Pagan Monastery

For several years now, I’ve been talking with people in Southern Illinois and beyond about starting an intentional community. This discussion has taken many twists and turns, and the nature of the community in question has undergone several evolutions. Now, I’m pleased to announce that I will be working with other like-minded individuals to create a Pagan monastery here in Southern Illinois.

So, what is a Pagan monastery? Truth be told, that still remains to be seen. So far, I’ve come across few if any intentional communities that self-identify as both monastic and Pagan. This leaves us with little basis for direct comparison. There are, however, other Pagan communities that we can turn to for inspiration and advice in the process of creating a Pagan monastery.

In order to clarify what I have in mind, I’ve created an updated and expanded version of the vision statement that I passed around about a year ago. This new draft, along with a few other related documents, will serve as the organizing documents of this monastery while we work on building a membership base and finalizing documents through group process.

The vision statement portions of this rough draft are available online at:

http://freesoilcommunity.org

So, why a Pagan monastery? During my earliest discussions with other potential members, I wavered back and forth between a secular community and a spiritual community. Initially, I was leaning towards a secular community, simply because it would then be open to people of many spiritual paths and faith traditions. In the end, though, after many discussions and much soul-searching, it became clear that I was looking for a Pagan community.

Paganism has become the greatest defining force in my life, more so than any other influence. When I look out into the world, and look into my heart, I see a place where great magic is afoot. The miraculous dance of life swirls all around me, a dizzying mix of joy and sorrow, pain and pleasure, growth and decay, birth and death and rebirth. The seasons change, and the pace of the dance slows or quickens to match the tempo set by the whirling and tilting of the Earth in her dance around the Sun. Sometimes, it seems joyous and brilliant beyond bearing, and other times, it seems cold and cruel beyond all comprehension. But in each moment, I can find the presence of the Divine somewhere, and the presence of the Lord and Lady in every turn of the Wheel of the Year.

This appreciation of the simultaneous immanence and transcendence of the Divine is a central part of my life. As much as I may admire and appreciate a more secular form of humanism embraced by my agnostic and atheist friends, I’ve decided long ago that I am thoroughly Pagan, and that my Paganism defines who I am and what I seek in life.

Therefore, it’s only natural that I would long to live in a thoroughly Pagan community. In addition to that, I feel that community life is most easily and durably held together by a shared sense of being a part of something larger than oneself. For those who seek a secular community, the same effect can be accomplished through shared philosophies and a shared struggle toward a common goal. But for me, and for many Pagans, the archetypes, narratives, and rituals of a spiritual practice grant a deeper sense of meaning and bring people together in ways which are otherwise impossible.

So, I’ve decided that a Pagan community is the way to go. There are many forms that such a community could take, though. Why am I calling this a monastic community?

To me, and to some of the others I’ve talked to about the topic, monasticism involves taking a step back from society at large in order to create a community that embodies values and practices not present or emphasized in our society. If we formed a group of Pagans who happened to live together, have weekly dinners, etc., that would be a small step in that direction. But in the end, we would still essentially be the same as the rest of society.

I’ve met many Pagans who adopt the attitude that they are exactly the same as people of any other religion or faith. The only difference is that they celebrate different holidays and have different rituals to mark life passages such as birth, marriage, death, etc. That seems to work well for them, and it does grant Paganism a measure of acceptance in society.

But for me, as well as for the mystics in just about any religious tradition, my faith is more than something I celebrate on the weekends, or on the eight high holidays of the year. It’s an initiatory path — a life-altering experience that has introduced me to new ways of thinking and feeling and living which are at times wholly alien to the path laid out for us in mainstream society.

My path is a profoundly ecstatic spiritual path, seeking to experience the Divine by embracing my passions and following the true Will of my heart and soul wherever it may take me. But our society has little room for people who want to run wild through fields and forest singing and dancing with the gods, or to lose themselves on the dance floor for hours at a time communing with the music and the movements of the masses, or to meet in the moonlight to praise the gods and ask for their aid in bringing us the joy and the sorrow we need to become who we truly are.

These things are precious to me, and I can pursue them as much as I like in the privacy of my solitary practice. But at a certain point, I would love to share these things with those around me, and to live in a community where these experiences are the norm rather than the exception.

