Pagan Blog Project: Offerings

A few weeks ago I was invoking East for an esbat when I let the word “worship” slip. “Join us,” I think I said, “as we worship and make magic.”

Since my coven works within the Reclaiming tradition, we make up most of our invocations on the fly. I was just saying what came to mind. I didn’t think anything of it. But later that night, one of my coven-mates brought up a gentle objection to the word. “We don’t worship,” she pointed out. “We work with deities, not for them. They’re our partners, not our bosses.” Everyone nodded, although no one looked at me. It’s possible no one else even remembered the invocation. Still, I felt embarrassed.

I completely understand why Witches and Pagans shy away from words like “worship.” Worship is a Christian thing, right? It’s what you do if you’ve been brainwashed into thinking you’re powerless and flawed. It’s what you do when your god is an authoritarian dictator, easily enraged, thirsty and desperate for praise. Right? That’s what worship is. It’s unhealthy. It’s degrading.

So then why did the word come to me in my invocation? And why don’t I regret saying it, even after my coven-mates took issue?

A few days ago Jason Mankey published a post on Patheos about The Wind in the Willows, and its portrayal of Pan as “the Friend and Helper” with an “August Presence.” He quoted this well-known and beautiful passage:

“Rat!” he found breath to whisper, shaking. “Are you afraid?”

“Afraid?” murmured the Rat, his eyes shining with unutterable love. “Afraid! Of Him? O, never, never! And yet—and yet—O, Mole, I am afraid!”

Then the two animals, crouching to the earth, bowed their heads and did worship.

To me, that sounds like a very different kind of worship: an act performed not out of a sense of obligation, but out of reverence and awe and love for beings much bigger and older than us. When we forget that sense of awe and see deities only as partners–or, as I see far too often, life coaches and personal cheerleaders–we not only cheapen and probably offend them, but we diminish the benefits we get from working with them.

I’m not afraid–and yet, O, I am afraid! is a feeling I know very well. It’s a beautiful kind of fear. It’s a sign that your animal instincts are picking up on the presence of A Very Big Thing. At the risk of sounding presumptuous, I would even go so far as to say that if you’ve never felt even a tiny bit shaken up in the presence of a god, then you have never truly perceived that god.

It’s that reverence that moves us to give offerings to our deities.

When I ask a god for help with magic, obviously I try to give them something in return, if I feel it’s appropriate. (Some deities and ancestors just like to help, and it feels wrong to pay them off.) A glass of wine. Some flowers. A homemade cookie. It depends on the deity and the magic. But I try to give something.

Most of the time, though, I give out of the sheer joy of giving. I try to give milk to the Morrigan semi-regularly by pouring a jar of it into my garden. When I’m out in nature, I sometimes arrange some stones or flower petals into a circle as a hello. (The first time I did this, I soon came upon a bigger circle of stones on a part of the trail I’d already passed. I hadn’t heard any signs of other people around.) Giving gifts feels good. I marvel at the feeling of peace and contentment that comes over me when I tip that jar into the soil or place that cookie on my altar.

And when I think of giving offerings, I think of bigger offerings, too. I think of offerings of service. I think of myself as an offering. I have told my gods that I will do their work. I haven’t gotten an assignment yet, but I wait and try to be patient.

Sometimes I destroy my offerings: I bury the cookie or throw a piece of bread into the fire. Other times–say, if I’m offering something I’ve harvested from my garden–I’ll leave it on the altar for the god to eat and then take it and cook it for dinner. I go by intuition.

Our relationships with our deities are allowed to be complex. We can be supplicants one day and partners the next. Our minds are as flexible as our gods, and they can hold multitudes.

May your offerings bring you closer to the gods you love the most.

Pagan Blog Project – Nature Goddess: My Morrigan

I had a post all planned for the Pagan Blog Project’s M week. I was going to write about the Morrigan. I was going to pour out everything I’ve been ruminating on for the past several months, as I’ve studied her, spoken with her, gotten to know her, dedicated myself to her. I was going to bring in Kali, crows, the significance of the color black. I was going to talk psychology. It was going to be a very long post.

But I got so tangled up in what I was trying to puzzle together that I missed both deadlines and barely looked at my blog for two weeks. I was so afraid I’d say something stupid.

We’ve had a guest staying with us this week, and I haven’t been doing my devotionals. I haven’t been lighting my incense or burning my essential oils. I’m afraid the smell will waft downstairs or the guest will hear me whispering and I’ll have to answer questions. The Morrigan isn’t impressed, but she’s been patient.

