Beltainne

Apr 30, 2016
Beltainne is a weird holiday for me. I love that it’s a holiday about sex and debauchery! But I am asexual - I don’t experience sexual attraction - and so that part of it doesn’t connect with me personally at all. I’m glad other people have it, but it’s not for me. (I accidentally had a long weekend over Beltainne this year, and I was half-planning to go to a festival until I remembered - oh, right, I do not want to go to a Beltainne festival at all.) And on top of that, I seem to be weirdly unstable around the seasonal changes at Beltainne and Samhain - every year this is the time my mental health takes a downturn. It’s better when I’m prepared for it, but it’s always a little rough.

But that doesn’t mean it isn’t a wonderful holiday. It’s the beginning of summer, which in my climate really means the beginning of the season when you don’t need to wear a coat everywhere. It’s the beginning of outdoors, when it’s too nice out to sit inside, when it seems easy to go out and meet people, old friends and new, to learn new things and take on new challenges. It’s a season of incredible growth, spontaneous and sometimes too fast for noticing. I swear yesterday there were no leaves on the tree outside my window, but today! Everything is green and growing and exciting.

Beltainne for me, then, is bringing that energy into my life - hopefully without it overflowing and leaving me strung out and exhausted inside a week. With all that extra energy going around, it’s easier to pull myself up and out and re-dedicate myself to the goals and projects I started with the return of the sun at the Solstice but which have gotten a little tattered and dingy through the end of winter. And it’s a time for celebration. New energy is always something to celebrate - and this year I’m having friends over for the weekend, and there will be wine and games and - well, probably not dancing. We’re not really dancing people. But there will be joy, which is the point, after all.

I think I may have had a breakthrough (Ostara in review)

Mar 29, 2016

I’ve been feeling a little bit like I don’t have enough of an emotional reaction to these rituals. I know that emotional dulling is a side-effect of the antidepressants that keep me functional, but I was still hoping that ritual would be able to reach through that. Well, I had an emotional reaction to my Ostara ritual, and it was well, that was a total disaster.

It probably wasn’t quite that bad. I was trying something new for the fire - I’ve always wanted a proper fire bowl for my rituals, but I’m stuck doing them inside in a no-smoking apartment, so my options were limited. I saw someone mention epsom salt and rubbing alcohol as a good indoor fire option, so I tried that (without any prior rehearsing). By halfway through the fire was almost out, and I had to light some candles just to make sure I wouldn’t lose it completely before I was done. (And it left a lingering alcohol-smell I wasn’t fond of, either.)

The offerings went all over the place, too. I wanted to do an Anglo-Saxon rite, and I found a script from Sassafrass Grove on the ADF site that I was able to modify to a solitary ritual, but there were *lots* of sacrifices in there, and silly me, I decided to go ahead with all of them, even though I was doing it all on my own and on a small table to boot. The shrine was a mess by the time I was done. I had moved the shrine to a new location - partly because I’d been planning this for a while and partly because I didn’t want that much open flame right next to the curtains - and I didn’t have a representation of the World Tree. I’d read somewhere that the druid’s body may serve as the Tree, so I thought, sure, I can do that, but my focus was shot all to hell and it was not a success. And the omens…well, one of them was the Nine of Swords, which I think says it all.

And another was the Page of Swords Reversed, which I think of as “all talk and no action.” Which was appropriate for this rite, because that’s exactly what I was doing. I went through the motions of the ritual, but I wasn’t feeling it, and I wasn’t putting any of my own energy into it. More than once I caught myself reading from the script with no memory of having spoken the words. Partly this was an issue of timing - I had plans on Sunday, the equinox proper, so I did the rite on Wednesday evening, the following full moon. But this meant doing a rite after work and before dinner, and I was already tired, cranky, and unwilling before I started. I was even more miserable when I was done.

I sat down to write up my notes afterward, still in a sour mood, and realized that I wasn’t the only one I’d disappointed with this rite. If ritual and sacrifice are about building a relationship with the gods and spirits, I’d just done the equivalent of showing up to a date and spending the whole evening looking at my phone. It wasn’t enough to admit I’d done it wrong, I had to fix things.

So I did it again. Thursday morning before work (I work the evening shift on Thursday) I downloaded the text and narration of the Simple Rite from the ADF website - they offer a basic rite that is designed to be done by a novice with a more experienced practitioner narrating guidance as you go along, and provide an audio file for the novice who doesn’t have a more experienced practitioner to help. I didn’t try to get fancy, sticking with the text of the rite as written and the basic offerings, ale, oil, and incense, that the script recommends. It still wasn't perfect - the narration gave out about two-thirds of the way through, and I had to refill the fire bowl twice, and the second time I lit the bottle of rubbing alcohol on fire. So much for the fire bowl. I prefer the scent of candles, anyway - burning wax smells like ritual to me.

And then on Friday I did it again. And on Saturday. And Sunday. In my frustration on Wednesday night, I said that I’d do it every day for a month if I had to, and if I’ve learned anything from the lore it’s that oaths sworn in a fit of pique are still binding. I’m hoping that after a week or so I can dispense with the narration (which does indeed only go as far as the first two-thirds of the ritual, but that works enough to get me into the right mindset that I can usually wrap it up pretty well on my own), and that after a month I’ll know the Core Order of Ritual well enough to be able to elaborate again for Beltane. Already I feel my relationships with the Kindreds are stronger; more practice, more sacrifice, can only help. And I’m finding a daily rite helps the day feel complete. Who knows, I might keep doing this daily after the month is over, too.

I feel like I've had a bit of a breakthrough, like I've been going through the motions and only now have seen what the point of it all is. A recurring lesson of this year has been understanding that there's nothing that really "doesn't count." I've always been a person very driven by external success - good grades, good performance reviews, good reputation. I've never gamed the system, really, but I'm very good at finding the loopholes in it, at finding ways to bend the rules that don't really hurt me. But when the rules are only between me and the gods, there's no amount of bending them that doesn't count, no loopholes that don't hurt. It's been difficult, but it can only help in the long run.

Ostara

Mar 23, 2016
Some holidays have a more complex cultural context and ritual motive, but the spring High Days have always seemed pretty self-evident to me, and Ostara most of all. No more snow! No more ice! No more blizzards! Hooray!

