A child’s debt

My parents reared five children and helped them each with college. In the end, there wasn’t enough money left to keep my mother out of a Medicaid-funded nursing home. Many of the people who work there are unaccustomed to patients who are still aware of their surroundings, making the situation less than ideal for her.

When I think about debt owed to my parents, that’s the kind of debt I mean: the opportunity cost they paid by having just one more kid, me. I think I made out well, what with being alive and all, but it’s important to recognize the tremendous amount of sacrifice made on my behalf. Not only might the gray hairs have accumulated more slowly in my absence, it’s possible the money might have lasted a bit longer as well.

I owe something of a debt to Gaia on account of my life, as well, or perhaps that debt falls to my parents. There is no greater environmental impact a human being can have upon the earth than creating another human being to live upon the earth. I always enjoy spending time around children, yet I have never pursued procreation precisely for that reason. What could I possibly do to mitigate the impact of another life upon the planet, when I barely make a dent in my own debt? Even as I write this, I’m aware that some of the electricity powering my computer is derived by burning coal, and that the processors within contain rare-earth elements the extraction and disposal of which is highly problematic. My every breath impacts the world around me, and as a human my activities can change the world more, thanks to technology, than can an individual of pretty much any other species. I don’t think about that impact constantly, and even if I did it’s still incredibly difficult to have zero impact at all.

That is the sort of thinking which can lead to guilt and self-loathing. I mostly avoid doing that to myself. Suicide, which is the alternative most likely to be suggested if I whine about this on the internet, has impacts itself. Some of the people who love me may just call me on the carpet at their ancestor shrines if I were to pull that without telling them, and I am not interested in that having that conversation whether I am dead or alive, thank you very much. I’ve also had people propose the “solution” of having children and then teaching them my values. Which ones, exactly? It might be awkward to tell my offspring that I do not believe in having offspring, and I don’t think that they should, either.

It’s the debt to my parents which I sit with most, though, since I am not remotely contemplating a final solution for myself. Including public college, that’s now in excess of $350,000 in my part of the country according to this calculator. That could have paid for a heck of a lot of care. Unless there’s a lucky lottery ticket in my future, that’s not something I can pay back, not that either of my parents would ever have suggested such a thing. The very notion would likely offend, but I think it’s okay to contemplate the choices my parents made to give me life, and then to provide me with the upbringing that they could best afford without contemplating what it might cost them in turn. It’s really the minimum we expect of parents, and that’s a lot to ask considering how little thought is actually needed to create a child.

The debt to my parents is, in fact, incalculable. It’s my duty to honor that choice, even as I choose for myself to make a different sacrifice. Unlike them, I may well die alone, as I have no blood issue, and do not wish to add the burden of another human life to this beleaguered planet. I wish more people would make that same sacrifice, but I recognize that when done correctly, either choice carries a high price.

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The leaky cauldron

Most people earn a whole lot more money in the course of their lives than they ever realize. Money flows into and out of our possession, and it can be as difficult to catch while passing through our fingers as water through a fish net.

No matter how much money passes through our hands — be it a trickle or a torrent — it’s the ability to capture some of that passing flow that allows a measure of control over our financial situation. There are people who live lavish lives on inherited money but are one bad decision away from ruin, and there are those who scrupulously save modest amounts from the pittance they earn and turn the tide the other way. The real difference is that great wealth can cushion the damage done by bad decisions for a whole lot longer; poor people can’t afford to be financially illiterate.

With apologies to Harry Potter fans, the metaphor I find most helpful when talking to Pagans about money is the leaky cauldron. Many Pagans and polytheists recognize the cauldron as a tool of transformation. This particular cauldron is a big ol’ thing, one of those cast iron behemoths that is too large and heavy for one person to move easily and without injury, but just a little too small and unwieldy to be comfortably managed by two or more sets of hands.

The cauldron is what we pour our energy into in the form of money; it is also what we draw from when we wish to turn that energy into something else. The liquid can also include non-monetary forces such as social capital, but for now let us focus solely on money. One can be considered secure if the cauldron never empties; a rising level denotes prosperity. This means that the goal is not to pour out more than we pour in, but that’s not always easy. Opportunities — including some under compulsion — to pour from the cauldron abound. Moreover, many of our cauldrons are old, cracked, and as I have already indicated, leaky.

