Samhain – Sacred Grief

Grief is work. If you don’t know that, then your experience of grieving has been very different from mine. Grief is hard work, as hard as lifting a thousand pounds of emptiness, over and over again, with every breath, every moment of every day.

Most of us are familiar with the idea that grieving is a process; you may even have heard of the famous five stages of grief that Kubler-Ross outlined so brilliantly. But many popularizations reduce this to a simple linear structure, as if we can simply chart our movement through the stages and then know that we are finished with each one. That is a laughably silly – or perhaps lamentably silly – oversimplification of one of the deepest things human beings experience.

Yes, grieving is a process, and it is one that we go through many times over. Even simple choices can trigger a bout of grieving for the alternatives now forever closed off. I would be hard-pressed to name a point in my life that was utterly free from the work of grieving, even if those griefs were often of the smaller, everyday variety.

I have been thinking about grief a lot because it has been a big part of my own work this year. Beginning with the loss of my mother, so many transitions came up so quickly that it was almost overwhelming. I was doing fairly well with it all until we moved, and then I fell apart. Even though that last upheaval was for good reasons and with a good outcome, the separation from my familiar places and familiar faces was just one more thing to grieve, and I couldn’t take it.

So I have been acutely aware of the way that grief is hard work this year. At times it has been more than I could bear, and I had to struggle just to endure, to do the simple, horribly difficult work of breathing and eating and sleeping with the weight of loss all around me and within me. Yes, it gradually lessens over time, until it becomes merely as hard as physical labor, merely grueling and exhausting. Now, a year later, it is part of my everyday work, a fact of life, a part of my practice.

This led me to thinking about how we could make this a sacred kind of work instead of a bare necessity? As I said at Mabon, I don’t flee the world or my experiences of it. I am called as a Witch to dive deeper into them, to commit myself fully to this life and this work, as it evolves and changes, both the deep joy and the deep grief that are part of the human experience.

So how does this become part of our practice? One of my thoughts is that maybe we can try practicing grieving in a way similar to that of practicing gratitude. I’m not talking about putting on a false front of grief; if you’re not experiencing grief, then you can give thanks for that, and maybe you can just sit with those who are, being a witness for them. You don’t have to try to experience it yourself – it will come to you in its own time, and then you will know that grief is hard work. And if you are blessed, you will have others willing to witness it and maybe to do it with you.

For the past 30 days on Facebook I have been putting this into practice by basically inviting people to grieve with me, to engage in small moments of remembrance. Some of them have generated deep stories, and I’m sure many more moments of deep reflection have occurred without being shared, as was best for the person experiencing them. After this practice, I am more convinced than ever that this is valuable work because of the way it goes against the grain of the overculture, which doesn’t really know what to do with grief. Someone said to me recently that following a bereavement she grieved “far beyond what was socially acceptable.” That says to me that she needed that grieving and society simply didn’t know what to do with it.

As a result, I ask that we in Wicca and Paganism try to include grieving in our practice, as part of making better ways to work with grief, to make space for it, and to acknowledge the hard work that it is. We have special kinds of awareness to bring to this work, because instead of falling into the simplicity of viewing grief as a linear process, we bring the wisdom of our circles and cycles to bear, and we can make it part of our work at this time of year to grieve again our own losses, as much as we need to, and to grieve with those who are grieving fresh losses – making space, making time, and being willing to dedicate the energy necessary to doing the work of grieving.

Grief is hard work. Let’s do it together. Let’s make it part of our practice.

Mabon – Element of Water

Continuing the series I started a few years ago, I’d like to spend time this Mabon focusing on the Element of Water. As we continue to travel around the Wheel of the Year, we have come to the season of autumn and the western direction, both of which are associated with Water in my system of correspondences.

Water is represented in the Tarot by the suit of Cups, which is associated with emotions and relationships. Anything having to do with feelings, both internal and external, is in the domain of Water. These cards represent a multiplicity of emotions, from the joy of love to the nostalgia of childhood and also the ennui of depression and the ambivalence of setting out on a new path. In trying to represent such a wide range of emotional states, the Cups are both inviting and challenging cards to work with.

This makes them – and the whole metaphor of Water – a good place for reflection. Water itself is reflective, but not always perfectly so, and it is most reflective when it is still. But at the same time, water, like our emotional state, is seldom still, and that’s a good thing, because motion prevents stagnation with both water and emotions. Reflection is important, but it’s easy to get caught up in that reflection, like Narcissus, and stay caught there. The way to stay healthy is to balance the right amount of movement and stillness together.

