My plant as an altar

Hecate has written passionately piece about how her garden can be an intensely demanding lover, especially right now, when it never stops needing her attention, and the relationship, I can only imagine, is sweaty and exhausting, and I hope satisfying. I have only a few potted plants on my balcony, so I can’t describe my relationship with my plants in that way, but it made me wonder whether I can think of one of my plants as an altar.

Some time ago, my mother sent me a potted plant as part of a gift. It’s a pretty little succulent whose glossy green leaves have a thin line of contrasting reddish-purple color along their scalloped edges. When I am good at taking care of it, it rewards me with clusters of little red four-petaled flowers. I am not always good at taking care of it, but it’s teaching me, albeit slowly. Plants are often slow teachers, which is good for me when I’m being a slow learner.

One day as I was taking care of it, I found that a sizeable stalk had gotten accidentally snapped off – possibly by the cats, possibly by me pushing it up against the window carelessly. I felt bad about this, and as I hesitated to throw the broken part away, a tiny idea emerged: Couldn’t some plants propagate like this? Actually, come to think of it, I knew that jade plants, which are also succulents, could grow from cuttings, so…what if?

Not quite sure of myself, I got a water glass, ran water in it, and plunked the little stalk down it it next to the big plant, and gave it my best wishes. Much to my amazement, it worked. After just a few days, I could see tendrils of thin, white roots emerging. Over the next several days, I added just a few crystals of Miracle-Gro to the water, figuring that it needed some nutrients. When it put out new leaves, I knew it wasn’t just my imagination; this thing was actually growing!

I had to guess at the right time and sufficient root structure to actually plant it in soil and a pot of its own, but the little sprout is now growing luxuriantly. It hasn’t bloomed yet, but I hope that it will soon. Since it’s still relatively small, it spends most of its time on my desk.

I have a little mini-altar on my desk already: an inkwell, my dip pen, and a few other symbols of the Elements and Powers. But as I was watering my plants the other day, I said something like, “There you go! That should help!” to one of them, and it struck me that the watering could be a kind of offering, a libation not just to the spirits but to the very physical beings of that little corner of earth.

So I think I’m going to try cultivating a relationship with my little desk succulent wherein I regard it as an altar, a place where I come to observe and appreciate life: its, mine, and all. The difference between watering and libation may be as simple as the words I say, and the attitude I foster within myself. We’ll see. If I’m right, and it works, then this plant may become to me, for a time, more than just a plant, being also at the same time a living symbol of some of what I see as holy.

Where do you find or make your altars?

PS: Real gardeners may be horrified by my admittedly blase attitude towards the sprouting experiment. I’m sorry. I don’t even know the real name of this type of plant, and as I said, I’m still learning. Because of my many concerns with the non-plant beings in my life, plants are relatively low on my priority list. This post is about an example of changing that. Which is my way of saying: please don’t lecture me about what I should have done. I’m working on it.

Review: Starhawk, The Pagan Book of Living and Dying

I have not had new posts for a while because an uncle of mine died, and I was spending time supporting my mother and being with family. As a result, I drew heavily on this book, which I had had for a while but hadn’t read. I hope to resume something like my usual pace this week.

Starhawk, M. Macha Nightmare, and the Reclaiming Collective. The Pagan Book of Living and Dying: Practical Rituals, Prayers, Blessings, and Meditations on Crossing Over. HarperCollins, 1997. Paperback, 353 pages.

I turned to this book when I needed resources, and it provided. If you’re going to be in a leadership role in the Pagan community, you should at least have read this book, and I strongly suggest you should own it. If you’re a Pagan, you may not see it as important, but it is a handy thing to have around and could provide interesting resources and challenges for you around Samhain.

This book is a compilation of articles, meditations, rituals, prayers, chants, songs, poetry, and more. It manages somehow to be both wide in scope and deep in content, and although it is not assembled for front-to-back reading, I found the comprehensive table of contents easy to use.

Part one, The Pagan Tradition, has thealogical material, reflections, and meditations. Uncharacteristically, this is the part I have read the least of, because it wasn’t what I needed when I pulled this book off the shelf. What I have read looks thoughtful and articulate, and comes from a variety of writers, without trying to express a monolithic view of what Paganism is or ought to be. Part two, The Pagan View of Death, has some very useful discussion of specifically how Pagans can understand death, again, with respect for a variety of viewpoints.

