I Made This Film

All right, it’s more of a slide show, but I’m proud of it anyway:

Now go buy the book!

And read more about the book here.

Categories: Humor, Writing | 2 Comments

In the Hot Seat

When friends found his puddle, they screamed,
“How ghastly! We’d never have dreamed
That one summer day
He’d just melt away!
His car was as hot as it seemed!”

Categories: Humor, Poetry | 1 Comment

Nun Better

I wrote the following piece for the blog BLT Is Not Just a Sandwich, and I’ve already gotten myself into trouble over it. I’ll reprint the article, and then the dialogue that followed.


Yesterday, the Vatican reprimanded the Leadership Conference of Women Religious (LCWR)—with over 1,500 members, they’re the largest and probably the most influential group of Catholic nuns in the country—because they have challenged the church’s teaching on homosexuality and the male-only priesthood, and promoted “radical feminist themes incompatible with the Catholic faith.”

The sisters were also reprimanded for making public statements that “disagree with or challenge the bishops, who are the church’s authentic teachers of faith and morals.” (This last was mainly over their support of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act of 2010—that is, the big health care overhaul that everyone has been arguing about for years—because they supported it and a bunch of bishops opposed it for political and religious reasons.)

The group was formed in 1956 at the Vatican’s request, but of course this was during the period of significant church reform that led to the Second Vatican Council (1962–1965).

Another group of Catholic nuns—Network, a social justice lobby—was also reprimanded by the Vatican for focusing its work too much on poverty and economic injustice, while keeping “silent” on abortion and same-sex marriage. I know a number of these nuns, and worked with them on several issues in the past; I would agree with the Vatican’s assessment that they are indeed passionate about poverty and economic injustice, though while they may not have made public statements about abortion and gay marriage, in private many of them are less than happy about the Vatican’s heavy-handed suppression of social justice issues.

Certainly health care reform was one of those issues, since they feel that poor people will always receive the dregs when it comes to health care. Sister Simone Campbell, Network’s executive director, said, “I would imagine that it was our health care letter that made them mad. We haven’t violated any teaching; we have just been raising questions and interpreting politics.”

So the Vatican appointed an archbishop and two other bishops to “reform” LCWR: they have five years to revise LCWR’s statutes, approve every speaker at the group’s public programs, and replace a handbook the group used to facilitate dialogue on matters that the Vatican said should be settled doctrine. The trio of bishops will also review LCWR’s links with Network and another organization, the Resource Center for Religious Institutes—a particularly dangerous nonprofit because it gives its members financial and legal resources.

You may recall that Pope Benedict XVI was Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (formerly the Roman Inquisition) back when he was Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, but long after he was a member of the Hitler Youth and the Luftwaffenhelfer. (I’m sorry if that sounds like an ad hominem attack on the pope. If anyone would like to discuss his doctrinal positions instead of his personal history, I’d be happy to do that, too.)

In 2009, when the Vatican’s investigation of the LCWR was being conducted, the New York Times ran a story that suggested it was indeed a doctrinal inquisition:

Some sisters surmise that the Vatican and even some American bishops are trying to shift them back into living in convents, wearing habits or at least identifiable religious garb, ordering their schedules around daily prayers and working primarily in Roman Catholic institutions, like schools and hospitals.

“They think of us as an ecclesiastical work force,” said Sister Sandra M. Schneiders, professor emerita of New Testament and spirituality at the Jesuit School of Theology at Berkeley, in California. “Whereas we are religious, we’re living the life of total dedication to Christ, and out of that flows a profound concern for the good of all humanity. So our vision of our lives, and their vision of us as a work force, are just not on the same planet.”

One last tidbit: while the Vatican was investigating the LCWR, it was also conducting a separate, widespread investigation of all women’s religious orders and communities in the United States. That inquiry, known as a “visitation,” was concluded last December, but the results of that process have not been made public. I’m thinking the nuns’ observations from 2009 will prove prophetic.


Timothy, who writes the Catholic Bibles blog, commented:

I am not sure where to begin in assessing your post. You seem to infer that the bishops have no right to speak as representatives of the Catholic Church in this country. On the issue of health care reform, I am sure you are aware that the Catholic Church has been for comprehensive health care coverage since the early 20th century. A short glimse of these document, all only within the last 20 years makes this very evident: http://www.usccb.org/issues-and-action/human-life-and-dignity/health-care/. This is of course a social justice issue, but one the Catholic Church believes should respect the dignity of all human beings from conception to natural death. Of course the Church is also opposed to the death penalty and the protection of illegal immigrants, both which are social justice issues, and ones more often promoted by the ‘left.’

The Church has done visitations over the past few years to religious sisters. But also religious brothers, seminaries, and dioceses. I work at a Catholic high school, and representatives from the dioces visit us every year. So, this is nothing odd or extraordinary.

Finally, your comment about Pope Benedict is unnecessary and an unjust attack on the man. All German boys of his age were enrolled in the Hitler Youth at that time, there was no getting around it. The Ratzinger’s were known to be anti-Nazi . His father was a police officer in a small Bavarian town, who opposed Nazi rallies. So, I find you comments on this issue to be unfortunate.


My reply:

You say that healthcare reform is an issue which “the Catholic Church believes should respect the dignity of all human beings from conception to natural death.” This implies that organizations affiliated with the Catholic Church should be allowed to make life-and-death decisions on behalf of their employees, who may not even be Catholics themselves, much less Catholics who adhere to official Catholic doctrine. If an employee (perhaps a gentile employee) of an Orthodox Jewish organization had to go on food stamps, would it be right for their shul to block their access to non-kosher foods?

As for the pope’s past: Ratzinger joined the Hitler-Jugend in 1941, three years after the terrible Kristallnacht brought the horrors of Nazism to general public awareness. While you are correct that it was compulsory for young people to join, both Joseph Ratzinger and his brother Georg have said that “resistance was impossible” at the time and that it’s not surprising or morally culpable that they also “went along.” This is insulting to the many who risked their lives to resist the Nazi regime, both in organized cells and on an individual basis. In fact, there are many examples of those who refused service in the Hitler Youth for a variety of reasons. Many of Ratzinger’s age joined young people’s resistance groups like the Edelweiss Pirates, or the Swing Kids, or the Helmut Hubener group, or the White Rose (though this group didn’t officially form until 1942). Yes, the Ratzinger family did object to the Nazis and as a consequence were forced to move four times—they did not passively and quietly accept what was going on, as many other families did—but whatever the family did, it doesn’t appear to have been enough to warrant being detained and questioned by the Gestapo.

