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 Flickr.com

Creative Commons image by Sofie of Flickr.com

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.

Safety

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. 

Grounding

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

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 flickr.com

Creative commons image courtesy of Shadowgate of flickr.com

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.

Comment

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 flickr.com

Creative Commons image by chelmsfordblue of flickr.com

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. 

Comment

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 Flickr.com

Creative Commons image by fdecomite of Flickr.com

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

An earth-centered spiritual perspective: Why is there undeserved suffering?

When I was twenty-three, I traveled around Bangladesh and walked alone into a slum where a million people lived in cardboard and tin shacks on a plane of mud. There I met a woman who was little older than me but looked like she was 80. She was born there and lived her whole life in extreme poverty. She broke bricks with her bare hands for a living. I met this woman because her eight-year-old daughter rescued me from an angry mob. 

 Creative Commons image from the Department of Foreign Affairs of Australia

Creative Commons image from the Department of Foreign Affairs of Australia

I found my new friends to be incredibly hard working, compassionate and all-around good people. And I was forced to consider the question of why they lived such terribly hard lives, amid constant misery and sorrow, while I lived relatively easily and had many things handed to me, even though I was born in a shack without an indoor bathroom myself. 

In Bangladesh, they had an explanation. Bad karma. Supposedly the little girl who rescued me--a complete stranger--from a crowd of men demanding to know why I had come into their slum, even though I had tried to dress modestly according to local custom, had been naughty in a past life.

Though her eyes shown at me with kindness and innocence, that is one accepted explanation. There was very little chance she would ever be able to go to school or eat a decent meal and if she lived to be 30, she would be haggard, old and fortunate to still be alive.

And something in my spirit rebelled. This idea of karma was no better to me than the talk of hell fire, I heard from Christians back home in America. I was brought up with an alternative spirituality, but I had not been given an alternative explanation of suffering. 

Even in much less extreme situations, good fortune appears to be random. I grew up among relatively poor people in rural, remote Eastern Oregon but I managed to travel to five continents and forge a good life for myself, partly because my parents, though poor, were fairly well educated and did not harbor the hopelessness of generational poverty. My experience, moving between many different social classes has shown that there is little correlation between hard work and financial success. The poor are every bit as likely to work hard as the rich, if not more so. Laziness, apathy, depression and addiction happen among the rich and the poor. 

Today, as the political battles over things like food stamps, universal health care and free education heat up in the United States, I constantly run across arguments, in which one side claims that poor people aren't committed enough to earning a good living and they just need to work harder or smarter. And the other side claims that the economy is rigged against them or that health, family or other circumstances made a higher income unreachable. Rarely does anyone in the verbal sparring stop to acknowledge that hardship is mostly random and the only real question to argue about is why that is and what, if anything, we wish to do about it.

Spirituality arose among the first humans for two reasons: first, to discuss what happens after we die and whether or not we are just meat with neurons; and second, to answer this question: why do bad things happen at random even to good, hard-working people? 

Modern earth-centered and Pagan paths have various but fairly standard interpretations of the first question. As for the second question, it is worth some thought.

If you are the kind of person who believes in gods, whether a primal earth mother, a vague universal spirit or a whole pantheon of gods, then you have to confront the question of whether those gods have any power to affect our lives. Many people today believe that gods are beings that only act through our connection to them or our enlightenment, whether they just all "in our heads" or not. Others believe that spirit or the gods pervade the natural world and are part of us and everything else in the world. Some believe in gods or spirits who are specific beings with relationships to specific humans and that they can give aid, withhold it or even cause harm as they choose.

Either way, it seems like spiritual beings should have some justice to them. What would be the point otherwise? Modern Pagans mostly don't beg their gods for favors in prayers. But we do--well many of us do--ask for help sometimes. And even if you believe that it is only in reflecting in prayer or magical work that you help yourself, you either believe that is beneficial or you're just fooling around with candles and pretty rocks.

And if you're a pantheistic sort of spiritualist, who does not believe in gods per se, but believes that divine energy infuses everything, that nature is filled with sacred energy, then you also must believe there is some reason to acknowledge that creative force. You may not believe that the universe is either benevolent or malevolent. But you still must wonder if there is any point to the randomness of misfortune in our world.

There are also humanists, who do not believe in gods or divine powers or believe that if they do exist they have no power or desire to intervene in our affairs. Humanists may subscribe to the traditions of a spiritual path whether Pagan, Christian or otherwise, but they believe that humans have to deal with our own troubles on our own. While these humanists may not have to deal with the question of why gods let good people suffer, they must in the end discuss the randomness of hardship as well.

It has taken me many years of study to arrive at my own answer to this question, but when I found it, it turned out to be incredibly simple.

Suffering and hardship are random, whether the gods willed it to be that way or not, in order to give us compassion.

I do not believe in karma in the sense that you are punished for some sin in one life by being born to hardship in another. Nor do I believe in divine punishment either in this life or in an afterlife. Certainly we can make our own hardship at times, but the greatest suffering that humans endure is usually acquired at birth and is non-negotiable. 

And here's the crucial point. If we truly believed that everyone deserved what they got, either by karma, sin or sloth, and that the world gives everyone an equal, fair shot, then you would have no compassion. And you would be justified in that. It would be correct to have no compassion. It would be foolish and enabling of wrongness to have compassion.

The only reason for compassion is the understanding that much of the pain, hardship, loss and suffering of others is not a result of their cruel, stupid or lazy actions or inactions.

