Frozen: A review

Oh Disney, you are so complicated. Such beautiful art, such a weird and twisted empire. So many great movies, so many terrible ones. But one thing has remained constant for your empire: you are a feminist’s nightmare.

I fell in love with Disney when I was 14, when The Little Mermaid came out. The colors! THE SINGING. I didn’t have a filter then for deconstructing the anti-feminist qualities of that film. And oh, it’s awful for girls. Silence your voice to win a cute boy’s heart? UGH. Then there was the horrible, racist Lion King. Don’t get me started on that.

Frozen-movie-posterBut with John (Pixar) Lasseter’s move to Disney things have been looking up. I didn’t hate Tangled. Brave was good. But Frozen, Disney’s most recent offering, is great.

Did you read that right? Yes, you did. This notoriously unpleasable feminist, the one who rained on everyone’s Thor 2 parade, loves Frozen.

I always like to get the bad things out of the way first. There are a few typical Disney tropes that I hope die in a fire someday soon. First, we’re still telling stories about princesses. You’d think women didn’t deserve stories unless they are royalty. Secondly, the princesses’ faces, bodies, and especially eyes are really creepy. I’m tired of the wasp-waisted, tea-cup-eyed women Disney keeps drawing. Thirdly, the songs in this film are forgettable – except for the one that Elsa sings alone in her ice castle. Holy moly, can Idina Menzel sing. I prefer my animation without songs.

Lastly, there was some weird, racist stuff going on with the adorable trolls. Why is their ceremonial garb possibly Polynesian? Why does the lone non-‘European’ voice belong to a troll? Disney’s inability to effectively portray anyone other than white, Euro-centric Americans is deeply problematic, and yet this was less of an issue than it’s been in past movies. I’ll take it a wussy step in the right direction.

Typical annoyances were delightfully downplayed. Usually I hate the ‘funny animal’ sidekick. In this case, Olaf the Snowman was a hoot – and strangely made sense!

Now, why on earth am I writing about a Disney movie in a blog devoted to spirituality? Because besides finding this film feminist and with a dash of my favorite theology (spoiler alert: the ladies save themselves and each other!), I liked most of what the movie had to say about magic. Or rather, I like that this movie introduced old tropes and then worked against them.

In past Disney movies the evil character is usually a female and a witch. She’s ugly or at least fearsome, ruining the lives of her hapless victims out of jealousy or just to delight in malice. Spoiler alert: There is no villain in this movie! There’s a bad guy or two, but they are not the Big Bad. The witch in this movie isn’t a witch at all. Elsa is a sorceress, led to believe that her powers were dangerous. Both she and her parents genuinely didn’t know much about her ice powers and didn’t want anyone to get hurt. Instead of learning about her powers, her parents kept Elsa isolated. This is the source of conflict.

What we see throughout the movie is that the powers themselves are neither good nor bad. What steers them are the intent of the sorcerer. As Victor Anderson is credited with saying, “White magic is poetry; black magic is anything that works.” There is no dichotomy between ‘good’ and ‘bad’ magic. But magic or power feared can lead to misuse. Only by claiming one’s power and abilities can a person wield them positively, or with choice.

There is a strange and, I think, misguided mention of this idea in the beginning. Due to an accident of Elsa’s, her parents take her to the trolls for help. The head troll uses fiery images of a ‘hellish’ nature to indicate magic gone wrong. It sets up an either/or that I don’t think holds in the rest of the film.

I loved that magic was not an outright evil in this movie, nor that a woman possessing magic was an evil witch. One man in the movie wants to make Elsa out as a ‘monster,’ but that theme is shot down repeatedly. Elsa reveals how when we step into the fullness of our voice and powers we find wholeness and learn to stop fearing our strengths as weaknesses. This along with the strong female characters and their bonds make Frozen a movie that I can unreservedly recommend.

Besides, it made me cry. Twice. Outside of Brave, I am not sure that’s ever happened with a Disney movie. But better than my recommendation is that of my kids. My 3-year-old was riveted. And my five-year old son was rooting for the ladies. Who says strong female characters have to exist at the expense of the men or can’t be box office draws?