But as I said above, I am happy to discuss the pope’s current doctrines and statements, and leave aside all further references to his past.

You write, “You seem to infer that the bishops have no right to speak as representatives of the Catholic Church in this country.” I realize that today’s Catholic Church hierarchy values adherence to current teachings above all else, and that the bishops are the ones to crack the whip. Never mind the fact that the Second Vatican Council promised an open and dialogical church, willing to engage with the secular world! Since the 1980s, Rome has retreated from those reforms. More to the point, the bishops are clearly at odds with most practicing Catholics today. Liberal Catholics the world over hope for a church that is open to married and women priests, a rethink on the issue of contraception as exhorted by Humanae Vitae, and a reversal of the harsh insensitivity of the teaching on homosexuality.

Nuns are placed in a particularly difficult position. On the one hand, they are expected to obey the rules of their order, which in turn likely includes obedience to the Holy See. On the other hand, they are the ones in the trenches, on the streets, in direct service to the poor and disenfranchised, working with Catholics and non-Catholics alike. They must obey their own consciences and the urgings of the Holy Spirit. And frankly, the Holy Spirit trumps the pope.

I daresay a goodly number of this “ecclesiastical work force” will continue to stand against oppression, even at the threat of excommunication.

Categories: Christianity, Judaism, Politics, Social Justice, Theology | 5 Comments

You Sly Universal Virus, You Psychedelic Mushroom Cloud at the Center of All Our Brains

“A Prayer for Us,” by Rob Brezny

his is a perfect moment. It’s a perfect moment because I have been inspired to say a gigantic prayer. I’ve been roused to unleash a divinely greedy, apocalyptically healing prayer for each and every one of us—even those of us who don’t believe in the power of prayer.

And so I am starting to pray right now to the God of Gods . . . the God beyond all Gods . . . the Girlfriend of God . . . the Teacher of God . . . the Goddess who invented God.

DEAR GODDESS, you who always answer our very best questions, even if we ignore you:

Please be here with us right now. Come inside us with your sly slippery slaphappy mojo. Invade us with your silky succulent salty sweet haha.
Hear with our ears, Goddess. Breathe with our lungs. See through our eyes.

DEAR GODDESS, you who never kill but only change:

I pray that my exuberant, suave, and accidental words will move you to shower ferocious blessings down on everyone who reads or hears this benediction.

I pray that you will give us what we don’t even know we need—not just the boons we think we want, but everything we’ve always been afraid to even imagine or ask for.

DEAR GODDESS, you wealthy anarchist burning heaven to the ground:

Many of us don’t even know who we really are.

We’ve forgotten that our souls live forever.

We’re blind to the fact that every little move we make sends ripples through eternity. Some of us are even ignorant of how extravagant, relentless, and practical your love for us is.

Please wake us up to the shocking truths. Use your brash magic to help us see that we are completely different from we’ve been led to believe, and more exciting than we can possibly imagine.

Guide us to realize that we are all unwitting messiahs who are much too big and ancient to fit inside our personalities.

DEAR GODDESS, you sly universal virus with no fucking opinion:

Help us to be disciplined enough to go crazy in the name of creation, not destruction.

Teach us to know the distinction between oppressive self-control and liberating self-control.

Awaken in us the power to do the half-right thing when it is impossible to do the totally right thing.

And arouse the Wild Woman within us—even if we are men.

DEAR GODDESS, you who give us so much love and pain mixed together that our morality is always on the verge of collapsing:

I beg you to cast a boisterous love spell that will nullify all the dumb ideas, bad decisions, and nasty conditioning that have ever cursed all of us wise and sexy virtuosos.

Remove, banish, annihilate, and laugh into oblivion any jinx that has clung
to us, no matter how long we have suffered from it, and even if we have become accustomed or addicted to its ugly companionship.

Conjure an aura of protection around us so that we will receive an early warning if we are ever about to act in such a way as to bring another hex or plague into our lives in the future.

DEAR GODDESS, you psychedelic mushroom cloud at the center of all our brains:

I pray that you will inspire us to kick our own asses with abandon and regularity.

Give us bigger, better, more original sins and wilder, wetter, more interesting problems.
Help us learn the difference between stupid suffering and smart suffering.

Provoke us to throw away or give away everything we own that encourages us to believe we’re better than anyone else.

Brainwash us with your compassion so that we never love our own freedom more than anyone else’s freedom.

And make it illegal, immoral, irrelevant, unpatriotic, and totally tasteless for us to be in love with anyone or anything that’s no good for us.

DEAR GODDESS, you riotously tender, hauntingly reassuring, orgiastically sacred feeling that is even now running through all of our soft, warm animal bodies:

I pray that you provide us with a license to bend and even break all rules, laws, and traditions that hinder us from loving the world the way you do.

Show us how to purge the wishy-washy wishes that distract us from our daring, dramatic, divine desires.

And teach us that we can have anything we want if we will only ask for it in an unselfish way.

DEAR GODDESS, you who just pretend to be crazy so you can get away with doing what’s right:

Help us to be like you—wildly disciplined, voraciously curious, exuberantly elegant, shockingly friendly, fanatically balanced, blasphemously reverent, mysteriously truthful, teasingly healing, lyrically logical, and blissfully rowdy.

And now dear God of Gods, God beyond all Gods, Girlfriend of God, Teacher of God, Goddess who invented God, I bring this prayer to a close, trusting that in these pregnant moments you have begun to change all of us in the exact way we needed to change in order to become the gorgeous geniuses we were born to be.

