The mother and her dreaming children

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

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

Creative Commons image via Pixabay

Creative Commons image via Pixabay

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And the question is what happens next in this story.

Honoring names and their stories

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

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

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

Creative Commons image via Pixabay

Creative Commons image via Pixabay

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Creative Commons image via Pixabay

Creative Commons image via Pixabay

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

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

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

Why not?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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. 

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.

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.

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

Of Beltane and earth warriors

Pagans and earth-centered people, even if you consider only those who celebrate Beltane, are wildly diverse in worldview, beliefs and lifestyle. We don't all teach our children the same things. It has often been said that there can be no Pagan politics, because we never agree on anything.

Be that as it may, it is not difficult to see connections between earth-centered spirituality and the movement for social and environmental justice. If you have a strong spiritual path and you also feel strongly about protecting the earth, there is no doubt that these two parts of you will be intertwined. Likewise, spirituality and social/ethical values are interconnected for most people, whatever their spiritual path.

Creative Commons image by Francesca Ubliani 

Creative Commons image by Francesca Ubliani 

We follow an earth-centered path because we resonate with a way of being that is concerned with interconnection, natural cycles and a sense of the divine in many parts of life. We are concerned about the environment for the same reasons - interconnection, natural cycles and a sense of sacredness in the natural world.

Many also translate this into social justice. We are interconnected. Injustice anywhere is my business, because I'm part of the weaving. Natural cycles and the freedom to be close to nature is crucial. All beings have a part in the divine. Wildly diverse Pagans--just as people of other faiths--are going to translate these abstractions into concrete reality in all sorts of ways.

But in the end, the point is that we cannot actually separate spirituality from social and environmental concerns.

Beltane is a time when that connection is even more apparent. As the veil between the worlds thins, so does the separation between the spiritual and the social, the personal and the political.

Beltane is most often associated with sexual energy and passion. It represents the vibrant maturing of the youth phase in most cycles, that stage in which energy is moving upward and outward.

But it is difficult to ignore the other side of this coin of passion. There is love and sexual passion, yes. There is also the passion of the warrior. The Lovers card in the Tarot is followed immediately by The Chariot. And there's a reason for that.

Beltane is the celebration of passionate union. It is also the celebration of unity in struggle. It is no coincidence that movements for social solidarity adopted May 1 early on as May Day. Like everything sacred throughout history, that connection has, of course, been used and abused by those seeking control and power. But that doesn't negate the foundation--the energetic connection. Earth day is also close by on April 22.

When the body and spirit feel oppression within our human and non-human family or destruction of our home (the earth) happening all around us, warrior energy rises within us and demands a greater channel. 

This is a season when our warrior energy is demanding a release. In times of peace and tranquility that energy can be channeled into dance, love and other energetic, expressive pursuits. But when the body and spirit feel oppression within our human and non-human family or destruction of our home (the earth) happening all around us, warrior energy rises within us and demands a greater channel. In such dangerous times, the denial of warrior energy leads to predictable results: anger, fury, conflict and further destruction.

Anyone who has been in close contact with teenagers (the human stage closest to the energy of Beltane) knows that sexual energy is powerful. Suppression and silence only lead to unhealthy results. That is why we give it expression in healthy ways, learning how to channel it.

Creative Commons image by sammydavisdog of flickr.com

Creative Commons image by sammydavisdog of flickr.com

Warrior energy is the other side of that coin, the shadow in the spring sunshine. And its suppression is no more possible. 

The Warrior

Human society relied on literal warriors and hunters for the vast majority of our genetic history. In recent centuries, we have shifted our social organization from tribes to nations and tried to relegate warrior energy to defensive armies and law enforcement.

I'm for peace as much as anyone, and I have huge respect for professional police officers and soldiers. Their channeling of warrior energy for the protection of all is part of what is needed.

However, the warrior energy does not simply dry up in the rest of us--the civilians. Modern society attempts to suppress it for the sake of the status quo, but when we see and feel injustice, it erupts. If not given a legitimate outlet, that eruption is often self-destructive or harmful to others.

This should not actually be nearly as much of a problem as it has become in our modern world. We try to force warrior energy to conform to sports competitions or try to drug it into submission with video games. But neither of these truly satisfies the need at a deep level.

The most basic reason for this lack of release is that injustice and the destruction of our earth is all around us. And as long as there is such a threat, our warrior energy will not rest.

Yet there is something constructive and positive that can satisfy it. Instead of suppression, professional armies, sports or video games, we need to recognize that the incarnation of the warrior today is the activist.

Creative Commons image by Greenpeace Polska

Creative Commons image by Greenpeace Polska

As such, Beltane is the natural celebration of activism and resistance to tyranny. In this year when much of our environmental and social fabric is threatened, the celebration holds particular meaning.

The Activist

You may not like the word "activist" because it has been  used as a pejorative in recent years--to mean someone with a selfish agenda. But a person who is pursuing an agenda for profit is most often simply a business person. A person pursuing a profitable agenda for some other entity is just an employee. These are not activists, but rather people working at a job, whether you like their agenda or not.

Calling anyone with an agenda an "activist" Is a trick of those seeking power to suppress the warrior energy of those they want to control. 

Activists, on the other hand, are in the most clear definition of the word not paid and not working for any specific personal gain. Instead their motivation is that of the warrior--protection of home and family, protection of the tribe, defense of the interconnected reality that allows the self to live and thrive.

This is the other energy of Beltane, the shadow side.

The opposite pole in the dance with the lover is not the hater. It is the warrior. Union is the natural partner of protection.

In the past year, the brave people of Standing Rock helped other people all over the world realize the fundamental link between the ancient warrior and the modern activist. While there are activists of many types, fighting in defense of home, family and tribe in a myriad of ways, the activist most easily connected to the warrior tradition is the environmental activist.

From Standing Rock campers to alternative energy innovators, from animal advocates to investors in rain forest reserves, earth warriors share the energy of Beltane. That is why for me this is a celebration of environmental activism and interconnection around the world as much as anything else.

Children and warrior energy

Now that I have children, this topic has become critical for me. I see them pulled--by peers, media and society--toward frittering their life force away with video games or allowing it to be suppressed. I realize the need to awaken that warrior energy for appropriate modern activism. 

I have been an earth warrior from an early age. I spoke up in defense of Greenpeace activists when a teacher at my conservative middle school denounced them. I wrote letters to the local newspaper when I was fourteen to protest clear-cut logging practices. I marched in anti-nuclear protests when I was much younger than that and protested the 1990 war in Iraq, at a time when few others did.

The book Shanna and the Water Fairy is children's fiction but its writing was informed by these experiences. I know from my own childhood that children often feel the pull of warrior energy. And if given access to information about the issues, they are often passionate earth warriors. This book is first and foremost a gripping story that kids love to read or hear read a loud, but it also has the capacity to give hope to the spirits of young earth warriors, who may be beginning to feel that the struggles are too big for them.

The spirit of Ostara: the cycles of the earth as a guide to good living

Sometimes I am asked why I celebrate the Pagan Wheel of the Year with my family, even when there isn't a fun community event to attend.

Illustration from Shanna and the Raven: An Ostara story

Illustration from Shanna and the Raven: An Ostara story

Why do you need special words for season celebrations? Why do you need to complicate the dates of school holidays for your kids? There isn't definitive proof of the ancient origins of celebrating eight solar holidays, so isn't it partly made up?

As with most things connected to spirituality, there are several levels to my answer.. On the surface, the answer is simply that these celebrations ring true to me deep inside. And second, I want honesty in practice, I suppose.

