Hidden lessons and “The Giving Tree”

I ended up making an essay-length comment on a friend’s Facebook about “The Giving Tree” and why one should be careful to assume that a story teaches the lessons you intend.  I assure you, dear reader, that I’ve long since dispensed with the “lesson” I learned from “The Giving Tree,” though I do consider my childhood experiences with it to be seminal in my strong desire to not have children.  Shel Silverstein does, however, owe me for my therapy bills.


Ultimately, the challenge in teaching a lesson is ensuring which lesson you teach. This is where “The Giving Tree” has a real issue. The boy, as he ages, gets what he wants without any negotiation or resistance. In fact, he receives some kind of prosperity, gets a house, and gets a boat, and gets a chair, all by just asking and receiving. He shows no remorse for the state of his supposedly beloved companion, so it clearly never hurts him. In fact, at every stage, you are editorially told that “the tree was happy.” So, one lesson baked in here is to be comfortable asking for what you want because those that freely give to you are, regardless of appearances, happy to give.

The tree, as it ages and is razed, is the only party holding any emotional context for the relationship. In fact, we know this, because an editorial voice has to step in and remind us that “the tree was happy.” It gives and gives based almost entirely on the sentiment of the relationship, while the boy receives and receives based almost entirely on the material aspects of the relationship, without affirmation or mirroring of the sentiment of the relationship. But, as we are constantly reminded, the process that ultimately destroyed the tree (unlike actual trees, this tree could not regrow its foliage when pruned), also made the tree happy. The tree wasn’t happy in a way we could see. In fact, the tree’s obvious and outward joy ends early in the story. No. The tree was happy in such a sublimated way that the narrator has to editorialize to us that “the tree was happy.” The problem is that this fiat happiness also speaks to a moral dictum. It really says “the tree was happy, and this is good.” So, this leads to another dangerous lesson in “The Giving Tree,” which is that if you have something beloved, then you should not deny your beloved’s requests, regardless of how this seems to impact you, and you should feel happy.

Okay…well, what if you’re the sort of child who, by the time you encounter “The Giving Tree,” are already establishing a bit of critical thought? Perhaps you look at the boy and don’t see malicious selfishness, except maybe when he wants a boat. I mean, people need things like shelter and warmth and money (apples don’t buy much, so the kid couldn’t have wealth, evidenced by the fact that he also lives in the paltry shelter tree branches provide); they’re not unreasonable human goals. So, another lesson to take away is that, even if your needs seem reasonable, they’re hurting something you once found beloved, even if they say they seem happy. So, you learn from “The Giving Tree” to not ask your beloveds for anything because you must protect them from the hurt you are actually doing.

Or maybe you’re a child who is able to take critical distance from the tree, and you see that it is often sad without its beloved, only becoming briefly happy when it contributes to its own destruction by satisfying the requests of fulfillment for its beloved. But, we are told “the tree was happy” at every repetition of it, and because of the cultural context in which “The Giving Tree” was written, there’s a fair chance that reinforcement of “selfless love” is already going around, and you can easily learn the lesson that you should not trust feelings of quiet inner happiness in relationships because they mask the very obvious harm you’re doing to yourself.

And maybe if you get told in a poorly mediated way that this is about a child and a parent…usually from parents. Then you might learn that you’re destroying your parents, that if you become a parent you will be destroyed in exchange for the rationalization that “you were happy” about it, that selfless love is exploitative, and that you should genuinely fear love and make your own way trying very hard to have as little to do with others as possible.

There are even some other lessons waiting out-of-band. What if your beloved remembers some wonderful time of play and companionship that you never experienced? Should you feel obliged to that disparity to make your beloved happy? If the tree is a parent, but you don’t connect with your own parents, and they don’t understand but feel sad, do you owe them their mental image of their child?

There are so many ways that intelligent adults see this book. They range from the personal to the religious to the economic to the political to the environmental. That’s a testament to its ambiguity. Using it as a lesson, therefore, makes it incumbent on the teacher to not expect the story to teach a lesson but instead to use the story as a tool for teaching a lesson that’s outside the story. The lesson is in the mediation; it speaks to the relationship the storyteller has with the audience. Possibly the most risky thing to do is presume “The Giving Tree” has a single lesson, or that a lesson a child takes from it will be a helpful one. But it can be a bonding moment for someone willing to hold responsibility for the exploration that ensues.

Because, seriously, I took away from it that love is painful and awful and exploitative, and that the adults around me were completely nuts for not seeing it.

How to spot bad motivational advice

There’s a somewhat popular Internet meme known as “drunksperation.”  This juxtaposes the copy from fitness inspiration posters and memes with images of people in the throes of drink.  Of course, there was a time when I used to push myself with these “go harder or you’re faking it” slogans, which is why I think they’re hilarious.

