Compassion vs Niceness, Identity, and Some Tamora Pierce References

Since the death of my friend and godmother, Kathryn, last year, I’ve been dealing with some Big Life Things–graduation with my MFA, recovering from a year and a half of being housebound and bedridden, getting engaged, planning a wedding, dealing with my parents’ divorce, big issues with my siblings, travel, new health issues, and just a lot of stuff that’s affected my concept of myself and my identity. Because processing grief doesn’t happen in a vacuum, my missing her and dealing with her passing sort of merged with all of those issues and I became sort of fixated on what I thought would be disappointing her about me because I felt like I was disappointing everyone else. I thought that perhaps those people were right—maybe I was judgmental, mean, oversensitive, cruel, hard to like and harder to love. I clung to how much Kathryn had liked and loved me and I asked myself what she would want to see more of in me. Whether the root of the question was super problematic or not (hint: it was,) I came to the conclusion that she would ask the same thing of me that she asked of the world at large: compassion.

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However, doing that has meant struggling with the meaning of compassion and what I’m supposed to do with it. It is easy to see it as the idea of being kind and gentle and empathetic and nice to everyone. But as the sociopolitical tensions mount in the world, so do tensions in interpersonal relationships. When does someone stop being your friend if they reveal that they don’t believe in human rights for ALL humans? In the face of most things, Kathryn would laugh and shake her head and say nothing about someone’s personal foibles—after all, civility and courtesy are the hallmarks of a kind person. But not all things. Not, perhaps, these things. She was a feminist and an activist. She went to protests in real life and delivered thoughtfully-worded and remarkably polite smackdowns on the internet. She had firm beliefs about standing up for others and for yourself when you have to. But I never saw her scream at anyone or be cruel—she’d scream an open letter to evil people, maybe, and she’d certainly express things vehemently, but I never saw her be mean. And I’m not going to lie, I can be really mean.

So, as some of my friends and even some family have begun to reveal disturbing world views, often via very personal situations, I am left wondering if people didn’t say the same sorts of things to her as they do to me, if her boundaries just kept the unpleasantness a little further back, or if she was just really, really good at reining it in. I honestly don’t know. Would she suggest I keep calm and carry on and just walk away? Or is silence in the face of abuse just enabling the abuser? Do a few gentle words of disapproval actually do enough in these situations, or is it sometimes better to be mean to horrible people? Is it okay to snap sometimes and yell at someone who crosses your boundaries too many times? Is it alright to tell someone who has been your friend for years to fuck right off if they think that keeping people in concentration camps is okay? That one is perhaps obvious. But how does that translate to when a friend or family member spends hours asking you to do things with/for them and share your opinions and then tells you that you’re judgmental and the opinions they asked for are worthless? Spend less time with them, I guess, but what happens when it’s more complex than that? What happens when your livelihood is a factor? What about when your brain damage means that the words don’t come out the way you want them to anymore, when you can’t gather your thoughts to express them properly at all, let alone gently? Where do compassion, pragmatism, kindness, self-care, and the need to express feelings meet, and how do you keep them in balance?

I don’t know. I honestly don’t. But after over a year of trying to figure it out, I do know that compassion can’t possibly mean being nice to everyone all the time. And I know Kathryn loved me, sharp tongue and all—just because her compassion was more graceful doesn’t necessarily mean that mine isn’t good enough. This is the woman who handed me my first Tamora Pierce novel and introduced me to characters like Rosethorn, a woman who suffered no fools, had a razor for a tongue, could threaten to hang you by your ears in a well, and yet was somehow gentle and kind to the people and creatures who needed it, when they needed it—sometimes while yelling at them.

So I think maybe it means biting my tongue sometimes when a friend or family member dates someone I can’t stand, not because I don’t have completely legitimate thoughts on why their significant other is terrible, but because I choose to be gentler when I can be—but maybe not biting it all the time, maybe just picking my moment instead of trying to express all my thoughts every single minute.

Maybe it means putting myself in someone else’s shoes and thinking about why they act how they do and what they’re feeling and seeing if that makes it easier to be nice to them.

Maybe it’s keeping some of my less immediate or important opinions close to the vest unless they’re asked for.

Maybe it means being gentler with the people who are gentle with me.

Maybe it means trying to like and see the best in people, especially when my first inclination is to be jealous or suspicious or bitter.

But I don’t think it means not verbally expressing clear boundaries, limits, and opinions on things that actively affect me.

I definitely don’t think it means not being angry or expressing that anger when people do bad or cruel things, either to me or to others.

I don’t think it means always being nice to people who are willfully ignorant or intentionally cruel or even just persistently callous.

I don’t think it means biting my tongue in the face of racism, rape culture, Nazism, or other human awfulness.

I definitely don’t think it means trying to understand and forgive and be kind to everyone. I think I’m allowed to just try to be courteous to people I dislike, kind to people I love, and still tell rape apologists and Nazis to go eat shit and die. I think that’s how that works. (I mean, she’d probably want me to phrase it in a less coarse and more devastating way and possibly add in a Shakespearean insult, but the point stands.)

I don’t think she’d be disappointed in me for not being the nicest. I’ve always been crotchety and opinionated and loud and she never seemed to love me any less for it—she was compassionate in a way I can understand, a way where she saw what I meant and, usually gently but sometimes with an exasperated sigh and a stern word, helped bring my actions and language closer to whatever that was. And maybe it’s obvious and easy for you to be like, “Yeah, Alena, chill, she loved you, she’s not judging you from beyond the veil of death, that’s insane.” But you should know by now that I have absolutely zero chill and it turns out that when most of the people that are supposed to love you are telling you what a shit person you are, how wildly inadequate you are, it’s hard to not feel like you somehow tricked one of the few people who didn’t think that, especially when they’re not physically present to confirm that they did, in fact, know you, and did, in fact, love you. It’s hard, okay? It shouldn’t be, but it’s hard and I spend so much time feeling like I’m drowning in it.

