On Progress and Disembodiment, Part 4

This is the final part in a 4 part series.

Progress is beginning to break down. The fuel that runs our society is getting too expensive and difficult to extract from the Earth. The climate is heating up, and everywhere we turn is pollution. Humans are overpopulated and underfed. It is getting more and more difficult to believe that the better future that Progress promises will ever come.

There are ways that Progress’ disembodiment is breaking down, too. There are ways that people are turning back to their bodies. Take this blog and modern paganism as an example–modern paganism tends to believe that embodiment is a virtue to strive for. People are meditating or practicing yoga. People are becoming interested in food production and composting. Urban gardens are popping up in every city. “Handmade” is becoming a good thing again, rather than being seen as shoddy. Many people would now prefer to buy handmade jewelry on Etsy rather than machine-made jewelry from a mall. Corporate clothing chains like Anthropologie are making a point to sell clothes that look a little imperfect so they will seem handmade. There is a huge resurgence in people wanting to DIY so that their things show the mark of their hand, in people seeing things they made themselves as indicative of their personalities because of the mark of their hands. People are brewing their own beer, pickling their own cucumbers, canning their own jam. People in huge numbers are taking up crafts like knitting that only a few decades ago were seen as backwards Grandma activities. People are intentionally forming communities, putting down their phones for the weekend, or leaving Facebook. People are converting to Paganism or just choosing to believe that their embodied selves have a place on this planet. People are demanding that magazines show unedited photographs so that we may have beauty ideals that reflect actual people, so that people might have a slightly less contentious relationships with their own bodies. Progress is breaking down a bit, and with it, its foundational belief that the body is the worse part of a two-part humanity is also breaking down, little by little.

It’s got a long way to go. But by embracing and cultivating our embodiment, we can bring back a central place for our bodies in our own lives. What if we called people instead of texting them, and visited instead of Facebook chatting? What if we danced more instead of watching movies? What if we built instead of bought, and felt along with thought?

On Progress and Disembodiment, Part 3

This is part 3 of a 4 part series.

The main way we choose to separate ourselves from our bodies is by using technology. There do exist some really excellent applications for this. For example, there is a team of researchers studying the use of virtual reality software to treat burn victims. It allows them to leave their bodies, in a way, to experience their lives somewhere besides where they really are, which helps to ease their inescapable pain.

Since the dawn of industrialization, we’ve attempted to outsource our bodies as much as possible. First it was manufacturing–instead of having women sit at spinning wheels and work, a machine could do that. So we outsourced our bodies’ capacity for primary productive work. Then we worked on machines that did the work, and the pathway of the past few centuries has been to outsource more and more work.

We had people working in the factories taking care of the machines, then we had machines to fix machines, and the people started working at desks, writing. Then we outsourced the writing to machines, and now we sit and type letters instead of writing words.

Then we outsourced our entertainment. Instead of playing cards or talking, we could watch movies or tvs. The machines could entertain us.

Then we outsourced our home lives—machines (microwaves) can cook our dinners, roombas can clean our rooms, all so we can keep outsourcing our social lives to the internet.

And now, we are even outsourcing our memories to the internet, so that in a way, the mind is even becoming separate from the brain. We don’t have to pull our memories out of our minds, we can look at them on facebook. We don’t have to memorize facts or spelling, we can google them.

There was a Sprint ad for iPhone recently that got me thinking about the extent to which we have outsourced our identities and memories. Here is a transcription of that commercial:

“The miraculous is everywhere. In our homes, our minds. We can share every second in data dressed as pixels. A billion roaming photojournalists uploading the human experience, and it is spectacular. So why would you cap that? My iphone 5 can see every point of view, every panorama, the entire gallery of humanity. I need to upload all of me. I need, no I have the right, to be unlimited.”

If we can upload the entire human experience, all of ourselves, then what is the body for? Notice the narrator does not say he wants to download each of his experiences, or all of his interests. He needs to upload all of him, his entire identity. Since bodies are not uploadable, he clearly considers that his body is not a part of himself or his identity. Pixels have become clothing that require no wearer. His body as photographic subject matter becomes an object to entertain others, the product of a machine, right alongside other technological photographs and tweets and status updates. Our bodies have become the art in a culture that doesn’t value art.

If we are our minds, and our minds are uploadable, then we are packets of data, and our bodies, perhaps, have become the pale green pants with nobody inside them.

We are supposedly at the endpoint of progress, where people are hoping for artificial intelligence so that we can outsource the last shred of our humanity, where movies like Surrogates offer a picture of a world where our lives can be as separated from our bodies as we already are from the production of our food. Where our bodies are disgusting, where they are to be hidden away behind a machine, unless it’s a really nice picture you want to share on Facebook.

On Progress and Disembodiment, Part 2

This is Part 2 of a 4 part series.  Find Part 1 here.

In many ways, our separation from our bodies can be linked to Rene DesCartes and his Discourse on Method. It’s the source of his most famous quote, “I think, therefore I am.” With this canonical work, DesCartes suggested that our humanity lies in our rational processes, that the only way we can know that we exist is that we think about it. Feeling, however, is just as good a method as thinking for proving we exist. I am never more sure of my existence than when I’m in pain, or when I am feeling sorrow. Are these not equal tests for knowing our humanity?

But, to DesCartes, our humanity is evident only in our ability to think. And so began centuries of thought based around the idea that thoughts elevated us above our base human (or our animal) bodies.

In DesCartes scenario, the mind is where our humanity lies, and the mind lies in the brain. The body is the mind’s vessel, and its feelings must be attended to for the sole reason that they keep the mind going. Pain’s purpose is to avoid death, which is the end of the mind. We have to keep eating to keep our minds strong and stay healthy to avoid our minds being distracted by our bodies’ ill health.

