Pagan and Plain, Revisited
by Ruby Sara
This is what you shall do: Love the earth and sun and the animals, despise riches, give alms to everyone that asks, stand up for the stupid and crazy, devote your income and labor to others, hate tyrants, argue not concerning God, have patience and indulgence toward the people, take off your hat to nothing known or unknown, or to any man or number of men-go freely with powerful uneducated persons, and with the young, and with the mothers or families-re-examine all you have been told in school or church or in any book, and dismiss whatever insults your own soul; and your very flesh shall be a great poem, and have the richest fluency, not only in its words, but in the silent lines of its lips and face, and between the lashes of your eyes, and in every motion and joint of your body. -Walt Whitman
Slainte, best beloveds! The world is ablaze with sunlight today – blinding and brilliant. It may still be freezing, but I welcome my brother-sister sun with an almost hysterical enthusiasm – hello I love you I love you, I say to that brilliant golden coin in the aching blue! Stick around, stick around! I noticed just the other day that it was just a weensy bit lighter than usual at 4:45p, and my heart lifted. Imbolc is coming (already!), and the seed of spring glory in the depth of winter is upon us – candles and flame in the night. I am on fire with yearning for crocuses. But…. I don’t want to get too ahead of myself. There is much to grok in the deep freeze of January yet. There is still the hiss and click of the phlegmatic radiator, the blankets over the windows, the smell of coffee in the dark eventide. It is still a meditation season.
Pagani, once upon a time during PG’s first incarnation, I wrote a post that hesitantly waxed rhapsodic about my thoughts on whether Paganism and plain living were compatible with each other. Well, it’s been a few years, and that little, nigh contentless musing has received more attention than any other post I’ve ever written, apparently from those with similar yearnings typing some combination of “pagan” and “plain life” into their google searches. The original post has received a number of comments, prompted various folks to share some fascinating testimonies, and has popped up in some really interesting and unusual places, as small pockets of the Pagani explore their strange and heretofore thought to be singular desire to simplify their lives, and/or radically reduce/rethink their wardrobe.
Clearly, something is going on.
Now, as these are Pagans we’re talking about, there are invariably a number of reasons why someone might have these interests, and a number of angles to Plain Living. And, as I am one of those Pagani who has had this inclination, and it seems to grow more and more interesting with each passing year, I thought it was high time I should explore some of my own thoughts surrounding the issue of Pagan Plain dress and Plain living here in a bit more detail. A note of warning, however: Just in the writing of this post I spent a few days in serious contemplation and exploration on the internet, and have found that there is so much more to this issue than I could ever explore in one post, so forgive me if I don’t do the whole tamale justice this first time around, or if my musings lack in elegance – this is a powerful subject for me.
Let’s being with the reason most on my mind as a Pagan considering the Plain life: the matter of ecology and justice. For those of us practicing a religiosity that is born of a sense of being centered on the Earth, of making the Mama paramount, and of establishing authentic relationship with the myriad Other, choosing a lifestyle in accordance with these theologies is naturally logical. I won’t rehash the statistics – the plain fact is that for those of us living in countries of excess and privilege such as America, the prime directive is that of the consumer, a directive that has had and continues to have disastrous implications for the planet and for the communities who produce the goods we consume, as well as those who consume them, and while many among the Pagani have made it a part of their lives to fight against this earth-destroying, rights-denying and soul-killing worldview, we cannot deny our culpability as well. Rampant consumerism is no less present among the Pagani – as many have noted, our “community centers” are primarily shops (though, as the market plays itself out in its predictably killing way, these shops are rapidly closing, and we Pagani have better start thinking of alternatives in terms of gathering places before we turn into a religion of virtual worshipers who meet IRL once or twice a year at festivals…why I think this is not the ideal is the subject of a future post), and we make up an entire niche market, with our jewelry/costumery/statuary/ritual tools. But there is a thriving anti-materialist conversation among the Pagani, and there are many who have implemented or are considering implementing a more ecologically viable and justice-oriented life, conducting personal ecological and ethical audits, and making lifestyle changes that may not save the world by themselves, but will contribute to the hoped-for worldview shift that will. These