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On Chaos

They say that chaos is good for creation.  Worked for God anyway.  The motto of the Scottish Rite is Ordo ab Chao.  However, entering the third week of our remodeling project, I have serious doubts.  In fact, I think I need to get out of the house.  It has been a learning experience.  Bro. Bob gave me a lesson in painting walls today, which I quite appreciated.  I have been doing them myself (with SP’s help) and yet have not been getting even coverage.  The sage greens in my study are very appealing though, and I very much like my sky blue closet door.  The new oak door to the study has yet to be installed.  Thank God I am not trying to do this all myself.  Leave it to the professionals.

I am distinctly tired of having all my book shelves cluttering up the living room and all my books scattered about in boxes where I cannot find half of them.  I want my desk back.  But the rebuilding of the back stairs in the final part of the project, so we cannot move everything back down until that is finished.  Yes, when I used to play Dungeons and Dragons I played a paladin, Lawful and Good.  I just don’t like chaos.  Of course, the D&D character choice can be backed up by Meyers Briggs which makes me out to be an INTJ (that’s Introverted iNtuitive Thinking Judging type)  Actually, I am about equally balance between Thinking and Feeling, which I suppose might account for why I am incapable of taking any action at all most of the time and just want to lie down.

I’ve started writing my memoirs — actually a biography of myself — called Elf-Owl: A Half-Life.  I figure I am well over half my way through my lifespan and better go back and review before I forget everything I’ve learned.  I hear there is a test.  Actually, this whimsical project was inspired by my re-reading Humphrey Carpenter’s biography of J. R. R. Tolkien (Ronald) which cast me back to when I was 19 and reading it for the first time.  I was greatly influenced by Ronald’s life and wanted to follow his footsteps by becoming an English professor and writing my own mythological fiction.  Of course one problem with being “another Tolkien” is that you are never going to be taken as original the way he was.  Moreover, no one will take you seriously because you are just one of ten million other Tolkien fans who wish they could be just like him.  Your writing becomes nothing but “fan fiction.”  Especially if you never get around to finishing any of it and publishing it.  Which is why I decided to just skip the literary fame and fortune and write my own biography.  Simplifies things.

I also have developed a new medical theory of a new disorder.  It is a psycho-somatic disorder which I have named Volitional Disorder (V.D.).  If you have V.D. that means you cannot make yourself do what you want to do.  You can waste lots of time writing lists and making project management schedules, but then you ignore them.  And if you get up from your desk to go to the bathroom, you end up taking out the trash and doing the dishes instead and then wondering half an hour later why you have to go to the bathroom again.  V.D. used to be called “absentmindedness” but that isn’t very scientific, so I’ve given it a better name.  As I am a doctor of English and not pharmaceuticals, my therapy for V.D. is poetry therapy.  Every time you want to do something and get distracted (assuming you happen to notice that this has happened), immediately sit down and read some poetry.

If you believe you have V.D. try this therapy and let me know how it works — if you remember.

OWL  /|\

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On Successful Businessmen and Virtual Board Meetings

Yesterday was one of those days.  A cloud of chaos decended on me and my brain blew up.  It was like someone slapped me in the face and said “Stop it!”  and I realized fully that I am not a businessman.  These admirable young fellows and old gray-haired chaps with tans and sports cars all have a certain talent.  It is a creative talent for being able to build businesses, to create an organization out of money and people and words and sheer charisma perhaps.  An organization is a web of ideas, but it is also a web of material things and people.  It is an admirable talent, but I’m afraid that I do not possess it.

I seem to have some sort of desire or motivation to create organizations, clubs, and so forth, but few have ever lasted and those that have endured are decidedly not taken at all seriously by the members.  Avalon Center was my attempt to create a real business, a non-profit educational organization founded on philosophical Druidry, yadda-yadda-yadda.  It is a worthy idea, compelling for many.  But it always made me uncomfortable when people joined the venture saying, “Let me help you realize your dream.”  Because it isn’t my dream.  I finally woke up and realized that my daydreaming about running a giant corporation or commanding billions of dollars, or doing worthwhile things through the medium of corporate power (even on a small scale) is just not my dream.  I had those daydreams as a teenager.  One reads Sci-Fi stories about corporations that build robots or develop miracles of modern technology and science.  It’s the same fiction — earnestly conjuring something that isn’t there into existence and convincing a lot of other people to join you to make it happen.