Part three, The Dying Process, and part four, Death Has Many Faces, are the “meat” of the book. The section on the dying process includes many personal reflections, some of which will bring tears to your eyes and others which will make you laugh aloud. The summary material provides good advice of several kinds to those working with the dying or the grieving, and generally advises an approach that lets those closest to the situation take the lead, with others providing support and nurturing, while making sure to take care of themselves at the same time. It addresses issues relevant to people in a wide range of grief situations, including sudden or violent death, the death of a child, deaths from HIV, and abortion. Specific suggestions give concrete options while the general themes are consistently carried throughout.

Part five, Carrying On, has other advice that is invaluable, especially for Pagans who may find themselves counseling or consoling people who are still working through the grieving process weeks, months, or years later. This section may seem almost irrelevant to someone who has not experienced the death of someone close, but it is one more indication that this book was put together by people who have experienced that which they write about.

The real treasure in this book is the stock of rituals, prayers, songs, poems, meditations, and visualizations. A lot of material here comes from Starhawk, especially prayers, but plenty of it is from other people, largely from the Reclaiming Collective. Again, the breadth of material is impressive, including a prayer for cleaning the rooms of someone who has died. I found the resources easy to modify, to pick and choose and reassemble something that worked for the situation I was in.

I have not done many of the meditations, but I look forward to trying them, and I think that some of them could provide great pieces for Samhain rituals, even for a solitary who has little to grieve. There are also excellent starting points for Pagans to think about and prepare for their own deaths, including basic suggestions about legal issues to consider, as well as practical and magical ones.

I would have liked to see more material about hospice and palliative care, and how to work with the medical community to achieve the goals of the patient in the case of a long and debilitating terminal illness. I don’t know if that omission is the result of a lack of awareness and experience with hospice and palliative care; that area of care has certainly grown and developed in the last decade. Another factor may be that this book does provide the kind of “need it now” resources that I praise. But there is also plenty of material for longer-term reflection, and I think a chapter on what hospice care is, how it works, when you or a loved one might choose it, and how to define the goals of care and get them met would have been a tremendous addition.

You may not like or enjoy all the material presented in this book; almost certainly, you will not agree with all of it. But I found that it had adaptable resources when I needed them, and that even the material that I found jarring was a useful stimulus to additional thinking and meditation.

In order to be in concert with natural cycles – the whole cycle, from beginning to end to new beginnings – even Pagans who are not grieving or have never grieved should face the existence of death, including their own. This book is a good place to start that process, and a tremendous contribution to the Pagan community’s shared pool of knowledge, understanding, lore, and ritual.

Act III: Paging Nurse Empathy

This series was started by an odd confluence of events: I saw the performance of Dr. Horrible, and shortly thereafter I ended up on one of those random Web-walks exploring doctors’ and nurses’ blogs. It started with ER humor, but I found myself drawn into blogs by regular floor nurses, like my mother.

Medical humor is often black humor, grisly humor created by people faced with a Sisyphean task (people do keep getting sick, after all) that all too often leads to compassion fatigue. What do you do, after all, with the third person this week with an iPod in a body cavity? (Have the Nanos made that any less of a problem, I wonder?) Or the thousandth person who comes to urgent care for antibiotics for their cold? Or the ten thousandth? And nurses get the worst of it: they are the front line of care for patients and families (nurses care for whole families, not just the person in the bed – just ask), which puts them at the interface between the medical system – usually doctors – and the people who are actually in pain, or dying, or depressed, or confused and combative, or throwing up, or all of the above. All too often, doctors shove the results of their compassion fatigue down onto nurses, and families who are in unfamiliar settings with scary things happening to loved ones amplify their anxiety up, sometimes in the form of defensive anger. Nurses get the brunt. And who else gets a college degree to spend most of their days wiping butts?

One strain of the anger and frustration that I saw on some blogs really started to bother me. It’s often hard for nurses to deal with people with major health issues that are caused or exacerbated by the person’s behaviors. Noncompliant diabetics who are obese, and going blind, and having amputations, sometimes in their 30s, are some of the most vivid examples. Diabetes is a terrible disease, but it is largely controllable – if. If the person will make the changes. If the person can make the changes. If the person isn’t trapped by the culture of the Diabetes Belt combined with, and including, her own personal circumstances.

