Exploring mystery, trying on labels

It has taken me years to experience any clarity around my religious identity. I grew up attending Catholic mass but knew from an early age that I wouldn’t continue, once I had a choice. In adulthood I’ve cycled through Protestant, atheistic, New Age, Buddhist, Unitarian Universalist, and Pagan approaches to religion, in roughly that order. A lot of Pagans and UUs are trying to heal from negative experiences with other religions, and then to work out a new religious identity that fits, and I’m no exception to the rule. What follows is a lot of navel-gazing, so if you’re short on time or patience for that sort of thing, stop reading here, or simply scroll to the bottom for a nice toad-in-the-compost photo before you go.

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I’ve updated the religious labels in the tagline and biography of this blog at least as often as I’ve actually posted to it. I’ve identified as Pagan for around 11 years, since an experience I had during a Buddhist retreat. At the time, I understood Paganism to be a nature religion, centered primarily around a Goddess, expressed in sensual, seasonal ritual. But I’ve since encountered so many different ways of doing Paganism, some of which have nothing whatsoever to do with nature, that it’s not clear to me anymore what the label by itself even means.

For someone like me, who accepts neither the fundamentalist strain of polytheism nor the aggressively atheistic scientism that have dominated the Pagan blogosphere in recent years, it’s been hard to know where to peacefully and productively plug in to Pagan theology and practice. I’m active in my local Reclaiming community, and I treasure the ritual training and experiences that I’ve shared with other Reclaiming Witches. I plan to continue participating in New Moon Pentacle Walks at the Capitol, and I look forward to our regional Dandelion gathering next month.

However, even though I’ve used it, the label Witch often feels like an uneasy fit for me for a variety of reasons. I can’t imagine how instrumental magic would work from a distance, for example, nor can I imagine why a tumbled stone mined under questionable conditions from land thousands of miles away would be any more powerful or healing than the rocks that lie in the land beneath my feet. Among self-identified witches these sometimes seem like minority positions.

A second pillar of my practice in recent years has been UUism. My husband and I signed the membership book at First UU of Austin in 2013. That community and the Seven Principles of UUism continue to refresh, inspire, and guide me. Yew Grove, the Pagan Interfaith group at First UU Austin, held its last circle in 2016, but Meg Barnhouse and I are discussing the formation of a new “working witches” group at First UU in the near future. I’m excited about the project and hope to have more to share soon.

Recently I’ve experienced the click of recognition of many of my own views, passions, and practices in the writings of Graham Harvey, Emma Restall Orr, and David Abram. Maybe, as much as I’d like to wear the label Witch without reservation, the one that really fits is UU-animist. My animism leans monist–I honestly have no evidence for any world outside of this one–and it’s messy in every sense of the word. Fostering shared, everyday experience with the very real, always changing, other-than-human world in which I’m embedded involves getting outside and getting dirt under my nails.

Animism raises some very sticky questions about personhood, consciousness, the environment, and ethics that I can’t currently answer, but they’re the questions that I want to explore. In what sense can humans actually communicate with stones? I don’t know, and for the moment I’m perfectly fine with that. I’ve always found questions to be juicier than answers anyway, and I don’t mind if they multiply.

Instead of crying ‘One!’ or ‘Two!’, animists celebrate plurality, multiplicity, the many and their entwined passionate entanglements. Instead of the hero who struggles against one or other side of things in an attempt to discern the underlying truth, animist stories present tricksters who multiply possibilities in increasingly amusing ways.

–Graham Harvey in Animism: Respecting the Living World, pp. xiv-xv

How can I relate respectfully to a larger community of life? Who are the members of that community? How can community members be eaten with respect, as they must, in order for life to continue? What does it mean to live well in my particular place and time? These are inexhaustible mysteries worth my devotion, a devotion I’ve maintained for years already without a label for it.

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Gulf Coast toad in the compost pile yesterday morning, photo by Nathan Walther
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Approaching Autumn Equinox in Austin

Autumn Equinox 2018 approaches; time for a pulse check. What’s unfolding with the living world where I am?

Daylight hours are noticeably decreasing. In summer months I see sunlight peaking over the horizon when I arrive for my shifts around 6:30a, but now it’s still twilight when I walk in to the hospital in the morning.

My family and many others are adjusting to the people and rhythms of a new school year. Homework must be done, lunches must be packed the nights before, and busses and carpools must be met the morning of each school day. There’re backpacks to pack and school clothes to wash. There are practices and back-to-school nights to attend and forms to fill out. *So many* sign-ups and forms.

