The Uphill Battle, part 2: D&D Made Me A Pagan

Well, not exactly.  But it’s a great title, no?  D&D certainly was one of the first in a long chain of dominoes that got me started, though.  The first might actually have been Tolkien- “The Hobbit” made my head explode in exactly the right way- but the Professor has been tagged way too many times for that already.

Anyway, a whole bunch of things happened to me in a fairly short time period: puberty, my discovery of fantasy literature and fantasy roleplaying games, and the beginning of middle school.  This also began a fairly unpleasant period of my life.  My school was named after Edgar Allen Poe, and I think I would have preferred being in one of his tales to the cruelty and bullying of my fellow students.

But there was also a librarian who took my new tastes seriously, and pointed me in several interesting directions.  One was Andre Norton– whose stories often had heroes who were bookish, unassuming, and not terribly physical.  Then there was Susan Cooper, whose The Dark Is Rising series presents a world where ancient British and Welsh myths lie just under the surface of the land, where an ordinary adolescent boy could have a special, magical destiny…

Fantasy literature and D&D both got me interested in real magic. No, not like that (though it might have made life a lot more… interesting for some of my tormenters if it was).  Shortly after my beginning high school (not much better than middle school, really) I joined a RPG club that met at the library- the central library for the county, as a matter of fact.  There were some books there on magic, though mostly the lurid kind of stuff that had been published in the 1960s and 70s.  Still intriguing, though…

My interest didn’t help the ongoing situation, though.  Magic was generally presented as dangerous and anti-Christian (I didn’t run across anything to the contrary until much later). And though I didn’t actually practice it, there was still that feeling that my fascination with it was somehow wrong.  Thoughts and feelings could be sinful, you see, and I never felt like I could trust anyone with my secret thoughts- not the priest, not my parents, not anyone.  Oh, and let’s add in puberty and what it inevitably leads to when a lad has a little privacy- something else that was sinful, with no one to talk to about it…

And then I happened across this horrifying thing.

I remember finding it- we were on the Rehoboth Boardwalk, and there it was down on the sand.  I jumped down and picked it up and read it… and was immediately sorry I had.  I had no experience with Chick Tracts, no context at all.  If it had been one of the more specific ones, or if I’d had any idea how ludicrous and lunatic fringe those things were and are, it would have been different.  But it hit me below the spiritual belt.

I don’t have the copy I found- I think I threw it away almost immediately- but I found another, a couple of years ago, and keep it as a reminder.  I’ve also considered that I was meant to see and read it, that I needed that push over the edge- “the only way out is through”.  Not a comforting thought, perhaps, but an interesting one.

So, part of me was convinced that I was doomed, damned to Hell, and part of me was beginning to rebel against that idea.  Add the toxic environment at school, and it was no surprise that things began to fall apart.  I suspect it might be classified as a sort of nervous breakdown- I didn’t flat out collapse, but my grades suffered, I did some foolish things that lost me a good after-school job, and started flaking out in general. My parents were worried.  They didn’t send me to a therapist (we were a single-income family, and I doubt such a thing was covered on my Dad’s insurance- this was 1980, more or less), but our family pediatrician, Dr. Kelly, graciously and generously offered some evenings after hours to see if he could help.  A great choice- someone who had been my doctor all my life, objective, trusted.  I’m not sure how much concrete help he gave me, but just someone to talk to (even if we only skirted my issues), someone who took me seriously…

As in so many things, though, the major work had to be done internally.  I wrestled with the problem, hounded it (or vice versa) to the sticking point, and then the revelation came through, late one night:  I wasn’t part of the Catholic faith because I didn’t have faith.  I didn’t believe.  And I didn’t want or need that faith or belief- as a matter of fact it was harming me to try to have it.  There was nothing there for me- no way, no truth, no life.

My romanticized recollection of that moment was that I let out a sigh and turned over, getting my first good sleep in weeks.  It wasn’t that simple, of course, and I struggled with doubt for some time.  But there was instant relief and calm, if not peace.

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The Uphill Battle, part 1: Not-so-fertile Ground

You see, this whole spirituality and faith thing doesn’t come naturally to me.  I wasn’t raised on tales of magic and myth, or anything else that would obviously or easily foster a magical ideation; I didn’t have an older relative who told me tales of the Old Country or anything like that.  My early books were things like “Mike Mulligan and His Steam Shovel”, “Curious George”, and the like.  I remember the moment where I actually began to read; I was looking over Mom’s shoulder while she read “Black Beauty” to me.  We had books with selections from Grimm’s and Hans Christian Andersen, but those weren’t the go-to books for story time.