The point when attitudes go beyond black humor, beyond compassion fatigue, is often marked by one signature phrase: “My tax dollars at work.”

It’s absolutely true that a lot of the people who need repeated health care for major medical problems are on public assistance, whether that’s disability, welfare, Medicaid, or combinations thereof. And so, yes, when a nurse is frustrated beyond words with a patient who is drinking herself into an early grave with sugared sodas, and as a result is so sick that she’s on disability and Medicaid for the repeated procedures that won’t halt the course of the disease and may not even delay it much, it’s true, the nurse’s tax dollars are paying for that person’s living allowance and medical care.

But the subtext is more than that. The subtext is usually: “I wish I wasn’t paying for that person.” Sometimes there are varying degrees of anger wrapped up in this, or greed (“My taxes wouldn’t be so high if…” If what? We just let them die?) or other unexpressed factors, but a lot of it is compassion fatigue, especially when there are degrees of personal responsibility involved. It’s exhausting to see people contributing to hurting themselves, especially when you know (but they may not) that there are alternatives, there are other choices they could be making. From your point of view, those choices may even look simple, or easy, or at least the only rational path to take.

And the nurses, especially, are tired of being the superheroes trying to swoop in and save people from the trap of the Diabetes Belt. They’re being superheroes from 7a-3p, 3p-11p, and 11p-7a, day in, day out, sometimes with the same patients, over and over again, up to their elbows in crap and paperwork and staffing cuts. They wish that some of their patients would stand up for themselves, and not be falling into the superheroes’ waiting arms over and over again. Their arms, and their hearts, are getting tired.

But the existence of the Diabetes Belt shows that this is about culture, not just about personal choice. If we want to change this, we’re going to have to change the culture. What kinds of food are available? Affordable? Accessible? What do families teach their children to eat? To cook? To enjoy?

It’s not that individuals don’t have responsibility, it’s that individuals don’t bear their responsibilities alone. We have to change the context and create opportunities for different kinds of responsibility from the top down, as well as demanding it from the bottom up. Because really, the “top” and “bottom” are parts of the same social, economic, and cultural web of interactions, and no one person can change the web alone. Even a superhero.

Even a villain. When he was trying to become a villain, Dr. Horrible believed he could make a difference. He believed that what he worked for would have the results he intended. He was horrified to discover otherwise: “You think your world’s benign, and justice has a voice, and we all have a choice…” When confronted by that horror, he realized that he had forced himself into a heartless position, and he allowed it to empty him out, he accepted that he had become what he hated. He only truly became a villain when he put on his nemesis’ gloves.

We are confronted with similar tragedies every day in the Diabetes Belt. What will we do in response? Will we embrace the role of villain, willingly becoming part of the problem, withdrawing and becoming heartless? When black humor crosses the line into suggesting, even implicitly, that we should withdraw public assistance from people, that we don’t want helping those people to be “our tax dollars at work,” that advocates one course of action. That’s Dr. Horrible’s course. That’s picking up the black gloves.

Objective fear, Part II

In Part I, I talked about how a conservative Objectivist mindset transforms the existence of those in need into a perceived threat. The catalyst for this weird transformation of perception is fear, the fear which is the touchstone and the key element of the mindset I’m trying to describe. This fear became more clear to me recently because of a conversation where someone influenced by this mindset felt safe enough to reveal the way a true, deep fear of not being able to provide for his family’s needs in the future constrained his desire to give to charity. This fear is entirely reasonable for someone who realizes that social policy based on the Just World fallacy, combined with the very real risk of bad things happening no matter how hard one tries to be good, means that just being good isn’t enough: one has to conserve every advantage one gets, hoarding the good things that happen, because the destruction of social justice means that one is right to fear for the future. This approach to the world encourages, even forces, otherwise charitable people not to give. If I am truly afraid of living on catfood in retirement, because I know that social justice is lacking, then I have even less reason to donate now. The system becomes self-perpetuating.

Something similar happens in morality when a religion relies on the threat of punishment as the primary motivation for doing good. This is why a type of Christianity based on a fear of hell is a lousy kind of Christianity and ultimately counters its own precepts.

