Monday, April 30, 2012

Blessed Beltane

So ends the seventh year of my winter burning.

Some among my friends know the tale of how, from blackest darkness, I reached out to catch a single spark thrown across a desperate distance, to keep my own fires burning one long Yule night.  How I took that tiny spark, and from it kindled the flame that sustained me until spring.  How I have never forgotten the friend who cast it, and will treasure him to the end of my days.

Some among my friends know that for years, October plagued me with pain, and loss, and the fear of my own ending, how I guarded and fortified myself against it, building reserves of energy, and how I finally began to reach Samhain with some of that energy left over.

Many know how, each year, I gather my fire through the summer months, resting, dormant, to stand beacon from Samhain to Beltane, holding this space of flame for any who need it.  How for the dark half of the year I keep an open vessel, tending the fire with my gathered fuel, releasing those far-flung sparks for those unable to find their way.

Winter brings me into my power, my brightest Fire, my strongest burning.  I may be a child of the Sun, heliotrope, but I require the darkness to truly shine.

There are many kinds of Fire in the world.  There is the hearth fire, which nurtures and sustains.  There is the forge, which creates and challenges.  There is the conflagration, which transforms as it destroys.  I have been all of these, but my winter's fire is the candle in the window, the signal fire, the standing beacon.  Here is home, it says, here is strength and power.  Here are love and family, respite and healing.  Here is a perilous enemy if you try to move against it, but a steadfast friend in need.

Each Samhain, as the sun falls, I step forth in flame.  I hold out my hands in love and in Fire, and I carry them through the dark of the year.  When I hear a voice falter, I lend it my own tale of strength.  When I see a light begin to dim, I offer my own burning to kindle it.  When a friend cries out lost in the Wood, I say "Here, here is the way to familiar ground."  I do what was done for me, and carry it forward in service and in love.  All winter long, I feel the gentle touches, the pulls, that mean someone has used the Fire I carry in need.  Each time, whether I know the touch or not, I smile and thank the gods that I am able to offer it.  Some nights I wake to the desperate, ungentle touch that says someone in great need has reached out to me.  Those nights I'm even more grateful to be able to do this, because I know what it meant to me, for that last frantic grasp to catch and hold.

Each winter has been different.  Some years, I barely notice Beltane's approach, taken by surprise when it's time to bank these fires.  Some years, April stretches out as a long, bitter struggle of will, to keep going without risking my own stability.  This year has been hard, but not bitter.  In recent years I find that others are feeding this fire.  A kind word, a thoughtful gesture, a moment of love or compassion, makes my choice an act of community.  Though I never asked for and do not expect anyone else to help me hold this burning, I'm grateful for everyone who takes even a few moments to say, "I have a little light to share.  Let me add it to the one you carry."  That means that this year, the first year *I* have had to use the winter fire for myself , I could draw from those reserves without the fear that I might not have enough light to share through to spring.

Today, I have slowly been banking my flame, shifting the scattered coals to conserve the remains of the fire until Samhain, releasing the open flames themselves to the bonfires rising across the land.  My power returns to the ember, buried beneath ashes, to smolder until the Wheel brings me back to winter.

Tonight, while my friends and loved ones gather to the Beltane fires in joy and celebration, I offer gratitude for all the many gifts of my life, and I rest now, in love...and in the cool, clear darkness.

Wednesday, April 25, 2012

Just Saying No

Say "No."

Just, right now, say it out loud.  See how it feels, how you feel when you're saying it, how you hold your face and your body.  How does your voice sound when you say it?


Do you feel powerful?  Defiant?



What did you think of, when you said it?  Of things you'd like to say no to, but can't?  Of incursions against your body, your time, your schedule, your budget, that press upon you every day?  Of the constant fight for your own space, your own needs, your own rights?

Do you think of tedious dates you went on because it would have been mean or stuck-up to refuse them?  Of unfulfilling or unwanted sex it was easier to endure than refuse, for the sake of the relationship?  Of late nights worked and family events missed because you felt 'no' would endanger your job?  Of volunteer burnout as 'just one more little thing' is heaped on the already-overworked individuals who pitch in to keep things running for everyone else?  Of words like 'helium hand' or 'voluntold' that mask the common practice of tapping the same small population for an expanding set of tasks?

