Monthly Archives: January 2012

B is for Kate Bornstein

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Kate Bornstein is one of my heroes and also one of my role models for being human.

I encountered her first in 1998 when I bought an advance uncorrected proof copy of her fabulous book My Gender Workbook: How to become a real man, a real woman, the real you, or something else entirely in a second hand bookshop in San Francisco.

As I took the Gender Aptitude Test (the link points to an archived version of the digitalized test so unfortunately you can’t get any results – but it’s still worth reading if you don’t know it), I found that I landed in the “Gender Freak” category. I was surprised, relieved, and very intrigued. I was surprised because as someone who was assigned female at birth and at that point identified as a lesbian femme who was mainly attracted to butches, I was used to being considered more “normally” gendered than my butch lovers and friends, including by said butch lovers and friends. I was relieved because the test finally confirmed my own feeling that I wasn’t as “normally” gendered as I may have looked to many people. And I was intrigued because I wanted to know how Kate Bornstein had managed to “get” me so thoroughly and what else she had to say.

And she does have a lot of really worthwhile things to say. I later read her books Gender Outlaw: On men, women, and the rest of us (1995), Nearly Roadkill: an infobahn erotic adventure (1996), which she wrote together with Caitlin Sullivan, Hello Cruel World: 101 alternatives to suicide for teens, freaks, and other outlaws (2006). All of these are very different from each other, and yet they are all Bornstein all the way.

But where’s the link to spirituality/paganism?, you ask.

Easy. With Hello, Cruel World, Bornstein has written a deeply spiritual book (by the way, here’s an interview with her so you can get an idea of what the book all about). I’m not sure that’s what she meant to do, but that’s what she accomplished. Not only does she hide the concept for a new tarot deck in Hello, Cruel World and dedicates one of the alternatives to Rachel Pollack of (mostly) tarot fame (I swear I’m going to make that deck eventually, although I still hope that by some strange twist of the Universe she’ll find the time and strength to create her own tarot deck + book and have Diane Di Massa create the artwork for it without having to take this time and energy from whatever else she’s doing). Not only does she sprinkle “zen mode” versions for many of the alternatives throughout the book, many of which deal with delightful paradoxes to ponder. Not only does she recommend several spiritual and pagan-ish methods of running a diagnostic checkup in another alternative (“since outlaws don’t always have access to traditional Western medicine or religious advice”). No, she also shows in very simple words on only a few small pages how binary concepts such as man/woman, gay/straight, normal/abnormal, black/white, crazy/sane, friend/enemy, etc. a) don’t work to accuartely describe humans and b) hurt and limit everyone they’re applied to. (Come to think of it, “binary” would have been a really good B topic as well…). She has also shown me that one can be kind without ever becoming any less of a fierce radical.

I’m realizing that this post doesn’t really do her justice because I’m not even able to say why she is such a wonderful person to have happened to this planet. I’ll still just leave it at this because it’s all I can do today. If I’m only a third as awesome as she is by the time I’m in my sixties, I’ll be a very happy Cat indeed who will have done a good handful of things that have made the world a better place.

I’m currently looking forward to her autobiography A Queer and Pleasant Danger: The true story of a nice Jewish boy who joins the Church of Scientology and leaves twelve years later to become the lovely lady she is today which is due to come out in May 2012. And as I was looking up her blog and her twitter feed and the tumblr dedicated to her today to provide the curious among you with some further links to Bornstein goodness, I found that there will be an update of the Gender Workbook. Tweet-sized contributions are explicitly welcome. I might go full circle with this and send in some snippets of my own.

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New Deck: Housewives Tarot

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After a too-short week with the Key to the Kingdom transformation cards, I’m ready to switch decks again. This week, the random number generator suggests these:

I don’t think my busy next week would be a good one to delve into the Liber T, so that one’s out. The other two are decks I already both used exclusively for several months. I don’t feel much like using the RWS, so the Housewives Tarot it is. That should go well with the themes of ancestors and food which have come up during the last week or so (see the previous handful of posts).

The Housewives is one of my first ten decks. I first tried to win it in a competition over at AT but that didn’t happen, so I eventually bought it myself. When I first considered doing an Intensive Deck Study (IDS), I picked this deck. Part of me wanted to prove this was indeed a serious tarot deck and not just a funny gimmick. That worked out pretty well. I did two months of daily draws with it and kept being amazed at the surprising ways I found my so-not-housewifey-at-all life in these collages of 1950s collages. In the end, I needed a break from the images and ended the ISG a month early (I had initially aimed at three months). Now I think that was partly due to reading for myself every single day, and I’ve mostly stopped doing daily draws since.

