Tag Archives: Steampunk

Full time pagan

Whilst I was planning a blog on the subject of BDSM Tom and I got talking about the degree to which people do things full time, or as a weekend hobby. The popular image of BDSM is very much one of full time slavery but the reality is that many people only do it sometimes and have relatively ‘normal’ lives the rest of the time.

Talking around this issue, it occurred to me that the same can be said of a lot of other groups. There’s the steampunk folk who love their dressing up and going out at the weekend in their Victorian style gear, but who probably don’t do it the rest of the time. There’s re-enactors – another costume group who spend their spare time dressing up and exploring ‘living history’ eating and living authentically for short periods. At the end of which they go home. There’s the nightclubbers – I used to hang out with lots of goths and punks who would get out wild attire for the weekends, but many of them didn’t get to do it the rest of the time. I think about how people at music festivals change themselves for the duration. In many ways BDSM has similar things going on – the exciting clothing that takes you out of ‘normal’ life, the getting together with likeminded folk to share your passion, the brief periods of total immersion and the return to ‘normal’ in between.

It wasn’t a big leap to go from thinking about this, to considering paganism. The dressing up in gear that marks you out as part of a group, getting together at weekends to really immerse in the culture, and the eventual return to ‘normal’. Thinking about rituals, conferences, camps and even moots, there’s an argument for saying that paganism has all the same appeals as other passionately supported sub-culture activities.

What’s the difference between spending your weekend being a steampunk, a goth, a folky, a kinkster, or a Druid? It’s all counter-culture, fancy dress and escapism, right? It can be. It depends a lot on how you relate to it.

There is a fun and social aspect to paganism that is very much akin to all sorts of other social activities humans go in for. If we make that the total of our paganism, with the emphasis on having the right frock, jewellery and magical wand then it’s not very different from gothing up. Whether or not we carry our sexual preferences, music tastes or other points of identification into a wider life is a matter of personal choice. I tend to dress like a sort of folk-goth hybrid most of the time because I can, but I can pass for tidy, and normal, and it does not cause me much trouble to do so. I spent a while dressing up as a Viking at the weekends, but that didn’t really filter into the rest of my life. There was no place for it and no particular need.

Being a pagan is not a hobby. It’s a defining aspect of who I am, and a choice I have made that, by its very nature must influence every other choice I make. Being pagan full time doesn’t mean wearing the gear, or even spending hours sat under trees in deep meditation. But it does mean carrying my Druidry, my philosophy and my ethics with me into all parts of my life. Being a Druid full time doesn’t mean doing Druidry to the exclusion of all else. It’s not a life of ritual and contemplation. My Druidry is my life. It’s there in everything I do. I can’t take it on and off like a hat.

For most people, overt and visible paganism, robes and all, is something to do at the weekend. That’s inevitable. We have families, jobs, other roles, other duties. But even when we aren’t out there being obvious, we can still be pagans.

Expecting the Norm

So here’s what happened.

I was at one of these conference-type things with a friend (we’ll call her Jules), shopping for pagan statuary and taking little workshops on things such as Past Life DNA, The Buddha in You, and Intuitive Expression through Art. We’re wandering around, and we see my book being sold at one of the stands. I get excited of course – it’s been a year since publishing and I still take cell phone pics of my book whenever I’m in a bookstore – and my friend and I are giggling and fawning over it. A woman standing next to us overhears our conversation, and says “You wrote that book?”

“Yes, that one’s mine,” I said, still smiling.

“Really?” she said. “You?

And I, being easily offended and occasionally having no class, sucked my teeth and said, “Yeah, me!”

“Oh. I have your book, it’s great,” the woman said. I sparkled with pride, until she looked me up and down and then said, “You’re just not what I expected.”

My friend and I glanced each other, confused. “And what exactly did you expect?”

She looked thoughtful. “Well, you just don’t look like you wrote a book about Goddesses.”