We are not taught that 'no' is a sacred birthright, that we have not only the right, but the obligation, to establish and defend our boundaries.  We are, instead, taught that our needs are secondary to getting along.  And getting along means that the person with the most power, the most force of personality, the most control, sets the agenda for everyone else, even against their wishes and interests.  We do not resist it, because the current drives so very hard against those who stand up in it.

One of the hardest parts of training newbie Safety Staff is teaching them to put their own needs at the center of their service.  We are there because we WANT to be there, because we WANT to help, because it is important to us that others be safe, and happy, and healthy.  It seems counter to this to stop me and say, "I know I am supposed to be working tonight, but I am exhausted and at the end of my reserves.  I need to sleep instead."  But that, right there, which happened at the last festival I worked, is exactly right.  In that moment, I needed to be told 'No' by someone who knew herself and her limitations far better than I could.  As a leader, 'No' is music to my ears even when it snarls my schedule, because it means that the people working with me are caring for themselves and respecting their own boundaries.

As a woman, it's even more gratifying to hear another woman offer a clear and unapologetic 'no'.  I have struggled, as have so many of the women I know, with the delineation and defense of my boundaries.  I sat on airplanes while men sitting next to me took up the armrest and half my seat as well, but I said nothing because it would be 'rude' to defend the space I paid for.  I just gave up and let the guy on the dance floor keep his hand on my ass because I didn't want to be That Bitchy Prude.  I worked late hours and gave up my evenings because my bosses felt it was 'unfair' to ask married co-workers to give up time with their families.

Over and over, I sacrificed what I wanted and what I needed, because I could not reach and hold 'no'.  Because I attached all the guilt that comes to women who are 'standoffish', 'bitchy', 'rude', or 'ungrateful' to it.  Because I let others establish how we would share the common space and resources and tasks.  Because I internalized the relentless social message that I do not have the right or agency to refuse any treatment, any task, any expectation.  Because, at the heart of it, I had never considered the possibility that my time, my needs, my rights, were equally valuable to anyone else's and deserving of equal respect.

I started saying 'no'.  First, it was a sharp "No!" to obvious incursions.  "No, and let go of me RIGHT NOW."  It was the 'no' that comes with the threat of a short sharp punch to a sensitive body area.  But then, as I got used to how 'No' felt, I was less moved to give it sharp edges.  "No, I can't stay late tonight."  "No, I don't want a free sample."  "No, I'm not interested in going back to your tent."  Firm, clear, unambiguous.

To be honest, it isn't easy.  People push back against it.  They say, "But why not?  You're usually so helpful."  They say, "What will one little date hurt?"  They say, "Why do you have to be so contrary?"  They say, "Can't you just try it out and decide?  Don't be so negative!"  And still I smile, and I say, "No."  No excuses, no apologies, no dissembling.  I generally don't even offer an explanation, because that leads people to think that you're open to negotiation.

It's both liberating and terrifying to claim agency like that.

Now, I feel moved to tackle the larger refusals.  Because once you have mastered, "No (I do not owe you a date just because you got up the nerve to ask)," you can tackle, "You may be a nice guy and all, but women are not beholden to men for sex or companionship simply because you don't go around raping and beating us."  Once you have mastered, "No, I cannot work late tonight (just because you think a single woman's plans are inherently malleable)," you can begin to reach for "I am a valuable employee and deserve equal respect and compensation to any of my co-workers regardless of gender."  Once you have mastered, "No, I will not attend church with you this Sunday (because your church teaches that people I love and value are worthy of scorn and hatred)," you are ready for "I believe that faith is a deeply personal choice and that it is not an appropriate guide for public policy or legislation, and reject attempts to use the false idea of a universal morality to create laws."

