For the past two months, I have been exploring the religious elements of Star Trek: Discovery. Both seasons one and two have considerable religious elements. Of course that depends on how one exactly defines religion as well as how one interprets the actions of the characters. Season three is no different as the principle of connection becomes associated with religious rituals, behaviours, beliefs, and discussions.
By far, the most recognisably religious element of the season is the ritual bath that Adira participates in episode 4 in order to be able to commune (connect) with the symbiote. The ritual bath occurs in the sacred caves of Mak’ala. Adira, robed in white, enters the pool and spends considerable time learning to commune with the symbiote and its past hosts. After emerging from the pool of water, Adira is wrapped in a cloth that very much resembles a tallit.
One year ago, on New Year’s eve, I buried my father’s ashes. It was an incredible experience to orchestrate the funeral and burial of the man who begat me. He was nowhere near a Hallmark greeting card kind of father. He was complicated and difficult in ways both minor and severe. Yet, this was the man I called “Dad,” and I was left to deal with the baggage of his life. I cried in a way I had not cried before and felt a kind of sadness that, when given over to, seemed fathomless. There is no real answer to grief like that. I decided that one must just confront it or become it or traverse it. And, there were things to do, practical things, such as repurposing clothes and rehoming cats, for which no one, I believe, could ever be totally prepared. I did not resent what I had to do; I just did it. These things were hard for me.
Yet, despite the pain, something in that loss was deeply freeing. There was no progenitor in the person of my father to come before me now, so there was suddenly no sense (however falsely constructed it may have been to begin with) that someone stood between me and whatever it is that was and is coming at me. There is no longer even the false perception of a windbreaker, no frontline, no wise man, no one to shield, no guide. There is just a naked sense of myself in the world, and though others surely came before me and stand around me now, on an existential level, I am not answering to him any longer.
Last year I attended a bonfire on the night of the winter solstice at a friend’s house. As my companion and I walked towards the ledge where the fire had been the year before we were both astonished. Where was everybody? We stood in the dark confused. Minutes passed.
After suggesting we leave, my companion remarked with annoyance, “What the hell is going on here?” A Rhetorical question. I sure didn’t know.
Sudden hooting split the night and some dissonant musical sounds seemed to be coming from out of the bushes below us.
Following the sounds we descended the steep hill and discovered that the fire was at the river’s edge, and that a few people were already gathered there.
Unbeknownst to either of us the location had changed, and from our vantage point on the hill we couldn’t see the fire or hear any sounds. I had been looking forward to this celebratory turning, and liked the idea of sharing it with friends. Yet, now I felt uneasy.
I’m giving you a twofer this month: a poem and a ritual. I’m writing this a few days after the latest mass shooting in Texas by a crazy white man and a few days before the next debate by Democratic candidates. But you know what? I’m getting real tired of politics and…well, what’s going on around us. Tweets. Bullets. Fires. I’m a liberal, but I’m deciding that there must be a better definition of “conservative,” one that has nothing to do with politics. The OED defines “conservation” as “the action of conserving; preservation from destructive influences, decay, or waste.” Further down: “conservative: a preserving agent or principle.”
Back in the late 80s and into the 90s, I taught a class I called Practicing the Presence of the Goddess, which evolved into a ritual circle. As far as I know, most of the women in the class are still spiritual feminists (though the term hadn’t been invented then), a couple have died (cancer is an awful thing), and one is fading into dementia (but she still remembers our class). Among other assignments, I asked them to read Carol Christ’s splendid book Laughter of Aphrodite (1987), and once we went as a group to hear Marija Gimbutas speak on her newest book The Civilization of the Goddess (1991).
What can we learn from each other? Some people teach us that we need help with boundaries. Some remind us that we are easy to love. We can observe the way some lovers make us want to escape, simmering a queasy feeling in our stomach that we practice patience and non-attachment with so that we are not harmed too much whilst in their presence and other lovers are always ready with a supportive word, assuring us that what we desire is valid, that we do not need to justify our path.
The people who we react to the most intensely, most of the time negatively, are these people our lessons? That sounds rather crass when thought to apply to anyone in an extremely oppressive and/or abusive situation. I would not suggest we apply this to anyone but ourselves, if indeed, it works for us. This is not the fatalistic idea of people belonging in a certain state or being punished for something. This is more a strategic curiosity of looking at our own agency from a back door. For example, my body might contort in frustration and sadness with someone, which could indicate I need to not be in relationship with their energies, but until I can create another path (maybe due to work commitments, relational obligations, financial situations, etc.), I feel more empowered reflecting so that I can learn about myself and others so as to perhaps not invite the same energies in during the future or to not have them affect me so harshly so that it doesn’t matter.
Arbor Day, Earth Day, May Day and Mother’s Day are deeply connected conceptually, etymologically, culturally and emotionally.
