In April of 2001, my first girlfriend and I drove through Utah on our way to Salem, Oregon. We plotted our trip on a paper map, something that seems, in retrospect, like an impossibility. Halfway along a mountain highway we needed fuel, and our only option was a long detour from our route. At the gas station we inspected our map and found a way to re-connect with the main highway without backtracking, via a road that appeared on the map as a thin pink line.
And the road did take us where we wanted to go - by winding up and up and up the mountain, above the snow line. The sun shone painfully bright on the snow-swathed mountainside as the wind blew ice crystals over the road and shook the car. The narrow road had no shoulder and in most places, no guard rail to keep us safe as we crept around tight curves. We saw no other humans: only occasional conifers and even higher peaks looming over the road.
I felt the attention of that place on our little red car, and those who watched weren’t concerned for our safety. It seemed to my anxious mind like they were waiting to see if we would step out of line and need to be dealt with, perhaps just flicked off their shoulder like a fly. There was no animosity, but there was certainly no affection. The mountain didn’t love us simply because we were humans. A lifetime of living with a mythology that placed humanity at the center of the universe was, for me, utterly shattered in the glare of the mountain’s indifference.
I had two takeaways from that day.
Never take the pink roads.
Awe is equal parts fear and amazement. The fear usually comes during. The amazement usually comes after.
Many Aprils later, I walked a path along the Salmon River in the rain. The river was high that spring, crashing through its channel with disaster-movie force. Though I was safe enough on the trail, I was keenly aware of the power of the river, and how helpless I would be if I fell into its grasp. Once again there was no animosity in this feral place, but there was no welcome either.
I sat on a big rock by the water and thought about living in a time without bridges and highways, about being a small human in a big world without the kinds of technology we now use to distance ourself from our vulnerability to natural forces. At the same time, the wind and rain and even the terrifying power of the river had such a cleansing affect on me, sweeping away emotional cobwebs and tangled thoughts. It’s hard to describe the coexistence of fear and adoration inside my body in that moment.
Back in my dry cabin with a hot cup of tea, I wondered if my feelings in the presence of the river were the same kinds of feelings that led my ancestors to make offerings to the land and the Gods. Certainly we often hear ancient religious practices described as if they were rooted purely in fear - sacrifices to the Gods in hopes of being spared from their destruction, like protection money paid to some ancient unseen mobster. Or sacrifices to the soil begging to be fed, begging to be spared from natural disasters.
I obviously don’t know what was in the hearts and minds of our long-ago ancestors: maybe the academics are right, and it was all fear and propitiation for them. But I do know my own experiences with the Gods who, for whatever reason, have decided to be in relationship with me. And yes, there are moments in Their presence that feel very much like that drive over the mountain or that walk by the surging river, full of awe and a sense of myself as smaller than small. Except those moments are markedly different in one way, which is that, in spite of my smallness, timidity, and frailty, somehow They love me.
And it feels a little cheesy and maybe even a bit presumptuous to say the Gods love us. Like saying the mountain or the river love us. It’s hard to imagine why They would love us, but I also can’t deny my experiences, and the parallel experiences of trusted friends.
And look, I don’t want to be that person on the street corner handing out tracts about the love of the Gods. I’m not writing this post to convince or convert. It’s just that we contemporary polytheists spend a lot of time discussing how best to worship Them, how to learn about Them, how to give the right offerings and say the right prayers and be good devotees. We wonder what They might want from us and how we can work for Them. And those are good things to talk about. It’s good to think in terms of reciprocity, what we can give to Them instead of only what we want from Them.
But recently I took a few days away for reflection and divination. One question that was heavy on my mind was what I could possibly have to offer Herself, what She could possibly get from a relationship with me. And the answers I got during prayer and divination weren’t about jobs I need to do so much as about being myself with Her. About the sharing of love in the gifting cycle, and turning the enthusiasm and emotional intensity of myself toward the Gods as much as toward other humans or projects or preoccupations. About trusting that a loving relationship could be enough.
More might be required of us sometimes. Maybe They have tasks for us. But also, maybe we’d have an easier time if we remember the love comes first. Maybe it’s what matters most. Maybe it’s how we express our love for Them, and accept Their love for us, that deserves the majority of our energy and attention, and if we can look to Them as beloved and loving, we can’t really get it wrong.
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