When worlds collide: diverging beliefs

At Pennsic this year I taught the latest in a long string of classes on Anglo-Saxon history. This one diverged from the others in that rather than starting out with the warning that, while I’ll always give the best information that I have, my experience has shown that as we learn new things, much of what I learned when I started has since turned out not to be true; that issue was teh focus of this workshop.  The past half century has discovered so much information through archeology, DNA analysis, pollen sampling, climatology, dendro-chronology, tooth enamel analysis, and other specialties that didn’t exist before, that we have moved from using them to support the small amount of information we were able to get from ancient historians, to the awareness that they may actually refute much of what we thought we knew from those sources. (In this case, that the Saxons ‘invaded” and took over Britain from the Celtic population. It seems more likely that despite the cool myths about King Arthur, Saxons were among many immigrants who moved into Britain to a continued Romano-British state, and in the sixth century Saxon styles of pottery and jewelry styles of decoration were adopted by most of the folks there. Assimilation, not invasion, how tame.)

Just about the only written account about Britain in the 6th century is from Gildas, but sadly, it begins to appear that using his account could be likened to trying to reconstruct the history and culture of the 20th century United States by using only a diatribe from Pat Robertson or Jerry Falwell. The problem with Gildas is that what historians think they know is based not only directly on Gildas, but also from Bede who used him as a contemporary source, and later historians who used Bede.

This problem in finding true history illustrates a greater issue.

When we are tiny children we learn things from the world around us- especially our families. We learn to walk, to talk, to dress ourselves; we learn that this is the way to the store, this is the way to the playground,…. We learn the names of colors, numbers, and categories. We learn that weather changes, and so do seasons. We learn that some people and activities are pleasant, some exciting, and others can hurt; also we learn how we are “supposed to” react to situations both pleasant and unpleasant (both what we’re told, and what we discover for ourselves minimizes discomfort). We learn to differentiate between a joke and a lie; we learn about dreams and premonitions (what’s considered real and not real); and we hear stories about things we never saw. Then we usually forget about learning all these very important things. They become, instead, the basis for how we understand what we learn later in school. They are the foundation on which we build our knowledge, the boxes in which we store all the later things we learn in our minds.

When a foundational premise turns out to be false, it can make the entire field of study seem unstable. This is why we sometimes adapt the later information to make it work with the shifting base- like the way the Leaning Tower of Pisa was built, as the foundation sank each new stage was built to adapt to then current horizontal and vertical. So we can get excited about new discoveries, revising older views in light of new information (although care is needed so we don’t go overboard). I’ve watched when some draw over-extended interpretations from a piece of new information, such as arguing about how many “witches” were burned in the early modern period, or what colonization really did to the indigenous peoples, or, worse, how many historical figures were gay or black or secretly women. There are many over-extensions one can point out. This may be necessary, since before we can achieve balance, the statements recognizing previously unacknowledged contributors must be really pushed in order to penetrate the resistance of those who think they already know. The things we learn earliest, on which we base the rest of our studies, have to be as solid as “day follows night” and “two and two is four”. We assume they are, but we are often wrong.

What can cause big problems is when those foundations include “how life works”. There is a huge difference between “Success comes by getting ahead of the other guy” and “Success comes from making sure everyone around you is doing well”. These lessons may be taught to us both intentionally by other people, then reinforced by our experiences; and those differ by individual and in groups. Whether we are male or female, European (white) or non-white, healthy or handicapped, rich or poor, all these things change what we are told and how life experiences reinforce them. The problem is that when the understanding of how the world works has been learned during the period before we can even remember it, it’s hard for us to even recognize much less adapt those beliefs, even in the face of contradictory evidence. They have become foundational and almost impossible to change.

Some things make us more open to accepting changes in our understanding- travel, knowing more than one language, being raised in a culturally diverse area. Some things make it harder, like surrounding oneself with others who reinforce our foundational beliefs. In order to help people change a foundational belief, we need to help them create a new foundation under their crumbling one that will support the new information where their old one could not.

Just as when we stand on a floor that we fear may not hold us up, it’s uncomfortable to feel that our understanding of how the world works might fail under us. No wonder people who were brought up to (for example) accept that the Bible is the literal word of God, and should be interpreted to mean that men should control women, that being gay is wrong, that punishment deters crime, that European domination of the world shows that whites are superior to all other “races”, (etc. ad nauseum) are so confused to find that the modern world does not support what they see as God-given rights to abuse women and children if they see fit, subjugate nature and non-white races, torture anyone who they see as “lesser” (makes them feel uncomfortable), and that it’s holy to force others to view God the way their branch of the Church does.

I know that that’s a pretty extreme way to describe it, but what the current administration is doing: abusing refugees including families and children, raping the environment, and blocking attempts to save it, denying women bodily autonomy, etc. Not only are these actions unconscionable to me, they seem to be against the teachings of Christianity as I was taught it. There has got to be a huge disconnect to allow them to support policies that harm children. (I occasionally wonder if they really ARE trying to trigger Armageddon so that their expectations of being taken to heaven will happen sooner.)

