Month: March 2011

A field of rats, a field of tulips

Fecundity is anathema only in the animal. “Acres and acres of rats” has a suitably chilling ring to it that is decidedly lacking if I say, instead, “acres and acres of tulips.” — Annie Dillard, Pilgrim at Tinker Creek

Acres and acres — rats and tulips, babies and dandelions, cockroaches and trees. This brings us to the last of ADF’s nine virtues and the one I will utterly excoriate: fertility. 

Fertility comes from the Latin verb ferre, meaning “to bear.” It means something capable of reproduction, whether rats or tulips — continuously productive, continuously sending its DNA out into the world. When it comes to soil, it refers to an abundance of material needed to support plant growth. Plants ultimately support animals, at least the higher-order sort. A related term is fecundity, which — like fertility — ultimately comes from the root “fe,” to bring forth young, which is ultimately the root of fetus, feminine and female.

Fertility was the cornerstone of a women’s value in the ancient world, particularly her ability to bring forth sons. Children were wealth: free labor to work the fields and weave the cloth, to take care of siblings and goats, even to sell in harsh economic times. When fewer humans died in infancy, education became compulsory and child labor illegal, children then became an economic burden for families, who had fewer of them. Similarly, an increase in women’s education and work opportunities also dramatically decreases her fertility, since she no longer needs to reproduce quite so lavishly to prove her worth.
This is perhaps a dark view of fertility. Both men and women in the modern age who face what was once called “barrenness” resort to medical procedures to restore fertility, drugs and in-vitro and even surrogacy. It is a biological drive. A successful species is one that can reproduce, shooting its DNA off into the uncertain future. Highly fertile species — humans, cockroaches, dandelions, rabbits — have a greater chance of surviving than those with more complicated and compromised reproductive capacity, such as cheetahs. Fertility, then, is a mark of being alive.
That’s on a species level, of course. A childless woman is just as alive as a mother of ten, and perhaps has more energy to prove it. But it comes back to the field of tulips versus the field of rats problem. Animal fertility, in order to be sustained, must be far less than the fertility of the green world on which it depends. An overabundance of deer will lead to mass starvation in the woods come winter. A people who overpopulate a less than fertile environment — one prone to desertification and infrequent rains, for example — will frequently face starvation and mass death. And on the individual level, high fertility can chain a person to her (almost always a “her”) reproductive role, stunting any other personal, professional or spiritual opportunity.
With seven billion human mouths to feed on an increasingly polluted Earth, do we really want to view fertility as a virtue?
Granted, ADF doesn’t really mean reproduction. It defines fertility as “bounty of mind, body and spirit, involving creativity, production of objects, food, works of art, etc., an appreciation of the physical, sensual, nurturing….” It strikes me, then, that their concept of “fertility” can really be termed “creativity,” if you shave off the last confusing phrase that ends in the ellipsis. Create comes from the Latin “creare,” to make, and involves the mind as well as the hands.
But is it a virtue, though, to create?
Obviously, creation can be a boon for society. Someone, somewhere, came up with the first loaf of bread, the first fire drill and the first flush toilet. But someone also came up with the first man-killing spear, the first poison, the first hydrogen bomb. Creation itself is value neutral.
There are perfectly kind, compassionate and gentle human beings who cannot paint, sing or invent a new type of car engine. There are deeply talented artists who moonlight as the world’s biggest assholes. Creativity, while it can contribute to culture, cannot sustain it on its own. Like an above-average IQ or the virtue ADF calls “vision,” creativity is a nice thing to have — but not a virtue, in my mind. Aedh Rua doesn’t list any virtue that can be connected with either creativity or fertility, which I tend to view as telling.
My husband mused that the ADF virtues ares the “snooty list.” I’d tend to agree. It doesn’t have in mind the folks who wear work boots, engage in manual labor yet try to love their neighbor as themselves. Being a cultural high-flier with creativity, vision and piety doesn’t make you a virtuous person, since you could still be a complete jerk lacking compassion, mindfulness and humility.
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Song to the Young Son

Aonghus of the hidden birth
Aonghus of the flowering tree
Aonghus of the lovers doomed
to meet in the darkness secretly

Aonghus of the rising sap
Aonghus of the green of May
Aonghus of the soaring swan
and the sound of sparrows at the break of day

Aonghus of the land of dreams
Aonghus of the poet’s art
Aonghus of the searching eye
and the trickster’s promise that ensnares the heart

Aonghus of the honeyed wine
Aonghus of the fiery will
Aonghus of the secret sweet
that for nine months makes a single day stand still

Aonghus of the land of youth
Aonghus of the gentle friend
Aonghus with his unseen cloak
And the heat of the summer that never ends

Aonghus of the flowering tree
Aonghus of the green of May
Aonghus of the lovers’ dance
and the sound of sparrows at the break of day

library-cleaning

Ah, spring cleaning.

