The mother and her dreaming children

Once when the morning sun shone bright on the forest in the spring just as the trees started to bud and the early flowers were waking, a woman stepped out onto the doorstep of her little cottage and saw a basket lying there in the shade of a juniper bush that still had it’s gray needles.

Her heart quickened and she knelt to pull back a fold of cloth in the basket to reveal the sleeping face of a human infant. The woman was overjoyed and also quite puzzled. No one lived nearby. Indeed, her cottage was set off far away from any other cozy place in all the wild, resplendent woods.

Creative Commons image via Pixabay

Creative Commons image via Pixabay

So, it was that the woman called Gaia took in the first child. She grew to be a girl with long brown hair and a tricksy smile. After a few years the girl and the woman were awakened in the dark hours of the night by the frantic, terrified cries of a baby. The woman rushed to the door of the cottage as the girl sat up in bed, eyes wide and startled.

There on the doorstep was another basket. Where the first one had been neat and tidy with a pretty cloth to wrap the baby in, this one was a frayed and sagging basket and the baby was wrapped in a rough feed sack. The woman peered into the forest, wondering if whoever had left the baby might still be near. But the baby was hungry and cold from the night air, so she picked him up and took him inside.

For several years the woman and the two children lived happily in the forest. The forest provided all they needed. The woman caught and picked their wild food. She grew a little garden at the back of the cottage. And she kept chickens and a few goats. The children helped and learned to live in the shadow of the forest.

Year turned on year and though each turn was different and brought both joys and small disasters, there was also a rhythm of time. The children took this rhythm into themselves even though they did not know it.

But one change came that did not ebb and flow with the turning of the years. Other cottages sprang up in the forest. Roads were cut through the trees and a town sprouted off to the west on the banks of the river where the woman fished in the summer.

The two children met other children when they were out picking berries and mushrooms. They heard about the world and began to long for things beyond the cottage. Other people also heard about the woman in the forest who took in children that needed a home. And soon enough someone, somewhere heard the tales who had a child they couldn’t feed and clothe.

And so there were more cries in the night. The woman and her children found another basket on the doorstep and then another… and another. Each basket was different. Some were tightly woven, white willow bows. Some were loose grass baskets with holes showing through. Some were made of hard knobbly vines that left the babies sore and others were padded with blankets as soft as thistledown.

But they all had babies in them. Quiet, babies with troubled eyes. Loud, crying babies with red faces. Coughing sick babies with rashes.

The woman took them into her house because she couldn’t leave a baby crying alone outside. She fed them and treated their sicknesses. She took them to the new town and asked whose babies they were. The town councilmen said they did not know and the woman could send the babies to the orphan home if she didn’t want them.

The woman went to the orphan home and saw the listless children there, the harried nurses, the little rooms with neatly made beds and the rows of benches in the cafeteria. She took the babies home again. Somehow she would manage.

The seasons passed and the children grew taller. Soon the first girl and the first boy who had come to Gaia were tall and strong. She asked them to dig up the garden beds, chop wood for the fire and feed the chickens and goats. She asked them to care for the smaller children, to cook dinner and read them stories. The work had no end.

The children met children from other cabins in the woods and from the town. They heard about television and video games. They saw bright plastic toys and fast cars and every manner of candy.

The children tried to please Gaia, their mother. They worked in the garden, chopped the wood, cooked dinner for the little ones, gathered berries in the forest and a hundred other things. They wondered why their mother Gaia kept accepting more children. They were grateful, but… after awhile, they began to resent the new arrivals and all the work.

Gaia had taught them the rhythms of the earth but the growth of people all around them did not follow that rhythm. The settlement just grew and grew. And with it their work grew.

Finally, the first girl and the first boy put on their nicest clothes and took their best tools and left Gaia’s house, hoping to find an easier life. Soon more of the children left. Some left when they were still far too young, before they even knew much about the rhythms of the earth.

There were still plenty of little children who couldn’t leave and Gaia had endless work to do, taking care of them. She grew bent and haggard. The beauty she once had was weathered and worn. Her moods were quick and her discipline was hard and not always fair. She was broken down in both body and spirit.

All around the cottage, broken things piled up. Dirty diapers weren’t washed. Dirty dishes sat for a long time. The children who left, more often than not left big messes because it was the filth and squalor that made them leave.

The children who left fared little better. Some of them found jobs helping out shopkeepers or tradesmen in the town. Some went to work in the new factories or superstores. Some tried to study or make their own crafts.

Some of the runaways had enough to eat and a roof over their heads after a few years and they felt that they deserved all that they had achieved. It had been incredibly hard work after all. They were sure they owed no one.

Many did not have enough to eat or a home though, no matter how hard they worked. They became angry and demanded that those who had better luck should help them. They were brothers and sisters after all. But those who had more insisted that they had worked harder. The eldest boy felt sorry for many of the younger children and he gave them food when he could spare it and felt that he was doing more than his share. He was sure he was honorable and good.

But as time went by some of the children saw that the whole forest was dying. The trees were drying out and the animals became scarce. Year after year the people of the town had to go further and further away for wood and water and hunting. The land was turning gray and barren. The sky was filled with toxic fumes.

At first, some of the children protested and insisted that people had to change, that if they each did their part, as they had done back at Gaia’s cottage that all would be well again. But those who had snug houses and enough to eat mostly felt that if they did a little thing to help, planted a tree or used recycled paper, that they had done their part. And those who had no houses or only broken down shacks were sure that they would do their part, just as soon as they had what they needed.

So the years passed until finally, the eldest girl and several of the other children who were now grown decided that they must do more than these small things. They left their homes, small or large, and went back to that part of the forest that was still hanging on around Gaia’s cottage. They went up to the rough wooden door and they knocked softly.

“Gaia! Mother!” they cried. “We want to come home. We are sorry! we want to work in the garden and feed the goats and take care of the little ones.”

Gaia came to the door, worn and stooped with work and worry. She stood their looking at them.

And now, dear reader, I ask you to decide if she took them in and gave them bowls of soup and useful work to do. And would that make everything right and pure again? Would it turn the tide against the destruction of the forest? Would it make other people start treating each other and their home well?

Your answer likely tells much about your life philosophy and about your faith in humanity or at least about the image you want to project.

And each of you will probably have someone you are ready to blame for the troubles in this story. Conservatives are likely to blame Gaia herself. She took in too many children after all. She should have known that was going to be a problem. She over-extended herself and essentially deserved what she got.

Liberals might well blame the grown-up children for being ungrateful and not looking out for each other, for forgetting that they did in fact owe someone something for what they had. Radicals are likely to blame the whole system, the influx of people, the construction of the town, the existence of factories and those who cut down trees and showed the children bright toys.

And yet when you make this story human. When Gaia too is a person, we can see that each of these blamable characters did only what seemed entirely reasonable and ethical at the time. Even those who built factories and cut down trees were children looking for a better life and believing they owed nothing for their life.

And Gaia? She gave and gave and gave until she lashed out at her children with harsh and unfair discipline. But you must realize that this Gaia does not live only in a nice safe country with a foster-care system. She lives in the slums of Bangladesh and the streets of Syria. She lives where children are truly hungry. She gives and gives because without her, the children really would die.

Here is the thing. We are all the children of Gaia. We all take and take from the earth. And the earth gives and gives until she is worn out and broken, just like an old self-sacrificing mother. And now she lashes out, usually unfairly with storms and drought and wild fires. And some of us want to come back, knocking on her door and promising to be good and feed the goats and tend the little ones, while the human world goes on grinding up the forest and the ecosystem that keeps us all alive.

And the question is what happens next in this story.

Honoring names and their stories

I find the rituals and traditions around names in different cultures fascinating. I have two countries and as a result two very different cultures concerning names.

In the Czech Republic, where I live and where my children were named, there is a deeply ingrained tradition governing first names. Each day of the calendar year is associated with a different first name and thus each person has a “name day.”

In the days before Facebook, it was assumed that most of your friends and acquaintances wouldn’t know your birthday, so people gave you small gifts on your name day instead. Birthdays were primarily a family affair or something for small children.

Creative Commons image via Pixabay

Creative Commons image via Pixabay

It sounds nice. But there is always a catch to seemingly quaint cultural rituals. In order to keep this system functional, there is a very limited number of names one can give to one’s child. You see, over time many of the names on the calendar went out of style (Bonifac, for instance) but a day (May 14, in that case) still belongs to that name because of historical honor and tradition. In actual fact there are scarcely two dozen reasonably possible modern names in the calendar for each gender.

And if you think kids have to endure names like Suzy G. and Suzy H. in classrooms in the English speaking world, you should see the Czech classrooms where six little girls are named Eliška and five little boys are named Honza.

In the United States on the other hand, the current trend is toward the most creative names possible. Often a celebrity will name their child some mixed up combo that sounds catchy and the next few years will see hordes of little Kiaras and Blazes emerging from maternity wards.

When I was a kid it was mostly only hippies who engaged in this creative art of naming children. Each sub-culture had their standbys, often no more diverse than the Czechs. And one could tell a lot about a person’s background by their name, and that most definitely included us flowery-named hippie kids.

But now half the kids in America have names that would have indicated hippie parents a generation ago and some kids have truly bizarre names, such as little Abcde, who had an unfortunate encounter with airline personnel last year.

I’ll admit that I err on the side of freedom and creativity in the Great Name Debate. Sure, I got teased for my name as a kid. (Hint: I was called “air-head” a lot.) But that was definitely the least of my bullying worries, even though my name was distinctly strange for the conservative, small-town milieu of the 1980s. My name was not the biggest problem by a long shot. My clothes, my disability, my family, my homemade lunch, my glasses, my opinions, my big mouth, my grades… in short, everything else was a much bigger problem.

So, I proffer my own criteria for a good baby name—it should have a story.

That simple. It is great if that story is that you are named after Great Aunt Elizabeth who traveled the world and helped people. It’s fine if you are named John, because a whole string of your ancestors were. It’s also fine if you’re named Michael because none of your ancestors were and your parents were rebellious and loved a hard rock singer named Mike-something. But a name should have a story—good, bad or ugly,

Stories are important. And if that story hurts, you should be allowed to choose a new name and a new story.

My given name is Arie Anna Meadowlark. No kidding. Arie was for an old lady in the Foxfire books which my parents liked. Anna was my undercover, fool-the-muggles (i.e. non-hippies, no we didn’t really have muggles back then but might as well have) name. And Meadowlark was my mandatory family nature name, reflecting the mountain meadows around the place where I was born.

I love this. I don’t go around touting Meadowlark as my name in all contexts, and I have spent my entire life either correcting people’s pronunciation of “Arie” or more recently explaining abashedly that I answer to about six different variants with no hard feelings. Complicated names can be a bit irritating, but the fact of having a story makes up for it.

Creative Commons image via Pixabay

Creative Commons image via Pixabay

Do I like the story my parents laid on me this way? Well, I’ve never actually read the Foxfire books. I never really used Anna as my name on job applications as envisioned by my parents. And Meadowlark doesn’t fit on the vast majority of bureaucratic forms the world over, leaving me with many complicated discussions in far flung offices with grumpy officials. But yeah, I like that my name has a story and I don’t mind the one I got.

My children’s names have stories. They each mean something. And moreover they each had to be fought for because in the Czech system neither of them fit neatly enough into the calendar. I had to appeal, pay heavy fees and go head to head with the national linguist and name czar of the Czech Republic to get only mildly creative names that sound both vaguely Czech and moderately American, while being meaningful to their Romani heritage.

In case I didn’t have enough name troubles, now that I am setting out on another trans-Atlantic voyage with my children after three years on one continent, I find myself assembling the papers to prove that they are in fact my children, given that we don’t have the same last name.

Why not?

I am very much still married to their father. But back when I was 24 and making the decision about what to put on my marriage certificate, I was two things a lot more than I was a wife. I was a feminist and a journalist.

The feminist in me was outraged by the injustice that women are supposed to change their names and carry around documentation proving they have a right to their birth certificate and educational qualifications for the rest of their lives while men don’t have to. I also thought my family history and pride was every bit as important as his.

I magnanimously offered him my last name, which frankly would have been a more practical option, since Blažková (the ový ending is mandatory for women in Czech) is not an easy last name to be saddled with in the English speaking world, whereas Farnam would have been fine for a man in Czechia or America. But of course, he refused.

In the end, it was my journalism and writing career that made changing my name most difficult. Certainly, plenty of writers use pen names but it is more of a hassle than most people think. I did not want to change my name just as I was earning “a name for myself” as an international stringer. And I didn’t even want to clue colleagues in to the fact that I was married or even a woman on some long-distance jobs. There were (and still are) reasons, especially in a profession like international journalism to keep these details to one’s self.

So, I kept my name, which means that when I go through customs with my kids, we’ll each have different last names from the American perspective, because Czech male and female last names are different, so not even my kids entirely share a last name. My son is a Blažek and my daughter is a Blažková.

And again, I don’t entirely mind. There are some prickly practical issues with all of this naming confusion. But they also give us a story. If a person who did not know us looked at our names, there would be many mysteries but also some things that would give clues about who we truly are—a cross-cultural, bilingual, nature-loving family. And that is how it should be. Our names give clues to our souls.

Plenty of people today change their names, either officially or unofficially to take on a particular image. I find that this happens a lot in Pagan circles and in activism. Pagans take on spiritual or magical names which are all designed to be mystical, powerful and glorious. In the end, they fall into highly predictable patterns and give any experienced person some insight into which tradition the owner of the name might belong to and what their interests are.

The same goes with activist or artist names. They tell a chosen story, something we want to portray about ourselves. Just as my family’s names hint at things crucial to our identities, the names chosen for a particular path offer clues to the soul.

Although I am very active both as a Pagan and as an activist, I have never even really been tempted to choose a magical, spiritual or activist name. I’ve been asked why not on quite a few occasions. Maybe it is that I feel my name already has a story. It already has power through that story.

If people either don’t know or don’t care for the story their given name tells, then that might be a good reason to choose a new one. Like the affirmations of new age psychology (which does work surprisingly well on most people, like it or not) a new name with a new story can really change a person’s life.

I won’t ever make fun of anyone’s name. I don’t care how corny or contrived it may sound. If you chose it, you had reasons. If you didn’t choose it, you certainly shouldn’t be mocked for it.

I know many people will point out some extraordinarily silly examples of modern names to try to tempt me to laughter. My conviction still stands. Those strange names particularly have a story, even if it is just a story about immature and unprepared parents. Stories matter and their people matter. I honor names, their stories and their people.

The modern-day hearth IS the kitchen table

When my husband and I realized the dream of owning our own home 15 years ago, the first thing I did was get a kitchen table.

And this wasn’t just any old table. It had to be THE table. I felt that in my bones.

I grew up in two houses. The first one was little more than a shack. The kitchen table was in the living room and it was makeshift, a piece of plywood on round logs stood up on end. But everything happened at that table. It was the only writing surface in the cabin. It was the place we made things, ate, celebrated holidays, had important talks…

When my father finally finished building “the big house” after ten years, we had a real table in a nook between three big windows next to the kitchen. The table itself was made from the heart of an ancient pie-cherry tree, loving known as “Grandmother cherry tree” to the local children. It is solid enough to dance on and continues to be the beating heart of the Farnam clan, the point to which everyone returns from distant travels and other homes, and the place friends come back to. When you sit at the old cherry-wood table, you know you’re home.

So, I knew the table had to be special. Fortunately, I had the perfect solution. An Egyptian carpenter in Prague was a friend. I commissioned him to build a table to my specifications—eight feet long and four feet wide, and yes, strong enough to dance on if the occasion should ever demand it.

Creative Commons image by Peter Miller

Creative Commons image by Peter Miller

My carpenter friend fell sick and struggled to finish the table and the cabinets I had commissioned before leaving the country for a long convalescence. The result was that the table legs don’t exactly match the floor tiles underneath and the table rocks. So, for fifteen years, I’ve put folded up newspapers under one corner to keep it steady.

But otherwise it is one excellent table. I do actually stand on it regularly—to hang bundles of herbs from the ceiling. And it feels as steady as the floor, thanks to those newspapers and its massive wooden slab.

In that time my table has become a bit battered. I loved it when it glowed with a fine even finish. But since then it has been chopped by knives, hammered on by nutcrackers, drawn on and carved by children, burned by ritual candles reaching the ends of their wicks and scorched by many a hot pan. There are marks I can run my fingers over and bring back a family dinner or incident as clear as day. It has become the heart of my home as well, maybe not as heavy a draw as the great cherry-wood table far away in Oregon, but still worthy.

When we built our house, I was also adamant that we must have a wood stove of some kind, even if we planned to heat mostly through environmentally friendly electrical systems. I thought that the wood stove was the heart of a home, after all. Both of my childhood homes had stoves and in the case of the “big house” even a real stone hearth with broad lava rocks and a curved wooden mantle.

I absorbed from the culture, stories and lore the idea of the hearth as the place of greatest importance in the home, even though experience didn’t bear it out. In my first childhood home, the wood stove was an ugly brown monstrosity that lurked near the door. We never sat around it and the only time it was of primary importance was the few times that a major winter storm knocked out the power and we couldn’t pump water out of the well. We then had to cut chunks of ice and heat them in a metal laundry tub on the wood stove, because the kitchen propane stove was too small.

Even the massive and beautiful hearth in the big house of my childhood is not the heart of the family. It is technically in the center of the house and it takes up an inordinate amount of room. It is where various things are displayed and on some winter evenings people do sit in front of it. But most of the year it just gathers dust.

I see many Pagan blogs and books encouraging modern Pagans to treat their electric or propane kitchen stoves or their radiators like a hearth. We are encouraged to make a small altar near them to the hearth goddess, house spirits or ancestors and to approach work at the stove with reverence. While I don’t see any harm in that I find the comparison to the ancient symbol of the hearth to be a mismatch.

