Devotion is for losers

candle-3663352_640That’s what the little voice in my head tells me.

Devotion is for losers.

When I light my candle and incense, look at the divine images I printed off the Internet and pasted together, read poems I have written and then fumble my words when I try to ask for help–the little voice says, “Devotion is for losers”.

It sounds a bit like Chris Evans in an early, jerkass role–masculine, slightly nasal, tenor register, and very American. (No offense to Evans, who remains one of my favorite actors and beautiful people.)

I’m a strong independent person who don’t need no gods, right? I live by myself (well, self and bird). I work full-time and support myself. I’m an introvert who needs plenty of alone time. I should be pursuing the empowering path of Magic/k or however you want to spell it, right? Grinding out spells to make the changes in my life that I want.

Except that doesn’t work for me. Positive change happens when I’m not looking. Things I want tend to come to me if I genuinely, steadily desire them. Trying to have some sort of regular magical practice turns out to interfere with the one thing in my life that is genuinely, invariably, reliably empowering–that is, writing.

I’ve seen over and over again that if I have to choose between using my limited time and energy for magic/k/e or for writing, writing will win, every time. Writing wins over laundry, dishes, bingewatching, and sometimes even eating or sleeping, let alone magic.

Yet devotional practice flows in around the edges of work and dinner and writing and video and supports all that. Replenishes energy instead of taking it. Makes dealing with everyday stressors easier. Inspires my writing. Tends toward greater kindness to myself and others.

“Devotion is for losers.” I’m not sure where that snotty voice in my head came from, but I’m pretty sure it’s wrong.

(Image by s-ms_1989 from Pixabay)

Considering devotion

9e847b085dc8494226401cc0a20b9226In fannish circles we have a saying: “I didn’t know I wanted that until I saw it.” It refers to something, usually a fan work, that satisfies a need or desire you weren’t aware of having. It might describe an unusual pairing, or a fan video using a particular song, or a what-if scenario in a fanfic that goes far afield of what “really” happened onscreen. A large part of the pleasure of fannish activities, I think, is simply discovering and connecting with your actual pleasures, desires, even kinks. In fandom it’s okay if you want to read a dozen different stories about a character overcoming past trauma by taking care of an abandoned child, however badly that sort of thing would work out in real life. (Not that I would ever read that sort of thing myself, of course….)

There was a moment sometime back in 2014, I think, when I realized that I wanted to make an offering to Antinous and ask him for help with something specific. At the time I had been going to church regularly for over a year and identifying as an Episcopalian. But despite going to Sunday Eucharist and saying the Daily Office (daily), I had no desire to take this particular problem, whatever it was, to Jesus or his Father. That was when it hit me that I had a relationship with Antinous, a Greek teenager who drowned in the Nile and was deified by Egyptian custom in the year 130 C.E., that I had never had with the god of my childhood religion, a religion I kept coming back to in spite of exploring a lot of alternatives. I had feelings for Antinous that I had never had for Jesus, and it wasn’t that I hadn’t tried to cultivate those feelings for Jesus–I had. I had relationships with some of the saints that had this emotional resonance–Julian of Norwich, in particular–but never with Jesus or his Father. That relationship, those feelings, are devotion.

That was what caused me to give up Christianity and adopt a polytheism focused on Antinous, finally, decisively. Devotion, this deep emotional connection with a deity, was the thing I didn’t know I wanted, the thing I didn’t quite know was missing, until I had it. I couldn’t manufacture it, any more than I could make myself fall in love with someone. Devotion is a sort of falling in love, being in love, falling in love some more.

I write what I like

I write fiction, poetry, and essays. I write what I like.

I don’t write “realistic fiction” or “literary fiction”. Much of my fiction has been fanfiction, transformations of existing works. My original fiction, too, is transformative, a mix of fantasy, science fiction, myth, fairy tale, romance, and erotica. I do write sexually explicit fiction and not exclusively about male/female couples.

I write poetry about gods, goddesses, myths, magic, religous holy days, and my relationships with those things far more often than I write poetry about my family history or my landscape. My favorite poets include John Donne, George Herbert, Dante, T.S. Eliot, Marge Piercy, and Gary Snyder.

I prefer to review or discuss things I enjoyed rather than things I hated. I’d rather review a book I liked and hope other readers will enjoy than deconstruct a bad book word for word. I’d rather analyze the lyrics of my favorite singer-songwriter, Hozier, or share a video of a musical performance I liked than tell you why this So-and-so is Problematic and you shouldn’t like them.

I am basically a socialist politically and the current state of American politics fills me with incoherent rage–so I don’t write about it. I leave that to people who are better informed than I, who can be cogent and coherent about the failing state of our democracy. On the other hand, I am a political, sexual, religious, and gender minority, so I don’t believe in Art that isn’t political. Star Trek was and is political. Science fiction is political. Romance is political. Everything is political.

I also like birds, very, very much. My cockatiel has been my faithful companion for almost twenty years, and I hope he’ll be around for another decade or so. So you might see bird pictures and read bird stories here, too, along with writing about books, music, film, television, religion, spirituality, magic, gender, sexuality, and all the other things that make life interesting.

In paradisum

A friend of mine died last month. His funeral was Saturday. Unfortunately, I could not go.