These seem to be the actions of people who are making a last desperate stand to protect themselves against what they see as an attack on “the way the world is supposed to be”. It is not surprising that people who can still remember when women were financially dependent on men, blacks couldn’t raise their eyes much less their hands to white men, people who loved others of the same gender had to hide it, may find living in a world where this is all not simply accepted, but protected, are feeling that their world is being attacked. That world-view is being attacked. What I’m saying is that the way to help them through this without violence is to recognize what they’re going through as traumatic, and help them find new things that will support them. A stronger reliance on a loving Jesus who does not condemn is probably a good place to start. Extending their experiences to counter their prejudices (“I have black friends, but most blacks…”), one on one, they’re usually fine. It’s the skewed beliefs they got from scared parents that are tripping them up. People lash out when they feel threatened, so let’s not try to force our ways on them, but help them feel less threatened (without backing down from requiring them to give everyone equal rights).

“We don’t know that, sir.”

There’s a great movie from the 80s (maybe not Goonies great, but still up there) called Monster Squad. On the surface it seems like a typical monster movie; when danger threatens, the adults don’t believe in the threat, so the kids take it on themselves to deal with it, and only when they’ve done so, do the adults realize that it had been real.*

Although it’s full of great lines, the one most often quoted around our house is at the beginning of the movie, when the principal is trying to convince the boys that the energy they put into their monster club would be better put into school work, because “Monsters aren’t real.” Sean responds, calmly and politely; “We don’t know that, sir.” Admittedly, since they are in grade school, they still are discussing questions about whether “Fat Kid farted!” or “Wolfman’s got nards”, but even so, they bright enough to be aware that, while they have the slight advantage of accepting the reality of monsters, and knowing about them from old movies, they are not really equipped to deal with a problem of this size.

They want, and seek, the help of their parents, the police, the army; they even enlist the aid of the local “Scary German Guy”, (another example of them being open minded about what is a real threat and what isn’t), who at the end of that scene admits that he “supposes he does know a great deal about monsters” (the camera zooms to a close-up of his tattoo from a Nazi concentration camp). Much of the brilliance of the movie is that while allowing that monsters are real, it includes (as contrast?) what really scares kids: being mocked and excluded, parents fighting, living in a world where they have little control over their lives, in a world where adults are fallible, and assurances of being safe are false. The three year old may point to the TV news anchor and declare him “boring guy, boring guy, boring guy”, but the adults are equally dismissive of the things they don’t want to deal with, whether it’s marital issues, or whether witness testimony doesn’t make sense to them. It it shows that with all their weaknesses, when the kids accept the reality of the danger, they are able to deal with it better than the adults, who are still trying to process it while ‘reality’ is warping around them.

The kids may not be able to read Van Helsing’s diary (I love that it’s written in German not automatically in English for no discernible reason), but they quickly recognize that Frankenstein’s “monster” is not a threat. The assumptions they make about monsters are confirmed in practice (You can’t kill a werewolf by “accident with power tools, while falling out of a window, onto a bomb”, it must be silver bullets.). This gives them the advantage of knowing rules the adults don’t. Thus the movie monsters are far less frightening than the real world. “Fat Kid” can kill the Creature with a shotgun, but he can’t get the nasty kids at school to stop bullying him.

The point is that we cannot deal with bullying, marital problems, bigotry, or anti-Semitism,  until we acknowledge that the problem is real and worth solving. If we don’t we, like Del, will be still trying to process the change in reality, while the bad guy kills us.

There is a lot in this world we don’t understand. Sadly, many people throw everything they can dismiss into a ‘catch-all’ category of dismissability: psychic phenomena, UFOs, cryptids, magick…. We find some excuse to explain it away: shysters and frauds are posing as psychics, or making crop circles, or photo-shopping images.  Some examples may strike us as “tin foil hat” level craziness, pushing us to dismiss anyone who believes in any of it as “crystal sucking dolphin channelers”, otherwise we will join the ranks of the deluded. At the same time, people seem willing to include ANY conspiracy theory, new developments in medicine (usually at least 20 years behind what the AMA will accept), and just about anything that doesn’t fit into their own world view into the category of “unprovable”. Let’s face it, changing your world view can be hard and painful. (Also, absence of evidence is not evidence of absence.)

I figure our best defense against blinding ourselves to what’s possible is to keep an open mind. When someone tries to present the world view that makes them comfortable as established fact, and insists that something you believe you’ve seen evidence for is not real, respond: “We don’t know that, sir.”



*My daughter says they intended it to be a cross between Abbot and Costello Meet the (monster) and Little Rascals.

