Spring Equinox Spell

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“All spells at their heart are either saying please or thank you,” according to solitary Pagan witch Tylluan Penry, and I’m inclined to agree. Here’s a simple spell for saying please on Spring Equinox.

Before beginning, decide who you’ll ask, and where you’ll do the asking. Then make an altar, but don’t overdo it. At a minimum you’ll need a candle and supplies for the spell: seeds, soil, water, and a biodegradable container to use as a planter for each person participating. (In our upcoming Spring Equinox circle for First UU Pagan Alliance, we’ll make planters from empty toilet paper rolls.) Have pencils or markers on hand, too. 

First ground. Then light the candle and say, “This candle represents hearth fire. I light it now and bring the flame of wisdom into my spell.”

You may wish to say something like, “This is my sacred hearth, where I am going to ask for aid on Spring Equinox. I ask that my gods/Spirit/the Universe witness this ritual.”

Consider a change you’d like to make, a perspective or behavior you’d like to change, or a goal you’d like to achieve. Be specific, and choose something achievable to which you’re willing to commit time and effort. Holding your intention in mind, draw symbols of intention on the planter, plant the seeds, and say the spell:

As the nights shrink down,

So this seed goes underground.

By the seed and by the root,

By the shoot and by the flower,

As the daylight grows in power,

So the thing I wish grows strong.*

Water the newly planted seeds, and say thank you to whomever you addressed your request for aid. Now’s the time to make an appropriate offering.

Your seeds won’t sprout, of course, if you neglect them after saying the spell. Neither will your intention take root, if you’re not willing to work for it yourself.

In the name of the Bee–

And the Butterfly–

And the Breeze**– May it be so!

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* I like to cite my sources, but this one’s difficult to identify. It’s an adaptation of a spell that might have come from the blog Hearth and Home Witchery, but I can’t find the original post.

**A benediction by Emily Dickinson that I picked up from Laura Perry, who practices Modern Minoan Paganism.

Pagan Philosophy Nugget #1: Why Religion?

Thus far in the Pagan blogs I’ve written a lot about practice without sharing very much philosophy or theology, not because I’m not doing any philosophy, but for a variety of other reasons. First among these is the fact that certain attitudes and types of practices, not philosophical positions, generally unite Pagan communities. Pagans approach their practices with an assortment of theologies, and it seems that respectful, productive discussions of the differences among them are hard to come by.

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Also, together with a husband I’d like to keep, I’m raising school-aged children and maintaining a paying job, in addition to a bunch of other obligations. My time and energy are continuously over-committed, and if I only have time for one out of thinking and writing about Paganism or doing Paganism, I’ll choose doing every time.

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Be that as it may, I acknowledge that thought and practice are inextricably intertwined, informing each other by turns. So now I’m starting a series of posts called Pagan Philosophy Nuggets (PPN), in which I briefly discuss a philosophical topic as it applies to Paganism. My intention is to learn, record my progress in this area, and share it without taking it too seriously.

This is a citizen philosophy project. My formal academic training is in linguistics and nursing, not philosophy or theology, and as mentioned I don’t have a lot of time for writing at this stage of life. As such, PPN posts will necessarily be brief, incomplete explorations of important philosophical concepts. Undefined terms and inconsistencies will almost certainly creep in. I expect to be dissatisfied with most of my own answers to the questions I’ll raise. Read at your own risk, and choose compassion when you make constructive comments.

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The first PPN topic is the purpose of religious practice. Human understanding of how the universe works has advanced tremendously, since natural scientists separated their work from the presuppositions of religion. So why subscribe to anything other than materialism? Why engage with Paganism, or any other form of religion for that matter?

One compelling answer is that religion helps us make meaning out of our experiences and helps us make the decisions that lead to lives worth living, something that science, although powerful, doesn’t do. For evaluating testable claims and learning about causal relationships, science is the best tool we’ve got, but it doesn’t make meaning; it can’t make ethical or aesthetic choices for us. 

