I am a Child of Night

By Johnny Rapture

John William Waterhouse, 1874. Public Domain.
John William Waterhouse, 1874. Public Domain.

Sleeping through the Revolution.

A Night Owl

When I moved to Chicago in 2007 and found myself suddenly surrounded by the vibrant Pagan community here, there was a joke that my Patron deity must have been Hypnos, the Greek personification of sleep. I slept in all day whenever I had the chance — and chances were ample, since I was living for free on some friends’ back patio between my freshman and sophomore years of college. Groggy at 3 or 4 or 5 pm, I would greet my friends and we’d spend the sunny days chatting about Star Trek and starry gods and I’d end up staying up until 3 or 4 or 5 each night. In essence, my sleep schedule became flipped from the norm.

In fact the joke became serious: I did start thinking of Hypnos as my patron deity. Eventually, I was honoring an entire little pantheon of sleep and nighttime gods: Hypnos, his mother Nyx, the Oneiroi (Dreams). I still have a drawing I made of the fabled Gates of Horn and Ivory, symbols of the Dreams and of their father Hypnos.

I began to identify strongly as a night owl. To tell the truth I was pretty careless as I began traveling across the city late at night, often in the bitter lake-effect cold, alone and young and with some trick’s apartment number burning a hole in my jeans pockets. To assuage my fears and to secure my safety I made a deal and arranged a votive altar to Nyx and her brood just above my desk. I laid anything on it that reminded me of my gods: blank books, pens that had never written, bells with no clackers, candles that were never burned.


Failing

When I began grad school, I quickly found that I couldn’t manage with my wacky sleep schedule any more. Now compelled to work and attend classes with (to me) shocking regularity, my world began to unravel. At first I felt guilty and ashamed: I was failing out of graduate school because I couldn’t get my act together enough to be an adult and go to work like I was supposed to. As I spent two to three hours each morning hitting the snooze alarm — let me say that again: two to three hours — I would berate myself for my failures, my lack of initiative, my lack of drive. (In other words, I was failing at the life set before me by the strictures of capitalism. I was failing in my corporate academic masculinity.)

I dropped out of my program and entered a year-long period of depression. I became dramatically less involved in Pagan activities and retreated into my stress-strewn bedroom. I slept during the day and was wide awake at night. I still occasionally lit candles to the offspring of Nyx; but, I began to feel as if perhaps I had attracted their fickle attention in some way. I put away the altar and put my life on hold. Even in the moments late at night when I couldn’t sleep and found myself staring at the ceiling, empty and desperate, my body and my mind shut down and all I could do was lay there with my feet over the armrests and I sat and I waited and I scowled and I sighed. I hibernated.

Later, with the help of friends and — maybe you won’t roll your eyes at me like some do — a lot of meditation, I began to come out of all of that. That’s another story.


 

An Invisible Disability

Delayed Sleep-Phase Disorder (DSPD) is a circadian rhythm disorder, and I’ve got it. The basic idea is that my hormonal clock is set back a few hours from most other folks’ and so I tend to stay up very late and have a lot of trouble waking up if it is earlier than the early afternoon. They call it “social jet lag” because — like when I was in college — I would feel fine most of the time if I could go to bed when I wanted and get up when I wanted. When I entered a world where I was expected to get up “like normal,” my body resisted just like it resists adjusting when you change time zones and experience jet lag. I learned to deal with this by subjecting myself to something akin to forced sleep deprivation (waking myself up every few minutes for two or three hours a day, in order to finally overcome my hormonal clock) and I could then drag myself out of bed and force myself to shower and eventually show up — inevitably late, sleepless, ineffective — to my duties. I still struggle with this, though thankfully my work situation allows for flexibility in the mornings.

I didn’t know about DSPD when I was failing out of grad school and spending my mornings beating myself up over my own failures. Now that I know — and have found out that other members of my close family also struggle with their sleep schedules — I can look back and realize that I was in fact struggling with an invisible disability that was invisible even to me.

