Honoring Our Dead Means Acknowledging War’s Truths

It’s Memorial Day here in the United States.

In the resort town I live in, that means a return of the tourists (and their money), and the true beginning of summer. But of course, Memorial Day is about much more than the local supermarket going to longer hours, or a day off for school kids and bankers.

Memorial Day was created out of “Decoration Day,” during which people cleaned up and decorated military graves in a ritual that is almost pagan in nature. Unfortunately in my view, the 1968 move from observing Memorial Day on May 30th to doing so on “the last Monday in May” in order to create a three-day weekend may have done much to undermine the occasions traditional meaning.

As a shaman whose work includes the Dead, and for me specifically, the wandering Dead, I’m saddened at the diminishing of the day’s meaning. To be clear I’m not someone who would generally be considered a “patriot,” and for the most part, I don’t support our country’s wide ranging and ill-defined military activities around the world these days.

We are generally a society that seeks to sanitize death in a way that allows us to distance ourselves not only from the reality of death, but from the dead themselves. The days when loved ones would clean and dress a body, or have them in the home between death and burial, are quaint memories of a time past. For this reason, among others, I deeply wish there was a day when as a society we could stop and reflect on just what war means for all those involved.

In my view, this whole issue of understanding war and what it means, is particularly important, and at times challenging, for neo-pagans and modern polytheists. We glorify and honor warriors above others in many of our traditions, and I’m not arguing that that’s a bad thing per say. But faith and devotion should, if nothing else, be intellectually, spiritually, and historically honest. If we are going to truly honor warriors, we can’t ignore the reality of war.

In the words of WWII veteran Eugene Sledge:

As I looked at the stains on the coral, I recalled some of the eloquent phrases of politicians and newsmen about how “gallant” it is for a man to “shed his blood for his country,” and “to give his life’s blood as a sacrifice,” and so on. The words seemed so ridiculous. Only the flies benefited. – With the Old Breed: At Peleliu and Okinawa (Sledge, E.B.) p.144

If you think death is any gentler or prettier when it comes from a sword, arrow, mace, or pike, instead of an artillery shell or machine gun, you’re sadly mistaken.

Now more than ever it’s so important to try to understand the brutal, ugly truth of war.

Continue reading

My Summer’s Dawn

Summer's Dawn

The winter’s dark and cold have finally relinquished their hold on us, and not a moment too soon. Here in southern Maine, Beltane marks the turning point passed which snow, while not impossible, would at the least be a surprise, and wouldn’t last long.

We’re into the time between Beltane and Solstice, a fertile time for growth and beginnings. It’s a scary, but also exciting time in my own life right now. My day job, which I’m generally fond of doesn’t pay enough to cover my share of our bills. In six months, with my folks’ retirement, we will lose the generous financial support that has helped keep us afloat.

The pressure of needing to look for more income has forced me to finally actively pursue answers to some of my lifelong health issues, in the hope that new management strategies could make it easier for me to stay healthy enough for work.

It’s also led me to ask some of the really big and complex questions about who I am and where I want to go with my life and my Work. My Lady affords me quite a lot of freedom in many ways, and that freedom can be both heady and scary.

Continue reading

It IS The End of the World

note: this originally appeared as the opening essay for Bilerico.com’s What You Need To Know on 12/21/12, but is probably better suited to NFABS. 

Due to a common misunderstanding of the Mayan’s concept of the nature of existence, there’s a rather tongue in cheek meme that says the world is due to end today. As I’m writing the What You Need To Know at 1am EST, I’m pretty confident that there will still be people around it when it posts at 10am. And again, the end of the world isn’t what the Mayans predicted, if you’re inclined to worry about one particular Mesoamerican people’s calendar over any others.

That said, our world certainly is being transformed at a remarkable rate. In the words of celebrated sci-fi/fantasy author Catherynne M. Valente, I’m a “Challenger.” That is, I belong to the short and somewhat overlooked age cohort that is pre-Millennial, but post-Generation X, defined by Ms. Valente as those of us who watched the Challenger disaster unfold live in our elementary school or early middle school classrooms.  

Every generation since the dawn of Industrial Revolution has seen radical change in their lifetimes of course. My own great grandfather was born in the era of the horse and buggy, but died after seeing humans leave footprints on another planet. Things are no different for the Challengers.

