Literature Outside Its Time

One of my favorite authors of all time is Robert Heinlein.  I discovered his books the year after he died, and I read them voraciously throughout my teenage years.  Through his books, I learned about things as varied as being resourceful and self-reliant, the value of honor and integrity, libertarianism and voluntaryism (though I didn’t learn those words until later), and polyamory.  All of this was packaged into some amazing science fiction, with many different planets, spaceships, and even time lines.  What’s not to love?

Plenty, according to criticism I’ve been hearing just in the past few years.  Most of the criticism seems to be accusations of misogyny.  It’s always a little upsetting to hear that somebody else hates something you love.  The first reaction is defensive.  I have to admit, though, that I have noticed more and more things in Heinlein’s books that are a bit bothersome as the years go by.  He doesn’t have a lot of fully developed female characters in much of his early work (with some notable exceptions).  You can see a lot of evidence of ideas that women belong in the home, that girls are just pretty sidekicks even if they are smart, as well as language and attitudes conveying racism.  I can certainly see where the critics are coming from.  The more time that passes between the writing of one of his books and my reading of it, the more I can see these problems.

My response is that Heinlein’s books were a product of their time, and they were in fact pretty visionary and free-thinking…for their time.  Most of his writing was done in the 40’s and 50’s, in the form of short stories and serial novels for science fiction pulp magazines as well as juveniles aimed at teenage and preteen boys.  There was zero publishable market at the time for female leads, strong women, feminism, or parity between the races and religions (civil rights for blacks didn’t come about until the 60’s, rights for women didn’t really begin to flourish until the 80’s, and both are still works in progress today).  It would never have been published.  The language used and the treatment of female and non-white characters in Heinlein’s books, therefore, reflect the time in which the books were written and the market the books were aimed at.  I think it is a little unfair to apply the culture of our time to the literary works of another era…and the early-to-mid 20th century was most definitely a completely different era, irregardless of how many people are still alive who lived through that time.  Today, I can pick up any science fiction magazine and find stories where women and girls feature prominently or as main characters, stories that would pass the Bechtel test or whatever its literary equivalent is.  But those stories simply would not have been publishable in 1941.  John Campbell would have sent it back with orders to change it.

This is not true across the board.  This post does a very nice job of finding all of the wonderful examples where Heinlein was able to push the boundaries of sexism and racism beyond his culture a little bit, to give us a taste of things to come (although even the great Heinlein didn’t get a lot of this published until he had already established himself as a name).  This is something Heinlein was very good at, looking into the future and seeing some of the ways the culture could potentially evolve.  It is something all good science fiction does.

There are so many great messages buried in the science fiction of the 20th century, whether it is Heinlein, Asimov, H.G. Wells, or any of the other greats.  None of them would pass modern feminist or civil rights muster by today’s standards, but I don’t think that diminishes their messages.

Today, it’s hard to imagine what taboos are left.  You can find books in any given bookstore about virtually any subject.  Culture is swiftly moving towards acceptance and tolerance of just about any lifestyle or belief that doesn’t hurt others.  You can look at writings of the early 20th century, though, and find that the people living then felt the same way.  How wonderful is our time, how free! How many different ways can people live now, how many religions and cultures and methods of dress!  The same refrain, repeated again and again every few decades.  I’m not naive enough to think that we really have come of age.  There’s going to be something that will set our time apart once another hundred years have passed, something that we take for granted now that our descendants will find abhorrent.

I wonder what it will be.   And I wonder how our own literature and legacy will fare when our descendants judge us by that thing we cannot now see.

Aspecting Loki

I didn’t write about this the first time because it was such a new experience.  I’m still processing it, a bit.  The whole idea of aspecting is something relatively new to me since joining group rituals with my current church, something I read about but never really practiced.  When I was solitary, I communed with Deity, but I did not seek to allow it to speak through me…mostly because, really, who would it be speaking to?

Aspecting, or invoking, is a step beyond communing, an attempt to assume the persona of Deity or one of Its faces, allowing it to speak through me.  I see this as primarily a tool of group ritual and worship, a way for a priest/ess to facilitate communing with Deity for another.  I might aspect the Goddess and deliver the memorized Charge (which could also suddenly morph on delivery!), or I might aspect a specific god/dess in order to provide advice or another viewpoint someone.  My high priests frequently present a workshop on aspecting for various festivals to teach the concept of aspecting and give attendees an opportunity to try it for themselves.  Ideally, during this workshop they learn to feel the energy of the deity they invoke, and often they will deliver messages or answer questions for others while invoked.

