Socially Responsible Magic: Straddling the Divide of Multiple Communities


Recently Cara Schulz shared her journey in running a political race on the Wild Hunt. She explained how at one point an anonymous person wrote an opinion piece for a newspaper and in the process outed her as a Pagan. This was a flimsy bid to use her beliefs to cause her to lose the race. Fortunately, Cara had a plan in place to address such an eventuality, and she was able to turn the situation to her advantage.  She understood that to serve in the position she was running for, she’d need to be transparent about her beliefs and make them into a non-issue. What I really got from her post, however, was something even more important. Cara recognized that to be a leader, what was most important was how she chose to handle situations that could occur. She made a conscious decision to address the situation in such a way that it could be resolved and she could continue her process of running for city council.

In any subculture, you have people who are leaders in the subculture, and then you have people who are both part of the subculture and are leaders within and outside of that subculture. For people who lead across different communities, one of the challenges is how to resolve and address one’s identities in each of those communities in such a way that you can effectively lead. This challenge is addressed in part through being transparent about each of one’s identities, but also through development of strategies as to how to handle the responses people may have to them (much like what Cara details in her own post).

I straddle several different communities. I’m a Pagan, so I’m involved in the Pagan subculture. I’m also a business coach and active in my business community, most of the members of which are not Pagan. I’m out of the closet. A person who does a search on my name will quickly discover my spiritual interests. I’ve already had a few occasions where a person in the business community asked me about my spiritual interests, and I’ve always been prepared. I’ve been open about what I believe, but I’ve also prepared my answers ahead of time, knowing that its better to be able to respond prepared then to speak off the cuff.

If you are in the closet, it’s still important to recognize that you straddle more than one community. You can keep your spirituality under wraps as best as possible, but you never know when someone will out you or you’ll inadvertently out yourself. It’s important to prepare yourself in case such a situation occurs, and at the same time recognize you may not be prepared when you have to explain your beliefs to someone else. Even as someone who is openly Pagan, I still occasionally find it a bit disconcerting to explain my beliefs to a curious non-Pagan. Nonetheless, very few people live in just one community, and as a result we all have to deal with situations where communities inevitably collide.

I think that one of the responsibilities any person has is recognizing how they choose to present who they are to the world around them. Yes, I am Pagan, but what does that really mean, and how do I present that to other people? There are many different answers to that question, and you will find that the answer changes depending on the situation. Nonetheless, what shouldn’t change is your recognition that you d have a responsibility for how you present yourself. Think of the situations where you might have to explain your identity as a Pagan. What would you say? How would you present your spirituality? What would you do to provide enough information and at the same time help people move on from the topic (if that’s your goal)?

The reverse also applies. My identity in the business community is also something I present in the Pagan community. It doesn’t bring with it the same tension that occurs in a situation where someone inquires about my beliefs, but it nonetheless is a responsibility I have, specifically in terms of how I represent the interests of the Pagan community in the larger community I am a part of. While I don’t presume to speak for all Pagans, I nonetheless know that Pagans in general may be judged by how I present myself in my other communities. And when I present the business community to the Pagan community, my representation should do credit to those people as well.

We live in multiple communities, multiple subcultures. We need to be prepared for when those communities and subcultures intersect so that we can represent ourselves and our various subcultures in a way that is helpful. The strategy that Cara shared in her post is one that I’d recommend all people apply. Planning for situations where you need to explain what you believe (or anything else for that matter) can make them much easier to navigate.

Socially Responsible Magic is published on alternate Wednesdays. Subscribe via RSS or e-mail!

The Busy Witch: Reviewing Mandy Mitchell’s HEDGEWITCH BOOK OF DAYS

Hedgewitch Book of DaysHappy New Year! I’m excited to be starting 2015 off with a review of Hedgewitch Book of Days by Mandy Mitchell, published last fall from Weiser Books. Since y’all know I love simple magic, I was eager to get my hands on this book, and Mitchell didn’t disappoint. Arranged by month, this is a wonderful hodge-podge of recipes, spells, and rituals that can easily be incorporated into everyday life. I can’t wait for an opportunity to sample some of the recipes; kitchen magic is one of my favorite ways to play, and this book includes delicious looking dishes like Edenflower Pancakes, Rose Petal Jam, and Sweet Lammas No-Kneed Bread.

