Friday, December 29, 2006

Lilith Is Gone

Corby and I decided it was time to give our kitty Lilith the peace of passing. She'd lost her eye some time ago, and it only got worse, just a dead eye in her head. The vet could do nothing about it. She'd basically been well except for drinking a lot of water because her kidneys weren't working well.

When our friend Raven Moonshadow was ill and dying, he wanted his two cats, Lilith Nightmare (perhaps named for me?) and Shadowfax, to remain together. We adopted them and brought them to live with us and our grey-and-white longhair tuxedo cat, Buster. Raven, who had AIDS-related dementia by that time, had told us that Lilith was 10 and Shadow was 5; that was in 1996. We only know that they were adults when they came to us and both had 10 good years with us. Both were black, Lilith shorthaired and round; we called her our Sicilian cat for her robust swarthiness. Shadow was more elfin, fine-boned, fluffy and longhaired.

Lilith was always the more social of the two. She got out of the carrier first. She greeted people and explored fearlessly. She took longish, for a cat, neighborhood walks with us. She even followed us one night when we were walking to downtown San Rafael. That means she had to cross Second and Third Streets, both main arteries to and from Highway 101. She loved laps but never wanted to be picked up and carried. She protested when we insisted on carrying her across those two streets; we did it anyway. The walk was maybe a mile and a half, quite a hike for a little cat.

Another time she was sleeping in the sunlight on the roof of the cab of Corby's yellow truck when he ran an errand to the local 7-11. He didn't know she was there and just drove off. People were waving at him and pointing to the roof as he drove but he didn't realize that they were trying to tell him there was a cat on the [hot tin] roof. When he pulled into a parking space in front of the store, this terrified kitty came sliding down the windshield onto the hood. It's a wonder she didn't fall off on the bumpy ride. There was nothing for her claws to grip. Corby put her in the cab and brought her home with his purchases.

We live in a condo complex on Picnic Hill. Lilith spent most of her days wandering around, sleeping in the sunlight on the steep driveway, wandering in the gardens, snoozing amidst the flowers, greeting one and all with her little barely-audible croak and wreathing their legs in hopes of some petting. For some of the younger residents, Lilith was their first encounter with a feline. Lilith made friends with everyone.

She quit eating about two weeks ago and just stayed indoors sleeping, mostly on the couch. She sought affection most of that time and purred when she got it. She loved her lap time. She'd go out on the deck from about five minutes at a time. Neighbors noticed her absence out front; they missed her welcomes and inquired about her well-being.

Sometimes it's difficult to judge when a living being has ceased living and moved on to simply existing in a miserable and often painful state. I've never believed there's any value in unnecessary suffering. I've had to make the decision to euthanize my share of animal friends. I'm glad to say that every one of them lived a long, good life in our family. They'd just reached the point where their bodies had worn out. We took Lilith to the Marin Humane Society where we'd taken her sister Shadow this past June. Lilith went easy, very easy.

Friday, December 22, 2006

Remembering the Homeless

Tonight, in a constant mist of rain, I participated in the 19th Annual Memorial Service for Homeless People Who Have Died in San Francisco This Year, an interfaith service sponsored by the Coalition on Homelessness and San Francisco Network Ministries.

I had no idea what to expect. I knew that the woman who organizes it, the Rev. Glenda Hope, is well regarded and considered quite a dynamo. She wanted to assure that this event was an inclusive as possible. One of her colleagues contacted me through a circuitous route, and lo! there I was. I'd have preferred to find a San Francisco Pagan, but didn't know of any who might be good at it and willing to do it on December 21. The actual moment of Solstice being late Thursday afternoon, the longest night was December 20th this year, Wednesday, so many Pagans had already celebrated.

Religions represented were Islam, Roman Catholic, the SF Zen Center, a Protestant (Presbyterian, I think), Judaism, someone from a group connected with Tom Waddell, perhaps the Gay Olympics, and Pagan. There was a news truck from KTVU there and someone else who was videotaping the ceremony. The Muslim man spoke quietly and didn't seem to know how to use a mike. The Zen folks -- there were several -- spoke and then chanted words that they'd handed out ahead of time. They chanted in a monotone.

