The Neon Pagan

January 1st, 2014

“Oh, the weather outside is frightful…” It’s that time of year. The white stuff, aka snow, is forecast, falling, changing to a wintry mix, cancelling school, snarling traffic, causing roofs to collapse, and putting shovel-wielding workers at risk of heart attack. The white stuff is also pulling children out of doors to exercise, giving harried teachers a day off, blanketing everything in an eye-popping mantle of glistening crystal, and providing much-needed slow-release moisture for plants and aquifers.

Love it or hate it, snow is going to fall. We can plan for it, but we can’t stop or alter the inexorable accumulation.  Snow is a fact of life in many temperate zones and in most of the arctic. Pardon the cliché, but it is what it is.

Personally, I love it.

I must admit that I have never lived in a place like Buffalo, where the stuff starts with the first cold breeze and never lets up until late spring. But I have lived in Detroit, where it snows almost every day in the wintertime, and New Jersey, where it’s either rain or blizzard conditions with very little in between.

At least temporarily, snow brings a welcome halt to the constant low-level din of the metropolitan area where I live. Planes stop flying, the roads become deserted, and the snow itself acts as a noise buffer, even for footsteps and barking dogs. A really snowy morning is the closest to peaceful that metropolitan residents can find. (It’s also a painful reminder of the racket that is city life, which begins again with snow blowers the minute the flakes cease to fall.)

Snow tends to magnify our basic personality traits. Grumpy people have something to grouse about, and lively people pull out the sleds or the ice skates. Quiet, bookish people have the perfect excuse to curl up under a blanket with something to read. Romantics take strolls, hand-in-hand, alternately admiring the scenery and each other. A snowy day becomes a good barometer of your basic take on life, and – for you youngsters who haven’t yet chosen a partner – a chance to take stock of how the significant other handles extreme weather.

From a Pagan perspective, snowfall is an essential component of Nature and should be embraced as such. Nothing causes a summer drought quicker than a winter devoid of snow. The way it melts into the ground nourishes our plant life even better than rain. More than that, it is one aspect of The Wheel – without the hardship of winter, do we really appreciate the spring?

Now, I know what you’re thinking: “I live in Florida, and I appreciate spring. I don’t need snowstorms in my Wheel.” The truth is that we don’t have to be knee-deep in snow to know that it’s snowing somewhere. We imagine ourselves dealing with the weather in other places, feeling a sort of “internal snow” even as the oranges and strawberries ripen in their fields.

Give me snow, and lots of it. The beauty and the environmental benefits outweigh the inconvenience. If you ask me how I would feel about a life-threatening automobile accident due to the elements, I’ll just say … Hey. It’s snowing out there! Whatever I needed to do today is canceled. Pass the canned soup! Where’s my book?

Enjoy Responsibly

Last summer I went camping at a swell InterFaith retreat in the mountains of south central Pennsylvania. I sat by a first-rate swimming hole and watched a little boy, probably eight or ten, as he tried to build a dam across a stretch of Sideling Hill Creek. Every time he got the rocks to the point where they might hold back the water, something went amiss, and the current rushed through. The boy got frustrated. “Hold still, rocks!” he commanded. He re-arranged them, and, as if talking to a dog, said to the rocks, “Stay.”

The rocks didn’t stay. No matter how the boy exerted himself, his construction didn’t have the muscle to keep the water at bay. This baffled him. Why couldn’t he get it to work?

Little boys and girls have tackled such projects since time began, and that’s how we get the Hoover Dam. But truth be told, the rocks don’t stay. The Earth may seem to be at our mercy (and certainly many animal species are really bound to our collective whim), but in the end, things will fall apart. We are not going to win the battle of biology.

The other day, my daughter asked me, “What do you think will happen to the world?”

I said, “Eventually the Sun will start to cool, and it will expand, and as it does it will gobble up the inner planets and incinerate them.” (At least that’s what my high school astronomy teacher said back in the previous century.)

She said, “No, I don’t mean end game, I mean in the near future.”

In the near future I feel like we’re going to be as frustrated as the little boy in the mountain stream. All of our technology will not trump the growing population numbers, the consumption of fossil fuels, the triumphs of medicine that allow us to live longer. In the end, our best-laid plans will founder. We are not better, or stronger, or smarter, than Mother Earth.