At any rate, I’m happy to reacquaint myself with the Housewives and their world. I believe they’ll be a good companion for my final week of work before a three-week holiday, because they are so focused on (domestic) work and achievement and capitalism.

Eggs, ink, and candy

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I was so hoping I’d have more time this week to use the Key to the Kingdom transformation cards. But then I also wanted to partly catch up with the Pagan Blog Project (see the previous three posts), and then there was my full-time job, and in the end it just didn’t happen. I didn’t even do a single exchange this week!

So, today is my last day with the deck and I wanted to do at least a final reading. I already know it’s a definite keeper for me, and I’m really glad I bought it.

Since my ancestors were on my mind a lot this week, I decided to finally do an ancestor spread. It’s a modified compilation of two other ancestor spreads: this one from the 4 of Wands blog, and this one from Flaxen at AT (which unfortunately isn’t accessible by non-members). I’m not addressing any specific ancestor because I’ve had the impression that there are quite a few that have started to stir now that I pay a little attention to them but none of them is sticking out particularly.

1. How can I best honor my ancestors at this point?Seven of Clubs

A light blue egg with black club-shaped dots has cracked open to reveal two thin gray legs (on which it is standing now) and a long yellow beak. The bird that is about to hatch is turned to the left, which is the past to me.

To me, this suggests that by simply “breaking through” the barrier of unawareness about my ancestors I have already taken the first step. Just paying attention to where I came from is a good start for now. Baby steps are fine since I’m only just starting out on this path. The blue color reminds me of the Sky, which also tells me that simply opening up to my ancestors is a good thing to do.

As I went through a field of wheat,
I picked up something good to eat;
It had neither flesh nor bone,
But in twenty days it walked alone.

~ unknown author

Maybe it’s selective perception on my part but food has come up in relation to ancestors quite a bit for me during the last few weeks. I’ve seen countless pictures of altars where people regularly offer food to their ancestors/beloved dead, and I’ve also read several articles about cooking food someone’s ancestors would have eaten as a way to honor them. For some reason they stood out to me more than other things that were equally present in these photos and texts.

At any rate, it got me thinking. You see, I’m really not much of a cook. I have terrible performance anxiety about my cooking and feel like the biggest loser at preparing food, both of which I suspect are in no relation to my actual skills. In fact, I can quite adequately feed myself, I can cook and bake from scratch at least a few simple dishes, I’m pretty good at improvised cooking with whatever is there after all the shops closed already, and I can also change basic recipes to replace missing ingredients or to use up something that needs to be consumed before it goes off. I also have basic knowledge about what makes a healthy diet and what kinds of nutrients are in what kinds of food. Still, I don’t enjoy cooking, and I don’t feel at home in the kitchen the way my mother does or some of my friends do. At the same time, I much admire people who enjoy cooking, I wish I was a better cook, and I really, really like to eat, especially in pleasant company. To sum it up: cooking brings up all kinds of baggage for me, about most of which I don’t even know what it’s about or why it’s even there. So, yeah, I guess cooking for my ancestors would indeed be a HUGE offering and even sacrifice on my part.

And then comes the big question of how and where to offer any food and what to do with it afterwards. I wouldn’t want to leave out food in my bedroom (where my altar is) for fear of attracting animals I don’t want in the house. I also wouldn’t want to regularly put out cooked food on the tiny terrace we have for fear of attracting rats. I know some people just put out food for the duration of a ritual, letting the spirits feed on its essence, and then share it among the human participants. But would that really feel like a proper offering to me? Others put any offered food out for the local wildlife, and I guess that works fine if you either have a bigger garden/backyard or live in a non-urban area. But I’m just not comfortable about taking food out regularly under the prying eyes of my neighbors in this apartment building. Nor does the local park feel like the right spot to put any cooked food. The third option is throwing the food away, but that feels even worse than eating it myself because I really dislike throwing away good food – and I also assume it’s not the most respectful way to treat an offering (composting would be different but our garbage goes to the incineration plant – which could be thought of as offering by burning, but the actual burning is a bit too far removed from me for that idea to convince me).