The tree, with its roots buried deep in the earth and its branches reaching upward toward heaven, spread wide to embrace all of eternity, is a prime symbol of life in many cultures. Trees have long been worshipped as beneficent spirits of bounty. Trees, after all, shade and feed us. Supply and sustain us. Serve us in endless ways. Trees breathe life into our lungs, the source of endless inspiration.
Possessing the potent powers of fertility, growth, resilience and longevity, the tree is widely seen as the progenitor of the world Family Tree. The Tree of Life. The tree goddess was seen as a sylph, an airy tree spirit who resides among the green leaves, sustaining and nurturing the vegetative forces. She is the symbol of the flow of life, a Mother Goddess who is Herself the Tree of Life.
Here in the high desert it has been raining off and on for the last few days. A giant puddle sits in the driveway and all the trees range in color from subtle shades of sage to emerald. Fringed Chamisa, spun gold and salmon wildflowers are bent low but stems are luminescent. Seedlings are sprouting in unlikely places.
I can’t think of a better mother’s day present for the desert than these ongoing cloud-bursts that are nourishing the earth with water and minerals from the sky. I am profoundly grateful for this year’s spring greening.
The earth is experiencing a sense of renewal. I wish I could say the same for me with respect to mothering and mother’s day. I cross this cyclic threshold with the same feelings of dread and grief that overpower me each year. Neither of my children acknowledge me as the mother who once loved them so fiercely, but oh so imperfectly in her own confusion and despair.
I was such a young wife, barely twenty when I became pregnant with my first child. Two years later I was a mother of two sons. Within five years I was divorced and on my own.
Although I tried to repair the damage as soon as I was able, neither child was willing to join me. I desperately suggested counseling – many times. As adolescents and young adults both Chris and later David, responded with chilling silence and apparent indifference to every frantic attempt I made to bridge the gap.
Starhawk describes the work of her Reclaiming collective as the creation of ‘spaces of refuge from a harsh and often hostile world, safe places where people can heal and regenerate, renew our energies and learn new skills.’[i] These words also apply to the women’s traditional dances. One participant on my courses expresses it thus: ‘In the circle no-one is left out, no-one is ignored, all are held and included, all have their place, all are connected.’[ii]
My life’s work with traditional women’s circle dances of Eastern Europe and the Near East has been a natural interweaving of feminism, activism and Goddess spirituality. In more than thirty years of experience, my students and I have gained valuable insight into their potential as tools for healing and transformation.
These simple and ancient dances connect us with women’s ritual practices from the past which are rooted in a Goddess-reverent paradigm honouring the earth, the body and the female face of the divine. In the present day, the practice of mindfully dancing traditional circle dances which embody this worldview can help us imagine and create a more equitable society in the future.
In Rebirth of the Goddess, Carol P Christ offered Nine Touchstones of Goddess Spirituality as an alternative to the Ten Commandments. The Nine Touchstones are intended to inform all our relationships, whether personal, communal, social, or political. In this four-part blog (here are parts 1-3 Part 1, Part 2, Part 3) I am exploring ways in which these Nine Touchstones are inherently embodied in traditional women’s ritual dances of the Balkans, which has been my spiritual practice for over thirty years.
Carol’s Fourth Touchstone is: ‘Speak the truth about conflict, pain, and suffering.’ Many women’s dance songs which allow the women to speak and sing their grief and pain. When we bring that pain into the healing container of the circle, sharing simple steps, Dancers in the circle simultaneously give and receive support for their own and others’ sorrow. Ultimately, the sense of community and solidarity in the circle transforms our grief so that the burden becomes manageable. Many historical songs, too, tell stories of women being abducted or abused, and how they fought back or got away – or not – so that they are remembered and honoured by future generations.
This has been another hard month. I don’t feel it to be hard. I just know objectively that it is. The typical challenge of balancing my work with the children’s needs and the management of a household has been intensified by the onset of a serious medical condition in my family. I now enter that phase of elder care, which I understand is more or less bound to bankrupt the average household. I have become the much-begrudged adult child, compelled to make decisions for other people’s lives and regarded in the fog of suspicion. My intentions are now under scrutiny; my time is usurped; my efforts are thankless. I’m not complaining really. I am just describing.
In the midst of things, I have managed to take my older son to the seeming ends of the earth to visit potential high schools. I am managing a Destination Imagination team for my fourth grade son’s class. I am teaching six courses, and my home is relatively clean. I am running a weekly lecture series, I volunteered at the Church this month, and no one has missed any meals. I even managed to sew a blanket for a friend’s new baby. There are many more serious family, medical, and economic issues that underlie my day-to-day, but along with everyone else, and perhaps a little more so than some others, I just accept that I am amazingly over-extended.
In these challenging times, one of the hardest things to do is to keep our hearts open. Grief and despair tend to shut them down. And even among close friends, colleagues, family members, and people with whom we share worship, when we clash over differing political opinions, trust can swiftly erode. These kinds of losses and sorrows can make us just want to close the doors to our hearts.