It just is. 

No god, goddess, spirit or karma put them there and none will rescue them without our energy and intention. Prayer matters. Physicists can demonstrate it. My personal polytheistic belief is that our gods do care about suffering and may in fact give solace or aid when our intention is strong and positive, but it is not in their nature to banish all suffering. And I am not sure that they would if they could.  

When I come closest to my matron goddess at moments of despair, I feel great compassion and caring from that source. But I also have heard a signular message. No one with the power to stop all undeserved suffering in the world would use it. Suffering is terrible, but it is not as terrible as a world of entitled, compassionless light without any understanding of darkness would be.

A circle of ancestors: Truths from deep in the well

Dark comes fast amid the trees, turning the colors of drying blood, red to brown. It's that time of the year, when thoughts turn to the past and to ancestors.

I put up an ancestor altar for Samhain / the Day of All Souls. There is one significant new addition to my beloved dead this year, a sweet voice I can still hear in my memory. But also over the past year, I have learned a few tidbits about how at least one of my ancestors was involved in a KKK group in Oregon. And some of the best photographs I have are from a more recent ancestor who was known to be both sexist and racist, along with having some better qualities. 

Ancestor altar.png

What does honoring the ancestors mean? Does it mean that you can take credit and say thank you if you don't know anything negative about your ancestors? Does it mean you ignore the ancestors you feel ashamed of and celebrate only those who did good things, like my great aunt who saved many lives as a humanitarian worker in the Philippines?

The past few weeks have been particularly hard on my family with a lot of community pressure and internal struggle for balance. There are times when I rethink the old belief that the universe gives us only as much hardship as our spirits can bear. It seems like the universe has been cutting it awfully close these days.

And sometimes I wonder. Maybe my philosophy is wrong. Maybe this is just bad karma from my prejudiced ancestors. 

Should I honor my ancestors?

I think of the well at our old family homestead. Once when I was fifteen, I was lowered into it to help with repairs because my slim body was a better fit for the narrow well than my father's broad-shouldered frame.

My father told me not to look up because sand and dirt could fall into my eyes as he lowered me on a rope 60 feet into the earth. I obediently kept my eyes down. With the headlamp I was wearing I got a good look at the rows upon rows of hand lain rough field stone that was used to reinforce the walls of the well. 

To this day that is one of the most respect-inspiring sights I've ever seen. I knew the rocky, clay soil of our remote Eastern Oregon ridge intimately. I had helped grow food in it since early childhood. I'd built forts and hideouts in its rugged outcrops. I had also dug for camas root in the meadows with precious little success, bruising both hands and tools on the many rough gray rocks in the clay. With my significant vision impairment, I had learned to move carefully among the jagged boulders on the windswept top of the ridge. This was not a land that lent itself to digging. 

And yet someone dug a 60 foot shaft by hand in the age before machinery and lined it with neat rows of perfectly fitted field stones. These were not the ancestors of my blood but they were in every fundamental way the ancestors of my our hearth. 

The winter my mother was pregnant with me, my family shared a tiny cabin with another family. Four adults and three small children in what was once a one-room schoolhouse. In November, they were out one night when the cabin burned to the ground, due to a faulty wood stove. My father moved my pregnant mother and two-year-old brother a quarter mile up the hollow to the moderately flat spot where this well stood. 

At the time there was nothing else there. Just the well, left by nameless settlers amid the snow and mud. My father parked an old, broken-down truck next to the well and spent the winter building a new cabin around it. I was born in the loft of that cabin, built over the roof of the old truck the next April.

This is my history and the significance of that well to me. Without a well, the dry Eastern Oregon ridges are unlivable. I knew people who had to haul water, and even as a small child, I remember having a deep gratitude for that well.

And yet...

My parents may have purchased that land fair and square, but there were--as it turned out--other traces of human habitation on it. My brother found Native American artifacts in an embankment in one of the camas meadows. And there is a circle of ancient mounds on the ridge that is too regular to be natural. 

The settlers who built the well or those who came before them--someone--stole this land, and while the road there still isn't paved, they made it possible for us to live there. 

This is what I think of every Samhain. My awe and respect for the lives endured by the ancestors of our land, hearth and family, as well as great sorrow and pain for the wrongs that can be remembered if one is willing to look. 

While I was down at the bottom of that well at the age of fifteen, I laid some insulation cloth as my father instructed. Then just before giving the proscribed tug on the rope to signal, so that I would be pulled up, I cautiously turned my head and looked up. 

I have rarely felt such raw terror in my life. At first I thought something was wrong with my vision, not out of the question given my eye condition. The top of the well was gone or else it was night and the full moon had risen. But I couldn't possibly have been down there that long, I thought frantically.

Then the truth crashed in on my consciousness. That distant round moon of light WAS the opening of the well. I had not thought about how far down 60 feet is or how closed in and vulnerable a soft human body would be that far under the earth in a shaft so narrow that I had to turn around carefully. Now that I saw the distant opening, the realization was terrifying. 

I felt my throat constrict and I fought a wave of panic that threatened to send me into senseless screaming and thrashing. My father had told me to be still and not make any loud noises. He was afraid I might dislodge stones in the well and be injured. Getting out of that well calmly was probably the first truly brave thing I ever did. 