I come back to that first Tamora Pierce book she handed me—one afternoon in the Lumpkin County library, she reached up on tiptoe to pull it off a shelf in the YA section. She handed me Street Magic and my whole world changed. I was handed heroes and heroines who had all different skin colors, were of different social classes, were skinny and fat, were gifted at different things—who were good, even if they weren’t always terribly nice. And I think she handed me that particular book—the book in which a sharp-tongued woman features most prominently as a loving, protective, kind, and compassionate, but definitely not nice, figure worthy of respect, admiration, and love—absolutely on purpose. Later, I backtracked in the series and met Lark, the gentle, soft spoken, strangely athletic creatrix who was Rosethorn’s partner and co-mentor of the protagonists, and I was thrilled, thrilled that she wasn’t elevated above Rosethorn because she was “nicer;” she was her partner and friend and understood that there could be different ways to love people and interact with them that didn’t mean changing or editing or censoring everything that wanted to come out of my mouth. Maybe not all the nice people who loved me needed me to be the same sort of good that they were. That kept me going for a long time.

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When Kathryn passed, I think I lost my way with that a little. Or maybe just lost it a little more–I definitely had a pendulum thing happen in college where I went from being ruthless and defensive and offensive to being a doormat who let people take terrible advantage of and hurt me. Maybe now I can swing back to the middle, or at least closer to it—I’m leaning a little harder towards the angry side, I can’t pretend I’m not, but I think that’s necessary for me to be able to survive the world’s craziness right now. Abortion is illegal in my state now. I think anger is appropriate. But I digress.

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The reality is that, even though it would be really easy to simplify Kathryn into “the nice one,” she was way more complex than that. She was the creative one, the feminist one, the bookish one, the mothering one, the sisterly one, the let’s go dancing one, the one who spoke like a zillion languages, the poetic one, the scholarly one, the teacherly one, the one who celebrated things with pie, the short one, the surprisingly athletic one, the one who was way more things than should have logically fit into her tiny human vessel. She’s not some angel sitting on my shoulder, judging me when I can’t stay silent about a friend dating a domestic abuser or bite my tongue over a family member being a rape apologist. She’s the voice in my head that says, “Eat that pie, girl!” and, “Carrying a pink pussy hat purse in a conservative environment is a lovely form of peaceful protest,” and, “The sign says no loitering, but we’re not loitering, we’re eating.” She’s the one who, when people were horrible to me on the internet, casually commented with the 10 Commandments of Logical Fallacies and just listed the numbers that correlated to the flaws in their arguments. She’s the one who taught me that Pride and Prejudice was more than a historical romance novel, that it was incisive social commentary and that things and people could be more than one thing—possibly even clever, somewhat judgmental, good people, and capable of love. She dedicated three whole books to me, so she probably thought I was pretty okay and I should maybe stop freaking out about posthumously disappointing her by not changing my ENTIRE CHARACTER.


I don’t think she’d need me to try to be just like her—I think she would appreciate the compliment and then gently remind me that she already existed and I should be something different because I am something different. I think she’d be kind of bemused by the fact that I’ve been trying so hard to be like her, actually. I think she’d want me to be whatever I need to be so that I stay strong and confident and healthy enough to protect myself and others. I think she’d probably be pretty okay with it if that sometimes means not being polite to friends or family members who repeatedly cross my expressed boundaries, or if it means yelling at a sexist abuse and statutory rape apologist on Facebook, or if it means telling someone I’ve known my whole life that we can’t be friends if they’re going to support someone like Trump. I think she’d be pretty thrilled if I punched a Nazi—as long as I made sure they couldn’t later identify my face and didn’t do it in a way that endangered my safety (or the safety of others) or got me arrested. I think she’d probably be far more thrilled if I wrote a book about a young girl thwarting (and maybe punching) Nazi corollary figures and saving the world because it would be more effective on a larger scale, but the point is that I don’t think she’d mind if I’m a coarser grit sandpaper than she was. I think that compassion and niceness are probably definitely actually not the same, even though Kathryn was both compassionate and nice. I think maybe there will be a few people, when all is said and done, who don’t want or expect me to be anything but the best version of the person I actually am, even if they’re not all the people I would have assumed or wished they were.

Rosethorn was always my favorite anyway.

 

Pitfalls of Growing Up Pagan: a Reprise

I have had a few people say that their feelings were hurt by my blog post about growing up in the neopagan community and say that I’m being ungrateful and unappreciative of all the work that they put into creating that community and including it. So I just want to address that. 

A. You can love something, be grateful for something, appreciate something…and still look at it objectively, look at it critically, and want to make it better. I can cook a delicious meal and still think, “ah, I think I should add less pepper next time so my stomach doesn’t hurt so much after eating it.” It doesn’t mean the meal wasn’t good, just that the first try could be improved upon during the next try. You don’t prune a rose bush to punish it or because you don’t appreciate its beauty, you do it so that it can grow bigger and more healthy. 

B. It’s not really about gratitude or your feelings. It’s about bringing the community off of its pedestal for a minute and out into the light and taking an honest look at the dangerous and damaging parts of it. My wedding dress arrived and it was gorgeous…but the arms didn’t fit. As we began to refit them, we discovered that there were a couple pins left in the seams. That doesn’t mean that the dress is evil or that I don’t love it or that I’m not going to wear it. It means that it needs some adjustment for it to be safe and comfortable for me to be in. 

So, while I love all the people who are grumbling and I understand that your feelings are hurt, I’m just honestly not in a place where I believe that I need to apologize for speaking up and speaking out. I have watched too many awful things happen in the name of “self discovery,” “loving all bodies,” “practicing openness,” “exploring pleasure,” “creating your own reality,” and “encouraging natural urges.” None of those things are inherently wrong. Not all the people practicing those things are doing so in a damaging way. But those ideals were, and in many ways still are, being used by people in dangerous and damaging ways in the neopagan community and I am unwilling to look away or be silent about it just so that I don’t seem ungrateful. The good parts of that community raised me to be strong, vocal, and try to make the world around me a better place. I honor the good parts of the pagan community by trying to make it better—or at least more conscious of where it’s sometimes falling short. Even the most marvelous and beautiful gardens need tending sometimes; you don’t get healthy plants by ignoring diseases, predators, and other hazards. As we discovered at PSG this year, it’s not always safe to dance barefoot, and when you notice broken glass and sharp metal objects in the ritual circle, you’re not doing anyone any favors by not pointing them out and/or picking them up. 