At age eighteen, I embarked on a very short and abortive maiden voyage in the U.S. Navy.  Never got near a ship or an ocean.  Lasted a total of about a week, I think.  Wrong path.  Very wrong for me.  Why I could not see that I was heading for the same sort of crack-up with Avalon Center I do not know.  I also do not know why I am writing this in a public journal.  I can’t get used to this idea of public journalizing about one’s private life.  I mean it isn’t one’s inner life if one  publishes it, is it?  Well, maybe I’ve answered my own question.  That might be just the point.

Anyway, yesterday, nearly to the anniversary of the last time i reached this point, I once again decided that my involvement with Avalon Center has to end.  I have shepherded it thus far and that is the limit of my ability.  I do not want to be a business executive, profit or non, and I do not even really feel a desire to be a teacher.  I thought I felt the call to teach, but now I have reached the conclusion that it was a misapprehension on my part.  I dislike the business of religious visions and talking to gods and other invisible superhuman beings.  I doubt I will be able to stop doing that, but I cannot make a business out of it.  I do not want to be a spiritual leader, a moral leader, an intellectual leader, or indeed any kind of a leader.  I want to just wander off in the forest by myself or with friends or with my dog.  No leading.  My dog wants to be a leader.  He can have it.

When I had my first major crack-up, it was prompted by the wrong turn.  I had got up in the morning and put on the wrong techno-trousers.  I was pulling myself apart trying to do what I thought my father and society expected me to do.  I wanted to be an admirable young man.  Today I still want to be an admirable and respected old man, but I rather think that at some point one has to give up on those sorts of desires.  It is a bit like giving up on wishing that one were handsome.   I know that is heresy in America.  The American male is supposed to believe he can have it all and do anything he sets his mind too, up to and including being President of the country and carving his face on Mt. Rushmore.

But that’s a myth, a fantasy that no doubt motivates many millions of American males, and indeed many more around the globe.  Call it the fantasy of omnipotence.  Male competitiveness?  I’ve never been any good at it and have always in fact shied away from machismo displays of power or competence or superiority.  In fact, I have a phobia of being considered bossy and pompous.  All the more unfortunate because I seem to appear in just that light to most people.  If only we could really understand each other, from the inside, instead of just judging each other by the strange distorted or utterly bland masks we wear.  Pompous earnestness; seriousness; grown-up thinking.  The desire to be in charge of stuff — imitation of God the Father.

i turned in a book review today on a book I did not like, but one which nevertheless made me think hard about myself, about religion, and about science as a discourse and a belief system.  I like science as a practical exercise — experiments and formulas and all that — but as a belief system it gives me the willies.  So does Christianity sometimes.  I lost track of Christ, or he let me go at some point about age 23.  I was quite an ecstatic that year — actually the Spring of 1984, as I recall — but then it fizzled out.  And ecstatic Christians who love their Jesus and their Bible have long given me the heebie-jeebies.  My mother excepted.  She’s a doll and I would never impugn her simple and confident faith even though I don’t share it.

The book that I reviewed engaged the question of whether religious faith of that sort — the sort that is accepted as certainty — is part of our human genetic makeup.  I do not know, but suspect this thesis is the one argued in The God Delusion by Richard Dawkins and other scientific atheists.  I do not desire to dispute with atheists or deny them their beliefs.  They arrive at their logical conclusions just as anyone does, for their own purposes, and with their own premises.  I also do not argue that human beings need to have a religion or believe in any particular brand of god.  Unfortunately for me, I fall in between the cracks.  I cannot derive comfort from joining the company of the devout atheists and their convictions, nor can I derive comfort from joining the company of any of ten dozen varieties of The Faithful following a particular pope, prophet or guru.

