Wednesday, November 27, 2019

When holidays go bad...

For the most part, holidays are intended to be celebrations, happy and joyous times where we gather together and have a good time.  There are some that are more somber, days of remembrance more than celebrations, but even those have started becoming reasons to party for many people. 

Many people are also learning that what they thought they knew about holidays, and the roots that they grew from, just isn't accurate.  Some of the holidays that we use to celebrate noble ideals, are actually built on lies and misinformation. 

Part of the problem is that many holidays, and the traditions we associate with them, are ingrained in us from childhood.  When we were little, we didn't understand all of what a holiday meant, and we definitely didn't know that there might be more sinister aspects to them.  All we knew is that holidays meant parties at school, special activities (no regular classes!) and the best holidays meant no school at all.  We were taught super clean, upbeat versions of what the holidays meant, and of course these focused on the positive, and so that is what we associated holidays with.

Thanksgiving is a great example.  There is a commonly told story of how the Pilgrims and Indians sat down to a happy dinner together, how the Indians shared the bounty of their harvest, and helped the Pilgrims make it through the harsh winters.

As many people are now aware, the actual history just didn't go that way.  The interactions between the Pilgrims and Indians was not the idyllic story we were told in grade school, and the fact that most of Thanksgiving imagery reinforces this farce makes celebrating it problematic for many people.

Now, I'm not going to go into a whole thing on the true story of Thanksgiving.  My point is more on how do we deal with the potential issue of holidays that have troubled pasts?  I don't think we need to stop celebrating Thanksgiving, but I do think that we also shouldn't just keep sweeping the truth under the rug. 

Thanksgiving today is not about Pilgrims and Indians.  Once you are out of school, you don't talk about that at Thanksgiving dinner.  Thanksgiving today is about family, food, and often Football.  It is a time to express gratitude, that is something that I think remained, but even that is something that is falling by the wayside.  Many people have rocky relationships with their extended family, which makes big family dinners less than pleasant, and when you add in the fact that a lot of us have moved away from the place we lived as a child, and our families are spread across the country (if not globe), even the basic big family dinner is fading away.

I think we all need to find our own peace with the holidays we celebrate, in any fashion.  I do think we need to talk about the origins of the things we do, and think about how we are teaching these traditions to future generations. 

If history has taught us anything it is that times and attitudes change.  Things that were acceptable in the past, are no longer tolerated, and so holiday origins and activities that might have been okay in some other place and time might need to be reevaluated. 

I do think that holidays can evolve though.  We have seen this!  If you look at how a holiday was celebrated a hundred years ago, many people would be surprised.  We tend to think that how things were when we were little is how they have always been, but every generation adds their own small change to things, and over the years this adds up.  Not to mention that sometimes, big global issues will cause changes (like when there is a war or natural disaster, and people have to adjust).

I think the best thing we can do, is to explore our holidays.  Look at how they started, and look at how we have celebrated them over the years.  Don't take holidays on blind faith, and don't rely upon your memories of childhood (tinged with childhood's natural blinders) for what they mean. 

But I also feel like we can explore the themes behind the holidays, we can find new ways of expressing them...ways that work for our current time and culture.  We are poised in a place where techology is progressing so fast, and people are teetering on the brink of either embracing the new and rushing forward with both arms open and pulling back, clutching the old ways and refusing to change.  Progress, however is somewhat inevitable, and it is highly likely that things will keep ticking forward, no matter how we personally feel about them.

Taking time to sit and really delve into our relationship with a holiday and how it fits in our lives allows us to pull back the blinders and find healthy ways to honor the meaning of them.  For Thanksgiving this may mean spending more time thinking about our relationships with our family, possibly expanding our definition of family (blood isn't the only family you have, in my book).  It may mean thinking about how we can open our eyes to the ways in which we remember history, and how we tend to accept the accounts of the 'winners' of any situation....and maybe even seek out the stories of those who lost, so we can have a more complete picture of what actually went on.

I think that examining history gives us the power to choose how we move forward, instead of just following along the path that has been charted for us.  And reclaiming our holidays so that they are truly meaningful to us, in ways that empower our lives and give us tools to honoring the things that are important to us, is a way to use the lessons of history to grow, instead of being trapped by it.