This book has a no-nonsense tone, and it’s easy to imagine sharing a cup of tea and scone with the author while picking her brain about her magical practice. One thing I wish it would have included is either a list of works consulted, or perhaps a recommended reading list; Mitchell packs a lot of information into this volume, and there was much that I’d like to know more about. Overall, however, this book is a nice collection of various ways to infuse magic into every day. If you’re looking for a way to integrate your magical practice into your daily life, Mitchell’s book will offer plenty of fun ideas!

What books have you already discovered this year?

The Busy Witch is published on alternate Tuesdays. Follow it via RSS or e-mail!

The Zen Pagan: Not Invulnerable

(Two notes to begin: 1. Since this will go up January 2 or so depending on the holiday shifts of the Patheos tech elves, A Happy New Year to all readers! 2. While this episode of The Zen Pagan is a defense of Buddhism as I understand it, I remind the reader that I have no formal qualifications on the topic, that these are the opinions of an “outsider Buddhist” at best. Thank you, enjoy the show.)

Over at the NYT philosophy blog “The Stone”, Todd May recently posted a piece titled “Against Invulnerabilty” in which he argues against philosophies that claim that “we can, and we should, make ourselves immune to the world’s vicissitudes.” Central to these philosophies, he says, is the belief “that we can extricate ourselves from the world’s contingencies so that they do not affect us.”

In opposition, May claims that “Most of us want to feel caught up in the world. We want to feel gripped by what we do and those we care about, involved with them, taken up by them. The price of this involvement is our vulnerability.” And to a certain degree I concur with that, as I’ve written before. But I have to take issue with May’s claim that Buddhism teaches the sort of “invulnerability” that he describes.

I’m not sure that Stoicism teaches this the way he claims, either. I’m much less familiar with that philosophy (though I do like to quote a friend’s description of me as “stoic, in a fuzzy sort of way”) but let’s look at the argument that May offers:

Invulnerabilism recommends that we secrete a distance between ourselves and the world so that ultimately it cannot touch us. The extremity of such a view can be illustrated by reference to the Stoic’s ratification of the ancient philosopher Anaxagoras’ reported remark upon hearing of his son’s death: “I always knew that my child was a mortal.” It is possible perhaps that some few among us can reach this degree of distance from the world. But the question is, do we want it?

I don’t know what else Anaxagoras might have said about his son, perhaps some other remarks on the record somewhere indicate that he was a callous or distant parent. But no such conclusion can be reached from this quotation.

Observing that those we care about are mortal is not in any way to distance ourselves from the world. It is the very opposite. It is acceptance of the way the way the world in fact is. That can only bring us closer to reality, closer to the world.

And that is certainly in harmony with the teachings of the Buddha.

All those arms are to reach out and help, to connect.

The idea that one should seek to distance oneself from the world is expressly refuted in the mythology around the Siddhartha’s enlightenment. This was supposedly the last temptation that Mara, the tempter demon, the Lord of Illusion, offered: after trying to distract the seeking prince with the usual fleshy pleasures, and then trying to scare him off with claims of his unworthiness (which the prince refuted by calling upon the Earth to bear him witness), after Siddhartha had achieved his enlightenment the tempter had one more trick up his sleeve: “Yes, oh Prince, you have reached highest perfect enlightenment, and good for you. But think of how hard it was to get here! Only a truly extraordinary individual like yourself could ever achieve such a thing. If you go back and start trying to preach to the rabble, if you try to teach others, no one will understand you and you’ll just end up disappointed. Why don’t you just stay here, soaking in your enlightenment?”

The Big B, remember, had already mastered his human desires to the utmost degree. He had almost died from extreme ascetic practices. Had he decided to just keep sitting under that tree in perfect meditative bliss, detached and distant from the world, until his body gave out, he could certainly have done so.

He had the ability to completely distance himself from the world.

But he didn’t.

He told Mara, “Some will understand.” And he came back to the world of everyday human society. He preached and he taught, and he dealt with the jealousy of the leaders of other sects, and he survived several assassination attempts, and he dealt with the petty day-to-day matters of running a community of monks, and he got his hands dirty (figuratively) trying to deal with his society’s classism (in the caste system) and sexism, and got his hands dirty (literally) taking care of sick monks.