He was a Navy veteran, a black man from a Caribbean family, a gifted counselor and therapist to many.

He was also homeless.

I heard of his death when I went to get my hair cut at a neighborhood salon. Told the stylists who were there that he had helped me move almost two years ago. Learned that he had been a faithful supporter of the students at the arts high school, showing up for their performances. That through connections on Facebook, people had tracked down members of his family out of state and informed them, had formed a group for sharing reminiscences and information.

A local funeral home donated their services, including a place of burial. An Episcopal church gave him a funeral with music and the dignity of ritual.

I thought about my friend being found dead on a weekday morning, on the sidewalk where I had passed by and chatted with him so many times, dead probably because of an untreated infection in a minor cut, and I wished savagely that some old, wrinkled white man in power was dead in his place. I wished that the people whose political power had denied my friend adequate rehabilitation after his military service, education for his empathic gifts, health care for his injuries, or even the bare minimum of food, shelter, and clothing would die, even if it did not bring my friend back.

I don’t often hate people. I don’t like hatred in myself any more than in others. But I have felt a lot of hatred in the past four years.

Rest in peace, Dwight Claxton. Into paradise may the angels lead you, and with Lazarus, who once was poor, may you have eternal rest.

If the mind is a garden

A friend of mine on Facebook made the comment that if your favorite Disney movie in childhood was Hercules, as an adult you were either gay or a polytheist. (In their case, they are both.) The first time I saw this, it was merely funny; the third or fourth time Facebook showed it to me, a depth charge went off in my brain.

The question of one’s favorite childhood Disney movie is a frequent one in online memes and conversation. Is your heroine Ariel or Mulan? Do you favor The Emperor’s New Groove or The Lion King? Are you an outlier whose favorite was something by Dreamworks, such as Anastasia or The Road to El Dorado?

I don’t have a favorite childhood Disney movie. This is not solely because my father was of the opinion that Disney was evil and the original fairy tales were far superior to Walt’s bowdlerized versions. It’s not that I didn’t see any Disney movies, even. My Aunt Margaret took me to see Sleeping Beauty when I was four or five. I have a vague memory of seeing the one movie that Disney will never re-release or remake, Song of the South, and being so upset by it that I began sobbing hysterically and we had to leave the theater. I think I saw Bedknobs & Broomsticks in the cinema, and learned about the Magical Defense of Britain before I ever read what Gerald Gardner wrote about it. I saw the delightful short features based on the Pooh books of A.A. Milne on television, on The Wonderful World of Disney. And my dad and I went to see The Black Hole in 1979 and promptly pronounced it the worst movie we had ever seen, an opinion to which I hold to this day.

But my childhood took place during the dark ages of Disney, between the glorious animated features like Snow White and Dumbo and before the new golden age of the 1990s, when Disney began releasing their classics on video and making new films that children born in the ’80s and ’90s would think of as classics and childhood favorites. It took place before the VCR. How can I explain the difference it made to my imagination that gathering around the tv to watch the sole annual broadcast of The Wizard of Oz? Or the sole broadcast of A Charlie Brown Christmas and those other Rankin-Bass animations that dotted the month of December? It was more similar to the way our ancestors gathered by the fire in winter to hear stories that were not permitted to be told at other seasons of the year than to our present bingeing of streaming content.

The dominant force in my childhood imagination was not Disney. Disney was not ubiquitous. The dominant forces in my childhood imagination were books: Mary Poppins, The Black Cauldron, Grimm’s fairy tales and Andersen’s, Narnia and the Lord of the Rings. The words of the writers, not cinematic versions. My idea of animation, of cartoons, came neither from Disney nor anime, but from Warner Brothers, from the Bugs Bunny cartoons that were rerun on television every Saturday morning, with their sly humor and references to opera. They made my father laugh as much as me, with a breathless tenor giggle, because he’d seen them in movie theaters when he was a kid, played before the main feature.

I saw the original Star Wars trilogy in the cinema, as a child and then a teenager (and remember vividly that my mother couldn’t believe Han Solo and Indiana Jones were the same actor). My sense of science fiction, however, had already been formed by Star Trek, the original series, watched in reruns on a big black and white console tv. My parents had quite different tastes in fiction, and my interests were different from theirs, but all three of us would sit down and watch a Star Trek rerun or any other science fiction drama. I think I probably saw every sci fi show that aired in the 70s: Space 1999, Battlestar Galactica, Buck Rogers in the 25th Century, and, thanks to PBS and independent stations, classic Doctor Who, with Tom Baker as the Doctor. I am grateful to have lived before the era of grimdark sci fi and seen shows that were hopeful about humanity’s future among the stars.

My childhood imagination was a wild place, more like a secret garden than a theme park or a playground. Yes, it was sheltered and cultivated; my mother actually had some regard for movie ratings, and I didn’t see Jaws until I was an adult. But it was also unplanned, haphazard, open to multiple influences, teachers, librarians, grown-ups at my church, as well as my parents. My parents wouldn’t take me to an R-rated movie, but they put no such restrictions on my reading, and I read both adult-level books on comparative religion and racy novels stolen from the bookshelf behind their bed. Science fiction, fantasy, books, television, cartoons, hymns and the Bible and mythology, all planted their influences in my mind. When I think about that, and then I think about how whether you take your child to see a Marvel movie, let them watch The Little Mermaid on video, or take them to see the next Pixar film, it’s all the same thing… I see monoculture. I see minds like endless fields of soybeans or corn, planted with one thing, heaped with fertilizers as the natural fertility of the land is sapped by year after year of the same crap. I see wasteland.