So, for me, the reality is this: there are problems, and pointing them out is not being ungrateful, it is simply NECESSARY. This is not a community I would be okay raising a child in. It is not a safe space. There is safe space within it! But that’s very different. One of the strongest and most sex-positive women I know has been continually—and is currently being—sexually harassed by a high-ranking member of her neopagan community, and when she asked for help, an enormous number of people in that community refused to believe her, made excuses for her abuser, and made her feel unsafe in her own space. Almost every member of my group of childhood friends, male or female or otherwise, in the pagan community was sexually harassed, sexually assaulted, or otherwise coerced into wanting or thinking they wanted things that were simply not safe, sane, or consensual, all when they were too young to be making those decisions in an informed way. I was personally sexually harassed while growing up—by teenagers and adults, both men and women, both directly and more indirectly in the form of grooming and coaching, from many members of the community, most of whom thought that what they were doing was a good thing.  I got a lot of my best lessons from the same people who gave me the most horrible misconceptions. The problem is not that one or several people are bad; the problem is people thinking that being asked to change a behavior is the same as being accused of intentional wrongdoing. 

This isn’t any single person’s fault, and I’m not putting blame on the people who were trying to create an atmosphere different from the one they escaped—but now, now that these things have been noticed, have been said, have been observed, documented, and voiced loudly and publicly? Now, if they continue, it is someone’s fault. I do blame. Because once you know, you become complicit if you choose to look away. So don’t look away. Do better. Stand there and look at what’s happening under the free love and good time vibes and see if it’s the world you’re trying to build—and when it is, celebrate. But when it isn’t, course correct. Make the change. And don’t come barking up my tree for being ungrateful. I’m super grateful. I’m grateful that I am in a position to see and to speak out. I am grateful for the people and the moments and the parts of the community that made me the kind of person who isn’t just ABLE to say this, but HAS to say it.

AND AN ADDENDUM IN CASE IT WAS UNCLEAR—grooming kids growing up pagan to be overtly sexual, sexual too young, sexual with inappropriate partners, or to believe that monogamy is bad and a trapping of conservatism is NOT the same as encouraging kids to ask questions, encouraging them to personally and privately figure out what they like *with themselves* until they are of an appropriate age and ready, encouraging them to practice safe sex and openly talk about their sexual preferences and needs when they DO start having sex, talking to them about consent and boundaries, normalizing queerness/non-heteronormativity, or talking about/normalizing informed and consensual non-monogamous situations and relationships. 

Normalizing healthy discussions of sex and its many totally acceptable permutations is fine. Making jokes to chubby twelve year olds that they’ll “get all the men” once they’re legal “because fat girls are better at sex to make up for it,” telling thirteen year olds that “you better learn to swallow if you don’t want to end up pregnant!” or other things that groom them to treat sex as a way to have power over other people, as a replacement for self-awareness and appropriate expression, as a way to validate themselves, or as a means of escape is NOT fine. 

Giving young people open access to birth control even before they begin to consider sexual activity is GREAT, it normalizes safe sex and integrates contraception/STI prevention as part of the concept of sex as they mature and that is TOTALLY FINE. Teasing them about being virgins, making comments about what you’d like to do to them or what others would like to do to them “once they’re legal” is NOT okay. 

Encouraging young people to normalize nudity and exploring their body is fine—they came out of vaginas, it is a-okay for them to know what they are and how they work! Making jokes about small penises, men not being able to find the clitoris, or other things that will make them ashamed if they or their partner experience what you’re talking about or eaching them to sexualize and sensationalize nudity by making comments like, “ugh, why is it always the people who you wish wouldn’t get naked that do?” or making lewd comments towards naked people you *do* find attractive is NOT cool. 

Normalizing a desire to explore mind-altering substances and creating an atmosphere where young people can feel comfortable asking questions or otherwise talking about how to do that in a relatively safe way is great. Making them feel that doing drugs is a “rite of passage,” something they will inevitably do, something that they are not normal if they DON’T do, making drugs a required part of spiritual practice or associating the two as if they are naturally and integrally linked is not cool. Shaming or mocking a young person for not wanting to smoke weed or drop acid or get drunk or be sexual is ludicrous and just shows that you need to validate your own choices by forcing others to make those choices, too. It’s still peer pressure even if you’re not the same age and it’s gross. 

Verbally trashing non-monogamous relationships as “cheating but with rules,” one partner “settling” or “putting up with” another’s “desire to sleep around,” or otherwise portraying them as bad or degrading while also bragging about/chasing threesomes as long as it’s with two people of the gender YOU prefer (looking at you, hetero dudes, and your constant hunt for the girl/girl/guy hookup) is not cool. Also, objectifying lesbians or coercing hetero women into girl on girl acts to gratify your male gaze is SO two decades ago and also gross and shitty of you and you need to stop. 

Teaching kids and teens that all bodies are good bodies and to love themselves is not the same as telling them that they HAVE to be naked to participate in ritual if they want it to “be real,” telling them what it’s “normal” to want because it was what *you* wanted, or otherwise forcing the issues of sex and consent in relation to normalcy is not okay, no matter how you mean it. 

You want to celebrate sex? CELEBRATE IT. You want to consume mind altering substances, whether it’s marijuana, alcohol, or “the hard stuff”? DO IT. But that doesn’t mean have it everywhere all the time or make it the center of every social interaction or religious/spiritual situation, especially with young people. It’s time to pay attention to the lessons we’re teaching or modeling and make a conscious choice about what we’re normalizing for the kids in the community. You can celebrate things without forcing them down people’s throats. 

Struggles With Faith: Pitfalls Of Growing Up Pagan

There are more important things going on. Human beings are being detained in what are basically concentration camps with a different name. Medical attention in the US is prohibitively expensive and people (people I know and love) are literally dying because of it. Climate change is real and terrifying and the Earth is probably doomed and no matter how much you recycle your bottles and cans, even if we all do it, our collectively mitigated carbon footprint will never be enough to offset the damage done by even one Fortune 500 company’s environmental damage. My state and several others are passing laws to deny me control over my own body, even in a survival situation. The world is ugly and getting uglier and there are way more important things that need to be discussed than what I’m about to talk about.