The radiators that carry central heating to the rooms of a house today are so far from the concept of a hearth that trying to treat them as such is often depressing. I’ve done so in hotel rooms and while there was nothing better to do, the concept just wasn’t there. They heat the room. For part of the year, they have a purpose. The rest of the year, they are inert. In warmer areas there is no heating system at all and more likely to be an air-conditioner.

The kitchen stove is a closer concept. At least we cook there. That is where we prepare the food to nurture our families. For many people who are the primary cook in a household, the kitchen stove can take on great importance. But the fact is that it is primarily that person who feels it. It is not actually the center of the home or family. It is part of how we process food. It isn’t meaningless, but it doesn’t have the central importance that the hearth once had.

The ancient hearth was the source of warmth. It was also the place where food was prepared. But its key importance was as the magnet that drew the family or clan together. Certainly it drew them because of the warmth and the food. But it’s most important function was as that beating heart of the basic social unit.

The Pagan concept of hospitality grows out of that. When we talk about giving weary travelers or those in need a place by the hearth, we don’t mean just that we should give them food and shelter. In so far as that practice is crucial to many cultures, it is more about taking someone into the family or community, offering them not just the physical but the social, emotional and spiritual sanctuary of the group.

To be banished from the hearth is to be truly outcast. There is an element of physical loss of sustenance and warmth but it is much more the feeling of rejection and social ostracism that make that such a terrible concept.

And that is why I say that today, the kitchen table is much more the equivalent of the hearth. That is where most people gather. It is a place connected to food and family, home and unity. In some homes the television may play a close second, if the family mostly gathers there. Still with a television, the focus is never on the family. There is never a circle around it by definition. And so, I argue that the table is the best modern equivalent we have.

The sad truth is that far too many homes don’t even have a kitchen table or any other gathering and eating place anymore. Far too many people, particularly those who find themselves trapped in poverty, lack the basic equipment and spaces to cook or eat food at home. They are forced to eat ultra-processed food and this brings with it a whole host of negative health effects. It also generally means that these same people have no place that is the equivalent of the ancient hearth, a symbol shared by every human community on earth with crucial ancestral importance.

That fact may have deep psychological and cultural results, as we not only grow further from nature but also further from the deepest roots of our sense of community and hospitality. For that reason, the hearth as a symbol gains even greater importance. Those of us who do have a kitchen table or another equivalent gathering place do well to honor that place and recognize the great privilege and fortune that having it reflects.

The next time you give thanks for a meal and thank the cooks, the farmers, the animals, the plants, the land and the ancestors, spare a thought for the table itself, the tree it is made of and the hearth it has become.

Not all giants are ancient

There is something in Pagan cyberspace that has been niggling at me for awhile like one of those little parasitic worms that got under my kid’s skin a couple of summers ago after she went dipping in a scummy pond.

That is the fad of dissing hippies.

OK, I’m ready to duck already .But this has got to be said. Gerald Gardener may or may not have started a modern witchcraft tradition and a lot of other big names contributed to the nice wave of Pagan-friendly public sentiment and popular trendiness we now enjoy, but without the counterculture movement, the New Age, and yes, the hippies, we would not be experiencing a western world in which Pagan spirituality and culture are both widespread and generally well-accepted.

Image via Pixabay

Image via Pixabay

Without the cultural developments of these movements that are so widely ridiculed among Pagans, Wicca would most likely have remained a tiny fringe interest of a few wealthy eccentrics. Traditional witchcraft would have stayed where it was for centuries, losing ground and scrambling to preserve shreds of knowledge. And non-Hindu, non-indigenous Paganism would have remained in the history books.

Don’t get me wrong. I am as irritated by “fluffy bunny” New Age platitudes as any hard polytheist.. Yes, we intersect with the New Age sometimes and it can cause a bit of friction and some eye-rolling on both sides. But let’s face it. Other movements have impacts on the social environment we live in and even on us.

The New Age not only sheltered a lot of early Pagan, Wiccan and witchcraft books and tools in bookstores for several decades. It is only in the past twenty years that a meaningful line could be drawn between modern Paganism and the New Age.

I will grant that New Age spirituality has little directly in common with modern Paganism outside of a few visual trappings. But many people came to Paganism through contact with New Age authors, stores, publications and events.

Beyond the New Age movement, the wider counterculture of the 1960s and 1970s had an even deeper impact on society, opening up the possibility of acceptance and widespread information on small and growing spiritual movements of all kinds, including ours.

That brings me to my own background. My parents and most of the adults I grew up around were on the rural, financially poor fringes of both the counterculture and the New Age. They didn’t have the connections, wealth or geographic positioning to be part of early Wicca and other more recognized Neopagan groups. Instead they were what are today (usually disparagingly) called hippies.

Specifically, my father and mother arrived on a rocky piece of land in Northeastern Oregon shortly before I was born with little more than a broken down old truck to their name. There was a weathered one-room school house on the property, which they shared with another family—until it burned to the ground one November night, while they were out, due to a faulty DYI woodstove.

My folks were left in the snow with my two-year-old brother and my mom pregnant with me. My dad built our first house—often referred to as a “shack” by outsiders—around and over the old truck, which no longer ran. That’s where I grew up, learning to grow food, pay attention to natural cycles and call the quarters on important occasions.

We weren’t Pagan in the ways most widely recognized today, but we were in the ways that actually matter. And we were not alone.

As I traveled around the world as a journalist, I met countless adult children of the hippies—some better adjusted than others. Some adopted their parents’ values and some rejected them outright. But they all share a new kind of cultural assumption of fluidity and diversity—whether they like it or not—that has fostered the modern Pagan and witchcraft movements.

Why do I care if Pagans make fun of hippie names or other symbols? Can’t I just take a joke? Lighten up?

It bothers me. Maybe it is because it is part of my own roots. Maybe I’m not pure enough in my rejection of all things New Age. But there is something here Pagans should pay attention to. These too are our ancestors. They are the ones on whose shoulders we stand. Not all giants are ancient or even very tall. They sometimes just muddled through harsher times so that we can have what we have today.

Think on it the next time you laugh at a hippie name or a fluffy bunny chant.

Why do daily spiritual practice?

It has been some time since I wrote about my daily spiritual practice. And I think it’s time I fully admitted that I have become a solitary Pagan, though I didn’t set out with this end in mind.

Those of my family and kin who practice a similar path are five thousand miles away. I was rejected by the only coven I ever actually managed to meet in person (supposedly because I wasn’t interested in angels). I tried to join several local Pagan groups and had to opt out of all of them because of either latent white supremacy or heavy-handed ego trips within the leadership.

There are no more publicly contactable groups to try within reasonable transportation distance. I tried to start a local group three times and was laughed off of forums and left alone with my circle of boulders that I had moved to my yard for this purpose.


And so here I am. Just me, my garden, my chickens, my big rocks and my emphatically disinterested husband and children.

I once hoped that my spirituality might bring me community, mutual support, friendship, family unity and even possibly a livelihood. Spiritual traditions and communities sometimes do bring these things and many of us want them. Some go into a religion or tradition specifically for the social standing, the image or a career.

I didn’t go in with a conscious agenda, but subconsciously I now think I did hope for at least the community part when I took up serious spiritual practice.

In a way, it might be a good thing in the end that my subconscious desires didn’t pan out. My spirituality has been stripped of all accouterments and fringe benefits.

It is what it is and what I get out of it will be only that which comes directly from the spirituality itself.

Do I really believe there are gods? Does my matron goddess really watch over me? Are the spirits of the land there and if so do they give a flying crap about my offerings? Does magic work in any shape or form? Does my spirituality matter at all? Does my life matter?

A solitary Pagan has to face the questions of the soul full on.

There are no pep talks and theory doesn’t matter much. From where I stand, what matters most is practice. And for me that means daily practice.

I have technically been a practicing Pagan since I was a kid, but for much of my life it was pretty sporadic. As a young adult, I was focused on my journalism career and traveling adventures. I had a tiny kit with a few stones and a traveling-spirit doll that I carried everywhere with me and propped up on window sills and against tree trunks from Ecuador to Nepal.

But in those years I didn’t ask the tough questions. Life was chaotic. But in one important way, it was easier. I had only myself to look out for.

Now times are harder in general and I have kids, a husband, students, animals, a garden and a house to look out for. I can’t avoid the tough questions any longer.

I’m in my third year of intensive daily practice. It has changed a little since I started but only in the details. And as a solitary Pagan it is the real heart of my practice, even if I occasionally do rituals with family members or friends as well as specific spiritual work elsewhere.

I do my main spiritual work in the morning, if possible before the rest of the family is awake. I light a candle on the altar by the hearth, say a quick greeting to the light of the new day and to the goddesses of light, burn a bit of a cleansing herb bundle and do a brief visualization for grounding, protection and blessings for ancestors and home guardians.

Then I get down the daily cards from the kitchen altar (a Tarot card drawn the day before and a card showing the exact moon phase) and take them (and a cup of green tea) to the main altar in my office. There I do a longer meditation focused on connection with my matron goddess. I make offerings, light candles and sip tea while reciting a chant.

I have been studying the goddesses of many cultures over the past two years. I study and make offerings to a different goddess each week. Then I renew the moon card and draw a new Tarot card for the day, which depending on how positive or negative it is I take as either a blessing or as guidance about potential pitfalls to be aware of during the day ahead. Then I write notes, noting down any divination or working I have done, making note of my daily Tarot card and physical and emotional state of being. I also write down the weather and outside temperature as well as whatever work I have done in the garden in my almanac and moon calendar.

These studies and notes keep me consciously aware of natural cycles and help to slowly improve my abilities in herbalism, gardening and divination.

When there is time I may follow up with a working for prosperity, artistic inspiration, healing, binding of threats or protection of my family, animals or garden or to celebrate the turn of the seasons. Occasionally I’ll do divination on a pressing question through Tarot, i-Ching, Runes or Ogham.

On good days, this practice leaves me feeling cleansed and invigorated, ready to take on anything. Not every day is a good day though. There are plenty of days when I have to hurry through my practice with little time for anything but jotted notes and rote recitation. On other days I’m slow to wake up, sick or nursing psychic wounds from the harsh social environment I live in.

On the hurried days, I go through the motions easily enough, now after so much recitation. Very rarely I devote just a few seconds and cut back most of my practice if I have to leave the house before six in the morning.

On the emotionally hard days, I muddle through, stopping and starting, spending overly long periods staring blankly at the wall or into a candle flame. Sometimes I cry or argue with my gods or question or rage in anger.

Not every day is good. In fact, the hard days seem to come ever more often. But I am rarely tempted to shirk my daily practice. The calming effect is clear, and beyond that, I like the warm glow of candles and the smell of herbs and incense. For those few moments, I feel that all is right in my world and that I can be who and what I have always wanted to be. The failures and disappointments of life fall away. The chaos is temporarily quiet.

Is that enough? Is that a good reason to spend 15 to 30 minutes in front of an altar every morning? My atheist husband sounds irritated and dismissive when he does mention my practice, which only happens in the context of arguments over who is more stressed and who should take on some new household task or problem.

If one truly believes there is nothing beyond the physical world and the zapping neurons in our brains, then we must rely only on the calming effects of this meditative practice to give it purpose. Supposedly it has health benefits, but it’s unlikely that I’m doing it to the specifications of whoever studies such things.

My thealogy is pretty shaky. I do believe there is more to the world than the physical realm. I have had bits and pieces of evidence of something beyond. But while I love and revere my goddess and enjoy studying goddesses of the world, I’m not exactly sure what I think a god or goddess is. I have theories—mostly pretty unorthodox theories. I want to believe in the Otherworld and the Good Neighbors or spirits of the land or both. I study on them but there are so many different perspectives and without a group to hold me to one line, it is easy to get lost.

I want to care for my ancestors, even though my personal ancestry is uninspiring. I still stand on their shoulders, whatever the price. And there are ancestors of my craft and of social justice movements that I honor.

Beyond all that, I have never managed to believe in a purely materialist reality. I don’t know for sure if my spiritual practice really brings me much more than some added calming, grounding and centering. I just know that when most of my life feels like I am carrying a backpack loaded with rocks, my spiritual practice lets me set it down briefly and it sometimes feels lighter when I pick it up again to go on with the day.

Before I committed to doing spiritual practice every day, the practice I did often felt like part of the load of rocks. It was hard to get to. It was one more task that I felt like I should do but often put off behind other more urgent practical tasks because it could technically wait. I’d go far too long without visiting my altar at all. My tools and books would get misplaced and it would then be much harder to return to it.

I made a commitment to do daily practice partly because the signals were that it was asked of me by my matron goddess and partly as an experiment. I am not certain how much it is a requirement from a goddess. I have missed a rare day or two in the past two years. Once I was truly too sick with an extreme flu that killed my mother-in-law and left my children severely dehydrated. And I didn’t get any irritation from my goddess.

It’s more the experiment part of the commitment that turned out to be important. Sure, it was hard at first. There were days I didn’t want to. I was tired and too busy. But I did it and after a while the struggle eased. Now this is one thing I don’t have to struggle over.

I feel incomplete without my spiritual practice and I enjoy it. In the end, that’s the bottom line. Why do daily spiritual practice? What is the purpose of spirituality?

It is good. It fills a need. It helps when things are hard and uplifts when things are good.

The turf wars

TERFs, trans women, imperfect bodies and girl-power messaging

I have a daughter with special needs, who sees all the advertising and messages about women’s bodies in the media that I can’t entirely filter for her and takes it in without even the usual mild resistance most kids have.

It’s all literal to her. She believes every word: There is only one way to be pretty. You must have this accessory to be OK. You must have this shade of hair to be popular. Ditsy, smart friends are OK to have, but beauty standards and charisma are most crucial for the person at the center of the story. You are loved if you get a pile of presents that fills your entire living room on your birthday. Anything less is not love.

We’ve had many conversations on these topics to no effect. She has difficulty with auditory processing and memory. Conversations don’t mean much. Videos and ads designed by psychologists to get at the deepest parts of the brain have much more power. The media world is more real to her than reality.

Now she has budding breasts and she hates them. I found her using scissors to cut off her first bits of body hair. I take her on my lap and try to gently explain. I read her stories about girl power and great women of history. I try to be a counter-weight but I’m just one drop against a tsunami of images and messages at school and on every device that she gets her hands on when I’m not looking.

Meme about women's spiritual power of birth.jpg

My words are unscripted and analog. The videos are photoshopped and tailored by experts to addict. I’m losing ground every day.

The other day I posted a meme about the spiritual power of women, about creativity and the miracle of women’s fertility bringing new souls into the world. It featured a woman of color, breathtakingly beautiful in my view but not in line with Youtube standards. My daughter struggles with skin color a lot, being a trans-racially adopted child. I listen to her. I try to give her hope. This meme is a bit beyond her still, but it is a tiny shard of the mosaic of positive womanhood I am trying to build.

This is my world. I shared the image because this is what I want to support in the world.

What happened next is what has been happening a lot in my spiritual community in the past two years with girl-positive or woman-positive messages and images. I was rebuked by someone I respect in the Pagan community.

The image celebrated fertility and birth as a spiritual contribution of women. It did not include a caveat about how not all women have children. It did not backtrack to explain that trans-women don’t even have uteruses. Shame. Shame. Shame.

I was shocked at how deep the anger goes in me. I never could understand the TERF (Trans-exclusive Radical Feminists) concept before that moment. Why would anyone try to tell trans-women they weren’t “real women?” Why would anyone insist on a strict biological, limited concept of womanhood?

Ah, but to never be allowed to speak positively of women’s bodies? To relegate fertility and birth to a gross bodily function like farting, something a bit shameful that we should get over as quickly as possible and not talk about in public? Is this the price for including trans-women? Are you either TERF or anti-body.?

Until now, TERFs were mythical creatures I have never actually encountered in the wild, outside a few books from the 1970 and 1980s. I still haven’t met a real live TERF—a person who is a feminist AND is trans-phonic and/or homophobic. But the issue and the ostensible choice was being shoved in my face:

Choose! Your sense of ethical integrity and your trans friends or your relationship to your female body! Now! Choose! Shame on you for even hesitating!

I have a uterus. Little good it has done me. I have had extremely painful menstrual cramps since I was a young teen with no medical explanation and repeated anemia due to heavy bleeding. In addition, I had unexplained infertility. I spent six years fighting with my body with every technological weapon available in high-tech European universal health care, and no one could ever tell me why I couldn’t carry a child to term.

Do the TERFs think I’m a real woman?

I don’t really care if they do or not. TERF philosophy may have been briefly trendy in about 1993 but any remaining TERFs have clearly been pushed so far back into the underbrush that we’ll find them around the time we find the unicorns. They don’t appear to be a current threat to me or to my trans friends. Patriarchal images and messages degrading our bodies and souls most definitely are still a threat.

Additionally, when a friend puts out a post about the beauty of color or anything else visually amazing or spiritual, do I come along and slap them with a rebuke about the fact that there are blind people in the world, so somehow they should not mention such things? 

No, I don’t. I don’t even think it. And it isn’t that disability doesn’t carry as much social stigma as being trans.

I get flack every single day for being a blind person and almost no support or even tolerance in the Pagan community. I am excluded, talked down to, accused of faking or making it up, ignored, dismissed and socially marginalized. I don’t think I have ever seen a abled Pagan come to the defense of disabled Pagans and insist we must be included when we have been excluded all too often. Every little bit of adaptation or mere tolerance of presence that disabled Pagans have received was won through our own hard work and quiet—and even so resented—hand-raising.

On the other hand, trans awareness has grown exponentially in the Pagan community in the past several years, and that is a good thing. It will help all of us. I have been part of it, writing in defense of trans rights in the wider world and in Pagan communities.  The vast majority of people with disabilities are with you on this one. We know bodies don’t always do with they were supposed to.

