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More on Ritual Praxis

 

So my recent Heathen Heretic article and its reception  (both of which you may find here: http://www.witchesandpagans.com/Pagan-Paths-Blogs/beltane-offerings-not-the-post-i-intended-to-write.html)  led me to a certain epiphany with regard to the way so many of us approach ritual. Let me begin by saying that I'm always surprised when people purposely, or so it often seems, miss the point of my articles. A colleague recently pointed out that much of my writing provokes people past their comfort zones and that too rather surprised me: that people would draw lines against experience and narrow their worlds down to such small, grey places. Oh well. we do and everything in our world encourages us to do this so I guess i shouldn't be surprised. Still, there is nothing in my practice that should be radical to someone engaged in deep devotion with their Gods. Nothing. 

So when my call for respect and piety as part of the ritual process raised such a din, I was rather surprised. Then I realized, that as with so much else, it all comes down to what one determines is the purpose of ritual. It's more than just determining to place the Gods at the center of the experience, though that is a huge part of it, rather it's understanding why we are doing any of this ritual "stuff" in the first place. What's the point? Whom does it benefit? Obviously I believe it's if not crucial, at least desirable or I wouldn't be doing it. I think we forget that there are two sides of the equation in any ritual process: the human side and the Other (Gods, ancestors). The ritual itself is a conversation, ideally a dance between those two factions. It's a means of communication and experience. I suspect that's what makes rituals that are focused on the Gods so threatening to some: they put something greater than we above the sum total of our limited human experience. They connect us with that Other. 

In response to my initial article, one woman told me privately that I had to remember that not everyone has the level of devotion she and I exhibit, that the majority of attendees to any ritual were laity. I found that comment very enlightening. Of course, I also found the reality of ritual demographics completely irrelevant to the ritual process itself. I don't think ritual is there to entertain or amuse the people. I think ritual is something that enables us to be in right relationship and communication with the Holy. It's a means, a technology whereby people are able to do that. A well enacted ritual nourishes us as much as it hopefully pleases and nourishes the Gods. If we're clergy and the majority of people attending our rites are laity then we have an even deeper obligation to be good role models, to resist watering down our rites to cater to the inexperience and in many respects indolence of those attending. It's not about *us* and it shouldn't be stripped of its power  in order to accommodate us. Gods know our people need good role models most especially in the areas of devotion and liturgical practice! That is a huge part of the problem right there: by and large our communities lack good role models in the realm of ritual praxis; then, add that to the overwhelming majority of converts (in Heathenry at least) from Protestant denominations with their emphasis on gnosis through textual study rather than actual experience and ritual praxis, throw in a mix of people coming from new age practices which in my opinion are really little more than  shallow feel good pabulum, or thinly veiled monotheism and you've a recipe for….really boring rituals, rituals that forget the Other part of the devotional equation, rituals where the primacy goes to the people and their comfort, rituals that might be disrespectful and even impious.

As i said in my first article, there are ceremonies that attend to the needs of the people (weddings for instance, or house blessings, or coming of age ceremonies) but devotional rites are not that type of ceremony. For many other Heathens and Pagans I encounter, ritual is apparently only about tending to the needs of the people, with the Gods coming in (at least as seems to me) a far second. In some cases, I've come to suspect that the rituals are structured to keep the Gods as far away as possible, to dispense with sacred obligations in as unsecured and terse a means as possible, and to prevent actual experience and certainly to eschew ecstasy. For those of you reading this, if this is the only kind of ritual experience that you have ever known, I'm sorry. I feel sorry for you and I very much wish that your experiences had been different. 

I was talking about this with  friend of mine from school, a seminarian (and brilliant Latinist, I might add) and he quipped that with all the infighting centering around this issue and in response to my article, we all sounded like a bunch of Catholic vs. Protestant  liturgists in the debate on ritual and in many respects he's right. This is something that Christianity has wrestled with at least since the 1960s and probably beyond. In fact I'd take it right back to the Protestant Reformation and the iconoclasms that followed. The tension between traditional Deity centered ritual and feel good, accessible people centered ritual mirrors the tensions between traditional and modern modes of worship. I recommend reading this article here for a glimpse into what I'm talking about: http://www.patheos.com/blogs/afewgrownmen/2013/04/why-traditional-churches-should-stick-with-traditional-worship/.