Amen
Om
Hallelujah
Shalom
Namaste
More power to you

Oh, but one more thing DEAR GODDESS, you pregnant slut who scorns all mediocre longing:

Please give us donkey clown pinatas full of chirping crickets,

ceramic spice jars containing 10 million-year-old salt from the Himalayas,

gargoyle statues guaranteed to scare away the demons,

lucid dreams while we’re wide awake,

enough organic soup and ice cream to feed all the refugees,

emerald parachutes and purple velvet gloves and ladders made of melted-down guns,

a knack for avoiding other people’s personal hells,

radio-controlled, helium-filled flying rubber sharks to play with,

magic red slippers to contribute to the hopeless,

bathtubs full of holy water to wash away our greed,

secret admirers who are not psychotic stalkers,

mousse cakes baked in the shapes of giant question marks,

stories about lightning strikes that burn down towers where megalomaniacal kings live,

solar-powered sex toys that work even in the dark,

knowledge of secret underground rivers,

mirrors that the Dalai Lama has gazed into,

and red wagons carrying the treats we were deprived of in childhood.

*   *   *

From Pronoia Is the Antidote for Paranoia, Revised and Expanded: How the Whole World Is Conspiring to Shower You with Blessings

Categories: Earth-based Religions, Great Quotes, Healing, Poetry Sundays, Sex and Sexuality, Spirituality | 1 Comment

Do Not Believe

“Do not believe in anything simply because you have heard it. Do not believe in anything simply because it is spoken and rumored by many. Do not believe in anything simply because it is found in your religious books. Do not believe in anything merely on the authority of your teachers and elders. Do not believe in traditions because they have been handed down for many generations. But after observation and analysis, when you find that anything agrees with reason and is conducive to the good and benefit of one and all, then accept it and live up to it.” —Gautama Siddhartha, the Buddha

Categories: Buddhism, Great Quotes, Psychology | 1 Comment

Found Poetry

Email spammers often embed their links amid irrelevant and innocuous snippets of text. I learned that those snippets are grabbed at random from web pages, and then cobbled together in a disjointed manner. But sometimes there is a strange beauty to the words, especially when presented as if they were poetry, with a bit of repeating and rearranging. Here is what arrived in my morning’s email, beginning with the unedited text as I received it:

But
I never liked
Gracia Vaughn
because I could not
respect her.

This book, it must here
be repeated,
deals with specific
recorded facts, and
not with civilization
as it ought to have been
under the Rites of Chou.

I could not
respect her.

The Rites of Chou:
Civilization as
it ought to have been.

The Rites of Chou
respect her.

This book
must be recorded
here,
as it ought to have been—
specific,
repeated,
liked.

I never
liked
recorded facts,
Vaughn Chou!
I never
liked
civilization!

This book—
The Rites of Gracia
repeated,
repeated,
repeated.
Respect her!

Categories: Humor, Poetry | 2 Comments

It’s a Sign!

Categories: Humor, Theology, Time and Space | Leave a comment

Of Chaucer, Spring Cleaning, and Werewolves

his is the strange and convoluted history of a holiday some people love, a lot of people hate, and everyone seems confused about: Valentine’s Day.

Once upon a time, in ancient Greece, a secret ritual was held each May on the slopes of Wolf Mountain (Lykaion, the tallest peak in Arcadia—the region lauded during the Renaissance as an unspoiled, harmonious wilderness, and in Greek mythology, home of the god Pan). The mountain was named for the Greek myth of Lycaon, king of Arcadia, who slaughtered and dismembered one of his sons (he had fifty, so I guess one was expendable, or maybe he just really pissed him off) and fed his son to Zeus, to see if he was truly omniscient. This upset Zeus, who transformed Lycaon into a wolf (λύκος, lukos or lykos, means “wolf”), restored the slaughtered boy to life, but killed all of Lycaon’s other sons with lightning bolts.

The secret rituals of the Lykaia were essentially rites of passage for epheboi (adolescent males)  that centered on the dual threat of cannibalism and werewolf transformation. Now, I’m not sure why cannibalism featured so prominently in Greek mythology, and I’m not sure why it was a threat: most often cannibalism was practiced during periods of extreme famine, or as a mostly ritualistic means of asserting dominance over a vanquished tribe or culture. We certainly cannibalize the art and practices of nearly every culture we come in contact with (usually to that culture’s detriment), but I haven’t grasped why actual cannibalism was such a strong tendency that a ceremonial prohibition against it needed to be instituted. The epheboi were often trained to be warriors; maybe it was a way of saying, “And when you win, don’t eat the other combatants or they’ll think you’re no better than wolves!”

Now we move to ancient Italy. The month of February is named for Februa, a spring cleansing ritual held between February 13 and 15. It combined spring cleaning and washing (February is a rainy month in Italy) with the notion of ritual purification. The festival may have gotten its name from the Latin word febris, “fever,” since the sweating that often accompanies fevers were seen as purging bad substances from the body.

In Rome, the Februa festival gave way to the Lupercalia, or “Wolf Festival,” which came to be held on the same dates. This celebration was to banish evil spirits, purify the city, and bring health and fertility. The Lupercalia was named partly for Lupa, the she-wolf who suckled Romulus and Remus, and partly for the god Lupercus (also called Faunus), the Roman equivalent of Pan—who was worshiped in Arcadia, where the Lykaia were held.

The rites were directed by the Luperci, “brothers of the wolf”; they were naked except for goatskin loincloths, and served in the Lupercal temple, the cave where Romulus and Remus were raised and where, at the beginning of the Lupercalia, two goats and a dog were ritually sacrificed. According to Plutarch, “[During the Lupercalia] many of the noble youths and of the magistrates run up and down through the city naked, for sport and laughter striking those they meet with shaggy thongs [which were called, interestingly enough februa]. And many women of rank also purposely get in their way, and like children at school, present their hands to be struck, believing that the pregnant will thus be helped in delivery, and the barren to pregnancy.”