Granted, in the midwestern United States, Ostara usually isn’t all that spring-like, but it’s a start. This year, global climate change has given us a damn pleasant Spring Equinox. I’m uncomfortable being wholly pleased about that for a variety of reasons, but I can’t deny that temperatures over sixty make my life a much nicer place to be.

When I was observing a pretty strict Irish religion, I neglected the Spring Equinox (and its partner in autumn) because there’s not really much evidence the Irish did any damn thing about it. Ostara has a new connotation for me now, though - it was the first High Day ADF ritual I ever attended, with the local grove whose rituals I can’t usually make it to thanks to my work schedule. I wish I could make it more often, but I will be forever grateful for their invitation and the very welcoming and illuminating experience I had there.

Since I’m celebrating Ostara properly this year as a member of ADF, and not just attempting to shoehorn it in to an Irish ritual calendar, I’m planning an Anglo-Saxon rite. Alaric Albertsson, in his book Travels Through Middle-earth, points out that even if we don’t know much about her, Eostre must have been a tremendously important goddess to the Anglo-Saxons. After all, in most of the other European languages, Easter is called something along the lines of Pasch, from the Hebrew. I met Eostre for the first time at that grove rite last year, and I am looking forward to meeting her again, and letting her know that I am still here. I was in a bad place last Ostara, in a great deal of pain, which has greatly lessened now, and I get the feeling she’d be glad to know that.

Personal Religion

Mar 13, 2016
I’m coming at this whole training at a different angle from the Dedicant Path guide; I joined ADF because my personal paganism was already Celtic and Irish, and therefore druidry seemed like a logical next step. I’ve always had a broad range of interests, but Irish mythology has been an abiding one since I was a child. I still have some of the books of Irish fairy stories and legends from my childhood, actually - although I’ve been supplementing them with better-researched, more historically accurate versions for a while now. In college, I spent a semester abroad in Ireland, and I took the opportunity to visit all the sacred sites I could find. (I still want to climb Croagh Patrick one day.) It’s always seemed to me the perfect combination of knowable - the archaeological record is rich, and there are a number of written legends - and mysterious - so different from the Classical mythology I learned first, its deities so complex and difficult to pin down! So choosing a hearth culture for my ADF practice is pretty simple - Irish paganism it is.

Of course it’s not that simple. I’ve also been interested, on and off, in Anglo-Saxon and Norse paganism. I admit, sometimes because the Norse religion is just better attested in history than the Irish, and it’s similar enough to get me through. But there’s a lot of cross-pollination between Ireland and northern Europe - Dublin was a Viking city, after all - and between Ireland and Britain. Welsh mythology has never quite done it for me, for some reason, but the Anglo-Saxon stuff I find interesting. Well, all that and a lot more - but those are the pantheons I feel drawn to, the gods and spirits who seem to speak to me.

When I was a teenager I dedicated myself to Macha with a blood sacrifice - just a few drops, but that’s the kind of thing you do when you’re a teenage Pagan. Still, it’s not a relationship I can abandon. I haven’t felt connected to Macha in some time, but in truth I am working on some emotional blocks right now that I feel could use the touch of a war goddess.

My more abiding patron has been Brigid, goddess of the fire and the well. I’ve always been a creative person, and Brigid’s fire has meant much to me. My relationship with her has waxed and waned; it’s feeling a little weak at the moment.

But I think my closest, friendliest relationship with a diety has been with Ogma, an Irish god known as both a warrior and as the inventor of the ogam script. I became intrigued by Ogma when first learning ogam, and quickly found him to be a welcoming, protective, encouraging force. I think of him as akin to, and possibly also a patron of, Bikers Against Child Abuse. He’s also one of the few deities who seem wholly embodied when I interact with them. His strengths are those of the world, and he still lives in it.

I plan to use ADF’s teachings and practices to deepen my knowledge of and connection with these deities and the Irish Pagan culture generally, and to learn more about Norse and Anglo-Saxon traditions so that I can incorporate those into my own practice instead of just thinking about them. Reflecting on the First Oath I took at Samhain, I’m pleased at where I am and the work that I’ve done. I may not be matching the onward march of the guidebook, but far from abandoning the work as I’d feared, I’ve carried my practice forward and I’m excited to see what I can still learn to do. We’re coming up on a year since I’ve joined ADF, it has been a fulfilling, challenging year. I can’t wait to see where the work takes me next.

The Nine Virtues: Piety

Mar 7, 2016
  1. Veneration or reverence of the Supreme Being, and love of his character; loving obedience to the will of God, and earnest devotion to his service.
  2. Duty; dutifulness; filial reverence and devotion; affectionate reverence and service shown toward parents, relatives, benefactors, country, etc.

I have been inclined in myself to say that piety is only the second of those definitions, but I think the first is implied in it: duty without love is empty and indeed damaging to the dutiful, and it undermines those to whom the duty is done. Still, I’d swap the priority, for me at least. Duty comes first, but it comes out of love. Love in itself is not enough. (I was raised Protestant, but you’d never know it. I’ve never believed that faith without works amounts to anything at all.)

Who is pious? This might be the toughest question in the bunch, because pious to me means righteous, holier-than-thou, hypocritical. Who is pious in a way that I see as virtue? The people who protest the abuses of the Church, both large and small c. Mother Teresa. Monks, nuns, and others living a purely religious life. My grandmother was pious, even if not faithful; she went to church every week no matter what. I have not, particularly recently, been especially pious. A lot of things in my life fell apart in the past four or five years, and my relationship with the gods was one of the first things to go.

What is the definition of piety? The DP guide defines it as "Correct observance of ritual and social traditions, the maintenance of the agreements (both personal and societal) we humans have with the Gods and Spirits. Keeping the Old Ways, through ceremony and duty." This matches with my instinctual drift toward the second dictionary definition, and feels more right to me, although the American in me bristles at “correct.” I’m also inclined to edit “maintenance of…agreements” into “maintenance of relationships.” It’s a subtle distinction, but an important one. Relationships, to me, implies something long-running that both parties have a certain investment in, above and beyond whatever short-term contractual arrangements might have been made. A relationship is something you work for and on, both individually and on a larger scale.