This position is a very lonely one.  I’m sitting in a corner watching the party and wishing I was at home reading a book.

I am left without any sort of organization or even category to which I can happily assign myself.  Neither fish, flesh, nor fowl.  Which is perhaps why I thought of creating my own organization, an academic organization that fit me, one that is not based on religion or on atheism.  I work at home and am quite alone in my daily life, while my daughter is at school and my wife is at her office.  My company is a dog and a cat and, of course, various gods, elves, and other invisible friends.  Richard Dawkins and other mature grown-ups have learned to hold themselves above having invisible friends.  The more business or professional associates you have and the more your life exists in the structure of man-made organizations, the more you are likely to forget about invisible friends, and God  along with them.

I am a writer.  In school I was an English major.  In graduate school I was indoctrinated with the critical theory of discourses and the making of meaning.  Making meaning out of whatever we find at hand is the primary occupation of Homo sapiens.  When our ancestors were hard to distinguish from other great apes, we sat around making meaning out of food and stones and sticks.  Over what must have been a very long time in pre-history we apes developed languages and then the meaning business really took off.  Maybe we couldn’t actually make meanings before we had language.  Maybe gestures and grunts are not enough.  Language gave us the ability to make meaning.

Scientists like to think that they simply discover truth or facts.  They don’t tend to think of what they are doing as making meaning.  They seem, at any rate, to believe that the meanings they make (their interpretations of the data at hand) are correct and certain, that they are right.  Even if they allow that they might be mistaken, they fail to see that their utterances are only privileged if other people believe they are privileged.   From where i stand, this gesture is the same one that devout religionists make.  They think they have the answers.  They think that there are answers.  They think that the cosmos is some sort of big true-false test. (It isn’t.  It’s an essay test.)

Another curious similarity is that the scientific atheist arrives at just the same place as the religious zealot in claiming that Homo sapiens is the ruddy bee’s knees.  We are just so super-duper.  The devout Christian may say we are made in God’s super-duper image and so we are special.  Dawkins and his ilk seem to be saying that intelligence and design are late developments in the evolution of the universe, and we are the examples of intelligence, not God.  So, hmmm, we are not made “in the image of God” but we substitute our own intelligence for that of God.  We are either ordained by God as supreme over other animals or we are ordained by the process of evolution as the pinnacle of complexity.  Both views sound like preposterous and deluded hubris to me.

Maybe it was that summer I spent reading Greek tragedies that put me off hubris.  I have had a distaste for it ever since.  But then i run up against it in myself when i go off trying to be a chancellor or a CEO or any of these other titles for chief executives.  I couldn’t execute a fly.

I couldn’t execute my way out of a wet paper bag.

One thing I can do — besides dust and wash dishes and vacuum clean — is write.  I can help my daughter with her homework, and in time help her sort through the knotty brambles of philosophy and life.  I have not bequeathed her any gods, though I do talk about them from time to time.  My favorite deity is the Moon.  I’m rather fond of Thoth, the Egyptian god of ideas and ibises.  But the Bible is not a part of my heritage I want to pass on.  My parents had the Bible and Republicanism and I have set both aside.  No offense intended, but they just do not suit me and I find them both a bit repulsive in their mindless authoritarianism and chauvinism.

Now Jesus, he’s as interesting as any number of other ancient wise chaps teaching forgiveness or charity or compassion.  I guess i took him at his word when he said “Unless ye become as a little child…” and decided i didn’t care for the whole world of grown-ups.  I’m glad for my daughter because she gives me an excuse to remain in the world of childhood as much as I can.

My writing takes me there too.  I do not have any real desire to write weighty, mature wiseman tomes on Druidry or philosophy or literary criticism, or any other sort of “non-fiction.”  That is because I have come to view all discourses as essentially fictitious.  The whole idea that there is a class of writing that we can call “non-fiction” is itself a fiction.  We create meanings.  Some are offered in earnest.  Some are offered in the form of parables and stories with a touch of coyness, fun, or irony, or even drama.  But it is all just stories.  Stories all the way down.