I think I’ll close the gates and sow some new seeds in my garden. I don’t want any of the genetically modified stuff that only lets you grow that variety of the plant forever more.

Blogiversary

WordPress has kindly informed me that on this day in 2007, I signed up with their blogging service. At the time I was married, involved with a druid order, writing mostly fanfic. I started writing about my wrestling with the druid studies I was pursuing and went on to document years of trying to find the right religious and magical tradition, path, place, spot, label, whatever, with forays into what I was reading, watching, listening to. There was a November when I blogged every single day, the blogger’s version of NaNoWriMo. There were months where I didn’t write at all. I started more than one blog on the site; some are still extant, some have been deleted, pretty much everything is buried somewhere in my Google Drive.

I am a writer. Writers write. It’s a useful mantra, because it’s true. I’ve used the site 750words.com for daily writing for almost as long as I’ve been blogging; in fact, this post was drafted there. Before I became accustomed to composing everything on a keyboard, even poetry, there were pens and notebooks (and there are still pens and notebooks in my apartment, waiting, hoping to be used). I started writing as a child and have never stopped. It is, along with my engagement in religion and my erotic energy, the great throughline of my life.

These days I am single, having been divorced and then lost my ex-husband to cancer. I sit lightly to labels, traditions, organizations, having found that “lightworker” is a useful bag in which to carry my Hermetic magical training, my devotional polytheism, my interest in multiple forms of religion and magic. I accept being called pagan, polytheist, and Episcopalian with equal aplomb. I call myself queer and bisexual and am learning that my gender may not be exactly what I thought it was. I watch some television–I’m already hooked on Star Trek: Picard–listen to a lot of Hozier, read fiction, nonfiction, and poetry. One thing that hasn’t changed is the presence of my companion bird and avian life partner, Rembrandt the cockatiel, who’s been with me going on twenty years.

And I write. Every single day, I write. Here’s to sharing more of my writing here.

Fuck subtlety: A look at Hozier’s “Jack Boot Jump”

First of all, this is a jack boot.

Image result for jackboot

Second, this is a jump.

Third, this is a jack boot on your face.

(Content warning for violence/brutality)

I was privileged to see Hozier live in Washington, D.C., and to hear “Jack Boot Jump” two days before it was released. Introducing the song, he talked about Woody Guthrie, protest songs, and deciding to “fuck subtlety” and write the song that wanted to be written.

As lyrics go, “Jack Boot Jump” is about as sophisticated as a jump-rope rhyme. That doesn’t matter; “We Shall Overcome” is not a masterpiece of poetic complexity, either, but it carried people through a lot of trials during the Civil Rights Movement. I think “Jack Boot Jump” is here to carry us through our civil rights movements, our climate change protests, our resistance to oppressive governments, and I think it’ll do the job well.

The lyrics name Standing Rock here in the United States, Moscow, and Hong Kong as places of resistance, places where the jack boot jump is also taking place. It’s the stomping of capitalist and governmental forces on resistance to oppression, the increase of police and military brutality against “people standing up”. Hozier also quoted the famous and not at all outdated line from Orwell’s 1984, about the future imagined as a boot stepping on a human face. The Beijing government, the Putin regime in Russia, the Trump administration are all alike pushing back against demands for freedom, justice, equality, a response to the catastrophic climate changes taking place.

The most important verse is the last:
All around the world
You’d think that things were looking rough
But the jackboot only jumps down
On people standing up
So you know good things are happening
When the jackboot needs to jump
Here’s the good news Hozier is trying to give us: Repressive governments only crack down when there’s resistance. Cops beating up protestors means the protestors are right. It’s the same principle that there were no laws against same-sex marriage until same-sex couples began demanding marriage for themselves; it was so unimaginable to most people that there was no need to forbid it, until it became imaginable and therefore possible.

What makes this song so good is the music. Hozier looked at his influences, at the history of protest music, and made an unusual choice: He grabbed the blues. Not spirituals, not white folk, but blues, and dirty blues at that. Seen live, “Jack Boot Jump” is electrifying, a virtuoso dialogue between Hozier’s guitar (and he really does underplay his guitar skills) and Rory Doyle’s consummate drumming. It’s a song that’s not for marching in the streets so much as running, dancing, and possibly fucking, because standing up and dancing is a perfectly legit way to fight back against the jack boot jump.

A road muddy and fox-gloved: Hozier’s “As It Was” as faery ballad

The first time I heard “As It Was”, I was struck by the mention of foxgloves. “There is a roadway, muddy and foxgloved”: What is this roadway and why is it bordered with foxgloves in particular? The foxgloved road is the first clue we have to the background of the imagery in this haunting song.

