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This article by Phyllis Maguire

was prepared for the March 6, 2002 edition of

U.S. 1 Newspaper. All rights reserved.

A Conversation with Margot Adler

Her resume is an eclectic one: National correspondent.

Political radical. Serious student of the U.S. Constitution. Pagan

priestess.

But ever since Margot Adler grew up as the daughter of Marxist parents

during the McCarthy era, her life has been defined by diversity.

Adler,

who is National Public Radio’s New York bureau chief and host of NPR’s

"Justice Talking," appears at Barnes & Noble in MarketFair

as featured speaker for women’s history month, on Friday, March 8,

at 8 p.m.

She has been participating in and commenting on that history for

several

decades. Jailed briefly for her 1964 activities with the Free Speech

Movement at University of California, Berkeley, Adler spent summers

registering black voters in Mississippi and cutting sugar cane in

Cuba as a member of the Venceremos Brigade.

She joined NPR in 1979 as a general assignment reporter, and for the

past three years has moderated "Justice Talking," a weekly

series of debates on sweeping legal controversies being decided in

the nation’s courts.

She has also been actively engaged in what she calls "earth-based

religions" — the growing American paganist movement that she

chronicled in her encyclopedic book, "Drawing Down the Moon,"

first published in 1979 and revised in 1986. She treated her

childhood,

as well as her early political and spiritual experiences, in her 1997

memoir "Heretic’s Heart: A Journey Through Spirit and

Revolution."

Women have swelled the ranks of the U.S. pagan community, Adler says

in an animated phone interview from her New York office. The trend

is part of a wave of women’s spiritual exploration that has been

building

for the past 30 years. Women’s spirituality will certainly be one

of the topics during her Princeton talk — particularly since she

has been in "a feminist religious rage" since September 11.

(She was originally scheduled to speak September 14, but that was

cancelled.)

"It started when I read the part of Mohammed Atta’s will about

not wanting women to touch his dead body," she says. "There

was almost like this smell in my nostrils, something very familiar,

and then I realized that it reminded me of the `Maleus

Maleficarum.’"

The reference is to a 1484 papal decree authorizing the use of the

Inquisition against heretics suspected of witchcraft. "There was

something very inquisitional about it."

The senseless loss of life in September revealed "a religious

problem," Adler continues. "Within the foundational texts

of the so-called `great’ religions, among all the beautiful poetry

and wisdom, there is an emphasis on martyrdom and the afterlife that

gives justification to the suicide bomber."

By contrast, she points out that earth-based pagan traditions offer

a very different perspective. "They say that deity is not above

or below us or in some other dimension, but all around us here and

now," she says. "That’s always been a very powerful message,

but particularly so when you look at the logical extension of

believing

that `there is only one answer, and we’re going to give it to you,

even if we have to kill you for it.’"

The need to bring the divine into the present has been apparent, she

adds, in the shrines that have blossomed in New York, memorials that

have sprung up in front of apartment buildings or on chain link fences

festooned with Post-it notes of personal messages.

"To me, the shrines represent an incredible bursting forth of

popular religion, a need to connect to some type of spiritual reality

that overflowed the churches, synagogues, and mosques." she says.

"They have become a ritual way for us to meditate on the attacks

and larger issues."

Her own altar there in her office, she says, features along with

shells

and crystals a vial of well water from Ireland, an "I Love NY

More Than Ever" candle, and a Zena action figure.

Another extraordinary dimension in the wake of the

attacks:

the sense of community in New York, where Adler was raised and now

lives with her husband and 11-year-old son.

"New York never seemed a part of America because it was always

too out there, too dressed in black, too crazy and sexual," Adler

says. "But suddenly New York is part of America and loved by

America,

and in the months since the attack, I have felt a bond with this

country

that I never felt before."

That’s heady stuff for a woman who in her memoir wrote that, as a

16-year-old, much of the grief that united the country after John

Kennedy’s assassination passed her by. Her parents and their friends,

after all, had supported the Cuban revolution.

One of her grandmothers was an illiterate Russian, while one of her

grandfathers was Alfred Adler, the Viennese psychiatrist (part of

the Freud-Adler-Jung trio) who coined the terms "lifestyle"

and "inferiority complex." Both Adler’s parents turned their

backs on their Jewish roots, embraced socialist causes, and raised

her — Adler notes with laughter — as "a red diaper

baby."

She grew up knowing her parents’ beliefs were considered dangerous

in what in "Heretic’s Heart" she called "the spiritual

winter" of the 1950s. By high school, she’d demonstrated against

segregated lunch counters at Woolworth’s; fallen in love with the

Latin Masses she went to with Catholic friends; and drawn into her

robust fantasy life the figures of Greek goddesses she’d been

introduced

to at her alternative school in Greenwich Village.

Her mother, who was "Auntie Mame-like and very embarrassing"

to her as a child, urged her to quit grubbing for grades and to make

her life richer. She describes her as an exuberant woman, who although

she died when Adler was fairly young, remains a major force in her

life. Her years at U.C. Berkeley were punctuated not only by politics,

but an extraordinary correspondence — reprinted in "Heretic’s

Heart" — that Adler maintained with a GI in Vietnam.

(Following

a brief romance when he returned home, they have remained friends

ever since.)

Coming back east for a master’s in journalism from Columbia, Adler

began her radio career with a talk show at WBAI in New York. By then,

she’d refused to sign on for any of the political "isms" —

communism, socialism — that tugged at her during her protest days.

While still active in political and feminist causes, she immersed

herself in the rituals and traditions of neopaganism, a spiritual

path that puzzled many of her fellow radical reformers. Her religious

practices now draw on Celtic, Greek, Aruban, and Cuban traditions,

and in addition to her work for NPR, Adler leads several workshops

every year on spirituality, ritual, and song.

She measures the spreading appeal of Wicca and neopaganism by the

fact that sales of "Drawing Down the Moon" continue to grow.

By contrast, she says, "Heretic’s Heart" is a much harder

sell, a fact she chalks up to what she sees as a successful

conservative

campaign to re-define the ’60s as an age of profligacy, instead of

necessary social change.

"The ’60s have been vilified as a time that destroyed a

generation,"

she says. "As a result, it’s become a lot harder to get across

the view that it was a time when we really began to explore the

question

of what work and relationship mean, and how to create a society

different

from the one we had."

She is, she admits, "very worried" about the present political

climate, seeing in this administration "people who would like

to return to a 1950s type of political and social winter," she

says. Compounding the problem is the fact that the country now lacks

"a really smart and deep left, so we don’t really have very

insightful

people on either side."

But she takes heart from the fact that much of the public’s apparent

acceptance of the country’s current leaders is "artificial,"

based more on a sense of heightened alert than shared political

beliefs.

She also finds it encouraging that the Internet connects us to a

larger

world.

"It is extremely easy for anybody who is reasonably educated,"

she says, "to find out in one minute that all of Europe thinks

we are completely off the wall."

She does not find it paradoxical that someone with a lifetime of

political

activism and diverse spiritual influences now follows the polemical

twists and turns of the rule of law. "What I find fascinating

about `Justice Talking’ is that I often start the program completely

disagreeing with one of the guests — but by the end, I’m no longer

sure what I think about the topic." In fact, her radio work, her

political activity, and her spiritual explorations can all achieve

what she sees as a key objective.

"It’s important," Adler says, "to turn the world upside

down, so people can see it in a new light."

An Evening with Margot Adler, Barnes & Noble,

MarketFair,

609-897-9250. The writer, New York bureau chief for National Public

Radio, and host of NPR’s "Justice Talking." Free. Friday,

March 8, 8 p.m.


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