On Death, Vocation, and John McCain

Yesterday, not even 24 hours after Senator John McCain passed, I posted the following on Facebook:

So, here’s my dilemma:

The queer politics nerd in me agrees with all the folks posting about John McCain’s horrid politics of recent years (including inflicting Sarah Palin on national politics and healthcare).

However, the priest in me, who has worked with the dying and with grieving families is like: “Fucking hell people, the guy hasn’t even been dead 24 hours!”

I have always been a heretic….

There were some comments to this post that made me think that some people might be misunderstanding me, or possibly not understanding what I meant by this post. I do forget that not everyone understands my vocation around death, dying, and grieving, and that it can seem antithetical to my politics sometimes.

My vocation is to minister to the dying and for the dead, regardless of who they are or were. It is my firm belief, even conviction, that every human being deserves to have someone there during their last hours, and that in the first day of death, they are still treated in a compassionate way.

But don’t get me wrong: being compassionate is definitely not the same as being nice.

Let me put this another way:

My former coven leader, Michael, was an asshole to me. He was abusive, manipulating, and misogynistic. I wouldn’t consciously want to be near him, or hang out with him unless it was part of a massive apology, confession, and acknowledgement of what he had done to me.

However…

If somehow I got the call and was told he was dying, and that one of his final wishes was to see and talk to me, then I would go. I would go, and listen, and hear him out. I might even stay and hold vigil, letting the Gods come through and tell him about himself. I would probably even minister to his family until, and after, he passed. It doesn’t mean I wouldn’t have the hard conversations with him while he was still lucid, or tell him about himself and how he hurt me. It doesn’t mean that it would have to be nice for him, or that it wouldn’t be one of the hardest things I’d ever done.

I would do it because I’m a priest and it’s my vocation to midwife the dying. I couldn’t not do it.

And yes, I would do the same for Donald Trump. (Although, I have no doubts that if this somehow happened, that the Gods would come through hard while I was in the room and really tell him about himself.)

There is always a measure of compassion that I believe must be held regardless of who the dying or dead person is. And that is the reason for the dilemma: I completely detested McCain’s politics while he was alive, and I totally agree that his legacy, both good and bad, needs to be examined. But it felt, to me, like a lack of compassion for the dead to start ripping into his record not even 24 hours, after he’d passed. Those of us left behind have lifetimes to do that, and it is only right that we do so. 

Please note, however, that I said “compassion” not “respect”. Compassion, at least the way I define it, is acknowledging the human-ness of a person, regardless of who they are. No one needs to be a saint in order to deserve my compassion, especially in the process of dying. Showing compassion in those times also respects the Spirits helping the person cross over, since they are the ones that the person who is dying needs to answer to (regardless of who that Spirit is for the dying person).

Unfortunately, compassion and forgiveness are often conflated, when in reality, they are not the same thing, nor should they be. In the example above, I can show compassion to my former coven leader, but I in no way have to forgive him, if I don’t want to, or can’t. Also, showing compassion to someone doesn’t magically erase the bad they’ve done, and in my mind, can be an act of defiance to the evil that the person has done. 

I don’t know if this clarifies the post I made. Most likely, I probably made it more complicated. That’s not a bad thing, in my mind, because the process of death, and the process of grieving, is not black and white. It is grey and complicated. It is messy with emotion and experience. All the emotions around a person’s death are real and valid and I get that. I am in no way asking people to forgive McCain, or to ignore what he’s done in life, but to acknowledge that a life has passed. To stop and reflect and give the moment of death at least some amount of gravitas, no matter what you thought of him. Because, remember, compassion can be a last act of defiance. 

 

 

To My Fellow White Americans:

I’ve had with most of you. Especially those of you who sit there and argue with the very people this government is marginalizing and harrassing. That we should “get along and be nice” because somehow that’s going to magically fix everything.

The time for politeness passed many months ago. Sorry, that’s just how it is. If you can’t see why, get you head out of your fucking ass and take a good look around.

You say you have minority friends? Sure, ok! Why don’t you ask them some things:

Ask any of your friends of color how they’re doing right now.

Ask your friends who are legal permanent residents how they’re feeling about their status.

Ask your queer friends how they’re feeling right now.

Ask your queer friends who are legally married if they think their marriages are going to still be legal in a year or so.