What we're really dealing with is the commodification of spirituality and the moment we start looking at spiritual engagement in that light, it loses any measure of integrity or power. My Latinist friend put it succinctly: "And remember this: We are all a bunch of corporatist, capitalist, decadent, self-absorbed whores, aka consumers. We consume. One of the products we consume is religion."

I would like to think my friend is just being overly cynical but it does make me wonder. The above mentioned liturgical divide mirrors one that I see again and again cropping up in Heathenry: is what we do for the people or for the Gods? Y'all know where i stand on that one. Anything less than a Deity centered practice for me is spiritual masturbation. I was very, very lucky to have extremely good ritual training, both within the Fellowship of Isis and academically with ritual studies classes. Add on a seminary background, and twenty years running rituals and to my shock, I find i'm comfortable letting that process flow. (There was a time, when I was just starting out, where leading a ritual scared me!). I know that my job when I lead a ritual is to prepare properly, to hold the space, to guide people into a space and a head and heart place where they have the potential to engage with the Powers, and when that is over, guide them back to Midgard space again. My job is to hold the doorway open through which the human part and the Other part may have a conversation. My job is to ensure that the energy flows and focus stays on the Gods. 

Now a couple of those commenting on my last article said that Heathens are devotionally aware, they just show it differently than I. If that is true than I think that maybe we're working off two very different ideas of what it means to be devotionally aware. I have found that once you've been in a ritual grounded in absolute respect and piety, where everyone's absolute focus to the best of their abilities is on joyously honoring the Gods, you know the difference and you know what you're missing. You know when devotion is present and when it's not. Piety and respect should not be be classed as 'mysticism." There's nothing 'mystical' about it, save that it's all too often as rare as a god damned unicorn in our communities. Devotion isn't mysticism either. These things might take you into mystic straits as it were, but they are not in and of themselves "mysticism." Nor should Heathen rites be the polytheistic equivalent of Protestant Sunday mass where you go, give up a brief amount of time where someone else does all the work, and then hurry off to potluck and coffee hour feeling good about yourselves. We can do better than that, for ourselves and for our Gods. 

This isn't a game. The Gods are real and there are right and wrong ways to go about honoring Them. The right way isn't about any specific technique or tool, or garb or ideology, it's about respect, pure and simple. The Gods are capable of telling us what They want. They do it all the time. Proper ritual is a container within which we are able to safely --as much as anything sacred can be safe, which is often not so much--engage. This reality clashes up against western hubris, which for generations and generations has taught us that we're the apex predators of the world, we're the center of the universe, the dominant intelligence, the reason d'être that the sun shines. There's very little in our culture that encourages us to go beyond ourselves. We fight baggage we're often not even aware we're carrying but it's a fight in which the Gods and ancestors can help. The alternative is a ritual praxis and a religion that is all about reinforcing people's narrow comfort zones, reinforcing their arrogance, their hubris, allowing them to mill about playing at being sacred --with good hearts, mind you, I don't fault that but play is still play--and excluding direct engagement with the Gods. The alternative is a religion that has very little to do with the sacred. Those of us involved in restoring tradition and building lineage need to ask ourselves if that's the road down which we wish to walk. For me and mine the answer is a most definite no. 

 

 

(the picture here is a photo taken two hours after our Beltane ritual to Freya, of the altar with all the offerings laid out). 

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 Galina Krasskova is a Heathen priest, author, and Northern Tradition shaman. She holds a Masters degree in Religious Studies and is currently working toward a PhD in Classics. Galina is the author of several books including “Essays in Modern Heathenry” and “Skalded Apples: A Devotional Anthology to Idunna and Bragi.”
(Photo by Hudson Valley photographer Mary Ann Glass.)

Comments

  • Candi
    Candi Wednesday, 01 May 2013

    As a Roman-Centered Pagan, ritual is about the pact between the Gods and humanity, the agreement we share with one another to ensure that the world is fruitful and harmonious for all involved. The gods have their jobs and we have ours, and it is our job to let the Gods know what we need or want in order to survive. Ritual serves this purpose.

    When it comes to 'human-centered ritual' where a deity comes second- I think that those rituals definitely have a purpose in our lives and shouldn't be dismissed simply because the focus is different; on the contrary, these rituals can be hugely therapeutic and I have loads of my own spellbooks and magical practice to back that up. I think that what the human-centered rituals are asking for from the gods is for them to witness the process that the humans are going through; it is an invitation to watch and be present, much as the Gods do for us with Omens and Deja-Vu.