Between speakers someone read names of people who'd died in the streets in 2006. After each name was read, one of the Zen folks struck a bowl. Glenda had gotten the names from the SF Coroner's Office. I loved the reading of the names. Everyone loves the reading of names. People of many religions know in their hearts and bodies that speaking aloud the names of the departed reaches us in a different way than just reading them. That's one of the things about Spiral Dance Samhain rituals in recent years that most disappoints me. People complain that the list is too long, the reading takes too long, it's boring. Well, I think it's only boring to those who aren't listening. I know that for those who've lost someone that year hearing that person called to dance with us is an important part of their mourning.

I read a prayer by Starhawk from our book, adapted for this situation.

"For One Who Has Died Violently or in Great Distress"

Mother of healing,
Help us to believe in the
Place where wounds can heal.

Mother of weaving,
Show us that what has been torn
Can there be mended.

This worst has happened.
How can we believe again
In hope, love, kindness?

Boatman, Ferryman,
They have had rough crossings.
Carry them gently.

Comfort them, Mother,
In your warm arms of
Night; rock them to sleep.

And by our rage,
Mother of Justice,
May justice be done.
I followed with a simple four-line chant by Anne Hill and Starhawk, a C&W-sounding lament called "When We Are Gone." I explained that because we never knew when we'd encounter death, it was good to have something to meet death with, anyone's death, and that this simple chant was good for that. Before we began, I suggested that people might want to take the hand to the person next to them, if they felt comfortable doing so. I asked them to look around at the faces of those around them. I suggested that if that didn't feel right, they might want to close their eyes and see the faces of those they'd lost. I asked those who liked to sing to add harmonies when they wanted, and said we'd break into a four-part round -- we stood in a rather clumpy circle, about three or four deep -- when we got going and everyone knew it well enough.

I taught the chant by speaking the words once. Then I sang one line at a time and asked those assembled to repeat it; then I did the whole chant again two lines at a time, with repeat. Then I sang all four lines and asked them to join it.

Well, I'm telling you, getting them to sing, even such a simple little chant, was like the proverbial pulling of teeth! The Zen folks, bless them, did sing. I looked all around the circle several times as we sang, seeking connection with my eyes to others. I'd guess that maybe 20% of those there actually sang. Needless to say, we never broke into a round. I brought it to a gentle end by drawing out the last word.

The ceremony didn't last long but it was satisfying. It was over in time for me to get to Berkeley to celebrate the Solstice with Coven Trismegiston.

Monday, December 11, 2006

Spiral Dance

The promised -- and anticipated (by some) -- critique of the 2006 Spiral Dance, in terms of its technical deficiencies, appears below on December 5, the day I started to write it. Other SD reviews here and here.

Sunday, December 10, 2006

Bewildering Invitation

Like most folks around this time of year, I receive my share of invitations to holiday parties, celetrations, and religious observances. One that I received this season especially caught my attention. Under a subsection of the e-mailed invitation is a topic called "What else should you remember?" It addresses two subjects:

Be sure you have showered before hand, trimmed your nails, freshened your breath, washed your hands and the like before coming. That's not only polite, but it's also important for ritual purity.

Please come sober and OFF drugs. Alcohol (such as mulled wine) will be served to non-minors who want it, but it's important for ritual to be powerful to start out in a normal, grounded state of mind. Otherwise, you're just partying all the time, rather than starting out grounded and ending grounded. Ritual is about improving mundane life rather than being an escape from it.
Well, I can see the drug and alcohol policy, particularly since such a celebration might be confused with a party where such things may be indulged. But the first one????? One wonders what types of folks the hostess usually invites to her events. Perhaps I'm overly bourgeois, but maintaining good personal hygeine is high on my list of priorities. I find this cautionary in an invitation extended to (presumably) adult Pagans to a private gathering appalling. Am I naïve?