And Jules, having even less class than I, said, “Is that ‘cuz she’s black, or because she’s not dressed in a cloak?”

Good question, Jules.

Let me interject here. This is a reaction I get often. Most women in this area of spirituality are not of color. Few are as young as me and gotten to this level of teaching and healing. Even fewer have a penchant for corsets and hot pink Converse sneakers.

And to a certain degree, Inappropriate Stranger Lady was right, I don’t look like a “typical goddess woman” – if there is such a thing. I’m African American and covered in tattoos of religious symbols. I often reek of coffee and cigarette smoke, because most of my time is spent at cafes with a Camel perched between my lips.  My wardrobe ranges from business suits to jeans and t-shirts, to gothic and steampunk inspired garb. My hairstyle changes as often as my wardrobe.  I am not a vegan. I grew up in the ghetto, fuck is my favorite word, and I flirt with anything that moves.

And within all that, I understand that first impressions are lasting.  That’s why I don’t show up to work in fishnets and a top hat, cursing like a sailor. But even in my best suit, there is always a glimmer of surprise when someone meets me for the first time. I’ve even had one client say, “Wow! You’re black! You didn’t sound black on the phone.”

But I get it. I’m not what most people expect when they buy my book, come to classes or make an appointment for counseling and energy healing. Many people, regardless of religion or caste, hear the words ‘goddess’ or  ‘spiritual’ and look forward to seeing me dressed in ritual robes or a dashiki, or for me to finish every sentence with “blessed be.”  Some assume I’m a lesbian. Others see my skin color and are confused as to why I am not a Baptist, or surprised that I’m articulate. The stereotyping of spiritual people by other spiritual people is a regular occurrence, and to me it’s a bit odd.  Aren’t we the ones who are supposed to be connected, the ones who see beyond socialization and conventionalism? But this pigeonholing happens, and most times people don’t even realize they are doing it. For some reason, we think:  If you’re a Buddhist, you look and speak this way, a Christian walks and talks this way.  Goddess women wear gauzy dresses and no bra.

For a long time, I tried to separate the facets of my life. Spirituality writing from fiction writing, comic book writing from ritual writing, meditation retreats from I-need-a-drink retreats.  I was driven to believe that since the two facets of my personality were so far from one another that it would be best if my behavior reflected as such – the Narrator vs. Tyler Durden.

And one day, during a deep meditation, I saw how much of myself I was hiding from the world, and my own consciousness. And why was I doing that – to make others more comfortable? To get more clients, or a better chance at getting published? Was I seriously sacrificing my own comfort level, happiness, and growth to supply people with what they were expecting to see?

The different things I am interested in don’t seem to mix, but they are all a part of the same path because they all come from me.  Those facets are all part of one diamond. My job in it is to accept who I am, love that person with all of her strangeness, challenges, and loveliness. This is who Spirit built me to be. My tattoos, my skin, my love of Bauhaus give me access to teach and thrive in areas where the ‘typical’ person would be denied entry. My knowledge and my kookiness all combine and work together to give me the insight and the experiences I need in order to do my part in healing and blessing the world.

So while l I may not look like the typical Goddess woman, the typical counselor, the typical spiritualist, it’s who I am. If all the wondrous things I am make me an oddity – hooray! Who the hell wants to be normal, anyway? A complete and total dichotomy, the intersecting point between the expected norm and the unknown alternative, that’s me. Only now, I’m no longer afraid to admit it, I’ve stopped trying to dissect it, and I’m showing it without shame or explanation.

There are counterculture spiritual folks out there waving the freaky flag with me (from the Dharma Punx to the Christian Goths), people from a different walk of life who find their pleasure and their joy from Spirit, those who may seem atypical to the generalized unpierced crowd but at their foundation are seekers of truth, love, and peace.

