Charge of the Crone

14243610469_c27d51f9c3_zOne of my coworkers left in tears today.  She was faced with an incredibly difficult decision: her 14-year-old dog needed emergency gallbladder surgery.  For $7K.

As Americans, we don’t deal with the deaths of our animal companions any better than we do our human friends and family. We don’t deal with death well in general. Either we fetishize death in the realms of the imagination, or segregate the dying when confronted with reality.

One of my jobs is working with the elderly to help them pay their bills on time. To date, two clients of mine have died (it’s something of a hazard in this profession).  When my first client, K, was dying, I tried to spend as little time with her as possible.  Simultaneously scared and ashamed, I tried to visit when I knew she would be at lunch so I wouldn’t have to face that undeniable mortality.  I’m not proud of that.  And I still couldn’t escape the trappings of death–a carpet so soaked by urine and rug shampoo that it never dried, the unrelenting beeping of monitors, and her ever weakening handwriting in the notes we left each other.  We left notes because I wasn’t there.  Because I was too scared to be compassionate and hold her hand when I could have.

I’d like to think I learned from that shame. When another client, E, and her family decided on home hospice care, I resolved to do better, be more present than I had been with K. And watching E die, seeing her skin become more and more translucent, be unable to chew, to be beset by vertigo such that her only comfort was if someone was holding her hand–somehow E made it oddly graceful.  And humorous (she decided the perfect April Fool’s joke to play on the hospice nurse was to stop breathing).  E was 97 when she died, only a few days after her big birthday bash. She died with her family around her, and if there is such a thing, I would say she died well.

We’re scared of death, both for ourselves and our animals. In many ways, saying goodbye to a beloved pet is an even harder decision. A dog can’t tell you it wants a DNR; a cat can’t opt out of chemo. Human companions are faced with decisions that are emotionally and financially exhausting, often times for very little change in quality of life. A neighbor just had plates put into their dog’s spine, to try to give him a year or two more despite ongoing vertebral degeneration. The dog’s feet bleed because he can no longer lift them. He has trouble defecating. He’s afraid to walk outside. Is this now a life worth living?

Death is probably never going to be a big topic of national conversation, not the way abortion or voting rights are. Amongst the elderly there are some whispers about hospice, resuscitation orders, sometimes euthanasia.  Those who have spoken with their families and made their wishes known have a much better chance of getting to stay at home. Advocacy and communication is so important, and it’s something very few of us ever want to think about. In my opinion, everyone should have a chance to be a “bride” when they die, to have their perfect deathbed day. Meanwhile, pets depend on us to make that decision for them and we must ensure that when we make that choice, it is in their best interest, not ours.

When it comes down to it, love is love. And death is death. Greet death with love and help our families of flesh, feather, and fur face their dying days with open arms and overflowing hearts. It’s hard work and it’s important work. You won’t regret it.

The Keeper of Palmyra

palmyra-khaled-asaad-gettyThe news of Khaled al-Asaad’s murder shocked me to the core. This man was a scholar, absolutely devoted to the study of his beloved Palmyra.  His torture and beheading at the hands of Daish (ISIL) for refusing to reveal the locations of valuable antiquities is the the most revolting and reprehensible of war crimes.

I did not know Mr. Asaad personally, but his unbridled enthusiasm and curiosity are shared by all archaeologists. I cannot even imagine what his family is going through, the horror of losing a loved one in such a way. I can only pray that in time, they will be proud of the sacrifice he made.  This 82-year-old man protected his life’s work to his last breath.  May we all stand so certain in our convictions in the face of barbarism.

Dangerous Diaries

Druids training within OBOD are encouraged to document their experiences by creating some sort of physical journal. In fact many mystery schools coming out of either the Golden Dawn or grimoire traditions encourage the keeping of written notes about one’s spiritual and magical practice. (And actually, if one wants to note small irony, the inquisitors and witchhunters also were encouraged to keep diaries of their observations.) Even as far back as the PGM we find spell formulae being written down to preserve them and pass them along to other seekers.  In the West, at least, the written word is a cornerstone of preserving our esoteric and occult heritage.

However, on more than one occasion it has occurred to me that keeping a dairy can be a dangerous thing.  What were once meant to be private experiences, or only meant for the eyes of other like-minded people, can fall into the wrong hands.  Or, if not the wrong hands, hands that don’t know what to do with them.  Paper trails and documentation form the basis for our society, from legislative to judicial activities.  If it was written down or otherwise recorded, it can potentially be used against you.

Now in the age of the Internet, the diary has taken on a new, more public form: the blog.  This brings with it a whole new set of hazards. Not only are one’s thoughts potentially out in the open for everyone to see, but there is an undeniable risk of ego inflation and celebrity-seeking that one to simply not have to worry about with a private, physical journal.

