For those who mourn for Margot Adler

Short version: Read Heretic’s Heart. Now.

Long version:

Yesterday, in my post on the death of Margot Adler, I mentioned that her book Heretic’s Heart was next on my reading list.

Today, I unexpectedly had a free hour between medical appointments. I had the book on my iPad, so I started reading.

I was only a few pages into Chapter One before an eerie feeling crept over me. In the first chapter of Heretic’s Heart, Margot talks about dealing with the death of her mother. There are parallels between Margot’s passing and that of her mother, Freyda:

– Both were strong, charismatic women who had a powerful influence on those who knew her.

– Both died of cancer. In Freyda’s case, she was never told that her cancer was incurable; in the 1970s, it was considered better not to tell the patient the truth.

– Margot was roughly the same age when her mother died as her son Alex is now.

The chapter concerns Margot’s person journey as she comes to understand her mother, and come to terms with her passing.

I can’t imagine what Alex would feel if he were to read that chapter right now. For everyone else: I strongly suggest you read it. I felt a strange sense of closure somehow, as if Margot’s celebration of her mother’s life with sadness and joy helped me to fully come to terms with Margot’s death.

I still feel sad that she’s gone. But, at least for now, I feel like there’s joy there too.

Added later: I’m reading Heretic’s Heart because Margot suggested it in our phone conversation, in order to learn more about Berkeley in the 1960s. Did she realize that her book began with a chapter that related to her passing away? Did she give me an extra bit of advice, not as a reporter, but as a priestess?

Originally published at Argothald. You can comment here or there.

Learning from Margot Adler

On the evening of Tuesday, July 15, 2014, I interviewed Margot Adler over the phone for my research on the biography of Isaac Bonewits.

After the interview, I posted on Facebook: “Wow. It was like my interviews with Oberon and Morning Glory: you want to listen to them forever.” I didn’t learn much about Isaac that would be useful for the biography. Margot frequently quoted Isaac in her book Drawing Down the Moon, but she hadn’t interacted with him all that much.

It turned out that she had a more interesting, though indirect, connection with Isaac. Margot was part of the Free Speech Movement at Berkeley; she graduated two years before Isaac did. She recalled that this was one of the few times in the struggle between students and administration that the students won a complete victory. That may have led to the open expression at Berkeley that allowed Isaac to initially receive approval for his proposed major in Thaumaturgy.

Margot’s story of her role in the Free Speech Movement, including her arrest, is told in her book Heretic’s Heart. It is the next book in my reading list.

After talking with me for about 45 minutes, Margot said that she only had enough energy for a couple more questions. I said, “I’m going to be selfish. I’m a physicist, with no training in journalism or history, trying to do this biography project. Would you, as an experienced journalist, have any advice for me?”

She thought for a moment. “I think you go pancake by pancake. You get all your materials together, you figure out what it will be like. I had chapters that I never used, that I threw out. I got completely side-tracked at one point. You tell what you experienced. You don’t lie. It’s pretty simple.”

“Any tips on interviewing people?”

“Yes. Here’s the most important question, and you ask at the very end. You assume that the first ten minutes… you don’t care what it is. And the last question is, ‘What do you know now that you didn’t know before?’”

“To wrap this up, Margot, let me ask you: What do you know now that you didn’t know before?” We both laughed.

She answered, “I know that Paganism is lot deeper and more complex than I thought.”

She then told me a story that taught me a valuable lesson about my particular Wiccan Tradition. She asked me to keep it private, and so I shall.

Margot Adler passed away today, Monday, July 28, 2014.

At the end of every interview I’ve done since, and will do while I work on this project, I’ll ask, “What do you know now that you didn’t before?” I’ve already received some fascinating answers. Every time I ask it, I shall think of the professional and spiritual person who took time out in her last days to share her knowledge with me.

If I have reaped one benefit for working on the biography, it’s that I have had the chance to speak and learn from Morning Glory Zell-Ravenheart and Margot Adler before I lost the chance to speak with them at all. I wish Margot a safe and swift journey to the summerlands.

Originally published at Argothald. You can comment here or there.