This is only depressing if you seek to impose your will on the planet. Let me explain this in a microcosm.

It’s snowing like crazy as I write this, and outside the wild birds are huddled in the trees, staring at the windowsill where I scatter seed for them. I’m out of bird seed. The temptation is to run out in the storm and buy more, but I have to ask myself: How did they get along before I moved here? What did they eat before the human race moved into this slot called New Jersey? I guess many of them died over the harsh winter. I guess this is how it should be. In my efforts to bend them to my will, I have actually made life tougher for them.

When I think of the phrase, “Thy will be done,” I think not of the gods but of the Earth. We can’t make this planet as benign as we’d like it to be. The forces arrayed against us are numerous and various, everything from global warming to bird flu, everything from a hit-and-run to an allergic reaction to peanuts. We are not in charge. To pretend otherwise is to watch your rock dam get breached by the creek.

The moral of this sermon is simple enough. Walk humbly in this world. You and I are products of the Earth, this fickle Earth that will do as it will. Enjoy responsibly.

Anne Johnson is the author of the blog, “The Gods Are Bored,” as well as a few other paltry bits of prose here and there. The InterFaith campground referenced above is Four Quarters Farm, a Pagan-friendly family retreat near Cumberland, Maryland.


Where’s the Worm?


I’m just back from the organic market, Whole Foods in this case, with just a few items I can’t find anywhere else.

I remember when our local Whole Foods first opened. I was so excited! Finally, real organic produce! Vegetables with splotches and blotches and bruised dents and odd shapes! Apples with worms and cracks and little raised white pimples! Tomatoes with scars! Small, thin-skinned oranges, some the size of billiard balls!

You’ll scarcely believe me, but I was deeply disappointed when I first walked into that store and saw all the picture-perfect groceries. The first question I had to ask myself was, “Where does this stuff come from? How can it be organic and so perfect-looking at the same time?”

Both of my grandfathers grew up on organic farms in Appalachia. The farms weren’t organic by choice; they were organic by location and time period. The harsh reality of true organic farming led both of my grandfathers into white collar jobs – one of them by sheer hard work and luck, the other by a two-year stint at “Normal School.” Neither one of them ever grew nostalgic about farming or dreamed of returning to the profession, even though they stayed close to home all their lives.

Let’s look at the reality of true organic farming in the early 20th century:

*The only fertilizer was what came out of your cows, so you had to keep and feed a small herd at least. This tied up land for grazing and necessitated early-morning and evening milking, not to mention keeping the cows themselves healthy.

*Pigs ate a lot and smelled bad. Butchering was a messy ordeal for both man and beast.

*Free range chickens quickly got too tough to eat any other way than in stew – if they didn’t first get eaten by foxes or snakes.

*Produce was subject to the vagaries of the weather and the presence of pests that also loved to eat it. Worm in the apple? Cut around it. Dry summer? Hungry winter.

Even the states with perfect soil and growing conditions didn’t yield the kind of picture-perfect foodstuffs you find today at organic grocery stores. How do I know this? I’m old, and I have traveled.

So, if you want real organic, personally-tended produce, you go to the farmer’s market, right? Ahem, not so quick.

One of my uncles has a large farm in the bottom lands, where he grows sweet corn as his cash crop. His son and grandsons sell the sweet corn from a rickety stand at the edge of the road. Local folks call ahead and order 100 ears for canning; the rest gets sold at the stand. Oh, boy, what delicious corn! You can have it from the stalk to the table in three hours! Sweet as honey, melts in your mouth. Occasional worm, but nothing widespread.

About a decade ago, I happened to be visiting in the spring. My uncle was planting the year’s sweet corn crop. He had a big bag of bright pink chunks, the size of ping-pong balls, bearing an odor that would gag a goat. These were his sweet corn seeds. Each seed was encased in layers of fertilizer and insecticide. The corn had been genetically engineered, as well: This variety was called “Sweetie 82.”

Again I am old enough to remember organic sweet corn. The ears were skinny and sometimes only halfway dotted with kernels. Worms nestled abundantly in the silk. In years that had too much or too little rain, the corn might not yield at all. Only those with a deep and abiding faith in God would try to make a profit off of it. (In those years, Uncle did dairy.)