And most liberating of all, I find that "No, thank you, I don't want that free makeover/perfume sample/'health survey'," is growing up to be "I reject your right to establish a universal standard for health or beauty based in an idealized body image, appearance, skin tone, or gender identity.  No, I don't want your magazine model beauty and your Ten Tips For Perfect Abs and your sixteen-page foldout article on how to camouflage my flaws or 'tone my trouble areas'.  I am beautiful in myself, and I choose to determine who I shall be and how I shall live."

That is where I hope to end up.  It is a long and arduous process and I am only partway there.

But it begins with a single word, a word I urge you to say, once more with feeling:


Thursday, April 19, 2012

On Privilege

It seems like I spend a lot of time talking about privilege.  Describing it, discussing it, debating whether a situation is due to privilege, or just coincidence.  But what really strikes me is how polarizing a concept it is, and how negatively people react to it.  I'm not sure the negative reaction is warranted, and I think the fault for that is multi-sourced.

Privilege, once you've stripped away all the politics and all the trappings and all the accusations, is the basic idea that some element of who you are can make your place in the world a little softer or a little harder than it might have been otherwise.  It doesn't mean some people are guaranteed a hard or an easy experience at all.

Take, for example, one of the most common privileges:  race.  You cannot escape the advantage of being part of the dominant racial power structure.  People see my white face and they make certain assumptions about me, and don't make others.  It is less likely that I'll be followed in a store as a suspected shoplifter,  and less likely that I'll be assumed to be on welfare, than if I were black or Latina.  I can put a scarf on to cover a bad hair day without being assumed a terrorist, which might happen if I were Middle Eastern.  I am not fetishized as 'exotic' because of the shape of my eyes or the color of my skin -- a daily reality for most non-white women, but especially for those of Asian descent.  If I am chosen over an equally qualified applicant for a job, I don't hear the whispers that I only got the job because the company 'needed more color diversity'.

Finally, it's more likely that I'll be expected to have disposable income, AND I am closer to the 'beauty norm' my society embraces, so advertising is targeted to me, with models that match my own skin tone and vocal intonations.  This means that I'm surrounded by idealized beauty, and that idealized beauty (save the obligatory 'multicultural' token models) looks like the people in my own family.  I get the constant, subtle reinforcement of the message that I am of the dominant paradigm.

On the other hand, I fall to the opposite side of one of the other common privileges:  gender.  I can expect to be paid less than an equally qualified male applicant for the same job.  My medical care is a matter of national public debate.  What I escape in assumptions that what I've earned is based on 'ethnic diversity' I reap in whispers that I slept my way up the ladder or only got a position because the company 'needed more gender diversity'.  I am more likely to be a victim of rape or domestic violence, which colors my interactions with men, my relationship model, and my personal habits.  I have never voluntarily lived in a first-floor apartment, have even paid more or chosen a less-desirable location to avoid it, because of the possibility of peeping toms, or intruders coming through a window.  When I began college, I received messages from every direction, telling me how to avoid rape, an overwhelming chorus of voices:  Don't relax.  Don't trust.   Above all, remember that you are never safe.

More people, my first year of college, told me how to avoid being raped by a friend or a stranger than told me how to choose classes, develop study habits, find an internship, and work with my professors for my own success.  I am told, daily, to spend an incredible amount of time, money, and energy on the fact that I have no right to expect to be respected or even safe and must work harder to secure these things for myself.

Are these examples universal?  No, absolutely not.  Am I guaranteed higher wages based on my skin and lower ones based on my gender, regardless of what I do?  No, of course not.  I can do things to change my lot.  I can become aggressive about pursuing compensation, work harder and longer hours, and prove my worth.  If I look or dress a certain way, I'll reap the same assumptions about welfare or shoplifting.  But the essence of privilege is that, all else being equal, certain things provide an advantage.  Two people of different skin colors, born in the same city to parents of equal socioeconomic status, educated in the same schools, wearing the same clothes, achieving the same grades and working equally hard, SHOULD expect the world to treat them the same way, and receive the same rewards.  But they can't expect that, because it doesn't happen.  A man and a woman who put equal work into school and their professional lives, who are equally qualified and competent, should expect equal respect and compensation.  But they can't expect that, because it doesn't happen.

