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Saturday, June 24, 2017

Chess - A Between the Worlds Short Story

Several people have asked me to write a short story that gives some more backstory for a few of the characters in my fiction series, and I thought it would be a fun thing to do. In the spirit of that one person suggested incorporating 'strip chess', and since I love a challenge here you go.
    This story would take place after the fifth novel. Some caveats for those who don't read my fiction it does include themes of polyandry/polyamory, pansexuality, elves up to shenanigans, and chess.


December 26th
   "What is that?" Bleidd asked as he walked into the small reading room off the living room, drawn by the noise of Jessilaen moving something around. The formerly Outcast elf was bored and had been contemplating ways to entertain himself until his wife returned from work; finding his other spouse in the rarely used reading room piqued his curiosity.
    Jess was kneeling on the floor by a bookshelf next to a large wooden box. The blond elf looked up, his expression mildly perturbed, "My brother has sent my things from the Outpost, as I am living here permanently now."
    "Ah," Bleidd said slowly, unsure how best to respond. Their situation was an unusual one, since normally a married member of the Elven Guard would either live at the Outpost with their spouse - in this case spouses - or if the spouse refused then the marriage contract would specify that the Guardmember must take a leave of absence from the Guard for the length of the marriage. Allie, of course being half-Elven and growing up outside Elven society, had been oblivious to this when she'd negotiated the contract with Jess's family and since Jess had already had special dispensation to live with her it had put the Guard captain in a quandary. Bleidd had wondered if they were all going to be ordered to move to the Outpost, but after Allie had made it plain at Thanksgiving that she did not want to leave her home Jess had gone to great lengths to make sure they could stay in the house together. It helped that the Guard captain was his brother, and that Allie was pregnant with a child that would belong to Jess's mother's line, but still Bleidd suspected it had caused a rift between the two siblings. Looking at the box on the floor now he wondered if it had been an act of kindness on Zarethyn's part, or a reminder to Jess that he was choosing to separate himself from his people for the sake of his new family.
   Bleidd watched as Jess slowly pulled out several leather bound books and placed them on one of the bookshelves against the wall, then, after a slight hesitation, he carefully took out a cloth wrapped package. Unable to restrain his curiosity, Bleidd found himself repeating "What is that?"
   Jess smiled gently at the bulky thing he held, several inches tall and at least a foot and a half square. Bleidd couldn't begin to guess what it was. Jess looked up at his bondmate, still smiling, "This, Gadreene, was my Journeyman's project when I was still a wright."
   That grabbed Bleidd's attention immediately, and he followed Jess as he stood and moved over to the small table near the room's only window. Jess set the item down carefully and then unwrapped it, revealing an intricately carved chess board with a series of built-in drawers along the base. Without prompting Jess began describing it as Bleidd reached out to caress the satin-smooth wood. "The pale sections are birch and the dark are walnut. Everything is fastened together by the joints, without using any nails, screws, or glue; that is part of the challenge of the Journeyman's project to create something without the use of any external fasteners, something that holds together through its own construction."
     Jess pulled one of the drawers out, which was silk lined, and lifted out an amazingly detailed birch chess piece, carved into the form of a life like scale representation of an infantryman. Bleidd could see that the drawer held 7 more such pawns, each similar enough that they obviously belonged to a matched set, yet each with a subtle difference that marked them as individuals. "You see the birch have a birch leaf and moon for their standard, on their shields for the pawns and worked into the other pieces in similar ways. The walnut pieces have a walnut leaf and sun as their standard."
    Bleidd found himself smiling indulgently at his lover's enthusiasm. "It is a masterfully carved set, truly. Do you keep it only for the memory of your former craft Commander or do you use it to play?"
    Jess grinned at him, beginning to set up the board, "Would you play the game with me?"
   The question hung in the air between them, weightier than it might seem. Young elves learned to play such games of strategy not for fun but as a form of training, to learn tactics and patience. Those who were too young to duel with bladed weapons often challenged each other to games of chess - or fidchell, or tafl, or the like - and the outcomes were taken just as seriously as any physical combat. So seriously were such games taken that elves would not deign to play them with non-elves at all, and even adult elves often approached the playing of chess with the gravity they would any other challenge-duel. Bleidd tensed at the underlying subtext of Jess's words, although he doubted his new spouse meant to imply any form of combat in the invitation.
    Still...he thought for a moment, because he did very much wish to play a game he considered himself skilled in, but he didn't want to cause any enmity between himself and Jess. Finally a potential solution came to him, and he grinned, reaching out to idly pick up and inspect the closest chess piece. "I would certainly love to play the game with you, but Elven chess may put as both in a frame of mind that might upset Allie when she gets home."
   Jess cocked his head to the side, interested, "You say that as if there is any other kind of chess to play."
   "Well, as to that," Bleidd said slowly, putting the piece back down. "Humans have a variation they use when playing games to keep them from being taken too seriously that I think would be perfect in this context."
    "Yes?" Jess said eagerly, and Bleidd knew that he had his partner well and truly curious. Curiosity had always been Jessilaen's weakness. He smiled.
    "Yes. For every loss an opponent suffers in the game they forfeit one article of clothing. Whoever runs out of clothing first loses the game."
    "Indeed," Jess said thoughtfully. He looked slightly perplexed, probably because nudity was not of any particular note among elves, but Bleidd could see a lot of potential fun in the game. "Do we lose the clothes permanently?"
    "No, you get them back when the game is over," Bleidd said, "Its just for fun. Although if you don't think the stakes are high enough we could of course add in some...other...forfeits."
    Jess smirked, "Well it is chess after all. Its not worth playing without something to play for."
    The two quickly set out a series of parameters for their game, beginning with the piece by piece loss of clothing and seguing into an escalating series of actions one would owe the other for the subsequent loss of a piece on the board. Bleidd doubted they'd get much past the clothing, unless they were either both much better or much worse at chess than he assumed they were, but still it was entertaining to set the rules and he was in high spirits by the time they began playing.
  The opening moves were predictably straightforward, with long pauses in-between as each player took the other's measure. Jess took his time considering his next move, saying, "Have you had much opportunity to play chess since you left your former Holding?"