An example from the linked article:

But the implicit humor in drunksperation actually hinges on just how poor the advice actually is at creating and maintaining the mentality that’s conducive to a lifestyle of good fitness and general self-care.  Yes, it is true that you sometimes inspire yourself by pulling on a fantasy of your own goals, but it’s really important to understand that your inspiring fantasy is your tool, and if it’s a tool to diminish personal agency or self-worth…then, at the end of the day, you’re just kicking yourself.

The semiotics of a fitness inspiration image “work” because the picture is always of some athlete in the struggles of training, something culture generally ascribes as “good,” despite the fact that the pursuit of extreme fitness can lead to all sorts of serious physical punishments to one’s body.  By substituting an image which shows a person punishing his/her body in a way assigned as bad, indulgent, and lazy, it becomes easier to see the damaging self-narrative the advice text is trying to instill.

Which is why, when I see pieces of advice, I will imagine them as text on a “drunksperation” meme image and see if I still feel like they’re good advice.  If the advice is encouraging a damaging self-narrative, then the “drunksperation” will read as funny, because few of us really want to advocate for alcoholism.  If the advice doesn’t, then it can actually make a “drunksperation” that encourages drinking in moderation.

The thing is, this can be really, really insidious and indirect, and it’s not necessarily the fault of people who make the statement.  The kind of psychological context for self-damaging narratives hiding as advice comes from broader culture.  We’re all standing in it.

But, for example, take this piece of work/life advice from Cathy Wang.

Working hard for something you don’t care about is called stress; working hard for something you love is called passion.

And now, let’s juxtapose it with a man collapsing after too many drinks:

It’s funny, and parsing out why is something I’ll leave for the reader to consider.  This isn’t to say that the ideas underlying it are bad, or that someone who believes this is bad.  What it does mean, though, is that seeing a friend killing him/herself slowly in the name of “passion” is an incomplete idea that requires a context of self-care.

As a dare to the reader, think about the things you tell yourself to push yourself, and then imagine them in a meme like this.  See if you’d still stand behind them, or if they need attenuation.

And thanks to Jonathan Korman for coining this as “Rhett’s Law.”

Michael Sam, Football, and Privacy

Elsewhere on the Internet, some people were discussing the reaction to queer athlete Michael Sam‘s kiss with his partner upon receiving the news that he was drafted by the St. Louis Rams.  The comparison was made to public mockery of (and NCAA rule changes constraining) the displays of religiosity made by former quarterback Tim Tebow.  The claim, of course, is that everyone’s quick to kick Tebow’s Christianity but the “PC police” will leap on anyone who criticizes Sam behaving like a normal person who has a same-sex partner.

There are so many angles to attack that comparison from, but so many other people have covered the faux-oppression of Christians, differentials of social power in society, etc, etc.  I wanted to capture my contribution to the conversation, which is about how Tebow’s behavior is quite separate from Sam’s.

A football stadium is a place of public accommodation and public performance. So, when you go out on the field and perform your religion there, you are voluntarily dragging a private thing (your religion) into public view (a football game). You are putting yourself up for commentary, and despite people thinking Tebow’s performances deserved a little mockery, the number of people who’ve publicly said that Tebow’s religiosity would be a “distraction” or preclude his ability to play are actually fairly few.

Now, by comparison, your home absolutely is not a place of public accommodation and performance. Football fans and the industry which panders to them, however, have decided it’s really, really important to send camera crews into those private places so that they can capture the emotions and behavior of potential football players on draft day. And let’s be clear about something– that’s voyeurism in its most raw and pure form. It’s not enough to cover the public announcement of the players selected. The raw voyeurism of football fans is so profitable that prospects are expected to surrender their privacy during the draft.

In fact, had Sam not done the expected thing of allowing at least a small TV crew in, then the sporting press would have asked questions about why he didn’t. Was he sure he wouldn’t be drafted? Oh, the gay athlete isn’t all that good, we’re just focusing on him because he’s gay. Maybe he’s hiding something. You never know, because he’s gay and that’s still kinda scandalous or something.

So, he played it straight (no pun intended) and did his job to satisfy the voyeurism of his audiences and let a camera crew in just in case he got a call. And then he did, and they showed him doing what every other athlete does when they get the call — kissing the person he loves.

This isn’t just about bigotry. It’s also about the self-entitled voyeurism of an audience and an industry that knows they can make money off of it. I love sports, and I understand that sports are a chance for fans to feel connected to glory we won’t ourselves experience. But it should still be enough to wake up in the morning and see the draft results in the paper, see a favorite college ball player got picked, and think about how nice it’ll be to see them in the NFL next season. Nobody has a right to players’ private lives, and if you do want to shove a camera in them, well, you surrender all rights to your “just play the game” complaints.