A related answer that I find compelling is outlined by philosopher Scott Samuelson (2018) in his book Seven Ways of Looking at Pointless Suffering. Human life is centered around a paradox, he notes: “the paradox of having simultaneously to accept and reject suffering” (p. 7). Living the paradox involves finding a balance between fixing and facing suffering, according to Samuelson. Science and technology are methods for discovering fixes, while art and religion are methods for facing suffering.

Religious approaches, then, including Pagan ones, may be just as valid and helpful as scientific approaches, for understanding our experience of the world. Religion is a way of making sense of the life we’re living in the world as it is, in which we must make worthy choices and face the suffering and loss that occur for no reasons we can find.

Reference

Samuelson, S. (2018). Seven ways of looking at pointless suffering: What philosophy can tell us about the hardest mystery of all. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press.

 

Saving wild violet seeds

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The patch of wild violets growing just outside my front door reminds me of a neighbor friend who gave me the first of the plants. She was a retired educator who enjoyed baking, gardening, traveling, and storytelling. She wasn’t perfect, but she was thoughtful, joyful, and grounded in what matters, and she died nearly two years ago; cancer, by the way, can fuck right off.

I think of my friend, when I see the violet patch in bloom. And so the plants have become keys to my memories of her. Not some symbolic, abstract violets, but these particular plants are the keys to those memories, whose roots I have watered and whose seeds I have continued spreading.

I don’t really wish for my friend’s spirit to rest in peace. Instead I wish for it to continue creating and delighting all around us. I wish for those wild violet seeds find their place or make one.

 

Pagan, Heal Thyself

Some lament that the Pagan movement has failed to heal the world, failed to forestall human-made climate change and prevent abuse and oppression. A related complaint, usually made at the same time, is that other Pagans are self-absorbed. Others aren’t serious about their practice, the charge goes, as evidenced by the facts that they focus on caring for themselves, and that they’ve neglected to join the (usually male) complainant’s online community or sign their petition.

That’s a lot to take on, more than what I can fully explore in a single blog post. But to choose just one thing: it’s important to understand that other people aren’t always like you.

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It seems reasonable, to think that most Pagans value Earth’s ecological integrity, and that they’re alarmed about the consequences of climate change. But Paganism is a diverse movement. Others may have different goals than you do, or they may genuinely struggle to put their ideals into practice. For some Pagan practitioners, simply caring for themselves and their families and performing their paying jobs takes massive effort. Also, not all Pagans, not even all Pagans practicing within the same Pagan tradition, are the same. If you can’t avoid judging others, at least judge them as individuals, not as stereotypes.

Something to try, in case you’re wounded by the shortcomings and self-absorption of other Pagans: take on the perspective of a Pagan who is different than you. It could be someone from a different social class, someone with a different skin color, gender identity, or sexual orientation, a Pagan who holds different metaphysical commitments than you do, or whose practice is based in a different tradition. Not sure what their situation or approach to Paganism is really like? Only read about it in books and blogs? Ask an open-ended question to find out more, and take care to do more listening than talking in response.

Something else to try, in case you’re wounded by the shortcomings and self-absorption of other Pagans: reflect on how well your own practice aligns with your Pagan values and principles. Is mitigating the impacts of human-caused climate change an important part of your Pagan practice? I hope you’re composting, and that you don’t travel by plane or eat meat!

It’s not helpful to condemn other people for being bad Pagans. Want to heal our society’s relationship with the living, breathing world?

Pagan, heal thyself.

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Walking with my Dog is my Most Sacred Practice

“Walking, ideally, is a state in which the mind, the body, and the world are aligned, as though they were three characters, finally in conversation together, three notes suddenly making a chord.” –Rebecca Solnit in Wanderlust: A History of Walking

As an animistic pagan, my most sacred practice involves neither cauldron nor athame, although I own both. My most sacred practice is walking daily through my neighborhood with my dog, Poe.