Two Occult Experiences

Believe me, I wish I was about to describe two mystical experiences in my life. Instead, I’m going to talk about two films named “The Occult Experience.”

I watched them because of fuzzy memories of what I read in Isaac Bonewits papers. I knew Isaac had appeared in “The Occult Experience”; I also remembered reading a protest letter Isaac wrote (perhaps to members of the AADL) condemning “The Occult Experience.”

I wanted to know if this was another occurrence of Isaac being defamed in the media. I searched a bit, and found that there were two films named “The Occult Experience,” one released in 1970 and the other in 1985. Both are available on YouTube; I include the links below. Last night, I watched them, in what turned out to be a grand waste of three hours of my life.

The 1985 film isn’t bad, though as a Wiccan in 2014 I didn’t learn anything new. The film consists of several segments on different occult organizations in the US, England, and Australia. There are interviews with several major occult figures, including Margot Adler, Z Budapest, Michael Aquino, Janet Farrar, Alex Saunders, and HR Giger. Isaac can be seen for a few seconds, but it’s entirely in footage taken from Satanis; his name is not mentioned.

As a Wiccan, I’m not enthusiastic about including the Temple of Set (the current incarnation of the Church of Satan) next to Alexandrian Wicca, but I’ll acknowledge that ToS falls under the category of “occult.” The segment that bothered me the most was an exorcism ceremony conducted by a group of Australian Fundamentalist Christians with the goal of ridding people of the desire of any magical influences, including hypnotism and divination.

Deborah Lipp accurately described the 1970 film to me as a “lurid schlock documentary.” Every speaker in the film is badly over-dubbed, often putting words into their mouths; only Anton LaVey is allowed to speak for himself. The Church of Satan is probably the only group that would be happy with how they’re represented. Almost everyone else is described (or overdubbed) in evil or satanic terms, twisting the original intent of the practitioners.

I was particularly troubled by the opening segment, in which we see a Gardnerian ritual priestessed by Eleanor “Ray” Bone described as a form of wicked devil-worship by the narrator. Alexander and Maxine Saunders received less harsh treatment, though I cringed when I heard their ritual sword described as “thrice-cursed.” It’s obvious that this is the film that Isaac objected to.

Strangely, the only group that’s shown some measure of respect are the Candomblé of Brazil; they’re a Yoruban-derived tradition in the same style as Vodoun and Santeria. Apparently the production company had the fear of Egum put into them! I hadn’t know about the Candomblé before now, so I have to acknowledge that the film taught me something.

Both the Candomblé and the Saunders are shown in two different segments; perhaps they were the most cooperative. The film also lumps cryogenic freezing and pot-smoking into their definition of “occult.” Maybe in 1970 they were, but now it just seems silly.

It’s worth nothing that the only occult personalities who appear in both “The Occult Experience” films are Anton LaVey and Alex Saunders. It’s been three decades since the last of these films was made; I hope the Wiccan legacy won’t be defined by these two in the decades to come.

If you’d like to see these films for yourself:

Originally published at Argothald. You can comment here or there.

When I Read the Book

When I read the book, the biography famous,
And is this then (said I) what the author calls a man’s life?
And so will some one when I am dead and gone write my life?
(As if any man really knew aught of my life,
Why even I myself I often think know little or nothing of my real life,
Only a few hints, a few diffused faint clews and indirections
I seek for my own use to trace out here.)

– From Leaves of Grass by Walt Whitman

Just another thought that goes through my mind as I work on Isaac Bonewits’ biography.

Originally published at Argothald. You can comment here or there.

Setting a deadline

I haven’t posted recently about my work on the biography of Isaac Bonewits. In fact, you may have noticed that I’ve involved myself with projects that are clearly work-avoidance: the private server and the jewelry shop. I have the mild excuse that the shop might offset the research costs for the biography, but there’s a more direct reason why my work has been minimal.

The reason is the recent publication of two superb works of Neopagan history: Bull of Heaven and The Wizard and the Witch. They considerably raise the bar on what I think of as a minimal acceptable standard for the biography. I can’t get away with saying “Isaac did X, then he did Y, then he did Z.” I’d have to go over the environments in which he lived and the influences that led to his major life decisions.