The Supreme Being is a story.  I am a story too.  We exist in language and its discourses.  We cannot escape from them once we are indoctrinated into them and our brains shaped within that envelope of words and images.  The only thing we can do is exercise our freedom to choose which stories we like, and which stories we want to tell.  Those who want to go to church every Sunday or synagogue every sabbath or read the Koran have made a decision (or deferred to the decision of their parents) that they want to listen to those stories over and over again every week.  Really devout souls read them every day and think that this makes them better people.

I do not feel that way.  Or rather by Bible is a lot bigger.  It is a Biblioteca.  The world of books is my Bible and I select those stories that are interesting and appeal to me, for whatever reason.  I don’t say that others should share my taste in books.  I don’t belong to a Book Club or read what Oprah or the Pope recommend.  I seldom even read what my friends recommend.  i just follow my own nose and whimsy.

So, let’s face it.  That is not the stuff of which C.E.O.’s are made, nor Deans, chancellors, or even college professors, i think.  You can be a writer or you can be an Organization Man.  It is a very rare bird that can do both.  Of course, professors and other Organization Men write books and articles and stuff all the time.  They are the principal churners-out of verbiage and meanings.  The professional academician is expected and rewarded for churning.  But they do not think they are writing fiction.  They are (pretty much always) writing in dead earnest.  The theologians earnestly try to refute the scientists who try to refute the theologians ad nauseam.  But, as anyone can tell you who has seen or read The Importance of Being Earnest, being earnest is a fiction too.

As for me, this week i bid farewell to Avalon Center with the hope that others can carry on with it and do a much better job that I have done or ever would do.  Avalon is better off without me.  Does that make me a father abandoing his child?  I hope not.  I don’t like that metaphor, so I will not apply it.  Indeed, literally, I am embracing my fatherhood and my child by giving up this other brainchild that has taken up far too much of my time and made me a crabby wreck.  I do not expect to get back my mental or physical health, but I would like to hold out some hope that I may.

Thus I will return to my first calling — to being a writer.  I hope that I can stop running away from it.  I hope that now, just a couple years shy of 50, I can stop trying to grow up and instead do what I am good at, which just has nothing to do with the grown-up world.  i am sorry to disappoint, but it cannot be helped.

Ah, but in the subject line I mentioned “virtual board meetings.”  That is a funny irony.  I tendered my resignation yesterday and the virtual board of governors meeting via e-mails is such a slow medium of exchange (what irony!) that there has been hardly any reaction.  If we had all been sitting in a room, there would have been an imediate reaction of some sort.  But so far pretty much just a silence until people catch up with their mail.  And the technocrats think this is progress.   I don’t want a reaction, of course, but the corporation does have to either go on under new management or be settled and in either case I will undoubtedly be required to help with the mopping up.  Fortunately, I am not bad with a mop.

OWL

(Ex-executive and director of nothing, including my own fate…)

Encyclopedia of Witches, Witchcraft, and Wicca

I was going through my Science Fiction Book Club bulletin this morning and as I put the reply slip in the envelope I noticed that on the back of the reply envelope the club was featuring The Encyclopedia of Witches, Witchcraft and Wicca, 3rd Edition.  I do not have a copy of this book nor have I perused it, so I do not mean this to be a book review.  Rather, it is a reflection on what it means to have the religion of Wicca advertised in this way by a major book club, and one devoted to science fiction and fantasy.

Apart from some books on SF art and film production, the books sold by the SFBC are fiction.  On the front side of the same reply envelope another books was advertised in the same way: Buffy the Vampire Slayer: Panel to Panel about the “Slayer” comic books and their art.  Here then we have what is arguably the predominant earth-based spirituality and modern pagan religion advertised alongside vampire fantasies and the wide world of fictional visions of a world of magic and adventure. I cannot help having the feeling that the pitch here is to a teen-age audience of avid fantasy fans.