   It was a personal question, and one that implied many things that were not directly asked about Bleidd's time as an Outcast, but after an initial moment of annoyance Bleidd had to acknowledge that if anyone had a right to such a question it was Jess. "In truth, no. I have not played the game now in a long time but I was once considered one of the most skilled players among my peers. I am quite confident that I can win against you Commander."
   Jess smiled, obviously not at all offended by the other elf's bragging. "You may very well be right. My brother has often told me that I am too impatient for chess, however much I love playing. I am bold when I should be cautious."
    Bleidd raised an eyebrow at this honest admission, surprised that Jess would tell him this but also sure that it was one of the best descriptions of the Guard commander that he had ever heard. Jess finally moved a piece into a position that Bleidd could take, but he kept his face blank, waiting to play his own move for the moment. "And yet you were a journeyman wright, nearly a master, when you left to join the Guard. I would think that woodworking takes a great deal of both patience and caution."
   "It may seem so, yet in truth I need little patience when I can see the progress of my work day to day and even moment to moment, even when that progress is minuscule. And one must be bold to work in wood, because one must be willing to risk with each stroke and cut. My own master often said that a timid wright will never create anything worth remembering, and I think he was very wise to say so."
   Bleidd looked at his companion with new respect, contemplating this insight, even as he moved his pawn and took one of Jess's pawns off the board. Grinning cheerfully Jess pulled off his shirt, folding it neatly and setting it down on an empty chair nearby. "It seems I am the first to suffer a loss."
   "The first, but of course it is the long strategy that matters,"  Bleidd said. Then, "If you enjoyed being a wright so much why did you leave to join the Guard?"
  Jess frowned, shifting slightly and for a moment Bleidd thought that he had overstepped with a question that was too direct and too personal, and Jess would not answer. Then the other elf inclined his head in a shrug. "As to that, I would have been happy enough as a wright, but my mother...she preferred having both her sons in the Elven Guard. When I was at an age to apprentice there was no opening in the Guard so she allowed me to go where I chose. But then, just before I reached my quincentennial and would have been tested for Mastership, she managed to arrange for me to join the Guard with my brother's sponsorship. So I did."
  Bleidd winced in sympathy, making a non-committal noise in response, knowing how hard it must have been for Jess to walk away from a career he loved and was obviously excelling in to fulfill someone else's desire. But he also knew that Elven society made no allowances for what a mere male might want, when the influential women who held sway over his life made a decision about what was to be done with that life. And Bleidd also knew why Jess's mother would prefer her sons in the Guard. The woman was manipulative but she wasn't stupid and with no daughters if she wanted to be able to negotiate for an heir through her sons she would have to have them in prestigious positions. The Elven Guard were esteemed and powerful; a master wright no matter how skilled would never have the same social value. That pompous woman has no idea how lucky she is that Allie came along, although certainly Jess knows, Bleidd thought darkly, watching Jess's next move carefully. I understand much better I think why Jess was so desperate that he flouted custom to ask Allie to marry him - I can't even imagine who his mother would have chosen for him. Probably some stuck up society climber just looking for a male to act as stud and get her with a child; someone who she'd treat like furniture until she didn't need his services anymore. Plenty of those in Elven society sadly enough and a good reminder of why this Bordetown is a better home than the Queen's Holding for us. I have no interest in being anyone's chattel ever again. He must thank the gods daily for Allie, she may be a Bahvanshee but she genuinely loves him and I think she'd cut off her own hand before she'd intentionally harm either of us.
   Jess's next move cost Bleidd a pawn although as far as Bleidd could see it didn't strengthen his overall position on the board. Shrugging slightly Bleidd reached up and pulled the hair tie out of his ponytail, letting his hair fall in a dark curtain around his shoulders. He tossed the small band on the chair with Jess's shirt.
   Jess frowned, his expression puzzled, "That isn't a piece of clothes."
   "Of course it counts as clothing," Bleidd replied smoothly, "It's something I wear isn't it?"
   Jess's head tilted to the side, his full attention on the other elf, but he could not find a flaw in Bleidd's logic so after a moment he inclined his head slightly in a shrug conceding the point. With a wolfish grin Bleidd quickly moved to take another of Jess's pawns. Laughing slightly Jess reached up and untied his own hair, adding the leather he used to bind his hair to the pile of forfeited clothing before running his fingers through his braid until his pale blonde hair hung free to his waist. "So," Jess said as he contemplated the board, "You have said before that you were in the Guard. Was it your family that urged you to join? Or did you choose it yourself? I know many mages do, because of the training offered."
    Bleidd focused on the board, trying to keep his face expressionless as memories from almost a millennia ago flooded back. When he spoke he was glad that his voice was even, "I chose the Guard. You would probably not be surprised to know that I was considered a pampered child, even though I was male. I am my mother's youngest and my sisters doted on me, especially my oldest sister. As my mother's heir of course she had a great deal of influence...when I was old enough to apprentice my mother preferred that I go to the college of mages, because she thought it would reflect well on our family - if she must be saddled with a son - to have a scholar. So naturally I pitched a fit and insisted I would be a mage in the Elven Guard or I would do nothing at all. It was quite...dramatic." he paused toying with a rook. "But my sister intervened in my favor, as she always did and convinced my mother to let me have my way. And so I joined the Guard and excelled there, if only to prove to my mother that I was correct all along."
    Jess quietly moved another piece, seizing another pawn without comment. Bleidd took off one of his shoes, adding it to the pile silently. Bleidd made his own move quickly, taking one of Jess's knights, and Jess mirrored him by giving up a boot. Finally Jess broke the silence, shifting his rook across the board. "You and your sister must be very close."
   "We were," Bleidd said, looking away. "She died a few hundred years after I joined the Guard. In childbirth."
   Jess made a small sympathetic noise, taking a moment to extend his hand out and clasp Bleidd's wrist. "I am sorry."
   Bleidd accepted the gesture, but inclined his head in a shrug before moving to take another of Jess's pieces, "It was a long time ago, and so it often goes with Elven women."
   Jess removed his other boot giving his spouse a thoughtful look. "Do you fear for Allie's life now?"
   That question startled Bleidd, and he met the other elf's eyes without thinking, seeing the genuine worry in them. He isn't worried for her, he realized, he's worried for me, for how I'm feeling about her possibly being in danger from this pregnancy. It was unexpectedly touching and he fought the urge to look away, suddenly uncomfortable with the emotional intimacy that was an unintended side effect of these new rules for the old game and the barriers they were lowering with usually strict social taboos about discussing deep personal things. He felt off balance and exposed in a way that had nothing to do with physical nakedness. Taking a slow breath he aimed for humor, "Well Commander there seems little point in fearing for Allie when she has proven too stubborn thus far to let death take her in far more dangerous circumstances than mere childbirth."
