Riding the Crazy Train


Reviewed: God Speaking, By Judith O’Grady

jhp4f5369d8716f5What little Pagan philosophy I’ve read has been a little scant on actual theory on the world or, for that matter, theory.   There’s plenty of advice on how to run a ritual, or what sort of wand to make for a specific purpose, and even, to some degree, cautious conjecture on how to approach certain presences.  Practical advice abounds everywhere, oftentimes contradictory (wand or athame? white cloth or black? One goddess or many?), but for those looking for an actual theory of the world, or for a framework of understanding how Paganism relates to sex, or politics, or economics, or even the world around us, there’s very little for the seeker to read.

So I’ve learned to look elsewhere, to cobble bits and pieces from other sources to build what I can of a theory of Pagan thought.  The work of Slovenian philospher Slavoj Zizek, while quite Atheist and Materialist, can almost function as a Pagan theory of Disenchantment and Alienation, if you can ignore his occasional but quite perceptive digs on Neopagan universalism.

Similarly useful (but problematic)  is the specifically anti-Modern, anti-Pagan Catholic writer, G.K. Chesterton.  In fact, his defense of Catholic sensibilities, Orthodoxy, could perhaps be seen as the greatest theory of Pagan understanding, a near perfect work cutting through all the nonsense of Modernism with the dancing sword of Pagan thought if it weren’t for his insistence on calling it all “Catholic.”

Of particular note is Chesterton’s conception of the “Mystic:”

Mysticism keeps men sane. As long as you have mystery you have health; when you destroy mystery you create morbidity. The ordinary man has always been sane because the ordinary man has always been a mystic. He has permitted the twilight. He has always had one foot in earth and the other in fairyland. He has always left himself free to doubt his gods; but (unlike the agnostic of to-day) free also to believe in them. He has always cared more for truth than for consistency. If he saw two truths that seemed to contradict each other, he would take the two truths and the contradiction along with them. His spiritual sight is stereoscopic, like his physical sight: he sees two different pictures at once and yet sees all the better for that.

And my personal favorite passage, his analysis of the problems of Naturalism:

That is what the moderns mean when they say that the ancients did not “appreciate Nature,” because they said that Nature was divine. Old nurses do not tell children about the grass, but about the fairies that dance on the grass; and the old Greeks could not see the trees for the dryads.” (emphasis mine)

But for all his brilliance, Chesterton is often alternately misogynist, homophobic, and sometimes quite downright useless in his insistence that Christianity is somehow the savior of Paganism.  Reading him is equal parts utter joy and frustration.   But I’ve taken what I can of his work, on account of there being no such thing as Pagan theory.

Until Judith O’Grady’s book arrived in the mail.

The God-Bothered

I see visions and hear voices.”

So starts perhaps one of the most brilliant books I’ve had the chance to read in quite some time, full of probably the most poignant observations of what it’s like to hear gods, to be, as she calls it, “God-Speaking” and being “God-Bothered.”

“The historical way of describing my perceptual reality is to call me a visionary, a seer, or a mystic.  All serious words and good ones, but the way I think of it is as a conversational two-way street….This whole process I call God-Bothered because, really, the Gods don’t enter into communication with us to pat us on the back or congratulate us on a job well done but instead to give us difficult tasks and teach us unpleasant truths. (2)

O’Grady has an intimate understanding of not only what it’s like to find yourself speaking to Gods, but precisely what it means for the rest of your life, your interactions for others, and that very strange and quite difficult act of living in several worlds at once, the mystic’s “stereoscopic sight” to which Chesterton refers.

The most difficult aspect of that balance? The question of sanity.