Growing up in an earth-centered family that didn't use the Wheel of the Year, calling our celebration "Christmas," while  acknowledging that we were really celebrating the Winter Solstice, I always felt a disconnect. If we're "really" celebrating the winter solstice and we know historically that Jesus Christ probably wasn't born on December 25 and he isn't our main focus anyway, then why don't we just celebrate the Winter Solstice and cut out the middle man? 

Illustration from Shanna and the Raven: An Ostara story

Illustration from Shanna and the Raven: An Ostara story

I felt like kids in real Christian families had it better because they had a tradition, something meaningful in their celebration. And ours felt truncated, damaged... even, yes, stolen. This was not an intellectual thing. I was too young at the time to know the history but that was how I felt.

And I wanted a sense of authenticity for my kids.

That was essentially my motivation in the beginning for celebrating the Wheel of the Year. But lets's face it, it's a hard thing to keep up year after year--a holiday every six weeks or so, that begs for specific preparation, attention and connection. If it were only a matter of principle, I might not have lasted thirteen years and counting. Many people don't.

What keeps me strong and passionate about celebrating the Wheel of the Year is it's practical usefulness. 

Yes, practical, real benefits. Let me explain.

We all tend to get stuck at some point in our lives, either in depression or being a workaholic, being young and isolated form what isn't in our generation or being old and feeling like our life is over. There are many places to get stuck and those stuck places can last years.

And that is a large cause of misery. 

Illustration from Shanna and the Raven: An Ostara story

Illustration from Shanna and the Raven: An Ostara story

The Wheel of the Year essentially ensures that I don't get stuck. The celebrations in are in alignment with nature and thus objectively "true" or "real." Even deep depression eventually has to at least acknowledge the fact that spring came again. 

And better yet, the Wheel of the Year is a spiritual teaching in a nutshell. Within it there is pretty much all you need to meditate on spiritually. Each celebration calls up specific important values and themes and taken all together they are a code of spiritual being. 

People sometimes ask how I teach my children about Pagan beliefs and rituals. The primary answer is that I celebrate the Wheel of the Year with them. There are other things, like learning herbcraft, grounding meditation, prayers of gratitude for food and a little simple candle magic, but mostly it's about the Wheel of the Year for my kids. The earth is our textbook and the Wheel of the Year is our lesson plan.

Illustration from Shanna and the Raven: An Ostara story

Illustration from Shanna and the Raven: An Ostara story

It isn't just as simple as learning the cycles of the seasons though. Okay, sure, everything dies in the fall and is reborn in the spring here, but in some climates that isn't entirely true. That isn't really the point anyway. Each celebration has particular themes that feel connected to the earth and sun at that time and therefore are easily understood at that point in our journey around the sun.

At Imbolc we go within and delve into dreams and intuition. It is the time in the belly, before the birth of new plans, activities and projects. At Litha (the summer solstice) we are full of life, bounty, energy, pride and expression. We are often hard at work and celebration comes amid many other activities. At Samhain, we are drawn back to the earth, there is a feeling of old sorrow, of things coming to necessary ends and a tendency toward memory. It is the natural time to be reminded to honor our ancestors. 

If you celebrate Imbolc, you will not go a whole year without remembering to focus on your inner world. If you celebrate Litha, you will not go a whole year without expressing yourself with energy and pride. If you celebrate Samhain, you will not go a whole year without honoring ancestors.

And each celebration has a similarly crucial point. I will be writing more posts about the spirit of each celebration, but the celebration at hand is Ostara, so I'll start with that.

Illustration from Shanna and the Raven: An Ostara story

Illustration from Shanna and the Raven: An Ostara story

Ostara

Ostara is the European Pagan term for the spring equinox and it is celebrated much like Easter. The appropriate symbols are eggs, sprouting plants, rabbits, hares and babies of all kinds. The obvious themes are renewal, rebirth, the beginning of life and expression, new beginnings in general and children. 

As a mother, it is very important to me that my children have a lovely time at Ostara. It is a time to honor and delight in them. They are the future, our new beginning as a species. Their joy in the springtime is a blessed and righteous thing. So, more than any other time they get to eat a lot of candy. They fully enjoy scouring the yard and back woods for treats and eggs. We make pretty colorful crafts, many of them egg-related. 

But when I started to contemplate exactly how to convey the concept of rebirth and new beginnings to young children, I realized that the spirit of Ostara goes much deeper than that. If this is a celebration that also honors children, that necessarily implies the protection and valuing of that which is vulnerable. New life is inherently vulnerable and we can see that protection of vulnerability in all of the ancient symbols of this celebration--particularly the egg.

Illustration from Shanna and the Raven: An Ostara story

Illustration from Shanna and the Raven: An Ostara story

We know that in our modern world the worst abuses of human rights are suffered by children. Children are more likely than adults to live in poverty or to be in need of basic necessities like food, water and shelter. Children are often the first to suffer when societal racism or other prejudices rear their ugly heads. There are obvious reasons why the protection of children is connected to human rights in general. 

The protection of new life extends, of course to the protection of the vulnerable among other species. The concept of both biological and cultural diversity is implied in the rainbow colors of Ostara. This is not only a celebration of one rebirth but of all the colors and miraculous diversity of life--human and otherwise. 

This realization has deepened my experience of Ostara. This celebration of renewal can be a great help in overcoming a stuck place in myself. If there is some lingering depression, hurt, resentment or stagnation, the return of light to our northern latitude does wonders for it. The necessity of getting outside and tending vigorously to the spring needs of our urban homestead is invaluable in getting past blocks. 

But more than that, the celebration of rebirth, color, diversity and the protection of the vulnerable is what the heart needs at such times. It is a shot of clear-eyed idealism., regardless of how bleak things may seem in the outside world.

Illustration from Shanna and the Raven: An Ostara story

Illustration from Shanna and the Raven: An Ostara story

This year, many of us are exhausted from a long winter that did not seem to be as restful as it should have been. We have been struggling to retain the way of life we and our ancestors fought for--the rights and freedoms that often came at great cost. We are also contemplating that now when we should be working primarily for a sustainable future, environmental concerns have taken a back seat to the immediate needs of vulnerable people in our society.

Plenty of us are already experiencing outrage fatigue. And it is just early days yet.

And here is Ostara, the celebration of renewal, a time to warm your heart and think of fluffy and bright colored things. It may be hard to grasp when things are hard, but this is what we actually need right now. 

Stop a moment, ground yourself in the earth. Remember that the earth's rhythm does matter. Let the energy of renewal and new life flow into you. Focus your energies on protecting those most vulnerable, both human and non-human. Celebrate the rainbow of diversity in languages, cultures, colors and species.

Illustration from Shanna and the Raven: An Ostara story

Illustration from Shanna and the Raven: An Ostara story

Break free.

 In my quest to teach my children these values of eternally resilient life and hope, I wrote the Ostara story Shanna and the Pentacle. This is a story for all earth-centered, goddess-oriented and vaguely Pagan families. It isn't a "teachy" book, but rather a story that grabs kids' attention, especially if they are growing up as a religious minority.

In this story about new beginnings, eleven-year-old Shanna and her eight-year-old brother Rye move to a new school. At first, that seems like challenge enough. New beginnings are exciting but not always easy. Amid budding flowers and preparations for their Ostara celebration, Shanna runs into a real problem. Her teacher and some of the kids at her new school object to a pentacle necklace that her best friend gave her.

When her family moved Shanna had to leave her best friend behind and that is part of the difficulty of this new beginning. When her teacher demands that Shanna stop wearing her pentacle to school and the principal confiscates it as a suspected "gang symbol," the young girl feels the sting of prejudice. 