That well was our lifeline and also an artifact of one of the worst genocides in human history. I was the great granddaughter of immigrants and settlers. I then left that land and went far across the ocean to another country, where I am a first generation immigrant and now a new citizen. I married a man who can trace the names of his ancestors back 600 years on the same little farm in the swampy land of South Bohemia. And our children are adopted from decimated families who were among a handful of Romani (Gypsies) who survived both slavery and the Holocaust in central Europe. 

Samhain is far from simple around here. 

In the end, I cannot make justice or peace for history. I can only set out the photographs, the names and the symbols of those people who came before, those who gave us life, sustenance, hope and a chance to make our own mark. 

The land of my childhood sustained me and gave me a body with health and resilience for which I am often grateful.  As a child I learned to call the quarters in the Native American way and I studied the Teutonic runes. Blood says I have no claim to the former and history has tainted the latter. There is truth in that. 

There is also truth in gratitude, in respect and in remembering. I will not claim stolen heritage. And yet, I cannot shake the feeling of kindness and peace that comes from the earth at the old homestead. I feel sorrow for the people forced to leave that land, but I do not sense that they hate me. I feel a circle of presence at Samhain, all the ancestors of my childhood--of family, of land and of hearth--and all the ancestors of my present, those of my husband, so well documented, and those of my children, unknown except for the painful history that we know rolled over them in one way or another. 

No, I do not feel an idealized warmth from all the ancestors, a circle of support and blessing. I do feel intense currents of sorrow, pain, shame and anger, interspersed with love and hope. But they are all there. They are not absent.

They are all in the circle at this time of year, no matter what baggage they may carry. And I feel called to honor them, not just on this one day but also by living in a way that gives honor for the gifts they each gave me. When the burdens seem too great, I want to always remember this. I humbly accept this life. I acknowledge what came before.

Books for attuning to the rhythms and magical energies of the moon

If you have always wanted to be more in touch with nature or attuned to natural cycles, the new moon is the time to take a step toward it. For me the first step on a new path is often reading books. It isn't just a passive, relatively easy step without a lot of commitment. I follow through on what I read.

Several years ago, I started reading about moon phases, signs and cycles on a new moon. Now I've come through most of a year, focusing my daily spiritual practice and much of my household activities on attuning to the moon's cycles. The result isn't some sort of higher plane of existence, but rather a comfortable routine that feels grounded, healthy and now so utterly natural that I am surprised to realize that it has only been a year.

Here are some books I recommend for learning why and how to synchronize yourself to the moon and use the energies of the moon for well-being. 

Moon Magic

This is a complete guide for those just beginning on this quest. 

A new title from Moon Books, Moon Magic is a modern witch's exploration of everything moon related. It's nominally multicultural, providing the names and symbols of deities from around the world, but the rituals and visualizations all have a modern, Wiccan-inspired atmosphere. All the deities hug you, for instance.

Still this is a good introductory reference, including helpful lists of monthly moon names, rituals and visualizations for each moon phase and the Celtic tree calendar. One of the less common and most helpful things in this book are correspondences of positive and negative symbols, herbs, colors and incense for each  astrological moon sign. 

The book is well-written and concise. There isn't a lot of fluff or talking you into reading further. Moon Magic is a good reference for beginners with the caveat that there is a bias toward modern, European witchcraft and the multicultural aspect is token. 

Llewellyn's Moon Sign Book

I have searched for just the right moon calendar in the English language for years, and haven’t found it. Llewellyn’s is the best I can come up with. That’s primarily because I’m looking for both moon magic, astrology and a practical gardener’s almanac that is in tune with the moon as well. I would particularly like a Pagan-oriented moon calendar with references to a wide variety of deities, beyond Middle Eastern and European.

Yeah, I am a tough customer. I am also less interested in random women’s poetry, affirmations and artwork, which adorn so many moon calendars. 

Llewellyn’s Moon Sign Book has a lot to offer though. The weekly calendar section provides the dates and times of moon transits through astrological signs and phases in a less than ideal format but it can be made to work, extremely brief gardening pointers, a short quote, a practical simple living tip, a tiny black and white picture and three or four lines for notes. 

There follows a good, universal gardening-by-the-moon section, which explains the basic principles but doesn’t include specific daily gardening tips. There is an extensive planting table showing which sign and phase to plant a wide variety of vegetables, fruits and herbs as well as a separate companion planting table.

Both are quite helpful, though I find calendars which simply give specific days in the right part of the year for planting the various types of plants require less astrological study to decode. For instance, the book also includes a Moon Void-of-Course table which shows days when planting is not advisable, despite the sign and phase. So planting by the moon with this book requires reference to several different tables and pages for each calculation of a day or time to plant a specific species. 

That said the book does include a nice table that lists specific dates in each month for a wide variety of activities from weaning children to laying wooden floors. If you’re able to plan activities in advance this is a wonderful addition. Monthly moon tables (including the daily sign, element, nature and phase) and aspectarian charts are included, which allow for more detailed calculations. There are special tables for egg setting, hunting/fishing and pest/weed eradication dates. 

Less helpfully, major portions of the book are devoted to US weather forecasts over large “zones” by moon phase and these, in my observations, bore less than usual correlation to reality. This could be due to climate change and not the publisher’s fault, though climate change was not mentioned or discussed and probably should have been.

Another large section is devoted to a pan-sector business forecast that is both too broad to be effective and to focused on random details that did not in the end prove portentous this year at least. There is an energetic and relationship forecast that includes references to specific signs and this was moderately helpful or at least entertaining to read. 