Fate worse than Death

I’m not sure I’ve been hearing the term “Fate Worse than Death” recently. It was big during the Victorian period, referencing (for anyone who hadn’t encountered it before this) rape.

Given that in those days a woman raped was a woman shamed, who would probably never be accepted in “polite society” again, it did pretty much end her life as a member of the community, whether or not she was injured, impregnated, or got a disease from her rapist. Then, as now, the attitude expressed by the patriarchal society was “she wanted it” (must have). It seems odd that the men who are accused of rape don’t seem to have “wanted” the consequences of their activities becoming known, even though they instigated the activity, and generally got off without punishment (and sometimes with approval of some of their peers).

The attitude was so overwhelmingly male-dominated that (according to some scholars) Freud’s entire Oedipus Theory was based on the large numbers of women who reported that they had been raped by fathers, uncles and other family members; since this seemed “impossible” to Freud, he assumed that these reports were all fantasies, interpreted them as such, and built his theory based on this premise. Obviously, if the rapes could not have happened, the women dreamed that they did because they craved them, whether because they were masochistic, or because it was a twisted form of love. This foolishness dominated psychology for far too long, probably because the patriarchal foundation of it continues to flourish.

Recently Alabama legislated involuntary chemical castration for child molesters. While the chemicals do reduce recidivism in those who have requested it in the past, I am not sure whether it will have the same result with non-volunteers. I am pretty sure that the legislators are simply thinking that the “Threat of Castration” will reduce the occurrence of the crime, without looking at the science. “Make them afraid to” seems to be their answer to all social problems. I’m sure they’re terrified of the idea of not being able to “get it up”, but I feel they’d do better to reform the legal system to make it more fair for accused and their victims. At what point will the race and money of those involved no longer be deciding factors in the verdict?

Moreover, I feel we totally ignore the long term psychological effects of rape, much as we do most psychological Trauma. Clearly we do not care to provide medical support to rape victims, much less psychological support. Simply having a female officer take a statement, or sending a social worker to fill out some forms, does little to help the victim- not when rape kits languish untested in evidence lockers, and most women are too intimidated to come forward.  Our culture doesn’t totally ostracize victims of rape; we don’t behead them, as some say is done in Muslim countries. But we sure don’t support them. We don’t even seem to acknowledge the issues that go on for the rest of the victim’s life.

If the trust and faith in safety we have for our homes is lost (and it often is) when a house or apartment is broken into, it’s hardly surprising that having been raped, a woman is nervous around all men. Chances are good she was raped by someone she trusted, not a creepy stranger, so it’s the people she used to trust who are now sources of fear. Those who say “not all men” may feel offended that they are included in the group of potential attackers, but the rapist has proven to the victim that seeming and claiming to be a good guy is no proof against attack.

This is only made worse when rather than having the entire population rise up in indignation to sympathize and censure her attacker, a significant portion instead question her role, and defends him; she has lost any sense support within her community, of safe haven. I think it’s worse because the law, which should protect victims, seems far more focused on the “innocent until proven guilty” concept than that we should be trying to prevent repeat offenses. Yes, a false rape accusation would harm someone’s reputation; however, shall we follow the statistical probabilities rather than allowing the system to give greater benefit of the doubt to men and those they see as like themselves (especially if they know them)? A fair system can only benefit everyone involved. Reinforcing the trauma does our society no benefit.

I hope that there are enough rape support groups out there to help those who need it today, although I fear there are not. But as a first step, we should remember that like any trauma, the effects will continue for years, if not a whole lifetime, and stop suggesting that the victims just “get over it”. By not supporting victims we may be turning rape from a simple trauma to a “fate worse than death”.

“Religion: Other”

As the Christian minority (and they are a minority- although I’m not sure they really count as Christian) pushes to impose their views on the legal codes of the United States, I have been reminded of the common experience for pagans when they hit bureaucratic forms. For some reason they ask not just your name, address, contact information, birth date, proof of ability to pay for whatever they want to charge you for, but also your religion. I am willing to accept that in a crisis, a lot of people get solace and strength from their religious beliefs, but in an attempt to be “equal” they generally make a long list of various Christian subgroups, then add “Jewish” and maybe “Muslim”, then put “Other” (or worse “none”). I’m not saying that none isn’t a valid option, but when there is no “other” to go with none, the implication is that if you don’t choose “one from column C”, you don’t have any religion. That’s a flawed premise!

Like my friend, it bugged me too, for a long time. I probably wasted a lot of hours (theirs and mine) telling bureaucrats that I wanted to put Pagan in that space- which didn’t exist. “The computer doesn’t have that option.”  I run into the same thing in phone polls where they gauge how religious you are by how often you go to church. Allow me to state that if you ask “how many times a day/week/month do you participate in an activity?” doesn’t mean your morals are aligned with the sponsoring group. (I’m also annoyed by those researching pagans who ask in pagan questionnaires, “how many festivals do you attend a year?’ This is like asking how many church suppers, or Christmas parties do you attend to figure out how Christian you are!) No, I don’t have a Church, but I do make decisions based on my spiritual beliefs several times a day. Our thoughts are limited by the language we speak, and information collected is restricted by the questions asked.