In addition, there is the phenomenon of various subcultural blogospheres: the pagan blogosphere, the polytheistic blogosphere, the peak oil blogosphere, etc. Probably one of the most critical threats blogging poses to original thinking is constantly exposing the writer to confirmation bias. People tend to seek out like-minded folks – in and of itself not necessarily a bad thing – but time and again small, cliquish echo chambers are created around two or three forceful personalities who inadvertently begin to dictate the tenor and subject matter of what is or is not spiritually and socially significant.  I begin to think that I should be writing about whatever XYZ Topic the big-name-pagan-of-the-week is ranting about, when really, most of the time, I couldn’t give two figs about the latest online pagan community kerfuffle.

Media fasting is a concept I was first exposed to when I did an Ayeurvedic cleanse back in 2007. While I’m not sure I want to experience the “nothing but juiced greens for 21 days” again, the notion of separating myself from the constant drone of popular and news media has proved quite a useful tool.  I don’t read blogs except for Friday nights when I’m at the pub, and whatever I’m able to read in that time I get to, and anything else I pass to the trash bin.

Three iterations of field notes.

Three iterations of field notes.

There’s also something to be said for eschewing the entirety of the blogosphere and plumbing one’s own depths for inspiration. Over the past several months, instead of trawling the Internet for ideas I return to my little book of Ovate field notes. Once a week or so I go through and highlight potential blogging topics in yellow, spiritual observations in pink, and observations about the natural world in green. Then I make a series of seed drafts within WordPress that I can come back to and play with at a later time. I love how this has helped keep my writing on track and true to me. (I also love how it lets me indulge in the luxury of my own handmade journals and a fountain pen.)

Only being able to speak for myself, as a blogger I do find myself craving “likes.” This ain’t healthy, folks.  It becomes an obsession rather than a metric. With that in mind I’m actually going to remove the “like” button from my blog posts.* I find myself increasingly irritated that a post which took hours of research or creative struggle gets only a little notice, while a flippant statement with the intellectual and emotional rigor of “I like cheese!” garners an avalanche of little WP stars. It’s very easy for me to fall into the trap of people pleasing, and an abundance of likes definitely feeds into that character trait – whether or not what I’m writing is what I want to be writing or should be writing for my own path and truth.

You don’t need to depend upon Internet echo chambers for inspiration. Just go out and sit in the sun, listen to the gulls, and taste the salt of the sea. Awen flows in the quiet spaces between, if we let it – not in the incessant static buzz of the blogosphere.

*Comments are always welcome, and I love engaging people in discussions, so please do continue to drop notes about posts that move you for whatever reason. 

Death and the Lady

14243610469_c27d51f9c3_zAs some of you may know, one of my day jobs is helping older folks manage their bills and balance their checkbooks. It’s extremely satisfying work, one of those rare instances where you can actually see your actions affecting someone’s life for the better.

But my clients are elderly. They’re entering the twilight of life. It means sometimes I lose them.

My favorite client, Mrs. Z., is currently in hospice care. She’s an opinionated, 97-year-old spitfire from West Virginia with a pretty rich fantasy life.  She’s at home, which is good, and her bed is now in the living room which is bright and lets her have visitors. If you can catch her eye, she gets an impish look and begins telling you about how she’s going to be going to Leningrad next week.  She still likes her brownies and her Vermont Country Store catalogs, though the New Yorker is a bit beyond her now.  The point is, she’s alive.

I once heard a hospice nurse say that people are never really “dying,” they’re either alive or they’re dead.  Don’t treat a live person as deceased until it actually happens. And yet the palliative care Mrs. Z is receiving falls so far short of that. Yes, she’s bed-ridden. Yes, she has a catheter. That doesn’t make her less of a person, less alive. She’s having pretty bad dizziness or vertigo, and claws at the air looking for something to steady her. All it takes is someone to hold her hands and she calms down. That’s it. Simple, human touch.  One of her aides was dismissive of Mrs. Z’s agitation, saying, “Oh, she’s just confused.”  While that may be true, it doesn’t make it any less terrifying for her. To her, it is real.  She’s dying, she’s scared, and if someone just sits and holds her hand, it’s all ok.

Mrs. Z isn’t my first dying client.  That would be K., whom I watched fade for over four months after she had fallen out of her bed in the nursing home and broke several bones.  She had memory problems, but always smiled when she had visitors.  Pretty new to the job, I didn’t really know how to interact with her, what to do. I’d run in, take care of her bills and filing, and run out again, counting myself lucky if she weren’t in her room. I found myself avoiding her, ashamed at my cowardice, but not certain how to push through it. I’d say, “Next week. Next week I’ll have some time. Next week I can be braver.”