I also have two close trans friends. But the fact is that I didn’t know one of them was trans for five years, because it isn’t actually something he has to deal with socially every single day if he doesn’t choose to, which he usually doesn’t. His transition was 20 years ago.

It affects him, certainly. Part of the reason the issue came up between us was that my husband and I as well as he and his wife were going through IVF at the same time, and everyone who goes through IVF asks other IVFers “What are you in for?” like prison inmates.


“Aw, man. That’s a raw deal. Me, it’s being trans.”

“ Well, shucks.. I wish I at least had a reason. I didn’t even get a jury trial.”

That’s not a direct transcription of the conversation, but you get the point.

Nature plays chaotic and diverse with bodies. You don’t always get what you bargained for at birth. That does not make you “less than” anyone else. It does not mean you should not celebrate your body or that others shouldn’t celebrate theirs.

There are many ways to be a woman. Just because many women give birth and it is a big part of being among women does not mean that those who don’t have children, for whatever reason, are less women. I couldn’t biologically have children no matter how hard I tried, even though I do have a uterus. That meme about women’s spiritual power of birth doesn’t offend me. Since I needed to have children and I was clearly meant to be a mother, I adopted them.

It does not make me feel any less of a woman because I didn’t give birth. It does not make me less in awe of birth and the creative power of women.

I did participate in birth. I was born. I was born from a uterus. We all share that.

And there is nothing wrong with it. It doesn’t make trans people “wrong” or veneration of women’s fertility “wrong.“ When talk of women and birth stings trans women or infertile women, are those who discuss it to blame? Are those who describe a beautiful piece of music as a spiritual treasure of all humanity to blame if a deaf person can’t relate?

I say no. Don’t rub it in when your body has some great power that another body may not have. There is no superiority and inferiority here. There is only primal awe. We are. Look at the amazing diversity of life! Isn’t it dazzling and infinitely discoverable?

The pain comes more from internalized, socially abusive doubt creeping in from a culture that has been divorced from nature and from our bodies. If you are a trans woman, there is a reason you are a woman. It may not be to give birth. But it is still woman-ness.  

There is something definable about being a woman. That’s why trans people care whether they are perceived as their true gender. If there was nothing that defined a woman, there would be no trans people. Fertility and birth are part of who we are, even if only a fractional part. It is not our whole but it is there. It is in our consciousness and in our ancestry. We don’t have to each fulfill every part of it personally to be a valid part of the whole.

So please stop the berating of people who say positive things about women.  We still live in a society where the biggest and loudest messages about women are very negative. And then along comes this undercurrent saying we can’t even say something positive about women because we aren’t all the same.

We are all different. The fact that I can’t see does not make me resent people who can.

As a person with a physical difference, I want to sit at the table, not dictate what is said at the table.  Yes, living in a sighted world is always going to be difficult for blind people. But I don’t insist that the whole world be adapted for blind people. That wouldn’t work out very well for my deaf friends.

Trans people are here. We accept them and love them. We can’t help that nature has made a world in which they are not the average, and in which giving birth is a gendered thing. 

My spirituality is tied to nature. Rather than ask that we ignore the gendered basis of human fertility, I would ask, as many Native Americans traditionally have, what spiritual lessons we can learn from the fact that gender is not a simple binary. Trans people should not feel excluded from Pagan fertility talk. They should be considered an integral part, those who carry and embody a deep mystery.

The nature of sunrise is to be unrealistically bright, full of promise and always recurring

Gray light seeps into the darkness. Ice glistens at the coldest hour of the day.

A breath--too cold but bringing a whisper of freedom.

Then a ribbon of brilliance along the horizon.

Creative Commons image by Nicolas Gent

Creative Commons image by Nicolas Gent

A quickened heartbeat.

Finally color--first pink, then peach and gold, spilling ever more rapidly, like cascading joyful music, like the chatter of children and birds, like waterfalls. The sky lights up.

Ice crystals glitter and sparkle. Every branch is outlined in light, the earth bright and crackling. Frozen mist curls in the low places, painting pictures of another world. The first footprints are precious but also a desecration. There's an urge to dance but cold muscles refuse.

This is sunrise in winter. The night is long and the sun is unnaturally, painfully bright. The nature of sunrise is to be too bright.

It is also its nature to be full of promise. There is a sense at the hour of daybreak that all things are possible. Goodwill and hope come swiftly, especially if there's coffee. 

We promise ourselves that things will go well today. We plan work and play, eager to cram in more than can possibly be accomplished in the hours ahead. Like New Year's resolutions, the plans of dawn are full of conviction and vigor before the lazy slug-a-beds of duties and troubles reawaken a little later.

This moment of fresh enthusiasm is necessary to the day, just as it is necessary to the year.

In some circles, it has become fashionable to ridicule New Year's resolutions. "We're all adults here after all. We know that people don't really improve their habits. They start but they don't last." 

It's the nature of sunrise to be too bright, too enthusiastic and ultimately illusive. 

And yet, there is one thing that "us grown-ups" tend to forget. It is also the nature of sunrise to be endlessly recurring. Sunrise may be just one moment and it's hope may be fleeting.

But it always comes back. And that is not fleeting.

That endures.

People don't improve their habits in one sunrise or one New Year's resolution. But they do in a hundred sunrises or a thousand. 

Five years ago, I started to change my habits. I got up early to do spiritual practice and meditation. At first it only happened sometimes. I tried to get up too early and greedily get many other things done before the children woke up and the lack of sleep brought me to my knees. 

I sprinted and faltered--for months at a time. I started again and again.

Now I have been getting up just a half hour early for three years. I've missed a few days due to acute illnesses but I can count those on my fingers.

These past three years have been among the hardest I've lived through, due to circumstances beyond my control. I don't know how I would have made it this far without those early morning moments of peace. 

I am deeply thankful for sunrises, particularly that they reliably return and never abandon me. 

Why do we strive to live morally and ethically?

“Why can’t I have all the presents?” one of my kids shrieks.

The tone isn’t joking the way you might think. She is demanding, furious, her face red and sweaty. For a moment, she is overcome with that primitive urge that seems to defy all ethics. I call it the “me-want-now” urge. We all know it, though we don’t always admit it and some of us bury it deeper than others.

“I want everything! They’re mine, not his!” She kicks toward her brother but I pull her away. He is often ready with sibling comebacks, but this one of those moments when his older sister shocks him into silence.

Some kids seem to be born with a moral compass on the most basic level. They have the urge too. but they also get that other people have it and that we’ve got to meet somewhere in the middle. Fair is fair. They can be persuaded to see the logic of “How would you feel if someone did that to you?”

But this is by no means a universal trait. And unfortunately, my kids aren’t among the budding saints of the world.

Creative Commons image via Pixabay

Creative Commons image via Pixabay

I not only have kids myself, I also teach preschool and early elementary ESL students. Two sisters ages 5 and 8, who I teach, are always cuddling. The older one looks out for the younger one—making sure she gets the colors of crayon she needs and that she’s dressed warmly to go out—but then insists on winning all the games in recompense. And most kids aren’t even that nice.

Between the current wave of right-wing, anti-compassion politics and my struggles with my own little humans, I have been thinking a lot on ethics lately..

We blithely talk about teaching children to know “right from wrong,” but increasingly it seems like adults in our world don’t know or at least wildly disagree on the subject. OK, most people—at least publicly—get behind the rules of not killing or physically harming people or stealing.

But every week I come across at least one online post declaiming on how wimps who are hurt by verbal bullying should grow a thicker skin—i.e. exclusionist opinions in direct opposition to what I know of as ethics. And clearly, while most of us think it isn’t okay to kill or steal, we go on buying products the production of which requires killing and stealing from the poorest people in the world.

What is it we really believe? And why would we strive to live morally and ethically even if we could agree on what it would entail?

Abrahamic religions have an answer that is so widely disseminated in the world today that I doubt there is a fluent English speaker who isn’t well versed in it, regardless of whether or not you follow one of those faiths. There is the carrot of Heaven and the stick of Hell. And each particular religion or specific sect has its set of commandments or moral rules saying what will be grounds for sentencing you to Hell or rewarding you with Heaven.

For those who believe literally in this Heaven and Hell thing, the ethical life may seem relatively simple. Follow the rules or you will suffer. It’s a fear doctrine with a bit of a possible reward held out—not unlike my methods with my children. “Stop kicking your brother or you will lose your video privileges and be banished to extra chores-ville!” I’m less eternal about it, but only because I—unlike the Abrahamic God—can’t manage to hold grudges and don’t have guards to enforce my Hell while I am otherwise occupied.

Another popular method is the Hindu concept of Karma. Some more sophisticated versions perceive Karma as primarily about providing specific lessons that one needs to learn. But there is always an element of “If you behave unethically, you will suffer as a result, possibly in another life, but eventually you will suffer.”

This may be conceived of as learning a necessary lesson in order to be more enlightened in a future incarnation or as straight-up karmic punishment, depending on who you listen to, but either way, it’s a method of enforcement.

My parenting often has a Karma-like element too. “If you break your toys, you won’t have them. If you use up all your time fighting, you won’t have time to play. If you break someone else’s toy, you’ll have to work it off.”

In parenting circles, we like to call this “natural consequences” rather than punishment. Just like we like to call the Heaven and Hell version, “reward-based discipline.”

Every reward entails the possibility of its denial. And every natural consequence that a parent enforces is only one step removed from punishment.

It may be that immaturity leads many of us to require this kind of external moral compass. As children we almost all need it to some degree. Many adults still appear to need it. Without constraints, most humans don’t act particularly ethically. This is why we have law enforcement after all.

Some people will argue that morality and ethics are nothing but social constructs, and thus somehow suspect and questionable. Many animals don’t appear to have ethics, these ethics deniers argue.

But that is a belief primarily espoused by those humans who spend very little time with animals or in nature. In fact, very few animals kill beyond self-defense, the need for food or competition for procreation, i.e. beyond absolute necessity. Some do but most do not. Many animals respect the territorial rights of others with only exceptional outbreaks of violent struggle. And recent research is showing a remarkable number of animal species that are capable of compassion, loyalty, empathy, revenge, community cooperation, communication and occasionally even heroism.

So it isn’t really possible to say that ethics is a merely human conceit.

A secular, humanist perspective acknowledging this science often simply claims that we want to do “what is right” without any basis for it. And perhaps those young children and animals who act ethically—seemingly without threat or reward—may be proof that this principle has some traction. This reason for ethics is pleasingly uncomplicated, but often there are hidden reasons.

My extraordinarily well-behaved eight-year-old student wants the approval of adults. She is highly motivated for approval and enjoys being praised more than most kids. She also enjoys winning though, which is why she insists on winning every game over her younger sister.

There is a reward being sought and a consequence being avoided. The reward of praise and approval and the consequence of disapproval. The fact that her reward and consequence equation is a bit less tangible and forceful than that required by some kids does not negate the fact that it is still there. She glows under adult praise and so pursues it.

It is still an external reward but perhaps it is easier to transition from such a non-tangible reward to an internal reward and thus to ethical independence. That is why parents often try to motivate children through praise alone, hoping that our children will not always need a carrot or a stick.

As a follower of Pagan gods and a seeker for spiritual insight in ancient traditions, I am often fascinated by the ethical systems of ancient cultures. Many do not appear particularly moral to us today. The concepts of ethics were different and some ancient cultures were quite hierarchical and ruthless. But the deeper you go into tribal, hunter-gatherer traditions, the less hierarchical and the less external reward-consequence thinking you find.

It is not that there is no possible reward for ethical acts but in these ancient cultures there is a heavier reliance on internal rewards, those we give only to ourselves in the form of self-respect and s healthy self image.

This is what I am interested in. Whether we call it enlightenment, awakening or honor, it all comes down to one thing—self-respect.

Within reason, children need consequences and rewards. And in law enforcement, these mechanisms seem necessary as well. But when it comes to most ethics and my own deepest beliefs, I want to live my life ethically based not on a hoped-for reward or a feared consequence from outside, but rather because my self-respect demands it.

Unless I am within a specific tradition that uses a different term to mean the same thing, I use the more universal term ‘self-respect” because that most clearly gets at the meaning. My goal is to live well, ethically and morally in such a way that I can feel unreserved self-respect.

This is one reason I follow an earth-centered spiritual path with ties to ancient cultures. This spiritual approach lends itself to the ethics of self-respect. I strive to teach my children these values as well. It is not easy in a world filled with instant, external gratification from consumerism and passive entertainment. But when they do well, my first response is not a material reward or even my approval, but a comment to notice how they feel inside.

Gods and silent phone calls

My phone rings. I pick it up and glance at the ID. The name of an immigrant friend flashes on the screen. I push "answer" but there is no sound. 

"Hello," I say. "Hello? Can you hear me?"

Nothing. It is likely her kids are playing with the phone or it's in her purse. My name starts with A and I probably get more than my fair share of these calls. But then again something may be wrong with the phone. she may have accidentally pressed mute or it could be a temporary glitch. I've also had plenty of those calls. 

And because my friend is an immigrant in a hostile country and living with a person who physically abused her in the past, I am also on alert for worse scenarios. A silent call could have signals in it.

Image via  Pixabay

Image via Pixabay

A lot of people when they get a silent call like this, they'll keep repeating "Hello? Hello?" often with an irritated tone and then hang up. They would never want to be rude but this response is automatic.

But they don't think through the equation. They focus only on their own experience. We are pestered by a phone, it rings, we pick it up and there is silence--frustrating, confusing and time-wasting silence.  Meanwhile the other person is A. not there and the phone is in their pocket or in the hands of a two-year-old, or B. they are there and yelling "Hello? Hello? Can you hear me?" into their own phone, or C. they accidentally dialed the number in a meeting or a theater and they are frantically pressing mute and trying to hang up, or D. they’ve been kidnapped and they are trying to signal for help.

None of these scenarios justifies the irritation and none are helped by the chaotic responses.

They can either hear you or they cannot hear you. Those are the only real options.

I don't know if my friend can hear me or not, but if she can’t hear me there is no reason to yell into the phone with irritation and nothing I say matters. If she can’t hear me, I should mainly get off the phone reasonably quickly, so as not to exhaust her phone credit.

On the other hand, if she can hear me, what I say does matter. If there is a phone glitch and she’s struggling with it too, my irritation could easily be understood as frustration with her. When you question whether or not the other side can hear you, your words must reflect an assumption that they can, because your response will then be either helpful or neutral in either reality.

That is the only response that makes any sense, and it can lower your own stress in case your words are only for yourself.

After I repeat "Hello" three times, I ask slowly and with enunciation "Can you hear me? I can't hear you." The connection could be bad, so it is worth speaking slowly and clearly. But still I speak with a tone that assumes my friend is there.

I wait a moment, being quiet so that I can hear even a muted reply or tapping or any signal of trouble. Nothing. I repeat the routine once. Then I speak clearly into the phone, "I can't hear you. Try calling again. I will wait. And in five minutes I'll call you back."

Then I hang up, wait five minutes and call my friend back. This time it was a phone glitch. My friend could hear me but I couldn’t hear her. She tried to call back but didn’t get through. There is no emergency. We connect and get on with the day.

When I first began sitting at my altar in the mornings for daily prayer and meditation, the experience was somewhat like that silent phone call.

A lot of people don't believe in literal deities and I was not certain about them either. I felt like I was listening to a silent phone line. There were signs, things that made me feel the presence of something greater than me. Sometimes I would even get a caller ID of sorts and know specific the name or identity of a deity that might be there. But not much more. 

I had noticed that people often speak to the gods the same way they talk during a muted phone call. They demand, exclaim and shout, but then assume no one is there. 

To me that approach doesn't make any more sense than it does on the phone. Either my gods can hear me or they cannot. Just because I can’t hear them, doesn’t mean they can’t hear me.

If they cannot hear me or simply are not real, then what I say matters only to me. My experience of stress or comfort matters only to me. If, on the other hand, they are there and can hear me, then what I say may matter a great deal. 

Since we cannot know, cannot call the deities back as easily as we call our friends back, it seems most reasonable to assume that they are there and they can hear. 

Since I started going on this premise, assuming that my matron goddess can hear me, I have slowly felt a greater connection.

I recently made my own Ogham sticks and because my matron goddess is an Irish goddess, these sticks seem an appropriate divination tool. Since then it is as if the phone connection has opened a little. I get snatches of conversation, the odd clear reply, a bit of static but more importantly, I know someone is there.

It may not be easy, but we can call back.

When a school declares a religion

On my first day at Catholic school, a nun in an actual black habit with a severe white head covering escorted me up four flights of stairs and into a tenth-grade classroom. 

I grew up in rural Eastern Oregon and I had never even seen a real nun decked out in traditional garb. I also wasn't Catholic or even a Christian. 

The grim-faced nun said something to a harried teacher. I could only pick up a word or two in their sloshy Hessen-flavored German. The teacher nodded toward the empty seat nearest the door. A brown-haired girl stood up from the seat that shared my new desk and grinned at me.

Creative Commons image by Sofie of

Creative Commons image by Sofie of

I have rarely been so grateful for a ready welcome. 

During the first break, I asked my seatmate in shaky German if everyone at the school was Catholic. She shook her head sympathetically. She knew a little English and between the two languages she conveyed that a few students were Protestant and I was seated with her because we were both among the Protestant minority. My mouth went a little dry, as she explained that only official Catholics and Protestants could attend our elite school. 

Slowly I untangled what had happened to bring me to be the only Pagan kid at a German Catholic school. I was an exchange student, but my family had never had the money for excessive luxuries like that.

A year earlier I had come up with the notion that I wanted to study abroad and had applied for scholarships relentlessly until I received one from the bland-sounding Educational Foundation. My mother and I had fundraised the rest of the money, largely by selling Fimo jewelry that we made ourselves. 

One of the last hurdles to my dream had been an intimidating packet of papers to be filled out by parents to detail my background. I remembered the evening when my mother, bent over the stack of papers, had asked me which religion she should put me down for.