Maybe I just don’t know enough about large-scale organic farming. If you do, please explain it to me. Everything I’ve learned from observation and experience leads me to the conclusion that the produce in today’s supermarkets cannot have achieved such perfection by organic means. To me, “no pesticides, no fertilizers” means bug-eaten and spindly. We’ve taken all the uncertainties out of farming, but at what cost? What’s behind all that perfection?


Anne Johnson is the author of the humor  blog “The Gods Are Bored.”

She is also the author of several nonfiction books for young adults and a contributor to the Llewellyn’s 2013 Witches’ Spell-a-Day Almanac.

Yesterday I did it. After meticulous examination, logistical speculation, scenario determination, and plain old wishful thinking, I put a bird feeder on my second floor window pane.
Of course, it’s a bird feeder in name only. In a matter of weeks, perhaps even days, the pretty little feeding station will garner the attention of the resident squirrel population. Then it will become either a squirrel feeder or a wreck on the concrete below from which squirrels will eat the contents through shards of shattered plastic.
I had a pole feeder with a squirrel baffle in my back yard when I first moved in, but when I saw the neighbor’s cat chowing down on hapless titmice, I disassembled it and sold it. For a long time afterwards I had a window feeder that seemed to be out of reach of the squirrels, but eventually they found it. Ate it clean. Then wrecked it.
Part of my problem is that I like squirrels. They’re cute, with those fluffy tails and big, dark eyes. Also, I feel their plight. Every creature gets hungry in the cold weather. It seems unfair that the little birds get seed while the squirrels huddle below, hunger compelling them to attempt a perilous ascent to a second-story window. That’s why I especially hate the idea of using those red pepper powders that discourage squirrels from visiting feeders. Imagine clinging to a cliff side, finally getting a chance to fill your belly, then the food burns your mouth and causes you to plunge to the hard ground like Wile E. Coyote!
Last year I bought a squirrel-proof feeder. The squirrels destroyed it within a week. So, as I contemplate the newest feeder acquisition, I can only ask: When will they come?
A few years back, a friend gave me an ingenious squirrel feeder – a box that sits on the ground. You fill it with inexpensive wildlife mix, and the food trickles out a small hole in the bottom of the box. Forget it. Once the squirrels determined that there was sunflower seed in the wildlife mix, they pulled out all the less desirable items, like cracked corn, and blew through the stuff they liked. A few hours later, they were back on my window feeder, hanging upside down whilst shoveling prime songbird seed into themselves at a rate that would burst a human like a balloon.
I suppose there ought to be a lesson hidden amongst this rant. Here it is: Humankind vastly overrates itself in terms of relative intelligence. We call ourselves “the thinking man” (Homo sapiens) as if the rest of the animal and plant kingdom can’t string together some serious reasoning. Take the humble squirrel for instance. First it has to see the birds eating the food on the feeder. Then it has to know that this kind of food is something it, too, likes to eat. Then it has to speculate the logistics, determine the scenario, and attempt to conquer the difficulties presented by the location of the feeder.
The capacity for thought is everywhere in our natural world. Off your high horse, Homo sapiens.

Anne Johnson is the author of “The Gods Are Bored,”, as well as a few other things here and there.

It’s getting to be “Pagan Pride Day” season, at least where I live. My state has three PPDs, one in the north, one in the central, and one in the south.  Have you ever been to a PPD? They are interesting, to say the least.

        The haiku artist Nick Virgilio once wrote: “Easter morning/the sermon is taking the shape/of her neighbor’s hat.” Doesn’t take a literary lion to figure that out. People go to religious gatherings to check out other peoples’ attire. PPD slides neatly into this fold. Now, I’m not being critical. It’s great to be able to have a gathering where you can wear all the ritual clothing that you have bought and cared for, and that you can’t just don at any whim for society at large. The trouble arises when the gathering is large and eclectic, and it is attended by people we don’t ordinarily associate with Paganism; namely, Satanists, Harley bikers, and folks who are just plain angry at the world.

