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Saturday, June 23, 2012

Midsummer in transition

 So the summer solstice was on Wednesday and this year I found myself feeling very challenged on how to celebrate. I have only just decided to refocus my spiritual practice, well more accurately my religious structure, and I was actually at a bit of a loss as to what to do. I'm still feeling my way slowly into what works best for me but its also very important that my children have a sense of the holiday and get to enjoy it. I also had a very bad experience with a Midsummer ritual last year that I am still working to overcome, so this holiday is especially challenging for me on a personal level - which is probably why it ended up being the first one to come along after my major shift of focus. Life is anything but subtle sometimes when we need to face our issues....
   We have had a family tradition of baking cakes on the solstices for many years. At the summer solstice we bake the cake for the daoine sidhe and Aine, who may be a fairy queen or may be a goddess; and at the winter solstice we bake a cake for the Sun's birthday. In previous years with a more recon based approach we would bake the summer cake and leave pieces as offerings but otherwise we didn't do too much to mark the day. From an eclectic Wiccan perspective I would have done a full circle to the Lord and Lady of summer, the God and Goddess of the Greenwood. Last year I did a public ritual in a more neo-pagan/Wiccan style that honored the fairies, spirits of the land, and Lord and Lady - this ritual will go down in infamy for the disapproval that resulted from some people* so I may be a little gun shy about jumping right in to do something similar again, despite its overall success.
  In the end I settled on a hybrid compromise, which is, perhaps, the best approach anyway. Combining holiday fun with necessity I gave the gift of new summer shoes to the girls (and my husband) something I might keep as a tradition in the future. We baked a vanilla cake with butter cream frosting and the girls decorated it with candy sprinkles from the store.  The cake came out very nicely, and after dinner when everything was ready we sang a Jana Runnall's song called "Graine" that I learned from Kellianna; then I cut a piece of cake for the fairies and another for Aine. The cake was left outside by our little Hawthorn tree and then we went back in and enjoyed some cake ourselves. I read the girls a book about the Summer Solstice by Ellen Jackson that includes folklore and traditions from around the world.
  Later that night I had my own ritual, more along the lines of a Wiccan circle. Perhaps next year I can find an even better way to celebrate everything together; maybe I will finally get over my feelings of Midsummer inadequacy. But this year went well anyway, it was fun, the girls enjoyed it, and the fairies got their cake.

Cake recipe:
  1 cup white sugar 1/2 cup butter 2 eggs 2 teaspoons vanilla extract 1 1/2 cups all-purpose flour 1 3/4 teaspoons baking powder 1/2 cup milk
Preheat oven to 350 degrees F
Grease and flour a 9x9 inch pan....
In a medium bowl, cream together the sugar and butter. Beat in the eggs, one at a time, then stir in the vanilla. Combine flour and baking powder, add to the creamed mixture and mix well. Finally stir in the milk until batter is smooth. Pour or spoon batter into the prepared pan.
Bake for 30 to 40 minutes in the preheated oven

Frosting recipe:
 1/2 cup butter, softened, 4-1/2 cups confectioners' sugar, 1-1/2 teaspoons vanilla extract, 5 tablespoons whole milk
In a large bowl, cream butter until light and fluffy. Beat in the confectioners' sugar, vanilla and enough milk to achieve desired consistency.

 * Long, messy backstory. Shortest possible version is that what one person feels is an acceptable offering may not be seen as such by others. Also I am a tangental ritual leader and not everyone likes my style of ritual. Lesson learned the hard way.