The dilemma did not need to be spelled out. We had our beliefs but they were quiet and not made public in any way in our rural corner of early 1990s America. 

"Other," I suggested. "Or none." 

"There is no 'other' or 'none' box," she said. As it turned out there were only four options, Catholic, Protestant, Jewish or Buddhist. I was sorely tempted to check Buddhist just to mess with them. But cooler heads--i.e. my mother's--prevailed. She had been raised Protestant after all, so that option would have to do.

That was only the beginning though. When I arrived in Germany, I discovered that the EF staff had not communicated to my prospective school or even the host family that I am legally blind. I can see enough to tell what color the nun's habit is or that my seatmate is smiling when she's right up in my face, but even that's a stretch. 

At the time, regulations in Germany did not allow for the integration of students with physical disabilities into standard schools, so the school I was supposed to attend rejected me at the last minute. I was scheduled to leave the host family and live at a highly restrictive residential school for the blind for my much-dreamed year abroad.  But then this rigorous Catholic school had intervened and accepted me. 

I was suitably relieved, though worried to find out that the reason I was accepted was that false checkmark in the religion section of my paperwork. My papers made me a Protestant and the only thing that saved me from expulsion was the fact that I couldn't speak German well enough to give away my immense ignorance of all things Christian. And by the time I learned German, my Protestant seatmate had become my co-conspirator in avoiding detection, instructing me on how to cross myself backwards the way German Protestants apparently did and other niceties.

Despite the initial shock though, the rest of my year at Catholic school was surprisingly untroubled. There were a few incidents with students or teachers who resented me because of my vision impairment but no trouble over religion.

I had to attend Protestant religion classes once a week, but these mostly resembled a specialized history class. Otherwise, the school was as free-thinking as any school I had ever attended in rural Oregon. 

Instead of standing for the pledge of allegiance in the mornings, we stood and crossed ourselves while reciting a simple prayer. I did not find the experience much different from the mandatory patriotism of American schools.

The nuns were no doubt strict, but I managed to stay out of trouble, so I never really found out. And on the one occasion when political events intervened at school and students all over the country staged walkouts to protest anti-immigrant violence, the nuns handed out free candles and joined us. 

Today as controversy rages in the United States over religion in schools, I can't help but compare my experience in Catholic school to my experiences in supposedly secular schools in the United States.

As a kid, I never had to be told not to come out of the broom closet at school. Kids bullied other kids just because they didn't go to the same church. There was never a school holiday program that wasn't specifically Christian in theme, history books always took the Christian side of conflicts and several teachers lectured us on being good Christians throughout my school career. 

Today when I hear calls for faith-based schools in the US, I'm not entirely sure they would be worse. At the very least, one would know what one was getting into, as I had with the Catholic school in Germany. There would likely be less proselytizing because everyone would already assume the students had the "correct" religion. Religion classes would likely be added,

My own children attend a public, secular school in the Czech Republic. (Yes, that's next door to Germany, and yes, I did end up here as an indirect result of that year abroad in high school.) The Czech Republic is statistically the most atheist country in the world and while our local Catholic church rings its bells on Sundays, it remains almost entirely empty. Still my children come home with Christian songs to memorize for school and their holiday programs retain an assumption of religious conformity--atheist with an unconscious gloss of Christian culture.

My religious background is not as controversial in this time and place as it was in my childhood but both atheism and Christian culture are still overwhelming. My children routinely come hom declaring that this or that holiday or Pagan practice is "not real" or "made up." 

I have in fact considered enrolling my children in a church school in the city, because it is more open-minded both academically and socially as well as more progressive when it comes to children with learning disabilities. And at least there when my children came home and said our practice or beliefs are wrong, I could simply explain that the school leadership follows a different faith and that I don't see them as wrong, just different. It's harder when the dogmatism is there but unacknowledged.

As a result, I watch the vehement wars over faith in the schools with some bemusement. Of course, I do not wish to see heavy-handed religious orthodoxy in schools. I don't want to see families left with no choice but to send their kids to a school where they will be a declared outsider, or even less that children will be turned away from schools because they don't follow the right religion.

But as for letting churches sponsor schools or allowing some children to choose religious education classes, i see this acknowledgement of spirituality as a progressive step. I hope that one day schools will foster spiritual development just as they now endeavor to develop the intellectual, physical and social fields. Just as there are schools that specialize in mathematics or languages, it would be lovely to be able to choose classes in Pagan, Christian, Muslim or atheist practice and concepts. 

When schools are run by small-minded and exclusionary thinking, it doesn't matter if they have an official religion or not. Unacknowledged Christian or atheist dogmatism is still restrictive and exclusionary, even when it isn't discussed.

Atheism entails a leap of faith beyond science, as all religions do, and it can be repressive if it is dogmatically imposed on children. Atheism is not a synonym of secularism, which is an openness to all faiths and an official embrace of spiritual diversity.

Open-minded, inclusive leadership can and does make for a good environment even when the faith of that leadership is openly declared. My experience in Catholic school did not make me any less of a Pagan or in any way weaken my own path. If anything, it helped me to understand why I think the way I do. And it gave me an appreciation for those who can declare fully their beliefs without forcing those beliefs of others. 

When you call yourself a "gypsy"

Pagans, new agers, beautiful beings or spirit and creativity, all of you, hear this.

I have done some very silly things in my time. When I was a young teen and I desperately wanted to be a beautiful and wise Pagan priestess and herbalist healer from Middle Earth, I mixed up inedible brews of random leaves from around my house. I forced my best friend (a boy) to sit facing me and hold a crystal on his forehead in lengthy tests of our telepathic powers.

I also talked him into training to be a "knight" by whacking a tree endlessly with a wooden sword. This last was not just silly but ultimately destructive and cruel. My friend, trying to win his medieval wannabe lady's favor, knocked all the bark off of the tree in a ring all the way around the trunk. And the tree died. 

My friend went on to learn to use a sword skillfully from martial arts teachers in Japan. I spent the next twenty years learning which plants actually have medicinal properties and which are poisons or will just give you a stomach ache. Fortunately, for me and my friends, I stopped short of being stupid enough to get anyone to drink my early concoctions. 

The fact remains though that we do silly things when we are inexperienced and uniformed. Some of those things are not just silly but stupid. And some of the stupid things end up hurting someone. 

Creative Commons image by James Saunders

Creative Commons image by James Saunders

There is one silly thing going around in Pagan and other spirituality circles that I want to warn you off of. I say it as a fellow silly person. I don't come from a high preachy perch, but rather from the earth-bound, true-hearted path of one who did not always know better.  

Please don't call yourself a "gypsy" unless you really are Romani. Please don't even name your pets, children, homes or objects with "gypsy" as either a noun or an adjective.

I get it. The word sounds fun. So many people use it and they mean no harm. At worst, it is silly to you in the places where you live. 

I, however, live in a place where the word "gypsy" Is as harsh and dangerous a racial slur as the N-word is in the United States. In Central Europe where I live, eighty percent of Roma live in poverty, often the absolute poverty rarely seen outside of the developing world. Thirty percent of Roma in the wealthy European Union live in households with no running water.

It was only in 2008, that the schools in the European country where I live began to desegregate and Romani children started attending real schools. We are otherwise a wealthy and highly educated country, but discrimination against the Roma is still pervasive and hate crimes, both violent attacks and threats, are widespread. 

Earlier this summer, a gang of ten men armed with knives attacked a Romani community in Western Ukraine, a few hundred miles from where I live. They killed one person and injured four others, including a child. When the Romani residents fled the area, journalists found bloodstained clothing scattered amid children's toys and other household items.

Where I live in the Czech Republic, 65 percent of Roma report discrimination when seeking housing and 55 percent of the non-Romani population openly say they wouldn't want a Romani neighbor, which shows that the Romani reports are probably not exaggerated. In addition, more than 50 percent of Romani children reported racist harassment and bullying in school in a European Union survey published earlier this year.

I know that people who call themselves "gypsies" in fun or even in a belief that they are thus "honoring" the free spirit and beauty of the Romani people don't mean the term the way those who attack Romani people using that word do. But it is still a mistake. It is one of those silly things that actually hurts people by accident. 

Just as Native American indians do not appreciate people dressing up with feathers on their heads and waving their hand in front of their mouth to "be like Indians" even when this is meant positively, Romani people are hurt by the stereotype of the "free-spirited, sensual and cleverly tricky gypsies." They are harmed in spirit and in heart, but also eventually harmed in body as well because these stereotypes contribute to international silence and indifference when gangs of thugs attack the Roma and bureaucrats block the doors of schools and apartment buildings. 

I knew much of this when I first came to live in the Czech Republic. Fortunately, I did not fall victim to this particular silly thing as a young person. I spent my twenties writing for international newspapers and magazines, often about the Roma, racism and ethnic violence in Central and Eastern Europe.

Creative Commons image by Pablo Segade 

Creative Commons image by Pablo Segade 

But of course, a journalist doesn't experience these events the way those targeted do. After I had lived in the Czech Republic for ten years and was married, I adopted a child. My husband and I couldn't have biological children and we were open to adoption. As it often happens in this country, the child the orphanage placed in my arms was a tiny Romani girl. 

The first weeks with my daughter were some of the happiest of my life. I remember the spring rain and sunshine of that April with misty-eyed joy.  

Then a month later, Neo-nazis threw three Molotov cocktails through the windows of a Romani home and one landed in the bed of a two-year-old girl. The beautiful little girl, who looked very much like my daughter, suffered terrible burns over 80 percent of her body and lost three fingers but survived after months in an induced comma and fourteen major surgeries.

The violence, discrimination and structural racism that the Roma suffer cost my daughter her first family and ended that month of naive bliss for me as well. Two years later we adopted a little boy, also of Romani background, who had already suffered racism from caregivers at an orphanage, where they told me "nobody really liked him." He was ten months old and already deeply traumatized.

Today my children are seven and nine years old. They are largely sheltered from the harsh realities of racism. My daughter once panicked when kids at school called her "black" because she thought they knew something she didn't and that she was going to turn the color black. She has a light olive complexion which is here sometimes called "black." She does love to wear flamboyant dresses and flowers in her hair, but so do many non-Romani little girls playing princess. 

My son's friend from school recently told me that some boys teased my son and called him "gypsy." My son reluctantly confirmed that it was true. He looked terrified as he waited for my reaction. 

My children don't really understand the many uses of the word "gypsy" yet. But like many other Roma, the first place they hear it is in the schoolyard as a racial slur. I will try to explain to them when we visit our family in America and hear people use it in a much more silly way that thee people do not mean to be hurtful. Maybe they will understand but maybe they will just learn to be quiet and keep their hurt inside.

Regardless, the silliness that accompanies the western use of the word "gypsy" spreads unhelpful stereotypes about the Roma, who are called Gypsies because historically some people believed they originated in Egypt. (They actually originated in India.) 

Pagan friends, I ask you not to do this silly thing. Don't misuse the word "gypsy" with a small "g" and don't use "Gypsy" with a big "G" as an insult either (obviously). The former may seem like a minor issue to many but it would help as a show of support for the Romani people who remain one of the world's most persecuted minorities.

Thank you for understanding. 

Pagan practice for the blind and visually impaired

A guide for individuals and tips for inclusive organizers

As a child I memorized which corner of my home was in the north and which was in the east, south and west. At the fire pit, where we held a drum circle and the occasional small ritual, I memorized which tree or boulder denoted each compass point.

It was my job to lay out the four objects to mark the quarters and I was born legally blind. No one ever told me how to choose my landmarks or compensate for the fact that I couldn't see distances to orient myself to the directions. 

But having grown up in the woods, I could think it through. Keeping my sense of direction was a constant preoccupation when I sometimes roamed miles from home alone through wild places.. In some ways, it was a perfect task for a mostly blind child. It helped me confirm my sense of direction and gave me a spiritual connection to the elements and their four winds. 

Still I can see how this kind of thing might be off-putting for blind and visually impaired people who didn't grow up with earth-centered spirituality. Not all people who follow similar ways use the same terminology but I have to call it something, so I will call it "Pagan" or "Neopagan" spirituality, because that is currently widespread. 

It is often said--and it's true--that Paganism is not a spiritual path of orthodoxy but of orthopraxy. It's the doing, not what you think or believe, that is important.

Image by Arie Farnam - An altar for the goddess Brigid with a stature holding a lit candle surrounded by a string of amber beads and a rose quartz crystal in the foreground. In the background there is a pedestal with goddess carvings and an offering bowl at the top. Candles and a corn-husk doll sit on a window sill. To the left a white cane with a brown wood handle leans against the altar over a brass bell. 

Image by Arie Farnam - An altar for the goddess Brigid with a stature holding a lit candle surrounded by a string of amber beads and a rose quartz crystal in the foreground. In the background there is a pedestal with goddess carvings and an offering bowl at the top. Candles and a corn-husk doll sit on a window sill. To the left a white cane with a brown wood handle leans against the altar over a brass bell. 

Modern Pagans believe just about everything under the sun or none of it. What binds us together is what we do and how we live. Interpretations vary widely and practice is not exactly standardized, but there are some practices that are widespread for specific paths. 

Getting into the practice, either alone or with a group, often requires physical movements and is aided by objects. I would argue that this is actually an ideal spiritual path for the blind and visually impaired because it can be very tactile and kinesthetic. You don't spend much time sitting and listening to something you can't see being done without you at the front of a crowd. 

My daily meditation of grounding and calling the quarters, for instance, directly impacts my ability to use echolocation and mental-mapping. It is like setting your brain to think in the spacial terms people with vision impairments so often use.

However, the literature that introduces these practices almost always describes it in visual terms, which can make it less accessible to blind newcomers. Most Pagan groups, courses and books are ill-prepared to smoothly integrate blind individuals simply because most of the early leaders of our traditions had little experience to go on and the physical nature of many of our practices mean that there are some issues that will come up.

The motivation behind this post is to provide a brief supplement for blind and visually impaired people reading Pagan books and getting into the practice, as well as to give some tips for group practice for teachers who include blind or visually impaired people. I won't be defining all the Neopagan terms here because that would take a whole book. This is meant to be read as a companion to books that introduce a vast variety of Neopagan paths. 

Group rituals

I'll start with group rituals because I hope to reach ritual organizers with one particular message. We need clear instructions, particularly for the formation of a circle and any necessary directional turns. This can be handled either with a brief pre-ritual meeting for all or with a quick briefing specifically for any blind or visually impaired participants.

Let me give a very brief spacial description here as an example. A great many Neopagan group rituals center on a circle. Sometimes there is an altar or fire in the middle of the circle. Sometimes there is an altar on the east or north side. More rarely there are altars at all four compass points. In less formal settings, participants may enter the space informally and later someone will announce that it is time to stand in a circle. It may be necessary for a blind participant to ask someone to help them find the right place to stand.

If a purification does not occur at the entrance of the space, it may happen at this time. And it is often silent. Purification may be done with water (someone may go around the circle flicking drops of water, usually sea water or water with sea salt in it, onto each participant. It's good to know which form of purification may be used, if you are visually impaired, as this could be otherwise a bit startling. No worries though, you won't actually get wet.

Other forms of purification include salt, drinking from a goblet, passing a candle from hand to hand and very often herbal smoke or incense wafting, sometimes called smudging. Someone may go around the circle with a burning bundle of herbs and wave it around each participant as part of a cleansing. If this is the method chosen, you will know by the intense smell of herbal smoke or incense--and hopefully by being warned beforehand. The important thing to do is to stand still. While smudging isn't dangerous, accidentally touching the burning end of incense or a smudge bundle can cause a small burn. 

A more formal method of both forming a circle and cleansing participants which is often employed at large rituals, involves a ceremonial walk to the ritual space, often outdoors. Usually leaders (often a priest and priestess in Wiccan tradition) or other participants will stand at the entry point and perform some kind of purification, the water flicking, smoke wafting or the like on each participant. Sometimes one is offered a goblet to sip from. Sometimes ritual words are exchanged and those are usually mentioned to participants beforehand, as non-visual things are more often communicated to participants openly. 

The other most common, required movement in a ritual is turning toward the compass points when the quarters or elements are called. This occurs at or near the beginning of the ritual and sometimes occurs again when the quarters are released at the end of the ritual. If you are partially sighted it may be enough to know this will happen and be on the look-out for it. If you can't see enough to tell which direction others are turning, I recommend asking another participant to subtly cue you or request that the organizers ask for a volunteer. 

Some groups are more formal than others and for some any disruption of this beginning phase of the circle would be very uncomfortable and unwelcome. Some parts are done in silence or with low background music. Other parts involve one person speaking or a few call and response lines. Either way, it is good to know in advance what motions will be made. There are also times when more complex actions are expected in the midst of a ritual. These come in endless variety and can best be handled by organizers taking an interest in making the ritual accessible to all.

The first time I attended a large Pagan ritual as an adult, after having watched many videos and participated in countless smaller rituals, I was immediately confused at the circle forming stage. The group did have a pre-ritual meeting, but they neglected to mention their complicated system of walking into the circle. They walked in all the way around the circle and then turned to backtrack in order to take even places around the circle. I assumed the people walking widdershins were taking up specific places to call quarters or something of the like, so I continued sunwise, until I realized I was the only person doing it and I was in entirely the wrong place.

Needless to say, this was embarrassing and did not help to win my acceptance in the group, which was unfortunately not particularly inclusive.

Later with the same group, we held an outdoor ritual in honor of Hekate in a forest at night at the moment of the new moon. It was a great idea and a beautiful ritual. I asked for some direction, given that I see even less in low-light conditions and was told that the end of the ritual was a secret and I would just have to follow the others. I was nervous about this, especially given that part of the ritual involved each participant walking through a section of the forest alone.

In the end, that was actually not a big problem for me. I grew up in the woods and found that it was so dark during much of the ritual that I was better off than most of the participants because no one could see and I was at least used to being visually impaired.