kinds of choices include making changes to our diets that involve less processed foods, buying sweatshop free clothes or making our own clothes from natural and organic materials, composting our waste, using less silly gadgetry, cutting down on our reliance on electricity, participating in communal entertainment such as storytelling and group singing, and, of course, simply buying less stuff. It can be argued that some of these choices are not necessarily “simple,” depending on your definition of that term, but in my mind, any action that brings a person more in concert with the Mama, that brings hir closer to a way of life that suggests a harmony that we may have once possessed, and can possess again, is an action worth pursuing, and one that will engender a simplicity of spirit, the peace that comes of living a life in accordance with authentic relationship and true value.*
Second, there is the matter of aesthetics and practicality. The longing for a simpler way is often an aesthetic one. We are bombarded in every waking moment now with advertising and the invasive laser of modern technology. Yes, I’m biased. It’s true that I myself am something of a luddite (a hypocritical, blogging luddite…yep), and have strong beliefs about television, the internet, MP3 players, video games, and other technologies that I believe have consequences for us as communal animals, but even beyond the politics of luddism, there is, for some, a deeper yearning towards the (yes, perhaps sometimes romanticized) simple life – a life of clean lines and organic matter. Real food, made by real hands – the authenticity of grounded experience. A white bowl filled with deep, night-purple plums. Homespun vs. plastics. Handmade vs. processed. There is something to be said for craft, for work – another seeming contradiction, that the thing that requires more work is the thing that is simpler. And the practicality angle – that it requires less ridiculous amounts of money and effort to wear simple clothing. To feel like you’ve made a vote away from hassle and cultural expectations of beauty towards something that is timeless and rich. This is a hard aspect to define, as aesthetics tend to be, but as Pagans are by nature an extremely aesthetics-focused group, I believe this has much to do with it.
And third, there is the matter of witness. There can be no doubt that in choosing a certain kind of Plain dress (i.e. simple cotton dresses/shifts, solid colors, aprons, headcoverings), anybody still participating in the dominant cultural world (as opposed to living in separatist communities) is making a countercultural choice, and will draw attention to themselves for it (another fun contradiction – that the goal of being plain is perhaps made obsolete by the excess attention “plain” dress evokes from the panopticon). Even those who do not choose this kind of Plain dress but radically reduce their wardrobe and make radical choices about their manner of clothing will receive some attention for it. Thus it becomes a matter of making a statement. For some, that statement is about obedience to God or Biblical strictures – for others, it is a statement about sweatshop conditions and ecology. But this witness element cannot be ignored.
There is, also, the matter of gender, which is enormous and also cannot be ignored. The very fact that the vast majority of conversations surrounding plain dress on the internet are being had by women, and that almost all the web sites devoted to plain dress are comprised solely of clothing for women and girls…not to mention the controversial subject of headcovering and the Pagans who are finding veiling/covering to be a path that fits them…well, doveys, these topics demand a more thorough investigation…..so much so that I feel they deserve their own post, so I will be addressing them later.
Of course there are other reasons I have not addressed, but these few are a good start in parsing my own personal reasons for finding plain dress and plain living to be extremely attractive. Suffice to say, in light of the above, I believe that a testimony of Plain Living and Plain Dress is absolutely compatible with Pagan ecopolythea/ologies.
So I soldier weirdly even on…the compulsion towards simple dress/lifestyle gripping me on a regular basis, stemming from a combination of the principles outlined above, and in response I have been reducing my wardrobe in the past few months, taking tiny baby steps towards my vision of a simpler life. I am not anywhere close to what could be construed as plain dress, but I am asking questions of myself, and getting some interesting answers. The winter wind tugs at my shoestrings…what will the year bring? Whose side am I on? What would I give? I am unsure – I make small vows and light candles and ask the spirits for direction. I pray.
Yes. The things I am sure about:
Grok Earth, Pagani. Pray without ceasing.
*ETA: Thalia brings up an excellent point – these actions that I specifically listed are choices that involve privilege, and I do not mean to imply that those unable to make these choices are less spiritual/ethical/moral/close to the Mama. Ever. Actions that lead one closer to the Mama are myriad and manifold, and cannot and should not be subject to hierarchy.