Month: January 2014

Team Gelert, and Jules Watson’s “The White Mare”

Generally, I juggle several books at a time and usually make one of them a novel. Not a hard, gritty realism-under-your-nails novel, which makes you lock the bathroom door and sob heartily on the toilet for the exceeding injustice of human life, but a fun novel.

“Fun novels” are, in my book, science fiction, fantasy or a particular kind of unrealistic historical fiction that has whiffs of The Mists of AvalonWith that latter category in mind, I picked up Jules Watson’s The White Mare. It reeks strongly of the patchouli-scented shores of modern Pagan Avalon, even though it’s set in ancient Scotland. It’s decently well-written, although I flinch somewhat at the depictions of the “evil” characters. You can picture them twirling mustaches, rubbing their palms together in frantic delight and twittering “I’m so eeeeevil!” with a gleam in their jaundiced little eyes.

Personally, I prefer my evil to be of the more nuanced kind, but hey, it’s a fun read.

Even fun reads, however, can be enlightening, as speculative fiction often lends itself to thought experiment. In Jules Watson’s land of the Epidii, a place where the mix of Gods and languages makes absolutely no historical sense, the druids are eeeeevil, the all-male worshipers of the gods (little G) of spear and slaughter. The priestesses aren’t druids, but something higher: worshipers of the Great Goddess (big G), the holy Mother, of whom all goddesses are part.

Somehow, this is supposed to be more spiritually enlightened and liberating to me as a woman, this double-big-G super-mommy. It is, sadly, one of the great annoyances I have with this novel, a bit of sand in the eye. (Well, that and the switching between Welsh and Gaelic gods and languages, as if they were equivalents.)

Overall, I have never understood why monotheism was held to be the most spiritually enlightened form of belief. Perhaps it’s seeking some version of the “single unified theory” of physics? In truth, however, it finds this single unified theory by denying, persecuting and finally slaughtering those who follow all other theories, as if to say: “See, we’re the only ones left! We must be the right way.”

My friend Leila shared a quote on Facebook by Asatru priest Hilmar Örn Hilmarsson that I find particularly revealing: “Monotheism is one truth for the masses, but polytheism is many truths for the individual.” And that’s it, precisely. Constantine was never a Christian in his lifetime, but his vision of the cross with the words In hoc signo vinces is telling. You can conquer with the cross because monotheism forces cultures into a single expression, dividing the world into Us and Other. You can drive out other philosophies, other perceptions and other gods using it as a whip, a sword, a pyre.

E pluribus unum. Out of many, one. And the monotheistic god won’t permit you to live unmolested if you instead decide to remain among the many, or the different. Monotheism is quite possibly the best means of controlling the masses prior to the development of modern nationalism.

You don’t get that with polytheism; you can’t. There is a reason why dealing with Pagans is considered parallel to herding cats. There are always many Gods, many views, many paths. You may have to bow to the divine emperor, but no one gives a whit whether you really believe Caesar is divine; it’s the actions — and the payment of taxes, in Caesar’s case — that truly matter.

Considering Watson’s Goddess-centered monotheism, I can’t help but feel slightly affronted. If the measure of divinity is Mother, what does it say to women who are not mothers? Like the father-god of Western monotheism, this is a paradigm that has no place for someone like me. Perhaps it’s a kinder, gentler monotheism, but still monotheism with all of its flaws.

As I read Watson’s book, I find myself rooting for the eeeeevil Druid, Gelert. His polytheistic practices are probably less dangerous, overall, to the psychological freedom of his people than those of the rather emo priestess/princess, Rhian. His over-the-top caricatured evil may be campy, but I find him to be considerably less annoying than emo girl. In fact, if Watson didn’t consistently speak Gelert’s eeeeeevil campy thoughts, he wouldn’t come off as evil at all; he’d be seen as a politically savvy protector of his people.

Go team Gelert.

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Dreams, and what they reveal

Dreams come in many flavors.

There are the mundane ones, in which your daily tasks past or present — attending class, going to the post office, your duties at work — are beset by bizarre sets of obstacles. In a way, perhaps these dreams train you to encounter difficulty and overcome it in your waking life; our distant ancestors, for example, probably dreamed of lovely afternoons spent gathering plants — and having to hightail it from the saber-toothed tiger lurking in the tall grass. These dreams are annoying, but I view them as having a problem-solving purpose of sorts.

