Unseen Worlds

howaboutdemonsA few weeks ago I wrote about re-watching The Exorcism of Emily Rose. In anticipation of the inauguration I was in the midst of a spate of possession movies. I watched several others, including The Rite and The Possession. This got me thinking I should read Felicitas D. Goodman’s book How About Demons? Possession and Exorcism in the Modern World. Goodman was an anthropologist who’d done fieldwork among groups that practiced possession—keep in mind that many religions believe in good spirits as well as evil ones. Her book is one of the few that takes the larger picture seriously. Many writers simply dismiss the “demon haunted world” as naive and superstitious, but Goodman makes the point that possession is a real phenomenon and we don’t know the cause of it. Indeed, it’s impossible to say with certainty what the agency is because spiritual causes can’t be studied empirically. That said, science deeply informs her analysis.

I’ve observed people speaking in tongues before. It’s an uncanny experience. No matter what you decide the origin might be, it’s strange and not a little unsettling. It’s related to possession, as Goodman shows. So is multiple personality syndrome. Unlike most scientists, however, she doesn’t make the unwarranted leap that since these are all related they’re all the same. Speaking in tongues is usually considered a good thing while demonic possession is not. Interestingly, recordings of glossolalia—speaking in tongues—show the same pattern globally. This indicates that whatever it is, it originates biologically from human brains in a mostly predictable way. Many world religions allow for possession by good spirits or gods and alternate states of consciousness are accessible by learning how to reach them. Anyone can do it, but some have the gift of doing so easily. Those who do overlap with the pool of the possessed.

As the White House shows, we like simple answers. Possession, however, is a complex phenomenon. Throughout, Goodman refuses to equate it simply with the physical manifestations that have been observed and recorded. She was a true scientist. Reductionism is related to our love of simple explanations. I wanted to read How About Demons? because it contains one of the few serious academic studies of the case of Anneliese Michel, the young woman on whom The Exorcism of Emily Rose is based. I was expecting, since this is an academic treatment, that the cause would be nailed down simply and efficiently. I was pleasantly surprised when it wasn’t. Well before the movie Goodman interviewed those involved in the case and wrote an entire book on it. Although she clearly believed in science to explain our world, as this book demonstrates, she didn’t give it more explanatory power than it actually has. In a complex world we need as many subtle minds as we can get.

Publish or Perish

Working in publishing, I’m well aware of the stresses of the information industry. Jobs frequently evaporate as new, less formal ways of spreading ideas develop. To the typical academic what a university press offers is the secret knowledge of where to send their monograph to get it printed and bound. As if a printer and spiral binder weren’t available at the local Kinko’s. Oh, wait. Kinko’s doesn’t exist any more. You can do most of this at your own university anyway. With 3-D printers you might even be able to print a reader. No, what academic presses have to offer is credibility. If we’re honest we’ll admit that some presses are known for publishing just about anything sent to them while others are selective. The selective presses are often considered the more reliable since they set up the highest hurdles and accept only materials that come as close to being true facts as information can. Self publishing, as might be expected, has muddied the waters.

The same is true in book publishing’s cousin, the newspaper industry. As analysts point out, you can get whatever “news” you want from social media. With varying levels of truth. Stop and think about the people you knew in high school. Those who tend to friend you on Facebook. Would you trust them for accurate news? This has become all the more important because our government is now in the business of fabricating facts. Fact checking is too much work and besides, who has time? It’s easier just to believe lies than it is to buy a copy of the New York Times. Newspapers, you see, used to offer the same thing as the academic press—credibility. The New York Times and the National Enquirer are two different things—you could tell at a glance. Now it’s hard to tell where the news originates.

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This point was made by Deborah Lev in a recent editorial in the New Jersey Star-Ledger. The real problem is our nation’s founders presumed that democracy would work for informed voters. Yes, there were difficulties with the way the system was set up. It was based on privilege and convention. We’ve finally, in theory, gotten to the point that any citizen of a certain age can vote, but we have no requirements for ability to discern the issues. That would be elitist. And we have eroded the traditional sources of attaining quality information—publishers of all sorts are struggling. For some topics self-published books outstrip traditionally published tomes by a fair margin. You can’t believe everything you read. Don’t take my word for it. I’m open to fact-checking. Just be careful where you reap your facts, because not all facts are created equal.