Thursday, June 21, 2012

Summer Introspection

  I am not a summer person. While everyone else might be out at the beach, at barbecues, hiking, or otherwise enjoying the outdoors I'm avoiding the bright sunlight and heat by holing up inside. I've always been like this; I was the kid in high school who spent my summers staying up until 4 a.m. reading and watching re-runs of classic tv shows and bad b-movies. Each year I dread the returning heat, the oppressive humidity, the bugs and glaring sunshine. Winter is my season, my time to get out and explore the world and enjoy nature - summer is something to be endured. However I have always tried to force myself to go along with the general expectations, the wider view of summer and the season's energies. People talk about summer as a time for planting and growing, and despite my own desire to do the opposite for many years I pushed against my inclinations. I planted when I wanted to harvest. I nurtured and grew when I wanted to withdraw and contemplate.
  I've been thinking about this a lot the past two days as I celebrated Midsummer and as my area experiences a heat wave that has rendered the outdoor atmosphere into something reminiscent of an oven. Online people are talking about the time of year as a time of activity and exploration, in contrast to winter as a time of introspection and withdrawal. What I've come to realize is that for myself these cycles are reversed;   to me summer is a time of introspection, when the pace of everything slows down and I look within to sort through what to keep and what to let go of. Fall is a time for returning to the world, for setting new goals as I wait for the leaves to turn and seek the scent of woodsmoke in the air. Winter is when I get out the most, walking, hiking, exploring; a time to begin new projects and add effort to old ones. And spring is when things begin to slow down, although there is a rush to finish up what's been begun.
   I'm moving into that time of introspection now, assessing and reviewing my life, trying to decide what is worth keeping and what needs to be let go of. One thing I've already come to realize - no surprise to anyone who has been reading my recent blogs - is that I need to start appreciating and honoring my own cycles and patterns instead of trying to fit myself into other people's preconceived cycles. What works for other people may not work for me, but there is no reason I can't find value in my own natural rhythms and learn to appreciate what does work for me. As I move back into an American Wiccan framework I can appreciate the larger concepts of the accepted cycles of the year while simultaneously honoring my own energetic cycles. 
  I am not a summer person, and that's okay. I will spend the next few months in introspection and emerge in the fall ready to move forward with renewed energy and purpose.

original pencil drawing, M. Daimler, copyright 1999

Wednesday, June 13, 2012

Weeping for the stone

   I try to be philispohical about the vagaries of life. Bad things happen, and often these bad things are senseless, and there is just as often nothing constructive to be done. War and death and suffering are a constant of life and as much as I might detest them, as much as I might hate watching the news and seeing them, there is little to do but keep on going. Maybe its a type of desensitization, a way to avoid constantly dwelling on things I can't change. Life goes on, and I try to keep that perspective. Sometimes, though, an event will occur that - for whatever reason - sticks with me, digs in, something that I just can't let go of.
   I read today that the Lia Fal on the hill of Tara in Ireland had been defaced, attacked with a hammer, causing damage to all four sides of the stone. Reading the article caused an immediate and visceral reaction, a blend of grief and anger that simply will not go away. It saddens me that the stone is permanently changed, damaged, although I appreciate that it could have been much worse. It makes me furious that this damage was intentional, an act of focused will by a person, who repeatedly bashed at the stone. I want justice for the spirit of that place, but more than that I want vengence. I felt the same way a year and a half ago when someone cut down the sacred Thorn tree in Glastonbury. They never caught the people responsible for felling the thorn tree and I suspect they will never find out who hammered chunks out of the Lia Fal. It's appalling to me that anyone could do these things, and more than that I don't understand why.Why do people feel the need to destroy things that are significant to other people? What purpose does it serve to destroy an irreplacable 3500 year old standing stone? Of course my head knows it could have been for anything from a political statement to drunken mischief, but my heart revolves over and over on the permanence of it. I don't agree with or advocate anyone destroying anyone else's sacred history - whether its ancient monuments to Buddha or historic churches - no matter what reason the perpetrators come up with.
   Places have spirits, and sacred places have a special spirit to them, a feeling that is unique. Historic places that have seen people coming and worshipping or paying them honor for hundreds of years, or even millenia, have an energy that is an extension of this spirit, in my experience. I think that is why people are drawn to travel to sacred places, to touch the stone and wood that our ancestors have touched back through the ages. There is a feeling of connection that comes from experiencing a sacred site that grounds us, that makes our faith tangible. It is tragic to see that connection attacked, that sacred place desecrated, whether or not it is myth or fact that makes it sacred.
   As an Irish (and Norse) pagan there are a few sacred places that I want to go to before I die, to feel that energy, to know the spirit of that place, and to connect to the pagan gods in their old holy places. One day I will travel to Ireland, and I will walk up the hill at Tara and touch the Stone of Destiny, as legend says the old high kings did, as the stories say the gods themselves did in bringing the stone to Ireland from Falias. This is something I have dreamed of doing for many years but have never yet done. I felt increased urgency when the M-3 was being built with its henge-destroying disregard for history, and I feel even more urgency now, as it appears no sacred site is safe.

