flwyd: (drum circle w/ fire)
This past weekend, a man ran into an effigy burn and died, apparently as a premeditated suicide. This occurred at Element 11, a regional Burning Man event in the Utah desert. The Utah Burner community and others who attended the event are doing some serious processing and supporting this week and there's a lot of discussion happening in the broader Burning Man community. On my favorite mailing list, someone asked Do we know why people run into fire? I don't know any particulars about why this particular human ran into this particular fire, but I had a lot of thoughts about humans and our general relationship to fire.

There's a lot of symbolism and human cultural context wrapped up in fire. It's long been an element of mystery, harder to predict and control than air, earth, and water. We are often drawn to what we don't understand. Fortunately the discomfort of a fire's heat usually keeps us from playing too closely with fire, though many a young child has received a direct lesson as a result of their curiosity. Many people at Burner events cultivate a state of childlike wonder and, at times, lack of awareness of personal safety.

One of my favorite quotes about religion goes:
There are three ways of knowing a thing. Take for instance a flame. One can be told of the flame, one can see the flame with his own eyes, and finally one can reach out and be burned by it. In this way, we Sufis seek to be burned by God.
Fire and community are intertwined; it's a big part of why Burning Man works. From burn barrels to camp fires to bonfires, humans are drawn to the warmth and the light. Encircling a fire, you can see (because it's light) everyone (because it's a circle) and you see that they can also see you. We tell stories around fires. We cook food on fires. We bring fire to all our major ceremonial events. This is how community grows.

Since fire is a key ingredient in story and spectacle, death by fire is often a very public death. Burning at the stake was often a punishment for heresy, witchcraft, and other cultural crimes in which authorities wish to set a cultural expectation with the execution.

The myth of Icarus also shows an ancient warning about drawing too close to the fire and the dangers of hubris and brashness. He didn't even make it to the fiery sun, but his quest to do so killed him nonetheless.

Suicide by fire, much less common than execution, can also reach a much larger audience than many other forms of self-harm. Thích Quảng Đức brought global attention to conflicts between the South Vietnamese government and the Buddhist community in one of the most famous protests of the 20th Century. I doubt he would be remembered today had he died by hunger strike.

I don't know if or how the decedent at Element 11 planned his immolation, nor do I know what message he expected the community to take from the act. I suspect, though, he chose (perhaps subconsciously) this way to die in part because of its publicity; he knew this act would be known to the community. Had he wanted a private death he would have chosen a different method. There were surely inward reasons as well, whether it's fire's symbolism as purification, mystery, dynamism, emotion, passion, or some other way that flame spoke to him.

Fortunately, the community which was shocked by this act can also support each other in recovering. And that community has a larger, encircling community that can provide support for that network of support.

Footnote: Wikipedia's Icarus article has links to a few other cultures' myths of similar characters. Not to mention the cultural mythology of my teenage years, Pink Floyd, with this great live performance of Set the Controls for the Heart of the Sun with a gong on fire.
flwyd: (raven temple of moon)
Halloween is Burning Man for normal people.
  • Families put significant effort and money into decorating their home theme camp.
  • People get dressed up in sexy, creative, and unusual costumes.
  • They wander around town checking out theme camps, meeting strangers, and participating in the candy gift economy.
  • Raging parties happen on weeknights.
  • Some folks eat more stimulants and drink more booze than they should.
  • It's a spiritual experience for some, an artistic outlet for others, and a bunch just treat it as a visually stimulating excuse to party.

Melting Pot

Friday, January 20th, 2012 10:47 pm
flwyd: (darwin change over time)
New York City has a reputation as "the great melting pot." But long before the Puerto Ricans moved in next door to the Jews and the Italians, the plantations of the South did a lot of melting and cultural exchange. Myths, music, symbolism, and bits of language were passed between former tribesmen who would never have interacted in Africa. Babies were probably born to parents whose extended families were at war with each other. And this melting pot was further flavored by the WASPy culture of the slaveholder, yielding a much more fun version of going to church.

Today, some U.S. cities (particularly in the east) have an Irish neighborhood, an Italian neighborhood, a Greek neighborhood… several generations since anyone came over the Atlantic. But I've never heard of an American city with an Akan part of town and an Igbo neighborhood. Sometimes starting from scratch is more effective than standing on the shoulders of giants.

