Philadelphia and What I Found There

Earlier this month I spent a week in Philadelphia with a dear friend of mine for her birthday. I haven’t been to Philly in years and found myself quickly falling in love with the city all over again. I’ve lived in Virginia my entire life and have spent the past ten years calling a very, very small mountain town my home. To say that city life is wonderfully exotic and exciting to me is an understatement.

The city is alive and vibrant in a way I wasn’t expecting. I’ve been to large cities before – DC, Chicago, Las Vegas, Montreal, Dublin, London, New Delhi, Hyderabad – but this is my first trip going on my own with the opportunity of wandering around by myself, learning to navigate and not get hit by traffic (spoiler alert: I was successful!). Also, staying with my friend kept me out of the touristy part of town; though I’m sure I still stuck out like a sore thumb at times, I really began to appreciate the rhythm of the city and the life I found there. I had no tour group to travel with, no conference to attend, no study abroad program to keep pace with. I went because I wanted to go, I explored because I was curious, and I had Thai food for the first time in my life. (Spoiler alert: I loved it!)

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Balance is something I have yet to master. Not that, I suppose, balance is something one masters or achieves with any finality. Balance is an ongoing process, a response and something to respond to. Balance is ma’at, a concept I’m struggling with as I come to terms with my new Kemetic faith. Balance is Brighid, the flame at the heart of three circles forming a triquetra, the still point of a turning universe.

This has something to do with ma’at. Come back when I’ve figured out what that is.

Balance needs to be fluid, dynamic, constantly moving and transforming. Life is a dance of energy, and I mean that on a physical, sub-atomic, I-learned-this-once-in-high-school level. Even things that appear rock solid and eternal are, in actuality, nothing but electrons swinging wildly around a nucleus. Circles and spirals and patterns that are constant, yet ever-moving; the journey of the solar barque and the swell of the moon to fullness; the Flamekeeping of Brighid’s devotees overseen by the Lady Herself on the 20th day, after which the cycle begins anew; Zep Tepi, which exists/existed/will exist in all the times that ever were, are, and shall be.

Balance is neutral in the sense everything affects balance and balance affects everything, but balance is not neutrality. Neither is balance stasis; there is a difference between the balance of a ball at the top of its arc, just before it begins dropping back to the earth, and the complete stasis of a photograph of that ball, removed from context, time, and life. This still photograph of a ball is stagnant and lifeless, useless for instilling any understanding of a real ball. True balance lies within the juggler keeping each ball in motion, a whirl of chaos hiding years of practice and ingrained muscle memory.

Balance is also tension, conflict, the keystone that only holds up the arch because of pressure exerted on other side. (Or something. Dammit Jim, I’m a blogger not an architect.) When I did more Druidry things, balance became the interplay between the Three Realms — Earth, Sea, and Sky — and the interconnected web of relationships between the Shining, Noble, and Mighty Ones. Politics, essentially. With Brighid, balance is the cruel heat of the smithy: the harsh clang of hammer against anvil, the merciless plunge of metal into waiting water, that creates the beauty and strength of skyforged steel. Balance is the fire-in-the-water, the dance of stars and the space-between-stars, the Woman Who Is Three and the Three Who Are One. (And perhaps this speaks to the balance of my Kemetic Orthodox studies, where Netjer is One and Many at the same time, both and neither at once.)

This has nothing to do with ma’at but I wanted a second picture. Pictured: the Skyforge from Skyrim, a not-so-subtle Pagan allegory.

I am craving balance and stability in my life. I feel incredibly inefficient spiritually, physically, mentally, emotionally, morally, grammatically… I feel myself sliding towards stasis and not-being rather than the natural pause and, well, balance of balance. I just wish I knew how to cultivate it.

About Ma’at

This is my first post for this year’s Pagan Blog Project. I’m not sure if I’ll stick with the alphabet theme or if these posts will be particularly long or coherent, but I want to get back into writing (don’t I say that every year?) and I might as well start now.

Several days ago I wrote in my spiritual journal about ma’at, my conceptions of the concept/force thus far, what it meant to me, and how very far I had to go. Between a conversation with other Kemetics that left me more confused than before — a good kind of confused though, the kind that makes you grow up big and strong! — and a death in the family, I’m not sure if the original words mean the same to me now as they did even a week ago. Funny how fast life changes.

But it’s a new year, a new lunar cycle, a new semester, a new life, and Zep Tepi starts us anew every second of our lives. So I thought, why not write a bit more about ma’at now, off the cuff and (one hopes) from the heart and see where that takes me?