And that is the crux of the problem for the modern God-Speaker.  Being crazy.  Actually, being thought to be crazy and being crazy for real, which can be two quite different things. (5)

She calls her trance practice, rightly, “getting on the Crazy-Train,” and it’s impossible not to nod in agreement with her description of what it’s like to get aboard:

I go into trance, and I am offered a vision–I am at the station and the Crazy-Train pulls in….Beings may enter my car or compartment and sit down for a chat, if I respond.  I will not descend onto the dark, graffities, broken-down platform of Destructive Thinking even though it too is a stop on the line.  The train will eventually pull into the terminus and I will be able to tour the immense and impressively glittering station of Visionary Experience before I either die (always a slight possibility especially in traditional societies) or travel back where I came largely unchanged except for new and significant knowledge” (12-13)

But here is where one begins to see precisely what distinguishes a Pagan, Animist, Polytheist ethic from Chesterton’s conception of what a Mystic is on about.  While both acknowledge the living in multiple worlds and with multiple truths aspect of mysticism, O’Grady, who is not only a Druid but also a biologist, asserts that the position of a God-Speaker is one of consistency and of action:

‘Logically consistent’ is one of the benchmarks I employ in determining which side of the visionary/crazy line I am on.  And, unlike Post-Moderns, I am continually making that distinction.” (6)

She addresses the matter of mental-health quite well, particularly ‘disassociation’ and ‘magical thinking.’  As both are precisely what a mystic must do in order to speak with Gods and also defining characteristics of mental-illness, the question of ‘visionary/crazy’ must have a secondary reference point.  In clinical psychology, this is often a matter of function.  That is, if someone who appears to respond to “internal stimuli” (as both self-generated voices and gods are called) yet is still able to function perfectly fine within the world, hold down a job, take care of children, pay bills and bathe, their illness something else.

Of course, take away that ‘functionality,’ and the person is suffering from a diagnosable illness treatable with medications.

But on neither side of these clinical axes do we have any statement regarding the actual-nature of the gods.  In fact, much of European-derived psychoanalysis starts with the premise that the there are actually no gods or spirits, so only the material existence of the sufferer’s experience matters when deciding whether or not there’s a problem.

O’Grady seems fully aware of this problem, detailing her experience discussing her God-Bothered state with another Pagan who does not believe in actually-existing gods, a tale I’m certain many a polytheist can relate quite well to.  Yet ‘logical consistency’ does indeed work quite well as a measure: not the trapped, self-referential logic of the schizophrenic, but rather an external appeal.

On my side, that of the believer, I have a responsibility to examine the findings that result from my belief.  Not to convince the unbeliever (which is demonstrably impossible) but to be confidant that I have received an OtherWorldly message, that I have understood/correctly interpreted it, and that I am willing to do what is requested….When I receive a message, I can research in mythos and lore to see if any other God-Bothered people have a similar finding to mine exactly like a dieting person can look up in diet books to see what well-liked food they can safely substitute for an unpalatable one…

The Gods rarely, if ever, tell us to do what we want to do and were planning to do anyway; the Gods are logically consistent (They do not change Their minds) and do not abrogate our free well (They do not force us to do Their will); the directives of the Gods are often unpleasant and surprising, although not outside our capabilities. (8,9)

On that matter, O’Grady offers perhaps the most delightful formulation of precisely how the gods tend to work, how one is able to self-check against the potential of what is often called “sock-puppetry,” or delusion:

…a message from the Gods that I should plant trees is likely valid–it asks me for effort and it betters the living world.  A message from the Gods that I should preach tree-planting is still believable although I am being asked for less effort and am influencing if not compelling others.  If I hear that the Gods will put any trees planted by my acolytes on my Spirit credit balance without any planting effort on my part I am likely telling myself a story.” (12) (emphasis mine)

She doesn’t stop there, either, though one could almost certainly found an entire theology and practice on such incisive statements alone, because I have only thus far told you of the first chapter.  But to restate her point, being God-Bothered is sometimes like being on the Crazy Train, occasionally like finding yourself dancing on Soul Train, but should never, under any circumstances, be like watching Solid Gold.

