Magic, Mastery, and the Free Spirit Gathering

Submitted by Tom Swiss on Sat, 06/22/2013 - 02:06

On the longest day / shortest night, to find some small magic, like the last outside table at the wine is enough...

Just about recovered from my return to the Free Spirit Gathering. It was a worthwhile endeavor, a creative effort, but an exhausting one.

This was my fifteenth FSG, and my fourteenth on staff -- and as this was FSG XXVIII, that means I've now attended a majority of them and been on staff for half of them. (And I ended up sort of unofficially on staff at my first one, when Joe recruited me to work at the Dancing Tree Cafe.) Last summer was the first one I skipped since I started going; I stayed away for political reasons, which I won't go into them here since I've said my piece elsewhere. (Google "What Ever Happened to Free Spirit Beltane?") So I had some uncertainty about returning this year, but I decided to try to define a new role for myself. I literally wrote my own job description for an overall "Master of Ceremonies" position and sent it to the coordinator. And (largely out of desperation for help, I suspect) he took me up on it.

And despite my utter exhaustion, I'm glad he did.

metafictional dream of Earthsea

Submitted by Tom Swiss on Sat, 06/08/2013 - 02:32

Thursday morning early, I dreamed I held and read the metafiction of Earthsea.

Ursula Le Guin's Earthsea novels, starting with A Wizard of Earthsea, are among my very favorites. (In the "young boy learns to become powerful magician category, forget Harry Potter or Timothy Hunter, the best story is that of Ged, called Sparrowhawk.) Somehow they popped into my dreamtime, and I found myself holding a book that does not exist, a thick tome (green cover with gold lettering) in which Le Guin had supposedly written about the history (personal and political and cultural), food, technology, sketches of clothing and armor and flora and fauna of that world... the Simarillion on steroids times two made better and actually interesting. Its very existence filled my dream with joy.

Why The Powwow Matters

Submitted by Tom Swiss on Wed, 05/22/2013 - 18:56

A few weeks ago, at Telesma's "ReBirth 4.20" show at the Hour Haus celebrating the anniversary of the resurrection of our friend Ian Hesford, I met a fellow who had just arrived from LA for a few months to work on the Netflix-original TV series House Of Cards. (A parenthetical Hooray for Hollywood here for bringing jobs to Baltimore and all.) He was curious about the local music and arts scene, and I told him that without a doubt he had stumbled into the right place: after all, that night he got exposed to Telesma, Deaf Scene, and Fractal Cat. I tried to give him some ideas about other venues, in Station North and throughout the city, that he might want to check out.

And I told him about one thing he had to see, if he wanted to get a sense of Baltimore's world-leading DIY arts scene: the Powwow.

The Great Baltimore Space Program of 1928 (io9)

Submitted by Tom Swiss on Thu, 05/02/2013 - 13:23

I had no idea that Hampden's famous "Rocket to Venus" restaurant was inspired by an actual Bmore rocketeer. io9 tells the tale of The Great Baltimore Space Program of 1928:

Condit's spaceship was a 24-foot-long bullet made of angle iron and sailcloth. It was constructed with the aid of brothers Harry B. and Sterling Uhler of Baltimore—-where the launch was to take place.


The Baltimore rocket was fueled with 50 gallons of gasoline with eight steel pipes for engines. The several layers of sailcloth that covered the rocket were impregnated with varnish making an airtight shell "as brittle as glass." The nose section unscrewed to allow the rocket's single passenger ingress. Inside was a large tank of oxygen, a supply of concentrated food tablets and water in 1.5-inch pipes that lined the interior to save space. There were also a "couple [of] flashlights and a first aid kit, and that was it." There were two glass portholes, though there was no way to steer the rocket. He planned to hit Venus by taking very careful aim at takeoff. In the nose was a 25-foot silk parachute that the pilot could push out in order for the rocket to make a safe descent.

The Magick of Large Fire Circles

Submitted by Tom Swiss on Tue, 04/23/2013 - 14:02

The fire circle, where celebrants drum and dance around a bonfire late into the night, is the heart of large Pagan gatherings. This is a piece I composed years ago for inclusion in the program of the Free Spirit Gathering, and gives a bit of an idea of what such circles are like. (If you would like to use it for your gathering, please feel free, just maintain attribution.) For a deeper explanation of the elemental magic of fire circles, there is no better text than Billy Bardo’s “Fire Circle Rap”.