It’s not really DesCartes’ fault that he felt this way about reason, though. His philosophy  came after a few centuries of Christianity’s transcendental religion being the most basic belief system of the West. In that system, our souls are what elevates us above the animals. In DesCartes’s philosophy, the mind has simply displaced the soul.

Transcendental religion teaches that this world is bad and to be rejected through ignoring as much of it as possible. Ignoring your desires and focusing only on a transcendental deity is what gets you to heaven. The religion teaches little about how to improve this world. Confess your sins, ignore the desire to sin in the first place. Etc, etc.

In a world-denying religion, our physical bodies as vessels for our souls are leaky in a sense, and our pure souls leak out the cracks. But the bodies are NOT the souls in any way, so they must not be treated as the center of our experience. As the fertile ground from which our worldview of progress grew, Catholicism’s belief in the sinfulness of the body is indicative. Once industrialization took hold, it was machines that we should aspire to be instead of souls.

Every few weeks, one of my facebook friends will quote C.S. Lewis as having said “You do not have a soul, you are a soul. You have a body.” This is an assertion with which I heartily disagree. I think it is definitely the case that you are a body, but I will leave it up to my readers as to whether we also are a soul or also have a soul. The point is that, at least during the course of our lives, we are not capable of leaving our bodies without the use of some pretty impressive technology. According to these beliefs, our bodies are the central locus of our lives, and they are the location of the soul’s experiences. (Interestingly, C.S. Lewis didn’t say it, according to Mere Orthodoxy, whose post on the subject is relevant to the greater subject at hand, namely embodied spirituality.)

Religion itself does not have to be transcendental or encourage disembodiment. Modern paganism, as my readers will know, does not. Neither do religions not rooted in the Western tradition. This quote by Kevin Simler pretty much sums up my feelings on the subject:

“Religion has baffled me for nearly all of my adult life. Then, about a year ago, I had a realization: religion is not about beliefs. In hindsight this should have been obvious. In trying to understand the phenomenon of religion, how could the (specific) beliefs matter? They’re what makes each religion unique, different from all the others.

But I grew up in the West, and a hazard of the Western (disembodied) sensibility is to focus on the beliefs — those verbal, propositional units that yield to analysis. Either gods exist, or they don’t. That’s what religion is about, right? Who cares about the menagerie of bizarre rituals; they can’t be particularly important. I now maintain almost the exact opposite. Religion is a thin dross of verbal confabulation clinging to a bedrock of embodied practices. Talk is cheap. Behavior speaks louder than beliefs. And beliefs about the supernatural and/or esoteric are especially cheap, because those are precisely the domains where holding false beliefs doesn’t cost anything. Say whatever you like about the afterlife, but be careful what you believe about tigers.”

Though we’ve decided that having beliefs or faith is no longer in vogue, and have replaced them with rationalism and atheism, we continue to maintain our civilization’s philosophy that beliefs matter–we continue to believe in the transcendent qualities of the human mind. Belief in science matters, effort toward rationalism matters, but belief in faith is enough to bring about scorn. However, instead of transcending our suffering through non-attachment as the Buddha suggested, or transcending ourselves by becoming close to God, we literally transcend our physical existences by separating the mind from the body and then creating proxies for our bodies so that they can become useless and forgettable. So that we can become walking minds who forget that we even have bodies. We use all the energy we have at our disposal to consistently and thoroughly transcend our physical existences.

On Progress and Disembodiment, Part 1

As I discussed in a recent post, despite the fact that these days, the word “Progress” is usually used as a generalized expression of the future being inevitably better than the present and the past, the definition of the word “progress” requires a destination. What are we progressing toward? We say that it’s a better future, but in what ways is it better? What, ultimately, is the goal of Progress?

In all my writing about dance, one theme has come up over and over again: that we as modern, Western people would benefit from increased embodiedness. Our culture looks at the body as a mere vessel for the mind, so our human experience should be rational and objective. But an embodied perspective is necessarily a subjective one because it must always be tailored to the scale, abilities, and preferences of the individual human body. When DesCartes invented mind/body dualism, he was suggesting that the mind is separate from and superior to the body.

Once this separation was formed, and the hierarchy entrenched, subjective experience became devalued, and progress found its destination. Progress is, in effect, the process of disembodiment.

Modern philosophy, thanks to DesCartes, espouses the belief that our bodies are the vessels of our minds, and our entire culture is built around finding proxies for the functions of the body to free up the experience of the mind. The experience of the body is always and everywhere secondary to the experience of the mind; anything pleasurable to the mind is considered good and just, whereas those things pleasurable to the body are considered mere luxuries or worse, sins.

Normally, this process is described as the elevation of reason, the founding of a just and rational society.  However, I would suggest that it is more accurate and thorough to describe the philosophical trajectory of the past few centuries as a rejection of the body. John Michael Greer calls this “biophobia.” We are so removed from our own bodies that we become disgusted by or afraid of them. And even beyond our bodies–those things that are “gross” are more often than not physical expressions of biology injecting themselves into our lives where they do not belong.

The human disgust response is often a response to those things that are out of place. Someone’s fingernail is not disgusting to touch if they are shaking your hand. But if they trim it off and hand it to you, your response suggests the fingernail is dangerous. The same is true of hair–hair attached to the head is nice, but a hairbrush full of shed hairs (or even worse, a shower drain!) is gross. Insects in the house are gross, because biology has infested our otherworldly, biology-free households. Our entire society has been built on finding ever more complete ways to remove ourselves from our bodies, those disgusting, lowly vessels for the clean and moral souls and minds they carry.