And then she died.

I regret that I ran. I regret that I couldn’t have made that extra effort just to sit with her for a little bit as she watched the resident cockatiels from her wheelchair. And that’s the thing. It takes so little to do right by someone when they’re dying, so precious little. I didn’t need to wait for a divine thunderbolt or new research study to tell me what to do–I just needed to hold her hand.

I don’t know if I’ll get it right with Mrs. Z this time. But I do know that this time I’m not running, and I’ll be there when she needs me. I think that will be enough.

Reflections on a Beam of Light

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End of Serpents’ Comfort

Sunna’s gaze lights paper / petals float on Skollvaldr’s seas
Steel geese have torn the neck’s burden / stout twin trees of the sole twisted
The kernel of the corn sheaf bursts forth / breathing blackened corpse dust
Speak well of the small kindnesses / and rend the seethers into disregard
Sing memory’s triumph / at the sweet end of serpents’ comfort.

People say you never forget where you were. It’s true. I was walking back from fencing class in college. The sky was clear, untroubled.  It wasn’t until I called my mother and she said, “They’re gone,” that the terrible wrenching unreality of the whole thing became as crystalline as that autumn sky.

There was a reason no jet trails marred the arc of Ymir’s skull.

Last night, as I drove past Worcester, anger welled as I saw twin searchlights piercing the sky.  “What right have you?” I muttered.  “Bullshit solidarity looking to cash in on the pain of others.  You’re not New Yorkers, you don’t have the right.”  Of course by that logic, neither do I (I’m a Jersey girl).

My ex-husband couldn’t understand why this anniversary affected me so.  I didn’t lose any loved ones.  A few people from our town died, but no one I knew personally.  I wasn’t even near New York at the time.  How could I explain that the city skyline that watched over my childhood was now broken?  It was wrong, viscerally and totally wrong.  Months later, you could still smell the ash, still breathe the dead.  Would taking them into our lungs, our bodies let them live on in us?  Or would they kill us all, a slow, choking revenge of “Ground Zero Illness”?

During the Concert for New York City, Richard Gere had the bravery to plead for cooler heads, not to retaliate in kind against Al-Qaeda.  The crowd turned dark and ugly.  Gere did not abandon his pacifist stance, saying, “That’s apparently unpopular right now, but that’s all right.”   In that moment, I was ashamed.  America garnered much good will from the world after this wretched sacrifice. We have squandered it entirely.

I pulled into work as the moon was cresting the tops of the trees.  Looking out across Greenwich harbor, the twin beams of light appeared as one, a single torch that would burn until dawn.  I walked down to the sea wall and stood at the edge, smelling the swelling tide and watching my moon-shadow stretch across the rocks.  The soft, light breeze lifted my arms and for the first time in 13 years, I spoke to the dead.  I poured out my gift into the black waters and felt peace.

The new tower bears the name “One World Trade Center.”  May that be a promise as much as a prophecy.

Paths Between the Pillars

prayer1-277x300I’m about to let you in on one of my dirty little secrets.

Back in high school, and even college, I was “blessed” with the ability to be good in just about any area I chose. I became very used to success: being concert master of not one but two high school orchestras, getting into the college of my choice, getting grants to fund my studies, graduating from said college (one of the Seven Sisters) magna cum laude with departmental honors. Chalk it up to my double Capricorn nature, but I love titles. If I believed in sin, this would probably be one of mine. I’m driven by a (often unhealthy) need to be the best, running at the front of the pack.

Now, at the ripe ol’ age of 32, I’ve been forced to confront that this is not the reality of my life. I do many things well, but I’m not a leader. Not any more.

I’m an awesome beta.

You need a ritual written? Let me get out my pen. You need some props for a ceremony? Hold on, I’ve got some papier mache, duct tape, and extra fabric around here somewhere. You need a divination about your job? I have my cards right here. A protection charm? Let me get my origami paper. How about an editor? I can do that, too. Let me support you in your vision, let me help you create something magical, wonderful, grand. Hel, I can even delegate on good days.