At the same time, if I had heard some of what I’m about to say from anyone else growing up, it might have saved me a lot of hurt and fear. So no, this is not the most important thing. But I’m going to take a sec to talk about it anyway.

I just came back from a big pagan festival! It was not a good time for me for a lot of reasons, most of them health-related. Health and festival organizational issues and weather aside, though, being in the pagan community and seeing how it is changing (in some ways very positively, like with gender inclusivity, and other ways not so positively,) brought up a lot of thoughts I’ve been having over the last few years about my faith and my identity.

When people talk about struggling with their faith, it’s not usually a pagan faith—paganism is where the people who worked through that struggle and found the Truth end up. At least, that’s the narrative I grew up with. Not an orchestrated narrative fed to time by my parents, but a natural, background one I absorbed from almost everyone active in our community, in the pagan faith. They’d been raised Christian, usually, but they weren’t sheep! No! (Christians are automatically sheep in these stories, obviously, by virtue of not having found the Truth.) They had questions! And they found their answers in the balance between the god and goddess! It was a very tidy story, even when the person had suffered mightily because of that journey—it felt like a coming out story. Even if it meant giving up everything, losing the love of their families and friends, anything, it was worth it because they had found the truth. And that made sense to me. I saw Christianity as the starting point, the Fool, a faith of well-meaning ignorance, and Paganism as the end, the World, the faith of the wise and learned, the followers of truth and love. Everyone around me was sex positive, accepting of queerness, chill about gender fluidity, down with science—it was basically The Dream(tm), right? I was raised to question everything and find my own answers, to know myself and love myself and live in joy and love and gratitude toward the god(s) and goddess(es.) Religious and sexual freedom—it’s what everyone, especially a young person, wants!

Well, as you’re probably guessing, it’s not actually as straightforward as all that. It turns out that knowing yourself as you grow up is bullshit—there’s nothing TO know except that you’re hungry for life and have no idea what you’re gonna be yet, even if you’re super self aware and logical. It just makes you try to pin down who you are instead of letting it happen naturally. Forces you to internalize the desires of your community because you don’t know what yours even ARE. But sex is good, right? Everybody is really obsessed with it—the Christians with not having it, the Pagans with being super all for having it! I mean, the chalice and athame are symbolic genitals, literally every ritual we engage in has sex as the sacred act, the thing that blesses the cakes and wine! Sex is a great place to start, because it’s EVERYWHERE and everyone is talking about it and you’re a kid becoming a teenager and hormones are a thing and you don’t know what the deal is, but you know it must be important, must be POWERFUL.

Okay, look. All the pagans I grew up with were super into talking about how Christianity swooped in and stole all their shit—their gods, their holidays, everything. And that’s pretty frequently true! But neopaganism swooped right back and blew a giant raspberry at Christianity while yelling, “WRONG” at the top of its lungs and based a whole hell of a lot of itself around being a reactionary clapback to Christianity. It’s not all about truth and love. It’s not all about ANYTHING. No, it’s about EVERYTHING—put six pagans in a room and ask them what their religion is about and you’ll get two dozen answers, ten of them from the same guy who thinks that just because he prays to a woman, he’s absolved from sexism and the mansplaining phenomenon and just wait until you’re legal, baby, you’re DELICIOUS, but that’s not gross to say because he’s not touching you or anything and paganism is sex positive and honest! Never mind that you’re being groomed as a sex object just like a girl in any other religion—no, it’s fine, because it’s sex you’re allowed to want, supposed to enjoy! How do you know when you’re ready? You know yourself; you’ll know! The goddess will speak to you! Oh, wait, all you hear is ringing silence and the bloody volcanic roar of hormones drowning out any semblance of objectivity? That’s just the goddess speaking to you through your primal nature! Listen to your instincts! Know yourself! Trust and love the goddess, she is all the answers you need! Get naked in the moonlight and dance! You’re young and beautiful! Oh, wait, you’re thirteen and fat and have floppy old lady boobs and weird proportions that don’t match this Barbie-shaped statue of Artemis I have on my mantle/altar? Haha why is it always the people we wish would keep their clothes on who want to get naked? Hahaha GROSS! But why aren’t you comfortable with this naked sweatlodge ritual again? Explore yourself, make mistakes, live free! Smoke some weed, drop some acid, try this peyote! Young people don’t need structure and boundaries or to keep mind-altering chemicals out of the already mind-altering cesspool of hormones blooming in their bodies! They need boundless freedom and encouragement!

Okay, look, first gen neopagans. I appreciate what you tried to do. I do. You escaped stifling censure and the weird, invasive strictures of your parents’ Abrahamic faith and you found a new path. A path where you could explore yourself and make what you would of your findings. You wanted to raise your kids in that freedom, spare them your suffering. Give them the space to explore things and make mistakes. But here’s the reality. Too much of a good thing is still too much, and unlike you, we didn’t have a starting place where we learned what we wanted even if it was denied us.

Sure, you encouraged us. Encouraged us to do what worked for you. To be okay with wanting sex, wanting to experiment with drugs, wanting to find the right god/ess and commune with them in my own way. But no one ever, ever said that NOT wanting those things was an option. You were so caught up in finding yourselves and your freedom that you didn’t consider that wanting those things and having those desires repressed wasn’t necessarily the default, that kids maybe wouldn’t automatically KNOW that it was an option to say no, to not want. You told us—me—that those things were natural, integral in human nature.

But they weren’t in mine. And I didn’t get to figure that out for like two decades because I was so caught up in the neopagan propaganda machine. I was a young, independent woman! I was sexual and my body was my own! I had the world at my fingertips! Except that I was a kid. I wasn’t ready to be independent. It took years of therapy and actually looking after real human children to find out that letting a kid spend that much time alone isn’t actually healthy. To realize that I was pressured into “wanting” sex YEARS before I actually wanted it, into seeing it as a source of power and identity and self-empowerment and being desperate for those things and thinking sex was necessary to have them. Having the world at your fingertips is cool and everything, but everyone needs some guidance on what the hell to do with it.

