Stereotypes, Identity, Spirituality, and Halloween–e.g. word vomit

At the beginning of October, I did a post on creating meaningful costumes. One of my suggestions was to dress up as a stereotype or caricature of yourself.

Apparently I’m not the only person who thinks this is a good idea. It seems to be a theme among other witches as well. Huffington Post has a wonderful article going into depth about how this particular costume idea can be used in a powerfully beautiful way, creating opportunities for self-exploration as well as conversations with others about what the stereotype means and how it fails to capture the complexity of true identity.

Identity is a funny thing. That’s one of the first thoughts that came to mind when I started trying to write out a biography for myself when I began this blog. There are certain labels that are very important to me, and I wear them loudly and proudly.

Yet there are times when I really struggle with identity.

I don’t know if it’s because I’m a gemini or because of the trauma of coming from a cult, but I never feel like I entirely fit anywhere…nor do I want to.

Labels come in handy in trying to express something. They give a quick snapshot of a personality characteristic (like manic pixie dream girl), a belief (like witch), or group belonging (bisexual, feminist, woman).

But as soon as a label starts to feel stifling–when trying to adopt that label erases me more than it helps me be seen, then I start to chafe.

In the beginning of my spiritual journey away from the IFB, Christian wasn’t a bad word to me. I wanted to be a “Christian.” I wanted to reclaim that label for myself the way I had claimed bisexual and feminist. I spent a good three years trying to find a way to fit into Christianity on some level or another. I knew conservative Christianity would never accept me, but I had hope for a more liberal strain of Christianity.

But Christians had other ideas. Everywhere I turned, I found myself confronted with demands of what I needed to believe and do in order to be a Christian. There was nowhere that I could go within the church to work through my own beliefs and figure out my own brand of Christianity. There was nowhere I was given the space to be me.

I still mourn the loss of my religion. It was a big part of my identity, both given and chosen (or at least I tried to choose it). I walked away ultimately not because I didn’t want to believe anymore but because I couldn’t find a way to keep the label and be free at the same time.

In hindsight, I think it was good. I’ve discovered a spirituality that feels like what I was born to be, with a label that lets me define what it means for myself, not for everyone else. In fact, it’s such a perfect fit that I haven’t really even thought about my former religion with much emotion for at least six months, maybe even a year.

But as I use Halloween as a spiritual exploration of my darkness, my demons, my hell, and my identity, I’ve discovered that there is still a very deep, bitter grief surrounding Christianity for me.

My theme this year is blasphemy. Although it was meant to be and will still be incredibly fun, I am discovering that it’s more of a final destruction and burial of my former religion. This is the saddest Halloween I’ve celebrated thus far as I prepare to put on a stereotype of the only identity I ever found consistently applied to me within Christianity–sacrilegious abomination.

 

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Irreverence is Good for the Soul

Two weeks ago, I wrote about how I was learning to put playfulness back into playing my violin. It got me thinking about how important playfulness is in my life. Whether it’s wearing fairy wings to work, dressing up in a prom dress just to dance around my apartment, hanging crayon drawings on my walls, or building fairy houses, play finds its way into almost every major area of my life to some extent or another.

But nowhere is it more important than in my spiritual practice.

When I work a spell, celebrate a holiday, perform a ritual, read tarot cards, scry, or peruse religious texts, I deliberately approach the process with a sense of play. I try to never take any of it too seriously because I have found that somberness kills.

Christianity is filled with a fear of light-heartedness. It’s so taboo that “church laughter” has come to mean “uncontrollable laughter at an inappropriate time.”

[Edit: Some have pointed out that my above statement is vague. I do not mean to imply that all of Christianity is afraid of all light-heartedness. Rather it holds a phobia of irreverence and a fear of laughing at itself. In my experience, Christians of all denominations hold certain things to be outside the realm of laughter, whether it be the Virgin birth, Cross, Resurrection, or any other doctrine. That’s not to say that there are no open-minded Christians capable of laughing at themselves and their beliefs, merely that the lack of brevity is much more common in the interactions I have had.]

The sect that I grew up in was even more burdened by a phobia of playful spirituality. Communion was an affair wrought with terror because taking it with a flippant attitude could potentially result in my death, or so I was taught. Making fun of the sacred was a sin—a sin potentially unforgiveable if it was bad enough to insult the Holy Spirit. Even laughing at the foibles of a pastor was discouraged with terrifying stories about children who were eaten by bears after disrespecting a prophet.

Therefore, my first acts of freedom and exploration were tentatively making fun of my religion. It was terrifying and liberating to a degree that would seem absurd to anyone who hadn’t grown up with such taboos.

irreverence good for soul

Today, the things you’ll hear out of my mouth make even atheists gasp in shock. It feels great to ridicule what I was taught was too sacred to question. But here’s my secret, I don’t hate Christianity as much as my ridicule would suggest.
What I hate is the mindset that you have to be scared of irreverence.