So, how does all of this sound? If it sounds odd, or silly, or simply not your cup of tea, then feel free to leave me alone to run off into the wild and become the mad monk of Southern Illinois. But if any of this makes sense to you, and you like any part of the vision statement I’ve shared, then join me in this new adventure. Together, we will build a community unlike any other.

I’ve laid out the first rough sketch based on the ideas we’ve discussed over the years. So far, I’m the first and only one to commit myself fully to the project. But there are many others who are potentially interested, and anyone who gets involved now will have the opportunity to make it their own just as I have.

If you’re interested in becoming an active member, or just keeping informed about our community events and such, let me know. Or, if you’re not interested but have feedback anyway, let me know that too. I’ll be talking to people soon to organize the first potluck and/or meeting to talk about this Pagan monastery. In the meantime, I am eager to hear your responses, and I wish you the best in your life path.

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Chronic Fatigue Syndrome

Now that my health and energy levels are starting to improve in a fairly steady and consistent manner, I’ll have more news soon about what I plan to do in the community with this newfound energy, and what I encourage others to join me in accomplishing. In the meantime, I want to share some information and reflections about Chronic Fatigue Syndrome.

For several years now, I’ve been suffering through various degrees of the symptoms of Chronic Fatigue Syndrome (CFS). When I last had access to a doctor, she didn’t use that exact term, but she did use related terms such as “adrenal exhaustion” and “adrenal fatigue” to describe my condition, and she did exclude other possibilities through blood tests and examinations. Therefore, both my personal research and my doctor’s diagnosis lead me to believe that CFS is the most accurate description of my condition.

The name of this condition can be deceiving. To some people, it sounds like someone with CFS is just a little bit tired. We all experience fatigue, right? What’s so different about CFS?

CFS is characterized by an unexplained, persistent fatigue that’s not due to ongoing exertion, isn’t substantially relieved by rest, is of new onset (not lifelong) and results in a significant reduction in previous levels of activity. Symptoms vary a bit, but my symptoms have been fairly typical:

  • Impaired memory or concentration (usually during/after exertion)
  • Post-exertional malaise (extreme, prolonged exhaustion and sickness following physical or mental activity)
  • Unrefreshing sleep
  • Muscle pain
  • Headaches

For me, this has been accompanied by chronic weight loss, which is somewhat less common but also a recognized symptom of CFS.

Basically, I felt completely exhausted, even when I hadn’t been doing much of anything. I would almost always wake up with pain and stiffness throughout neck, back, shoulders, chest, and hips, no matter how much I had rested or slept. Strenuous activity quickly made me feel sick: a progression from muscle pain and weakness to migraines and nausea which forced me to lay down. Any significant overexertion and/or loss of sleep left me in a malaise which took days to recover from. And I never fully recovered because I didn’t have enough time to rest, and rest didn’t seem to help anyway.

For some people with CFS, these symptoms result in a complete inability to function normally — to go to work, to spend time with friends, to do much of anything other than try in vain to rest. For me, this resulted in a reduction of my work capacity to about 20 or 30 hours per week as opposed to the almost 40 hours I had worked previously. And even with a diminished workload, I found it very difficult to keep up with daily chores, or to do any socializing other than sit-down activities such as watching TV/movies, eating/drinking with friends, or playing role-playing games.

CFS is often difficult to treat, and up until a few months ago, I wasn’t having much luck with it. There were several times when I went into a downward spiral, and my “recovery” from these times only brought me back to the same low level of activity and health.

Recently, though, I’ve finally been seeing my first signs of lasting improvement. I credit this improvement to a combination of yoga, prayer, and persistent self-care.

Resting for a day or a even a week never seemed to help, but reducing activity levels and increasing rest and sleep for months at a time eventually seemed to have a cumulative effect. Yoga has improved my blood flow, lymphatic health, breathing, and other aspects of my physical, emotional, mental, and spiritual health. Prayer and other spiritual practices helped me to stay focused and positive at a time when I had no physical or emotional strength left in me.