And the next part is important:  the fact that it doesn't happen doesn't mean anything about them personally.  Having privilege doesn't make you a racist.  It doesn't make you a sexist.  It doesn't make you homophobic, classist, ableist, or any other form of bigot.  It says absolutely nothing about YOU except your demographics.  Privilege is about where you fall when it comes to institutionalized barriers to success, not how you treat other people, whether you've worked for what you've got, whether you've ever consciously discriminated against another person.  It means that the system tilted towards you in certain circumstances, and whether you chose to or not, you received certain advantages with that tilt.  Most of those advantages boil down to not having had to put extra time, money, and energy into things other people spend a lot to overcome.

To check your own privilege is not admitting you had it easy.  It's admitting that you could have had it harder, and that some people did.  It's admitting that your perspective is informed by a system that's spent your entire life (and decades before you were born) affirming that the center of the 'normal' bell curve is arranged around an ideal that shares certain traits with you.  Most of all, it's admitting that you acknowledge the barriers you never had to scale, and saying you want to tear those down, so that those who work as hard as you do can earn the same rewards.

And almost no one falls on the 'privileged' side of the equation universally.  I am a white, straight, able-bodied college-educated middle-class thirty-something overweight pagan woman who suffers from chronic depression.  Sometimes the world isn't fair to me.  Sometimes it's fairer than I've earned.  The privilege that affects my perspective is layered and nuanced, and I don't always pick it out, but like most people I'm pretty quick to see my own disadvantages.

Of course, this brings me to the final question:  what do you DO about it?  You learn to acknowledge it gracefully, you learn to listen when someone points out an advantage to you, and you stop to consider whether your perspective is based on institutional advantages.  When you find yourself without privilege, you learn to call it out without necessarily attacking the people who have it -- instead remembering that its *existence* is the enemy, not its *beneficiaries*.

Most of all, when you find yourself *with* privilege, you work to end it, not by dragging yourself down or placing artificial barriers but by working to remove those barriers for others.  My clearest example of this is that two groups of people worked to give women the vote:  Women who stood up fearlessly and demanded it, and men who stood beside them and used their own voting privilege to extend it.  No one thought to say that men shouldn't have the vote; removing privilege should not disenfranchise or harm those born to it.  My life shouldn't get harder as barriers for others are removed, but the resulting fair competition should make us ALL stronger and faster.

Monday, April 16, 2012

Festival Planning and the Deliberate Lack Thereof

Hope for the best, but prepare for the worst.

That has been my attitude towards pagan festivals for the last fifteen years, ever since I started to realise both how beautiful an experience they could be, and how badly things might go off the rails.  Among all the incredible experiences I've had, I've also seen broken and dislocated body parts, miscarriage, terrifying weather, dangers from the outside, dangers from within, drug overdoses, domestic violence, communities tearing themselves apart, people overwhelmed by grief or loss or shame or fear, and all manner of collapses -- be they physical, emotional, or spiritual.

People consistently tell me that my worries over an upcoming festival are out of line with my happy calm during it, or out of proportion with the actual happenings at the event.  I fully acknowledge both of these as true.  It's because there is a factor I do not account for in my festival planning:  people are incredible beings.  I believe it's fully possible that when there is a crisis, people will step forward and shine in ways I have never considered.  I have seen it too many times not to believe it.  However, I refuse to rely on it for planning purposes.

When danger or trouble threatens, the practiced team assembles and begins to function as they have before.  The leaders begin to direct, and experienced hands set to the work of stability.  Those with an easy smile and a comforting demeanor step out among the frightened and begin to set minds at ease, and those with more force behind their eyes move to head off anyone seeking advantage or power in the chaos.  The healers begin to tend hearts and bodies as the wounded are brought in.  I cannot count the number of times I've seen a Chief or Lead start to say, "Could someone...oh, you're already doing it.  Thank you."  Hell, I can't even count the times I've said it myself.  

