like consistency – sue me).

Instead of relying on the heater I’ve been doing things like baking at night, so the oven warms my little apartment before I sleep. Clothes air dry more slowly now, so I’ve started doing laundry twice a week to spread it out a bit. I also try to do it in the morning, so the hot water warms the place too. My apartment is small enough that just that, with my comforter, is plenty. (Remember, I live in the South.) We’ve been down to 36* here and I haven’t had to touch my heater. I have no illusions that I’ll do that well in the summer, but I’m hoping to at least minimize A/C use as much as possible.

Another example? I wanted to take simplification of my foods slowly, seeing it as this huge challenge. Nope. It’s all flowing into each other. For instance, I made enchiladas last week. I made my own tortillas, since I consider that in the “bread” category and committed to making all of it. Since I had already done that, though, it seemed a bit self-defeating to turn around and use canned enchilada sauce after all that effort! So I didn’t. I found a recipe online that sounded good and purchased canned tomato sauce. I felt ok with that – and added learning canning to my to-do list for the coming months.

Another thing I’ve noticed is that simplicity seems to be a self-sustaining process. Simplification in one area naturally spreads to other areas. Like so many things it’s a change in perspective that does the trick. I’ve found myself further along in this process than I thought I’d be at this point because of it.

A basic change is that carrying plastic grocery bags as far as I have to walk is hard on my hands (not to mention that breaking bags suck when on foot!), so I got a reusable canvas tote I put things in to make carrying groceries easier. I haven’t used a plastic grocery bag since that started. Is avoiding plastic bags a good idea? Of course. I just hadn’t intentionally decided to do it – it naturally grew out of the other changes I’ve made.

That goes for packaging too. I’ve known for awhile that overpackaging is bad. But now I’m carrying everything by hand, so minimizing packaging just makes sense. This recently came up with those plastic jars spices come in. I put spices in my spice rack, but that means the plastic shaker thing the spices come in are useless. So I asked around and found a place that sold spices in bulk – no shaker to worry about. As a side benefit I’m also buying higher quality spices and have access to a greater variety.

Another example of the packaging thing is the big cardboard canisters I buy oatmeal in. Those tubes, covered with paper, have become canisters in my kitchen. I’m reusing them for something I need. Once I have enough of them I’ll start buying my oatmeal in the bulk section too, again minimizing packaging.

Since I’m already hitting the “reduce” and “reuse” parts of the 3 R’s, I’ve started looking into recycling options for my area. The eco-conscious thing is naturally flowing from simplicity, and I’m not even trying that hard! They compliment each other beautifully.

These changes even affect personal interactions. I’ve often felt like I live in this little hermetically-sealed bubble, separated from the people around me by my life. I’m a part of the neighborhood now. I took a different bus last week, to run an errand, and my regular bus driver asked if I was ok when he saw me again. My neighbor helped me out with a maintenance issue, because we’ve chatted as I walk past in the afternoons. I baked him cookies in exchange for his help – barter at its best.

It hasn’t all been roses – there have been hiccups too as I do this. Lots of them. It’s a learning process. I’ve been shopping on autopilot and picked up bread, not noticing until checkout. I’ve run out of ingredients for whatever I’m making, since I’m not used to everything being separate, and with transportation being so sporadic I’ve had to postpone things until I could get to the store again. I’ve been tired and not wanted to spend hours kneading bread and wringing clothes. I’ve been trapped in my apartment for hours because every stitch of clothing was wet at the same time. I’ve had to scramble to catch the bus, or waited for over an hour to catch one, or gotten off at the wrong stop. I’ve flat forgotten dozens of things that I haven’t quite adjusted to yet. I didn’t have enough patience with the detergent I made so the consistency is off a bit. Etc. The only thing that makes all of it worthwhile – even the screw ups – is that they only have to happen once for me to learn better. I find that highly encouraging.

Overall, I’m loving it. It’s amazing to me how natural all of this seems to be once I took that first step to get started. I still have a month to work out the kinks – which is a good thing – but so far it’s easier than I feared and more rewarding than I’d hoped. I feel more connected to my life and myself, more in tune with the cycles around me, and I’m learning how happy I’m made by little things.

Envelopes, Labels, and Gods

People have wondered at the appeal of the Twilight Saga. Especially since Bella doesn’t really have a character. She’s got some blurry qualities, but her personality is amazingly bland (if you leave aside a complete lack of common sense with safety issues). Yet the books and movies have become worldwide beststellers even with a main character who has the personality of a stupid potato.

I’ve come to the conclusion that what makes Bella such a compelling character is her lack of character. She is an envelope into which any fan can slip herself. So the story is, invariably, about someone just like them. Readers aren’t watching her life, they’re vicariously living it. It makes them a part of the story. That’s the draw.