My generation, the first gen really born into and raised in the neopagan community, is an absolute SHITSHOW. Most of the kids I grew up with are disasters. I’m a disaster, and I’m doing pretty well, comparatively. So many of the others are drug addicts, in overly sexualized and dehumanized relationships, or raising children they don’t want because your rampant sex-positivity didn’t include any decent or specific sex ed. (You were really into everyone knowing where the clitoris is and having access to condoms, but not actually that big on showing anyone how to use them or emphasizing how necessary they were.) Or all of the above. Most frequently all of the above.

I’m not a prude who’s against all forms of fun. I’m all for it. I’m not against an active sex life, polyamory (except linguistically,) or responsible drug use. But I’m against telling your kids that those things are integral, necessary parts of being human, that everybody uniformly wanting those things is the natural order of things and that not wanting them is self-denial. Until I was like 25, I pressured every significant other I ever had into sex before either of us were ready—because I was told, over and over from day one, that everyone wants to be having sex and anyone who doesn’t is lying. Literally. My friends used to say that sentence all the time. And when I say “my friends,” I specifically mean my middle-aged divorced women friends who thought it was totally fine to say that to a thirteen year old and then complain about how men were lazy monsters who couldn’t find the clit with a map and a compass. A specific one of those friends, a grown woman and a schoolteacher to boot, used to say to me all the time, “If you don’t want to end up pregnant, you better learn to swallow,” and then laugh. I was hearing this from age twelve on a near daily basis. I was being told that monogamy was unnatural and stifling and that people who wanted it only did so because they were jealous and controlling and wanted to own other people, that it was tantamount to slavery and WRONG. I was being told that as soon as I was of age, I wouldn’t have any trouble dating, because teenagers might care what I looked like (i.e. fat,) but REAL MEN wanted REAL WOMEN (again, fat) and they’d be lining up around the block as soon as I hit eighteen. From the age of 14 onward, I had grown men telling me how boys my age might think I was fat and ugly (a comment I NEVER GOT from an actual boy my age, by the way—sometimes girls being catty, but never, ever from someone I was interested in; if they turned me down, even if it was because of my looks, they didn’t SAY that,) they, REAL MEN, couldn’t wait until I was legal. But they weren’t pedophiles because I got breasts young and looked older and they never tried to touch me. The fact that they sexualized me was natural because I was not only female, I LOOKED like a “real woman,” so I would obviously be super sexual to make up for not being thin, right? All those middle-aged divorced pagan women friends (often high priestesses, I shit you not) assured me that men wanted a girl they could really “grab hold of,” that fat women were better in bed because we try harder to make up for being fat, and frequently gave me overt sex tips (which I can tell you, now that I am an adult, were not only inappropriate but wildly inaccurate and unhelpful.) They told me how it wouldn’t be too hard to get men because I would put out when skinny girls wouldn’t, that I would have power those girls wouldn’t because I was in touch with my sexuality. And this was not only all fine, but actually because I was so “mature” that they could talk to me openly about all these things! And those men only said those things because I (definitely not in response to those women telling me that I was supposed to say and do these things…definitely not, no…) was sexual and flirtatious and curvy! (Read: my fault if I complain about it, because me having an adult vocabulary and being a curious kid and opinionated teenager amounted to permission for adults to violate all rules of appropriate conduct in relation to me.)

Like. I get that you wanted freedom for us. But I’m not sure when freedom became grabbing and hoarding power however we could find it, growing to adulthood with zero respect for our own basic needs and obsession with our base desires, and basically living the life of a cartoon satyr. How was any of that okay? How IS any of it okay? This was not a progressive, egalitarian society—no, it was just an inverted, reactionary copy of the patriarchal mainstream, where instead of letting men sexualize us, young women were supposed to turn the tables on them by being the sexual predators, where instead of letting someone “trap” us in a monogamous relationship we were supposed to be manic pixie dream girls who slept with whoever we “wanted” as long as we didn’t want to sleep with just one person, where instead of having guys get us drunk and feel us up, we were supposed to get THEM drunk and demonstrate our superior fortitude and how much better we were than “normal” girls. Come on, guys.

Oh-ho, I see you in the back, there, pagans who are saying, “oh, not me, I’m part of a structured pagan tradition and I wasn’t a part of THAT.” Well, look, sure, you maybe weren’t the ones saying, “fuck everybody and control them with your mystical vagina,” “mo penis mo power,” but you were the ones wearing wreaths of fake berries on your heads and yelling at us when we mispronounced your infinite and arbitrary titles or wore amber without being third degree priestesses. Your religion is younger than the modern vacuum cleaner and you should be embarrassed that you take yourselves so damn seriously. Your obsession with writing convoluted rituals and dressing for the maximum pageantry quotient doesn’t make you less complicit in creating a culture that perpetuates the same sick values as the one you ran away from, one that just does it while wearing a sarong and a flower crown instead of a priest’s collar. You’re ridiculous. Get over it. Humans are all ridiculous and you’re no exception.

Where I was going with this actually has very little to do with sex, but I may have some frustrations with my childhood that I needed to let out a little bit. Keep rolling with me, here.

What I was getting to was actually how I have no idea how to worship the goddess. I’m well-versed in the technical aspects of goddess religions; I know all the mystical correspondences of stars and elements and ancient symbols. I spent three years as a religious studies major, I spent a childhood learning the ins and outs of goddess worship, I have spent my adult life as a feminist and student of the mystical. But the practical eludes me. If I see her as the beautiful, sexual maiden goddess, I’m annoyed and uncomfortable. I’m supposed to be like her, and I never have been. She’s the source of unreachable standards for my looks and behavior. If she’s the Great Mother, well, I kind of can’t help but draw parallels to MY mother, who, while a cool human, isn’t someone I would worship in a divine way. She’s too harsh, too critical, too judgmental. My grandmother came to me and was like, “I’d like to see you start to have a relationship with the Blessed Mother,” and the part that repulsed me wasn’t the catholic part, it was the MOTHER part. So that’s an issue. So where does that leave me?