The whole thing is complicated, of course, by the fact that we’re taking what was once the religion of an entire culture (or, you know, set of cultures) and trying to do it in a pluralistic society with virtually no official support, which is not unheard of (see: ancient Rome and its territories) but is an unusual position for these kinds of relationships to be situated in. Which is a big part of the reason I joined ADF. I can’t always make it to group rituals; I’m fairly nomadic and haven’t been able to settle down into a single real-world Pagan cultural group. But by paying dues to ADF I’m helping to support group, public ritual, done in my tradition or something close to it, for the good of all.

Huh, seems like I think paying tithe is piety. Well, that makes a certain amount of sense; sacrifice is part of the exchange economy we share with the spirits, and tithe is one step away from sacrifice.

Who is pious in the lore? Now this one is harder. I don’t know of anyone off the top of my head from Irish mythology; the Irish relationship with the gods is so tense. I’m tempted to call out True Thomas, who kept his bargains with the Sidhe. (Impiety is more common, I think, particularly where the Sidhe are concerned. And punished accordingly.) And there’s Patrick, of course. I will have to do my research.

When have I been pious? I have wracked my brains and what I have come up with is that period of time when I was in college - possibly a little earlier, possibly a little later, possibly as little as a year or two, I honestly can’t remember - when I was celebrating Imbolc regularly and devoutly, with a fresh loaf of bread and some charms and a ritual. It was immensely fulfilling and reassuring, and I miss it terribly. I feel like it also coincides with the last time I wasn’t depressed at that time of year, which… all my relationships fall apart when I’m depressed, I suppose I shouldn’t be surprised that my relationship with the gods does as well.

I wonder what it would be like to bake bread for Brigid when it isn’t Imbolc. I think it would be good.

More often, I’ve felt impious, when I realize it has been weeks or months since I’ve done a ritual, said a prayer, offered anything in sacrifice. Relationships are fuzzy things, and I’ve never been particularly good at them. It’s far too easy for me to let something slide as not terribly important - as each small action is not terribly important in the grand scheme of things - until the accumulated weight of the actions I didn’t take is bearing down on me.

Your understanding of the virtue. I do think piety is a virtue, although it’s a difficult one for me. It’s related to the virtue of - I don’t know if there’s a single word for it, the ability to get along with others and to occupy a place in the social web. But piety is less about the social web (although it’s connected to it) and more about the cosmic web, occupying a place that is connected to the Midrealm we live in and to the gods and ancestors and the Good Neighbors, and paying your dues to each of them in turn as well as receiving the support and sustenance from each of them in turn. Piety is understanding that no man is an island, and acting accordingly, on a cosmic scale.

I still can’t shake the association of piety with obnoxious hypocritical people, so I wish there was another word, but I can’t find one right now. I’m willing to try to do the work of changing the associations in my mind instead.

Home Shrine (again)

Feb 29, 2016
I see last time I wrote I mentioned that I was moving. Well, I wound up not moving after all, and so my shrine is still the slapdash temporary thing I set up while expecting to be uprooting my life far too soon. I’m putting down roots now instead, and I’m not thrilled with my shrine. There isn’t enough room for it where it is, so there isn’t really space to add much to it - I have to clear off the rest of the table for ritual. My plant as the Tree was a nice idea, but the scale is all wrong; it doesn’t hold much meaning for me at the moment. And I liked the idea of putting it by the window, but it turns out that, living on the ground floor of an apartment building, there’s too much traffic just outside my window for me to be totally comfortable doing ritual there.

I think I know where I want to move it to, though - to the wall that separates my living room from my kitchen, just about in the middle of the living space in my apartment. I have a cabinet I’ve been meaning to move there for a while, and if I can clear off the stuff that currently lives on top of it, it’d be a nice place for an altar. (A good height, too, to stand at.) And I know what to do about the Tree, too - I’m going to make a gem tree with some old malachite and coral I have lying around.
I’m excited to start work, but it’s a long process. First I have to clean out the sewing cabinet that’s currently where I want to move the larger cabinet to, then I have to clean out the large cabinet, then actually move it (which will be exciting on its own, as it’s MASSIVE), then make sure I’ve got room to store everything there. Fortunately I have some vacation coming up this weekend, and I plan to spend some time on this project.

I’m sorry to say I’ve still not been spending much time in nature. The weather’s been poor (as it will tend to be, in Chicago in February) and when the weather’s been nice I’ve had to spend all day at work, which has frankly been making me a little resentful. Meditation has been going well, when I can sit down to do it - I missed three days this week, but I’m still finding that my average meditation session has stretched to over ten minutes at a time of silent meditation, which used to seem impossible.

I’ve also been saying a prayer from Ceiswr Smith’s Book of Pagan Prayer after I finish my meditation. I flip through until I find something that appeals to me, but I can tell that there are a few that are going to become regulars, and a few more that I can make regular with a little editing.

Also, a reminder to myself - I actually finished my first required book about a month ago, but I haven’t written it up yet. I’ll try to get on that this weekend, too.

Nine Virtues: Wisdom

Feb 24, 2016
ADF lists nine Virtues which they ask their members to understand, if not necessarily to endorse as their primary ethical system: wisdom, piety, vision, courage, integrity, perseverance, hospitality, moderation, and fertility.

Wisdom. n. 1. The quality of being wise; knowledge, and the capacity to make due use of it; knowledge of the best ends and the best means; discernment and judgment; discretion; sagacity; skill; dexterity. 2. The results of wise judgments; scientific or practical truth; acquired knowledge; erudition. (Webster’s Revised Unabridged Dictionary, 1913)

Wisdom is the toughest one for people to grapple with, says all the documentation; I’m definitely feeling it. It’s tremendously hard to pin down because nothing seems to get at the whole concept. Which is appropriate, I think, but still frustrating.

I also feel obliged to point out that the recommended reading for this Virtue was The Velveteen Rabbit and The Little Prince, which made me laugh and then, when I read them, made me think.
The DP docs suggest a list of questions to help you work through the idea.

1. Who is wise? Gandalf and Granny Weatherwax. Writers, generally (at least good ones). Odin, Brigid, the Cailleach. In real life… I have this tendency to attribute wisdom to people in authority and then withdraw my generosity completely the first time it’s abused, which I’m aware is not the best or most productive response but which I also can’t seem to stop doing. I think my boss is wise, actually.

