31 October 2010

Candles in a stranger's house.

I've long since reached the point where I haven't been a Roman Catholic for most of life. I left the church in my mid-teens, and have enjoyed the embrace of the ancient and elder Gods, in one form or another, ever since.

And yet, sometime over the last few years, my personal Samhain work has included at least two visits to Christian churches in the month.

And I've come to enjoy it.

In an odd way, it seems fitting to me that both of my parents died during the month of October. My father first, on the 29th, and later, my mother on the 15th. After most of their lives apart over irreconcilable issues that I'd never completely understand (and to my father's constant unhappiness), they both died within two weeks of the same season, albeit five years apart.

I go to honour them, in the sound heathen spirit of honouring one's ancestors, and in the houses they would have felt most appropriate for them. I don't feel at home there, but in desiring to light candles for them in their sacred places, it warms me.

I don't worship, but I do get to talk to the god who resides there. I tell him how pissed off I am that my mother suffered as much, and for as long, as she did. I tell him how my father deserved better. Then I reflect on the pervasive imagery that deifies death and celebrates suffering, makes an art of it, makes a faith of the capitulation to it, and I begin to understand.

Catholic funerary tradition prohibits eulogies, as they serve to recall and praise the deceased rather than the divine. But as I light their candles at one of the usually several shrines, I make certain to pronounce their full names aloud, and then sit to discuss their virtues with the icon of Mary, or Jesus, or whomever stands in artistic form as the messenger for the words.

Yet, returning to those houses also fills me with a pleasure. It's become my habit, on the anniversaries of their deaths, to find the nearest church I can wherever I might be so that I can be present at the very hour they each died. I go out of my way, twice a year, to do this, and the seeking has sometimes resulted in finding me in the most interesting places. A Catholic church is preferable, but in the last few years I've found myself in United, Anglican, and Greek Orthodox churches just because my self-imposed scheduling made it necessary. My more ecumenical and anthropological selves have enjoyed seeing the differences in worship style, in sacred space construction, among even these factions within Christendom. As a devoted heathen with a love of history, they intrigue me.

As the Fates would have it, this year both got Catholic places. My mother's spirit was celebrated this year in Toronto's St. Paschal Baylon Church, a modern church (only fifty years old) that was undergoing extensive renovation when I was there. My father made out a little better with his candle lit at St. Michael's Cathedral, erected even before there was a Canada, in 1848, and the closest Toronto has to St. Patrick's Cathedral back home in New York. I call my Christian godfather, my uncle Robert in Florida, and he's totally amused when I share how I actually went into a church. We laugh.

I can't be home to attend to their graves. Mom still needs her stone, and Dad needs much more. There are obstacles on my path to giving them what they deserve, but I hope to accomplish them.

26 August 2010

The scent of feral, joyful earth.

Maybe it's because I've started this wee little Pagan blog and have been thinking about my past a lot. Maybe it's because I miss old friends. Maybe it's because it's the Lammastide season, and that always makes me reflective as Mabon, and then Samhain, draw closer and closer. The Veil has begun to thin.

But recently, I found myself looking at an old photo of me (and my stepdaughter, if one can spot her) taken in the Magickal Childe perhaps some twentysomething years ago, and the vast array of jars and vessels behind me caught my attention. It had me remembering when, in my youth, as I waited for my covenmates to arrive at the store for our weekly Pagan Way rites, going to one particular jar on one particular dusty, musty shelf had become part of my personal routine.

Removing the lid, I would breathe the heady vapours from the jar, filling my lungs, and somehow, synapses in head, heart, and spirit conjoined to tell me that everything was all right with the world. For me, the scent in this vessel bespoke of Home like none other.

It was Herman Slater's Cernunnos blend, and along with recipes such as High Church, Kyphi, and straight frankincense, was among the first and most impression-making incenses to arouse my spirit. I loved our group's censer, which dangled from a long length of thin iron chain from a tall, iron rod, and how this incense would dance in thick, white ropes through the candlelight like pipe smoke from a fantasy wizard's mouth.

