Pagan Blog Project 2014: “C” is for Civic Paganism
(Thanks to a recalcitrant laptop, I’m a day late on this one – but thankfully not a dollar short.)
People like to say that paganism is all about nature, about the interplay of trees and waves and moon cycles and the Wheel of the Year. And for some people, they’d be right. I wanted a part of that nature-based system so badly I could taste it, but my heart has ever been drawn, in the end, to concrete and steel and limestone, asphalt and electricity and the steady thrum of life as she is lived.
I guess it’s no surprise that I find myself now honoring the city of my birth, my City, as what approximates a land spirit. (Warning: Rambling within.)
I have always felt a great deal of love for my City, though it is ill-appreciated by many, viewed as a den of corruption and thievery and murder – and that’s just Capitol Hill. I thought it was just standard local pride until I heard Boromir describing his home of Minas Tirith to Aragorn, and the awe in his voice stirred something in my soul; he felt the same way about his home city as I did mine. Everyone sings songs of praise for New York, Los Angeles, and Will Smith even put out a memorable track about Miami; no such honor for Washington, DC, no such honor for the seat of presidents. The closest I have come to a love song for my City is The Postal Service’s track “The District Sleeps Alone Tonight”, and even that is melancholy.
Ever since I was young, I have found that certain places in the District do better than others to quell the tempestuous sea my thoughts often become. In the year I had to take between high school and college, in the depths of my despair, I often hopped the Orange Line out of my suburban exile into the heart of the city, stopping by the White House before walking the length of the wide green Mall to the Capitol itself. It is not a short walk, especially in the summer; it can get oppressively hot and the humidity from what once was a swamp sits on your skin and stays there. There is a bench outside the Capitol that I have claimed as my own, and I give it a fond pat whenever I pass by; sitting on that bench and staring up at that white dome was and still is one of the few places I have found where my thoughts just go quiet and still. There is a whole section of Downtown Northwest – a large irregular polygon stretching from approximately 23rd Street NW to P Street by Dupont Circle, to 6th Street NW down to Constitution Avenue – that I have mentally staked out as My Territory. I feel close to invincible there, though when I lived in the city I lived further north than that, beyond the zoo, abutting the edge of Rock Creek Park and a smattering of embassies. That’s my turf as well, from Cleveland Park to Tenleytown, cutting close to the Maryland border. I know those streets, I know the land. Perhaps a little less well than I did since entering suburban exile, but I visit often enough to keep the major changes fresh in my mind.
It seems silly, to claim close to a whole quarter of the city as Mine, but I do, with varying levels of facetiousness. That is one of the few places in my life where I have felt like I belonged, and so by right it belongs to me.
So I mind the City now, and it minds me, and we look after each other, we two. I feel an attunement there that I haven’t quite felt anywhere else. It’s an odd form of animism, but it works for us.
It’s not just my history with the District that figures into it, though. It’s my own complicated relationship with patriotism and what it means to be an American (and that, dear reader, is a topic for another post). And boy, am I American; I’m both the scion of a family that’s been in Virginia since the 1620s, and the first of another family to be born on American soil. I’m both, I’m neither, I’m Other, not enough of one or the other to fit solidly into any category. Washington, DC is neither properly free city or state, but a federal district, allowed some rights but not others. I honor the City because we’re similar, and because it has always, in its own way, been there for me.
The beauty I see in it is secondary, but it is still there, and it is radiant. Despite its sour reputation, my City is truly beautiful, with buildings restricted to no higher than the dome of the Capitol, and major boulevards wide and lined with trees. It’s a beauty that most people don’t see, or ignore; everyone sees the monuments and museums, everyone gets a photo in front of the White House. Few enjoy the splash of color on wet pavement reflected from a traffic light, or the patterns of light floating into an atrium, or the secret nooks in the parks, or a thousand other little things that make me smile when I see them.
I thank the City each night for keeping us safe, and I pledge to help keep it safe in return per my intended profession.
The poets of old romanticized their cities; why should I not romanticize mine?