At this time of the equinox, we like to think about balance, and it’s easy to get caught up in thinking of that balance as a single point, the perfect moment of equality, as if that were a stable thing. But it’s not; even if that moment of balance happens for a second, it’s because of the motion around it, through that moment, which makes the balancing possible. We see the same thing in yoga, where in even the stillest of balancing postures constant tiny movements are happening to keep the balance going in a dynamic fashion.

Water teaches us that every balance is a dynamic situation, and that we are always in motion, just as water is always moving under the pull of the moon. We are always changing, and that’s essential to us remaining healthy, just as moving water remains a healthy part of a larger system, while still water soon grows stagnant.

Thus our reflections too are constantly changing. Our own self-image has to shift and ripple to absorb the changes that are constantly moving us and our relationships. Similarly, all our relationships have a dynamic component; the relationship itself is a living thing, always changing, in small ways and big ones. This too is part of remaining healthy, because a relationship cut off from changes, isolated from adapting to the living situations of the participants, will soon react as any living thing does without water: it withers and dies.

Seen from another perspective, though, death is just another one of the changes that we encounter, and so it deserves our respect as part of the dynamic balance of life. In this sunset season of the year, we become aware that no matter how much love we pour into the world, the consequence of all things changing is that eventually all things will pass away. Even those things that seem “set in stone” are worn away by the movement of water over time.

This awareness that change is the only constant leads to different kinds of attitudes. Some people embrace that knowledge to such a degree that they become detached from the vicissitudes of everyday life, and they reckon this a great gift, so that pain and joy alike become distant and life as a whole becomes less turbulent. I do not follow that path. I prefer to remain immersed in the ups and downs of life’s white water. The knowledge that the only balance is dynamic helps me cope with both the peaks and the troughs; I savor the sweetness of the good times all the more because I know they will end, and I console myself during the down times with an awareness that they too are fleeting, though perhaps never as quickly as we would wish. Still, the knowledge of variation helps me ride the waves as they come, moving with the flow of life’s waters.

When we get out of balance – because we will, we all will, it will always happen – the knowledge that change is the only constant helps us adapt and move on, flowing with the movement around us to try to find a new dynamic balance, one that we can maintain for a while longer. Still, that sense that things are passing away, even if we know that something new is coming, is one of the most difficult feelings we deal with. We will talk about that more at Samhain.

So I leave you with this idea: water is an apt metaphor not only for our relationships but for so much of our changeable lives and how we have to learn to cope with them. Tears of joy and tears of sorrow have more in common than we like to think. Embrace the moment of equinox, my dears, and we will turn our faces to Samhain soon enough.

Finding the value of repetition

Right now my personal work makes it clear that I’m going to have to go back and work through some parts of my past and myself again. When faced with this, one of my first thoughts is that there must be something wrong with me to have to do this work over again, even if it’s a little deeper and a little different each time. I wish I could just do it once and have those “issues” taken care of, have them no longer be issues at all.

But that’s a silly thing to think. Take grounding and centering as an example; I was just recently teaching someone new to Wicca about grounding and centering, and could not encourage her enough to practice it repeatedly. Of course grounding and centering is something that’s never “done” or “finished.” I know we have to practice repeatedly.

In the same way, no one would expect to be finished with practicing yoga; heck, we don’t even expect that a very practiced yogini can instantly bend or twist into any given position without the proper preparatory work in a given session. The value is the practice, even when it seems repetitive and simplistic.

Why should I expect the “big” work to be any different?

I’m actually a fan of repetition in ritual across time; it builds familiarity and power in the words and actions, if you do it mindfully (which is just another example of why mindfulness is a root practice for any kind of spiritual work). There can be a wonderful sense of comfort in knowing that you’re doing something you’ve done before, perhaps that others have done before you, perhaps for years on end. In a relatively young religion like Wicca, that sense of comfort is hard to come by, so perhaps I prize it all the more when it does happen in ritual. I know that I have found similar comfort in familiar yoga routines and comfort in the same practices of grounding and centering as well.

So my full moon work this month is going to be looking at things that I want to think I can “fix” once and for all, and instead giving myself space and grace to value the repetition. I realize now that maybe some parts of my personal work will never be finished, or fixed, or whatever it is I wish they were. Maybe I should see them as part of my ongoing practice, not part of my past. I can savor the small differences each time I repeat them, knowing that my progress is a spiral, not an endless loop, but perhaps I can learn to savor the familiarity as well.

How is repetition or ongoing practice part of your work? How could it be a greater part of your work?

