A Dustland Fairytale
(what I believe)
My polytheism is easy. No quibbling about definitions of gods or spirits; they’re all powers, they’re all addressed the same. The powers that talk to me are the ones I talk to. What I perceive, I consider real. What works is what works.
My polytheism is difficult. It’s timey-wimey, squishy, non-linear. It’s occasionally psychotic, often uncomfortable, always complicated. No answer is complete unto itself. The opposite of a great truth is also true, as Niels Bohr said.
My polytheism is taking out the trash and doing the laundry. It’s finding the energy to cook dinner and tell my daughter to say night night to Mara. It’s gods who know I am able to do my best for them when I am able to do the best for myself.
My polytheism is Norse and Hellenic, it is Buddhist and Taoist and Catholic, it is Narnian and Rainbowlander and Wild. It is undeniably the product of my life to this point. It is pop cultural because I am pop cultural, the product of growing up in a sitcom. It is academic because I threw myself on the mercy of academia trying to figure myself out.
My polytheism is eclectic. I believe in what works. That means I pray to the gods who answer (even the ‘pop culture’ ones) and I do the magic that works (even if it’s a chaote’s mishmash of techniques) and that which gives no results gets no attention.
My holiest of places is the Library, because it encompasses both fiction and non-fiction, and doesn’t say one or the other is more important. My sacred act is writing. My ritual is plugging in the keyboard, booting up the laptop.
Also my polytheism is taking my meds and talking to my psychologist, and my polytheism is experiences that most people would call crazy, and there's no conflict in that.
Is there still magic in the midnight sun Or did you leave it back in '61?
There are so many things I used to know, that I've forgotten, that I'm relearning. Some of them are things I knew elsewhere and forgot when I came here, but so many of them are things I knew and I let myself forget because it was easier. Because I didn't want to argue with parents, or with schoolteachers, or with friends or significant others.
I have always been a cuckoo, though I didn't know why or how to explain it. I always knew my father was not my father; my mother, I let myself believe in eventually. I never trusted adults as far back as I can remember. I remember being babysat by my grandmother, so I must not have been in kindergarten yet, and locking myself in her bedroom while I played so no one would know what I was doing.
I remember long summer evenings sitting up in the trees, hoping that somehow the sun would not set if I didn't come down, that I might never have to go home. I remember coming home after I left the first time, and no longer knowing how my room was supposed to smell, and thinking that the jig was up, certainly now they'd notice I was faking it and I wasn't really their child.
The last time I went back to my hometown, I spent months feeling adrift afterward. I didn’t know how to feel about really anything when I was there. I think about the me I was with my grandmother, and how, when she died, that person was gone without me really understanding what I lost. There were places and things I loved about the place where I grew up that I’d forgotten about, and visiting was like tearing off that old scar and wondering why it’s bleeding afterward.
There are plenty of beautiful, earthy places in the metro area, but I think I needed that system shock to remind me why I feel so at home here where I am. I will always be a product of my tiny hometown, and of my family, and of the northeastern US, even if I no longer remember the person I was when I was there.Where I Came From
Be their daughter. Nothing’s harder
My practice includes no standards of purification, no states of uncleanness. It never will again. I have OCD, and am prone to being all too aware of my failures and the ways in which I am incomplete, broken and unacceptable. I drown easily in the fear of being tainted.
My ex, at one point, would often question me when I disagreed with her: “I think you’re being influenced by nasty spirits. Work on your shielding. Work on your psychic hygiene. The real you would agree with me and with the gods.”
Staring at it now, broken down like that, it sounds ridiculous, but at the time it made perfect sense. So I banished. I prayed. I meditated. I learned a dozen shielding techniques and used them all, layer over layer. I banished some more. It was the metaphysical equivalent of washing my hands compulsively, and I had no idea what I was doing, only that I had to keep doing it or I would be infected and hurt everyone.
This was a particularly fucked up instance, but ritual uncleanliness is often a stick used for beating. Look at the taboos around menstruation. Look at the way humanity tends to turn from death, from untouchables, from lepers both literal and metaphorical.
I’m better now. I learned what scrupulosity was, and how to spot it in my thoughts, and how to chase it out. Miasma may be a useful concept for other people, but it is not and cannot be for me.
And that’s okay. My practice seems to be fine without it. My powers do not ask me to ritually purify, and there’s not really a precedent for it in heathen practice anyway. When I have the energy for cleanliness, it’s going to my apartment, because that matters more to my gods. I’m down in the mud and the blood of living and that’s just my way and the way of my powers.
I came in from the wilderness a creature void of form "Come in" she said "I'll give you shelter from the storm"
I remember long high school afternoons in the drama room, in the library, in the computer lab, in the guidance office, anywhere but in class. I knew all the tricks to make them leave me alone; I have long been Someone Else's Problem, the invisibility, whatever it is, has been there for a long time. Since I stopped dancing, probably. I think it would have been somewhere between the end of my junior year and the beginning of my senior year that it began.
I remember discovering synchronicity in Sunday School, before Communion, when I decided that angels were kin to gods and gave my teacher headaches.
I remember outlining water, earth, fire and air, and their alignments to darkness, light, chaos and order. I dreamt of how life went on after the end of the world before I could even write the stories that went with it.