That same appeal, I think, is what makes the concept of archetypes so enduring and compelling. It’s also what makes them so potentially awful.

On the one hand an archetype is dead easy for everyone to relate to. We can see how the Maiden manifests in our lives, or when we’ve set forth on a new journey like the Fool, or fought like the Warrior. Stories and myths using these archetypes are accessible to each of us in different ways, allowing us to relate to the stories individually while still sharing the communal story experience. That can only serve to build community and give us a common language.

But Pagans have taken that a step further. Some actually have shrines to a given archetype on their altar, or hold rituals for them. Even more common, especially in group work, is to invite “all the Mother goddesses!” to a Circle followed by a damn roll call. The archetype concept is used to simultaneously categorize and impose labels on the Divine. Personally, as a polytheist it alternately creeps me out and pisses me the hell off.

No one I’ve ever met worships the “pure idea of the Maiden”. I honestly don’t think there can be such a thing. They worship “the Maiden archetype as defined through my own experience”. That’s a whole different concept altogether. If the archetype is an empty character envelope into which we can slip aspects of our Self. and then we worship that, we’re not going “up”, we’re going “in”. It’s not the Divine we interact with, it’s our subconscious brought out as a playmate.

If that’s what you want to do go for it. Jungian therapy has been doing something similar for years as a psychological tool and many people find it helpful. Just be aware of what you’re doing. The archetype isn’t a deity, it’s a construct in your own head.

I think using archetypes this way is actively detrimental to our practice. Archetypes come from us. A practitioner’s Maiden will never surprise them, or come up with something bizarre they have to cope with. There may be gradual realizations that come about as people grow, but there’s not the give-and-take you get with a completely different personality because there’s NOT one. The “eureka” moments are fewer and farther between because there’s no one outside of yourself to guide you, challenge you, or force you to look into your hidden/scary places.

What’s even worse is that various deities – with full characters and opinions and needs, thank you very much – are shoved into these “archetype envelopes” and left there. All the amazing things that separate and individualize them and yet don’t fit in the envelope are tossed out and forgotten – and once that happens it often isn’t fixed. Arianrhod was dragged into The White Goddess, and for the most part She’s been stuck there since. How many Pagans in the world see Her as anything other than “the Welsh mother/moon goddess”? Despite the fact that the slightest bit of research blows that whole notion out of the water completely? Not very many. It’s frankly insulting to Her.

Unfortunately this problem happens all the time. It’s the exact same issue that underlies the equation of deities with each other. For example, Odin is often called “the Norse Zeus”. About the only thing Odin and Zeus have in common is heading up their respective pantheons. They are two very different gods, from two very different cultures, with two wildly different personalities and experiences. But that’s disregarded completely. They’re both “Father Gods”, right? And since we have a vague idea of what “Father God” means – filtered through modern Western conceptions shaped by Christianity – we think of them both like that despite the fact that it’s wrong. The label on the envelope doesn’t just categorize, it defines. Athena and the Morrigan and other “War/Battle Goddesses”, Loki and Coyote and other “Tricksters”… It’s constant. We don’t see them individually. We just shove ‘em all into an envelope, slap a label on it, think that one label defines the contents, and go about our day.

The danger here is that people are, by and large, lazy thinkers. Using envelopes for our Gods means that eventually the envelope becomes all there is. We’ll forget that Odin gave an eye for wisdom, that Athena turned a woman into a spider for hubris, that Loki is also called the Breaker of Worlds. Once a habit of thought is established it’s difficult to break, and once it’s socially accepted it’s even harder.

There is no difference between treating a deity as nothing more than an imposed label and doing the same thing to minorities. In both cases the one in question is reduced and demeaned to fit in with preconceived notions that deny them their individuality. Most Pagans/polytheists see themselves as socially liberal – how can we advocate better treatment for people while simultaneously disrespecting our Gods? Even our language shows this lack of respect. I can’t count the number of times I’ve heard Pagans talk about “using a love goddess” in a given ritual. Newsflash: we don’t “use” deities. Sure, those saying it don’t know they’re being insensitive and dismissive – but I don’t think those using casual racism, sexism, or any other –ism in random conversation do either.

Are archetypes as a whole something we should explain to new Pagans? Yes, because they ARE accessible and it IS a common language. Are they handy lenses through which to examine stories and myths for greater understanding? Absolutely. But that’s the line, right there. Using an archetype during ritual, or making offerings to one, or otherwise shoving deities into envelopes further separates us from the Divine – the OPPOSITE of what we’re trying to do.

It also makes my skin crawl. End of.