I have, though, been tending my garden. In my garden I have tomatoes, zucchinis, sunflowers, strawberries, lemons, nasturtiums, lavender, basil, mint, rosemary, and jasmine. Hey, sometimes a plant even produces a fruit or flower or two! Much of the time the garden is a source of frustration and stress–why are the lemons dropping again? Why is the zucchini dying? Why does the mint taste bad?–but it’s also a place that calls to me. It’s just a few pots on a patio but I’m drawn to it. I’m compelled to examine each flower, touch each leaf, whisper “welcome” to each new seedling. It’s where I commune with Cernunnos. It’s where I blow kisses to the moon. It’s where I drum while my daughter dances her funny toddler dance. And it’s where I give the Morrigan her offerings of milk.

I tried to see her as a battle goddess, as a sovereignty goddess, as a psychopomp. I tried to meditate on war and violence and colonization, thinking she had wisdom to share with me. And I know she does. But despite all that, when I think of her, all I can think about is nature. Wild lands. Hidden spiders. Twisting vines and running water. Green growing things.

I expressed in my hymn that the Morrigan fertilizes the grass with blood. This is true. Life comes out of death, and Morrigan is the one who culls, who splits open the body and disassembles it. The Morrigan doesn’t always fight on the right side, the Indigenous side or the side with nicer people or a better cause. Every body is of equal value to the Morrigan. that’s her mystery.

Cernunnos turns corpses into trees; the Morrigan supplies those corpses.

I always feel like I have to apologize for the fact that, for me, the Morrigan is primarily a goddess of the earth. For me, it’s not just one of her aspects–the fertile ground that becomes the battle field–it’s her fundamental aspect. The aspects of battle and sovereignty and prophecy and magic are offshoots. It’s the face she shows me, again and again and again, even when I try to find the others. She’s no gentle mother goddess, though–she is fierce and possessive and untamable. Her love is the love of a mama cat hissing and clawing to protect her kittens. Her love is the crow dive-bombing the hawk.

For awhile I thought I should take up a martial art as service to her. But I just have no interest in martial arts (except maybe archery). And yet she calls me incessantly. In a dream, she was teaching me to dance. The wild places make me want to dance. Tonight, on my roof, I danced by my garden, twirling in my sandals. I have no interest in warfare.

She’s the thorn on the squash plant that makes you pay for your dinner. She’s the hideous spider who bites you and keeps beetles from wrecking your plants. She’s the tree who falls on the person who didn’t deserve it, the frenzy that allows the fighter to win, the tingling of precognition, the rush of inspiration that turns into a poem, the feeling of hauntedness in the dark that is terrifying and beautiful. She’s the one-eyed hag who smiled at me during trance work, before I ever learned that Cu Chulainn put out her eye. She is my anger and my courage. She is my fierce, unapologetic love.

Nothing I’ve written here captures what she is, because she can’t be expressed in words.

She is the river and the field and the rooftop garden, the Great Queen, the crow, the horse, the eel, the wolf, the cow. She is death, death, death, and life, life, life, life, life.

Lepidolite is my Spirit Animal

I’ll admit, I’m not totally on board with the whole crystal magic thing. Partly I have really bad associations with crystals and polished stones; when I see them I think of the New Age movement, of flaky spirituality, of metaphysical quick fixes and superstition and people who claim a different “spirit animal” every week. (I really hate the term “spirit animal.” If you’d like to know why, kindly follow this link I found in two seconds on Google.) I once saw a documentary that showed New Age practitioners stuffing crystals between the stones of Mayan pyramids. The locals, as you can imagine, weren’t impressed.

Partly it’s the cost and luxury associated with owning even one crystal or polished stone, let alone several, or dozens, or hundreds. As Marian Green points out in A Witch Alone, crystals have to be harvested from the caves and veins in which they grow, and a crystal doesn’t grow back as quickly as a sprig of rosemary. We are tearing ancient caves apart in order to peddle rocks at metaphysical shops. I cringe when I read about people grinding up rubies and drinking them. It’s a matter of scale, of course. It’s not a huge problem when there are a handful of crystal balls here and there…but when every single Witch, Pagan, magician, or New Ager needs to have an entire collection of stones in order to work? That’s not magic. That’s not spirituality. That’s Capitalism urging us to hoard more, more, more.