Fast forward a few hundred years. The feast of Saint Valentine on February 14 was established in 496 CE by one pope, but deleted from the calendar of saints by another in 1969. So much for papal infallibility. No one is entirely sure which of the many Christian martyrs named Valentine were being honored; it was a popular name that derives from valens, which means worthy or strong, and there were three different Valentines who were named in various martyrologies in connection with February 14. Most think it was a Roman priest who was martyred sometime between 269 and 273 during the reign of Claudius II, a.k.a. Claudius Gothicus. Valentine was imprisoned for marrying Christian couples, which was against the law at this time, and while in prison, Claudius (shall we say) took a liking to him. Then Valentine made the tragic mistake of trying to convert Claudius to Christianity, so Claudius had him beaten with clubs and then beheaded.

The Feast of Saint Valentine was a minor festival in the ancient Church. But after 380, when Christianity became the official religion of the Roman Empire (which was a shame, because when Constantine converted to Christianity in 312, he mandated that all religions in the empire be universally tolerated), the Church systematically established Christian feasts on the same days as the more ancient pagan ones—in a future post I’ll try to gather together an exhaustive list of them. In this case, the general pagan fertility celebration on February 13–15 was so widespread and prevalent that the Church needed to bring the feast a touch of religious sobriety.

Happily, the paganish aspects of the day—people acting like goats and wolves, seducing everyone you can with the sort of abandon one might ascribe to the followers of Pan—have remained to this day, even though dear Geoffrey Chaucer and his circle did their best to make Valentine’s Day a paean to romantic love. In his love poem “Parlement of Foules” he wrote, “For this was on seynt Volantynys day / Whan euery bryd comyth there to chese his make.” (For this was Saint Valentine’s Day, / When every bird comes to choose his mate.) The problem, of course, is that Chaucer wrote it for the engagement of Richard II, which was on May 2—a date which celebrated a different Saint Valentine, an early bishop of Genoa.

But that didn’t stop others from piling on the Saint Valentine bandwagon. On February 14, 1400, in honor of Valentine’s Day, a “High Court of Love” was established in Paris to deal with love contracts, betrayals, and violence against women. Judges were selected by women on the basis of a poetry reading, and “valentines”—then short love poems—began to be circulated.

Since then it’s been all downhill. The early 1800s saw the first valentine cards available for purchase, and by the mid-19th century they were all the rage. It wasn’t until the second half of the 20th century that roses and chocolates and jewelry were added to the giving of cards; apparently some 190 million valentines are sent every year in the US, not counting valentine exchanges in elementary schools.

Sickly sweet sentimentalism, to my way of thinking. I say we go back to dressing in nothing but goatskin loincloths and getting in touch with our inner wolves.

Categories: Classic civilizations, Earth-based Religions, Holidays, Sex and Sexuality | 1 Comment

Doors

“In the universe, there are things that are known, and things that are unknown, and in between, there are doors.” —William Blake

Categories: Great Quotes | Leave a comment

Sixty-two Percent True

avid Sedaris claims he writes nonfiction. “I’ve always been a huge exaggerator, but when I write something, I put it on a scale,” he told Time magazine. “And if it’s 97% true, I think that’s true enough. I’m not going to call it fiction because 3% of it isn’t true.” In another interview, he said it was 96%. “That is an acceptable standard for ground beef. And it’s more than acceptable for cocaine and heroin. So I’m going to call it nonfiction. As my American Humorist license says on the back, “May exaggerate with wild abandon for comic effect.” I’m not a reporter. I would appreciate the truth when I read an article in The New York Times. But that’s not the kind of writing I do.” He then says his stories are “realish.” I’m thinking that’s like Stephen Colbert’s “truthiness.”

Three people have now asked me to post some of my short fiction. I have two concerns. First, I’m afraid that people will think they’re crap. (Of course, there is the even greater fear of people thinking they’re not crap, which will make me feel bad for not writing more fiction.) My second concern is that I say it’s fiction even though some people will clearly recognize themselves or others, or events I may have spoken of previously. While it is true that many, perhaps most, of my stories—I think I’ve written thirty-three of them so far—are based on real people or actual events, in each case I have used them as launching pads for great flights of fancy or, if you prefer, for the most damnable lies. In other cases, I have made things up out of whole cloth, though this will undoubtedly have some friends wondering if this is just something from my past that I haven’t revealed before. So I won’t be able to win, no matter what I do.

My greatest concern is that in an effort to get to the real nugget truth in something—an incident, an emotion, a thought, a relationship—I fear that I will hurt someone I care about. A book I read once—and I’m afraid I no longer remember the author—said that the first rule of being a writer is that one must be willing to kill one’s family, that is, to speak the truth no matter who it hurts. I am not sure I am that brave. I am not sure my truth is greater than another’s dignity or privacy or feelings.

So if you recognize something in my stories, take comfort in knowing that someone else will think it’s pure hokum, and I won’t be the one to disabuse them of the notion. And if you think, “This must be one of the completely fictional ones,” then it’s probably about 62% true.

This is the first one I wrote:

Under a Tree

My friends live in a tiny village in an old slate-mining town in Vermont. The quarry, long mined out, is now a swimming hole, though most people prefer to swim in the Mettawee River, the stream that snakes through town and runs through the General Store. I mean that literally: the store is built on top of the river, and there is a window in the floor through which you can watch the water rushing by.

I wander through town, finding wonderful little strangenesses, like an old woman selling handcrafted dinner plates featuring whimsical impressions in the clay created by small animals that have been flattened by cars and trucks; her business is called Roadkill Pottery.

Up the road, heading out of town, is a cemetery.  It’s perched on a hill, so one has to drive up a steep incline to get into it.

Some cemeteries I like, some I don’t. The one where my parents are buried is run by the Veteran’s Administration, and the only way to locate your loved one among all the identical headstones is with a map and a handy designation: East Quadrant, Row 37, Number 23. Flowers are allowed only for three days, after which they are removed, whether they are real or artificial: the government wants nothing to mar the sterility of the landscape.

But this one—ah, here’s a cemetery for you! The stones are old, and some are beginning to crumble. All shapes and sizes, though nothing ostentatious. A country graveyard for country people. I walk among the graves, noting how often the same family names appear. Whole generations of a family are buried here together. Parents and children, old people and infants. A groaning Thanksgiving table of the dead.

