Monday, March 14, 2011

The Alternative Middle

I used to work in an 'alternative' bookstore in downtown Ottawa. Part of the reason that I got the job there was because I knew the owner. It was not because I knew a lot about the subjects inside those books. I was a city girl who enjoyed my daily exercise and daily dose of popular television (my favourite, Oprah). When customers would come in asking what book would best lead to healing their heart chakra, I would tilt my head and bite my tongue to keep from telling them they should go for a run.

In time I got to know those books, their authors and the subjects to the point that I was able to recommend some on a few of the topics. I didn’t get to the edge of ‘out there’ but I did wade in deep and found myself intrigued with what people believed about the world. There were books on fairies, angels, healing with sound, colour, light, stones and fasting, chakras, Sufism, Buddhism, Rudolph Steiner/Waldorf, yoga, vegan cooking, juicing, meditation, astrology, Wiccan practices, homeopathy, women’s studies…you get the idea. This was not the store to find best sellers nor could you find much about ‘western’ religions. As far as alternative thinking went, however, this was the popular place to be. The pop star Alanis used to come in and buy herself a library of books, often many copies of each to give to others. So when popular people preach the alternative, does that render it mainstream?

What turned me away from organized religion for many years were the folks that tried to convince me that I was going to be in big trouble if I did not get the proper belief system in place. Religion was presented as a private club with a secret code, and once I was part of it, everything would be all right. But if I did not join, whatever was on the other side of the hidden curtain would make me very, very sorry. Like a long row of black market salesmen in an alleyway, I grew weary and untrusting of anyone who tried to sell me something without first showing me the goods.

Recently I discovered that there is no hidden curtain. There is no secret code and there is no private club. Those that whispered ‘psst’ in the dark alleyways were only ever selling a knock-off anyway. I started to talk to people who didn’t believe they needed to sell me on anything. They would walk with me wherever I wanted to go until I found my way home. They would show me the way if I asked, but they would never tell me what to do.

It’s funny how much easier it is to have an opinion about a raving lunatic than it is to ask a reserved, respectful person why they do what they do. It turns out the silent ones who were nodding their heads at me when I said I didn’t go to church were not judging me after all. They were only letting me find my way. And the ones who tried to convince me of my doom got all of my attention.

I once met a fellow hitchhiking on his way to protest on a logging road on the west coast. Another old growth forest was at risk of being logged. He explained how he always went to these protests and managed to get a lot of media attention for his efforts. Then he went on to list the numerous reasons why clearcuts were bad. As someone who was heading up to do some treeplanting, I understood the ‘treehugger’ side of things, but I was open to discussion and thoroughly believed that employment for folks was always part of the consideration.

As a student of biology, I had my points to make about the importance of biodiversity and preserving ecosystems as a whole but I absolutely did not believe a word that came out of this guy’s mouth. For example, he explained in great detail how bears were unable to travel across clearcuts and were, therefore, cut off from surrounding habitat. As someone who has been chased across clear cuts by bears, I didn’t agree that they did not have the stealth to climb over debris. Their ability to do so kicked butt, in my opinion. My bipedal navigating was a clumsier site to see, I assure you. And here was the guy who was making it onto television.

The point here is that the wacky people always seem to make great news. In every field you will find extremes of people who do not play by the rules, live outside of the box, cheat, lie, pressure, rape, pillage, sensationalize, rant or choose the alternative route. This is definitely true for farming. It is true for parenting. It turns out it is also true for religion. But somewhere in the middle you will find the average everyday folk using common sense to the best of their ability and passing down stories and knowledge in the fairest way they know how. These people don’t make good television.

So I have learned not to believe what I hear on popular television or books easily. But that doesn’t mean we should swing off into left field assuming everything alternative is the best option. Somewhere in the middle are the regular folks, doing regular things and changing the world for doing it.

And every now and again you might see one of those extreme people making the way for the rest of us to follow in time. I have never once burned a bra, but I am grateful to those who did so many decades ago. I don’t assume I’ll find truth just because it is the belief of the masses but I’m not going to ignore popular thinking either. I also think that new ideas are worth paying attention to but it is necessary to ask questions and consider the sources.

Somewhere in the middle of both extremes, you will find me. Raving lunatic part of the day and regular folk the rest of the time.


  1. Living in the woods I feel deeply about the trees. I can hear the sounds of logging happening near home the last few days and I can feel the ground tremble when the fallen hit the earth and have noticed bare ground in the skyline emerging. I must admit at those times I feel a little sad about the changing landscape but mostly am filled with gratitude for a crop that provides so much for man and the environment. It keeps me in the mean of two extremes. And at the end of the day I think regular folk feel mostly the same way. Great introspective food for thought, thanks.

  2. please don't cast all Pagans as extremeists or on the fringes. Some of us, having been raised in Christians homes are following our instincts ( much the same way you are in terms of where your lifes energy should be spent) without the need to draw attention to ourselves , proseletize or collect volumes on the healing powers of crystals.
    I am really enjoying your writing. It is unabashedly honest, heartfelt and reflects alot of introspection.

  3. Hello CargillWitch!

    I had really hoped to communicate that often the 'fringe' or 'extreme' can be just regular people trying something different (following instincts as you say). I get a lot of eye rolls from people but I stand by the stuff that works for me. I never intended to judge what is true for others.

    I have no idea what it is like to be raised a Christian. I have been influenced by a great number of Pagan-esque writers. I think this way of seeing in the world most resembles mine. Do you know the Dar Williams song 'The Christians and the Pagans'? Like the lyrics of this song, I seek to balance all sides with my writing - it helps me resolve the dichotomies within - apologies if I tipped too far to one side.

  4. no apologies needed!I enjoy reading other perspectives.
    No I haven't heard the song but will seek it out- sounds very intriguing.
    have you read " the Pagan Christ"? it is writen by a Canadian United Church minister, a really good read to see the similarities between Christianity and many older Pagan traditions.
    I was raised in a very large "C" Christian home, an evangelical church. I was baptized at 12 outside in a pond.
    I miss the community church provided, which you have noted right away is an intense experience! I was an active member of a very liberal United Church for years after I no longer believed the liturgy just to have community.
    I do LOVE people who are questing to find who they are spiritually though. Even if it is a different path than mine it's the acknowledgement that it matters that warms me!

  5. I agree! Knowing that other people put value on finding guidance from a higher power/belief system is comforting. The trick is not to squish each other (within or between faiths) while we're doing it. Your comments have been really appreciated.


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