Each  year the book includes several essays in the back on interesting moon-related topics ranging from healing, the moon phase divisions of various cultures and specific agricultural techniques. These were interesting and decently well written. 

Herbs of the Sun, Moon and Planets

Herbs of the Sun, Moon and Planets provides a list of herbs specifically for attuning to the moon. More than that, it provides a detailed discussion of plants and herbs for the planets as well. 

This tightly packed book takes the reader beyond lists of herbs. It includes the chemical make-up, medicinal and magical uses as well as the history of a set of herbs for the sun, moon and five additional planets. 

This book, though best used as a technical reference rather than read straight through, is helpful in determining which herbs and plants are suitable as offerings or incense when an astrological connection is needed.  

Staking a claim: What is Paganism?

With a quick search, you can find an active discussion--or more likely an argument--on one social media platform or another about the definition of the word "Pagan" at any given moment.

That is the nature of social media and the nature of Paganism. Both are amorphous, unbounded by time and famously light on rules. 

I have joined several such discussions over the years--first with mounting excitement as I discovered that the spirituality I was quietly--almost secretly--raised with had a name and then later in increasing irritation as I saw that name gnawed, mauled and fought over like a bone in a dog fight. So many groups lay claim to it or insist that they define it, either for themselves or for others, and it is no wonder that a newcomer just discovering this spiritual movement today might be confused.

Even my mother, who taught me the basic tenants of Pagan spirituality based on nothing but an intuitive reverence for nature and some scattered esoteric reading, is wary of the term Pagan. Living in a conservative rural area, one absorbs the linguistic definitions of the surroundings, and when asked to define what she thought "Pagan" meant, she recently said she got a general impression of "hedonism, promiscuity, disrespect for authority and drugs."

That's a microcosm of what can be observed in the media. Many people, even those who are essentially friendly to Pagan spirituality, have this same general impression.

So, because I write about Paganism and toss the word around here with abandon, I suppose I need to define what I mean by it, both for insiders and for outsiders, unless I want to risk giving the wrong cpnnotation. And in the process I will have to stake a claim of sorts, to take a side in several hot arguments. After considerable thought, discussion and research, I am prepared to take that stand.

What Pagan once meant

 Creative Commons image by Dan Meineck

Creative Commons image by Dan Meineck

The people of ancient Europe may have had a name for their spirituality or they may have just called it some equivalent of "common sense." We don't know and instead we know them by the words used by their conquerors. 

The oldest definition of "Pagan" according to Merriam-Webster and every other scholarly source comes from ancient Rome, when it was used to mean "a country dweller." As Christianity moved into Europe, primarily in urban areas, and the rural areas remained largely non-Christian, the term Pagan came to mean simply "non-Christian." 

Even today, Google's automatic definition for the word "Paganism" is "a religion other than one of the main world religions, specifically a non-Christian or pre-Christian religion."

This is the historical origin of the term and many Christians as well as Christian, Jewish and Muslim publications use it to mean beliefs outside those three faiths, including atheist and agnostic perspectives which are entirely secular.

This gives rise to the vehement insistence of many of the denizens of the internet that Paganism is not "a" religion at all. Clearly a religion, a tradition or an identity can not be simply defined by what it is not. 

What gives a word meaning?

If one insists on a historical and primarily Christian definition of the term, then you are stuck there and in that sense Paganism is almost a meaningless term and one most of us would hesitate to adopt as an identity. But just as many Native Americans call themselves "Indians," when the origin of that term was a rather embarrassing goof made by an outsider, today there are a great many people who have adopted the term Pagan as a positive, meaningful identity. 

My argument is essentially the same as that of Native American Indians. Words change. Definitions are first and foremost what they actually mean to most people at this given moment in history. Scholars can argue all they want but we use words to be understood and so while another term may be more academically correct, it makes more sense to use the term that the person hearing or reading your words will actually understand as you intend.

And so, if you want to say that you are Native American but resent having to use a long, cumbersome term dependent on the name of an ancient explorer which many people in your own community don't recognize anyway, you may well use the word "Indian" because it gets the message across correctly and quickly, regardless of its original goofiness and the unfortunate need to specify a continent when discussing it internationally. 

The same principle applies to the word "Pagan" today. At least among the vast majority of Pagans, if you say "I'm Pagan" that means something positive and reasonably specific. It is quickly understood--by fellow Pagans at least--and it does not require a pedantic style to express as do many multi-word descriptors.

What Pagan means today

While many dictionaries today try to avoid defining Paganism beyond it's original "country-dweller" and later "non-Christian" meanings, it is enlightening to look at definitions given for the benefit of non-native English speakers. The purpose in this section of a dictionary is not to prove a point but rather to actually allow a traveler to know what is meant in modern society by the term. As a result, these are the most current and practical definitions.

Thus Merriam-Webster gets down off the high-horse of defining Paganism tritely as "a: pagan beliefs or practices, b: a pagan religion," and changes the definition for ESL learners to, "a religion that has many gods or goddesses, considers the earth holy, and does not have a central authority."

Ta da!

There is a definition that almost all Pagans can agree on.

Almost all, but not every last one. That is why there are the endless on-line arguments.

Polytheism?

There are some groups who are undoubtedly Pagan in spirit but specifically honor one god or goddess. Some honor only "the god" and "the goddess." Still. it can be safely said that--with only purposefully contrary exceptions--even Pagan religions which honor only one or two gods or goddesses, recognize the validity of religions that honor multiple gods and goddesses (rather than calling them inherently false as some world religions would) and thus in effect give a nod to the existence of multiple gods and goddesses. 