I catch a glimpse of the lettering on the wrought-iron archway leading into the graveyard: Mountain View Cemetery. How odd. As I stand looking at the great sweep of headstones, no mountain is visible. I decide it’s a Vermontism: just as everything in Florida is called Ocean View no matter how far inland one goes, everything in Vermont must be called Mountain View.

I walk on, and am startled by a large black headstone—a newer one, thicker than the others, more imposing. On it is my last name, in bold letters: MCINTYRE. For some reason this unsettles me more than it should. I walk up the hill a piece and sit down under a large and wonderfully shady elm. It’s summer, but it feels like a lovely spring day, and I try to collect myself after the tombstone’s memento mori, its Et In Arcadia Ego: Even in your pastoral Arcadian paradise, where you play and love without care, I—death—am there with you.

I settle back, close my eyes, and slow my breathing. When I open them again, in front of me is one of the most beautiful, peaceful mountains I have ever seen. The mountain view is not for the visitors to this cemetery, but for the residents.

Categories: Short Fiction | 4 Comments

Cobwebs

ou would think, after so long a silence, that I would have something more profound to say. I fear I must disappoint you. There are many reasons I have not been blogging, some of them trivial, some of them more compelling, but I don’t think any of them have produced in me any new wisdom or wit.

My job has me writing a lot each week: weekly newsletters, press releases, editorials, forwards and introductions to books—that sort of thing. I’ve also been participating in a weekly short fiction writing group (500 words max, on an assigned topic, in a very short time limit); a couple of the pieces have been recorded and aired on a public radio station in Kentucky, though I feel shy about posting any of them here. I’m not entirely sure why.

However, all this writing, coupled with an over-eager participation on Facebook, means my urge to simply write found other outlets; and as I was not moved by any great need to expound at length on any subject, the blog languished. Since May of 2010, I have written only five blog posts.

The big event last year was of course the illness and death of my friend Lee, my dear friend Adam’s wife. I am not sure what to say about it just now—a few sentences couldn’t begin to express how it affected me; I doubt that a few hundred pages could do much better. What shocked me, though, was the depth of the grief I experienced. Even though I could understand and rationally explain what her death was touching in me, on an emotional and spiritual level I found myself quite unable to cope with the intensity of the pain and loss I was experiencing. And it set off a recurrence of the terrible depression that nearly took my life a decade ago; the only difference is that now it is more dangerous, since I am far less willing, or perhaps able, to tolerate it: It must stop, I told myself, and stop soon, one way or another. There is no longer any thought of living with it chronically.

In the 1920s, Carl Jung coined the word synchronicity, which he described as “meaningful coincidences” and as the “acausal connecting principle.” In rapid succession I had my spiritual worldview rocked, ran painfully into walls where I had previously experienced open vistas, discovered some remarkable Chinese herbs that work far better than any antidepressant I have ever encountered, began questioning my purpose in life, and found myself in the office of an astonishingly gifted psychotherapist pouring as much of my life’s story as I could into a fifty-minute session. Meaningful coincidences indeed! In the space of two months it feels as if much has changed in me forever.

I am eager to see what this next phase of my life brings. And I thought it might be useful to start blogging again, not only to keep you all in the loop, as it were, but also to help me clarify my ideas. As E.M. Forster put it so succinctly, “How can I tell what I think till I see what I say?”

You may have noticed that the blog has a new design. From the first I’ve called it “Notes from the Dreamtime,” but I’ve never really talked about where the name came from.

The term “Dreamtime” is a translation of Altjeringa or Altcheringa (it may also be translated “the Dreaming”). Altjeringa is a word in the Arrente language spoken by aboriginal Australian tribes living in the Northern Territory, around Alice Springs. The traditions and lore of Australia’s indigenous peoples belong to what may be the oldest continuous culture on Earth—around 50,000 years.

The Altjeringa is both a sacred “once upon a time,” a time out of time when ancestral totemic spirit beings formed all of creation, and the spiritual realm itself. Anthropologist and historian W.E. H. Stanner rather saliently called it “the Everywhen,” since it is experienced as a confluence of past, present, and future. Indigenous Australians consider the Everywhen of the Dreaming to be objective, while linear time was considered a subjective construction of waking consciousness of one’s own lifetime—the precise opposite of our usual way of looking at things. The Dreaming is the sacred, timeless, creative ground of being—and the continual source of all things that are manifest in our world.

So that’s what I hope to write about. There are great cobwebs in my brain, and heart, and I hope to use these pages to help sweep them away and create room for new things to come forth. My great error has been in thinking that I needed to have Something Important to Say; the truth is, all I need is to tap into the Dreamtime, and talk about what I find there.

Categories: Depression, Dreams, Earth-based Religions, First Nations, Shamanism, Writing | 3 Comments

“The Jewish Indiana Jones”

Note: I originally wrote this essay for the blog “BLT Is Not Just a Sandwich“—a place to discuss the Bible, other Literature, and its Translation—but I thought some Dreamtime readers might appreciate it as well.

* * * * * * *

Decorated initial The New York Jewish Week posted a remarkable story this week. I wish I had heard the story earlier—before the rabbi’s claims had been exposed. It’s nearly as much fun as Morton Smith’s discovery (or, as his debunkers would say, his creation) of a lost fragment from Mark’s gospel buried in a previously unknown letter from Clement of Alexandria. But what I find most thrilling is that I used to shop in the rabbi’s store in Wheaton, Maryland, and spoke with him frequently. He was a really nice guy.

Rabbi Menachem Youlus, the self-styled “Jewish Indiana Jones” who turned out to be a Jewish Walter Mitty, has pleaded guilty to fraud.

Youlus’ accounts of remarkable tales of rescuing Holocaust-era Torah scrolls were contradicted by historical evidence, witness accounts, and records showing that he simply passed off used Torahs sold by local dealers who made no claims as to the scrolls’ provenance.

“I know what I did was wrong, and I deeply regret my conduct,” said Youlus, who pleaded guilty in Manhattan federal court on Thursday.