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Because I walk with Poe, I know–from bodily experience, not from faith nor from reason–that the moon was full two nights ago and that Orion is still visible in the night sky. I know that the days are lengthening, and that the first of this season’s mountain laurel blooms opened early this year, around February 6th:

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Yesterday I noticed agarita, anemone, spiderwort, and redbud in bloom, tended by bees. Because I walk with Poe, I witness the trees through the seasons. Right now new leaves are unfurling on Arizona ash trees, but elm, pecan, and deciduous oaks have yet to leaf out.

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Because I walk with Poe, I know where screech owls and herons tend to nest in our neighborhood, and I’ll be among the first to notice when the bats return next month.

Because I walk with Poe, I meet human neighbors with whom I don’t have much in common and probably wouldn’t talk to otherwise. Mr. Hunter comes first to mind. He’s an older neighbor in his 80s who hosts a weekly Bible study in his home. His wife self-publishes Christian fiction. During the last election, they put up a yard sign for Ted Cruz; my family put up a sign for Beto. Our worldviews and lifestyles stand poles apart, but I enjoy seeing Mr. Hunter, whenever Poe and I meet him during a walk. Mr. Hunter scritches Poe’s ears. We talk about the weather, animals, gardening, my family and work, and his great-grandchildren. Our conversations lack even a trace of bitterness. I find instead that they’re flavored by very old, very pagan values of hospitality and reciprocity. Our meetings feel deeply sacred.

These are fair-weather days for walking in Central Texas–spring is easily our most pleasurable season–but important to note that sacred walking is not a fair-weather practice. I submit to winter and walk on cold days, with every arrector pili muscle contracted and every hair on end. I submit to the sun’s strength in summer, when the only safe and salubrious times of day to walk are before 10 a.m. and after dark. I know the direction of the wind and the temperature of the air each day because my skin knows.

I experience a sense of place and belonging, when Poe and I walk through our neighborhood. I’m grounded, connected, and relating with intention to the human and more-than-human world around me. I’m aware that the very real world of spirits is here, right now, and not somewhere else, far away. This is it!, to borrow a Zen Buddhist proverb. To experience this world as radically alive, all I have to do is keep walking and pay attention.

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5 Things I’ve Learned about Facilitating UU Pagan Ritual

Since I began leading First UU Austin’s Pagan Alliance last fall, I’ve learned that much of hosting good public ritual consists of general hosting etiquette: helping guests relax and engage, for example, and signaling to them when it’s time to transition from one activity to the next. But there’s much more to creating a container for ritual and coordinating pagan community than mundane hosting etiquette. Below are five of the most significant things I’ve learned so far.

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1. The circle starts forming long before the sabbat.

When I was a solitary practitioner, I planned sabbat celebrations a week in advance, two weeks ahead if I was really on top of things. That won’t work, when you’re facilitating for a group. When you open one sabbat circle, it’s time to set a date and make a plan for the next one. Most people will need at least 2 weeks notice to attend.

Now that I’m facilitating for a group, my sabbat planning process involves notifying our church’s Director of Communications of the date and time of our next circle, so that he can include them in the newsletter, and creating and sharing a Facebook event. Facilitating a regular ritual circle involves a lot of planning and administrative work.

2. It doesn’t matter how you cast the circle.

First UU Austin’s Pagan Alliance includes Goddess religionists, Heathens, Reclaiming Witches, neo-shamanists, and plenty of pagan-curious folk. Everyone casts the circle differently where they’re from; some like to chant or tone, some like to visualize, some of us were taught to call call quarters. People come to circle for the experience and for each other, not for the forms, so it doesn’t really matter whether or how you cast the circle. It shouldn’t be too long or laborious; it’s not the main event. Get it done, and move on to the heart of your ritual.