Wednesday, November 20, 2019

Secular versus Religious holidays

We are firmly in what I think of as the Holiday season.  Even though, as a Pagan, I celebrate a holiday every month and a half, this time from Halloween until Valentines, just feels like the whole world is rushing from one holiday to the next.

Everything is holiday themed, and not only that, we experience holiday creep.  I understand why many people might not spend as much time on Halloween (okay I understand it in theory *grin), but there is this desire to start pushing the next holiday before the last one has even finished.  The fact that we have Christmas things being highlighted in stores in October is crazy to me.

Now, when I think of secular versus religious holidays, I am mostly thinking about the mass marketed versions of holidays compared to the actual traditions we hold dear and practice.  Even when I was little, Christmas at home was different from Christmas in the greater world.  My childhood memories of Christmas aren't as much about the gifts (yes, I was a child, I loved gifts...but gifts were only a small part of Christmas), but the whole process.

I loved it from the moment we broke out the boxes of decorations.  We always put up a tree, but we also had a nativity, we had a (reusable) advent calendar we did every year (and if I was lucky I got a chocolate advent as well!), we hung garlands all over the house.  We put lights in the windows and on the bushes out front. 

And it was a process.  We put on holiday music and sang while we decorated.  We baked cookies and bread to give as gifts.  We had eggnog and lit fires in the fireplace.  We gathered with family to celebrate and eat and spend time together.

Outside the house, it was all consumerism.  Buy this stuff, then buy this other stuff.  In the greater world, nothing about Christmas was actually about the holiday itself, it was all just trying to get you to buy things.  And that is a pretty common theme with a lot of secular holidays.  We push all these things that are being sold, even for holidays that don't traditionally require stuff.

I feel like we sometimes forget what holidays are even about.  We are so busy handling all the stuff, we neglect the actual heart of the holiday.  Thanksgiving isn't about family time anymore or giving thanks, it's about all the sales (for Christmas).  Veterans day isn't about remembering and honoring our soldiers but about buying ribbons (which sometimes don't even benefit soldiers, there are a lot of horrible scams out there that prey on people's desire to fit in and do good).  Valentines isn't about spending time with your loved one but buying stuff to 'prove' how much you love them.

And sometimes it can be hard to juggle all of this!  Thanksgiving comes at the end of the three harvest festivals for Pagans, so we have already celebrated the harvest and given thanks.  But many of us still do Thanksgiving with our non-Pagan families.  Instead of taking it as a literal time to give thanks for the bounty of the season, we can take the time to focus on our gratitude for the family we have (whether it is our blood family or our chosen family, or both!). 

We almost always do something for Thanksgiving, even if it's just a meal we planned ahead of time.  It's not always a huge deal (this year we are making chili, yum!), and depending on work schedules we may not do much more than eat.  If we have time, we do like to do family stuff on holidays, like play board games or watch movies together...really just spending time doing the things we like to do.

And to me, that is what a lot of secular holidays are about.  They may have roots in other things, but they are often community builders in some way.  They remind us to think about our loved ones, to remember our soldiers, to honor our dead, to acknowledge the people who came before us and made our country into what it is.  Each and every holiday calls us to focus on one particular community, and to appreciate it.

Community is what binds us together.  Holidays help us keep those community connections, they help build strong societies that care about each other.  Without holidays, we might forget the sacrifices that have been made in the past and continue to be made every day.  It is very easy to get caught up in our own lives, to think only about what directly effects us, and to not remember that there are a million things and people that are working day and night (and have worked throughout our history) to give us the life we have today.

With religious holidays, we place a greater importance on looking at why we are celebrating, and I think that bringing that emphasis back into secular holidays will make them have more impact.  New Years shouldn't just be a day to justify getting drunk, but celebrating a new start, a brand new year, a new chance to create the life we want to live.  Valentines shouldn't be a day to make up for the rest of the year or buy your way into your loved one's graces, but a celebration of the emotions that bond you together.

Over the years, we have lost the soul of our holidays, but we can bring them back.  If we look into the origins of the holidays, if we think about what they mean, not only when they were first celebrated, but the evolution of that meaning in our current day and age.  Some holidays have changed, and have taken on new meanings. 

Keeping that meaning in mind, we can then start bringing that message into our celebrations.  We can search out ways to honor those energies and experiences in our lives, to reach out and support the people who are being recognized, and to infuse our activities with power, instead of just buying a themed decoration and then tossing it without a thought when the holiday is over, already looking towards what we need to buy for the next one.