Review: Carson, Celebrate Wildness

Celebrate Wilderness Front Cover w Blurb6 copy

Carson, Jo. Celebrate Wildness: Magic, mirth, and love on the Feriferia path. Natural Motion Pictures: Fairfax, CA. 2015. 116 pages.

This work is not just a book; it is really a complicated work of art with interleavings of prose, poetry, liturgy, theaology (sic) and lots and lots of visual art by Fred Adams, the founder of Feriferia. Together it is designed to communicate something of the Feriferia consciousness of the world to the reader/viewer, and at that it succeeds wonderfully.

The name Feriferia means “celebrate wildness,” from the roots feri-, meaning wild as in feral, and feria, to celebrate. This ecotopian new religious movement founded by Fred Adams after a vision in the early 1950s that everything is united and alive, and the spirit of all is goddess. Out of this came his dedication to creating a new approach to life which revolted against the overculture of the 1950s by celebrating wildness. As Carson expresses it, “Our great work is to unify ecology, artistry, mythology, and liturgy to create a paradise on earth.” (43)

This book serves as an introductory gateway to Feriferia, which concentrates on the ineffable in wildness and cannot be fully expressed even by such a complicated piece of art as this book, although it does a good job of capturing the ecstatic spirit of the movement. Adams’ art constitutes a significant portion of the work, and for those interested in accessing the original spirit of Feriferia, there is nothing like going directly to the source. He drew goddesses in all sorts of contexts and imaginative settings, and these reproductions are as much an important part of the resources in this book as the text.

Part 1 is composed of descriptions of key pieces of art and the ideas they illustrate in the Feriferia path. These introduce the idea of goddess and god as partners, named Kore and Kouros (young woman and young man, in Greek), although Kore, also described as the Divine Daughter, is the central figure in Feriferia myth and practice.

Part 2 introduces the reader to a number of those practices, describing how to create a sacred space, described as a Faerie Ring Henge, whose attributes correspond to the directions and the Wheel of the Year, which is followed by a fuller explanation of the year myth and seasonal celebrations. Interestingly, Feriferia includes a  ninth holy day, named Repose, around the time of American Thanksgiving, between Samhain and Yule. It marks another stage in the goddess’ retreat into her winter seclusion. Also discussed are the phytala, the symbol of Feriferia, the importance of fruit trees, and a number of basic ritual practices, including a lovely ritual for planting and blessing a tree.

Part 3 is described as the “deep roots” of Feriferia, and goes into the mythological sources from which it draws inspiration. Especially important is the myth of Demeter and Persephone (also called Kore, the daughter). This myth played a central role in the Eleusinian mysteries, and like many new religious movements, Feriferia applies its own imaginations to what those mysteries might have been and how they might be translated into modern practice. There is also an emphasis on certain interpretations of Cretan culture, with some citations of archeological studies, although this is not by any means a reconstructionist movement.

Part 4 is entitled “Paradisal Magic – Letting it Blossom” and contains a composite of dreams about how Feriferia could be made manifest in the world, advanced topics including suggestions for exploring sensual sexuality as part of magical practice, a ritual for self-initiation into Feriferia, and Adams’ own “Hallows of Feriferia,” a manifesto of the movement’s intentions.

The material that comes directly from Adams sometimes reads a bit like a Dr Bronner’s soap label with its triumphant proclamations of ideas too grand to be expressed without inventing new compound hyphenated words – love-play-work is an especial touchstone – but this exuberance communicates the joyful sense of idealism that characterized this movement like others in the 1960s and 1970s.

I have some concerns about the use of mythology based partially on archaeological and other types of research. Carson writes that Feriferia’s “utopian visions of the future” are bolstered by knowing that Crete was an entirely peaceful matrifocal society for over a thousand years. (75) But what if new research proves otherwise? How will the foundations of the faith react to the kind of changes that are part of the nature of research-based knowledge?

In another place, the author states that only humans and the great apes menstruate, when this is in fact not the case. (83) Now, the fact that humans have hidden estrus (which is technically a different thing from menstruation) may very well have played an important role in the development of human bonding and social behavior, but the way it is stated is prone to misinterpretation that endangers the conclusions when scientific knowledge changes, as it inevitably will.