This isn’t to say that I automatically disbelieve that crystals and stones each have distinct magical properties. I haven’t really investigated it. I haven’t weighed the evidence. I’ve used a couple of stones in charm bags, but of course it’s impossible to say whether the stones themselves had inherent powers or whether the effect came from the spells I worked into them.

I do have one small slab of selenite that I absolutely love. I picked it up in a shop one night and felt a rush of goodness go through me–the endorphin feeling I get when I hold something with a lot of power in it. My understanding is that the gypsum crystals are relatively common and easily formed (after all, they do dissolve in water, which lessens the likelihood that any particular one is a million years old), so I didn’t feel too bad about buying it.

Anyway, lepidolite.

I first came across lepidolite when I was wandering through a health food store. There was a small bowl of tumbled lepidolite stones, each costing 5 bucks, with a sign saying they helped with depression. The depression sign made me look twice–I was between medications at the time, and hurting–but it was the stones themselves that really made me stop.

Oh, lepidolite is beautiful! Look! Look at this stuff!

A hunk of rough lepidolite in various shades of purple.

A polished lepidolite egg in a stand.

 

LOOK!

Have you ever seen a finer lookin’ piece of mica.

I didn’t pay 5 dollars for a tumbled rock–this was in Westwood, where everything is out-of-this-world expensive. Parking for twenty minutes at the meter will cost most people about half a year’s salary, and you need to get an escrow agent to buy lunch. But I did develop a love for this stone.

Might it help with my depression? Well, the good news is that I later found an effective medication, so I’ve gone a few months without a crash. I do now have one small piece of lepidolite, which I’m planning to turn into a necklace. At the very least, it sometimes it serves as a little power object: something I can hold in my hand while I breathe, and calm down, and promise myself that as bad as things get, they always get better.

As for stones in general–I’ve enjoyed collecting rocks since I was a kid, so of course I have a few modest crystals and tumbled stones. Some pyrite, some amethyst, some rose quartz, the selenite. The way I see it, though, is that one appreciates beautiful objects more when they’re at least a little rare. Their beauty is actually a case for buying fewer of them. Do you want to get bored with your crystals, and find yourself buying more and more in order to compensate? Wouldn’t you rather restrain yourself until you find that perfect little stone? Would you rather have a dozen crystal wands that you never use, or one that you cherish?

Knowing where our traditions and technology come from, knowing what’s genuine and what’s manufactured, help us keep them authentic and alive.

Pagan Blog Project: Kitchen Witchcraft

I am very slowly learning to like cooking.

For years, my experiences with making food were a long string of stressful recipes and failed experiments. Such-and-such ingredient had to be added at exactly the right moment, but wait–I forgot to chop it! The dough should be stretchy after twenty minutes of kneading, but after thirty it was still chunky and brittle! The zucchini never browned no matter how long I fried it, and the sauce never tasted right no matter how careful I was to follow the instructions, and that almond meal I took a chance on because I wanted to be creative turned my muffins into little medallions with the mass and density of neutron stars.

Then I took a cooking class and learned a little more about flavor bases and knife work. Knowing the fundamentals made me less reliant on recipes, and while I wouldn’t necessarily say that it made my cooking taste better, it definitely made the process less frustrating.

Then we had a kid.

Unlike me, my husband has always been really interested in cooking…and unlike me, he leaves a gigantic mess in his wake. For years we were able to manage his messy tendencies and my neat freak-ness with a strict chore schedule, but after the baby came along, all hell broke loose. I often get home from work too tired to do anything but putz on the Internet–which is hilarious, because all I do at work is sit in front of a computer–which means my husband steps up to make dinner on most nights. I’m eternally grateful to him for that, but the price I pay is a kitchen that is constantly covered in smelly dishes and sticky countertops and open containers. I try to clean up a little before I go to bed. I really try. But damn, I am just so exhausted on weeknights, and half the time I have a migraine or a backache to boot.

When I think of a kitchen witch, I think of Kiki’s mom from Kiki’s Delivery Service. In case you’re not a Miyazaki fan, here’s a visual:

Kiki's mother pours a potion into a beaker. She is surrounded by plants, test tubes, and large windows looking out on a green landscape.

Not my kitchen.