I had read in a number of sources over the years that “foxglove” had nothing to do with foxes, but was rather a corruption of “folks-glove”, the Folks in question being the Fair Folk, the faery beings. I was somewhat disappointed to find in Wikipedia that this etymology has now been thrown out, and an Anglo-Saxon original of “foxes-glofa” has been accepted. Foxes and foxgloves tend to have overlapping territories on hillsides. But the association of the foxglove and the Fair Folk seems sound to me. Foxglove is one of the many plants which are both poisonous and medicinal. Ingested, it can cause death; however, the digitalin group of drugs derives from it, used to treat cardiac conditions since the eighteenth century. A flower which is beautiful, poisonous, and yet healing in strictly regulated doses is a perfect emblem of the Fair Folk as they appear in European tradition.

“There is a roadway / Muddy and foxgloved / Whenever I’d had life enough / My heart is screaming of,” says the singer. There is a road, bordered by toxic flowers, that his heart desires passionately. He continues, “And in a few days / I will be there, love / Whatever here that’s left of me / Is yours just as it was.” The singer is coming back to his beloved on this road, having had “life enough” elsewhere, but whatever is left of him, he assures the beloved, still belongs to them.

To identify the road, where it goes, and where the singer is returning from, I suggest looking at a tradition in English folksong, the faery ballad. The corpus of faery or fairy ballads deals with encounters with the fairies, euphemistically referred to as the Fair Folk or the Gentry (because one does not directly name beings who might be dangerous). My readers are probably thinking now of Tinkerbelle or the fairy godmothers of Disney’s Sleeping Beauty, but the fairies of folklore have far more in common with Tolkien’s Elves, and vice versa. They are older than humans, wise, powerful, and not always benevolent towards their younger, mortal siblings; some are merely indifferent, others can be malicious.

The two best known faery ballads, and thus the most important for this analysis, concern Thomas the Rhymer and Tam Lin. They might be described as the two directions of Hozier’s roadway: Thomas the Rhymer is a poet who goes into the faery realm and comes back safely, whereas Tam Lin is a faery lover brought into the mortal world by his lover Janet. 

Thomas encounters the faery Queen beneath a tree said to belong to the Fair Folk. He becomes her lover and servant and travels with her into the faery realm, taking the third road which goes neither to heaven nor to hell, and crossing rivers of water and blood. When he attempts to pluck an apple from a tree, the Queen forbids him and he obeys; instead, he gives her the apple, which is returned to him as bread and wine, of which he partakes. Because he is faithful and obedient, he is at length allowed to return to the faery world with a gift: the tongue that cannot lie. He becomes a poet and prophet, and books of his prophecies, like Merlin’s or Nostradamus’, are still extant.

Thomas the Rhymer represents what you might call an ideal faery encounter; if one can accept the Fair Folk’s terms and conditions, one may bring great good out of a relationship with them. The tale of Tam Lin recounts a much more dangerous situation. The ballad begins with a warning to young women not to go to or even pass near a place called Carterhaugh, because it belongs to a person named Tam Lin who claims a toll from any visitor, frequently a girl’s “maidenhead”. Janet, the protagonist of the ballad, does not heed this warning, for she deliberately goes to the forbidden well in search of the mysterious Tam Lin and picks his roses (obvious metaphor) until she gets his attention. Tam Lin warns her away, but Janet declares that Carterhaugh is on her land, so she will come and go as she likes.

Janet then returns home, and her people chastise her for dealing with Tam Lin. Her father declares that she is pregnant, and she denies that the father is any knight in his hall, but the “elfin grey” Tam Lin. She returns to Carterhaugh and once again summons Tam Lin, who accuses her of trying to abort their child. She asks him if he was ever a mortal; he tells her that he was, that he was captured by the faery Queen near seven years ago, and that he fears he will be turned over by the Queen as a “teind to hell”, a tithe or sacrifice. However, it is nearly Halloween, that is, the eve of All Saints, which is also Samhain, and there is a chance that she may win him away from his faery lover. He gives her careful instructions on how to do so, which involves considerable risk. 

Is the singer of “As It Was”, whose heart is “screaming of” the mysterious roadway, desirous of returning from the faery realm to his mortal lover? Or is he longing to escape mortality and go after a faery lover? I suggest that the song can be read both ways. 

The singer promises he will return to his love with “whatever here is left of me”. That suggests to me that he has been in the faery realm and is at last able to return to the mortal world. He offers himself, however diminished, just as he was

Before the otherness came

And I knew its name

The drug, the dark,

The light, the flame

These lines in the refrain suggest experiences other than faery abduction: drug addiction, perhaps the stress of performing on tour, even alien abduction (and I would not be the first to observe that faery abductions and alien abductions are curiously similar). This does not, however, negate the resemblance to the faery ballad, which is essentially a record of an encounter with “the otherness”.

He continues, 

The highs hit the heights of my baby

And its hold had the fight of my baby

And the lights were as bright as my baby

But your love was unmoved

Again, “the highs” and “its hold” suggest drug addiction, “the lights” could refer to the lights of a concert or the mysterious lights of a UFO. “But your love was unmoved” points back to the ballad of Tam Lin and his instructions to Janet for getting him away from the faery host. She must correctly identify him among the riders in the faery troop, pull him from his horse, throw her cloak around him, and hold on no matter what, as he is transformed into various frightening shapes. We will come back to this connection at the end of the song.

The singer now pleads with his beloved for some reassurance that he is still wanted, still loved: “How long you would wait for me / How long I’ve been away”. Has it been the seven years mentioned so often in the ballads? In a heartbreaking juxtaposition of courtly, formal language with 21st-century domesticity, he sings, “Make your good love known to me / Just tell me about your day”, and launches again into the refrain, “Just as it was….”