At any rate, I think I should explore this area some more and find a way in which food works as a way to honor my ancestors for me. Maybe I could cook regional foods or dishes I knew my Dad or Gran liked and then make a nice meal out of them for myself (and my Beloved if he was so inclined to join me) and eat it in their honor, possibly while telling stories about them. That would avoid quite a few of my conflicts about the disposal of (uneaten) offerings and it would make me learn some more family recipes (which I would like to be able to cook myself anyway). I could even invite a few friends for such a meal and ask everyone to bring a dish that was in some way connected to their ancestors (however they define them) so we could all feast and share stories. I’m actually liking that idea a lot right now!

Oh, and it could all be vegetarian, too, as the little rhyme above suggests. That would also suit (nearly) all of my friends.

2. What ancestral talent can I draw on more than I currently do?Nine of Clubs

A pot of black ink has spilled. Its label shows a cat and the word “black,” and there are club-shaped prints on the table/floor that look like a cat’s paw prints.

I’m immediately thinking of writing here. It seems that at least some of my ancestors were avid letter and diary writers. My maternal grandfather also wrote a bunch of poems. I could easily follow their footprints here and do more of my own writing. I’m also thinking of drawing ink and my terribly neglected drawing and painting skills which I very clearly inherited from my father. And now I even have his art supplies on top of that, as a material heritage. I miss drawing and painting anyway, so that’s a great nudge into the right direction.

O cat in semblance, but in heart akin
To canine raveners, whose ways are sin,
Still at my hearth a guest thou dar’st to be?
Unwhipt of Justice, hast no dread of me?
Or deem’st the sly allurements shall avail
Of purring throat and undulating tail?

~ Agathias

Oh, right. The cat as such. Well, once again this is connected to writing since “Cat” is my penname here and elsewhere on the internet. But my mother’s family did share their house with a tabby cat named “Mimmi” and I’m constantly dreaming of living with a cat again (I used to when I lived in a shared apartment where someone else had a cat, and when I first lived on my own and had my own cat – which I eventually had to give away to a friend’s roommate because I wasn’t able to find a new shared apartment where bringing her would have been possible). For several reasons, that doesn’t seem like such a great idea in the current apartment and life situation but I do hope I will be able to make room in my life for a cat again eventually.

3. What ancestral pattern do I need to let drop?Seven of Diamonds

Seven pieces of a special kind of pink-white-black liquorice are set out between four other pieces of black candy.

I like liquorice except for the kind pictured here that comes pressed between layers of some sweet and spongy stuff. I’m actually not quite sure what this image is supposed to tell me since I’m not aware that liquorice has played a special role amongst my ancestors.

Maybe the poem helps?

Handy spandy, Jack-a-Dandy,
Loves plum cake and sugar candy;
He bought some at a grocer’s shop,
And out he came, hop, hop, hop, hop.

~ unknown author

Hmmm. Not really. I’m not eating all too many sweets anyway, and I’m not aware they were an issue for any of my ancestors.

I think I’ll leave it at that for today. Maybe the last card will become clearer later on. Or maybe one of you has an idea?

B is for Balancing

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This post is a part of the Pagan Blog Project. It is the first of two for the letter B. As you can see, I’m still catching up on the project because the second B post would have been due this Friday. I plan to publish mine later this weekend.

This is not a post about the kind of balance that is once achieved and then kept in perfect beauty. Instead, it’s a post about the kind of balance you might find in a seesaw: dynamic, ever-changing, and not necessarily entirely pleasant.

I used to wonder why I always had such difficulties replying to questions that asked about my “typical role in a group.” That’s because I don’t really have a typical role I assume in whatever kind of group I’m in. I don’t even have a typical role I assume in the same group over even a small period of time.

Instead I’ve found that I often assume any role that is currently lacking in the given group set-up at a particular time.

If everyone agrees all too readily with each other without even having had any kind of discussion/collective thought process, I am the one to bring about questioning and disorder. If everyone is fighting and setting up Us vs. Them dynamics, I am the one to build bridges, translate and find common ground. If everyone is holding back passively and indecisively, I am the one to take the lead, take on responsibility and make decisions. If everyone is blaming/scapegoating someone else, I am the one to defend that someone and try to make others see that person’s view. If everyone is being outwardly friendly to someone who has overstepped the boundaries, I am the one to bring the conflict out into the open. If everyone is calmly rational in a matter (also) that touches on other people’s emotions, I am the one to express these emotions (especially difficult ones like anger or hurt, but sometimes also joy and love). If everyone is being very emotional, I am the one to bring some rational analysis to the dynamic. If everyone is serious and perfectionist, I am the one who introduces play, laughter and the value of “good enough.” If everyone is glossing over imperfections and joking around, I am the one to call for order and earnestness. And so on.