picture is held in the common domian, and is courtesy of wikipedia

Tuesday, June 12, 2012

Living Honor

     What does it mean to live an honorable life? Many modern pagan groups have outlined a list of basic virtues to nurture, and honor is usually included in each of them, but what is it to to live honorably? How can we know how to shape our actions to live honorably when honor is often a difficult and obscure concept to define? The best approach, I think is not to look at honor as a single concept but rather to view it as a series of inter-related actions - because honor is an active principle not a passive idea - and look at how those actions combine to form a larger concept of honor. For those following an Irish path or looking to Irish myth for inspiration and guidance there is an abundance of suggestions on living with honor to be found, but the Instructions of King Cormac Mac Airt is one of my favorites. 
     There are several Irish texts that offer instructions on how a King should live in order to be a good King, and these texts serve as good instructions for anyone to study on how to live a good honorable life. One of the best of these is the Instruction of King Cormaic Mac Airt, a dialogue that occurs between Cairbre and Cormac, where Cairbre is quizzing Cormac about the proper qualities of a King. The answers given describe the characteristics a King should embody, but these characteristics are equally applicable to any  person seeking to live a good life. These characteristics can be divided into two categories: ways that the person should act towards others, and ways that the person should uphold themselves.
     The dialogue response begins with Cormac describing ways that the King should act in order to uphold his own honor. The first of these is by having good geasa, or ritual taboos that are positive. This could apply to anyone who has a geis on them, if only in the way we choose to look at the ritual taboos that bind us; we can choose to see our taboos as positive or negative and how we react to them shapes their nature on some level making them either a gift or a burden. The next line advises the King to be sober, good advice since drunkenness is often a source of trouble. The King is advised to be an invader as well, which is a slightly more obscure line; however I believe that this advice pertains to ambition and the need for any person to have a healthy sense of what they can achieve. Only by pushing outward and seeking to expand can we truly achieve our own potential. The following lines suggest a good King should have good desires and be affable, telling us that people should seek to want what is best for themselves and have a friendly nature. A good King should be both humble and proud, meaning that we should be humble in knowing our own limits and admitting to our own mistakes but also proud of what we do achieve and owning our own success; only through a balance of these two can true success be found. In the same way we should be quick and steadfast, meaning we should act quickly when speed is needed but also have the stamina to stick with anything and see it through.  A good King, or a good Druid, should be a poet, versed in legal lore, and wise, as well as temperate. All of these qualities should be embodied in the King for them to find the inner strength to live honorably in all these ways, because these external expressions reflect the character within, but they are equally applicable to anyone else seeking the same thing.
    Cormac also touches on ways that a good King should interact with others, beginning with being generous, decorous, and sociable. These three features all intertwine to support each other, and to support the proper social order where the King sets the tone for the Kingdom, but it is possible for anyone else to also live by these maxims and seek to express these things as well. Along with this go other suggested actions according to Cormac, such as feeding orphans, giving good judgments, raising up the weak, quelling wrongs, and loving truth while hating falsehood, all of which can be embraced by anyone seeking to live in honor. To seek to live these qualities is to seek to live Truth and support the right order of the world. The truth of this statement is seen in the final passage where Cormac describes what will occur in the kingdom of a good King, should he follow all this advice. We see the description of a good King ruling over a fertile land, with oak trees full of acorns, fruitful earth and rivers full of fish. In the same way if we as individuals seek to embody these characteristics and live these actions then we can also bring blessings upon the world we live in and make the quality of our own lives better. 