Leaving the Station of the Modern

Like Chesterton, Judith O’Grady possesses a subtle and brilliant ‘humor of reversal’ which quite often takes you unawares, a deliciously archaic wit to match a voice of sense which seems to come from the earth itself, the oldest of stones and the most ancient of trees.  And though both writers quite accurately attack the [post]Modern sensibilities which strip from human activity and relations the dreaded solidity of common-sense, O’Grady’s short book (52 pages) doesn’t re-inscribe the reader back into a universalized experience or the Holy Mother Church.  Rather, in subsequent chapters she analyzes several of the values of Modernity against an almost Anarchic common-sense.  Regarding empowerment, for instance, she says:

“Historically, power is something you take, not something you legislate or demonstrate for”(17-18)

Regarding Democracy and the particular passivity of [Post]Modern ‘subjects:’

In history the Gods involved in Sovereignty spoke only to Kings and God-Speakers but they are now constrained to speak to whomever will talk to Them.  Democracy has overthrown Kingship each person has become the tiny equivalent of a King and so, in my world-view, has the responsibilities of a ruler. (24) (emphasis mine)

And particularly dear to my heart are her laughing indictments of the modern myth of Progress:

There is a possibility that global connectedness could enhance the perception that we are all similar, fragile and valuable…but this does not appear to be the case.  Instead there seems to be a terrible lowest-common-denominator applied that everyone wants a car, a cell phone and a color TV and no one wants a farm.  Previously non-industrialized countries jump from walking-pace to cell phones and from cottage manufacturing to importing poisonous first-world garbage in order to kick-start destroying their own ecologies.

…Technology, more insidiously, creates an ever-faster, ever-smaller loop (as in the cascade telegraph/telephone/ tiny hand-held device or movies in theater/movies on televisions/movies on your tiny hand-held device) that creates enormous hungry markets for products and concurrently enormous piles of poisonous garbage.” (46)

Spoken by others, many of these ideas might seem utterly reactionary and quite suspicious.  Yet one cannot escape both a profound joy and love for the world and for people, human and non-.  If anything, you can almost hear an almost twinkling and mirthfully kind laugh at the strange absurdities that we’ve found ourselves in.  Unlike other theorists who barely conceal their misanthropic disgust with what humans have become (Derrick Jensen, perhaps, and sometimes John Michael Greer), one cannot help but laugh along with her at the sillyness of angry, destructive people.

Passengers and Conductors

Though she speaks of a multiplicity of gods and goddesses, she speaks most fondly of Hertha, the Goddess of the Earth.  Like decades-long lovers or friends who’ve known each other forever, it’s said that those devoted to gods begin to take on their qualities, and sometimes I imagined myself hearing the laughter of the earth itself in her words, a matronly bemusement hoping us children who dwell upon Her might finally get it right.

In fact, O’Grady is quite evidently in love with the earth and particularly trees, like any good Druid.  And this is her ultimate goal, to delineate a theory of the gods and the earth together.  Spirits of land are crucial to this, as is understanding our roles as God-Speakers, invoking the most common-sense critique of anthropocentricism of any writer I’ve yet read.  That is, we are both needed and not needed.

“What would happen without [God-Speakers]?  Something else.  The Gods would carry on with Their plan without any communication to or from people and the people would only have whatever hindsight their science allows them to plan their future actions with.  So Earth wouldn’t end; Hertha has weathered larger storms than the actions of people on Her.  And the Gods wouldn’t end either; They don’t need us for Their existence but only as company.  And as Their eyelash mites or gut bacteria.” (43)

Her embrace of both the ‘scientific’ and the ‘spiritual’ dances throughout the pages, hearkening again to the liminal states and multiple-worlds in which a God-Speaker must dwell, and she’s funny to wit.  While I’m quite certain a polytheist or animist will immediately take to her ideas, I suspect a Naturalist would find her equally amusing, even if a bit, well, crazy.”

I could go on for much longer, perhaps for even longer than the length of her book, about how very good and how desperately needed such a work is.  And I could also prattle on for hours about how I could quite easily have read another 300 pages worth of such stuff.  And she’s funny–I fell off my bed laughing when she recounted explaining why she didn’t accept a certain savior into her heart, and I spilled my tea regarding the uselessness of measuring the speed of a God.