About the hospitals though, I discovered that the reason that they don’t put down “Pagan” or “Druid” or “Wiccan” on forms is that the reason for the question is so that they can call appropriate clergy if the patient asks. How many of us have called our local hospitals and offered to be on a call list for ANYONE (who filled in that blank that way) who needs help in the hospital? And if we offered, would the hospital accept our credentials? We often say that each pagan is clergy (since we talk to the gods directly, and the story is that the Christians have their clergy as intermediaries*), but do we really see ourselves as such servants of the gods and the community that we can drop everything and go talk to strangers about deeply personal problems? More importantly, should we?

Some people may see this post, and go out and offer- and that’s great. But really, we need to understand the position of the hospitals. They would love to have pagan clergy on call I bet, because there are a lot of us. In a perfect world they’d have a Wiccan HP, a Heathen Gothi, a Druid, and several other types of pagans on call; but where are they going to come from? When you were looking for other pagans in your community, or at least within driving distance, how easy were they to find? When you can find them, did your personalities mesh? If we can’t deal with each other over “cakes and ale”, how are we going to deal with a stranger when we’re in a physical, and probably financial, crisis?

There’s a reason established churches pass the plate- to pay for the building and the salary of those who work for them. We don’t have that. Their clergy also have training. Certain courses taken in seminary teach them how to help (and cope with) people in distress. I’d want to know that anyone showing up in anyone else’s hospital room had had solid training in grief counseling, and the many and various other things we hope religious representatives have been trained to handle. We aren’t invalidated as a religion by not having money, but we are handicapped- as all small, cash-poor churches are.

I will continue to try to get the pagan option on forms. At very least while trying to figure out which Christian box to check, they’ll see that we are indeed a valid faith in this country. We are not “Other” and Pagans are very much not “No Religion”.  But until we can offer what the hospitals need, we have to accept their lack of including us on their forms.

Post script- in a recent online discussion of this topic someone mentioned that when she put pagan on the form, she was besieged by a series of “Christian Nurses” who came to convince her of the “error of her way”, until the head nurse took it off the form to protect her. Until the Christians give up their view that we need to be saved from their devil, perhaps the broom closet is the place to be. When you’re sick or injured, you need to heal, not to educate those who don’t want to hear the truth.

*In my experience, a LOT of my Christian friends talk to their God all the time, and preference their direct experience over their clergies. Respect is a two-way street.

Poisoned Minds

I don’t think I saw a person of color before I was five or six when we went down South to visit my mother’s relatives for the first time. In the modern world that’s a surprising thought. After all, I grew up in Maine, wouldn’t you think that there would have been at least SOME Native Americans? We (European-Americans) certainly took over the available space, didn’t we?

I remember my grandmother, who’d grown up in Tennessee, explaining to us that “darkies” were just naturally lazy. They would never work as hard as a white boy. She spoke from an experience I never had, so I simply accepted it. By the time I reached my teens I’d learned enough history to recognize that simple logic refuted her assumption. Anyone being treated unfairly, being asked to do the worst jobs for less pay would not be motivated to exert themselves. Yet somehow in their minds when they saw exceptions of colored men and women working hard when there was a reason to do so, they twisted it around in their heads so that the assumption remained untouched. I have to wonder what she was told when she was young that led her to interpret what she saw the way she did, and why she never saw past her conditioning. Perhaps I wouldn’t have done so had I lived in an area where the prejudice was constantly reinforced from all sides.

When we say something has “poisoned someone’s mind”, we often don’t think about what we mean by poison. Poison is something that when taken into the body can make it sick or even kill. We think of dramatic situations like slipping rat-poison into the food of someone you want to murder, or taking an overdose of sleeping pills to commit suicide. We forget the gradual poisons like sugar and tobacco we us to commit slow suicide by diabetes or cancer. We are more likely to remember that the difference between a medicine and a poison is the dose when convincing ourselves that a small amount of sugar in the food tempting us isn’t enough to hurt us (especially when we are reassured by advertising that everything on the market MUST be safe). Like the person dashing through traffic, we assure ourselves that “we haven’t been hit yet”.

My mother told me once of a friend who said “I’m never affected by Poison Ivy” and rubbed it all over herself to prove it- and got a terrible case. I used to brag that Aspartame didn’t effect me- until it did. There are many poisons that don’t have any apparent effect until they hit their loading dose and the symptoms show up.  I think that may be true of poisons of the mind as well. You can ignore the foolish statements, the tacky jokes, the crass remarks of those around you for so long, then one day you hear yourself making one of those jokes. But it’s OK, you don’t really disrespect “those people”, you just know that your co-workers like jokes like that. But then one day you realize that you’ve gotten into the habit of using language you used to avoid. There are two major options, you can try to go cold turkey or you can convince yourself that it’s fine, everyone else has the same problems. Go ahead, drink the Kool-aid, everyone else is.