Holiday Gift Guide for Magical Kids (and Kids at Heart)

When I’m shopping for my kids for birthdays or holidays, I rarely think to myself ‘is this Pagan?’ I don’t care if something is exactly my flavor of spirituality. What I’m looking for are things that foster creativity and enjoyment, and stories that reflect the values with which I and my husband are raising our family. There isn’t a lot of high quality Pagan- or Hindu-specific kid stuff out there (that I can find easily). But there are some things I’ve found and I’d like to share with you. Some of these books and media I’ve written about in other posts. I apologize for the repeats.

First, you’ll find no toys listed here. Basically anything that fosters imagination and creativity (paper and markers, blocks of any kind, dress up clothes, fake kitchen items, science kits, robotics kits, etc) are great for kids, as are anything that will get them outside. What could be more spiritual than creativity and nature? These sorts of ideas extrapolated for adults are also a good idea, because it’s rare to meet an adult who is getting enough creative or outside time. I know I’m not!

Books

We are a house full of readers. Below are some of the books I have particularly loved for kids of all ages.

Lakshmi, from Kathleen Edwards' Holy Stars.

Lakshmi, from Kathleen Edwards’ Holy Stars.

*Holy Stars by Kathleen Edwards is a great book for overviews of the world’s religious figures. Equal space is devoted to Jesus, the Virgin Mary, Yahweh, Muhammad, Lakshmi, Krishna, Buddha, Chango, and others. It’s all done in a graphic novel style that is engaging and fun to read. Snippets from prayers are included. It won’t tell the full story or answer all questions, but introducing kids of all ages to the world’s spiritual characters is a wonderful way to promote religious diversity, understanding, and literacy.

May not be ideal for kids under 4 or 5. Some of the gods’ stories can be…. scary. For example, the crucifixion of Jesus is not easy to explain to a 3-year-old!

Click on the image above to go to the author/illustrator’s site to see more images.

bigmomma*Big Momma Makes the World, by Phyllis Root, illustrated by Helen Oxenbury, is a beautiful picture book telling the story of creation. What I love about this version is that it doesn’t use an old, white man as the Creator. Instead we see an African-American woman as the Creator. The images are simply gorgeous.The narrative voice is delightful. I think this book is appropriate for all but the most conservative of traditions.

This book is appropriate for all ages.

abc_cover_small* ABC Book of Shadows is a board book, perfect for tiny hands and little ones just learning their letters. I will admit that the art in this isn’t my favorite, but little eyes love the bright colors and child-like drawing. This book is written with a Wiccan point of view, and I’m not Wiccan, but you know? It doesn’t matter. As my son got older we were able to talk about some of the differences between what I believe and what the books says. No matter, this a well-loved book in our house. I’m pretty sure I have it memorized, that’s how many times we’ve read this. In fact, our copy is starting to fall apart. I don’t expect it to last beyond the third child!

Click on the image to go Itty Bitty Witch Works, the author’s small press.

elsa beskowchristmas* While not explicitly Pagan or religious, but simply marvelous all the same, are the works of Swedish author/illustrator Elsa Beskow. We have three of her books and I would gladly have more! My children love the pictures as well as the stories. Beskow focuses on images and cycles of nature from her native Sweden. Characters are embodiments of the elements, seasons, or folk tradition (such as trolls) that sometimes interact with human children. Some books are slightly more Christian in theme, but none of the books are ‘religious’ in any overt way. The length of the stories might be hard for kids under 3 to sit through, but the images will grab them. Content-wise, these books are appropriate for people of all ages and all traditions.

 

* A great find at our local library was Gillian Cross’s wonderful retelling of The odysseyOdyssey, with Neil Packer’s stunning illustrations. This isn’t a complete retelling, but it’s enough to entrance a child – and the parent who has to read it aloud! Books of ancient tales and myths, if well done, are popular in our house. This one was a particular favorite. In fact, we will be gifting our son with his own copy for the holidays.