Still I would urge ritual organizers to give clear preparatory briefings. It isn't difficult to include people with visual impairments. We really can and will follow detailed instructions gladly, but we often need to know in advance what movements will be required because "follow the person ahead of you" is not a reliable option.

As it happened, the Hekate ritual was particularly difficult for one older, disabled participant who was unsteady on the twig-littered forest floor. Most of the participants were so disoriented by the darkness that I found her alone and frightened as the others blundered by. I allowed the elder to take my elbow and led her to ensure safety.

Organizers can't count on a blind or visually impaired person having these forest mobility skills, because not all of us have had the opportunity, but it is also worth noting that the Hekate ritual provided an example of why one person's disability by the standards of modern society can actually be an asset to a group. I was able to attend to the elder and free up the organizers from having to deal with the crisis.

Further, if an object, such as a goblet, will be passed silently from person to person around the circle, it will smooth things a great deal if any visually impaired person is told about this beforehand and if possible allowed to touch the object in preparation, so that they will be familiar with it and able to get a secure grip when the time comes in ritual.

Any other advice for leaders with a visually impaired participant in their group is essentially the same as for any teacher or workshop leader. It is worth noting that the majority of elders are visually impaired in one way or another. They may have difficulty recognizing faces, reading a white board or seeing objects displayed at the front of the group. It is helpful to ensure any visually impaired persons a place at the front of the group. It is essential to read any written notes on a chart or board out loud and to offer large print and/or digital copies of handout materials.

It would be helpful if any actions performed by a priest or priestess could be accompanied by words that give an idea of what is happening, "I place this flame on the altar..." and so forth. But if silence is required a description beforehand is also helpful in ensuring the focused attention and intent of visually impaired participants.

Connecting to nature

As you may have noted in the example of the Hekate ritual above, most Neopagan practice has a significant element of connecting with nature. Many rituals are held outdoors and often in less-than-ideally accessible places. This is part of the practice and should be continued in whatever way possible. 

People with visual impairments, barring any additional mobility impairment, are capable of reaching any place sighted people can reach. They may, however, not have much experience in traversing natural areas. Some visually impaired people have been brought up to believe they cannot navigate the natural environment. Others who are newly visually impaired may need further mobility and orientation skills or a guide.

Either way, there are blind mountain climbers, extreme hikers, skiers and cyclists. We can and do go deep into the wilderness, often with a guide but nonetheless. For visually impaired Pagans, getting into nature to reach a site for spiritual practice is an excellent opportunity to connect fully to the earth through all elements and all senses. It is an intensive grounding with profound value. 

That's why I don't discourage ritual organizers from holding rituals in less accessible areas. I simply ask them to make it possible for visually impaired and mobility impaired people to reach the site. Use creativity and be willing to stretch your abilities, both as participants and as organizers. No one should be cut out of Pagan activities because of disability. A friend of mine who uses a wheelchair traversed mountains in Azerbaijan by guiding four blind people who carried her.  It can be done in any group, if we take our Pagan values of hospitality, community, interdependence and honor seriously.

It may well require one participant to guide or physically assist another. This too will allow everyone involved to more deeply connect to the natural environment and experience our interdependence. This is part of the values of every Pagan ideal I have encountered. We don't exclude those who may have physical difficulty and we particularly take care of our elders. 

Furthermore, in most Pagan spiritual traditions, there is a significant focus on natural cycles. We recognize that our lives are a cycle. It is worth remembering that the abled are only temporarily abled and this cycle turns as well. 

I support and encourage visually impaired Pagans to fully participate in nature-based parts of Pagan practice. Go out with a group into a forest for a ritual, if they are inclusive. Trust that the earth and the natural environment will embrace you.

I have guided other blind and visually impaired people on hikes because I am experienced while some haven't had so much opportunity to get out into nature. I know from what my partners on those hikes told me that it can be very disconcerting for those who have been in built environments much of their lives. However, it is an experience of great and magical value.

And the road to competence in natural environments doesn't need to be too long. Explore. Use all you've got. When I was a kid, I learned to run through rough terrain by throwing pebbles ahead of me and using echolocation. It isn't always easy but it is possible. 

That said, if you aren't currently able to get out into nature or have health concerns that make it unadvisable or extremely difficult, don't despair. There are some Pagan paths in which the literature strongly states that one non-negotiable requirement is long walks in nature. My druid path is one of those and beyond being visually impaired I also have a condition that makes long walks extremely painful and damaging to the bones in my feet, now that I'm older. While I used to hike long distances and run through rough terrain, I no longer do that.

Reading some of the literature or listening to those who say you must get out into the wilderness or spend an hour a day walking alone in nature could be very discouraging if these activities really aren't possible. 

But wait! Nature is everywhere. Visual distraction in a built environment is very difficult for sighted people to bear and it makes getting out away from built environments particularly important for some. It really does play a huge role in their spiritual health. But it isn't the same for everyone. 

You can fully immerse yourself in nature sitting in a park, on the ground with your back against a tree, listening to birds and feeling the breeze, smelling the aroma of the particular season. You can completely ground yourself gardening with a few pots on your window sill. You can connect to nature through close contact with pets and service animals. The whole point of connecting to nature is temporarily unplugging from constant human input--all that talking on the phone, listening to books, news, audio text, working and surviving in the built and technological world. 

The reason for the emphasis on connecting with nature in Pagan practice is that we need it for healthy inner development, for grounding and for attuning ourselves to natural rhythms. Even if I can't see the moon, I know that the gravitational force of the moon has a very tangible effect on my body and other living beings. I follow a moon calendar and connect with the cycles of nature through timing many activities including gardening to favorable moon phases.

Everyone can find ways to observe the changes in nature throughout the seasons. Though some Druids may insist that one must walk far from home through nature to get the full sense of the seasons, sitting on the same rock every day and allowing all your senses to absorb every nuanced change in the seasons will provide the same deep connection with nature. It is simply a matter of attention to detail, rather than attention to scope.

Get to know whatever nature is near you, even if it is small and/or heavily influenced by humans. Spend time listening, feeling, tasting and smelling. Dig your fingers a short way into the ground. Feel the rhythm in the earth. Observe the changes in insects, bird calls, plant growth, air movement, temperature and aromas around you. Taste the intense flavor of fresh unprocessed fruits and vegetables in each season. Grow a little something yourself, even if it's just basil in a pot to add flavor to your food and aroma to your home, and buy from or barter with local farmers. Allow your menu to be shaped by the season wherever it is you live.

As you probably know by now, visually impaired people don't actually have "better hearing" than sighted people. We just tend to pay more attention to it and interpret it with more detailed accuracy. The same principle applies to connecting with nature. Low vision or complete blindness does not need to hinder your connection to nature in any way. Your other senses, your whole body and your life energy are capable of connecting you just as well.

Whether you delve deep into the woods or sit by an open window filled with growing plants, you will be able to gain just as much detail and experience from nature as anyone else. You use the senses and life energy that you have. And this spiritual practice will be a significant aid to your mobility and orientation skills as a bonus. That I can guarantee.

Image by Arie Farnam - A simple altar is set up on an outdoor table. In the center there is a blue-black goddess stature surrounded by fresh leaves, flowers and stalks of wheat. In front of her there is a small lantern for a candle. Behind her there is a small bowl filled with stones. On the left there is a gourd-shaped water container and on the right there is a braided sweet grass smudge stick on a candle holder. 

Image by Arie Farnam - A simple altar is set up on an outdoor table. In the center there is a blue-black goddess stature surrounded by fresh leaves, flowers and stalks of wheat. In front of her there is a small lantern for a candle. Behind her there is a small bowl filled with stones. On the left there is a gourd-shaped water container and on the right there is a braided sweet grass smudge stick on a candle holder. 

Altars and tools

I discussed spacial relationships a bit in the section on group rituals. But now is the time to discuss the nitty gritty of personal practice. Most Pagans, whether solitary or part of a group, have an altar and/or ritual tools of their own at home. 

You can read lists of tools and ideas for building altars in books devoted to the particular path you're interested in right now. And hopefully you'.ll also read that you really don't need any of that. You can get by without any tools at all. It is perfectly okay to sit down, wherever you are, fold your hands in your lap or lift them up to the sky and declare the spot you're sitting to be sacred without candles, incense, pentacles or goddess statues. 

But most of us humans, being easily distractable, inconstant and a bit disconnected from ourselves and from nature, find it easier to access spirit with tools. While there is no exact right or wrong, there are methods and techniques that have been proven to help. This is where tools come in. 

Sighted people usually have altars that are on a level surface somewhere they can be seen and appear pleasing to the eye. There are several standard layouts for altars and any number of non-standard ones. Many Pagans set up every available shelf and window sill in their home to be altar-like, i.e. with purpose and meaning to the placement of objects. 

You can find candles of every shape and size on many altars as well as sculptures and figurines. Four objects very commonly found on Wiccan-influenced altars are a goblet (or other water container, sometimes called a chalice), a knife (sometimes sharp, sometiems not, called an athame), a wand (which may be elaborate or as simple as a twig from a tree) and a pentacle (a five pointed star in a circle, which may be raised or burned into wood or may be painted on and not detectable by touch). 

Some altars will have incense, herb bundles and/or a brazier or cauldron to burn them in. Others will have crystals and semi-precious stones. Some will have drums, musical instruments, bottles, jars and bowls of spell ingredients. 

There will often be something on the altar that corresponds to the four points of the compass. This may be four candles or it may be four objects, each of which corresponds to the element associated with that direction--stones. coins or pentacles for earth and the north; incense, feathers or blades for air and the east; candles or flowers for fire and the south; and a container of water, wine or other liquid for water and the west. These may also be anything from four carved animal figures to four pictures of saints. In any event, they will be arranged in accordance with the four compass points.

If possible, ask another Pagan you trust to show you their altar and allow you to feel objects and their placements. This can be a sensitive subject because some people have taboos about other people touching their altar or ritual tools rather than just looking, but some people don't mind and it could be helpful to get an idea of other altars.

I'll describe my altar using the clock method you may have seen used to describe food on a plate. It is on a shelf behind my fireplace and if a candle isn't lit it is rather dark, so many sighted people don't notice it. But it mostly isn't there for them. 

On the back wall of the altar there is a wood-burned panel made by a friend of mine as a surprise gift. I had a series of Pagan and ancestral symbols printed out and laminated and glued to a piece of black velvet that I hung behind the altar. One day the velvet fell down and two days later my friend brought me this beautiful wood panel with all the symbols burned into it, so that I can trace them with my fingers. 

On the shelf of the altar there is a small goddess figurine at 12 o'clock. Mine is a goddess focused path. Others will have a figure or a candle for both a goddess and a god. I just have a goddess statue. At one o'clock I have a smokey quartz crystal because that is the direction of north. At four o'clock I have a metal dish to hold dried herbs that I burn as incense. At seven o'clock just about at the center of the shelf I have a candle for the south, which also lights the altar. At 10 o'clock I have a small crystal bowl of water. On the right-hand wall. I have a drinking horn, some amber beads given to me by a teacher and some feathers. On the left-hand wall, I have a very small teapot, a container of sea salt and a small box. It's a simple altar and very small but it gets daily use.

Consider that you don't need to set up your altar the way sighted people do. The key is that it is easy for you to reach, access and work with. You may well do better with objects on a wall or on small shelves where you can reach each object individually. You may also find that simply having all of your tools in a bag or box as a portable altar that you can take out and set up wherever you want works best. 

The key is to find what works for you, even if it is not what is most commonly done by sighted people.


Virtually no discussion of altars can be had in the Pagan world without a rather large note about safety. Far too many devastating fires have been caused by candles and/or incense left burning in unsafe places. But I'm going to be more specific here because most of these warnings will just ask you to visually scan the area around your altar to make sure there are no drapes near your candles. We need to consider safety on other levels as well. 

The basics: Don't leave candles or incense unattended, obviously. But even if you are there, you should take precautions. Be on alert for the smell of burning. I have been shocked by how far away something can be from a flame and still start smoldering. 

Always place candles and incense on non-burnable surfaces. Wooden table tops can and will burn, smolder and start fires under the wrong circumstances. Small metal disks are the best but ceramic saucers from old tea cups work well too. 

Even more importantly, make sure there are no hanging curtains, clothing, strings, drapes, herbs, papers or other light flammables anywhere near burning candles and incense. At least one meter (40 inches) to either side should be clear of any light flammables and none should be at any height above. A breeze can easily move papers, herb bundles or scarves, causing them to fall or blow over a candle. This is a frightening common problem for both sighted and visually impaired Pagans who often have candles or incense burning in their homes.

Many Pagans, including me, have small homes and limited space. My altar is on a large shelf in a bookcase. So, there is a shelf above the altar. This is how many people do it. The inside of the altar shelf has to be very clear of flammable objects. (My felt background was not a good idea and I've learned my lesson on that.) As much as I want to have cloth hangings to decorate my altar, I can't. Everything in the shelf is heavy and most of it entirely non-flammable. 

You need at least 50 centimeters (20 inches) of space above a small candle flame before there can be a solid wooden shelf. I have singe marks on the underside of my upper shelf from a candle that was too tall. It is amazing how far up the heat is still concentrated from such a small flame. In addition, make absolutely sure that if you have a shelf above your altar that there are no loose papers, herb bundles or other light flammables on it. All it takes is a window left open and a breeze to put some of that burnable material down on the candles and a fire can flare up so fast that it is difficult to put out even if you are present.

I have had a few near misses myself, even though I am careful. Once my smoldering herb bundle somehow rolled out of the metal bowl it was in (probably due to the front part burning down and the back part becoming heavy enough to pull it out) and landed on my altar shelf. Fortunately I was not using an altar cloth but only the sweet smell of wood smoldering alerted me. It smelled good, like incense, so I didn't think it was a problem immediately. I just knew that was an unfamiliar smell. When I found the source of the smoke, my shelf was smoldering all the way through and was very hot to the touch, all from a little herb bundle I expected to go out in moments. The thought of what could have happened if I had assumed the smudge was out and left is quite unpleasant. 

My matron goddess is Brigid, who has a role in my tradition in protecting homes from fire. She seems to have her work cut out for her with me, even though I try very hard to keep to all the safety rules.

Sacred space, purification and casting a circle

OK, back to the fun stuff. 

You will read a lot about casting a circle, calling the quarters and grounding in most Pagan books. Various traditions may do it differently but most do these things in some form. For the visually impaired or blind Pagan, there are two issues here: logistics and what to do with all the talk about visualization.

This section is primarily aimed at solitary Pagans who will be doing these things on their own or with a very small group. In a larger group, you will either need to know the actions and terrain very specifically in advance or you will need to be with someone to show you the steps. 

In terms of logistics, often the first event in any kind of Pagan ritual, meditation, prayer or work is the casting of a circle. Some traditions see this as simply marking sacred space, others as purification and still others as projecting a magical protective barrier inside which it is easier to deal with energetic forces, deities, spirits, ancestors and the like. How you physically do the circle will depend on what purpose the circle has in your tradition. 

If it is a matter of simply defining sacred space, there isn't a huge reason to actually walk in a circle. You certainly can, if it isn't difficult for you, but it isn't necessary for the purpose. You can simply stand in front of your altar or in the place you have chosen and use your incense, smudge, candle, salt, water or whatever your tradition uses to mark sacred space by gesturing to each side, forward and back.

You can turn in a circle. It is worth remembering that a clockwise turn (to your right) is often used to designate sacred space because that is technically the direction the sun appears to travel across the sky. And a counterclockwise turn (to your left) is often used for purifying or getting rid of something, as well as to end a ritual.  

For designating a sacred space with either salt, water or smoke, I will usually walk in a small circle. Some traditions proscribe a certain number of times the circle should be walked, usually three or nine but there are probably other numbers. I do three unless I really need to build my focus for something or I feel really scattered. I will sometimes turn three times counterclockwise to clear out scattered or negative energy and thoughts and then walk three times clockwise in a circle to establish my sacred space.  This is a small circle in my well-known living room, so it is quite safe once all chairs and scattered children's toys have been cleared away.

For casting a circle in a formal way, the actions are a bit more complex and there is a lot of talk of visualization mixed in with the logistics. Many Wiccans and others of ritual magic traditions that require the formal casting of a circle will talk about energy as a visible or visualized light. I have done a lot of powerful rituals in my time and I am not totally blind but I have never seen any of this light or been with anyone who did. Some claim to but you aren't missing much if you don't see it. I have certainly felt the energy of the circle and you can too. 

The first thing in casting a circle is to have a very clear, defined space that you are very familiar with. Build a mental map of it, just as you would when navigating a city intersection. In your mental map of the space put a very large sphere, a giant balloon that can hold you and whoever else is participating in the ritual inside it. If the ritual is indoors, construct your mental map of the furniture around the open space and make the sphere just big enough to fill the room or the part of the room being used. Get the map ready in your mind and then as you walk around in a circle, either alone or with others, work on refining it. This is very similar to the visualization sighted people do. Your map may be spacial rather than visual but it will have the same energetic effect. 

As you mark the circle with a wand, a blade, your finger or whatever your tradition uses, add the sphere to your mental map. It will be a thin intangible membrane but as you define it, you will likely begin to feel it. I find the sensation very similar to that I encounter with echolocation. I know that not everyone's experience of echolocation is the same, so it is likely that this won't be either. But if I entirely close my eyes to get the full force of echolocation and walk slowly around a room, I feel a kind of pressure on whatever part of my face and arms is closest to a wall, long before I could actually physically reach it. I have never consciously perceived the sound of echolocation, which may be a partially sighted thing, but I do sense this physical sensation of pressure.

That is the kind of sensation that a well-cast circle will give. And again, while it is called a circle, it is actually supposed to be a sphere. It's just that sighted people find it easier to visualize circles than spheres. 