I want a kitchen that’s clean. I want a kitchen that’s spacious. I want a kitchen that’s full of living herbs that aren’t succumbing to indoor aphids, and drying herbs that aren’t going moldy. I want a kitchen with enough room to lay out all my ingredients, with plenty of prep bowls that are all the right sizes for what I need to put in them, with a fully stocked spice rack and apothecary, with dishes that are clean and counters I could lick. Sometimes it feels like I’m never going to have that kitchen.

But when my kitchen occasionally approaches that state–when the dishes are done and the counters are clear and I’m able to sit down and leisurely make dinner for my family–I love cooking. I put on music. I prop the cookbook up on my little book stand and don’t have to hunch over to read it. When the conditions are right, I start to see, maybe for a few seconds here and there, how magical and sacred cooking can be.

*  *  *

When I think of a kitchen witch, I think of this quote from Marion Green’s A Witch Alone: “There is no place in modern magic for blunt blades, either symbolically or practically.”

Green is referring to the tradition of the athame being dull. I’ve never actually seen a dull athame–if a burglar walks in on me in ritual, they’re in for a world of pain–and the line is pretty dogmatic, but in terms of my own practice, I agree with her. The symbolism and power of an object can be greatly amplified, I think, when it has a practical use as well as a magical one. I remember reading about Starhawk’s use of her hedge clippers for her athame. I like the idea of transforming an ordinary object into a sacred one. I only use my own athame as an athame, because it’s a big dagger I bought way back in high school before I ever thought deeply about these things, but I like the idea that I could use it to cut if I needed to. Maybe someday I will, and hopefully not on a burglar.

My husband and I own a big wonderful red dutch oven, with a good patina on the bottom from many stews and soups, and I privately think of it as my cauldron. I’ve never brewed a potion in a large enough quantity to warrant using it for magic, though.

*  *  *

When I think of a kitchen witch, I think of herbalism.

I have a book on medicinal herbs and an affinity for essential oils, but that’s about as far as I’ve gotten in my attempts at amateur herbalism. I’m finally starting to break away from the purist idea that every herb I use has to come from my own garden. Container gardening in a drought is next to impossible, so that’s not going to happen anytime soon. (Oh, how I long for a yard.) A friend of mine started a little herb business and she orders ingredients from Rose Mountain. I need to understand that a kitchen witch doesn’t necessarily mean a country witch. A city witch can be a kitchen witch, too. We just need to adapt.

*  *  *

When I think of a kitchen witch, I think of fantasies, of idealism.

I think of that little cottage in Vermont that I want to find and retire in. You know the one–you might have dreamed of it, too. I think of TV shows and movies with huge budgets and carefully dressed sets. The house from Practical Magic doesn’t exist; I’ve seen witches’ homes with that much stuff in them, and in reality they’re dusty and smell like cat pee. I think of that herbal brew that instantly cures your headache, those ingredients that always smell lovely and never go bad. I think of having a million reasons to cook up potions and ointments, a steady stream of neighbors who need my services. I think of a life away from hot, smoggy, dusty, shallow, expensive Los Angeles.

None of these things exist. The Kitchen Witch, as we conceive of her, doesn’t exist.

Conversely, if you identify as a witch, chances are you’re at least a little bit of a kitchen witch. Because who can afford not to be?

*  *  *

When I think of a kitchen witch, I think of ordinary magic. I think of women who have been ostracized and exiled and tortured and killed for doing ordinary things.

When I finish this post, I will pick up my child from daycare, and we’ll go buy ingredients at Trader Joe’s. I’ll clean the kitchen and do the dishes while she watches her weekly portion of Kiki’s Delivery Service. Then I’ll sit down and make a meal that might not taste like Chez Panisse, but will be sacred and magical because I took plants that grew from the holy Earth and turned them into energy for my body and my family.

May your weekend be filled with plenty of ordinary blessings.

Pagan Blog Project

Pagan Blog Project: Journeys and Jet Planes

I will do your work, my Goddess, throughout the cycles of the day; I will mark you in my mind and on my hands; I will teach you to my children; I will remember you in my home and on my journeys.

Image description: a Venus of Willendorf totem on a Holiday Inn notepad.

My Goddess totem on my nightstand at the Holiday Inn.

This week I’m away from home, presenting at a professional conference. At these conferences, you live and breathe your profession. You go to the breakfast buffets, you go to the after-parties. You collapse in your hotel room and do it all again. It’s so easy to lose sight of your personal life, your spiritual life, your deepest self, your gods.