But why do I bring all of this up? Because I still have a few bells without clackers, and some times I get them out in the night time and I say little silent prayers and I think about myself and what I know about myself and what it means to be disabled. And I wonder about sleep, and fatigue, and what it means to be tired all the time (still). And I wonder about my younger self and how our society attempts to mould us into cookie-cutter people whose bodies all fit into certain expectations that sometimes — often! — can not be met because our bodies are diverse and amazing and sometimes awful. And I think of what it means to not know, to be invisible; to come to know, to be visible; to sleep, and to be well rested; to face the world and sometimes to fit in and most often to stick out.


I am a Child of Night

The following is an excerpt from “Breath in the Bone: A Devotional Rite for Mother Night” written by Johnny Rapture and Ruby Sara, Iowa City Samhain 2010.

 

Litany for the Children of Nox

A Boy once played in the heat of the first hearth-fire, when a Dog like a frigid north wind shook in through the door and blew out the fire. Cold and afraid in the darkness, the Boy ran from his home in search of his Mothers and his Fathers, but he could not find them. Looking back, he saw the Dog chasing after him, and then another Dog, too. And the Boy ran for his life through the woods and along the creeks, out onto the river-banks and into the hills. He ran faster than any man or woman has ever run, tearing his clothes among the brambles and thorns, leaving blood from his scraped knees and his cut palms as offerings to the trees and the beavers and the crows, but none of these creatures could save him – the winter had come, and they were gone.

The Boy ran so far that he reached the peak of the highest mountain, and he could go no further. He had run so far and for so long that he had stopped being a Boy and had become a Man. The Dogs had stayed at his heels, coming ever closer with their biting teeth and their blood-red tongues. But when the Man had reached the end of the Earth where the sky reaches the sea and the sun falls below the black waters, then the Dogs slowed and stopped and waited. The Dogs spoke, and the Man trembled. And as the Dogs spoke the sea’s waves hummed with a shining darkness and spoke words of their own. These words were like galaxies colliding or torn spiders’ webs or bones breaking.

And the Dogs said,

Child of Zoe! Child of Life! Why do you run from us, all the way from your playing near the hearth-fire, through the woods and along the creeks, out onto the river-banks and into the hills, up to the peak of the highest mountain?

And the Man said,

I was playing in the heat of the hearth-fire, when you Dogs like a frigid north wind shook in through the door and blew out my fire, and I was afraid.

And the Dogs stood up and became as ghostly images of Two Men. One man’s eyes were closed, and the other’s skin was black.

And the Two Men said,

Child of Zoe, Child of Life! Why do you run from us, all the way from your playing near the hearth-fire, up to the end of the Earth where the sky reaches the sea and the sun falls beneath the black waters?

And the Man said,

You are famine, failure, and forgetting. You are murder and fury and hate. You are those spirits that haunt the graveyards and the battlefields, you are blame and toil and doom. You have chased me to the peak of the highest mountain, and I am afraid. You are the multitude whom the Lady birthed in her Palace in the Land of the Fleshless Ones, and I am afraid. Oh, I am afraid.

As the Two Men spoke, a thousand suns rose and set, and the Man who had been a Boy grew old and became broken by age. He leaned upon a staff and gazed out beyond the cliff, and he saw the innumerable Stars. And the Stars spoke the same words as the Dogs, and the Men, and the Waves, shining and humming in eternal blackness.

And the Stars said,

Child of Zoe! Child of Life! Why do you run from us, all the way from your playing near the hearth-fire? Do you not see that we are the Innumerable Stars who shine and hum in eternal blackness? Do you not see that there is nowhere to run? Do you not see that the end is near?

And the Old Man who had been a Man who had been a Boy laid down upon the cool rocks and prepared to die. He dreamed briefly of the hearth-fire and his Mothers and Fathers, so far away and so long ago.

And with his last breath, the Man said,

You are twilight and sleep – you are friendship and fate. You are the Muses and the Dreams and rain. I ran from you, all the way from my playing near the hearth-fire, through the woods and along the creeks, out onto the river-banks and into the hills, up to the peak of the highest mountain, for I was afraid. But now I have seen you in the shining, innumerable stars, and I am dying, and I am not afraid. I too am a Child of Night.

 

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.