Ask your disabled friends about their healthcare.

Ask your steelworker friends if they still have their jobs.

Ask your Grandma and Grandpa how they’re feeling about their medicare benefits right now.

Ask your transgender friends how they feel about their lives right now.

And ask all of the folks above about how many of them are making plans to leave the country.

Your privileged ass is sitting there criticizing Maxine Waters because she’s telling people to not serve these assholes in the White House? Really? Give me a fucking break! When you, as a white person, especially if you are a cishet white male, can sit there and tell me you’ve been denied housing, given death threats, beaten or killed for your skin color, gender presentation, or sexual preference, then you can start criticising Maxine Waters all you want.

But if a baker can legally deny service to a gay couple, or anyone they want, then a black or queer owned business can deny service to anyone they damn well please.

If a state can tell transgender people that they can’t use the bathroom of their gender, or decide that healthcare workers can deny service to people if who client is or  what medical service they’re getting is “against their religion,” then you have NO RIGHT to expect politeness and “decency” from any minority group. Period.

Let me sum this up. I’ll put in in all caps so I know you’ll see it: DENYING SERVICE OR CHALLENGING SOMEONE FROM THE TRUMP ADMINISTRATION ISN’T ABOUT POLITICAL DIFFERENCES: IT’S ABOUT CALLING OUT AN ADMINISTRATION DENYING PEOPLE’S BASIC HUMAN RIGHTS.

I mean, for fuck’s sake! A good government doesn’t lock up thousands of kids just because they’re brown. Or deport people who are here *legally* and have been here for decades!

A good government doesn’t do all their decision making by Tweet.

A good government certainly doesn’t deny services to the needy.

A good government doesn’t randomly decide to pick fights with allies because they want to wave their dick around.

A good government doesn’t terrorize it’s citizens.

A good government owns up to it’s mistakes.

And a good government PROTECTS THE BASIC HUMAN RIGHTS OF ITS  OWN CITIZENS AND THE RIGHTS OF ANYONE ELSE WHO COMES HERE FLEEING FOR THEIR LIVES.

If you don’t care about others, or don’t think that any of this has anything to do with you, or you feel like you’ve got yours and fuck everyone else, then do me a favor and get out of my life. My wife and I are moving out of the country for our own personal safety. Even before the 2016 election, my wife felt like she couldn’t LIVE HER FUCKING LIFE. Because every time she went out of the house she felt like she had a fucking target on her back just because she’s transgender.

We’re lucky and we’re privileged to have the resources to leave. A lot of our PoC and queer friends aren’t so lucky, but are STILL making plans to leave the country. I can’t count how many people have told us “Yeah, seriously, get out while you can. We don’t blame you!”

So, white people, fuck off with your MAGA; fuck off with your “You’re overreacting”; fuck off with your racist, misogynistic, homophobic bullshit and get your head out of your asses. You’re being assholes and you damn well know it.

Find some fucking compassion and stop making it about you. I’m so fucking over your bullshit.

Two weeks…Three New Ancestors…

It’s a gloomy, rainy day here in Chicago, and it seems rather fitting that today. So many Ancestors in so short of time. I’ve already done my rituals: lit candles and incense. But today I feel the need to write about them and what they meant to me.

A little less than two weeks ago, my mentor and friend, Lizann Bassham passed after a long struggle with cancer. She had decided that she wanted to stop treatment and die on her own terms. Her partners kept vigil with her, both in person and online, updating those of us who couldn’t be there on her Facebook page.

She was an amazing woman and an amazing spirit. She was also the first mentor I’ve had that was a both/and priest: both pagan and Christian. When we first met when I was in seminary, it was the first time I could see that the idea of both/and could be done in a professional capacity. We had many deep and poignant talks while I was at PSR and learned so much from her. Not just about being a multi-faith priest, but how to navigate this world from the spaces in between. We were both priests who lived in the in-between spaces, and as beings who intimately know those spaces, it can sometimes be very difficult to live in this world with that knowledge. But Lizann did it with such gentleness and grace and love, that I hope that I, too can emulate that.

After seminary we didn’t talk as much as when I was still at school, but I would occasionally say hello to her online and read her blog posts. I will miss her greatly.