Winter Solstice

Tuesday, December 20th, 2011 07:24 pm
flwyd: (sun mass incandescant gas)

At 05:30 UTC this Thursday, December 22nd, the Earth's axis will be exactly in line with the sun. Seen from the northern hemisphere, the sun will be the furthest south and closest to the horizon at that instant. The winter solstice has been celebrated for millennia by cultures from the Andes to the Urals and from Ireland to Japan.

Lacking precise astronomical tools, and desiring an excuse to party during the cold and dark season, cultures around the world often extended that moment to a day, a week, or more for a festival celebrating light, rebirth, and keeping warm. Scandinavians would gather family and friends and place a large yule log on the fire, feasting and celebrating while the log burned for many days. Similarly, in China, the Dōngzhì Festival features feasting with family. Solstice often marked a key point in the calendar. Celts and Druids created large stone structures structures like Stonehenge and Newgrange, in where a position is illuminated only at the solstice.

Winter solstice is the longest night and shortest day of the year. The cultural symbolism is thus often tied to the return or victory of a sun figure in the local mythology. Some examples:

  • Japanese myths tell of the sun goddess Ameterasu being lured back out of a cave and into the sky on winter solstice.
  • Korochun, celebrated by Slavs in Eastern Europe, marks the death of the old sun god and his resurrection as the new sun god.
  • The practice of lighting the menorah on Hanukkah may have originated as a solstice tradition.
  • Hopi and Zuni Indians celebrate Soyal, when the sun returns from a long sleep.
  • Sol Invictus, celebrated in the Roman Empire, translates literally as "Invincible Sun."
  • During the festival of Şeva Zistané, Kurds celebrate the rebirth of the sun and victory of light over darkness.

The theme birth and rebirth sometimes includes non-solar figures as well. The births of Pryderi (Welsh), Mithra (Persian), and Dievs (Latvian) are all celebrated at the winter solstice. Contemporary Wiccans and Neopagans often celebrate winter solstice as the death of the old god and birth of the young god. Locally, many Neopagans gather at Red Rocks before dawn on solstice to drum up the sun.

Christmas, the celebration of the birth of Jesus Christ, falls on December 25th, the designated date of winter solstice in the Julian calendar. Christmas in many contemporary European communities incorporates old local solstice traditions such as the yule log. The practice of Christmas gift giving may have arisen from Saturnalia, widely celebrated in Rome when Christianity was introduced.

flwyd: (spiral stone)
Support stem cell research: it's a culture of life.

That's been sitting in a browser tab for a week or two because I'm not sure if "culture" only applies to bacteria or if the term is applicable to a wide variety of microbiologic techniques. But I suppose it's close enough for a pun.
flwyd: (java logo)
If a poor and despised Indian tried to get a job at a company testing Java software they would throw him out with a ClassCasteException.
flwyd: (tell tale heart)
My friends include several people who are queer in one way or another and my friends' friends page has even more folks with non-straight and otherwise unusual opinions about sexual arousal and human desirability. Coming to terms with your own gender and sexuality can prove challenging. Sometimes what your brain and body are saying isn't said by the people around you. Without good role models and sometimes without even good words, enacting gender and sexuality in a well-adjusted manner is an amazing feat. In an attempt to turn the kaleidoscope a bit for a new view, I'll share the following teaching.

In the summer of 1994, my mom and I attended a week-long workshop at Naropa with American Indian storyteller and medicine man Johnny Moses. One of the many fascinating tidbits he shared was about gender in Nootka society on (I think) Vancouver Island. In Nootka language and culture, there are eight genders.
  • There are the straight men, and they're BOOORING.
  • There are the straight women, and they're boring too, so the two of them get together.
  • There are gay men
  • And gay women.
  • Then there's what we'd call bisexuals, but they're comfortable with people of all genders. So I suppose they'd be octosexuals.
  • Then there are men trapped in womens' bodies
  • And women trapped in mens' bodies.
  • Then there are people who feel like their spirit is not human, they're from somewhere else in the universe and were made to inhabit a human body so they could learn a lesson.
  • There are also people who are comfortable with all the genders, but aren't sexual at all. Perhaps they're octoasexual.
Other cultures in the area had different ideas about gender. Some had more, some had less, and others didn't really think about genders -- you just know what you feel like and you relate to people as they are. One group in the area have the concept of a gender whose members can't be sexual unless they pretend to be someone else.