To claim that the Buddha was “distant” from the world is a terrible misunderstanding of what he did and taught.

Now, the Buddha’s wisdom does begin with accepting the world as it is, and this acceptance of the way things are leads us to the understanding that things are often not the way that we desire them to be, a situation called “dukkha” — often translated as “suffering” but other have suggested that “stress” or “disjointedness” might be more accurate.

Let’s look at an example of this that May uses. As a native New Yorker, he feels a “foreigner” in suburban South Carolina:

Sometimes I tell myself that my life is certainly far better here than most other lives on the planet. And this is certainly true. But it rarely seems to me to be helpful in those periods where I feel an exile. Instead, it leads more to an attitude of “it’s bad for almost everyone, except the lucky few.” That hardly counts as wisdom, and does little to comfort me. But suppose I think of it differently. Life is contingent. The very same trajectory that led me to South Carolina also gave me my family, my opportunity to study philosophy, many of the friends I have and much else.

Consoling oneself with thoughts of how we have balanced the pleasant with the unpleasant may give some comfort. And there’s nothing wrong with that. But it’s a shallow practice and so the relief will likely be short-lived.

I don’t have qualifications to give May any “official” Buddhist advice about his feelings of exile. But if I were to fake it, rather than advising him to distract or console himself with thoughts of how other factors make up for that unpleasantness, I’d advise him to sit with that unpleasantness for a while. Really look at it. Accept its existence. See what it’s made of. He might find that most of his feelings about it are self-generated drama. With some practice and some time, he might discover that the “New York” that he yearns for is not anything based on his actual experiences of the city, but that he’s in love with a mental projection, an advertising campaign about how New York is. Maybe that seemingly solid feeling is actually hollow. It might just pop like a soap bubble.

Or maybe he would find that his love of the hustle and bustle of New York is solid, that he will always be unhappy without the noise, the crowds, the energy, the art, the diversity, the smell of urine in the subways. Perhaps its his attachment to his career and to his South Carolina suburban social circle, to leading the “right sort” of professional life as he’d imagined it, that would pop like a soap bubble.

What we find in pursuing the Eightfold Path is not invulnerability or distance from the world, but rather a better idea of our true connection. That’s why the mythology of Mahayana Buddhism is packed with compassionate Bodhisattvas who hear the cries of the world. But if you would do good in this world you must act from a place of calm and from clear sight, from acceptance of the world as it is — and of acceptance of yourself as you are.

“The Zen Pagan” appears every other Friday. You can keep up by subscribing via RSS or e-mail.

If you do Facebook, you might choose to join a group on “Zen Paganism” I’ve set up there. And don’t forget to “like” Patheos Pagan over there, too.

Queer of Swords: Whereof One Cannot Speak — #BlackLivesMatter

I’m a queer white immigrant to the United States, not rich, not particularly poor. I’m roughly the same number of missed paychecks from homelessness as most people in these parts. I’m from a country that has its issues with racism, but nothing prepared me for the depth and breadth of the racial issues that are nakedly expressed here.

Thing is, when you show up at the airport, visa in hand, nobody hands you a copy of The Manual. “Chapter 1, Page 1: You know that slavery thing? We didn’t really end it. Oh no. We just called everything something different, changed a few things around so they seemed plausible, and lied to ourselves for a century about it. No more slave ships from Africa, so we just round up black people for trivial or nonexistent crimes. No more plantations, so we just have an enormous privatized prison system in which the aforementioned black people (felons, mind you, not slaves, so we don’t need to feel guilty about that) can be put to work for free. I bet you didn’t see what we did there! No? Good. Keep watching Fox, it’ll all work out fine.”

Black Lives Matter (image: Sarah Thompson)The powers that be lost the battle to retain slavery, but they cheated and got it back by other means. They lost the battle in the civil rights era, but cheated some more. The phony War on Drugs utterly failed to do anything useful about the narcotics trade, whilst effectively providing a way to legitimize mass internment of the black population. Repression, poverty and willful neglect contribute to the existence of a very tangible school-to-prison pipeline. Far too many young black men and a not insignificant number of black women are lucky to avoid incarceration and ultimately violent death.