“The otherness came” and brought with it an intensity of experience accompanied, in this iteration, by shame. He juxtaposes again the allure of the otherness experience with the allure of his baby, whose love was “unmoved”. Unmoved by his absence, perhaps; unmoved by the trials of dealing with an addict in the throes of withdrawal; unmoved by the needs of an exhausted performer coming off a tour. “Unmoved”, to me, suggests steadfast, reliable, undeterred, but it can equally be read as emotionally cold or unavailable. 

The song concludes with a new variation on the refrain:

And the sights were as stark as my baby

And the cold cut as sharp as my baby

And the nights were as dark as my baby

Half as beautiful too

In order to win back her lover Tam Lin and have a father for her child, Janet of Carterhaugh must endure his being changed into a lizard, an adder, a bear, a red-hot bar of iron, and a burning coal, at which point she must throw him into the nearby well. He will then turn into a naked man and she must cover him with her cloak. She must remain unmoved despite the terrifying changes; “Hold me fast, and fear me not,” Tam Lin tells her. 

So the singer’s lover might withstand the drug, the dark, the light, the flame, the stark sights, the sharp cold, for the dark night is as dark as his baby, but only half as beautiful. There is a reluctant longing in this song for “the otherness”, for its terrible intensity, yet the singer’s lover turns out to be more powerful, more intense, than the otherness, perhaps terrifying in themselves. 

Hozier’s fans often resort to metaphors out of myth and legend to describe him: He is our forest god, faery prince, bog man, Orpheus. Especially in performance, he has a numinous, otherworldly quality, a more than human charisma. On stage, he is Thomas the Rhymer, the poet who has been to the otherworld and now must tell the truth, as the price or the reward of his dealings with “the otherness”. Or he is Tam Lin, won back from the faery Queen by a determined, persistent lover who can outwait the Fair Folk and hang on in the worst of times. The tune shifts between a light folk-influenced melody on the verses and a rock beat in the refrain, just as the action shifts between the otherworld and this world, the world of “Make your good love known to me” and the world of “Just tell me about your day”. The fairy tales and the faery ballads all tell us that the most important thing about the faery realm is being able to come back from it. Hozier seems to be doing just fine.

The Gospel according to Hozier: A close look at “Take Me to Church”

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I’m talking about this fellow here. Andrew Hozier-Byrne.

I can tell you exactly what and when and how I first heard the music of Andrew Hozier-Byrne. The date was May 16, 2014, and he performed a Live Lunch concert on air at a local college radio station. I was tuned in to listen because a friend of mine who worked at the station pinged me on chat to tell  me about the concert and said she thought I would like him.

My friend’s intuition was 100% correct. Listening to the three or four songs he performed that day kindled a flame of interest in me that has grown slowly into a raging bonfire, culminating in the experience of seeing him perform live in March of this year (thanks to the same friend, who was able to score free tickets for me from the station). I’ve followed him on YouTube, and then Instagram and Twitter, bought his EPs and his self-titled debut album, listened to that music while he toured for two years and then went home to his cottage in Ireland for another two years to create a second album, and been blown away by that new album, Wasteland, Baby! and his live performance of old and new music with a fantastic band. I cannot praise Hozier enough for his combination of magnificent voice, complex and intelligent songwriting, charismatic performance, and sheer physical beauty.

But rather than talk about his gorgeous hair, I’ve been wanting for a while to talk about his songs, particularly his lyrics. Hozier has always been forthcoming about his influences, musical and otherwise, and alongside black musicians like Nina Simone and Otis Redding, he mentions poets W.B. Yeats and Seamus Heaney. I’m pretty sure he would dismiss the idea that his lyrics can stand alone as poetry, but I think I must beg to differ.

At the age of 24, an Irish lad nobody outside his hometown and environs had heard of had a tremendously successful hit song, a powerful gospel anthem called “Take Me to Church”. You might reasonably wonder why, especially if you’ve never heard the song with its powerful baritone vocals. I’d like to do a close reading of the lyrics and tell you what I think.

 

The song starts out fairly conventionally with a description of the singer’s beloved: “My lover’s got humour/ She’s the giggle at a funeral.” This note of irreverence is followed by a sudden turn to religious language: “Knows everybody’s disapproval/ I should’ve worshipped her sooner. / If the heavens ever did speak,/ She’s the last true mouthpiece.” The singer has gone from describing his lover as someone with a sense of humor to identifying her as something to be worshipped, a trustworthy oracle of “the heavens”.

He then turns, in the same verse, to conventional religion: “Every Sunday’s getting more bleak/ A fresh poison each week/ ‘We were born sick,’ you heard them say it”. To say that “we were born sick” is a reference to the Christian doctrine of original sin, which teaches that every human being has inherited what you might call a tendency from the first man, Adam, that separates us from God and makes us incapable of doing anything that isn’t sin.