    Jess smiled tentatively back at him, but he doubted the Guard commander had fallen for the diversion in his words. Nonetheless he let the subject drop, perhaps sensing that he had pushed the former Outcast as far as he could be pushed on the subject. Instead he made a move that Bleidd hadn't foreseen and managed to take one of his bishops, earning a dour look from Bleidd as he relinquished his other shoe. The two played back and forth in silence for awhile, until both their socks were added to the pile, Bleidd grunting in annoyance to find they were more evenly matched than he'd anticipated.
    He frowned at the board now as he tried to find some way to leverage an advantage, because he absolutely hated losing. The thought of losing to someone 300 years his junior who didn't even consider themselves a good player wasn't something he wanted to contemplate, even if he hadn't played the game in more than half a decade. Finally he saw a path that would give him checkmate in several moves, if he was willing to sacrifice a couple pieces. "If we are discussing siblings, you seem very close to your brother," Bleidd said, breaking the silence and trying to throw Jess off balance. Not, perhaps the kindest strategy he thought to himself but if we are going to spill our emotions like blood then so be it. And this is chess after all.
    Jess didn't respond at first, moving instead as Bleidd had assumed he would to take the piece he had positioned for sacrifice. He pulled off his shirt and tossed it carelessly onto the chair, taking his time with his next move to hide his plan. Unconsciously Bleidd reached up and rubbed the scar on the right side of his chest, the mark of a bullet that had nearly killed him, feeling the familiar ache in the healed wound. Jess watched through lowered eyes, well aware that it bothered the vain elf greatly to bear such an obvious and disfiguring mark, and as always purposely ignoring the movement.
     When Jess finally spoke his voice was soft, "My brother and I have always been close, since I was a child. He has in his way been more of a parent to me than my mother, although I know he often doesn't understand my choices or why I am the way I am, so willing to embrace emotions and so steadfast when I should not be. He certainly understands me, for all that, better than my mother likely ever will. I know you and Allie dislike my mother - it is alright truly, I can understand why. She can be difficult, but she is my mother. She means well in what she does. But it was...hard...for me, a second son, with no magical aptitude, no great talent beyond some skill at carving. I am no poet or bard, no great warrior, no healer, no seer, not even magical potential that might pass down to children. My father was a passing tryst, my mother doesn't even know who he is nor did she care to find out afterwards, so I had no male line to look to for training in an inherited craft. I am nothing special -"
   Bleidd cut in sharply, regretting having started this, "Do not speak so. You are special Jess -"
   Jess held up his hand in a soothing gesture, "It is alright my love, truly. Truly. I am realistic in my own abilities and flaws, I think. I would have made a good wright, and I am a competent commander in the Elven Guard, but I am nothing more than that. And that is well enough. I am satisfied with my life as it is. If things had not fallen out as they have I would not be sitting here now, married to two people I love greatly, in a home that is its own odd sort of clan holding - in its way - anticipating our first child, and playing chess with you."
   Bleidd smiled at that, but he still wished he had never gone down this road with his lover. Seeing Jess so vulnerable was not something he had counted on, and it hurt him to think of how many times the other elf must have been told he was nothing of any note to have internalized it so thoroughly.
   The somber moment was interrupted by one of their human roommates turning the corner.
   Shawn walked into the room and then stopped dead, taking in the scene of the two partially clad elves and the chess board. "Ahhh. Sorry? Am I interrupting something?"
   "No," Jess replied innocently, "We were just playing chess."
    "Strip chess," Bleidd corrected smiling wickedly and enjoying Shawn's obvious discomfort. He leaned forward, watching Shawn watch him, as he moved his rook to take Jess's last knight.
    "Right," Shawn said slowly. "Well, ah, I uh, was just heading out to work. So. Ummmm. If you could let Allie know I left the rent in an envelope on the kitchen table? Because, ah, you know, I'll be gone, umm, ah, visiting family. For the next few weeks. On mortal earth."
    "Certainly," Jess said, his attention already back on the chessboard as he contemplated his next move. Bleidd tried not to laugh as he watched Shawn back away slowly, wide eyed. His good mood returned immediately and he thought This is even more fun than I'd anticipated. 
     He watched Jess carefully move his remaining bishop, unwittingly setting Bleidd up to put him in checkmate in two more moves. But Bleidd thought to himself no more serious discussion. He moved his knight to take Jess's queen, reveling in the shock on the other elf's face. "I believe that's your pants forfeited. Best be careful Commander you're down to only one last piece of clothing. Lose that and you'll have to start on the additional forfeits we agreed to."
    Jess stood and slid out of his pants slowly, giving Bleidd a wry look, "Of all the days to not wear I belt I choose today. Honestly Gadreene I suspect you are drawing this out on purpose just to be certain you get some of those extra forfeits."
    Bleidd laughed, wishing that was true and more than willing to let Jess give him credit for it when in actuality he was just having a hard time getting back into the game after so long. "Could you blame me if I were? I can see you nude any time I like but those extra forfeits are where the real entertainment is. Ah, but here, just so you don't think I'm being unfair, if you move that pawn there you can take my knight and my pants with it. Would that make you feel better?"
   Jess regarded him suspiciously but after a few minutes of studying the board couldn't see any other likely moves, so despite feeling like he was walking into a trap he took Bleidd's advice. The black haired elf cheerfully pulled his jeans off and tossed them onto the chair, lounging back in his seat and looking innocently at the board. Jess sighed, "I just set myself up didn't I?"
    "I would never betray your trust that way," Bleidd said, smirking, "Especially not while you're sitting there in nothing but your underwear. As it happens I already have you set up for checkmate and that move was inconsequential."
    "You what?" Jess sputtered, leaning forward as Bleidd laughed.
     "Hey guys, I'm home," Allie said, heading for the little reading room automatically, following her empathy to them. She turned the corner mid-sentence, then looked up and froze, taking in the scene: the beautiful chess board, the pile of clothes on one of the chairs, the two mostly naked elves.
    Bleidd laughed harder at the look on her face, "Welcome home babe. Care to join us in a game of chess?"
    "Strip chess," Jess corrected, still frowning at the board.
    "Strip....chess?" she said looking back and forth between the two of them.
     Bleidd confidently moved his queen to take Jess's last rook, picking the piece up and holding it like a prize. "Alright Commander, hand over your underwear."
    Sighing Jess stood up and surrender the last of his clothes as Allie muttered incoherently in the doorway. Bleidd set the rook down with the other captured pieces then leaned back in his chair, "Now the real fun begins."

