Shaking to Breathe: Shakers and the Suffocation of Perfection

I’ve always been intrigued by the Shakers as a religious movement. On one hand, their way of life has a strange appeal. The way they provided for themselves from their own land, created their own medicines, and lived in seeming communal harmony sounds…idyllic. The idealized version of them is mesmerizing in a society of broken communities and hectic life.

However, underneath the superficial fascination has always lingered a certain kind of sadness for me—the same sadness that I get when I read about the mass suicides of Jonestown.

It’s the sadness of a system dying out.

The Shakers didn’t have the violent implosion of the People’s Temple. There are still three members living; however, like the white rhinoceros, the Shakers are only death away from extinction. It’s a movement that is slowly asphyxiating in a system that leaves no room for breathing.

While the majority of people focus on and stop at the picturesque way of life that is preserved in history books, I’ve always seen the death throes that followed. It seemed incongruous. If they had achieved “utopia” as so many claim, how could they die out?

When I found out there was a Shaker museum near where we were staying on vacation, I couldn’t resist visiting. You could say it was a morbid fascination born of a curiosity to see what a non-violent cult looks like when it expires.

It wasn’t like visiting other historic places. There was no sense of life having passed through and moved on, leaving just relics behind. I got the sense that life hadn’t moved on at all in their buildings. It had just . . . stopped. The energy in the rooms was one of quiet desperation. The perfection—the symmetry—practically screamed in pain to me.

I thought as a perfectionist that I would fall in love with it, but I just wanted to cry.

I didn’t see beauty in the perfection. I saw the erasure of individuality. They had obliterated the identifying marks of a person, a room, a chair. In a way, they had achieved the purpose of perfection…

I had never really thought about the difference between perfection and quality before. They had seemed to coincide. Good quality objects should be as near to perfect as possible, right?

I don’t think so anymore.

Visiting the former Shaker settlement was like a rebirth for me, but not in the way they would have liked. I left craving imperfection, chaos, individuality, and art like never before.

Afterwards as we wandered around some local pottery shops, I gravitated towards the “seconds,” marveling over how beautiful they were—still good quality, functional items but with something that made them far more valuable to me than the “firsts.”

I knew that the flawed pieces were completely unique.

It’s not a luxury that I’ve granted myself in the past. While I might have subconsciously appreciated the individuality of artisan works or simply not cared about the flaws that I couldn’t find, I would have never considered that my own mistakes in my creative process could be considered gifts rather than blemishes.

I wouldn’t have valued them as an expression of my unique humanity.

Up until now, I have been trying to teach the perfectionist side of me that it’s okay to make mistakes. The world won’t end if I drop a stitch on a knitting project. Nothing bad will happen if I accidentally spell a word wrong. No one will punish me for burning supper or forgetting to return a library book.

It’s a start, but I don’t want to stop there. I’m starting to see that it’s more than permissible to make mistakes; it’s beautiful to be imperfect. It’s creative. It’s human. It’s the way we instill messages and stories in our work and the way we grow. Without it, there’s no breath in our process; there is no life.

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In the Absence of Crones

Have you ever tried to pick out who would be your favorite fictitious family? You create a family tree using characters from books and movies—the character that would be your dad or mom or brother if . . . you know, they were alive and it were possible to design your own family. It’s a fun project to try and can be eye-opening about the story characters that have stayed with you and what they mean to you.

I started the project a few weeks ago, starting with Gandalf and Dumbledore as my grandfathers (you know it’s the most awesome combination ever!). It was pretty easy to pick out tons of characters to whom I’d want to be related. In fact, too easy for the most part. My family tree currently has four grandfathers, two mothers, and more siblings than I’d ever really want in life.

There was only one role that I found particularly difficult to fill.

Grandmother.

I’ve been aware of the disparity between male and female characters in books and movies for quite some time, but I’d never noticed the utter lack of representation of older female characters until I was trying to fill out this family tree.

At first I thought I must not be remembering well enough—I started to count:

  • Minerva McGonagall: secondary character nowhere near the importance of Gandalf
  • Grandmother Willow: a stationary tree whose sole purpose in life is to give advice to Pocahontas
  • Violet Crowley: a grumpy and stand-offish old dowager in Downton Abbey. Despite that, she becomes a rather well-developed character, so a huge thumbs up on that one
  • Aunt Josephine (and perhaps Rachel) from the Anne of Green Gables series: stereotypically grumpy old rich woman whose heart melts for Anne. Forgivable given the time it was written in, no so forgivable that it’s made the top five of my list.
  • Mags from Hunger Games: senile when you meet her, dead within first half of movie
  • Daisy from Driving Miss Daisy: Senile and dying
  • Mrs. Harris goes to Paris: A movie about a woman whose biggest goal in life is to buy a dress . . . seriously?

There was a chance that I had just missed the books and movies that featured strong, well-developed older women.

But apparently I’m not the only one who’s noticed their absence.