The Magick of Large Fire Circles

by Tom Swiss

Fire. Drumming. Dancing. All are older than history, older than modern Homo sapiens. Putting them together is probably one of our oldest magickal activities.

You may have held fire circles in your own coven, circle, or grove. However, the large circles held at gatherings – bringing together scores, even hundreds, of people of many different paths and traditions – require a bit of extra thought and consideration for everything to go smoothly. Please consider the following guidelines for participating in large fire circles.

Who Are You, What Have You Sacrificed?

Submitted by Tom Swiss on Mon, 04/01/2013 - 01:25

If you grow up in a majority Christian society, sooner or later you have to come to an accommodation with the mythology of Jesus. How did such a story spring up around this guy? Indeed, was there ever even such as fellow as Jeshua son of Joseph from Nazareth? Or is it all just a constructed story?

(I like to use the name "Jeshua" to refer to the fellow to try to separate the actual person (if there was one) from the mythological character "Jesus".)

It's pretty clear that a large part of the story was constructed, drawing on previous myths. On the other hand, it seems reasonable to suppose that some guy named Jeshua started preaching and kicked up enough trouble to get tortured to death.

So here's some speculation, based on half-remembered bits of my Catholic upbringing, my intuition, and my experience with the mystical state.

poem: March Colors

Submitted by Tom Swiss on Wed, 03/27/2013 - 18:11

I've been lax about posting poetry exercises from Zelda's Inferno. (Actually, I've been lax about posting here in general; I've been focusing energy on testing for godan, fifth-degree black belt. I'll turn some focus back to restructuring my on-line presence in a few weeks, once that's wrapped up.) But here's a poem that developed out of this week's Zelda's exercise: write a series of three-line poems, each of which incorporates at least one color word.

subway bodhisattva

Submitted by Tom Swiss on Thu, 03/21/2013 - 11:30

The lovely and talented Sara Michener posted to Facebook this tale of an NYC subway bodhisattva:

Sobbing toddler on the 6 train sitting with his father, who was doing his best to calm him down. Woman pulls a large plastic ring from her pocket, presses a button, and it lights up, flashing brightly with multicolor LEDs. Train pulls into 86 street. Woman places the ring into the hands of the toddler, who becomes immediately transfixed into silence, and the woman exits the train.

Sam Harris on Eben Alexander's bogus journey

Submitted by Tom Swiss on Tue, 01/22/2013 - 23:30

I've been seeing and hearing some talk about Eben Alexander's new book, Proof of Heaven: A Neurosurgeon’s Journey into the Afterlife. It's based on his "near death" experience, and claims to be proof of life after death and the existence of God -- a Christian God, very specifically. My first thought was that no one could possibly taking this seriously...but the press seems to be eating it up. It reminds me of the success of Beyond And Back in the 1970s.

Sam Harris does a good job of taking Alexander's claims apart into itty-bitty pieces, in a blog post titled "This Must Be Heaven"

Everything—absolutely everything—in Alexander’s account rests on repeated assertions that his visions of heaven occurred while his cerebral cortex was “shut down,” “inactivated,” “completely shut down,” “totally offline,” and “stunned to complete inactivity.” The evidence he provides for this claim is not only inadequate—it suggests that he doesn’t know anything about the relevant brain science....In his Newsweek article, Alexander asserts that the cessation of cortical activity was “clear from the severity and duration of my meningitis, and from the global cortical involvement documented by CT scans and neurological examinations.” To his editors, this presumably sounded like neuroscience.

The problem, however, is that “CT scans and neurological examinations” can’t determine neuronal inactivity—in the cortex or anywhere else. And Alexander makes no reference to functional data that might have been acquired by fMRI, PET, or EEG—nor does he seem to realize that only this sort of evidence could support his case. Obviously, the man’s cortex is functioning now—he has, after all, written a book—so whatever structural damage appeared on CT could not have been “global.” (Otherwise, he would be claiming that his entire cortex was destroyed and then grew back.) Coma is not associated with the complete cessation of cortical activity, in any case. And to my knowledge, almost no one thinks that consciousness is purely a matter of cortical activity. Alexander’s unwarranted assumptions are proliferating rather quickly. Why doesn’t he know these things? He is, after all, a neurosurgeon who survived a coma and now claims to be upending the scientific worldview on the basis of the fact that his cortex was totally quiescent at the precise moment he was enjoying the best day of his life in the company of angels. Even if his entire cortex had truly shut down (again, an incredible claim), how can he know that his visions didn’t occur in the minutes and hours during which its functions returned?