My biggest discomfort about the book is that something about the approach feels slightly off to me in a feminist sense. It’s very hard to put my finger on, but the whole attitude seems like it honors the goddess as the divine feminine other, perpetuating the idea that masculinity is normal and the feminine is other. The clearest example I can point to is that I am inclined to distrust a religious leader who claims to be trying to balance out “the excesses of patriarchy” but still refers to humankind as “mankind” repeatedly in his manifesto. (16, 104)

Overall, though, the movement is not restricted to Fred Adams’ personal beliefs and practices, and this work is the kind of introduction that a complicated subject like Feriferia deserves. I admire the idea of creating a poetic religion that restores soul to the earth and honors the divine feminine, and this work is certainly an extraordinary compilation of key materials from one of the groundbreaking movements in that area.

The author provided a copy of the work and asked me to write about it as part of her “blog tour” for the book. As always, I did my best not to let that influence my review.

How many major arcana to expect in a Tarot reading?

For the last topic in my series on mathematical investigations of Tarot, I want to discuss how many major arcana cards should be expected in a typical spread of ten cards. The answer to this is a little difficult to calculate, and it draws on the work we’ve done so far. We established that the number of distinct ten-card arrangements (spreads) without reversals is 78! / 68!, which is approximately 4.56 * 10 ^ 18.

In order to find out the probability of having, say, 4 major arcana cards in a ten-card spread, we can figure out the number of different arrangements of four majors and six minors are possible. That gives us the number of different spreads with exactly four major arcana cards in it. If we divide that number by the total number of ten-card spreads, we get the probability of having four major arcana out of ten.

To find out how many ten-card spreads have exactly four majors, imagine that we split the deck into two groups: majors and minors. First we draw four majors at random, then draw six minors at random. How many different ways can we do that? We’re going to use a concept called combinations to figure out. Combinations are like permutations, except in combinations order does not matter. Combinations are like a salad – all the ingredients are mixed up together. Permutations are like a sandwich – which thing is on top matters.

To figure out how many combinations of four major arcana cards are possible, say we draw four. There are 22 possibilities for the first card, 21 possibilities for the second, 20 for the third, and 19 for the fourth, so there are 22*21*20*19 = 22! / (22-4)! = 22! / 18!. But this way of counting would assume that the order of drawing matters, when in fact we haven’t arranged the cards into the final spread yet at all. So this number is counting it as different if we draw the Fool, the Star, the World, and the Hanged Man as opposed to the Hanged Man, the Star, the World, and the Fool. These are different permutations (different orderings) but the same combination. Each combination can occur in 4*3*2*1 different permutations, so each one is being counted 4! = 24 times. If we take the result above and divide by 4!, we’ll get the correct number of combinations of four major arcana cards: 22! / (4! * 18!)

For the combination of six minor arcana cards, we can do the same thing and get 56! / (6! * 50!)

So now we have a combination of four majors and six minors and we have to make a Tarot spread out of them. For any set of ten cards there are 10! (= 10*9*8*…*2*1) ways to arrange these into a ten-card spread because the positions of the cards matters.

Then we can multiply these results together to figure out how many Tarot spreads there are with four majors and six minors: (22! / (4! * 18!)) * 56! / (6! * 50!) * 10! = 8.62 * 10 ^ 17.

Now that number isn’t really useful to us. All it tells me off the top of my head is that the number of spreads with four majors is smaller than the total number of spreads (and if we had gotten the opposite result, we’d know something was wrong with our math!). How much smaller is it? Well, we can divide: the number of spreads with four majors divided by the total number of spreads is 0.1887.

That number is a probability! Specifically, it’s the probability that a randomly-dealt spread of ten cards has exactly four major arcana in it. If you remember that percentages are probabilities times 100, then that number tells you that about 18% of your ten-card Tarot spreads will have four major arcana cards.

I used the same process to calculate the probability of having zero, one, two, and so on majors in a ten-card spread. Here are my results:

  • For a spread with no major arcana cards the probability is 0.0282
  • 1 major has probability 0.1324
  • 2 majors has probability 0.2607
  • 3 majors has probability 0.2838
  • 4 majors has probability 0.1887
  • 5 majors has probability 0.07994
  • 6 majors has probability 0.0217
  • 7 majors has probability 0.0037
  • 8 majors has probability 0.00039
  • 9 majors has probability 0.00002
  • 10 majors has probability 5.138 * 10 ^ -7 (that’s a number starting with six zeroes after the decimal place)

Interestingly, you’re most likely to get three majors in a ten-card spread, and almost as likely to get just two majors. Anytime you see more than four majors it is going to be very unusual, and anything with more than half majors is extremely unusual.

The most surprising result to me was that you have less than a 3% chance of getting a spread that is all minors. What surprises you about these results?