I remarked on how I missed this scent on my Facebook profile this morning, and a few friends who had also been to the Childe back in the day commented warmly. One asked me what the incense was like, and so I've decided to share it.




oak leaves

Herman would eventually publish these recipes in his Magickal Formulary Spellbook, which contains a host of incenses and powders that he and his staff at the store would use. I love the stuff, and regard it as classic material.

He never really detailed proportions for this incense, but with the way the recipes are written, I'm inclined to believe that they're either listed in descending volume order, or as equal parts. Experimentation required, season "to taste." I'm also fairly certain that it was recipe #1 I experienced most often, although I have vague memories of juniper berries and a tiny hint of camphor sometimes being in the mix. Let the pine needles be long. It's also completely possible that the store staff wasn't always particular about mixing batches of both versions, but I have nothing to support that with. Take it as art, not science.

But the resulting incense should be heady, feral, rich, and with an almost soil-like texture. Ground around the bases of a boreal wood at dusk, following a spring rain, near a cluster of mead-drinking dancers. For me, that was part of its charm, and the resulting burn should be sweet and dense, thick and smoky, like an incense equivalent to a deep Italian red wine loaded with body and nose.

For me, it was the essence of The God.

25 August 2010

There is no sawdust on the streets of Leslieville.

James McKay had had enough. He and his family were enjoying a perfectly relaxing Sunday evening, digesting a delicious dinner and enjoying some television when he and his neighbours' peace were, once again, shaken by the bellowing strains of Amazing Grace and thundering citations from Deuteronomy.

No, James doesn't live near some roadside carnival where the sand or sawdust might get into his shoes, and the year isn't 1930. This is Leslieville, a charming 'hood in the Toronto east end, it's 2010, and he and his neighbours were fed up.

The folks from the Highfield Road Gospel Hall were at it again. Like clockwork, a handful of the devoutly faithful appeared one recent evening on the otherwise quiet, tree-lined residential street and, once again, did everything possible to alert the locals of their impending, divinely-planned doom should they ignore the Lord's Word.

Well dressed and very audible, they stood before a particular house. They'd been in front of that house before. Was it because, as some among them would later claim, the fire hydrant there provided a spot where the cars wouldn't be able to park and crowd them in? Or was it because the couple residing in the home they crowded before to shout and sing just happened to be gay?

James got his camera. He walked a few doors down to that house. He asked the people to leave. They refused, stating their right to be there. James continued to talk with them, and gradually, more of his neighbours came out of their homes too. Some of them knew the gay couple and were angry for them. Some of them simply saw an awaited confrontation finally happening. Someone began capturing events on video. The Highfield Road people were surprised, but remained adamant.

"We, the people of this neighbourhood, are asking you to leave," they were told. Eventually, when more and more residents began to crowd them with their displeasure, they went away, but not before threatening that they'd be back.

None of this would have been even slightly newsworthy had the people from Highfield Road Gospel Hall accepted that the very folks they were trying their style of outreach to simply weren't buying it, and that in fact, they'd actually been aggravating them.

None of this would have made a blip on the internet or the newspapers or the talk radio shows had they simply apologized for causing a disturbance and went home to their pot roasts.

In other words, if they had been conscientious. Polite, even.

But no. As is all too common in this city, it had to be an argument about who was, and who wasn't, 'more right' than the other guy. One might have expected more from the self-styled representatives of the Prince of Peace, because they certainly weren't providing any to the people on that residential street.

That the group was targeting the gay household is what made the news. Since then, voices from both sides have begun to suggest that perhaps this was a misunderstanding, although not all are convinced.

But whether or not the church group was genuinely targeting the gay couple's home, the response also demonstrates a building resentment in the Leslieville community toward the loud, boistrous proselytizing and condescending door-knocking on their streets. They've been called "sinners" to their face. They've been subjected to regular, systematic disturbances. Families with small children have probably altered the bedtimes of toddlers, and those who work graveyard shifts must be completely thrilled.

The group defends its loudness. In a recent National Post article, a member of Highfield Road (who would not give his name) stated that such street sermons are "not just so one household can hear it, (but) so many can hear it. Of course it's not a common thing anymore," he said.