The 16-day streak of triple digit temperatures that we experienced around the time of Summer Thermistice has subsided, bless it. High temperatures are in the 80s F this week, and September storms, which have the potential to swell into Floodmakers this time of year, have arrived. We’ve received a couple of inches of rain over the past week, and it shows with our plant neighbors. They’re all so green and refreshed!

Silverleaf nightshade, frogfruit, purple bindweed, and rain lilies are in bloom:

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Silverleaf nightshade (Balcones District Park)

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Frogfruit (neighbor’s yard)

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Purple bindweed (another neighbor’s yard)

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Rain lilies pushing up through the rocky soil of the Edwards Plateau (Schroeter Park, Mesa Woods)

Pecans are still green, but prickly pear, American beautyberry and Texas persimmon fruits are ripening:

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Prickly pear (Schroeter Park, Mesa Woods)

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American beautyberry

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Texas persimmon (Schroeter Park, Mesa Woods)

Tx persimmon fruits have large seeds, but their flavor is really a treat: sweet and raisiny, like the sweetness of last spring condensed and simmered down all summer into richness. Bet it would make an amazing jam. Scat signs say that foxes living in a nearby park really enjoy it, too.

Fungus folk are of course loving the recent rains:

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It’s the beginning of our second planting season here in Central Texas. Autumn Equinox is a good time to start cool weather plants like kale, broccoli, parsley, and cilantro.

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Lasagne composting in progress. Saving that bare spot in my herb box for parsley.

Ruby-throated hummingbirds are beginning to migrate south for winter. They’ll fill up on nectar from tubular red flowers like salvia, Turk’s cap, and firebush and on sugar water from feeders before they go. Monarchs will begin migrating south soon, too. Toads are out hunting at night and snails are actively foraging this time of year.

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Poe and I so appreciate that it’s now cool enough to weed walk in the middle of the day.

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Autumn Equinox in Austin

Themes: rain, creeks, floods, Waters of the World, education, second planting, second flowering, cooling, migration

Correspondences for Ritual:

  • Direction: West
  • Time: Twilight
  • Colors: greens, purples, browns, red
  • Plants: purple bindweed, beautyberry, rain lily, Texas persimmon
  • Animals: toads, snails, migratory insects and birds

Some stories are better than others

Some say bluntly that there is no afterlife. That our lives are a “one-way trip.” Easy to assert, because it’s almost certainly true. Anyone else remember those care-free slogans of the 2008 Atheist Bus Campaign? “There probably is no god. Now stop worrying. And enjoy your life.”

Atheist_Bus_Campaign_(2968124420)Photo by Dan Etherington via Wikimedia Commons

Ah, if only it were that simple for all of us. Smells more than a little like trivializing to me.

My nine-year-old daughter is having trouble sleeping, she told me a few nights ago. “I can’t stop thinking about what would happen if I lost you,” she told me. “Why can’t we still be together even if you die? I can’t lose you!” And, tearfully, “Can’t we just go back and relive our lives? It’s going so fast.”

I held her tight while she cried, after unloading so much anguish right at bedtime, on the very night before school started. Then I tried floating my own version of the crappy Atheist Bus slogan: “Our bodies return to the earth to feed new life, but the qualities you’ve inherited from me, the values and experiences we’ve shared, the love we share, those will be with you always, no matter what. We live on through the effects we have on the world,” I sermonized. I also tried a UU response to her questions, one of those responses that begins with, “Some people believe…” and ends with, “What do you think?”

All true, but not ringing true. Still in my arms, she sobbed afresh.

Then, bless my heart, I remembered to try telling a real story. I told her a story from Starhawk’s Circle Round, about meeting Grandfather Deer and offering him an apple. About being carried by Grandfather Deer to the edge of the Sunless Sea, where a guide would ferry us across the Sea to the Shining Isle for the price of a story. Our ancestors waited for us there on the Shining Isle, and God Hirself, too, stirring a cauldron of stars. Look it up, y’all, it’s a good story.

My daughter’s tears slowed, and her muscles relaxed. She began telling her own version of the story, in which we each had our own favorite places on the Shining Isle, but where there were doors between her place and mine. “I’d like that,” I said, “I’ll leave my door open for you.” Eventually she climbed out of my lap and into bed.

The kinds of questions my daughter asked, if you take the pain they point to seriously, can only be acknowledged and answered by stories. And some stories are just better than others.

158901175_27c2ef1717_oDoorway by Tony Hisgett

 

Tools for Practice: Waters of the World

One of my favorite Reclaiming traditions is Waters of the World, the practice of collecting small containers of water for ritual use from the oceans, rivers, lakes, creeks, and springs that we visit. A bowl filled with Waters of the World makes a great centerpiece in rituals related to healing of self, community, or earth, divination rituals, or simply as an offering to spirits of the land. During a family visit to Northwestern Montana last week, I collected a small container of water from Harpers Lake to add to our Waters of the World pitcher at home.