Note these results are rounded. If you add them up you will get almost (but not quite) 1.000, which is what we should get (there’s 100% probability of one of these conditions occurring when we deal a ten-card spread).

Again, these results took some effort to calculate, so if you use them, please link back.

Review: Raven and Crone, Asheville NC

Raven and Crone

555 Merrimon Ave, Asheville NC 28804

1 828 424 7868,

Facebook: Asheville Raven and Crone

Hours: Mon-Sun 11am – 7pm

I simply loved this store. I was discussing what I enjoyed so much about it with local Witch Byron Ballard and she pointed out that it is really not a “New Age” store, it’s a Witch store. That’s very true, and it gets to the heart of what’s different about Raven and Crone. This store is truly rooted in its landbase and its local community for both the products it sells and the services it provides. All together this makes it unique and a real treasure.

An amazingly high proportion of Raven and Crone’s stock is made by the proprietors or by craftspeople and artists in the local community. They carry both basic essential oils and house-made oil blends for health and wellness, plus a huge range of magically empowered oils designed for use with specific intentions, or phases of the moon, or zodiac signs, or, or, or…more things than I can possibly remember right now. I was especially touched that when I mentioned I have a nut allergy the proprietor immediately offered to make a version of one of the magical oils using a non-nut carrier oil, and then did so on the spot!

I was also impressed with their empowered candles, tea blends, salves and perfumes, and especially a whole range of gris gris and deity necklaces from a Vodun-inspired approach. Similar to an amulet or spell pouch, gris gris are small bundles made up of stones, herbs, and other materials, blessed with oils, and infused with a specific magical intention, often including a dedication to a particular deity. The gris gris that I chose felt very powerful and beautiful.

Another thing that makes this a Witch’s store is that they carry the raw ingredients of just about all the finished products I mentioned above. They have herbs and stones, and an entire rainbow of candles, all at very reasonable prices. They even have seeds for a Witch’s garden!

They also carry high quality incense, a range of Tarot and divination materials, and a small but varied selection of books plus some used books. Throughout the store, whether in art or books, they highlight the works of local artisans, and carry a unique selection that is entirely unlike the standard ranges available from large chain bookstores or shops that only sell standardized merchandise.

The back room has complimentary tea, and if you are lucky, you might even be able to visit with the store’s cat. She’s a lovely long-haired black cat (of course) named Lovey, and she lives up to her name. Sitting in the back with a cup of tea, a book, and a cat made me feel right at home.

I was also impressed with the busy schedule of readers, workshops, and activities that their calendar displays. Every day of the month has something going on, including a psychic fair, workshops on a range of topics from Nordic traditions to feng shui, plus book signings and much more.

Raven and Crone is an example of the best of what independent shops can be. It has a range of resources and a stock of unique and useful craft items, and it serves as a community center. If you are ever in the area, I would highly recommend a visit.

*Please note this store is not associated with

Lunasa – Sacred Work

The name of this festival is often written as Lughnasadh, but from now on I’m going to use the modernized Irish spelling: Lunasa. This rendering gives a better impression of how to pronounce it and is easier to remember and write.

Lunasa represents the beginning of the harvest season. It is often described as the grain harvest, but local experiences will vary based on ecology, climate, and weather. Whatever the precise agricultural situation is, Lunasa marks the turning of the year towards autumn. We’re still in the heat, but we know the season will change, and it’s time to think about how to deal with that future and the coming winter.

Harvest festivals have a long history in a huge variety of cultures. Having enough food is a good thing to celebrate, and it’s downright fun. Having enough to get through the next season and be able to make both beer and bread is even better, and definitely deserves a party. But in this day and age few of us harvest any kind of food with our own hands, and although gardens are growing in popularity, only a tiny proportion of us harvest the kind of bounty that provides security through the cold months. I think one result is that we tend to focus on the mystical meanings of bread and life while ignoring the seemingly mundane but fundamentally necessary part of the harvest: work.

Harvesting historically has been hard, sustained physical labor which was utterly vital to the survival of not just the laborers themselves but also everyone they knew and maybe more. Yes, harvest festivals are a way to celebrate the results of that work, but the more I think about it, the more I think that those festivals were originally meant to honor the work itself as well. The amount of work accomplished – how much of the grain was brought in before the onset of the ever-uncertain autumn rains – made a discernable difference to everyone’s lives. Getting that work done, and done quickly and well, was vitally important. The more I think about it, I think festivals weren’t just honoring the person of John Barleycorn but the people who brought him in.