In a modernized, industrial society, I argue, the human body itself is seen as matter out of place in a world built for machines and reason. Our bodies are disgusting for sweating and producing visible waste that machines do not. Our bodies are frail and difficult to repair because they don’t function on a machine’s logic. The parts aren’t interchangeable. They have feelings and urges that are unreasonable and impossible to program out. In a society at the far end of progress, the body is a senseless object that is in the way of our reaching the end of progress– a world without death, want, or irrationality, all things that are inseparable from bodies.

This is the first of a series of four posts on this subject, discussing nuances and examples of this process of disembodiment, and evidence that mind/body dualism may be beginning to break down as our civilization begins its descent from its height.

Alopecia, all the gory details

Almost half of the search terms linking to my blog these days are some variation of “I have a bald spot on my head.” So I’ve decided to suck up my pride in hiding all the details of this journey, and write the post I was looking for back when I was the one typing those very search terms into google almost 10 months ago.

 

So, without further ado, all the gory details of my hair loss journey.

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On Planning a Pagan Wedding

I know I promised this blog wouldn’t turn into all wedding all the time, but I do want to share a bit about the details of my experience trying to plan a pagan wedding in the real world. From what I’ve seen, there isn’t all that much out there about planning an authentically pagan wedding that doesn’t either

a)basically say “have a handfasting! It’s where you tie your hands together!” as if that allows you to actually know what that means, and as if that tradition will hold meaning simply because “it’s how pagans do it” even if you’ve never seen one done, or

b) as if everyone at your wedding is either pagan or at least comfortable with the idea and willing to try new things.

Now, I have neither ever seen another pagan wedding in real life nor a family happy about (or even necessarily aware of) the fact that I am a pagan. Family-wise, I’m only out of the broom closet to my parents and my siblings. I have no desire to come out further than that because I don’t think it’s necessary to stir up the kind of drama that would stir up. On top of all that, I’m having an interfaith wedding because my fiance (as well as almost everyone else who will be in attendance) is Christian. And I know that I’m not the only Pagan lady out there planning an interfaith wedding.

Our challenge, therefore, has been to figure out how to plan a wedding that is both mutually respectful and mutually meaningful. That will make both of us feel like a wedding has occurred that reflects our religious viewpoints.

The Location

The first thing I knew was that we had to get married in a forest. I didn’t care if that seemed weird, but the wedding definitely had to happen in a forest, and it definitely had to happen in a circle, with Gent and I in the center and our families and friends around us in the clearing. And instead of an aisle, there had to be a spiral from the entrance to the center. I love the forest, and it’s where I learned how to be spiritual. The same is true for Fiance with forests, so I got no arguments there. The circle is another big religious one for me–I don’t like experiencing religion from pews, but rather in a circle of equals. And the spirals–spirals are everything from the galaxies to the whirlpools and the atoms.

That left the question of who would marry us. We certainly didn’t want it to be the pastor of Fiance’s church–that  wasn’t likely to make anyone comfortable (except my Mom, who thinks I really need to have a minister.)

So who will marry us?

And then we found out that in Pennsylvania, there is such a thing as a “self-uniting license.” It’s just like a regular marriage license, except instead of an officiant, a witness, and the couple, all you need is the couple and two witnesses. So we could marry ourselves instead of getting someone to marry us! We are having a friend Emcee the ceremony to help keep everyone clear on what’s going on. But we decided that we wanted to be married by our family and friends, so instead we’re having our bridesmaids, groomsmen, and groomslady officiate at each of four mini-ceremonies within the main ceremony.

The deity issue

I wasn’t comfortable calling on gods and goddesses (or directions, or elements or whatever other Pagany thing you can call on in a Pagan ceremony) because of the closet issue. Plus I thought it wouldn’t be the best idea ever to call on a bunch of Pagan deities and Jesus in the same circle. And since I didn’t want to call on Pagan deities, we decided it also wasn’t fair to call on Jesus. Besides, people talking about Jesus kind of makes me uncomfortable, as much as I wish it didn’t. (Yes, I worry that my leftover hangups about Jesus and Christianity and all associated capital letter words and manners of phrasing things means that I’m not really going to be a supportive wife. But then I decide that worrying about it is a good thing, and at least I can recognize that they are just hangups, even if they are hangups that led to my conversion). Anyway. We decided that we weren’t going to have any deities at all in our ceremony. We were going to take our self-uniting license seriously and just marry each other without officiants or deities to do it for us.

The Christiany Ritual Stuff

Growing up with the Protestant weddings we are used to, there are three main event rituals in a wedding ceremony: The unity candle,  the vows/exchange of rings, and the pronouncement and kiss. We’re keeping the unity candle just how it normally is–our mothers will light candles and hand them to us, which we will use to light a big giant candle that represents our two families becoming one through us.

We’re keeping the ring vows, too, but we’re having my maid of honor and twin sister ask Fiance if he takes me to be his lawfully wedded wife, and Fiance’s brother and best man ask me if I take Fiance to be my lawfully wedded husband.

We’re also keeping the pronouncement and kiss, but we found wording somewhere on the internet that was so much better than the usual “by the power vested in me by the state of ______, I now pronounce you Husband and Wife. You may now kiss the bride!” Which, of course, has all kinds of feminist and other issues in it. What we have decided on was for our Emcee to say “By the power vested in (Fiance) and (Me) by their hearts and minds, it is my pleasure to observe that they are now Husband and Wife. Please kiss.”

The Pagany Ritual Bits

As I mentioned above, the Pagany ritual bits I’m familiar with are the fact that you’re supposed to have a handfasting. I can get behind the idea of a handfasting, really. And we’re doing one. BUT then I started reading up on the wording of handfastings and watching youtube videos of them happening, and things got kind of scary kind of fast. It’s just that they all look so bulky and unpracticed and uncomfortable. I know that’s because they ARE and modern paganism is so new that everyone is doing things for the first time and we don’t have the kind of cultural knowledge to just KNOW how a wedding ceremony goes. And I don’t want that. Plus, they all go:

Sir, will you hurt her? I might. Is that your intention? No. The first binding is made! Lady, will you hate him? I might. Is that your intention? No. The second binding is made!