Ideal to read aloud to pre-literate kids and great for older kids to read on their own. Click on the link above to see more images from inside.

sea of trolls * I have written at length about The Sea of Trolls. In fact, I consider it one of the best non-magic books about magic! Here’s part of what I’ve written before:

The Sea of Trolls is set in the 8th century in Saxon ‘England’. Our hero is Jack, an 11 yr old boy. His father longs for Lindisfarne, his mother keeps bees, his 5 yr old sister Lucy insists she’s a fairy princess, and he befriends a Druidic bard. In the first few chapters of the book, Jack is the bard’s apprentice and he begins learning and witnessing magic. Then comes the Viking invasion, and he and Lucy are carried off as slaves. We briefly see Picts and then Jack and Lucy are taken across the North Sea and must venture into Jotunheim, the land of the Ice Giants/Trolls.

It’s a wonderful story, with great characters. The writing is simple – very appropriate for readers 9-11 yrs old. While I like the story and enjoy reading it aloud to my son, what blows me away is the depiction of magic and spirit.

I have read this book many times to my son. There are perhaps two chapters (one on berserking, in particular) that might be too descriptive for your under 10 child – your mileage may vary. I admit to skipping bits here and there for my son.

This book is the first in a trilogy. I enjoyed the entire trilogy, but this is by far my favorite. A great easy read for the older kid or adult who likes fantasy, myth, and/or history.

GraveMercy_* For teens and adults who enjoy YA writing, I recommend Robin LaFevers’ His Fair Assassins series. Grave Mercy is the first in the historical fiction series. So far there are two books; I believe the third is coming out in the spring of 2014 (I can’t wait!). What’s great about these books are the strong female protagonists. They are trained assassins and nuns for the Breton god of Death, Mortaine. The young ladies haven’t really chosen their lives, and so their motives are complicated by politics and romance. I greatly enjoyed these stories.

What makes me include them here is the complex, if fictional, depiction of ‘the old gods’ existing in a newly Christianizing world. There is also an incredibly powerful vision of the god of Death at the end of Grave Mercy that made the theologian and Pagan in me jump for joy.

MeetPolkadot* The last book I want to recommend for kids is not spiritual at all, yet I think many readers of my blog will be interested in it. Meet Polkadot is an educational book on gender diversity for kids. Talcott Broadhead is a local (to me) author and social worker with a gender identity-diverse family. This book has bright illustrations and explores the topic through the eyes of Polkadot, a transgender child (or, for those that assume transgender means surgically altered, let me also throw in the phrase ‘gender neutral’). In a society that doesn’t know the difference between sex and gender (one is biology, the other is identity) and is suffocating under the tyranny of ‘blue is for boys, pink is for girls’ nonsense, this book is more than needed on bookshelves everywhere.

But better than my recommendation is the fact that my 5-year-old loved it. My nearly 3-year-old listened to the whole thing, though I don’t think she really understood much of it. We had great discussion afterwards, too. My son really wanted to know whether Polkadot was a boy or a girl – and that was a great opportunity to talk about the many ways people react to non-normative gender expressions.

This book is not available on Amazon. Please click on the either the picture or the link to go to Danger Dot Publishing.

Not books

* Once you’ve read all the books and you want to sit and watch something with positive Pagan values, I can recommend nothing as highly as the Avatar: The Last Airbender television series. I know, it came out years ago, but there still isn’t anything out there as compelling, with such outstanding design, strong females characters, well-written story arcs, and what I see as Pagan values. Sure, the last point is debatable, as there is nothing in the show explicitly Pagan. The series draws more from Asian and indigenous cultures than Western ones, yet this lack of Christian-based morality is a breath of fresh air. The values presented are all ones I hope my children (and myself!) emulate. I am sure I have seen every episode 30 times, and it still doesn’t bore me.

This program is suitable for kids over the age of 2 (the first season especially; the ending four episodes might be more appropriate for 5 and up – again your mileage may vary).