Like most of the people I know, I’ve looked on in utter horror at Ferguson and the literal whitewashing of the judicial process that followed. Unlike a lot of white people, I’ve had some personal experience of police bigotry, so it’s not a theoretical thing for me. Intersectionality bingo is not a game worth playing, however, because it’s always going to be a race to the bottom. This isn’t about me.

Ferguson happened, and I said nothing. I didn’t know where to start. To be honest, I think I was more afraid that once I did start, I’d have no way to stop. As Wittgenstein said, “whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent.” This silence wasn’t consent, however: it was terror.


This is such a tautology that my mind breaks open at the thought that it needs to be said at all, but the slightest attention toward current events makes it blatantly obvious that it does. Loudly and often. I’m Wiccan and am serious about living by the Rede: an it harm none, do what ye will. Black lives matter, period. #BlackLivesMatter is a complete sentence, which doesn’t require justification, and it sure as hell shouldn’t need explanation. Not because #BlackLivesMatter is some special case of a more general obviously-true statement constructed to assuage white guilt, but because the system we are all locked in to, whether we like it or not, whether we consent or not, is responsible for a level of repression of black people that is utterly unconscionable. #BlackLivesMatter is therefore a mantra, not just a statement of fact.

I don’t have any answers. I fear the system. I’m not a citizen, so my life could be effectively or literally destroyed at the whim of a wide selection of people in power. I can’t protest directly because the consequences of my being arrested would be disproportionately severe in comparison with those for a typical US citizen. The First Amendment does at least protect my right to speech, so however infinitesimal the contribution this column might be, it’s all I’ve got. I can follow the Rede, I can seek the greater compassion to the limit of my strength, but the system isn’t mine to fix. I can’t apologize, since doing so would be futile at best, but I won’t comply with the societal apologetics that legitimizes the oppression of black people.


An it harm none, do as ye will.

Queer of Swords is published on alternate Thursdays. Subscribe via RSS or e-mail!

Alone In Her Presence: Just Breathe, The Practice of Permission, Affirmation, & Dedication

prayer handsThe new year is upon us. This is the time of resolutions and promises to self often forgotten by February. But what if the commitment to self was more empowered, and leaned into the invitation of the wholeness that is holy, rather than being an obligation? For me, holiness and the sacred is found in Daily Practice.

Daily Practice helps keep me from going crazy. No, seriously, in a world where so little is in our control, seemingly less filled with compassion and more filled with injustice, my daily practice allows me to sink into the safety of the only thing constant in my life, the breath. I encounter people everyday, whether direct or in passing, and wonder… are they breathing? I mean, really breathing? With faces intently locked onto phones, harnessed at the computer, walking briskly, or rapidly talking, I wonder are these people breathing? What might it look like for them to simply acknowledge the breath within their body. The simple, yet realchemizing breath that fills our lungs to energize our blood and move toxins, like stress, out of the body.

In August of 2013, I quit my high-paying job because I couldn’t handle the stress. I had worked myself into a place where I was no longer able to eat or sleep, let alone breathe. By that December my longterm boyfriend had broken my heart, the love I had such hope for was gone, and still I was unable to breathe. I took job in a yoga studio and committed to writing. No, I am not going to write that everything became bliss; if you want that story, read Eat Pray Love.  Instead a new set of struggles came in, like was I good enough to work in an industry like yoga? I didn’t look like those people. Could I relinquish my need for control that made my former project management job so comfortable? The changes required deep examination of the self, but rather than being trapped in a life that felt constricting, I leaned into the known. I leaned into my breath and into my daily practices. What’s more, my new colleagues actually demanded it from me (in their loving yogic way).

Daily Practice is giving ourself the permission to breathe. It is accepting that the world will keep spinning regardless of whether I am in it or not, so why not take a moment for myself. It is just one moment. My moment is one downward facing dog every morning and 15 minutes of seated meditation where sometimes I chant. My evenings are a lighted candle and a prayer. And I walk outside as much as possible. But everyone’s practice will be different and it should be, because it is about you and your breath. And so I ask, are you breathing? Right now, wherever you might be reading this, are you giving yourself the permission to breathe just one deep breath with intention? If not, then let this be your invitation. If that is the only intentional breath you have taken or will take today, that is good enough, because you are good enough.