Wednesday, November 13, 2019

Difficult dead

Now is the time of remembering for many of us.  We let our minds drift back to those who came before, and we honor them.  But sometimes we are left with a tricky situation.  We may have ancestors who participated in activities we find distasteful (or downright reprehensible).  It might have been someone we knew who has passed on, someone we didn't have a good relationship with.  Or it might have been someone from long ago, when people and society operated according to different rules than we find acceptable today.

As pagans, our relationship with the dead is often an active one.  We don't just lay flowers on a grave, we invite them to our table.  We converse with them and lay out offerings.  There is a sense of exchange, a sense of knowing.  And this can bring up a lot of issues.

Firstly, many people struggle with the ethics of approaching dead who may not share our faith and beliefs.  Especially the more recent dead, who may have had very strong ideas about Paganism or witchcraft.  Should we reach out or should we leave them alone?  It is my personal opinion that creating the space for that connection to form isn't a bad thing.  If you get no response, or feel a pulling away, then don't pursue it, but you may be surprised.  I think that the dead have a very different perspective on things than they did when they were alive.

When it comes to dead who you had a bad relationship with in life, I think this is something each person has to deal with on their own terms.  Each relationship is different, and we all have different ways of dealing with things.  What works for one person, might not work for another.  I would say though, that no one should be obligated to work with a spirit that they don't feel comfortable with.  It kind of reminds me of the abuser/victim dynamic.  It doesn't matter what therapy or reformation the abuser is going through, they can't force contact or reconciliation with their victims.  It should always be the victims choice how the relationships progresses.  If you abuse someone and they never want to meet you, let you apologize or forgive you, that is their right.  It doesn't matter how much the dead may want to make amends, sometimes it's not something you want, and you have the right to not engage with them.

Going back a bit further, we often hear stories of our not-so-far-gone relatives (but ones we didn't know personally).  You know the stories, about how great-great-grandpa used to own slaves or beat up gay people.  Here we are starting to get into a different kind of tricky.  Society plays a huge role in how we behave, and when you are raised to believe that certain things are okay, you may not know better.  Or, you may, in your heart of hearts, feel bad doing something, but be afraid for your own safety (or that of your family) if you stand up to the status quo. 

For me, the distinction comes back around to intent, and this becomes much harder to know at first glance.  I have relatives that have said or done things that just wouldn't be done today.  Some I know absolutely had no ill will in their hearts.  They used words that are unacceptable today, because that was what they were raised with.  If I were to have overheard a conversation, I might not know this however.  I might think that they were a prejudiced person, and might judge them accordingly.

I think that, on some level, I want to explore my lineage, to know who my people are.  I want to find out if my kin did things out of ignorance, if they did the best they could in a hard time, or if they used the rules of society to lash out and be cruel.  To take a modern day example, there are people who use the internet as a mask, and because it is 'anonymous' they delight in causing pain and strife...just because they can.  In many ways, to me, people's motivations are more telling then their actions.

Many Pagans work outside of their own blood lines as well.  We may call on spirits who's lives inspire us, or who's words and works have changed how we think.  When I am really touched by someone, I often want to know more about them.  I read about their life, and sometimes troubling things come up.

It is really easy to discount someone because  of one aspect of their life.  But I think that people are complex beings and not only can we make mistakes (which we may greatly regret later in life, I know I have plenty of those), but we can be very right in some areas and very wrong in others. 

This reminds me a lot in "don't throw the baby out with the bathwater."  If someone leaves behind a legacy that has real value, but they also did some horrible things, we don't have to completely turn away from them.  We can accept the good they did, learn from it, and also learn from the bad they did (seeing how other people have messed up can often save us from our own mistakes). 

If someone had a big enough impact to us, we may want to honor them for it, but we feel like we can't because of the bad things they did.  Some of this, I think, comes back to whether or not you feel like the dead are static or evolving.  If they are nothing more than echoes through time, if they are flies trapped in amber, then what we do doesn't effect them.  We can honor them, or not, and it won't change who they are.  But if you believe that they exist in a way that can include growth and change, then how we interact with them becomes important.