Sources of money problems are manifold, but the most controllable areas are those of awareness and intention. Many people go through life with a little too much month left at the end of the paycheck. With a low income and high costs for rent, food, and other regular expenses that can seem inevitable predictable, but upon closer inspection it’s not always that simple. Regular expenses are, by definition, anticipated. At the edges, in that liminal zone, exists the dangerous area of money spent without any clear purpose or benefit. That’s the stuff which seeps out through the cracks, dripping and slipping away without so much as a by-your-leave. The more money that disappears without a trace, the leakier one’s cauldron has become.

This is about fiscal mindfulness. Money is a source of anxiety for many people, and one common way to address that anxiety is to push its source away from the conscious mind. It’s much the same as not going to see a doctor, not because health care is too expensive, but because the prospect of a diagnosis is terrifying. Not knowing about cancer doesn’t stop cancer, just as not knowing about imminent insolvency does nothing for that problem. Knowing can be scary, but knowledge is also power.

What, then, should be done with this cauldron? It can be helpful for understanding one’s financial situation. Start by simply observing the flow, beginning with what enters it, be it an intermittent trickle or a raging torrent. Approach this with a dispassionate eye; too little flow can induce stress and a great deal of income can elicit a sense of security, either of which is a distraction. That’s precisely why visualizing money as water is helpful: it divorces the observer somewhat from the emotions connected to money itself. Focus on the source of the stream or streams entering the cauldron; faucets might be a good way to visualize these, or natural springs. Consider how many sources replenish this cauldron, how strong the flow from each, and how clean the water is which emerges from the different spigots. What does each one represent? How confident are you that each will continue? How satisfied are you with the quality and quantity of each individual flow? Are any of your income streams from sources you consider ethically challenging?

Before considering outflow, meditate on the water in the cauldron itself. Is it hot, or cold? Clear, or murky? Does it have an odor? Would you bathe in it, or drink it? These insights are commentary not precisely on your financial situation, but how you feel about it, and money in general. Discernment is key here, and with something as bound in emotion as money, that discernment might require outside assistance to gel. A spiritual coach or diviner might be the right person to help, or a therapist or financial counselor.

For some, looking clearly at one’s financial health is as terrifying as learning about one’s physical condition. Recognize that this desire to look away is based upon deep-seated survival instincts, but then it’s time to allow rational examination of the cauldron to proceed. Realize that a visualization already keys into your emotional depths, which might be enough to make a look at the figures themselves possible. If not, that’s okay. Consider using techniques to separate your emotions from this analysis: journal about your money feelings before you begin, perhaps, or allow yourself some dispassionate time for money by promising a good cry or a hard run or some other emotional outlet when you’re done. If it helps, set a timer for five minutes, and don’t continue past that point; you can increase the length as you get more comfortable.

Ultimately, looking at the financial picture should become a regular routine, and the leaky cauldron can help with that. Light a money candle on a day each week that makes sense for you, and settle into visualizing the cauldron. Once you’ve spent time studying it, shift your focus to looking at the actual numbers, without leaving that altered state of visualization. Hold the image of the cauldron in the back of your mind, and once your allotted time is up, return to fully focusing on the visualization. Has your understanding of the numbers informed the appearance of the cauldron and its waters?

There’s more that can be done with the leaky cauldron, but that’s enough of a start for now. I may use it in some more in-depth exercises at another time.

Curse of Cash review

On its face, The Curse of Cash is an argument for morality: criminals use cash to operate in the shadows, and there’s nothing an honest citizen can’t do with money electronically; therefore ridding our society of physical money would make for a more virtuous, safe, and honest environment. Physical currency was an absolute necessity to simplify a world of barter, but now technology makes it possible for money to be entirely electronic without that bringing disadvantage to any honest person.

Notwithstanding the numerous flaws and fallacies presented as part of that argument, it’s also not the real reason why the author would like to see pesky cash eliminated. The truth is far more insidious, and essentially boils down to this: the existence of cash makes it more difficult to steal on behalf of a government. That’s because currency serves as a backstop for interest rates, to wit: if central bank governors lower interest rates into negative territory — which means that one’s bank balance could shrink over time, even without the application of monthly maintenance fees — then more of us would resort to shoving big bills into our mattresses. Without those big bills, a whole new realm of possible ways to separate individuals from their money becomes possible.