Tuesday, June 20, 2017

Oiche Fhéile Eoin - Lá Fhéile Eoin

When it comes to holidays in my personal practice I've always focused most on the fire festivals, Imbolc, Bealtaine, Lughnasa, and Samhain, but for many years midsummer has played a role as well. Specifically it has been a time for me to honor the fairy Queen Àine, but last year I found that starting to shift a bit as I was drawn to celebrating on June 24th - Lá Fhéile Eoin - rather than on midsummer proper. This year as things have solidly realigned spiritually for me so that I am connected to another Fairy queen, and feel a bit odd honoring Àine as usual, I'm thinking that its time to completely transfer to celebrating on the 24th. Luckily there is a great deal of folklore to draw from.

The festival, like most other Irish ones, begins on the night before and goes into the next day. Oiche Fhéile Eoin and Lá Fhéile Eoin are celebrations of midsummer, but in many ways they are similar to and connected to the previous Bealtaine celebrations. The Daoine Maithe were especially active at this time of year and were known to be seen on the sí associated with them. Extra precautions were needed to stay safe from their mischief or outright maliciousness on this night. It was also common for prayers to be offered to and for the dead on this night (Danaher, 1972). 

There are many traditions associated with Lá Fhéile Eoin [June 24th] as well as with the night before, Oiche Fhéile Eoin [June 23rd]. There is much supposition that the celebrations of this feast day in the church represent attempts to Christianize earlier pagan midsummer celebrations (Ó Súilleabháin, 1967). Probably the most well known practice and the one that has survived the longest into the modern era are the bonfires. People from the community would gather and build a bonfire on Oiche Fhéile Eoin, sometimes several, and the herds would be driven through them and the smaller ones jumped over sideways for health, fertility, and luck (Ó hÓgáin, 1995; Danaher, 1972). It was said to be lucky to walk three times sunwise around the bonfire on this night; by some accounts doing this ensures health for the year to come (Ó hÓgáin, 1995; Wilde, 1991). Even the smoke from the fires was lucky and the areas it drifted over were said to have received the same blessing as areas that later received it's ash. 

The bonfires were community events where people would gather and celebrate together with music and dancing; the fire itself would be built from wood and bones gathered from all the households in the community.  At the fire the men would compete with each other in games of skill while the women would pray for good crops and food supply (Danaher, 1972). The belief was strong that to neglect these prayers might result in a failure of the fish to come up river or bring a blight over the crops (Danaher, 1972). The practice of bonfires slowly died out into the mid-20th century but could easily be revived and indeed the celebration seems to be seeing a revival in modern Ireland. 

The bonfires also had other, more esoteric uses. Because they were seen as powerful supernatural fires that carried blessings they could be used to safely dispose of magical or holy items that needed to be gotten rid of. Holy items, such as statues or rosary beads, that had been worn out or broken could be thrown into a bonfire on Oiche Fhéile Eoin, and so could magical items that had been used for either blessing or cursing (Danaher, 1972). Charms that had served their purpose as well as items used for hexing or ill-wishing that needed to be safely destroyed could be thrown into a bonfire on this night.

It was considered lucky for those with a new home to start their fire from the coals of the festival bonfire, and anyone who started a hearth fire from the main bonfire were believed to be ensuring their own luck, fertility and wealth in the coming year (Danaher, 1972). The ashes of the fires were also viewed as having power and would be scattered in the fields to promote growth (Ó hÓgáin, 1995). In some places the harvesting tool was left out overnight in the fields (Ó Súilleabháin, 1967). This may have been for blessing purposes, to encourage a good harvest, or it may have been protective, placing iron in the fields to ward off the attentions of the Daoine Uaisle. 

Other folk customs intended to improve health and banish illness included bathing on Oiche Fhéile Eoin and drinking a tea made from St. John's Wort (Ó Súilleabháin, 1967). Yarrow was hung in the house to protect against illness (Evans, 1957). It's clear looking at the different folk practices that good health was a prevalent theme among them, and many of the activities were aimed at ensuring health for a person or household, as well as the herds and crops. 

In many ways this holiday ushered in the true beginning of summer, although the season had properly begun at Bealtaine. Swimming was engaged in on the holiday and it was said that those who celebrated the festival should be safe from drowning in the following year (Danaher, 1972). The holiday is also called Bonfire Night, Oiche an teine chnáimh [night of the bone fires], and Teine Féile Eoin [fire of the feast of John] (Danaher, 1972). As with most other festivals fire and water played central roles in the celebrations. 