After all, work doesn’t exist without workers. In a harvest festival, the community comes together to celebrate; maybe they were celebrating each other as much as the goodness on the table. Since we do talk about the mysteries of life, death, and rebirth, including how they are seen in food, it’s easy to imagine – and to romanticize – harvesting as a kind of sacred work, especially because most of us don’t have to do it.

We need to face the facts, though: in the US, a tremendous amount of food is harvested by workers who have little to no legal protection and suffer despicable labor abuses as a result. Such a high proportion of them are undocumented immigrants that when some southern states implemented harsh anti-immigrant laws, farmers were unable to find enough workers and food literally rotted in the fields. Workers who do find jobs are subject to being paid a pittance for work performed in totally unsupervised conditions. Clearly, we are not treating this harvesting work as sacred.
If we want to honor a sacred understanding of Lunasa, it is imperative that we acknowledge this problem and begin to engage with it. I’m not going to begin to attempt to speak to the experiences of farm workers; they are an extremely diverse group of people with equally diverse experiences and opinions. But we can and should think about how to treat their work as sacred – and I mean a lot more than simply murmuring a prayer before eating.

In experiences closer to my own, I know that even without outright abuses, there are plenty of problems. Today’s complex economy creates the opportunity for abusing farm workers because their work is technically “unskilled,” while the diversified, stratified, post-industrial service economy tends to reserve more pay for things that take more skill or education, drawing all but the very least privileged away from physical labor. Even though it’s more lucrative, though, I venture that many of us would not instinctively describe the work of a department store sales associate or cellular billing data analyst as sacred.

Perhaps that’s why we like to romanticize the work of the harvest; it gives us a role, even if only a supporting one, in the myth of John Barleycorn. It lets us know where we belong in the sacred story at a time when we crave meaningful work done for its own sake. But even in the most basic subsistence farming, not everyone in a community goes out to reap and bind grain in the fields. A truly communal festival should include everyone.

All of this leads me to ask: what is work?

When I want to talk about sacred work, it’s not acceptable to define work purely by economics; it’s not just something we do that makes money. There is work that leaves us utterly numb but puts food on the table – and harvesting can fall into that category – and there is work that invigorates us, that aligns with our most important goals and does real good in the world, but pays no money at all. With millions of people searching for jobs that don’t exist, many more millions working at jobs that undervalue their efforts, we cannot rely on a dysfunctional economy rife with inequality to indicate what is or is not valuable work.

So what is it that we can honor as sacred which reflects the values of Wicca and Paganism being acted out in the world?

More than anything else, my understanding of Wicca means living in relationship. We are doing sacred work when we honor our relationships with our work, when we reaffirm and renew relationships with our work.

This includes even actions that aren’t done directly for another person. I was mulling over this topic while going about some of the domestic tasks of everyday life. Scooping the litterbox seems like the very definition of what is not sacred. But when I reflected on it, I found that my understanding of the task makes a difference. When I do chores because I “have to,” or because I feel guilty about not doing them, they seem utterly mundane, and they even feel like something that takes up time I wish I could use to do this mythical sacred work.

My mind kept returning to a line from the Charge of the Goddess that I focused on for Beltane:

All acts of love and pleasure are my rituals.

I can’t say that scooping the litterbox becomes an act of pleasure, but it can be an act of love: love for my cats, yes, but also love for my spouse and myself so that we can enjoy the pleasure of the cats’ companionship in a clean and pleasant environment.

If I can find a nugget – however small – of love and pleasure in a piece of drudgery, how much more can be found in the work of an artist whose relationships with his medium, with his muse, with the world in general, are manifested in a creative way? Although she may not seem to be relating to another person, she can be living in relationship and honoring those relationships as part of her sacred work.

This shifting of awareness or intent is not going to heal our fractured world of work with the wave of an imaginary magic wand. It’s not going to redeem the drudgery of a job done solely for economic reasons, and it certainly won’t repair the harm done by inequality and abuse. But it might point the way towards how we can change the world and ourselves, teaching us to honor workers and their work, in their myriad forms.

Paganism today is often thought of as an “alternative” form of spirituality, and this label has some truth to it. I hope that Paganism isn’t just an alternative but that it helps us create alternatives. For people whose practice is earth-centered but live in an urban environment, Paganism can help them recognize the coexistence of the “natural” and the human environements and also encourage them to move their lives in more sustainable directions. Perhaps there are alternatives to be found here as well.