There were gods before I knew they were gods, who taught me and made sure I knew someone was watching out for me, even if I didn't trust my parents to do it. Professor Dark drew me out, and Jareth held me back. And the Dark Lady was always there to wrap sleep around me, back when I could sleep so easily and well no matter where I was.
I understood that the line between fiction and reality was blurry, and that we could do our best to blur it further. I knew gods in the guise of fictional characters weren't any less real than the ones in my Bulfinch. In many ways, they were more real to me.
And I've always known the Library. I've always had the sense that moving correctly between the stacks will get me lost. Oh, the tiny one in the next town over didn't have room for that, though I always seemed to manage to find a quiet corner anyway, but the one in the city nearby was gloriously old and gothic, with floors that didn't quite extend to the walls. I spent whole days there just sitting, breathing with the books.
I deal with gods because they get my attention and start talking to me. I don’t know if I’d call what I do serving or not. Sometimes they ask me to do things, but not always. I don’t really get the impression that I’m being used “for” anything in particular except perhaps that they miss having followers or they find me interesting. I’ve never felt like I was getting anything arbitrary dumped on me, though, or that I was being wielded like I’ve seen some people describe. Maybe that’s in the cards later on, but I haven’t leveled up that far yet if it is.
One particular relationship I have, I would characterize as parental – I’ve been thinking of Odin as the “other father” for more than half my life, and god knows I was looking for a father figure that I could relate to (he’s only mostly an asshole, which is good, because if he wasn’t one at all, I doubt I could conceive of him wanting to deal with me). I think of Loki as “mother” but that particularly choice took longer to develop.
The others, I feel like I get something out of them – Kuan Yin helps us with internal work, Mara helps us with external work, Ilmarinen honest to god would give advice while I was at the forge. I can’t explain it and I don’t usually try, but it’s real enough for me.
I’ve walked away from relationships before, and also had deities tell me to back off. I’m pretty happy with the ones I have now, though.
You might think that sounds mercenary. That’s fair, I guess, but only for a broad definition of mercenary.
I’m sure Odin has an agenda. He’s the kind of guy who always does. But he’s also a relatively patient son of a bitch, given how much time he’s given in relation to what he’s asked in return so far.
I look at it this way – lots of people decide to become teachers. They all do it for different reasons. Some are in it because a university job covers their research bills and students make good lab monkeys. Some of them are in it for the power trip. Some of them are waiting to get their student loans forgiven, or are working at a private school that pays pretty well. You could call that mercenary. And some of them actually believe that they are educating the leaders of tomorrow and all that other stuff. Kuan Yin and other bodhisattva, I have no trouble believing they’re the latter. They’re in it for the good of mankind, whether the rest of us schmucks deserve it or not.
For the rest of them, well… I don’t have an issue with writing a check for tai chi lessons or accounting classes. The school has an agenda too: staying open. Some people believe that the gods derive power from being given offerings, being believed in, being given devotion. I’m inclined to think that’s the case. Mara wouldn’t have much use for me cutting her a check, but I leave her an offering and I get a little bit of help finding a job.
That’s oversimplifying, and most people would call it impious and disrespectful, but I’ve never gotten shit for it from anybody I worked with very long.
Why I Do What I Do
Understanding how religion works helps you as a theist – or even certain kinds of atheist – get what you need out of religion. Not everyone wants to get the same thing out of it. Some people want mysticism and some people want emotional support and some people just want to know they have a place to go every Sunday and someone who’ll notice if they disappear.
None of these needs is wrong. Maybe some of them seem ridiculous, overkill, or shallow. When I was first realizing as a young Catholic that what I needed from religion was that mysticism and a more… hands on deity than I’d found in Jesus, I thought the “shallow” religion of my fellow parishioners was a sham. Eventually, though, I grew out of using the word “sheeple” and understood that they were happy. (Well, okay, some of them are happy. But you get the idea.)
If somebody is happy with themselves and their religion, that’s great. They’ve got it handled. I’m not writing this for them, though. If you’re here, if you’re reading this as a part of the search for something in yourself, you’re my audience. There’s nothing wrong with admitting that, like Bono, you still haven’t found what you’re looking for. In fact, there’s a version of that song recorded in concert like a decade later where he adds “and I hope I never find it!”
Most of the time, I find I agree with Bono. There is a lot of value in the journey, with or without a destination. Yes, sometimes I get tired. Sometimes I’m envious of people who get their needs fulfilled by showing up once a week. But the majority of the time, I’m like a metaphysical shark. If I’m not moving, I’m drowning.
I’ve studied a lot of religions and magical styles. I wouldn’t call myself an expert by any means, but I’ve done a lot of reading and practice. I’ll try anything once, and I’ve tried lots of things more than once. I keep what works.
Understanding how religion works and what you need out of it lets you make solid choices when you’re going into that practice. When I build a religion from scratch, I can make sure it addresses my needs. Some people will tell you that what you want or need doesn’t matter. If there is a god picking you up by the scruff of your neck, that may be the case, but even if a god reaches out to you, he or she is not necessarily going to control every part of your religious life, and that’s okay.