Something bugs me about what passes for political debate and social dialog in America these days. The participants don't spend nearly enough effort in an attempt to understand and properly characterize what the other side actually thinks and why they think that. In our formal way, philosophers usually attribute the best interpretation of a work to its author. If his words can be interpreted in two ways, only one of which is totally absurd, the other should be assumed the intended meaning. Unfortunately, in common political and social thought, people often don't even rise to the level of willful misinterpretation. They start and end with making up positions held by their adversaries and then deriding those. For instance, some people voted for Nixon in 1960 because they didn't want the U.S. president to take orders from the Pope. Kennedy was elected, but the Pope's power in America didn't change.

This seems to be the current state of most of the gay marriage "debate" currently transpiring. It strikes me that a lot of constituents believe that proponents of gay marriage are following an agenda of goals that they do not, in fact, desire. I read somewhere that some anti-gay marriage leaders are intentionally ignoring the distinction between legal marriage and religious marriage. Thus, there may be lots of people who oppose gay marriage because their religion forbids homosexual unions and they don't want the government forcing their church to recognize and perform gay marriages. I don't think anyone on the pro-gay marriage side is claiming anything of the sort, but the misconception is out there. People therefore defend a ban on gay marriage in the name of religious freedom, of all things.

In the hopes of increasing the general level of understanding in the universe, I therefore hope I can make this clear. Religious matrimony and legal matrimony should be two separate (though usually co-occurrent) concepts. Religions should be able to confer the "sanctity of marriage" on relationships at their discretion. If a church's elders or members decide that unions are only holy if both members are of the same religion, race, sexual orientation, or age bracket, so be it. No person should be forced to perform a religious marriage they don't bless, and if a church disapproves of people living together who don't have a sanctified relationship, they may so decree. To the degree that the church's doctrine influences its followers actions, the faithful should follow these guidelines.

Alongside the concept of religiously blessed union should lie the legally blessed union. It could be called almost anything for all I care -- marriage, civil union, 602(d), or whatever. But it should be called the same thing for everyone to which it applies. To qualify for an LBU, the participants must meet certain criteria. They must be of the age of consent, they must agree to the union without duress, and perhaps they should swear an oath indicating some of their duties. The benefits provided by LBUs should be entirely legal in nature -- tax breaks, prevention of housing discrimination, inheritance, partner benefits, and so forth. There should not be a box on the form to describe which party has what sexual organs, because that has absolutely nothing to do with the provided benefits. It should be possible to have a legally blessed union without that union being religiously blessed and vice versa. It should be possible to have a legally blessed union with more than one person at a time, though providing for this would require some careful thought about legal repercussions. It seems questionable to force an employer's partner benefits plan to cover all seventeen of a person's spice, since that could lead to loophole unions where people without a relationship get married purely for free health care. But this sort of thing is a minor issue which can be worked out in legislative committee after sufficient testimony.

Laws restricting marriage to certain gender combinations based on religious tradition is a bit like laws restricting the purchase of meat to certain days based on religious tradition. If your religion says you shouldn't marry another person, don't. (Alternatively, make the switch to a religion that will let you marry the person you love.) If your religion says you shouldn't eat meat on Fridays, or even that you shouldn't eat meat at all, then don't. But don't make a law preventing the sale of meat on Friday.

Finally, the anti-gay agenda is largely doomed. No matter how much people try, they won't stop people from doing any of the following with people with similar sex organs:
  • stimulating sex organs to the point of orgasm
  • living together and sleeping in the same bed
  • creating and raising children
  • sharing finances and possessions
  • holding hands, kissing, or cuddling
  • arguing, fighting, lying, breaking up, harassing, taking revenge, or any of the other not-so-fun things that happen in a relationship.
All that outlawing same-sex unions prevents is tax breaks, access to health care, sensible custody, and reasonable inheritance. And that seems like a really strange set of things to selectively deny to people.

Well, tax breaks, access to health care, child custody, and inheritance are frequently granted to the wealthy while they're harder for poor to obtain, but that's a problem for another time.

In the abortion debate, people who are pro-life want to increase the number of lives and people who are pro-choice want to increase the number of choices. In the gay marriage debate, people who claim to defend marriage and pro-family actually oppose measures which would increase the number of marriages and provide more legal stability to families. To quote Dr. Strangelove, "You can't fight in here! This is the War Room!"
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