Tuesday, January 20, 2009

A very stirring morning

It’s been an incredible, moving day. I’m ebullient, lifted, feeling—very sincerely---hopeful. I believe President Obama’s earnestness, and I believe he has the power to make many (or hopefully all) of the things he talked of become a reality.

His inaugural speech was moving in part because, as one commentator said, it referred to values, not just a series of policy promises. It was a mission statement of sorts. Obama’s mindset is not just red, white and blue: it is about the peoples of the world, and how our country affects how the world operates.

He spoke directly to poor nations, telling them we felt a responsibility to help them establish healthy farms and clean, running water—and then he spoke to other wealthy nations and reminded them that we have a duty to help those poorer nations. That was the part of his speech that affected me the most: it made me see that we elected someone who can’t freely enjoy this country’s prosperity knowing that others around the world have nothing to eat, and are drinking from contaminated water, or none at all.

My book club for the first time eschewed our policy to read only fiction, and we are reading Dreams from My Father, President Obama’s first book. I am only 40 percent of the way through it, but I am awed by his writing power, not only in his turns of phrase, but also his sense of history.

In his 1995 introduction, he writes,

“[This book] is autobiographical, although whenever someone’s asked me over the course of these last three years just what the book is about, I’ve usually avoided such a description. An autobiography promises feats worthy of record, conversations with famous people, a central role in important events. There is none of that here.”

Reading that through the film of 14 years of hindsight, it’s poignant. Not only has President Obama had discussions with famous people, he is famous. He will play a central role in important events and perform feats worthy of record. He is one of only 44 people in the history of the world who have led this brash country founded on beautiful, simple democratic values.

His sense of history is strong, as his book explores his own familial story against the backdrop of the larger march of time. His world sense is keen: he spent formative years witnessing devastating poverty in Indonesia, and he has seen racial attitudes from Hawaii to Manhattan, including his own white grandmother being afraid of an aggressive, panhandling black man.

He represents the “patchwork” he referred to in his speech. He is named “Barack” after his African father, but the name itself is Moslem and means “blessed” in Arabic. His family roots are as “apple pie” as small towns in Kansas, and as worldly as Kenya. He has spent many years examining himself, his family’s story and the larger story of the world, and his conclusions are solid, compassionate and so desperately needed at this hour.

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Thursday, January 15, 2009

A few things to share

I have a few updates to share.

First, my last-ever reading for The Witch's Trinity will be in a few weeks. 7:30 p.m., Tuesday, Jan. 27 at Booksmith, 1644 Haight St. in San Francisco, 415-863-8688.

Secondly, Booksmith is such a wonderful and enterprising bookstore that they hired local filmmakers to do a video of me and four of the other authors reading there this month. The filmmakers describe it as a "video love letter" to San Francisco. You can go to Booksmith's website and it is featured there on the home page. It's also playing on YouTube.

Thirdly, the fabulous Marshal Zeringue invited me to do a guest blog over at his My Book The Movie site. The idea of the site is that he invites authors to fantasize about who might play their characters if their novel was made into a film. It's really fun to read through his archives.

He also runs The Page 69 Test, another creative blog where he asks authors to open their book to page 69 and comment on whether that page is representative of the whole, and why/why not. He invited me to post at Page 69 back in 2007 when Witch's Trinity came out in hardcover (and that hyperlink brings you to my post). Thanks so much, Marshal.

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Friday, January 09, 2009

More thoughts on the woman burned in Papua New Guinea

Tonight I made pasta, and as I put a single campanelle on a spoon to blow on it and then taste it to see if it was done, it jounced off the spoon and fell flatly against my bottom lip. It was only there for a second before it fell off, but the stickiness of the pasta meant it did stay there for a beat. And it burned. I immediately thought of that poor young woman--just a second of burning on my lip was agonizing. And she felt it everywhere, until she died.

Another thought. I told a friend about this news story, and he got caught up in the detail that she had been placed atop a pile of tires to be burned. He said, "A culture advanced enough to have tires, and yet they're still burning people alive for witchcraft?"

He also pointed out that Papua New Guinea was one of the last places to give up cannibalism (just 50 years ago, as a quick Google search reveals).

The entire news story on the woman burned to death for witchcraft, as reported by CNN, can be read here.