The next verse offers a bold contrast: “My church offers no absolutes/ She tells me, “Worship in the bedroom”/ The only heaven I’ll be sent to/ Is when I’m alone with you”. “My church” is the singer’s relationship with his lover, and she is his deity, who tells him to worship “in the bedroom”, that is, through sex. Original sin has often been equated with sexuality and vice versa; some Christian theologians proposed that Adam and Eve did not have sex until they had eaten the forbidden fruit and were banished from Eden. “Forbidden fruit” is often, though not exclusively, a metaphor for sexual acts.

The singer’s religion is his love, his deity is his beloved, his worship of her is sex, and heaven is the intimacy of being alone with her. Hozier is far from the first poet to use religious metaphors for erotic/romantic relationships, just as mystics have for centuries used erotic metaphors for their spiritual intimacy with their god. But this theme is not something we have seen in popular music for a while. Instead of degrading his lover, Hozier exalts her.

Then, he takes the Church’s depressing doctrine and turns it on its head: “I was born sick/ But I love it/ Command me to be well.” And Hozier opens up and delivers a powerful threefold “Amen” before launching, at last, into the first chorus:

Take me to church

I’ll worship like a dog at the shrine of your lies

I’ll tell you my sins and you can sharpen your knife

Offer me that deathless death

Good God, let me give you my life.

This is, straightforwardly, a plea to a woman to have sex with the singer, couched in religious metaphor. But it’s not just a metaphor; it claims love and sex as religious experiences in themselves. Sex is as powerful to the singer as worship, sacrifice, and confession; it provides the “deathless death”, a reference to the “little death” of orgasm but perhaps also to the ritually enacted death and rebirth of the mystery cults which allowed the initiates a happy afterlife. The singer doesn’t just want to have sex, get laid, and go away; he pleads to be allowed to give his whole life to the object of his worship.

After this first chorus, the song turns openly critical of the Church once again. “If I’m a pagan of the good times,/ My lover’s the sunlight./ To keep the goddess on my side/ She demands a sacrifice.” I’m struck by the fact that Hozier identifies his personal goddess not with the moon or other conventionally feminine symbols like the ocean, but with the sun. This is the first time he does so, but it won’t be the last time in his discography.

Now he rips into the Church for not satisfying its faithful: “Drain the whole sea/ Get something shiny/ Something meaty for the main course/ That’s a fine-looking high horse/ What you got in the stable?/ We’ve a lot of starving faithful”. I can’t help but read this as a criticism of the Church for not satisfying people spiritually while at the same time profiting from them materially. As an Irishman, Hozier grew up with the Roman Catholic Church as a pervasive influence (though he himself was raised as a Quaker), but there are plenty of American megachurches that are guilty of the same charges. Rich clerics collecting wealth from poor congregants can be found in every form of Christianity and in other religions as well.

Hozier calls on those who are sitting on their high horse judging others to be mindful of those who are starving and make a sacrifice, give something up, for their benefit. He goes on, “That looks tasty/ That looks plenty/ This is hungry work”. The “hungry work”, I would suggest, is the work of dismantling religious institutions that exploit their laity, of dismantling the religious viewpoints that demonize erotic love and, dare I say, demonize women as objects of love and devotion in particular.

He then repeats the chorus, singing even more passionately than before (and this is very noticeable in live performance), and sings it a second time before going into the bridge of the song: “No masters or kings/ When the ritual begins/ There is no sweeter innocence than our gentle sin.” The ritual here is sex with its lover, and in their lovemaking there are no “masters or kings”, perhaps no top or bottom, no dominant or submissive; there is no hierarchy in the sexual sacrament, the two lovers are equals. The Church may call it sin, but Hozier affirms, “In the madness and soil of that sad earthly scene/ Only then I am human/ Only then I am clean,” following these lines with another powerful triple “Amen” before singing the final chorus. Hozier insists that his experience of sex contradicts the Church’s description of it; while it may be “earthly”, it is an experience which makes him “human” and “clean”.

Hozier arrived on the music scene with this song pretty much out of nowhere, unknown outside of Ireland, perhaps unknown outside the Dublin area, and was triumphantly successful. The song was hugely popular, and many interviewers asked him what it was about, what it meant. He repeatedly delivered a short version of my exegesis–the goodness and humanness of sex vs. the Church’s demonization and repression of it, especially in Roman Catholic Ireland–and authorized a music video that featured images of gay men being attacked and arrested in the Ukraine, broadening his words beyond any implied heterosexuality. He also affirmed same-sex relationships in his interviews, while dodging the question of whether he himself is gay. (He has consistently been private about his romantic/sexual relationships while being sex-positive, so I’m not going to inquire further.)

What no one seems to have asked is why this song by a virtual unknown was so popular. The immediate, obvious answer is that it’s a damned good song: rich lyrics and a powerful melody delivered by an accomplished singer with passion and commitment. Hozier’s rich baritone pouring from the speakers can grab the listener by the chest, making your breastbone vibrate in sympathy and your heart throb to his rhythm.

The deeper answer, I think, is that the song carries a message people are desperate to hear. In the gospel harmonies of American religious tradition, Hozier proclaims that whatever their church has told them, his listeners are not sinful or dirty for wanting, needing, and liking sex. Sex itself can be sacred, spiritual, holy, far more so than the Church’s greed for wealth and lust for control. Sexual love is love, in all its madness and messiness; sex is an act of worship, not of violence or corruption.

Hozier will return to these themes and work variations on them in other songs, with extensive borrowings from European myth and poetry. I’ll be revisiting his discography to discuss more of his songs in future, and I hope you’ll read along.