Shanna is at the same time learning to accept others who are different from her. One of the new things about her new school is the greater cultural and racial diversity of this urban school over her previous one. Shanna soon discovers that friends come in many varieties and it is through a surprising friendship that Shanna gains the courage to stand up for her own identity as a Pagan girl. 

This story not only embodies the crucial messages of Ostara, but it is also filled with beautiful paintings by Julie Freel that evoke the season and the story. This is a story for Ostara, though one that will show that new beginnings aren't always easy. It emphasizes the importance of standing up for one's own identity, the great advantages of diversity and the need to protect the young and vulnerable. With this story, these values are not forced on children but delivered in a way that makes them as natural as the fact that the sun rises earlier every day in the spring. 

I hope you'll enjoy this story and share its fun and themes with children in your life. Many people have asked when there will be more stories in the Children's Wheel of the Year series and I am delighted to tell you that the Beltane book is very nearly ready to be printed and will be out well ahead of the holiday.

I hope you will support our endeavor--which is still non-profit due to the costs of the illustrations, materials and books--and share these stories with others. If you are eager for more stories about the natural themes and values of the Wheel of the Year, spreading the word about these stories is a significant help in our efforts to keep them coming. 

Happy reading and blessed Ostara to all!

Egg candles: an easy spring craft for big kids and adults

Many Ostara/spring equinox crafts for kids and adults come out looking suspiciously like Easter crafts. And well, obviously there are good and honorable reasons for that. But still... sometimes you get a hankering for something entirely earthy. 

I love early spring with its scents of seeds swelling and soil thawing. Even before the equinox I can feel the tension of it, like a bow string taught and ready to release an arrow. This calls for a craft with strong earth and birth symbolism.

I am definitely attracted to the idea of crafts that involve filling egg shells with earth and growing either grass, herbs or a small flower in them. But there is yet little sunlight at our northern latitude before the equinox and my egg pots usually come out looking pretty pitiful, rather than like a glorious celebration of spring. And that's if they sprout at all. A nice alternative for those without either the sunlight or the green thumb is to make egg candles for Ostara. 

This craft fits nicely in with the Imbolc period of candle-making before Ostara and if you use beeswax, the result is wonderfully grounded and primed to boost rituals for fertility, creativity, rebirth and growth of all kinds.

I was intimidated about candle-making for far too long, believing it was a craft only for those with a lot of experience and time on their hands. But at last, I was delighted to find a simple method that really doesn't take much time at all.

Egg candles 5.jpg

1. Cleaning the egg shells:  First, the next time you cook with eggs, crack your eggs by carefully tapping the smaller end of them, rather than the middle. And then use your fingernails to peel back bits of the shell until you can dump the contents into your cooking container. Carefully chip away the shell until you have an opening only at the top of the egg, leaving most of the egg shell intact. Wash the egg shells with warm water and leave them out to dry for a few days.

2. Gathering your supplies: Meanwhile get together everything you will need.

  • First, you'll need a pan for melting wax. I recommend using something you won't be cooking food in, but I do use my pans that for making medicinal salves that also use wax. Wax residue just isn't good in soup.
  • You will obviously need some wax. Beeswax is best but any kind of candle wax or even the stubs of old candles will do.
  • If you want to color your candles for Ostara-pink, green and yellow wax colors are perfect.
  • You will also need wicks. These can usually be bought at any craft store. The kind with small foil circles at the bottom are best for this.
  • Otherwise, you'll need a wooden spoon, paper towels, wax paper and some small sticks or chopsticks.

3. Melting the wax: Heat your wax over a low heat on the stove, stirring occasionally. If you use low heat you don't need to worry that it will burn. Just don't leave it long enough that it starts boiling rapidly. Skim off any debris that may have been in the wax.

4: Setting up your candle molds and wicks: While the wax is heating, set your eggs (now candle molds) upright, probably in an egg carton. Place a wick into each egg with the small disc at the bottom. 

5: Pouring the wax: When the wax is uniformly liquid, carefully pour it into your eggs. You can use a dipper but that too will become coated with wax. I also recommend putting wax paper under your eggs to catch drips of wax. Wax, particularly sticky beeswax, is rather difficult to clean off of surfaces and particularly hard to get out of fabric. It also burns the skin, so be sure to have small children stand clear of the immediate area while you're pouring.

6: Holding the wicks in place: Now here is the only slightly tricky part. As your egg candles cool, you want to keep the wicks in place with the bottom of the wick at the bottom of the egg shell (not floating up) and with the wick coming out of the wax in the middle the hole at the top of each egg, rather than along the side which will be its natural tendency.

Egg candles 1.jpg

Because it takes awhile for the hot wax to cool and solidify, it is usually not possible to hold them there by hand unless you only have one candle for each hand. (If you do have enough hands, just hold the wicks in place and sing some songs for spring minutes and you'll be done in far simpler fashion and have an extra dose of creative energy in your candles.) The method that works best for me to hold the wicks in place without a lot of helping hands is to use two sticks--such as a pair of chopsticks--and pinch the wicks between the sticks, while resting the sticks on the tops of the eggs. The trick is to get a bit of the hot wax onto the top portion of your wick and then use the still warm wax to glue the wicks to the sticks by holding them firmly pinched for a moment. In the end the wick-holding mechanism looks like the photo to the right. (I'm hoping Dr. Seuss will do a book on wicks and sticks, based on this blog post. :D )

7. Cleaning up: This is one craft where a specific note on cleanup is appropriate. Most commercial candle wax comes off of hard surfaces if you just let it cool and then peel it off. You can remove it from clothing by placing paper towels under and over the cloth and then ironing well.

But beeswax can be a bit stickier and doesn't always come off well. The thing to remember is that beeswax and other waxes will also come off with heat. This is why I recommend keeping paper towels on hand for this craft. As soon as you are done with your pot and spoon, wipe them well with paper towels while they are still hot. (That part of this step should be done before you even hold your wicks in place.) You can also use paper towels to wipe dripped wax off the outside of the eggs if you strike quickly while they're still hot. But if you drip wax on a cool surface (such as the table) leave it alone until it cools completely. If you do end up smearing wax on the table, use a rag soaked in hot water.

8. Decorating: You can paint the outsides of your candles or tie ribbons around them. To hold them upright, either drip a bit of wax onto a hard surface and place the candle firmly on top, pressing down gently until it cools and the candle stays upright, or you can fill a bowl with rough sea salt, sand or rice and place the egg candles upright in it. Dry (uncooked) rice with green food coloring gives a nice spring touch. 

If you would like more practical Ostara crafts and ideas for earth-centered families, take a look at the kid's adventure book Shanna and the Pentacle. It includes craft ideas for this holiday as well as the story of a sister and brother who move to a new school and learn about cultural diversity and standing up for their own beliefs. 

Simple method for making a beautiful Brigid doll

My eight-year-old daughter is not normally very excited about crafts and she tends to be impatient, so I was amazed and delighted by our success with this craft. 

We made Brigid dolls today--two of them because she decided to set up her own altar and wanted to make her own doll all by her self. The craft held her interest for several hours and came out really beautiful.

1. We took a square of white cloth and put a solid ball of cotton in the middle of it. You can use anything from crumpled paper to cloth scraps to a Styrofoam craft ball. You can also use a white paper handkerchief in place of a white cloth for a quick but less durable doll. 

2. We then gathered the corners of the cloth and tied a red or gold string under the ball to form a kind of neck. We cut slits every few inches in the cloth, almost up to but not quite reaching the neck. 

3. Then we rolled up another smaller rectangle of cloth and tied it at the ends to form arms. This we inserted under the neck through the slits, so that the arms protrude on both sides. (I also inserted a little extra cloth in min for breasts but my daughter didn't. You can see the difference in the photos below.