Yet hardened hearts and minds are not going to help us overcome conflicts and affirm connections. Only if we can open our hearts to one another, holding the fullness of our (and others’) feelings in a compassionate way, can we weather the storms which threaten to divide us further. And only if we are united can we find our way together through those storms.
One of the best ways I know to connect with others and to open my heart is through the joyful experience of traditional circle dance, particularly Armenian dances. I have written previously on this blog (The Dance of Memory, The Wishing Tree) about Armenian dances and their ancient roots, their links to the pre-Christian Goddess, and how they affirm survival throughout the traumas of history. I have also written about my friend and colleague Shakeh Major Tchilingirian and her inspiring Circle of Life project, which brings Armenians, Turks, Kurds, Assyrians, and other survivors of atrocities and genocide to dance together for reconciliation.
Over the past few months, a precious person has come closer into my family’s life in such a way that their presence in my home, among my loved ones, has come to feel natural and easy. This is someone I love, someone who adores my children and appreciates my partner of 18 years and whose sweet spirit and vibrant laughter have added joy and mirth to our family home.
Yesterday, they rode with me to drop my freshly-mohawked teenager off at a farm to help with preparations for an upcoming arts camp. I introduced them by name to the camp assistant and walked over to chat with the camp director for a bit. Later, as we got back into the car to head to lunch, I asked what they thought of the farm.
“It was nice,” they said. “I’m glad your children have a place like that. Also, while I was chatting with the camp assistant, she asked if I was family.”
“What did you say?”
“I said yes.”
They weren’t wrong.
The meaning the word “family” holds for me is something I’ve given much consideration over the years. For generations, many of us have been expected to turn a blind eye to the ways patriarchal domination of women’s and children’s bodies perpetuates abuse in our own family systems. My inability to sweep these abuses under the carpet, to keep silence and pretend all is well, has led to my estrangement from one entire side of my family. It’s an estrangement I feel will be permanent, and while I grieve the loss of an ideal I never had, I welcome the opportunity to live authentically and boldly, confident in my dedication to my ideals, which include honesty, justice, and the unconditional protection of children and vulnerable populations.
For a while, I sat with the gap this estrangement created in my life, unwilling to fill it with harmful relationships with those to whom I am blood-related, yet hesitant to broadly redefine it in a way that negates the importance of those who have chosen to love and raise up a child, however imperfectly. Continue reading “Family, Interdependence, and Mutual Support by Chris Ash”
The warrior spirit is not only the coherent ability to resist circumstances outside of one’s making; but the ability to fight the war within all of us thus managing discomfort and chaos with the force of authenticity.
Recently an enlightened friend on social media reminded me of the importance of not only portraying an awakened consciousness in the fight towards enlightened morays in an age of fascist’s dictatorships but actually waking up to unresolved veracities.
Hurriedly, I searched for a working definition of enlightenment consistent with my Christian beliefs. I finally found several however, none exactly measured up to the values that are interlaced within scriptures and thus are founding principles of Christianity and religious fundamentals.
I am visiting my home town in Russia for holidays. I have not been home for 3 years and I have not lived there for 12 years. Many things surprise me. One of the features of contemporary life in my home town is the relentless and often destructive onset of capitalism. As I have said already, currently patriarchy has joined forces with capitalism in order to suppress nature and oppress women.
One of the ways capitalism does this is by involving women and men into an endless rat race and by substituting their Wild Nature (as Dr Clarissa Pinkola Estés describes it) with an identity of a consumer. People willingly put on masks of consumers who live to make money and to spend it on entertainment which is sold to them.
My simple daily rituals and spiritual practices are what keep me mindful of G-d and G-d’s presence in my life. They also remind me of G-d’s call to justice, care, compassion and love.
“I find by experience, not by reasoning,
but by my own discovery that G-d is near me,
and I can be near G-d at all times.
I cannot explain it but I am as sure of my experience
as I am of the fact that I live and love,
but I know I do.
In the same way, I know I am in contact with G-d.”
This poem by Lily Montagu speaks to me. I read it most mornings as I say my morning prayers, and it is one of those mantras I try to live by. I have found that contrary to popular belief, sustained religious practices can be just as transformative as instantaneous conversion experiences. This is why I have developed certain spiritual and specifically Jewish practices (For more about my joinery to Judaism, see one of my previous blogs “Reflections on my Spiritual Journey: Claiming Judaism”). I find that they help me develop and cultivate a strong relationship with G-d. For example, I keep a kosher home; wear a kippah daily; try to pray at least twice a day andbefore snacks and meals; practice the principles of Mussar; attend regularly Shabbat services Friday evenings at my Reform Congregation in Lowell and Saturday morning services at a Conservative congregation in Nashua, NH; light Shabbat candles; try not cook or create on Shabbat; make Havadalah to mark the end of Shabbat; give tzedakah as much as I can and study Torah with my friends. This list is not all encompassing and there are quite a few areas of my practice I wish were more disciplined as well.