There are sacred dreams, in which the Gods and spirits send messages. These are quite rare, but I remember them deeply. They are dreams that sing through you like the tone of a bell, vibrating into the core of who you are. You know these dreams; there is an aura of profundity that surrounds them upon waking, even if you forget the particulars.

And then there are the bizarre dreams, that come from a night of Benadryl, too many tacos or odd reading material before bedtime. These are often bizarrely entertaining.

I think the series of dreams I’ve been having lately are a subset of the first. Essentially, in my dreams, everybody hates me. In one, it’s my closest family: parents, husband, even cats. Another: the Pagan community invited me to a great banquet, and everyone refused to sit with me. The one the other night: everyone at work hates me. A theme that runs throughout: everyone is only pretending to like me.

I really detest these dreams, and their commonness. It’s almost like I have a ticket: one punch for each hate-dream. I’m hoping I run out of punches soon and get on to something else.

These dreams, however, do reveal something deep about me and, in that way, they’re valuable. They express my Jungian Shadow, so to speak: the deepest, darkest cavern of myself. And as a way to flip the bird to the Shadow, I’m putting it out for everyone to read: Yes, I think these things in my waking life. These are some of my deepest fears, even greater than my fear of dogs or blood.

I have never been much of a group animal, although I recognize the integral importance of groups to human social and psychological survival. A confession: I was horribly bullied in school, largely because I was a strange character: a girl who loved (and still loves) fantasy and science fiction, who wore (and still wears) overly colorful, unfashionable and hand-me-down clothes, who was (and still is) geekily honest and largely without guile, who followed (and still follows) an unusual religion and believes strange things.

In short, I was myself — and the society around me found that self lacking, and deserving of contempt and correction.

Your experiences mold you into what you are, and shape your deepest fears. My many years of running have made me afraid of dogs — and my childhood experiences of being mocked, shunned and, yes, on certain occasions stoned (of the rock sort and not the drug sort) have shaped me into the perpetual outsider. Long ago, I came to identify with the role of outsider. I took the quintessential outsider’s career because of it.

I can see the importance and power of groups, but still deeply fear them — in the same way that I fear dogs on my runs.

One thing has changed, though: I am not the little girl anymore. I am a grown woman, strong and whip-smart, with fancy-ass degrees and a decent resume. I can tell you my greatest fear, because I am stronger than it. I am the woman with the flashlight, beaming it directly in the face of the Shadow.

And, of course, I am still the awkwardly honest girl who loves sci-fi.

Mammon, Ops and what we value

Art for art’s sake
Money for God’s sake

— 10cc

This morning, I’ve been contemplating the problematic intersection of art, spirit and cold, hard cash.

Money has never been my inspiration, and I often feel somehow sullied when I charge people for my music or even my divinatory skills. In short, I aspire to be a saint more than a businessman. This isn’t because I don’t understand the motivations of business, but I find the round of buying and selling, of turning a skill or even a living being into a commodity, to be cheapening. A slippery slope, if you will.

We are a culture of merchants and merchandising. If there is a god of the West, it is capitalism. Question capitalism, and you’re immediately treated as if you’re a dangerous heretic. While we’re not ferreting out communists a la Joe McCarthy, we still question whether the very idea of socialism is permitted. It is a dangerous idea: that the community is, at the end, more important than a single individual, that wealth should be shared and not hoarded, that the elites are truly no better than the working man. The cult of Mammon is married to the cult of the individual.

In the Bible, Mammon is considered a “false god,” whose name derives from an ancient Semitic word for wealth. But gods of wealth aren’t false in and of themselves. Consider the Roman Pluto and Ops, the Hindu Laxshmi, the Gaulish Rosmerta. People historically petitioned the gods for abundance: the good harvest, fertile animals. For enough. Enough is an old word, derived from the Indo-European root nek, “to reach or attain.” It’s related to the Old English geneah, meaning “it suffices,” according to my friends at Dictionary.com.

But what is enough? That, perhaps, is the key to the problem. If the root of enough is reaching, the problem of Mammon is overreaching. Neverending reaching. We become the hungry ghosts of Chinese lore, with huge bellies and small mouths, unable to take in enough. Nothing is ever enough.

