My take on the Grimm Brother’s tale. This video was shot at another storytelling jamboree I took part in on a bitter-cold, snow-covered night. In other words, a typical Syracuse evening in January. The snow just added to the story.
Recently, my spiritual storytelling class spent an evening on the topic of repentance, and each of us was to bring along a tale from our respective traditions that clarified the meaning of the term. For my friends and colleagues practicing in the Abrahamic faiths, such tales abound, but what about a modern Heathen?
There’s no shortage of tales in the lore covering the costs of dishonoring oneself, but the idea of repentance depends on a related concept that we, like most neo-Pagan paths, do not share with our neighbors: that of sin. How can we commit a transgression against “God’s law” when our gods neither provide us with such laws nor stand in judgment of us? It is much more likely that we will be judged by our community than by our gods – if our greater community continues to like us, then we have little to fear from our gods.
Nonetheless, attempts to codify behavior across the wider swath of Heathenry are occasionally made, such as the various versions of “Nine Noble Virtues” or NNV. These are generally considered as Courage, Truth, Honor, Fidelity, Discipline, Hospitality, Industriousness, Self Reliance, and Perseverance. While few would argue that these concepts can each be considered as recurring themes throughout much of the surviving lore, the specific meanings of each of them can be called into question depending on circumstances. There are too many possible occasions when meeting one ideal might cause another to be set aside. For these reasons, plus the somewhat arbitrary way in which such lists of virtues tend to be assembled in the first place, the concept of the NNV tends to cause a lot of head shaking in Heathen circles. Regardless of viewpoint, such lists are considered as rules for living day-to-day in our communities, not as ironclad rules that, if broken, directly offend the gods.
Are there any rules which might establish a basis for something like “sin” in the Heathen worldview? One recurring theme in the lore is that of oath breaking. I’ve seen arguments that a distinction should be drawn between breaking a personal oath, e.g. “I vow to lose 20 pounds” and one which places the wider community at risk, e.g. “I vow to defend my village against attack.” I’m not so sure that such a distinction can be drawn – the mythology contains too many stories of an individual committing actions against his own community because he has been forced to swear a vow that he will do so. Oath-making is taken seriously now as it was then – the act of breaking an oath was beneath the contempt of our ancestors!
Without “sin” there is no “repentance,” yet there is opportunity for “redemption.” In this worldview, everyone is responsible for personal actions and consequences, and with the Germanic idea of gift reciprocation, just as every honorable act leads to some reward, every dishonorable one must be paid for in some way. Here the concept of weregild comes to mind – our ancestors placed a value on everything and everyone. Stolen property, persons injured or killed – in most cases the perpetrator could pay a restitution to the victim’s family or to property owner.
There’s an implication here. If I commit a transgression against a member of my community, I can redeem myself through a payment of some sort. If I commit a transgression against my gods, I believe a similar relationship exists. The nature of a transgression is likely to be one of oath-breaking – if I swear to a deity, or to a member of my tribe, that I will do something, it is up to me to do that thing, or make an appropriate payment, not unlike the weregild mentioned above, but usually agreed upon in advance. I cannot simply beg forgiveness, but actually atone for what I have done. That’s why oaths are often phrased the way they are, with a price attached. “I will quit smoking by Dec 12 or donate $100 to the Cancer Society” is a well-formed oath. “I will lose 20 pounds this winter or die trying” should raise objections.
As Heathens, we lack a concept of sin, but possess a code of personal honor. We lack repentance, but there are avenues for redemption. We do not so much fear standing in judgment of our gods so much as we do our community – for we can live on in the deeds that our descendants speak of long after we’ve crossed into the next life.
My version of a tale from the lore of the old Norse, taken at a storytelling jamboree I was honored take part in.
Speaking of honor, this is a story steeped in just that – but also in the cost of doing the right thing.
A few days ago, I saw a man at the side of the road with a “Homeless and Hungry” sign. Downtown Syracuse, like most cities, has its share of homeless people and those pretending to be so, and I barely gave this one a second thought. Later that day, though, I had three unrelated conversations in which street people were brought up, never by me. Coincidental?
It’s very easy in a mundane world to write off such incidents as “coincidental”: in other words, accidental or random. We are among the fortunate few who have gained at least an insight into a world beyond the mundane, a world where there’s a lot more going on than often meets the rational eye.