Objectivists like to position themselves in the posture of Nietzsche, as defenders of “real” morality against the thievery and “mooching” that they think Christianity pushes. (Aside: they would make the same criticism of any morality or system of ethics that encourages feeding the hungry, housing the homeless, etc, but I’m going to stick to Christianity here because it’s the dominant one they rail against.) The Objectivist caricature of Christianity is that Christians think that people in need want to punish those who are well-off. The Objectivist viewpoint sees itself in opposition to a perverted Christianity where Jesus wouldn’t just want the homeless to be housed, he would insist that if those with houses don’t house the homeless, the houses should all be burned down to punish the evil people who have houses to begin with. This is not what Christianity teaches, but some versions of Christianity come perilously close by relying on the fear of hell to motivate positive action.

I was recently involved in a conversation about the parable of the rich man and Lazarus. They both die, and Lazarus finds himself in comfort with Abraham, but the rich man who had ignored Lazarus while alive finds himself in torment. When the rich man calls out to Abraham and asks Abraham to send someone back from the dead to tell his rich brothers that they ought to look after the poor, Abraham refuses, says that even if someone came back from the dead to tell them so, the rich wouldn’t want to give to the poor.

Some people in the conversation I was in insisted that the point of this parable was that if people sin (by not providing for the poor), they will be punished in hell in the afterlife. They said that if there wasn’t any punishment, then the whole parable loses its impact: that without the threat of torment, there is no story. This is ridiculous, both based on the story, and based on the real-world examples of what fear actually motivates. Notice how in their telling, the parts that I italicized become a mere side-note. Fear of hell only creates fear of hell; it doesn’t drive people to go find out what’s in that side note and put it into action.

When I was Christian, I found it crucial to understand that this parable was being told by Jesus, who would soon die and return from the dead. This is a story that’s not meant to be taken on its own. It only makes sense after the fact, in light of Jesus’ death and resurrection. In Christianity, Jesus is the man returned from the dead, just like the rich man suggests in the story. Jesus is saying, “I know you won’t listen to me, and in fact, I’ll tell you a story about how you won’t listen to me, because what I’m telling you is that taking care of the poor is the right thing to do. You already know that, and you don’t want to hear it.” That was how I understood it, and that makes the whole story a marvelous joke, a valid ethical message regardless of whether you believe in Jesus as the savior, and something that is not at all about hell or even about the afterlife. If Jesus wanted people to believe or to act morally because of fear of hell, he would have shown them hell. He didn’t: according to Christians, what Jesus did show was his own resurrection. This isn’t a story about what happens after you live. It’s a story about how to live, which is why Jesus came back to life.

But some Christians insist on taking the Just World fallacy too seriously, and pervert the religion into a story about how God will make the Just World fallacy true in the end. Instead of holding up the threat of being left out in the cold, being hungry and naked and poor, they hold up the threat of eternal fiery torment. Why stop at the little threat when you can go all the way? If a small threat drives people to do a few good things, this thinking goes, a bigger threat will drive even more good things! But when we look at the result of the fear instilled by hard-core Objectivism, we realize that fear is a lousy motivator. It doesn’t motivate people to do good things; it motivates exactly the opposite, and in the process, it creates a response of defensive anger that becomes self-hate and eventually hatred of others. When the existence of those in need triggers that fear, defensive anger lashes out at the trigger, not at the source of the fear.

Fear isn’t the answer. Love is. Fear is about death. Love is about life. Threats tell us about how we will die and introduce creeping rot into every aspect of existence. Love creates life, love teaches us how to live, and love gives us the courage to go out and do it.

 

Coda: As I’ve said, I am no longer Christian, and I do not want to dictate to Christians how to be Christian. But I think that any morality, secular or religious, based ultimately on a threat of punishment has a similarly destructive outcome, and this example was a good illustration. The idea that humans are depraved and deserve to go to hell is one of the reasons I’m not Christian any more. I think that a form of Wicca that uses the Rule of Three or the idea of karma as a similar threat is equally wrong and bad. Life is about love, and love about life.

Why love spells go pear-shaped

All right, everybody, time for your friendly local Witch to offer a February Public Service Announcement: Don’t do love spells. Just don’t.

