Review – Divorcing a Real Witch

Rajchel, Diana. Divorcing a Real Witch: For Pagans and the people that used to love them. Moon Books, 2014. 190 pages.

Diana Rajchel takes a very clear stand that divorce is a life passage that some people go through which involves pain and grief that, like other life passages, lead to an opportunity for renewal. Within this approach, her work is intended as a resource for those going through divorce or its after effects. She shares personal reflection, tries to position divorce within a Wiccan worldview, and offers healing methods for coping with divorce and the accompanying changes through spiritual techniques.

She begins with a discussion of divorce, why people might choose to divorce, especially women, and how divorce fits into a Wiccan worldview, system of ethics, and spiritual practice. This discussion broadens into how divorce is seen in the wider culture, including ways that those who choose to divorce may encounter friction with friends, family, and other relationships. This is not a work to help those trying to make a last-ditch attempt to save a marriage; Rajchel takes divorce as a fact of life – and a fact of the reader’s life. Her view of divorce as a life passage rejects the characterization of “broken homes” and the disproportionate blaming of women that often attach to divorce; she asserts early on that “Divorce is not the fault of a massive failure of character.” (xiii) This nonjudgmental approach is refreshingly direct and appropriately sets the stage for helping readers heal.

Rajchel’s writing is part personal reflection, part handbook, part survey report, and part ritual resource, which makes for an interesting mix. Her discussions of what divorcees might go through is clearly informed by her personal experience, which makes them much more valuable. She has clearly done an immense amount of personal work to process her own experience and be able to discuss the wisdom gained. The resources she has created are aimed squarely at those very personal experiences.

The middle chapters contain most of the resources, which include a number of different rituals, meditations, and other techniques. Rajchel suggests reflections that will shape however the reader chooses to personalize the work, then offers several different variations of a handparting ritual, including versions with one or both members of a couple present, an officiant or not, and more.

Possibly even more valuable are a whole series of guided meditations aimed at dealing with different specific emotional experiences that are likely to arise during and after the process of grieving an ended relationship. Rajchel speaks wisely about the emotional issues that can occur, framing them as a type of grief, and explicitly acknowledging that emotions will recur, change at their own pace, and should not be forced to fit anyone else’s framework or expectations. She also recommends that readers seek additional help such as counseling when needed. With that in mind, her wide variety of meditations and associated techniques are a rich field of resources for processing these emotions in a spiritual perspective.

To balance the personal nature of the experience she brings to her writing, Rajchel does try to get outside her own perspective. She acknowledges same-sex couples, and the differences and difficulties they may face in these situations, and briefly touches on some of the issues that arise when couples with children divorce. In trying to expand her perspective, Rajchel apparently conducted a survey of other Pagans from a number of traditions, but she fails to describe how the survey was created and administered, nor does she describe the overall purpose or conclusions of the survey. The lack of information about this survey is one of the weak points of the work. She cites a few summaries, but mostly uses qualitative and anecdotal reports from within the survey, including some vignettes interspersed with the main text. There are many more of her own personal vignettes, and sometimes I found it difficult to determine which were which.

The other major problem with this book is that the organization and structure are haphazard. Chapter titles reveal their repetitive nature, and while there is an attempt to progress from discussion to rituals to further discussion to conclusions, the lack of an overarching structure makes it unclear why some choices of topic were made and where the reader should turn for a particular topic. On the other hand, the episodic nature of the writing is amenable to a reader who is going through a particularly painful life passage and who may want to pick up the book, scan one part, put it down, and take it up again at a later point. Regardless, the rituals and meditations, as well as the overall perspective on divorce as a life passage from a Wiccan perspective make it a valuable work.

Rajchel expresses her purpose by saying “We must become our own heroes because no myths deal with failed interdependence.” (7) While I might quibble that some myths address irreparable breakdowns in trust and intimate relationships, her overall point is quite true – divorce as we know it is a fact of life, for Pagans as for others, and it is not something for which we have a standard narrative template, mythical or otherwise. It is up to us to shape our own personal and spiritual responses to it in the ways that are best for us. Rajchel’s book provides valuable and important resources for doing that work.

Beltane – In My Hands

I’m continuing to republish a series of essays originally written in 2011.

The Pagan celebration of Beltane, May first and second in the northern hemisphere,  is a fire festival and also a very earthy and bawdy celebration of physical love and pleasure. It’s easy to think of Beltane in big terms: huge bonfires with whole communities dancing in ecstasy, both vertically and horizontally. For the moment, though, I’d like to put it in smaller terms based on something I discovered recently: the motion I make when I cup my hands around a candle to protect it from the wind is the same as the gesture I use to cup my beloved’s face before a kiss.