Friday, June 8, 2012

Dark Night of the Soul

  It would be accurate to say that I am having a dark night of the soul period right now, as I understand the concept. I have been increasingly questioning whether reconstruction is the right thing for me and my place within the larger spiritual communities I have chosen. While I can't imagine my life not being based on a reconstructionist methodology I also realize that my main focus is and always has been actual practice, in a way that sets me at odds with my community sometimes. When in doubt I would rather act without any evidence to back my actions up than not to act at all. And I struggle with constantly feeling like what I do isn't "right" enough, a feeling that has put me in a place where I would almost rather not do anything at all than feel like what I am doing is wrong. Perhaps you can see how antithetical that feeling is to my own natural inclinations.
  My connection to the deities and spirits I honor hasn't lessened but I am in a place now where I feel like I am getting nothing out of the ritual itself. It feels empty and forced. I can remember when I first began on my spiritual path how much joy there was in ritual, not only a feeling of connection to the deities but of celebration. I fear that I have gotten so used to listening to my head that I have totally lost my heart.
   After some deep soul searching I came to several realizations. My approach to religion will always be reconstructionist in nature because I am just the sort of person who wants to know not just the how but also the why. I question and seek sources and love to puzzle out what is genuine and what is false. I also realize that I am an innovator and that I like spontaeous, organic ritual, even when it doesn't conform to the historic standard. I like structure and flow that is grounded in solid methods but I also need to feel free to express my own unique take on things. I realized that I felt like a bad heathen for not getting to any heathen events, and that I was being unfair to myself by letting other people's emphasis on the value of community participation influence me. Neopagan is not a dirty word, nor should I avoid doing what makes me happy because I worry about what other people will say. Witchcraft isn't a dirty word either, and it is an integral part of who I am. Too much of my spiritual life has become about outside approval and validation, instead of genuine experential connection.
   Most importantly, I think, I realized that I was feeling too scattered because I had fallen into such a rigidly seperated approach to religion - heathen in box a, CR in box b, witch in box c. I didn't feel like a whole person anymore, but rather as if I had different lives in different contexts. Perhaps, ultimately, the source of my own unhappiness was myself, as a sought something that I would never find.
   All of this insight was great, but beginnig to understand what the problems were didn't actually change anything. I sat down and looked at what used to give me the sense of joy in religion that I was missing and at what core concept, if any, ran through all the diverse threads of my spiritual life and came to two conclusions: I wished I could go back to being 11 again and following eclectic Wicca and the one common denominator was my identity as a witch. Now of course I can't actually go back to being a preteen, but I can try going back to neopagan Wicca and seeing how that feels. Perhaps it will be like trying on outgrown clothes. Or perhaps it will rekindle that spark I have lost. I don't know, but the only way to find out is to try it and see where it takes me. Maybe I will realize very quickly that I need the diversity and division. Maybe I will find a more holistic feeling. It's an experiment, a risk, but I'm going to give it a try.
  My commitment to my local community hasn't changed -those gloriously eclectic neopagans - I will still serve as I always have. I will still be me. The gods I am devoted to are still with me, and I am not letting go of them or of my connection to the daoine sidhe or my ancestors, so this won't be exactly like it was before. It will be different, just like I am different than I was 22 years ago. It will be an adventure.

Friday, June 1, 2012

recommended reading

  Well I finished writing my newest book and am back to blogging. There are several pagan recommended reading lists floating around including one at Patheos and another at Huffington Post so I thought I'd offer my own suggestions here, but I'm limiting it to 10 each to keep myself from going totally overboard:

Heathen Recommended Reading List
1) Essential Asatru by Diana Paxson - a good introduction to the basics of belief and practice, particularly useful for those coming from a neopagan background
2) The Prose Edda - I suggest reading multiple translations to get the best understanding of the material
3) The Poetic Edda - multiple translations are your friend
4) Norse Myths by Kevin Crossley-Holland - Modern language retellings of the Eddic myths
5) The Road to Hel by H.R. Ellis Davidson - an essential look at beliefs about the dead and afterlife
6) The Well and the Tree by Bauschatz - discusses cosmology from a heathen persepctive
7) Our Troth, volumes 1 and 2 - a very thorough look at everything from belief to practice, and a wonderful reference to have on hand
8) Elves, Wights, and Trolls by K. Gundarsson - a look at the heathen belief in Otherworldly spirits, often not emphasized in american Heathenry but very important to understsnd
9) Living Asatru by Greg Shelter - short but useful look at living modern asatru
10) We Are Our Deeds  by Eric Wodening - a very in depth look at modern heathen ethics

Irish Reconstruction Reading List
1) the CR FAQs - the best basic start to understanding recon from a Celtic viewpoint
2) the Sacred Isle by O'hOgain - discusses Irish religion from pre-christian times through conversion.
3) Festival of Lughnasa by Maire McNeill - an in-depth look at the historic and modern celebration of Lughnasa, including a good deal of folklore and mythology
4) The Lebor Gabala Erenn - the story of the invasions of Ireland by the Gods and spirits and eventually humans.
5) Cath Maige Tuired - the story of the battle of the Tuatha de Danann with the Fomorians.
6) the Year in Ireland by K. Danaher - an overview of holidays and folk practices throughout the year.
7) The Silver Bough (all four volumes) by F. MacNeil - Scottish but extremely useful for understanding folk practices and beliefs
8) Fairy and Folktales of the Irish Peasantry by Yeats - a look at folklore and belief
9) Lady with a Mead Cup by Enright - useful look at ritual structure and society in both Celtic and Norse cultures
10) Celtic Gods and Heroes by Sjoestedt - discusses both the gods and tidbits of folklore and mythology

What books would you recommend?