Worship, service, and agency

I’ve been, at various times in my life, an Episcopalian, a Druid, a Tibetan Buddhist, and now a pagan polytheist. My regular spiritual practices have changed a lot in accordance with various paths. Yet there’s always been a thread of continuity in my spirituality, no matter what I called myself or what I did. That thread was worship.

I have always been a worshipper. As a child, I went to a little Episcopal church that was firmly set in the High Church tradition: Eucharist every week, before that was the norm; colored vestments; lots of sung liturgy and incense; even the reserved Sacrament on the altar, to which we genuflected every time we crossed in front of it. (This may be why my knees are so bad today.) We had Benediction of the Blessed Sacrament, borrowed from Roman Catholic tradition, and bowed before the consecrated Bread, exposed in a monstrance, a cross-shaped shrine of gold and jewels.

I started to drift away from the Church as a teenager. I looked in other traditions, witchcraft, neopaganism, but always drifted back to the Church. The Church had structure–liturgy, scripture, prayer book, hymns; the Church had worship, even if I often felt I was not really connecting with Jesus, God, whatever.

I didn’t know for a long time that worship was what I missed. As a druid I flailed about trying to find my patron deity or deities, which was what all the cool kids were doing at the time. As a Tibetan Buddhist I was more attracted to practicing deities like Green Tara and Medicine Buddha than to meditation. It wasn’t until I found or was found by Antinous and introduced to concepts like making simple offerings that I realized worship, devotion, maybe even surrender were the things that had always been missing from my spiritual practice.

I see a lot of witches and occultists say things like, “I don’t worship deities, I work with them. I’m not religious or devotion-oriented, I make pacts with spirits as an equal. A witch bows to no one.” Well, okay. But my theory is that everybody worships something. The U.S.A. is full of nominal Christians who actually worship Donald Trump. I’ve seen plenty of people who look to me like they’re worshipping a quarterback, or a radio personality, or an actor. Some people with an excess of power and money are quite obviously worshipping themselves.

You see, whatever you most deeply value, that’s what you worship. It may or may not be embodied in a deity or spirit, but that value is your god. The very root of the word “worship” is about value: “worth-ship”. Not about subservience, groveling, fear, or dependence, but value. Do you offer time, money, effort to a spirit, deity, or cause? Do you ask them for help? Do you give thanks for receiving it? That’s worship.

It doesn’t matter what your motivation is–whether it’s fear, or not fear, whether it’s devotion and love for a deity, or just a need of a spirit’s power and expertise. It doesn’t matter whether it’s a big cosmic or celestial deity or a humble ancestor or a wee nature spirit. The exchange of offering and blessing, petition and response and thanksgiving, that is worship. The act of acknowledging worth in a being is worship.

antinous_pio-clementino_inv256_n2On the other hand, worship is not necessarily service. I worship Antinous and a mixed pantheon of mostly but not exclusively Roman deities associated with him. The major Roman deities, those called the Dii Consentes, get regular offerings from me, though I don’t practice in a strictly Roman way. But I don’t serve all of them.  I worship many gods–which is, after all, the definition of being a polytheist; however, I don’t serve them all. I am not at every passing spirit’s disposal. I serve only Antinous and the goddess Melinoe, daughter of Hades and Persephone, and most of that service looks like doing what I ought to do, or want to do, anyway (such as writing, or practicing good self-care), but with them in mind. I think of myself not as a servant or a slave, but more as an agent, carrying out their agenda under their authority, but with a good deal of freedom, like an agent of SHIELD. *g*

Everyone worships something. Perhaps not everyone has the urge toward service, toward devotion, toward a deeply passionate, committed relationship with a deity. Some of us do, and it can be a joyful and fulfilling relationship that in no way violates human dignity. My love for gods only enhances my life, because it’s reciprocated by their love for me.

 

The power of a good story

One of the most delightful things about e-book publishing, in my opinion, is the great number of children’s books that I read as a child which are now available on Kindle. Classics like Charlotte’s Web and Harriet the Spy have remained in print and on bookstore shelves for decades, but on Kindle you can find many of the lesser-known gems.

The Cricket in Times Square, for example, is still available in hardback and paperback print editions, but you can also purchase it on Kindle, complete with the exquisite Garth Williams illustrations. (I still have a tattered and yellowed trade paperback copy from the 1970s.) George Selden wrote six other books about Chester Cricket and his friend Tucker the Mouse, but he also wrote an unrelated book that I borrowed many times from the library and never owned: The Genie of Sutton Place.

I just finished re-reading this book on Kindle. I’m not sure I can summarize it without giving it all away, but it involves an orphaned boy whose dad was an eccentric interested in “the Occult Sciences”, the maiden aunt who takes him in, his dog Sam, and a genie. A genie who has been imprisoned for a thousand years not in a lamp, but in a tapestry that hangs in the National Museum. It’s set partly in Sutton Place, partly in Greenwich Village, with a lot of humor based on the contrast between polite society and the beatnik/hippie/artist culture of the Village. If you read children’s books, no matter how old you are, I recommend it to you. Many of the reviews on Amazon are by adults like myself who grabbed the Kindle edition to revisit a childhood favorite and were not disappointed.

