Tuesday, September 22, 2020

The Fall Equinox and the Lives We Lead

Here in the northern hemisphere, the autumnal equinox occurs on Tuesday, September 22. Due to the crowded calendars of our busy modern lives not lining up exactly with the cosmic movements of celestial bodies, I and my friends in Thor’s Oak Kindred will get together via Zoom to celebrate our annual fall blót on Saturday night. The fact that we will be celebrating a modern version of ancient ritual via videoconferencing led me to reflect on what it means to celebrate this particular turning point of the year in a multicultural urban setting of non-farmers.

In 2017, I asked several Heathens in England, Germany, and the United States how they and their religious communities celebrate the fall equinox. In one way or another, each mentioned farming and fishing, harvest and hunting, rural life and regional traditions. All the answers were interesting, and there were as many differences in their responses as similarities. Reading their comments today, however, I’m struck by how much my own experiences in the Second City don’t line up with theirs.

Vintage Chicago postcard

Urban Heathen

Spending hours fighting rush-hour traffic among the hazy forms of sky-scraping towers of commerce, crowding into an L car to come back from Wrigley Field after cheering the Cubs on to a September win, pushing through the crowds of tourists at the Chicago Jazz Festival to get to the sea of smiling faces in the playgrounds at Maggie Daley Park, putting together PowerPoint presentations on the Great Migration of African-Americans from the rural south to the urban north for classrooms full of students from around the country and around the world, looking on as Little Leaguers determinedly take to fields surrounded on all sides by busy city streets to extend the softball season through September and into October, picking up a pizza for Friday night dinner from a crowded corner bar that has been serving slices in a Jewish neighborhood for sixty-six years, trying to decide between a twelve-pack of German or Mexican beer at the liquor store that had a tiny counter for foreign cheeses at the back when I was in preschool and the regular grocery stores only had Kraft Singles and Easy Cheese, trying to count how many different languages are being spoken by parents and children at the neighborhood playground after school gets out, heading out to the highway to drive up to Wisconsin for orchestra rehearsal a few days after recording a season’s worth of South Side Chicago gospel music for programs WGN-TV: these are some of the things that have happened around the fall equinox in my own life, and I’m happy with this life.

It’s simply a fact that I have no direct connection to the rural traditions cited by those other Heathens. My mom grows some little vegetables in pots on her condo porch overlooking a city thoroughfare. Aside from those tiny tomatoes and miniature carrots, everything we eat and drink is mediated by multiple levels of distribution. It’s definitely problematic how much fossil fuel is used and how much pollution is produced to get a pumpkin from country farm to city grocer, but I must admit I still get a thrill from being able to eat marzipan made in Germany and drink Bitburger “brewed according to the German Beer Purity Law of 1516.” International trade has its benefits.

It’s also a fact that I get a kick from the bright lights of the big city. It’s exciting to play with legends of gospel music while surrounded by gigantic TV cameras and to record in the same studios and on the same equipment where classic Chicago blues and jazz has been recorded for decades. It’s a blast to host a weekly FM radio show in the same part of the city where Jack Johnson, Louis Armstrong, Richard Wright, and Gwendolyn Brooks made important contributions to our nation’s history. It’s amazing to perform at Symphony Hall and Millennium Park and so many other venues and stages. It’s fantastic to stand up at Wrigley and feel the entire stadium shake with the roaring crowd when one of our Cubbies hits a ball out of the park.

It’s wonderful, also, to be able to share my love of what Heathens call “the lore” in this wild world I inhabit. My classes on the Eddas, Beowulf, Völsunga saga, and the Nibelungenlied have been full of students from China, India, Japan, Nigeria, eastern Europe, the Middle East, and elsewhere around the planet. It’s one thing to discuss these texts in all-Heathen Facebook groups. It’s another to dive deeply into them with international students of all creeds and none. Coming to these texts with fresh eyes, my students have often had insights and made comments that caused me to rethink fundamental assumptions I had made about specific lines and verses. In this multicultural setting, it has also become painfully obvious that even the latest translations make word-choices that are fundamentally racist and still beholden to the old nineteenth-century colonialist ways of rendering the texts.

Still we celebrate

So I’m happy with this urban life. I don’t have any Romantic longing for a supposedly simpler agrarian past, whether of the 1950s or the 950s. Yes, I’m thankful for the American farmers who work long hours every day to keep us fed with nutritious food, for all those who labor endlessly to make our modern lives possible. Yet I’m also thankful for the city workers who make our urban lives livable and for the scientists who bring us the medications that enable me to keep breathing. Our current American era is one of deep divisions and bitter strife, but I would rather be here in the thick of it than in any other time or place. I study the past and obsess over its mythology, poetry, religion, and ritual, but I have no desire to live in those ancient times or to somehow reconstruct an age before human rights, modern medicine, and the scientific method.

Vintage postcard of Chicago by night

Yet still we celebrate fall blót. What symbolism and meaning can such an event have for those of us who have no direct connection to agrarian life, who are happy with the diverse urban world we inhabit, and who have no longing for the long ago time? What does the cycle of the year mean to those of us who gladly live in urban America in 2020 and consciously practice a New Religious Movement with no pretense of reconstructing a supposed ancient tradition? Do we need to shame ourselves for shopping at the grocery store, or can we celebrate the lives we lead and still find celebration of the turning points of the year to be deeply meaningful in our religious practice?