2. What is the definition of wisdom? The Dedicant’s Handbook defines wisdom as “Good judgment, the ability to perceive people and situations correctly, deliberate about them and decide on the correct response.” I’ve listed a dictionary definition at the top (from Webster’s 1913, my favorite dictionary). I like the dictionary definition better because it seems to get more of the aspects in it. Perception and action is discernment, which is a component of wisdom, but not the whole thing. “Knowledge, and the capacity to make due use of it” is as close as I can get to the core of wisdom, but that’s not the whole of it either. I keep coming back - I often do - to Terry Pratchett, and what he describes as the core skills of a witch in Wee Free Men - First Sight, the ability to see what’s actually in front of you; and Second Thoughts, thinking before you move. That plus Granny Weatherwax’s pronouncement that sin is treating people like things pretty much sum it up.

Actually, now that I mention it, I think Granny’s statement there is more central than I previously thought. Wisdom has to take into account people, real people and how they really are, or it’s just knowledge and reason. Wisdom has to be as organic and messy and complicated as real people to be true wisdom.

3. Who is wise in the lore? The archetypal example from Irish mythology is Fionn, who tasted of the Salmon of Knowledge and grew wise. The salmon gained its wisdom from the hazelnuts that fell into the Well of Wisdom that is the source of all rivers; Fionn was meant to be cooking the salmon for his master, but burned his thumb on it and, after putting his thumb in his mouth, gained the wisdom instead. He was thereafter asked by his men to pass judgment, and when he did he would put his thumb in his mouth to think. His wisdom allowed him to become the leader of the Fianna and the doer of great deeds.

4. When have I been wise? Oof, this is hard. I had to take an extra day and think about it for a while. I have been wise, I think, in supporting my sister and my friends through their hard times: I think very hard before offering advice or words of support, to avoid accidentally making things worse, and the responses I get have been very positive. I have also been unwise with my friends (most often, honestly, with my roommates), when frustration and exhaustion have overpowered my good sense.
I want to call my decision not to take the job that was offered to me in December wise, but I honestly don’t know if I can say that. There was so much emotion involved, and I never know how heavy to weight that. My feelings are important in making decisions that impact my life, of course, but how important? (And how many of them are my feelings and how many of them belong to the mental illness that possesses me sometimes?)

Wisdom is a difficult virtue, both in practice and in concept, and I think that partly stems from the fact that it’s so rooted in experience. What feels wise at twenty may look foolish at thirty, but the twenty-year-old just plain didn’t know enough to be wiser. Wisdom can certainly be taught, but it must be by example, because wise decisions by definition cannot be made by following a set of rules. I think of Nero Wolfe’s instructions to his assistant Archie: “Use your intelligence guided by experience.” It’s as good as summation as any.

The Three Kindreds: Ancestors

Feb 16, 2016
I’ve never been good at ancestors. I was never terribly fond of my grandparents’ stories when they were alive - they all died when I was young. I regret that now, although I also remember listening to my mother’s father telling stories and being bored to tears. I might not be as bored now, I suppose.

My mother does the family genealogy, though, and she knows all the stories. I should ask her about them sometime. I should take notes. I know the story about her great-grandmother who put off getting married so she wouldn’t have to stop teaching. I know the story about a multiple-greats uncle who was an Irish revolutionary and became a union activist in New York after the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire. I know the story about how my uncle, my mom’s little brother, was born, and my grandfather told off the priest who told him that if they had to choose, the mother or the baby, he had to save the baby because the baby was without sin. And I know the story of how my parents went on their first date, when Mom came to ask if Mike could come out to play, and my grandma sat on the porch cackling with laughter.

And I know some other things too, not stories but facts, that my grandpa on my father’s side was a mechanic, and my grandma a farmer’s daughter from a small, small town that barely qualifies as a town. About how my mom’s side of the family were from Kansas, and belonged to the Grange, once they got out of the cities. Prairie is in my bones and blood, which is maybe one reason why I found the thought of moving west so terrifying. The ocean is great, but I need all these grass roots to hold me together.

I almost remember my great-grandmother, who was just one generation removed from the old country (not that anyone in my family’s ever called it that). We’re all immigrants - before the prairie, we were from the Netherlands (Friesland, specifically, although I don’t know how I know that) and Ireland, Germany and France and England. Northern European, all of us. But it was that Irish ancestor, the union man, who always stuck out to me. I need to find out his name. I’m not sure I want to take over as the family record-keeper, but I want to learn the names and the stories, see if I can make them hold together.

I also can’t (shouldn’t? Won’t) forget that the great majority of my ancestors were Christian, that Christianity was very important to them, and that they would not approve at all of this thing that I’m doing right here.

There are the ancestors of my spirit, too; those who Newton referred to when he said that we stand on the shoulders of giants. Yeats and Maud Gonne and Lady Gregory; everyone who taught those damn Dutch Day Camp classes when I was a kid; Isaac Bonewitz and Alestair Crowley and McGregor Mathers and Scott Cunningham and Starhawk and Selena Fox. Everyone who built this religion that I’m working in right now. But also Malinowski, and Clifford Geertz, and Margaret Mead, and Ruth Benedict. Without them we wouldn’t have this religion.

And all the nameless women of history, all the women whose names and contributions have been forgotten, all the women who made history and linguistics and anthropology and the theory of religion possible. All the voudou priestesses who inspired Northern Europeans looking for their own past; all the occultist’s wives who were never really equal; all the women raped by anthropologists looking for a little excitement in the field. Them, too. My ancestors are numberless, vast, and they know things I will never know.

It’s easy to think “ancestors” and think “grandparents” and discount them as smaller, less powerful, less important than the other spirits; I know I do that sometimes. But they are not. My ancestors - all our ancestors - number in the millions, and between them they know everything, and they live on in those of us who still walk the earth, in our memories and our sacrifices. It is possible that they are the strongest of the three categories of spirits, or at least the wisest.

Imbolc

Feb 1, 2016
I've been struggling with these rituals since I started the Dedicant's Path, requiring me to do every damn high day ritual or face starting the whole thing over again. The doing them is fine - the doing them is soothing and fulfilling, even when not entirely transporting. But the getting around to doing them...well, that's much harder.