    As far as propitiation and right-relationship go, I've always believed that as Pagan individuals we have our own relationships to the Gods to maintain, and no one else can do it for us. Broad ecumenicism works for larger rituals, but there are pagans who attend these rituals out of respect for the process that the deity's disciples are committing to, and go their own way to worship a deity of their own, much like myself within Asphodel. I attend rites for Gods of other pantheons, but my participation level changes based on the closeness of the deity to my personal path. Are the other pagans doing this?

  • Anne Newkirk Niven
    Anne Newkirk Niven Wednesday, 01 May 2013

    Dear Galina,

    There's more than one way to cook a Thanksgiving turkey. The kind of purity, dedication, and devotion you are talking about is noble, to be commended, and about as rare as hen's teeth in contemporary culture of any kind.

    And I'm gonna stick my neck out and say, that's a *good* thing. Why?

    Because in order for a culture to be truly pious (which would inculcate such values in a much greater percentage of the population) it has to be a very orthodox, and orthopraxic society, one in which everyone agrees on who, how, why and what to worship. In short, a theocracy, with the rule of law to back up the strictures and edicts of piety, will do nicely. Though a homogenous tribal society with strong barriers to entry will probably do -- and you and I, Galina, would last about five minutes in a society like that.

    Can you say, "Taliban-led Afghanistan." Or how about Saudi Arabia now, or any culture, at any time, which has laws against impiety backed up with the force of the State. I don't think our religions get a pass from that, I can just as easily imagine a Wiccan theocracy or a Heathen one, as any of the Abrahamic monotheisms. (Though they did tend to perfect that establishment of religion thing pretty well.) Polytheism doesn't, IMHO, protect us from the human tendency to draw "Inner" and "Other" lines in the sand, and to shame, persecute, villify and even murder those on the "wrong" side of the line. "How to serve the gods properly" is a perfect criteria for such Othering.

    Not that you are doing ANY of this, Galina; you are pious, devoted, and also a rebel and a pathfinder. (It's a rare mix.) But I'll take a band of "what, doesn't anything go?" wannabees over a society of true believers (in Whoever) any day of the week. We live in a consumer society, yes, but it's also a *humanist* society, and though that "human-centric" worldview doesn't breed piety, it *does* do a pretty reasonable job of balancing the natural tendency to enshrine our own prejudices as divinely inspired. Your work is insanely valuable -- but it's not the only path for the community. For a lot of less-committed Heathens and Pagans, building community and positive emotions through a low-key ceremony is just the ticket to escape the grind of post-modern society, and that's a whole lot better than spending the night browsing (name your favorite media shibboleth here) or putting in extra hours workin' for the Man.

    Most respectfully yours,

    Anne

  • Galina Krasskova
    Galina Krasskova Wednesday, 01 May 2013

    i generally make it a point not to respond to comments here (though I read everything) but in this instance, I'm going to make an exception.

    Anne, I think you're looking at piety and devotion through very monotheistic lens. There is no reason that deep committed devotion has to lead to the prejudice and harm you describe. You did not see that in ancient polytheisms, i might add (you saw conquest, yes, but not religious genocide such as monotheism brought), it is a thing born of the fixation on orthodoxy that comes with monotheism.

    There's a wonderful quote by Rumi that I love: "there are hundreds of ways to kneel and kiss the ground," and I very much agree with that. Piety and devotion are things that bind a person to his or her Gods, in right relationship. I think there's room in polytheism for a multiplicity, a diversity of expression of those relationships. The only homogeneity that I'm calling for is that of attitude: respect and piety toward the Gods. NOT orthodoxy of enforced belief. I"ll leave that to the monotheists and those in our communities who haven't yet rid themselves of that influence.

    I do think very much that we would be far, far better off as a world if we were not human centered. I would like to see far less 'light ritual'...because really, it shouldn't be about us or our mental and emotional escapes (there are rituals that can serve that purpose but they're not the devotional rites of which I'm writing--I could see a space for blessing and healing rites of a sort, within certain contexts but we tend to forget with the new age influences on Pagan religions that ritual is not another form of psychotherapy and should not be). It's about something greater than we ourselves.