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Willow cat inspects the pitcher

For collecting water, any empty, clean, water-tight container will do, but I’ve found the 1-2 oz travel bottles, like those sold at sports and outdoor stores, are ideal. For storage at home, I like a glass container with a plastic lid. Although I would not drink this water, I like knowing that plastic isn’t leaching into it, and metal lids tend to rust. Our pitcher currently contains water from Bull Creek, Sieders Springs, Lake Austin, and Deep Eddy, here in Austin, from the Gulf of Mexico, from our kitchen tap, and now from Harpers Lake, MT.

A Waters of the World practice depends for its meaning on the underlying principles of respect, reciprocity, and sympathy. I try to understand something about where the waters I collect come from, and where they are going. Harpers Lake is a small pothole lake, part of a chain of lakes along the Clearwater River, which drains into the Blackfoot River, which in turn drains into the Clark Fork branch of the Columbia River. In exchange for a small container of water from Harpers Lake, I picked up cigarette butts, tangled fishing line, and discarded fish hooks from the shoreline.

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Harpers Lake, July 2018

Mingling the diverse waters that have nourished and refreshed me reminds me that all waters are part of one earthly well flowing through all living things, including my own body. My capillaries and lymphatic vessels flow into veins, which in turn empty into the heart, just as creeks empty into rivers, which in turn flow to the ocean (Roberts 247-248). Just as my health changes with age, activity, and environmental conditions, water may be clean and supportive of life, or it may be polluted and bear disease. My Waters of the World practice reminds me that I’m responsible and empowered to care for the health of my own body and the health of the one well.

Because all water is sacred, Waters of the World may be collected during travel to far-flung places, or they may come from your home tap. The same principles of respect and reciprocity apply. What is the source of the water you drink and wash with at home? Can you trace the path it would have taken to the ocean, if it had not been piped into your home (Starhawk et al. 373)? With which water sources does it connect you directly? Are there human stories and practices involving the local waters? Do all communities in your area have equal access to clean water? How do you care for and protect your local water sources? The power of the practice lies in reflecting on right relationship with water.

Works Cited

Roberts, Rosemary. “Healing my Body, Healing the Land: Healing as Sociopolitical Activism in Reclaiming Witchcraft.” Ethnologies, vol. 33, no.1, 2011, 239-256, http://citeseerx.ist.psu.edu/viewdoc/download?doi=10.1.1.838.3339&rep=rep1&type=pdf.

Starhawk, Diane Baker, and Anne Hill. Circle Round: Raising Children in Goddess Traditions, Bantam Books, 1998.

Call and Response: Paganism Needs a Shared Telos

IMG_4192John Halstead recently called for a Pagan prophet, someone who could unite naturalists and supernaturalists, someone to “come along to lead modern Pagans out of the wilderness of superstition and self-absorption.” John’s role, as he states, is the role of the critic, not the prophet, but he suggests a list of other Pagan writers who might serve. I think John’s list shows that Paganism already has prophets of various types; a shortage of inspired guides is not the source of our movement’s troubles.

What we need is a shared telos, or common purpose. Something akin to the Ancient Greeks’ eudaemonia, or Christianity’s redemption. What would that be for modern Paganism? Empowerment comes first to mind. As do embodiment, and a kind of natural harmony or right relationship with the more-than-human world.

With a shared goal, we could hold different philosophical commitments and still respect each other. We could create common symbols and rituals that support our striving for more developed states. And together we could celebrate our steps along the way.

 

 

 

A Witch’s Creed

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I submit to awe of Earth, Sun, Moon, Storm, Sea, Wind, Stone, Fire, Rain, and Forest.

I practice the old magics of hospitality, reciprocity, story, and sympathy.

I choose to belong to myself.

I frame my choices around the ethics of care and connection.

I have many allies, ancestors, and descendants on the path. I am never alone.

I take as wild, holy scripture anything that compels me to laugh, cry, sing, or dance.  I take poetry for scripture, as well as the cardboard sign carried by a drawn, sunburned man who regularly stands at the corner of Braker and 183. “This could be you,” his sign says.

I assert that spellwork is simply a particular kind of prayer, which is itself one of the most enduring and effective techniques for human transformation.

I believe that just as prayers are made by people, prayers are usually answered by people.

I have faith that life loves the liver.

I create art, and art recreates me.

I am a divine human animal.

I am brave enough to serve my shadow selves tea.

My only real home is the ground beneath my feet, which is at once constant and changing.

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