Why? Because they go wrong. Yes, there are also issues of consent. (How would you feel if someone – not necessarily someone you liked, by the way, but anyone – did that to you? The Golden Rule applies in magic, too. Plus the physical equivalent would be very, very illegal, which is always a bad sign.) But I know, just as well as anyone, that when you’re in love, or out of love, or sort-of-but-not-quite in love, or you’re in but the other person’s out, magic seems like the perfect answer. After all, love is magical to begin with, right? Yes. And that’s exactly why love spells go wrong. Don’t do them. Beyond all the ethics, beyond anything else, don’t do it because you’ll hurt someone else and you’ll hurt yourself. Love spells go wrong.

I know, Valentine’s Day is coming up, and it’ll be during the waxing moon, getting near to full. Relationships are one of the Big Four reasons people who don’t usually work with magic either try to do magic themselves or approach Witches to do magic for them. (The others are, in approximate order, health, money, and revenge.) Trust Auntie Literata and don’t do it.

There are lots of cautionary stories out there about how love spells go wrong. (Two that come to mind are from Nancy Watson’s Practical Solitary Magic and Ellen Dugan’s Elements of Witchcraft, and both are instructive.) But I have good reason to think that love spells are inherently likely to go awry. Love is magical – and that magic doesn’t always interact well with the kind of reasoned, directed, intentional magic that Witches practice.

Love is a strong emotion, sure, and strong emotions generate a lot of energy which can be used to power a spell. But emotions alone don’t make magic (and a good thing, too!). Emotions generate energy and that energy has to be focused through intent. That focusing is usually called visualization. It’s a bit more complicated than it sounds, but the bottom line is that because of the way love makes us feel, it’s particularly difficult to redirect the energy it raises into a specific intent. Love makes us visualize all kinds of things; it overwhelms our usual ways of thinking and our self-control. Those are all amazing, wonderful, and magical things. But if you do a spell trying to use that energy, you’re likely to have all kinds of visualizations and intent going on, and the energy will either shoot off in a million different directions, not making much impact, or worse, it’s just as likely to go into one of the visualizations that you’re not very aware of. And that’s how love spells go wrong.

We’re not quite as good at controlling our minds as we like to think we are, especially in states of high emotion, like love, or blind fury. (There’s that “blindness” again – not a good metaphor for when you need to have your “visualizaton” as clear as possible.) There’s all kinds of things going on in the dark corners and in our unconscious. I personally think that a lot of the training Witches do to develop their skills at magic has to do with gaining better ability to understand oneself and direct one’s attention, focus, visualization, however you want to put it. At the same time, Witches learn to be honest with themselves and to do the kind of difficult self-examination that means I won’t be able to fool myself into thinking I’m visualizing getting my stolen property back when what I’m really desiring, underneath, is to see the thief caught and humiliated or punished. Even highly trained, experienced Witches have trouble unpacking all that when they’re in a state of high emotion, especially in love.

Why not just ask someone else, without the confusing burden of being in love, to do the spell for you? Lots of reasons: because they’re not involved, they’re less likely to be able to raise the energy and they’re less likely to be able to hold the precise visualization, but most of all, because they’re likely to tell you that they won’t do it. Rightly so: the trouble of doing love spells for ourselves teaches us the complexity involved means that doing it for others is ethically dangerous.

When my partner and I were going through a sticky period in the process of getting together (which we are, and very happily so for years now!), he asked me, half-jokingly, whether I’d put a spell on him. I said no, and before I could think about it, the truth popped out of my mouth: “Because if I had, we’d be in an even worse situation than we are now.” It was true then, and it’s true now. Love spells go wrong. Don’t do them.

What you can do, instead, are other kinds of spells. The most recommended substitute is a generic spell to draw love into your life without specifying the person. That’s fine, but it’s still prone to misfire in similar ways. I’d suggest a spell to enhance the lovable aspects of yourself – up to and including your appearance, as long as you remember that true beauty comes from the inside. Even more than that, I’d suggest a love spell on yourself, for yourself. If you don’t love yourself, you will have a hard time learning to love someone else, and you’re asking others to love you when you’re not able or willing to do so yourself. Get that straightened out, and the rest will follow. It’s not easy, but it’s the truth, and that’s one of the things Witches are for.

Bringing the outdoors in

Continuing my series of thoughts on living in relationship and daily practice, I want to talk about a Wiccan idea that often gets taken too superficially: bringing the outdoors in.