Sometimes, I’d like to think I could be a priest, maybe when I’ve grown up a little more–maybe even clergy. The question is, how much of this comes from a desire to help and serve others, and how much is because “clergy” is seen as the “terminal degree” in the land of Paganistan. (See? There’s that darned Capricorn tendency again.)  It’s a rough and ugly question to ask, but if you’re not asking it of yourself, and you’re on a cleric’s path…well, frankly, you’re not a person I’d want mediating between me and my gods. Nornoriel Lokason wrote a great piece on boundaries and belonging. The following quote particularly struck me:

It is unrealistic to expect and *demand* that everybody immolate their entire beings and become some robot-priest/ess where their entire life is about the gods. This is why there are too many people who feel inadequate as laypeople, by the way, because some folks pontificating from on high are calling for standards that would be taxing even for full-time dedicated priests, never mind Average Jane or Joe.  There’s something to be said about having a work/life balance, and the sort of devotionalism in others that inspired me some years ago now admittedly squicks me the fuck out, because it looks extremely unbalanced, unhealthily so.

That sort of fanatical, “look at meeee!” devotionalism is hurtful, not only to the attention seekers themselves, but to those who would draw inspiration from their experiences. Public displays of piety polarize Pagans and Polytheists into those who would be king, I mean, clergy, and the rest of us hoi polloi. These are not leaders elected out of love by their communities. These are self-proclaimed hierophants, whose One True Way smacks of the worst qualities of paternalistic Evangelical  Protestantism.  It’s a crying shame, because the devotional path could have been viable for the lay person, a way to be close to the gods without having to serve anyone other than oneself and maybe one’s family. That’s not the tenor of the most recent conversations, though, and it’s the reason why I break out in spots at the phrase “devotional Polytheist.” Devotion is quickly becoming the purview of so-called priests, leaving the rest of us where, precisely?

I don’t know that I can truly offer any solutions to the disease of devotion. Perhaps it’s all just semantics, but more and more “devotion” has come to mean an all-consuming obsession with the gods, to the exclusion of a balanced and healthy lifestyle. For my own practice, I use the term “veneration” or “adoration” to describe what I do. When I venerate my ancestors of blood and soul, I invite them into my life to participate in my world as it is, complete with children, pets, housemates, and neighbors. I adore my gods, experience ecstasy with my spirits, all within the container of this very real, very mundane existence.

Blogging and social media create difficulties for the ego. “Likes” and comments and followers create a subconscious popularity contest.  Self-worth becomes attached to the approval of strangers sitting on the other side of the webs of light that connect our keyboards and screens to one another. Maybe inherent nature of the blogosphere itself is one reason why again and again issues are couched in terms of either/or, black/white, chicken/fish. I’ve got to believe there’s another road between the two pillars of “priest” and “lay.”  Maybe there’s a whole highway system in there, just waiting to be discovered. We’re Pagans. We’re Polytheists. We can break the binary patterns of our mother culture and create a true plurality of belief and praxis.

There are a thousand ways to kneel and kiss the ground; there are a thousand ways to go home again. ~Rumi

30 DoA #16: Values

16. How do you think this deity represents the values of their pantheon and cultural origins? Whew, well, if you’re going by the Nine Noble Virtues (a modern contrivance, but more than occasionally a useful one), Wayland hit just about every. Single. One. Because the graphic is pretty, we’ll be using this version of the list:

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1. Courage. I don’t think anyone would ever argue that Wayland did not demonstrate courage during his ordeal at the hands of Nidud (I don’t think I’ve spelled this guy’s name the same way twice throughout this series, but hopefully y’all know he’s the evil king by this point!). From being captured, to being lamed, to trusting that his swan wife would eventually return to him, the Smith’s got courage in spades.

2. Truth. Ok, this is the one that he probably falls a bit short on, being something of a trickster–tricking the boys to their deaths, tricking Bodvild in drinking the rufied wine, tricking the king into believing that Egil shot him down with an arrow. However, when the time comes, he does reveal the truth to the king, in all its terribleness.

3. Honor. Wayland preserves his own honor by exacting revenge for his captivity; oddly enough, it could be argued that he defends that of Bodvild as well, when he makes her father promise not to harm any offspring of his.

4. Fidelity. Waiting for his swan-bride. ‘Nuff said.

5. Discipline. Crafting 700+ rings? ‘Nuff said.

6. Hospitality. In this instance, Wayland is an example of how not to treat one’s guests, i.e., by laming, inflicting forced labor, and theft, just to name a few.

7. Self-Reliance. For the record, I hardly believe that this was an ancient Heathen value, and more a reflection of Americans’ obsession with rugged individualism. That being said, Wayland is quite ingenious when it comes to getting what he wants. It should be noted, however, that no Smith is an island, and even he relied on his brother Egil to shoot down the birds from which he created his marvelous wings of escape.

8. Industriousness. See 700+ rings ‘n’ things, previously mentioned.

9. Perseverance. Wayland never gives up, even when tortured and forced to work for the king. Holding fast under these circumstances is probably one of the best examples of perseverance in the extant lore.