O Brother

o_brother_where_art_thou_ver1When teaching mythology at Montclair State University, I had students watch O Brother, Where Art Thou? Based on Homer’s Odyssey, the movie follows a trio of convicts during a election campaign through depression-ridden Mississippi. The populist candidate, Homer Stokes, runs his campaign with a little person (but as a true Republican, he can call him a derogatory name and nobody blinks). Both Stokes and “the little man” are members of the Ku Klux Klan and even Mississippi of the 1930s won’t have that. How things have changed!

The movie comes to mind because of Friday’s march on Washington of women in favor of anti-abortion legislation. Look for the numbers to grow as the White House inaugurates comments about it. A few thousands gathered after last weekend’s 1.2 million—yes, a million more than expected—Women’s March on Washington. I respect these folks’ right to protest, of course. They might’ve done well to watch O Brother before heading out the door, however. The incumbent in Mississippi is Pappy O’Daniel. His clueless campaign managers have no ideas how to counter the populist Stokes. Junior O’Daniel suggests they could get an even shorter “midget.” Pappy, as if speaking to Friday’s marchers says, “Wouldn’t we look like a bunch of Johnny-come-latelies, bragging on our own midget, doesn’t matter how stumpy.” With apologies for the insensitive terms, size does matter. The First March had world participation of nearly 5 million. And that’s just those who were free that day.

I’ve been drawing quite a bit of wisdom from cinema lately. Maybe because it is often in harmony with vox populi. If it weren’t the industry wouldn’t be thriving. I think of O Brother and how the south in the 1930s makes us look regressive today. The good, Christian folks of Mississippi wouldn’t have a racist for their governor. When they saw what he really stood for, they voted for the lesser of two evils. Today we have a president that would’ve had a hard time being elected in that past. The tide has shifted to a more selfish and shortsighted instant gratification without benefit of education. “And our women, let’s not forget those ladies, y’all. Looking to us for protection! From darkies, from Jews, from papists, and from all those smart-ass folks say we come descended from monkeys!” Homer Stokes preaches in the light of a burning cross. Instead of booing him out of the town hall, we’ve asked him to lead the free world.

The First Weak

“Oh, what a tangled web we weave. When first we practise to deceive!” I always thought this couplet came from Shakespeare, but in fact it’s from Sir Walter Scott’s poem “Marmion.” The quote has been in my head all this first week of the new administration as alternative facts, lies, and statistics have flooded out of the White House. Along with gag orders slapped onto federal agencies. I’ve worked for people who rely on gag orders. This obvious lack of transparency signals loud and proud that they have facts to hide. Then they will feed the public alternative facts and later claim they never did. Mission accomplished. Sir Walter Scott may not have been William Shakespeare, but he sure got that web analogy right. At times like this we need our writers. Of course, Trump bragged in pre-inauguration interviews that he didn’t like to read.

Since last weekend sales of George Orwell’s 1984 have spiked. From the first words out of Sean Spicer’s mouth (or any words out of the mouth of Kellyanne Conway}, many of us knew the only thing Orwell got wrong was the date. Frankly I’m surprised the government hasn’t tried to ban 1984 yet. It was required reading when I was in high school and that date was still in the future. The press—what still exists of it anyway—passed along stories that Trump had ordered photos of the inauguration day crowds hung in the White House in his first week. Such pressing matters of state! The photos had the wrong date on them. Facts are cheap. This should be good for the economy. You can get them in any flavor you like—true facts, false facts, alternative facts, statistics. Arachne has returned to her loom.

Although “Marmion” wasn’t written by Shakespeare, I can still say it was because I need a segue to Harold Hecuba. Hecuba was a Hollywood producer who accidentally landed on Gilligan’s Island. After he insulted Ginger the castaways put on a performance of Hamlet to showcase her acting skills. Hecuba, the unelected president of the island, awoke during rehearsal and, like other narcissists we know, took over. He says that Shakespeare was a hack and that if he were alive he’d have him working on a complete rewrite. Of course, he doesn’t know what Hamlet’s about. Or “Marmion.” Actors only mouth the words. They make us believe what is not true. We’re in for a period when we’re going to rely on the authors for the true story. I suggest we all start with 1984.