Wednesday, December 06, 2006

Review of New Mel Gibson Movie

Friend and colleague Traci Ardren, an anthropologist, has written this review of Mel Gibson's new movie, Apocalypto, about the Maya for Archaeology magazine. On November 16, 2006, Traci was featured on Good Morning America in a report about newly designated Wonders of the World, talking about Chichén Itzá. What a gal!

Tuesday, December 05, 2006

SD Postmorten -- Technical

I begin this entry with a quote that bears repeating:

Whether we are creating a ritual, writing a poem, or building an altar, the point is to honor the gods and not to stroke our own egos. Then our priorities will be properly in place and we will generate worthy art.

~ Steven Posch and Sparky T. Rabbit

Technically, the 2006 Spiral Dance was a disaster. In this entry, I'm not speaking of artistic, theological, musical, choreographic, magical or any other aspect of the event, only of the technical.

Arriving on Site

Preceding technical, when Corby, who had volunteered to be a dragon as he's done many times, and I arrived in mid-afternoon, as requested. we were not asked who we were or to be checked in from a list of participants. Folks were trusting, I guess. Anyone could have come in. This made me a bit uncomfortable because we usually put our things (backpacks, costumes, makeup, implements, supplies, money, etc.) in a room that is not necessarily guarded at all times. Theoretically there's a dragon on duty in these places, but that was not something I felt I could count on. I suppose one could consider that a technical oversight. In any case, I left my stuff and it remained safe.

When we arrived, all bazillion masked goddess dancers were trying to rehearse outside under the trees. That seemed not such a good way for them to have to rehearse, without a proper floor, without music or lights.

First, there was no full rehearsal, always a mistake. I realize it costs lots of money to rent the space and equipment. I don't know if the technical people were hired or volunteers. I know how hard it is to get a large group of volunteers all together at the same time and focused on a single task, i.e., a full rehearsal. Evidently there was some kind of run-through.

The noise inside was deafening and any small groups, such as graces, who were meeting had to shout at one another. I was memorizing and since there was nothing else going on that involved me and I was getting a headache from the sound check, I wandered around outside working on my part. Apparently when my name was called to come in, no one knew where I was. In any case, I had no clue (1) when to come in, where I fit in the series of speakers/performers; (2) where or from whom to get a mike; (3) where to exit; and (4) any other technical or choreographic information I needed.

Doors Open

Before I knew it, the doors opened, and I still did not know where they wanted me to pick up my mike, when I was on (whom did I follow), from where I was expected to enter the circle, or from which direction to exit. I assumed lighting wouldn't be a big deal, since it was only me and the spots could follow me. I was mistaken in that assumption.

Even after the doors opened, there was a big triple screen in the center of the space (the space being a basketball court). It was comprised of three panels held rigid by PVC pipe with black fabric stretched across each, mounted in a triangle so that each square screen faced a different direction from the center. I couldn't imagine how I was supposed to navigate around it when I proclaimed the feast.

I asked Starhawk, "Is that going to be there when we speak?" "What is it supposed to be?" "Why is it there?" She responded that the intent was for it to be a screen upon which names of the Beloved Dead (in white, presumably) would be projected. This was yet another way to try to name the Beloved Dead at a major ritual honoring them without naming them. ::sigh:: She said it was an idea gone wrong and would be removed before the ritual started, which it was.

An idea gone wrong? What ever could be the aesthetic behind (a) using a black ground in a darkened room, (b) having it in the middle, blocking views, and (c) expecting that words would show up and be readable? I'm amazed that such an idea got as far as having screens erected.

Meanwhile, Suzanne Sterling had begun filling the space with her sweet singing, as the program indicated she'd be doing as people filled the space.

I asked Star when and how the Beloved Dead names would be spoken if they were not being read aloud during the ritual and not being projected. Oops! Turned out that a recording of their names was supposed to have been playing as people entered the space. Someone was immediately dispatched to ask Suzanne to stop her singing, while someone else was dispatched to the front of the house to tell them to put the recording of the names on. According to my friend Victoria who was taking tickets at the front of the house, no one had said a word to them about playing those names.

