Friday, November 13, 2009
Echoes of a past life: Learning to Be an Edgewalker
Somewhere between being a revolutionary and today I got religion. To the dismay of my family, rather than knocking on the doors of churches and seeing whether I felt welcome, I took another left turn and explored the world of Goddess worship, or Neo-Paganism, especially a vaguely-feminist vaguely free-thinking unorthodox form of Wicca, the re-created "Witchcraft as nature religion" that had been codified by English occultist Gerald Brousseau Gardner in the mid-twentieth century. I ultimately found a lot to dislike about Wicca, and it proved to be only a station on a longer spiritual journey. But my years exploring, studying, practicing, and innovating Neo-Pagan ritual became a transformational experience.
After a couple years involvement I joined with some co-practitioners and created a group in New York City called "Queer Pagans." It was about the time of post ACT-UP "Queer Nation" activism, and while I have some misgivings now about what "Queer" has come to mean--and how it has come to almost denigrate mere gay male identity--at the time it seemed like a miraculously inclusive and liberating word. We tried to incorporate that inclusive and liberating spirit, and held open rituals, mostly at New York's Lesbian and Gay Community Services Center, that regularly drew dozens and on at least one occasion hundreds of participants. The rituals drew gay men, lesbians, transsexuals and transgendered people, and all sorts of people along the "LGBT" spectrum. Along with the open ceremonies, we published a zine. It started out mostly as a calendar, but expanded into a small showcase of "Queer Pagan" theory. I designed it on a Mac staying late after work; wrote much of it, and collected other writings from friends and co-thinkers. We even managed to get it professionally xeroxed. Before QP collapsed for a variety of reasons--rather quickly but mercifully without drama or accusation--I found myself in the midst of an explosion of creativity.
As with my early political writings, re-reading the QP zine there's plenty to find that seems dated or, well, almost cloyingly ingenuous. I was certainly a true believer. But there's a lot here I'm proud of: I wanted to communicate not some kind of religious orthodoxy but the authenticity of spiritual experience: the conviction that mystical experiences, that faith--no, certainty--in God's presence in the world, that deep ancient wisdom was something free for the taking, not off library or bookstore shelves, but by living life and daring to explore and play with otherwise dusty ideas on the solid earth of the real world.
Here's one of my articles; many more to come later.
Learning to Be an Edgewalker
by ian scott horst
reprinted from QP #13, Sun & Rainbow 9994 [Mid-Summer, 1994]
It occurred to me the other day that from a certain vantage point, the story of my life would make a lurid and bizarre tale. Its telling would be fantastically picaresque: episodes laying shock upon shock, revealing me to be a denizen of a kind of secret society, a connoiseur of perverse comraderies and purveyor of dubious morality and eccentricity.
So OK, it's true that my friends and I used to call each other "comrade" and were once pursued in a high-speed car chase through the highways of suburban Chicago by a gang of swastikaed Neo-Nazis. It's true that for a handful of months I was a member of a political group organized into anonymous cells where none of us knew each other's real names or phone numbers: we would meet at six in the morning to pass out subversive flyers to factory workers It's true that for a year, twice a month at midnight, I would venture alone deep into Prospect Park to call forth the spirits. It's true that I went to a gay club where the bathroom had bathtubs for urinals and bathers in the bathtubs (well, ok, I only went there twice, and that room wasn't to my taste). It's true that me and my friends get together now in rituals where we wear the oddest clothes and whirl in circles and talk to the air, and shake and mumble uncontrollably, and listen to voices no one else can hear.
But really, I work for a living. I have a nice apartment and I pay my rent. I only have pierced ears, and my tattoo is very discreetly above the line of even very short sleeved shirts. I don't smoke, don't drink to excess, don't do drugs. Hell, I don't even watch much TV. (Well, OK, maybe I do have more CDs than anyone else I know.) Like most people, I hope one day to retire in style and comfort; I'd love to visit Hawaii, and I return my Publishers Clearinghouse entries when I remember to. And all my stories -- and the ones above are just a teeny portion of them -- at the time didn't seem so extraordinary. They just sort of, well, happened along the way.
But in retrospect, I see a kind of razor's edge that I have walked along. And by this I mean not just a path along a thin edge between social underworld and the dominant culture, but also a shining and compelling sharpness with a hypnotic fascination. I remember once as a very young child finding a razor blade in the bathroom wastebasket. It was a grown-up thing, and its edge was smooth and sharp, tempered by unimaginable forces into a tool that would be willfully used and then discarded with no afterthought. I remember feeling the uncontrollable need to understand its mystery: I ran my finger along the blade, amazed to find thick red blood bubble to the surface of my fingertip. And at the moment where my soft flesh met the wonderfully smooth steel I felt no pain.
So you see, we do make mistakes.
What I am getting at here is not just some trite cliche about learning through experience. That, of course, is the human condition. Nor am I offering a cautionary tale about thrill-seeking. What I am saying is that those of us who, by virtue of our twin membership in the Pagan and queer worlds, are learning to find the edge and walk it, and in so doing are making magic.
Here's another story. At the most recent Queer Pagans ritual, we asked participants to bring somthing symbolically male and something symbolically female to ritually place on the altars. Some people would have expected a stack of phallic wands wound have been piled upon God's altar while a stack of holed objects would have materialized on Goddess's. That is, after all, what the Pagan books tell us toplace at such moments. But it wasn't that way at all. There was not a dick-like object placed, nor anything resembling a vagina. I brought flowers for the God altar, saying that flowers were short-lived and beautiful and intense like a male orgasm. I brought a rock for Goddess, saying it was solid and real like the earth. And every participant's offering was like that. None of them were symbols from books: they were pieces of people's lives; a transsexual woman even offered her estrogen pills. You see, the God/dess is indeed within, and to the queer Pagans in that circle, this was only obvious.
I would now no more address my friends "comrade" than I would pull a razor through my skin. The knowledge given to me by these particular experiences remains with me, by the edge has turned away in another direction. My wretched youthful political affinities have been set aside, transformed by the telling into a chapter in my personal mythology. But by the same token, I continue to explore my sexuality in ways that my day-job peers might find shocking, and I continue to listen for voices and whisper to both the mysterious and visible forces of nature. The metaphorical razor's edge continues to compel and hypnotize. As near as I can tell now, the difference is that today, understanding its nature, I seek to wield the razor as well.
Magic involves consciousness. Starhawk calls it the art of changing consciousness at will. I used to find this definition unglamourous. Today I feind it awesome and profound, hinting at possibilities I can scarcely grasp and barely struggle to name. History begins to teach us that queer people have always found and walked this edge, grasping for this magical meaning. The walk is sometimes decadent and self-destructive and sometimes it is liberating and revolutionary. But it is magic and, walker, you will be changed.