I don’t know. I want to HAVE  a handfasting, but I don’t need that part alone to last fifteen minutes, I don’t need to have twenty handfastings, and I certainly don’t need to be vowing that it’s possible I might end up hurting my new husband. I understand that it’s supposed to be more realistic. I really do. But weddings are about creating bonds in sickness and in health without encouraging the sick part, and without losing the good parts into the possibility of bad. So we had to figure out what to do about that. We’ve decided to do a single cord, and a very short vow in the meanwhile. We haven’t finished writing it, but it’s going to be based on this blessing we found perusing the internet:

Lady- To wed me, your promise I must be certain of, so that we may live out our lives in sweet contentment, love.

Gent:Here is my hand to hold with you, to bind us for life so that I’ll grow old with you.

It’s going to be short and sweet. And then as we take the knot off our hands, someone will read this poem by Kahlil Gibran:

You were born to be together, and together you shall be forevermore.
You shall be together when the wings of death scatter your days.
Ay, you shall be together even in your silent memory.
But let there be spaces in your togetherness,
And let the winds of the heavens dance between you.
Love one another, but make not bondage of love.
Let it rather be a moving sea between the shores of your souls.
Fill each other’s cup, but drink not from one cup.
Give one other of your bread, but eat not of the same loaf.
Sing and dance together and be joyous, but let each of you be alone,
Even as the strings of a lute are alone, though they quiver with the same music.
Give your hearts, but not into each other’s keeping,
For only the hand of life can contain your hearts. And stand together, yet not too near together,
For the pillars of the temple stand apart,
And the oak tree and the cypress grow not in each other’s shadow.

So our Pagan/Christian ceremony will go like this:

First, we will have the Emcee say all of the requisite “hey! Welcome! Love is awesome! Turn off your phones!” speech. Then we will do a Unity Candle to have the Christian ritual part taken care of. Then we’re having the handfasting, followed by saying self-written vows to each other and signing our marriage license. My sister and his brother will come in to ask if we take each other to be each other’s lawfully wedded spouses, to have and to hold, for richer, for poorer, in sickness and in health as long as we both shall live. And we’ll put rings on each other’s fingers, and our Emcee with observe that we are husband and wife and we will kiss and my nephew will ring a bell.

On Dance, Story, Myth, and Humanity

The dances I make have a more than usual emphasis on story. Dance is a directly human art form; it is body language ritualized. But modern and postmodern dance have become so interested in exploring the possibilities of the body, in abstracted movement, that audiences today are often left after shows feeling as if they’ve missed something. There is little worse than leaving a show and feeling like you’ve missed the point.

There is, of course, a lot of value to a choreographer in these abstract studies. The problem, I think, is that many choreographers these days fail to bring their human subject matter full circle–they fail to make the humanity in their dances apparent. Humans experience the world through story, and our nonverbal communication should be furthering the plot. Or the character development. Or at least the descriptions of the setting.

Our culture lacks a Unified Mythic Story. I am sure that most pagans will agree. And all the conflicting mythic stories aren’t getting along. They’re fracturing into fundamentalisms–some religions take their mythic stories so seriously that they lose track of the truth, and some atheisms take their truth so seriously they lose the story. And they’re shouting out loud over all the people who want to see the story in the truth, or who want to learn the truth by learning the story.

If you want to know about a person, you ask them or someone else for their story. So why, in trying to learn about humanity or about the planet or the universe are we asking for objective facts and not for the story? It’s basically impossible to learn any kind of meaning out of dry objective facts just on their own, but make them a story, and suddenly you’ll never forget.

During the late seventies, as the modern dance movement shifted into the post-modern, choeographers became suddenly interested in exploring the body as an object.

Personally, I take retroactive offense. The human body as dancer is not an object to be explored, it is a whole universe of stories to tell. Find a new shape or movement that the human body can make, and there you are finding the climax to an undiscovered story.

All stories are mythic stories. All stories tell something about the universe. And I want my dances to teach people the story of the universe. I want my dances to help people hear the world as I hear it, not as human bodies moving through an inanimate space, but as stories weaving in and out of bodies and minds and spaces and matter and thought. I want to give a mini-mythology to parts of the “inanimate” world by telling its story through dance.

The last dance I made was the story of The Water Cycle. I told the story of the clouds floating awkwardly in the sky, becoming Santas riding T-Rexes and toasters making popcorn and people who turn into fish. I told the story of the rain, writing a lonely letter to the lonely people of the world, the sky crying. I told the story of the water in runoff that hides its clear blue surface in the mud and flows relentlessly downward. I told the story of a lake holding a woman’s history and reflecting it back to another woman. And I told the story of evaporation, of molecules dancing with one another back and forth between liquid and gas as they rise to return to the clouds.

These are the stories the Water Cycle has to tell me. They are far from the only stories the Water Cycle has to tell. It also tells of snowfalls so serene and beautiful on a winter’s day, of hail that destroys homes, of glaciers that move an inch a year, or that melt despairingly in the growing heat of the Earth. The world is made of water. It’s also made of stories.

 

My changing relationships with dance and paganism

So I haven’t posted in a while. And there are a lot of reasons for that. One of those reasons is that I’ve been super busy. I haven’t had a normal weekend in over a month–not that I’m complaining. I’ve had two long-term friends come to visit, gone to Jamaica to visit another one for a week, gone back to my college to see another one, and had a weekend that included three different performances that were all kick-ass and a photoshoot in a creek. So I’ve been really busy, but in a good way.