4. Then we inserted some dried lavender stalks from the bottom in place of legs. This makes the doll smell wonderful. You can substitute many different herbs or stalks of grain. Really anything symbolizing your last-year's harvest is symbolically appropriate. 

5. We tied a second string around the middle under the arms, This serves as a waist and holds the herb stalks in place. 

6. Now it was time to decorate the doll. First we put on hair. We loosely sewed embroidery floss into the head, letting each stitch dangle for several inches. This was by far the most difficult and time-consuming part of the craft and it could be avoided by coloring or gluing on wool, fabric or feathers in place of hair. But we loved the look of the embroidery floss.

7. We then tied and stitched a scarf or hair band on over the hair. This can also be done with hot glue. 

8. Next we put on faces. My daughter chose to color hers on with markers and I embroidered mine on, although I am no expert at embroidery. Both turned out fine.

9. I added a lace apron to match the scarf, because I had a bit of extra curtain lace hanging around. Both can be made with any white cloth or even a white paper handkerchief. 

10. Finally we used another red string to tie a few lavender sprigs into the hands so that they formed a welcoming circle in front of the doll.

All ties were made with either red or gold strings. A Brigid doll should generally be white with red, gold and possibly purple highlights. This is the doll we will use in our Imbolc ritual. We will place the dolls in baskets by the hearth to sleep through the night before Imbolc. Then the children will come and light candles and symbolically wake up Brigid to bring in the spring in the morning. It is their favorite part of the Imbolc holiday. 

I'm so happy to finally share the making of the doll with my daughter too.

By the way, this is the same craft used in the children's adventure story around Imbolc called Shanna and the Raven. Although in the book the craft is done with natural sticks or stalks of herbs for the arms as well. There is also a delicious recipe for white and red strawberry dumplings in the book. It's a story about how a couple of modern goddess-orriented kids celebrate the holiday and learn to use intuition for their own protection. 

I hope you will all have peace and inspiration this holiday. Blessings of creativity and warm hearths to all!

Imbolc or deep winter: A season in the belly

Ice outside, fire within, the strokes of brush and quill, bitter steam of medicinal plants steeping in a pot--these things defy time.

February 2, the day known to Christians as Candlemas and to modern pop culture as Ground Hog's Day was called Imbolc by the Celts of the British Isles. It is being called that again by earth-centered people all over the world.

Image by Arie Farnam

Image by Arie Farnam

I grew up with many earth-centered holidays. I knew about the solstices and equinoxes. I even had some idea of the real meanings of Beltane. A harvest party in August or honoring ancestors at Halloween were also not entirely foreign concepts.

But Imbolc was new to me twelve years ago when I adopted the modern Wheel of the Year consisting of eight earth-centered holidays.

Here is a holiday entirely devoted to dreams, introspection, inspiration, intuition and creativity. It is like no other holiday because it can be easily celebrated alone and might even be best that way. 

I have come to love Imbolc. I feel like I am given permission to curl up with the Runes, Tarot and i-Ching in front of a cozy fire and dream without a schedule. I feel like I have permission to take a few days to do those quiet things I love, reading about herbal medicine (healing is a key aspect of Imbolc), creating something beautiful (art and creativity is central to Imbolc), sleeping long hours (it is natural to the season) and lighting lots of candles (the primary symbol of Imbolc is a candle).

I live far from many like-minded others and I often struggle to give my kids an experience of spiritual community. They are mildly resistant to our alternative dates for holidays at Yule or Ostara. The Summer Solstice, Lammas and Mabon just aren't quite right without a gathering of friends or community. But our home is perfect for Imbolc.

Image by Arie Farnam

Image by Arie Farnam

This is truly the quiet time in our climate, surrounded by cold and frost. We light many candles and have time for more reflection and healing. The colors are stark and beautiful, white, gray and brown. With the sun returning a bit from the edge of the southern horizon, there is a realistic sense of a new year beginning.

I have become specifically devoted to the goddess Brigid in the past few years and Imbolc is the feast day of Brigid. That makes it particularly special and a time to celebrate my connection to the goddess. Brigid is concerned with healing, fire, justice, creativity, inspiration and intuition--all aspects of Imbolc and all things at the core of my life. 

I celebrate Imbolc by making Brigid's crosses for our doorways and hearth. I do divination of various types and a ritual honoring the goddess. I often place a large platter in the center of the table with sea salt, crystals and seven white candles on it. My children and I make a Brigid doll to sleep by the hearth and have a family ritual of waking up Brigid after the winter's sleep.  

Imbolc can mean different things in different climates. For many people this is the day of seeds because the ground is ready for planting. It is still too cold in our climate for planing anything but hardy starts on window sills. The concept of seeds goes along with the Wheel of the Year as a life cycle in which Imbolc is conception, Ostara is the moment of birth, Beltane is exuberant youth and so on. 

In other places though, this day is associated with pregnant ewes, and the word "Imbolc" may have originally meant "in the belly." This is because it is a fallow time in many parts of the world. Plans and activities are in the gestation phase, not yet ready to be revealed. Growth is slow and hidden. 

If you would like to learn more about Imbolc or include this holiday in a multicultural program, check out Shanna and the Raven, an Imbolc adventure story. Shanna and her brother Rye celebrate the holiday amid magic and candlelight, but there are shadows in the modern world. The kids must use intuition and signs from a mysterious raven to protect themselves from a grown-up menace.

In northern climates this was historically the time of candle making in households. There was little other work that could be done with the ground frozen and snow heavy on he earth. The year's candle supply was often made at this time and when northern Europe was Christianized, the holiday was transformed into Candlemas, in which the newly made candles are taken to the church to be blessed. 

There is certainly a connection to blessing candles and protection from fire. Brigid, both the Catholic saint of this day and the Pagan goddess of this time, is widely believed to protect homes from fire. In the Czech Republic Imbolc is still called by an old name "Hromnice" (Thundering). There is no thunder at this season, but the idea was that certain blessings or acts could be done at this time to gain protection from fire and lightening for the year. 

Whether you celebrate a specific holiday during the next few eeks or simply use the winter time for activities that get lost during the rest of the year, I wish you a good season of inspiration, healing and creativity.

Winter to comfort and heal

I know that by March I will be fed up with winter cold and gray. But for now winter is still young and fresh. New snow has fallen and our little town between the Bohemian hills is quiet under just a light haze of wood and coal smoke. 

Image by Arie Farnam

Image by Arie Farnam

"It's so good to have a hard frost," my husband says with an audible sigh of relief as he sips his coffee and looks out over the snow-dusted garden. "It will set the garden slugs and mold back It's been three years since we had a good cold shock.."

I know many climates don't have winter like this, not even cold, let alone with snow. But every climate has a fallow period, whether it is parching, cleansing heat or a deluge of rain to wash away the grime of the past year. Everywhere around the world there comes a time of the year for going within, for seeking out a cozy place with a comfortable temperature, for cleaning, refreshing and regenerating. 

Even though I loved sledding as a kid and I see my kids celebrating our little bit of snow with shouts and bright cheeks, I never realized until I was at least thirty that I look forward to this season of deep winter. This is one of the few times of the year when I am not constantly rushing and overloaded with work. End of the year deadlines have passed, tax deadlines are yet to come, outside work is either done or beyond help and life is settled into the winter routine. 

This is often the season when I do my best and most intensive writing. I wrote the first three books in my fantasy thriller series from January to March one year. It is a time for creativity and inspiration, as well as a time when there is enough space for those concepts.