That's correct; it isn't. Neither are public lynchings, lawn jockeys, war toys, asbestos pipe coverings, cans of lead paint, and any number of other unhealthy things that were commonplace fifty or one hundred years ago. Perhaps it's 'not a common thing anymore' because, in the evening on a residential street in a pluralistic society, it's completely inappropriate?

Ya think?

"It's not like we're going, forcing religion down people's throats," he adds.

Hrm. Really?

"We have the authority to preach the gospel," says another unnamed church member in a YouTube video.

Don Hutchinson, vice-president of the Evangelical Fellowship of Canada, has supported the church group's residential prayer campaign, citing Canadian laws concerning freedoms of religion and expression, as well as the long history of evangelical street preaching. When suggested to him that Leslieville residents believe evangelicals don't have the right to 'shout on their streets,' he replies to journalists by stating, "Yes. We do."

Nice guy.

One might expect that a religious group seeking converts, or to at least receive a reasonably favourable response to their message, would approach people in a far less confrontationally invasive way. That this church group does not, and that numerous members have gone on record to defend their more audacious approaches, says a lot about their consciousness and attitude toward others who may (or even may not) believe differently.

Proselytizing is an ugly, disclusive, invasive, arrogant, confrontational process with condescending undertones. It sends the message that a pluralistic society is in itself bereft of value and merit, that diversity is something to be undermined, that regimentation is not only desirable but divinely sanctioned. There is a difference between being on the street and engaging in religious celebration in an inclusive way, and to repeatedly knock on doors or bellow on a residential street during a family's dinner or social hour to browbeat others into one's own personal paradigm.

The International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, of which Canada is a part, declares that "freedom to manifest one's religion or beliefs may be subject only to such limitations as are prescribed by law and are necessary to protect public safety, order, health, or morals or the fundamental rights and freedoms of others."

"We've been doing this for seventy years," one church member argued with the crowd around him, "and we'll be back, by the will of God."

"And we've hated it the whole time," replied a resident.

But maybe, before they do, they'll take this experience as a lesson on how to treat their fellow man. I'm no expert, but I suspect their boss would approve.

15 August 2010

Celebrating Isaac, celebrating community.

I didn't know Isaac Bonewits at all well, which is to say that I vaguely remember shaking his hand and briefly hanging with him at some FreeSpirit Gathering some time in the past. I might have been present in a ritual that he facilitated. I did give him a lot of airplay when I was doing the Between The Worlds radio broadcast in Massachusetts after he released Be Pagan Once Again on cassette.

Good, stout heathen stuff, that.

The one time I really spoke with him was on the phone, doing an information-gathering interview concerning Scott Cunningham. Isaac had details about Cunningham's medical condition, who was about to succumb to spinal meningitis. I didn't know anything about spinal meningitis at the time, and Isaac playfuly laughed at me when I foolishly asked if Scott's condition was serious. Way to go, Devyn.

Gods know there are many biographical tributes going on concerning him, his life's work, and his monumental contributions to the global Pagan community, so far be it from me to attempt to make another one. It's excellent enough that Peg Aloi of Witches' Voice and Jason of Wild Hunt have already provided us with some. Deborah Lipp offered some very classy words through her Facebook account. But after Margot Adler shares the relevance of one's life on National Public Radio, one wee little upstart blog like this can't really add much. That's an excellent thing.

This morning, I had the opportunity to help in some small way, being that I'm acquainted with the excellent people providing the services to Isaac and his family. I was privileged to acquire the details concerning the family's wishes should (when) others formulate their own ritual tributes to him, and it feels good to have been one of the people to help get that kind of word out.

(Namely, the family requests that all rites honouring Isaac feature three key points: that they be joyful celebrations of his life, that a cup is raised to him, and that the song "Into The West" (Annie Lennox) is performed or played.)

But all of this has also given me pause for thought to appreciate not only Isaac as a person and as a teacher, but also how the growth of the Pagan community over the last several decades has enabled this kind of outpouring of respect and appreciation for one of its respected own, and what that kind of outpour could express to the general public. I mean, his departure was cited on NPR.

Most Paganfolk can probably hope for a service that might only vaguely represent their beliefs. I've known some who, after their death, rituals were held in secret and/or separated from the blood relatives of the deceased family.