* Another cartoon that I recommend for its feminist leanings, excellent art and depictions of magic is My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic. I am no fan of content created for marketing, but this cartoon series was designed and spearheaded by the amazing Lauren Faust. She’s worked on the Powerpuff Girls and Foster’s Home for Imaginary Friends (two other cartoons that I am a big fan of). There is nothing spiritual about this series, but I can’t help but recommend something using magical tropes AND filled with strong female characters (and solid animation). I love Rainbow Dash, but suspect I’m more of a Twilight Sparkle. Suitable for all ages.

My son's Ganesh murti.

My son’s Ganesh murti.

* Finally, I think a small Ganesh murti can be ideal for kids. Their very own statue! Plus, small murtis aren’t often that expensive – usually between $10-20. Ganesh is a fantastic god to keep in a kid’s bedroom. He’s kind, loving, happy, and will keep watch over the littles! I like to say he’s a great gateway god!

Living Saraswati

Today begins the final three days of Navratri, in which Saraswati, goddess of language, knowledge and sound, is honored. I have an affinity with Her, as I have spent much of my life in pursuit of education and knowledge, as well as honing my singing skills.

Saraswati is comparable to the Greek goddess Athena in many ways. Both are independent; Saraswati, unlike most of the other Hindu goddesses, is not the consort of any male deity; her devotion to her studies means she has little time for domestic duties or love relationships. Like Athena who was born from the head of Zeus, Saraswati “emerged from Brahma’s mouth as the power of the creative word.” (Sally Kempton, Awakening Shakti, p. 178) Like Athena she has a bird as a companion, though a swan, not an owl. Sraswati is invoked for creative inspiration, musical skill, depth of knowledge, learning of languages, communication, wisdom, and all forms of general study. I think modern inclusions might be computer coding, scientific research, problem solving, and all forms of discernment. In a world where women have only recently had widespread access to education, I find it fascinating that a female has long been the embodiment of all these things!

Saraswati

Saraswati

As I sat in meditation yesterday I was reminded of the blessings I’ve received thanks to my education, and in the course of my studies I never forgot the privilege it was to be a woman, much less studying theology. In the United States, until fairly recently, it was a rare event for women to study theology. Several of the women that I studied under (including the iconic Rosemary Radford Ruether) received their doctorates in the 1960s and ’70s. Most of them did not write their dissertations on the topics for which they are now known. For example, Judith Plaskow, renowned Jewish feminist theologian, wrote her dissertation on the theologies of Reinhold Niebuhr and Paul Tillich, two Protestant theologians. I will wager a guess that the female professors I was able to study under at the graduate level had few, if any, female professors themselves when they were in school.

Looking at the broader history of Western religion and education, I can quickly name only three great female theologians before the mid-twentieth century, Saints Macrina, Hildegard von Bingen, and Julian of Norwich. Macrina the Younger was sister to two of the three great Cappadocian Fathers, Basil the Great and Gregory of Nyssa. Gregory wrote about her, praising her intellect and claiming that she had a prominent role in his education. It is not unlikely that she influenced his theology, yet she wrote nothing of her own. Hildegard von Bingen lived in the twelfth century and was nothing short of a polymath genius. She was a mystic, a theologian, an abbess, a composer, and a scientist. Julian of Norwich, born in the mid-fourteenth century, is most famous for her Revelations of Divine Love, a collection of her mystical visions.

There are other mystics and influential female theologians, but not many in the grand sweep of a Christian tradition of two thousand years. Given that most people did not receive a formal education, and women not even until the late 19th century, I see my own education as a recent privilege and do not take it for granted. Even today in many parts of the world women are still denied access to an education. Many boys may receive only a basic education or are given only a religious education, without an understanding of science, arts, and the world around them.

