Pagan Visions For a Sustainable Future – various

Pagan Visions for a Sustainable Future
Ly de Angeles, Emma Restall Orr, and Thom van Dooren (editors)
Llewellyn, 2005
282 pages

I am thoroughly and completely impressed by this anthology. In it, the various essayists manage to cover a broad range of topics, from ethics in paganism to sustainable practices. While many of the essayists come from an academic background, the anthology is quite readable and accessible to just about anyone.

Be aware that this isn’t a how-to book of hands-on activities to save the world. Rather, it is a discussion of concepts designed to plant the seeds of change in your mind. It’s not enough to say “Here, plant a tree”. Rather, you have to explain why it’s important to plant that tree, both from a practical and a spiritual perspective–and this anthology does a brilliant job thereof.

Here’s a rundown of the essays:

Emma Restall Orr’s “The Ethics of Paganism”: good thoughts on ethics and interconnection, as well as the impact we have on each other (not just humans). A bit idealistic, especially towards the end.

Akkadia Ford’s “Magickal Ecology”: One of my absolute favorites in the book, works with ethics within the Egyptian Negative Confession and shows how these principles may be applied to modern paganism. Lots of good stuff here.

Dr. Susan Greenwood’s “Of Worms, Snakes and Dragons”: Another favorite, *really* down to Earth, lots of valuable points that make environmentalism and sustainability relevant to this reality.

Marina Sala’s “Toward a Sacred Dance of the Sexes”: I didn’t care for this one so much, particularly the revisionist history and idealism. However, I loved the archetypal material discussing the Warrior and the Hunter.

Ly de Angeles’ “What If Everyone Started Telling the Truth?”: A bit more stream-of-consciousness than I really like, and I found myself skipping over bits of it. Has some interested activities in it, though, and there are good points worth reading. Don’t skip it.

Dr. Douglas Ezzy’s “I Am the Mountain Walking”: Yet another excellent one, possibly my favorite of all. So much consideration for others is worked into this, but without pushing ideals onto others. Well-balanced.

Dr. Sylvie Shaw’s “Wild Spirit, Active Love”: A beautiful and thoughtful exploration of why people form such deep, positive relationships with the environment.

Gordeon MacLellan’s “Dancing in the Daylight”: Makes the crucial point that sustainability doesn’t just have to be about paganism, that we can bring ritual into work with everyone willing to work with us, pagan or otherwise. Much-needed essay, another favorite.

“Pagan Politics, Pagan Stories”: A great interview with Starhawk about ritual work in activism, including during demonstrations.

Starhawk’s “Toward an Activist Spirituality”: More good information and anecdotes from her experiences.

Dr. Val Plumwood’s “Place, Politics and Spirituality”: A bit more academic than some of the rest, though it’s still good. A great interview overall. Plus some neat cameos by some of the local wildlife!

Thom van Dooren’s “Dwelling in Sacred Community”: A great essay to wrap up the collection. Brings together a lot of the points in other essays, and makes the reader very aware of the connections. Good stuff.

Eventually I’m going to get around to making a list of books I think should be absolute recommended reading for pagans in general. This will be on that list. It doesn’t get nearly enough appreciation, and I think people get kind of scared away by the idea that it’s all highbrow academia with no practical application. Maybe it doesn’t have a bunch of spells and rituals in it–but it is meant to be brain food. Those who disdain it for being too theoretical are too dependent on spoonfeeding. There are important, valuable, crucial ideas in here, and it behooves us to take them into consideration.

Five impressed pawprints out of five.

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Sexy Witch – LaSara Firefox

Sexy Witch
LaSara Firefox
Llewellyn, 2005
314 pages

This book has gotten some mixed press since it came out–people seem to either love it or hate it. The people who hate it seem to have completely missed the point of the book. They either get freaked out by the frank use of euphemisms for female anatomy, or they run screaming from the idea of *gasp* getting to know the most nether regions of the female body, and all the various things it does. Additionally, uber-witches get terrified that *gasp* somebody might think witches have sex, and that sex can be a part of witchcraft!This is completely symptomatic of the body-PHOBIC mindset that Sexy Witch sets out to reverse.

In this book I found a wealth of exercises determined to shatter the negative tunnel vision most people in America (and in many other places) have about our bodies. The author challenges us to venture into the most terrifying aspects of the female physical form, the parts that we’re told are “dirty” and “bad”, and become comfortable with them. We’re encouraged to touch, to look, and to otherwise become familiar with our bodies in every crevice. And this is a *good* thing. Firefox has the right idea–rather than skirting around the fear we have of our bodies with pretty flowers and mincing, femmy steps, she meets it head-on fearlessly, showing the reader that there’s nothing to be afraid of, and that we stand to gain much in the way of confidence and health by getting over ingrained hangups. She challenges gender stereotypes, even to the point of including a decent section on conscious crossdressing as a way to break out of one’s preconceived notions.