Some Pagan religions don't call spiritual energies or forces "gods"  at all. Others consider everything or all life to be "divine"  or "infused with spirit" and adopt a pantheistic view. However, this view serves essentially the same functions as gods and goddesses. It is simply better understood without the baggage of those terms.

This can be argued endlessly on-line, but it is one claim I am making. At least for the purpose of my writing, Paganism is positively defined as a religion involving many gods and goddesses or other spiritual entities or a universal spiritual connection with many means of approach. 

Nature as sacred?

The other point that is most likely to be bickered over is the idea of the earth or nature as "holy." That would depend on the definition of "holy," but to avoid that kettle of fish, I offer the term nature-centered (often said as earth-centered) spirituality.

Paganism is and was connected to nature in its basic forms, beliefs, myths and concepts. Even in the days when Pagan meant "non-Christian," the religions this originally applied to--i.e. indigenous Middle Eastern and European religions--were  highly focused on the earth, natural cycles, seasons, the fertility of the land and so forth. 

The pantheons of Egypt, Mesopotamia,  Rome, Greece, the Norse and the Celts were made up of gods and goddesses that represented the powers of the sun, sea, fertile land, rivers that brought life-giving water, rain, the moon and many other parts of nature and the cycles of life. By contrast, the focus of these religions was NOT on a world of pure spirit or mental gymnastics. They could have been. But they were not. They may have employed energy healing or a great many other psychic practices, but their focus--the focus of their gods was on nature. 

And most Pagans today share this focus. Most, but not all, who claim the term "Pagan."

Staking my own claim

There are those today who see Paganism as primarily an ancestral tradition and racial identity. That is not Paganism but simply the misuse of the concept of respect for ancestors to further a race-divided worldview.

There are others today who confuse Paganism with a craft in which events (or one's own mental processes depending on your take on the craft) can be influenced through the use of psychic discipline and the will. This is commonly referred to as "witchcraft," and is often confused with Paganism by practitioners and outsiders alike. There are however certainly Pagan witches who are both Pagans and practice witchcraft, just as there are Christian witches who are Christian and practice witchcraft. And from my observations, there are also atheist witches.

But there are a great many Pagans who do not practice witchcraft as well.

There may well also be other definitions offered and there are those who insist that all those who claim the term "Pagan" must be included, regardless of how vastly they differ from the accepted definition of the term, because the one part of the definition that everyone agrees on is that there is no central authority with the power to say, "This one belongs and this one does not."

Nor do I claim that there is any such "central" authority. But I do claim that language has meaning. And I do insist upon the real meaning of the term "Pagan," as understood by the vast majority of those who use it. 

When I explain the term "Pagan" to an ESL learner, which as an ESL teacher I do have occasion to do, my definition is very similar to that of Merriam-Webster. I do not confuse the issue by saying that some want to say they are Pagan. but claim that nature is not central to their beliefs. The truth is that those groups have other names for themselves as well and have no need to co-opt the term "Pagan." 

The Pagan Federation (one of several groups which claim to speak for a broad variety of Pagans) has an excellent, though lengthy definition of Paganism, which recognizes the broad diversity of Pagans in which many deities are not conceived of as either humanoid, super-powered or having an assignable gender. while also giving a clear and constructively stated definition: "A polytheistic or pantheistic nature-worshiping religion." That works for me.

With a little more depth the PF site continues, "The Pagan outlook can be seen as threefold. Its adherents venerate Nature and worship many deities, both goddesses and gods."

Yes, that actually makes three principles: nature is sacred, there are many deities and at least some of them are female.

When I post this article to social media, there are bound to be arguments and someone who claims to know of a group that is "truly" Pagan, but doesn't subscribe to such a definition. That's okay because my foremost goal here is to define a term for my readers. When you read my writing, you will know what I mean. 

Paganism is a vast umbrella term for a religious category, much as Christianity is. To be Christian, one should revere Christ. That is the bare minimum of what it is to be Christian. Sure, Christians will often haggle and say that this or that group isn't the right kind of Christians so they aren't really Christian at all, but from a scholar's perspective, if they revere Christ, they are Christian is some sense. 

Paganism conversely requires at a minimum that those who claim the word revere nature and are at least open to the idea of multiple deities/spiritual forces and acknowledge that those deities/forces may--among others--be female. That's the bare minimum.

My beliefs may vastly differ from other Pagans. There are times when I find myself more in accord with certain Christians, Buddhists or Jews on some point of spirituality or ethics. But this has more to do with our sociopolitical stance than it does with the umbrellas of our religious identities. 

There is no central authority in Paganism, any more than the Pope dictates the beliefs of all Christians. But there are those who set themselves up as authorities in one group or another. Paganism is very diverse and often democratic. But just as in other religions, there are groups that are more or less formally or informally led.

I am not dictating my definition as a leader. I merely state it as a wordsmith. This is my use of the term. 

A respectful nod

A special note should be given regarding indigenous religions with their own names which have not in any formal or informal way adopted the term Paganism themselves, but which nicely fit the definition I have given for Paganism. This includes Native American, African, Siberian, Australian, Hindu and other nature-focused Asian faiths.