The wheel of the year turns as much for us as it does for our friends who live closer to fields of Monsanto-branded corn and soy. Although the changing of the seasons have shifted on the calendar from where they were when I was growing up, we still experience the glory of fall colors, the thrill of chilly nights, and the steady creep of lengthening darkness. The air feels and smells different now than it did just a few weeks ago. The skies are changing above and clothing is changing on the street. There’s a sense of both holding on and looking forward. Personally, I’m reluctant to acknowledge summer is really over until the final out of the World Series, but the world turns whether we will or no.

For all of my life, I’ve gone hiking in the large forest preserves near us, in the state parks up in Wisconsin, and in the national parks to the west. Long before I learned about modern Heathenry, I was deeply in love with the quiet mysteries of the forest, in awe of the changes that came over the woods as the sun set, and in touch with the way life ebbed and flowed from season to season, each with its own special sights, sounds, and smells. Listening to dry leaves crunch underfoot and gazing up at the glorious explosions of red, yellow, and orange has been a fall ritual as long as I can remember. But the forest preserves here are bound by multi-lane highways and giant expressways, and the roar of traffic creeps into the woody quiet when you least expect it.

This encroachment of our machined life upon the natural world is one of the things foremost on my mind during this time of seasonal change. There are nearly three billion fewer birds in North America now than when I was a child chasing sparrows in the front yard. As biodiversity declines around the world, urban areas are facing real negative effects that disproportionately affect poorer areas and communities of color. If Heathens and other Pagans really do believe that we are our deeds and that we practice world-affirming and earth-based traditions, do we have a special responsibility to lead the way on climate change issues?

From words to deeds

I believe that we do, and I believe that practitioners of modern religions should spend at least as much time on looking to the future as they do gazing at the past. Aside from our personal choices regarding plastics and petroleum, aside from making toasts to the gods of the earth in ritual settings, we need to be making our voices heard in the public sphere and openly joining those like Greta Thunberg who are brave enough to echo Thor’s stand against the World Serpent by challenging governments and corporations to make real change. If we are going to venerate our ancestors, we would do well to remember that we will also someday be ancestors. How will our descendants judge our actions and inaction at this crucial turning point?

Vintage postcard of Chicago night scene

Issues of access, diversity, and equality are intimately tied up with issues of ecology. This deep connection between human society and the natural world has long been at the core of paganisms past and present. As we work for change in the ecological sphere, let’s also work for change in the social sphere. As federal payouts to farmers in 2019 reach double the amount paid to the automobile industry in 2009, let’s fight the enormous cuts to education funding that disproportionately affect students of color in urban areas. As we face the reality of a third Supreme Court justice being appointed by this Republican president who lost the popular vote, let’s fight to end the electoral college system that gives greater weight to the votes of rural white people than to those of urban people of color. As more Pagans publicly declare their commitment to inclusivity, let’s make sure that our deeds reflect our words.

In his 1793 book Religion within the Limits of Reason Alone, the German philosopher Immanuel Kant writes of the power of group ritual to affect change within the individual participants and, by extension, in the larger society.
The oft-repeated ceremony (communion) of a renewal, continuation, and propagation of this churchly community under laws of equality, a ceremony which indeed can be performed, after the example of the Founder of such a church (and, at the same time, in memory of him), through the formality of a common partaking at the same table, contains within itself something great, expanding the narrow, selfish, and unsociable cast of mind among men, especially in matters of religion, toward the idea of a cosmopolitan moral community; and it is a good means of enlivening a community to the moral disposition of brotherly love which it represents.
Kant’s language obviously refers to the Christian rite, but can, mutatis mutandis, be applied to the Ásatrú ritual of blót. By standing together under the autumn sky and speaking over the communal drinking horn, we can expand our inward individual gaze outward to embrace our religious communities, our cities, our states, our countries, and the world itself. The ritual act of speaking and listening can be an agent of change that expands our narrow inward focus to encompass a far larger and more diverse world. As we speak of this changing of the seasons and the turn towards winter, we can send our thoughts out like Odin’s ravens to look out over all the world and to deepen our connections to all the life that it holds. Our words can spur on the deeds needed in these dark times.

For the 1973 song “Spiral Architect,” Black Sabbath lyricist and bassist Geezer Butler wrote these lines:
Of all the things I value most of all
I look inside myself
and see my world
and know that it is good.

Of all the things I value most of all
I look upon my earth
and feel the warmth
and know that it is good.
Like Kant, Butler connects the inner experience of the individual with the outer life of the world and moves from one into the other. As shown in the parallel structure of the verses and the equal declarations of worth, to connect oneself to the wider world’s story is not to negate one’s personal narrative. While participating in blót, we share our own experiences and share in the experiences of those who stand beside us. For both Kant and Butler, the journey is from the inner world to the outer one. Heathens of positive intent move farther along the path of that journey each time we perform the rite of blót, each time we join the living community of practice to send out our words and direct our sight outwards.

As the light of the summer fades, may we more clearly hear the voices of others and more resolutely focus on right action that leads to a better world for all of us.

An earlier version of this article appeared at The Wild Hunt.

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