In Always Coming Home, Ursula Le Guin’s narrator, Pandora, is horrified to discover that the Kesh clean out their libraries every few years. “You destroy valuable books,” she asks. “Oh yes,” the archivist replies. “Who wants to be buried under them?”

And so. I ran through my shelves. Enjoyable but silly werewolf novels I probably won’t reread? On the donate pile, along with CDs, videos, a belly-dancing DVD I’ve never used. Things that I thought I should read — the compendium of ancient Greek philosophers, for example — but probably wouldn’t unless I was locked in a prison cell with no other reading material.

Out with the shoulds. Out with things I once loved but no longer resonated with. Out with the past. Who wants to be buried by it?

But one thing I made sure to donate: all of my Z Budapest books. I’ve kept a few Goddess-oriented texts, although not many. Yes, it forms part of my spiritual history, although my path is a Druidic one rather than Wiccan, Wicce or Witch.

There was a bit more to it in Z’s case, however. In part, it’s solidarity with transgender people; her recent statements were mocking, hateful. I thought of that when I saw her books on the shelf.
I think it’s possible to have a healing, gender-exclusionary space, but whenever you posit an in-group and an Other, there’s always the opportunity for objectification and demonization. In Dianic space the Other is, of course, men. Among some few — albeit a vocal few — the “otherization” is extended to all those associated with men: transgender people, heterosexual women.
Maleness is not a disease or a curse; it’s a simple biological fact. To assume that all men or all women have a particular set of shared qualities (and never the twain shall meet) is essentialism, and that’s not something I believe in. Culture makes us what we are, along with the rhythms and quirks of our particular — not general — bodies.
Library cleaning is a good practice. It forces you to examine realistically who you are and what you’re about. What will you read again, or refer to? What do you truly use? Just as our bodies and minds change with the weight of time and experience, so should our possessions. The past should not be a collection of items weighing down our homes like a ship anchor.
Best to release them into the wild, where they may sing to another reader somewhere, sometime.
To quote Le Guin’s archivist again: “Books no one reads go; books people read go after a while. But they all go. Books are mortal. They die. A book is an act; it takes place in time, not just in space. It is not information, but relation.”

Temperance

There is something infuriating about Temperance.

A blank-faced angel pours water from one chalice into another, white-robed, with one foot on land and one in water. No passion lights his face or his golden hair. When I was a teen reading tarot, I wanted to shake my fist and rage whenever he appeared: Temperance? Moderation? The Middle Path? Bah, what kind of insight is this?

Moderation is a virtue seldom treasured by the young. And rightfully so: the young are stretching their fingers and toes toward their limits, pissing on the boundaries of the territories they claim. Moderation walks hand in hand with wisdom and experience, the virtue of a farmer who knows that drought and drowning can come any time, the harvester that saves seeds and preserves stores for the times to come.

ADF defines moderation as “cultivating one’s appetites so that one is neither a slave to them nor driven to ill health (mental or physical) through excess or deficiency.” I’m not sure I go with the metaphor of cultivating one’s appetites; they are not vines to be trained, no matter the discipline of the mind. Appetites, and the emotions that drive them, simply are what they are. What you’re cultivating, then, is the response to appetite, whim, desire, want.

Granted, we have biological limitations that need to be taken into account. Most people will overeat if given the opportunity because biology hardwires us to — in preparation for the winter, or other future scarcity. Our appetites were born of a different sort of world and society, one in which resources were unreliable and life often short. Similarly, those who are trying to mandate abstinence for all those outside the bonds of wedlock meet the roadblock of human libido. The prohibition might work in a culture where people regularly married at 14 — right in the thrust of puberty with its hormones — but not in a culture where people marry only after they have established themselves in home, education and career, these days the late 20s or 30s. Biology had a vested interest in starting the reproductive round early, since most offspring would die and most parents wouldn’t live to a ripe old age. For better or worse, our culture no longer matches our biology, although the appetites remain.