In court, the 50-year-old Baltimore resident admitted to having defrauded more than 50 victims, misappropriating some of the donations and secretly depositing them into the bank account of his Wheaton store, called the Jewish Bookstore. Youlus defrauded his charity, Save A Torah, Inc. and its donors of $862,000, according to prosecutors.

“Menachem Youlus concocted an elaborate tale of dramatic Torah rescues undertaken by a latter day movie hero that exploited the profound emotions attached to one of the most painful chapters in world history — the Holocaust — in order to make a profit. Today’s guilty plea is a fitting conclusion to his story and he will now be punished for his brazen fraud,” Preet Bharara, the United States Attorney for the Southern District of New York, said Thursday.

A January 31, 2010, Washington Post investigative report brought to light questions about Youlus’ claims.
Shortly after the Washington Post story ran, MenachemRosensaft wrote a fascinating commentary on the case. Rosensaft is adjunct professor of law at Cornell Law School, distinguished visiting lecturer at Syracuse University College of Law, and vice president of the American Gathering of Jewish Holocaust Survivors and Their Descendants. He wrote:

Some years ago, there was Binjamin Wilkomirski, the author of a purportedly autobiographical account of his years as a Jewish orphan during the Holocaust but who actually is a Swiss-born Christian clarinetist. Then there was the case of Herman Rosenblat whose heartwarming tale of a little girl tossing him an apple every day for seven months across the electrified barbed wire fence of a Nazi concentration camp turned out to be a hoax….

In 2007, on the website of Save a Torah, his 501(c)3 tax exempt organization, Youlus claimed to have found and restored “Torah scrolls hidden, lost or stolen during the Holocaust” which he then “resettled” in more than 50 Jewish communities throughout the world. On a promotional video featured on the same website, he said that “we’ve done over 500 today.” And in a recent Washington Post interview, Youlus boasted of having rescued not 50 or 500 but 1,100 such Torah scrolls.

Youlus also gave his Torah scrolls dramatic histories. Two were allegedly found buried in a “Gestapo body bag” in a Ukrainian mass-grave of murdered Jews. He supposedly discovered one under the floorboards of a barrack in the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp in Germany, a “rescue” that is described on his website’s video alongside photographs taken at the camp at the time of its liberation by British troops in April 1945. Youlus claims that he dug up yet another Torah scroll in what had been the cemetery of Oswiecim, the town adjacent to the Auschwitz death camp, and reunited it with four missing panels that Jews from Oswiecim had taken into the camp and had entrusted for safekeeping to a Jewish-born priest who eventually gave them to Youlus.

If even one of these stories seems fantastic, improbable, even incredible, the odds that any one person could have found all four of these Torah scrolls and brought them surreptitiously to the United States are, conservatively speaking, astronomical. As has been said repeatedly in connection with Bernard Madoff’s multi-billion dollar Ponzi scheme, if something sounds too good to be true, it most probably is….

It is bad enough when unscrupulous individuals rip off their marks, as it were, with variations of the proverbial Nigerian e-mail scam in which the recipient is promised part of a multi-million dollar fortune in exchange for a relatively minor up-front investment….A fake Holocaust memoir or a Torah scroll purportedly rescued from the ruins of World War II Europe is altogether different. Preying on the emotions of people overwhelmed by the memory of tragedy in order to make a buck is contemptible.

Rosensaft’s entire column is worth reading, but of note is his conclusion:

One of Youlus’s defenders argues that exposing his deception “may very well be in service of the truth but in disservice of a greater truth.” That is utter bunk.

Truth is absolute. The Holocaust was a tragedy of unfathomable proportions. Its victims, including the hundreds of thousands of destroyed and desecrated Torah scrolls and other Jewish religious artifacts, deserve nothing less than the dignity of authentic memory.

While I certainly don’t disagree, I wonder about the whole question of religious myths that are believed as being literal. While the mythic stories have great power and truth, they are rarely if ever true in an historic sense. Yet millions of believers of all faiths cling to them as if they were facts. It gives them comfort and meaning. Many times I’ve heard people say that if it were proven that Mary was not a literal virgin, or that Jesus did not literally rise from the dead corporeally, or that Moses did not receive the stone tablets and the Book of the Covenant from God on Sinai in the way Exodus recounts it, that their faith would not be able to stand.

Shmuel Herzfeld, a rabbi at Ohev Sholom in Washington, DC, was shopping at Youlus’s store when he saw a Torah scroll. Youlus told him that the Torah scroll had survived Auschwitz. Herzfeld asked Youlus if he could borrow the Torah scroll for use in his congregation one Shabbat, and Youlus agreed. When news of Youlus’s arrest broke, Herzfeld wrote, “That Shabbat in the presence of this Torah scroll I prayed with more intensity than ever before and I connected to the chanting of the Torah as I had never before connected. The very possibility that those emotional and intense feelings that I experienced can now be the result of manipulation and dishonesty overwhelms me with sadness.”

It was his faith, his emotional and spiritual attachment to a belief, that added such intensity to his prayers. Jesus frequently said, “It is your faith that has made you whole”—implying that the individual’s belief was the operative factor in the equation. So the question is, if what we believe is proven to be a lie, where does that leave whatever we have built on that faith?

A saying attributed to the Buddha may apply here: “All instruction is but a finger pointing at the moon. Those whose gaze is fixed upon the finger will never see beyond.” It doesn’t matter if the story is real or imagined; what matters is that we look not at the story, but at its meaning in our lives.

Unless, of course, you’re bilking people out of their money when you sell them the story!

Categories: Buddhism, Judaism, Psychology | 2 Comments

Conscious Darkness

Decorated initial There is no coming to consciousness without pain. People will do anything, no matter how absurd, in order to avoid facing their own soul. One does not become enlightened by imagining figures of light, but by making the darkness conscious.” —Carl Gustav Jung

Categories: Great Quotes, Psychology, Spirituality | 1 Comment

Bird Hauntings

Decorated initial The Northern Mockingbird who sings every morning just after dawn has, I think, found a mate. Yesterday his song changed dramatically, at least to my terrestrial ears. Before it had been hopeful, excited, lyrical, yearning. Yesterday and today it was nothing short of triumphant, a confident joy.