3. On the altar, less is more, but above all, there must be fire.

Our Samhain altar last year was lovely, when we set it up before ritual. It featured an antique cast-iron cauldron, flanked by tall, striking taper candles, surrounded by more candles, seasonal gourds and seeds, herbs for smoke cleansing, bottles of water for offerings, a loaf of bread, and probably even more stuff that I don’t remember. Then participants began arriving, and they had to squeeze their ancestor photos (arguably the most important props for the ritual!) in among all the other paraphernalia. One woman brought incense with a holder that she wanted to gift to the group; we cleared a space. As soon as we began ritual, the wind blew out those dramatic candles towering over a crowded altar.

If all you’ve got is a seasonal altar cloth, a candle, an offering bowl, and a living plant or container of water with fresh flowers, it will be enough. If you must add more stuff to a group altar, do so sparingly. Leave space for people to interact with the altar in ways you didn’t plan.

The Flaming Chalice, the cup and flame, is the symbol of Unitarian Universalist faith; a UU Pagan altar really isn’t complete without it. I’ve found that a hurricane candle holder evokes the cup and flame, while sheltering the flame from wind during outdoor ritual. They’re usually not too hard to find at a thrift store.

4. Pick a story from a single tradition and tell it from several different angles.

Earlier this month our minister led a divination ritual with the runes. First she told the story of Odin hanging himself from the World Tree to gain the wisdom of the runes. Then I led a prayer for wisdom and healing to Yggdrasil, the World Tree. Finally, to raise energy, we chanted about being weavers of the web of life. The actual rune reading was clumsy (see 5 below), but the ritual held, because our storytelling worked. We stuck to a particular mythology and told the story from multiple angles, each of which revealed something previously hidden in the story.

5. One sheet of paper per participant, if you must. Two sheets is two too many. 

Participants in a public UU Pagan ritual come from a variety of spiritual backgrounds. You can’t expect people to know the words to all the chants you’re leading, and for some, having a printed copy of what you’re going to ask them to say or sing facilitates participation. But people come to ritual to experience a non-ordinary state of consciousness with like-minded practitioners, not to flip through papers to read silently on their own. Plenty of chances to do that in mundane life.

During our rune ritual each participant drew a rune from a bag. They were then invited to look its meaning up in a packet we provided, but the pages of those packets weren’t stapled. Much paper rustling and confusion followed. But in retrospect I think the worst thing about that part of the ritual was that it involved each person trying to do something alone, rather than together. I have some ideas about how to remedy this part of the ritual for next year.

None of the rituals I’ve facilitated have been perfect, but none have been complete flops either. I’d like to recruit a ritual drummer to our circle, and I’d like to get better at delegating speaking parts. I’d love to continue exploring ways of involving the rest of the circle in storytelling; I adore the use of poetry with a chorus in ritual, I’ve discovered.

I’ll keep turning the Wheel, and I’ll keep learning. That’s my commitment as the facilitator of our circle.

 

Weedwalking for Imbolc

Here in Central Texas, where our winters are short and mild, Imbolc marks the beginning of spring, making this the perfect time of year to go weedwalking. If you know what you’re looking for, there are quite a few wild edibles out there right now.

Texas filaree, for example:

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Or henbit growing together with wild onions:

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This morning I noticed lots of chickweed, dandelion, wild lettuce, and cleavers, too.

Weedwalking gets me outside, where I’m generally happiest. It’s an opportunity to be alone with my own thoughts, which is how I recharge. At the same time weedwalking involves slowing down and paying attention to my sensory experience of the plants with whom I share the environment.

And attention, in my experience, is holy.

Weedwalking is not for sale, so no need to buy manufactured foraging kits, and it’s about much more than finding food. I’ll save you the disappointment of discovering yourself that, unless you’re lucky enough to come across wild strawberries, most foraged foods are not even especially tasty.

Except for this one, chile pequin:

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Score! Picked a few, said thank you, and headed home. Time to make chili.