Even as I’m typing this, my brain goes, “the Crone, Alena, duh.” And okay, maybe that’s actually true. Maybe I should be shuffling towards Cerridwen and Hecate–and I sometimes try to. But there’s this lingering sense of women older than me being the horribly misguided (albeit well-intentioned, probably) source of all that inappropriate, petty, hypersexualized shit I went through in my younger years. I’m starting to realize that the only female figures in my life that I trusted to give me guidance without agenda are both DEAD.

And yeah, I can pray to them. But uh. I kind of don’t want to be like, hey, Kathryn, I know you’re busy with dead person stuff, but here’s where all the stuff you loved about me was actually a giant ballooning shitshow of falsehood and confusion, also could you please help me sort this out? I’m weak and small and scared and I was never who you deserved as a goddaughter, but could you intervene for me in a cosmic way with the deities I don’t know how to talk to? A) ow, self loathing and emotional agony, and B) it feels a liiiiittle too Catholic for me.

I have the same problem with gods. I’ve never had a grandfather figure in my life. I’ve had a great Dad, but uh, again, things I need to pray about are NOT things I want to be handled by a parent, not things I ever want to associate with parents. I never had a grandfather figure, and that’s still a complicated relationship dynamic even if I DID have a model for it. Other male deities are automatically uncomfortably sexualized by my upbringing and are therefore judging me in my head or are totally sexless and aloof and inaccessible.

Abstract deities are a little easier. Animals, elements. But they’re too abstract to be helpful in specific, human instances. Ancestors are tainted by personal judgment; the idea of a creator is tainted by the idea of control. And the more abstract, the less I can believe they give a shit about me.

And see, this is a problem, because no matter what lingering childhood issues I may have, I’m a witch. I believe, in some unconscious, unshakable part of me, that humans have the ability to pluck the strings of the multiverse and affect change and that I am one of the ones who should and does. And that’s all well and good, but uh…it’s lonely. I’d like a guiding force to look up to. One who won’t let me down. One who won’t judge me. One with no ulterior motives, about either my actions or my soul. They don’t have to fix things for me, just have to be something I could believe in. But when I break it down, belief is complicated and heavy, and I’m actually not even sure I believe in gods in a literal kind of way—I’m pretty sure I don’t, actually. But I’d love an archetype, an idol, an idea who I could trust and respect and ask for help, literal or theoretical. And for all the freedom to “know myself” or what the hell else, it’s been 27 years and I still have no clue. I don’t know. I look at myself and I say, “I know you, self,” and my self looks back and says, “that’s great and everything, but uh, I don’t know jack shit.”

T-Minus 365 Days

One year from today, on November 9th, 2019 at 12 noon, I will be getting married.

I fell in love at sixteen. I was in a friend’s wedding, rehearsing the ceremony. The door to the church banged open and two boys walked in. Time stopped. The light fell in almost touchable beams of amber from the windows, catching on dust motes like glitter. Something dropped in my gut like a stone into water and I knew.

I turned to the maid of honor, who I’d never met, and said, “Oh, shit. I’m going to marry that one.”

The first words he said to me, after several moments of staring and blinking and staring some more, were: “You have the most beautiful eyes.”

I remember almost nothing about the wedding that day. It was unimportant. What was important was this boy with the blue eyes, the way I couldn’t look away from him, the way he smiled all lopsidedly and tripped over his words and looked at me like I was impossible. I don’t know what my face looked like, but I remember my bones humming, my skin spangling, my heart saying, over and over, this is it, this is it, this is it. I had never been more sure of anything or more terrified.

We proceeded to date, to make a lot of mistakes, to dance with each other and around each other, to try to date other people, to hurt each other, to heal each other, to make each other ecstatically happy, to make each other miserable. We got together. We broke up. We rinsed and repeated that a couple of times. We knew we were too young to make it work, everyone said so, so we cut and ran as hard as we could. We were young and stupid and petty and mean and hideously in love and totally confused about it.

Sometimes it made us hate each other and ourselves, but the certainty that this was it never dissipated. I didn’t want that to be it. I was sixteen, eighteen, twenty. I was supposed to have years of looking and romancing and dramatic affairs with European lovers ahead of me! I was pretty much as much of an asshole about that as I could manage. And I was nineteen, so you can imagine that I could manage to be quite an asshole. (I really don’t recommend being a teenager, it’s an awful time, hormones are bad and insecurity and indecision are bad and being in love is the best and worst thing ever in combination with those things.) And then, over a series of Extremely Terrible Incidents That Were Totally Unrelated and several remarkable dating disasters and a really straightforward birthday dream, I got it–I was running in the wrong direction. I resolved to go to therapy, make myself a better human and deal with my anger and issues, go back to the problem with a clear head. (Protip: if you’re thinking of your romantic life as a math problem, you should maybe take a breather and try that therapy thing. It works.) I came back to it when I was ready.

But he hadn’t gotten there yet.

The next time we got together, pulled by that immensely powerful sub-dermal magnet despite our extreme grouchiness about it, he picked up the being-an-asshole crown and wore it for a good while. It went…really badly. He ran away into the woods and lived like a freaking mountain man. I ran away to Ireland and lived like a poet. He ate squirrel meat. I jumped fully clothed into Dingle harbor. He drank. I wrote very angsty poetry. It was a whole thing. And yet, in the middle of the night in July, 2015, in Dingle town in the west of Ireland, eating curry chips from Lily’s in my bed in Marian House, I picked up the phone and made a call.

I told him not to ask me out again if he wasn’t ready this time. If he wasn’t prepared to work together to handle disasters, to go to therapy together if we hit a bump in the road, to do whatever was necessary to make it work. We got back together in front of the beluga exhibit in the Atlanta aquarium in January 2016.

And then we got to bask in how stupidly wonderful things are when you stop trying to run a three-legged race while facing opposite directions. When you face the same way and hold hands and step together. When you laugh when you fall over instead of blaming each other. We made time for each other. We chose kindness over anger as often as we could reasonably manage. We both let things go from before with the awareness that we were different people now. We let ourselves become different people. We moved, got a house together, started a life together.