I’ve been thinking a lot recently about gods and ancestors and spiritual praxis and such and it occurs to me that the many starts and restarts of my religious lives have been spent on… well, perhaps not the most important elements. Not that the gods are not important, or that ritual can’t play a central role in one’s religious life, but when it comes right down to it those aren’t the core of what I need. I keep thinking about this in terms of disease (which probably says more about my current mental and emotional state than anything) and assuming that the cause of a “good religious life” for myself would be relationship with deities, some regular ritual practice, philosophizing and theologizing, when really… those should be the “symptoms” of a good religious life. Having my core… thing set up for my religious life should, according to the theory that’s cooking in my head, facilitate a religious life that has gods and ritual and ancestors and such as part of the tapestry.

I know I’m mixing like twenty metaphors together; thank you for bearing with me. One of the limitations of language is I can’t directly transfer emotions to someone else’s brain, which would make this communication thing much easier. 🙂

Anyway, the point is: I already have a sort of “core religious thing” I’ve carried around for quite awhile that transcends whatever religious affiliation is happening to me on a given day. More than once I’ve described social justice as being my religion and I have certain values that cause me to act and believe in certain ways. I won’t go into my personal social justice philosophy right now, but suffice to say this world is a mess and I just need to rule it and someone really should do something about that, yeah? And that someone can be me. I can’t save the whole world but I can do things to make it suck less. I can care about people more than some fluffy, universal love that starts and stops with prayer.* My actions and words mean things and I can act in ways that make the world a little better and safer for folks who have the odds stacked against them. I might not be able to move mountains but I can change my tiny bit of the world.

(*My intention here wasn’t to disparage prayer or universal love at all; to the contrary I think they’re very powerful forces! I meant more that in my church growing up, there were a lot of words tossed around about caring for people, but that care didn’t go much further than praying (quite publicly, in front of other people to show off one’s own piety) to God for Him to help whomever.)

So it occurs to me that I really, really need to sit down and figure out ethics, if that’s even the word for this. (I made a post recently on the Cauldron trying to find definitions for “ethics” and “morality,” which has some pretty interesting replies on it. I should really respond to my own threads at some point!) I’m a Unitarian Universalist and social justice is a huge part of what makes UUism UU. I’m a somewhat lapsed follower of Brighid, Who in more than a few manifestations is a champion of the outcasts and rejects of society. And I’m a not-so-new-anymore Kemetic, which means… ma’at.

Ma’at is something I can understand if I don’t think about it too much and it makes sense on a gut level, but that sense doesn’t always translate to higher level thinking. Which is not to say I want to turn off my logical/rational brain when approaching ma’at, but I recognize that it is a concept from a different time and different place than early 21st century America and understanding ma’at is going to take a significantly different tool set than what I was given by my surrounding culture.

To call ma’at simply “ethics” is missing the point. Ma’at is That Which Is and The Way Things Are. Cause and effect are part of ma’at, but not in the sense of Hindu and Buddhist karma. But at the same time, one “example” of ma’at that works for me is for every action there is an equal and opposite reaction. If I do something, other things happen that I need to take responsibility for. Everything is connected, everything has the potential to work with ma’at. (Which is different from working within ma’at, but I’m not sure I have the ability to parse that right now.) From how I’ve understood it thus far, ma’at is the force that that brings swinging pendulum back into balance, except that example gives too much credit to balance-as-stasis over balance-as-dynamism. Again, words aren’t helping and I think I’m grokking something on a gut deep level and my brain is frantically trying to catch up.

Speaking of grokking things and weird science metaphors, the law of conservation of energy somehow “explains” ma’at and isfet to me. Ma’at is the conservation of energy, the transformation of everything. Death, disease, and destruction are or can be part of ma’at, or under ma’at’s purview, or as full of ma’at-ness as birth, health, and creation. Isfet, on the other hand… it’s that impossible screwing with the system we can’t even properly understand. It’s something that’s not just wrong in a moral sense, but in the sense it just shouldn’t be. (That’s partially why I’ve been having problems with ma’at as an inherently moral concept as opposed to a concept from which morals may be derived… but again, I’m not sure I have the ability to do that subject justice right now, and this post is getting long enough as it is.) If ma’at is what brings us back to Zep Tepi, the first moment of creation where truth and justice and balance were the order of the day, then isfet is what pulls us farther away from that time, or is what is created when we move out of tandem with ma’at, but that metaphor is flawed too. And speaks way too closely to the myth of the Fall from Eden.

See what I mean about needing a different worldview than the one my culture gave me?

At any rate, wrestling with the concept of ma’at and what it means in living my life is something that feels grounding, feels needed in my life. I’m not always sure if I believe in the gods and ritual can be an emotional disappointment and I don’t even know if I LIKE most of my ancestors enough to talk with them, but how I should live and act in this world? That’s something I’m always going to care about no matter what shape my religion takes.