Two nights running I had a strong dream of me carrying a hawk in my arms. I’m not sure what kind of hawk it is; when I look down, it’s usually huddling in the crook of my left arm, as if it is a little cold or a little afraid. It relaxes when I stroke it.

Then on Facebook, a friend posted a photo of a man cradling a rooster a little too lovingly. Wanted to know if it was me. For several years now, some Internet pals have called me Chicken Boy because the first wedding at which I officiated, I was photographed (in full ministerial garb) standing next to a giant wooden cut-out of a hen in a field. Somehow they leapt from a whimsical wedding on a Vermont mountaintop to a decidedly venal projection of zoophilic desires.

This morning I was walking with some friends at a nature enclave and saw this screech owl, dozing at the door of an owl house.

During this afternoon’s nap I have the hawk dream again.

One of the animals in my shamanic pantheon is Golden Eagle. Of all the helping spirits, he’s the one I haven’t gotten to know very well. Then yesterday, viewing an audio slideshow of an astoundingly beautiful upcoming documentary series, I saw a few photos of men in the Tungus region of Siberia using golden eagles as hunting birds. And suddenly I remembered that the word shaman originated with these very people.

Honestly, I blame Indigo Bunting and her husband for all this. I was relatively blasé about birds until I met them and caught a touch of their birding fever. I’m really not a birder. But I now adore them, especially here in Florida, where on any given day I can see Sandhill Cranes, peacocks, ibises, egrets and herons galore, an anhinga or two, plus all the regular birds spread over a large portion of the eastern US.

And no, I don’t have any idea what this means. Speak to me, birds. I’ll listen to whatever you have to say.

Categories: Birds, Shamanism | 12 Comments

Wrestling with Christmas

The older I get, the more Christmas fills me with a terrible ambivalence. But please note: “ambivalent” doesn’t imply a take-it-or-leave-it attitude. It means I’m of two opposite and conflicting minds.

As a child I was torn between childish greed, a certain delight even then in the decor, music, and “specialness” of the festivities, and a very Christian desire to celebrate the birth of Jesus.

I was a devout little thing. I was on our local Romper Room show with Miss Connie for a whole week, and I created something of a ruckus on Wednesday (which was always snack day on Romper Room) after the prayer over the milk and cookies. Miss Connie led us all in saying, “God is great, God is good,/ And we thank Him for our food.” In my household, the prayer didn’t stop there. It continued: “By His hands we all are fed,/ Give us, Lord, our daily bread.” So I continued. Loudly. After everyone else had stopped. And then, as the cameras rolled, I told her in the most disapproving tones that God didn’t hear her prayer because she didn’t end the prayer with “In Jesus’ Name, Amen.” I remember saying it at least three times — that God doesn’t hear any prayer that isn’t prayed in Jesus’ name — each time more stridently because I thought she was ignoring me. What she was doing was gesturing wildly to the cameraman to cut to commercial. Ah, the days of live television!

When we moved to the Virgin Islands, I experienced my first Christmas there in 90 degree heat. We put our white flocked tree with its pretty blue balls (this was the 1970s, after all) on the balcony where it would be visible both when we were in the living room and when we were on the patio below, but on Christmas morning the trade winds carried the tree over the balcony and into the swimming pool, its pretty blue balls bobbing around happily in the water. Those days, when I was in high school, Christmas became just “what we did” each year. Festive and fun, but without any deeper meaning.

When I got my first apartment after college with my friend Jim, Christmas changed again. I really did Christmas up right. An eight-foot-tall fresh white pine, painstakingly decorated. My father was ill at the time, and while I didn’t realize it at the time, this would be his last Christmas with us. I gave him stocking stuffers filled with wind-up walking toys. I still remember the tears of joy and laughter in his eyes.

In the years that followed, I shared a home in Maryland with my mother, and we took similar pains to decorate well and tastefully. Jim would always come over on Christmas eve and watch TV with us, then I would go to my church for our festive 10 p.m. Christmas Eve celebration; Jim was always asleep on the couch by the time I got home. In the morning my brother Dale would join us in opening the stockings and gifts, then I would make a nice breakfast (usually eggs Benedict).

These were happy times, at least until I started suffering from depression — the chronic, crushing kind, a despair that is independent of circumstance. Because these bouts lasted for months at a time, I never knew if I’d be over it before the holidays or not. On several Christmases I remember going through the motions, putting on my characteristic happy face, when I would actually have preferred to be curled in a fetal position in the dark, weeping.

When I moved back to Florida from Vermont, and lived once again with Mom, we started recreating our Maryland Christmases, after a fashion. Jim would make a trip down once a year, and we would do the whole gift exchange thing and have a great time. But as Mom became ill, she could no longer shop, and couldn’t wrap gifts. Christmas became a burden. She wanted the house decorated, and even though it taxed her greatly, she always added some special touches. In the end, she just felt guilty over the whole thing. She didn’t want us to give her any gifts, and she just gave us money in return, hoping we’d get ourselves something we’d love.

The first Christmas after her death, I drove up to visit Jim in Virginia. Last year he came down here. This will be the first year in nearly a decade that we haven’t spent Christmas together. The only nod to Christmas in my house is my Charlie Brown tree. And it’s all right. Because I am decidedly ambivalent over Christmas.

Adam hates Christmas. I don’t think that’s stating his feelings too strongly. He has a decided antipathy not so much toward the holiday itself — people can celebrate whatever they damn well please, and more power to them — but toward the exhaustive and relentless way our society (not to mention the media) pushes it in our faces. This year I saw Christmas decorations on the shelves next to the Halloween decorations, and our local Walgreens was playing Christmas music well before Thanksgiving. For Jews (not to mention Muslims, Hindus, pagans, atheists, and other non-Christians), having grocery store clerks wishing you a Merry Christmas at every turn, or having Christmas music blasted from every loudspeaker in every restaurant and store, or having televisions broadcast nothing but Christmas dreck and artificially sappy shows with at least a tangential Christmas theme for nearly a month, is offensive in the extreme. I resent government and municipal bodies, which should be steadfastly secular and nonpartisan, celebrating the most Christian of holidays as if everyone in the world believed the same things. We don’t.

