Humans are natural omnivores, both nutritionally and ideologically. The short-term obsessions of toddlers and adolescents are grudgingly tolerated. They are still finding themselves, after all.  But if an adult ate only pizza, or wore only green, or listened to only mid 90s German trance music, they’d be eccentric.   And yet, it is assumed that adults will adhere to one intellectual or religious tradition. Well, one at a time. Religions, like relationships, are generally a matter of serial monogamy.  You can dump one and move on to another. The jilted ex might tell everyone about your embarrassing grooming habit. The former pastor might tell everyone you’re going to hell.  Potato, potahto.

You Are Not Your Hammer

But what is an intellectual, religious, or magical tradition, anyway? It’s how one is oriented in the world. It’s how things are weighed against each other.  It’s how value is measured. It’s how a life course is plotted. In short, it’s a tool. It’s something one uses, rather than something one is.  When I’m building a cedar bench (in order to enjoy my tea at sunrise outdoors; I know you care), at some point I’m going to put down the square and pick up a drill.  Switching tools, here. No need to panic. I’m not throwing the square in the trash; I’ll use it again tomorrow. And you know what they say about the guy who goes through life holding only a hammer.

Everything looks like a goddamn nail.

Gentlemen, Calibrate Your Instruments

 The other day I was really excited because I stepped on my scale and it said I had lost three pounds.  Then I went to a friend’s house and her scale said I had gained two pounds.  Well that sucked, but independent verification by multiple sources is important.  Is a system of thought valuable in its own right, or is it valuable because of what it reveals about the world?  And when three scales agree and one doesn’t, which one are you going to toss? 

More importantly, if you only stepped on one scale, how would you know if it was wrong?

Three Heads Are Better Than Two

Triangulation in map-making means that in knowing A) the distance between two points, and B) the angles between those points and a third point, the exact location of that third point can be calculated. Triangulation in social sciences involves using several research methods to study the same phenomenon. You see where I’m going with this.  Probably because you’ve triangulated the last two paragraphs to estimate the next one. Physics explains some things, but not all. Psychology explains some things, but not all.  Buddhism and Catholicism and Judaism each explain some things.  These are all maps with smudges, holes, and frayed edges. They’re tools with important but limited uses.

I grew up  in fundamentalist Evangelical Christianity (the insular 80s reaction to the birth of the Age of Aquarius, not the political juggernaut that exists today). For those of you who didn’t share my experience, this involves spending Sunday mornings (and occasionally evenings) sitting on a metal folding chair listening to a man preach about punishment. Afterwards, donuts and Tang.  Also no movie theaters, playing cards, drinking, swearing, dating, video games, secular music, or other post-1960 pop culture. You can probably read Nancy Drew, but there’s no internet and you live in a town of 1,500, so good luck finding a copy.

As a young adult, I went to college, quit Evangelicalism, graduated from college, was confirmed Anglican, and set out searching for a meta-theory to explain and harmonize everything: science, religion, politics, psychology, and so on.  A thousand books later: no dice.  I spent six years studying Northern European runic traditions. This helped: I now had the worldview equivalent of two eyeballs with which to focus. I stopped running into walls so frequently.  After some time I was introduced to Hermeticism, but I still had runes in one hand and icons in the other.  Each is useful and enjoyable in its own way. My depth perception continues to improve.

Fill Your Toolbox

All this is to gently point out that if you’ve spent the last ten years steeped in a single tradition, you might have the depth perception of an eye-patched pirate.  Diehard runic wizard? Read Cornelius Agrippa.  Love you some kabbalah? Break out the mojo bags. (And ugh, for the love of God, share your secret kabbalah recipe with me, because the stuff’s like eggplant-only good if you cook it right-which I have thus far failed to do). You’ll always have a dominant tradition or two that really click for you. But majoring in accounting and minoring in English lit doesn’t mean you should go through life not being able to make risotto or tell a hawk from an osprey in flight. By all means, go deep. But don’t forget to go wide. Be a Renaissance human, not a specialist on the brink of obsolescence. Carry a Swiss army knife, not a hammer. Scratch that; pack both.  And when you find an error in your map, pencil in a correction for the next traveler. 


They Don’t Take Hell Notes in Kentucky

I took my daughter out for pad Thai ONCE…and created an addict. Living an hour from a Thai joint is the mother of culinary invention, so I taught myself to make pad thai and quickly became a regular at the one ethnic food market in this smallish midwestern city.  You know you’re in a square state when you can buy sushi nori, Norwegian cod, baumkuchen, and halvah at the Vietnamese grocery because the chain grocery stores don’t carry anything more exotic than taco shells. The immigrant community apparently rallied together under the gold-starred red flag to fill the void. I paid for my coconut milk and pad thai noodles and turned to walk out the door. A shelf of brightly colored ceramic chopsticks caught my eye and I stopped to look. Should I buy some for our lunar new year dinner? My kids can’t really work chopsticks yet…I’ll stick with the plastic ones we already own for now. My eyes drifted upward to the next shelf.  Gilded rice paper napkins? I took down a package. Ah, it’s joss paper, meant to be burned as an offering to the ancestors.

joss paper

I briefly wondered if my ancestors would like joss paper.  Their favorite offerings are fresh flowers, water, candles, coffee, bread and cookies. I pictured my Kentuckian great-grandmother looking up from her knitting to inspect a piece of joss paper. Nope, I wasn’t feeling it.

From the corner of my eye I saw the cashier watching me. I carefully put the package back, next to a stack of packets that I now saw were printed Hell Notes. I waved goodbye and she smiled, probably relieved that she didn’t have to explain joss paper to a very Lutheran-looking midwesterner.

Further down the list of errands that day was a stop at the city library to pick up a book for my daughter.  Puzzled that the book was missing from the stacks even though I had looked it up in the online catalog the night before, I checked again and found my error. The book was in a different branch of the library, several miles away at the other end of the city.  I wasn’t going to make the extra trip to that part of town, so I browsed the YA section to find a consolation prize for my unhappy kid and to waste the 20 minutes I now had to kill.

I found myself in the sci fi section, and one white-spined book stood out from the sea of black covers. The back cover of The Secret History of Fantasy introduced it as an anthology of short stories.  Perfect. I could knock off one or two stories while I waited.  I sat down on one of those IKEA couches whose backs are way too short-probably to prevent library patrons from getting too comfortable and nodding off-and flipped to the first story.

The main character is the ghost of a woman who died in Kentucky in 1927.

Separated from my great-grandmother by a few years and a couple hundred miles.

She receives joss paper as an offering from her granddaughter.

Don’t look at me. I put it back on the shelf.

She doesn’t want the joss paper.

Point taken.


That was the time a trickster caught my eye with something shiny in a store of many languages. Then he sent me to the wrong library and used a book to deliver a message from my dead ancestor.   

Like he does.