Special foods associated with this holiday include sweets and in Connacht a dish called 'goody' which was white bread soaked in warm milk laced with spices and sugar (Danaher, 1972). Drinking was also a common feature of the celebrations. For myself I have made a habit of cooking cake and offering it to the Gods, Good People, and ancestors; this year I will be using my cáca síofra recipe instead of plain cakes. 

This year Oiche Fhéile Eoin and Lá Fhéile Eoin fall during the dark moon, a time I find more potent and open to Otherworldly crossover. I suspect it will be an intense holiday, and am looking forward to celebrating it. 

Ó hÓgáin, D., (1995) Irish Superstitions 
Ó Súilleabháin, S., (1967) Nósanna agus Piseoga na nGeal
Wilde, E., (1991) Irish Cures, Mystic Charms & Superstitions
Danaher, K., (1972) The Year in Ireland
Evans, E., (1957) Irish Folk Ways

Thursday, June 15, 2017

Reshaped Living: Food and Drink ~ An Excerpt from my WIP

 I have recently signed a contract for a new book, a third in my Fairycraft series, and for today's blog I wanted to offer an excerpt from the draft,to give people a taste of where this one is going. It's much more personal than the others, and while it does quote sources and include the usual references (I am the one writing it after all) it also offers insight into the deeper layers of my own practice, specifically with the Othercrowd.

local apples, 2012

Reshaped Living: Food and Drink

As I moved deeper into working with the beings of the Otherworld I hadn't expected the way that it would impact unexpected  parts of my life. I suppose I assumed that as I learned and moved deeper into the work I was doing there would be a cost but it would be something straightforward like blood or physical effort; and certainly there has been that too. But I didn't expect the way that Themselves would come in and start re-shaping my life in practical ways, including what I could eat and drink and things I could or could not do.

There's something really, deeply alienating in this, or at least I found it so. It's hard enough to start with being on a spiritual path that many people don't understand, that is disconnected from mainstream modern paganism because of its emphasis on traditional folklore and beliefs. When you add in a variety of restrictions in how you have to live, particularly with the diet for me as I already had a few food allergies going on, it ends up making a person feel very at odds with the rest of the world. I'm also a stubborn person and I fight hard against the urge to resist when I am told not to do things.

I can't eat most processed foods (think frozen dinners and dried fruits, for example) or breads, pasta, or cereal (because of additives I have issues with). Outside of that though I was good, and my preferred diet before was heavily weighted towards coffee, soda, and convenience foods. So when the specific Good People who I deal with told me, about 5 years ago now, that I needed to change that entirely and focus on fresh fruits and vegetables, dairy, limited white meats and fish, nuts, drink water and fruit juice, and cut out all caffeine I was not thrilled. This represented a seismic shift for me, especially the caffeine.

Here's the thing though, about getting into this sort of spirituality. If you choose to do this kind of work then there's an understanding that you are agreeing to all the terms, including the ones that haven't been specified beforehand. And if you try to get around something they are emphasizing as important, often enough, they may give you a bit of time to toe the line voluntarily then they will step in and influence things themselves. Case in point - the caffeine. I fully admit to being a coffee addict and I don't say that lightly. When the no caffeine edict came down I was not happy, and initially I really struggled with it. It took me years to cut out caffeinated soda, and then I found myself stuck on coffee. Finally I reluctantly switched to decaf. And then, I suppose predictably, I began drinking a half dozen cups or more of decaf a day, defeating the entire purpose of it since decaf coffee does have some caffeine. So one Bealtaine morning when I poured my usual cup and added the cream, the cream disappeared; stirring it revealed that the in-date, unspoiled cream had curdled and was massed in a lump at the bottom of the cup. Not to be daunted - or to take a hint - I poured a fresh cup and added milk. It curdled as soon as it hit the surface. And I admitted defeat. I haven't touched a drop of coffee since, although I still crave it.

Initially I had no frame of reference for any of this outside of my own personal gnosis, nothing except the knowledge that they wanted certain things done or not done. Finally though I ran across this in a book by Yeats, and it made me feel less unusual in what was being asked of me:

“Those we speak of have for their friends the trooping fairies--the gay and sociable populace of raths and caves....The fairies are, of course, visible to them, and many a new-built house have they bid the owner pull down because it lay on the fairies' road. Lady Wilde thus describes one who lived in Innis Sark:--"He never touched beer, spirits, or meat in all his life, but has lived entirely on bread, fruit. and vegetables. A man who knew him thus describes him--'Winter and summer his dress is the same--merely a flannel shirt and coat. He will pay his share at a feast, but neither eats nor drinks of the food and drink set before him. He speaks no English, and never could be made to learn the English tongue, though he says it might be used with great effect to curse one's enemy. He holds a burial-ground sacred, and would not carry away so much as a leaf of ivy from a grave. And he maintains that the people are right to keep to their ancient usages, such as never to dig a grave on a Monday, and to carry the coffin three times round the grave, following the course of the sun, for then the dead rest in peace...."
-      ‘Witches, Fairy Doctors’ Fairy and Folk Tales of the Irish Peasantry Edited by W. B. Yeats [1888]

Reading this passage was very important for me because, above all, it made me feel less alone and at odds. Here was a historic account of someone who died long before I was born, but their life as it's described here resonated with me. Not every detail, of course - I eat some meat and don't eat bread, for one thing - but the broad strokes really spoke to me. I don't drink alcohol, as a rule, and my wardrobe is rather monochromatic, as it were. Despite the pressure of modern magical ways it's the older practices that speak to me, and about which I find myself compelled to speak out. And of course there's the bit about seeing the Daoine Uaisle, who I certainly try to stay on friendly terms with, for my part.

For a long time I didn't talk about these things, especially the diet, except to a very few people, not only because it seemed an awkward thing to discuss but also because I felt like they were such strange things to have restrictions on. Reading this as well as a chapter in the book 'Trojan Feast' that touched on people's food intersecting with non-human beings and seeing that other people who were connected to the Good People had also historically been known to have restrictions, or to live in ways that were at odds with those around them, even if there's no direct indication it was at Their direction, made me feel better.