Carl Jung penned the word “synchronicity” to describe meaningful coincidences that occur in our lives. In essence, synchronicity belies the accidental nature of coincidence; the basic idea is of a Universe that is constantly trying to get a message through to each and every one of us.
So all we need to do is pay constant attention to every detail in our lives, and anything remotely repetitive is part of an important message from beyond, right? Well, you can certainly try to live that way, but I suspect you’d wind up a bit psychotic before the end of the first day.
Besides, synchronicity isn’t always repetitive. Have you ever felt torn by a hard decision, when all of a sudden something utterly unrelated pops up and pushes you one way or the other? It can be as simple as seeing a bus go by with a Nike ad; “Just Do It” might seem directed right at you.
As another example, perhaps at one time or another you’ve felt like all your choices were gone, and suddenly people came out of nowhere to help? Did you realize what was happening at the time? For that matter, have you ever called up an old friend, not realizing why you were calling, only to find out that they really needed you right then, at that moment? In “The Power of Myth”, Joseph Campbell calls this the “helping hands” phenomenon. When any of us puts out a psychic request for help, that help tends to be forthcoming.
If you consider synchronicity to be a Universal communication tool, then things might start to make sense. Your call for help is like pulling on one strand of a very intricate web, and that pull is felt in many places. The web is vast, and connects all of us to everything else in the Universe.
Of course, when you look at it, everything that happens has a rational explanation. If, for example, you’ve been seeing a lot more hawks than usual lately, the rational explanation may be that it’s simply time for their spring migration. That’s fine, but it doesn’t explain why your awareness of them is so great; after all, they migrate every year. Didn’t you notice them last year?
Personal awareness is a key. If ravens have moved into your yard, so thick that it looks like a fluttering black carpet instead of a lawn, and you don’t notice them, then one of two things is going on: either the message isn’t for you, or you’re too blind to pick up on it.
At least some synchronous events could be called omens. And, like any omen, the hardest part is to figure out what it means. Interpretation is another key to synchronicity; being able to determine the relative importance of an incident and then figure out what message it carries.
There are several ways to approach this. You can meditate on the possible meaning, perhaps even journey to seek answers on the spiritual plane. You can consult divinatory tools such as Tarot cards, runes, pendulums, anything that appeals to you. Perhaps the simplest solution is to simply ask the Universe for clarification.
On the topic of divinatory tools, I personally believe that they work because of the same principals of synchronicity that put a love song on the radio right at the very moment you begin thinking about someone you care deeply about. It’s your awareness that makes it all happen.
Great. So all of us can find our personal place in the Universe as long as we pay attention. Every crossroads we reach will have a marker of some sort waiting; every decision will be predetermined. Right?
Wrong. Before you run off to live your whole life based on things you glean from Tarot cards and the sides of buses, it’s important to realize that while the messages you’re receiving are generally accurate, your interpretations of them aren’t always so. Your identity, your inner awareness, should never be allowed to become lost in a sea of possible messages. Learn to trust your instincts, your gut reactions will tell you if you’re on the right path.
It’s about remaining open and aware for as much of the time as you possibly can. It’s about understanding that personal messages are often delivered in unconventional ways. Most of all, it’s about simply allowing the Universe to communicate with you and through you.
Gone is the green of Summer, the brilliant reds and yellows of Autumn. In their place, shades of white; crystalline ice and snow that covers and decorates every surface, every branch of every tree. It is beautiful without a doubt; a beauty unlike any seen throughout the rest of the year, for it is a beauty of rest, of life unseen. The soft blanket of snow that covers the Earth in the Winter seems to do more than merely hide the dirt below; in some ways, it seems to cleanse, as though washing away the filth instead of merely cosmetically hiding it.
For many, it is a time of hibernation; not unlike those animals that practice that long slumber, they remain indoors, wishing and waiting for the warmer temperatures that will again allow them to go outside and revel in Nature. It is a mistake to abhor this season, to wish it non-existent, for this is when the cycle of Nature becomes most evident, when it can be seen in all of its glory. Winter is much more than cold temperatures and slick streets; it is a time to rejoice in the period of rest; to see the power of Nature in a much different light.
Even in the “Dead of Winter”, the world is not dead; signs of life abound at every step. The evergreens serve as a reminder that the trees are not dead, but resting. The chickadees and other birds brave enough to remain behind remind us that the birds have not passed on, but merely moved away for a short while. The busy squirrels, the deer, the rabbits in the field; all are evidence that Nature has not simply forsaken this time of year. If anything, She is busier than ever; for the Springtime will be here in a few short months and there is much to do before then.
