In love with the Gods of the city

This month’s guest post is from Joshua Graham, and explores a personal perspective on urban Paganism.

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I hate trees. Ok, so I don’t actually hate them, but most of the time, when I am speaking to other Pagans and Witches (terms which I use interchangeably to describe myself), I find I must make this strong a statement just to get my point across.

As a child growing up in Northwest part of the state of Georgia, USA, I was constantly surrounded by both forests and farmland. It wasn’t uncommon to watch deer and rabbits playing around my house, and my father still has his vegetable garden that stretches over an acre in the back of his house; when I moved back in my early 20s he took to raising his own chickens and pigs.

That, I did hate. You see, I started reading about Paganism at 13, and by 14 I had gently left Christianity behind to embrace this new religion. Everything I was reading at that point extolled the virtues of Paganism as a Nature based religion, and for years I struggled with how wrong I felt because of this.

I was in the woods every day, something I saw Witches online and in print fighting to get the chance to do, and I felt nothing. The voice of the wild felt slow and muted to me. It was almost like listening to a radio that was in another room – I could hear the words but something simply kept me from connecting the way everything was saying I should.

Turning 16 changed my journey with Place and Paganism completely; I got my first car, and suddenly I was able to get out of the woods! Soon I found myself driving the hour and a half down to Atlanta on an excuse I could find, and I would simply get on MARTA (the Atlanta public transit system) and ride.

Atlanta skyline. Image by k1ng. Used under CC license.

I found myself falling in love with the city. I had always said, and still maintain, that Georgia red clay flows through my veins, but for the first time I felt The South, Georgia, and Atlanta talking back to me. As I rode in those ugly orange and yellow train cars I felt the spirits of asphalt and glass reaching out to me and holding me close.

In the evenings, while others slept as they rode home to the suburbs after long days working downtown, I finally found the peace to easily meditate. The presence of the Bank of America building and the Georgia Dome became my confidants in Spirit. Around age 18, I found a postcard depicting the version of Justice that stands atop the Georgia State Capitol, and that flimsy piece of cardboard became the first representation of divinity on my altar.

I realized that I loved the City, and as my identity as a Pagan and a Witch became more and more important to me, my old guilt returned to me. What was wrong with me? How could I call myself a Pagan with a straight face, and not long for this deeper connection with Nature. Even the Wheel of the Year gave me trouble. I was in my early 20s and had never spent any time not being a student. For me the year started in August. I sure as shooting wasn’t ready to call it over at the end of October. It was in the middle of a term!

I am someone who takes pride in my love of learning, so, funnily enough, it was not doing well at University that helped me break through this internal puzzle. I started my Undergrad at Auburn University because I was enamored with the reputation of their English department, but soon I found myself miserable. I was living my dream, at the school that I had dreamed of attending, and I could not for the life of me understand what was making me so unhappy. I saw a psychologist, and that didn’t help. I talked to peer mentors, and that didn’t help. I turned to anti-depressants, and that didn’t help. Finally I turned to meditation.

I tried to explore my scholastic issues, but for some reason I kept coming back to my guilt over my connection to Nature, and so, biting the bullet, I began to explore that. What I found was my connection to Divinity and the world as a whole. I found that my personal connection to Divinity tended towards the more Apollonian expressions than the Dionysian.

I had always made connections with gods and goddesses of society and civilization, and yet I repudiated myself for not finding them out in the wild. The history and the touch of humanity on the land awoke the fire in my soul, and the open expanses around Auburn just weren’t cutting it. I simply was not feeding my soul on a diet that it needed to stay healthy. I transferred schools and finished my degree away from the fields and forests.

It wasn’t until I decided to study for my Masters degree that I really had the opportunity to test and see if my ideas had been true, or if I was simply a young man missing the comforts of home and lying to myself. I moved to Edinburgh, Scotland to study, and as soon as my feet touched the cobblestone (real cobblestone!) I knew I had made the right decision. A city so ancient, and still so alive, greeted me. I began my journey to learn Scotland not in the heather or the lochs but in the winding streets of Old Town.

Soon I will be moving to Bath, England to continue my education. If anyone is friends with Sulis Minerva please give her a heads up that I am on my way.

 

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Joshua Graham grew up in The Enchanted Land of Floyd County, Georgia, USA, before following his love of the academy to Edinburgh, Scotland and now Bath, England.

He is a witch and a social anthropologist. He recently completed a Masters dissertation on Drag Queen masculinities, and is beginning his PhD, looking into traditions of funeral foods in Scotland and the USA.

  • http://lizw.livejournal.com Liz W

    Very interesting! One of the most intense spiritual experiences of my life took place as I looked out of the window of my grandparents’ Glasgow council flat, and over the past few years I’ve found myself developing a strong psychic connection to London. Unlike you, though, I do also find a nurturing connection with nature spirits. I am starting to get to know the spirits of Epping Forest on the outskirts of London. One of the things I feel I need to do is to work out how to balance the two.

    • Joshua Graham

      Liz,
      Thank you so much – I’m glad I was able to pique your interest. I love the story of your Grandparent’s flat; Some of my happiest memories are sitting in my Grandparent’s living room, and I think that has had a major influence on my. Simple joy is simply joy, and I think people should embrace it where they find it, and not expect it to look a specific way.
      As for your you quest for balance, good luck! I am a bit envious of you bi-spirituality. Have you ever explored the grounds at Hampton Court Palace? I’ve always wondered how something like that or Central Park or Hyde Park would feel to someone like me. Part of coming to terms with my own Sense of Place was being ok with the fact that I may be Balancing someone else.