Yesterday, we found out that Valerie Walker (aka Vee or VeeDub) also left this world after deciding to stop her own cancer treatments. It had been the second round of cancer for her and she basically was done with it. She wasn’t  a mentor as such to me as she was to my wife, but she was an awesome friend to both of us. I had heard about her a lot from friends of mine who were studying Feri witchcraft under her (including my wife), and I remember I was a little nervous meeting her for the first time. If I’m remembering right, Sarah asked me to come with her to a circle at Vee’s house. And while I wasn’t interested in learning Feri tradition from Vee as an initiate, I did learn a lot from her. She also always treated me as a colleague, as fellow witch also navigating being a leader of a tradition. Unlike some other leaders in the Bay Area, she never treated me as “inferior” because I didn’t happen to be initiated in her tradition. After that, we were friends and Sarah and I went to several holy days at her house. Sometimes we just came over to say hello and catch up. In the last several years, it had been harder for Sarah to get some time with her, or for both of us to go visit, since we had moved first to San Jose, then to Chicago. We did keep in touch online off and on.

Vee, to me, was like that BadAss Grandmother you never knew you needed in your life until you met her. She was fierce, and blunt, but always accepted you for who you are and was kind in that no-nonsense kind of way. She died how she lived her life: on her own terms, and I will miss her presence on earth, too.

Then, this morning I heard of Anthony Bourdain’s passing. My Mom texted me about it, and at first I was like “No way!” but then I saw the BBC article. I didn’t know him personally, nor did I ever get to see him in person, but he’s been a virtual mentor in the sense that he showed me places I had never seen before and made me see that the food of a people, and eating with people, will tell you more about a country than anything else you can do. I started watching “No Reservations” many years ago, and ended up binge watching the whole series. From then on, I couldn’t get enough of his work. I watched everything he ever did on TV, shows he helped produce, or where he collaborated with other chefs. I’ve read almost all of his books on his life and thoughts about being a chef (although, I’ll admit I haven’t read any of his fiction yet). His Parts Unknown series, to me, was some of his best work, bringing together food, people, politics, and culture in a very unique way. It’s inspired me to do my own filming of my own travel when I move to Europe, and while my own work will be more of a vlog type thing, I do want to incorporate some of the same sensibilities that he brought to his show into mine: seeing past the tourist view and into the hearts and souls of people who live there.

What I found really interesting in watching all his shows is that you can saw him grow as a person. The very beginnings of “No Reservations” he comes off as an asshole, bad boy chef playing up his asshole-ness to the camera. But as the seasons went on, you can tell that the travelling made him think and grow. One of the episodes that showed that is the episode where he was in New Orleans a few years after Katrina, where he went and apologized to Emeril after dissing him years earlier. He did it in his Anthony Bourdain way, but he was sincere. But that wasn’t the only episode that you could see that, but it’s one that stands out to me.

Then again, he was pretty open about when he messed up, especially in his writings. From his drug addiction, to when he didn’t communicate right with locals, and so on. This, and in so many other ways, his work always spoke to me as a food nerd, a priest, a traveller, and a person. Even in the end, he went out his own way, by his own rules. I hope that wherever he is now, there’s a full pig roast going on, with sausage, BBQ, and Pho.

All three of these people have had a big impact in my life, and mostly because they lived life to the fullest by their own rules and in their own time. I honor them as my newest Ancestors, and I hope I can honor them by doing the same: living my life, living it well, giving where I can, and teaching when I can.

What is remembered lives.

Updates

So, we now know we need to be in Zurich for August 1, so that means we’ll be leaving at the end of July. We still have a lot of stuff to get rid of, but it looks like we might have an apartment already! It’s a lot smaller than here, of course, but it’s rather nice (very Swiss and modern).

We don’t have an exact flight date yet because we’re still waiting for my VISA stuff. But, it’s feeling much more real now.

I’ll also have another video out soon for As The Crow Flies about my trip to New Orleans! (It took awhile because I ended up with a bad cold right when I got back. Ugh.)

Also, been using a Polaroid camera a lot and I love it. 🙂 If you follow me on Facebook, you’ll have seen some of the pics I’ve taken.