I cannot help that in my lexicon, the definition of Pagan fits your religion. I attempt to use the term "Pagan" specifically only in cases where a group has actually expressed a desire to be called Pagan. But when I'm talking in general about all nature-centered, polytheistic/pantheistic religions on earth, I do necessarily include many who have not chosen to be called "Pagan." 

I would heartily welcome an understanding between all earth-centered faiths on the planet. If and when a different term comes to encompass all of us in the actual use of the English language, I will gladly embrace it. If those who now fit the definition of Pagan decide to adopt this term, I will wholeheartedly welcome them as my spiritual cousins. For now I respect the decision of each individual or group to make that choice on their own.

And the staves crossed

However, to those who wish to claim the term "Pagan" for purposes that contradict the earth-centered and open values of Paganism--those who wish to use the strength of spiritual seeking in our movement for political, racial or domineering intentions--I say "no."

That is not Paganism. I am not a central authority, but I am my own authority.

Therefore, no.

I am one Pagan who says "no" to racially defined, authoritarian and earth-disinterested co-opting of my identity. There are plenty others with me. We are our own authority, and those shall not pass. 

What is a meaningful harvest in the age of over-consumption

Six years ago, I decided I wanted to mark the beginning of the harvest season in a specific and flexible way In the middle of the summer, we are rarely home on a predictable date and we have a hard time keeping any sort of routine, so any family tradition in this season has to be portable and simple. 

My solution? I found a durable  table cloth and each year on August 1 or 2, the Celtic feast of the first harvest, I ask everyone who happens to share a major meal with my family, to sign the table cloth. We all sign as well. Then in odd moments over the winter, I embroider all the signatures onto the cloth. 

I'm not an expert at embroidery, so some parts are a bit clumsy, but it is a meditation in gratitude for me. Every year, that meal has been a special one, serendipitously surrounded by good friends or supportive and lovely strangers. As I embroider my gratitude is as much for the community and friendship of those brief summer moments, as it is for our physical harvest.

The harvest feast and the sense of relief and gratitude for winter's security that went along with it was a crucial part of human experience for millennia.  Today we have kitschy phrases for affirmations of gratitude, which we tend to force on people who are surviving the hardest moments of their lives--telling those fighting cancer or grieving the loss of a loved one to focus on "gratitude."

It isn't working.

Our society is increasingly disconnected from thankfulness and moreover we almost never feel that relief and satiation, the knowledge that our families are secure for the upcoming season.

Our economic ideology is one of constant "demand." We are encouraged to feel--even manipulated into believing--that our livelihood is insecure and we need more. "Employee insecurity" is a prized goal in business circles--keeping professional staff on their toes in a scary marketplace.

And the modern world really does require an awful lot of expensive stuff, if you want to have a career and not live on the margin of society growing herbs, like... ahem, some people you know. 

The reason I want to mark the harvest season isn't just because we have a garden and actually get some small harvest at this time. It has more to do with things everyone today can relate to. After all those thousands of years, humans still need a moment of relief. We don't do well in a constant state of need, anxiety and uncertainty. 

Harvest isn't just about gratitude. It is also about securing the hatches and experiencing a moment of safety. 

Gratitude is good. If you can truly feel thankful for what you have and know you have made it, marking the harvest season may come naturally. But if you are really struggling, either materially or emotionally, as so many people are today, being told that you should focus on what you are thankful for at any time of the year is not likely to help.

Instead, especially at this time when the harvest season is just beginning, there is also a need to find a moment of relief. Whatever it is that troubles your life, what would let you know that you can get through the next few months? Can you reach for something now that will give you at least a brief sense of security and stability?

Whether that's taking a much needed break and going on a well-earned vacation or reaching out to supportive friends at whatever distance, this is the modern spirit of the harvest feast.

Our modern harvest may not be an annual event, timed to the growing season. It may not even involve food or material things at all. But the biological rhythm of our bodies needs this sense of relief and security periodically. And this is a time when we are naturally yearning for it.  

In the age of too much consumption, a celebration of bounty and prosperity may not make the most sense. Instead it may help to take this time to reevaluate what we truly need, to gain a sense of fullness, so that we can let go of over-abundance and clutter. 

Our greatest need today often isn't material but rather social and emotional. What about instead of celebrating matieral bounty, celebrating the family, friends and community we have, be it small or large? What about looking at the emotional strength and balance you have built up--even if it still isn't perfect--as a harvest after hard work?

Gratitude is important. In fact, it is probably the most necessary  prerequisite for happiness. But I don't believe in feigned or forced gratitude. If you don't really feel thankful that you are not hungry, then there is little point on trying to make yourself feel it.

Looking at those things that are hard-won in your life, whatever your important milestones are--gaining confidence at work, finally starting that creative project you've dreamed of, growing a family or network of friends and so forth--may be more useful. And sharing whatever you have in over-abundance, whether it is time, knowledge or material goods, with those who have needs in that area is the best way I know of to foster your own gratitude. 

Once harvest celebrations were about amassing enough food to tide us through the lean times. Today we can adapt this concept even if you live in a city without so much as a house plant. Harvest is whatever you build up to tide you through hard times. That can be emotional, financial, social or life energy based. 

Now is the time to fill the reserves, to figure out what it is that will tide you over. You have the strength for it now. 

Hindu Goddesses of the Thunder Moon

The full moon glows in the still, hot night air. The thick aroma of ripening fruit permeates the night. I sit in cool water in our wading pool. The silver light makes me the same pale non-color as the normally bright blue pool. 