  • http://www.12stepwitch.com 12stepWitch

    Considering that living in a city is truly the greenest way to live, you could say that an urban lifestyle is one that gives Nature the greatest gift of all…

    I am open to a wider and broader definition of Nature. Cities are in communication with and integrated with Nature. Cities were built where they are because of unique geological assets (Why, just consider the city you are about to move to–it would not exist were it not for those unique mineral waters). I live in Baltimore which is situated on a deep channel of the Chesapeake Bay which offers access to the Atlantic Ocean, so we are a popular port and became essential to the tobacco trade. Glasgow grew into a major city because it is on a river and is a site of major trade. Atlanta developed where it did because the local geography made it a prime spot to put the intersection of two railroads. Cities still exist in watersheds….still draw their water supply from somewhere….we should learn these things and be aware of them because they do make the thrum and hum of the machine, that which truly excites us, possible.

    Cities definitely have Genius Loci, and you can work with them in your ritual. I see a Genius Loci for Baltimore, and one for the Inner Harbor, and they are quite different though they have a relationship with each other. Neighborhoods can have them. A particular park in a city can have one. Even a particular street can have one.

    I also always think of cities as places that hold the bones of our ancestors. Cities have great and beautiful cemeteries…Pere Lachaise in Paris, Highgate and Nunhead in London, St. Louis in New Orleans….centuries and centuries of people being buried. Ancestor remembrance and ancestor worship has always been such an important part of many Pagan traditions, and cities seem especially appropriate places for that.

    Okay enough ramblings from me…Here is some interesting reading…

    http://nature.pagannewswirecollective.com/tag/urban-paganism/

    • Joshua Graham

      12SW,
      Thank you for the link! You have touched on a lot of things that I wish I had had more time to address. Both Genius Loci and the Beloved and Honored Dead are hugely important parts of my connection with the urban, and I do believe that humans are tool users and cities are a natural expression of us. I’ll have to think more on a cities place in its environment and not simply as an environment itself….That will be fun to chew on!

  • http://hedgeconfessions.com Traci

    Love it!!!
    (especially what you are studying for your Ph.D. !!)

    • Joshua Graham

      Traci,
      Thank you. That means a lot coming from such a great writer. And thanks for the academic thumbs up. I have a feeling I’ll need it.

      • http://www.thesitspot.com Sterling

        You’ve got a second thumbs up here, for what it’s worth. When I saw your PhD topic I had this instant mental image of the late UC Berkeley professor of Folklore Alan Dundes leaning back and grinning at what a great topic that would be. (He was one of my favorite professors. I don’t claim to be “channeling” him in the psychic sense, but rather in the “I’ve been heavily influenced by him” sense.) :)

  • http://summerisle.dreamwidth.org/ Ashley Yakeley

    My mother and sister both live in Bath. It’s very genteel English, very Jane Austen, with lots of Georgian and faux-Georgian and neo-Georgian architecture in creamy Bath stone. TBH the most pagan aspects of the place are the hot spring and the associated ancient Roman connection. If you’ve got a car, Stonehenge, Avebury and Glastonbury are each about an hour away, if you’re into that.

    • Joshua Graham

      Ashley,
      I wrote this blog a week or two ago, and so I’ve been settling in a bit. I have to say, you description is perfect. I can’t stop from smiling when I think about the fact that I am sleeping just a few steps away from a Roman Temple. It is honestly something that I never expected to happen; I have to admit – I tear up each time I visit.

  • Theora

    Man, I have such mixed feelings about this. I live in a dense suburb of a major city, and daily (hourly!) I dream of moving away, buying 10 or 20 0r 50 acres, finding a place where the din is lower and I can actually hear my connection to the land. At the same time, I’m constantly seeking other people’s stories of connection to built-up places, to help me find a way to feel that connection here too.

    But no matter how I try, it hasn’t worked. I feel like I’m repeatedly shoving the proverbial square peg at the proverbial round hole. Everything you write here about being irredeemably unhappy when feeding your soul on the wrong diet rings true to me, even if the diet your soul requires is the opposite to mine. I’m glad you were able to find your solution and your right place. I’m stuck in my wrong place, however, and this post makes me even more convinced that I’m not going to find a way to love it.

  • http://stripey-badger.blogspot.com/ Rowan Badger

    The sacred is everywhere: the woods, the garden, the city, the suburbs. You can find the gods in a strip mall, if you know how to look (and if you’re willing to). I’m a deep Nature girl myself; it’s where I feel most connected to the world around me, but I recognise that that’s because of *my* inherent wildness, not because of any superiority of Nature as a spiritual home. I don’t understand the people who insist that ‘the gods’ can only be found in one place or another. I have friends who maintain that there are no gods in the suburbs, that they’re a ‘blasphemed wasteland’ of lawns and concrete, and that the cities are a ‘blight’ on the landscape where nothing can be natural or beautiful. They’re the spiritual brethren of those who think you can only pray to the Christian god in a Christian church because that’s the only place your prayers can be heard.

    I’m very glad you’ve come to terms with having a ‘different’ spiritual home than the one most commonly advocated in our community, and that you’ve been able to pursue your connection with the divine in a way that nourishes and supports you.

  • MamaCat

    Interesting. When I first became Pagan I was working in a factory, and despaired of ever finding anything divine in a grease and oil covered work place. Then I started thinking about it- The cooling fans were air, the welders were fire, the water baths were water, and the place was full of steel, ie earth. All those together made up Spirit, so I was indeed in touch with the Divine, I just hadn’t been looking right- I had looked, but had not seen, so to speak.
    While the dirt and the plants and the trees speak to me, I see no reason why cities and such would not speak to someone else. Good luck on your journey!


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