The most visible changes in our world of course have been information oriented. I was ten when ARPANET was officially decommissioned and commercial ISPs began piping internet and World Wide Web access into people’s homes. I don’t have hard figures, but I’d be surprised if any but a few of the most powerful computers on earth when I was born could rival the computing power most of us carry in our pockets today. And for better or worse, the connected nature of the internet age has created a global community with both the good and bad characteristics of a small town or village.

I also grew up from the fourth grade on with the specter of global warming (now global climate change) hanging over my head. My peers and I were told time and time again of the consequences that would come to pass if the threat posed by global warming to the planet wasn’t addressed. Challengers, and the generation after us, grew up with the knowledge that the planet was sick, and we came to realize that older folk didn’t have all that much in the way of will or resources to do a lot about it. We’ve watched in mounting horror as climatological changes that as children we were told our children or grandchildren might see in their lifetimes, have come to pass already or are predicted well within our own.

At the same time, there have been positive changes too. I first learned of the AIDS crisis as a boy at my great-aunt’s house for Thanksgiving, where on the TV I heard a news report about Ryan White. My mother, a teacher, was simultaneously outraged at the unfairness of his treatment, and sympathetic to the scared parents of his peers who were trying to protect their children from an unfamiliar and terrifying illness.

But while HIV/AIDS is still with us, we’ve managed to chain it and remove much of its destructive power (at least in the wealthy first world). HIV/AIDS is not unlike Fenrir in the Norse cosmology, it took all our cunning and know-how to mitigate its destructive power, though even bound it still poses a danger. And should it outsmart us someday, the consequences could be beyond dire.  

Along the way, the crucible of the AIDS crisis helped force the creation the modern LGBT civil rights movement. Just as advances in computer and communication technology over the last thirty years has been inconceivably fast, the changes in freedom, rights, and our place in society as queer/LGBT people is staggering.

Part of the reason that the conservative right in America, and other nations, fight against our equal place in society so doggedly, is that they aren’t entirely wrong about what’s happening to society. The world they knew is vanishing. Some of that is because their world was always an illusion, a mutually agreed upon suspension of disbelief in which white middle class Christians pretended their experience was universal, and in exchange for being somewhat left alone, everyone else tried not to upset the balance of their imaginings.

But beyond that, our culture and understanding of the world has changed, as it pretty much continually has for the last two hundred years or so. Change can be terrifying. The End Of The World, at least if you’re deeply invested in your world remaining exactly how it’s always been.

So in that, maybe the prognostications of the Mayans (or what people think of that way) are correct. The world is ending today after all, but only because it is perpetually ending and being made anew. Perhaps now more so than ever.

A Gun Owner’s Response to the Tragedy in CT

This post originally ran on The Bilerico Project on 12/14/12

I suppose people consider me something of a gun nut, and I’ve written on here before about firearms ownership and the LGBT community, which is why I felt it was important to write this post. You probably won’t hear from most “gun nuts” or 2nd Amendment groups today, and when you do, there’s a decent chance they’ll have something incredibly insensitive an unproductive to say.

This is a problem.

The tragedy today in Connecticut is incomprehensible to me as a human being, as it probably should be to anyone with a soul. What I do know is that it wouldn’t have happened the way it did if guns were harder to acquire in the United States, which likely isn’t what the firearm advocacy groups are going to say today.

I know that many on the right and left might find it hypocritical of me to say that as a law-abiding gun owner, I don’t particularly wish to give up my 2nd Amendment rights, while also saying that we need more regulation of firearms and far greater penalties for violating gun laws. And like it or not, at some point, we as a nation will have to delve into the Pandora’s Box of mental illness and access to deadly weapons.

The reality is that in many but not all countries where guns are far harder to get, these sorts of tragedies just don’t happen with the clockwork-like regularity with which they do in the United States. Although they do happen, as we learned in Norway last year.

At the same time, we also can’t let ourselves get solely bound up in a debate around guns, when we need to be looking at the much larger question of what causes these terrible things to happen. It’s far easier to make this a sterile discussion of policy and law, or to sling mud at our ideological opposites, than it is to try to look for sense in the midst of a senseless nightmare. While there can be no doubt or debate that guns make it easier for madmen to take dozens of lives, focusing solely on the gun part of the equation is a distraction from looking at the bigger issue, that stories like these point to where we’ve failed as a society.