I keep thinking that this isn't the right time, that if I just had more time to prepare, more time to spend on the work, it would be so much better. This is a flaw in my psychology I'm very aware of; I always feel like now is not the right time. And I always feel so much better when it's done anyway.

This is the first Imbolc I've celebrated in several years; that small victory is not enough, but it is something. While my first favorite pagan holiday was Samhain, once I settled into my practice a little more, Imbolc took pride of p
lace. It's perfectly timed: a month after the secular bustle of late December holidays have settled down, but well before actual spring, it gives you something to look forward to in the dead of winter. It's a promise, that it will get better.

(I never understood Imbolc as First Spring until I was in Ireland in the winter of 2004/2005. It really is spring in the beginning of February in Ireland. Everything is green. Tiny flowers are blooming. Lambs are, there is no other word for it, gamboling in the fields. We don't have the same climate here in Chicago, but the slow brightening of the sky is - well, it's not nothing.)

But more importantly, Imbolc is the feast of my patron goddess, Brigit, Lady of the Flames, keeper of the hearth and the forge and the poetic fire. She is one of the greatest teachers I have ever had, and a source of unwavering support through the darkest times in my life. I have been feeling her presence in my life very strongly of late; I've been creating in new ways, feeling the fire of inspiration like I haven't felt in years. So it felt right and good to honor her, this unnaturally warm February evening.

"Cups10". Licensed under PD-US via Wikipedia - https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Cups10.jpg#/media/File:Cups10.jpg
I burned a painting I'd done in sacrifice to Brigit. It was one of the most powerful sacrifices I've made, because I didn't want to do it. The painting came out much better than I'd hoped and I liked it, but I knew it was hers by right. I had meant to have some other Work in my ritual, something else to honor her, but I didn't have everything ready and I knew that if I didn't do the ritual tonight, I'd let it slip away and miss it entirely. And after all, the painting seemed enough. (And I could not have asked for a better blessing in return - as my omen from the gods, I drew the Ten of Cups.)

I felt a connection in this ritual that I had been struggling for when I started this practice, back in Samhain. It doesn't feel like I've done enough; I haven't done nearly what I usually do for Imbolc. But it is something, and it is more than the nothing I've done so far this year. I think I will stretch out the holiday with a good spring clean this upcoming weekend, and a loaf or two of fresh bread as well. Poetic fire is all well and good, but it's the hearthfire that keeps us alive.

Catching up

Jan 26, 2016
It's been a while since I posted about my dedicant's path progress, and it's true, I've fallen off the wagon a little bit with the work. I think I got thrown off kilter around New Year's, and I haven't completed one of the weekly assignments since then. It's not looking good for this week, either...but I'll get back to it next week, I promise.

That doesn't mean I haven't been doing anything. I've been meditating pretty much every day. It's amazing what it does for my stability - it used to be that if I had a bad evening, that spoiled my whole day, and probably the next one too, because I'd stay up late trying to get something to balance out the bad evening to happen. (Spoiler: it usually didn't.) Now, I meditate every night at 10:00, and all the crap just goes away. It's sometimes there waiting for me in the morning, but it doesn't ruin my whole evening.

I've played with the Two Powers meditation as well, ADF's particular variation on the grounding-and-centering exercise. I like it, but it doesn't yet feel like I'm connecting to something real more than it feels like a particularly pretty set of images. I expect that will come with time.

I have not been good about getting out into nature - but it's January in Chicago, and I'm sorry, nature is not hospitable in this climate at this time of year. I'm starting to think I should have chosen something I can do from indoors for this particular aspect of the work - tracking the phases of the moon, maybe, or feeding the squirrels who live right outside my window. I suppose there's nothing stopping me from doing that now.

But this Sunday is Imbolc, my favorite holiday, and the one I keep missing due to inattentiveness. I just finished painting my altar decorations (which also may become sacrifices; I'm not sure yet) and I'm planning on doing some baking later in the week. I'm excited. And this should help get me back in the swing of things.

It is always the same step, but you have to keep taking it.

Jan 3, 2016
As I mentioned before, I've been using the Stop, Breathe and Think app to work on my meditation practice. I've tried meditation lots of times in the past, but I was never able to stick with it - but I was trying it with just plain old "sit and think of nothing" meditation, and I kept getting frustrated that I couldn't, well, think of nothing. Then I read The Mindful Way Through Depression and finally understood that that was the point; then I started working on my Dedicant Path in earnest, including the required mental training practice. 

For years I thought that I couldn't meditate before bed, because surely I'd fall asleep. Since I always complain about how long it takes me to fall asleep I don't know why I thought that. A couple of weeks ago, faced with the requirement not only to meditate but to document my progress, I realized that if I didn't set a regular schedule it wasn't going to happen, and I added meditation to my bedtime ritual: after the shower, but before that last hour or so of reading. Turns out that works beautifully. I'm more relaxed and better able to fall asleep, I know I'm not going to be interrupted, and my mind has begun to fall naturally into mindfulness later in the evening (which also helps keep me from accidentally staying up past my bedtime).

And then, last night, something weird happened. I sat down to do my evening meditation and I didn't want to listen to a guided meditation - I wanted quiet. I wanted to sit quietly alone with my breath. I'd never actively wanted this before, so I was conservative and set the timer for four minutes, which is about how long I usually spend, but it wasn't long enough. I did another four and felt fully settled, but also like I could have sat there for much longer, watching thoughts go by, breathing. It was outstanding. 

This is one of those Mysteries, the moment of understanding something that you've been told countless times that finally makes sense in your bones. I love those moments. The more of them that happen to me, the more I understand that they only happen after you've spent time with something, and that by definition that means I have to spend time with things I don't really understand before I can reach them.

Something I haven't mentioned, either in this blog or out loud to myself just yet - I've been feeling very disconnected from the gods, since long before I started this Path. Doing ritual gives me a deep sense of satisfaction and accomplishment, but that connection is still missing. I'm starting to see a glimmer, though, not of the connection itself but of the possibility that it's out there, if I keep spending time with the possibility. Is this faith? 

Yule

Dec 29, 2015
Well, Yule was a long time ago, but it's been busy (surely one day Yule will again fall on a day I have off, and I can actually take some time to do the thing properly?) and I didn't get it written up soon enough.