Mostly, though, I want lots of other people to read this book so I can talk about it with them.  And it’s the book I wish I’d had 2 years ago when the gods started ‘bothering’ me, one that I’d buy for any poor soul who doesn’t know what they’re about to get themselves in for, and one I’ll be certain is close at hand in case I’ve forgotten which station I’m at on the grand line of the Crazy Train.  And I’m hoping more people will write books like this one, so I can finally put Chesterton to rest.


Next review: Naomi Klein’s This Changes Everything (on The Wild Hunt, 26 November)

And P.S. Your Face is a Forest is 30% off (as is everything else on Lulu) until midnight, 20 November! Use code ‘FLASH30′

‘Hugs from Ceridwen’



One: Pilgrimage Stuff

I’ve been trying to figure out what in the many-worlds They’re on about with this trip.  I got a little bit of an indication the other day when several disparate threads seem to weave together a bit.  It seems, though, I won’t fully know ’till I start, which is in three weeks.

I’m brutally excited, and my dreams are beginning to bend towards those places.  I’m also a little nervous, honestly, but not about money or logistics.  So many of the things I saw last year still linger as incomplete threads, and, well, I’ll be going specifically to places where my gods were worshiped.  There’s a sense of sacred dread about it.

My budget for the whole trip (three weeks) is 1500 dollars, including already-purchased airfare, with a bit of leeway for emergencies, etc.  I’m pretty certain I’ve over-budgeted, which is a good feeling.  My five week pilgrimage to France and Germany last year cost $2000 including air-fare, and I had some money left over.

Two: Hugs from Ceridwen Are Expensive!

Funny, though.  I stumbled upon descriptions of a much shorter pilgrimage that people took to Wales last year.  I guess they paid $2500 (not including airfare) for a week.

I’m not sure how that works.  I sort of would hate to be the guy who shows up somewhere and says, “hey!  You know how you all are spending $2500 for a week to meet gods and ‘get your Mabinogian on?’  Gods don’t cost money!

They weren’t camping or hiking up druidic mountains alone, I guess, but from one account I read, at least one got to sit on “Arianrhod’s throne,” to hug Ceridwen in her cottage, and to share blood with Merlin, so I guess the cost was worth it? Also, they got blessed food! And returned with sage observations about how the Welsh love Native American wisdom.

This stuff worries me a lot.

I’d hate for anyone to think you need money to see the gods or spirits.  If anything, having money kind of gets in the way.  All those cultures with really strong connection to the land and the dead and the gods?  They’re poor, or at least poor in what we consider wealth.  Rich in tradition, and time, and relations, which we, subjects of Modern Capitalism, have none of.

But who’s richer, really?  And to be fair, the folks rich in all of those things that we don’t have are only actually money-poor because we’re taking all of their resources and turning them it into things to sell each other and then throw away so we can buy more.

So in high, modern, wonderful Capitalism, we’ve got ‘Core Shamans’ who give corporate employee transformation workshops in Seattle for our ‘post-tribal’ society, a shamanism for the shopping mall and the urban elite, free from all that messy rawness of cultural relations.  They promise that you can keep your car and computers and big houses and wide roads and still live a rich life in the Otherworld, even as we destroy all the gates between ours and Theirs.

No wonder we’re all a mess and want a hug from Ceridwen.

Three: The Shopping Mall of the Gods

Did you read Crystal Blanton’s essay on The Wild Hunt?  A few commenters got close to the issue (but then derailed themselves) when they spoke of the way that Capitalism affects our search for knowledge.  Capitalism is a kind of social relationship in which the only responsibility people have to each other is one of producer/buyer, or owner/worker.  Older forms of social relations still exist, but they are sublimated and crushed by the omniscient market logic and the molestations of the ‘invisible hand.’

This infects Paganism pretty heavily, and I worry.  Wisdom shouldn’t be a commodity, nor should the gods or other beings, (human or non) be commodities.  Compensation for time spent teaching makes sense, certainly, but I worry that people get fleeced because they’re willing to pay whatever the cost to get wisdom and see things outside of themselves.

