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Some years ago, while attending a Heathen festival at the Gaea Retreat outside of Kansas City, I heard a man say a prayer to Thor. “Hail to the Thunderer, the working man’s god,” said the man, who fit the profile: tall and broad, bearded, his white skin tanned from days in the sun. I thought about that epithet for a long time, “the working man’s god.” It comes from the idea that in ancient times, gods like Odin served the powerful ruling class, while gods like Thor and Freyr were patrons of the commoners. I come from working people, from people whose jobs were to swing hammers, haul loads, dig holes, saw boards. Though I wish that Heathen’s image weren’t so tied to a staid image of “work” and “manhood” – who is the god of the fast food worker, or the nurse in an understaffed emergency ward? – it’s still a good image. Our myths so often seem to focus on aristocrats, princes, chieftains; but most of us aren’t princes, and I like the myths that reflect that truth.This weekend I am finishing the terms of a bargain with a different god – Odin, in this case. Five years ago, I found myself making a pact with the Gallows-God: I was starting graduate school, and I promised to dedicate the work I created in my time there to him. The whole thing sounds faintly ridiculous now, I have to admit. Most people can enter a PhD program without dragging the gods into it. For me, though, part of living a Pagan life is acknowledging that the enchanted nature of our existence does not start or stop at the edge of a ritual circle, rather that all that we do and all that we are belong to the world of magick. That includes what we do for a living, whatever that might be. For a time, I made my living teaching English classes at a university while studying for a degree and writing a dissertation, and in all of those modes of being – the teacher, the student, the writer – I gave myself to Odin.
But something drastic happened to me halfway through my time in graduate school. We got an email a week before classes began in the autumn of 2015 informing us that our health insurance benefit would be rescinded; the previous year’s coverage was set to expire only a few hours after the email went out. Now, almost every graduate assistant understands that they are signing up for years of taxing work for low pay – that’s the bargain people make to attend graduate school, and while it’s not a just bargain, it’s the one on the table. In this case, however, the university had clearly broken faith with us: our pay might have been poverty-level, but we had been promised health insurance, and many of us had chosen to attend our particular university because of that promise.
I saw an electric response to that notice – standing-room-only meetings in lecture halls that could house 500 people, rallies and demonstrations, and a walk-out in the first week of classes. I found myself in the center of all of it, leading marches, giving speeches, running a labor union organizing campaign. I rarely had time to contemplate how strange it was for me to be in that position. Though many of my friends had been activists, the kind of people who been protesting the Iraq War since we were in high school, my political involvement had never risen above regular voting. By the time I caught my breath – after more than a year of constant meetings, canvassing, and campaigning, after hundreds of conversations with angry administrators and overworked employees – I looked in the mirror and found a very different person looking back than the person I once had been.
Like so many other young academics, I entered graduate school thinking that I would defy the odds and leave five years later with not just a doctorate but a professorship. That didn’t work out in my case. It doesn’t work out for most of us. It’s easy to be depressed about – despite the attempts of graduate programs to pivot to the idea of “alternative-academic” training, most of the people I know who go to graduate school (at least in the humanities) want to do the work of teaching and research. Certainly I did. As of this weekend, I am, at least for now, done with all of that – I have taught my last session of Advanced Fiction Writing, and once the grades are in, I will no longer be an academic. This is a hard truth for me, though strangely, also one that feels appropriate, given the terms of my agreement with Odin. I offered him five years; now the five years are up, and I am left to move on with something else.
That something else, for now, is continuing to work in the labor movement as an organizer and advocate for working people. As I move into my new circumstances, I find myself thinking of that Heathen I met at Gaea, him and his “working man’s god.” Again, it may seem strange to want to bring the gods into something so disconnected from the spiritual as agitating for collective bargaining rights – but that’s only because we have been so well trained to find ourselves disenchanted from our work, as we are disenchanted from so much. I find something holy in the idea of working for the workers; just as the work of my last five years in the university served as a devotion to Odin, perhaps the work of the next five in the labor movement will serve as an offering to Thor.
May has always seemed to me a month of transition – the change from the rhythms of spring to those of summer, the close of the school year and beginning of the summer break, the moment before we dance the Maypole at Beltane and the moment afterwards. The change is healthy; it reminds us that we are still alive and growing, that we are not static, that the way things are is not how things must forever be. I look forward to the season of change, and the work that lies ahead.
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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.
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