New For 2014

The new year brings with it the tradition of making goals for oneself, and it’s a tradition I uphold.  I actually believe in setting goals for oneself perpetually, but some goals take a little more force to them or are designed to have a serious change to one’s personal narrative, and it often helps to add the boost of tradition to them.

So, without a ton of ado, here are my new goals for 2014…

  1. Focus on spending good time with my wife.  It’s been easy in 2013 for the two of us to get distracted and focus on work and other things, and I want to help make sure we’re also focusing on us.  Maybe, if I’m lucky, we can find a shared hobby we like.
  2. No more writing about Paganism, at least for 2014.  I haven’t done a ton of it in the past, but my two articles on being a Pagan and an atheist brought me a little bit too close to the fire of the Pagan blogosphere.  This has coincided with watching loved ones of mine stand even closer to that fire and for longer.  It drains them and it drains me, and I’ve seen nothing but unproductive drama come from it, and I thus have some complicated feelings about the Pagan blogosphere in general.  This kinda breaks my heart a bit, because I do receive emails from young Pagans who have been encouraged to be authentic in their atheism and skepticism through my writings, and I’m glad I could offer a missing voice of comfort.  But, ultimately, I can’t live a productive and authentic 2014 if I allow myself to be concerned at all with the empty drama of the Pagan blogosphere, so I have to do it for me.  If one of my writings on tea ends up in there somehow, though, I’ll support it, because of my next resolution…
  3. More writing here in general, though, especially about my tea ceremony studies.  Looking back, I never wrote a post discussing my first experiences switching from the furo (brazier / summer) season to the ro (hearth / winter) season.  There are some practical reasons why, but I’m sad that I missed it, so I should just write here more in general.  Things that deserve a long-form treatment in my life, especially things like my work in tech, my glass art, etc, these things all kinda have fallen through.  For a blog called “Engineer, Athlete, and Atheist Pagan,” I sure short on the “Engineer” and “Athlete” part.
  4. Build better data on my exercise regimen.  I recently acquired a heavy bag for my home gym as a way to get in make-up sessions when I missed time at the boxing gym.  Since then, I’ve been doing more home workouts and fewer gym workouts.  I’m starting to realize that quitting that gym would make my workday better, mean more home gym time with my wife, save money, and possibly leave room in the week for even more activity.  I need to be more flexible in general where my exercise is concerned, but I don’t know what ways my different activities contribute to my overall fitness.  So, I really need to start building better data.  This most likely means getting some sort of body monitor device.
  5. Take a selfie every day.  Yeah, go ahead and snicker, but this resolution actually was motivated by seeing this excellent video by Laci Green.  I’m not going to go over the top about the world-changing potential of selfies.  I will, however, say that I actually struggle a lot with self-image and self-worth issues and I often feel sad that I haven’t documented my life as well as I could.  Taking a selfie every day would probably make for an interesting journey.  And, why not?  This is what personal experimentation is for, and various pundits’ clever grumbling about a “culture of narcissism” don’t sway me much.
  6. Get back in the glass studio.  I’ve seriously slacked off since I finished the main series of classes.  Without a new class to motivate me, I’ve not kept up my skills like I should.  But, there’s a class for an advanced technique called incalmo coming up in the spring, so I need to email my teacher and get myself back in good order.
  7. Go surfing once a month.  I have two great boards, and I suck with both of them because I don’t make the time to go be in the ocean…and I love being in the ocean.  I’m always letting something get in the way, and I think a good step would be to just get myself out even once a month.

Yeah, it’s a pretty frivolous list, but some years just come out that way.  I don’t have a big financial or fitness goal, but I do have some quality of life work to take on.  That’s actually been in response to a very real summation of my 2013, which is that I have become pretty professionally developed, had fitness improvements, and had a healthy bottom line, but my week-by-week life has been grinding and I have put off a lot of “me things” so much that they got put off indefinitely.

And, hey, fun and productivity are connected as far as I’m concerned.

Left-handedness, Tea, and Being a Beginner

An ongoing arc in my tea ceremony lessons is my left-handedness.  Tea ceremony was developed by the right-handed and for the right-handed, and the mechanics essentially cannot be taught correctly in reverse.  Even though one could theoretically invert the room and its layout and the utensils and their layout, refining one’s motions is still a practiced and “oral” tradition, and your sensei is likely to be right-handed.  Your guests are likely to be right-handed, and reversing everything would not benefit your guests, which would defeat the entire point.

Of course, like most southpaws, I have learned to adapt to a right-handed world quite a bit.  In fact, tea is not the only pursuit of mine with a handedness requirement.  Glass blowing carries a similar requirement, for example.  I play guitar right-handed, and I have lost any concept of handedness where some sports are concerned.