I have discovered over the years, as my daily practices have waxed and waned, committing myself back to intentional breathing brought me back into alignment and into my body. Commitment to giving myself permission to breathe 10 nourishing breaths every day is a place we can start. Whether in bed before you get up, in the shower, or on a mat (meditation, yoga, or other), commitment to the breath is at the core our life source.  Make that intentional breath, the priority for the day, above everything else.

The commitment to breath and to additional practices will be easier as it gets more ingrained in the schedule of your life. Pick a time in the day, 10 minutes at most, and make it your time. I keep a small electric candle in my desk drawer at work, and once at my desk, I light it and give myself a moment to set the intention and the breath. My intention is always the same: “May this day be of merit to all, and may I invite the easeful over the dis-ease.”  This one simple act is making my commitment to self at my scheduled time, and doing more than showing up, but rather actively being mindful. It may only last those 10 minutes, but it was 10 minutes more than ever before. Those minutes are life changing, because unlike every other moment, they are 100% yours.

While each person will come into their own daily practice; here are three tips for starting.

1: Permission
Give yourself the permission to have daily practice. Permission to empower one moment in your life that is just for you and the breath.
2: Affirmation
Thank yourself for giving yourself permission and verbally acknowledge and affirm that you are worthy of living a life that is not full of dis-ease.
3: Dedication
Release your affirmation into the day (or night) with gratitude, and offer that the world the dedication of merit. “may all beings benefit from compassion, and give themselves permission to breathe.

Let us reconnect to the breath, to our hearts and minds, and to one precious moment. Just breathe.

Alone In Her Presence is published on alternate Wednesdays! Subscribe via RSS or e-mail.

Wyrd Words: Merry Christmas!

 photo happyholidays_zps493ff7fc.png
Merry Christmas! The day in which we eat copious amounts of Chinese food, go to the movies, and take sixteen hour overtime shifts for utterly stupendous amounts of money! Best…Holiday…Ever!



Socially Responsible Magic: The Power and Peril of Positive Thinking, Part 3

In my first post on positive thinking, I explained some of the perils of positive thinking: how it can lead to a lack of empathy and awareness about racial and class issues, as well as a solipsistic belief that what you think is what you attract to your life. In my second post, I explained how positive thinking could be a useful tool when combined with others.  In this final post, we’ll explore how to implement positive thinking and still stay grounded in the realities of life.

Implementing positive thinking involves recognizing how you’ll apply it to the situations you are in. You don’t want to be overly optimistic, with a pollyanna view of life, but if you recognize that positive thinking can help you find the silver lining in any situation and keep you open to possibilities, then it can serve a practical purpose. The key to staying grounded in positive thinking, as it applies to your situation, is to recognize the situation for what it is. Don’t go into a situation with the idea that you can just think it better with positive thoughts. Recognize the situation, whatever it is, and your role in it. Then ask yourself what you want to get out of the situation. What actions will you take to achieve that result? What do you need to do to keep yourself open to opportunity? What can you learn from the situation? These questions are positive questions that help you focus on what you can turn the situation onto.

Positive thinking becomes practical when we focus on applying it to our own situations. It’s important to remember that we can’t apply it to other peoples’ situations without their permission. The last thing someone wants is unsolicited advice. Often times when a person goes to offer advice to someone else, all it emphasizes is the negative of the situation because the person dealing with it doesn’t need advice. What they need is someone who can acknowledge where they are at and what they are dealing with. They need someone who can be present with them, without judgment and without trying to make things better. If the person wants advice, they’ll ask, but until that happens, no such advice should be offered.

It’s also important to recognize that others’ situations have their own variables, some of which you may have no experience with. This doesn’t mean you shouldn’t try to understand the person’s situation. If anything, it’s a call to try to understand it. And positive thinking can actually be applied toward that goal, but not in the way you might think. The way you apply positive thinking to a situation where you don’t understand everything the other person is dealing with involves recognizing your lack of understanding and your desire to understand. You also recognize you may not ever fully understand the person or their situation. Nonetheless, you can look for resources to help you broaden your horizons and gain some understanding. That’s where positive thinking comes into play. You recognize your ignorance and choose to make the effort to learn so that you can hold space with the person and their situation. So how is that using positive thinking? You use positive thinking to see what you need to learn, to see the possibility. Instead of focusing on what you don’t know as a negative, you recognize it as an opportunity to grow and to connect with other people more meaningfully.