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William Shakespeare

What Rapture

rapturecultureEvangelical culture must be an endlessly fascinating area of study for sociologists. So pervasive that many people who aren’t religious buy into aspects of it, this social movement has shaped American thought in often unexpected ways. Take the rapture, for example. Here is a non-biblical concept, invented in the late nineteenth century and so thoroughly disseminated that most people simply accept it as standard Christian belief. It’s not. Amy Johnson Frykholm pieces part of this puzzle together by focusing on the Left Behind series. Rapture Culture: Left Behind in Evangelical America is one of those books where you find plenty of food for thought as you go along. Not that the novel series itself is profound, but the impact that it has is.

The origins of the rapture go back to a way of thinking called dispensationalist premillennialism. That alone could be why so few people know about it! All this phrase means is that some Christians believe history is divided into distinct periods (dispensations), one of which is the end of the world. Among dispensationalists, there is disagreement on when the rapture will come, and those in the majority believe it will happen before the millennium (not the Y2K millennium, but the millennium of God’s reign on earth before the world ends—the next dispensation). These are the premillennialists. It’s easy to think that since this system is pure mythology it must be simple. It’s not. This is a complex mapping of the future based on an intimate knowledge of obscure verses from the Bible. The Left Behind series, written by Jerry Jenkins under the guidance of the finally departed Timothy LaHaye, brought this idea into mainstream culture. There was even a movie.

Many educated citizens don’t realize that Left Behind has a Harry Potter-like following. Sales of the series are into the millions of units and many of those who read them take them somewhat seriously. Frykholm interviewed such readers to find out what they actually thought about the series and whether it was something they believed in. As might be expected, answers differ considerably on these points. For me one of the real takeaways is that we ignore evangelical culture at our own peril. I learned about the rapture form Chick tracts—I’ve posted about them before—that I read in my childhood. By the time of Left Behind I’d been through enough courses that I knew it was all based on a fictional event. But many don’t realize that. And many of them showed up in the last presidential election.

Can I Get a

Public restrooms have always made me uncomfortable. This has nothing to do with North Carolina. It’s more an issue of being raised to be ashamed of bodily functions and then trying to shift, as it were, in mid-stream. Coming back from the Women’s March on Washington (we have to keep talking about this to give us momentum to move forward) we had an hour layover in Philadelphia. I can’t walk into Philadelphia’s 30th Street Station without thinking of Witness. Indeed, they were announcing the train to Lancaster on our layover. Then I realized coffee before a somewhat long train ride isn’t a great idea. As I headed to the men’s room I remembered what happened there in 1985. After all, with Trump in charge all kinds of carnage can be expected.

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Witness has a redemptive message. And maybe it’s a parable too. Anabaptists, such as the Amish, take their Bible seriously. Not being conformed to the world, but separating out from it is a kind of Protestant monasticism. Even those who can’t understand their lifestyle choices (so Republican in so many ways) admire their industry and care (so unlike Republicans in so many ways). The problem is, we can’t separate ourselves from the world any longer. We’re all Samuel staring out of that toilet stall. We have seen the truth and we feel vulnerable and violated and unsure of where to turn. When someone’s hurt they reach out to others for help. The others are the world. A community may be self-sufficient, but it shares the planet with aggressive others. You can never truly be alone.

The lifestyle of the mean and corrupt erupts into the calm, peaceful, and contemplative life of those who want to live simply and unmolested. Some mentalities—particularly capitalist ones—see the non-aggressive as chattels. Women, children, men who don’t fight, any minority—these can be exploited for one’s own grandiosity. We’ve seen that already in the regressive and repressive policies an illegally elected president has already started to enact. John Book is not going to come save us this time. We need to take the initiative to protect the way of life we simply wish to lead, without interfering with those who sadly believe money really means something. You and I, my readers, are witnesses. And like witnesses we have the responsibility to make certain that the world knows the truth of what we’ve seen.

Love Thy Enemy

The line for the train snakes through Union Station before 6:00 a.m. Many of us, maybe all of us, were at the Women’s March on Washington. Listening to strangers speak to one another, it’s clear that this was the largest “love in” in history. Trump supporters say it was about hate—we know they rely on “alternative facts” now. Nearly every speaker at the rally emphasized love. The government gives us Orwellian doublespeak. 1984 must become required reading once again. We can’t let the fascists control the narrative. Those who control the narrative sway the crowds. The Women’s March on Washington was not hateful. This was a peaceful gathering in the name of love. I write fiction as well as non. (My fiction has even fewer readers than this blog.) The point is, I know about controlling narratives. If you let a government with a documented history of distorting the truth (at just one day old) control the narrative, friends, we are lost.