Look around, and you see that theme played out everywhere. It doesn’t matter how much you make, what you do, how you look, how hard you work. You will never have enough, or be enough. You can never stop reaching. It’s a hoarding mentality, in a way. We don’t know what the times will bring, so we hoard it all and refuse to share. If someone falls on hard times, it’s their fault for not reaching enough. It will never, ever happen to us, until it does.

We value everything in terms of money, and believe that money in itself confers value. A baseball player is paid more than a teacher, ergo the baseball player must has more value. (Feel free to substitute whatever roles or even objects you wish in this equation.)  Something that is expensive must be “better,” must be worth more, even if the doors fall off.

Money, culturally speaking, is an addiction — similar in many respects to food addiction. As with food, you can’t live without it in our particular cultural milieu. What makes it an addiction is the reduction of all value and all life to its terms. We must always have more; more is the meaning of life. More of what? Anything, everything. Money turns Ops, the Roman goddess of the Earth, into opulence.

Such is our cultural addiction that we often distrust people who give things away. If it is free, then it is worthless, valueless. You can trash it. While there is a value in working for a thing, we no longer see the value in a gift, unless that gift has a pricetag attached.

I’ve struggled with this in my music. Commercially, I’m an utter failure. I sell very few CDs, if at all. It’s not commensurate with the time and resources I put into it: my many years of vocal training, the house full of instruments, the computer system and software needed for recording, all the accoutrements. As my husband reminds me during my gloomier moments, it’s not about the money or recognition; it’s about my devotion to the gods and to art. And so I continue.

I’ve tried, in the past, lowballing my prices, even giving CDs away to people who seem interested. After all, it’s not about the money; I want to share my vision, my art, my devotion to any who would appreciate it. What I found is that people valued it even less — because money is the ultimate value, the determining value. People accept the gift, and then turn it into a drink coaster.

Of course, this likely means that my music indeed has no value, and that I really don’t either, except to the small circle of people who know and love me. Yes, I recognize this painful truth. I don’t deny it, even if it sucks the joy out of me.

But it strikes me that there needs to be a better way to approach meaning and value. Yes, we all need a living, me included. That living, at the end of the day, should be just that: living! Doing something of value and, in return, having enough to live — not more than anyone else, and not the dregs. We can achieve this, but not if we’re a culture of hoarders and material addicts. Not if we believe one individual is more important than every other individual combined, or that people “deserve” to suffer if they don’t have the smarts, savvy, prophetic skill, health or popularity to thrive in laissez-faire capitalism.

To achieve those ends would be to think differently: to think of the common good over the individual good, to choose the difficulties of love and care over the clean lines of hate and judgment. To ask the hard questions and admit we don’t know the answers. To recognize that there can be enough — but only if we share.

 

Geekery about Canopus in Argos

With the white steadily drifting from the sky, it’s an appropriate time to re-read Doris Lessing’s The Making of the Representative for Planet Eight.

The book concerns a idyllic, warm-weather culture that is ultimately consigned to a snowy, drawn-out mass death when the planet enters an ice age. Cheery stuff, I know. But it’s a short book and beautifully written. Philip Glass made an opera of both this book and one of the others in Lessing’s Canopus in Argos series: The Marriages Between Zones Three, Four and Five.

I’ve driven myself nuts trying to find audio recordings of either opera, and they’re just not there. The best I came up with is a YouTube video/audio recording of Representative’s Prelude, which is beautiful stuff.

When Lessing wrote her science fiction series in the late 70s and early 80s, she was panned by critics. They, as critics always do, preferred her uber-realistic works, such as The Golden Notebook, and feared that she would have a more imagination-intensive literary future, shall we say. Personally, I detest Notebook and couldn’t make it past the first few chapters. Canopus in Argos, however, is truly glorious and I recommend that every science fiction fan read it.

I have a feeling that Glass’ operas were panned for the same damn reason. A science fiction opera goes against genre norms. People don’t have that mental shortcut and therefore tune it out. To use a theme that goes throughout the Canopus series: They don’t know how to listen. They don’t know how to take it in.