What keeps the arc alive is the interest sensei shows in my handedness.  I think that perhaps I may be her first serious student who is left-handed, but I cannot be completely sure.  She has, for example, gone back to the mizuya (the “water room,” where utensils are washed and prepared) and whisked tea with her left hand to experience the awkwardness and have empathy for working with your non-dominant hand.  She often asks what I find challenging in using my right hand and in experiencing a left-handed person’s perspective.  Often, the things she predicts to be challenges are not so bad, but other aspects of the procedures need different attention.  Fast motions like whisking the tea are not so bad, nor are large motions like handling the bowl.  What is the most challenging are things requiring precise finger placement and things which rely on good proprioception of my fingers, and sensei has taken to teaching that kinesthetically, by setting the finger positions right herself and letting me feel what “correct” is.

All of this reminds me of something I do when I instruct people at curling clinics.  It’s a little bit of folklore I picked up from the other instructors.  Before the students join me on the ice, I throw a curling stone using my non-dominant side.  The reason why is because, week after week, I have developed muscle memory for my dominant side so that I can focus my mind on my aim or on getting the velocity just right.  It’s been 18 months since I was awkward, but my students are going to all be awkward and need encouragement while they do this very strange and new thing.  One very easy way to return to that place of being a complete, awkward beginner is to simply use your non-dominant hand or foot for everything.  It brings back those feelings of mild alarm, of nothing feeling correct or in place, of doing something embarrassing.  It also, hopefully, is a reminder of that feeling of optimism, of feeling that you know you can become graceful if you can simply knock some of the rough corners off yourself, of knowing you just need someone to laugh with you and show you that they know what you’re feeling and that what you’re feeling doesn’t have to be scary.  Really, that’s how I see a teacher’s or coach’s first step in reaching a student.  It’s funny how you can do all of that by just switching hands.

What The Eyes Say

There is a moment in tea ceremony, after all the tools are in their place, for the host to take a moment and mentally center him/herself before proceeding to purify the tools and make tea.  The very first time I practiced temae (the tea procedure), I took what was meant to be a deep, slow breath, but which came across as a loud, nervous sigh, to the laughter of everyone in the room.  Determined to not repeat that at future lessons, at the next lesson, I took the opportunity to ground and center in a way most people of Pagan background would, by closing my eyes and drawing that nervous energy into a calm center.

Sensei stopped me.

“Rhett, please do not close your eyes when you stop to compose yourself.  I know many people do this to bring calm, but when you close your eyes, you’re shutting out the world for a moment.  Shutting out the world means shutting out the room and the guests, when connecting with your guests and showing your care for them is the reason for sharing tea.  Do not separate yourself from your guests by becoming separate from them, even for a moment.”

I have, since then, been acutely aware of the closing of eyes in a ritual environment.  It’s an incredibly common part of many Pagan rituals and a generally accepted part of prayer and even for secular moments of silence.  Yet, what if, in times when people are coming together for ritual or prayer, they are actually instead taking time to shut one another out and be in their own worlds?  How would people differently experience acts of community ritual (of all kinds) if they never, except to blink, closed their eyes?

Welcome, New Readers!

If you’ve stopped by my blog today (March 31, 2013) or shortly thereafter, there’s a good chance you’ve found me via my post at Humanistic Paganism.  Welcome!  I was actually rather surprised by the warm reception that my prior post, “Care and Feeding of Your Atheist Pagan“, received, especially in light of how prior posts about atheism and Paganism hadn’t had the same traction.  I am, however, quite proud to know I’ve contribute meaningfully to the community, and I’m glad to see an emerging tolerance for my sort of perspective.  The post was actually roughly two years in the making, and was based on my own experiences being out as an atheist among my Pagan colleagues.  All of the different points I raised actually came from experiences I’d had, often more than once, with close friends and colleagues.

Many people are really surprised to know that I spent two years editing that article in an “on-again-off-again” fashion, but sometimes it takes a while to find the right way to express yourself.  In fact, a major challenge in editing the piece was to produce something that spent more time speaking for my perspective than criticizing others.  It’s very easy to write a critical blog post, but writing something from the heart that really speaks for your wishes, your perspective, and your side takes a lot of time and effort, and many times, I would edit out one form of criticism only to find I’d criticized something else in the process.

I hope that perhaps you’ll consider adding this blog to your aggregator or visiting somewhat often.  If you look through older posts, you’ll find it to be more of a general “posts about life” format, but I do intend to make this a venue for posting about more personal topics than I have in the past.  In fact, if it weren’t the wee hours of the morning when I write this, I’d be working on a post about tea ceremony (a favorite subject of mine) and what lessons I think it might offer modern Pagans.

Consider that last paragraph a teaser for the post.  Thanks for stopping by.  I hope we can be friends.

