Yeah, yeah, yeah, It’s been a while

I know. I’ve been really busy with the move and everything. For a quick recap: I am now working several jobs: teaching ballet, working in an office, and dancing for several companies. My social life is more active than it ever has been, my best friend from my childhood moved in with my whole big family of my sister, her boyfriend, and my husband, I met some local heathens and gone to a few events, and generally feel like my big move was the best thing ever for me.

Anyway, I’m here today because I want to write about a conversation I had with a new acquaintance of mine. We were at a Halloween party, and I told him I’m a pagan. He was interested and asked me some basic questions, and then got around to the one I always dread–“So, do you actually believe in this stuff?”

I don’t answer that question to people I’m not close to because the fact of the matter is that my definition of religious belief is so different from the common American I-literally-believe-every-word-of-the-bible definition that the only thing that can happen is that I come across like a crazy person. Especially considering that my social circles tend to be filled with either casual Christians or staunch atheists. So what I do instead when asked is tell the person all the reasons why it’s irrelevant whether or not the gods exist–my belief in them itself is a tangible force in the world regardless, that the human mind responds to metaphor and story and having gods whose stories relate to my own difficulties is incredibly healing, that having rituals to honor the dead fills a hole in our emotional needs that scientific society absolutely does not solve, etc. He was really interested in what I was saying, and said he understood where I was coming from that science and religion are for different aspects of life. He defined himself as an agnostic.

A couple of days ago, he brought it up again to my sister. He told her that I “claim to be a pagan” and that I want to believe in it, but don’t really, and that he can tell by my eyes.

Now, I’m a definitely frustrated that someone I barely know thinks he knows how religious I am more than I do. I’m annoyed that he thinks he gets to have a say in what my religion is. But what I really get out of this whole interaction is the ways that American religious rhetoric is so full of boxes that people want to put other people in, and then they get really confused when I don’t fit in them. No matter how many times I have this conversation about what my religion is, I can watch people put me in box after box after box trying to find where I fit. People I end up being close friends with finally just give up and let me be in my own radical place. But this guy decided that since I didn’t fit in a box, I must fit in one anyway, the box of the nonbeliever.

Normally, it goes like this. You’re religious? Crazy Christian box. You’re pagan? Oh, let me edit that to the Nutso New Agey Witchy box or else Satan Worshiping Devil box. You worship the Norse gods? Uhh…Girly Viking chick box. Do you really believe in them? Please say yes so I can put you in the “deluded” box. You won’t say yes? So you’re an atheist? No? An agnostic? No? Uhh…..Yep, I’m going with atheist who has deluded themselves into thinking they’re deluded. Or something.

It’s tiresome. But I do enjoy breaking down the boxes a bit. I can’t tell you how many times people have told me that I’ve changed their perspectives of religious people because they’ve never met a religious person who is so logical and rational about their faith while still actually believing in something. But the longer I’m a pagan, the more I realize that I define pretty much everything differently than other people, and it can make it very difficult to have a conversation.

On Virginity

I’ve been sick this past week, so I’ve spent a lot of time sitting on the couch watching videos. I watched the BBC 4 part documentary on Pagans, which I was quite impressed by. The BBC really does produce much higher quality content than American made-for-tv documentaries, which always feel so redundant and basic.

Anyway, in the first section, “Sexy Beasts,” they talk about the Egtved girl, who I have talked about before. (Hilariously, when I just googled the Egtved girl to get the wikipedia link for you guys, there was that picture of me sitting like the bronze statue wearing that string skirt I made in the image suggestions. The internet is a weird thing, where I can google an obscure archeological find and see a picture of myself.) Anyway, while talking about the Egtved girl, they talked about virginity and how it meant something different in Pagan Europe than it does in Christianity. Since sexuality wasn’t seen as bad, virgins weren’t necessarily seen as more “pure” than non-virgins, they were seen as “ticking time bombs of sexual energy.” They think the Egtved girl was a virgin because she was 15 when she died, but dancing in that skirt could have been nothing but sexual. The idea being that a virgin is more sexually potent than a non-virgin because she can arouse and be aroused, but that energy is never released, it only builds.

Which got me thinking about Mary and Jesus in a very heretical way. What if Mary was capable of carrying the child of God not because her virginity made her more pure than other mothers, but because her virginity meant that she had more life source force in her?