The other main reason I haven’t been posting, really, is that I’ve been thinking more about what it means to be a dancer who happens to be a pagan more than what it means to be a pagan who happens to be a dancer, if that makes any sense. I feel like, in general, this blog has been a platform for me to share what dancing has for paganism, but very little for what paganism has for dancing. I feel my posts on paganism are much better received than my posts that focus more on dance, if only because the bulk of my readership are pagans (with the exception of my post “A Modern and Indigenous Dance,” which apparently shows up when people google “indigenous dance.” And in the last few years since I graduated college, my relationship with both dancing and paganism have evolved.

In college, I was really focused on my paganism, and that paganism helped my dancing considerably. I was in a beautiful and inspiring place, doing beautiful, inspiring, and challenging things with my time, and paganism was a huge part of that. I was thinking about my religion for a large part of every day, and that directly affected my dancing and choreography.

But now that I’ve graduated and have a boring pay-the-bills kind of job that I find completely unsatisfying, dance maybe three or four days a week only for a few hours, and finally (OH YES FINALLY-I still feel this way a year after he moved in) have My Gent to come home to, paganism has a bit fallen to the wayside. My thoughts focus more on my family and my dancing. My choreography is still inspired by my relationship with the earth, but it’s much more subtle of a thing–I have a new relationship with the earth that has colored who I am to the extent that my art couldn’t avoid being influenced by it. In the past, I was purposefully making art with a pagan theme.

So it’s different. I think about dance now far more often than I think about paganism. I think I’ve integrated the paganism into my selfhood, and I’m not meant to be pagan clergy or anything. I’m a dancer who happens to be a pagan, and I’m much closer to pagan laity than anything else.

Last weekend at my first rehearsal for my piece about water, in a sort of getting-to-know-you way, I asked my dancers each to share a story about a time when they had an important experience with water. I talked about the time when the raindrops wrote me a letter about loneliness on the road’s pavement when I was alone. Two of them told stories about their baptism, and it was disconcerting and surprising to me. I hadn’t thought about the fact that for most people, and especially most city people, the main experiences with water would be in a planned sort of way, and I certainly hadn’t really expected that Christianity, with it’s fake and distanced relationship to the earth, would come up in a discussion of one of the four elements. (And yes, I am aware that I just made a really loaded assertion about Christians and the earth, and that it will piss people off, but it’s something that has been bothering my very Christian boyfriend for quite some time now, and which was the main reason I left Christianity in the first place). That experience–of having a Christian ritual bear itself into my choreographic process, my pagan ritual to the creativity of the universe and of water and our bodies which are sacks of water–got me to thinking about what it means to be a dancer who happens to be a pagan. I’ve been thinking a lot about the way that we can’t insulate ourselves against people who disagree with us the way Christians can. There aren’t enough of us to surround ourselves only with those who agree (and besides, there aren’t any of us who agree on anything in the first place). We are, by social necessity and by polytheology, required to interact with people who don’t share our viewpoints. Which is good, even if it is occasionally jarring and surprising.

I think I’m going to make an effort to post more about dance without feeling like I have to make it about paganism. Because I am a pagan, and so my thoughts on dance will be pagan even if not explicitly so. My relationship with dance has changed because of paganism.

Here are a couple examples:

1) Since becoming pagan, my relationship with dance has become more embodied. If that sounds weird, considering that dance is an embodied art form, remember please that ballet was originally an art form designed to transcend the confines of the body,  to lift ourselves above our baser natures, to be released from gravity and fat and all the kinds of things that make it so living is possible. I was trained originally in ballet, and didn’t even try another dance form until I was 16 or so. Dance was never about my body when I was young–it was about perfecting the steps, wearing pointe shoes and tutus, and getting to perform in front of people. Now, I see that dance is about the body, not about using the body as a tool to get outside of it. I see that our bodies are ourselves and that by changing our relationship with our body by using and accepting its expressive language, we can change the way we feel about ourselves.

2. I see that dance is an experiential art form, not a performative one. This one has been really difficult for me to come to terms with as a professional performer. A small part of me has always felt annoyed with the fact that, on a certain level, I never thought dance was important. I loved dancing, but I saw people trying to argue that dance performances will change the world, and in a way I never really believed that, partially because of how much bad dance there is out there meaning that so few people actually see dance that is thought-provoking or paradigm-shifting, and partially because so few people ever get to see dance performed anyway. Outside of music videos, dance audiences are pretty much limited to wealthy philanthropists and friends and families of dancers and choreographers. But I see now that that’s not really why I felt that way. I don’t think dance performances will change the world because I believe dancing itself will change the world. Dancing changes us because the act of dancing is important to our psyches and our emotional well-being. The only people who are passionate about dance are the dancers whose own lives and relationships with their bodies have been changed by the act of dancing. And that is because dance is, at its core, an experiential art form.

With these two changes in mind, I think I might have figured out what I want to do with my life. This is probably a bit early to be making this statement, since I only discovered it the day before yesterday. But in some sense, I feel as sure about this as I did about finding paganism. I want to go to school do become a dance/movement therapist. Fortunately, one of the six programs in the US in this field is in Philadelphia. But the two reasons above are largely why I want to do it.

First, a little mini explanation of what it is. Dance therapy is a psychotherapeutic technique in which people use their own expressive movement to heal their psychological issues, ranging from autism to bad self-esteem to dementia.