More Scrambling

In order to figure out when I was supposed to speak, I dashed out to the front of the house and grabbed a program. The program detailed three -- not one but three -- different welcomes/introductions. First a man I didn't know was to make announcements about where the restrooms were, who and what were Graces and Dragons, turning off of cellphones, bringing non-ambulatory folks, drummers, and toddlers and babies to the center of the circle when the spiral dance was forming, and how to begin the dance. Second, Starhawk spoke of the intent of the ritual; and third, I was to proclaim the feast. The Proclamation of the Feast is a standard spoken piece I think is beautiful and which has remained essentially the same for 27 years. It's "traditional."

As if having three different announcements by three different announcers weren't enough, the program also said that Evelie was going to teach the songs beforehand from the center of the circle. To further complicate things, I was uncertain whether the group that planned this particular spiral dance had an emcee or ringmistress or something of the sort. I hate that. Regardless of my feelings about it, I was not among the planners and had no say, so I was just trying to do the best job I could with the part they'd asked me to perform. Just as I have for the past two years -- last year with the triple invocation of the Ancestors, the Mighty Dead of the Craft, and the (unnamed) Beloved Dead, and the previous year of the Mighty Dead for the 25th anniversary. If they were having an emcee, we who were speaking would wait until we were announced.

My pal Urania found me and asked when I was going on. That was because she'd been told she, who was doing the grounding meditation, was told she was to follow me -- and probably have me hand her the mike when I walked out of the center of the circle, if I exited from the same place where I'd entered.

Ritual Starts

Jonathan entered with a mike and began making his announcements. The program said that after he spoke, Evelie would teach the songs, then Starhawk, then me, then Urania with the grounding. Well, after Jonathan spoke, Starhawk told the intent of the ritual. Not quite knowing what to do next, I went looking for Evelie, who was supposed to have preceded Starhawk. She didn't know that, but she did dash over to the south-facing aisle where others had entered and prepared to take the mike. This she did, while I waited and tried to compose myself -- I have a little centering routine I like to do before speaking a long memorized piece -- and Urania stood nearby awaiting her cue.

Evelie didn't teach any songs. She was out there for something like a whopping ten seconds! Before I knew it, she was walking towards me with the mike, which I was reaching out to take, when Jonathan dashed up the aisle to take it from Evelie and give it to me. Now what sense does that make? The entire sequence of mishaps. miscommunications and non-communications only served to unsettle me.

I took the mike and walked into the light. I began well. I know I should be better able to ride such confusion, and usually I am, but in the case of a memorized piece, I work better with a little more order. In any case, I'm one who becomes slightly disoriented when I get feedback of what I'm speaking. That's exactly what I got that night. I'd speak a line and then hear it come back to me. I tend to lose my concentration on exactly what words I'm saying. To add to my increasing disorientation, sometimes when I spoke I could hear my words clearly broadcast and other times I couldn't hear them at all. So I got to worrying about whether everyone else could hear me.

Not only that, but as I walked, the lights did not follow me. If I turned in the direction of the chorus, I experienced bright light in my eyes, and if I turned towards the entryway, I was in darkness. So among the inconsistent lighting, the inconsistent miking, and the repeating sounds, I lost my words. I didn't lose my message. I did manage to say more or less what I'd intended to say, only I don't think I said it as eloquently as it had been written. I suppose some who knew the piece may have noticed, but no one else seemed to. I was annoyed with myself, though, and disappointed. Even so, I think my contribution properly advanced the ritual in ways it was intended to have.

Lights and Sound in General

As I said above, the tech for this ritual was pathetic. I've no doubt much could have been remedied with a full rehearsal. I've described my own experience with lights and sound. Laura Wyrd. wearing a shiny sliver unitard, summoned the Element Air with her tissu work from the rafters, similar to what she does here from an oak. But for the facts that she was wearing reflective clothing and was above the crowd, she wouldn't have been very visible because no lights illuminated her, resulting in the bright light of dawn being obscured.