There are few experiences quite like that of laying in a snowbank at night. Snowflakes land on my face, quickly melting away but at the same time slowly cleansing my soul,. The sound of those same flakes hitting the ground is so much more intense than true silence; it is a stillness of motion; a silent sound. The clouds in the sky reflect the snow on the earth, and there is no true darkness, yet breaks in those clouds reveal a blacker sky than can ever be seen in the summer. It is a season full of contradictions, life hidden below apparent death, cleansing white covering a darker despair that lies below.
It should not be surprising that so many cultures around the world celebrate these short days and long nights like no other time of the year. Oldest of holidays, the Solstice is celebrated under many names and guises; yet the name is not so important as the direction, the path of giving, of loving, of generosity. If at no other time of year, we are led to be more forgiving, more willing to work together, more tolerant and warm towards one another during this magical season. What sway does the season hold over the human psyche that can exact this change, that can allow spirit to suddenly take a forefront?
Some might believe it the very root of their religion, the teachings of elders, that leads them on this quest to taste the milk of human kindness for a short season. Personally, I think that for this brief period the spirituality of the masses drives the religion instead of the other way around. Too many ignore the teachings of their own faiths throughout the rest of the year to believe that they suddenly have a change of heart in the season of Winter.
More likely it is the season itself, a deeper, more ancient yearning . At this time we become more isolated, more separated from the rest of our kind, and we find ourselves craving human contact more than ever. People once gathered for warmth and the sharing of provisions; whether in cave, longhouse, or castle. Today, even in our isolated homes, that need persists.
In the end, we are all members of one large tribe. Is this what drives us to be more charitable, to give more freely of our time and money, to help out those less fortunate? Selfishness fades for an all-too-brief period; ask people what they really want at this time of year, and you’re likely to hear about things like peace, love, understanding, healing; things that benefit us all.
Nonetheless, this season of contradictions shines through. Coupled with warmth, good wishes, and friendly behavior is a mean streak. People complain about the weather from the time the temperature drops below freezing until it rises once again a few months later. Tempers run short, and there is no place with less holiday cheer than a shopping mall right before the holiday. Cars drive by, spraying slush on passers-by, and people literally run into one another as everyone seems to be rushing more than usual. How is this inner conflict resolved?
The answer lies in the nature of the problem. See, it’s the rushing around that causes the problem; and this can be proven by example. It takes little more than getting the car stuck in a snowbank to prove the point. For the first few moments, panic sets in. I’m in a hurry! This is going to affect my busy schedule!
Something magical happens at this point. Someone stops to help. And in that simple act, attitudes shift, and the good feeling returns.
The person stopping t help suddenly realizes that their immediate purpose, that thing that seemed so important as to drive them beyond the level of reasonable stress, is no longer so critical. There’s a fellow human in need, a stranger perhaps, but a fellow nonetheless. The world is forced to slow down, as no one ever gets out of a snowbank by speeding. The only result is spinning wheels, another reminder that things are being approached too quickly. With the assistance of people who are able to reach past their contrived needs and get to something more important, along with a slower, more careful attitude, the car gets liberated from the snowbank. At least for the duration of that exercise, we are strangers no more.
Is it accidental that Winter produces such things as snowbanks to stick into, slippery streets that toss us off the road, and blinding snowstorms that drive us to seek shelter wherever we can? Or is it Her way of bringing us out of our self-imposed isolation and stress, to return to the deeper needs within us, to be among others of our kind?
Winter people, those of us who revel in the season, have an innate understanding of this. The camaraderie at a ski lodge, at a meeting of snowmobilers, at the skating rink and the ice sculpture contest, reflects a special warmth in being cold, in sharing with others the joy of this season of strange and contrary things.
As a species, it seems as though we have spent thousands of years searching for something better, some fabulous place where our every need is met, and everyone lives happily in peace and harmony. Utopia, Paradise, Shalimar, Eden; these are but a few names for that place which we believe, deep within our hearts, must exist in some hidden corner of the world we inhabit.