Now, it’s time to relax and get some editing done…

Today, I Name Names about the First Coven I was in. #timesup #metoo

Content Warning: Emotional and physical abuse, gaslighting, financial abuse, mention of kink abuse

I’ve been reading a lot of blog posts in the wake of Moira Greyland publishing her book about her life and the accusations she made against Isaac Bonewits. You’ve got the usual spread of folks who don’t believe it, folks who do, and folks who are somewhere in between. There are also getting writings about what leaders and groups should do about harassment, and about preventing these types of things from happening.

This isn’t about what folks should or shouldn’t do. You need to follow your own moral compass in that regard. This post is my #metoo post about a cultist, abusive pagan leader and how he flourished in the East Coast pagan community for a time, and what I did after when I started my own tradition. It’ll be 20 years at Yule since I first stepped into that coven, and in all that time, I’ve never really named names, especially, for a long time, I was afraid of my ex-coven leader. These days, I look back on a lot of that time with a mixture of sadness, regret, and sometimes joy. Not everything was horrible, but the bad things outweighed the good.

I did write a good deal of the details about what happened with my first coven on LiveJournal when I first moved out to California in 2005. The posts are still on my Dreamwidth journal, or you can read the whole thing via Google Docs hereI must admit, it was strange reading those posts again, especially since I’m in a very different, and much stronger space.

It was several years before I stopped jumping at red jeeps (because he had a red jeep) and large, bald, mustached men. And I didn’t necessarily feel completely safe from him in California, either, since I knew he had lived in the Bay Area before and could have come to visit. Even in my writings about what happened with my first coven, I even avoided using his name because I was afraid of him coming after me, magickally or legally.

But, #timesup. And it’s time that we named this for what it is: abuse, harassment, and cult behaviour.

Micheal Desplaines owned Tribalways Body Piercing and Tattoo in Boston, MA. Attached to that was a pagan shop called Spiritways. They were located on Massachusetts Ave at the beginning of Newbury Street. Micheal was a nurse as well, but quit nursing to do body piercing (to be fair, he had one of the best body piercing shops in the country). He ran a coven called the Earth’s Children coven, which I joined in 1998 and left, under duress, in 2003.

Micheal was charming to those who weren’t close to him, and emotionally abusive to those of us who did get close. I also think he was physically abusive (under the guise of kink) to his husband at the time, Stephen, but I don’t know it for sure. Micheal claimed that our coven was part of the Feri tradition (with lineage via Starhawk), but in doing some research later, I found that this wasn’t true. In fact, all of the rituals, especially the initiations, where straight out of Alexandrian and the Witches’ Bible. We did, as a group, interact with folks from some other east coast groups, such as Earth Spirit and Pagan Pride Day. However, what they knew of his abusive and cult-like ways, I don’t know.

If you were in his coven, especially if you were an initiate, it was expected that you were there for every full moon and holiday, regardless of your own plans. He basically told us that he expected us there unless we were in the hospital. You had to do what he said or else he would because he was The Crone. If you messed up, at minimum you’d get yelled at, in the worst case, you’d be kicked out. You also had to keep everything that we did a secret, nor could you work with any other group or tradition (well, you could, but only with Micheal’s permission, which he never gave).

I witnessed him kick out a straight man just because he was straight. I received a “black circle” because I challenged him about behavior. I witnessed him and his family members dealing and using illegal drugs like cocaine. His husband came to me several times saying that he was going to leave him and that he was worse when the rest of us weren’t around. When I lived with him, I was treated as an idiot, gaslit, told I was a bad priest, and treated as a servant to his whims. He insisted that I was strictly a lesbian, and tried to convince me that I was delusional about my identity. He never touched me sexually, but I have a good suspicion that he was sexually abusive to his husband..

I was witness to a lot of things that I didn’t know what to do about at the time, but which I still regret not speaking up about. But like many other folks in this situation, I didn’t do anything because I was scared of him and scared of losing the community I had in the coven.

In 2003, I made the mistake of agreeing to move in with him and his husband. During those six months, he tried to separate me from family and friends by suggesting that they would never understand me, or that they were being bigoted about me being a witch. I got to a point where I lost my own identity because it was subsumed by Micheal’s assumptions and ideas about what my identity should be.

And as I wrote in my earlier description, the Goddess gave me a choice: I could stay and die or leave and live. I chose to leave.  He tried to extort money from me after I left them. I had to get a lawyer to get Micheal to stop harassing me and demanding I still pay rent and utilities to them after moving out. I moved to a nearby town, and since I was still close enough to run into them on the street, I spent nearly a year in near seclusion when I wasn’t working. Because of all of the drama with Micheal, I eventually got fired in November 2004.