We can see the struggle for learning in the life of young Malala Yousafzai. She is a Pakistani Muslim, so I hope she will forgive the comparison, but I see her as an incarnation of Saraswati. This is the young girl who was shot in the face by the Taliban for doggedly pursuing her studies, even after she had been warned to quit. She survived, had reconstructive surgery, and now speaks – in excellent English – around the world on behalf of education for all. Her determination and insistence that education is important, valuable, and necessary is full of Saraswati energy. Not only must she contain some fierce passion in her heart, and have the love and support of those closest to her, but surely she must be blessed by Saraswati and Athena and all the gods who love learning! I imagine Athena and Saraswati proudly blessing their bold daughter, Malala. I cannot help but think the gods love her: she was shot in the face and did not die, but held fast to her dedication to learning. With that dedication she now, at the age of 16, campaigns for everyone’s right to learn.

I am in awe of her. I will ask Saraswati for blessings upon her, her family, and her work.

As a white, middle class American it can be far too easy to take education for granted. I harbor a deep love of learning. I crave complex ideas, beautiful words, and critical thinking. And as a woman I do not take the opportunity for education for granted. I expect my children, a boy and girl, to value learning. My husband and I can talk about why and how our education and ability to learn has benefited us. I can point toward the history of women being allowed to learn at all. I can point to Malala, reminding them that in some parts of the world, it’s not just females who aren’t allowed to learn, but boys’ learning is limited as well. There are plenty of examples of how limited education is bad for all people and all societies. The rise of militant religious fundamentalism is but one very strong example.

In honor of Saraswati, I praise education. Let us educate our sons and daughters, let us honor all incarnations and glimpses of Saraswati and Athena, and let us continue to educate ourselves!

Family Announcements

When I started this blog just over 2 years ago my youngest child was only 4 months old, we were living in Wales, I was enrolled in a PhD program specializing in systematic and feminist theologies and the Virgin Mary. Now I’m living in Washington State, my eldest child has started kindergarten, my youngest is 2 and half years old and goes to preschool five mornings a week, and I happily moved away from academia. Time flies!

My family is the greatest joy in my life. It is the source of my deepest rewards, challenges, and personal growth. It with much happiness that I let you all know that I am pregnant with my third child! My husband and I have been debating for a year whether or not to expand our family, and well…… I wanted to do it sooner rather than later, as I am no spring chicken (according to biological dictates)! I am mid-way through the first trimester; the baby is due in mid-May, which makes me think I’ll birth around Beltane.

Many women don’t often mention their pregnancies until they have passed into the second trimester, when miscarriages are less likely to occur. I do not have a history of miscarriage. Each of my previous pregnancies stuck, so I have no expectation that this one won’t either. That said, birth, like death, is something we have little control over. There is always a risk that this bub won’t ‘take.’ My belief is that the more women who speak about their miscarriage history, the less likely women will be to feel isolated or alone in the event of one (which happens more frequently than we realize), or worse, to assume that they are flawed and faulty women because they haven’t carried or have trouble carrying a baby to term. So if I have to share sad news, I will do so. But please, send your blessings for healthy, smooth pregnancy!

 

Maxim Monday: Educate Your Sons

Yes! A Maxim I am excited about! I agree whole-heartedly agree that our sons need be educated. I believe in education, particularly one that involves wonder, creativity and critical thinking. Lets give our boys sciences, art, music, history, literature, maths, outdoor skills, virtues, and the abilities to express themselves.

And let’s of course give that to our daughters.

Aside from academics, which I believe are for boys and girls, I’d like to talk about some things I aim to teach my own son.

My son is five. I began his education early: I sang opera arias and jazz standards to him when he was in the NICU after he was born. I started reading to him when I breastfed. I’d read whatever I had on hand, which meant he got current events from the Economist and a lot of feminist theological theory. But I also read volumes of poetry as I nursed him down for naps. All of that language was helpful, and I see the fruit in his deep love of stories and his rather impressive vocabulary.

More than that, my husband and I are determined to teach him to think for himself. We don’t have television, primarily because we loathe advertising, but that doesn’t mean we don’t have plenty of opportunity to talk about media. At about three my son would look at a sign or a billboard and ask, “What is that sign telling us?” A good question to ask!