This last year has been hard. For me, being bedridden, housebound, undiagnosed and incredibly ill while also dealing with my parents’ divorce, my grandmother’s cancer, grad school, and my godmother’s death–and for him, juggling his parents retirement and sale of his childhood home, the sale of his family’s business and his transition with it, new and enormously unscrupulous bosses, and being my full time, unpaid caretaker on top of it. We were exhausted. It could have been a test of our strength together. But it didn’t feel like that. No matter how exhausted he was, he took care of me, took time and energy to make me feel safe and at ease and like there was a light at the end of the tunnel. No matter how sick I was, I did my best to show and tell him how grateful I was, to make him feel like there was always an oasis of safety and comfort with me, to let him know that I would support him with whatever I had when he needed it. We had a couple of tense moments, sure, but no one gave up, no one walked out. It was the most terrifying illness of my life, but I was barely scared at all. I was grateful.

Then I got my diagnosis, my prognosis, started my treatment and recovery. I finished the last push of my MFA. He determined that he was going to leave his (horrible) job. We went to Europe to celebrate surviving, surviving together, thriving, even. And there, in my favorite place in the world, Slaidin Beach in Dingle, he asked me to marry him.

I said, “Are you sure?”

And he said, “I’ve never been so sure of anything in my entire life.”

And here we are. I’m recovering–frustratingly slowly, wow, but I hardly fall over anymore and I can drive again and sometimes even manage to cook a whole meal or read a book or go to work! Magical, I tell you. He’s working a new job and so am I. We’ve got two cats and a fistful of crazy birds and a bunch of ghost cats that knock shit over randomly. We’ve got too many books and a lot of mismatched furniture and still, somehow, boxes. And we’re planning a wedding, yeah, but way more importantly, we’re planning a marriage. We talk about everything from my love for, and terror of, the ocean to religion and politics to work to dumb television to his ideas for rpg campaigns to my ideas for stories to our plans for the end of the world. We’ve got issues. We have the occasional argument. But we’re happy. We say “I love you,” so often that other people probably throw up in their mouths when they’re around us for too long. We spend hours at night showing each other stuff that made us think of the other on our phones. We still keep each other up at all hours talking about our interests or our concerns or our intense thoughts about post apocalyptic television shows and novels. He brings me strawberry ice cream. I bring him eggdrop soup. We drink a lot of tea.

What I’m trying to say, possibly in the most long-winded way possible, is that I’m so freaking lucky. I met the love of my life when I was sixteen, lost him, found him again, and he found me, too. I live with my best friend in the world. He encourages me, supports me, challenges me, and loves me–and I try my best to do all of that for him. And I get to marry him.

A year ago, I was in the hospital with blood clots clogging my lungs. I couldn’t have imagined I’d be engaged, graduated with an MFA, employed on my road to being a teacher, or this happy.

We’re planning a crazy wedding–a three day long weekend festival for next November in Renaissance-inspired fantasy garb with a lot of glitter and music and fairy lights and bonfires and food because we are, at the end, very intense hobbit people. I have Ukrainian tailors making me my dream wedding dress. I’m embroidering his wedding vest. I have a massive list of people to send invitations to (shoot me a message if you think you should be on it!) The normal wedding timeline goes right out the window when you’re planning a festival. There’s a deer hunt planned. Most of the wedding party lives in different states or different countries. It’s chaos. It’s awesome. Because one year from today, we’re gonna marry our best friends in the world and throw a massive party to celebrate.

The point is, I’m so happy. I’m so grateful. Thank you, universe, for giving me the most incredible partner I could imagine. He makes me happier than I dreamt I could be, and a little more on top of that. Seriously, universe–thanks.

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Paperback preorders are up!

Anyone who wants to preorder the paperback, rather than the eBook, version of the anthology I’ll be appearing in, “Fell Beasts and Fair,” can go do that awesome thing at this link right here: https://www.amazon.com/dp/0989191575

If you’re one of the lucky people to whom I sent advance reader copies a couple of weeks ago, you are now able to go leave reviews on Amazon, which is something I would *very* much appreciate.

Upcoming anthology publication!

Just to remind you all, my short story, “Blanche, Bear-Wife,” is coming out in this incredible anthology and it’s available for preorder now!
 
“In this exciting collection of noblebright fantasy, fresh new fantasy voices and award-winning authors explore grief and hope, sacrifice and heroism. Rediscover the best aspect of classic fantasy – the noblebright ideals that made heroes heroic, even when the world grew dark around them.
 
Thieves, dragons, nightmares, fairy warriors, pookas, enchanted bear-men, and other magical creatures will delight you in these unique tales of possibility, courage, and hope.”
 
The paperback can’t be preordered, but it will go up for sale just a few days after the eBook–the eBooks will be available March 20, 2018, and the paperbacks will be available March 26th.
 
Here is the link to a page with the various places from which you can preorder! http://www.springsongpress.com/fell-beasts-and-fair-is-up-for-preorder/
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Kathryn Ann Fernquist Hinds: Writer, Renaissance Woman, and Official Mrs. Weasley

As you are falling asleep, imagine you are a cat. An orange cat–or perhaps calico–lounged on the edge of a marble pool, drenched in just-warm-enough sunlight. In the pool swims a single tasty koi, waiting for your expert hunter’s claws to make short work of it. Everything is soft
and quiet
and peaceful.
You are safe here.
The tape went something like that–some two-sided sleep meditation my parents played for me as a child. The other side turned you into a horse. But this is not a time for horses. This is a time for cats.

I haven’t been able to write this. It’s been too much, too heavy, my hands don’t work, they tremble and twitch from my illness, my head is in a fog all the time–all true, but not why I’ve been silent on the death of my godmother. I’ve been silent because there is simply too much to say. For this, I will never be empty of words. I overflow and drown myself in them, getting caught up in the absolutely absurd unreality of the idea that Kathryn is dead.