Care and Feeding of your Atheist Pagan

I’ve been meaning to write an article like this for a while now, and in my mind, I’ve done it under a number of different titles.  It started life as “What is an Atheist Pagan, Anyway?”  Over time, though, I’ve realized that’s really not the most satisfying tack for such an article.  Nobody elected me Emperor of Atheist Pagans, so I can’t make statements about what we all are.  Finally, a series of email exchanges with one of my fellow mystic friends brought the structure of this article to its forefront, because I’ve noticed that there is a predictable mutual confusion in our interactions.  The reason why I feel something of a “care and feeding” style article is better is that the theme is a bit more fun, casual, and personal.  I can’t speak for others, but I don’t require actual care and feeding, though I do sometimes enjoy being a pet.

So, let’s start back at the beginning.  If you’re reading this, and if you’re Pagan, and if you’re associated with a somewhat diverse Pagan community, there is a distinct possibility that someone you know through that community is an atheist.  This may or may not come as a surprise to you.  Amidst the vast diversity of people working with different pantheons, with the God and Goddess, with the divine intelligences of Qabalah, the hordes of spirits in Goetia…there are a few of us who went up to the smorgasbord of divinity and actually concluded our plates were beautiful when empty.  We are among you, we know your gods and your spirits and all the rest, and we might even use them, but we don’t identify with them as being our gods.  We might not even consider divinity to exist “out there.”  But we still find a deep, powerful connection to the practices, to the blending of ideas and thoughts, to the experiences we gain, and from the community we keep.  We might even use some of those gods you do, but just think about them differently.  I’m one of them, and I use the term “atheist Pagan” to describe myself and the others like me I’ve met on the way.

And I think there’s one thing I think we could agree on (other than agreeing that we’re atheists), and that’s this– other Pagans don’t always know what to do with us.  There are a number of very good reasons why this happens, and I’m not going to hash them out too much here.  Instead, I’d like to just focus on some things that you, my dear reader, can do that could mean a lot to any of the atheist Pagans in your community.  Please keep in mind that you might have some atheists in your community right now and not know it.  I’ve met more than a few who don’t speak very loudly about their atheism.

So, without further ado, care and feeding of the atheist Pagan in your life.

Do not challenge your atheist Pagan about why he or she doesn’t believe in your gods/deities/spirits/etc.

I know it may seem really strange to have a conversation with someone who’s a Pagan and an atheist.  You might also genuinely want to know how this person came to reach his or her particular perspective.  It’s totally fair to ask in a warm and friendly way, the way you might ask your Asatru friend what attracts him or her to the Norse pantheon.  It’s very important, though, that you not ask your atheist Pagan as if you’re demanding he or she defend his or her choices.  Don’t ask like you’ve encountered something weird.  Go back in time a bit to when you to identify yourself as Pagan to others.  No doubt you remember some people in your life treating you like you were full of strange ideas because you wanted to believe in many gods (or in some all-encompassing deity of nature, or some other non-mainstream theology).  It sure must have felt exhausting to have to explain and defend yourself over what was, quite honestly, your truth.  Atheist Pagans go through this, too.  We often get it from Pagans over our atheism, from other atheists for our Paganism, and from mainstream people over both.  Beyond that, consider this– Pagans want the tolerance of diversity.  This means monotheists, polytheists, pantheists, and atheists, too.

Don’t tell your atheist Pagan that he or she isn’t “really” an atheist or “really” a Pagan.

This actually comes up more than you might think, usually in the nicer version of “you’re not really an atheist.”  It’s almost meant as a compliment, often from someone who’s taken crap from particularly adversarial atheists in the past.  There’s a stereotype about atheists that we’re all loudmouths who won’t rest until we’ve destroyed everyone’s favorite spiritual beliefs and paved the entire noosphere over with a fresh coating of empirical materialism.  Atheism is actually a very, very simple standpoint– you become an atheist when you have no deity, and that’s it.  The definition itself is very, very general, and throughout history, there have been many, many different ways to arrive at that state.  An atheist might believe that deity does not exist, that the metaphysics of the universe simply does not define a place for deity, that deities exist but should not be treated in the customs one gives deities, or any of a number of other positions.  Most of the atheist Pagans I’ve had the pleasure to meet do tend to have a pretty strong materialistic streak to their worldviews (and, honestly, most Pagans do, in general), but not many of them are not out to constantly openly criticize every religious belief or superstition they come across.

On the other hand is the assertion that atheist Pagans aren’t “really Pagan.”  While atheism and Paganism may seem, to some, irreconcilable, there isn’t a theological test associated with being Pagan.  Generally, Pagans are respectful of one another’s pantheons while focusing on their own.  This doesn’t actually preclude having a personal pantheon with zero gods in it.  Atheist Pagans are like any others who don’t necessarily share your personal pantheon.