I tend to think of spirits like I do people.  If I know someone who is really amazing at a thing, but kind of a horrible person, I may express my admiration for the thing they are good at, but I would also be honest about the stuff that I don't approve of.  I think we can approach our dead the same way.  We can honor them for the great works they did, but not endorse the horrible behavior (whether it was influenced by soceity or not).

I think this particular line of thought is especially relevant to soldiers in historical wars.  We, as a species, have been fighting each other for pretty much all of recorded history.  And typically speaking, each side has thought they were in the right. 

Sometimes this belief was founded in ignorance.  They didn't know that those barbarians from another land were thinking, feeling people.  They had grown up hearing these horrible stories, and they were fearful for the people they cared about.  Sometimes they were deliberately misled by their rulers, who had ulterior motives for wanting a conflict.  But, in a day and age where information was extremely limited, you only knew what you were told, and if you were told these were bad people, or not even people at all, you really didn't know any better (and even today, with all the false news out there, it isn't that big of a mental leap to see how people can believe really crazy things...because the people in charge are telling them it's true).

I remember reading stories written about war times, when I was in school.  And always the characters were young and mostly afraid.  They had many, many different reasons for being a part of the war.  Sometimes they were forced, conscripted, drafted, enslaved, whatever words you want to use, they had the choice of fight or die.  Sometimes they fought to protect the things they cared about (whether it was their home, their family, their country or their ideals).  And sometimes, they fought because it was just expected and they weren't strong enough to do otherwise.

I feel like there is room to work with the dead, in these cases, without supporting the war they fought in.  This is why it makes me so mad when graves are desecrated.  I don't care what side of the war someone fought on, I wouldn't mess with their graves.  I also think that, when we as modern people, refuse to humanize the people of the past, when we judge them as monsters because we are holding them to modern standards, we are creating space for the same horrors to keep happening.

I think we need to spend more time seeing the people in people, not seeing them only as their worst actions.  And perhaps, some of this healing can come from working with the difficult dead.  We never need to turn a blind eye to the atrocities of the past, but understanding why honest, goodhearted people did horrible things can help us learn how to avoid those same mistakes.  And learning to recognize the difference between someone who went along with society and someone who used the viewpoint of their day as an excuse to be cruel or mean lets us see those same distinctions in the people around us.

So take a long hard look at your difficult dead.  Don't shy away from them simply because of what is on the surface.  But don't let the dead bully you either.  It will always be your choice who to work with and who to keep away.  Just because you are Pagan, doesn't mean you need to honor all of your ancestors.  And remember, you can acknowledge the good that someone did without condoning the bad. 

Wednesday, November 6, 2019

Letting go without loosing yourself.

We are entering the season of retreat, of letting go, of  hibernation.  This month there is a lot of remembrance going on, between Veteran's Day and Thanksgiving, we may be spending more time reminiscing.  The world around us is loosing it's color, and often the skies are gray. 

If you follow the cycles of the year, we are looking at culling, at what we are releasing as we get ready for the time of rest and look towards the fresh start of the new year.  Often, this time of year is a mess of family events and holiday planning, and we can feel completely overwhelmed.

Letting go can be extraordinarily healthy.  We can't cling to every thing we have picked up or become over the years, because life is constantly thrusting new things on us, and eventually we have to let some go.  We have to set boundaries and say no to things, sometimes not because we don't want to, but because we don't have the capacity to do them on top of all the other things we need or want to do.  But sometimes we have to say no because something truly doesn't serve us, even if it has been a big part of our identity for a long time.

Letting go can be really hard.  The longer you have held onto something, the harder it is to let go.  We are sometimes forced to let go of things that we consider a part of us, a piece of the puzzle that makes us who we are.  And when we no longer have that piece, we feel hollow, as if we are missing a part of ourselves.  We may struggle with our sense of self and have to figure out new ways to embrace our lives.

In the best of worlds, we control our transitions and boundaries.  We are the ones in the driver's seat, we are the ones deciding what and when we let go.  This allows us to prepare, to take on that transition in our own way, whether we prefer a slow adjustment or a quick walking away.  We can mentally prepare, and do some of the work ahead of time, so that when we let go, we have tempered ourselves to the process and it's not so much of a shock to our system.

But other times, we have no choice, and we are just pushed into things and we have to do our best to adjust.  This can be really disorienting, even if we knew that a change was on the horizon, but more so when it takes us completely by surprise.  The rug gets pulled out from beneath us, and even if we manage to keep our feet, we have to fight to regain our balance.

