Wednesday, April 18, 2007

New Feature

In the next few days I'm going to be testing out a new feature for BarkingShaman. On the right side of the screen will be a list of links that will be updated anywhere from a few times a day to once every few days. These will be links that are of interest to me or that I think might be of interest to readers of BS. Like the blog itself these links will be eclectic, ranging from topics such as paganism, shamanism, GLBT issues, libertarian issues, and things that are just plain funny.

Tuesday, April 17, 2007

Issue Fatigue

Readers of BarkingShaman know that I am passionate in my beliefs and that many of my personal beliefs are not all that popular. It has not been a good several weeks for me on this front and I am finding myself quite prone to burning out.

First off, those of you who have read “Ritual Mutilation and Discovering Normal” know about my staunch opposition to routine male circumcision and know a bit about the road that led me to that position. I have done a great deal of research into the subject and history of circumcision and other male and female genital mutilation practices and consider myself quite educated on the matter. Several weeks ago national and international news sources covered the announcement that the United Nations has endorsed the practice of male circumcision (ideally removing as much inner foreskin tissue as possible if you read the research) as a method of preventing the spread of HIV/AIDS.

This was an announcement that had become inevitable. There has been some research over the years that has shown that circumcised men have a reduced (some say as much as %70) chance of contracting HIV during unprotected heterosexual sex with infected women. This is far from an adequate level of protection to not require sex with a latex barrier and is only relevant in reducing one specific form of transmission (female-male heterosexual intercourse). Despite this, the New York Times proclaimed in an article on male circumcision “Last month, scientists invented the AIDS vaccine.” While the U.N. and the W.H.O. have only endorsed circumcision for high risk/low tech areas such as sub-Saharan Africa, there is clear evidence that the American Academy of Pediatrics will again be endorsing circumcision for all newborns, this time to prevent AIDS. Additionally New York City has announced a proposal for the city to pay for the circumcision of all gay men in New York despite the total lack of evidence of circumcision’s effects on HIV transmission during gay intercourse.

I could go on at length about the issue. Certain points jump out at me, such as the fact that these studies were halted early and that they have not been submitted for peer review. Or that there has been European studies that indicate that intact (non-circumcised) men are more willing to use condoms and are less prone to skin tearing during intercourse. Additionally, circumcision has been described as a cure in search of a disease. The list of diseases that circumcision has been claimed to “cure” or “prevent” is astounding (from the familiar such as cancer to the crazy such as club foot or lead poisoning). I do want to clarify that it would be completely hypocritical for me to criticize what someone chooses to do with their body. If an adult, male or female, wants to radically alter their genitals that is totally their business. My objections focus on children who cannot consent or people who are being presented with circumcision as an preventative for the contraction of HIV/AIDS by medical authorities that they have no reason not to trust.

I belong to several email discussion groups from the “intactivist” (anti-circumcision) community and over the last few months I have found that I have been just letting the emails pile up. I simply cannot handle the overwhelming ground that has been lost in this fight. Every time I hear about or talk to another parent who may have been considering leaving their son intact but now has been swayed to circumcision, or worse who has taken their child or young teen in for a circumcision in the face of this new “data” I just find myself feeling sick. Same goes for talking to circumcised men who know feel that they do not need to use protection for sex since they now “know” that they can’t contract HIV/AIDS because of their circumcised status.

Second off, I live in New Hampshire. In the last few weeks the New Hampshire legislature has been poised to pass legislation creating a civil union registry for non-married couples. As you might imagine, many vocal people in my area are more than a little upset by this. There have been many calls for the government to put the matter to a public vote. Given that the state also just legalized gay adoption statewide (it had been left to the counties) there is a groundswell of opposition to gay rights issues (and gays in general) in my area of rural NH. Each letter in the op-ed portion of my local paper proclaiming the hatred of society possessed by people in non-traditional relationships reminds me of the fact that my family is neither welcomed nor safe where we live. Every “destruction of family values” that I read reminds me of how we came to own a number of firearms and why I don’t like to leave the house without one.

Firearms are yet another of my buttons that are going to be pushed in the next few weeks. Following the grotesque tragedy at Virginia Tech the media is already afire with calls for tougher restrictions for the ownership of firearms. This ignores the fact that someone crazy enough to kill 30+ people isn’t going to care about buying an illegal handgun.

Since owning a gun myself I’ve become more conscious of other people carrying them and this has led me to an interesting realization. When I was in Washington DC recently, I noticed how many government people (such as security guards at the Smithsonian Udvar-Hazy Center) carried firearms. Normally this doesn’t bother me, but NH does not have reciprocity with DC (besides with no one can carry weapons on federal property). I was interested to see that I was uncomfortable being around so many armed people not because I wasn’t armed, but because I wasn’t permitted to be armed.

These are just three of the public issues weighing on my mind. I’ve ignored several issues closely tied to my spooky life deliberately. First and foremost I am a shaman and a magician. Recent events in my life have brought this more and more to my attention (not that I have given up on the business that I own, just that I recognize the realities of what my first “profession” really is). These issues are in varying degrees mundane ones. I find myself having only so much energy that I can devote to any one of them before it begins to intrude into my “real” work, be that the spooky stuff, the business, or my managing my health.

As I find myself “burning out” I struggle to maintain some involvement in the issues that matter to me. I know that I cannot let myself become consumed by the shamanism anymore than I can sit in front of my computer doing CAD work hour upon hour. Trying to make a difference in these and other issues helps me remember to distance myself from the shaman work in order to recognize that the mundane world is just as important as the spiritual one.

