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The Circle and the Street

By Johnny Rapture

Photo by George Hodan; Public Domain

Photo by George Hodan; Public Domain

Reflections on marches, May Day, and the possibilities of Pagan theology.

Marching in rain and starlight

As I write, my fingers hesitate. My side aches. My hip aches. The grey matter behind my eyes feels lost in hazy, pain-killer-induced lethargy. And yet… isn’t this melancholia exactly that state prescribed by the sages for the best reflection, prayer, and appraisal of purpose? I can feel my own spine shimmering…

One week ago tonight, things were different. Cold sweat ran down my shoulders as I marched elbow-in-elbow with activists from across Chicago in solidarity with the #BaltimoreUprising. Black, Brown, and white, mostly young and smiling, fatigued by the chill but stepping in time to singing on all sides – we came walking down from Police Headquarters on 35th Street through neighborhoods lit and unlit, poor and well-off. We marched past darkened apartment windows and past buzzing street lights zapping flies. We passed my own apartment. We passed within shouting distance of Obama’s Southside home (but were diverted by police bikes). We came down through the city like flood waters until we stood looking south toward the blinking lights of the University of Chicago. Rain wanted to start falling, but didn’t. Our voices rained down instead in three staccato syllables:

                Come. Out. Side!

                Come. Out. Side!

With each shout we welcomed the people in the brick, three-story buildings all around us to come out and join our marching river.  I could see young people and old people and students and parents and people I knew and people I didn’t know all peeking through their window blinds, some rubbing sleep from their eyes but most just turning away from grey-blue screens for one moment, made curious by the rising tide of us. They peeked and they opened their doors and came out onto their porches and onto the streets and they clapped and cheered and smiled, and so did we. Someone added verses to our syllables:

                Come. Out. Side!

                                (We love you!)

                Come. Out. Side!

                                (We need you!)

And we did. We loved each other, and we needed each other.

We loved each other because there, in the clammy night, we clung to each other’s body heat while we clutched our purpose close to heart. What was remarkable – what I remember most vividly— were the smiles like starshine that lit our way, smiling down on us from covered porches and wooden fire-escapes. Constellations of smiling faces blinked on and off, twinkling while the people sang. My spine shimmered in that glow.

Dissonance

It wasn’t quite May 1st, but the crocuses were peeking out at us like those onlookers through their blinds and it felt like Chicago’s wet and clammy springtime was upon us. Still, this march – one of the largest and most vocal in the city since the height of #BlackLivesMatter activity over winter – was my May Day.

I’ve been a Neopagan for over a decade – more or less, off and on. There are statues on an altar in my apartment (Aphrodite could surely hear our step-stomping on the sidewalks nearby), but to be honest they are bare instead of heaped with regular offerings – I never stand before the table and light the incense and clap my hands. Not anymore. Why?

In a Beltain article, Crystal Blanton touched on something that resonated powerfully with me. She writes:

I still believe that life has purpose and I still celebrate the cycles of the wheel as it transitions every 45 days, but my spiritual core has shifted. I am no longer content with the story as I use to be, the world around me doesn’t match the simplicity of the theology.

Listen, I am not saying that this theology is inaccurate. I am just saying it is no longer enough for me, it does not serve me in the same way that it use to because I am walking through the trauma of the society that I breathe with.

While my altars gather dust, my shoes grow soggy with sweat and coated in grime off the street. Instead of lighting candles I am stenciling signs. The hymns go unsung but my throat is hoarse and dry.

If I can speak a little more about Mx. Blanton’s article, I would like to point out something else; to do so I’ll need to mention James Lindenschmidt’s article, also published on May 1st, which I found both hyperbolic (“untold thousands”) and  anachronistic (“Pagan ethos”). In these two pieces I find two different perspectives on the relationship between contemporary Pagan thought and the fight for justice. Equating contemporary Pagan practices with the thought and practice of generalized ancient cultures, Lindenschmidt asserts that Pagans (and he goes out of his way to include the whole spectrum of people who might today identify with that label, and more) do now and have always had theological perspectives that are anti-capitalist, anti-corporate, anti-nationstate, etc.