In 2011 Rina Rosselson wrote “Who Cares About Old Women?” for the f word in which she laments the invisibility of old women. Reading her work and the research that she cites was shocking. According to a sixty-six year analysis by Elizabeth Warren Markson and Rosselson’s own effors to analyze another ten years of movies, it’s pretty safe to say that in almost a hundred years there has been little to no development of older female characters in movies.

As far as books go, I can count on two hands the number of older female characters I can remember, and of them, I can think of less than five that I admire on the level of Dumbledore or Gandalf—characters who have changed my life, given me wisdom, inspired my creativity, or visited in my dreams.

Most don’t even live through an entire book, and almost none survive an entire series.

I don’t have a lot of older women in my life that I can look to as inspirations for what happens when I reach old age. That’s not terribly anomalous since I also don’t have too many father figures or mother figures or sisters or brothers to relate to either. My family is living, but I often feel like an orphan since no truly vibrant relationship can happen between someone who left a cult and someone who is still in a cult.

But the one thing that always supplemented that lack of familial connection were the characters that I loved in stories, characters whose lives lived on in my mind long after the stories were over. Whether it was Remus Lupin filling in as a benevolent father figure to a lonely orphan, Lorelai Gilmore imperfectly struggling to raise an independent daughter, Abbé Faria teaching a fellow prisoner how to survive and escape, or Katniss Evergreen doing everything in her power to protect her younger sister, I had characters in my life to fill in those holes and to show me how things could be—how I could be.

But in the absence of crones, elderly women, grandmothers, hags, or spinsters, I’m missing—hell, the whole nation is missing an incredibly important aspect of life! Stories are the way we tell truth to ourselves, but how much truth can there be if we cut out a whole stage of life for women?

Age is neither the enemy nor the end of women, yet it would seem to be their worst curse in stories, rendering them invisible, insignificant, incompetent, evil, or flat.

Rosselson was asked somewhat sarcastically, “Who cares about old women?”

I can answer that question. I care about old women. It’s time to start bringing old women into books as serious characters. It’s time to put them up on screen as well-developed personalities. I need female Gandalfs, female Dumbledores, female Yodas. I need female Hamitches.

It’s time to bring back the crone. Bring her back because she has things to teach, yes. But more than that, bring back the crone because she is an aspect of life, and as such, is vibrantly important to life.

 

 

 

 

The Etiquette of Citing and Sharing Someone’s Work (i.e. How Not to Plagiarize)

I’m having a hard time writing this week. I was horribly discouraged after I discovered several websites and blogs that had unauthorized copies of one of my posts. Although most of the people I’ve contacted about the material have been very understanding and have taken down the unauthorized material in order to share my post in a way that doesn’t violate my copyright, it still shook me to think that out here on the Internet is probably where the most content-stealing happens.

It’s sad because it’s also the most open (and therefore most valuable) forum available today. It’s the great equalizer in the world of writing, but an equalizer that apparently comes with the unfortunate assumption that everything on the Internet is free.

Even though I was upset, I also empathized. I know that most people don’t intend to plagiarize or steal other people’s work. I’ve been there and done that, to my own mortification. When I started blogging, I didn’t have any idea what I was doing. No one teaches you how to use images or how to find the original source of something that has gone viral on the Internet.

You learn as you go . . . which seems ridiculous since the only way you’ll learn is by making mistakes.

So today, I want to talk about sharing the work of others. Since I’m most familiar with written work, I’ll focus mostly on that. I’m sure the rules around images is similar, but I encourage someone who knows the legalities around image sharing to do a similar post about how to share images in a way that respects rather than violates someone’s copyright. (And please send the link to me when you do, because I want to double check that I’m above the board on everything!)

QUOTES:

Quotations should be used as a springboard for your own thoughts. Your post should not consist of only quotes, nor should the quotations outnumber your own words. When using a quote, identify whom you are quoting. If you have a range of quotes from multiple people, put the person’s name either directly before or after the quote.

Diane over at her blog said, “I was horribly discouraged after I discovered several websites and blogs that had unauthorized copies of one of my posts.”

I know that most people don’t intend to plagiarize or steal other people’s work. —Diane from Sometimes Magical

In a literature class, you might have to pay attention to rules regarding when to use quotation marks and when to use a block quote, but generally on the Internet, as long as you show that it’s a quote and who is saying it, your grade won’t be docked.  😉

But this is important: Even if you have quotation marks around something, it’s still plagiarism if you don’t identify the speaker.

If you are responding to a specific piece by someone else, it’s probably okay to mention them at the beginning of the post and use quotes from there with the understanding that all the quotes are from the same author. However, if there seems to be any doubt, throw in an identifier.

CITATIONS

Notice how I named both the speaker and where they said it? In addition to naming the author when you quote someone, you also need to provide a source.

For a written book, the title of the book, page, and the author’s name should be enough to allow others to find the book. For more academic posts, it may not hurt to do a more formal citation with a full bibliographic listing at the bottom of the post (General format: Author’s name last, first; Title; publication place; publisher; publication year).