Can one imagine the Catholic Encyclopedia or an Encyclopedia of Buddhisim or Judaism or Islam appearing in such a context, pitched to the same audience?  I cannot quite imagine it.  Of course, I can imagine a book on Druidry pitched the same way.  Because unlike rabbis, imams, and Lutheran ministers, druids and witches do appear as fantasy characters in World of Warcraft and all sorts of other fantasy role-playing games.  Just as an aside, I think that a rabbi Warcraft character battling demons and orcs might be interesting.  A master of Kabbalah with a handy golem bodyguard perhaps…

In the older Dungeons and Dragons, priests were a character class (still are, I suppose) and they could do some handy things with holy water or a miracle.  The curious thing about Wicca is that it is a religion that has been built up on the legends of witches.  Some witches today love to don a black pointed hat and play up the Halloween stereotypes. The old hag has been ironically turned into a “sexy teen witch.”  I presume Gerald Gardner was quite aware of the titilating potential of groups of naked young women dancing in the forest.  Certainly, the monks of the Inquisition who invented these ideas were aware of the fantasy value, whether they believe their own fantasies or not.

Historians have found no evidence of a witch cult. Margaret Murray’s conjectures which fueled Gardner and others in the 1950s  have been entirely rejected by professional historians, although there are still a few exceptions.  There can hardly be any doubt that “goddess worship” of some sort did characterize ancient religions.  There is even evidence for it in early Judaic religion when YHVH had a consort.  That consort persists in the later traditions as Sophia, Divine Wisdom.  But the specific form of worship suggested by Murray and Gardner and their followers – the coven of witches meeting in the forest for naked rituals.  That seems to be the stuff of imagination rather than history.

Now, I do not wish to condemn it.  A religion structured in this way may be just the thing for some people.  Western puritanism and social mores have long been a bit too squeemish about human nudity.  I can not argue against the point that shame about one’s naked body seems rather strange and almost certainly must be a matter of culture rather than nature.  Nevertheless, it is the fantasy element and the was that it plays off of the dominant cultural mores that intersts me.  Much of the genre of fantasy that is aimed at teen age boys (especially the artwork) is specifically calculated to make them stare and arouse their libido.  I am not sure if there is much wrong with doing so, except that it is a form of manipulation. The “sex sells” rule of advertising seems to be heavily at work in the fantasy genre.  And maybe that is part of the allure of the genre and indeed of much literature.  Sexual fantasy is probably the pre-eminent kind of fantasy we humans have, followed at some distance by fantasies of power.

What troubles me, I suppose, is that Wicca is being presented by the marketing copywriters as “a religion exploding in popularity in recent years” (from the advertisement for the book) and placing it in a context of teenage sexual fantasy and longing for personal power.  Whatever virtues the real practice of Wicca or witchcraft as a religion may have, it has take on a public form that offers such fantasies and promises of realizing them. The emphasis of books on spellcraft and especially the ever-popular love spell is a marketing tool that is no doubt even more effective that the promises of other religions to deliver eternal paradise or prevent eternal damnation.

I am aware, from what reading I have done, that many of the spell books out there purporting to teach witchcraft advise against curses and binding spells, or even love spells aimed at manipulating the feelings of others.  They advise against them on moral grounds, but they nevertheless still hold out the tantalizing possibilities of power over other people — a wish that is very strong in most adolescents.  If indeed the claims of Wiccan authors and publishers that Wicca is “the fastest growing religion today” are valid, it is hardly any wonder, considering the sales techniques being used.  I question these claims however, because I have not seen what they are based upon.  One would need to have reliable statistical data — such as census data in which people indicated their religious preference — to substantiate such claims.  Still, there is no doubt that modern paganism is popular, and there seems to be no mystery why that should be the case.  To declare oneself to be a “pagan” one needs to do nothing.  One does not need to discipline oneself to conform to a moral code.  One needs only occasionally celebrate seasonal festivals, and this typically involves drinking, dancing, drumming, ecstatic experiences, and even nudity, drugs, and sex.  Some covens and pagan gatherings might be more straight-laced and subdued, but there is nothing in the religion to condemn these things (unless they are perceived to cause harm) and much to encourage them as “natural.”