The chorus was never audible. They just sounded like muted mush. It's a shame that such a fine group of singers and musicians who'd rehearsed independently for months could not be heard.

In spite of technical incompetence and many other features I didn't feel advanced the magic or were even well executed -- and about which I won't be blogging -- the spiral dance itself was as wonderful as always. Better in many ways because it was more intimate and community-based instead of showy and exhibitionistic.

Friday, December 01, 2006

College Interfaith

Last night I spoke on an interfaith panel sponsored by by Beta Beta Sigma chapter of Phi Theta Kappa. the Honor Society at the Napa Valley College in Napa, California, part of a study called "Gods, Gold, Glory and The Global Dynamics of Power." This taste of world religions forum of seven panelists was comprised of Jewish, Islamic, Buddhist, non-denominational Christianity (represented by a Presbyterian minister), "Goddesses-based Wicca"* [sic], contemporary Pagan, and Religious Science speakers.

I estimate there were 150-200 people in the cafeteria for this event, some of whom were attending for credit. All were attentive. Many were taking notes, and some of us provided handouts. I had prepared a two-page selected bibliography on Pagan studies specifically for this venue. I think it's a good one; let me know if you'd like a copy.

In two hours, including Q&A, we each had a whopping eight minutes to lay out our "beliefs and practices." How can you do that about any religion, much less such a diverse cluster of religions as contemporary Paganism? Aiyee! I was saved having to speak of beliefs because I believe, as Michael York (the scholar, not the actor) explains in his book Pagan Theology, that what unites us is more practice than actual belief. Within an individual coven or circle you can find differences in belief about what all are doing together. That wasn't much help, though, when you consider the complexity of Paganism, the very meaning of the word Pagan. Not to mention the various groups that fall under the large umbrella of Paganism: Witches & Wiccans, Druids, Heathens, reconstructionists, ethnic religions, the meaning of the very word Pagan, etc. As well as the need to address the meanings of such symbols as the pentacle; what magic is (or might be) and the ethics of spellcrafting; immanence; revealed vs. experiential; polytheism, pantheism, panentheism and all the other "isms." I was doing my best, talking fast, wandering far and wide, when the bell rang signaling that my time was up.

Henry Michalski from Congregation Beth Sholom spoke very well from a prepared speech. The Presbyterian minister spoke as though he were giving a sermon, not in the sense of trying to convert people but more in his style. An intense young Muslim named Basim Elkarra from the Sacramento Valley CAIR (Council on American-Islamic Relations) spoke about Islam; Maxine Wright from Mahakaruna Buddhist Meditation Center spoke about Buddhism; Leilani Birely of Daughters of the Goddess Dianic coven spoke well about goddess spirituality and sang a Hawaiian devotional song. And finally Rev. Janet Garvey Stangvik representing the Napa Valley Center for Spiritual Living spoke authoritatively on religious science. Leilani's talk and mine complimented one another. It's strange, though, that there were two Pagans when we are such a minority of the population, yet no one from Roman Catholic, Native American, African diaspora religions, or Hindu religions, considering the presence of all those religions in Northern California's multicultural population.

A common concern spoken of by all speakers was for tolerance and a world of peace. This was especially true among the three Abrahamics presented; it was also the underlying concern of most of the audience questions. Leilani spoke of the fact that she considers animals and the wind and sea and Nature to be relatives and teachers. I was the only person who mentioned green awareness, our interdependence on all of life, the necessity of a sustainable future for our descendants.

Phi Theta Kappa did a great job producing this event. Judging from the turnout and questions, I'd say it was edifying and appreciated. I was glad for the opportunity to participate.

It makes me think, though, that I could teach a semester on Pagan religions if I could find the right sponsor for such a course. I have nothing formal beyond a B.A., but lots of life experience and independent scholarship of sorts. The authority by which I do such activities is my P&W. I take it seriously.

* This was how it was listed in the program, but the speaker actually said she was talking about goddess spirituality, which seemed much more accurate to me.