Together, all of these efforts combined have brought a significant reduction in my symptoms. Not many people with CFS can achieve such an improvement, so I’m very grateful that I’m making progress. Really, I have high hopes that I will be a rare example of a full recovery, and will soon thereafter become a better-than-average example of health and fitness.

In the meantime, however, I would say that I’m only halfway out of the woods. I can’t work more than 30 hours a week without feeling a rapid return of my previous symptoms. My body weight is still as low as ever, and I still find myself unable to do much of anything other than work and take care of basic chores and errands.

The good news, though, is that as long as I stick to this limited routine and keep up with my yoga and spirituality, I usually feel quite good, whereas in the past, even my diminished activity levels left me feeling like someone had beaten me up with a baseball bat. Since I feel good now, I’ve been testing my boundaries and discovering that my overall stamina really has improved.

Now, the key to continued recovery is discipline and diligence. I need to stick with what’s working: yoga, extra rest, relaxation, improved diet, and overall self-care. I’ve gotten to the point now where these practices no longer place serious limits on my finances or social life, leading to the start of a slow but steady upward spiral of health and happiness. I feel tempted to immediately expend my newfound energy on a dozen new projects, but I know that it will be better spent by resting for a few more months and building my core strength.

I do believe that I’ll recover fully from this — and once I do, then I can jump headlong into more of the things I’d like to be doing. In the meantime, I’m just happy to be feeling good and have something vaguely resembling a social life again.

I know that I’m a fairly public figure here in Carbondale, and I’ve heard from time to time that people are concerned about my health and well-being. As always, your thoughts and support are greatly appreciated. However, I’m a strong person, and my condition seems to be improving, so I hope that no one will be too worried about how I’m doing.

The best thing you can do for me right now is to support me in my belief that I will make a full recovery. And the best way that you can do that is by continuing to invite me out to community events, social gatherings, parties, etc., even though I may not always be able to make it. As some of you know, I can be the life of a party on a good day, so it’ll be well worth your while to ask me to come out and play.

Hopefully this entry will help people to understand what I’ve been going through and where I’m at today. I also hope that by talking about this, I will encourage other people who have symptoms of CFS to talk to their doctors, their complimentary/natural health practitioners, and their loved ones about what they’re experiencing.

There are other conditions that can cause prolonged exhaustion, so instead of trying to figure it out on your own and bear the burden alone, be sure to find out what exactly you’re facing so that you’ll know how to respond. If you do have Chronic Fatigue Syndrome, know that you’re not alone, and know that with proper treatment and self-care, you may be able to live a healthier and happier life.

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Museum

I open the door with a sigh.
The unfinished hardwood floor
of my bedroom
is clear of clutter.
A basket full of laundry
rests by my bed
with a lingering scent of lavender.
My desk is covered in odds and ends
crumpled papers, a CD, a brush, a few cups
but it would only take a minute or two
to clear it all away.
My altar stands at the center of the room
with a black altar cloth
covered by a handful of colorful candles
and an amber chalice
and an athame with blue and green hilt
and incense, and water, and salt.

On most days
my bedroom makes a fine sanctuary
but today
these familiar walls
feel too solid against my touch
and vertical lines of wood paneling
remind me of cold iron bars.

Something tightens in my chest
and I want to yell
to howl, to scream, to cry
to fly into frenzy
tossing aside my altar
smashing my desk to pieces
throwing my chair through the window
tearing down the walls
with my bare hands.
Instead
I pace
and I rock in place
and I grimace in silence
and I lay my head down with a sigh.

When I open my eyes
I see sculpted stone arches
rising all around me.
I see a black marble floor
with brilliant golden veins
flowing down endless hallways.
The walls are lined with
empty white marble pedestals
and empty oaken picture frames
each illuminated by an unseen light.

I spin around slowly
drinking in my surroundings
and when I look
to the center of the room
it becomes clear
why I’m here.