I have now invoked multiple deities in various circumstances, so I am becoming a little more familiar with the process and how it feels.  For me, it is a feeling of energy flow rather than of energy touching, and it definitely consumes energy when I do it.  I’ve learned to make sure I am reasonably well-fed before attempting to invoke, lest my blood sugar crash midway!  When I seek to pray or commune with a deity, I am interacting with something external, seeking to touch a force outside myself.  When I invoke, I am bringing some of that force into myself and allowing it to flow through me.  It is like pulling a filter over my thoughts, so that what I think and say is colored and changed by that energy flow.  I may have rehearsed or memorized particular lines that I intend to say for a prescribed ritual, but those words might be altered in the moment as that filter of energy is applied that perhaps wasn’t fully present when those words were written.  If someone asks me a question, thoughts and words may come to mind that I might not have considered before.

I have invoked Loki twice now, both times in the workshop setting.  Both times, I was hesitant to speak, but I could feel His energy pushing me forward, and I eventually went with it.  Both times, I had some questions regarding my relationship with Him, and both times I got some kind of answer.  The second time was pretty memorable, for me.  Just before the workshop started, I had been chatting about how I’d been feeling “poked” at again, with little things constantly going wrong, spills and breaks and mishaps ever since I’d left for the festival.  I acknowledged Loki’s presence with me in that spiritual space of festival, and I went into the invocation with a rather open question of, “Why are you poking me?”  I was one of the last to go in that workshop, and everybody else had sort of made the rounds of the circle, speaking a few words to each of us while invoked.  The whole time, I felt His energy pushing me, humor bubbling behind it.  When I finally took my turn and drew Him down, I felt Him look around, roll his eyes, and refuse to participate, telling me on the side that He was poking me because it was fun and He felt like it.

Which resulted in a bit of an irreverent salute from me as I devoked, which I felt was well-earned.

Oddly enough, though, I did feel more at peace and comfortable with the poking afterward.  Rather than feeling pushed to look for a reason for the poking, as I had the past two times it happened at festival, it felt more like a comfortable presence, an acknowledgement that I am one of His own, teased because I am loved like a child or sibling.

While I do try to commune with Him on a regular basis alone, I have not felt comfortable attempting to invoke while alone.  I have preferred to stick with the interaction I know, to commune and pray, to seek answers from divination when they do not come in meditation.  It has been nice to feel His energy more directly those two times, though, and I do hope I get more opportunities.

Those Daily Devotions

Yesterday my teachers asked me how my daily devotions and my relationship with Loki were going.  I never know how to answer open-ended questions like that on the spot, but they do make me think.

I didn’t have anything resembling a daily devotional practice until last year, when I received my first degree and finally opened my ears to Loki’s call. I would play at it a bit here and there, but it was never regular. It always took second place and it always fell by the wayside.  I even set up an altar once when we first moved into our current house, but keeping the kids out of it and keeping it maintained proved to be too much, and it didn’t last long.

After accepting Loki’s call, I set up an altar.  It’s not really an altar just to Loki, although he is featured on it and his offering glasses are there.  It’s a general altar, my place to leave spells to run and have remembrances.  It’s not very big, just a spot on top of my microwave, but I find that this forces me to be very mindful of what I place there and how long it stays.  Clutter just can’t fit.  It’s been there continuously for more than a year now, the longest I’ve ever had one in place, and it is a big enough part of my day now that I take it with me when I travel.

Last year I worked through T. Thorn Coyle’s Crafting a Daily Practice online course.  The course uses one of her books to try out lots of different ideas for daily practice, including meditation, chanting, journaling, exercise, candles, and more.  For a few months I worked at this, meditating daily, journaling daily, lots of things.  But as before, it grew to be too much and got squeezed away.  What remains is the daily recital of my prayer beads and a Hail to Loki, lighting my candle (and incense if Brian is not home), and placing offerings of food and drink.