Don’t presume your atheist Pagan is less spiritually capable or fulfilled.

How I got to be an atheist is a fairly long and winding story, so I’ll give you the “tl;dr” version– I was finally honest about myself that “the gods” just “weren’t there.”  I spent several years trying very hard with a number of practices, and had a lot of very interesting experiences along the way, but I just never really felt anything that really left me feeling strongly driven to the reality of deity.  This is the opposite experience of most Pagans, but it’s just as real and credible.  It actually takes a lot, in a community that takes its spirituality so personally, to admit that.  I just don’t feel the same connections others do, and it’s inauthentic and painful for me to make myself try to be any other way about it.  The first thing Pagan theists tend to inject into this is that I’m “just blind.”  This is basically an assault on my own sense of authenticity, and the only authority to that position is that the theism is seen as the default.  If atheism were the default position, theists would be accused of hallucinating their deities.  So, no, I’m not “just blind,” and neither is any other atheist.  Because the theistic position is the default one, pretty much all atheists have explored it and explored what it might mean to them, and they ultimately reject it.

Don’t assume that our lack of gods means we’re ignorant, stubborn, or magickally handicapped.  It’s easy to think that, because you see or hear spirits or deities or whatever, that we must be “blind” or “deaf” to them.  The metaphor is a problematic one, especially since it actually claims that anyone with a different experience (a Buddhist, perhaps) is just as “blind” to your reality.  An atheist Pagan may not experience the same things you do, but in the incredible mess of subjectivity that makes up human perception, remember that it’s really hard to hold claim to having the objective opinion.  Also, remember Christians used to claim the default position and ascribe madness to those who talked to ghosts or received messages from old gods.

Don’t presume that being an atheist means rejecting all magick, all religion, or all new age thought.

This is yet another stereotype.  Certainly, some atheists are just like that.  That sort of atheist, though, is also probably not going to get a lot of joy out of also wanting to be part of the Pagan community.  Again, atheism is mostly a position about the existence of deity, and that particular question can be addressed in many ways.  The question of deity has little to do with the question of the soul, of an afterlife, of the existence of magickal “energy,” of the mechanism and efficacy of astrology or other means of divination, or really any other subject that’s applicable to most magick, mysticism, or other Pagan practices.  On these subjects, atheist Pagans have just as much philosophical, cosmological, and practical diversity as anyone.  Your atheist Pagan may enjoy taking part in many of the “conventionally Pagan” practices out there, and may do so for reasons very much like your own or ones very different from you.  You can’t conclude a person’s complete magickal identity based solely on their perspectives about divinity.

Do understand that your atheist Pagan is attracted to Paganism.

That may seem really strange to you, but there is probably a lot more going on in your own flavor of Paganism than you realize.  There can be all sorts of wonderful reasons an atheist may continue to choose a path mostly regarded as Pagan.  Your atheist Pagan may feel very strongly acculturated to Pagans and their ways.  He or she might follow a path that doesn’t include the worship of deities but which is heavily built from the fabric of contemporary Paganism.  He or she may work with a “sacred non-entity” much like Tilich’s “ground of being.”  He or she may actually still work with deities but see them as emotionally moving fictional characters or symbols.  The reasons are myriad, but there is one thing for certain– your atheist Pagan hangs around you because he or she wants to.  There is something in the connection you share that’s important.  That goes for your common community, too.  It may seem strange because an atheist Pagan seems at odds with stereotypes about atheists, but there are already many fine atheist communities out there, and yet there are many atheists who’d rather be with the Pagans.

Do invite your atheist Pagan to your rituals, ceremonies, and festivals.

Have you ever gone with one of your Christian friends to a church, or perhaps to a temple with a Jewish friend or to a mosque with a Muslim friend?  Maybe you went along to a Buddhist temple once or to…oh, I don’t know.  Maybe you even hung out in a Scientology center or drummed with some Hare Krishnas because someone you knew and liked asked you along.  No doubt, you were respectful of your hosts and possibly participated a little.  Maybe you even learned something.  Many, if not most, atheists are just as capable of joining in a religious service at a level somewhere between respectful detachment and enthusiasm.  One of the most wonderful things about the Pagan community is its diversity of ideas and experiences available for those of cosmopolitan mindset to enjoy.  Just because someone doesn’t experience your closest deity doesn’t mean he or she won’t enjoy experiencing your expression of that divine connection.  Rituals are stimulating and fascinating things to be a part of.  Anyone who’s going to proselytize about gods not existing at a ritual is a real jerk, and since you probably don’t have jerks for friends, your atheist Pagan is probably not a jerk, either.