In part that’s probably due to my nearly automatic habit to always assume a “different” position, often simply out of curiosity for what effect that will have. I like not doing what everyone else does. But then I never just start trouble for trouble’s sake, so I figured there must be some other reason why I keep shapeshifting my behavior and even my emotions according to the needs of the group I’m in. Eventually I began to regard this as a “spiritual” role I fulfill: adding what’s missing, providing a necessary counterpart, causing creative tension to achieve some greater good. In fact, I often do so at my own cost, because you don’t exactly win many friends by “always being so difficult, ” by “always making things complicated,” or by “never accepting anything without (initial) objection.”

Admittedly, this may be stretching the definition of “spiritual,” but I believe it is one of my “jobs” in this life to put this talent to the use of a greater good, often without even being conscious of it while it happens. I believe I’m serving the Universe by doing so, consciously or not, even if that doesn’t often result in peace and comfort or in having praise heaped on me in vast amounts. To me at least, that is spiritual – and it is another thought process in progress…

A is for Ancestors

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The second post for the letter A is about Ancestors. This post is part of the Pagan Blog Project.

So who are my ancestors anyway?

The first thing that springs to mind is looking at my blood family tree: my parents, their parents, their parents, and so on. So let’s take a little glimpse in that direction.

My maternal grandmother (1936)

My mother (who is still alive) was born in Freiburg in southern Germany (Black Forest area) and both of her parents come from roughly the same area (Baden). Her mother (I’m told) was a cheerful, curious person who spent two years in Algeria as sort of a combined nanny-teacher in a French family in the mid-1930s when she was in her early twenties. I have transcriptions of her letters to her family about that time but haven’t read all of them, yet. Her father was a building inspector (I’m not quite sure what work that entailed back then, probably something architecture-related) and many of her other relatives were farmers.

My maternal grandfather with his father, sister and mother (1917)

My mother’s father came from a background of craftspeople, went on to become a teacher and eventually became a school principal. He also was an idealistic Nazi before and during the Second World War. I have a lot of letters he exchanged with his wife during the war but, again, I haven’t read all of them yet (because I can only digest so much of his naive glorification of Nazi Germany at a time). I believe he eventually ended up both wounded and a prisoner of war somewhere in the East. His wife (my maternal grandmother) died of cancer when my mother was 18, so I never met her. We didn’t see this grandfather very often (at most once a year), and I never really liked him. He eventually suffered from dementia and died at 90+ years when I was 16/17.

My paternal grandparents (late 1930s)

My father, who died almost exactly three years ago of cancer at the age of 69, was born in Lüchow in north-eastern Lower Saxony (Germany). His mother comes from the same area, and I assume his father did as well. His father used to be a forester/hunter. I don’t know much about him and never met him. His mother came from a family that owned a linen shop in Lüchow. She spent part of her youth in Spain, which she considered one of the best times of her life. She raised three sons basically by herself after her husband was killed in the Second World War and remained single for the rest of her life. She was very present during my childhood, which was easy since she always lived in the same city as we did or at least close by. I loved her a lot. At the end, she also suffered from dementia and eventually died at the age of 90+ years when I was 28.

As I was looking for a picture or two to go with this post, I realized that I have way more photos, letters, and transcribed diaries of my mother’s side of the family than I was aware of. Among these is a genealogy chart of my grandfather that goes back to the 1700s to what amounts to my great-great-great-great-great-grandparents. Ironically I have the Nazis and their demands for “racial purity” to thank for this, since he apparently had to fill it out to to be allowed to enter the Nazi teachers’ professional organization in the late 1930s.
The vast majority of these ancestors died in the same village near Heidelberg they were born in. Most of the men were (linen) weavers or some farmers (tobacco and asparagus were popular crops in that area), with a few other craftsmen and day-laborers sprinkled inbetween. It looks as if my grandfather actually was the first one to get any kind of higher education, and my mother was the first woman of her direct paternal line to ever attend any kind of university (not considering any siblings because I don’t have any data about them). It’s a bit strange to not see any professions listed for the women, because I suppose there was no shortage of work for them, and they probably did much of the same things as their husbands. Most of these ancestors were some kind of Protestant (Reformed or Lutheran), and one or two women were Catholic. That makes me the first child of that direct line never to be baptized in any kind of faith (my parents wanted to leave the decision what religion – if any – I wanted to belong to to me). I also saw that I share my birthday with a (great-)great-great-great-grandmother (she is both since two of her children married in two different generations), who was born in 1799.