But it never goes smooth, doesn't run to plan.  Never once has any situation gone as expected, because something invariably happens to knock the plans off-kilter.  A storm plus a medical emergency plus an equipment failure plus a personal conflict breaks down a set of backups that should have been a failsafe, and the plans have to change very fast when most resources are already committed.  Into that moment, every time, comes an unexpected voice.

Maybe it's a voice that's never spoken up before, or one that's been long silent.  Maybe it's one that had always spoken in a different context.  Maybe it's one that had been overlooked.  But whatever the reason it wasn't heard before, now it is.  "I can do that."  "I've got it."  "I can handle it."  "Leave that to me."

I never plan for that voice.  You CAN'T plan for it, because you have no way to know whose it will be and what you'll need in that moment.   Maybe a new mother has heat exhaustion and you need capable hands into which to place her child for an hour.  Maybe a pavilion has collapsed and you need someone to assist vendors as they recover their merchandise.  Maybe two key people have fallen out and won't speak, and a mediator has to be found so that they can both work on a problem.  

You may also be learning something new about someone.  A hobby that had never come up in conversation, a former profession that hadn't been mentioned.  Whatever the case, whatever falls outside the plan, someone shines forth unexpectedly to handle it calmly.  He or she fits into the structure seamlessly, and the plan shifts around the space to flow correctly again.

When I worry about a festival, I'm not worrying about my people and whether they'll stand to what they've committed to do.  There's no question there.  I'm not worrying that we have not prepared as well as we should, that we're not ready for the things that are reasonable or likely to happen.  I am worrying over the unexpected, the unplanned crisis, the shifting moment in which all formulae must be recalculated with a new variable, and hoping very much that we will hear that unexpected voice.

It has never let me down, not once, but still I leave it outside my plans.  Like grace, like beauty, like love, like the fae, I know that once I begin to assume or grasp at it, it will fade and shatter out of my life.

Tuesday, April 10, 2012

Merideth and the Tornadoes

Now, I lived in some part of Tornado Alley for approximately thirty years.  I technically still do, but Austin is a major metropolitan area surrounded by hills, with a big body of water running through it -- so I no longer think about tornadoes three times a week from March to June.

A few years ago, I took my best friend Merideth to Kansas for a camping event at the end of May.  She had never been to Kansas, or really anywhere in the Midwest, and certainly not during spring storm season.  There was some rain and a little storming, but mostly a low-key weekend, weather-wise.  Monday, we packed everything back into the Subaru and headed home.

The trouble started just north of the Kansas-Oklahoma border on I-35.  Large black thunderclouds built up to our right and began bearing down.  I put on speed.  No chance of outrunning a storm, but I spent three years driving that stretch of road at least once a month, and there's precious little out there.  I hoped to be a little closer in to Oklahoma City before the worst of it broke.  No such luck.

About fifteen minutes later, the storm hit with a force that nearly threw us off the road.  I dropped speed and put my full attention to the wheel and the lanes in front of me, until the rolling waves of rain reduced visibility too badly to continue.   We looked for an overpass for shelter, but the only one we passed was already full, two minivans and a couple of sedans huddled together under it.  So I fought the wind over to the right shoulder next to a likely-looking section of ditch.  Merideth suggested we turn on the radio to see if we could get a sense of the size of the storm.

What greeted us was fear.  A large tornado was on the ground south of Blackwell and moving to the south along I-35.  Blackwell is about 15 miles south of the border with Kansas.  So were we.  There aren't a lot of signs for the town, and I'd been focused on the road itself.  We were either just north of Blackwell, in which case we needed to stay put for the all-clear, or south of it, in which case we needed to try to find some shelter.

We talked it over, and I explained about not knowing if we were safe or in the direct path of a tornado.  Merideth, to her credit, took the news with remarkable calm and equanimity.  She asked what she needed to be doing, if there was any way to find out which it was.  No, I told her, without a mile marker or any other sort of sign, we couldn't even call a friend to look us up on the map.