Let’s say that your atheist Pagan passed up on coming to your big Freya working.  That doesn’t mean the invitation wasn’t welcome!  It’s nice to be invited to things.  It’s a sign of friendship.  It shows you’re thinking about that person and wanting to see them happy.  That alone is worth it.

Do ask your atheist Pagan about his or her story, and be open to sharing yours.

It’s not a fast or straight path to an atheistic position, let alone one that still carries the Pagan flavor.  Like many Pagans, your atheist Pagan is probably very happy to talk about his or her path.  It’s probably one that’s very personal, idiosyncratic, and heterodox, and since atheist Paganism, unlike Wicca or Golden Dawn or other paths, doesn’t really have any manuals, your atheist Pagan has been finding his or her way alone for quite some time.  We like sharing our truth, just like other people do.

At the same time, there’s a good chance an atheist Pagan you know wants to know about your own path, your own history, and your own truth.  Most Pagans I have known geek out on spirituality, even if it’s from an informally anthropological point of view.  Empathy and friendship carry an aspect of seeing the world through someone else’s eyes.  Don’t be afraid to lend yours.

Do feel free to compliment your atheist Pagan from your own worldview.

I don’t mean to sound like a braggart, but I do get compliments on the way I comport myself in ritual.  When I feel a connection to a working, I am absolutely voracious for it.  I just want to take it and make every last little bit of it become part of me until performing that working is as natural to me as making a cup of tea.  I want to live in the working.  I want to blur the lines of where I end and where my performance begins.  In my own little cosmology, I don’t really consider (or, despite years of working on it, even experience) common magickal concepts like “energy.”  In fact, my adopting a paradigm that doesn’t really focus much on energy is due to my own lack of experience for it…or at least in my not experiencing it in the way so many others around me have.  But, when someone comes up to me after ritual and says I was working the energy well, does it bother me?  Of course not.  I know those people are speaking their truth, and that they ultimately are trying to tell me how my own work made them feel moved.  That’s a wonderful, wonderful thing.  Of course, not all people are the same, and I’m sure you’ll find some atheist Pagan out there who will get uncomfortable or try to correct you, but it’s still a far better thing to try to share yourself with others than to not; the latter means not making an important personal connection with someone in your community.

Conversely, a compliment from an atheist might not share your own spiritual vocabulary.  Remember, though, that the compliment is still genuine and meant with love, and it is not a dismissal of your own experiences simply because it doesn’t reflect your experiences.  You may genuinely feel you’re “running the energy,” while another person might think you’re “a talented performer.”

Recognize atheism as a philosophy that shapes, rather than contradicts, spirituality.

Ultimately, this is what all the other things come down to.  There have been atheists who’ve strongly contributed to every major religion of the world.  Yes, even Christianity.  If you haven’t read of the existentialist Christianity of Paul Tilich, you should check it out.  Atheism has, over the past century or so, seen a very serious restriction in its definition.  There are many reasons for it, not the least of which are religious interests in America using politics to attempt to restrict science and science education.  In a broad historical perspective, though, there have been atheist philosophies within every religious tradition and several religious traditions that classify the cosmos in such a way that there’s simply no room for deities to exist.  Your atheist Pagan might take a highly psychological viewpoint on divinity, or may believe that divinity isn’t an entity and thus not subject to existence, or may think divinity is simply “the absolute,” or may simply not really feel concerned with questions about divinity.  Much as atheist philosophers have shaped the history of Hinduism, Buddhism, Judaism, and various aspects of Christianity, atheists in the Pagan community are there, keeping things from becoming ossified into some canonical form of religiosity.  Our lack of commitment to existential divinity is a feature, not a bug, and there’s a good chance that we were quite welcome to the discussion before we brought up that whole atheism thing.  Let us hang out.  Tell us if we’re telling you what your spiritual reality should be; let us have our spiritual reality and speak from it.  We’ll get along fabulously.  I promise.

My Perfect Altar

My altar is always perfect.  Nowhere upon it are trinkets or tchotchkes, forgotten, to gather dust.  Ashes of incense or stains from forgotten offerings do not blemish it.  It never needs to be cleansed, and nothing upon it polished, for it bears no icons or statues.  I never leave my fingerprints upon it, nor my footprints before it, for I never come to it to pray.

How perfect and beautiful is this simple and artless thing.

Bike Party and the Stupidity of Crowds

Tonight, I had the pleasure of attending the 90s Dance Party Ride, the February ride organized by East Bay Bike Party.  This is the first Bike Party ride I’ve attended since I moved to Oakland, and, to be honest, I wasn’t a frequent rider at its South Bay sister, though South Bay Bike Party did sponsor a number of events that were incredibly helpful to my training in 2009.