Once again I used the ritual text from the Crane Breviary and found it entirely adequate but underwhelming. (It also leaves out some of my favorite bits of the one group ADF ritual I attended, such as the offering to the Outsiders, which means I forget about them until after it's too late.) I'm afraid this means I'm going to have to write my own for Imbolg. Which means I'm going to have to plan ahead a little better for that one.

Yes, once again I was woefully underprepared - worse this time than Samhain. I also realized partway through the ritual that the text made much more sense for the day *after* the solstice, whereas I was doing ritual at night just a couple of hours before astronomical solstice. Preparation, preparation.

But I did have offerings for everyone - oil and wine for the gods and the ancestors, nuts and pinecones for the Good Neighbors, a mirror for the sun, grain for the Earth Mother. And the ritual itself went fairly smoothly, although it lacked that particular ineffable quality that I associate with really good ritual. I called Manannan as Gatekeeper again, and that relationship seems to be going fairly well, so I suspect I should do something else to strengthen it between holidays.

I did run into a small snag with logistics - my printer stopped working, so I had to read the text of the ritual off my tablet. I didn't like it. Of course, I don't particularly like reading text off paper either, so maybe the answer is just that I need to memorize the liturgy before I become really satisfied with my rituals. More preparation.

For omens I drew the Queen of Cups, the Page of Swords reversed, and the Two of Cups reversed - emotional security, undelivered promises, and a misunderstanding. (To dramatically oversimplify.) I can't help but think about the job I didn't take at the beginning of December, the move I'm not going to make after all. I'm sure I made the right decision, but it is a loss of opportunity. If nothing else, it means I'm going to have to work harder to make sure I take advantage of the opportunities I do have, the ones I didn't lose by not moving.

I also can't help but compare the amount of time I spent on Christmas, a family and social holiday, versus Yule, a religious and personally meaningful holiday. Granted, there were far fewer people expecting things from me for Yule - but those people were the gods and spirits. I'm going to have to think about priorities too, it seems. And work on my preparation.

Io Saturnalia!

Dec 21, 2015
I am a little surprised to discover that Yule appears to be my favorite holiday. For the longest time it was Samhain - because it's witchy, I guess, and because liminality appeals to me. But for several years now I've been finding the liminality of Samhain and Beltane to be more of a drain on my energy than anything else. Then it was Imbolc, being as it was the holiday of my patroness, but we are not going to talk about how long it's been since I've properly celebrated Imbolc. But Yule - well, I always know when the Solstice is coming. The others depend on my awareness of the calendar, but I can feel Yule in my bones.

I grew up in a Christian household, and we celebrated Christmas. Still do, for the most part - I'm going back to Iowa to see my family in just a couple of days. I have an artificial Christmas tree up in my living room because my lease forbids real trees, but it doesn't say anything about wreaths, so I have a pine wreath on the door which I'll cannibalize for my altar decorations this evening. I have already spent too much money on presents, and I'm planning to go out today and spend more. Christmas is still a big part of this season for me, and I'm sure that's part of the reason I haven't traditionally thought of Yule as an important holiday for me: I was trying to get out from under the Christian influence.

It's a terrible cliché of pagan writing, but nevertheless it is true that Christmas is in December because of Yule. There is a reason everyone has a party on the winter solstice, and even all our modern conveniences can't change the fact that the sun has been gone, and she is coming back.

The sun is coming back.

Wow.

Alone in my mind

Dec 15, 2015
Last week's homework for the Dedicant Path was to begin a program of mental training. I, er, have not been particularly rigorous about this.

I started meditating regularly - which, for purposes of this discussion, means at least once a week - a few months ago, when I started going to therapy. My depression seems to be at its worst in the summer, for some reason, and I was trying to head things off at the pass. "At this point I would suggest meditation, except everyone always tells me they're doing it wrong," my therapist said more than once. "They're not. That's how it works." I don't know if she was using reverse psychology on me or what, but I finally threw up my hands and decided to start meditating.

I've never been very good at seated meditation. I get self-conscious and begin to be convinced that I'm breathing wrong. But walking meditation hasn't worked well for me either, so I scrounged around for an app that might work. I settled on Stop, Breathe, and Think, an app that has a soothing, friendly-sounding narrator and enough guided meditations that I haven't gotten bored yet. Between this and The Mindful Way Through Depression, the book that finally convinced me that I wasn't meditating wrong after all, my mental health has improved drastically.

So I kept up my meditations last week, but I'm not quite sure this is the thing I want to be doing for my religion. The guided meditations in Stop, Breathe, and Think are very Buddhist, and I still don't do terribly well with un-guided sitting meditation. But it can't hurt for going on with, and perhaps with luck I'll stumble upon a good alternative soon. It's much easier to stumble upon these things when you're looking for them.

Altars

Dec 6, 2015
I've had a hellishly busy week, so I was relieved to see that this week's Dedicant Path work was simple: build an altar. I already have an altar; how hard could it be to transition it to an ADF style?

Harder than I thought, actually, and also simpler.

The altar was in the back of my mind all week, churning around, and I could never come up with an image I liked. I knew, though, that I wanted it to be in the living room. I live alone, finally, so there's no reason for it to be tucked away. I want to use my altar for more than just high day rituals, and making it easy to reach makes that easier.

main altar


But what to include? I've been pagan for about fifteen years now, and I've accumulated a lot of Pagan Stuff. You know the kind. Candles in every color, bowls and jars and oils and bits of natural debris, athames and wands and divinatory tools of every kind.

In the end, I went for simple, not only because I was pressed for time in the chaos of this week but also because I just found out I'll be moving by the end of the month. I'm an overdecorator by nature, so in my new home I'll probably end up loading a table down with witchy nonsense, but for now I've settled for using my houseplant as the Tree, my cauldron as the Well, and my tripartate candleabra as the Flame, plus my offering cup. It's the bare bones of an altar, and I like it for now.

traveling altar - packed
traveling altar - set up
And then, since I'm getting ready to move and may not have a new home until February, I decided to overhaul my traveling altar, too. I've had this for years, a carved wooden box full of everything I think I might need to do ritual or magic if I'm away from my home altar. This box was cluttered too, so I stripped it down to the basics: a piece of felt for an altar cloth, a broken branch from the trees where I've been doing my nature practice for the Tree, a small dish for the Well, and a candle for the Flame. I added a tiny clay bowl for offerings, a serpent/flame talisman I made that represents Brigid, and a mini Tarot deck for casting omens. (It's handy to have a divination-tool addiction, sometimes.) On second thought, I'll keep my primary Tarot deck on the main altar, too; it's been out, as I do some studying, but there's no reason it can't rest there instead of on the coffee table.