 Creative Commons image by San Sharma 

Creative Commons image by San Sharma 

This is called the Thunder Moon, and this year it is living up to it's name with a vengeance. My mother was nearly struck by lightning just the other day, on the other side of the world in Oregon. The whole world went pure white around her and the shock of immediate thunder shook the whole town. Here the stifling air--even after dark--is a good sign a big storm is on its way and the night will soon be filled with deafening noise and sizzling forks of light. 

On nights like this, it is not difficult to understand how ancient peoples often included a ferocious god or goddess of storms in their pantheons.  We have angered the climate gods with our decadent burning of fossil fuels and pollution of the sky. Storms seem to be the retribution of choice. Well, that's one way to look at it at least.

But July has always been the time of thunder in northern lands. The heat of June often gives way a bit and purplish clouds pile up, streaking neon-blue lightening. Tomorrow the forecast calls for another storm and I'm hoping for some rain on the garden. My eight-year-old daughter is still terrified of thunder and I don't blame her. The feeling of awesome power sweeping across our exposed hillside is disconcerting.

I have a hard time understanding how our little wooden house can withstand the ripping winds that send the tops of all the trees around us thrashing like dancers in a mosh pit. But our house stands and other than the startling slamming of doors, all is well. I check the chickens and the greenhouses in the moonlight. The garden is past the young and tender stage, so I don't cover it but let it weather the storm on its own. 

 Creative Commons image by Stefanie Härtwig

Creative Commons image by Stefanie Härtwig

I am on a quest to study a different pantheons of ancient goddesses for each month (or moon), and there should be a special place for Hindu goddesses. My children come from a people who migrated relatively recently from northern India and still bear the features of that land in their faces. And so, if my daughter is afraid of the thunder, i hope these may give her some comfort and inspiration.

The Maiden of the Hindu goddesses is Laksmi, who is sometimes portrayed as a mother because of her gifts of plenty, but she is called a maiden in many traditional chants. There are many mothers in the Hindu pantheon, but I have chosen the  Mother as Anumati, goddess of nurturing and permission. The Dark Goddess is, of course, Kali, the terrifying goddess of vengeance, transformation and destruction. She no doubt approves of these thunder storms.

The Full Moon

Anumati is a goddess of spirituality, good fortune and motherhood. She is also a personification of Shakti. Her name means “to give permission.” (Dalal 2011) When she is called in the heat of the summer, her permission grants freedom from bonds and burdens.

There is still a need for caution. The thunder moon is a time of limitations, the tempering of spring and early summer enthusiasm. So, we must think specifically of what we seek and ask permission with the knowledge that not all paths are open at once, that by taking one path we choose not to take another.

Anumati's symbols are simply of the moon and the blessings of plenty and divine favor. It is a time to make wishes and choices, to ask permission of the Goddess for those things we most wish to do with forethought and the knowledge that this is one of the most open times to do so. Incense is a fitting offering.

The Waning Moon

I’ll admit that I’m a bit afraid of the Hindu images of Kali, somewhat the way my daughter is afraid of the thunder. I’m into intensity (and so is she), but this is over the top.

Kali is this ferocious goddess who kills those who defy her and hangs their body parts around her neck. One of the best understandings of Kali I have found comes from the book Naming the Goddess, in which Jennifer Uzzell describes the honoring of Kali in her Hindu family where she is seen in diverse aspects, both motherly and destructive.

Kali's great intensity has the power to transform in the most profound way. (Uzzell 2014) Like the Tower in the Tarot, her power is terrifying and yet necessary. Other than her fearsome images she may be symbolized by the orange and black colors of the monarch butterfly that embodies transformation. She can be honored with meditation and chants and an openness to change in necessary ways.

The Waxing Moon

Lakshmi is the Hindu Maiden Goddess of gifts and happiness. Her essence is positive emotion and beauty. Like the soaring beauty of the summer crescent moon, she is pure and radiant. We can honor her by sharing and spreading around the wealth and well-being she brings to us. (Rhodes 2010)

Her symbol is a white owl, symbolizing the need to open our eyes wide to the light of spiritual wealth. Stand in the center of your sacred space and turn to each direction, calling on the elements of the directions to spread the wealth and well-being of Lakshmi to all living beings in that direction. Aesthetically beautiful food is a traditional offering to Laksmi. 

When exploring other cultures, perhaps especially a culture my adopted children have some ancestral connection to, it is of paramount importance to try to put these goddesses into cultural context.

In accordance with Hindu traditions, it makes sense to set up a shrine or altar to these goddesses with candles, incense and traditional Hindu images of their diversely lovely and terrible faces. Modern Hindus keep such a home altar in the north east corner of a living room, parlor or special room on the ground floor if at all possible. If such a spot is not available, it is acceptable to have a special shelf on an east or west wall or in a kitchen or bedroom, though never in a bathroom or storeroom. Cleanliness of the area is paramount and there is an important rule against keeping money or valuables in this space. 

Keep respect in your heart and actions. The thunder moon will bring you well-being and helpful transformation.