So I brought my little Goddess totem with me. I also brought two decks of Tarot cards. Two? I thought, putting the bag into my carryon. This is ridiculous. Even one is extra weight. But I couldn’t bring my baby daughter. I couldn’t bring my garden. I couldn’t bring my pentacle jewelry, not to a professional event. I couldn’t bring the Jacaranda tree I admire from my patio. So I brought what I could carry.

* * *

Tonight and last night I skyped with my husband and daughter. My daughter is going on two, and doesn’t really understand that sometimes the image on the screen is a living person who can see you. Last night she didn’t talk to me, but kept pointing to the front door and saying, “Mama!” Tonight she cried in distress and kept trying to close my husband’s computer screen.

Paradoxically, I read it as a sign of love. Seeing Mama reduced to a moving picture was upsetting. Where was the real Mama? What was going on with this doppelgänger? Two more days, I kept saying. You’ll see Mama on Sunday. But she has no idea what that means.

In my hotel room I watched a Johnson and Johnson Mother’s Day commercial and cried.

* * *

Before I came, I obeyed a whim and looked up Pagan stores in the city hosting the conference. I found one a couple of miles away from my hotel. I don’t have a rental car, though, so I dismissed the idea of stopping in.

Yet the idea kept nagging at me. Go to this store. Go to this store. But there are Pagan stores in my home city. And this one doesn’t even look very good. They have a whole section devoted to mugs with inspirational quotes on them! Yet–Go to this store, something keeps telling me. I don’t know why, and I feel embarrassed, but I actually looked up bus routes to get there. I may go tomorrow after the conference ends and not buy anything. As far as bizarre compulsions go, this one is pretty tame–the bus ride is only about 10 minutes–but whenever I obey inexplicable impulses like this, I fear that I’m slipping into lunacy. I really hope no one finds out I’m doing this.

On the other hand, to date, I’ve never regretted following my instincts. Not when it feels this important.

Maybe I want to go to this place to touch a little bit of community. Just a few minutes with kindred spirits in this faraway place, while I’m inhabiting a life that takes up most of my time, yet is only the tiniest fraction of who I truly am.

* * *

Today, on the way back to the hotel, I saw my very first red-winged blackbird. I never knew about red-winged blackbirds. The sight of this new creature nearly knocked me over.

To think–you can live 33 years, in three different states and four different countries, and never know a bird exists until you see it!

Afterwards, I flopped down on my bed, opened up Patheos, and read Rhyd Wildermuth’s “What I Know of a Creek,” which includes a brief thought on red-winged blackbirds. It was one of those subtle numinous moments–the ones that don’t feel momentous, but don’t feel like a coincidence, either.

I miss my baby girl so much.

* * *

The first line of this post is from my Pagan version of the Jewish Sh’ma. I don’t include it in my devotionals every single day, but I do find that the frequent repetition allows me to discover deeper layers of it.

I will remember you on my journeys. But remembering is more than just remembering. It’s feeling something in your body. It’s having it even when you’re not thinking about it.

I’ll go to the damn store tomorrow. Who knows, maybe some incredible mystical experience will happen and I’ll be changed forever. More likely, though, I’ll scratch the itch, walk out empty-handed, and never know exactly what was calling me there. As they say, regrets come from what you didn’t do, not from what you did. Still–wouldn’t it be nice if we Witches and Pagans had temples and groves to visit and not just stores? I’m really tired of stores.

May you recognize your gods in all of your journeys.

Pagan Blog Project: Dear Isis

Dear Isis,

I’m one of those devotees. You know the ones. You do them a favor once and then they think you’re their best friend. They become your groupie, follow you around, give you things you didn’t ask for and don’t really need.

Last year I needed something important, so I started drafting a spell. I’d been planning to work with Inanna but she directed me to you: “You’ll want Isis for this,” she said. “What you need isn’t really my specialty.” I hadn’t really thought about you for years and years–not since our Egyptology segment in sixth grade, I think–so the dream I had, with instructions on the work I needed to do, came out of left field. You know you’re doing your witchcraft right when you encounter surprises. Spells that shoot off in an unexpected direction. Dreams where you wake up and think, “that didn’t come from me.”

So I began my work with you. It was absolutely the right work to be doing, much better than the work I thought I’d do with Inanna. I’d just come back to witchcraft after many years away–oh, it felt so incredible to be back!–and you were the first deity to ever show up to one of my rituals. I knew I was doing what I was supposed to be doing.