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The March was the beginning. I saw children just old enough to march. Children so young they had to march in strollers. I saw grandmothers in wheelchairs. I saw mothers and daughters. Sons, brothers, fathers. Not one unkind word among people standing shoulder-to-shoulder for over four hours. No room to sit down. Bathrooms inaccessible. We were united. We are united. This government has already shown that it will offer post-truth rather than facts whenever possible. Do not let them control the narrative! They will be trying to silence our voices. They will, like all fascists, try to make lies our national narrative. George Washington, they will tell us, voted for Donald Trump. And those who find blindly will believe it. Those who don’t read history will have no way to assess this. They will follow any narrative with a combed-over talking head. Question everything. Question what I write. Check it out. I believe in facts.

We are embarking on a dangerous journey. These waters, however, are not uncharted. The Bismarck steamed this way. Marches have been documented around the world. Millions of eyes are watching. They are part of the narrative. Write the story. Talk to others about this. Incessantly. The truth is not arbitrary. There are groups near you that you can join. Resist. Peacefully protest. Write the narrative. Share the narrative. If we need to March every weekend, we will. If we need to take turns, so be it. This is our story. Unlike the blatant post-truth we’re already being fed, our story is non-fiction. Read it and tell everyone else to read it too. This is what democracy looks like.

Alternative Reality

devilsdominionIt is a caution that may become increasingly necessary as Trump’s supporters of “alternate facts” begin to sink their insidious hooks into feeble American minds that magical belief is part of our culture. While most would deny it in any kind of direct way, from the earliest days we have been a credulous lot. Richard Godbeer explores this historical affinity in The Devil’s Dominion: Magic and Religion in Early New England. Mostly concentrating on the events that led up to the Salem Witch Trials, and some analysis of the trials themselves, he traces the origins to such belief back to the theology of Calvinistic Congregationalists who held undisputed sway in the earliest days. Without benefit of clergy who might urge them to look at the world as a good creation, people instead saw evil and the Devil lurking everywhere. Magic was a regular component of their intellectual diet.

Now, some three centuries later, it’s looking as if things haven’t changed much. Those closest to the highest office in the land—and more frightening still, the most powerful single office on earth—are claiming that facts can have alternatives (what used to be called “lies”) and that if a rich man feels offended reality must be rewritten to make him feel better about himself again. The rewriting of history and science and law is really a mere trifle if you can claim “alternative facts” whenever you please. I wonder what you might find in Alternative Facts on File? I had a chance to thumb through recently and here’s what I found:

Alternative fact 1: Donald Trump didn’t win the election after all! We got the wrong guy in the White House. It’s a fact. Alternative fact 2: the Electoral College was abolished on November 8, 2016. That means that the popular vote wins the White House and Hilary Clinton is, in fact, President of the United States. Go ahead and challenge me on any of this Sean and KellyAnn—for any of your facts I can offer alternatives and they are, by definition, equally valid. Who’s with me? As long as alternative facts are now official discourse supported by the White House, let’s use them to the advantage of the entire nation. Is there a lawyer in the house? Even a Jesuit would do. The one I feel sorry for, however, is Richard Godbeer. His fine book has had to play Devil’s second fiddle to the new reality of post-truth Washington. Maybe the White House really does believe you can shake the Devil’s hand and say you’re only kidding. Wake up, America—you’re being laughed at and mocked by your own government.

Reading Lesson

“The President” responded to the Women’s March on Washington by tweeting that he was “under the impression that we just had an election!” Perhaps if “the president” read more he would understand that instead of looking in a mirror you need to look out the window once in a while. The Electoral College is even more outdated than the Republican Party and has only stood in place so long because our elected officials lack the energy to dismantle it. Like Daylight Saving Time. A loss by nearly 3 million votes is not a win in anybody’s book. I would suggest that Mr. Trump and his party learn to read. In strings of more than just 140 characters. Those who read know that Russia hacked our election. Voters can speak with their feet as well as with their fingers. We can see the Republican Party for what it’s truly become. Those accustomed to a lifestyle of theft sometimes don’t realize that others have seen their fingers in the cookie jar.

