Monday, August 17, 2009

My Heroes: Starhawk, modern-day Good Witch

The word witch carries a lot of negative baggage. But there are many people, Starhawk among them, who have turned that all around, and are witches, using what power they have to make the world a better place.

I don't call myself a witch, because I think of witches as something like shamans. I can't do magic (yet?), so I'm not a witch, yet. I am pagan, which means that I consider the earth sacred, that I honor the changing of the seasons and the cycle of the year, that I consider the earth and her creatures alive. Being pagan means different things to different people; there are no holy books, no gurus, no rules written in stone. Only stories. Halloween comes at the time when 'the veil between the worlds is thinnest'. And, it is said of the Goddess that 'all acts of love and pleasure are her worship.'

Starhawk was my introduction to pagan thought. Much of what's written in that realm is too woo woo, too self-indulgent, or just not deep enough. Two of Starhawk's books stand out as a way to really understand pagan thought philosophically, historically, and politically. Dreaming the Dark: Magic, Sex and Politics came first. It weaves feminism, therapy, non-violent activism, and politics into a big bundle, and throws magic into the mix. Magic - we've been trained to think it's all about tricks, that it's just pretend. More on that in a moment...

I like Starhawk's ability to weave together a scientific worldview with a pagan perspective. At a workshop I attended, she described gravity as Mother Earth hugging us all, and in Truth or Dare: Encounters with Power, Authority, and Mystery, she describes DNA like this:
the sliding of snakes
coupling and uncoupling
at the cell's core
This passage is part of one of the epic poems that alternate with the chapters of text in her rich book. Seven of those poems form the story of the descent of Inanna, which so many feminists have retold. The power of the story enchants us. (Inanna's stories come down to us through time on clay tablets from Sumeria. The most historically faithful retelling is found in Inanna, Queen of Heaven and Earth: Her Stories and Hymns from Sumer, by Diane Wolkstein and Samuel Kramer.) Truth or Dare is full of history, philosophy, and practical ideas. It provides the grounding that started me on my journey to a different worldview.

What makes Sathawk one of my heroes isn't just her philosophy, it's the actions she takes in the world, from protesting nuclear power, to the protests against the World Trade Organization in Seattle that she documents in Webs of Power, to her current work, both with permaculture and in the Israeli-Palestine conflict.

Much of her writing can be found on her blog, Dirt Worship, and through her website. (My blog reading list is gettting awfully long...)

Redefining Magic
Most people in the U.S. dismiss magic as pretend. And, in fact, the dictionary definitions usually start there: "The pretended art of influencing the course of events, and of producing marvelous physical phenomena..." (OED) But if magic means pretend, then where is the word that means something similar that's not pretended? The definition we have constrains the ways we can think. When language slices things in a way that makes certain alternatives unthinkable, it forces our thinking along some channels and not others. The language itself frames our worldview.

So what is magic, if it's not pretend? Starhawk explains it better in her books than I can. But I can offer 3 stories that describe the sorts of things magic might do, unusual but not impossible. Two come from what I've read, one I experienced.

Catching Fish (from Utne Reader, I think)
The author was at a witch camp in Colorado. He had been told, along with a group of people, to go to a river that was going to dry up, as it does every summer. The group was to catch the fish, who would be dying soon anyway, and fill the bed of a pickup truck with them to bring back to camp for use as fertilizer. They weren’t given any tools, though. They felt like the task was impossible. A few of them tried to grab the fish, but there was no way. Finally their teacher came and told them to think like bears. He slapped his hands together in the water, and popped a fish up onto the shore. They filled the truck in a short time.

Becoming Invisible
I believe Starhawk talks in one of her books about being in prison with a few hundred other women, for protesting a nuclear weapons site, and wanting to have a meeting to plan their responses to the prison officials. (I've searched but can't find this passage. I'll try to verify.) Meetings were prohibited, and they were feeling stuck - this meeting seemed vital. They met, raised power, and created a circle of invisibility. They conducted their meeting, and the guards, one nearby, did not stop them.

Now, the standard definition of invisible involves seeing right through something. But think of it more as something we just don't notice. Imagine the guards just not noticing the meeting. I have students who are excellent at becoming invisible when I decide to call on someone; I'm sure it's a skill they've developed.

Friendly Mice?
I wrote this in story form, but it's not fiction. It happened in late 1989 or early 1990, on UCSD’s campus. The only part I made up was Gail’s name. I don’t remember her real name, and she needs one for the story to flow.

One night, when the moon was full, I walked to the eucalyptus groves north of campus with my friend Sandy and her friend Gail. We were that night a coven of three, aware of each other’s powerful presences, intending to honor the goddess with our small circle in the woods.

We walked familiar paths. Changed in the moonlight, they seemed to be longer and more winding. We arrived at a spot far enough from campus, hidden from the bigger trails, where the moon shone to the ground. We settled ourselves in, and began.

Sandy called in the spirits of the four directions. I don’t remember now what my participation was. Gail began a chanted meditation. We all sat, eyes closed, two listening, one speaking. I wasn’t connecting with Gail’s words, and I drifted. I opened my eyes to the beauty around me, the moonlit forest, leaves dappled with that soft light and the darkness, fluttering in faint breezes. I thought about what a blessing this serenity was in a world full of cities. Then I noticed that there were some kind of forest mice all around us, some within our circle, sort of checking us out. They seemed entranced by Gail’s voice. There were about two dozen of them.

I didn’t want to scare away our visitors, usually so shy, so I tried to repress my excitement, to keep the feel of our circle as it had been. I listened more carefully to what Gail was saying, letting her soothing, droning chant calm me. Meanwhile of course, I was eagerly watching our visitors out of the corner of my eyes. They scampered around, clearly interested, seemingly listening to Gail’s voicel, and checking us out.

Then one of them scampered over Sandy’s hand, and she jumped a bit. They all ran away. I quietly said, “They’ve been here for a while, listening.” We all kept our eyes open and Gail tried to go back to her chanting. We were too excited to return to quite the same calm, self-contained circle we had been. But Gail’s soothing voice did bring them partway back. None came inside the circle this time, but at least half a dozen had returned, and watched us for a while longer. They left before we ended our circle, and we walked home, feeling blessed by having had some very special unexpected participants join us that night.

I don't know if these 3 stories are enough to convince anyone that magic happens. But the next time you see that on a bumper sticker, at least you'll have a glimmer of where we're coming from.

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