In the hospital, waiting for her to die, I had a vision. She reached out one milk-and-freckles hand to me and said, “Hey there, my girl.” They say that their voices are the first thing you forget, but hers was so clear, is still so clear. She smiled, no small smile, but the vast and unabashed smile of a woman who knows who she is and where she belongs and loves it. It was not an uncommon smile from her, but it was, I realized, the last one I was ever going to see. And something small and fragile and very, very important inside me broke a little bit, then. I felt the happy, hopeful child in my heart teeter on the edge, so close to breaking.

But she stood next to me then, bare feet muddy and smeared with crushed greenery as if she’d been in the garden, and she pointed a stern finger at me. “You are better than that,” my imaginary Kathryn told me, and, “you have too much doing to get done. Shoo, girl–shoo!” Then she hugged me in the hallway in the middle of a quiet moment at Dragon*con six months before, but right then, right there in my head, if you know what I mean–both moments at once, like two beads on a beading needle, struck through and pinned together for a moment. Small things–her medical bracelet. The watercolor bleed of teal in her hair. The conspiratorial feeling of eating our lunches sitting on the floor beneath the NO LOITERING and NO FOOD OR DRINK IN THIS AREA signs. In the real event, we talked about nothing and all the important things, like tea and TARDIS costumes and Bruce and how we were short enough to pretend that the signs were too high up for us to have noticed before we sat down. In real life, a security guard told us to leave.
We did not leave.

In my head, though, in the surgery waiting room at four-and-change in the morning where I was having a vision while keeping vigil, there–there, I sat in the flattest grey room where I was the only one except for Bruce (asleep on a couch) and Maria (in the restroom or stretching her legs or something), and I bit my teeth into my arm and let out one very ugly sob.

The vision-that-wasn’t-and-was-just-imagining-most-likely smiled her other smile, her Mrs. Weasley smile, and cupped my cheek. She pushed her forehead against mine and sighed a long sigh, and I knew then that, for all the prayers and spells and tiny thread magics we’d all done, she was already taking off her shoes and looking up the great winding way to Summerland. I’d never actually believed in it before, for all I was raised with it as my people’s idea of heaven. But there she was, forehead to my forehead and at the same time dancing in a green dress–a green dress shedding flowers as she took each step, both Demeter and Persephone, mother and daughter alike, the sound of bells like new beginnings all around her.
I knew two things with utter certainty in that moment–that she wasn’t going to make it and that, too, she would be just fine.

Since Kathryn died, things have stopped happening to me in order. Billy Pilgrim has, as it were, come unstuck in time. I hover indistinctly between my daily life and a meditation tape about cats coming through the speakers of a mint green stereo that doesn’t exist anymore. I am utterly unsure how to mourn a loss so vast as this small woman. When I try, my thoughts go into the proverbial fetal position and I am a cat. I am a cat, an orange cat, or perhaps a calico, lounged on the edge of a marble pool, drenched in just-warm-enough sunlight. I think it’s maybe a memory she handed back to me so I could survive this. Alena couldn’t handle this, but that cat, well, she can die from grief eight times before she has to worry about that ninth life.
It’s not enough. As Kathryn said often, I am a worrier.

In the hospital that last time she looked like a mermaid. I held her cool underwater goddess hand while she slept and I told her unimportant things so that I didn’t have to ask the important things like why didn’t you say goodbye to me or why didn’t you tell me it was so serious or there are whole parts of me you made from raw clay and tears and I can’t lose you or did you love your new daughter more than me or you’re never going to meet my someday-child or read my first book or read my first book to my someday-child or, most selfish, please don’t leave me, I am already so alone.

So I stood at her feet and anointed my hands with amber oil and did reike until there was nothing left in me. I thought of Briar’s Book and the four children jumping into death after Rosethorn to bring her back and hated myself for not being good enough at whatever that sort of thing is to jump in after her and drag her back, too. I imagined the way she’d cross her arms and look at me with her Look and stare me down until I stopped being stupid and went back to the waiting room.
I stayed an extra minute, just to be stubborn and impossible one last time.

Where am I going with this? My thoughts don’t come in order anymore, either, but that’s the illness that’s still dragging at me. Where am I going with this?

We’ll get together when we’re both feeling better is the very last thing she said to me aloud, alive. But between the two of us, our faulty human machines, we were never both feeling better. I don’t regret it or sit around muttering to myself If I’d just seen her again! I loved her, she loved me, and we both knew it. She was my Mrs. Weasley before there were books to put a name to it.
There was nothing unsaid between us; she taught me more of what I know than nearly anyone, and she believed in me in a way that I could physically feel every time she hugged me. There’s no last miracle to wish for. I just put her ashes in a ziplock baggie, for goodness’ sake, and put them in the mail. I held a piece of her bone, her bone, in my hand. That must mean it’s real, I guess. So where am I going with this? Forward, I guess. There is nowhere to go but forward, always forward.

I should probably wax rhapsodic on her virtues and my gratitude and how much she affected my life. But I can’t. She was too much, too many things, too vast. Even gone, she lingers. She is the sea. She is the small shred of courage needed to do the improbable and demand the impossible. She is my mother-sister-friend. She is a very small Amazon. She is the sound of a harp over water, calling you through the veil on Holy Days. She is a whirlwind of poetry and little-known history and deep, deep, blood-from-the-soul kindness. She is the act of squaring your shoulders and pursing your lips and tightening your fists until you are strong enough. She is the voice in my bones that tells me that I am beautiful but that it doesn’t matter at all if I’m beautiful because I’m clever. She is the act of enduring because there is no choice but to fucking endure. She is every comforting cup of tea in the whole world. She was my shelter when the storms in my life were too strong to weather. She was, and always shall be, my Mrs. Weasley, and I am not lost without her–she taught me too well how to find my way.
And I like to think too, now and then, that she is somewhere being an orange cat–or perhaps calico, yes, calico–lounged on the edge of a marble pool, drenched in just-warm-enough sunlight, and that I will find her there when I, too, take to the winding way.

Until then, I will live with her close to my heart, drawing and dancing and writing and demanding the improbable of myself to make her proud.

Please consider supporting Kathryn’s spirit being remembered in the world by buying some of her incredible work.

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