    If low key ceremony is just an excuse for Pagans and Heathens to get together and shoot the shit i don't think that serves a useful purpose. ti's too easy, for people in their laziness to come to replace serious ritual with that type of nonsense. i'm not denying that people need to invest a little more spirituality in their lives, or perhaps work out a better work-life balance, but that's something aside from paying proper respects to the Gods. If people are looking at ritual as their means of letting off steam then i'd suggest therapy, a social club, golfing...we really don't need to water down our practices any more than they already are. We've already got a community averse to engagement and feeling.

    the best way to escape the grind of post modern society is to do proper ritual, connect with the ancestors, honor our Gods and commit to going back out and changing that society.

  • Tim Schneider
    Tim Schneider Wednesday, 01 May 2013

    I think there is a balance to be struck, but that balance need not be done with devotional or celebratory rituals.

    When I was a Catholic church time was church time. It was not about 'us' as in humans, but praise to God. Perhaps I am wearing Catholic-colored glasses, but I consider this the correct view for modern Pagan rituals that are devotional or celebratory in nature.

    We ought not to be the focus as we are not celebrating 'us' but Them. If we are celebrating the Turning of the Wheel, it ought to be about the Turning of the Wheel, and personal work ought to be aside from that because that detracts from the core purpose of the ritual. If we are celebrating Odin, it should be about Odin.

    Human-centered rituals are good, useful, holy, powerful, and needed in their own right. They aren't, though, in my mind, the same as a ritual to celebrate a God, Goddess, Ancestor, or spirit. Unless you're doing straight-up magic on your own power without any external help, then you are calling on Them. The focus in the human-centered ritual, such as a healing, may involve a God, Goddess, Ancestors, and/or spirits besides, but these are Beings with whom we would not have a good relationship without the work I mention above. Devotional rituals are part and parcel of right relationship, piety, and balance in life. The human-centered rituals tend to be ones that are often performed because some aspect of our lives is out of whack and we need help to come back into it.

    @Ms. Niven: I do not think that piety need be as rare as hen's teeth. Indeed, it can be as common as our own if we simply brush up our smile and approach the Gods in the right mindset. I have done simple devotional rituals with nothing more than a prayer on my lips. It is simple, holy Work that anyone can engage in. I have done elaborate rituals to my Gods involving many offerings, ritual parts, etc. and they are as holy and unspoilt because the mindset is the same: respect for the Gods, the Ancestors, the spirits, the participants, and the proper mindset to engage Them/them all.

    Piety, even deep piety, needs not engender a Taliban-like behavior. Look no further than the Jains, many of whom, if not a good chunk of whom, are quite devoted and pious. Piety does not need to mean a locked down society, but a society willing to eat, live, breathe their religion. I'm not even looking for that level of devotion from modern Pagans; I am looking for basic respect for the Gods, Ancestors, and spirits, and I consider that well within each person's ability to provide regardless of personal theology.

  • Tim Schneider
    Tim Schneider Thursday, 02 May 2013

    Would I like to see deep piety in the Pagan communities? Yes, but I realize not everyone will or can deliver that.

  • Candi
    Candi Thursday, 02 May 2013

    I know I'm not going to change your mind, Galina, but I'm hoping you will see how you are presenting yourself: with a great deal of intolerance for other ways of being Pagan. I've also noticed that every single time someone disagrees with you, you tell them they have a monotheistic mindset. You dismiss them. You treat them as nothing. This says to me that your way of life is limited, your mind is limited, and your thoughts are limited. I do hope that one day you will understand that for every Pagan person, there is a new way to practice Paganism. Until then, enjoy your theocracy.

  • Tim Schneider
    Tim Schneider Thursday, 02 May 2013

    I don't think you read Galina's post in depth, nor her response to Anne.


    Anne, I think you're looking at piety and devotion through very monotheistic lens. There is no reason that deep committed devotion has to lead to the prejudice and harm you describe. You did not see that in ancient polytheisms, i might add (you saw conquest, yes, but not religious genocide such as monotheism brought), it is a thing born of the fixation on orthodoxy that comes with monotheism.