And then I got to thinking about sex, and me, and my history with the Christian guilt and just how deeply damaging that idea was for me, that virginity was a pure state of being and sex was bad and women should be pure and so once I lost my virginity I wasn’t pure anymore, I was a whore. But no categories are stable, and as we see in the Egtved girl, sometimes the virgin IS the whore. The Norse gods are always missing that which they rule over because, as they say, “absence makes the heart grow fonder.” Freyja loves Odh more when he isn’t there, Sif loves her hair more once it’s gone, and sex is better when you can’t have any (Sort of. sometimes.)

By the way, can we talk about how annoying the phrase “lose your virginity” is? How much it takes the agency out of the choice to begin a sexually active life? “Oh, whoops, my boyfriend came over and I lost my virginity. I can’t find it anywhere!”

But, in America, with all it’s problems, could this idea be a good thing? Could this idea be a healthier and more successful way of helping our daughters lead healthy sex lives and wait until they are ready? I think it could. We teach our daughters that they are helpless to men’s desire (because men are the only ones with desire and only want one thing out of women), and they have to be pure. So then once they’re rebellious or a man wants them or they find out that they want it to, which is scary because they weren’t supposed to, those ticking time bombs of sexual energy explode and it isn’t always healthy and they aren’t always prepared. I think it would have been easier for me if I had been taught that virginity gives a girl power and agency over her choices, that she can arouse a man or herself and know the power in that without giving in to it. That her virginity is hers to own and to give to a partner when she chooses to.

On the Uniqueness of Place

Granite mine S Last weekend was my 10th anniversary with my husband.

That’s confusing. Let me rephrase. We started dating ten years ago, when I was sixteen. We celebrated by going to Vermont to relax and enjoy nature. We had a great time. But we didn’t really take any photos. In fact, the only photos we did take were on a tour of a granite mine we went on.

But we went canoeing in the river and woke up to a view of a mountain. We climbed trees and went ziplining. We drove on the back roads in the forest and looked out for moose. We saw a deer. It was so relaxing.

And yet, at the same time, it wasn’t what I expected. I thought we would go off into the mountains and the forest I would feel the way I felt when I was in college living in the Hudson Valley, where the land spoke to me any time I looked around. Where every view of a mountaintop or valley took my breath away.

Vermont was beautiful, with forests so thick you couldn’t see into them from the roads. With steep mountains that were close together and the land looked folded. Where the towns were so small and beautiful and the food was local and delicious. So delicious and wholesome that one of our meals literally left me feeling prayerful at the end.

But it wasn’t what I expected, and this land was not my own. On the way home, we ended up crossing the Hudson River and seeing the Catskills in the distance, and my heart skipped a beat. This was my home, not Vermont. But it surprised me that even though they are pretty close, geographically, these places are not the same. The mountains in the Catskills are taller and wider and piney-er. There, the land rushes out to greet me, as if it’s catching a glimpse of a long lost friend just as I am.

It didn’t help that it may be the last time I see those mountains. I’ll be moving even farther away from them soon, to Charlotte, North Carolina, where I will have to learn the land anew. Philadelphia and I have not become close in my years here, especially compared with the longing I feel for Duchess County. Here I am religious in spite of the land and my connection to it rather than because of it. That land, the land that introduced me to the gods, is no other land in the world, and I fear that I will never again live anywhere I love as deeply as that land. I feel a loss for it, for my distance from it.

Any time I come back to Philadelphia from time away, I feel sad when I get back to the city limits. This city is so dirty and decaying and sad and natureless that I just don’t feel a connection here. I truly hope that my new home makes me feel more like the Catskills than this.

It is odd to me, that a twenty minute drive through that region had more impact on me than the entire vacation. But that’s what love does, isn’t it? It meets us when we least expect it, wraps us up in that feeling of connection, and leaves us feeling rather transformed.

On Gods as the Mascots of Religions

Any of my readers who have been reading my blog since the beginning, or who have read my page What I Believe will probably know that I originally started this blog at the beginning of 2010 after telling my mother about my conversion and then writing her an essay about my new faith, which to this day, she has never read. The only thing she knows about, or cares to know about, my religion is that it doesn’t involve believing in Jesus as my personal savior. 

For the past three years, we’ve pretty much just avoided the subject with one another. Every once in a while she’ll make a comment about how I’m not allowed to die before she does because she just won’t be able to live with herself knowing I’m in Hell.