The prerequisites for the program were my three favorite types of classes in college-anatomy, psychology, and dance. As I’ve gone through the past several years thinking about what I could do to make a living (professional dancing is so far from a living that it pisses me off now how much of an industry there is around training people to be professional dancers) besides the crappy secretarial work that’s supposedly all I’m qualified for, I’ve thought of several different kinds of therapy: the regular talking kind, physical therapy, massage therapy. All of them are wrong for some reason or another, mainly boiling down to my problems with Cartesian mind/body dualism. Massage therapy gets the closest to breaking it down, but regular psychotherapy focuses on the mind instead of the body, and physical therapy and massage therapy in general focus on fixing the body so the mind can get back to its work. Dance therapy, on the other hand, does exactly what my paganism and my dance training have taught me: that the body and the mind are inseparable, and that we can change our minds by changing our bodies. Even when I was teaching dance, there were elements of this in my class–I was helping my students work with their own anatomy instead of against it, which I could tell helped with their self-esteem.

Anyway, this dance therapy thing is something I’m going to continue exploring and looking into in the future, so I can decide if I want to go back to school for it. But I’m sure I would be good at it, and I’m sure that it would make me feel like I was doing something useful, productive, and challenging with my life.

The Shades of Freyja

I would like to start out by stating that I am sure that the following will be confusing. I welcome any questions, as I’m still trying to work out exactly what I mean.

I have come to a conclusion as of late: I am much less a heathen than I am a devotee of Freyja. I do not deny the existence of other gods, and continue to have (considerably less central) relationships with other heathen deities. But everything is Freyja, and Freyja is everything.

My experience with heathenry lead me to my Lady Freyja. The goddess dancing in the golden sunlight of her own glory, the sexual drive of the cosmos, the tendency of two things to become one in order to become or create a third. The joy celebrating existence. The lover seeking out the ecstasy she once had and has lost. The utter feeling of loss at no longer feeling that ecstasy. The passion of the body, the dancing of the bodies flying through the cosmos, the tango of the aurora borealis. All these things are Freyja, and these are what I worship.

I have always had a tough time with most of the Norse deities. Odin and I had a falling out long ago, and now I honor him really only out of a feeling of duty as a heathen. Frey, despite the fact that I am sure I would love him, has never really come calling. I feel no need to worship the ancestors who feel so distant to me. I dearly love both Sjofn and Holda.

Many have told me that the worship of the heathen gods seems a bit arbitrary for me, and in many ways, it is. I have no need for the Viking manly warrior thing, as I have said many times. And it is difficult to get past that, even in my own better-informed brain. It is often difficult to get information out of the conscious and into the subconscious, and the fact that the heathens were not always war-mongering is a hard one for me. Plus, my ancestors are only third-most Germanic. They are mostly Irish (on my Father’s side) and some undocumented Native American (illegitimate through my mother’s side). So the ancestor argument is out for me.

But back to Freyja. Freyja is the only deity ever to leave me gasping for air in her glory, and she has done so many, many times.

Over the past several years in which I have been a heathen, there have been two times that non-heathen deities have shown up in my life, and in both instances, I was left remarkably confused as to whether I had met Freyja once again or some other deity entirely. I had learned that hard polytheists see every deity as a different deity and soft polytheists see every deity as the same deity. I considered myself a hard polytheist, so how could they be the same? But they felt the same and claimed to be the same, so how could they be different?

The first instance was with Erzulie Freda. She didn’t stay long because I found myself paralyzed by my confusion. Is she Freyja? Is she not? Both of them like flowers and jewelry and love and joy. They feel the same to me. And so I ended up just sticking with Freyja, and Erzulie disappeared into my memories.

The second was with Bast. This one didn’t confuse me as much, as it took place in a vision as I was falling asleep. Freyja came to me dressed in and Egyptian style, showing me the love stories in the Library of Alexandria. I sort of wrote it off as being a sleepy misunderstanding, or one of Freyja’s (many) whims to take on the glamour and beauty of another age and place. I have been pondering under the surface about Freyja’s relationship with Bast for a couple of years now, never really giving it a voice until recently.

But here’s the thing: I guess I’m not really a hard polytheist. Yes, I believe the gods are individuals and not just archetypes. But I think that individual deities are more like regional accents or separate species than they are like individual people. Nor do I think there is a singly divine pantheon misinterpreted in different places as the Romans did. Freyja is not every goddess. She is distinctly not several other heathen goddesses—she is not Skadhi or Hella, for sure. And she is certainly not many goddesses from many other pantheons—she is not Kali or the Morrigan or Hera. She is not even every love goddess—I’m almost certain she is not Aphrodite. But there are other goddesses she is, mostly.

I went to Central New Jersey Pagan Pride the other day and attended a workshop of Isiacism, the modern worship of Isis. He conflated many goddesses with Isis—Demeter being the one I remember most.

People mix and mingle and always have. There are no hard and fast lines around groups of people and who they worship. People borrowed gods and goddesses left and right. Sometimes the same god or goddess probably showed up in more than one place to start out with.

As I said before, the gods are more like an accent or a species than a singular. Philadelphia has an extremely different accent from Alabama, but there is no point in between where suddenly people have a different accent. The sounds morph from town to town, ever so slightly, until suddenly you compare one to another and there is no comparison.

The same is true with species. The definition of a species is a group of animals that can produce fertile offspring. But what of species that can produce non-fertile offspring? Aren’t they sort of half the same species, part of a whole? But even more importantly, I once read about this type of lizard with a large range north to south. Beginning at the southernmost place they live, each lizard can produce fertile offspring from any other lizard within a certain distance. But the southernmost and northernmost lizards cannot produce fertile offspring together. At which point does it become a different species? Where do you mark the difference?

At which point does white become gray?

There are no absolutes. There are no categories, only broad generalizations that break down in the middle. When is the difference between Homo Erectus and Homo Sapiens?