We are determined to teach him about his feelings and ways that he can express them safely and clearly. This hasn’t eliminated all the tantrums, but he is able to tell us that feels angry, shy, scared, happy, frustrated, etc. Much of the time, just knowing that he can cry something out is all it takes for the wave of emotion to pass. He also knows that just because some one is angry doesn’t mean that love is absent. He knows that we can express anger and still love and be loved. When he told this to me in the car a few weeks ago, I’d have sworn I’d won at parenting!

We are also teaching him the importance of consent. If I want a son that will respect the boundaries of others at 15, 20, 35 years of age, that lesson needs to start now. There is no ‘boys will be boys’ nonsense in our house. There is only, “did you ask first?” whether that’s a hug or a punch or whatever.

There are other things we educating our son about: he can’t help but have some knowledge of world religions, graphic arts, and the internet, thanks to who his parents are! I also want to give him more of an education of the outdoors. He’s learning to swim.

All of these things we’re teaching our son…… and we’re also teaching them to our daughter.

My Life is a Love Story

Falling in love is easy, if mysterious. It can be as simple as a chemistry-laden kiss.  It can be as complex as seeing a girl in an orange silk dress across a crowded room and knowing that my world is about to be turned inside-out. However, growing a love that is sustainable, with healthy boundaries and joy, is the work of a lifetime. My life is a love story, and the Red Goddess is my co-author.

Love stories get a bad rap, and for good reason! Courtly tales of romance from the Middle Ages, centered around grail quests and knights and their ladies, and modern rom-coms and romance novels, seem to focus on a singular type of love and experience. Romantic love is prized above all other aspects of relationship, focuses on one person and one person only (the ever elusive One), and lasts forever. Only one other person can be our ‘missing puzzle piece.’ We are not complete humans until we’ve found our ‘other half.’ There are very clear heteronormative patterns and qualities that we must embrace in order to find True Love.

I tried to live by those tropes, but they never worked out for me. See, it turns out that I tend to be the more ‘masculine’ one in my relationships. I am the knight in shining armor. I will swoop in, love you up, and be your rock. I almost never cry, but often end up in relationship with people who do. I am a problem solver. I am bold, aggressive, firm, and enthusiastic. This can be very overwhelming for people. Especially people who are more invested in women being flighty, passive, all about gentle feelings, and in need of saving. Only once have I been swept off my feet – and it was by a teenaged baby dyke, who in the end tended more toward passivity, thus confounding our gender dynamics even more.

The gender dynamics of loving and being loved definitely confuse things. I’m married to a strong male, who the overculture insists is the knight, but all the while prefers to be the princess. Complicating this, he is the ‘pretty girl,’ the one who never thinks she’s pretty enough. I am married to a princess who wants nothing more than to be swept off her feet, but every time I try she refuses, because she thinks she’s not pretty enough. I can’t just show up in my suit of armour, I also need to be riding a unicorn, not a mere thoroughbred.

I have compassion for my husband. I have hardly any experience being the princess myself. I don’t feel safe as the princess (too many thinly veiled rape narratives in all those fairy tales, thank you very much). More importantly neither do I believe that anyone wants me as their princess. I love others as I want to be loved, and I expect little in return. I will admit this is not the healthiest dynamic.

Love is quiet, painful, intimate, tender – vulnerable. I am terrible at being vulnerable. Blogging has been one act of challenging this. I like being the one in control. I like being the knight, rather than the princess. Loving demands that I allow myself to let others see me and love me in return. It requires small acts of passivity and release, a different type of risk. That terrifies me to my core. I know that learning to let myself be loved, not just to love, is something I need to do for my continued growth. Choosing is important, but so is being chosen, by friends, by lovers, and even by the gods. These are things the Red Goddess is teaching me.

The Lovers, from the Mary-El deck. It is no surprise to me that this is also 'my' tarot card.

The Lovers, from the Mary-El deck. It is no surprise to me that this is ‘my’ tarot card.

