Sunday, November 29, 2009

"I see no connection between religion and violence."

Huh? That phrase was recorded in a legal deposition by the former president of the University of Texas's San Antonio campus back in the late 1980s. A book connecting religion and violence had been published by one of the history department's young, well-liked, professors. The best defense against giving the man tenure was, "I see no connection between religion and violence."

I don't know where he was getting his daily news but mine has always been full of religions enacting crimes of hate against other religions, or even against those who practice a slightly modified version of the same religion.

Wouldn't it be nice to say the silly "Witch Wars" of the 1970s are over and Pagans worldwide live in peace and harmony? In my opinion things have improved, at least for us in the Americas. For us and our European "co-religionists" there looms a gap as wide as the ocean that separates us. The hundreds of choices those of us in Americas have on our huge spiritual buffet are astounding. When we lift up one of the choices we find many other layers of choices derived from or formed in opposition to the one most visible on the buffet.

I love western Europe, and most North American Pagans know we have western Europe to thank for the foundations of our thousands of Pagan traditions. We live in a country in which people change residences on an average of once every 1.8 years. We are united by cable TV! We meet people from other ethnic and spiritual backgrounds every day. We cannot help but be open to many cultural expressions in every aspect of our lives. And when it comes to the spiritual we also look at what Native Americans can teach us, we look at what the syncretic religions of Latin America have to offer, and we look at our own European heritages, and we blend these until they become what many of us refer to as Eclectic Wicca.

When I came to the craft in 1981 I was taught Wicca referred to only the Gardnerian and Alexandrain traditions of England. So I called myself a Witch, and still do. Today I am referred to as Wiccan by many people and I have learned the labels they place on me are irrelevant and I do not argue over them. What is important is my inner-faith, something no one can tamper with without my consent. I keep an open mind and read critically in hopes of new insights. What I do not do is slam ANY other faith, Pagan or not, for what they believe, do, or practice. The universal "Golden Rule" is part of all religions, including Paganism's: AS IT HARMS NONE, DO WHAT YOU WILL.

Over the last few years relations between North American and western European Pagans have been strained about as far as they can be without snapping. A well-known and respected American Pagan author was invited to England about five years ago to present some workshops. His reception was less than warm. He was corrected every time he used the word Wicca in a context his London-based audience felt he should use the terms Witchcraft or Paganism.

Oddly enough, it was the wife and co-founder of the Alexandrian Tradition (one of the British Traditional Witchcraft lineages), probably the single most codified tradition in all of modern Paganism, who befriended him and became one of his personal heroes. Maxine Saunders above all others certainly has the background to claim a right to "correct" the language of Witches from the Americas but she chooses not to do so. She knows religion must grow and change to fit the people it serves or it dies. She knows American Pagans have European DNA but we also have global minds.

The most difficult battles we have to face are over cultural claims for which we Americans have little tolerance. This is not to say we deride or disrespect anyone's specific European culture or any specific Pagan religions the natives of those countries deem to be theirs alone. In the America we pick and chose our Paganism, its traditions, and varied practices as we chose marriage partners or best friends. We want to have some things in common but ethnicity, spiritual tradition, and how these are expressed to others is something Europeans have a difficult time understanding, much less accepting.

I am only one American Pagan/Witchcraft author who is weary of lobbing the verbal missiles back and forth, but I'm not alone. I know a Celtic coven who worships the Greco-Roman God Pan, and another who prays to Diana. Not very Celtic in the truest sense of the culture. Do we care? Usually not as long as we understand from where these dissonances come. We are not illiterate. We know Pan's origins are not in Ireland, but one coven chooses to use him.

We Americans tend to pull deities, spellings, rituals, customs, and other accoutrements from the world over, toss them into our multi-faceted cauldron, mix thoroughly, and call it by whatever name we like. The same is done in Latin America where the numbers of people practicing religions that blend African Paganism with Catholicism and western European Paganism reach into the millions. Many call this blend "another form of Catholicism," a label that does not sit well with the Vatican which, by the way, is in Europe.

I have been forced to listen to loud and long negative diatribes about books on Scottish Pagan that are not acceptable in Scotland, heard variations on Italian Strega excoriated, and sat nearly silent while an Irish-based trad I once belonged to was trashed.

What our European counterparts can't understand is how we can draw from sources outside a small, cultural framework then hang an ethnic label on it. For example, the Irish who claim to practice a pure, pre-Celtic version of Irish craft excludes the words Wicca, Wicce, Wita, Witta, and Weeka. Yet, in spite of this controversy, many still accept some books with the word Wicca in the title to be considered part of their cultural spiritualism.

Though my own book on the Irish-based trad I was taught is long out of print, I've lost touch with many who practiced with me, and little about it part of my current Pagan practice, I still find myself goaded into defending my claim that it is Irish-based. Note that I do not call it Irish or say it is THE Irish way of Paganism, nor do I grasp why these ideas are so threatening to European Pagans. No one is asking them to model their practices on ours. For Goddess's Sake, we don't even try to make someone in the next county practice as we do.

Diversity in the Americas is reflected in everything we have, do, or say, which is one reason we have our own infighting about what is truly American and what is not. National identities fight against our many ethnic roots daily. If we can't get it straight among ourselves, I doubt we will reach a compromise with our European friends on any of these practices and terms.