I definitely didn’t want to carry that fear over to my new spiritual practices, so I turned it into play time—a time to let my imagination make believe whatever it wants. Staring into a scrying mirror, I’ve met beautiful elves. I’ve eaten cakes with fairies and played hide-and-seek with brownies. One of my favorite meditations is actually wrestling with one of my totems.

Even the “serious” stuff gets lightened up with dramatic displays that make me feel just a little bit silly—just enough to take the edge off.

That’s not to say there is never any darkness. I’ve written about embracing the shadows before. A lot of my spiritual work is healing my own trauma. It can get grim and scary. A simple meditation can leave me crumpled on the floor in tears because my subconscious decided to bring up a memory and say, “listen to me.”

But the presence of solemnity is all the more reason to keep play integral. Play gives me the freedom to explore without the need to get the answers right away. It relieves stress, allowing me to approach the shadows with anticipation rather than anxiety. It shuts down the overly critical, cynical, “adult” voice in my head so that I can contact the parts of me that aren’t so vocal.

In other words, play is what makes spirituality work for me because it frees it from the limitations of expectation.

Developmental classes will teach that play is vitally important to growing up because it’s the means through which children learn about their world and themselves—it’s what makes them so adaptable.

I don’t necessarily think that is only true for children. I think adults need play too. I think the more difficult life gets, the more desperately we need a playful approach. If spirituality is meant to help us deal with the aspects of life that feel out of control, then it is only natural that play should be part of that.

“Fairy tales are more than true; not because they tell us that dragons exist, but because they tell us that dragons can be beaten.” -Chesterton

People assume that playfulness is immaturity, shallowness, or naivete. They couldn’t be farther from the truth. Playfulness, imagination, and brevity are essential to any truly serious project.

Without them, solemnity drowns the soul.

Halloween: Facing Fear and Breaking Taboos

Last week, I wrote about why I think horror movies resonate and appeal to people. This week, I’d like to build off of that and talk about why I think it’s important to have dark holidays like Halloween.

Halloween gives us permission to face fear, anger, sadness, death, destruction, and taboos. We shouldn’t necessarily need permission to approach these subjects, but I think we often feel like we can’t most of the time. Society has made them unmentionables. We come into contact with them only when we have to, and then because they’re so unfamiliar to us, we’re unequipped to face them. I don’t think it’s healthy or even possible to try to avoid dealing with the darker aspects of life, and because society tries to pretend they don’t exist, we need an outlet. Halloween provides that outlet.

In October, we feel that we are allowed to openly express the things that all year round we’ve been pressured to keep buried. They not only become allowed, they become expected. Few people, at least in the area where I live, do nothing for Halloween. Yards and houses are decked out in grotesque decorations. Adults and children alike design their most fearsome costumes. People host parties centered on macabre themes. Art shows pop up featuring gruesome works. There’s even a community zombie run, not to mention the ghost walks and haunted shows.

It’s the time of year when we can openly approach the disturbing and uncomfortable as a community, and as a community, break our own community rules.

But it does more than that.

It provides an outlet that turns fear, anger, sadness, death, destruction, and taboos into amusement, which is very important for a couple of reasons.

First, we need to know that fear doesn’t rule us. Taking fearful and somber topics and reducing them to comical absurdities allows us to face our fears and build the tools for overcoming them. The whole purpose of so many aspects of Halloween is to scare the shit out of people, and we do it deliberately to ourselves. There’s something exhilarating about approaching the things that disturb you and choosing to face them down. It’s empowering to take fear and turn it into a positive, fun experience. Seeking out fear in a safe environment gives us an opportunity to build tools to use in less safe environments. We learn that fear can be exciting, not just terrifying. We find ways of soothing ourselves as we head into the unknown, and we discover the tremendous high that comes when we face a fear and conquer it.

Second, it’s important for us to “blaspheme.” Taking the somber or taboo topics and turning them into a game gives us a break from their seriousness and takes away their power. Humor is an important coping mechanism, and dark humor (or satire) has a long history of helping people through difficult transitions and of enabling social action. Whether it’s someone buying a costume of a priest, which has recently taken on a more sinister quality than the mere desecration of a sacred symbol, breaking gender norms, or dressing up as a zombie Jesus, Halloween gives us a means of safely denigrating things that are normally off limits. It allows us to point out the irony of the world around us and to reduce or release the tension that is built up. Humor and ridicule bring these things back down to a form that we can handle.

On a slight tangent, I think the reason that so many girls like to dress “slutty,” as some would describe it, is because one of our biggest societal taboos is allowing women the freedom to their bodies. I’m hoping that in addition to the general disregard for modesty, women will also use this year to express the other attempts at suppression on their bodies like the invasion of their reproductive organs.

Next week, I will upload some pictures of my own Halloween preparations and discuss the personal applications of the Halloween season.