Blank canvas and full palettes.
Marble blocks and sets of chisels.
Tools to turn an empty hall
into a museum of my own making

In my waking life
I had never laid eyes on such tools
but here and now
the smooth wood of paintbrush and palette
feels light and limber in my hands.
I lavish the canvas
with stroke after stroke
and in a matter of minutes
the face of a woman is revealed.
Golden brown hair
cascading down round pink cheeks
flowing over soft white shoulders
with brilliant blue eyes
shining over soft lips
lifted in a sly smirk.
I step back from the canvas
and for a moment
I’m breathless, speechless
my heart skipping a beat
at the sight of her.
Then I step forward
and pick up the canvas
with a light touch
carrying it over to
a frame on the wall.

This is only the beginning.

I turn to the tools
at the center of the room
with a spring in my step
and a fire in my eyes.
My hands fly faster than before
and in a matter of moments
another face is revealed.
Soft blond hair
cascading down smooth peach cheeks
flowing over strong shoulders
with bright blue eyes
twinkling over laughing lips.
I step back again
and my eyes widen
and my heartbeat quickens
as I look into her eyes
and feel her presence.

Another painting for another wall
and yet I move without pause
to the next canvas.
A woman with dark brown hair
just long enough to kiss her shoulders
framing deep brown eyes
and thin pink lips
spread in a soft smile.
Another woman with dark brown hair
but hers is long and wavy
cascading over strong white shoulders
framing warm brown eyes
and a slight smile
mysterious as Mona Lisa.

I leap from canvas to canvas
palettes strewn about me
a brush in each hand
painting two portraits at once
without missing the slightest detail.
With dozens of paintings complete
I go back to my earlier portraits
with blank canvas in hand
painting my subjects from different angles
in different lights, with different expressions
trying to capture their character
in splashes of oil on canvas.

But soon, two dimensions are not enough.
I pick up a chisel and tap at the marble
carving three dimensional sculptures
of each of my subjects.

The first woman stands
clad in leather armor
with one hand wielding a sword
lashing at unseen foes
the other hand holding a bandage
binding a broken arm.

Another woman stands
in T-shirt and jeans
a guitar slung over her shoulder
a chalice of wine in her hand
her lips spread in a broad smile
her voice raised in song.

The next sits cross-legged
her eyes closed in meditation
her lips lifted in a slight smile
her hands pressed together
in front of her heart.

But soon
even sculpture is not enough.

I return to canvas and oils
pacing and rocking in place.
After a moment’s pause
I leap at the canvas again
painting a sunset
in the blink of an eye.
Each of my subjects
has their own wing of the museum now
and I fill each pedestal and frame
with paintings and sculptures.
A table full of dog-eared books
and sketches of fantasy characters.
A lone figure on a sharp mountain peak
standing in tree pose
bathed in the peaches and purples
of the rising sun.
A woman seen from behind
cup off coffee in one hand
cigarette in the other
pouring over piles of textbooks
on the table.

Eventually, my supplies are exhausted
and I stand at the center of the museum
surrounded by paintings and sculptures.
I spin around slowly
basking in the colors, the shapes
the lifelike portraits
the iconic images
the tangible presence of these women.
For a moment
I feel drunk in their presence
and spin around faster and faster
lifting my hands in the air
throwing my head back in laughter.
But soon, I slow to a stop
and realize that there’s still
something missing.

I pause in place
and as my heartbeat slows
I feel the touch of cold marble
against my bare feet.

Cold, hard, still marble.

I look around
and though the sweeping arcs
of oil on canvas and sculpted stone
imply movement and animation
everything around me is motionless.
The portraits are colorful
but two dimensional
and the sculptures are lifelike
but cold and colorless.

I take several slow, stilted steps
toward my first painting
a familiar face
with brilliant blue eyes
and golden brown hair.
The image is warm and soft
but I run my fingers across her cheek
and feel the cold, stiff, jagged touch
of oil on canvas.

She isn’t here.
None of them are here.
I am surrounded by
bits of oil and canvas
and sculpted stone.

Something tightens in my chest
and I want to yell
to howl, to scream, to cry
to fly into frenzy
tossing aside the portraits
smashing the sculptures to pieces
snapping the paintbrushes and chisels
with my bare hands.
Instead
I pace
and I rock in place
and I grimace in silence
and I lay my head down with a sigh.

When I open my eyes
I’m in my bedroom.
The unfinished hardwood floor
is still clear of clutter
my laundry is still in its basket
and the desk is still covered with
crumpled papers, a CD, a brush, a few cups.