On the other hand, Blanton suggests (according to my reading) that this is not the case. Instead, she describes a detachment, or dissonance, between – to put it one way – the circle and the streets. Instead of relying on generalizations about “Pagan values” from the past (as I think Lindenschmidt does, to his argument’s detriment), Blanton takes the opportunity of her own dissonance and her dissatisfaction with the lack of robust justice theology in contemporary Paganism and furrows new theological fields. Taking up her contemporary understanding and tools, she creates:

Today justice became the seed within the Goddess’s belly.

New Theology

This Beltaine, and for many days before, I have felt the dissonance Blanton describes, or something like it – not only because of the state of American life but also because of that aching hip I mentioned, and for the debt collectors calling, and for other reasons, too. I don’t approach my altars because, though beautiful, they seem hollow and wanting. I ask myself: Athena, where were you the night Rekia Boyd was shot? Hestia, where is your sanctuary when it comes to Black folk? Asklepios, what new ailment is this?

But I think today of the songs we sing in circle and I think of the songs we sing in the street, and I think of fields we could furrow and of what a new Paganism – not an anachronism – could look like, watered both by offerings of milk and water and by hymns chanted in staccato syllables.

Come. Out. Side!

(In the East we call to Justice, golden-haired and weary!)

(And the people looked out!)

Come. Out. Side!

(In the South we call to Love, rosy-cheeked!)

(And the people smiled, teeth like stars!)

Come. Out. Side!

(In the West we call to Compassion, whose face is wet with tears!)

(And they sang together a flood of healing and of power!)

Come. Out. Side!

(And in the North we call to Mother Earth, bedrock beneath our feet!)

(And their feet, though sore, marched on.)

And I wonder if my hip will still hurt or if my brain will think with clarity, and I look to the smiling stars and hope to feel the sweat-sweet-rain-love on my shoulders and to link elbow-to-elbow with comrades in struggle and in circle.

This melancholy (melanc-holy) doesn’t lead me to answers like bezels of wisdom under the paving stones… but I am at uneasy rest, mind a-flutter.

 

6 Comments »

  1. The world, and society, we want to have must first be created, in order to be. It can not be created by prayers and wishing it so. It will not be created by the Gods that is left to us humans and how much sweat, blood and pain we are willing to invest to create it. Unless we are willing to pay the price, nothing happens.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Thanks for the beautiful article. I love the image of the “marching river” and the “Come. Out. Side./We. Love. You.” chant & invocation. That must have been a powerful experience!

    I do want to clarify one thing about my article. You aren’t the first to interpret it in this way, that I am claiming one homogeneous set of “pagan values,” and that all pagans are essentially living by the same rules. That’s not what I mean in my piece, and it’s clear that I need to do a better job of articulating the point. What I am arguing is that the beautiful, diverse myriad of values that existed prior, which had some basic commonalities (such as a deeper relationship with nature) was replaced by the modern, mechanistic values of science & capital. The Death Of Nature by Carolyn Merchant articulates this view really well.

    Put more succinctly: I don’t think there was one set of homogeneous values (ie, a generic “Paganism”) replaced by another set of homogeneous values. Rather, one set of homogeneous values replaced all the other ones.

    Liked by 2 people

  3. Pingback: Writing Again |
  4. Beautiful post! I too have been feeling the dissonance and both Crystal’s article and this one (and G&R on the whole) give me hope that I am not alone and perhaps we truly are in stage of growth and evolution as a religion(s). Which is not to say that everyone should be political as a part of their spiritual practice, but that perhaps for those who have a more difficult time separating the two, we can create a theo/alogy that is supportive of our justice work. The God/desses whisper, and there must be many that listen.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Although tough what a privilege to be part of this. The people coming out to join the river is a beautiful image. Whilst I wouldn’t call my altars dusty, I’d say alot of my ‘work’ my gods as a poet takes place in my communities and outside ritual space.

    Like

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