I also want to be clear that while these dietary things may have some health benefits - particularly given how unhealthy American processed foods are - that was not the reason behind them, at least not for me. I have never had a sense that the Gentry were particularly concerned with my physical well being, unless I was doing things that actively and immediately harmed myself and then they were always pretty clear that I needed to stop for that reason. What their motivation was in asking me to eat or not eat certain things wasn't initially clear, although I began to suspect it had to do with getting me into a more, shall we say, psychically receptive state? This suspicion would later be reinforced after talking with a couple friends.

A friend at one point had mentioned that my diet as it was being shaped was strongly reminiscent of a Sattvic diet, an approach to eating found in the Ayurvedic system. A traditional Sattvic diet, broadly speaking, includes fruit and fruit juice, above ground vegetables and carrots, nuts, seeds, dairy products, honey, and grains (Cutchin, 2015). Not knowing anything about the subject I asked another friend who was fairly knowledgeable about it and he not only agreed with my first friend's suspicion but mentioned that Sattvic diets are often used by people seeking higher spiritual states because they open a person up to connecting more easily to spiritual energy (I'm paraphrasing here). This idea was echoed in a book I read recently, 'A Trojan Feast' which discusses in one section the Sattvic diet, its odd and apparently unconscious predominance among modern people who experience contact with non-human beings, and its reputed ability to raise psychic awareness or clairvoyance (Cutchins, 2015). I am by no means claiming that my food do's and don't's are Sattvic, as I do not follow nor know very much about Ayurveda, however I did find the connection interesting. Cutchins suggested that there may be a connection between the concept of sattva and its emphasis on freshness in food and the idea of the toradh or foyson, the essence, of food that the Good Folk were reputed to consume when given food offerings. By his theory it is the toradh of food that can be equated to its Sattvic quality, making this diet perhaps the closest to what one might hypothesize the Daoine Maithe themselves might consume.

I cannot say that like Lady Wilde's friend of the fairies I have had these preferences all my life, or that from childhood I was guided to seek out or avoid certain foods. But for the last five years or so, as I have stopped resisting the growing dominance of the Good People in my life and have instead embraced it, I can say with certainty that their influence has touched on unexpected areas, including my diet. This has been a hard change, and I fully admit that I fight against it as often as I go along with it, but ultimately I do think there is a purpose to it, and that the purpose has value not only to Themselves but also - I hope - to me.

Yeats, W., (1888). Fairy and Folktales of the Irish Peasantry
Cutchin, J., (2015). A Trojan Feast

Tuesday, June 13, 2017

The Morrigan's Call Retreat 2017

Last weekend was the 4th annual Morrigan's Call Retreat in Connecticut, an event that I have participated in since its inception. Founded by Stephanie Woodfield and Morrigu's Daughters the Retreat offers people a chance to get together and honor the Great Queen(s). It has always been somewhat unique in that its purpose is so specific to one group of deities - the Morrigan and her sisters, Badb and Macha. I've mentioned before, in my previous blogs on the Retreat, that one of the things I love the most about it is the inclusiveness of different spiritual points of view and paths; whether someone sees the Gods as archetypes or as individual beings, whether a person is Wiccan, or pagan or polytheist, all are welcome, provided they are willing to abide by the Retreat's ground rules and respect each other.

the river on camp grounds

The support staff and teachers arrived the day before the Retreat began, on Thursday. This gave us time to get settled in and get a feel for the place before the Retreat participants begin arriving, and I really like that. It also meant time to get the area cleansed and warded, the temple set up and blessed, and this year to have a ritual with the staff group before the full-on Retreat began. 

This year my friend and I were in the same cabin we'd been in two years ago, which I was happy about because, while its a hike to the main area and bathrooms, its right next to the river. We also lucked out with who our two cabin mates were (Peppermint cabin for the win!). The area we were in is at the edges of the activity, but feels closer to the heart of nature, and that's where I'd rather be. I love that little river and after several years of coming to that location it felt like seeing an old friend again. We settled in and then ventured out to say hello to everyone. There were some new faces this year, and a few missing from past years, but many, many familiar faces. The ritual Thursday night was low-key but moving.

Ritual fire
Day 1:
The first official day of Retreat began early for me, but I wasn't the only early riser. Its hectic on the first day, of course, because people are coming in and setting up throughout the day, but it was a good kind of hectic. Just as many of the support staff have returned to help out year after year, so too we have many people who travel to join the Retreat year after year and it makes me happy to see people that I only see once a year at this gathering. We had people coming in from the west coast and up from Florida, and we had people who joined us from Canada, and that's always a wonderful thing to see as well, the way that this event gathers people together from thousands of miles away, as much as from neighboring towns and states.  

I taught a class in the afternoon called Meeting the Morrigans. I have taught this at every Retreat since the first one, and it makes a good way to start things off, offering a basis for people who may have only a minimal (or no) knowledge of the Morrigans' history and myth. Our viewpoints and understandings of the Morrigan may vary widely, but the mythology is something that can be a touchstone for everyone, a way to connect us all together as we seek to better connect to and understand the Morrigan, Badb, and Macha. 

The rituals at this year's Retreat were slightly different than in the previous years. In the first three years one person designed all of the rituals and each one connected to the others, like a story arch, so that the three rituals become a journey in themselves for people. While that could offer some amazing connections and experiences, it also meant that it was problematic if anyone missed a ritual. So this year, instead, each ritual was designed by different people and was a stand alone. The ritual for Friday night was based on the idea of 9 different faces of the Morrigan and participants choosing one of these faces/aspects to take a message from (the messages were written on a piece of paper). I had the role of Morrigan of the Sidhe, and my message related to seeing both the dark and the light within the Fairy Queen. 

