Column: All Cruelty Springs from Weakness

Manny Tejeda-Moreno —  September 2, 2016 — 6 Comments

I have a thing for ice wine, like a serious thing. When I first tasted it, I was told the amazing story of its production. The grapes are allowed to freeze on the vine, but it is the water that freezes, not the sugars or the flavor compounds in the grapes. On the day before harvesting, the production equipment is allowed to sit in the icy air with all windows opened until everything gets as cold as possible; all processing happens at or below freezing. Crushing the grapes separates the ice from the liquid, so what is left is a sweet, thick essence that will be used for fermentation.

Ice wine can only be made in regions that can offer reliable freezes, so climate change is taking its toll. Ice wine production has steadily decreased over the past few decades. Unfortunately, it simply is getting rarer to get that cold in ice wine-producing regions, and equally getting harder to wait for full freezes while you fend off hungry birds; production has dropped over the years. Still, the wine is amazing.

To my uneducated palate, it is the only wine where I can taste and smell all those things that sommeliers tell us about like tropical fruits and hints of honey, caramel and recently sickle-snipped tarragon grown on a windswept hillside overlooking three volcanic lakes each visited once by a drift of wild pigs.

Photo Credit: Dominic Rivard / Flickr

[Photo Credit: Dominic Rivard / Flickr]

Regardless, I’ve bought it over the years and kept it for those special occasions, like anniversaries, birthdays and holidays. I had a little stash of ice wine in a closet, way in the back where it stays dark and cool. I know it’s there, and I like knowing that it’s there, and that was the problem.

Wanting to know that it is there also made me question the “special” of those special occasions. Was a birthday really a reason to open a bottle? Or an anniversary? These are yearly events. It needed to be an even more special occasion, like a promotion, or better still some kind of new once-in-a-lifetime something. And so they sat for that new once-in-a-lifetime something until the bottles I had spoiled.

Some of us do this with cheese. Or champagne. Some of us have tea stashes, candle hoards, and private reserves of essential oils. Even frozen Girl Scout cookies. They sit there for that special occasion that never meets our standard of special.

And sometimes that special occasion simply vanishes. Gone.

When I was growing up, I heard a story from my Aunt Tita. She had a strong and raspy voice, a mix of Tallulah Bankhead and Elaine Stritch with wisps of cigar smoke and rum. She was obsessed with cocktail parties, sea turtles, and sex.

And she had been through a lot. She was beaten several times for her activism, three of those occasions bringing her to hospital. Her first husband died in an auto accident, the second of cancer, the third of dementia, probably Alzheimer’s disease. Each of her parents had lingering deaths that lasted years, and she was their caregiver. No decade of her adult life failed to challenge her with illness, poverty, or loss.

She died of kidney disease a few years ago, and not one moment of her life did she fail to live to the fullest. She enjoyed everything: her parties, her sea turtles, and her “boring visits to doctors.”  What pain she had was powerless against her humor. Aunt Tita was ebullient to the end, extravagant in her joie de vivre; our last conversations are unprintable because of mature subject matter.

Aunt Tita didn’t have a religious system; she rejected it all. Some days she was an atheist, but on other days — when the mood hit to discuss religion — she talked about something else. She talked about a nebulous edge of reality that held just spirit energy, and that you could occasionally feel if you are still and receptive. That energy oozes and flickers while it glues our world together. Every now and then, as she taught, it clumps into a form and people will call it a god. But it most usually seeps into our world at the moment each of us becomes conscious.

Tita spoke like a shaman or an animist, and I doubt she would want either of those labels. But, I do know, that she wanted us — me and my cousins — to get to know this energy because, as she said, “when you get to know it, you will make peace with yourself.”

Back to that story I mentioned.

Two spirits were raised together on an island. Every morning, they woke up and walked hand in hand to the beach to rejoice in the new sunrise. They spent the day working together to keep the island happy and, as evening started to fall, they walked to the other end of the island to watch the sun set. It was like that every day until that one day, when nightfall came and never ended. The two spirits found themselves in a dark cave, with only hints of light that came from nowhere. They walked together for days and into months, and then years looking for a way out. The caves were a labyrinth, and they became desperate for the sun. They began to argue about which way would lead them out and how much time the long paths were taking. The fighting became constant until they could no longer stand each other; then went different ways.

One spirit kept moving all the time. Looking for the light became the most important thing to do: it soon consumed everything. Seeking the sun, the spirit went deeper and faster into darkness and soon became engulfed by it, but continued to grope through the maze.

The other spirit also sought the sun frantically searching deep in the caves. But after giving into despair, that spirit realized the light may never come. This spirit stopped looking for the sun and sought a light within to make self-peace.

One day both spirits found themselves before the Great Spirit of the caves who admitted to bringing them there and asked what each had learned. The first spirit answered, “I have learned to hate you,” then vanished back into the maze and into the darkness. The second spirit answered, “I have learned to find you,” and then became the light.