When I first read the book, however, I did not know that it was based on an episode of an early television anthology, Westinghouse’s Studio One in Hollywood. As with the better-remembered Twilight Zone, each episode of the show was a self-contained story, essentially a short play performed in front of cameras. Two of the actors in that episode were people I recognized: Jonathan Harris and William Marshall. Harris, of course, is loved and remembered as the acerbic and wily Dr. Smith of Lost in Space, insulter of robots and occasional protector of Will Robinson. William Marshall, who played the genie, was an African-American actor who turned up years later on Pee-wee’s Playhouse as the King of Cartoons, introducing short clips from vintage cartoons.

To my mind, a story is a story. I don’t care whether it was written for paid publication or for fannish readers, nor do I care whether it was written for adults, children, young adults, boys, girls, or educated parrots. I only care if it’s A Good Story. Does the plot make sense? Do I care about the characters? Does it use language well? Gerald Morris’s The Squire’s Tale, the first of his novels about Sir Gawain and King Arthur’s court, was published in 1998, when I was 42. I’ve read the entire series, thirteen books, multiple times. I suppose they are technically young adult novels; all I care about is that they retell stories I’ve loved for most of my life in a way that makes sense to me. They pass those tests of plot, characterization, and use of language with flying colors.

Try this, sometime: Open up your Kindle app and go to the store. Search the title of a book you loved as a kid and don’t have a copy of. Buy it. Read it. Enjoy it. A good story is a good story, no matter what shelf it’s on.

Truthfulness, gentleness, generosity

I’ve been thinking a lot about ethics lately.

It’s a subject that comes up pretty often for me, in various contexts. If you’re a regular reader, you might have noticed that I’m a big fan of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, and of the Captain America movies in particular. Ethics is a central concern of Steve Rogers’ story: What is the right thing to do? How best can I do it in my particular circumstances? What if doing the right thing is costly, risky, or just plain dangerous? Steve Rogers doesn’t necessarily respect rules, laws, or orders, but he does have an unshakable commitment to his own personal sense of what is right.

Ethics comes up a lot in magical, pagan, and polytheist circles, too. Is the Wiccan Rede a sufficient guide to moral, ethical behavior? What does “harm” mean in that context? Is hexing or cursing magic ethical? Is there a difference between using magic to attract a lover or persuade an employer and using it to restrain or punish a rapist? If pagan ethics don’t derive from the specific commandments of a deity (as they do in Judaism and Christianity), what do they derive from? These are the sorts of topics I see discussed in the blogosphere and in my Facebook feed.

After over forty years of reading about religion, it’s my observation that ethical training usually starts with the negative. The Ten Commandments have more “shalt nots” than “shalts”. The five core precepts of Buddhism are all negative: no killing, lying, stealing, sexual misconduct, or using mind-altering substances. The ancient Egyptians listed 42 negative confessions for the soul in the afterlife, an exhaustive list of wrong things which the deceased denies having done.

Most religions share an ethical core. Theft, lying, and murder are wrong behaviors that damage social relationships. Prohibitions against sexual wrongdoing seem to me to be related to vows and covenants. If you have vowed to be celibate, don’t have sex. If you have vowed fidelity to a spouse, don’t fuck around. Even if you are under no vows yourself, don’t cause or help other people to break theirs. Specifics on what constitutes wrongful killing or sexual misconduct certainly vary widely from religion to religion, culture to culture, but there’s a fundamental agreement.

There’s also, I think, a fundamental agreement on what constitutes ethical behavior, starting with the reversal of the negative precepts. Tell the truth instead of lying. Refrain from killing and doing physical harm. Be generous and give to those in need instead of stealing or defrauding your neighbor. Make vows wisely and keep them once made. Welcome friends and strangers into your home and consider them sacrosanct while they are under your roof.

I have seen these ideas in pagan philosophy, in Judaism, in Christianity, in Islam, in Hinduism and in Buddhism. There is no religion or source of ethical teaching that says casual killing is ethical. There is no religion that recommends greed, stinginess, and denial of those in need. There is no ethical system in which generosity and hospitality are not virtues. No sage or philosopher has praised a chronic liar.

Yet here in the United States, right now, I see people who call themselves Christian, devotees of Jesus, who are shooting unarmed African-American citizens, eliminating social supports for the needy, profiting at the expense of the poor, and terrorizing immigrants by taking away their children and interning them (and interning is perhaps the most neutral word I can use). I see these people and others like them defending this unethical and definitely un-Christian behavior on legal or religious grounds. And it hurts to see it, to read it, to hear about it, to know that this is how the teachings of Jesus have been twisted and perverted.

I won’t engage in the “no true Scotsman” fallacy. If someone says they’re a Christian, I’ll assume that, yes, they were baptized, they are communicants in good standing of a parish or congregation, they have some sort of spiritual life based on the Bible. But I will, as a pagan polytheist, as a progressive Episcopalian, as an occasional Buddhist, as an ethical human being, argue that racism, sexism, violence, greed, homophobia, transphobia, nationalism, and terrorism have no place in Christian theology or behavior, no place in ethical behavior, whatsoever. Not if their Christ really is the Jewish teacher and healer who rejected nobody who came to him, disagreed with the religious authorities of his own culture, and was executed as a terrorist by an army of occupation.