Perhaps we can create an alternative vision of work that doesn’t deny the realities of post-industrial capitalism and consumerism in the “First World” today, but helps us create meaningful actions, responses, and relationships. We can examine our experiences to find and make more opportunities for meaningful, even sacred, work for ourselves. And we should certainly work to change our society to one where everyone has those opportunities: where no one is hungry, or homeless, or marginalized. Especially the people who do the sacred work of harvesting.

Finally, this alternative vision calls on us to do a particular kind of sacred work: sharing. This is, deep down, one of the fundamental ways to work in relationship. If we are looking for sacred work, then sharing is the act of grace that blesses what we have done by confirming its value for and with others. It makes the work sacred – and that is the real meaning of sacrifice.

Litha – Element of Fire

I’m continuing to republish a series of articles on the Wheel of the Year. This was originally written in 2012.

On Wednesday near 1pm as I darted from one air-conditioned venue to another, I took just a moment to acknowledge the sun standing at its zenith, dead south, pouring out heat of such intensity that even being outside for a few minutes was difficult. In the evening, I stood on the roof of my building and watched the sun set, appreciating the temperatures that were still hot but seemed tremendously cooler by comparison. The Element of Fire had made its presence known on the summer solstice.

This is the next solar festival, or quarter day, in the Wiccan calendar, and in keeping with my theme for this time around the Wheel of the Year, I want to explore the Element of Fire, its connections with the summer solstice, or Litha, as it is called in Wicca, and the symbolic representations of fire used in Wiccan ritual and in Tarot. [1]

On the whole, the correspondence between summer and Fire is a fairly straightforward metaphorical connection: summer is usually when we experience the hottest part of the year, and one of fire’s most obvious characteristics is its intense heat production.[2] Fire also provides light, and this is the climax of the “light” part of the year. The solstice is the peak of the Sun’s energy, the longest days and shortest nights. Concentrating on Fire at this point on the Wheel can help us understand all the changes that have taken place since the year started and begin to prepare ourselves for reaping the results as we move into the waning light and the main harvest season of the year.

These qualities of change and transformation, where Fire represents both destruction and potential renewal, are why the tool I use to represent the Element of Fire is a knife. This is not the attribution that most Wiccans use, although it is not uncommon, either. To understand why most Wiccans associate blades with Air, we have to look at Tarot.

I mentioned back in the Ostara piece on the Element of Air that most Tarot decks based on the Rider-Waite-Smith prototype associate the suit of Swords with the Element of Air, and the suit of Wands with the Element of Fire, but there is evidence that this was a “blind,” or deliberate inaccuracy, inserted in the Tarot decks intended for public consumption by the creators in order to honor those creators’ vows of secrecy to the Golden Dawn. Whether or not it was a blind, the original RWS deck became influential in English-speaking countries, so most Tarot decks continue to use those associations, although a minority use the reversed Swords – Fire and Wands – Air associations.

I don’t follow the Golden Dawn, so for me this is mostly a matter of why most Tarot symbolism differs from what I use in my own rituals. I see wands, or their larger versions, staves or rods, as a way of directing intention that has a lot to do with intellectual choice and reason. The wand’s larger cousin, a staff or rod, can be used to symbolize authority based on knowledge and experience, both parts of the intellectual domain of Air. Personally, my favorite version of a wand is a pen, and since Air is associated with language, that supports my association of wands with Air. I enjoy using fountain pens, whose very design reminds me that historically quill pens were made from feathers, certainly a symbol of Air, and this cements the association.

On the other hand, to me any blade used in ritual – whether a sword or a knife – symbolizes and embodies separating, changing, and transforming in ways that are the essence of Fire. Along the same lines, it is impossible to make metal blades without fire. Not just warmth or heat but the real blazing inferno of a forge is required to render rocks into sharp steel. The product itself is the most dangerous of the Witch’s tools: hurting oneself with a pen is generally unlikely, but simple carelessness with a small blade can easily cause serious injury.[3] Similarly, fire is inherently dangerous: when in balance or being managed, it is useful and even life-giving, but without serious supervision, it will wreak a frighteningly self-perpetuating kind of destruction. Windstorms, floods, and landslides are all dangerous, but they typically represent an unusual behavior of the Element and will exhaust themselves eventually: the landslide has only so much material to move, as the water floods higher areas it loses energy, and whirlwinds are slowed by the obstacles they encounter. On the other hand, the more fire consumes, the more energy it has and the more it spreads itself, growing rather than diminishing.