Positive thinking won’t solve all your problems. In fact, it won’t solve any of them. What it teaches you to do is look at your problems differently. When used right, positive thinking can actually teach you flexibility in how you think about and resolve a situation. You just need to make sure that you aren’t buying into the pie-in-the sky-version of positive thinking. While your thoughts do have power and how you think about a situation can affect what you get out of it, its also important to remember that thoughts alone won’t attract change. Stay grounded and recognize what’s happening so that you can adjust to the situations in your life and learn more about other people and their experiences.

Socially Responsible Magic is published on alternate Wednesdays. Subscribe via RSS or e-mail!

The Busy Witch: Winter Wind-Down

Winter is a hard time for me. Less so since moving to the sun-drenched South, but it’s still a season that I’ve struggled with over the years. Because of that, it’s only in recent years that I’ve begun to craft Solstice traditions to welcome the return of the light while at the same time honoring the dark. I’ve realized that, even as the darkness pushes me inside myself, if I take the time to properly honor the season (and SLOW DOWN), I can do better than just survive in winter; I can begin to heal, to rest and restore, in preparation for a thriving new year.

A few years ago, I attempted this lovely recapitulation ritual (inspired by an article in Yoga Journal), and the following year, my husband and I burned a jar of wishes we’d been collecting the entire year, plus a jar of the best moments we’d remembered to write down (we read the best moments to each other before giving them to the fire, but we sent the wishes in silence).

This year, we’ll be traveling back and forth quite a bit during the winter holidays, but I still want to take the time to honor the Solstice, even if I’m a few days late. I’ve planned a quiet ritual that’s a combination of mundane and magical, and I wanted to share my plans with you in case they spark an idea for your own celebration.

Weather permitting, I’d like to sit down in the next week after dark to a fire in our fire pit. First, I’m planning to burn the box of bills, bank statements, and other “shredable” mail that I’ve been collecting over the past few months. My hope here is to clear away the energy of a year of tight finances so that we can enter 2015 in a new place. There’s the practical part of my Solstice-week plans.

Borrowing from last year, the magical component of these plans is to, once again, burn a jar of wishes together, sending our love and dreams up on the smoke to the dark winter sky. We’ll probably offer some chocolate to the fire, too, to sweeten our secret wishes.

Finally, I’ve started a clutter clearing crusade lately in an attempt to help our small home to remain cozy rather than cramped, and there are a few pieces of clutter that I’m planning to offer to the fire. My first yoga mat has been dead, dead, dead for over a year (ever since I began my yoga teacher training, actually), but I haven’t been able to bring myself to part with it. This week, however, I’m planning to burn a scrap of the cloth bag that the mat has lived in, before finally tossing my little square of sacred space into the trash.


This year, I’m trying to embrace the darkness as much as I wait for the return of the light, and I’m hoping that my Solstice ritual will help me find a place of quiet stillness to see out the year. How will you be celebrating this time of dark and light? Love and light to you and yours this season, and always!

The Busy Witch is published on alternate Tuesdays. Follow it via RSS or e-mail!

The Zen Pagan: Santa Claus and the Nature of the Gods

(A philosophical venture onto thin ice)

It’s once again that time of year when we are surrounded by images of the most successful American demigod. His priests are donning their red ritual vestments for the annual blessing of children. Stories from his mythos are featured on TV. Elementary school students across the nation are rehearsing songs about his bounty to be performed at “Winter Holiday” pageants that put a non-denominational veneer on a Christian holiday — a holiday that is itself a veneer on ancient Pagan celebrations of the solstice. And soon sacrifices of milk and cookies will be left out to curry favor with him.

Sophisticated cynics know that it’s a bunch of bunk, of course. There is no jolly old elf at the North Pole. There is no magic sleigh, no one coming down the chimney, and your parents are going to eat those cookies.

And yet…and yet…somehow, the gifts still end up under the tree. We tough-minded cynics and bah-humbugers still find ourselves softening up for a few days, a little more susceptible to break into a hearty ho-ho-ho or experience an unaccustomed warmth in the center of the chest, a bit more likely to find ourselves giving a damn about our fellow humanoids.

Even wars of imperialism have been known to pause for gift-giving and expressions of fellowship, to the great consternation of nationalists and warmongers.