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Thursday, January 08, 2009

Young woman burned alive

My heart sinks every time a new witchcraft item makes its way into the news. I wish I never had anything to blog about. Today’s horrifying news headline from CNN is “Woman Suspected of Witchcraft Burned Alive.”

The lead sentence is:

A woman in rural Papua New Guinea was bound and gagged, tied to a log and set ablaze on a pile of tires this week, possibly because villagers suspected her of being a witch, police said Thursday.

Just as in medieval times, victims provide scapegoats for others’ misfortune. The article, by Saeed Ahmed, describes how Papua New Guinea’s high AIDS rates give rise to witchcraft accusations, as people believe witches spread HIV and AIDS.

Police don’t know who the woman was and are asking people to come forward. “Somebody lost their mother or daughter or sister Tuesday morning,” a policeman is quoted as saying. Her remains indicated she was probably in her late teens or early 20s.

She was not the only victim of recent times, Ahmed's piece relates:

The country's Post-Courier newspaper reported Thursday that more than 50 people were killed in two Highlands provinces last year for allegedly practicing sorcery.

In a well-publicized case last year, a pregnant woman gave birth to a baby girl while struggling to free herself from a tree. Villagers had dragged the woman from her house and hung her from the tree, accusing her of sorcery after her neighbor suddenly died.

She and the baby survived, according to media reports.

There is much more in the full article; click here.

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Sunday, January 04, 2009

Witchcraft ritual

January is the month of inaugurations. This year I am thrilled beyond belief that we have an incoming president who can do so much positive work for our country. And he’s a writer, no less!

In other inaugural news, I’m proud to present my first-ever guest blog post.

Bill Baldwin is a fellow writer, and I met him recently at the Book Group Expo in San Jose. He graciously accepted my offer to write about modern-day witchcraft here. In October, he organized a Samhain ritual—Samhain is the pagan precursor to Halloween—and here he writes about that experience.

Thanks, Bill, for sharing this information. I welcome any comments that I can pass along to him.

So what do modern Wiccan Witches do? Do they have anything to do with the witches we read about from hundreds of years ago? “Yes and No; How would we know?”

I don’t know so much about medieval witches, but I know quite a bit about modern Witches. I’m a legally recognized priest of the Covenant of the Goddess, a witches’ organization. And I often organize community rituals in the San Jose area.

The Samhain (Halloween) ritual I recently presented was intended for a medium-sized group (25-30). South Bay Circles has been offering the eight Wiccan sabbats to the San Jose Pagan community for over twenty years. Its rituals include the basic Wiccan elements of casting a circle and invoking the directions and the Goddess. But I also wanted the ritual to hold personal meaning for me and the participants.

My basic concept was Shamanic – the willing offering up of the shaman to symbolic death and dismemberment in order to achieve wisdom for the sake of the Community.

But I didn’t want the ritual to be too scary. How could I make people laugh at Death? Of course Halloween-time is also the time of the Mexican Day of the Dead.

In the spirit of play I decided to include children’s songs and games: “London Bridge” (to represent Death by Engineering Disaster), “Ring-A-Round-The-Rosie” (to represent Death by Disease), and “Rock-Paper-Scissors” (to represent Death by Violent Competition).

I also decided to perform the entire first part of the ritual counter-clockwise, the reverse direction from usual, to represent dissolution.

I began by honoring witches killed in the witch persecutions. Then, invoking the Three-Form Goddess, I remembered friends and lovers who had died.

Then the children’s games, one by one, left all participants on the ground – “dead” – waiting for rebirth – as I read passages from T. S. Eliot’s “Ash Wednesday” and performed a brief drumming meditation on death, dismemberment, and disintegration.

Then I invited people to awake in the Land of Hades and Persephone. We shared a meal with the Dead -- in contrast to classical myths where you are *forbidden* to eat in the Underworld. By eating with the Dead we accept their deaths, our own deaths, and our connection to those who have gone before us.

Then reconstitution and resurrection, to the song “Them Bones”, based on the Biblical vision of Ezekiel. And a Spiral Dance, leading into the circle counterclockwise, then bending back on itself to return from the circle clockwise.

From here on, everything continued in the clockwise (sunwise) direction of growth. We had offered ourselves for death, met Death, communed with the Dead, been reformed, and returned to Life. What we have learned in this encounter is meant to help us live a better life.

And we have remembered our loved ones who have died, acknowledged that we too shall die, and resolved to live in service to the Community.

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