Another matter.  2500 dollars to give Ceridwen a hug?  I suspect we’re not talking about the same Ceridwen here.  The one I know demands some pretty damn harsh stuff from you, lots and lots of death that you can’t buy off with the year’s wages of 3 average Haitians.  But maybe Merlin’s a bit costlier, I don’t know.  He’s not a god, so maybe he’s got more expensive tastes?

I’d like to think no-one is too poor to get a hug from Ceridwen.  At some point, we’re gonna have to look really hard at this Capitalist stuff in Paganism.  But that brings me to the next matter, and why one might be wary of such things.

Four: ‘Non-Activist Magic Workers Unite!’

I got invited to attend the online Pagan Activist Conference for free this coming weekend, which is pretty exciting. Also, I had no money to spare for it, so I’m really glad this was offered.  I fortunately have next weekend off, as I’ll be making candles and finishing up thank-you cards for all the funders of my indiegogo campaign who contributed a little more than one year’s worth of an average Haitian’s wages so I could go to Newgrange.

The cost of the weekend’s worth of video discussions is $40 (half-a-month’s income for a Haitian, or half-a-day’s income for me), so it’s likely quite affordable for most.  I’m very interested in hearing some of the presentations, and will be writing about some of them afterwards.

But on activism, I stumbled upon a few conversations I wish I hadn’t.  One of these was someone suggesting there needs to be a defense written of Pagans-who-don’t-care, because ‘activists’ are really alienating people with their challenges.

But on the other hand, T. Thorn Coyle wrote a piece last week that made me cry and feel a little less weary and wary.

I’d just finished reading Naomi Klein’s This Changes Everything (which I’ll be reviewing next week for The Wild Hunt), and I’d just understood that the biking trail near my forest (named for Chief Sealth–the cruelest of insults) runs under the Olympic Pipeline, and I’d been wracking my brain trying to figure out if there’s even a place in Paganism for people who care so much that they say stuff that no-one wants to hear, and then I read her piece.

I’d like to think stuff like that makes a difference, but then there’s also this weird backlash, displayed in the quote above, as well as a conversation I wished I hadn’t seen from a friend quite obviously venting about my anti-Capitalism.

This is awfully exhausting and makes me want a hug from Ceridwen.

I’m reminded, though, of an argument I’ve heard trotted out too many times about why the Black Panthers failed in their efforts for equality.  In essence, they state that they “failed to court white middle-Americans” and instead became too extremist, as if it is somehow the responsibility of an oppressed group to bow to the sensibilities of their superiors.

An interesting thing to note, too, as brought up by Tavis Smiley in his recent work on Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., the real backlash against him came when he began preaching an analysis of racism which extended to American Imperialism and Capitalism itself.  Some things can be questioned and you get lots of friends.  Question too far?  Well. You know how that went for him.

So I find myself quite curious how this will all go for us.  On the one hand, you’ve got an incredibly fascinating list of people who constantly attempt to get at the core structures of oppression, particularly in a Pagan framework.  Pieces like Peter Grey’s Rewilding Witchcraft have quite an effect for a little while, before a host of essays defending the comforts of modernity and the honor of not caring eventually close the traumatic wound opened by those thrusts, impassioned pleas to return to that mythical time when Witches didn’t care about the world around them.

And mostly I think the backlash comes when we begin to question our complicity in the systems which create inequality, because then we have to see all the pain and sorrow and subjugation and violence that goes into our comfortable lives.

This makes me want to go hide in my forest.  Except my forest is gonna die because everyone wants Capitalism and gasoline, just like all the other forests will die.

So there will be no forests for any of us to hide in.

Five: In Review

And on forests and complicity, and as I mentioned, I’ll be writing a review of Naomi Klein’s This Changes Everything for The Wild Hunt.  I’d like to think it would.  It should, anyway, but some mirrors are awfully painful to look into.  Also, it kinda hurts to write about it, as she quite clearly proves something that even I, in all my anti-capitalist zeal, still sometimes held out hope on.  That is, we really cannot have the stuff we’ve got now and not flood our cities. 