To stop war, even briefly, takes more than a fictional character in a children’s story. There is a truth — an experiential truth, not a supernatural one — behind the myth.

Illustration from Clement C. Moore’s (1779-1863) Night Before Christmas, circa 1870. Illustrator Unknown.

There is magic afoot here, something that changes consciousness and the world.

Santa Claus may not be “real” in the sense of a material substance immediately evident to our senses or measuring devices. But as an aspect of the human experience, he’s as real as a poem — say, “A Visit from St. Nicholas” — or as the number eight, as in “tiny rein-deer”.

There are millions of copies of “A Visit from St. Nicholas” which exist as material objects, ink on dead trees or magnetic or electrical patterns in computers. Yet none of these copies is the poem itself. Does this mean that the poem itself does not exist? Even the most positivist philosopher would make such a claim only in an academic debate, not in “real life”.

There are millions of mall Santas and parade Santas and Christmas garden Santas, yet none is Santa Claus. Does this mean that Santa himself does not exist?

Or does it mean that we’re looking in the wrong place?

As Francis Pharcellus Church of the New York Sun wrote in his famous 1897 reply to eight-year-old Virginia O’Hanlon,

Nobody sees Santa Claus, but that is no sign that there is no Santa Claus. The most real things in the world are those that neither children nor men can see. Did you ever see fairies dancing on the lawn? Of course not, but that’s no proof that they are not there. Nobody can conceive or imagine all the wonders there are unseen and unseeable in the world.

You may tear apart the baby’s rattle and see what makes the noise inside, but there is a veil covering the unseen world which not the strongest man, nor even the united strength of all the strongest men that ever lived, could tear apart. Only faith, fancy, poetry, love, romance, can push aside that curtain and view and picture the supernal beauty and glory beyond.

We could label Church’s reply as a lie, of course. We could declare ourselves a-Santaists and be done with it. But when Church wrote “Yes, VIRGINIA, there is a Santa Claus,” he was not operating in the context of the objective, material world.

He was not suggesting that a zoological expedition be mounted to the North Pole to capture those rare flying reindeer, or that experts in industrial efficiency be sent to bring Santa’s manufacturing methods to the factories of the United States. If he had, clearly he would be a liar or deeply confused, and a-Santaism would be the correct response.

But if we understand the realm in which Church was operating, a more sophisticated response is required — one which does not deny that material-realm a-Santaism but that is also capable of going beyond it.

And so ol’ Saint Nick actually makes a decent starting point for a deep consideration of the nature of the gods and goddesses. Are the deities real? Is Santa Claus real? The question can only be answered meaningfully when we agree on a context.

A Fae Footnote

It’s interesting that Church makes reference to “fairies dancing on the lawn”. Recall that this was before the Cottingley Fairies, or Peter Pan’s Tinker Bell — a fairy so delicate that children’s skepticism could kill her. We’re dealing with a little bit older and more dangerous understanding of the fae folk here.

While there was a bit of a craze for paintings of fairies in the late 19th century, even the small butterfly-winged subjects of those paintings cavorted about scantly clad — or nude! — in stunning violation of Victorian convention. And perhaps we might think less of Tinker Bell and more of Puck of Kipling’s Puck of Pook’s Hill, a different sort of faery:

“Can you wonder that the People of the Hills don’t care to be confused with that painty-winged, wand-waving, sugar-and-shake-your-head set of impostors? Butterfly wings, indeed! I’ve seen Sir Huon and a troop of his people setting off from Tintagel Castle for Hy-Brasil in the teeth of a sou’-westerly gale, with the spray flying all over the Castle, and the Horses of the Hills wild with fright. Out they’d go in a lull, screaming like gulls, and back they’d be driven five good miles inland before they could come head to wind again. Butterfly-wings! It was Magic—Magic as black as Merlin could make it, and the whole sea was green fire and white foam with singing mermaids in it. And the Horses of the Hills picked their way from one wave to another by the lightning flashes! That was how it was in the old days!”

There’s an edge of terror in those fae folk — just as there’s an edge of terror in Santa, with his surveillance capabilities that the NSA can only dream of, and his capacity to punish the naughty. (Sometimes assigned to his partner the Krampus.)

“The Zen Pagan” appears every other Friday. You can keep up by subscribing via RSS or e-mail.