Moderation comes from a Latin root meaning to restrain or control, while temperance is self-control, the Latin temperantia. You temper metal — making it stronger and more useful — by exposing it to blazing heat and then cold water. And so the temperate personality is one that finds a mellow middle after previously being exposed to extremes, probably in one’s youth.

The middle path isn’t the shaded boulevard of the hedonist, the person who gives into her every desire, or the thorny road of the barefoot ascetic. Oftentimes, seeking temperance, a spiritual seeker can go too far in the other direction, mortifying the flesh through fasting, deprivation, diets and denials. In a sense, this is easier to do than find the middle road; it’s easier to always say no rather than learn what to allow. It’s choosing to follow rules rather than determining the boundaries for one’s self. Think of the would-be ascetics who fasted in the desert and then died in a too-hot sweat lodge under the guidance of a New Age guru, ignoring their bodies the entire way.
The body has wisdom of its own, and it asks that the mind lead it on the middle road.
Moderation has other virtues as well. It shies from extremes, calling for us to see beyond the black and white terms of opposing armies. It finds truth somewhere in the middle. And this, alas, is sorely lost from our culture today, a society in which the extreme — from the Latin for “furthest outward” — is seen as pure and the center as wishy-washy and flip-flopping. There’s a drive to go further and further into the fringe to attract notice and acclaim — not to conquer and bring the fringe’s wealth to the center/hearth, but to draw culture further away from the norm and the placid Angel of balance with his cups.
Moderation calls for us to drop the language of war and the objectification of other human beings. As you are, so am I, and vice versa. It calls for us to know ourselves and our boundaries, to take responsibility for defending them and to balance that with testing our limits, reaching out to become our best selves.
There’s nothing in Aedh Rua’s list of coir that really captures the meaning of temperance. After all, the ancient Celts loved their extremes: the fierce Cu Chulainn battling enemies single-handed, the Dagda swilling a lake full of porridge, the king throwing lavish feasts for his people, the warrior’s boast. The extremes were perhaps tempered by cneastacht, the inner sense of right relationship with the cosmos and society, and misneach, or right measure — keeping things in perspective,. Rua offers another virtue:macanta, the quality of a son, which means being gentle, kind and willing to learn from anyone in one’s path, no matter their station.
Self-control is a part of every virtue; it leads us to temper our passions, rages and annoyances so as to contribute to the social and cosmic order. It’s not self-abuse, which is simply another extreme. There’s nothing flashy or commercial about moderation; it keeps us from overspending, overdoing and feeling bad about ourselves, all traditional drivers of the market. Which is likely why we hear nothing about it, except when the ungenerous of heart propose that the Other — the poor, the undesirable — practice it even when the complainers themselves do not.

Medicine song

Misfortune waxes with the full moon, ever close. Day and night balance on a knife-edge.

While I am spared this season’s violent turning, so many others are not. Friends, family with illnesses, medical disasters. Untimely deaths, killing waves, the Earth shrugging as the land heaves. A sun built by man gone wild with fire, spewing poison with its power.

Disaster means “ill star” and it twinkles darkly above so many lives.

And so, I offer a poem from the southwestern bard Mary Hunter Austin, penned around the turn of the previous century. May its words be a reflection of the ill star and the water that washes it clean.

Medicine Song: To Be Sung In Time Of Evil Fortune

MEDICINE me,
O Friend-of-the-Soul-of-Man,
With purging waters!
For my soul festers
And an odor of corruption
Betrays me to disaster.

As a place of carrion
Where buzzards are gathered,
So is my path
Overshadowed by evil adventures;
Meanness, betrayal, and spite
Flock under heaven
To make me aware
Of sickness and death within me.

Medicine my soul, O friend,
With waters of cleansing;
Then shall my way shine,
And my nights no longer
Be full of the dreadful sound
Of the wings of unsuccesses.

the dark side of womyn

I’ve been tangentially following the flap at Pantheacon concerning a women’s only ritual. Now, I’ve never gone to Pantheacon and certainly wasn’t at the ritual in question; my comments don’t really pertain to that situation in one way or another. They’re just my own musings and meanderings regarding gender.

Once upon a time — starting in my teens and intermittently throughout my 20s — I was a Dianic Witch. In my 30s, seeking community and a path, I enrolled in Z Budapest’s Dianic University. These days, I’m a member of the Henge of Keltria and honor Gods as well as Goddesses; one, Manannan, is my patron and equal in prayers to Brighid, my matron.