I hate leaving a post on a depressing note. But the only hope I can offer is that sometimes people do stop, sometimes they change course. That’s something we all can do. Sometimes the poison hasn’t gotten so bad that we can’t come back. Humans are really good at healing. Sometimes we just need to recognize what’s making us sick.

Getting hit in the face

I saw this poster on fb and it really bugged me. It’s such a “jock” attitude, and yes, it can be freeing to stop being afraid. But as in the movie V for Vendetta, when Evey lost her fear when she had nothing left, I don’t think that’s necessarily worth it.
A lot of us have been “punched in the face” whether by a school bully, or an abusive parent or partner, or even,occasionally, a stranger.
What most of us learned from being beaten up, whether as kids or adults, is that there are situations in which we are powerless to protect ourselves, and that’s not freeing, it’s debilitating! Whether you are left alone, crying, with your possessions destroyed, or whether it’s in a group where those around you are mocking your pain and loss, this is NOT freeing, it’s destructive. It’s liable to lead to PTSD.
Whoever came up with this is probably thinking of when two guys agree to punch each other in a culturally supported situation, whether sports or kids on a school ground who walk away bloody but still friends.
When it’s positive, when you got “punched”, you probably had supportive people, friends or mentors, there to tell you that you were OK, and that they were there to support you through the pain. Something like taking a peyote trip without a shaman to help you negotiate the craziness, without that support, it’s a dangerous situation that can leave you damaged.
This is part of the reason I never liked school sports. In a non-sport bullying incident your pain and fear is too often downplayed by those who should protect you, and in gym class there’s a huge amount of mocking and denigrating the kids who admit the pain they feel, adding emotional pain to the physical.
OK, in a sport you chose to play, the physical risks were accepted (if not really understood) when you went in; but in school everyone is forced into the ‘jock’ mentality venue, which doesn’t work for those who didn’t choose it. It rather creates a venue where bullies can get away with hurting their victims while adults look on and join in the mocking. (sorry, I never met a gym teacher who didn’t try to “kid” -read shame- the victim into pretending that “it didn’t hurt”. I suppose it’s because they had the positive support needed because they were the strong, fast, coordinated ones. But few seem to understand that for it to be positive, the others need to be supportive, not mocking.) I’m not denying the positive aspects of sport for those who choose them, but it’s not for everyone.
What would be good is that when you were at risk for being hit (whether by a ball or a fist), that there would be someone there to make sure that you were supported through the experience. Then MAYBE you’d come out of it feeling better able to deal with your next blow.

With Great Power comes Great Responsibility

This is an aphorism that is well known in modern America from the Spiderman comics and films. These media are the carriers of our modern mythology- shared stories that convey our shared concept of how the universe works. The story has the young nerd getting powers by a freak accident with which he decides to make some money, but when he chooses not to help catch a criminal, his uncle is killed, and he realizes that he could have prevented it, and thus becomes a crime fighter.

The concept, however. is much older. In an article on Stan Lee, I found the phrase “with great power goes great responsibility” was spoken by J. Hector Fezandie in an 1894 graduation address at The Stevens Institute of Technology, and a member of Parliament  implied that it was already a cliché in 1817. Of course it was. It’s universal.

In the modern world, we are big on the idea that people should EARN their power, and in the comics writers and publishers have played with reducing or taking away the powers of Superman, Wonder Woman and other heroes, along with having some heroes like Green Arrow and Batman having no special powers, but simply being VERY good, very strong, coordinated, and smart. But the ones with powers do get the back- because they are worthy. Once they have proven that they will use them correctly, they should have them.

In the “old days” there were legends and hero-tales, where heroes destroyed (or tricked) the evil beings and saved the people or princess or whoever needed saving. The thing is that the hero was the one who slew the dragon. We don’t tell stories or sing songs about the dozen other knights who went out there and died before Saint George or Clever Jack managed to win. We tell stories about the winners.

We know that there are monsters, we need to know that the monsters can be beaten.

We want our heroes to have power. It used to be that they had it (like Saint George or Hercules) because they were favored by God/the Gods. Now we prefer that the special abilities are randomly distributed, but we still expect those who have them to use them for good.  We need to know that even if you have great power, you can still make the choice to use it for the benefit of all. Another aphorism is that “Power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely.” The Stamford Prison experiment shows that it’s true that people often find that lack of consequences (and perhaps expectations) can lead to behavior that we don’t want in those with power over others. If you don’t choose to use them for good, you are like Peter Parker in the beginning, and the universe will show you that it doesn’t give these abilities out for free. You have to decide whether to use them for yourself or for the good of all.