The High Priestess whose covenmates met in secret on the beach to honour her life and work. The High Priest whose entire life as such was kept secret from his own wife, and whose friends also had to mark his death in secret. The young man in Oshawa for whom my then-partner and I acquired flowers from a local funeral home so we could facilitate a ritual for him in our house. The beautifully creative woman who was murdered in Massachusetts, and the stern but necessary request that all attendees at her wake refrain from wearing or saying anything that smacked of Pagan practice.

Very few, if any, of us are going to make the kind of undeniable mark that Isaac Bonewits did. But, compared to the days when those identifying themselves as Witches might likely face harassment, forced psychological assessments, police suspicion, or even assault, that such a person's funerary rites can be so publicly present, so representative of what this community means, takes all of us one step forward. In a sense, even in his agrieved departure, a man like Isaac Bonewits continues to serve the Gods and Their children by showing the world around him that an alternatively spiritual person's life can be celebrated on its own terms, unapologetically, without quantifying explanation, and nobody has to repress anything to participate in it. What greater thing can be said of a man who spent his life sharing his research and passion, his attitude and perseverance, his wit and refusal to tolerate nambypamby nonsense in the tribe?

Perhaps, when it becomes our time to Go, our families and peers will be that much more aware, understanding, and appreciative of who and what we have been also.

I wish I had had the opportunity to know you better, sir. Thank you for all that you are, were, and remain. There'll be a bell for you come Samhain.

14 August 2010

Celtic dream.

We rode on, outdated,
through the fine, splendid, sublime,
exquisite madness of the world.
Twigs on branches, leaves on twigs,
the vines curling down, creeping over,
with the flow of the wild,
ancient melodies, on drums, on pipes.
Drunken horses, drunken
woolen robes. Scarves.
The bald woman sang to us. Sun
between green canopies. The swelling
hum of old, old pipes and drums.
From the field of laughter, from spiced
wildflowers, the forests of dark tears,
the full taste of creation's roasting ecstacy
smothered our lips like strange,
bleeding fruits....
We ate her songs. The hair
thatfell in the horsetail tracks left -
distant days, smoke over thatch,
bardcalls, Gaelic estuaries, haze -
soft, brown-golden straw
for the island curlews to peck. Runes,
scars of melodious wisdom, subliminal men.
And the whole, encircling,
dread mystery of her rocking throat,
mountains of the hunter's horn.
Her lap of lakes. The dance.

"Keltic Dream," David Sparenberg.

13 August 2010

Speaking ashiko in a djembe world.

Ed Buczynski was a mover an' a shaker in the 1970s New York City Pagan community, and he went on to establish much of the Welsh tradition Craft movement (as well as the Minoan Brotherhood) that I would much later become involved with when I was a kid. (The Welsh groups. Not the Minoans. I'm het.) I remember wanting to meet him, having read some of his writing and working at the time with some of his contemporaries. Standing near that water fountain that made up part of the Magickal Childe's very earthy front door shrine, I asked shop proprietor Herman Slater if this would be possible.

"No fuckin' way," he replied with his patented-but-beloved sharpness. "He's underground." It was the first time I had heard that term, and Herman left a depth to it that hung in the air like burning valerian. I've been thinking about this memory lately.

I suppose I've been underground, in one way or another, for a few years now. Personal circumstances, life, work, and changes in the pattern of some past social connections in the community took enough breath from me that perhaps I lost my voice for a while. That's a challenging thing when you're normally a Type-A personality with an attitude and a desire to make a positive difference in the world around you. It's been years since I last facilitated an open circle, or taught a workshop, or even held a private sabbat feast in my home.

So it was only with a little apprehension that I attended the recent Toronto Pagan Pride Day with my partner, and I'm pleased for it. Because of a firm belief that everyone should pitch in and participate in community events, it gladdened me to make myself available to its coordinators. While some attendees suggested that its turnout was small this year, for me it was an intimate enough event to stretch my spiritual legs in again and a large enough event to make some new friends and rekindle with old ones. This aging oak enjoyed the sweetwater it was offered, which is probably the most one can hope to say about such an event. Nice. Good job, guys.