The full moon after Ostara (in 2011) was a “supermoon” when the moon was full at nearly the same time it was at perigee; its nearness to the earth made the full moon bigger and brighter than usual. I decided to do my personal ritual marking the full moon outside, on the rooftop patio of my apartment building. I took my portable altar kit upstairs and and settled down to watch the sun set and the moon rise. I was a little irritated by the fact that the densely urban area where I live creates a lot of light pollution, so the supermoon wouldn’t be as impressive as it would be elsewhere, out in “real nature.”

Well, Mother Nature must have heard me thinking, because she decided to remind me that even in the middle of a very human-constructed and human-influenced environment, she can still play tricks. Thankfully, she was gentle and only sent wind, but it was an erratic wind that snuffed my candles at frequent but irregular intervals, spaced out just enough to let me think I could relax and meditate a bit before another gust came. It became something between a game and a competition as I frantically relit candles from each other, and finally I let two of my candles go out, but sheltered the third one in my cupped hands to keep it going until the moon rose, majestic and beautiful and just exactly the same shade of ruddy yellow brilliance as the flame.

This was a good reminder to me not to let myself get caught up in “living room Wicca,” where we practice indoors and all too seldom actually experience the nature that we claim to revere. Living room Wicca leads to all sorts of silliness, especially from ultra-urban Wiccans who can get all overly romantic about the purity of nature. I’ve got news for people who think that way: the idea of the wilderness, and especially the idea that it is in some way better than the settled areas, is a social construction from the Romantic period. After the atmospheric nuclear testing of the 20th century affected the distribution of isotopes in the air and water of the world, there is no place on earth that is completely unaffected by humankind’s actions. Even the moon in which I admire one face of the Goddess has had men walk on it.

The purity of nature as distinct from humanity is a myth, just as the idea that humanity is distinct from nature is a myth.  Humans are creatures of flesh and blood, bone and sweat, tears and urine. What wildness does exist is valuable and a vital part of the planet’s biosphere, but it’s not necessarily nice or comfortable or beautiful, any more than humans are necessarily rational and logical creatures.

Anyone who actually lives there will tell you that it takes a lot more work to live in less-developed areas. It’s even a hard place to do ritual: the flames get blown out, nothing is level, the rocks are sharp, the ants carry off the sacred bread, you discover what a dead frog smells like, and when you start chanting “We all come from the Goddess / and to her we shall return / like a drop of rain / flowing to the ocean,” she takes you at your word. People who succumb to living room Wicca run the risk of being like the young Wilderness Explorer in the movie Up!, who complains that the wilderness is just too wild. It takes a keen appreciation of the ridiculous, as well as deep familiarity with your environment, careful planning, and a high degree of flexibility to do ritual outdoors successfully.

In that way, it’s actually a lot like making love. Robert Farrar Capon wrote that “the unrehearsed and unrehearsable ritual by which two people undress each other for the first time” was one of the few things “not worth describing seriously,” what  with all the fumbles and uncertainty and mishaps: clothing gets tangled, zippers stick, and jewelry breaks. Even after that, our bodies don’t always keep pace with our thoughts and emotions, sometimes zooming light-years ahead, sometimes lagging, frustratingly slow to respond. It almost never happens smoothly, as if choreographed; sometimes it hardly seems like it’s worth the trouble, and that it might be slightly ridiculous to bother about it at all.

And the ultimate ridiculousness can be found in Beltane’s opposite – Samhain, the festival that recognizes death and its place in our lives. After all, as Sir Terry Pratchett pointed out, “In the long run, we’re all dead.” So why should we bother, why take the risks, why expose ourselves emotionally to the dangers and difficulties of loving, let alone physically struggling with the acts of love?

And yet somehow, we still keep trying, and we believe it’s worth the trouble. Because here and now, we are alive, and in love.

These two great mysteries, love and death, are closely intertwined, although we try to separate them, to idealize the one and ignore the other. But no matter how much we try, they exist in dialogue with each other. The only real response to the fact that death happens is, “I love you.” And all I have to believe is that that’s enough. All I have to believe is that love can be the basis for me to build a meaningful life and relationships.