As I embrace the Red Goddess in my life, I see that She has been singing me a siren’s song. I always assumed that to honor an indiscriminate slut would mean that I would have to be one too, so I gave Her the side-eye and backed away slowly. But as I see my own story and the choices I’ve made more clearly and honestly, I realize that my life is about love, a pouring out that is in keeping with Her desire. All of my passions, spiritual, musical and academic, have been pieces of a hunger for connection and relationship. Relationship means everything to me, and the more I understand this about myself, the more I see that this isn’t something to shy away from, but something to embrace. Loving is heroic, full of daring, bravery and action.

And love is limitless. So what happens if I fall in love with more than one person at the same time? There isn’t any model for that in medieval or modern romance tropes. When it happened to me I had to walk away from the standard map and become my own cartographer. More love means more conflict, especially when my partner is invested in the standard knight/princess motif. Envy, jealousy, scarcity of love and time – all these demons reared their ugly heads. I had to dig deep and face these demons. I also had to accept the consequences of loving someone who was unprepared to be given everything they said they wanted. I had to accept the reality of losing them. More love means the possibility of more loss. Every parent knows this fear.

There is no perfect lover, no saving Love. I don’t believe in being completed or perfected by The One, nor can I save anyone else. I am already complete. Each important relationship is a part of my own perfection and continual unfolding. My life has been a series of romances that have honed me. I haven’t been single since I was 20. I am often hard on myself about this, wondering if I am afraid to be alone.

I have realized that I need not diminish myself for the comfort of others. I don’t need to love people less intensely simply because they fear the strength of my love. I am the knight in shining armor, that is the way I love. I am writing my life like a love story. Imagine Romeo and Juliet if Romeo doesn’t climb the balcony. What if Bilbo says no to Gandalf and never leaves the Shire? Any good story is full of risks, a love story even more so. Loving is an heroic act; each time I’ve taken a risk I’ve been rewarded with adventure, love, and wisdom. I am the heroine and the knight, the lover and the beloved, of my own story.

Both Kali and the Red Goddess have shown me just how big my heart is, how full of love, how black and how bold it can be; I’m still terrified. But when I am on my deathbed and I look back on my life, I will never regret having loved. I will have written the story I wanted to read.

The Body

What a complex site of confusion is the body. As spiritual persons we have a host of understandings about it to unpack. As a female in the Western world there are even more complications and understandings to unpack. I’m not going to get too theoretical about either of these points, but instead, as this blog is designed to do, I will talk about my own experience and understanding of the body.

Many religious traditions proclaim that the body is a negative thing. That it is a hindrance on our path to enlightenment or salvation. It is a hive of warring passions, a host of unclean fluids and matter, an obstacle and nothing more. This is primarily a dualistic understanding of the world. The body and all matter are separate from spirit. If we transcend our bodies, usually through renunciation or asceticism, we will be free from the enslavement of the physical world.

Some traditions embrace this world and all the various physical manifestations, seeing the physical as a site of pleasure and joy. If one sees the divine in all, then my toe and that tree and your cat are all embodiments of the divine. This can lead to a couple of different ideas, one being that anything pleasurable goes, and some ideas involving all things in moderation.

Some spiritual traditions don’t talk much about the body either way. But if you dig deeper almost all traditions come down somewhere into the two camps. And most of them into the first, body-negating one.

As a female in the Western world there are numerous other layers of body issues on top of the bedrock of philosophical and religious tradition. Most of it is dualist in nature. Almost all of it says that the female body is dangerous. Even with the comparatively hedonistic sexual flaunting and use of female bodies for selling things and entertaining in movies and pornography, the female body is an object to used by patriarchal forces for their benefit, never for the female’s benefit or enjoyment. The body is definitely used as a snare, but we are also supposed to have heroic spiritual self-control. It’s all very confusing.

In my chosen traditions the body and spirit are neither dualistic entities at war with each other, nor are they one and the same. I see the body as a gift. Embodiment is full of beauty. Some say that the spirits envy us our physical existence. We get to smell, touch, taste, feel. My body is my vehicle, my tool, but not some mechanistic flesh that does my mind’s bidding – again, a dualistic perspective. Ideally, my body and my souls work in concert for good of all my parts, to further connection among those parts, and with other creatures and spirits.