Many books have been written, including James Hilton’s classic 1935 novel “The Lost Horizon”, where the concept of “Shangri-la” was brought to Western society (although the concept of such a place in the Himalayan region was possibly introduced by Siddhartha Gautama himself in the founding teachings of Buddhism, 2500 years earlier). Additionally, paintings, sculptures, and other works of art have been created, visions seen; and legends passed down; all of this mythical place where we believe perfection exists. Expeditions have searched the deepest corners of the darkest jungles, the most remote inhabitable places on the planet, even below the surfaces of the earth and the ocean, but no one has ever found the fabled lands of milk and honey. In some ways it is easy to understand, for as human, we often seek that which has never been found, the quest for the impossible drives us forward, giving our lives a purpose. Yet the very definition of such a place as Utopia is “an imaginary and indefinitely remote place”, suggesting the futility of the search.
Entire religions and similar mythological belief systems have based themselves on the idea that this paradise exists, and that certain tests must be passed before being allowed to enter. Some tests are written in the form of moral codes to be upheld, some are in the form of personal sacrifices or pilgrimages, but all share the common trait that the key to this place, this wonderful world unlike our own world of pain and suffering, can only be discovered after completing all of the necessary tests. This idea moves in the direction of discovering this blissful place, but falls short in the end, clinging as it does to it’s insistence that this is an other-worldly, or at the very least nearly inaccessible, place.
Recently, I saw an interview with the Dalai Lama, spiritual leader of millions of Buddhists. The interviewer was quite sure that the Dalai held the secret of the location of Shangri-la (also known as Shalimar), the mythical city of wonder, and pushed the issue. The response was pretty simple and forward, basically that he believed there to be no such place on the physical plane, and as far as other planes, he didn’t know. He went on to say that he did not worry himself with such things, but concerned himself with the beauty of the Earth around him instead, and maintaining peace in his own life. Missing the point completely, the interviewer went on to imply that the Dalai Llama had simply avoided the question and was hiding something; when in fact the answer had been given out loud (and rather easy to see, I thought).
How can we overlook the obvious? Are our lives so difficult, so filled with sorrow and pain, that we cannot see the beauty of the world we live in today? Certainly there is strife and evil around, but how can we possibly appreciate the beautiful without the ugly, the nice without the nasty, the black without the white, the old without the young? Can there be a place where everything is always wonderful, full of sweetness and light, peace and love? It seems unlikely, to say the least, for even if such a place existed, we as humans would grow to be unappreciative so quickly as to make it less than paradise almost overnight.
Have we, in fact, ever left the Garden of Eden? Examining this particular tale more closely, it is only after people receive knowledge that they are banished from the garden. Were we in fact banished, or did the knowledge gained simply allow us to recognize that there was more than a simple, positive force at work in the environment; that in fact some negative is necessary to balance the positive? We were not banished from the garden, we merely learned that it was not a place of pure nicety, and this realization led us to believe that we had lost something. In fact, nothing has been lost except the innocence with which we first faced the world.
The concept of heaven espoused by the teachings of the Jewish, Christian, and Islamic faiths is one of return to the Garden of Eden after death through the upholding of a certain moral code in life. If the supposition of the previous paragraph is true, that we have never truly been banished from the garden, then what is heaven? Is it a return to a more innocent state; in fact, a loss of the knowledge that allows us to separate good from evil? I often joked about it when I was younger, but now I truly wonder: how wonderful a place can heaven be when those most likely to go there are the most miserable in this life? Do they lose that “wisdom” that leads them to a pious, often unemotional life at death, suddenly breaking loose to enjoy their deaths?
This concept has always bothered me, but in my own spirituality I begin to see some answers. I cannot accept death as being a loss of wisdom, as I believe in reincarnation, and it makes little sense to be reborn into another life without having gained something, some bit of enlightenment, from the previous one. To lose wisdom at death would be a constant regression, and as a species, we would be steadily devolving instead of evolving, growing simpler with every passing generation. Certainly not all is retained, but enough to carry something further the next time around.
The other concept, and the key to a great deal more, is the idea that paradise is not some far-off, remote place inhabited by people unlike ourselves. Paradise is right here, right now, and all that prevents us from seeing it is our preconceived notion of what it should be. Certainly the pollution of the inner city calls forth images of hell rather than heaven, but a simple walk through the woods after a fresh fallen snow is enough for me to realize that no heaven could have greater beauty. If we begin to realize that we already inhabit Eden, might we not be more inspired to take care of it?