        I have heard some Pagans express dismay (I’m being polite, they actually are disgusted) by some of these haters who stroll into PPD rocking maximum negative garb. Why does a biker in a pirate t-shirt think he’s a Pagan? Are we going to convert this person into a gentle soul who will value the Earth? Probably not, but let’s at least be civil. People identify themselves as Pagan for a wide variety of reasons. Some people are just plain rebellious against social norms. The beauty of Paganism, as I see it, is that we need not judge these rebels, nor do we need to proselytize to them. We can’t let an entity like the United Methodist Church adopt the slogan “Open Minds, Open Hearts” without being the same way ourselves. Beneath the veneer of that hater is someone who wants to belong under the umbrella. Be polite. Don’t sneer. The young lady with sixteen facial piercings gets enough negativity elsewhere in our world. Smile at her. By doing this, you honor your deities and your ancestors who were unable to express themselves freely.

        I’ve also heard PPDs denigrated as “Pagan lite,” something with little value to serious people who engage deeply with their Paths. In my experience, a Pagan Pride Day almost always attracts some very serious people, and these people almost always give talks. This is a chance to hear the basics about Paths that are different from yours. And if you want to add some gravitas to the proceedings, you should by all means offer to give a talk yourself. Bring some literature. Solicit questions, and answer them, especially if the questions show complete ignorance of your Path. One purpose of a PPD should be education. If anyone can wander in, this is the moment when the curious dip their toes into the water.  A Mormon missionary would not let this opportunity pass, nor should we.

        A final note on that “Pagan lite”: Open, eclectic rituals ask little more of us than to bond with strangers and to offer devotions. To me, there’s great value in this. Energy can be generated just by forming a circle and holding hands. Perfect? No. Powerful? Yes.


        If you see a PPD advertised in your area, ask yourself what you could add to it just by going. Then go, and be the change you want to see in this world. If you pass someone wearing head-to-toe tie-dye, that’s me. Howdy!

A Nagging Question

Ancestor worship is important. Without our forebears, we wouldn’t be here. We wouldn’t exist. Think of all the living and dying that had to go on, just so you could have that Friday evening ice cream! It’s only fitting that ancestor rites should play an important role in our Pagan ceremonies.

I guess I’m just forever the contrarian. Lately I’ve been wondering why I revere my ancestors.

Take my great-grandmother’s grandfather, for instance. He ran an iron forge in Western Maryland that used slave labor and was notorious for its inhumanity to its workers. I have a baby daddy great-great grandfather and a baby daddy grandfather. One hit the road when he heard he was going to be a father. The other one bragged about his prowess, all over my small Appalachian home town. My husband recently did his genealogy and found three generations of alcoholic, gambling, unfaithful men.

Who am I pouring libations for?

Sometimes I take the position that the ancestors I’m praying to are better ones, farther back on the timeline, who lived exemplary lives and looked out for their progeny. Oh, for the love of fruit flies, who am I kidding? They were human! Some good, some bad, some indifferent. Some all of the above.

It’s also egotistical to take the position that it doesn’t matter what kind of people your ancestors were, because their actions led to your existence. Let’s call this line of thought “letting the baby daddies off the hook.”

This nagging question occurred to me when I found myself venerating certain good ancestors while ignoring the bad ones. We all have saints in our family trees, but my sense of democracy won’t let me apply the gloss.

Here is my solution to this conundrum. Instead of praying to my ancestors, I pray for them.

Sorry, so sorry for the slavery. Sorry for the infidelity. Sorry for the drinking, the running away from responsibility, the human nature that you, my ancestors, showed. And, sorry to say, I am no prize either. I’m a chip off the old block, a conglomeration of the goodness and the badness that made all of my forebears human.

Perhaps veneration of ancestors should begin with forgiveness: to them, to ourselves, to the vicissitudes of history, climate, biology, and economics. Perhaps this veneration should include a humble understanding of the foibles of human nature. Pretending our ancestors were holy and god-like may elevate our self-esteem, but it’s dishonest. They were just people. Anxious, conflicted, complicated people: just like you and me.

My ancestor practice includes this forgiveness (and extends it to the people who my ancestors did wrong). It also includes the intention to do better. I don’t want to set myself up as a paragon of virtue, but I do want to learn from, and prevent, the mistakes of the past. The more I learn about the people who went into making me alive, the more I know where I’m likely to err. This is a holy thing. This is what those complicated human beings can do for me.



Anne Johnson is a public school teacher and the author of the humor blog The Gods Are Bored.

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