Another thing that was different this year was that we were offering oracle times in the temple. This was a period of a few hours set aside each day where a person who was experienced in channeling work would be in the temple space for anyone who may have questions or want a message. The person seeking to enter would be cleansed with smoke, then challenged before entering, then guided back to the person acting as oracle. Since I have been doing oracle work for over a decade I volunteered to serve in the temple as needed, which meant taking a shift each day it was offered. I admit that I underestimated how difficult that would be to do for extended periods of time, three days in a row, on top of everything else I was doing but since it seems to have been a valuable service to the community (based on people's comments later) I am glad that I chose to do it. 

Day 2:

I woke up painfully early Saturday morning, but there was a silver lining - while I was wandering around killing time before breakfast I ran into Segomâros Widugeni, one of my favorite humans and an all around interesting person to talk to. Which led to an hour and a half long conversation about everything from Gaulish deity names to the possible influences of Neolithic Irish pagan beliefs on the Irish Celts. I had an absolute blast talking to him, because it isn't often I can let myself full on nerd-out about my interests without feeling like I am horribly boring whoever is stuck talking to me. I think we could have talked for hours more, but as it was bacon is a prime motivator and breakfast called. 

Immediately after breakfast I had a class on dealing with non-human spirits. It was scheduled in the smaller pavilion but it was quickly apparent that, 9 am or not, there were going to be more people than would fit in the space. So in true 'Celtic' fashion we raided the neighboring territory, otherwise known as taking over the larger pavilion (in fairness it was empty as mine was the only class that early). It was a fun class to teach, based on a blog I wrote last year, and hopefully it helped people get at least the basics of what is needed to safely deal with non-human spirits. 

up at 4:30 am on Saturday, admiring the full moon as he hovered just above the trees
My second class that day - and my final one at the Retreat - was 'Geasa, Buada, and Oaths' which discussed what exactly all of those things were in an Irish context, why they were significant to the iron age Irish, and ways that they may still be important today. We spent most of the time discussing geasa, but that probably wasn't a bad thing since its such a hefty topic. I also wanted to offer lots of examples of geasa, how they were acquired, and what happened when they were broken, and that takes time. 

The ritual for Saturday was centered on Macha, featuring the five different Machas that appear in mythology (probably to no one's surprise I had the role of Macha of the sidhe). In the ritual I told the story of Macha, wife of Nemed, and how she cleared the plains, and we as a collective group of ritual particpiants built a small cairn representing our desire to build community in the Morrigan's honor. This was my favorite ritual, and I really hope that other people got as much out of it as I did. 

After ritual there was dinner, conversation, and generally great fellowship. One thing I love about the Retreat is that it offers an opportunity to connect and reconnect with such amazing people. This year there was a lot of laughter and tears, and both felt needed and good. This year I also witnessed someone's personal dedication to the Morrigan in a small private ceremony in the Temple; last year I was honored to help facilitate a baby blessing and I loved that this year we had a dedication ceremony. It makes me feel like in some small way we really are building a community, transient and ephemeral as it may be. Saturday night ended with more time working as an oracle in the temple and then hanging out with some friends.

community built cairn
Day 3:
Sunday, the final day, was really bittersweet this year. It seemed like the time had flown by and suddenly we were in the closing hours. I had oracle duty right after breakfast, and when that was done, in all honesty, I was pretty wiped out and decided to go sit and just relax for a bit. Sunday was also the hottest day of the four, getting into the 90's, and between the two things I chose to sit out the final ritual (the one I wasn't in), which was dedicated to Badb. I feel some guilt for missing it, but on the other hand I'm fairly sure I'd have passed out standing in the sun for it so I think it was probably the better choice. Someone going face first into the turf (or river) is not the way to end a great Retreat. Instead I bartered several of my books for a massage from the fabulous massage therapist onsite, because people keep telling me how great this whole self care thing is supposed to be.

I spent the final day then simply being with people, talking to anyone who wandered by where I was sitting in the main hall and wanted to talk. I am an introvert by nature, and I usually feel really socially awkward in the best of circumstances but by Sunday I had hit that zone where I was actually feeling comfortable - or maybe delirious. People who had lingering questions from my workshops, people who had random questions that they thought I might be able to answer, and people who just wanted to chat; friends and new faces. I even got over my own self-consciousness enough to ask my friends for pictures of us together before we all left. In retrospect it seems like the perfect note to end on; fellowship and friendship.

Another view of the river

The Morrigan's Call Retreat has become a touchstone of my year, and a cornerstone of my public practice as a priest/ess. I came into it this year deeply uncertain about many things, as my own spiritual path has undergone so many changes since Ireland. Yet only once in all of it did I feel strongly prohibited from participating in something, and the Macha ritual especially was deeply meaningful to me. There was a lot of silliness right alongside the deep devotion, spontaneous song parodies as much as serious in ritual singing. There was as much fun as there was effort, as much of a feeling of blessings as of work. I came in wondering if this was something I was meant  to continue doing, as I move away from so many public things and into a more solitary and private practice. What I found here this year was amazing conversations with people that I feel truly honored to know, a sense of intersectionality that I badly needed to be reminded of - and with it a feeling of acceptance and belonging that I hadn't even realized I needed to feel - and a reminder that there is value in community building, even when it feels painfully hard. I found magic and mystery in the smell of peppermint. I heard Her voice in the morning song of the river and of crows. And most of all I saw people coming together in Her name and building, stone by stone, the hope of what honoring Her in community can be.

pre-ritual selfie

Tuesday, June 6, 2017

Plans for 2018; Ireland and Iceland

I've had a lot going on lately, some of which I've written about here. One thing I think I haven't discussed yet is that next year is going to be a big travel year for me; I'm not planning to do many events or conferences but I do have two bigger trips planned.

The first, 'Bealtaine; Kindling the Flame of Devotion', will be happening in April and May of 2018. It's a sacred sites tour of southwest Ireland which I am doing with Stephanie Woodfield and Land Sea Sky Travel. I'm very excited to be teaming up with them again after our Morrigan Sacred Sites tour which went so well in 2016. We'll be going to the Burren, Lough Gur, and the area around the Beara Peninsula and we have some fun things planned to celebrate Bealtaine while we are there. We are also fortunate enough to have Lora O'Brien as our guide for part of the trip, which will offer people an amazing chance to learn from Lora in person. And for this trip we are offering a special scholarship opportunity for people who might not otherwise be able to go on the trip.

