BOOK REVIEW: SPINNING IN PLACE
Highly recommended: Spinning in Place is a clear and thought-provoking guide to the festival year from the perspective of a humanist/naturalist Pagan. Bart Everson describes it as not so much a ‘how to’ as a ‘why bother’ book, for “no-one can dictate what the festivals mean or how to observe them”.
What he offers is a narrative of how he works the widely adopted eight festival cycle in New Orleans, and “idiosyncratic encouragement” to “spin your own wheel”. The reader he imagines is “an atheist, or perhaps a pantheist or an agnostic”, someone “without a strong belief in gods or supernatural powers”. Yet, within this philosophical naturalism, he imagines also an interest in religion and spirituality – perhaps in the form of “being surprised by a sudden awakening” and entering upon “a quest for something more”. For me, it also has a value to anyone with an interest in the Wheel of the Year.
Everson makes two important points about the festivals in general. One is the sense of a holiday as more than a vacation – more than time off for relaxation and recreation, important though these are. A true holiday enshrines values, “reminding us again and again of certain existential truths”. Modern ‘Western’ style societies tend to be “mobile, rootless, divorced from the specific realities of a particular place … it’s my thought that if we spin in one spot for a while, dervish-like, perhaps we’ll corkscrew right down into the Earth and regain our sense of location.”
The second point to remember is that “seasonal variation happens according to its own schedule and not according to any calendar devised by humans.” When festivals become entrenched, “conventions have a tendency to become concretized in our minds, as if they were the primary reality rather than a convenient symbolic expression”. Everson invites an open and fresh approach to ritual celebration. This will of course include the repetition of loved and familiar patterns, but not imprisonment within them.
The book gives a chapter to each season, opening with December: Solstice Connections where the solstice is seen not as a Solar event (nothing happens to the sun) but an Earth-Solar event. Everson’s ritual year is about Earth and its cycles, celebrating an Earth spirituality. January/February: Searching the Depths remind us that there is no Nordic winter in New Orleans, and a Carnival season starting at Twelfth Night, with Mardi Gras any time from 3 February – 9 March. For Everson, it is the time for Candlemas and Brighid crosses. March: Spring in the Subtropics, Spring in the Self – and oak pollen on the porch a sure sign of the equinox. A theme of balance rather than excess: purification understood as “feeling good, staying strong, promoting vitality, improving focus, and nurturing inspiration”. April/May: May Day x2 The Worker’s holiday matters as much as Beltane to Everson: celebration of revolutionary political desire, the notion of power to the imagination, the spiritual dimension of politics – “the sense of connection to Earth and humanity fuels outrage at manifest injustices”.
To begin the second half of the year we have June: Flowers to Flame, a time of sunshine and superabundance – yet at the same time, acknowledging limits set by nature. Flowers coming to full form, and flowers given over to the bonfire’s flames. Then comes July/August: How Lammas Changed my Life The warmth of the year has continued to increase. Everson remembers his first link to a local Pagan group, a Paganism for kids event to which he took his daughter. Making corn dollies. Still making them, and baking bread together. September: The Other Equinox is elusive as a season, though it is getting darker and it is the time of Lycoris radiata – naked ladies, red magic lilies, hurricane lilies locally. The hurricane season peaks on 10 September and goes on to 1 November. Themes of loss and darkness, yet also gratitude (rather than fear or denial). Making ‘gratitude garlands’, since gratitude is always for something and to someone. Finally, we have October/November: Dead Time where All Saints, All Souls and Dia de los Muertos are all celebrated locally. Everson talks both of celebrating ancestors’ night and what he calls “surfing the new spooky” – “there is something delectable about the spooky, something desirable, something necessary”.
Spinning in Place shows how to create a wheel of the year which honours tradition, place and personal history. This approach allows fluidity and responsiveness to environment, community and culture both past and present. It clearly works for Bart Everson. Spinning in Place does not offer an off the peg set of rituals. Rather, it asks readers to wonder what we might do, in our place, using our histories and our forms of expression. That’s what makes it inspiring.
Bart Everson Spinning in place: a secular humanist embraces the wheel of the year New Orleans, LA: Frowning Cat Books, 2016 (E-book available on Amazon Kindle)