In theory, in the United States the people govern themselves, because they give the power to make and enforce laws to individuals who they can replace at will, and have frequent, periodic opportunities to do so. The system fails when those in power get to rig the system so they don’t get voted out, and when they are responsive not to those who elected them, but to those who paid to enable them to get elected.

I have always held that these who are willing to put the amount of work in probably started out with the goal of helping people, righting wrongs that they had seen, fixing problems that needed fixing, and that the problems were often that they had simply not seen other problems and how their solutions might cause problems for other groups. The question of abortion leaps to mind. Both sides are absolutely convinced of the rightness of their cause, so they work hard to do what they see as right. However I am now convinced that some of those in politics are there for getting a personal advantage. It’s not impossible that they may feel that pursuing their agenda justifies their actions, but I think when people have the huge power that a large country like ours gives those in the government, we need them to be heroes. We need them to take responsibility for EVERYONE, not just their tribe, their group, their club, their gender, their class, their race, or those who agree with them. They don’t have the right to serve themselves and their friends once they have been handed the power we give them.

We expect that those who have power, whether it’s political or the “bully pulpit” of fame, (or media, or economic advantage) to look at the broad picture and use that power for the greater good. It’s difficult for people to give up the perks of their privileged lifestyle to do good- charity is easy when you give from the excess you won’t miss. Suffering is not intrinsically noble, but being willing to give up something you miss to make sure that others don’t suffer does give your sacrifice value. To be willing for others to suffer so that you can have more than you need, that is wrong. We-the-people must take whatever power we have left to require our “public servants” to use the power that comes from us for the good of all, not just their cohort.

Tasks we avoid

I was doing that thing you do when the world is cold and projects are safely in the future (when it warms up), so Clean the Attic, and Clear the Cellar both reached the list.

They are actually slightly different in the category of Tasks to Avoid. The cellar is still full of stuff that was left behind when we bought the house- and the bank promised to have the old crap removed. So my resistance is “I shouldn’t HAVE to clean this up, it’s someone else’ mess.” (I actually have cleaned it some in the past, and my back gets up when I hit the old fridge, and left behind stuff- besides I’d have to pay someone to cart it away.) The attic is pretty much all mine. It’s bags of clothing that even goodwill wouldn’t take because it’s so out of style that we forgot to bring down when the next child grew into them; it’s toys set aside for grandchildren I’ll never have; it’s old Halloween costumes, and decorations we don’t bother bringing down anymore, and books we have no space for on the shelves, and I’ll never read again.

This is the problem with cleaning, it’s admitting that the futures we had planned for are not going to come true, and that’s hard. Sometimes like “grandchildren I won’t have” it’s a big regret. Cleaning the closet is having to admit “I’ll never fit in that skirt again”, or that the dress I really love has not been worn because it’s too stained to be worn in public. I have an entire wardrobe of “can only be worn at home” clothing because my views of what’s too worn-out to keep and societies differ. (Is it because I have an historical view from the days when every garment represented processing flax or wool, spinning, weaving, and sewing, or that I’m the “adult child of people who lived through the depression”, and figure that people only need one special outfit, and one or two for work?) Cleaning the `fridge is more of an acknowledgement that I wasted food- didn’t use that leftover up before it went bad. That’s a hard one for me to face.

I expect that now, especially during the shutdown, there are people avoiding looking at bills because it’s depressing when you realize that you simply don’t have the money to pay them. When there’s nothing you can do about a problem, it’s easy to want to avoid it. I left a handprint on the mirror over my dresser for many years. I’d put my baby sister up on the dresser and she left the handprint there. Allow me to say that it was probably sheer pre-teen laziness that accounted for the first year or so of not cleaning the mirror, but after a while, I didn’t want to lose that little mark of innocence. I probably left it there for six or seven years, until I’d smeared it wiping around it. I’m not good at letting go of the past.

From not taking down the Christmas Tree because you don’t want to face the end of the holidays, to not giving away the clothes of a spouse who has died, there are things that look like cleaning chores that are really letting go of the past.

I don’t think knowing that makes it any easier.

A Rectangle of Black Glass

I love my kindle e-reader. When Dan showed me his, it made me uncomfortable. It sounds good, but I’ve had computer crashes and lost everything, changed computers and the information stored on old floppies is useless because it can’t be read. Then I got Lyme, and the ability to read The Stand or other heavy books became a huge blessing.

Still, as I take it down to plug it in each morning, I am reminded. Without the ability to plug it in, it is nothing more than a rectangle of black glass. Without power, I cannot read the hundreds of books “in there”. Without the internet and the whole infrastructure that connects to it, the books are as impossible for me to read as if they were in the Boston Public Library. Less so because in theory I could walk to Boston, and there’s a hope that the books would be there when I got there.