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As one of the many marchers I would say if you want a mandate, look out your window. George Washington, if I recall my history correctly, did not try to put his will over on an unwilling country. Indeed, most of us believe he had too much integrity than to try to hide behind something like an Electoral College to reinforce his tenuous grasp on the reins of power. It’s our constitutional right, Grand Old Party. We can protest. Legally. We will protest. Continually. We will not let you suffer under the delusion that you won anything. Your party gamed the system and any “president” who reads would say “I can see now that I misunderstood.” Backing down is not cowardice. Listening to others is not weakness. Being “president” means having to ignore your cronies once in a while. Vox populi, for those who know how to read, means “the voice of the people.” Democracy is upheld by the consent of the governed, not electoral casuistry.

Those who rely on crooked systems to claim a mandate need to learn to read. Reading requires thought. Concentration. And the will to repair rather than to dismantle. Try ignoring the handlers once in a while. Was the “president” not at the inauguration? Did post-truth press secretaries hide the photos? Please look away from the mirror. Governing with the consent of the governed is hard work. It’s not about brokering deals and looking for one’s own best angle. It’s not about “me first.” As long as any disabled child, any woman who’s been sexually assaulted or discriminated against, and any African American can be told that his or her life doesn’t matter the job will be never ending. The accountability just started this weekend. Read and learn. We are the people.

On the Ground 2

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Don’t believe the lies. Your government is lying to you already on day 1. I watched in disbelief as Trump’s press secretary for the White House, Sean Spicer, told bald-face lies the very first day of Trump’s reign of terror. I was in Washington, DC. My niece attended the inauguration. My extended family attended the Women’s March on Washington the next day. Spicer, clearly comfortable with untruth, lied through his teeth mere minutes after I myself stood outside the White House, saying that Trump’s inauguration was the best attended in history, far outstripping the paltry women’s march. Pure, unadulterated lies from the White House. My niece, and many others, noted how poorly attended the inauguration was. The evidence was in the white plastic matting, unbesmirched by mud on Saturday morning. The federal government disallowed the use of the Mall for the Women’s March. The unused matting was very clearly white the next morning. Around 8:30 on Saturday morning I saw for myself.

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The Women’s March may have been the most significant event of my life. I was part of something much bigger than myself. Along with thousands of others, I stood for three hours while celebrities including Scarlett Johansson, Michael Moore, and Madonna, appeared on stage to cheering crowds. There was barely room to stand. We marched past the Washington Monument to the White House. A US Security guard told us there were an estimated 1.2 million people there, making this one of the largest marches on Washington in history. Just inside that white-washed tomb Spicer was lying his face off. He castigated the press for telling lies. Wake up, my fellow Americans. On day one our new government has shown that it intends to lie and smirk its way through every attempt at honesty. My eyes did not deceive me. I was there, on the ground.

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I work in Manhattan. New York City is a community of some 8 million people. I’ve never in my life been in a crowd as large as yesterday’s in Washington. The Women’s March was peaceful and perhaps the largest protest in our nation’s history. Protests in over 600 cities around the world joined it. An administration of the people, by the people, and for the people would acknowledge that. The smug, implacable—and I use this word sparingly—evil administration that insists on lying to its citizens is already spinning a false narrative. I was there, on the ground. This March may have been the best use of time in my life. Beware, Americans, your government will regularly be lying to you until future notice.

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On the Ground

Washington, DC has always struck me as an artificial city. The neoclassical architecture is just a bit pompous and rolling into town on a train is kind of like stepping onto a movie set. Or, I’m told, into Los Vegas. Regulations about the heights of buildings make it unlike other large communities, and the Washington Monument has taken on a new phallic significance as of this weekend. I don’t come here seeking salvation. Indeed, I only came to register my dissatisfaction. I’m not alone. “Pussy hats” outnumber red caps by a long shot. It’s time to stand up and be counted. Stepping out of Union Station the first thing we saw was a Black Lives Matter protest. It’s peaceful, but forceful. Those selling Trump merchandise look like it’s a slow day. The inauguration is less than three hours from now.

Washington has some personal resonance with me. My grandmother—herself a second generation American—was born here. She wouldn’t have shared my political views, I’m pretty sure, but I believe in fair treatment for all. Even those who haven’t asked for it. The last time I was here it was for a conference. The atmosphere was more congenial then, but I’m liking the number of protesters I’m seeing here today. Woman carrying signs, wearing pink hats, talking to people they don’t even know. We’re all in this together and it sure feels better to know you’re not alone. We come upon a protest march. Police are herding the crowd away with an impressive array of black. A small crowd gathers to watch. I hear what sound like explosions. Welcome to the land of the need, the home of the rave. I’m not here to make trouble. The electoral college started it.