Bibliography

Agrawala, P.K. (1984). Goddesses in Ancient India. New Dehli, India: Abhinav Publications.
Auset, B. (2009). The Goddess Guide: Exploring the Attributes and Correspondences of the Divine Feminine. Woodbury, MN: Llewellyn Publications.
Caputi, J. (2004). Goddesses and Monsters. Madison, WI: University of Wisconsin Press.
Chaudhuri, S. K. (2003). Hindu Gods and Goddesses in Japan. New Delhi, India: Vedams.
Hunt, L. (2001). An Illustrated Meditation Guide: Celestial Goddesses. St. Paul, MN: Llewellyn Publications.
Jordan, M. (2004). Dictionary of Gods and Goddesses. New York, NY: Facts On File, Inc.
Leeming, D. and Page, J. (1994). Goddess: Myths of the Female Divine. New York, NY: Oxford University Press.
Littleton, C. S. Ed, (2005). Gods, Goddesses and Mythology, Volume 4. Tarrytown, NY: Marshall Cavendish Corporation.
Loar, J. (2008). Goddesses for Every Day. Navato, CA: New World Library.
Lurker, M. (1987). A Dictionary of Gods, Goddesses, Devils and Demons. New York, NY: Routledge and Kegan Paul Ltd.
Monagham, P. (1997). The New Book of Goddesses and Heroines. Woodbury, MN: Llewellyn Publications.
Monagham, P. (1999). The Goddess Companion. Woodbury, MN. Llewellyn Publications.
Monagham, P. (2014). Encyclopedia of Goddesses and Heroines. Novato, CA: New World Library.
Motz, L. (1997). The Faces of the Goddess. New York, NY: Oxford University Press.
Rhodes, C. (2010). Invoking Lakshmi. Albany, NY: State University Press of New York.
Skye, M. (2007). Goddess Alive! Woodbury, MN, Llewellyn Publications.
Uzzell, J. (2014). Kali. In Greenfield, T. (Ed.), Naming the Goddess (pp. 220 - 223). Washington, DC: Moon Books.

Hearth-side comfort that's in tune with the moon... and free

The popular hearth-side email circle, which now has over 500 subscribers, provides interesting posts on practical herb lore, earth-centered spirituality, social inclusion and simple living. Now this newsletter-come-virtual-cup-of-tea will also help you take note of the phases of the moon.

This past year I have synchronized a lot of my activities with the phases of the moon. It has helped me to not only increase my garden's productivity but also to become more closely attuned to the natural environment.

 Creative Commons image by  John Flannery 

Creative Commons image by  John Flannery 

It's a challenge though. Our calendars are not set up that way. In the beginning, you have to keep checking moon phases and be more conscious of routines to make it work on your own.

That's why i wasn't successful in some of my attempts to do this in previous years. But this year I have done it and now that it is done it feels easy and natural to me. 

I can now pass this on to my readers. Instead of sending out the Hearth-side emails on Fridays. I will be posting in the twenty-four hours before the new moon and before the full moon, barring computer glitches. 

This will lessen the frenetic pace, ensure better quality reading and give you a heads up on the moon phases, which won't require any extra attention. New subscribers are welcome. You can subscribe via the form at the end of this post and unsubscribe automatically at any time. New subscribers also get to choose a free ebook.

The moon is dark at the moment and in the northern hemisphere the nights are short with the summer solstice just passed. As far north as I live on the 50th parallel there are only a few hours of intense velvet darkness. If you can get out away from city interference and smog, the stars can be particularly brilliant

I wish you deep and refreshing rest as well as abundant energy for new beginnings in the morning. Take time to experience the season of summer, the sun, the wind and the dappled shade. 

An offering at the neglected shrine of Venus

Here is a poem inspired by the vibrant beauty of a June morning and my reading on the ancient goddess of Rome and other reading on today's weird social norms. 

 Creative Commons image by Sarah Zucca

Creative Commons image by Sarah Zucca

She was told she wasn't really pretty

and she believed it.

The first boy she loved at sixteen

said he loved her even though she was fat

Solid calf muscles and round biceps

from track and hiking are not glamorous

Her full-hips and strong abdomen

were not in the magazines or on TV.

She noted down the numbers,

At five nine, she should 

be one thirty by that reckoning. 

Her face was never perfect,

her eyes too small and squinted

But sometimes she'd catch a glimpse

of her own shadow or her face looking up

she'd follow the line of her body with her eyes,

thinking it wasn't so bad,

nothing there to drive disgust, 

even grace of a kind, the health of nature

She was strong and swift.

She bent her mind to studies and career.

Twenty years flashed by before she knew it.

She scarcely thought of her body in all that time, 

except to be thankful for health 

and sometimes quietly to wish

that things could have been different.

How many times had she shouldered a pack

and hiked mountains or explored cobble stones

She built sturdy rock walls

with the husband she finally found.

He was not considered handsome either,

dumpy and overweight but strong as a mule.

And they decided dispassionately to throw their lots together.

She took care of her body's needs,

brushed her teeth and went for checkups

ate well and didn't smoke or drink.

But she rarely thought of it and rarely adorned it.

It was mostly just "it."

No mask nor jewelry,

except the thin gold of marriage

more a symbol than an ornament.

She pulled her long hair into a braid and called it good.

She had more important things to do

with her mind, with her heart, with her soul.

And the shrine of Venus grew dusty with disuse

When she comes to it at last after decades have passed

and looks at the lines across her face,

the flaws grown much deeper

and her body heavier and not nearly so strong.

Then she knows the price of offerings not left.

Now she places flowers before the shrine 

and puts gems in her ears and sweet oil on her skin.

She gives honor to the goddess she forgot

and dances in the beauty of a crone's body,

good and true to the health of nature