Some may shy away from us because of how we appear, and honestly, that’s ok. Please, keep your assumptions and your judgment over there in your corner. I’m used to being one of two colored folks in the room when I attend/teach classes and events. I’ve accepted the odd looks and the timid handshakes, and in some groups the talking down or flat-out segregation. It’s cool, because their reaction to me – before I’ve even said a word – says more about who they are than who I am. And hopefully one day they’ll learn the lesson hidden within their negative or surprised response. Perhaps that’s the purpose I am meant to serve in their lives – to shine a disco light on that piece of them that expects the average, the mundane.

Because in spite of my unconventional appearance, I’ve worked as a healer and teacher for over a decade. I’ve studied spirituality for more than half my life. I’ve helped women and men all over the world heal and transform themselves. Sometimes in jeans, sometimes at a workshop, sometimes sipping a martini. Always Black, and usually smelling good.

And I can look in the mirror without flinching, nicotine stained fingers and all.

Writing Sub-Cultures

I heard on an egroup yesterday that Steampunk is the new big thing, publishers are asking for it. Assorted rom-erotica authors commented on it seeming interesting, and pondered if it was worth trying to get in on the action. I buried my face in my hands. (And then I wrote a somewhat shorter version of what I’m going to post here. It was grumpier as well.)

I remember a few years back, when everyone seemed to be doing pagan deities, things stolen from Greek mythology (satyrs, dryads etc) and there were a lot of druid and witchy characters turning up in excerpts posted to egroups. No doubt a few publishers had decided that paranormal was the new buzzy thing, and that writers should be encouraged to cash in.

My partner Tom recently did a panel at the Steampunk’s World Fair, where he was talking about paranormal. He told me he pointed out to people to tread carefully, that one person’s ‘paranormal’ is another person’s belief.

As a pagan, it’s painful, irritating and depressing watching our deities, myths and superficial contemporary practice being appropriated by people who really don’t know the first thing about our lives, but who have heard that paranormal sells like hot cakes. I can usually tell from a book blurb if the author is a pagan or not. It’s exactly the same for the BDSM crowd, I gather from friends. The frustration of getting books where the writers clearly don’t have the first clue what a genuine BDSM lifestyle looks like. There are huge and hungry niche audiences for kink. The thing is, they don’t want kink written by people who haven’t got the first clue how it actually works. It’s not just about having the right slang and knowing who ought to put what where. This is a lifestyle choice, these are subcultures, just as paganism is.

The same is true of Steampunk. I know enough to know that currently I do not know enough to write it. Steampunk is not just a fiction genre, it embraces art, music, clothing and innovation in all kinds of ways, and it has a growing community. Steampunk enthusiasts can and do have complex heated debates about what is, and isn’t, proper Steampunk. A person who is outside that, would struggle to catch the attention of true Steampunk fans.

I’d be the first person to say that writers shouldn’t restrict themselves to purely writing from firsthand experience. However, if you want to write in a niche and for a specific market (whatever that is) you can’t just appropriate some surface details and imagine that people will lap it up. They won’t. At the very least, you need to know your niche, read other writers who are part of it, go where the communities of real enthusiasts are, get involved, find out what it actually is and how it actually works.

I’ll offer an example – British author Phil Rickman is not a pagan. He’s said as much, being interviewed in pagan magazines. His occult mysteries, with a central character who is an Anglican exorcist vicar, who has a pagan daughter, are hugely popular with pagans. Why? Because he’s done his research well and writes things that are good representations of us, and the kinds of world views we hold and experiences we have.

Just as setting your erotic fiction on a spaceship doesn’t make it science fiction that sf readers will lap up, so giving a girl a corset and goggles does not make your book and instant hit with steampunks. It is not ok to exploit communities, ripping off what you can of their culture, with no respect for who they actually are, just to make a quick buck out of the next buzzy genre. Like most ‘get rich quick’ schemes it doesn’t work anyway. There is money to be made catering to niche audiences, but it tends to go to the folk who give those niches what they actually want, not dodgy pastiches.