So I continue to love my physical books. Yes, they need light, but even in the winter, that comes naturally every day. Yes they could burn, but then, so could I. The chances are that many of them will still be exciting the imagination of other readers and passing on knowledge long after I am dead.

My older kindle still works, although I stepped on it and there are cracks along the screen. But I expect that at some point the electronics will fail and it will be little more than a paper weight. A mirror reflects infinite images, whatever is in front of it. Even broken, each piece continues to do what mirrors do, only in small. Broken electronics are sad; can they even be salvaged for parts?

Being who I am, I extend analogies to try to imagine what switching from printed books to ebooks may tell us about our culture. We have access to millions of books, yet I find myself re-reading old favorites, … and passing up on one’s I’d like to read because even in electronic format, I can’t afford to buy them. I don’t in any way begrudge the cost. Someone spent years researching and writing the book, and should get their expenses and effort covered. I just don’t have that much available, as with any other commodity. The rich can have them, the poor cannot, although we sometimes get together and share some things. Similarly, I don’t read every book in the library, although there are few books I don’t finish once I start them (and few series I start and don’t want to read more). We may have only som much capacity to take in all the wonders of the world.
I like the IDEA of having a thousand books in a rectangle of black glass. But I also want my several thousand books sitting on shelves (and in piles, and in boxes, and piles of boxes) where I know I can get them.

Book Review with some thoughts of my own

I’ve just finished House of Darkness House of Light by Andrea Perron. It’s a memoir written by one of the daughters who lived for 10 years in a farmhouse in Rhode Island that was haunted. It was the basis of the horror movie The Conjuring, and frankly that plot seems to have been only loosely based on what happened. Given the vast majority of the “incidents” described, most are fairly normal for an old house: doors opening and closing themselves, objects appearing and disappearing, moving around, things levitating, clocks stopping, phone ringing when unplugged, pets not wanting to go in, or seeming to react to something unseen by their owners, smells and cold that come and go, hearing footsteps, sensing and seeing presences…. One assumes these are of people who lived there before and left “something” behind: whether a personality or an energetic imprint. These events are  very common in my reading and experience.
Some people seem to think those things are scary. I suppose they think so because they are indications that ghosts or spirits exist, when they have been told they can’t. “There is no evidence” proving it. If people having interacted with spirits for as long as we have written history doesn’t count as evidence, I think the scoffers are not being honest with themselves. Yes, some hauntings have been faked, but that doesn’t mean that all have. I think “follow the money” is a pretty good rule of thumb for checking for fraud. Who’s profiting by it? The Perrons didn’t.

I’ll admit it’s frustrating to have your stuff go missing, and inconvenient to have your bed move into the middle of the room every night while you’re asleep. (One of our ghosts used to make the rocking chair start rocking and dump stuff on the floor. My sister simply started putting stuff on the bed. “Rock that!”) That seems to be pretty much how most people deal with ghosts when they live with them. Most ghosts are pretty harmless.

The book is long and rambling, I kept thinking it could use an editor; but it is a memoir. It may need to take a long time because that’s how the situation evolved, and them with it. Three decades later, the family recalled their experiences in order to put the facts clearly for others (who might profit from what they learned). One of the nice things about this recounting  is that they point out that they got both good and bad from their experiences. For one, they are certain of an afterlife, and that God answered their prayers. That’s a wonderful thing to not wonder about. They also learned lessons, such as quarreling, blaming and other negative energy seemed to feed the spirits, give them more energy to move furniture, etc. Having learned this, they became forgiving, and developed problem resolution skills far beyond most people.

They also had good relationships with many of the spirits in the farmhouse. Since it was over two centuries old, many people had died there over time (although there were an unusual number of suicides I think). Most of the spirits were friendly, there was a child, often heard crying for its mother, who played with the girls toys, a protective masculine spirit in the doorway, a father and son, with their dog, on the stairs, and a woman who smelled like fruit and flowers who tucked them in at night. These were protective. One floated one of the girls safely down the stairs when she’d fallen, didn’t touch anything all the way down and around the corner. Another (or the same) held the end of a board up during a storm when one of the kids had to mend a fence. Having had household spirits help with our chores, I believe it.

The trouble came from on spirit (at least) who was hostile and dangerous. If she started as a ghost, she may have evolved into something different. The female figure who showed herself with a broken neck was identified as Bathsheba, and often attacked Carolyn, the girls’ mother. She even said she was mistress there before and intended to be again. “Was mistress once afore ye came and mistress here will be again. Will drive ye out with fiery broom, Will drive ye made with death and gloom!” She seemed to want the children, but she hated Carolyn.