She was here visiting recently, and we actually argued about it some. She called me “screwed up” and continued to tell me I’m going to Hell, and that the only thing that matters to get into Heaven is believing in Jesus and following the ten commandments. And I tried to explain to her some of the reasons I converted or give her any details about my faith, and she just wasn’t having it.

The point of this post is not to complain about my mother or wallow in self-pity about my relationship with her, though. I got to thinking about her comments, and her understanding of what religion is, and what it means to be religious, and I had a thought about the nature of divinity. My mother views religion as being primarily about Jesus. Jesus, of course, is the face of Christianity, but for her, religion doesn’t go farther than that.

Phillies_PhanaticJesus had so very little to do with my conversion, and I really feel like I parted on good terms with him. But I don’t see the face of a religion as its whole. I think of Jesus more like I do the Philly Phanatic–an intriguing mystery dancing around in the middle of a game he is not really central to. If you put his picture on your car, everyone knows which team you’re rooting for. But for my mother, it’s almost as if the mascot is the whole game.  As if the whole point of baseball in Philadelphia is that everyone has to love that silly dancing green dude.

But while Jesus is the mascot of Christianity, the real game is salvation. There is so much else playing behind the mascot of a team, and so much beyond a deity in religion–there are the hours of practice honing your skills (meditation, prayer, etc.), there is the excitement of the big event, the agony of loss, the comfort in solidarity with your peers. These are the things that really matter in religion. In a religion, there are shared values, shared views on what the important parts of history are, what is the shape of time, what is the point of death, how important information about the afterlife is, what the meaning of life is.

The gods a person chooses to worship will tell you a lot about them–hearing that someone believes in Jesus tells you more about them than just that they believe in Jesus. Knowing that my mom or my husband believes in Jesus will also tell you that they value the Bible, they believe in salvation, they believe God has a plan for their life, they believe in sin and redemption, they believe that there is such a thing as being “born again” in faith.  I’m sure there is as much to learn about me in the information that my mascots are Freyja, Holda, Sif, and Thor as there is that my mother worships Jesus. You can learn from these things that I value being a part of the mainstream less than my mother does. You can learn that I value the body, cycles, nature, healthy sexuality. And a relationship with one or more gods is usually central to a religion, but not everyone needs a mascot, and a mascot is not everything about a religion.

While my relationships with Freyja, Holda, Sif and Thor are very important to the expression of my faith, there are in no way the whole of it. I am a pagan because of the way I feel looking at the sunset, the ambivalence I feel about the fact that the afterlife is unknowable, the meaning in the rainfall and the knowledge that we depend on the Earth and its cycles, that we do not have dominion over the earth because we depend so heavily on it. I am a pagan because of my belief that the purpose of life is to live a good one in harmony with the land. Because I believe we should honor our ancestors and the trees and fields that shape our experience of place. I believe that embodiment and sexuality are central and important parts of experiencing humanity, not sins. Freyja, Holda, Sif, and Thor are all faces of these experiences and values. They are important to the experience of my faith, just as Jesus is important to the experience of Christianity but not the whole of the faith, and just as the Philly Phanatic makes baseball games more fun, but isn’t really the point of the game.

My high school did not have a mascot. And yet we had school spirit. My mother says (incorrectly) that my soul does not have a mascot because I don’t believe in Jesus. And yet I have religious spirit.

Indigeny and New Religious Movements

Hello! I’m back from my wedding and honeymoon! They were wonderful, and I plan to do a big, full post about each once my life settles down a bit again and I get my professional photos. But here’s a teaser for now, from our first dance as husband and wife.

I have so many pagan-related stories to share from both our wedding and honeymoon once I get around to it, I just can’t wait to share!

In other news, we made it through Frankenstorm unscathed, and spent Samhain eating a dumb supper in honor of my uncle and my favorite dance teacher, both of whom died in the last three weeks before my wedding. But I don’t like the term dumb supper. My husband, sister, and I decided that if we’re going to continue the tradition, we will probably rename it “Dinner with the Departed.” It makes it sound less dumb. (bah dum, ching!)