Image by Arie Farnam

Image by Arie Farnam

In ancient times the Imbolc season in the middle of winter was also considered the time of healers. Partly this was because people tended to get colds and viral infections in the damp and chilly weather. The elderly and infants were in need of greater care and so healers were in demand. But for injuries, this is simply a time when healing is more possible because physical activity is reduced. 

One of the reasons I celebrate the nature-based seasons with the Wheel of the Year is that by paying attention to natural rhythms, I never forget to give each need in my body and soul its due. I tend to be a workaholic at times and it is good for me to be reminded to allow time for regeneration, healing and inspiration. 

Inspiration comes only when there is enough silence. Healing comes only when there is enough stillness.

This is nature's fallow time in the northern hemisphere, but whenever your fallow time comes, whether it is earth-based or personal, it is worth remembering that it is not a lost or wasted time. Rather it is a rare and precious opportunity for rest, healing, comfort and the quiet needed to awaken great things.

These are the values taught in the Children's Wheel of the Year books (otherwise known as the Shanna books). I wrote them in large part to illustrate for my children and others how each season has its value. The Imbolc story Shanna and the Raven is a suspenseful story about a brother and sister who use intuition and creativity to protect themselves from potential danger. The Imbolc season is highlighted as the time of healing and inner knowing within a gripping, kid-friendly story.

I don't make direct sales pitches in my emails often, but I would like to gently remind readers that now is the right time to order paperback copies of Shanna and the Raven in order to receive them by Imbolc. You can read more about the book and see photographs of the paperback illustrations here.

The twelve days of Yule with kids

There are always challenges to celebrating a holiday outside the mainstream culture, especially if you have kids. If you celebrate the Winter Solstice and your kids attend school, it is likely that you've had some of these headaches:

  • Your kids are not only still in school on December 21, it's also the day of the school Christmas party, which they can't bear to miss.
  • Your kids are embarrassed to hear you say Yule or Solstice unless you're home with the doors locked.
  • When you go out December 22 and 23, everyone is always asking your kids what they want for Christmas and you have already had your family gifts. 

"Arg!" as a modern-day Viking might say.

Creative Commons image by Mike Beltzner

Creative Commons image by Mike Beltzner

Okay, none of these problems isthe end of the world, but they are annoying. Fortunately, we have a few advantages as well. The twelve days of Yule give us a lot of options. Here are some ways in which Pagan and earth-centered families get around the logistical hassles. 

You can dispense with the giant pile of presents and the kid-mania all together and give your children one small present each day from December 21 to January 1. If you're extra organized you can coordinate the types of presents to match the themes of each of the twelve days of Yule. Or you can simply use the special events of the twelve days of Yule to take the pressure off your Solstice celebration to be perfect.

There are fun and enriching things you can work into your days with kids all through the season. Without even doing anything beyond what you would probably normally do, you can make each of the twelve days a holiday for your kids.

Here are the themes for each traditional day of Yule based on the twelve astrological houses and the values of the Wheel of the Year.

December 21 is for self reflection and rebirth. It is a good day for rituals and divination. We honor the deities and spirits of the Sun as well as the mother goddess of the starry universe. We start the day by greeting the rising sun with hot chocolate and lanterns on some high place outdoors. It is fun have a candlelight dinner with round dishes in the colors of the sun. Because many people celebrate the twelve days from sundown to sundown, this dinner is often actually held on the evening of December 20. We make a clay figure of a goddess for the table and in the morning place a gold-painted clay infant in her arms to symbolize the return of the sun. We also do an annual Solstice Tarot reading, in which each person receives an atmosphere card for the whole year and twelve cards, laid out clockwise for each month of the new year. 

December 22 is for abundance and property, often a day of giving gifts or house blessings, This is often the day my children take off of school. The morning is devoted opening stockings. Gifts may be presented as a sharing of the abundance we have been given. Or they may be seen as the gifts of Santa Claus, Befana, Odin, the sun child or the Holly King--as symbols of the sun's strength and light which in truth does ensure our life and wealth throughout the year. The gifts parents give their children were in absolute terms first gifted to us from the sun's energy. 

December 23 is for communication, art and music. This is an excellent time for crafts or caroling, We make small boxes or plates of cookies and take them to the neighbors homes with a song. 

December 24 is for the home and family. It is a good time to meet extended family or to stay home and focus on whoever you consider family, Some people hold annual home blessings on this day. Because it is Christmas eve for Christians, it is often a time we meet with family members who celebrate Christmas. whether religious or secular.

December 25 is for play, children or connecting with one's own childlike energy. This the first day when the sun finally appears to return from the darkness a little. We can see that the new sun child is truly alive and we can celebrate this life. It is a good day to indulge children a bit, play a bunch of games and put aside work,

December 26 is for work and professionals, a good day to take a gift to colleagues, support unions or go out for some adult fun. Kids could draw pictures of a profession they'd like to try or learn about their parents' jobs, Sometimes it is simply a day to reconnect with reality and get things together for more holiday to come. 

December 27 is for partners. This is a time to get a babysitter if you have children and go out with your partner, whether romantic or otherwise. Kids can make cards for people they love.

December 28 is for magic and life force. This is a good day for making magical or ritual objects, Adults or children can make items for a new altar. It is also a good time for sending out wishes for the new year or for divination on a particular troubling question. It is also a day for healing and for honoring the herbs that provide us with medicine.

December 29 is for education, thinking and learning. It is a good day for educational games or thinking on what education kids want to pursue, This is a wonderful time for reading or listening to stories, a quiet time of contemplation and inner pursuits. 

December 30 is for careers, life path and duty. This is the day for activities concerning one's true vocation and role in life, Adults may make art or do divination around their profession or vocation. It is a time to come together with others of a similar profession. Children can learn about responsibility by doing some new tasks at home and being given a token of extra year and extra duties they have gained.

December 31 is for community. This works not only astrologically but also in terms of the secular calendar. This is the day of larger celebrations for New Year's Eve. It is also a good day for kids to do some volunteer work or bring a meal to someone who doesn't get many visitors during the holidays.

January 1 is for sacrifice and spirit. This is a day for giving offerings and possibly for divination. There may be gifts of spirit for children. It is also the time to give up things or habits that are no longer useful to use. This is not merely a resolution for our own health but also an offering to our gods, land or ancestors. By giving up excesses that may harm us or our environment, we make an authentic sacrifice with a purpose.

Blessed Yule to you and yours!

A children's rhyme to learn the elements and quarters

My kids are a bit hyperactive. Trying to teach them something meditative and spiritual can be a challenge--a challenge requiring creativity.

Here's one thing my kids love. They love to jump on our huge trampoline. And they love adult attention. The combination of adult attention and the trampoline, jumping with an adult while doing an activity is seriously motivating. So, I use this to teach them many necessary things, whether it is foreign language vocabulary for school, math facts or Pagan concepts. 

If you can yell it in rhythm, the trampoline will teach it. Count to ten or twenty in a variety of languages. Sing the days of the weeks, the months, the Wheel of the Year, the multiplication tables, spelling words, whatever. The trampoline is a great memorization tool.

Here is my latest inspiration from trampoline time, a rhyme for leaning the elements and quarters. I hope it may be helpful to a few others.

Elements for kids meme.jpg

East for thinking and dawn of day
South for will and joyful play.
West for love, sorrow and soul.
North for my body, strong and whole.

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.

A spring blessing of the living earth

Original image Creative Commons by  Marilyn Peddle

Original image Creative Commons by Marilyn Peddle

Like a wondering child I step out in the new morning.

I walk to stand before the fire.

And I raise my face to our infinite sky.