The concept that has driven the most literary endeavors is that of the ideal society peopled by those who work together in peace and harmony towards a common good. As a planet, this is probably beyond us; humans have been at odds with one another as long as they have existed, and this trait is not unique to humanity! Certainly, on a small scale, we can be brought together in peaceful groups to accomplish goals; look no further than those who work to save the forests or help the poor. Must there be petty fights, jealousies, the taking of sides? Of course! Once again, we cannot appreciate the good without the bad, but the existence of the bad does not mean that we cannot achieve the good. And this is the lesson of paradise.
How many of us have occasionally grown weary hearing about “the good old days” from folks older than ourselves? As much as we wish to respect the wisdom of our elders, we find our attention drawn elsewhere as soon as the talk turns to the way things used to be, the simplicity of an earlier age, the beauty that has been lost in a lifetime. The impression is quickly formed that things have only gotten worse, that they will never be as good as they used to be, that something has been irrevocably lost.
What about ourselves? Are we any better, living in our memories of times gone by? Even young children often have this affliction, remembering a simpler time before schools and teachers when pleasure could be found every day in the backyard. Of course, as young adults, we think back to the schools and teachers as being part of that simpler, happier time; our brains tend to filter out the drudgery of classwork in favor of the fun and excitement that occurred with a lot less frequency. Our parents in turn look back to the time when we were children and they could live playfully and vicariously through us; to face the present is to face the realization that they are no longer children themselves.
By the same token, if we’re not caught up living in our own pasts, aren’t we constantly looking to the future, trying to find something to be hopeful about? The “light at the end of the tunnel” seems to be a favorite image nowadays; we spend a great deal of our time looking towards the future as a time better than the one we are in. People work long hours, trying to build up that nest egg that will allow them to live the rest of their lives in comfort and ease; the future has got to be a better place!
There is a problem with both of these approaches, of course. In seeking the goodness of either the past or the future, we again find ourselves on a quest for a mythical paradise, one which is just over the horizon. The search for the Garden of Eden is not restricted to the physical or astral planes then; it goes on in each of us every day as we imagine that at some other point in time, we will truly be happy. Of course, as long as our imaginations allow us to believe this, we never will be.
Why is it so difficult to believe that the present is what we make of it? Someday in the near future, we’ll be those people that we politely avoid today, talking about the good old days with a wistful look. Why can’t we realize until they’re past that these are, in fact, the “good old days”? Once again, it falls back to the idea that we can accept nothing but perfection in our concept of paradise. And perfect anything, being quite impossible in a universe full of dualities, is just never going to occur.
So what answer must we face? If perfection is unattainable, then what do we strive for? Is it that constant push for something better that drives us to all of the stress-related sicknesses and injuries of our modern society? There are many who believe that it is in fact just that; that we would be healthier as a people if we could escape from the grasp of a society that constantly pushes us towards better, faster, more efficient. As many have discovered the hard way, “better” is a relative term.
If we are not living our lives for tomorrow, constantly thinking at least a few minutes ahead in time (if not longer), we suddenly realize that there is something beyond the future, a concept that we have almost forgotten about. This radical concept is that of the present, the time that exists not yesterday, not tomorrow, but right now. Think about it for a moment. What truly pleasurable things do we do in the future? I’m not talking about things we plan for, but things we actually do. Of course, there are none; pleasure is a concept tied very strictly to the present.
Of course, the past and the future need not be forgotten in the quest for a perfect “now”; in fact, to do so carries a danger of its own. From the past we develop a sense of what makes us happy, of what will give us that warm feeling inside that tells us we’re doing OK. Certainly it is a good thing to look to the past with an eye towards improving our lot today; we can take pride in our accomplishments and learn from our mistakes. The difference is that we are not living in the past, languishing for it, and ignoring what is going on around us. Try as we might, whether time is a linear or a circular progression, it is highly unlikely that we’ll be revisiting the past in exactly the form we saw it in the first time around. It is time to leave it behind an move on.
In looking the other direction, the future beckons to us with a gleaming light from far down that dark tunnel, but, as the old joke goes, that light may very well be from the train barreling at us. It is an easy trap to look to the future as the place where all of our questions will be answered, where all of our wants and needs will be taken care of, where the meaning of our lives will suddenly be revealed. Of course, the future is a trickster, for once we arrive at it, it becomes the present and we are still left looking forward.