Merrily met.

Is it a writer's vanity, a compulsively egocentric muse, some inability to learn from some mistake, or a genuinely nurturing desire to share the thoughts (and scars) from my Path that has me initiating this blog?

I suppose I'll figure that out as I go along.

And if you're reading this, I'll tell you now that you'll find the tea in the blue glass jars near the kitchen sink. Help yourself to some black or green or chai or Earl Grey. Lapsang souchong, Russian samovar, peppermint, chamomile, Bengal Spice... it's all there. Or have a beer. Take a seat, relax, and let's see where this takes us.

But first, let me satisfy my childish, egocentric self-aggrandizement. That is to say, let me share where I'm coming from.

Hi. My name is Devyn Christopher Gillette. I'm the son of artist Eugene Gillette, himself the son of Charles, and genealogist Nancy Sarah Wallace Gillette, herself the daughter of Alice Georgina, both from New York. I'm 43. I'm a Virgo with a Sagittarius moon and Libra ascendant. Rum raisin is my favourite ice cream. I have three cats and a snake, my grrlfriend for the past year is a hysterically funny Buddhist named Kerry, and I'm hammering this out on her borrowed Acer laptop while listening to cicadas outside my excellent rented High Park pad.

I've been active in the Pagan community since I was in high school, although my mother's penchant for occult thrillers and all things Egyptian arguably set my course there from the womb (despite my once having been a Columbian squire and an altar boy). As a boy, I had my first truly visceral, life-affecting ritual experiences when I was in the Boy Scouts and inducted into the Order of the Arrow. It may not sound like much to some, but when you're a little kid facing an adult man in complete Native American regalia during a torchlit ceremony in the woods, and he's haranguing you about the importance of respecting the Earth and your fellow man, baby, that's some seriously good Pagan juju that you won't soon forget.

In my youth, and like many young, early Gen-X, proto-occultists who drank beer in the park and were generally dissatisfied with the state of society during the Reagan regime, I was briefly attracted to the writings of Anton LaVey. That didn't last long, but what adolescent spiritual revolution it gave me helped me break away from my (only marginally strict) Roman Catholic upbringing and introduce me to the world of existentialism and ritual consciousness.

But when young Gary Lauwers, also a young, early Gen-X proto-occultist kid who drank beer in the park was murdered by still more young, early Gen-X, proto-occultist kids out on the Island, it kinda hit me that even though thinkers like LaVey didn't necessarily promote violence with their occultism, some of his admirers were stupid enough to. And I was too smart for that noise.

Fortunately for me, my mentor at the time (whose name I have since forgotten) had already warned me to not get close with the staff at New York's (in)famous Magickal Childe occult shop, where I was buying my supplies, because they were "white lighters." Ooo. So, in the spirit of good LaVey-like cynicism, I got to know the staff. It didn't take long before I realized how deeply the earth-spiritual, anti-sexist, life-celebrating, sensual-positive elements of the growing New York City NeoPagan movement of the early 1980s would resonate for me.

I got to know Herman Slater, and soon became a new Dedicant in a Welsh tradition circle called the EarthStar Temple Pagan Way that he sponsored through the shop. I'd later be initiated into a Pagan fraternity of sorts called The Tuath, a (slight dramatic drumroll please) warrior society among the Welsh tradition groups in the area which pledged itself toward the defense of Paganfolk suffering from assault or harassment. The Pagan Way would eventually break from the shop and change its name, the Tuath would be short-lived, and I'd move to Boston, but the principles I learned in those places (stand up for yourself, live your life with honour, defend your brothers and sisters) stayed with me and became part of what I'd later try to teach my students.

They also became a big part of my personal raison d'ĂȘtre, and while in New England, I became active with several Pagan political, anti-defamation, and civil liberties associations such as the Thomas Morton Alliance, Leo Louis Martello's Witches Anti-Defamation League, and Witches Against Religious Discrimination.

Yeah. There were a lot of different anti-defamation groups in Massachusetts during the late 80s. You'd think someone would remember how a wheel was shaped.