And this is true: we have proof that love is amazingly, tremendously powerful precisely because it happens in the face of silliness, and ridiculousness, and impermanence, and death. It is worth the trouble of popped buttons and of broken hearts, because love is what makes new life possible. This is true in the literal sense, obviously, of creating new lives, but it’s also true in a metaphorical sense.

Capon argued that grace, which I regard as the ultimate manifestation of divine love, makes sin utterly irrelevant. For Capon, the grace of the divine love is forgiveness that not only settles the score but throws out the idea of keeping score at all. Although the concept of sin is no longer particularly meaningful for me, the concept of forgiveness still is.

For me, the most incredible forgiveness happens when I love someone enough that I want my relationship with them to go on, regardless of what has happened to hurt me. I’m so in love with them that I’m willing to let the old me die, so that the me who was owed a debt by the offender is simply gone, and the debt will never be called in. If we go forward into that together, our love can create a new life for us both, and for our relationship together.

That’s why this year, especially when Easter and Beltane are so close together, it seems appropriate that Beltane occurs at the new moon, not the full moon. It’s a reminder that both are celebrations of love over death, reminders of the love that transcends death and helps us make life meaningful, in the face of all the fumbles, and the pain, and the sheer ridiculousness of it all. Beltane and the love it embodies are about light, and fire, even in the darkest moments of a moonless night. After all, that’s why it is called the new moon and not the empty moon.

Even in those very dark moments, I find the newness of life in the simple motion of cupping my hands. I light a candle, rather than cursing the darkness, and cup my hands around it, nurture it just a bit more, get it to glow a little brighter. I cup my hands around the face of a child, and wipe away the tears, and replace them with kisses, nurturing the young life that is just barely taking hold but promises so much potential. I cup my hands around the face of my beloved, and nurture the flame of our love. And when I do, that brilliance blazes up into a light that illumines my life, and I have the answer right there, in my hands.

Questions about love spells and ethics

Someone emailed me with questions related to my recent writing about the ethics of love spells. They indicated that they emailed me because I don’t allow anonymous comments, but when I replied by email, the reply failed. I’m posting their questions (anonymously) and my response here instead.

OK, so what about spells that make someone who’s in love with you go away?  Those also interfere with a specific someone’s free will but are considered moral by a lot of the same people who consider love spells too coercive.

For starters, this can’t be rape because there’s no sexual contact.

This is another place where I think that “no interfering with free will” is an unintelligible ethical precept. If we’re affecting others, we’re interacting with and possibly curtailing their free will. The people who actually propose this standard don’t usually adhere to it; it’s shorthand for something deeper, and in the case of love spells, I think one of the deeper reasons that certain kinds of love spells are wrong is the way they are part of rape culture, which is why I think it’s important to talk about that openly and clearly, not fall back on a shorthand that actually obfuscates.

Try applying the standard that I suggested as one evaluation tool among many: would equivalent action in the real world be legal and/or ethical? For most ways of doing this spell, the answer is a resounding yes; take the example of a restraining order. If you shape your work to carry an intent like “leave me alone” (rather than “do not contact me,” because negative phrasings are often ineffective), what you’re doing is ethical by my standards.

It can be structured as a reactive boundary; if the person doesn’t approach you (physically or with communication), nothing happens. If they do, they get rebuffed. If you believe in/abide by the Rule of Three (or Law of Return or some similar precept) be sure to fine-tune what you see getting “bounced back” at them as the least harmful way of doing things: “go away,” leaving off the “you bastard!” blast of anger.

On the other hand, if you have an intent like “so-and-so will lose hir job with our employer so that I don’t have to be in contact with hir anymore,” you get into more iffy territory. What would the mundane world equivalent be? Well, if you’re going to go to your employer with a complaint of sexual harassment, I would definitely do magic in support of that. On the other hand, if it’s a personal relationship outside the workplace that went wrong, a whisper campaign to have the person lose all respect and be hounded out is definitely not ethical. The corresponding action in the real world may or may not be legal, but I think the fact that most of us wouldn’t want it to happen to us combined with hazy legality is a good enough indicator that it’s unacceptable.

But what if what you’re saying is true, and you just want everyone to know so-and-so really is a bastard? Well, you could do a “sunlight” spell, one with the intent that the truth of their actions be revealed, but these kinds of things are tricky. What’s the mundane world equivalent: taking out ads on the sides of buses declaring so-and-so a bastard? Writing a scathing blog post? Those actions are extremely difficult to manage, often bouncing back on the writer in very ugly ways even if they’re saying nothing but the truth. Making the statement is generally legal, and I would agree that these spells are generally ethical (not always), but a spell for this is at least as tricky to handle as the mundane action, and usually much more difficult to pull off without crossing ethical boundaries – see below about intent getting mixed up.