She gives plenty of material for both solitary and group work; the latter is particularly nice as it offers the reader the chance to spread body-positive thoughts. And while some may complain that the magical aspects of the book are too watered-down, keep in mind that the material is aimed not just at experienced pagans, but any woman with body issues who could use some help in getting over them.

I can only wish that there was such a thing for men out there; while body issues in women are well-documented, body issues in men are often ignored. If you’re a guy having trouble with your image, there won’t really be much here for you to work with, though it may be worthwhile to read just to get an idea of some of the issues that woman face, and how Firefox recommends dealing with them.

This is a brilliant work that deserves its controversy–it highlights body-fear, and for those brave enough to face it, Sexy Witch offers a multitude of methods for getting over it, already!

Five bold pawprints out of five.

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Gift of the Dreamtime – S. Kelley Harrell

Gift of the Dreamtime: Awakening to the Divinity of Trauma
S. Kelley Harrell
Spilled Candy, 2004
156 pages

I’ve been wanting to read this book for a while, and finally had the chance to sit down and do so. I’m very glad that I did; it’s a wonderful resource that I think more people need to know about.

Harrell, a modern shamanic practitioner, offers up her story of how she used shamanic techniques to heal herself from the effects of childhood sexual abuse. She works within a first person narrative, using her words to illustrate her journeys to the Upper and Lower worlds to visit with guides and retrieve pieces of her soul. Rather than abstract descriptions of what “should” happen, she tells the story of her own experiences, both the good and the bad. A warning: while her descriptions of abuse are not incredibly graphic, they may be triggering for some people, so be prepared. There are techniques for healing in her story, but not without the price of facing the past.

I generally am not a fan of narrative shamanic texts, a common format in core shamanism/neoshamanism books. However, this one is an exception. I felt that, rather than trying to impress me with credentials and pidgin-English-speaking guides, Harrell simply wanted to offer up the solutions that helped her in the hopes of sharing healing with others. Hers is a humble story, and instead of 200 pages of ego-stroking and no meat, I got a lot of ideas for working with my own traumas; while I was never abused as a child, I’ve had my own traumas both as a child and an adult, and this book has planted a few seeds in my mind.

The book is not without its potential controversy. At one point Harrell writes about how one of her guides reveals that the reason she was raped was that she owed a debt from a previous life to her rapist. I know this made me look a bit askance, as I’ve seen New Agers take this idea to the extreme of saying that anything bad that happens to a person is caused by bad karma. However, due to the nature and quality of the book, I trust the author to be honest, and she never comes across as the least bit fanatical or off-balance.

Additionally, I would have liked to have seen more content. It seems that she mainly hit the highlights of her journey, and it’s a little unclear how long it takes her to get from one section of the story to the next. Granted, she is revealing a very personal part of herself here, so it may be that she only tells what she’s comfortable with. Still, I’d be curious as to some of the backstory, what happens inbetween the meetings with the various guides, and a timeline of when these journeys happened. The book as it is, though, progresses nicely, so even if she chooses to forever keep the rest under wraps, this is a worthy project.

Overall, I recommend this to those who have experienced trauma in their lives, as well as those who work with such people in a spiritual role, and want some good ideas for healing through shamanic techniques. It’s not a huge how-to book, though there are some basic pieces of information at the end. Rather, it’s one person’s story of how she utilized these techniques to do some pretty serious healing on herself. It gives hope for those of us who sometimes feel that maybe we’re not doing things right, or that perhaps there is no healing to be had.

Five pawprints out of five.

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Open to Desire – Mark Epstein

Open to Desire: Embracing a Lust For Life (Insights from Buddhism & Psychotherapy)
Mark Epstein, M.D.
Gotham Books
227 pages

My husband, Taylor, recommended this to me. I’m normally not a huge fan of Eastern philosophy; there’s nothing wrong with it, but I suppose at this point I’m still pretty Western in my worldview. However, he gave it rave reviews, so I decided to see what all the fuss was about.

One of the tenets of Buddhism is overcoming of desire. This is often translated into pure asceticism, particularly in the right hand path of Tantra. The left hand path, however, takes a different approach, one that Epstein combines with 30 years as a psychotherapist.

He makes a great distinction between desire, and clinging, which is what causes desire to overpower us. We objectify and idealize that which we desire, and are disappointed when our desires are not met exactly as we expect. Epstein shows how to move beyond that clinging and to let go of expectations.

This is a remarkable look at desire, and how to work with it within the left hand philosophy of Tantra (which, by the way, is not the same as Left Hand Path as defined by modern paganism–yet another casualty of neopagan appropriation of other religions). The psychotherapeutic influece is a nice touch, and the author gives anecdotes which support his ideas quite nicely. Anyone with good observational skills should be able to use this material without needing a spoon-fed how-to.

Epstein gives us a valuable tool; rather than having to give up all earthly pleasures, we can overcome the clinging aspects of desire while allowing ourselves to experience it. Rather than being a contradiction, it shows a lesser-revealed aspect of Buddhism, and gives it a new twist. All in all, excellent!

Five pawprints out of five.

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