For an online source, provide a link that clearly identifies what it goes back to. You can embed a link in a word, like this:

Diane, in her blog, says . . . (blog embedded with a link back to this post)

You can also name the source and embed the link in the name of the source: This article over at SometimesMagical 
(blog embedded into Sometimes Magical)

But it needs to be obvious. Especially if you are using quotations and not just referencing that you read the article. The quote needs to be next to the source, or the source needs to come well before the quote and be identified unmistakably as the source (as in the name of the author or blog needs to be used in your post, not just something that says “link” or “source”).

LINKING

What if you just want to share the link and aren’t trying to write a post of your own?

If you are going to quote anything from the post as a preface to the link, you still need to make sure that you don’t violate copyright. Anything you post with the link should be something to inspire others to go read the entire article to which you linked.

I go by a rule of thumb that you shouldn’t quote more than a few sentences (never more than a paragraph) as a preface to a link unless you have permission from the author to do more. And when you quote, make sure you make it clear that it’s from the article and you want others to go read the article. Your sourcing shouldn’t be underneath your own comments. It should be with the quote itself.

PARAPHRASING

This is probably the trickiest bugger of them all. Paraphrasing means you are taking someone else’s words and “translating” them into your own words but still identifying the original author as the source of the idea.

If I were to paraphrase my quotes above, I might say:

Diane over at Sometimes Magical thinks that most cases of plagiarism are committed out of ignorance.

Notice that I still credit Diane for the ideas, but instead of quoting directly, I’m giving the general gist of what was said in my own words, sentence structure, and phrasing. Also notice that I don’t put anything in quotation marks because I’m not quoting the exact words, but I still have to credit the source of the idea.

PERMISSION

Copyright can be a complicated motherfucker to try to understand. The best thing to do if you’re unclear as to whether you’re giving proper credit is to just ask the author or artist. It’s better to get permission than to find your blog suspended and your host serving you with a copyright violation notice. I try to assume that people mean the best and go through the personalized method first, but not everyone is going to do that . . . or can’t if you don’t have a means of contact available on your website.

You can also get books that tell you the proper way to cite. Anything geared towards writing academic papers should have something covering plagiarism and how to avoid it.

Happy and responsible blogging, dear friends!

A Case for Drunken Holy Days and Gluttonous Sacred Rites

Siduri, Nin-kasi, Teshub, Aegir, Dionysus, Bacchus, Bast, Shiva, Pan—some of these names you’ve probably heard of. Some may be new to you (they were to me). What do they have in common?

They were all associated with alcohol or partying to some extent.

Whether they were the deity that passed down the knowledge of how to make beer or whether worshipping them brought with it the expectation of getting high, to one extent or another, they encouraged the occasional . . . debauchery.

In other words, to pantheonic people, partying was considered sacred too.

We don’t live in that kind of world anymore. Within Judeo-Christian culture, excess is met with guilt and shame. We’ve been taught that indulgence in alcohol, food, fun, etc. is all or nothing. Our “health” books are riddled with extreme diets. Our exercise programs are built on the idea of making people feel bad about their bodies. Our lives are compartmentalized into stages of immaturity and lack of control vs. maturity and rigidity.

With regard to spirituality, self-control ranks as one of the highest virtues. The sacred is that which is somber and very often the opposite of pleasurable. The “holiest” people, in general, are seen as the ones who lead the most ascetic life, giving us abstemious monks in every major religion.

But what if even moderation needs to be practiced in moderation?

I’m thinking that the pantheonic peoples had it right. Some“holy days” are meant to be days of being wasted, stuffed, and lazy.

I’d go so far as to suggest that it’s good for us!

I’m not saying that a constant state of pursuing pleasure is healthy or wise, nor am I advocating all of the practices that were associated with these party gods and goddesses. But it seems that ancient peoples at least recognized the value in having decadent days interspersed throughout the normal, subsistence days.

Even Christianity has a measure of allowed debauchery built into its system (think Mardi Gras). Unfortunately, it’s an indulgence that is followed by shame and extra abstinence later. It’s not considered holy in itself, despite the fact that Christianity’s god took days off, created wine for a party, and used feasts as illustrations for heaven A LOT.

Maybe . . . maybe having planned days to let our hair down as a sacred rite would help bring a little more balance to our lives. Maybe all those healthy things that we all promise to do more at the beginning of the new year wouldn’t seem so goddamned burdensome if we also included promises to be a little indulgent and a little crazy every once in a while.

Maybe excess wouldn’t be so appetizing as a constant way of life if indulgence wasn’t considered a character deficit.

Maybe it’s time to start thinking of spirituality as encompassing more than just the serious stuff. Maybe a spiritual life is a life lived fully, in balance, with room for both self-control and self-indulgence.

This post sponsored by my wild partying in celebration of the new year, my escape from a cult, and my anniversary with my partner. Five years of life and love. Hangovers are welcomed without guilt. 😉