Once you have built the sphere and marked it, it is called a closed circle. No people are supposed to cross in or out of it. This has to do with the energy or mental focus of the gathering. Whether you believe that there is an actual energy field at work or you simply understand that the meditative practice of building the sphere enhances mental focus and crossing in and out of it will tend to disrupt that focus, either way the principle is the same. If you must leave the circle to get some forgotten item or handle an emergency before the ritual or magic is finished, it is recommended that you have some sort of set procedure for this. 

The standard procedure in most Pagan books involves tracing the outline of a door in the circle with the implement used to cast the circle, then visualizing opening it and closing it behind one. This may be a bit too visual for some blind folks. I recommend finding a method that works for you. The important thing is that the circle or sphere of focused space is respected and protected. It will depend on how you sense the barrier. 

To me it feels a bit viscous as if the air was heavier there and thus it reminds me of swimming under water. I put my hands together and part it the way I do when swimming the breast stroke. But my feeling is that the energy flows back right behind me, like water, so I don't have a method for closing it behind me. If I do this and keep a conscious focus on the mental map with the sphere in my space, I can leave and return without much disruption to the energy of the ritual. 


I remember one of the first times when I sensed the energy so palpably. I had started studying Pagan ritual but I wasn't very skilled yet. I often led small rituals for a few friends and family members and sometimes the energy felt really good and sometimes it wasn't so intense, but we were focused on the particular work we were doing, which was often Tarot or Runes, so the energy wasn't our focus. Then, a friend who was more skilled in formal ritual came and took over the leadership of one such ritual for me. And everyone there was amazed at how intensely refreshing and invigorating the ritual was, compared to most of our rituals. I knew enough by then to perceive the energy flow and to understand what my friend had skillfully done. I knew then that it was more than just imagination. 

Part of what I did not do correctly in some of the previous rituals had to do with grounding. Grounding is often discussed in terms of visualization, so it may not have been my strong point for that reason. The most common form of grounding, and the one my friend used involves standing still, taking deep breaths and imagining or visualizing roots going down from your feet into the earth. Then you are supposed to visualize warm light or energy coming up from the earth into your body, healing and purifying you. Sometimes this is continued with a visualization of light coming down from the sky to fill you through the top of your head. 

Again, you can participate fully in this, even if you don't visualize golden light. And groundng in particular can help you with your orientation and echolocation. When this brief grounding meditation is begun, stand with your feet planted firmly, flat on the ground at about shoulder width. Take some deep breaths. It is good to be barefoot if it's appropriate. Either way, feel the ground under your feet. Direct your attention there, much as you built the mental map to cast a circle. Then allow roots to grow down into the ground beneath you or just focus on the contact of your feet to the ground, feeling you feet grow heavy.

Even if someone is speaking, guiding the meditation, listen to the all the ambient sound between the words. Build as much of a mental map of the space around you and beyond as you can. Register all sounds throughout the area--dogs barking, distant voices or music, the noises of traffic, footsteps or whatever you hear. But let them be. Don't worry at them or try to figure out what they are.

Bring your attention to any exposed skin on your arms, legs and face. Feel the air, its movement or stillness, any pressure or sensations you feel. Trust that the earth and the floor beneath you holds you, not just physically but lovingly. Trust that the air that touches your skin embraces you and caresses you. You may have to be very cautious much of the time but standing still in this safe circle, take a moment to feel safe and loved. That is grounding too.

Calling the elements

Once a circle has been cast or a sacred space marked and grounding has been accomplished, most rituals continue with calling of various forces, spirits and deities either to simply be present at the event, to be celebrated or honored or to aid in some way. In a large number of traditions the first to be called are the four elements. This is often dubbed "calling the quarters," because the elements are associated with the four points of the compass: north, south, east and west

Certainly many ancient cultures were intrigued with and heavily influenced by the four directions. However, I speculate that if there were an indigenous culture in which everyone was blind, that probably would not be such a focus. The earth is round after all. The four compass points were made up by sighted people to help define their world. 

So, you could convincingly argue that blind people can just call the elements (earth, air, fire and water) and not bother much with the directions. However, calling the quarters somehow became my job when I was a kid whenever we had a ritual with family and friends, so I have a particular affinity for it. And I feel that it is a good idea to know where the compass points are in any given space, if for no other reason than better orientation and mobility.

As a gardener, they are also very important for the technicalities of gardening. South is where the intense sunshine and heat comes from. If I put delicate plants out in an exposed spot on the south side of the house, they can get sunburned. And if I put sun-loving plants on the north side of the house, they won't prosper. 

Even so, if you don't want to make a fuss about the four directions, don't worry. Just call the elements in any way that appeals to you from the sources of your tradition. You don't have to turn to face the compass pints. But if you would prefer to do it, there are a couple of options. If you have an altar, find out which way you are facing when you stand in front of it. Most traditions suggest putting an altar on the north or east wall of a room. That would mean that you are facing either north or east when you face the altar.

My main altar is in the north, so I'll give the description for that first. You can place your hand lightly against the edge of the altar and know that you are facing north. Then imagine yourself at the middle of a clock in which you are now facing twelve. Keeping your left hand against the front of the altar for orientation, turn to the right so that you are facing three o'clock. You are now facing east. Keep your hand lightly on the altar behind you and turn so you are facing six o'clock. Now you are facing south. Put your right hand back and place it against the edge of the altar and release your left hand. Now turn so you are facing nine o'clock. You are now facing west. Turn all the way back around to twelve and you have made the full circle, sunwise--the correct direction for calling the quarters at the beginning of a ritual. 

If you call the quarters by calling air at three o'clock, fire at six o'clock, water at nine o'clock and earth at twelve o'clock you will be facing the right direction when you do it. And to release these energies at the end of the ritual, simply place your hands in the opposite order, right first and turn to nine o'clock first and go all the way around back to twelve and you will have done a counterclockwise or widdershins turn. 

If your altar is in the east and you face east when you face it, then east will be twelve o'clock, south will be three o'clock, west will be six o'clock and north will be nine o'clock. Make a note of this somewhere, so that you can refer to whatever is the correct version for your home and altar. If you don't have an altar, you can do the same thing with any piece of furniture you know is in the north or east of your house. 

Once you have cast a circle, grounded and called the quarters you are well into the territory in which each tradition is different. Now is the time to call on your gods, spirits, ancestors or whatever is central to your tradition. I recommend that visually impaired Pagans have some physical object of significance (a statue of a deity, a figurine of spirit animal, a stone or something of the like) that you can touch in this phase but that is as specific as one can get when generalizing about all traditions. I use a sculpture of a woman that I have consecrated as a sculpture of my matron goddess. The physical object that I can touch helps me to hold mental focus through a ritual, prayer or meditation. 

Other visualizations

Some traditions include other energy work, such as building a cone of power. You can use the same mental map you used to make the sphere to construct this for yourself as well. It will take some time and practice to build these more complex mental maps. It may help to play with a balloon and an actual cone or kitchen funnel doing off times, to get a feel for their shapes and allow you to include them in your mental map without too much struggle. You can make a cone out of paper, by rolling one side of the paper tight and leaving the other loose, so that instead of a long round straw of paper you have a cone. This is the shape you want to build out of energy in the middle of your circle, if you are focusing on the cone of power. 

When you finish, you should release the energies of the elements if you called them, either by words or motions. If you only marked or purified sacred space, there is generally no need to undo it. It will usually have a positive effect on the space. However, if you cast a formal circle with a mental map of a sphere, most traditions recommend that you take it down or "open" it. This is different from the opening you make if you need to leave the circle during the ritual. At the end of the ritual most Pagans will retrace their steps around the circle and declare something like "The circle is open."

The idea is that the energy directed and stored within the circle is then released to do what it is intended to do. As such it isn't exactly like gently drawing back a curtain. There should be a sense of pent up energy inside and given that the sphere was somewhat like a balloon in the first place, I imagine the release of energy might be an out-rushing. 

Focusing on your mental map of the space and the sphere, retrace your steps around the circle in the opposite direction. The energy is less firmly held behind you but the sphere is still more or less there until you reach the end. Then as you declare, "The circle is open!" or "So mote it be!" the sphere releases and dissipates.

Depending on the purpose, it may even be like the intangible popping of a balloon. Or it may be like wind rushing away to take the intention where it is needed. Or if the intention was internal, it may rush into you or into a person being healed. Whatever the purpose, I suggest keeping you focus on the mental map long enough to sense this through your skin. It may not be entirely clear the first several times, but as you practice the feel of the energy against your skin and your mental map of it in the room will grow stronger. 

Many Pagan events and groups you may encounter will engage in what is called "guided meditation." Often this consists of sitting or lying quietly while someone, either in person or on a recording, tells you that you are in some other place. This is used for grounding, experiencing a safe place from which to do something difficult, for exploring the Underworld or Otherworld and more.

Sometimes guided meditation is presented as entirely visual. The guide may say, "You see that you are in the middle of a field of ripe grain. You can see waves of yellow and gold spreading out before you. The sun is blazing overhead and the sky is a deep blue." Even for sighted people this merely visual guided meditation is distant and less effective.

A better guide will simply state where you should imagine yourself to be and provide varied sensory details. "You find yourself in the middle of a field of ripe grain. The stalks of wheat prickle your ankles and the rich smell of the grass and grain fills your lungs. A soft breeze is caressing your face and the sunlight is almost too warm on your face." And so on. 

If the guide doesn't provide sensory detail beyond the visual, you will often be able to translate their words from the visual to other senses. Start with the idea of standing in the middle of a field. Though much of the description may be less helpful, you can remind yourself of the sounds, smells and sensations of such a place and join in the meditation in that way.

If you find describing such a scene with a lot of sensory detail comes easy for you, you may be able to find a useful role in groups by providing guided meditations for others. Again, sensory detail other than the visual works better for everyone in the end, not just for visually impaired and blind people.


Divination is not part of every Pagan path but it does come up in many if not most. Every ancient spiritual tradition on every continent probably originally had its own divination system. Some Pagan traditions stick to divination systems that are close to their cultural background, but others branch out into multiple geographical areas.

Divination was traditionally thought of in many cultures as a method for predicting the future and/or obtaining the advice of gods, spirits and ancestors. Today some systems still pursue one or both of these goals but modern divination often also seeks to provide psychological and spiritual counsel. Where the counsel comes from, whether it is perceived of as coming from the gods, ancestors or spirits or from inner wisdom and one's own subconscious depends on the tradition. Primarily the interpretation of the power of divination is a highly personal matter.

For our purposes, I will describe several common divination systems and how visually impaired people can access them. 

Many divination systems today rely on cards with printed pictures, words and numbers on them. Even systems like the i-Ching and the Runes which were not originally cards are often sold as cards today. 

Cards are probably the most difficult divination system for blind people to practice. Most cards have no Braille option and even when they do have one, the Braille only identifies the card and does not provide the symbolism and details that are crucial to the visual experience of the card. Because I am partially sighted, I have used Tarot cards since I was a child but the images on the cards are often too small and detailed for me to get the full visual impact.

Tarot is a system of divination cards originally developed in Renaissance Italy. Fortunately, many Tarot books include a detailed description of the image on each card and a discussion of the symbols on the card. Many of these books are also available as audio or digital books that can be heard out loud. 

If you want to use Tarot or another card-based divination system, I suggest getting a set of cards made from sturdy card stock. If you can't see the numbers or names on each card, you may be able to use a text scanner or get a friend to read them to you so that you can Braille the cards yourself. There was once a Braille Rider Waite Tarot deck with an audio book for sale on Amazon but it has been out of print for some time. 

Once you have a deck with Braille cards you can use the descriptions in the text (hopefully audio or digitalized for text-to-speech) to familiarize yourself with the potent symbols of the cards. Much of the art and skill of Tarot reading and similar card-based divination is in one's intuitive interaction with the symbols on the cards, not simply in a wrote recitation of the meanings of individual cards.

While I don't believe blind people actually have some advantage through a mythical "second sight" when it comes to divination, neither do we have any great disadvantage and study and practice can give you great skill in Tarot reading. 

Many Pagans today also use Norse Runes. The Runes are an alphabet and system of magical symbols used by the ancient Scandinavians. The Runes are made up of combinations of short straight lines and angles and are thus well suited to being carved into wood, stone and bone. Many rune sets today can be purchased. The better of them are carved or etched on a hard natural material such as rounds cut from elk antlers or burned into rounds from a branch with deep grooves. Beware purchasing without handling a set of Runes, however. Many sets are also painted on stone or wood, which may not be so accessible.

Ogham staves (sticks with carved symbols from the Celtic Ogham) alphabet are also gaining in popularity among Pagans of a Celtic persuasion. Like the Runes the symbols are well suited to being read by touch if they are burnt or carved deeply into the wooden sticks. It is more difficult to purchase Ogham staves at present, so it may be necessary to make your own set if you have some manual skill with wood. 

A set of Runes or Ogham staves with deeply etched symbols will provide a perfect divination tool for a blind or visually impaired practitioner. Books containing the magical meanings of the Runes or Ogham symbos, translations of ancient poems once used to memorize the Runes and sometimes meditation exercises helpful in studying the symbols are often available in digital formats for text-to-speech reading but less often as audio books. 

The i-Ching is a five-thousand-year-old Chinese divination system that uses either 49 dried yarrow stalks or three coins to come up with sets of numbers that correspond to chapters in the i-Ching or "Book of Changes." The yarrow stalk method is more complex but supposedly more accurate and detailed. It is also perfectly accessible to blind and visually impaired people. The coin method would require finding coins which allow you to easily tell heads from tails by feel. 

Each of these divination systems is complex and it would take an entire book to give any depth of information about each one. What is crucial to know for our purposes is that it is clearly possible for blind and visually impaired people to access divination tools. With new technologies allowing for text-to-speech and even hand-held page scanners, accessing the books that decode these tools is easier than ever before.

Astrology is another skill related to divination, though it has many other purposes than simple attempts to predict the future. Astrological forces can help us to tip the odds in our favor in just about any endeavor that involves any amount of chance. Farmers have known since the ancient beginnings of agriculture that the success of crops can be influenced by the moon phase when the crop is planted or even watered and weeded. These correlations are still observed today. 

Blind and visually impaired astrologers use math to calculate helpful and harmful dates for a vast variety of activities, just like other astrologers. This is another case where the greatest hurdle will be accessing text for study. While many sighted Pagans take great joy in observing the visible phases of the moon, I live in a cloudy part of the world where the moon is rarely visible eight months out of the year, and everyone manages without seeing the moon regularly. Even though I can't see the phases of the moon with my eyes, I still follow a moon calender as a way to stay in tune with natural cycles.

There are some less widespread forms of divination that will prove difficult for blind and visually impaired practitioners. I have never been able to read lines on a person's palm (not even my own) very well. Palmistry is not a common divination technique in modern Paganism, in any case.

More common is the practice of using sightings of animals, birds and trees as a divination system. One could, I suppose, learn the sounds of birds and use their calls instead of sightings. Or one could count any mention or reference to certain animals or trees encountered randomly during daily activities as a "sighting." But I have always found these methods of divination requiring random visual observation to be difficult for me and not particularly useful when described by others. 

Mythology and blindness

Finally we come to the topic of original stories and myths from ancient Pagan cultures. Modern Paganism has no holy book or central authority and we pride ourselves on the freedom and diversity of our community. But if there is something that is often held sacred or consulted in at least close to the way many faiths approach scripture, it would be the myths and stories of ancient Pagan cultures.

Some Pagans don't focus much at all on the myths, while for others mythology is central to their belief and practice. Still other traditions may not view the myths as indicative of ancient wisdom, but they view scholarship and understanding of primary source materials from one's ancestral cultures as crucial to spiritual progress. The view you take toward mythology will depend on what kind of tradition you choose to follow.

Accessing primary source materials and scholarly texts can be more difficult for blind and visually impaired people. Many of these texts are rare or held in library collections that can only be viewed on site and which are not digitalized. Others, however, have been translated and transferred to text versions.

If you wish to pursue the study of mythology, I highly recommend not relying solely on those popular mythology books that have been made into commercial audio books. It will be beneficial to the scholar to register with scholarly library programs that provide reading services to students. It may also be necessary to invest in a tablet or phone that can provide text-to-speech technology. Access to source material may still not be perfect, but the level of access you can gain with this technology will give you significant freedom and independence in your studies. 

Lastly there is the issue of the myths themselves and what they have to say about blindness. I hope to study this topic in greater detail and write specifically about disability in mythology and what modern Pagans can take from it. But here are a few points to start with.

Modern Pagans generally do not take myths literally. Norse Heathens today don't believe that universe is a literal World Tree. Devotees of the Greek gods don't literally believe that a girl goes down into caves underground and her mother won't let things grow so that's why we have winter. But there is much that we can learn about our existence, the gods and our personal understanding by studying these powerful stories. The same goes for mentions of disability in the stories. 

Höðr is a Norse god who is blind. There isn't much written about him except for the story of how he accidentally killed his twin brother Baldr, the golden boy of the gods, when Loki, the trickster god, played a mean prank on him. If taken literally this would be a very negative portrayal of blindness and disability in general. However, because we don't take myths literally this story can be interpreted in a lot of different ways.

The twins can be seen as two sides of a person, the perfect outer image we try to project and the inner being who is often cut off from others and vulnerable to manipulation. Another Norse myth tells how Odin, the father of all the gods, gave up one of his eyes to gain the wisdom of the Runes. Again the concept of physical sight is not what is important in the tale, but rather the idea of the sacrifices we often have to give for wisdom and magical power. 

Other cultures have their own myths that mention blindness. In Greek mythology, many monsters are vanquished by being blinded and bliding someone is often a punishment for doing something that offended the gods.

On the other hand, sometimes a person must give up sight to gain prophetic insight. In one rare occasion when a mythological character is born blind, Ophioneus becomes a great prophetic seer, apparently gaining prophetic sight in compensation for his blindness. Fortuna, the goddess of luck and chance, on the other hand, is often seen with a blindfold, a form of chosen blindness meant to symbolize impartiality and fairness.