Our most primal instinct is to try to rebuild ourselves, to clutch all the pieces remaining and to try to keep on going as we had before.  But we no longer have the same pieces, and we may find ourselves torn between the impulse to pretend everything is fine, and to go on with pieces missing, where we are slowly leaking every day, and someday something will happen that will shatter us completely, or to just drop everything and fall apart, because if we can't be the same person, then we don't know who we are.

But there is always a new piece, a new thing that you can use to rebuild yourself.  You might already have it, sitting right there at your feet.  If you are leaving a relationship, you can now embrace your single life.  If you are changing jobs, there may be a new job or there may be more time to explore your hobbies while you look for a new one.  Sometimes we really have to look for that piece, especially when loss hits us hard. 

When we loose someone near and dear to us, especially someone that fundamentally changes how we refer to ourselves (a spouse, a parent, a child), we may feel like we can no longer claim the titles of daughter/son, wife/husband, mother/father.  For some people, moving on requires accepting that and embracing the new status.  They never forget, but they find their joy through new freedoms and experiences.  For others, they find their piece by keeping those ties and adjusting to the new way they manifest. 

When these kinds of changes hit us, often we withdraw.  It is so intensely personal that we feel like no one can understand what we are going through.  And on some level that is correct.  No one can tell you what YOU are feeling about a change or loss, but on another level people who are going through a similar loss can empathize, they can talk about what they are struggling with, and even if your struggles are different, you feel a little less alone because you know that someone else is facing something similar.

I find that getting things out of my head is really key.  For me, most of the time, it is enough to get the words and emotions out on paper.  I can journal or write things out and that forces me to get them on paper in words.  Or I can do some kind of related art project for things that I feel are not well expressed in words.  Sometimes I need to talk about it, with other people.  I don't always need people to give me advice or even share what I am going through, sometimes it is enough to get the words out and be heard.

I think one really key point is to keep coming back to the question "Who am I"?  We often want to define this in terms of our relationships to other people, or what we can do/accomplish.  We use words and titles like mother or artist or friend or salesperson, and those aren't always things we are, they are things we do. 

I am a mother, but what does that really mean?  We often see the reminders that it isn't biology that makes you a parent, so what does?  I see my motherhood as wanting to guide my son to be a good person, to protect him from harm and yet allow him room to grow into his own person, I want to do things that show that I care, and to make sure that he knows he is loved.  And while our relationship is changing, as he is stepping more and more into the adult world, many of these things will never change. 

I am having to learn how to step back and allow him to make his own choices and mistakes, and to be there in a less active way.  I am still there, and if he has questions or needs advice, I am happy to help.  But more and more I am focused on giving him tools to help himself rather than giving him answers or doing things for him. 

When I sit and think about who I am, I will always be a mother, but mother is not an active role in my life.  Caring is and always will be, and for me, at the heart of mothering is caring.  I see myself 'mothering' other people in my life, because I care for them and want them to be well and happy.  And caring is something that is a core part of myself, so even though I am loosing the part of me that is the daily ins and outs of being a Mother, I will always take care of the people in my life, because that is who I am.

Interestingly, the other place that loosing the daily routine of being a Mother hits my life is in the daily routine part.  With a child, there are some fairly specific patterns that are in place.  There are school times and bed times and holidays and weekends, and the child forms the rhythms of your life, and you build around them (because often, as a parent, you have little say in some of these times).  As a no longer parent (even though son is still at home for the time being), my days have become a lot more freeform.  I can sleep and wake when I want, I can eat (mostly lol) when I want, and I can organize my days however I see fit. 

This has been a bit of an adjustment for me, because I do well with structure, and left to my own devices I tend to do things in huge clumps.  I might get busy working on something and forget to eat.  I will definitely be up at 3am.  I do keep hubby's work schedule in mind, but other than that I have so much freedom that it sometimes comes back to bite me.  I have had to become more strict with my own planning so that I don't completely forget the stuff I have to do.

No matter what type of letting go you are doing, coming back to your sense of Self, to the question of "Who am I?" allows you to have that anchor that keeps you grounded.  It gives you that core that you can build around.  The stronger your sense of Self, the more you look inside and whittle away all the titles and descriptors and get to the essence of YOU, the more you are able to flow with change, to let go and still keep strong in who you are.