Once upon a time, I created a mental “rosary of belief.” This is a technique we teach our students wherein one makes specific mental note of incidents that reinforce their beliefs in magic or the gods and spirits in order to create a mental “rosary” to refer to when the rest of the world tells them that there is no such thing (if you are curious we modified the idea from something said to Shinji Ikari in Evangelion during instrumentality). Today, I find myself forced to do the same thing with issues that are important to me. I know that I cannot allow my faith or connection to matters of importance to me in the mundane world falter if I am to do my job adequately.

As a shaman there is an incredible temptation to focus on that part of me that is forever in death, but I have come to know that it is just as important to give equal energy to those parts of me that dwell in life or in the mundane world. Passionate beliefs, even unpopular ones makes that possible.

ps. For an insight into the kinds of issues that I follow that cross the line between spooky and mundane more starkly than these go here.

Tuesday, April 03, 2007

Ambiguity Part 1: Home for Someone Else's Holiday

One of the more difficult lessons about growing into adulthood has got to be that nothing is ever straightforward when one is an adult. The layers of ambiguity that sometimes seem to smother the world were beyond my ken when I was a child.

This is a subject that I’ll be addressing in several BarkingShaman essays over the next while. Right now, foremost on my mind regarding this topic are the events of this evening.

Tonight was the first night of the Jewish holiday of Passover and my mother asked us to come over for her seder. There was never any doubt that I’d be going. I try to go see my parents for holidays that are important family times. As a rule Fire and Summer come along whenever one or both of them can. After several years of awkwardness, my mother no longer asks me to attend religious services at her synagogue, but I go to her home at least for diner for most major holidays.

So it was with a minimum of hassle that Fire and Summer took early days from work and the three of us plus the dog bundled into the car for the two hour ride to my folks’ house.

Anyone who has attended at Passover seder however, can tell you that it isn’t just a meal. Rather, the seder meal is a ritual in itself. For a number of reasons, I have avoided Jewish worship services and rituals as thoroughly as I possibly can since leaving Judaism to serve my Lady. First off, a Jew by birth leaving the religion is a really big no-no, and not just from a community perspective. Judaic law is rather clear on the allotted punishment for idolatry, which for a Jew consists of worshiping any god but the god. I prefer to stay below the radar of the god of the Jews to whatever extent I can, and not just because I believe it to be the polite and ethical thing to do.

Additionally, my Jewish faith and identity was an important part of my life and upbringing. I do not regret my choice (such as it was) to dedicate myself to the Lady or to become a pagan. However, I would be lying if I told you that being forever cut off from such a pivotal part of my childhood and family life does not hurt, it does. I know that Judaism was not the right religion for me, and far more importantly, the god of the Jews was the wrong god for me for many reasons. On the balance, I would far prefer a devout life as a pagan than a secular life as a Jew, which was what would have happened given the disconnect between myself and the Jewish god.

Unfortunately (or perhaps inevitably, given its nature) Passover was always my favorite holiday in the Jewish calendar. It is also the only holiday whose ritual is traditionally done in the home rather than the synagogue.

The fact that my parents accept who I am so far as to invite both my partners (plus our dog) to their home for a family holiday is invaluable to me. Especially given my health situation of late, our lives would be infinitely more difficult without my parents’ support. At times like these though, it can be a challenge not to shove the complete reality of my life in their faces. I know that my religious path is a source of pain for them (especially my mother) and I try as best I can to minimize its impact on them. However, I do this to the best of my ability without diminishing who I am and what I do in my religious life.

For instance, I have two tiny “token” tanto knives that represent the two knives I carry in my shaman work. One token is polished and one blackened with cold-bluing to stand in for my full-sized polished and rusted knives that represent life and death. I usually wear the tokens on strings hanging from my belt loops. I am bound to tell anyone who asks what they mean, and I do not choose to leave them at home when I go to see my mother. Part of being Her shaman-magician is that I am forbidden to lie when asked about aspects of my spooky job. This means that I have explained to my mother the meanings of my shamanic tattoos, tools, and hair cut (for those who don’t know, I shaved my waist length hair off during my death ordeal cycle and have kept it shaved for over a year since).

As much as I value the fact that my folks have us all home for the holidays, it is hard not to resent it when they appear to be pushing me back into the broom closet, so to speak. It brings my mother joy, or at least peace, to pretend for the duration of the seder that I am still Jewish. Striking the balance between pleasing the mother who raised me and being true to my other Mother is an especial challenge during this particular ritual. The cautious dance of watching what words I don’t say during prayers to avoid swearing falsely to the god of the Jews doesn’t do any great wonders for my mental state either. An amazing number of Judaic prayers are some form of swearing of fealty: “you are our god” etc.

I imagine that the careful dance of balancing the reality of who an adult child is with how their parents might want to perceive them is hardly one that is unique to people who have departed as radically from their parents expectations as I have. I am also well aware that my parents are rather unique in how completely they have been able to accept those radical deviations in the course of my life. My parents and I have an understanding which applies most times: I don’t ask them to be happy with the path that my life has taken and they don’t try to change that path. The logical continuation of that agreement is that they generally don’t push their unhappiness with my path on me and I don’t shove the evidence of that path in their faces.

Just as adulthood is not nearly as straightforward as I expected when I was a child (imagine my shock to find that so far no one has given me a manual!), compromises feature far more prominently than the child I was could have imagined. When my mother asked me to read the four questions in Hebrew tonight (and with no transliteration no less) I could have refused on the grounds that it was not a terribly comfortable thing for me to do. However, that discomfort has led to me staying up late thinking and writing. Come the dawn it will be all but forgotten. The unhappiness that refusal would have caused my mother would have lasted far beyond the next rise of the sun.

I like to think that this decision is the sort of thing that distinguishes me today as my parents’ adult child rather than just their child.