In fact, blindness is one of the most common disabilities mentioned in ancient myths of many cultures. I hypothesize that this is because blindness was perceived of as particularly terrifying to people in pre-technological times and also particularly relatable. While people with many disabilities would have died rather quickly in those times, blind people did survive and talk and relate with other people. Many people knew a blind person and they at least believed they could imagine what blindness would be like.

Those hoping to find a disability-positive message in the myths will need to look beyond the literal interpretation because in the times when these myths were written survival was not easy for anyone and any physical disability was viewed very simply as misfortune. While today many blind people lead independent and professional lives, technology plays a big role in our freedom to do so. Blindness in mythology is not so much blindness itself but a potent symbol of the fear of powerlessness, helplessness and risks to one's survival.

As such, because we are not powerless or helpless in much of our lives today, we often cannot see ourselves as blind people in those places where blindness is mentioned in mythology. We don't generally have a special affinity for Höðr or other blind gods and goddesses. They are shared by all people who experience the fear of risk and vulnerability.

Instead, we may see disability struggles in those many myths in which heroes and heroines are outside the norm in some way or start with an apparent disadvantage that they turn to their own advantage. It is possible to find disability-positive moments even in ancient mythology, but it will take the same skills needed to interpret all of mythology for modern day life, a metaphoric and heart-centered view of what those who wrote them experienced that we still share.

We have moments, when we do feel helpless or limited. And the myths of our own cultural background and those of other cultures on other continents can give us meaning, counsel and inspiration for the struggles and journeys of our lives. Mythology can be an aid to people with vision impairment just as it can be to sighted people. 

I hope this guide has been helpful and not too limited. I have found very few sources already written on the subject of blind people in modern Paganism. I hope this will be only the beginning of the discussion and development of this topic. You are free to copy the address of this article and share it on-line and I welcome your comments, additions, corrections and discussion in the comments section below. 

Of Lughnasadh and solidarity

Over a plastic table at the university grill I laid out my case to two prominent members of the student government counsel about why we should show solidarity with low-income students as drastic cuts in federal financial aid were proposed. 

"That's exactly the problem!" one of the young men glaring at me across the table snapped. "That word."

Solidarity and harvest meme.jpg

What word? I combed back through my carefully prepared argument, trying to figure out what faux pas I might have committed in word choice. 

The other young man must have believed my expression of blank confusion. "Solidarity," he said. "That word makes you sound like a communist."

That was more than twenty years ago and it was the first time I heard that "solidarity" is considered a bad word. Unfortunately, that has not changed over the decades. 
Even today as progressives are making the word “socialism” halfway respectable, I still don’t hear this more personal term.
Solidarity isn’t charity and it isn’t socialism. It is much closer to the Pagan concept of hospitality. It means aid and comfort offered to the cold, the hungry, the wounded, the outcast and those whose harvest was poor last year or for many years, not out of pity but out of a deep understanding of our interconnection.
We are always saying that earth-centered spirituality is a big tent and we have very little if any common ground to base any solidarity on. And yet we all recognize "Paganism" when we see it, so there must be something that binds us.
Is it our acknowledgement of multiple gods of many different names and conceived of in as many different ways but still with suspiciously similar attributes across the world? Is it our yearning for something authentic, ancestral and rooted? Is it our understanding that the earth, not some man on a cloud, is the true giver of our daily bread?
Many of us with European roots wish to be acknowledged as a tradition en par with Native American, African or Hindu traditions that share these bits of common ground with us. But at the same time so many Pagans insist that politics and with it all social justice concerns have no place in our faith.
How so? What of that hospitality you speak so highly of? What of gratitude for your metaphorical harvest? What of your desire for native peoples around the world to acknowledge you as honorably seeking out your own ancestral connection?
What could the values of Lammas and Lughnasadh, the gratitude and the hospitality toward others possibly mean in today’s world that has been divorced from the land and agriculture, if not solidarity with those who have had hard luck, whether that meant being born in a war-torn and impoverished country or having less opportunity to obtain a secure living in our own country? What could it mean if not sharing what we have to ensure that the earth survives for another cycle of time?
You can claim with truth that we Pagans all believe different things. We do. We are vastly different. The words, the traditions and even our core beliefs diverge.

But if you hold some tradition of Lughnasadh or Lammas or even one comparable under some other name, then it is time to match your deeds to  your prayers and libations. Paganism is either real beyond your ritual circle or it is merely the teenage game some have accused us of.

I offer a poem for Lughnasadh and Lammas on the subject of solidarity:

Not to bow to sloth and greed
Nor to build walls of hate
Did Lugh ensure the seed
Or the Norns weave our fate.
You who claim the gods of old,
Who were silenced by crime,
Can least afford to turn cold
To those outcast in our time.
Honor you call for the great,
The ancestors of your blood,
And yet will you rise too late
To stand for right and good?
Odin wandered as it's told
In the guise of hard luck.
And Brigid of flame and gold
Always for justice struck.
Maybe tales are just that,
No more firm than mist.
Old warriors grow fat
And children are mere grist.
But if you call them sacred
And mean your oaths sworn,
It is time to battle hatred
And face the coming storm.
Hospitality for those in need.
Solidarity for those who fight.
The call of the heart’s creed
Is ringing in the night.

Songs for Beltane

Beltane is both the most complicated and the easiest holiday to celebrate.

For my family it is usually overshadowed by the folk traditions of my husband’s village in South Bohemia. There the entire village gathers on the green and builds a 100-foot maypole and a monstrous bonfire, In which they burn scarecrows that they call "witches." Then everyone gets drunk.

Beltane dance poem meme.jpg

It’s fun and very simple. There are no words spoken by the mayor or anyone else. Ostensibly there is no meaning to this holiday. If asked, some of the older people in the village will tell you that the witches burned on the bonfire are not meant to symbolize real witches, such as people who are outcast in the village. Rather they symbolize “the witch of winter.”  But that is the end of any meaning ascribed to the day. 

And that is where it gets complicated for me.

I haven't truly had the chance to celebrate Beltane in any other way, so while I know about the deeper symbols of the day in different cultures, I have no set ritual, no songs and very little tradition--except attending the village festival--attached to it.

This year a friend and I decided to introduce our children to a more Pagan-oriented Beltane. Before the festival we will build our own small maypole in the yard. We will gather in a circle for a small ritual, give flowers from the garden as offerings to our deities and the Good Neighbors, sing a song or two, eat colorful candy made with natural food coloring, dance around the maypole and have a picnic lunch with a small fire.

During my preparations for this celebration, I have found that it is more difficult than I thought to express the essence of Beltane. Ironically the darker holidays, such as Samhain or Imbolc seem to have more easily defined themes.

It is easy to say that Beltane is about joy, passion, love, fertility, expression and life. But it is harder to define exactly what these things mean. Almost any song of joy and love might be appropriate for the holiday but that also means that none seems to be essentially fitting. And for our purposes, the songs need to be simple enough for both kids and adults to sing without a lot of preparation.

I have several Pagan chants that seem appropriate and my kids are working on the melodies on the piano. There is one called Hoof and Horn, about the rebirth of all life. The earthy lyrics, reminiscent of the Green Man make me think specifically of Beltane, though it could be used during any part of the year. 

We decided to include the Ancient Mother chant and Everlasting Sea with lyrics adapted to work as a song for calling the elements and four directions.

I love you like the wind.

Ever-singing wind. Ever-singing wind.

I love you like the sun.

Ever-shining sun. Ever-shining sun.

I love you like the sea.

Everlasting sea. Everlasting sea.

I love you like the earth.

Ever-turning earth. Ever-turning earth.

These are still general though. We often use the melodies of other songs and put our own seasonal lyrics to them. It isn’t usually a terrible challenge. But this holiday does not lend itself so well to deep thoughts. Beltane is all sensual and sensory, all experience and action with few words. 

It is challenging to put the instinctual, active, earthy, physical essence of Beltane into words. In the end. I chose the melody of Scarborough Fair but used seasonal lyrics.

Are you going to the Beltane fair?

Dancing, fire, ribbons and wine.

Laugh your heart full when you get there,

for 'tis the goodness of the springtime

I'm wishing you a joyful and peaceful spring.

What I learned from Christians and Muslims about sharing one's identity with assholes

A few years ago, I attended the concert of a local Pagan band which was heralded as the Pagan event of the season in our area. The music was OK, but then half-way through the concert, the band started making the Nazi salute and yelling "Hail!" 

I grew up in one of those earth-centered families where we didn't call ourselves Pagan, but we read the stories of Norse, Greek and Native American gods, called the elements to start rituals, did Tarot and read the Runes... you know, all that good wholesome Pagan stuff. When I discovered the modern Pagan movement as an adult, I was delighted. There was suddenly so much more information and a whole world of potential community. 

Creative commons image courtesy of Novak Hunsky

Creative commons image courtesy of Novak Hunsky

The days of avoiding the pesky "What's your religion?" question in public were forever behind me.

Or so I thought.

I moved to Central Europe twenty years ago, following my journalism career. And there are many positive things in my new country, but racism isn't one of them. To say that I was upset to find neo-fascism spreading its slimy tentacles through the local Pagan community is an understatement. I was devastated. My experience with the band was, unfortunately, not an isolated incident and I struggled to find Pagan friends.

I set out for an international Pagans and Witches conference with high hopes of finding a more open-minded atmosphere in an international group. My children were little more than toddlers at the time and I wanted them to grow up the same as me, except better. I wanted them to have all the comfort and wonder of earth-centered spirituality AND a vibrant and friendly community where that spirituality is wholeheartedly accepted. 

I enjoyed being part of a large group ritual and found many of the discussions at the conference interesting. But several prominent persons at the conference made neo-nazi references and while some people seemed uncomfortable, no one said anything. As the only person there who didn't personally know anyone, I was hesitant to speak up, and when I did, I was harshly rebuffed and told to keep to my own business by one of the organizers.

I left the conference early. My mission had failed, since my children aren't white and I could see that even at an international gathering, they wouldn't always be truly welcome.

As a result, I was aware of the insidious creep of white supremacist groups encroaching on Pagan circles long before it became big news in the United States. Now with prominent white supremacist leaders claiming to be Pagan and alt-right demonstrators carrying Pagan symbols it is no longer so easy to admit to being Pagan in public. 

I have written about this scourge before and urged fellow Pagans to stand up to the abuse of Pagan symbols and groups by supremacist ideology. But for a long time, I struggled to make peace with the issue within myself. Should I abandon the term "Pagan?" I grew up without it after all. I could live again with a nameless identity or find a different term that might fit better.

Should I try to promote understanding of the Runes and other symbols as Pagan spiritual symbols, risking being painted as a racist bigot myself, or cede them to the Neo-nazis, allowing them to become public symbols of hate without a fight? There are certainly enough internet discussions on these issues and I've heard passionate and thoughtful arguments on both sides of that dilemma.

I have heard Pagans of Jewish and Native American background say that we are obligated to stop using the Runes and other symbols stolen by racists. I have also heard people from the same backgrounds argue that white Pagans have no right to just gift these symbols to white supremacists and hide from the problem, that we are obligated to publicly denounce the racist use of these symbols and advocate for their true meanings.

It seems that whichever we choose, we can't just blackout the assholes and go on with our merry lives in peace. At first, this seemed terribly unjust, and in fact, free fodder for the alt right--you know, white people being denied the right to their own cultural symbols because they "offend" someone.

Creative commons image courtesy of Shadowgate of

Creative commons image courtesy of Shadowgate of

But then I got some perspective from a surprising source.

"Now you know how we feel," one Christian friend mentioned while I was in the middle of this lament. 

I stopped. "What?"

But of course, progressive Christians have to deal with being associated with conservative Christians and fudnamentalists all the time. They've had a racist, sexist, homophobic, hard-right side of Christianity dominating their image in the United States for decades. They have cults, politicians, sexual predators and profiteers all leaching off their identity.

Many Pagans like the idea that because we have no central authority, we are fundamentally different from other identities. Paganism isn't even a religion, the say. We are just spiritual and we aren't going to say it in polite society but we believe we're more enlightened than Christians. 

As it turns out, we aren't all that different. Our beliefs may differ and our relationship with the gods may be radically different, but in some ways it really is the same old story.

By the time my Muslim Palestinian friend chimed in, I got it. Yes, I can imagine how irritating it would be to have your identity associated with the likes of "the Islamic State." 

As much as I would love to have an identity term that encapsulates only open-minded, diversity-loving, tree-hugging polytheists, I don't. All kinds of people on the Internet will tell you that they are Pagan and then drive a jacked-up truck with a bumper sticker that reads "F--- Mother Earth" without seeing any hypocrisy in that. There are Facebook-feed-loads of self-described Pagans who think one of the best things about their ancestral past was its mythical--and much overestimated--racial purity. 

So I got a little more humble and decided to look at how other spiritual groups have handled this kind of honor bruising. Certainly, there are plenty of authoritarian religions who have taken to declaring who is out of their religion for various transgressions. But this didn't seem like an attractive option.

I took to reading blogs by progressive Christians protesting the hateful and harmful practices of fundamentalist Christians. I found some very passionate denunciations, tough questions and calls to reexamine both the scholarship and basic values behind bigoted words and actions by other Christians. But after about two months of research, I was surprised by one thing I did not find in the posts of progressive Christians. 

I did not find any disowning, excommunicating or banning statements--no cries of "Those are not Christians!" 

Not one of the dozens of articles I read, as critical as they were, tried to say that fundamentalist hate-mongers aren't Christians. It isn't so much that I want to follow their example, but that I am surprised to see it. Some fundamentalist Christian denominations do claim that they are the only true Christians and refer to anyone else, including all Catholics, as non-Christians in Sunday School materials. I would expect that eventually progressive Christians would reciprocate. But for some reason they don't.

And the other thing they don't do is bequeath their symbols and terminology to hate-mongers. These progressive Christians don't turn belly-up and cede public views of Christianity to fundamentalists. Similarly my Muslim friends and several well-known Muslim authors, despite being slandered and attacked worldwide, continue to calmly repeat that Islamic fundamentalists don't represent them. 

I may not take my cues from other religions, but I am smart enough to learn from history. This is apparently the price of having that wide and inclusive community, full of new information and potential support which I was so delighted to discover. Soon enough someone hateful is going to claim that identity and abuse it for aims that appear to desecrate everything it stands for. 

That does not mean that we are implicated automatically or that we cannot use our own symbols. It does mean, however, that we have to stand up and face this. We may not have caused it, but at the same time we have a responsibility to speak out against those uses of our identity which are abhorrent.

I, for one, believe we should still use the Runes, but we must also acknowledge that when we take them up, we take up the burden of fighting racism and xenophobia as well. We don't get to just have our identity and remain silent believing that the injustices perpetrated in the name of that identity don't reflect on us.

Like everyone else, this is part of our story.

14 things I love about mud season

As the spring equinox fast approaches, the climate where I live has entered that stage commonly called "mud season." That is where the ground is still frozen hard two or three inches down but the top layer has turned into mud. Very little is blooming or even has leaves and the grass is still asleep and not doing it's job of holding mud in place.  

This is rarely anyone's favorite season. Two reasons come quickly to mind: 1. mud-caked shoes and 2. mud-caked children. Bonus reason: Frequent and unpredictable rain showers.

Image by Arie Farnam

Image by Arie Farnam

But I actually rather enjoy this season. Here are a few reasons I personally love mud season.

  1. The sun has really come back and the days are no longer dark and gray.
  2. You can actually feel a faint warmth when the sunlight touches your face.
  3. You only need a jacket and can leave some of the winter gear at home, at least around noon.
  4. Animals all around are starting to get really happy.
  5. The smell of mud and melting snow is dizzying.
  6. The few flowers that do come up now are among the prettiest and smallest and you can actually find them because nothing else is growing.
  7. Eggs and more eggs.
  8. The sun is up when the kids go to school.
  9. My greenhouses are lovely and thawed now and I can play in them and pretend that it's true spring.
  10. Did I mention the sun?
  11. The air is cleaner in our smoggy area than at any other time of the year.
  12. The birds come back all of the sudden and sing in a great chorus in the empty lot of brambles next to us.
  13. Flu season is almost over.
  14. Anticipating true spring is almost as good as the real thing.

I hope this list may be more amusing than annoying. If you are grumpy about all the mud being tracked into your house or you live someplace so hot and dry that you think we are jerks to complain about mud, I wish you a better-balanced equinox and a gently passing season.


Arie Farnam

Arie Farnam is a war correspondent turned peace organizer, a tree-hugging herbalist, a legally blind bike rider, the off-road mama of two awesome kids, an idealist with a practical streak and author of the Kyrennei Series. She grew up outside La Grande, Oregon and now lives in a small town near Prague in the Czech Republic.

Astrology versus the scientific mind

I am the kind of person who gets in trouble for being "too hung up on logic." The other day, I was in an argument and my family member yelled, "I don't care about the facts!" It's the sort of response you get when even your spoken words come with bullet points.

I'm just saying that I have a moderately scientific mind. I want to see the evidence. I have a really hard time taking things on faith, even when I really want to. For instance, when I study herbs, I need a scientific source or a good reasoned argument to even begin to experiment with a new herbal treatment and then I need to see several clearly successful cases to put it down as a useful remedy. 

As a result, I have this problem with astrology.

Creative Commons image by chelmsfordblue of

Creative Commons image by chelmsfordblue of

Actually, it isn't just astrology. It's everything to do with the energetic level of reality. I have seen an energy healer diagnose a long-standing chronic illness and fix it in minutes. I've also seen a traditional shaman fail to cure a child of a dangerous but treatable case of dysentery. I've seen an astrologist pinpoint major events in the lives of strangers with astounding accuracy and I've seen a strong prediction by the same astrologer go awry. 