Looking forward to the new year, I’’ll be presenting at PantheaCon in February. But before that, if you’re still Yule shopping, Why Buddha Touched the Earth makes a great gift for the Zen Pagan on your list.

Finally, if you do Facebook, you might choose to join a group on “Zen Paganism” I’ve set up there. And don’t forget to “like” Patheos Pagan over there, too.

Queer of Swords: Blue Yule

The holiday season.

The time of year when we all use-or-lose our meagre remaining vacation time on our self-imposed commitments to family. I’m sure that there are people reading this who really do both expect and receive the cheer that commercialized stereotypes have led us to expect, but for others this time of year is somewhere between mildly unpleasant and hell on earth.

As a child growing up in an industrial English town within a C of E lower middle class family, Christmas was officially the Best Thing Ever. Too much turkey, annoying the grandparents by deciding that the huge box their present arrived in was really the Eagle, about to land on the Moon for the first time. The buttons I drew on the cardboard didn’t really fire the landing thrusters, but that didn’t matter to me. Christmas was Awesome, and Santa was Definitely Better than Batman. It was a time filled with grandparents, cousins, visits from the Scottish branch of the family, snowball fights and, best of all, no school for a couple of weeks.

blue ornament - Image by Sarah ThompsonAs I got older, Christmas wasn’t quite all that it once was, of course. Once I accepted Santa-as-abstraction, a virtual being with no physical realization other than the bits-of-well-meaning family that allowed him to exist by borrowing their consciousness occasionally in the latter part of the year, the shiny image corroded a little. The glass baubles broke too easily, just as likely to cut me as fascinate me. Family spread out, the older members taken by time over the rainbow bridge, the younger by ambition and need to get out of the home town. I was one of them, moving to the other end of the country once I had the societal permission that Going Away to University afforded to those willing to abandon their roots.

Christmas had already eroded due to my lack of attention, but ultimately shattered into pieces when, in 1993, I came out as something significantly other than straight. My parents took it hard, but came back on side after a while. My grandparents were surprisingly supportive right from the start, though I found out later that this had come at a horrible price. One of those Christmas cousins took their own life a few years previously. My grandfather found the body – carbon monoxide poisoning. This had, at the time, shocked me to the core, because Things Like That didn’t happen to nice families like ours. I was told at the time that my cousin had had money problems. I felt awful – though I wasn’t rich, I’m sure I could have helped somehow, but didn’t know until it was too late. After my coming-out, however, my grandmother confessed to a substantial lie. My cousin was transgendered. I never knew. She took her own life because her own family were horrible to her. In confessing to me, my grandparents accepted that they had been partly responsible for her death. Consequently, they were never less than supportive of me.

The other cousins dropped me cold, other than one of the Scots who sadly passed on herself a few years ago. My Christmas family shrunk overnight from an extended network to just six people, four grandparents and two parents. Time has since claimed all but my parents, who live in another country on the other side of the world. We still talk, but not as often as we once did. I can’t really afford to travel there, they can’t come here. My Christmas blood family has shrunk to just me.

From PublicDomainPictures, License.
From PublicDomainPictures, License.

I’ve been luckier than my transgendered cousin, of course. I’ve always had friends, I’ve usually had love, so I’ve made my own family. As I lost my original religion, Christmas became Chinese food and a movie, then years later finding Pagan community Yule happened sometimes. I have made my peace with this, but it is perhaps much more visible from my perspective as an outsider that my original view of the holiday season still is many people’s subjective reality, modulo a tacky pair of antler deely-bobbers. Consequently, the estranged black-sheep-of-their-families like me often find their intentional communities disappearing on them right at a time when work stops and they have nothing better to do than think about the way things were Before, back in the idealized Hallmark holidays. This is the absolute zero of being left out in the cold. This is why so many of us end their lives at this time of the year.

I have plans for the holidays, and a wife with a huge family who for some bizarre reason seem to actively like me. I’m OK. I don’t forget, though, that I’ve had times when I wished the calendar went directly from Halloween to January. So, in planning your holiday antics, I’d like to ask you all to look around you. Most of you know someone who is going to be left in their own personal cold place this year. Most of you probably have enough room at the table for one more, if you think to ask.

An it harm none, do as ye will.

Compassion is all.

Queer of Swords is published on alternate Thursdays. Subscribe via RSS or e-mail!

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