But now a golden beam of sunlight
is pouring through my window
brightening the hues of my hardwood floor
and the candles on my altar.
I lift myself out of bed
and my muscles ache
as though I really have
spent the whole night
painting and sculpting.
I shake my head
with a smile and a sigh
and head outside
to meet the dawn of a new day.

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Vote Green in 2008

McKinney and Clemente in 2008: This is an image of a yard sign that I found online supporting Cynthia McKinney and Rosa Clemente in their President and Vice President campaign in 2008.My last entry was about the “Don’t Just Vote, Get Active” campaign. I should have more news on the active portion of that equation for you soon. In the meantime, I have the first official endorsement of a political candidate that I’ve made since starting this blog.

In 2008, I encourage you to vote for Cynthia McKinney and Rosa Clemente for President and Vice President. I also encourage you to vote for any Green Party candidates who may be running in your area.

In the past, I’ve been slow to endorse any candidate or party because I believe that party-building, especially at the federal level, detracts from efforts to engage more directly in the political process. In other words, time spent campaigning for a federal candidate could have been spent on other, more direct forms of action such as shutting down coal plants, providing social services to our local communities, supporting local candidates who will change our local power structures, etc.

However, I’ve decided that it’s time to take a somewhat more practical approach to politics. I won’t personally be involved in campaigning for any Presidential candidates, and I do not encourage anyone to devote any length of time to promoting Presidential candidates unless they were already planning on doing so. But I’ve accepted that other people do support political candidates, and I’ve realized that not all campaigns are created equal. Some federal campaigns have the potential to bring direct and positive changes to our local communities and bioregions. And some federal campaigns offer us a way to vote for candidates who actually embrace our beliefs on principles such as social justice and ecological wisdom.

Therefore, whether you are interested in actively volunteering for a Presidential campaign, or someone like me who just wants to spend five minutes in a voting booth officially opposing the idiocy of people like John McCain and Sarah Palin, I encourage you to vote for Cynthia McKinney, Rosa Clemente, and other Green candidates in your area.

Why am I making this endorsement?

First, there are the candidates themselves. Unlike a lot of third party candidates, Cynthia McKinney has the right mix of experience, principle, and character to make her a fitting choice for a national leadership role. She was the first African-American Congresswoman from Georgia, which means that she has experience both at fighting uphill battles and at interacting with the madness that is Washington DC. She also is a former Democrat, and her switch from Democrat to Green is a reflection of her realization that the Democratic Party does not in fact share in her commitment to the rights of the people and the accountability of the government.

Rosa Clemente is a community organizer, workshop leader, independent journalist, hip hip activist, and more. Her in-depth academic studies of liberation movements are matched by her social organizing experience and her talent for creative self-expression and advocacy for the causes she holds dear.

I don’t know either of these candidates personally, but from all that I’ve seen of their work, and all of the people I’ve spoken to who do know them personally, they seem like they offer an incredible combination of experience, dedication, principle, passion, and character to the effort to create true change in our society.

In addition to the candidates themselves, there is the organization that supports them. The Green Party has a long and fruitful history of speaking and acting for the common good, guided by Ten Key Values which are the closest thing to a sane set of principles that I have ever seen embraced by a political party.

In case you’re not familiar with them, these are the Ten Key Values (Illinois Green Party version):