But when it exhausts itself, the transient heat and light disappear along with the flames. In this way it’s also the most ephemeral of the Elements, another example of its tendency to go to extremes. All of this can make Fire both an attractive Element and one that is hard to relate to. While we depend on it as a tool, we don’t want to experience it ourselves. The kind of transformation that Fire as an Element represents is often frightening and something we do not want to undergo: dramatic transformations are not easy, even when they are less drastic or sudden than that of fuel consumed in a conflagration.

But Fire reminds us that we have to accept these situations as part of life. In every season, life exists in a constant state of rebirth. While some transformations are harder or more sudden than others, nothing is perfectly static. Connecting with and celebrating Fire can help us understand that. In particular, at this turning point of the year it can help us prepare for the transition to autumn and harvest and exemplify the tools to cope with that season and its transformations.

Summer is what connects the seed of life created through interaction to the coming harvest, and the heat and light of summer help bring that to fruition. When those developments are ready, we have to move into reaping, in the way that harvesting transforms what was a growing plant into the very bread of life. This process requires the Element of Fire at each and every step, in both the blade that cuts the stalks and the warmth that helps a loaf rise. The scythe’s blade and the hearthfire are interconnected manifestations of the Element of Fire, and the duality of their symbolisms is a good representation of the Element which goes to extremes but also unifies them.

In this season, as we see the sun at its pinnacle, we experience transformation whether we want it or not. Perhaps the Element of Fire can help us learn to value the transient and the living, to cope with the changes inherent in life, and to gather the results of our earlier work as we go forward. How are you in transition – either slow or speedy – at this solstice?

[1] The solar holidays are the equinoxes and solstices, called the quarter days. The previous one was Ostara. These alternate with the cross-quarter days which are derived from Celtic fire festivals; the last Sabbat was the cross-quarter day of Beltane. In the Southern Hemisphere, it is currently the time of the winter solstice, Yule, which corresponds with the Element of Earth. I’ll contrast these pairings and discuss how they interact in an upcoming piece.↩

[2] [I]t’s also worth pointing out the American tradition of having cook-outs centering on food cooked over (large, often charcoal) open flames. There’s also a broader tradition of serving cool or cold foods as a counter to the season’s climate. The juxtaposition of these points to another feature of the Element of Fire: the tendency to go to extremes, including opposing extremes simultaneously.↩

[3] These are not the only traditional Witch’s tools; more will be discussed with the other Elements, and exactly what is “traditional” depends on which tradition one ascribes to as well.↩

Just published: The Queen of the Sky, Bast Anthology

Bibliotheca Alexandrina has just published The Queen of the Sky Who Rules Over All the Gods, an anthology in honor of Bast. One of my rituals is included. You can order it at CreateSpace. Enjoy!

Practicing through depression

I’m going through an episode of major depression. This is not unexpected given how much has been going on for me lately. It seems odd to me that it’s happening when things are finally settling down, but maybe that’s to be expected too. I’m seeking care in a lot of different ways. One of those is talking about it. Another is continuing my daily practice. But my daily practice can be extremely difficult for me right now, and I was wondering if others have gone through something similar.

The problem is that while it’s very difficult to do my daily practice(s) right now, this is the time when I need it most. This is the time when I know it’s good for me, and yet I can barely care enough to sit down and do even the simplest work.

Depression is very sneaky and difficult to deal with because it is so self-reinforcing. Take social contact: it’s generally good to be with friends and loved ones, but depression not only makes me want to be alone, my depression tells me that no one cares how I’m feeling, or worse, that by trying to discuss my depression with others I’m imposing on them or hurting them. Intellectually, I can know that statement isn’t true, but it doesn’t change the force of the feeling, and that feeling is very difficult to overcome.

Similarly, depression is self-reinforcing by sabotaging things like my daily practice. I know, in my head, that doing my daily practice is good for me and may actually help me be less depressed. But in my feelings, it’s not only hard to do my practice, it’s not rewarding once I’ve accomplished it. There’s no “think of how good it’ll feel when you’re done” as motivation because it doesn’t feel good when I’m done. Sometimes it feels relieving to cross one thing off my to do list, but only in the sense of not having it hanging over me any longer; sometimes it just doesn’t feel like anything.

At times like this, it feels like I’m faking my practice, or doing it in an empty fashion. (When I’m depressed, empty is at least better than hurting.) That plus difficulty concentrating makes it pretty hard to do even the simplest devotions or meditations. Yet I want to keep doing them, if only so that I know I’m not making things worse or letting things get worse by letting that part of my life slip away.

Have others gone through something similar with spiritual practice, especially with depression? How do/did you deal with it?