The notion of negative interest rates is novel enough that when first confronted with it, many people don’t even understand the concept. It’s a sweet deal from the perspective of government, though: just like inflation (which is an intentional act, not the mysterious and uncontrollable force it’s presented as in many news reports), negative interest rates allow money to be scooped up without the politics of raising taxes. Negative interest rates, however, are the scalpel to inflation’s chainsaw. What they have in common is that they are tools used to reduce the value of money, which makes it easier to pay back loans for the people who created that money in the first place, who happen to work in government.

Most government spending is paid for not through taxes, but through bonds, which is how governments (and corporations) borrow money. With inflation, the trick is to add more money to the supply, knowing that each dollar will purchase less as a result and thus the dollars used to pay back the loan will actually be cheaper; this is why people who live on borrowed money such as farmers prefer inflation. Negative interest rates, however, remove money from circulation and transfer it back to the government for essentially the same purpose. Both are nothing but sophisticated ways of stealing, but negative interest rates would specifically punish the people who try to save for the future.

don't stealThis entire book uses bait-and-switch, dangling a carrot (the fear of the faceless criminal) to get readers on board before acknowledging the true intent of the cashless strategy proposed, which is stealing more efficiently than any criminal could.

I like cash because it’s how debt-elimination programs work, and because it’s how magic works. I’ve yet to find a viable system for reigning in spending and paying off past debts that doesn’t begin with the participant converting to a cash-heavy or all-cash lifestyle. That’s because bills and coins are tangible reminders of the cost of any purchasing decision, and because there’s a much better chance that cash in one’s pocket is not borrowed, and thus not accumulating interest in favor of a creditor. Debit cards are marginally better than credit cards — if one turns off “overdraft protection,” a fancy term for “borrowing money from the bank,” at least — but I find it’s much easier to spend with the click of a mouse than with the opening of my billfold. Electronic money is always out of sight, and therefore it is out of mind even for a thrifty fellow such as myself.

Magically it works much the same way: a physical talisman is a powerful tool to focus one’s will, and it makes spending money with intent a whole lot easier if one has to physically hand it over. Many people write spells or wishes directly on paper currency. Cutting us off from a physical representation of money is a very effective way to cut us off from any control. It’s downright diabolical.

I now seek hundreds out, because I think normalizing the use of the largest-denominated bill in the American money system is our best defense against these and similar shenanigans. Sooner or later government officials, if faced with a populace of people who prefer cash, will have to reissue some of the larger ones, as well. That, or stop inflating currency, which in case anyone reading this blog doesn’t understand yet is entirely intentional and entirely controllable; inflation is increasing the money supply by issuing more money, and no complicated economic explanation will ever change that.

Do not buy this book. The author should not be rewarded for this diabolical scheme of eirs, which is why I have neither linked to it nor even mentioned the author by name.

Passing

Raymond Buckland wasn’t the first writer about Paganism that I read; that designation goes to Margot Adler.  My early teachers didn’t use books, and by the time I was starting a library, I already knew that I was not a really a Witch.  While I knew his name, I didn’t actually pick up one of his books until I found the one on coin divination, which fits my work.

That said, when he consented last year to let me interview him, it was a big deal for me.  This is Raymond friggin’ Buckland!  It doesn’t matter what Pagan or polytheist practice one feels called to; in the United States he was one of the trailblazers who made it possible to openly practice and share information about it.

Our impetus for wanting that interview was practical:  he was in his 80s, had eliminated public appearances from his schedule, and had recently suffered a heart attack.  As a journalist, the best thing I can do to serve this community is elevate our elders before they become ancestors.  Was it really necessary to get an interview with someone who had already written millions of words about his tradition?  I certainly think it was.  If nothing else, what we know about people in their own words — and the recollections of those closest to them — informs our ancestor practice.

Regarding honoring Buckland’s life now that it’s over, there has already been a “cyber-wake” on Pagans Tonight, Selena Fox will also be dedicating her show to him tomorrow night.  Participating in that first podcast, I was joining people who set the foundations of contemporary American Paganism, including Fox and Oberon Zell.  It was humbling, because these are the people who got it all started, the people whose lives I’d like to help chronicle.  Even having lost another of their number, that brain trust inspired awe in me.

I really only talked about one way that Buckland inspired me, his Coin Divination.  Readers of my occasional book reviews know that I take some of the more extreme suggestions as challenges.  In this book, Buckland references a set of small gold coins minted in Singapore late last century, each with a different animal associated with the Chinese zodiac.  What a wonderful divination set those would make, he mused: “For the serious practitioner, this provides beautiful divination tools and is also a wonderful investment.”