But for today, I wanted to respond to a blog post I read while going through catching up on my google reader after returning home. It’s P. Sufenas Virius Lupus‘ post on the Indigeny Debate within Paganism. The question he raises is whether it is correct to refer to Neopaganism as an indigenous religion, as some people do. To inadequately sum up a really good argument, he says that to call us that is to neglect the actual indigenous religions’ of the world their indigeny, to ignore the very real difficulties they face in terms of discrimination, and just a flat-out incorrect of the word.

I have to say, I’m with Lupus. Neopaganism is not indigenous. Indigenous beliefs have been the way they are since before anyone can remember. For indigenous groups, their religion is the religion of their forebears, including the immediate one.

Neopaganism doesn’t do that. It reacts against the religion of the immediate forebears and attempts to revive, recreation, or reconstruct some variety of pre-Christian, truly indigenous religion. But we don’t do it because that’s the way it’s always been done. We don’t do it to reclaim a land that has been taken from us by conquerors. We do it because, more or less, we think that hearkening back to that romanticized past will bring us a better future. Because we think that the modern world, with its belief that everything is better if it’s done by a machine that plugs into the wall, is profoundly broken. Modern paganism is a religion that says, at its core, “Screw Progress. Maybe it’s better if we leave it behind and become a part of the world that created us. If we remember that time is a circle and that what goes up must come down. Let us assert a radical humanity in this world that is increasingly built around machines.” This is not indigeny. Nor is it, as Lupus suggests toward the end of his article, a diasporic faith. We are not hearkening back to our homelands on any kind of massive scale. Yes, there are pagan groups who worship the gods of their ancestral line, but so many people today are mutts like me who can’t trace back to any particular group. We are not a group who were spread out over great distances outside of our ancestral homelands. We are people inhabiting a modern world that is smaller than any world in history, and where place is treated as if it’s simply a decoration.

We worship the land because it is a radical statement about what we hope the world could be. We don’t do it from a diasporic or indigenous place. We don’t believe this way or act this way because it was what our parents and grand parents and great grandparents did. We don’t do anything because somebody did, we do it because we, personally, want to. We want to make a statement about the meaning of land and locality and stability and cyclical time. It’s about a hope that someday our faiths could be indigenous, hundreds and hundreds of years from now. But today, we are a New Religious Movement, because the reaction against modernity that our religion represents is, at its core, a reaction against the status quo. A truly indigenous faith is not usually a reaction against, but a continuance of a tradition that spans as far back as memory.

What do you think? This is a particularly complicated subject, and there are few assertions I’ve made here that I can see counterarguments to. But I do think it’s an important question for us to be asking ourselves, because I think it’s easy to try to think of ourselves as indigenous because that’s what we want to be, instead of being honest with ourselves that it isn’t what we are.

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.

Dancing for Freyja and the world

I’ve been a little down in the dumps about finding a place for dance in society lately. People don’t seem to care, there’s no funding (and Congress wants to cut what little there is). Art in general is pretty underappreciated, but I think dance is pretty far up on the list of most underappreciated art forms. So I wanted to go ahead and speak a little about why dance is important, especially from the framework of a devotee of Freyja. I’m sure a lot of this will be things I’ve said on here before, but I’d like to put it all here in one spot, so that I can come back and look at it when I’m feeling useless again in the future.

Dance is not the twinkletoes silly thing most people bill it as, and modern dance is not the “interpretive dance” of people pretending to be trees and the wind as it’s so often mocked to be. The people who mock dance as being silly or pointless or whatever have a)probably never seen good dance and b)probably are pretty disconnected with their bodies.

Being disconnected with our bodies is an extremely common problem in the society in which we live. Women, in particular, have a pretty strong distaste for their bodies and spend endless hours talking and thinking about how much they hate their bodies, and money and other resources on making their bodies more to their liking through plastic surgery and dieting, as if somehow dieting or getting plastic surgery can make you get sort of updated to a better model. But a body is not a consumer product. It isn’t something to ignore or despise. It’s easy enough to hate yourself if you like your body, and since our bodies are ourselves, hating your body is basically equivalent to self-loathing.

While I am not going to try to argue that dance helps people like their bodies better, especially considering how pervasive eating disorders are among dancers, I do think that dance has the capability of teaching us that our bodies are important parts of ourselves, and, as parts of ourselves, need to be tended to.