Now that I know so much about that one branch of my family tree, I want to find out more about the other three of them. I believe a talk with my mother and a cousin of my father (who did some genealogy research of his own) is in order sometime soon.

My maternal grandfather with my mother (1940)

But let’s look at other kinds of ancestry. Most related to my blood ancestors is the national heritage of being a post-WW2 German, which I believe has a huge influence on my political thinking (which was already the case before I knew that my grandfather had been a convinced NSDAP party member and Nazi officer and several of my other relatives were at least casual Nazi supporters). To this day I often choose to speak up about injustices, even if it is to my disadvantage, because I don’t want to be accused of “not having said anything.” I don’t want to repeat the mistakes of previous Germans. I’m also very suspicious of any kind of national pride that some of my fellow Germans claim (and which has apparently become shockingly acceptable to display in relation to World Cup soccer matches again). I just can’t see how I can be proud of something I didn’t contribute to, especially a country I was more or less accidentally born into (depending on what you believe about previous lives, karma, and such things). I constantly question concepts of national or “racial” identity, point out the historical mutability of national borders, and try to show how the search for something “pure” and “original” in terms of ancestry and heritage is pretty pointless in a world where humans have always been migrating between areas, have been trading goods and customs with other cultural groups, and formed relationships with members of a different cultural background. So my German-ness is a kind of ancestry I claim somewhat hesitantly, although I also see that I am able to choose what to do with that heritage in terms of educating myself and others towards a non-Nazi-esque worldview.

So now that I’ve touched on the idea that my blood ancestry and national ancestry probably have an influence on me, even though I don’t believe they determine my fate, I would like to take my questioning the concept of ancestry a step futher.

I believe that there are influences that may have been at least equally important than these biological or geographical ancestors were to me. I mean, it’s not like my relatives played a major role in my upbringing (with the exception of my paternal grandmother). I saw them all maybe once a year, sometimes even less often. In my actual daily life, neighbors, friends, and some teachers were much more present and influential for me.

Lesbian bar (USA, 1940s)

And then there are the ancestors I also never met and with whom I share no blood relation or even geographical ties. You see, as a queer femme, I claim parts of the North American butch-femme and LGBT history as mine (I also claim small parts of German LGBT history as part of my heritage but not to the extent that I identify with much of North American LGBT history). And can I even call them ancestors when many of the more vocal members of certain generations and movements are still alive? Sure, some of this “ancestry” may be rather selective and romanticizing, but that doesn’t mean it feels any less real to me. I certainly can relate a lot more to their lives than I can relate to even my own grandfather.

It’s probably apparent by now that it’s a matter of perspective and (inner) debate who even belongs to my ancestors. Not to mention making any decisions about honoring any or all of them. Do I really want to honor a convinced Nazi? Do I ignore the political views of my grandfather and honor our shared love for nature instead? How do I handle the fact that he didn’t bring much happiness to his own wife and children (especially his daughter, my mother), even if he didn’t outright abuse any of them? Is it possible to view him as a human being and still condemn the opinions he held and his active support of the Nazi regime? What if I find out in reading more of his letters that he knew of the concentration camps and/or participated in killing people during his time in the military (at the least the latter of which seems pretty likely)? And what about my two grandmothers who were at least casual Nazi supporters for at least some of the time? I see that their main concerns wasn’t what happened in the political arena or even on the war fronts – the letters I have read clearly show that their everyday lives consisted of trying to feed their children in a war economy and getting by without their husbands instead. But still. What – if anything – did they know about Nazi cruelties? Did they denounce any neighbors? Or did they find their own small forms of resistance that didn’t endanger their husbands’ lives? Is ignorance an excuse for not doing anything against the Nazi regime?

Despite the length of this post, it’s all still a very superficial look at these issues, raising more questions than answering any. I’m definitely not done thinking about them, I’m not done researching, and I’m not done trying to put my thoughts into words. But for today, this post shall suffice, as imperfect as it is.