Challenge accepted.  Using solely the money I earn writing for the Wild Hunt that I saved for more than a year (because saving money is my most powerful magic), once I finally chased down what these coins were called (not an easy task in itself), I have tracked down and purchased all but one of those coins.  That wasn’t a stretch, because even if it doesn’t work out for divination I still have gold which can be sold should my family need the money.

Based on the ideas Buckland offers for divination boards, I’ve designed a cloth which I am embroidering when the cats allow.  Telling him about my plans was the one fanboy indulgence I allowed myself, but since the work is as yet incomplete, I wonder if I should ask Buckland if he’d like to aid in readings I do with this set.  He can always say no, after all.

Remember the offender

Yesterday, I had the opportunity to be part of some team reporting, which gives me a taste of what it must have been like back when newspapers had big budgets. After Cara Schulz detailed the challenges faced in one Wiccan community when complaints of sexual misconduct were brought forth, I followed up with some best practices for handling sex-abuse cases in Pagan groups.

Team reporting makes me better at this job, but it can become frantic.  I regret leaving out a point which probably is as controversial as it is important: abandoning abusers isn’t a solution.  When we banish, ostracize, or push out offenders, we hand the problem off to strangers and miss the opportunity to fix things.

While the high recidivism rate for sex offenders is a common topic of conversation, I learned through my interviews that treatment actually works.  While pushing someone out of one’s group might solve the immediate problem, without the tools to deal with the problem it’s pretty likely that there will be other victims at some point.  Is kicking the can down the road an ethical response?

Some sex offenders are ready to admit they have a problem, I now understand.  Among them, there’s a fear of reprisal and consequence for coming clean; being able to accept that fact is part of treatment.  Are there ways to continue to include a known offender without putting people at risk?  Of course, but it’s going to take work, and it’s going to take compassion for someone who may well have done some terrible things.  There’s also the question of potential offenders, who would prefer not to harm anyone but are afraid to admit they have a problem due to rejection.  Isolation does not help that work, which is all but impossible to do without help.

In Pagan and polytheist communities, we are moving toward a better understanding of how to support victims.  That includes believing them, and encouraging them to talk to the police.  We are not there yet, and it’s been a painful process to get even this far.  Finding ways to support offenders as well as victims is going to be a lot more painful, but I think it’s work we need to do if we are actually interested in healing.

Socks

Spending with intent is, I wholeheartedly believe, a good start. It does not entail always spending for the right reasons, but it does bring the expectation of spending for reasons.

Case in point: Mx Socks.

Mx Socks (a pseudonym) grew up in an affluent household, but found eirself on the outs with eir family by the time e reached adulthood. E knew what it was like to have a boat in the driveway for the winter, a vast entertainment system in the living room, and the expectation that e’d be given a new car when e was old enough to drive. Eir life, however, was one of 60-hour work weeks necessary to pay the rent; a decided disconnect from eir younger days.

One of the ways that e coped with a life e found difficult was with eir socks. E put on a new pair every day, and then threw them in the trash after that once use. The feeling of new socks, in eir view, was a luxury which e deserved and could afford. A clean sock is not as nice as a new sock, and there’s always room in the garbage for a few more pairs of socks.

What this acquaintance of mine apparently didn’t realize is that eir behavior mirrored that of the villain in “Superman III,” who boasts at one point that e’s never worn a pair of socks twice. In the fictional case, they were apparently laundered and sent to poor children, which arguably makes this exercise in excess less villainous than simply dumping them in the trash each night.

As I understand it, Mx Socks’ first inkling that this sock-uation might be viewed as anything but a well-deserved reward for hard work came when e mentioned it to a coworker, who found the practice offensive, and told em so. Mx Socks was surprised and annoyed to be put on the defensive. From eir perspective, as an exploited worker in a capitalist system, e deserves those few luxuries e can eke out. From the perspective of just about everyone I have mentioned it to, eir behavior is right up there with wearing a monocle while having one’s cigar lit with a hundred-dollar bill by a bondsman.

Many of the pleasures the average exploited worker has are guilty ones. A classic example, in my mind, is the quest for smooth legs that many women pursue in the United States. Let us consider the case of a hypothetical Mx Shower-Shaver, who has bought in — literally — to the notions that 1) hairless legs are more desirable and 2) pink, disposable razors are the best tool for achieving that result. Having opted to pursue that goal, it’s not at all surprising that Mx Shower-Shaver derives pleasure and satisfaction from a well-shaved leg; e prefers not to consider the impact of disposable products on the environment, nor the patronizing marketing decision that led eir razors to be not only pink, but more expensive than the men’s version.