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What you saw on the news last night isn’t what was taking place here on the ground. The protests here in DC have been going on all day. Even as I was getting ready for bed protesters had blocked the street on the way to Trump’s oversized balls even as the television anchors were spreading a narrative of glitz and glam, ignoring the tempest just outside. Determined to normalize Trump as if the elections of incompetents were everyday business is these states, the smiling anchors didn’t comment on the completely empty stands of the inaugural parade that were so painfully obvious. I’ve never seen so much riot gear in my life. This, they tell me, is democracy. I’m here to march peacefully, in solidarity. Marches in 60 countries and seven continents—the first ever Presidential protest in Antarctica has been announced. To see you only have to open your eyes. I’m in DC and I’m glad to be in the company of others who haven’t yet given up on our country.

Elephants and Snakes

I try to be a good son. As good as you can when living a few hundred miles from home. I call my Mom every week and when the mood’s right, we reminisce. During a recent conversation I was recollecting my first trip to Washington, DC. My grandmother, who lived with us, had been born there and wanted to see it again before she died. I don’t remember much about the trip. I would have been maybe 5 or 6, possibly 7. The Washington Monument I remember because I was terrified of heights and didn’t want to go up. The sharpest memory, however, involves the motel.

We didn’t have much money and very, very rarely stayed at motels. In fact, this is the only time I remember it happening before I went to college. It was one of those cheap places where you park right outside the door to your room. In the morning, bright and sunny as only childhood mornings can be, I remember racing around the oval, gravel drive with my brothers. We had our favorite stuffed animals with us. Mine, ironically, was an elephant. I remember that elephant well. I remember running with him under my arm and laughing and having one of the most carefree moments of my entire life. Now I think of elephants in Washington, DC and the magic is gone. We never had much money when I was growing up, but my other favorite stuffed animal was a long, black snake. It was as long as I was tall and I loved the fact that snake and my name began with the same letter. I loved him so much that his eyes came off and my mother sewed large purple buttons in their place. At that time I had no concept of how apt the symbolism might be.

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The snake and the elephant are two of the most feared creatures on land. (There is a bit of symbolism here, so please don’t be too literal.) In the biblical world the serpent can stand for good but more often it represents temptation, danger, and treachery. I loved that snake as much as I feared its real-life counterparts. And now I find myself headed to DC again. I’ll shortly be on the train to join the Women’s March, my first official protest. I don’t know that I’ll have internet access the next couple of days (I hear Washington’s a swamp) so I may not post again until the work week starts. This time I’m not taking either elephant or snake. They exist already in abundance in our nation’s capital.

Monks and Keys

Whoever doesn’t understand that something being free doesn’t mean people won’t buy it is pleasantly naive. I write this as someone who once worked for a publisher who routinely sold books that were reprints of material freely available online, where you could print out a PDF at very little cost. Being a bibliophile, however, I understand the sickness that makes one want to purchase a printed, bound book form of what you might otherwise get for nothing. One of the gifts under the tree that I can’t wait to explore thoroughly is the print form of Atlas Obscura. I found the website (where the contents of the book are free) through a friend and although I have little free time, a fair amount of it when it does occur, is spent on this website. The same friend recently sent me an entry I’d missed about a town in Austria that is looking to hire a professional hermit. Wait. What? Hermit for hire? This raises so many questions that it’s worth the three minutes it would take to read the post.

Perhaps oddly, the offer from Saalfelden is strangely compelling. Apparently the competition for the post is considerable. Here I sit with a laptop in front of me, happily married, a family man, and thinking about a hermitage. As my family can attest, I still display monastic tendencies even in a somewhat conventional life. The concept of self-denial was strongly instilled in me during my youth. That means that many of the things I like the most I very seldom have. I rise early and go to bed early and eat plain food in a cheerless cubicle at work. I may as well have taken a vow of silence for as little as I say on any given work day. Where is Saalfelden anyway?