Think about all the many Pagan expressions we have here in the Americas to try and to use if so moved. Is Santería merely another form of Catholicism here? Yes, it is if the practitioner worshipping Ellegua believes it is. Can aspects of British Traditional Witchcraft be the basis for American versions of Irish, Scottish, Italian, or German Paganism? Yes they can if the practitioner wants it so. Can Celtic deities be brought into the Norse pantheon and the coven still be said to practice a Norse tradition? In America it can and it is.

At American Pagan festivals I meet thousands of people every year from whom I learn wonderful insights into new ways to practice or to think about my Paganism. In the almost 30 years since my dedication I have worshipped in a myriad of settings. I've seen rituals from ceremonial magick interpolated into Egyptian Pagan rites, listened to a Celtic priestess of the Morrigan call out to Pan on Samhain, and in Latin America I see Santería shops actually built onto the annex of staunchly Catholic churches. I have taken folk saints from Latin America and prayed to them for assistance and never have a I felt my Anglo-Irish-Scottish DNA fight against me.

Let's get over the semantics, my friends. Words have power, yes, but they have the power to harm as well as heal, and using them to denounce someone else's Pagan practice benefits no one. It just makes us tired and likely to snap just when we should be offering the hand of friendship and understanding. We all change, grow, move on, move out, move in, carry forward, blend, borrow, and bend our Paganism into systems that work for us, and, with luck, our ideas may stir a need in someone else.

.... I was going to conclude this blog entry at this point when I friend read it over for me and said I needed to declare myself first.

"Declare what?"

"What tradition you are."

"I don't think I have one any more and that's the point."

"You must call what you do something," she persisted. "So name it!"

"It has no name--it just is!"

"Not good enough. People expect a brand."

"But that's what I'm arguing against," I say as I lose the fight.

My agent, also a Pagan author, Denise Dumars, and I have talked about the use of these terms and who "owns" them and who may use them as they wish. She and I are as content in an Eclectic Wiccan circle as we are in the rites of Santería or Umbanda. We've done Celtic, Nordic, and Egyptian and felt at home. We do not feel we are bound by any person, culture, or spiritual leader to define ourselves. We ask no one to do as we do, and we cause no harm.

I suppose I recently realized that I am American in the broadest sense of the word. My Witchcraft and my Paganism are inherently American, a blend of the practices of both North and South America and, should I ever find myself living in Europe, I would bring these practices with me and continue to build upon them.

Maybe the time has come for Pagans in the Americas to stop trying to ID ourselves using European terms. Our practices might be based in old Europe simply because the majority of our ancestors came here from Europe and we feel that connection, but it is also clear we say and do little that Europeans would recognize or with which they would be comfortable when it comes to Pagan practice. But that's OK. It should be OK with everyone. It's all part of the many paths to the creator--the end purpose of all our Pagan rites--and there will always be those people in Europe who hold tightly to the local Pagan traditions. It would be a huge cultural loss if they vanished forever and we Americans would miss learning about and seeing these rites enacted in their native lands.

Back to the issue. My current Pagan tradition, you ask?

I'm a PanAmerican Witch and very, very proud of the rich, multi-cultural heritage of the Americas, and of my European ancestors, all of whom contributed to the special spirituality that is mine today. As for tomorrow.... who knows? I may bring in some Russian or Thai practices, but I will still be, now and forever, a PanAmerican Witch.

I wish you peace and blessings in all languages and customs,

Saturday, November 14, 2009

"You want fries with that?"

A long time ago I was told having a college degree--any degree--would open doors in my future. As anyone else reading this who also majored in the liberal arts knows, this door opening was not always wide enough for us to squeeze through. If we did land a good paying job we worked hard to keep it, fearing our next job would involve the phrase, "You want fries with that?"

Maybe after a long wait liberal arts students are being valued in job applicants. Having a degree got me in the door at Charles Schwab where I first got my broker training and licensing. Schwab actually told us that the economics, accounting, and finance majors often did not perform as well as those of us with a broader background of knowledge. My younger-than-me boss admitted to being a philosophy major! One day I asked him what he had been thinking. His reply, "I don't know. It was the 70s."

Like most of my countrymen I now find myself struggling to hold on to being middle class as food prices, banking fees, and interest rates go up and the only work ethic remaining seems to be that of greed for greed's sake. I've been forced to take on a second job, and sometimes a third.

This year I am substitute teaching, something I was not sure I could do. I am always uncomfortable giving workshops or lectures, but those audiences were of my peers. Always nerve-wracking when you know the people you're talking to know as much as you do, and some of them know more. I tutored one-on-one for a while and really loved that. It sounds cliche to say it was rewarding, but it was beyond belief. To see a young person's eyes light up when he "gets it" is one of the best natural highs I've known. I also work with a company that grades standardized tests both from Indiana and other states. The things the various boards of education look for have helped me tutor so my students can excel in these.

Though the school district in which I live tries to place subs into their declared areas of knowledge, sickness and sub shortages mean venturing into areas I struggled with in school. To my surprise I'm finding I can actually be helpful to students in a wide range of subjects. I credit much of this to having a broad background of knowledge. My life experiences too, my travels, the jobs good and bad, the voracious reading, all have helped broaden my awareness and hones my critical thinking skills. I am not the girl who graduated with a bachelor's in history. To my surprise I'm finding the rewards to be found in the classroom. They are small but I hope I'm lighting a spark in the minds of today's youth that just might blossom into a broad background of knowledge for them as well. Then they can pass that spark to the generation after them.

This is all just another facet of the cycle of life. Yes, I'd rather be paid the big bucks--who would not? Lucky for me, I've discovered that being paid in satisfaction and peace of mind is worth almost as much as a paycheck.... almost.

BB, Edain