Among other things, this means researching what life was like in:

– Michigan in the 1950s;

– the city of Berkeley in the 1960s;

– the University of California at Berkeley campus in the late 60s to 70s;

– the magical community surrounded Grayhaven in the 70s and 80s;

– the RDNA in the 70s and 80s;

– the growth and development of ADF in the 80s and 90s;

and so. This information is not in the papers and documents that Isaac left behind. My guess is that, with additional interviews, trips to libraries, archival searches, hunting for resources (I’d need access to the complete runs of Green Egg and Gnostica), and much begging, it at least triples the research effort I’d originally planned.

When I proposed the idea of the biography to Phaedra Bonewits and Deborah Lipp in 2010, I thought it might take 4-5 years of effort. I recently learned it took Michael Lloyd 9 years to write Bull of Heaven; I can guess how long it took John Sulak to put together The Wizard and the Witch based on the transcripts of interviews whose subjects had passed on years before it was published.

I’m feeling overwhelmed. The mojo has gone again. It would help to have a research assistant or co-author, but who wants to sign on for years of unpaid labor on a work that might never be published?

The next major research task is go to Pantheacon in February 2015 to interview folks who knew Isaac, or could tell me about life in Berkeley in the 70s and 80s. For me, this is a major expenditure in social and financial capital. If I’m going to visit Pantheacon, I should do so now, while (to put it bluntly) the people I’d like to interview are still alive.

It’s also become a watershed moment in the research effort. If I go, I commit myself to seeing this project through to completion; no more posts that whine about mojo. [*]

This weekend, I had a chance to speak with my writing coach and discuss some of these issues. Here’s what I came up with: I have to make the “go/no-go” decision by September of this year. Therefore, by the end of August, I will try to complete four new productive interveiws for the biography.

If I haven’t managed to do that in the next six weeks, then it’s a “no-go” on Pantheacon… and it’s a “no-go” on this project. I’ll apologize to Phaedra and Deborah, and offer my digital documents and partially-coded files to anyone else who’s better qualified to take up this project.

If I do it, then I’m committed. Feel free to insert your own pun here.

[*] Disclaimer: If I go to Pantheacon, and it turns out that it was not worth the effort, then I’ll also set this project aside. I don’t have enough resources to gamble on failed research.

Originally published at Argothald. You can comment here or there.

Gratitude, with fireworks

Last night, the Fourth of July, I went to a friend’s house in Ridgewood NJ. Aside from the pleasant company of the hosts and their guests, their home is only a couple of blocks away from the town’s annual fireworks display. When it got dark, we walked to a parking lot and watched the fireworks as they were launched from a field across the steet.

I’ve seen the Ridgewood fireworks before, and they’re always grand. This year was the best they’ve ever done. It was the perfect blend of color, design, and style. The technology of fireworks has improved considerably over the years; when I was a kid there were certainly no fireworks that could explode in the shape of a smiley face!

As I watched the fiery trails arc across the sky and transform into expanding globes of alternating colors, my main feeling was one of gratitude.

– I was grateful that, despite all my vision problems of recent years, I could still enjoy the sight of fireworks.

– I was grateful that I had a “zero-gravity” chair that I could use to get the best view… and even more grateful that, despite weakness imposed by cancer and problems with my feet, I was now well enough to carry that chair from my car to the parking lot.

– I was grateful that I knew why there was a delay between seeing the explosion and hearing it, and that I could use that knowledge to estimate how far the fireworks were above us (about 200 feet, if you’re curious).

– I was grateful that, as we were waiting for the fireworks, I could see the first-quarter moon, Mars, Saturn, Spica, and Arcturus, and identify them for what they were.

– I was grateful for a life that let me have the luxury to travel to that spot, in that time, to watch the year-long effort of the people who crafted those fireworks for the pleasure of other people enjoying themselves.

The people around me were going “oooh” and “ahhh.” I “oooh”ed and “ahhh”ed with them. I don’t know what they felt at that moment. For me, and from me, a thanks to all those who made that moment possible.