Every year I find myself wanting to pick fights with the Salvation Army bell-ringers: “Don’t you realize,” I want to shout, “that this organization you’re volunteering for actively discriminates against gays and lesbians? In 2004, the Salvation Army threatened to close all their soup kitchens and homeless shelters in New York City instead of following an ordinance requiring city contractors to provide equal benefits to domestic partners. Discriminating against gays was more important to them than helping the poor. On top of that, they refuse to give needy children any Harry Potter toys that have been donated because they’re ‘satanic.’ Is that the kind of ‘good’ you want to do in the world?” But I don’t shout. I drop in a Kettle Voucher, nod and give a tight little smile to the bell-ringer, and go about my shopping feeling rather Grinchlike.

One of the biggest reasons I am ambivalent is because Christmas is a fake. Jesus was not born on December 25, or anywhere near it. Assuming we’re using the gospels as our source material on the birth of Jesus, Luke clearly says the birth took place when shepherds were “living out in the field, keeping guard over their flock at night.” This means Jesus’ birth took place in early spring, since it was only at lambing time that shepherds stood guard over their flocks in the field.

December 25, in the older Julian calendar, was the date on which the winter solstice usually fell. Romans celebrated it as Dies Natalis Solis Invicti, “the birthday of the unconquered sun.” Many scholars believe the 4th century church selected the winter solstice as the celebration of Jesus’ birth to appropriate and co-opt a pagan holiday that already had a long history and huge fan base. Others, like S.E. Hijmans in his book Sol: The Sun in the Art and Religions of Rome, disagree: “It is cosmic symbolism [that] inspired the Church leadership in Rome to elect the winter solstice, December 25, as the birthday of Christ, and the summer solstice as that of John the Baptist, supplemented by the equinoxes as their respective dates of conception. While they were aware that pagans called this day the ‘birthday’ of Sol Invictus, this did not concern them and it did not play any role in their choice of date for Christmas.”

Nevertheless, the fact remains that Jesus is not the reason for the season. The reason for the season is the tilt of the earth’s axis relative to the ecliptic.

And the decidedly pagan winter solstice celebrations are the source for most of our hallowed Christmas traditions:

■   Gift-giving was common in the Roman celebration of Saturnalia, which took place from December 17th through the 23rd — in fact, Christmas gift-giving was banned by the Catholic Church in the Middle Ages due to its suspected pagan origins. Christians point to the gifts the magi gave to the infant Jesus, but forget that the magoi were Zoroastrian astrologers. Seleucus II Callinicusis, king of Syria, offered gold, frankincense, and myrrh to Apollo in his temple at Miletus in 243 BCE; this was likely the precedent for the mention of these particular gifts in Matthew’s gospel.

■   The Christmas tree was first seen in northern Germany in the late 15th and early 16th centuries, but winter solstice celebrations, especially in Europe, have always included the use of evergreen boughs as a symbol of life in the season of death, and as an adaptation of pagan tree worship.

■   Santa Claus. He may have been loosely based on St. Nicholas — Nikolaos of Myra, 4th century bishop of Myra, part of modern-day Turkey — but his feast day is December 6, and he really wasn’t much like our modern Santa or even like the more ancient Father Christmas, who typified the spirit of good cheer at Christmas but was neither a gift-bringer nor particularly associated with children. He has been identified with the old belief in Woden or Odin. And as we noted a few years ago, Santa was a shaman.

■   And then there’s the feasting. One reason the winter solstice was so important the world over was because communities were not certain of living through the winter — starvation was common in winter between January and April, also known as the famine months. In temperate climates, the midwinter festival was the last feast celebration, before deep winter began. Most cattle were slaughtered so they would not have to be fed during the winter, so it was almost the only time of year when a supply of fresh meat was available. The majority of wine and beer made during the year was finally fermented and ready for drinking at this time.

Wikipedia has a fascinating compilation of different winter solstice observances, from nearly every culture imaginable.

When someone asks me about my religious beliefs, I never have a great answer. At times I am a Christian, though certainly a theologically liberal one. But by the same token I often feel Jewish, or Buddhist, or Hindu, even though my adherence to any of those religious traditions is tangential at best. I am a postmodern shaman and most decidedly a syncretist. I am, depending on what day you ask me, an animist, a pantheist, a panentheist, and occasionally even a monotheist. And I am generally a pagan, caught somewhere between Paganism and Neopaganism, though I don’t seem to find much in common with the neopagan community at large.

As at least a nominal Christian, I must wrestle with what Christmas means. I certainly believe in the mythos behind the story of Jesus’ birth. Countless gods and salvific figures had miraculous births, and many of them were born of a virgin (though of course the word ‘alma in the Hebrew prophecy upon which the story of Mary’s virgin birth is based described not a technical virgin all but simply a young woman). All the infancy stories of Jesus are mythic: the angelic annunciation, the slaughter of the innocents, shepherds as witnesses, magi traveling to do homage. I like feeling that I’m somehow part of one of the Great Myths of humankind.

My annoyance about the date of Jesus’ birth won’t change the fact that it’s been celebrated this way for sixteen centuries. And while I don’t hide my irritation at the way our society celebrates Christmas (last night someone on television said, “Christmas is about giving! It’s about friendship!!” as if that were the perfect summation of the symbolism of the holiday), this doesn’t seem to affect my need to sing Christmas carols for a few weeks every year — the ancient, modal ones that most people don’t sing or have never heard, the ones that evoke cold winters, or the eternal struggle of light against a pervasive darkness, or joyful dancing and revelry.

I no longer have a long list of people to shop for. I won’t be alone on Christmas day, but otherwise I won’t be celebrating much. I’ll listen to my lovely, relatively unknown carols, but I’ll turn off the TV when the Christmas specials come on. And in a couple of days, on the 21st, I’ll light a candle at 6:38 p.m., the moment the winter solstice occurs where I live. Ambivalence may not be a comfortable place to live, but it’s the best I can do for the time being.

Categories: Christianity, Depression, Earth-based Religions, Family, Holidays, Judaism, Spirituality | 7 Comments

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