The extremes of pregnancy and childbirth once again drive home to me the joy and mystery that is embodiment. Watching dandelions and weeds force themselves through cracks in concrete is a testament to the spirit of life that thrums in us. Life is determined to live. While austerities have their place and use (mostly for purification purposes or gaining discipline), in my mind, any tradition that demands you renounce your senses and joy in this body is misguided.

Of course, our bodies and our senses can also mislead us. Too much of a good thing becomes no longer a good thing. Too much wine dulls our pleasures, too much food makes our stomachs hurt, too much sleep can leave us groggy, etc. And our bodies often ‘betray’ us. I am lucky that I have no overriding health issues. I do have whiplash in my neck and a jerky movement can leave me in mild pain for days. That sucks. It is hard, not just because I hurt, but because it keeps me from feeling at ease, hindering my ability to be present, keeping me from picking up my children, from connecting with my partner (I can’t tilt my head up to kiss him, sometimes not even on a pain-free day!). Pain hinders us from connecting; connection is, in my view, the core aim of the spiritual life. I have a greater amount of compassion for my friends and others who experience pain and discomfort, chronically or acutely.

And then we die. Sometimes we die suddenly, sometimes the body gets sick and slowly falls apart.

Christian theology views this as proof of sin. Adam and Eve would have lived for ever, but were cursed with toil, suffering and death. ‘For the wages of sin is death.’ That is no metaphor. Classical Christianity sees that as a physical truth. I think it is nonsense. At best, it is a metaphor. Pain and suffering of any kind are indeed a form of sin. Most of us suffer thanks to systemic sin. The Bible isn’t joking when it says we suffer the sins of our fathers for seven generations. Cycles of abuse, poverty, environmental degradation – all of those things lead to webs sin, and they lead to disconnection and death.

But we live in a world governed by physics, biology, chemistry. There is no life without death. We must eat, and whether that’s a carrot or a cow, something must die for something else to live. One animal’s defecation is a dung beetle’s joy. One rotting apple is another organism’s home or lunch. To think that the earth and humans could exist without death is baffling.

I spent several of my teen years and early adulthood using my body as a site of control. I felt I had so little control over other aspects in my life, but I could control what I ate and how fit I was. That obsession was a form of superiority (countering fears of inadequacy) and self-punishment (because I could not conquer my anxiety). I look back and while I was very healthy, I was also very, very hungry. An apt metaphor, as well as a physical reality.

I will admit that these days I tend to struggle with fasting and austerities. I sometimes look back at my past and wonder why I can’t be as disciplined as I once was. But I see that I love myself so much more now. Not in a self-righteous way, but in a fuller, more complete way. The strength of my discipline as a young adult was not coming from a place of love or health, but one of grief and fear.

I also see that I have given up many things in my life already. I can’t eat gluten and so as an act of love for my body I do not eat wheat in any form; there are many things I miss, homemade bread, French pastries, and fresh pasta among them. I have gestated, birthed, and nursed two children – that is austerity and sacrifice indeed. I am getting older and that combined with recovering from birthing drives home the fact that my body is not in my complete control. I am blessed with a healthy body that responds well and quickly to exercise. I am fit and healthy, but there is a humility in letting go of looking like my 25-year-old me. Even as every image in the Western world tells me that I should look 25 for as long as possible. That my worth is a youthful, slender body.

My body is a site of connection. I am my own world tree, the axis of my universe. I am both my body and not my body. If I gain 100 lbs or lose my legs or get burned in a fire, I will still be me. And not me. But this embodiment is all I know at this point.

I know that if I need to I can withstand and benefit from austerities. But why impose them if I do not need to? The world has sufferings enough as it is. I was hungry for several years for no good reason. Why not wait for a good reason? From this bodily axis in the universe I connect to that very same universe, and to you. I cannot transcend my form. Even if I gain enlightenment tomorrow I am still tethered in this body. And what a joy and a privilege that is.