I became friends with Blue Star tradition founder and peace activist Franque Dufner, and with his initial mentorship, established one of the first and longest-running Pagan radio broadcasts in the United States, Between The Worlds - Earth Religion Radio on WMFO-FM at Tufts University. It's coverage of Pagan community affairs earned it a Shield of Valor Award through Laurie Cabot's Witches League For Public Awareness. The program remains on air as Celtic Dawn/Between The Worlds on Monday mornings and via podcast.

At university in New Jersey, I later co-founded the Rutgers University Pagan Student Association. While there, I was invited to present a paper to a graduate student anthropology conference, "Contemplating Food," entitled "Wine And Cakes: Food, Power, and Ritual Relationships Among NeoPagans." The paper was later published in the university's graduate research in anthropology journal and has since become required reading for at least one anthropology course offered by Southern Illinois University.

Franque and I shared common ground with the New York Welsh tradition circles, and soon he was introducing me to his developed work with Blue Star Wicca. Later, I would work with his former partner, Blue Star High Priestess and folk musician Tzipora Katz, and earned my initiation into that tradition in 1991. In 1999, I would introduce this Craft tradition to Canada.

In 2001, I would be inducted as a Priesthood member of the Wiccan Church of Canada by WCC High Priestess Tamarra James and worked to establish an Oshawa Temple of the WCC in service to the Durham Region Pagan community. I had already been inducted as a Neophyte within Odyssean Wicca and had been teaching WCC "Tuesday night" classes through my Blue Star background and had briefly served as a representative on the Ontario Multifaith Council. While in Durham, I would become involved in filing suit with the Ontario Human Rights Commission against then Durham District School Board member Susan Shetler for having uttered defamatory remarks while representing her office. The short-lived WCC Oshawa Temple extended its community service outside of the Pagan sphere, including hosting a summer barbecue that raised almost $500 for the Bethesda House women's shelter in Bowmanville, Ontario.

I've enjoyed speaking at various Pagan events and symposia, facilitating open rituals and workshops covering a myriad of topics, and generally making a heathen nuisance of myself.

Wow. Ok. Are your eyes as tired as my fingers? Did I really just drop my CV into your lap? If so, and if this post turned out to seem as egocentric as I'm afraid as it could appear, at least I feel as though I got it out of my system. Damned Virgo sensibilities. Jeez.

I've reached the stage where most of my students have moved on into new and interesting directions, where I would prefer a quiet dinner at home to debating with Christian fundamentalists or even other Pagans incensed (get it?) with some minutae about pedigree or ritual posture or reconstructionism. While I have my "credentials" in Craft, my spirituality often fluidly moves between the pantheistic and the polytheistic, between contemporary Wicca and Germanic heathenry with a little Rumi, a little Buddhism, a little ceremonialism, and a bit of artistic interpretation thrown in for good measure. Am I traditionalist or eclectic? I've been both, and come to accept that in the end, it's the people (and not the Gods) who usually give a damn about the difference. Maybe I'm a heretic's heretic. Maybe I'm seen the World and have come full circle to being the Fool again. Maybe I'll have that last slice of pie.

So here's the blog. Hopefully, I won't come across as some pompous pain in the ass. Geo, before he died, often thought I did. But in the end, you know, I'm just a guy with a passion for finding the divine through the movement of the seasons, who finds spirit in an otherwise hectic life, who makes every act a ritual and every day a rite of passage, and who passes the horn of mead among friends around the fire. All else is construct.

To the spirits.

Spirits of Air, praise and hail to you. Grant me the gifts of lucidity, communication, and sharing with an open mind and heart. May those who read these words find work of value, nurturance, enjoyment, and comradeship within them.

Spirits of Fire, praise and hail to you. Grant me the courage to be my most authentic self, and to take healthy action.

Spirits of Water, praise and hail to you. Grant me calm so that I may avoid rashness, freedom from hurtfulness when engaging in discourse, and joy in the undertaking of this task I set before myself.

Spirits of Earth, praise and hail to you. Grant me support and community as I endeavor to share support and community. May the ground always be solid under my feet, may honour and success and prosperity persevere with me, and aid me in my endeavors to fill the circle with love.