A lot of people talk about how you can make your personal altar or devotional space nicer by including items you discover in nature, especially vegetation – fresh flowers, autumn leaves, pine cones, and so on. At the simplest, yes, this is a way of “bringing the outdoors in.” But it’s also so much more than that.

For example, Lipp, in The Way of Four, emphasizes the idea of offering, and includes fresh flowers on the altar as an appropriate offering to deity. That’s part of a larger discussion of the importance of offering and how contemporary Wicca often ignores its role in worship and devotion. That aside, it’s a recognition that the flowers are there for something more than to just make me feel happy when I spend time with my altar. (Making me happy at my altar is a decent goal, by the way, it’s just not the only thing that bringing the outside in is there for.) They’re there in recognition of something other than, in some sense larger than, myself – which is why it’s an altar and a space for devotion, and not just a nice decorating touch.

The idea of including seasonal items, especially vegetation, on the altar can be a way of bringing one’s relationship with the land and one’s daily practice at home closer together. Even if I can’t get out today, if I see the fall leaves that I picked up on my usual walk the other day, I am reminded of that, and am able to go back, in my mind and heart, to that time and place. It gives me a stronger mental and emotional anchor to the land that is part of my devotions, in a way similar to how sacred statuary can provide a solid anchor for devotion to deities.

This is also slightly different from including items on one’s altar that come from different locations or experiences. Yes, I love having a stone that I picked up from a sacred site and a seashell from the beach on my altar, but those are examples of – and links to – the elements, and the experiences I had that helped me develop my connections to those elements. There’s something unique about having an example of the living experience of your local land on your altar; it should change with the seasons, while one’s experience of the elements is more continuous; the representation that stitches together one’s daily practice and one’s relationship with the land is of necessity a thread of variable color and consistency.

Of course, if one is lucky enough to have a regular devotional practice that is in the land, this becomes unnecessary; but being an urban Witch myself, I know first-hand that’s not always possible. So we go on, living our practice every day, in the ways we can, and often being the unity in a fragmented world. It’s hard, but it’s the healer’s life.

Living with, not dying from disease

This is in some ways a follow up to “I refuse to live in fear.” The NY Times has a brief interview with the author of a new book, After the Diagnosis: Transcending Chronic Illness. This is something near and dear to my heart because I live with chronic illness. The author, Seifter, who is himself a person with a chronic illness (diabetes, in his case), says that people with chronic disease should exercise some denial. That’s right, denial! A healthy denial is a good thing, he says, “within reason,” because “everyone needs the chance to forget their disease for a while and think of other things. Otherwise, they can become their disease.”

This is another way that I refuse to live in fear. I refuse to live in illness. Oh, my illness impacts me all the time, sometimes more, sometimes less, and that doesn’t go away with my denial. Denial doesn’t make me able to run, it doesn’t make me less tired when I get tired, or less dizzy when I get dizzy. But it does help me deal with those things. Denial is, in fact, a kind of magic, in the Wiccan sense. Not the magic that fixes all my problems, poof!, with a wave of my wand, but the kind of magic that makes life better; more filled with love, more meaningful, and yes, even physically less painful.

On that last point, there’s a specific kind of denial that’s extremely healthy. I think of it as shifting my focus. It’s part of the way I’ve learned to deal with pain from my chronic illness. When I have pain, the more I concentrate on the pain, the worse it gets. I have to shift my focus away from it. I don’t say “La la la, I don’t hurt!” because that’s not the point. I acknowledge it and then refuse to let it dominate my experience. Sometimes I do that by meditating, even briefly. Sometimes I distract myself with something else engaging. It doesn’t always work perfectly, but it goes a long way towards relieving the pain without medication most of the time and helping me tolerate whatever remains. It’s not that my pain is purely psychologically controlled, either in starts or stops, but I can control my response to it, and that helps my experience of it. It’s magical enough for me – and certainly works better than the docs’ best attempts to medicate me for it, so far.

I also refuse to let my illness dominate my life in other ways. Yes, I have to make adaptations and accommodations; so does my husband, and so do my friends and extended family and others I interact with. But one of the ways that an adaptation can be most successful is when it becomes nearly invisible. I use a wake-up light instead of an alarm clock; no problem. I don’t have to think about that every day now, so I am not reminded of my illness every time I set my alarm. And when it does remind me, I can shift my focus away from it, not in an “everything’s okay now” kind of way, but in a way that acknowledges the change and refuses to dwell on it.