Once Carolyn had something like a needle stabbed into her leg, a hanger jumped off the pole and beat her on the shoulder (in front of witnesses), she also had pains and weakness that doctors could not explain. She saw fireballs on her dresser, and a vision of what seems to have been all the ghosts in the house gathered around her with torches chanting that threat above. (If they’d lived in the house in different periods, how did she get them to come together like that?) In a house made of old wood, Carolyn lived in fairly constant fear of it catching fire. And not just in the house, a cigarette flew through a closed window in the car and burned one of the girls pants, there were chimney fires, and oil burner problems. That could just be an old house. But the fear is real. The nasty odor associated with her seems to have followed friends in their cars several times. (How far away could she reach?)

Other examples of real danger where when the girls were mysteriously trapped- behind the chimney, two girls were at risk of suffocation, one in an old box that wouldn’t open although it wasn’t fastened, and the other in a trunk she doesn’t remember getting into, and was nearly impossible to open in the first place. Roger, the father, had his back clawed up in his sleep (and stroked seductively in the cellar). Since there were several times when various people had energy sucked out of them, this approaches vampiric activity.

Often when there was a scary incident and they screamed and banged things for attention, no one else in the house could hear it. They called it “being in the bubble”. This makes me wonder if perhaps one of the ghosts had been suffocated and was trying to reproduce their own death. Did one die while feeling abandoned, and so set up a situation where a Perron would call for help and feel abandoned. Kids often test limits, just how much can they push the limit of what’s allowed before someone stops them. Perhaps the ghosts were trying to prove that everyone gets abandoned to a terrifying death- even if they had to artificially set it up.   Another thing I observed was that in the telling, most of the major attacks seemed to come just after a party, date or other really good day. Did good feelings annoy the spirit(s), or did a good day just build it enough energy to enable the attack? The Perrons were aware that after interactions they felt depleted, and often  slept more. They also noticed that the electric meter drew unnatural amounts of power just before a major manifestation. Clearly the spirits were sucking down energy- both Chi and electricity.

The book accumulates these examples, laying brink on brick to a wall of evidence. No, it doesn’t build to a great jump-scare at the end. (I don’t think it does, I’m just starting the second book, and new incidents keep coming. I am especially fond of one of the girls having seen a broom sweeping the kitchen by itself.)

So far, Ed and Lorraine Warren are not a big part of the story. But. of course the Warrens thought there was a demon; they were demonologists. Chances are they interpreted any etheric energy Lorraine felt as demonic (along with ouija boards and tarot cards). But then, how often do you have to deal with something like that before you become hyper cautious? Having come to help the family, the Warrens shared what they knew- which was probably more than the Perrons did at the time. In some areas. On the other hand, they “borrowed” and didn’t return the huge pile of history of the house that Carolyn had collected, and I find that rude. Yes, I think it’s clear that Bathsheba was an angry ghost.They also had to deal with little girls who knew how to keep secrets, and Roger, who refused to believe what was right in front of him. Because of his control issues, he may have been more willing than others to accept “authority” if it was coming to help him.

I wonder if there wasn’t something already on the site where the farmhouse was built (a portal to somewhere, a confluence of ley lines?) that made people more likely to commit suicide or fight with each other? I would certainly not argue with the Perrons (who went through  it) when they say that when they were in danger and they called on God, that Gods power drove the bad spirits off. I’m not sure that makes the spirits demonic or simply “lawful” (following some rules we don’t understand fully). And how does one define demon? I don’t accept the standard Christian/Satanic myth. I do think something dangerous was going on.

In style, the family, or maybe just Andrea, seems to have a habit of blending two phrases together like “thinking outside the boxing match” or “listen up in smoke“, which I found annoying, in the manner of Biff messing up expressions in Back to the Future. (Or perhaps I’ve been sensitized by having auto-correct functions constantly changing what I write to something completely different.) Sometimes she showed a great turn of phrase like “unraveled like chenille throws”. I loved the range and quality of the quotes she used to start and end each chapter. Having considered it, I have to admit that tighter writing wouldn’t cover the subject matter in the same depth, and showed the development of the lessons they took from their experiences.

I find it disorienting that while the book is generally chronological- it starts with why they needed to move, and the effort it took, and only just touched on the Warrens, (so far- I think they’re in the second book), to a certain extent each chapter deals with one cluster of experiences, or place, or friend. To that extent, it’s more stream-of-consciousness. Perhaps this was how it was created as the family pooled their memories. All in all, I found it a better description of living with ghosts than most of the (many) other books on the subject I’ve read. So often such books concentrate on the phenomena, not what it meant to the people to whom it happened.

If there was one thing I would wish had been different with this book, I really would have liked is the floor-plan of the farm. They know where the doors were, but while they talk about the three stairways to the cellar, (how many to the second floor?) and various bedrooms, parlor, warm room, chimney corner, summer kitchen, pantry, laundry, borning room, woodshed, etc. I want to know where they are in relationship to each other. Which stairway has the L turn? How many rooms were there in the cellar, sounds like a half dozen, it must have been huge!

I am actually looking forward to finishing the next two books, despite the length.