I feel gentle raindrops kissing my skin,

the singing wind that moves the trees,

our wet, rich earth beneath my feet.

Oh spirit, I recognize you now.

Earth mother, you've always been here in all things.

Through all things has your spirit loved me.

And never was I all alone, nor could I be,

in this truer world of spirit and living earth.

(Adapted from a poem by Rochelle Wallace)

An Ostara story

Heads up! Shanna and the Pentacle, the Ostara story of the Children's Wheel of the Year, is now available in Kindle and paper back editions, but Amazon has yet to put them on one integrated page. Here are the links.

Kindle

Paperback

Here's the story:

The gift of a friend, 
The promise of the pentacle, 
A new beginning… 
And the courage to stand your ground. 

Here is a story for Pagan, Wiccan and earth-centered families to share the wonder of the Wheel of the Year. Ostara is a time for buds and shoots, for the smell of wet earth and for asserting your true self. A new beginning can be hard but it’s worth it after all. 

Ten-year-old Shanna and eight-year-old Rye are starting out at a new school just before Ostara. A teacher notices Shanna’s pentacle necklace and asks her to take it off. Brandy, the popular girl, says Shanna is going to “hell” and Rye has his own trouble with kids who say boys don’t draw or sing. Still the magic of Ostara is at work. Shanna and Rye can meet new challenges and find new friends. 

Like Shanna and Rye, children from earth-centered families often stand out in mainstream society. Without strong identity and confidence, they struggle to choose their own path. The Children’s Wheel of the Year books provide concepts our kids need to face these challenges.

The Ostara story of the Children's Wheel of the Year is finally here!

With no time to spare... but we made it. The Ostara story of the Children's Wheel of the Year series is out. 

Shanna and the Pentacle is everything I hoped--an adventure story that will have kids rooting for the characters. It's also an example of how to deal with bullying problems and the often difficult new beginnings in life. There are more wonderful and evocative images by Julie Freel.

Here's the story:

The gift of a friend, 
The promise of the pentacle, 
A new beginning… 
And the courage to stand your ground. 

Ostara is a time for buds and shoots, for the smell of wet earth and for asserting your true self. A new beginning can be hard but it’s worth it after all. 

Ten-year-old Shanna and eight-year-old Rye are starting out at a new school just before Ostara. A teacher notices Shanna’s pentacle necklace and asks her to take it off. Brandy, the popular girl, says Shanna is going to “hell” and Rye has his own trouble with kids who say boys don’t draw or sing. Still the magic of Ostara is at work. Shanna and Rye can meet new challenges and find new friends. 

Like Shanna and Rye, children from earth-centered families often stand out in mainstream society. Without strong identity and confidence, they struggle to choose their own path. The Children’s Wheel of the Year books provide concepts our kids need to face these challenges.

The book is currently available in Kindle format and will be out in paperback and other digital formats next week. Look on the Children's Wheel of the Year site for minute-by-minute news about new formats.

Bullying, exclusion and a healing story for children

I walk onto the playground and check my posture, my expression, my clothing. A group stands on the sidewalk halfway to the gate. I approach, carefully crafting a mildly pleasant but not overly enthusiastic smile. 

Original image by Lee Haywood, text by Arie Farnam

Original image by Lee Haywood, text by Arie Farnam

My stomach tightens in knots and I concentrate hard, trying to find the dim blotches of eyes on pale oval faces. I can’t see them, but they can see me. Like a perpetual foreigner in a land whose language is beyond my physical capabilities, I try to play the game of eye contact and greeting. 

I’m not a child on this playground. This time I’m a mother. My kids spin away from me toward the playground equipment, yelling to their friends, as I join the loose circle of grown-ups on the sidewalk. A man is handing out forms. That’s good. Maybe this is the leader of the mini-Scouts group I signed my kids up for. That’s the purpose of my trip to the school today and it would be great if I could find the group so easily. 

I lean a few inches toward the woman beside me. “This is the mini-Scouts group, isn’t it?” I ask. My white cane is in my hand and most of these parents know me anyway. They know I can’t see much. My question should be self-explanatory.

But the woman edges away and pretends she didn’t hear me. 

The man handing out the forms has become flustered and the circle is losing cohesion. The man talks to a couple on my other side, turning his back to cut me out of the conversation. I wonder if he thinks a random blind person has wandered into his group and he doesn’t know how to handle it. Many people can’t conceive of the idea of a visually impaired parent. 

I could almost laugh about that, but the knots in my stomach tighten. By the man’s words and explanation to the other couple, I glean that my guess is correct. This is the initial meet-up of the mini-Scouts. Now to get one of those forms without a major public humiliation. 

Creative Commons image by Diego Sevilla Ruiz

Creative Commons image by Diego Sevilla Ruiz

I wait and try to make out if I know anyone in the circle. The woman who edged away from me seems to be a neighbor from a few streets over. I’ve heard that she’s signing her daughter up. We’re on okay terms in private, but she still won’t exactly say hello in public. 

I know I’m dressed well, clean and groomed. I don’t wear makeup or dye my hair, so some moms will turn their noses up over that alone. But mostly the shunning has to do with my eyes. They’re squinted half closed all the time. My eyes are small and raggedly, restlessly moving, rarely ever even appearing to make eye contact. 

They make people uncomfortable. I don’t entirely blame people for feeling that way. I know that strange-looking eyes bring up a primal response. People usually aren’t trying to be cruel, but my whole body is tense now. 

The man with the forms turns away from the couple and rocks back and forth. I can make out the blurry bulk of his shape craning to see other parents he’s missed. I’m three feet in front of him, but he pretends not to see me. I greet him anyway, forcing a smile. My words are drowned out as he calls to someone behind me and swerves around me toward a woman approaching with a stroller. He hands her a form and starts explaining about pick-up times again. 

A roaring, buzzing sound seems to have taken over my ears. I feel dizzy and a lump is suddenly blocking my throat. Why is this so damn hard? If this happened once in awhile it would be one thing, but it has been happening again and again.  I want to give up and walk away. I would if it were anything I could forgo, but my kids want to be in this group and they’re still too little to be expected to take the brunt of these situations. 

A voice penetrates. The woman with the stroller has called out to me. “Arie,  you’re kids are going to be in this too? That’s great!”

I can’t recognize her at ten feet but I could kiss her whoever she is. I grin and wave. The man with the forms turns back around, confused. But the woman with the stroller moves to make me part of her conversation with him. Now he has to acknowledge me. I greet him again, forcing my voice to stay steady. Now he returns the greeting and hands me a form. 

How bullying really happens - Creative Commons image by Serge Saint

How bullying really happens - Creative Commons image by Serge Saint

The mini-Scouts meeting is the tiniest of incidents. I’m not complaining about it, simply telling it like it is. These types of routine social interactions are often like this for me. This one was only unique because of the woman who made it clear to the leader of the group that I belonged there. It could have been much worse. 

That woman is one of those people who understands about social exclusion or simply is conscious about her own reactions to appearance. But three of my near neighbors who stood in the group did not say hello or give any indication that they knew me. This happens. And among adults it usually ends at that, a bit of exclusion but nothing overtly mean. 

Among children, however, difference and social exclusion can easily lead to more—to bullying. 

A story for healing: Shanna and the Pentacle

I’ve always been legally blind—thus an oddball as a kid—so I’ve dealt with my fair share of bullying. My family was also very alternative, including in spiritual matters, so my brothers and I got flak for that as well. My brothers were harassed about having long hair or different clothes. Back in the early 1990s my mother told me her job could be at risk if people found out about our alternative spirituality or using Tarot. I was never harassed about not being Christian at school, because I was never dumb enough to let anyone find out.