I'm a strange specimen--a person who demands logic and evidence and yet studies the Tarot, astrology and the five-thousand-year-old Chinese divination system of the i-Ching. And increasingly I trust those systems of connecting to non-physical reality. 

Lay people outside science often assume that scientists must know a thing one hundred percent without doubt and know how and why a thing is in order to accept it. That is far from the truth. In fact, science is made up of conditional facts and endless skepticism. What lay people call "facts", scientists call "theories."

That's why evolution and climate change are called "theories." They are as true as anything we know. Gravity is also technically a theory and less understood than evolution. That doesn't make it less true. There are well-developed theories like these in which scientists know not only that a thing works but even why and how it works in the world. 

But there are also instances where scientists know that something is or that it works but not why or how. Scientists still don't know exactly why we yawn, how cats purr or why there is an ambient hum in the air. The sun's corona is several million degrees hotter than the surface and scientists don't know how that can be.

You've certainly heard doctors and scientists talk about "the placebo effect." It's a well-known phenomenon and you can watch it work yourself, but scientists still don't know WHY placebos work so well. Yet every local doctor worth their salt uses them for the very real aid of their patients. Similarly we demonstrably need sleep. Sleep deprivation causes severe medical problems, but scientists still don't understand exactly why the human body needs so much sleep and some animals need much less sleep.

Here's one mystery that gets a bit closer to my main topic about astrology. Nine out of ten people are right-handed. We know the medical costs of forcing left-handed people to use their right hand and it is likely that the same costs would apply to a right-handed person forced to use their left hand. So this is a real, inborn trait. But why isn't it random? What evolutionary advantage could have caused right-handedness to become so dominant? One possibility is a connection to the magnetic poles of the earth and the earth's spinning and it's affect on the perceived motion of the sun and moon. 

Many types of birds migrate thousands of miles back to the same location every year. There are hypotheses about how this may also be connected to the earth's magnetic field but really scientists are still very unsure how the internal GPS system of birds works. If you look at monarch butterflies you add a whole extra layer of complexity. The butterflies migrate to very specific areas every year but each butterfly only lives six months, so the butterflies that return are the children of those that left and make the journey precisely and only once in their lifetimes. Scientists really don't know how that works.

The possibility that the movements of enormous planets, even at a great distance, could have an effect on the delicate chemical balances of our brains isn't really all that implausible. We know for instance that the cycle of the moon impacts the ovulation cycle of human women, while most other female animals ovulate on rhythms independent from the moon. So it is just our special connection to that orb. 

And the gravitational pull of planets, the moon and the sun is not the only possible reason for the observable effects of astrology. It is possible that astronomical movements simply provide us with a time-keeping system and the cause is something much closer to home, such as the kind of magnetic forces that affect monarch butterflies. 

Still, astrology is one of those things most scientists won't touch with a ten-foot pole, which means that there are very few large-scale psychological studies that look at the possible effects of astrology and certainly none with any degree of nuance.

Newspaper horoscopes may or may not actually be written by real astrologers, but they clearly bear little or no relationship to reality. They are generally too vague and when they aren't, they are just wrong. Even the more detailed predictions of individual astrological charts, involving trines, squares and asteroids confound my need for logic and evidence. 

The most common argument against astrology is that it is so vague that it can apply to anything. But in the case of the details of astrological charts, I find that they are too specific and thus too easily disproved. 

But there are other things in astrology--primarily sun signs, ascendants and moon signs as well as the houses to some degree--that cause my skeptical mind to stop and take notice. Take a few dozen friends and it is easy to observe that people born between March 21 and April 20, give or take 24 hours, are disproportionately feisty and adventurous--both typical Aries traits, while people born between August 23 and September 22 tend to focus on details and have high standards--both Virgo characteristics.

There are a few scattered studies that make weak attempts to document the correlation between birth seasons or months and character traits. Scientists in Japan showed that people born between December and February have a significantly lower propensity to agree to new ideas presented by others. A Swedish study found that women born February through April seek new experiences more readily than others. Those who wish to dismiss astrology out-of-hand point out that Capricorn (mostly January) and Sagittarius (mostly December) have very different astrological profiles and so these studies shouldn't be taken to support astrology. However, real astrology is based on nature and no competent astrologist will insist that characteristics are cut off on a hard date or that adjacent signs bear no relation to each other.

Sagittarius and Capricorn are both signs in which one would expect a lower level of agreeableness, although they are different in other ways. While Aquarius, Pisces and Aries are all signs that point to quick beginnings and exploration, although in different areas and in different ways. 

Beyond that, astrology is much more complex than the month of one's birth. Ascendants have as much or more effect on a person's outwardly measurable personality than the month of birth and ascendants change every four minutes or so. With a good understanding of both psychology and astrology, one can easily observe the correlations between the month of birth or ascendant and the personality of the individual, but at least those two factors must be taken into account and it is difficult to isolate one specific measure to tag on its own.

Even worse than establishing astrological correlations would be explaining how or why such effects might occur. Some birth-date-connected differences in personalities are found to follow the seasons rather than the months in the southern hemisphere. But others do not. Seasonal differences in personality could be linked to the weather, temperature or habits of those first perceived by the infant. On the other hand, calendar-correlated differences are harder to explain away without getting close to astrology.

So how could such a phenomenon work? One theory is the gravitational pull of different planets, the moon and the sun. Another is something to do with the earth's magnetic field. But we're far from understanding how astrological correlations to personality come about and with the taboo on the subject in scientific circles it is unlikely to be seriously studied.

Still I can't help myself. My child with both a sun sign and an ascendant in Capricorn is the most stubborn and persistent person I have ever seen. My Gemini brother is so sociable and indecisive that it's a family joke. And I fit my sun sign so well that people think I was named for it, which I wasn't but I might as well have been.

Astrology is too complex to use it as a simple measure but knowing the combination of sun sign, ascendant and moon sign for a particular person gives you about as much information as either a week living with them or a Myers-Briggs personality test. It's correlation though, not fate written in stone. 

Going on the theory that some influence might be exerted on us in line with the calendar because of either magnetic fields or subtle gravitational forces, it is understandable then that the cut-off lines are not sharp and that these are merely influences, not hard and fast rules. We're talking about natural phenomena after all.

Just as my brain naturally tends toward visual learning and I have a knack for graphic design, even though I'm legally blind, we can find conflicts between circumstances and a person's astrological influences. My daughter, the one with the double Capricorn influence, also happens to have severe ADHD. So, while she is stubborn and can persist at an argument longer than anyone else I know, she is easily distractable and terribly impulsive, which are not typical Capricorn traits. She often gets horribly frustrated by the distractions and appears torn about persisting on tasks. It is as if the neurological glitch of ADHD, which can be linked to chemical exposure or other external circumstances, clashes with her basic temperament, much the way my visual disability clashes with my learning style.

What I take from this, as a logical person with an--at times--overbearing demand for evidence, is that astrology is an influence only, not a predictor of fate. Astrology is a pull in one direction or another that may or may not be readily apparent depending on how strong the specific pull is and how circumstances compound or contradict it. 


Arie Farnam

Arie Farnam is a war correspondent turned peace organizer, a tree-hugging herbalist, a legally blind bike rider, the off-road mama of two awesome kids, an idealist with a practical streak and author of the Kyrennei Series. She grew up outside La Grande, Oregon and now lives in a small town near Prague in the Czech Republic.

Identity for children in Pagan and mixed households

When I was a child, it bugged me every time someone asked me, "What are you?" meaning "What religion do you follow?" That wasn't because I didn't want to be asked. It bugged me even more, when they just assumed I was Christian like 95 percent of everyone in the community around us.

It bugged be because I had no words for it. 

I grew up in a time and place where earth-centered spirituality was kept under wraps and publicly admitting it could very well lead to employment problems and/or an investigation by Child Protective Services. It was probably a good thing that I had no words for the little rituals, rune drawing, Tarot cards and quarter calling that I participated in with my mother's circle. And I survived the quiet longing for something more openly stated pretty well. 

Image by Arie Farnam

Image by Arie Farnam

But today most Neopagans have no such external restraints on giving our children a spiritual identity. Instead we are caught in the dilemma of whether and how much to hand our kids the ready-made Pagan identity. 

This goes beyond the concern that some adult Pagan events don't or can't reasonably include children. There are plenty of ways a child can be involved in earth-centered or even specific Neopagan practice. The feasts of the Wheel of the Year provide plenty of kid-friendly fun, inspiration and tradition, even if that is all a child is exposed to. 

But many earth-centered parents have either seen friends undergo or undergone themselves the forcing of a religious identity in childhood. The major religions today, other than Paganism, insist that children born within them should be held to them. Many Pagans who weren't born into an earth-centered path are Pagans specifically because they fled the oppressive atmosphere of religions that force an identity and practice on children.

So naturally we don't want to become just as bad as what so many of us struggled to free ourselves from. And the issue of how much to develop family-centered traditions permeates Pagan parenting discussions.

In my family, that dilemma intersects with another long-standing controversy in Neopaganism--the issue of ethnic identity. There are many mixed-race families in Paganism today. I've run into Norse-tradition Heathens who are half-Scandinavian and half-African but naturally to Europeans look more African than Scandinavian. There are Irish-East Indians. a great many people with mixed European and Native American background and many Pagans whose ancestry is all over the map.

And in my family and several others, there is the issue of inter-ethnic adoption. Life takes us down unexpected paths and ours led my husband and I to adopt two children who happen to be of a different ethnicity. They are Romani (ethnic Gypsies) and as such there is some debate over whether or not they qualify as ethnic Europeans, since their ancestors came to Europe from India somewhat more recently than most Europeans. 

Illustration from the Pagan children's book Shanna and the Pentacle, Copyright Julie Freel 2015

Illustration from the Pagan children's book Shanna and the Pentacle, Copyright Julie Freel 2015

This type of thing isn't a controversy because we believe that one must follow the Pagan tradition of one's genetic ancestors. There have certainly been plenty of non-Celtic Wiccans while other Wiccans claimed some connection between Wicca and ancient Celtic traditions. But it is uncommon to find a Slavic reconstructionist Pagan who doesn't have at least some Slavic genetic background. And when it comes to children, it is particularly important to honor their own unique genetic heritage.

It's an unarguable fact that most earth-centered traditions share a deep connection with ancestors and the land on which ancestors lived. Certainly we can and do honor ancestors connected to us by our tradition, craft or beliefs as well as those of blood and nation. But it is hard to entirely ignore the issue without some doubts of authenticity creeping in.

There is very little scholarly work to be found documenting original Romani spirituality. There are always rumors and plenty of people who will claim their Romani grandmother passed great Pagan spiritual traditions down to them. But Romani people still living in the Romani communities today usually vehemently deny much of what these revelations claim. While the Roma as a people have held on to their language and culture far more fiercely than most other small, landless ethnic groups, they are chameleons when it comes to religion. 

Wherever Romani communities are found today, they match the religion of the majority society. In Muslim areas, they are Muslim. in Catholic areas they are Catholic and in Orthodox areas they are Orthodox. Whatever is left of their original spiritual traditions is well buried. 

And so I not only stand in the usual dilemma of most Pagan parents today, but also on an ethnic divide, where one side is almost entirely unavailable. I feel a strong connection to the ancestors and spirit of the Central European landscape where I now live and to Celtic traditions. But neither of those seems to have much to do with my children. My altar carries ancestral symbols for everyone in our household--Celtic, Norse, Romani and Slavic. And when I honor ancestors of blood, I honor them all.

But I am hesitant to tell my children what they should be. 

I tell them they are Romani and teach them to be proud and not to hide it. I tell them their citizenship in two countries. I tell them about Romani ancestry and about mine and that of my husband. I tell them that the spiritual traditions we practice are sometimes called Pagan. 

But there is a line where I stop. I don't tell my children they should call themselves Pagan.

I have pointed out when someone identifies as Christian or Pagan or Muslim, explaining what it means to identify yourself that way. But I leave their own identity open to them with enough words and experience imparted that when they do want to choose i hope they will know something about what they are choosing.

So far, my nine-year-old daughter wants nothing to do with spirituality. She refuses to enter churches and avoids my altars and Tarot cards, and she always has. My seven-year-old son, on the other hand, often asks to light a candle on the altar, colors pictures from Pooka Pages, asks to draw a Tarot card, spontaneously says a Pagan morning prayer sometimes and requests Pagan songs for his piano lessons. These are all things he is exposed to because of adults around him.  

This is the wavering line I've decided to walk in parenting between too mysterious an identity and forced identity. 

We read myths and other stories from a Pagan worldview. I have even authored several Pagan children's books, illustrated by the children's grandmother. I don't hide my rituals or altars and I sing a short blessing song before important meals (though not before all meals). We occasionally meet up with another Pagan family with young children for holidays.

We celebrate the eight holidays of the Wheel of the Year as a family with specific earth-centered traditions. My husband enjoys the traditions and the focus on nature but isn't particularly spiritually inclined. So some of the holidays aren't overtly spiritual. It's just what we do and it adds a pleasant, natural rhythm to the year. 

There are many different paths to walk in Pagan parenting and it is beyond my station to say what is right or wrong in it. The Shanna books (Shanna and the Raven, Shanna and the Pentacle and Shanna and the Water Fairy) portray a single-parent household that is somewhat more overtly Pagan than mine. The children in the story are older than my kids and have a more developed sense of their identity.

But much of the conversation and holiday traditions practiced by the fictional family of the story is similar to what our family and many others do. The second book, Shanna and the Pentacle, weaves a story around the issues of identity that kids in middle childhood often face.

In this spring-equinox themed story, eleven-year-old Shanna has to consciously acknowledge what her pentacle necklace means, though she previously thought of it mainly as a gift from a friend. And she has to learn to stand up for herself in the face of pressure in a society where Pagans aren't the majority. The story is one that is close to home for most kids in Pagan families and Shanna's adventures along the way prepare her to make her own decisions about identity. 

I wrote that story and the others as part of my quest to find the right balance of information, experience and freedom of choice for my kids. My parenting is a work in progress and I love to hear from other parents dealing with related issues. Please leave comments below if you are inspired.

How do you approach passing on your values and beliefs to your children? Is your family mixed? How do you approach holidays with extended family that may have different traditions? What is the hardest part of parenting children in an earth-centered spiritual tradition? What's the easiest or most fun part? I look forward to reading your experiences.

Blue Moon / Imbolc wishes

One of our family traditions for Imbolc (February 2) is to write wishes on slips of paper and put them into a wish jar for the year. First, we pull out last year's wishes to see if any of them have come true, and then we drop in new ones. It's surprising how sometimes the wildest wishes do manifest themselves in some way.

We make a point of going beyond "realistic wishes." When you wish, wish in full. This is what wishes are for and it matters. Imbolc is a special time for wishes and for prophesy. The full moon is also a magical time for wishes and a blue moon may have particular potency. 

This year I have decided to spread my pleasant wishes as far as possible. Here are my wishes for you. Feel free to share them and wish the same to your friends and loved one's. 

Blue Moon wishes meme.jpg
  • I wish you a clear night sky to view this super blue moon. 
  • I wish you a bright dawn full of hope and promise.
  • I wish you comfort and shelter in rough weather and the freedom to roam in fine weather
  • I wish you lively consciousness, a resilient body, the love of acceptance and surety of purpose.

And I also have wishes for the world at this turning:: 

  • I wish everyone could simultaneously wake up full of hope and compassion one morning, so that no one's small gesture of kindness would be rebuffed and the sense of hope would just keep going.
  • I wish all the pundits and news anchors would decide to speak honestly from their hearts and deepest convictions. 
  • I wish the people who run big corporations would suddenly all stop and consider the future of their own descendants and decide to tackle climate change seriously with us right now.
  • I wish that human leaders should be held accountable to law and the democratic will of the people this year. 
  • I wish for all humans to become aware of our close connection to plants, animals, the land, the air and the water around us, so that we make decisions that will give us the life we actually want.
  • I wish for all people to be free from addictions as well as from the dissonance between beliefs and actions.
  • I wish all the lonely and outcast people could find each other and become the biggest, most accepting and most joyful tribe on earth. 

You may laugh at my unrealistic wishes. But they are real, not just platitudes. This is the breath of hope.

Yule carol to a 250-year-old Slovak tune

This time before the Winter Solstice looks like a gloomy time at our latitude. The sun is far to the south and even at midday it sits near the horizon. Sunday will see the dark of the moon and arguably the darkest night, though the Solstice is a few days away. There will be only stars to light this long night.

Creative Commons image by fdecomite of

Creative Commons image by fdecomite of

Monday will usher in a tiny crescent of moon after sunset in the far western sky. And each day after that the crescent will grow and be higher in the sky as night falls.

On the 21st the sun will give the least light in the northern hemisphere and it will stay that way for three exceptionally dark days. It is a time of stars, of small, twinkling lights and of solace in the darkness. 

And yet, people have celebrated the
Winter Solstice since prehistoric times in one form or another. Music of wonder and hope belongs to this season and I am always in search of more songs that celebrate the sun and earth, the moon and the stars. When I can't find a song that fits just right, I have to put my nose to the grindstone and write my own.

Below you can find the lyrics I wrote for this Winter Solstice. It's a song for rising at dawn--not that early, so not hard to do--on the Winter Solstice and going out with a mug of something hot and spicy into the cold to greet the sun. 

The tune is from a 250-year-old Slovak carol by František Sušil. You can listen to the melody here and follow along with the words. It's meant to be sung as a lively tune, but it is easy enough even for those of us without a great deal of musical talent.


Rise in good cheer


Rise in good cheer children of earth

Bring a coal to kindle the hearth

Hail the rising winter sun

Star of hope and our rebirth

Greet the light this winter's morn'

Star of hope and our rebirth

Through midnight's shadow I may go

Storm of sleet and wind and snow

I seek a light to guide my way

Star of waking, light and truth

Shining at the darkest hour

Star of waking, light and truth