One of the things that people often say when they first get to know Freyja is that she makes you face your body. She likes to teach people to embrace the pleasures of their body–whether that be through doing something pretty with their hair, or taking hot perfumed baths, or even just enjoying sex more. Freyja helps us to remember that our bodies are our growing selves, the parts that come from the same nature as the trees and flowers. Our thoughts are cultural, but our bodies are made from the stuff the earth is made of. And she wants us to see them as beautiful, just as we do sunsets and flowers and trees.

So I like to promote dance as what might be Freyja’s favorite art form, the one most closely aligned with her other domains. They overlap so strongly–beauty and bodies, energy raising, skill, joy.

In general, I think aesthetics are not given enough credence. Our workplaces are drab, our city streets colorless. And while it is true that beauty is not necessarily required for life to go on, beauty is often what makes life worth living. And here, of course, I mean beauty in a broad sense–not just visual beauty, but the beauty of all our senses–sound, touch, taste, kinesthesia, even story and emotional beauty like joy. Art teaches us about the world in which we live, teaches us how to cope with the difficulties of life, gives us the freedom to say those hidden thoughts that cannot be expressed through normal conversation. People are happier in places with a good sense of aesthetics–I certainly am.

Dancing is how I bring Freyja’s mysteries out into the world where they can be appreciated even by people who don’t know her. Where people can learn to align themselves with their bodies, their most expressive entity, so that they may learn to take care of themselves better. If we actually engaged with our own bodies, and tried to take care of them as we do our family members or even beloved objects like the heirloom necklace my mother gave me, instead of making them into commodities, then perhaps we can fix our world, too. Perhaps we can make a world to take care of ourselves instead of our wallets, and we can try not to pollute them. We could fix the world.

It is, perhaps, too far to think that teaching people dance could teach them to take better care of the planet. But what if? What if we really listened to our bodies? What if we really acted as if our bodies mattered, as if they are more than a vessel for our brains? Could we clean the air for our tired lungs? The land for our tired food?

For more on why art is awesome, see: The Artist Rebuttal Book Project

Hanging on to Spring

I remember, early on in my pagan days, when a friend of mine, a Buddhist, was talking about her seasonal diet, and how eating seasonally had made her feel healthier, and more in tune with the earth. At the time, it seemed strange to me.

I feel differently about that now. Early last summer, I saw a man walking on the street eating an apple, and it bothered me that he was eating a fruit out of season when there were so many wonderful fruits in season. It made him feel disconnected to me. Which isn’t to say I never eat foods out of season. I have just found that eating foods in season feels better. I like to eat hot bowls of soup in the winter and fresh fruits and vegetables in the summer.

This isn’t really a post about diet. It’s really about the power of the seasons to give us something to hang on to. I’ve been a bit depressed, as of late, as the seasons feel that they are turning painfully slow and winter will never end and the leaves will never explode with their vibrancy. I am tired of days indoors and layers of clothing. And as I feel trapped by the weather, I’ve been feeling trapped inside myself as well. I feel as if my life right now is a cage keeping me from doing what I want to be and being who I want to be and living the life I want to live. I feel trapped by city living and my low paying job and the leafless trees.

Some of the trees have flowers now, and the leaves are beginning to peek out their greenness here and there.

Spring is a season of renewal and hope. This past weekend, we planted seeds in our garden, to help end the plantslessness of our neighborhood. I will feel so happy once they spring up with their tiny green tendrils. The daffodils are sending up their green shoots everywhere where I hadn’t even hoped they would be, and soon the sun will be shining in the yellow flowers all over the city. The seasons, like life, always go on. When it’s cold and dark, eventually daylight savings and leaves and flowers will come up seemingly out of nowhere, and life will get better.

I love that the seasons give us something so basic and eternal to hang on to. Certain things that follow each other, over and over, no matter what. That cycle makes me feel grounded, makes me feel like there is a sense to the world, makes me feel like Life Goes On.

Sometimes the seasons are surprising, like how I am finding that there are daffodils hidden in the buckets of dirt on people’s front porches, and how suddenly green the grass has become. How very much more beautiful the daffodils are than I remembered. But even these surprises can be counted on. Not only does life go on, but it is filled with surprises.

It’s not yet springtime inside my life, but the burgeoning sunlight and the return of the flowers make me feel like life and joy are coming back to my life where they have been gone for so long. And springtime and Freyja and magic and blessings. So things will get better and my life won’t continue as it is and there will be joy all around. I have missed the sunlight, and I will keep hanging on to the coming of Spring.