    There's a wonderful quote by Rumi that I love: "there are hundreds of ways to kneel and kiss the ground," [emphasis mine] and I very much agree with that. Piety and devotion are things that bind a person to his or her Gods, in right relationship. I think there's room in polytheism for a multiplicity, a diversity of expression of those relationships. The only homogeneity that I'm calling for is that of attitude: respect and piety toward the Gods. NOT orthodoxy of enforced belief.


    Reread it. She's not throwing the term at Anne without thought, here. As I mentioned above, devotion and piety =/= Taliban-type behavior.
    She's also not being intolerant, excepting in the idea that disrespect and impious behavior should be tolerated.

    She says above in her article:
    The right way isn't about any specific technique or tool, or garb or ideology, it's about respect, pure and simple.
    [emphasis mine].

    'Enjoy her theocracy?' She is not advocating in any way, shape, or form for uniform ritual, praxis, or orthodoxy except that it be respectful of the Gods. If that is any kind of Pagan theocracy then I will embrace it wholeheartedly.

  • Candi
    Candi Thursday, 02 May 2013

    I forgot to mention that there are rituals out there that don't involve the Gods. They involve personal transformation.

    That being said, when I see or hear the words "[blank] should be [x]," a red flag goes up. I respectfully wish to relate that when someone uses that phrasing, they impart their own morality or decision making process on someone or something, using their own morality to judge others. Perhaps it's my experience in anthropology that leads me to think that Galina's point is maybe not a theocracy (I am indeed listening, Tim), but religio-centric or theo-centric nonetheless, and her words make me feel as though I am wrong for the way I worship, since my relationship with the Gods is not always respectful in the way Galina describes.

    The Gods are not always respectful of me and I am not always respectful of them; the Gods can probably handle human inconsistencies by now, and we as humans can handle the inconsistencies of the Gods. The Romans, and I myself, sit down to table and eat and drink with their Gods, sharing an equal footing. Is this respectful in a Heathen path? I do not know. I cannot say.

    I see a tendency in Galina's words to raise up the Gods as figures more powerful than ourselves. As a Roman Pagan, this is not the case for me. I can joke and laugh with my deities, converse, eat and drink, and share good times and bad.

    Galina also says above in her article:
    "Gods know our people need good role models most especially in the areas of devotion and liturgical practice! "

    Who is Galina to say this? Who would dare tell people that their devotion and ritual practice has no good role model? Especially when she uses a mass noun to refer to a group without personal knowledge of that group. It is a gossipy thing to say at best, and tantamount to the dismissal of the gnosis and spiritual journey that said 'people' may be on, at the least.

    Also, she says this:
    "...a mix of people coming from new age practices which in my opinion are really little more than shallow feel good pabulum, or thinly veiled monotheism..."

    This is quite a derogatory statement, in my view. It dismisses those 'new age practices.'

    I don't understand how words so patronizing could have acquired respect for Galina. I do understand how they've attracted attention, though.

    I take issue with writers who dismiss and deride others on any basis. It is not respectful or right. I want to call attention that it seems to me that Galina is advocating not for the Gods in this essay, but for her right to tell others what to do. I respectfully submit this, having read earlier that Galina will be reading. I hope that it can be a force for positive change and I apologize for any insult unintentionally given.

  • Tim Schneider
    Tim Schneider Friday, 03 May 2013

    "That being said, when I see or hear the words "[blank] should be [x]," a red flag goes up. I respectfully wish to relate that when someone uses that phrasing, they impart their own morality or decision making process on someone or something, using their own morality to judge others. Perhaps it's my experience in anthropology that leads me to think that Galina's point is maybe not a theocracy (I am indeed listening, Tim), but religio-centric or theo-centric nonetheless, and her words make me feel as though I am wrong for the way I worship, since my relationship with the Gods is not always respectful in the way Galina describes. "

    Why does this imparting their own morality or decision making process as a mean to judge others need be a negative? If experience and/or training, enculturation, etc. tells me that, for instance, it is rude to give my Gods the middle finger during a ritual, and someone goes ahead and does it in front of me, why am I not allowed to judge?

    Put another way, why should I not use my morality to judge others?

    If our religions are not religio-centric or theo-centric what is the purpose of the religion?

    Sharing food, joking, disagreeing, and a great many things can all be done with our Gods, but we can do so respectfully even in anger. I suppose, not being a Roman-oriented fellow myself, that I do not understand fully where you come from. For me, the Gods and I are not on equal footing. For instance, I cannot force a God to do this or that, despite whatever magic I may throw at Hir, whereas there is quite a bit the Gods may do in course with what They desire so I follow a given course of action.