The same is true with Goddesses. Freyja is the goddess of magic and sex and flowers and golden sunlight and jewelry and love songs. She like to drink sweet beverages and dance on hilltops in the grass. She is the friend of cats. All these things are true of Bast as well. Erzulie likes feminity and love and flowers as well. Is she not part Freyja? Where do you draw the line? How many shared attributes make a deity the same, how many different?

Strict hard polytheism no longer makes sense to me. There are too many shades and no clear lines between deities. There are no clear lines between anything in the universe, really. A goddess is a living category of existence, but the lines of those categories are blurred, just like with every other category imaginable. Sometimes, something is very definitely outside, and sometimes something is very definitely inside. Often, all that is clear is a blur, a resting on the edges, a liminal space between categories, the shades of deity.

Nevertheless, it is obvious to me now that my worship and my sacred centers around the category of Freyja. The sex organs of everything: from the pollen that, in the autumns, makes me have the “mini facial orgasms” I despise to the man who makes me have the real ones my body craves. The act of the coming together of things to make new things. The beauty of change. The glittering dance of existence. Jewelry and adornment and the making of things sacred. The sunlight of awareness. These things I worship. And I worship them in the Freyja who is sometimes the dancing Bast who protects Egyptians from the spoil of rodents, sometimes the winged Isis who searches for her dead Green husband, sometimes the Diasporic Erzulie who can never attain her hearts desires, sometimes as the Mater Dolorosa that is so often used to depict Erzulie.

Gods are not distinct categories. Nor are they archetypes. They are shades of being like the way the pronunciation words “pen” and “pin” are the same in the American South, but not in Philadelphia. Whether they are or are not the same depends only on the scale with which you are measuring.

Because everything is relative, I can say with no absolutes who is and is not Freyja or in which instances other goddesses are or are not Freyja. I can only hear the calling of my Lady dancing the cosmos.

Land and its Spirits

I have noticed, in heathenry, particularly among the more strict reconstructionists, a tendency to tell newbies asking about gods to look first to the land spirits and the ancestors because they are closer, more easily accessible, perhaps less busy.

I find it a little irritating, mostly because I think people should approach the three major groups of our worship (those being ancestors, landwights, and gods) in whatever order or proportion makes the most sense to them. I, for one, would never have found heathenry were it not for the gods who came calling. Through them, I have found a wonderful connection with the land and am finding some kind of peace and reverence for my own ancestors.

Not everyone comes to heathenry in the same manner as I did. Many come to it seeking a connection to their ancestors first, and find the land and the gods after. Or they come to it for the land and then find the gods and the ancestors. I can’t think of anyone from the last category though, except for the vast numbers of us who came to heathenry via Wicca and it’s earth-based philosophy.

However you cut it, the landwights seemingly tend to be the last found and least discussed of the major spirit groups. And that tendency, for me at least, to forget the landwights came with a problem of expectations.

I find that expectations are dangerous in religious experience. I have found that when I go into ritual or meditation or trance with an expectation of what I am to achieve or see, I am always disappointed. My expectations color what I see, keeping me from seeing what is really there. Either my visions are clouded, or my dance doesn’t feel as fulfilling. Or I will meet a spirit expecting a different one and come out confused.

This was my problem with the landwights. I was, for some reason, expecting to go outside and commune with the landwights and see, at least in my inner vision, some kind of gnome-like vaguely anthropomorphic being. This never happened, and so for the longest time, I thought I wasn’t meeting the landwights. That I couldn’t see them.

That’s not the issue. Perhaps it’s just me, but the landwights don’t look anthropomorphic. They don’t even look like spirits. They are there, right before us in the land, unhidden. They are the beetles and the squirrels. The birds. The tree bark and the grass. The sunset. The houses and buildings and mountains and the culture of the people who live there. Which is not to say that the purely spirit kind don’t exist either. But I found that spirit by looking at the land just as it is before me.

I found myself expecting everything in religion to be esoteric, to be the realm of the unseen, and I was missing the fundamentals of earth-worship. That I am worshiping the Earth in her natural, real, tangible glory.

I have lived in three places since I converted to heathenry nearly three years ago (I was a college student. I moved a lot). I’m going to talk a little about the wights of each of these places and how the land has affected my religious experiences.

Birmingham, Alabama and the surrounding countryside

In many ways, Birmingham is my childhood home. We moved there when I was 11 and I lived there full-time until I was 18, after which I went home for some summers and Christmases. Birmingham is in the foothills of the Appalachians, the mountain range that is home to me in a way that no other thing is.

My experiences with the landwights there were less at my parents home in the suburbs and more out in the country. Gent lives out in the country on forty acres with his parents, who inherited it from his grandparents. We fell in love on that land, and the spirits there have called to us, to let us know that our home is there, our ancestral property. We expect that one far-off day we will inherit that land and finally be home.

There are three lakes there, and two houses—a new built by Gent’s parents out of cedar from the property, and the old house where his father lived as a child.

The trees there are mostly pines and cedars. There are weeds, but also agriculture. There is a little garden, and the neighbors run a you-pick farm. This is the only place I have lived (lived is probably too strong of a word. I didn’t live there physically, but my soul has lived on that land) that has fed its inhabitants. There is something very strong about that that I have been missing everywhere else. When I go over there, we sit by the fire and eat dinner and have tea after and talk about spiritual things.

Once, when the landwights were most strongly calling to Gent and I, to let us know that this was our home, that we were to be in love and live there, we were sitting on a hillside that used to house a town, watching the sunset. Any time we tried to kiss, his dogs would run up to steal them. And then we heard a splashing in the pond, where we discovered a beaver flapping his tail.

That land is the only place I have seen a beaver. Or a hummingbird. Or a porch covered in ladybugs. You can see the ridges of Birmingham and the Appalachians in the distance, the broad fields and the forests. The people with their thick southern accents.