A few months ago, I felt that tapping on my shoulder again, that knocking on my mental door from Loki.  Reflection and readings seemed to indicate that it was time for something more from me, more that just an acknowledgement of His attention and a reflection on His role in my life.  I began to compare myself to others around me and find myself lacking, thinking I didn’t spend enough time in worship and prayer.

I realize now that was the wrong way to look at it.

My life is full of chaos.  I have a few anchors in it, like reading and having my drink and a smoke at the end of the day, that help me relax and take stock.  But mostly it’s running around, from waking to sleeping, with constant distractions and emergencies.  Try as I might, regularity and predictability are hard to come by.  Nobody else has my life.  Nobody else has my relationship to the world.

Why should I worry about how my daily practices stack up to someone else’s? My life doesn’t look like anybody else’s. My practice doesn’t have to look like anybody else’s, either.

I said earlier this year that I felt my first year of following Loki was like an appenticeship or a postulancy, a time to reflect and learn and make sure of my path.  This year feels more like taking the first steps down that path.  Rather than sitting quietly, I am working to get out into the world more.  Rather than continuing to beat my head against the goal of routine and ticking off checklists (definition of insanity?), I am working to set life goals and work towards them, to not worry so much about all the little things (because there’s damn sure a lot of them around here).

I find myself smiling and laughing more, finding humor and joy in things a little more and getting frustrated a little less.  I might laugh at something only I think or see.  I switch tasks when I lose flow and focus without worrying about trying to follow a straight line from beginning to end of something.

My role is to set down new paths, to find rules of life and behavior and break them, to find boundaries and cross them.  I am here to break expectations, to shatter molds.

That is my daily devotion, and I don’t find it at an altar or in front of a candle (unless I feel like it).  I find it in everything I do and see, the little extra light in my day, an extra star shining at night.

I Want to Dance

As Tamara moves into her cheer career and I’ve been posting pictures and comments, one of the more frequent sentiments I’ve heard from my friends is along the lines of, “Imagine you involved with cheerleading! That’s so unlike you!”  At first, I laughed along with them and agreed.  And then I realized that was wrong.  Most of my friends have only really known me in adulthood, maybe from high school.  And since the best friend I had before then has been lost to me for more than twenty years, nobody else knows how wrong it is.

I’m a big girl.  I’m not as big as some girls.  I have plenty of friends who are bigger than I am.  I still wear clothes smaller than a size 20.  Although I’m back at my highest non-pregnant weight, I’m not even as big as I was the last time I was at this weight thanks to being in much better athletic condition.  I complain about not being able to buy clothes I like and how much I hate shopping, but I can still trust that a race or event t-shirt will fit me.

I was a big girl growing up, too.  I remember how difficult it was to find jeans that fit when I was a girl, and how one time my mother had me wear my cousin’s hand-me-down jeans to school…which mortified me because they were a boy’s jeans.  Starting in second grade and continuing for years, I dealt with the petty bullying of being the fat girl.  I believed I could never be physically fit and so I never really tried.  I worried about sucking my tummy in constantly.

I took dancing and ice skating lessons when I was a girl.  I dreamed of being a ballerina when I grew up, like most little girls do I guess.  I took lessons at a studio that taught ballet, tap, and jazz all together.  I loved dancing. I loved being able to follow the beat, to move my body with it. Learning choreography was like learning to play piano or learning to knit: it always came easily to me, and I rarely had to work very hard to master any step or sequence.

That all stopped when I was eleven or twelve, when my ballet class graduated to en pointe dancing.  After allowing me to dance with the class for a year or so, the teacher told my mother that I could not do it any longer, that it would permanently damage my feet to dance en pointe at my size.  So I quit dancing.  As I recall, that was about the same time my mother started signing me up for weight loss programs, too.

Shortly after that, as I moved into high school, I discovered the drill team.  This was a group of girls who went out and did dance and marching routines during games, like a cross between the marching band and the cheerleaders.  This sounded like so much fun, so I tried out.  I spent a couple of weeks going to the training sessions.  I bought a shiny unitard to wear (it was pink).  I spent hours at home stretching to try and master the splits.  Shortly before the official try-outs, they handed out a list of rules for drill team members.  Including in that list was a maximum weight.  And that was it.  I tried out, but I was obviously disqualified no matter how well I danced.