I refuse to let just one aspect of my life dominate the others; I choose, to the best of my ability, how to define my life, my environment, my interactions. I recognize that I have more choices than are obvious, and among other things, I can create new choices for myself by redirecting my attention. That ability to direct my attention is one of the fundamental skills of magic, and this is why. Magic isn’t all about showy results – most of it is about what we do and who we are every day.

I refuse to live in fear

Since the release of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part I, there has been the inevitable “but it’s eeeevil and will make your kids into witches and Satanists!” nonsense from conservative Christians. In one such bit of scaremongering, I ran across this little gem: “My greatest concern is that godly fear that protects mankind from dabbling in the spirit world is being taken away…” Wait, let me get that right – you think that fear is the way your god keeps you safe? By making you too afraid to do something?

Fear is a useful thing sometimes, I admit. It’s especially useful when it’s your subconscious’ way of telling you that something is just not right. Before you have time to process that that tree just moved like a giant cat is getting ready to jump down on you and eat you, you start moving away. But fear isn’t in and of itself a good thing. And it’s not a good way to prevent people from doing something. It might be useful for, say, animals to be slightly afraid of fire so they don’t burn themselves, or small children to be slightly afraid of the deep end of the pool so they don’t drown. But those boundaries get pushed, especially when we grow up.

I refuse to remain an unreasoning animal or a small child, to be threatened and frightened and controlled by those bigger and meaner than I am. I refuse to worship a deity who behaves like a bigger version of an abusive parent. I choose to grow up, to listen to both my emotion and my reason, and to cultivate holy love, holy joy, and, yes, holy awe, instead of a “godly fear.” I refuse to live in fear.

One of the things I value about Wicca is the way my relationship with the God and Goddess is one of love and respect, not one of fear and fear-based worship. The deities can be frickin’ scary sometimes, I will freely admit – anybody who looks at Gaia as just love and care hasn’t seen much of the real world, as in carnivores feeding themselves. The Morrigan is not someone to mess around with. One of the reasons I don’t do more with Northern traditions is that I have a hard time relating to Thor without getting overwhelmed with fear. And that’s not the way Wiccans worship. I worship because I love the divine, and I am sure that, even with the ravages of all the scary, difficult, painful, things we have to deal with in life, the divine loves me.

In fact, my relationship with the divine is what frees me from fear; God and Goddess are with me always, going through what I go through, and helping me have what I need to deal with it. The Morrigan is there when I need to draw on somebody with a lot more warrior in her, and understanding that, not just being afraid of it, is part of me taking responsibility for my own life and relationships with others, including deity. But mostly, my worship is about cultivating the love that underlies all of that, even the Morrigan’s warriorship. The love that brought the world into being, that makes it keep going, the love that enfolds all of us now and when we die.

I will not live in fear, because living in fear is not fully living. I will live in love, and face even my fears with love.

Review: O’Gaea, Family Wicca

O’Gaea, Ashleen. Family Wicca: Practical paganism for parents and children. Revised and expanded edition. New Page Books, 2006. Paperback, 255 pages.

It’s not often I can start a book review with these words: I wholeheartedly recommend this book to all Wiccans. Young or old, single, handfasted, poly, raising kids or not, this book is worth a read for O’Gaea’s levelheaded, open-hearted way of sharing her years of experience as a Wiccan, partner, and parent. This is not a Wicca 101, it’s not a book of shadows, and it’s not a family self-help guide. It has elements of all of those approaches, but O’Gaea has integrated all of it into a unique blend that feels like sitting down with an experienced, friendly High Priestess over a cup of chamomile tea when you’re frazzled by family.

I don’t mean to be too effusive, but it’s not often that a book lives up to what it says it does. I think this book works in part because O’Gaea has set herself a reasonable goal: she gives guidelines and approaches for Wiccan parents to use in approaching family life as Wiccans, backed up by her own experience, without pretending to have solved the mysteries of the universe or even of why cats continue to curl their eyebrows by getting too close to candles. Throughout, she talks openly about her family’s experiences, but she doesn’t hold them up as a normative ideal. In sharing the way she worked through the issues she faced, she gives the reader an approach rather than a finished solution, and she consistently goes back to the larger lessons, which saves the book from being just a family memoir masquerading as advice.