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No, I don’t really have what it takes to be a monk. There is, however, much about the self-denying lifestyle that recommends itself during this era of extreme self-absorption. There is much to be commended about thinking of others before yourself. As an ideal it is to be welcomed and applauded. In application it’s tougher than it sounds. I can’t walk across Manhattan without having to assert my desire to hurry along to work over the needs of those sleeping on the streets without getting paid for it, or even those who amble along on obviously painful legs and feet. Perhaps a cave in a mountain is s spiritual retreat, but it can also be a way of hiding from the needs of the world. There is a balance here and self-serving can take many forms. Even in a cave, the needs of the world require our thoughtful attention. Some of us just aren’t cut out to be monks.

Illusions Incorporated

illusionsFiction and fact aren’t so different. Long before the Wachowski Brothers came up with The Matrix, Richard Bach wrote Illusions: The Adventures of a Reluctant Messiah. I was in seminary when I read it and it seemed, at that time, to change my life. Fiction, or fact, has a nasty habit of getting into the way of things and over the course of decades I forgot. The Matrix reminded me—reminded me multiple times—but Illusions sat on the shelf, gathering dust. I was reminded of this book that refuses to be categorized when playing a family game. Like many games these days it’s a set of pre-printed cards and what makes the fun is the context in which you put the words. In this particular game you have to find the suggested idea in the book you have at hand.

I have to confess that this is just a touch artificial at our house. We don’t have much in the way of things, but we have books. Lots and lots of books. When we play this game, we think ahead of time what books we might bring to the table. You never know what the cards will ask, so books with diverse ideas are a good choice. I saw Illusions on the shelf. As I thumbed through, it was as if the decades were wearing thin. I knew I had to read it again.

Stubbornly refusing to classify itself as fact or fiction, the narrative of what it’s like to meet a messiah is inspirational. I can’t claim to have come to the conclusion on my own—I’ve read Illusions before, and I have seen The Matrix many times—but I recollect the realization coming to me on the streets of Manhattan. This is not real. Standing in the shadow of the tallest buildings in this country, that’s not a comfortable realization. Nobody said reality was comfortable. We easily let ourselves accept what we can’t do and what’s impossible. It’s far more rare to consider what is truly possible. What we can do. These ideas will be a hopeful ebenezer over the coming months. We choose to elect reality. Despite what the loud and angry say, the mind is the arbiter of truth. I read the book before I knew much about the world. If I’d had the good sense to believe it, it might not have taken me decades before pulling it off the shelf to remind myself of what I already knew.

Looking for Light

The one problem with Halloween is that most people suppose that when it’s over we need to wait another year for the scary stuff to come around again. Since we tend to skip from holiday to commercialized holiday, we have a capitalism-induced mindset of Halloween—brief pause for Thanksgiving—Black Friday—Christmas, spending money all along the way. Halloween, however, is a marker that stands near the beginning of half the year. The half with short days and long nights. Traditionally the holiday associated with ghost stories was Christmas, which falls near the shortest day of the year. Once the light starts creeping back, however, we tend to find reason to be optimistic that the chill can’t last forever and light follows darkness just as surely as life ends in death. All of this is prologue to say that a friend recently sent me a story about Irish witches which got me to thinking about origins once again.

The story, a piece called “Witches of Ireland,” by James Slaven, tells a few tales of Hibernian lore involving witches. As I read the article I was thinking about the origin of witches. Some of the phenomena associated with witches parallels that associated with demon possession—contortion, spitting up needles and nails, even levitating. There is a complex of ideas here that revolves around unseen forces that are categorized as evil. We tend to think the Enlightenment opened the door and shed strong sunlight into the closet, but that’s only true for half the year. The other half we’re mostly in the dark.

Pondering origins, I wonder where these associations began. We have no “histories” to tell us whence these ideas arose. Witches and demons both had, in Christianity, associations with the Devil. That connection doesn’t apply in other religions which, I suspect, is where the origin of many tales of witchcraft lie. You see, the Christian god is a jealous fellow—it says so right there in the Good Book—and displays of power over nature that most good monotheists lack will always be suspect. Perhaps we need to pay more attention to our pagan forebears.

Source: www.imagesfrombulgaria.com; perspective- and color-adjusted by Martha Forsyth (Wikimedia Commons)

Source: http://www.imagesfrombulgaria.com; perspective- and color-adjusted by Martha Forsyth (Wikimedia Commons)

These are merely nighttime thoughts, written in the dark. Already I begin to see the sun rise as I reluctantly trudge eastward across the island of Manhattan. I welcome the longer days, but somehow I strangely miss the comfort of the longer nights of yesteryear.