Before then, I’ll be posting a review here of a fantastic little book I was sent last week, God Speaking, by Judith O’Grady.  Some of the most fun I’ve had reading anything in quite some time, and one of those books you know you’ll be glad you read 20 years on.

rhydquoteAnd I hadn’t linked to it here yet: Lilith Dorsey wrote a review of Your Face is a Forest for her blog on Patheos.  She has the distinction of being the first person to ever make a .gif of my words (to my knowledge)!  I’m honored, and also slightly embarrassed I’d forgotten I’d written those words and had to look them up.

Six: And On the Book

If anyone would like a review copy of Your Face is a Forest, or if anyone is facing hardship (poverty sucks!) but would really like a copy, please let me know through my contact form. It’s not a hug from Ceridwen; it’s a book.  I’d like to think my writing helps people see the gods, ’cause that’s what I told them I wanted to try to do.  But that’s mostly up to them and whether or not you take your headphones out and turn off your television and go looking for them.

Also, if you’re in Seattle and can run into me before I go to Ireland, I’ll have copies to sell in person soon.  I expect an order I put in to arrive just before Thanksgiving, at which time I’ll send out all the signed copies for contributors to my pilgrimage fund.  We can drink tea together in my forest.

Seven: Ancestors Slipping Through the Living

Ceridwen does give hugs, though.  Sorta.

Last night, while adding another book to raise the altar for the Trans-Dead, I came close to tears, feeling suddenly my own exhaustion with attempting to be something different from what the world attempts to fit you into.

That’s something any gender rogue has to face daily.  I pass quite well as a cis-gendered straight man (despite being gay and also feeling not-entirely-male), so the struggles I’ve had to go through to be “myself” are not the same.  Still,  after a dream which was not my-own, I’m starting to relate better than I had before I started this, and to find my relations with the dead and ancestors to be changing.

This is also related to a piece I offered to write for another on behalf of The Mothers, and I’m not sure fully how this fits.  But no small amount of people, friends and strangers on the street, have found themselves talking extensively about dead matriarchs to me.  Last night on the street, an old man was in tears as he told me how beautiful his mother had been, and I hadn’t said a word about the matter to have triggered this conversation.  And while making dinner with a friend, his conversation constantly turned towards his deceased grandmothers, and little things I’d do remind him of them.

That’s been, thus far, how ancestor work has been for me.  Open yourself up to them and they slip through of no design of your own.  I mostly get to stand and watch and sometimes interject.  ‘Leave out  a cup of some tea the way she liked it,‘ I said.  Because what else can you say?  And that bit was pretty obvious.

But if my experience with the rite thus far is even slightly typical, I think everyone else involved could probably use a little extra solidarity.  The dead are not easy to work with, particularly those who were hated, fought against, chastised, bullied, ostracized and often times violently killed in life on account of what their experiences forced others to confront.

I have so much to learn from them.  The cost’s pretty high, but there’s no money involved.  It’s pretty worth it, though, and I suspect this is what Ceridwen’s embrace is really like



For the Trans-Dead

This is a prayer I wrote and will be using for the trans-rite of Ancestral Elevation.

Feel free to use, add or alter this in any way.

Hey and hail!
you’re not forgotten.
Hey to you, hail!
you’re heard now.
Hey you, and hail!
motherfathers, sondaughters,
You’ve my ear.
Hail to thee, hey to thee!
shadows thought lost
from one to another
to neither, to both.
One foot here
another foot there
I witness your dance.
We’ve forgotten, we remember
who feared we’d forget
on one side, on the other
we honor your both.
Hey you! Hail you!
Honored transgressors
Drink of this water
Hey you! Hail you!
Honored ancestors
Be warmed by this flame
Hey! Hail!
Rise from the shadows.
See by this light.
Hey! Hail!
In this water I offer you
wash now your pain.
I remember you
opening the way
from one to other
to neither to both.
Journey on, travel well
And I will remember.




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