I read voraciously growing up, but it was stuff like history, astronomy, the Hardy Boys, and science fiction.  Lots and lots of science fiction.  No fantasy- my Dad was frankly scornful of it, and I modeled my tastes after his.  SF already had a multi-decade tradition of agnosticism if not outright atheism, and tended to ignore religion at best.  And the authors I read were  Heinlein,  Asimov, Clarke, and their ilk; nothing like Andre Norton that could have provided a gateway to more fantastic realms.  I’ve always had a great imagination, but it wasn’t focused on the magical, back then.

My parents are fairly devout Catholics, but were never very good at communicating the “why” of it, the meaning behind it…  their faith, really.  I think some of that was and is a generational thing, some the nature of the pre- Vatican II world that formed them.  Also, they both have graduate degrees in “rationalist” fields- my mother in nursing, my father in economics.  And none of the priests and laypeople at our church connected with me on that level, either.  My own nature had a lot to do with it, I’m sure- I was an introvert from an early age, and the idea of talking to anyone about personal matters was quite foreign to me.

So to me, religion was something you just did–  going to Mass on Sundays, and then Sunday School afterwards, pro-forma prayers before bed and meals; the Advent wreath before Christmas and fish on Fridays during Lent; some encouragement to go to Confession, to “offer up” something else during Lent.  No real push to get involved more, to be an altar boy; no Bible around except a bowdlerized “Children’s Bible” that soon grew boring.  Any reason given tended to be expressed in a vaguely negative fashion- not doing the right things was a sin, and too many sins meant you went to Hell when you died.  There was no fire-and-brimstone immediacy to this, just a general sort of disapproving background murmur.

Still, I was a pretty happy kid.  I wasn’t terribly popular, or athletic, and was already starting to get picked on for being overweight and clumsy, but I had a few friends, loving parents, reliably annoying but comradely brothers, a safe and solid home; all the makings of an idyllic childhood.  I was worried because I didn’t have this “faith” thing, but it was kind of distant and unimportant; maybe I’d get it when I was Confirmed (I’ve always been a lazy sort-  I never got the idea of why it might be worth it to push myself on it). I wanted to be a physicist or maybe an astronomer when I grew up (I really wanted to be an astronaut, but then I developed myopia- remember, at that time, you had to be a fighter or test pilot to get into the program, and there was no way you could do that with bad eyesight).

Then it all fell apart… on the inside.

And what’s with the title?

I’ve been working on building a devotional relationship with the Irish divine hero/demigod Fionn Mac Cumhaill (more on this later). I discovered his tales many years ago; some time after that he inspired me to write several poems about him and his Fianna.  I think this one is my best; it’s about how he gained his great wisdom, and it’s also the title of my book.

Salmon-wisdom

It all falls away- the crackle and smoke;
The sizzle, smell of his master’s dinner done;
Bright burnt pain, slow to fade- they remain,
Yet dim, as the faint sweet flavor evolves
Upon his tongue, revolves within his brain;
Taste to sight to sound to thrill along his nerves.
Unasked-for lightning, lancing, opens doors,
Sends wheels of light to dance before his eyes;
And before he falls into a well of words, music,
Birdsongs given meaning, a last ironic thought:
From now on he’d look a proper fool,
Thumbsucking to gather his wits about him!
The imbas shatters into him and all the world
Is swirl and spiral, like jeweler’s craft in lines
And zones of light.  All interlinked, entwined;
Held gently cupped in Danu’s hand, tended
By her children.  Just long enough the vision stays,
Then it, too, draws back, enveils itself
Before the head that holds it fails.
The world returns and everything’s the same;
Nothing’s the same- behind the stone, the tree
The rushing of the stream, there is light and song;
And flowing in the bottom of his mind-
Cool water laced with subtle savor
Of hazelnuts- the words swim, waiting.

2/3/1999

Why write a blog?

I’ve decided to start a blog for my more religious/spiritual/mystical poetry and prose; this idea was somewhat sparked by Del Tashlin, who in a recent post  asked people to (amongst other things)

Tell your story. Tell your story even if you’re still figuring it all out. Admit you don’t have a God phone. Write a blog that’s all about how hard it is for you to meditate. Write about how it makes you feel when you feel chosen by some other path, especially if that path makes you feel lonely, different, radioactive, frustrated, depressed. Talk openly about how all this talk of spirit work makes you feel lesser because you weren’t chosen for that. Create a Tumblr for people who don’t hear the Gods, and encourage each other to create and stick to devotional work in spite of that.

I don’t have a godphone. I suck at meditation. And I’m definitely still figuring it all out. That being said, I think that I (occasionally) write stuff that is worth sharing.  I have some ideas, and I have a large backlog from my LiveJournal and my time at Cherry Hill Seminary.

And poetry.  Like I implied above, a fair bit of what I write is spiritual in nature, and it’s going to end up posted here.

I make no promises as to frequency of posts, and there may be periods where most of what’s here will be reblogging a fair bit of stuff I like, and links of importance.