Frankly, I think the Dianic path can empower young women to a profound degree. I learned my own worth as a female individual — escaping the trap that snagged many of my peers, who could only find value in themselves when they were deemed sexually desirable to and, preferably, in a romantic relationship with a man. By seeing the divine as female, I could see the divine in myself. An added bonus: to Dianics, the sun is as female as the moon, and thus I escaped the gender duality of Wicca that, alas, can reinforce stereotypes of female/passive/receptive/irrational/nurturing and male/active/rational/forceful.

To this day, I privilege female-created art, literature, research and music. It’s a counterweight to the cultural tendency to give more attention to male creations, although I also genuinely enjoy work created by men as well. All things being equal, however, I’ll grab the female-authored novel off the shelf first. It’s a habit from my Dianic days and not a bad one, either, in a world of gender-based power disparity.

Of course, there were aspects of Dianic tradition that concerned me. Diane Stein’s book, Casting the Circle, gave the impression that true “womyn” are lesbians with daughters rather than sons and even female pets. As a heterosexual married woman who has had and loved male ferrets, cats and the like, I find this utterly perplexing. There is also an undercurrent that demeans males, viewing them in very stereotypical terms: interested only in one thing, aggressive, warlike, rapists. Most Dianics are not like this, but on lists you inevitably run into the shrill voices that are.

And the restriction of Dianic practice to women-born-women discomforts me as well. Now, I have known a man — a heterosexual, average guy in feminist circles — who claimed that he was a woman as a matter of semantics. I think his point was to declare gender moot. That’s not at all the stance of the transgender people I’ve met, or the woman I once knew who was born a hermaphrodite, raised as a boy and then began her life as a female in college.

Gender is a complicated thing, forged of plumbing, chromosomes, hormones and brain structures. These factors don’t always align in precisely the same way. The lack of sameness isn’t incorrect or wrong; it’s simply a part of the complex tapestry of animal existence. To declare that transwomen aren’t “real” women is hubris; it’s assuming that we know the cosmic order in all its intricacies, variations and complexities. (Except that it’s never complex to those who judge, is it?)

What is a real woman? Is it reproductive capacity? If so, what about women who are barren, childless by choice, or sterilized via tubal ligation? Is it the plumbing itself? Then what about a woman born without a proper vagina, as the first Queen Elizabeth is rumored to have been, or without functioning ovaries? Is it chromosomes? What about women with androgen insensitivity syndrome, which makes them genetically XY but physically female?

The questions are endless.

This isn’t to say that gender isn’t real. We are a sexual species, after all, and need male and female to produce — or products thereof, as with in-vitro. The cultural roles are quite real as well, even if socially constructed. Just because a social reality doesn’t stem directly from biology doesn’t make it any less real.

I suppose the argument is that transwomen don’t share the common experiences of women such as menstruation, childbirth, cultural under-valuing, etc. and thus are not “true women.” But not all women share those experiences either, or in the same way. I’ve never been a mother and likely will never be, for example. The experiences of an upper class daughter of medical professionals in the West would differ wildly from that of a undocumented immigrant, a working-class Shiite in Bahrain, an African girl married off at age 12 to a man with a polygamous household. And I seriously doubt most women-born-women experience the sheer hatred and prejudice directed at transwomen.

If there is no tried and true definition of “real woman,” then what is the value of female-only space, however you define it? I think it’s the company of others who share your social and cultural background, and thus the valuing of that background. By honoring others like you, you feel yourself to be worthy of honor. You don’t feel assailed or shouted down by those with more social power. You are safe, held, comforted, listened to.

You can’t escape the dark side, however. As much as feminist circles like to tout that they’re open to all women, just look around: most will be the same racial background, social class, age, even body type. It’s the sameness that comforts, and perhaps that’s why transwomen are threatening. A woman of a different color or social status also would be threatening, but it’s not a prejudice that most “enlightened” feminists allow themselves to admit, and thus their discomfort would register in more subtle ways: the forming of cliques, slight social clues that shun the other, etc.

I’ve wondered whether single gender mystery traditions would fall by the wayside in a truly egalitarian society — one in which gender truly didn’t influence the perception or treatment of others, one in which people were not classed according to plumbing, chromosomes, skin color or ethnic background, but seen as fellow individuals worthy of honor. Granted, that’s utopia: the good place, but also no place.