I believe that some self-stiled druids also approach their spiritual path in this way.  But if they do, I wonder where the spirituality come in.  I myself think that spiritual experience is about more than ecstatic experience, and earth-based spirituality is not about “letting it all hang out.”  Some of the leaders of ADF, perhaps the pre-eminent American organization using the term “druid,” have advocated for polyamory, a fancy word for what we used to call free love.  In the context of the 1960s free love really meant that women didn’t resist men’s advances.  The free availabilty of women and acceptance of promiscuous sex and short term sexual liaisons was the primary desire.   Sexual liberation was a powerfully attractive cultural movement in the era before AIDS.  It was made possible by the Pill and other contraceptive technologies.  But sexual restraint has not historically been motivated by prudery or hatered of the body as taught by some religions, nor even by misogyny.  It is motivated also by practical realities of human biology and a desire on the part of at least some women to be responsible mothers of their children.  Giving men absolutely free access to your body in sex is bound to lead to too many children.

Historically, there is considerable evidence that cunning women (who were called “witches”) performed essential services to women in the form of abortafascents and contraceptives, and midwifery.  Having children has, for most of human history, been desirable to a point, because a large family meant lots of workers and connections to other members of a tribe or community.  But too many births can kill a mother, and poor families with too many children become tragic, driving themseles and their children further into poverty.  Slaves would have to be very doubtful about bringing children into a world that would consider them someone else’s property.  Even working class families in a later era might worry about bringing children into a world of child labor in unhealthy factories.  On the other hand, women having trouble conceiving might turn to cunning women for aids to fertility.

So, the witch has in fact been always involved with sexuality, and particularly female sexuality.  They have been at the center of struggles over female power in Western culture too.  But I wonder if today, the marketers of Wicca are not straying from the ethical purposes of earlier generations of cunning women when they offer up the fantasy of girls with super-powers with “charms” to defeat male aggressors, or monsters (especially vampires and demons, who seem usually to be male power symbols).  Is fantasy of this sort productive?  Is it religion?  If all religion offers fantasies, then what are we to think of the truth-value of modern paganism if it engages in the same trade?

Druidry, I would like to think, offers an alternative to this situation.  The bardic tradition honors the genre of fantasy.  Myth and legend and wild stories are a staple of Celtic culture, but I believe that the Bardic tradition can cultivate in people an understanding of the difference between fantasies and real life.  The ancient Irish and Welsh legends are almost all tragedies.  The unbridled sexuality of men and women is shown to lead to pain, suffering, sadness, and loss.  They are stories of magic, but they are more fundamentally stories about the misuse of power and bad judgment.

I like to view witches and wizards as non-denominational.  Those terms can refer to people who are seekers of wisdom through nature and spirit, who acknowledge magic and enchantment as among the forces at work in the human and non-human world.  But many people do not desire wisdom or the hard work it takes to cultivate it; they desire religion.  Which is to say that they desire a structure of worship, celebration, and rituals that make them feel hope for their future, instead of the vague dread of a world that seems unfair and uninterested in the fate of individuals.  They seek a cosmology that fits them into a place in a universe that includes some form of life after death and some sort of reason for living and hoping.  This is the essence of what we call Faith.

The wizard and witch seek knowledge and the wisdom to make use of it for the good.  Some might seek to use it for evil, of course, or for selfish desires.  But on the whole the pursuit of wisdom (rather than the pursuit of personal power) leads one towards a desire for goodness.  Or at least, so I choose to believe.

Thankfully, I do not require the assistance of a vampire slayer.  The monsters I worry about are those planted like seeds in the minds of young readers and viewers and game players. Those fantasy figures that seem to fill their imaginations up.  I worry that by consuming so much material provided by our commercial imagination market, that young people are not cultivating their own imaginal powers.  That is, their ability to speak with and see the Elves and orcs and spirit guides that might help them as adults.  I don’t know the answer.  I’m not sure I have even articulated the question.

Idle thoughts perhaps and needless worries.

Owl

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