I stood on the corner of the street, waiting for a bus to take me from Seattle and saw a friend. It’s been awhile since I’d seen them*, and I’d never been where I was about to go, so they were a welcome sight. After a brief embrace and a few words, we’d realized we were going to the same place, taking almost the same route.
They’d never been either. Both of our first times.
“Were you at Mayday last year?”
They nodded. “Yeah–last year was my political Beltaine, this year’s my spiritual one, I guess.” And we both laughed. Both anarcho-types, queer, Pagan. Both politically active, neither of us strangers to police reprisals or broken glass.
We were going to the Radical Faerie Sanctuary in Wolf Creek, Oregon, rather than marching in the streets against Capitalism. A new choice for the both of us.
Laying Down With The Land
I saw them a few times while there, and they seemed to be having a better time than I, becoming more connected to the gathered queers and Faeries than I seemed to be able to. The Radical Faeries have done much good for queer spirituality, providing land and rituals and sanctuary for young, mostly urban and sub-urban (and mostly white) trans* and gay people eager to connect to something greater than the vapidity of American gay culture. Some of the people I consider my spiritual elders are Rad Fae, though I’ll publicly admit a difference I have with the community that I’ve never been able to resolve: they tend to espouse sexuality as more important than politics.
Don’t get me wrong. I’m rather fond of sex, and maybe have tended to have (a lot) more of it than what’s normally seen “acceptable,” particularly in my 20’s. But I was also initiating into Druidry on Beltaine, and thought it’d be particularly helpful to refrain for a little while. I’d asked many people before I went to Wolf Creek if it was a safe and welcoming place for people who weren’t looking for sex. Every person I’d talked to (at least 8) very quickly affirmed some variant of, “yes, of course…I’m sure there are probably people there who don’t have sex.” I joked with people later, with perhaps the most wretched case of poison oak a human can experience (never dry your nether regions with a towel you may have lain on the stuff), that “because I chose not to have sex, the land gave me an STD.”
An intriguing aspect of such open embrace of sexuality within certain Pagan-aligned traditions is that it’s actually awfully difficult to feel accepted in your decision to be chaste, particularly when sexuality is specifically linked to reverence for the land and spirituality itself. More so, the “land” becomes the opposite of the “urban,” with its concerns, standards, and politics. Political struggle is for the cities, unless it’s sexual-political struggle, and talk of “sex-magic” “liberating the mind and body” become the closest one can get to talk of political oppression and what to do about it before being accused of, well–being “political.” But when my friend had said “last year was my political Beltaine, this is my spiritual one,” I’d not been in complete agreement, and this dichotomy still haunts me.
Every year, in cities all over the world, the first of May is a day to struggle against oppression. This tradition is typically said to have started with the Haymarket Massacre. On May 1st, 1886, a general strike of workers to demand an 8-hour workday began, but in Chicago, the strike turned into a massacre by the police several days later. One hundred and twenty-eight years later, gatherings of workers, sometimes turning quite violent.
In Seattle, in 2012, windows were shattered all over downtown. The sheer effectiveness of the protesters in showing they were able to escape the police led to a several-year crackdown on leftist groups, detainment of several people without trial for months for refusing to testify to grand juries, and an overall climate of fear amongst anyone who had hope things might change.
It was with the memory of this that I was celebrating Beltaine at a queer spiritual sanctuary, rather than the streets of a city, going outside the urban to find the sacred.
Yet this is a false choice, an enforced dichotomy. While festivals and sanctuaries and wild places certainly revitalize the soul, their existence “outside” the city in a way quarantines their power. Enlightenment in retreats (consider both meanings of the word there) is certainly ancient, but it it’s impossible for everyone, nor is everyone welcome, otherwise they’d be less enlightening and more just…crowded.
The Urban Sacred
There are gods of forests and goddesses of springs, yes. Thing is, there are gods of trees and forests who are also urban gods (Dionysos) and goddess of springs who are also goddesses of Hearths and Social Justice (Brighid)–what is a city except a massive concentration of hearths?
And regarding Beltaine–our modern (American) Pagan conception of Beltaine as a festival of peace and sex seems to come more from the unfortunate legacies of the 60’s than it does from the folklore. John O’Donahue referred to Irish customs of burying an egg in the field of a wealthier neighbor (presumably a landlord) on the night before Beltain in order to rot all his year’s crops–that is, economic sabotage, an older equivalent to a general strike, and Walpurigsnacht celebrations on the continent are considerably darker than the neo-Pagan notion of lover’s trysts on bonfire-lit hills.
I find myself wondering how much of our collective pastoral conception of Pagan traditions, particularly Beltaine, has affected our relationship to the urban. Rather than a site of the sacred, has it become a world walled-off from the gods? It’s undeniable that a few nights spent out in a forest does much for the soul, but such retreats are available only to those with the money for an automobile and the ability to take time off from work–that is, only to certain classes of people. Is access to the sacred only for those with money?
Or are we missing something? Where there are people, there are also gods, and cities are full of people. Are they not also full of gods? And who are the gods who delight in the smashing of bank windows in rage against the belittling of humanity and the rape of the land? Do we travel to festivals and sanctuaries to get closer to Them, or do we retreat from the cities to flee their sacred demands?
I don’t know. I’m going back to that sanctuary again this year, keeping a better eye out for poison oak (what kind of a clumsy Druid gets that stuff…there?), and contemplating what to do with the urban. But I’ll be bringing my politics, because my gods are of both forests and revolt, of nature and of people, of the wilderness and of the cities.
*”They/Them” are my friend’s chosen pronouns.