It's a small thing for me, building a new altar, but I'm glad it's done. I could use an excuse for some peace and quiet in the next month.

A small delay

Nov 23, 2015
I'm holding back a week on the DP schedule. Two reasons - one, it'll give me a chance to get caught up on my reading. (I meant to do my reading last week, really I did!) And two, the schedule suffers from the unfortunate but unavoidable fact that the High Days aren't evenly spaced throughout the year. This way, I'll get an extra week of reading in and my homework will line up nicely for Yule.

Expect to see my reaction to my first Indo-European studies text here next week! (And oh, do I have Opinions.)

An Hour In Nature (Cold Winter Coming)

Nov 15, 2015
So I'm working through the ADF Dedicant's Path with the assistance of a handy guidebook called The ADF Dedicant Path Through the Wheel of the Year (delightfully included in ADF membership), which lays out all the work you have to do for the DP week by week, with homework. Since I am notorious for starting big and finishing not at all, I figured this was probably the best way to handle things. I rushed the first couple of weeks to do my first ritual at Samhain, and now I'm settling in for the long haul. The guide strongly suggests keeping a journal for all the steps along the way, and indeed some parts of the journal are required as part of the formal documentation of the work; you may consider this my dedicant's journal.

The homework for week four was to spend an hour in nature. After all, we are druids, we are neo-pagans, and nature is important to us. The guidebook acknowledges that many people do start at Samhain and therefore in many parts of the world it's getting cold outside. The only concession it makes is to warn you not to pick a spot that's likely to be difficult to get to in the snow. So out I went, into the late autumn weather, to see what I could commune with.

At first I'd planned to go out to one of the many forest preserves in Chicagoland, but after doing some of the reading I decided instead to stick to my own backyard, for several reasons. One is that if I'm going to make this a regular practice, I'm much more likely to avoid going out all the way to a forest preserve than I am to avoid stepping out my door and hanging out with a tree for a while. But another is more philosophical.

We tend, in the developed world, to think of nature as "out there," somewhere separate from our homes and daily lives. But it isn't. Nature is, in fact, everything everywhere all around us. Humans are nature, and human-made things are nature. The seasons turn in cities and in the countries alike - weather changes, the sun rises and sets earlier or later depending on the time of year, the moon spins through her cycle no matter where you stand on the planet. Now granted, there's a difference in the kind of nature from my houseplant to the linden trees in the yard to the prairie preserves five miles away to the Grand Canyon halfway across the country, but it's all nature. I didn't want to emphasize the difference but the closeness - so I went out in the yard.

I went first to the tree in the corner of the property, out of sight of most of the other apartments in my building, where I leave my offerings after ritual. I'd been there not five minutes when a fat grey squirrel ran under the fence and stopped shock still within a foot of me. Then she climbed to the top of the fence and started making angry squirrel noises, presumably warning all the other squirrels (there are a lot of them) that some human had come invading their territory. So I moved. I don't want to be rude, after all.

There's another small cluster of trees up by the side door to the building - four almost in a square, and another one nearby, with a stump right next to it. I settled into the square, partially sheltered from the wind, and wondered what kind of trees they were. Well, thanks to the glory of the modern age, I can find out, right? About half an hour with Google and the Arbor Day tree identifier informed me that they are probably linden trees, which are nice shady ornamentals, useful soft wood that is good for carving, and produce medicinal flowers which make a lovely tea. I'd like a more confident identification before I go consuming anything, but I must say that I'm intrigued by the thought of linden-flower tea. I'll have to keep that in mind come spring.

Near the end of my hour, I did a grounding and centering meditation. moving my awareness throughout my body before pushing it down into the ground and through the grass, into the earth to meet the Mother. I'm fairly certain the chills I got from that are different from the ones I was getting from the wind. It wasn't the kind of day I'd have picked for this work on my own - but I'm glad I did it, nonetheless, and I'll do it again.

(And since I'm a druid, some elementary astrological observations seem pertinent: the moon is a narrow waxing crescent, and sunset was at about 4:30 in the afternoon.)

Samhain 2015

Nov 9, 2015
Samhain 2015 altar


I performed my first ADF-style Samhain ritual on the morning of November 1st. I usually prefer to do it on Halloween night, but I'd been at work all day (in a corset, no less) and I wanted to be fresh for the first ritual I'd done in six months.

I set up my altar on a table facing the window that usually isn't used for anything, using my houseplant (a legacy from my grandmother's funeral) as the Tree, a single red taper for the Flame, and my small copper cauldron as the Well. I also set aside another bowl for offerings. I sat, which I usually don't do, in one of my dining chairs; it worked much better than I expected. For the text of the ritual, I used the ritual in the Crane Breviary & Guide Book sample provided on the ADF website. It wasn't ideal for my purposes - I have some intellectual doubts about Cernunnos which interfere with my spiritual connections, and some of the terminology isn't natural for me - but one of the reasons I joined ADF in the first place was to have resources like this to work from instead of making up my own religion from scratch every time I tried to do anything. So in the interests of getting a ritual accomplished without tearing my own hair out (or becoming so frustrated with the customization process that I didn't get it done at all), I went ahead with what was there, with two small adjustments: I called Manannan as Gatekeeper, and I added my First Oath in the Working segment.

Next time, I want more poetry.