That’s why I chose bullying and social exclusion motivated by prejudice as the key issue in the second book of the Children’s Wheel of the Year series. 

Illustration by Julie Freel

Illustration by Julie Freel

Some people have questioned my choice to make the theme of the book something “negative.” It’s supposed to be an Ostara story, after all. My take on it is that the bigger the problem is, the greater the relief when we come into the light. Beyond that, the issue grows directly out of the concept of new beginnings. It arises for the children in the story, because they enter a new school.

The issue of bullying and specifically the issues that children from earth-centered families face in a society where some large groups of people truly believe that our symbols and beliefs are “evil” are reality for children. Silence about these issues from trusted adults doesn’t shelter children. It only makes them feel alone.

When I hear about children who are ostracized or even censured by teachers for wearing Pagan or earth-focused symbols on jewelry or clothing—something that I do hear about every month or so—I know in detail how difficult it is. Most Pagan children who face bullying or prejudice at school will encounter only a bit of it and will not be completely isolated by it. But there are cases today, especially in religiously conservative areas, where harassment can become serious. 

It is crucial that kids know first that this kind of prejudice isn’t acceptable and that if they are targeted by it they aren’t alone or to blame. Portraying common stories in fiction is one way to give kids a sense of connection to others who may deal with the same issue. It also helps to teach sensitivity and empathy. 

The best kind of children’s books are those that have a strong story, a conflict or adventure that children can relate to. And when they teach something, these stories should do so in a way that is sensitive to the feelings of children. The story shouldn’t stop in order to teach and it shouldn’t talk down to kids. 

The Children’s Wheel of the Year books do teach. In particular the upcoming book Shanna and the Pentacle shows ways of dealing with bullying--both things a parent can do to help and things a child can do alone, such as talking openly about the problem and focusing on those peers in a classroom who are open-minded and friendly. But these books teach through providing a good model and creating a suspenseful story around the issues.

In Shanna and the Pentacle, the upcoming Ostara story in the Children’s Wheel of the Year series, Shanna and her brother Rye are the new kids at a larger and more diverse school. One teacher and the popular girls are convinced that pentacles are Satanic and Shanna runs into trouble because of the pendant her best friend gave her before she left her old school. New beginnings aren’t always easy, but Shanna can find ways to celebrate her new life and the Ostara holiday even amid these tensions. She also learns how to keep her own equilibrium in difficult situations, how to stand up for her beliefs and how to make friends despite differences. 

Shanna and the Pentacle is the second book in the Children’s Wheel of the Year. It will be published later this month. 

Pagan Book Review: Pagan Planet looks at how modern Pagans live and act on their beliefs in the twenty-first century

What are the diverse experiences of contemporary Pagans of an indigenous European bent? What are the challenges of reclaiming and integrating ancient beliefs in the twenty-first century?  What are our values and how do we act on them?

There may be some blogs and other online sites that discuss these intense and complex issues that take the Pagan community beyond romantic ideas of candles, crystals and witchy hats, but they are scattered and often jumbled in with other things. Getting a balanced view of where the Pagan community really stands by skimming such websites would be a daunting task. That’s where the book Pagan Planet (edited by Nimue Brown of Moon Books) comes in. 

This is an anthology that sets out to chart the breadth and depth of the contemporary Pagan community. The subtitle Being, Believing and Belonging in the 21st Century brings issues of identity, faith and ethics to mind. Here at last is a credible attempt to take a serious look at Neopaganism without any delusions or fetishes, simply as a contemporary way of life. For that, it is most welcome.

The list of authors and topics in the anthology is delightful and intriguing. There are essays on specific issues and musings on life as a modern Pagan, even a poetic or fictional bit or two for added flavor. All around, I was not bored reading this. The writing is varied, and professional--the cream of the Neopagan community. I found a few of the insights particularly gripping, especially when they had to do with how Pagans act on the values promoted in our teachings, such as honoring elders and ancestors, helping those in desperate poverty to gain self-reliance through Pagan Aid and protecting the earth in many valuable ways. As a Pagan parent I found the pieces on Pagan parenting entertaining and the entry on Authentic Shamanism was fascinating. All this is contained in the book.

At the same time, many of the authors were clearly aware of the eyes of history reading their words as well as today’s readers. They were not only setting out to reflect our community back to us. They were also attempting to document a moment in the development of Neopaganism to say essentially: “Here in 2016, this is where we stand. These are our struggles, concerns and achievements. Let it be remembered.” That too is a good and honorable task.

Because of these goals, this anthology is almost too broad. In trying to look at all the diverse aspects of Pagan life, it is limited in its ability to explore in great depth. That isn’t a serious flaw because we need a book that takes into account many different issues. There are already books on many of the specifics. And at the same time, I was disappointed in one aspect of this book--its focus not just on indigenous European traditions but the heavy emphasis on the British Isles in particular. This is a more serious limitation because it purports to give a global perspective. While there is a southern hemisphere piece and a few North American entries, most of those that mention place are in the UK or Ireland. 

It is beyond sensitive to tread on the borderlines between European Pagan traditions and other indigenous and earth-based traditions that have mostly not adopted the word “Pagan” though they essentially fit the description aside from not being European. I recognize the difficulty of forming bridges to other earth-based cultures because of the issues of cultural appropriation and historical colonialism, However there are so many of us who dwell in the borderlands between European and non-European ancestry, lands and cultures (whether we like it or not) that we ignore this aspect at our peril.

This book shies away from earth-centered traditions of non-European in origin with only the briefest mentions of trading vague comments with a fellow Shaman in Africa and one author who admits to mixing in some Native American ideas with a careful caveat against usurping Native American culture. However, this last was another case of someone living in Ireland, not dealing with Native American culture because of proximity or the ancestry of one’s land, but because it is personally interesting. 

I offer that as a critique not in order to tear down a good and much-needed book, but to ask for our community to stretch even further in the issues we dare to talk about publicly. I grew up on a plot of land that tangibly spoke of fairly recent Native American ancestry and this influenced my understanding of the world, history and spirituality. I am now raising two children of mixed ancestry, who will have to bridge the gaps between Europe and other continents. I would like them to grow up into a Pagan community that is more inclusive of those who are not all European. Globally as well, the issue of race cannot and should not be ignored. 

Another enormous issue that is barely touched in this book is climate change. Many of the authors in this anthology are active in the anti-fracking movement, an extremely important part of the environmental struggle. And yet there was almost no mention of climate change and the challenges the next generation will face, including ethical issues when faced with massive waves of refugees and real hardship encroaching on the edges of our community. Our children will struggle with these and other heavy issues. Can we give no sign posts or explanation to the next generation who will have to struggle with issues so painful that we barely dare to touch them? 

All in all, Pagan Planet is a good book discussing issues important to the Neopagan community with some geographical and cultural emphasis on one area. It should be included in comparative religion and multicultural courses, studied by those beginning a Pagan path and discussed with passion and gusto by experienced Pagans. 

Imbolc blessings to children, parents and grandparents!

Imbolc is the time of firelight and long evenings. It is a time to curl up indoors, to think, to dream and to read. There is no better time to delve into the mysteries of intuition, magic and hope. 

Photo and words by Arie Farnam, Creative Commons License, share and share alike

Photo and words by Arie Farnam, Creative Commons License, share and share alike

I'm a mother and Julie Freel, the illustrator of the Children's Wheel of the Year series, is a grandmother. Our first concern is that children can access books that support earth-based spirituality. That's why we're making the ebook of Shanna and the Raven available for $2.99 on Amazon and other ebook stores until Imbolc. This means we take a loss on some copies of this book, but it also means that it is affordable for everyone knows a child who would like to read or listen to this book. 