Yet, like the past, the future certainly holds a purpose for us; this purpose is just not quite as important as we make it out to be. Certainly we need to plan for the future, to ensure our continued success and happiness. The danger is to look to the future as the source of all success and happiness, for if we do that, we will be left wanting. When a realization occurs that some small hardship today will result in a lessening hardship tomorrow, there is no difficulty following that path, but when we live our lives in hardship while yearning for some unattainable tomorrow, we’ve set ourselves up for failure.
Back to the present then. There are times when things seem bleak indeed, when the present seems to be heaping more and more upon us with no respite. How is it possible to remain positive and feel the power of paradise when the negatives seem to be so stacked against us? It can be challenging, but it often requires little more than an increase in sensitivity, an expanded awareness of the immediate environment.
The important thing to remember is to dwell neither on the past, which we will not relive, nor on the future, which may not turn out the way we imagine it will. It is too easy to become trapped in one of those timeframes; so lost in the past that we stop learning, stop reading, stop trying new hobbies or finding new friends, or so absorbed by the possibility of the future that we neglect the here and now and opt for the mysteries instead. The circle is vicious; as we constantly strive towards the future, we are destined one day to dwell in the memories of the past and wish we had made more of things when we had the chance.
Imagine walking downtown and hearing a street-corner preacher shouting, “Have you heard the TRUTH about the GODDESS?” while wearing a sandwich board proclaiming “She is LIFE” and handing out a little pamphlet titled “God has Horns”.
Okay, I don’t want to imagine that. I don’t like proselytizing by any religion, but I think that the Pagan paths are especially unsuitable for it.
One of the biggest problem with singing the praises of the Pagan lifestyle to the uninitiated masses is, which flavor of Paganism do you promote? Interview thirteen Pagans about the word “Pagan”, and you’ll get thirteen different answers. If we can’t even agree on one definition, how can we try to convert anyone else?
Within the more mainstream religions, there tends to be more agreement on most issues dealing with conduct, faith basics, and accepted scripture, in spite of sectarian differences. Members of a single church are likely to hold very similar beliefs; thus they can speak about those beliefs to those whom they’re trying to convert and be reasonably sure that they’re speaking for the entire group.
In the Pagan community, there is a much greater emphasis placed on individual spirituality. Even among members of a single coven, there is often a diversity of ideas regarding what is sacred, what is acceptable, and what is profane. While a leader might be called upon to speak for the entire group on certain topics, only the most naïve (or conceited) would expect everyone to be walking an identical path.
I believe there are many spiritual paths, most very personal, all eventually leading to a common truth. None are more or less valid than any other. No single path is right for everyone, so why would I try to force anyone else to fit my mold? No other person has lived my life, experienced what I have. No one can ever walk in my footsteps for very long and remain true to their own spirituality.
Another argument against proselytizing is more societal than personal. The very definition of the word implies coercion; not only is the proselytizer telling me about his religion, he is actively trying to convert me. Consider the work of missionaries: convinced that their path is the only truth, they strive to subvert the culture of the people they live amongst, tearing down ancient traditions and replacing them with a “one-size-fits-all” religion that doesn’t quite fit anyone. As a Pagan, I’m very aware of the irreplaceable cultural wisdom that has been supplanted by missionary work worldwide. I want no part of it.
I won’t coerce – or induce – anyone to walk the same path that I do – it’s the right path for me, and only me. What I will do is share some of what I’ve learned along the way, with the goal of helping others find the path that’s right for them. Education provides an opportunity to dispel ignorance and help others find their own paths. Proselytizing is little more than religious bullying.
Originally published in GreenMan magazine in 1995.
This piece was my first real publication credit.
Words cannot begin to describe the powerful effect of the storm, but I must make do with what I have. From the first odd, orange colorations of the sky as dusk approached and the clouds rolled in, bringing with them the distant rumble of warning, to the first flashes seen in the distance like some great cosmic fireworks, it was apparent that the storm was going to be rather magical. And we were not disappointed.
We began on the front porch, simply talking and joking, but the power of the atmosphere quieted us down as the clouds thickened, until we were left talking only about the storm. As the last vestige of bright sky was swept away in the angry clouds, we felt the last of the breeze, and an ominous quiet seemed to fall into place; a calm that could only precede a storm.