O’Gaea’s definition of family is “A family is any group of people who know each other well and love each other anyway!” (20) With a practical streak a mile wide, she starts with the nuances of everyday life. To me, it’s a relief to see “Between the Sabbats” as the second chapter title, not an afterthought. After tackling the basics, she does include chapters on celebrating esbats and Sabbats as a family and how to approach rites of passage – including her own “Queening” as an adult rite of passage celebrated with suitable hilarity! She wraps up with a chapter entitled “Living Mythically,” in which she captures more of the essence of living as a Wiccan – adult or child – than many authors trying to write the next blockbuster book of shadows do.

One of the parts that I recommend for adults as well as children is her sophisticated approach to “the big questions” – why am I alive, what am I supposed to do, and why do bad things happen? (127ff) A lot of Wiccans who came to the Craft as adults may not have thought deeply about how Wiccan answers to those questions are significantly different from the answers (or lack thereof) that they grew up with. Sometimes, part of growing up is learning not to ask those questions anymore, especially when we’re dissatisfied with the ways the “patriarchal monotheistic system” (as she calls it, “the other PMS”) handles or ignores them. (206) Wicca lets us reframe those questions, and sometimes we need to go back to asking them in a childlike way in order to do that. She also uses the metaphor of left and right brain to express the ways that she reconciles her logical, practical understanding of the world with the approach of living mythically, where one strives to give thanks for the cycle of life reflected in food, even when that food ends up spilled by an unhappy toddler. (204 – the toddler bit is mine)

In addition, her understanding of magic is particularly sophisticated, as reflected in the following advice:

“Formal Witchcraft – full Circles, Traditional forms, precise liturgies – raises power through adults’ minds. Children who are not yet familiar with or “fluent in” the cultural sources of Craft rituals don’t draw the same strength from them. But magic has been in the world longer than even the customs our rites draw upon, and children can bring their energies to magical work even if they don’t work like adults.” (99)

She encourages handling magic as a natural part of life, with analogies to children’s play to help them understand what we’re doing, even as they keep a firm grip on the difference between the mystical and the practical. Adults often talk about recapturing the unconstrained attitude of play and joy that children bring to the world; O’Gaea’s advice would help parents raise children who never lose that. (117ff) I particularly enjoyed her ritual for how to have a tantrum – and get over it! – including the acknowledgment that adults sometimes need this too. (74)

In this revised edition, she includes a detailed discussion of adoption from a Wiccan point of view, including ways to honor it, to grieve and to rage about what’s lost, and to give thanks for what is found and created. She also responds to reader critiques by specifically discussing the issue of teaching children how to handle possibly inappropriate actions or even abuse from adults. I understand why O’Gaea might have thought the first time around that the issue of abuse was obvious, and didn’t need a particularly Wiccan approach, but it deserves mention. A religion that venerates nature and the body, and honors its pleasures, also includes respect for the boundaries and choices of others, making the idea of abusing children particularly repulsive. But family life isn’t all the easy parts, and O’Gaea acknowledges that.

Even if you’re absolutely sure you’ll never raise kids, you still have to live with what Starhawk calls Younger Self, and this book lives up to its subtitle of “practical paganism” in ways that might help you cope with yourself better, young and old alike.

Meditating on a meteorite

It knows, I said,
about moving
and about being still.
Long ago, I said that
about this rock
this piece of what we fight over
and you were right
to give it to me
in the midst of all that
it is, literally, a touchstone.

 

I highly recommend the Discovery series Cosmic Collisions. It’s available on Watch Instantly on Netflix, for one source. The discussions of how the Moon formed, how several major extinction events have taken place, and how asteroid strikes might affect the Earth in the future are all fascinating. My mystical appreciation of the Moon isn’t diminished by knowing about the physics of the Moon’s formation; in fact, my appreciation is heightened by such knowledge. And the stories of the extinction events will make you think about how Gaia is one tough lady – definitely not all bunnies-and-flowers.

I think Paganism has a special relationship with science – as religions that honor Nature, we ought to get to know everything we can about what we’re honoring. These topics are something that you can’t learn about with just your local observations, either. Go expand your mind – you never know, your heart might get stretched along with it.