The whole time, I was watching.  For a green sky, for a black sky.  For the wind to stop, or for it to rise to a scream.  Listening for the sound of a train, scanning the horizon for a funnel cloud.  We watched the wall cloud rise and move across the sky.  No one drove by.  The radio told us of more tornadoes in our area.  We'd ended up in the middle of a supercell.

"Hey, Mer?" I said, keeping my voice as light as possible.  "I need you to do something for me.  Get your phone..."

"My phone's out of juice, remember?"

"That's OK.  Get it, and your keys, and your credit card, and, um, your ID.  I need you to put them all in that little purse you got yesterday, and, uh, tie the straps through your belt loops.  Attach it really tightly.  You'll...need that if we have to run."

Merideth, trusting and oblivious to what I was asking her to do, complied quickly.  I checked to make sure that my own ID was securely affixed to my body as well.  We reached into the back and got out our pillows.  I explained to Mer that if I yelled, "RUN!" she was to, without looking back or waiting for anything, get to the ditch at the side of the road, and get as much of her body under the ditch-water as possible, with the pillow over her head.

She asked me, "And that will keep us safe from the tornado?"

"Yes," I lied.  We were alone, in the middle of the Oklahoma plain, with no more protection than an eight-year-old Subaru Legacy and a three-foot ditch.  I was not sanguine about our odds.  It started to hail.  We chatted about the festival as I kept an eye on the horizon.

Eventually the hail stopped and the rain let up a little bit, and we decided to risk the road again.  The Blackwell tornado had dissipated, so either we were north of it, or it hadn't reached us.  A few miles later, we passed a sign for the town, glad we'd decided to stay put and watch the sky rather than getting back on the road.

Even so, the radio was still giving us warnings.  Tonkawa, Ponca City, Lamont, Billings.  Take shelter, take cover, get underground, a funnel is in your area.  We kept driving, as fast as safely possible, looking for any sort of shelter and watching the sky.  The few cars we could see kept pace with us.  I noticed the start of a rotation off to our left.

"Mer?  Can you watch that section of sky for me, right over there, while I focus on the road?"

"Sure!"  A few minutes passed.  "Hey, Badger?"


"What am I watching it for?"

"Oh.  Yeah, sorry.  If it goes green, goes black, or starts to drop, tell me right away."

"OK!"  To this day, I remain amazed at how calmly cheerful she was.

By this point, I was pushing the Legacy close to 70, then up to 80 as the rain slowly dropped off.  Ahead of us, I saw moving water across both lanes of the highway.  We hit it and splashed through it too fast to register whether or not we hydroplaned, and then we were on the other side.  To our right, the ditch was full of water, lapping at the edges of the highway.  The median was flooded as well.

We were headed for another section of moving water, this one much faster and wider.  I know all about driving into running water and the reasons you don't do it.  I had about two seconds to think, "Water rising behind, water rising beside, nowhere to run but forward," before we hit it.  I felt the front wheels leave the pavement, and was still new enough to the All-Wheel Drive that I was confused when the car continued to respond.  The front wheels caught just before the rear ones came up, and we kept moving.

We were headed towards a cluster of police lights.  I started to slow down to a more legal speed.  The lights were drawing attention to a State Trooper, standing near the side of the road where water threatened to flood again, waving drivers on faster.  We complied; I held the wheel tightly and kept it at 80 for the next several miles.

About half an hour north of Oklahoma City, we finally passed out of the storm.  We pulled off in a Braum's parking lot so I could shake for a little while, and have a small nervous breakdown and some ice cream, then passed the rest of the trip pleasantly and uneventfully.

The next day, we told this story to Merideth's roommates.  When she got to the part where I had her tie her purse to her, they all blinked and said, "Oh.  Oh, wow, it was that bad?"

Mer looked at them, and at me, somewhat blankly.  "Um," I said.  "Yeah.  I may not have been completely forthcoming about that.  I thought that if there was a tornado, it might be good to make it easier to identify our bodies."

She blinked.  She opened her mouth.  She closed it.  She opened and closed it a few more times.  She blinked again.

"I am not going back to Kansas!  The sky tried to KILL ME!"