When I live in Birmingham, I want nothing more than to live on the land. I want to move out to Gent’s house and farm. I want to rebuild the broken down barn and make a dance studio so that I can dance to the land, to return to it the joy it has given me.

The Hudson Valley

I went to college in the Hudson Valley, and it is where I converted to heathenry. It was the first place I felt passionate about home. In Birmingham, I feel like slow home, like things should be the same for ever and ever, the land has an expansiveness through time about it.

The Hudson Valley is a bit different. The land there buzzes with earthly vitality. With passion and color and joy. The Hudson Valley does every season passionately. It has the most beautiful autumn—so beautiful that people travel to the towns surrounding my college in the autumns to see the beautiful leaves. The colors of autumn shine like jewels on the Catskills, and the river glitters in the sun. Winter has soft snows perfect for snowmen. But it also has fierce ice storms. I almost didn’t get to have my senior project show because an ice storm wiped out power in five counties. The springs are full of daffodils, and the summers explode with the vibrancy of thunderstorms and sunflowers.

The land is passionate about everything it is. The gods are easy to find there. All I had to do was step outside and feel the power of the earth, to see the cycles of life and death, to watch the joy in flowers and squirrels jumping and birds flying.

The spirit of the land is strong, and its wights want to be known. They press themselves into the consciousness of everyone who goes looking.

A favorite memory of the land there was how I learned about death and decay. I would take walks in the woods and look at the fallen trees in various stages of decomposition, watch the new plants take hold of life in their splintery dust. One day, I stood watching flies eat a dead squirrel for forty-five minutes, seeing them lay their eggs and feast on the death. I saw the birds flying over my head, and thought of how the birds would eat the flies and then the squirrel would be flying. And how, when I die, I too will be eaten by worms or flies or bacteria that will be eaten by other animals in the great life cycle, and I, too, will fuel a bird’s flight. I, too, will allow a bird to fly through the great blue expanses of the air, looking down at the vibrant autumn colors and the glittering land.

Philadelphia

I haven’t lived in Philadelphia as long as I have these other places—I’ve been here just under a year. But I have begun to know the land here, and am finding ways to adjust my religious expression to account for it.

The hardest transition for me has been from the country to a city and away from the mountains I love so dearly. I miss walking out my door to fields of grass and huge oak trees. For a long time, I could not find my way and lost my gods.

But they are here, just in a different way. Birmingham is a slow place, the Hudson Valley is passionate and vibrant, and Philadelphia is practical.

The whole city has a sort of patron ancestor in Benjamin Franklin. His visage is in statues and buildings and radio stations all over the city. No one appreciates practicality more than Ben Franklin, and that practicality is evident here.

It is evident in the huge numbers of Amish and Pennsylvania Dutch who live in the surrounding countryside and who sell their food at the downtown market. It is evident in that the vast majority of the architecture is useful rather than beautiful. It is evident in the people here and their way of making do. It is evident even in the artists, who have a sort of practical style of finding work. In the amount of art here that is made with found objects or reconstituted pieces. It is evident in the sort of hidden pride of the people here and the city’s place in America’s history. And it is evident in some of the ways that the city bands together as a community.

Philadelphia is a community more than anywhere else I have lived. Yes, there are crime problems and major racism problems. Yes, there is a huge amount of poverty and neighborhoods I go through regularly that make most people want to run away screaming. And yes, there are some people living here who wish that it was New York and think it’s boring because it’s not.

But there are so many people here whose families have been here for generations, who have been fans of the Phillies or the Flyers their entire lives, and who would give anything for the city. There is the respect for the land and the city that other places don’t seem to have—despite litter problems (the city really needs to put out more trash cans), we have the largest public park system of any city in America. We have the Mural Arts Program that fills the city with beautiful art. We just finished the most beautiful chunk of Spring I have ever seen in my life. The flowering trees were like the city was laughing in its own joy at delicious water ice and cheesesteaks, at the rowhouses the city is famous for, for the beginning of baseball season.

I have become much more practical since moving here. My passion for my gods has dulled a little, to my chagrin. I feared, at first, that it meant the death of my religious tendencies as long as I lived here. But it hasn’t been true. It has just lead to a different manner of expressing them. Rather than running out in the fields, laughing at hawks or crying for squirrels, I am eating barley and switching from sugar to Lancaster County honey. Rather than being surrounded by friends who fill me with so much love I am left feeling like exploding, I am settling down with my sister, cementing our bonds as family.

There is a neighborhood I will be moving to soon. It’s currently in the early stages of gentrification. Walking down the streets in this neighborhood, I feel like I am coming home. The streets are filled with artists, hippies, hipsters. The neighborhood is lined with rowhouses and the occasional deli or coffee shop. There is a street of art galleries. There are children playing, and there are the people who have lived in the neighborhood for decades who wear frayed denim jackets and have bleach-blonde hair and too-long fingernails. There are houses that are marked for destruction, and new, energy-efficient, mod-style houses being built in their place. There is a farm. In this neighborhood, I have found the cycles of life and death that I had found in the animals and plants of the Hudson Valley. I have found the steady, slowness of life of Birmingham, and the artistic passion I had in college. Watching old buildings come down and new building erected reminds me that nothing is eternal, that life and existence is a constant state of recreation, and that I can have a home in the middle of it all. Philadelphia has taught me that I can create a Revolution in my own life—that I can live in a city and still see the life and death of nature. That I can have my dream of being a professional dancer. And I can find my gods, myself, my dance again, even while the land, fatigued by human inhabitance, litter, and corruption is spreading out its tendrils of joy, reaching toward the sun and a renewing beauty.