I may have done my First Oath before, in the spring when I first joined ADF and was ambitious enough to start the Dedicant's Path right away, before my depression took over and I had to start again. I honestly can't remember. I figured that if I couldn't remember, it wouldn't hurt anything to start over. Based on the advice in The Dedicant's Path Through the Wheel of the Year and [that one article on the website], I set it to rhythm and chanted it, which rang better in my ears and in my soul than just speaking the words. I'd like to incorporate a chant of my First Oath into a regular practice - but I'll need a regular practice for that to work.
offerings

So I offered sacrifices of oil and silver coins to Cernunnos, despite my reservations, and thought them well accepted; I offered sacrifices of whiskey and apples to the Ancestors, which went over very well. I wrote a letter to my grandmother, who passed in 2006, and who I was very close with when she was alive. I miss her advice and her practicality, and it was good to be able to tell her so, and to be heard. I drew the omens from my Rider-Waite-Smith Tarot deck. I'd love to use ogam for my omens, and I think eventually I will, but for the time being I know the Tarot well enough to read it without references. I'll learn the ogam in time. From the Ancestors, I drew the Six of Wands, victory and recognition. From the Fair Folk, the Knight of Pentacles, financial stability. And from the Gods, The Sun, joy. And above and beyond the omens themselves, I liked the nice way they fit into the patterns of the Tarot, from concrete to abstract, in a way I think fits the three categories of spirits well.
at the end of ritual

I'm still struggling with how I feel in ritual. I keep wanting it to be more than it is, to sweep me away and feel incredible and profound. It felt real, this time, but not profound. (It may just be that I'm not familiar enough yet with the ADF Order of Ritual to combine script and visualization effectively.) I could see the Gates opening in my mind's eye, and closing again at the end of the ritual, but I could not tell you how things were different when they were open. I felt the presence of the Ancestors, but not so much of the spirits or the gods (although I admit there was something from Manannan that I don't yet understand). But. The physical sensations were extremely powerful. The smell of oil and whiskey and apples and grain was profound and satisfying. My hands remembered how to make offerings, where to rest during ritual, how to hold the dip pen I always used to use in my ritual writings. I felt settled and peaceful when I was done, moreso than I have done in a long time, and I know the ritual that I did was the right thing to do.

Samhain

Oct 30, 2015

Samhain is one of the two major times of transition in the Irish calendar, the end of summer and the beginning of winter, and the end of the old year and the beginning of the old. (I think that's interesting, actually, that the year begins with early winter rather than ending in it: it really does highlight winter as a season of dormancy rather than strictly of death). It's a harvest time, but a late harvest: the last feast of plenty before the long, cold winter. In Irish lore and cycles, it's the time when the cattle herds were culled: those not expected to survive the winter formed the highlight the feast. 

 As a feast of the late harvest, the season of death and waiting, it's also a feast of the ancestors. At the end of the year, Donn gathers up the year's dead and brings them to the Isle of the Dead, somewhere in the west. The boundary between worlds is thin at the turning of the seasons, as one thing turns into another, so now is when we reach across that boundary to give thanks and praise, and to share one more meal with those who have gone before. 

 Samhain was the first Pagan holiday I ever celebrated, and I can still remember it vividly, the altar I set up in my childhood bedroom, the candles burning in the darkness, the cold October air stirring the flames into portents. It remains my favorite holiday, a season of death as transformation, a time to take joy in the abundance of the past year and reflect on its lessons. 

 I have a busy Samhain season this year: On Saturday I'll be at work at the library all day long, dressed as Janet Carter from the ballad of Tam Lin (another Samhain story). I have my ritual planned for Sunday, in which I'll also swear my First Oath as part of the Dedicant's Path. (Hopefully I'll have it written by then.) But Sunday is also the first of November, which is the beginning of National Novel Writing Month, which means I'll be spending at least several hours writing the first few thousand words of this year's novel. And then it's back to work on Monday - for a book discussion in the local brewpub. A better feast location I could not imagine.

First steps

Oct 27, 2015
Earlier this year, I joined Ár nDraíocht Féin, one of the two largest druidry organizations in the world. I was tremendously fed up with my community, here in the most Republican county in Illinois, and I wanted to do something to stake my claim on my own identity. And, living in the most Republican county in Illinois for the past three and a half years, throwing money at it seemed to be a reasonable solution.

 That, and I like ADF's style. They present themselves proudly as a neopagan organization, but they're not Wicca-based, only Wicca-influenced. Druidry really is the strongest current running through the order, from the organization's hierarchy to the emphasis on study and learning (and the prevalence of practicing Celtic pagans). I remembered them fondly from my time as a baby pagan when I eagerly sought out every article Isaac Bonewitz wrote. And, perhaps most importantly, ADF offers a real, thorough, self-driven course of druidic study. I was tired of trying to build a religion entirely on my own. It wasn't working, and it was exhausting. A path of study that I didn't entirely disagree with was sounding good enough.

I didn't exactly start the Dedicant's Path right away. I wanted to, and I meant to. The first High Holy Day after I signed on was Ostara, and I joined the local grove for their ritual. It was...interesting. (It'd been a long time since I celebrated ritual with other people, and even longer since I celebrated it with an established group. I'd forgotten how much intra-circle politics could affect things.) I'd had a rough winter, and I badly wanted this to be the beginning of something new and good. I prayed as hard as I could; I offered an egg to the Well in sacrifice, and I couldn't feel a damn thing. I kept going, for a little while. I celebrated the Summer Solstice for the first time in a long time. I read the materials they sent me. It never went anywhere.

But it's coming to the end of the year now, and it feels like it's time. The rough winter turned into a rough summer, and fall has barely happened here this year, but I've been working hard. I have a therapist again for the first time in years, one I actually get along with. I'm learning how mindfulness helps stop my depression from taking over my life. I feel like I'm becoming me again. And it's coming to the end of the year, and it feels like it's time. I joined ADF not expecting to agree with everything that they do, not expecting to become a major part of the organization, just to add a little structure to a life that badly needs it, and perhaps make it easier to find others walking similar paths. There are other things I want to explore, things that fall outside ADF's domain: Feri, and twentieth century occultism, and American witchcraft traditions. But the older I get the less I feel I have to do everything at once. I am doing this now, this Dedicant's Path, a year of practice and exploration - the First Triad of piety, virtue, and study. I want to see what I can do, and I want to prove that I can do it.

That's what I'm afraid of: that I won't, that I'll lose focus again and drop it in a couple of months, that I'll forget I'm supposed to be doing something important and it will vanish into the minutae of daily life. I fear this tendency that I know I have, but I'm starting to believe that my fear of it is one of the things keeping it alive, and the only thing to do is to go forward anyway, to be gentle with myself when I fall short of my own expectations, and to always, always move forward. I have resources now, the whole of an international order of druids behind me, with their research, their rituals, and their support. I am learning that I do not have to do this on my own. I hope I'll learn things I haven't even thought of yet.