There’s so much I want to like about the Bike Party concept.  Large, visible rides…even those that slightly inconvenience automobile traffic…are a critical aspect of bicycle awareness.  Bike Party achieves these rides without resorting to the aggressive “biketivism” that has become associated with Critical Mass.  Rather than being out to change the world, Bike Party is out to have a party.  I think there’s a great demonstration made in a bunch of cyclists (who have a right to the road) getting out, going on a ride like they belong there, and using various public and semi-public places to stage short parties.  I think it not only emboldens cyclists to take the road and to remember that public spaces belong to them, it also sends a message to those who watch Bike Party that you don’t need permission to organize, move, and assemble.  These are noble goals in social consciousness and they center around promoting a mode of transport that more people should adopt.

So, why am I not out there every month?  Well, it’s because somehow Bike Party attracts a kind of stupidity that I can only consider to be a little dangerous, and it always leaves me feeling a bit ambivalent.  Every Bike Party ride I’ve ever attended has seen some good contenders for a Darwin Award.  On one occasion, it was someone showing off his bike’s suspension by seeing how long he could ride in the middle of the Caltrain tracks (answer– 30 yards before flipping).  On another, it was someone trying to grab a lost bike chain off the ground…while in motion…while turning left…in a busy intersection.  On another, it was a fixie rider blowing through a stop sign.  Tonight was a particularly spectacular case because it involved bad ideas from multiple parties.

The first player in this ballet of bad ideas was actually a duo.  Someone had rigged a long-base trailer to his bike, but instead of hauling cargo on it, he was hauling a passenger.  I actually thought it was kinda clever at first…seeing some guy sitting down backwards on a bike trailer.  I hadn’t considered that being physically unprotected only inches from the road might be a bad idea.  Like a chemical reaction screaming for a catalyst, the bike and passenger were themselves perfectly fine and safe on their own.  But, of course, this is Bike Party.  Ask, and you shall receive…

And, in fact, someone came tearing down the oncoming traffic lane on his BMX bike, attempted to pull a tight turn into the moving pack of bikes, and crashed sideways into the bike right at its trailer hitch.  The riders of both bikes took nasty spills, as did the trailer passenger.  The trailer’s frame cracked apart from the stress of the impact.  The instigator of the crash (the guy on the BMX bike) was trying to play this off as “shit happens,” and the guy on the trailer bike was having none of that.  Things were close to coming to blows.  I helped the trailer passenger to the side of the road and tried to find out his condition, but he was strangely slow and confused in his responses.  I don’t suspect a head injury, because I’d yelled to him several times while he was on the bike and was also not responsive.  So, honestly, I suspect he was either very drunk or very high.  I also suspect the BMX rider might not have been wholly sober, but I base that only on reckless behavior and the tendency of many Bike Party riders to have a beer before they hit the road.

This makes me really wonder about the effect of a crowd and a seemingly liberated environment on people.  Part of the group ride experience is the sense that you’re in a pack of bikes large enough that you can feel safe and even feel empowered on the streets.  One bike has to dodge cars.  Twenty bikes is something for the car to deal with instead.  And so, despite the fact that Bike Party posts, and desperately tries to enforce, rules for a safe ride, I see them casually broken.  Bikes filling all the lanes.  Bikes in oncoming lanes.  Bikes running through lights.  Texting while riding.  Drinking while riding.  Riding drunk.  Riding high.  Riding dangerous or with dangerous equipment.  Pulling tricks in traffic or crowds.  I’ve seen all these things, and I’ve been at a total of four Bike Party rides.  The power of festival is that it suspends the rules temporarily, letting people explore an environment from a new, and sometimes forbidden, perspective.  But some of those rules exist so that you don’t break your ribs, and sadly, in these leaderless or semi-leaderless festival spaces, the poor choices of some end up injuring others or breaking property.

Worse than the sense of safety and liberation is likely the “he did it first” mentality.  You see this sort of thing often at red lights.  Rather than wait through a red light, someone plows through it and safely crosses.  This causes some others to try, and since they’re now in the intersection, several more people will believe they’re “running blocking” for them and also go.  Soon, an entire pack is crossing against the light because it becomes less safe to stop in the middle of the pack than to cross against the light.  In this way, bad thinking spreads until a much larger group is now doing it.

What’s unfortunate is that there is no effective solution to this problem.  The “leaders” of a Bike Party can’t really sanction anyone.  They desperately encourage others to be responsible and follow the rules of the road, but they aren’t listened to.  This isn’t a formal group…it’s just a spontaneous gathering of people…and so there’s no way that anyone can do anything about bad behavior other than to take matters in their own hands.  This property of spontaneously arising rather than being organized is simultaneously the group’s biggest strength and its biggest weakness.

And, indeed, this is a metaphor that can be applied to groups with roughly similar structures.  This includes Anonymous and Occupy Oakland.