One secret that probably only my lost friend Alicia would know is the “How to Be a Cheerleader” books I had when I was little, and how I would practice doing jumps and cartwheels and cheers in my room or my backyard.  Forget about actual cheerleading.  In Georgetown, all the cheerleaders were elected by the student body.  The only thing I would be able to garner votes for would maybe have been “most invisible.”  I tried going back to the dance studio then, but since I couldn’t dance en pointe I was thrown into a class of beginners several years younger than I.  Not much point in staying.  In my sophomore year I discovered show choir, where I got to use my talents at both singing and dancing.  I lettered in show choir, and those were some of my best memories of high school.

The next chance I had only lasted a few weeks.  In between my first and second year at TAMS, there was a couple of months when it looked like I would have to go back to high school.  I spent that time training with the local high school marching band, where I got to be a flag (I played oboe and bassoon, which aren’t allowed to march).  Not only did we have set marching routines that we did along with the band, we worked on special routines where we got to step out from the band and do our own thing, dancing and spinning those giant flags.  I had so much fun, and a bit of me was sad when I got back into TAMS and left that marching band behind without ever having performed.

Once you grow up, the opportunities for dance seem a bit more limited.  I discovered ballroom dancing around the time we got married, but lessons were expensive and Brian can’t dance or follow a beat at all.  (He can’t carry a tune, either, but he has other fantastic talents.) I was good at it, and I would love to do it again if I had a partner, but I don’t.  I tried joining an adult tap class once, but I was only 19 and felt terribly uncomfortable and out of place with a group of women my mother’s age.  Once I was over 21 and discovered the world of topless bars, I thought that sounded like fun, too, but they didn’t want anything to do with girls over a certain (small) size, either…although I got to play at it a bit when Plato’s Playhouse was still open.

Skating is the closest I’ve been able to come to the dancing I want to do.  While I still never get to do couples or trios skating (no partner, no friends), anybody can skate up to a group working on a slide and just join in.  It’s athletic, it takes rhythm and coordination, you follow the beat and show off to the music.  I still tend to feel out of place there, like I’m the wrong color, but it’s one of the most fun things I do these days.

Still think being involved in competitive cheer is out of character for me?

All of that, and we come back around to Tamara, my oldest daughter, my little clone.  She’s built just like I am, strong and stout.  She also shares my love of music and dance, my coordination and ability.  She loves to sing, she loves to show off for a camera or an audience, and she is even better at gymnastics than I ever was, able to do backbends and splits with far greater ease.  She started asking me a couple of years ago if she could sign up for some activity that would involve dance or gymnastics, because she wanted to be a dancer…and my heart sank.  I thought back to all the times I tried to do those things and was knocked right back down, and just as I homeschool in part so my children won’t have to deal with the cruelty of their government-school peers, I didn’t want to throw Tamara into something where she would just be told “no” or put in a box because of her size.

I spent most of a year trying to find something.  I sent messages and emails out to my big girl friends, asking about any outlets they might know that would be size-friendly and welcoming.  I didn’t get much response, and in fact I felt like they thought I shouldn’t even be asking.  I even tried sending an email to Ragen Chastain, since I thought a woman who actually was an adult fat dancer would be able to give me some advice, some direction to look in. (She never responded.)

Finally, in January a post came across my homeschool group from a Young Champions cheerleading coach who was looking for more recruits.  I had seen her post before but had never followed up on it.  This time, I clicked through and took a look at the team and their pictures from past events…and I saw big girls!  I saw big, strong girls, girls who could throw other girls in the air, who could support the base of a pyramid and still do backflips!  And they were smiling and posing with their teammates, appearing to all be good friends despite their size differences!  They did the things the drill team used to do, performing fancy dance routines in between their stunts and shouting.

So here we are.  I felt a little uncomfortable at first, but mostly because I think I was expecting the other parents to act the way I remember cheerleaders acting in high school, all exclusive and special and part of a club I can’t join.  But now I’m a cheer mom, and my daughter is a cheerleader.  And all I can do as I clap from the sidelines is wish I was out there with her, and be grateful that she’s found an opportunity that I never did.

The Little Ways We Lead Ourselves Astray

When I was growing up, I loved reading stories that had anything to do with babies and motherhood.  I remember reading about the coming-of-age ritual of wearing your hair up in the Little House books, and wishing I had something like that to mark a transition for myself.  I remember stories of girls who cared for children, who adopted children, who had children of their own, whatever the ultimate plot point, these are the things that stood out.