What’s more, e most likely shaves those legs in the shower, thereby extending the time spent under running water. E could turn the water off, but that hot stream is another of those small moments of pleasure, which are rare for someone who works 50 or more hours a week to bring home the bacon. How much water? With an older shower head, 20 gallons or more if the shave adds five minutes. That adds up quickly.

This isn’t to say that people who are not struggling economically don’t do these and other wasteful things; they most assuredly do. My underlying point is that within a modern capitalist system, being asked to adopt more sustainable life practices is, for most people therein, being asked to give up some of the few moments of joy in an otherwise oppressive day. Solutions that require more short-term sacrifice will thus be resisted, even by some people who recognize the long-term benefits. Until the conversations about reformation and revolution take that into account, the traction of such ideas among the wider population may well be limited by those forces which the revolutionaries desire to overturn. That’s because many of the people who would most benefit from radical change are engaging in intentional spending and thoughtful action which reinforce the system under which they are oppressed.

Is anyone engaging with these workers on an environmental level? Are they considered a population to work with when it comes to human rights, but the enemy when we’re looking at how to stop harming the world with wastefulness? Where should our sympathies lie?

Recently I bumped into Mx Socks again. I stopped by eir apartment building, and e met me in the parking lot. Eir feet were covered only by a pair of black socks, and I told em I was worried that they were getting ruined.

“It’s okay,” e said. “They’re new.”

Monodeism and polydeism

Deism presumes that the clockwork of the universe was set in motion by a demiurge, who at some point later vacated the premises. Apparently, polydeism is a thing, which is pretty amazing. The notion that a succession of gods have come along, messed around with what passed for the natural order at the time, and then wandered off makes more sense to me than monodeism does, but I still find it kinda depressing. In fact, it depresses me more to think that the universe has been a passing fancy to multiple gods than if it had been just that one time. Is it that boring here?

Accepting the possibility of polydeism also opens new doors. Could it be that some gods just stop by, but others choose to stick around? That’s not an option under monodeism, because it presumes just one deity. There’s nothing in polytheist belief that suggests that all the many gods have much in common with one another, and it stands to reason that some might move in for the long haul once they are born here or happen upon the place. What I’m not sure about is if that would still count as polydeism at all. I think of my ninth-grade social studies teacher’s definition of [mono]deism: “God made the universe, then split.” If it was actually multiple gods, and they split on whether or not to split, does that dilute the -deism part of the word? It certainly doesn’t satisfy people who use deism simply as a way to pay lip service to divine powers while still completely ignoring them, which may have something to do with why it’s not super fashionable to be a polydeist.

There’s a deranged part of my mind that thinks about what this concept means to theological debates within the Pagan and polytheist spheres: were they separate and distinct gods who abandoned the universe, or facets of a single being? On the other hand, maybe these former resident gods were archetypes. Could the universe now be devoid of archetypes? Did those gods all hang out together and bolt when the party was over, or was it a revolving door of holy powers? Revisiting the monist “all gods are one” mindset, could there be a succession of different faces to the same god[s] passing through, giving the polydeist the mistaken impression that there’s been a bunch when it was only a few, or one, deadbeat deity?

Moreover, what if deism is just one more idea which isn’t entirely correct or incorrect? Could it be that some gods have left for parts unknown, but others remain? Perhaps deistic abandonment is inevitable, but still unfolding. How do I know if my gods are going to leave, or when? The very thought could drive some devotees into a bitter form of agnosticism, I’d venture. If we can’t have faith in gods, does the word have any meaning?

If nothing else, a cycle of deism helps me imagine that non-believers such as atheists aren’t precisely wrong, but (like many of the rest of us) simply drawing conclusions based upon only that very small portion of the evidence which is known to human beings. I remain confident that not everything is even knowable to we jelly-brained types, and try mightily not to assume I have a better handle on the big picture than anybody else. I fail in that, regularly, but that’s the fun of being human in the first place. We are a self-centered, arrogant bunch of primates, after all. If some or all of the gods have moved on to better things, I certainly can’t blame them from tiring of our antics.

For me, there is something reassuring about knowing that there’s a lot we don’t know.