I'm very excited to be going back to Ireland again, and especially to have a chance to visit the southwest, an area that doesn't get as much sacred sites tourist attention as other areas seem to. There is a lot of rich mythology in that area, particularly relating to Goibhniu and the Cailleach, but we also see a range of stories about other deities and about many of the daoine sidhe.

Later in September of 2018 I'll be hopping a plane again, this time to go to Iceland, which will be a first for me. I'm teaming up with the always amazing Land Sea Sky travel and the fabulous Cat Heath to present 'Hiddenfolk, Witches, & Elves: A Pagan Pilgrimage Through Iceland's Magical Landscape'. I have long been fascinated by the folklore and mythology of Iceland, and my own approach to Heathenry is decidedly Alfatru based so I'm really looking forward to getting to see and feel the land there. I've known other people who have gone to Iceland on trips but I'm not aware of any other Sacred Sites tours so I can't wait to experience everything there.

2018 is going to be a busy year for me, but I'm looking forward to it. As someone who has never before done much international travelling having two trips like this seems like a rare and wonderful opportunity and I intend to make the most of it. I'll certainly write about my experiences here on my blog.

Thursday, June 1, 2017

Behind the Scenes with My Fiction

I started writing fiction about 3 years ago, after a friend encouraged me to give National Novel Writing Month a try that November. I did it purely for fun, a break from my usual non-fiction, and never intended to publish it. But as I worked to reach NaNoWriMo's goal of 50,000 words in a single month I started trying to motivate myself by posting daily word counts and little plot summaries on my social media account. Much to my surprise it caught people's attention and my friends started asking me when they'd be able to read the story.

Because of the interest in the book - which ended up at around 84,000 words when it was finished - I decided to publish it. At that point I already knew it was going to be a trilogy (now a series going on 6 books) and I was nervous to see how it would be received. Because you see the same friend who had encouraged me to write the novel to begin with had also given me the sound advice to write what I would like to read. So the book was a cross-genre piece blending urban fantasy, new adult, paranormal romance, and alternate reality, and it was my attempt to take on, and overturn, some popular tropes that really annoyed me. It was based heavily on Celtic mythology, but also on asking myself a series of 'what if?' questions and then imagining answers. But it was also not a story that was fully told in that one book, it was something that would sprawl out over three books, and it was messy in the sense that I wasn't writing to give readers what they wanted but to try to create a story that was fantastical but also felt real. I knew that not everyone was going to understand or like that.

So, I mention overturning tropes. My favorite genre to read is urban fantasy, and there are lots of these to be found there. The ever present Mary Sue protagonist, the Deus ex Machina ending, the pure evil antagonist. There are also some other tropes that seem to exist as unwritten rules in themselves: the protagonist never really gets hurt unless that's their tragic backstory; if they do get hurt that's okay because tomorrow everything will be fine again; rape is only ever used to either gain sympathy for a character or give them (or those around them) motivation or justification; romance is fine as long as its unstable and temporary; protagonists can't get married or have families unless the series is ending.

When I set out to write my books I wanted to tackle a lot of these head on. I may not have fully appreciated how difficult that would be. I wanted a main character who was smart and resourceful but was also a person with reasonable limitations, someone who did not in fact have her life together but was fairly happy with her dysfunction. In other words someone who was as ordinary as possible, given she lived in a world that was stuck between mortal earth and Fairy. I wanted her existence to reflect her world, so I made her half human and half elven, and I gave her the sort of childhood and life that I felt both fit her story arch and would be relateable to people. She lives in a world where magic is a real, tangible force so I wanted her to have a foot in both worlds there too; I made her a witch in the human sense and I also gave her a magical ability that spanned both worlds, something that made her a bit of a misfit on both sides. There are points where she's in trouble and she needs other people to save her, and part of why that happens is because I didn't want her to be a Mary Sue who miraculously started spewing fire just in time to save the day. Especially at the beginning of the series she needed a starting point to grow from.

I get really annoyed reading books where characters get hurt, in any context, and then get up and walk away as if nothing happened. Yes, my characters are injured in these books, and no they don't just shrug that off and go on with life. Major injuries change a person. Yes, rape is something that occurs to main character in my books and part of why I did that was because I hated seeing it treated the way it was in other books. I hated seeing it used as either a way to make a reader pity a character or a way to justify why a character had suddenly become very bitter and/or homicidal. I wanted to write a piece of fiction where someone is hurt once, and then again - because life is painful and scary like that sometimes - and she walks away from it with scars, physical and mental. But she also heals from it, over the course of several books, because healing is a process not the turn of a couple pages. I wanted to show that even in fiction life can go on and people can still love you and support you and you can be strong again.

I also wanted to include romance as an aspect, but not the rather frustrating back-and-forth never really settled romance that most other books have. I knew going in that my protagonist had a certain unique quality, based on modeling her after a very specific being from Celtic mythology, but I also knew that she - and the reader - weren't going to learn that fact for several books. But it played into the way that her romantic life shaped up and I hope that I managed to build it up in a way that readers felt an 'a-ha!' moment in the third book. I also wanted to have her in a relationship that ended up being solid, although not typical. Including a variety of sexual orientations, lifestyles, and viewpoints was another thing that was important to me, as someone who knows what its like to feel like my own demographic has very little representation in fiction.

I tried hard in my fiction to make make my characters as real as possible and to let them act as naturally as possible within the narrative. They have problems and they make mistakes. Sometimes they make poor choices in how they deal with situations, and that leads to consequences. Some of the protagonist's friends aren't always good people, and some of the antagonists aren't entirely bad people. And ultimately I hope that readers feel like they understand why most of the characters do the things they do, whatever those things are.

I'm just starting to write book number 6 and I'm excited to share the next part of the story with the people who have been enjoying the series. And to end this with a fun fact - I base the words in my Elven language on Old Irish (probably no big surprise there).