Also, what about spells to make someone love you who already wants you sexually, but doesn’t want a relationship?  Are those considered rape by your standard?  They’re not forcing someone into sex (that’s already freely given) but into, well, love.

The last question you ask is a harder one.

No, those wouldn’t be rape, if the sexual contact is freely consented to. On the other hand, if Person A is having sex with Person B, and A wants (more of) a relationship but B doesn’t, there’s a distinct possibility that A may be consenting to the sex in hopes of building a relationship, or with an ulterior motive, or simply to satisfy the desire to interact with B even in the absence of any other kind of relationship. None of those are, in and of themselves, rape, but they are fertile ground for all kinds of terrible relationship problems, even for a “solely” sexual relationship. The idea of doing a spell to create a romantic relationship on top of that foundation fills me with dread. There are so many ways it could go wrong – especially if it succeeds.

The relationship starts, and A decides B really wasn’t ready, or the relationship is a bad idea. The relationship starts, and B is madly, soppily in love, until it drives A nuts.  The relationship starts, and A realizes the sex wasn’t all that great, it was the idea of not being able to have more that was the driving interest. And even the best case is suspect: it works, they get married, live together for 15 years and raise two kids, with A wondering all the while if B’s love is really real or just the result of the spell.

And how would you feel if you found out you had been the target of such a spell? If it were me, it would run the risk of destroying a relationship. He doesn’t feel like he can attract me on his own, so he had to compel me using magic? Not cool.

To return to my earlier rule of thumb, this is a case where it’s very hard to imagine a specific mundane world equivalent. That always makes me suspicious of such spells. It would be possible to structure it with a specific mundane equivalent in mind: a spell equivalent of your mutual best friend telling your desired partner that the two of you would be really great together, for example. But in my experience, what’s actually going to drive the spell is your desire for a relationship, not your burning desire to plant the seed of the idea and accept rejection peacefully, so it’s extremely likely that what you’ll actually do, magically, is raise and send energy for having-a-relationship purposes.

If you can’t hold the specific intent without something else springing up mentally or emotionally, then you can’t do magic for that purpose alone. Can we harness other kinds of emotions towards a specifically visualized end? Yes. Being honest, can most of us really totally repurpose the intention of something that’s as personal and deeply powerful as desire? Not very well.

Overall, this is a case where I think that while it might or might not be ethical, it’s such a bad idea even in the best scenarios that it is a very foolish thing to do.

Feelings in a marriage should include fear?

As the reproductive health care battleground becomes criss-crossed with trenches of advancing legislation, I have been remembering a conversation about the Catholic position on birth control that I had in my undergrad days.

I was Christian, back then, and although not Catholic, I had heard and appreciated several homilies by the priest for the Catholic student group. For a course in interfaith dialogue, I decided to have a conversation with the priest about birth control; I knew even then that pregnancy would be extremely risky for me, so I took the matter rather personally.

The priest was able to defuse my nascent anger and fear by implying that Catholic women in situations like mine might be able to get a note signed by the Pope to make birth control okay, or something like that. And then he made an argument that I found strangely moving: he said that the marriage relationship is a very special one, and that “we just don’t know” what kind of changes birth control might create in that relationship, or how it would change the feelings between a man and his wife.

Which goes to show that a celibate man and a not-yet-sexually-active young woman can seriously contemplate arguments about reproductive health care that a woman who actually faces these issues would simply laugh at. From my current position, I do laugh, although it’s tinged with despair, because now I can answer that priest’s hypothetical.

You want to know the feeling that is preserved by not using birth control? Fear.

For a woman who doesn’t want to become pregnant, not using birth control means that sex is inextricably bound up with fear: fear of becoming pregnant, fear of what that might mean, whether it is a danger to her own life or the threat of sliding deeper into poverty with one more mouth that she can’t feed. Fear that surrounds sex, and that, as a result, is in some way also attached to her husband.

These days, I think that priest told me more truth than he meant to. Deep down, the Catholic church, like other forced-birthers, wants to use fear and childbearing to control women. That’s the kind of oh-so-precious relationship they want to protect: one where women are either safely controlled within the confines of marriage and childbearing, or forced to the margins of society as unmarried outcasts.

I won’t stand for it. And I certainly won’t lay down and let it happen. So I hunker down in the trenches and try to use my fear to feed the flame of anger, to keep my courage warm.