In early 2004 I had reconnected with my friend Patrick, and when I got fired in 2004, he convinced me to move to California. I took him up on that, and he came on the road trip with me to Oakland. When I got to the Bay Area it took me nearly 5 years (2009) before I felt up to doing anything publicly as a priest again. It took another year of work, and the help of my now wife, to undo the magickal ties that I had to that coven. When my wife and I started our own tradition and coven, there were several things we new that were important to establish at the beginning so that we didn’t end up like my first coven. Many of those ideas ended up reflected in our tradition’s founding principles:

 

  • Our degree structure is based on Sanders’ original version as reported in Farrar, What Witches Do, and Farrar & Farrar, A Witches Bible, with some clarifications and modernization. 
  • It is a fundamental founding principle of our line that magickal polarity is unrelated to gender. Our rituals are not gender specific, nor are separate roles ascribed to a High Priest or High Priestess. People of any and all genders, and none, are welcome. 
  • We regard sexual preference as entirely irrelevant to one’s ability to practice magick. 
  • We have no secrets. All of our rituals, where practical, are published for the benefit of all, regardless of their initiatory degree or lack thereof. We have no oathbound material. 
  • We honour all gods, and no gods. There are no gods that are specific to our line, nor do we preclude working with gods, spirits, angels or daemons from any other tradition. 
  • We do not, and shall never, charge for teaching or initiation. 
  • We have no founding myths. The material stands on its own merits, and requires no invented justification or falsified lineage. 
  • We practice open-source syncretism. Though we have utmost respect for others’ privacy and for the integrity of all systems of magick and religion, we operate on the principle that, if a technique is openly described, it works, and it serves our purpose, we reserve the right to use it and, if we so choose, to teach it. 
  • We do not use a prescribed Book of Shadows. All rituals are our rituals. All gods are our gods. 

We have never tolerated harassment in our coven, and we have tried our best to be as open as possible about our decision making. We try to use consensus as much as possible, too. We consider that having no secrets and having our rituals, especially our initiations, is our way of doing informed consent. We will also modify rituals to the needs of coven members, especially if there is any for of PTSD around a particular element of the ritual.

I have strived to not be like Micheal. In fact, he is the model I use for what NOT to do in a coven, and I’m glad that there are people in my life who won’t let me go down that road. I absolutely know that I haven’t gotten it right all the time. I know I’ve screwed up more times than I can count. I’ve had to make decisions as a leader that I wish I hadn’t had to make which skirted that line. I know that our coven isn’t perfect, but we strive to do the best I can, and to be as inclusive as we can.

The worst part of being in the coven with Micheal was that, for all that he was horrible and abusive, he also knew a great deal, which taught me a lot of good things about being a witch. He taught me a lot of Craft skills and ritual that I still use (even though it took me awhile to be able to reclaim them as my own). In some ways, this makes me pity him more than hate him, since he was on the way to becoming a lonely, bitter old man. He could have been a good teacher, but wasn’t. 

I don’t know where he is now, and frankly, I don’t much care to see him again. Last I had heard, his husband had left him and he had moved to Connecticut, and then to Maine. He’s disappeared from public pagan life. I’m actually kind of relieved by that, because I hope that he’s not abusing another coven full of people the same way he did ours.

One final thing: If you were in that coven with me between 1998 and 2003, I’m sorry if I didn’t stick up for you or didn’t believe you. I regret that, but to be honest, I’m happy for those of you who left quickly, and I hope that you found a better spiritual teacher. And if Tracy ever reads this: you were right about him and for getting out when you did.

 

The pagan community tends to see itself as “better than those horrible Christians [or other mainstream religion]” but, to be frank, we’re not. We have our abusers, harassers, cultists, fundamentalists, bigots, racists, and so on. While I totally agree that we need to fix our attitudes towards harassment, I also think we need to let go of the idea that paganism is somehow more enlightened than any other set of religions out there. We’re human. There is no “better than” just “different from.” The more that a sense of entitlement and superiority is asserted, the more evil that can be hidden behind that superiority. #timesup for us, too, and we need to get our shit together.