Still hot and sweating from the oppressive heat earlier in the day, we welcomed those first few drops, huge wet kisses from the sky. As the intensity of the rain increased, it was no longer enough to feel it misting down through the leaves of Grandmother Maple; I needed to seek an open area where the wind and the rain could caress me without interference.
Standing in the backyard, the deluge began in earnest, accompanied by the continuing rumble of Thor’s hammer as the lightning flew across the sky in patterns never before seen, and never to be seen again, each a spontaneous, instant work of art. The energy was fantastic, and in the midst of this energy I felt the rain cleansing me, not only washing the sweat and dust from my skin but also deeper, cleansing down to the soul itself. I felt my feet connecting to the Earth herself, while my head was lifted high into the midst of the storm, a channel of energy flowing through me.
I faced each of the four Guardians in turn, thanking them for their part in bringing the storm to me and working this wondrous effect upon my soul. In the East, I thanked the Air for transporting the clouds and the electricity to me, and allowing it to move through the atmosphere. In the South, I thanked the Fire for evaporating the water and allowing it to be pulled into the Air, and for the spark that on such a huge scale is lightning. In the West, I thanked the Water itself for allowing itself to be moved through the air in such a fashion, cycling continuously through the world. And finally, in the North, I thanked the Earth, for providing the environment to allow it all to happen. Throughout it all, the rain continued to beat in torrents across me, cleansing deeply.
As the rain subsided, I returned to the front porch, joining in for an inspired chorus of rather appropriate songs that had begun in my absence. We drew close, still singing softly of the Earth and Air and Fire and Water within us, as the lightning, now distant, continued to paint across the magic canvas of the sky. The last flash of lightning, quite symbolically we thought, was not unlike a broomstick flying across the sky. We turned to go in, a little cleaner, a little wiser, and more fully connected with our faith than ever before.
(Originally published in PanGaia magazine)
Pagans seem to have a greater tolerance of non-traditional lifestyles than society as a whole. Yet when it comes to the topic of child-rearing, that tolerance often slips away.
“Oh, you don’t have any children? I’m so sorry.”
“You know, you really would make a great father.”
“You’ll change your mind. Everyone does eventually.”
“How can you truly appreciate the Goddess unless you’re a mother yourself?”
Our little subculture seems at times to be drowning in fertility rites both ancient and new, as well as Earth mothers and fathers who define themselves and their spirituality in terms of their children.
From an aspect of wide-ranging, social consciousness, my path brings me to be deeply conscientious about how my actions impact the Earth. I try to avoid wasteful packaging, recycle whatever possible, and drive efficiently. I’m also aware that by choosing not to bring one additional child into the world, specifically in this country, I’m choosing to cut the potential for an additional 200,000 pounds of accumulated trash and the burning of 20,000 gallons of gasoline.
On a more personal note, I simply prefer not to have children around me all of the time. That doesn’t mean I despise all young people, but that I recognize that my personality is not well suited for fatherhood. I don’t believe that parenting is some innate talent that everyone is born with. Like most everything, there is a combination of innate talent and learned skills that contribute toward good parenting, and whether or not I possess the former is irrelevant in that I have no desire to learn the latter.
I’ve met far too many people who, before becoming parents, had very mixed feeling about children–then went ahead and had them anyway. Is it good practice to accept the responsibility of parenthood, only to shirk that duty after a short period of time in order to further one’s other goals? Or to enter into that responsibility, knowing full well that the time and effort of maintaining a source of income will preclude the sort of quality parenting required?
Childbirth is an act of the highest magic. And, like all forms of magic, it should not be entered into without carefully considering the consequences, both on a personal and societal level. For my wife and me, it was a working that we chose to forego; and I believe we are better and stronger for it. We do not consider ourselves somehow distanced from the Goddess; we simply express our gratitude and respect in other ways. Fertility does not have to mean reproduction.
By choosing to remain child-free, we have given ourselves the time and freedom to pursue other aspects of life that would not have been possible had we chosen the role of parents. Our “fertility” takes the form of the help and compassion that we offer to our community, it reveals itself in our more creative pursuits, it manifests in the love and warmth returned from our adopted four-legged children. I don’t believe that we’ve missed out on anything by remaining child-free. If anything, we’ve had the capability to do and learn more than if we’d ever been encumbered by little ones.
I don’t hope to convince anyone that it is wrong to bring children into the world. Instead, realize that, while the decision to become a parent should be the most well-thought-out decision of your life, in the end the choice is yours.