    I am not the caretaker of the Dead; that is Hel. I cannot do this job, and given I am most likely to come to Her realm, Helheim, does this not put Her above me in that I will one day enter Her arms and care? Does it not mean that I must trust that She will treat me well?

    "Gods know our people need good role models most especially in the areas of devotion and liturgical practice! "
    "Who is Galina to say this? Who would dare tell people that their devotion and ritual practice has no good role model?"

    Here I think Galina is addressing what she and others, myself included, see is a deeply needed thing. People do not even really understand their Gods in many cases, i.e. the myths or how to begin a right relationship. She, and those of other paths, would not get so many emails asking "How do I start to worship so-and-so?" if that were not the case. People need direction and lack it.

    If you have people coming to you asking for direction and help, the understanding is, is that they have yet to find any, and that includes good models for worship, devotion, and ritual.

    For me, the 'our people' isn't referring to all people; keep in mind the title of the blog is Heathen Heretic. Here she is, from my reading, making the case that the Heathen community needs this direction. If I am wrong and she is saying this for all Pagans, well, that is her opinion. Given my experiences I would say this statement still has strong legs.

    "...a mix of people coming from new age practices which in my opinion are really little more than shallow feel good pabulum, or thinly veiled monotheism..."

    This I cannot actually disagree with because I have seen the poisonous effects of feel-good religion with no substance, and how it eats at people when it fails them. Have you watched The Secret? Its 'Secret' is basically a cobbled together mess praising 'the law of return'. A news article a few years ago quoted a few of the presenters of The Secret as saying that if a person was in a bad situation they had brought it on themselves with the Law of Return. I found this victim-blaming in the extreme, and disgusting. It is one of many New Age paths, but a good deal of them follow the idea that the Universe will respond to them like some genie, and I find this hubris in the extreme.

    "I take issue with writers who dismiss and deride others on any basis."
    On any basis? Even when they promote what I wrote about above?

    Having a basis means having a set of protocols or guides on how one judges right from wrong, good from ill. If you cannot dismiss a writer on any basis, do you accept all comers? How is discernment achieved?

  • Candi
    Candi Friday, 03 May 2013

    "Why does this imparting their own morality or decision making process as a mean to judge others need be a negative? If experience and/or training, enculturation, etc. tells me that, for instance, it is rude to give my Gods the middle finger during a ritual, and someone goes ahead and does it in front of me, why am I not allowed to judge? "


    Because the enculturated response is to quietly tell someone that that is inappropriate, and to ask them to stop, not to ridicule them without giving them a reason.

    "This I cannot actually disagree with because I have seen the poisonous effects of feel-good religion with no substance, and how it eats at people when it fails them. Have you watched The Secret? Its 'Secret' is basically a cobbled together mess praising 'the law of return'. A news article a few years ago quoted a few of the presenters of The Secret as saying that if a person was in a bad situation they had brought it on themselves with the Law of Return. I found this victim-blaming in the extreme, and disgusting. It is one of many New Age paths, but a good deal of them follow the idea that the Universe will respond to them like some[quote] genie, and I find this hubris in the extreme."


    Tim, here you do what Galina did not-provide an example. Galina made a broad generalization, which is logically false. You gave an example, and as such, I understand what you're talking about. Even still, when is it ever okay to impose (i.e. force) your morality on someone else? The only times I see that being necessary are times of harm to others-theft, murder, kidnapping, etc.

    I've never read or seen "The Secret." It did not interest me. I know about the Law of Return, and I'm fine with it. I'm not fine with taking away someone's right to choose what they want. There are folks in this world who have been victimized and hurt badly by crime, rape, bombs, and other bad things. Should their means of attracting positive energy be removed from them by more cynical folks? My answer is 'No.' I don't like the idea of "The Secret," I do think that it's not deep enough for me.

    Please notice how I do NOT insist that it is wrong for everybody. I do not say that it is 'pabulum.' I have no rights where someone else's beliefs are concerned, and neither does anyone else. I am angry at the behavior shown by Galina, there are choices available that do NOT involve superimposition of one's own ego onto others, and I really wish she could recognize that.

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