Of course, when you’re 10, you’re like, “Why don’t these people have flashlights?”

Photo Credit: M. Tejeda-Moreno

[Photo Credit: M. Tejeda-Moreno]

Mabon remains one of my favorite holidays not just because it brings in our season of gratitude, but because it is also an appeal to recognize what’s special. We’re called to find, make peace with, and then be thankful for our “special” — and make peace with our light. And then we’re called to celebrate it: all the time, every moment and in the people around us. That’s when we should drink ice wine. All the time, because special is everywhere. We should be happy to find it and be thankful we live with such abundance of it. Whatever form special might take in our lives, however we find our own light, we should embrace it with gratitude. When we see others find it, we should be equally grateful, and equally rejoice.

That’s why I find it irritating when people or groups vomit onto the interweb their binarist, gender essentialist, and heterosexist manifestos and present them as a structured reality based on theological and/or historical revisionism. It’s just irritating, and it reeks of cruelty.

To justify that cruelty, they invoke a constructed view of religion and cultural purity that simply isn’t there. Nor is the history. So we should have a look at this obsession with socio-cultural homogeneity and gender conformity from a theological and a Eurocentric perspective. There’s lots to chew on; just open any book describing our European ancestors’ religion.

In the meantime, here are the cliff notes: gods shape-changed whenever they wanted into whatever they wanted even into different animals and different sexes; such scandalous non-conformity. One important reason they did that was to judge human kindness and hospitality. From the Volga to the River Shannon, the measuring stick for how much you suck as a human is marked by how poorly you treat others. Not only did the gods not care about normativity and essentialism, they consistently violated it. Then they used that violation to test our generosity, and our humanity.

As for the historical-cultural side of these arguments, for those of us with European ancestry, I regret to share that our European ancestors didn’t exactly play nice either. Embracing European cultural heritage as a wellspring of tribalistic harmony is a romantic derangement. The 20th century left some clear lessons about how that story ends. And while it is equally true that our ancestors weren’t the only ones that enslaved, pillaged, or executed genocides, they made sure to leave a wake of atrocities around to remind future generation that they could bring some real heat to the game.

As an additional point, it’s basically insulting to our ancestors to reclaim a history of oppression through homogeneity when some many of them untiringly strove to manifest the diversity of the present. Their history also includes transparency, honor, democracy, and inclusivity. While some ancestors sought to oppress people, others sought to expand freedoms, and they won. Just look around. Opening freedoms for others is a courageous path, and an honorable path that has brought us many of the liberties we enjoy today — whether they are sexual, affectional or whatever, even religious — and more paths can and will open.

But, that path of essentialism — as it applies to human complexity — serves only to divide. From whatever cultural history we might invoke, essentialism of this kind denigrates the side of our history that was indeed progressive and libertarian. That side brought us modern science and ignited the Enlightenment. We enjoy freedoms from persecution today because of their work, courage, and industry; and I hope that future generations will enjoy more freedoms still because of ours.

Demanding we narrow the human experience is, to me, just not us. It is inconsistent with modern Paganism; as a community, we are a living reaction to orthodoxy. Essentialism is not a detour off the road of human experience, it is a closure. It demands we behave in traditional ways, rejecting, joy, bowing to authority, mourning diversity and silencing our specialness. It is not only regressive; it is cowardly, deceptive, dishonorable and inhospitable. It insults our neighbors, our ancestors and our progeny. In a word, it is unkind; and it must be challenged, every time it appears.

That story that Aunt Tita taught is not just one of self-enlightenment, but also one of self-actualization. We are each entrusted with the tools to promote our own self-discovery and self-empowerment. Not all our ancestors and cultures believed that; and not all ancestors wanted us to have the privilege of discovering it. But many did. Those that did realized we build happiness in the moment, celebrating ourselves, and seizing the day. Our specialness is always with us. Our gift is to discover it. And every moment is an opportunity to celebrate it. I’d like to believe we can do that as a community. No special occasion needed.

Carpe diem.

(with ice wine)

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The views and opinions expressed by our diverse panel of columnists and guest writers represent the many diverging perspectives held within the global Pagan, Heathen and polytheist communities, but do not necessarily reflect the views of The Wild Hunt Inc. or its management.

Manny Tejeda-Moreno


Manny Tejeda-Moreno (pronouns he, him, his) is a professor and social scientist with a doctorate in business. His scholarship has been focused in research methods, leadership and diversity. He also has a masters degree in psychotherapy. He was born in Cuba and raised in the American South. Manny has been in the Pagan community for almost four decades. He is a witch and was raised as a child of Oyá. He is encouraged by the Balance within the natural world, enjoys storms and the night. He is a beekeeper, orchid-grower and builder of bat houses. Manny is married and splits his free time between the Florida Swamps and the Atlantic Ocean