When I finally had children of my own, I had somehow concocted this image of the perfect mother and housewife.  My idol was some strange conglomeration of Ma Ingalls, Maureen Johnson Smith Long, and probably some goddess of an Amazon.  I felt guilt over no longer working and bringing in money, so I built up this image of the perfect housewife as the “job” I now had to do in order to earn the living Brian was providing for me and our children.  While the triplets were still in NICU, I stopped painting my nails and cut them short so I wouldn’t accidentally scratch their skin. I started wearing my hair up all the time, ostensibly out of practicality but also with the thought of that prairie rite of passage in the back of my mind. I started making lists for myself of housework, laundry, ironing Brian’s shirts, and I pursued these “job assignments” so industriously that I regret not spending more time in the hospital with the babies. (Although after a few weeks, the NICU became an incredibly boring place with little for me to do except sit in a rocking chair with one baby or another.)

Over the next years, as my babies grew and multiplied, I continued my struggle to become that perfect wife and mother.  I pursued various home organization programs with varying degrees of success but consistent loss of direct time with children.  I went from one modest hairstyle to another, again with the idea of practicality but also with those idols in my mind. Putting my hair up like a Latina Texas housewife was neat and easy, and it made me think about being able to cook everything from scratch, even the most elaborate baby food and tortillas.  Wrapping it in tichels got my hair out of my face while it dried, and it made me feel like a focused, virtuous housewife.  Letting my hair down became more than an expression, it became the reality of resuming my “real” persona when the children were absent or asleep.

In other words, the face I was showing my children (and much of the rest of the world) was a mask.

On a slightly different note, I have realized that I do not learn by instruction, not really.  I can absorb some ancillary instruction, but I primarily learn by diving in and doing.  I can’t learn a programming language in a class, or through a textbook; I have to sit down and start coding, looking up things as I need them, and only after I have done that a few times can I get some benefit from asking for guidance or looking through a book for tips and tricks.  I don’t pick up a language and retain it by studying a book, but I can jump in and start talking and reading and tack on words as I encounter them (which is why DuoLingo seems to be working so well for me, I think). Knitting, cross-stitch, math, even swimming or skiing, I don’t seem to do well with instruction or lessons.  I learn and progress best by jumping in and doing, and asking questions along the way.

I remember how I  learned to ski.  I didn’t ski until I was 15 years old, and it happened to be a first that year for my mother and brother as well.  She signed all three of us up for lessons.  They stayed with their groups all day.  Only a couple hours into my class, though, I became fed up with waiting for everybody and left the class, along with another boy.  We sped down the hill, went back up to the hillside restaurant for lunch, and then skiied on our own for the afternoon, up and down and passing our class.  My mother was furious, feeling like she had wasted her money…but I ended up skiing better by the end of that day than the rest of the people who stayed in that class, and it cost nothing to leave it.  I’ve tried other group skiing classes, but the same thing happens: I get bored or distracted, and either do something stupid or leave.  When I go one-on-one with a teacher, though, we go up and down and the teacher gives me tips.  I spend just an hour or two getting a list of tweaks and tips, and then I can spend a day or two by myself working it out, no class or teacher.  Cheaper, in the long run.

I remember all of my physical skills being the same way, whether learning to swim as a child or learning hardanger embroidery or double-knitting as an adult. I sign up for a class, scan the material, and take off on my own, learning as I go and using the instructor as a springboard for questions.  It’s what I was doing with Kender while we still had access to services from the school system, following his lead and learning with him, while using the teachers for questions and tips and advice.

What brings both of these together? A reading I got recently saying, essentially, to go with the flow.

My patron god is often seen as one of chaos, although I prefer to think of it as not being bound by rules. I do better, I learn and progress and accomplish more, in chaotic environments where I pursue a goal free of the confines of a prescribed plan or somebody else’s pace.  I work better alone, able to move and change directions at a whim (and able to assume full responsibility for any consequences), than I do as part of a team.

Why on earth have I spent so much time trying to fit my home, my motherhood, my life into this neat, clean “homeschooling housewife” box that is defined not by my end-goal but by other women around me and imaginary women in books, by all this external imagery?