  1. Ecological Wisdom. The Greens recognize that the Earth sustains all life processes. Green ecology moves beyond environmentalism by understanding the common roots of the abuse of people. Whatever we do to the web of life, we do to ourselves.
  2. Social Justice. Greens want to replace the worldwide system of poverty and injustice with a world free of all oppression based on class, gender, race, citizenship, age, or sexual orientation.
  3. Grassroots Democracy. The powerless suffer the most from resource depletion and toxic pollution. Greens believe in direct participation by all people in the environmental, political, and economic decisions that affect their lives.
  4. Nonviolence. Greens reject violence as a way of settling disputes — it is shortsighted, morally wrong, and ultimately self-defeating. We are working to create a world where war is obsolete.
  5. Decentralization. Power and responsibility must be restored to local communities within an overall framework of ecologically sound and socially just values and lifestyles.
  6. Community-Based Economics. Greens seek a new economics based upon the natural limits of the Earth, which meets the basic needs of everyone on the planet, under democratic, localized community control.
  7. Feminism. The Green movement is profoundly inspired by feminist values. The ethics of cooperation and understanding must replace the values of domination and control over others.
  8. Respect for Diversity. Greens honor the biological diversity of the Earth and the cultural, sexual, and spiritual diversity of Earth’s people. We aim to reclaim this country’s finest ideals: popular democracy, the dignity of the individual, and liberty and justice for all.
  9. Personal and Global Responsibility. Greens demonstrate a commitment to global sustainability and international justice through political solidarity and in personal lifestyles based on self-sufficiency and living lightly.
  10. Future Focus. Greens seek a society where the interests of the seventh generation are considered equal to the interests of the present. We must reclaim the future for our children and ourselves.

Pretty good, eh? No such list can ever hope to be complete or perfect, but I’d say it’s a pretty good start. And what I value most about the Green Party is that on a good day, in a good chapter of the Green Party, the message of “Don’t Just Vote, Get Active” has already been taken to heart.

Naturally, as a political party, they field candidates and run campaigns for those candidates. But when possible, they also work directly on local, regional, and national efforts to create the very same change that their candidates are speaking for.

This mix of “candidate campaigning” and “issue-oriented activism” is rare among political parties, which usually just focus on getting their candidates elected with little or no direct action on the principles they espouse. It’s one of the aspects of the Green Party that first caught my attention, and it’s one of the characteristics that I hope will continue to grow both within the Green Party and beyond it.

As I’ve said before, it will take more than “just voting” to create the change we seek. So it’s good to see that even those who are highly committed to organizing around voting are not losing site of the fact that direct organizing efforts in our local communities are still called for.

So, because of these excellent candidates, and because of the principles and practices of the party that they are involved with, I encourage you to vote for Cynthia McKinney and Rosa Clemente. Voting for them will send a message about what you believe in and bolster support for one of the few political parties that’s actually doing something good in the world.

If you live here in Southern Illinois, I also encourage you to get involved with the Shawnee Green Party and their local efforts to support local and regional candidates and issues.

Rich Whitney, who received 10.4% of the vote in his candidacy for Governor of Illinois, is still involved with the local Greens. He is someone who I’ve been happy to get to know through his active participation in various community groups. To my knowledge, he isn’t currently running for any office, but if you voted for him, now is your chance to join him and other Greens in taking action on the issues raised by his campaign.

Local volunteers gather every Saturday and Sunday to canvass for candidates. These include Charlie Howe, who is running for State Rep; Rodger Jennings, who is running for U.S. Congress, and Cynthia McKinney, who I’ve already talked about above.

If you’re still not convinced after all of the above, I encourage you to meet with members of the Shawnee Green Party sometime to learn more about their candidates and the issues and campaigns that they support.

And in the end, if you still aren’t interested in the Greens, I encourage you to find whatever forms of involvement in the political process you can. The people who support war, ecocide, and other forms of oppression and destruction aren’t going to sit on the sidelines idly hoping that their profiteering agenda comes to pass. They’re going to take swift, decisive, sometimes brutal action in support of their nefarious cause. Therefore, we as concerned members of the general public shouldn’t sit around idly either. Any action you take, however great or small it may seem, can be a part of a broader effort to create a more free and ecological and cooperative society.

There’s no one solution, and no one vision for what a good society can or should look like. But really, that’s a good thing, because it means that we are all free to pursue our own unique visions of what a good life might be like and work together in the areas where we find agreement. That’s what public life should be like — and that’s what public life WILL be like if you and I and our fellow community members take action to make it that way.

As I see it, one way of doing that is by supporting these candidates and the work of the Green Party. Support them at the polls, and take other forms of action on non-election days in the service of freedom, ecological values, and social cooperation. In the meantime, if you have any other ideas, I’m open as always to hearing them.

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My name is Treesong. I'm a father, author, talk radio host, and Real Life Superhero. I live in Carbondale, Southern Illinois. I write novels, short stories, and poetry, mostly about the climate.

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