I spoke to my mother today, an educator for nearly four decades. She told me that a common refrain she hears is that we should have police officers in every school in America. Yet, there doesn’t seem to be any will to have a meaningful discussion of how terribly that very idea reflects on who and what we’ve become as a nation. We want easy solutions so we can go back to our ordinary lives in comfort, but both the issue of guns and the far broader issue of why these situations are happening, require more depth than that.

The broader issues of society go far beyond the scope of this post, but I do want to take a moment and talk about guns.

There needs to be an acknowledgment from the pro-gun community that there is something about our firearms laws and practices in this country that simply isn’t working. Moreover, people on the conservative right who argue for greater firearms access, even beyond the point of reason (such as the gun show loophole), while simultaneously favoring severe cuts to the social safety net, including the funding of programs that provide physical and mental health care for disadvantaged Americans, need be be called out for the conflict of their positions. You don’t get to say “it should be easier to get a gun” and “people don’t need mental health care.” Finally, the fact that the pro-gun position and argument in America is deeply rooted in issues of race and class privilege, needs to be talked about and addressed by advocates of responsible firearms ownership, rather than just opponents.

At the same time, those on the Left who see a story like today’s and think that things will be all better if guns are taken away from everyone except the police and military, have to start looking beyond simple solutions to what is clearly a complex social problem. Remaining fixated on gun prohibition as the only acceptable outcome distracts from the possibility of real, constructive change. People opposed to gun ownership also need to understand that there are many good people in America who own guns for recreation, sport, or personal protection. Many, if not most of us, are open to a meaningful dialog around how we can work together through legislation and public education to help make guns safer for everyone. However, the all-too common rhetoric that paints all gun owners with the same brush as mass murders makes cooperation and compromise seem impossible.

I wish I had a good conclusion to this post, but I don’t. My abilities as a writer are not up to the task of talking about the shooting today in language that truly does justice to the scope of what has happened, and after many abortive attempts, I’ve decided not to try.

All I can do is ask that we all acknowledge that there are complex issues involved here, and little to be gained by looking for one-size-fits-all solutions. Whether we are advocates for or against gun ownership, we owe it to the victims not only of this tragedy and ones past, but also to potential victims of the future, to have a meaningful dialog and work together for real and lasting change.

POTD 3/17/12 Could Have Been Me

Note: After months of planning, I’m at Dark Odyssey Winter Fire for the weekend, so this may be my last post until Tuesday. Regular scheduled posts will return next week.

The Huffington Post ran a piece a few days ago from a mother whose 7yr old son recently declared that he was gay. It was a lovely essay about love and acceptance, with a bit of parental concern in there too. The parents are being supportive of his identity, while at the same time, understanding that what he feels at seven may or may not be how he feels in the months and years to come. They seem quite content to take him at his word and see what does or doesn’t change with time.

There have been quite a lot of people on internet message boards saying that this is ridiculous, that this child can’t know at such a young age that he is gay. I’ve seen this particularly on LGBT message boards, where people are holding up their own coming out at older ages as proof that seven is “too young.”

Now, I didn’t know that I was gay/queer at seven, but not because I didn’t like boys. I can remember my best friend in 2nd or 3rd grade was a boy named Noah, and I distinctly remember thinking that I wanted to grow up and marry him. I didn’t know that there was such a thing as “gay” at the time, but if I had, I would have considered myself to be so. Certainly by 4th grade I was having serious crushes on boys in my school and religious community.

I don’t know if this boy will continue to ID as gay as he gets older, no one really can. But the idea that all kids are heterosexual until proven otherwise is starting to crack up. It isn’t prematurely sexualizing a child to consider their orientation in my view. After all, children’s books, movies, and family conversations, even at a young age, involve questions of marriage and relationships. Prince Charming *always* lands the Disney princess and they live happily ever after. We talk to children about what their lives will be like, “when you have kids” or “someday your wife/husband will…” Is it so hard to imagine that when some of us pictured our futures even when we were young, it was a same sex spouse we were having kids with, or another man/woman who was walking us down the aisle?

You also might check out this mother’s other excellent essays on her experiences, which began when she wrote a simple post about  her son’s crush on Blaine from Glee and progresses from there.