The Canopus series brings out the best quality in sci fi: thought experiment. Sci fi traditionally hasn’t been character-driven  but idea-driven. What would happen to society if….? What if there was a culture that….? What if this was the reason….? Because of this, both sci fi and fantasy — which also can express these questions in a different milieu — are a lot more appealing to me than realistic fiction. 

Granted, it takes talent to write complicated psycho-dramas in a realistic setting and make them work. Talent, but less of a measure of imagination. After all, this is the world we live in and encounter every day. Even if said fiction tries to tackle the larger questions, the answers — if they are found — take a backseat to the intricacies of characterization. Realistic fiction is all about the personal, the individualistic, even when it’s trying to be about other things. And some of it really does try to be about other things, and largely succeeds; William Godwin’s Caleb Williams springs to mind. Kate Chopin’s The Awakening.

In truly good sci fi — and I admit that there is a lot of schlock out there — the questions take center stage. In a way, sci fi creates mythology, using imagination to express the truths that surround us. It estranges us from our environments, our cultures, even our species, and allows us to view them in a new manner.

The Canopus series is the among the best at this. There are characters, sure, but the stories are all large-scale and told in a communal way: the interaction of the galactic empires of Canopus (the divine, the community-focused impulses, the superego) with Sirius (the technological, individualistic and questioning, the ego) and Puttiora (the selfish, the individual to the exclusion of community, the demonic, the id). The individuals in the empires and the peoples — often termed “animals” when they are in incarnate states — are less important than the Necessity, the large-scale pattern and laws (in a scientific sense rather than a legal sense) that govern the entire universe.

In fact, the books are largely about coming to terms with the fact that the individual doesn’t particularly matter, that individualism is largely illusion and represents a falling-away from “higher things,” represented by Canopus. With excessive individualism, you lose contact with what is termed in Shikasta the “substance-of-we-feeling,” essentially the soul.

Souls, of course, do exist on their own terms in Canopus. The same individuals re-incarnate continually and even deliberately to achieve their work in the worlds they visit. Shikasta, or Earth, is surrounded by the Zones, six almost archetypal realms where souls dwell in their own communities and cultures. I’ve read that Lessing’s work is informed largely by Sufism, although I don’t know enough about Sufism to speak intelligently about it.

To get back to the book I’m reading now, Planet Eight is the ultimate story about abandoning individuality — in this case, physical being itself. It’s about finding grace in a situation of intense deprivation and death. 

My favorite in the series, though, is the Sirian Experiments, in which an immortal bureaucrat learns to see the world in an entirely different and less limited way. Lessing has written that she doesn’t like the “dry” protagonist, Ambien II, but I love Ambien. I can relate to her and how she thinks.

Time to head out into the snow!

Making the new year

There is no start to time and no end to it.

The year starts whenever the bright disk of the sun edges up over the hilltop. It starts when the moon sets, diving into the far end of the lake and plunging the world into utter darkness. It starts when the sun is mid-way to the west, or the moon waxes or wanes gibbous, or the clouds thicken enough with thunderheads so that no heavenly light shines through.

The year begins with the first gasp of the baby, the last of the elderly man in the hospital bed. The year begins with a woman swinging her feet over the bed’s edge to the wooden floor, or the dirt floor, the tile, the carpet, the street itself. The year begins with a cup of coffee, a banana, hastily swallowed medication, a self-willed fast, a hungry scramble for not enough food.

The year begins when the reapers arc their sickles in the grain. It begins when a gardener pokes weathered fingers in the dirt and drops a few seeds in. It begins in the depths of winter, when green is a memory hidden under the snow.

You say: Make resolutions at the hinge of the year. But time is not a door that we walk through, and which bangs shut after our passing. Time isn’t a book-end or an arrow.

Time is the drop of rain that joins the melting snow, merging into the creek, the river, the ocean and then up again into the clouds. Time is the seed that drops into the dirt, thrusts up as the shoot and then the plant, flowers and drops seeds, and then shrivels and rots into the humus.

We make time and are made by it. It is always beginning and always ending, and never beginning and never ending. It is, in that it is a measure of process — any process. It is not, in that it doesn’t exist outside of process, any process.

Celebrate your new year when you will, and make your resolutions when you will. May your heart be content with your place in the process that is time.