Get the ebook of Shanna and the Raven for $2.99 until Imbolc from these stores:

Check out the prefer paperback you can get a copy from Amazon and see photos from the inside here.

Reclaiming Pagan identity

"I'm not a Gypsy!" a thirteen-year-old boy in a Romani (otherwise known as Gypsy) settlement in Eastern Europe once told me. "Do I look like I have some kind of free and easy life? I don't have a wagon or one of those funny round guitars."

I was a journalist at the time--supposed to be impartial and not interfere with the natural course of events--so I didn't do what I wanted to do. I have since regretted that I didn't put an arm around the kid's shoulders and say, "I hear ya, brother. I know what it's like to have your identity usurped and dragged around to serve various fashion trends and self-indulgent subcultures. Don't let that stop you from knowing who you are." 

I do know because my identity is bound up with similarly loaded words. And when I first started writing Pagan children's books that was the greatest obstacle I faced. Many people who I expected to be supportive (because I grew up with their earth-centered spirituality) were skeptical and even resistant to the idea. 

A Pagan symbol from Latvian mythology of the Sun Tree -- Creative Commons image by Inga Vitola

A Pagan symbol from Latvian mythology of the Sun Tree -- Creative Commons image by Inga Vitola

"If you use words like 'Pagan' or 'magic' or 'witch,' you're going to limit the types of people who will read the book," one critic told me in no uncertain terms. "And a cauldron?  I mean seriously! I can't believe you called it a 'cauldron.'" 

Other times I've heard people who clearly practice earth-centered spirituality say essentially the same thing that the Romani boy told me.  "I'm not Pagan," one said. "When people hear 'Pagan' they think about immature mind games, hedonism and irresponsibility. It's the sort of thing that teenagers play around with just to annoy their parents. It's not a serious earth-centered spirituality." 

There are always tough decisions to make when presenting a book to the world and foremost among them is "Who am I writing this for?" I had to keep that question firmly in mind as I navigated the publishing process for Shanna and the Raven

The answer is that I wrote it for Pagan and earth-centered families. I want people who share these beliefs to be able to find the book using those search terms. And I'm not as interested in what everyone else in society thinks those terms mean. 

And moreover, I have two children myself and I think about what it meant to me to grow up with an identity that had no socially acceptable name.

Why "Pagan?"

I know there are a good number of people in the United States, Europe and Australia who accept the term "Pagan" readily. However, the fact is that there are many more people (possibly several times our number) who share our essential beliefs yet don't accept that term. That's why it's worth addressing the issue of why I use the specific term "Pagan."

I grew up with earth-centered spirituality but I didn't adopt the term "Pagan" until I was about thirty. That was mostly because I spent many years looking for a word that could accurately convey my meaning. Over the past twenty years many terms have become well-known--some ultra specific like "Wiccan," "Druid," "Asatru" or "Reconstructionalist." Some vague or only used by some, such as "New Age" or "goddess culture."

I chose the term "Pagan" for one simple reason. It is broad enough, yet to those who accept it, it means what I am trying to express. Thus if I find someone who identifies as Pagan and I say that I am Pagan, we both have a rough idea of what that means. Not perfect, no. But look at the wild diversity of Christianity or Islam. We're hardly alone in not being uniform. 

The term "Pagan" is also used in a specific way by serious news media. In the code of newspaper journalism, one should call a group "Pagan," if it represents an indigenous belief system with strong ties to nature and probably several gods or goddesses. Recently I have seen newspapers refer to tribes enslaved by ISIS as "Pagan" because they fit those criteria. Thus the term "Pagan" Is not exclusive to indigenous European religions, although it is most often used that way.

I know I'm treading on dangerous ground among fellow Pagans, asserting that I have a firm definition for the term "Pagan." But it isn't so much that I have that definition myself. It is that I accept and identify with the standard definition of the term. I don't fight the meanings of words because the most popular definitions of words will prevail in over time and resistance in this case really is futile. If I had come of age and discovered that most people called the beliefs I hold "gobbledygook" I would have identified with that term and fought for its correct interpretation and positive identity. Thus I don't fight against the term but rather for its clearer understanding. 

Get the Pagan children's book  Shanna and the Raven here.

Get the Pagan children's book Shanna and the Raven here.

That is why I use the term "Pagan" both for myself and to my children and in my children's books. Yes, "Pagan" originally meant something like country bumpkin and it wasn't specific to a religious path. But it is now. It has a commonly accepted definition, whether we like it or not.

Gay used to mean happy. American Indian and Gypsy were both terms assigned to (and largely accepted by) whole nations of people based on someone else's poor grasp of geography. (Gypsy comes from the incorrect belief that the Roma came from Egypt.)

Seriously, we need to stop whining and be glad for the identity we have. Show me a better or more understood term, and I'll seriously consider it.  But for now "Pagan" is the term we have. The term "Witch" is in a similar category, though the road to the broader understanding of that term will be even more rocky.

Why do we need an identity term?

There is another argument I encounter in the community discussion on this issue and that is that some people strongly believe that we don't need terms of identity at all, that these are just "labels" and actually potentially damaging. I do understand the idealistic and positive intention behind these concerns. We should all be human beings first--dwellers of this earth and universe, in kinship with every being. 

But... you knew that was coming, didn't you? But we don't live in an ideal universe and neither do our children. The concept of rejecting all labels and merging into one big happy identity is akin to the argument for "colorblindness" among many white people in the United States or Western Europe. The lack of identity works just fine if there are truly no distinctions or problems between people in society. However, if there is any measure of tension, lack of identity works in favor of those associated with the largest and most privileged group and to the detriment of minority groups. 

Get the Pagan children's book   Shanna and the Raven  here.

Get the Pagan children's book Shanna and the Raven here.

Many of those who embrace earth-based spirituality today grew up in another religion with a very distinct name, and part of their change is to release themselves from names and labels, so our community members often balk at terms such as "Pagan" or even "earth-centered."

It's understandable. However, there is an issue here that goes beyond the desires of individual spiritual development. These first-generation Pagans did grow up with an identity, one they could understand, make decisions about and even reject because it had a name. And they also grew up in the majority culture.

Children raised in earth-centered families are not fully in the majority culture and they often lack the words needed to make their own decisions about their beliefs. That was why out of all the worthy topics for children's books, I chose to devote my first books to stories of contemporary Pagan children.

As I write the second book in the Children's Wheel of the Year series I note that the only times identity labels are needed or even arise in these stories are when the characters encounter hostility from the majority culture. We could live happily without labels, if we lived in isolation. But we don't and our children don't. If you send a child out into the world after teaching them values and stories that are very different from those of the majority but give that child no words with which to think consciously about such things, you send the child into inevitable confusion and pain and cut the child off from a sense of belonging. 

Psychologist Abraham Maslow defined a hierarchy of needs, beginning with physical needs for food, shelter and safety and culminating in self-actualization. The theory, which is used widely by psychologists, is that one cannot progress to higher levels without fulfilling the lower needs on the hierarchy. Thus to reach self-actualization an individual must have basic physical needs met. And directly above the basic needs of the body and safety is the need for belonging. 

For children to fulfill the need for belonging in the majority culture, they must  feel that their ideas, values and beliefs are supported and shared by others at least to some degree. The facts of today's world are that many Pagan children encounter not a world where labels don't matter but a world where their beliefs are disregarded or rejected and their celebrations are unknown or mocked. In such a world, children must still have belonging in order to reach self-actualization and that belonging comes from the understanding is that there is a community out there--though scattered--that shares and honors their values and stories.

That is why we need a Pagan identity.