But it took me awhile to realize that you only intended to work with me that one time.

See, I’d absorbed this idea that everyone has to have a matron goddess. Rationally I knew that wasn’t true at all, but somehow I couldn’t shake the idea. So I decided that my matron goddess must be you, since, well, you helped me with that thing I had to do that one time.

I read books. I did devotionals. I found primary sources, hymns and artwork. But I couldn’t figure out why nothing felt right, why my devotion to you seemed to clash with my devotion to my practice.

In hindsight, I think it was because you were pretty well-stocked on priestesses and dedicants. You had the Fellowship of Isis. You had the Kemetists. You’re one of the biggest, strongest, most beloved goddesses in human history. Your practices were well-established.

And the practices of your followers just weren’t right for me. I finally learned what the call of a goddess feels like when I heard the call of the Morrigan–a call that instantly integrated itself into the work I was doing, a partnership that, as surprising as it was (me? dedicated to a battle goddess?) clicked. There was no jealousy on your part. Just a gentle parting. With love and reverence, I took your image off my altar and placed it in my book of shadows.

I’m absolutely certain you and I will cross paths again, and I look forward to that day. Isis, you are so beautiful. You have my love, my admiration, and my gratitude.

paganblogproject.com

Pagan Blog Project: Horned God–To Cernunnos, With Love

Beloved God, Ancient Hunter, Quiet Shaman:

The first time you came to me was when I was in college, long before I ever learned who you were. I had a dream in which all people naturally grew antlers, but we all shaved them off. One of my friends–a very spiritual, mildly odd character–left his on, though, and in the dream I admired them and thought that I really should grow out my own. Back then, the only version of you I knew about was the Horned God of Wicca–but he was anonymous, described in only the vaguest terms in my Llewellyn books, and I thought (rightly, I think) that he was adapted from Pan. When I woke up the morning after the dream, I had no clue where all the antlers had come from or what they meant. All I knew was that I’d had a numinous experience. I knew something special had reached out to me.

(What does it mean that the person in my dream has since stagnated spiritually? What does it mean that he was the one with the antlers, and yet later lost his faith and became odd in an unpleasant way? Probably that spirituality isn’t a fixed quality, the way it’s depicted in stories; as one person’s spirituality waxes, another’s can wane.)

Sometimes it feels fine to call you the “Horned God.” Other times it feels distracting. Antlers aren’t horns; don’t Wiccans watch The Brain Scoop? Horns are permanent fixtures, but antlers grow and fall off, grow and fall off, every single year: a powerful meditation on impermanence. A mature stag spends as much energy growing his antlers as a doe spends growing a fetus. Then the antlers fall off. All that work for just one season of mating–and then, the next year, the stag does it all again. The Celts crafted beautiful artifacts and then threw them into bogs. They knew your mystery, Cernunnos: that you work, you pour love and effort into a thing, you craft it to perfection, and then…you let it go.

On the Gundestrup Cauldron, sweet Cernunnos, you’re seated like the Buddha. Even if the Celts never encountered Buddhism, the parallel is as apparent to me as a rune. You teach us about embracing cycles. You show us Friend Snake, symbol of rebirth. Hoof and horn, hoof and horn, all that dies shall be reborn.

My teacher once told us that when practitioners encounter a deity, that encounter is like the parable of the blind men feeling the elephant. One person feels the tail, another the trunk, and each walks away with a significantly different perception of the animal. Other Pagans write and sing about your aspects as hunter and sun god, and while I don’t doubt for a second that their perceptions are valid, those aren’t the aspects you’ve ever presented to me. When I experience you, Cernunnos, I see you in the forest, so silent and gentle that the animals come up to sniff. Oh, they say. You’re one of us.

After a fashion, you reply.

Remember the time, my beloved god, when I closed my eyes in the garden and you told me that the first thing I saw when I opened them would be your symbol? But I was looking at my nasturtiums when I closed my eyes, I thought. I already know what I’ll see when I open them. I tried it anyway. My eyes had moved while closed and I saw a pipe sticking out of the roof of the house next door. I’d never noticed that pipe. It was a perfect phallus.

I thought of the jacaranda tree a few yards away, preparing to burst into riotous blossom for spring.

Together, you and I praise the Goddess. You wander her surface, you fertilize her soil, you make love to her through the bees. You die and come back, die and come back. You, god of death, hold a plump, jingling purse. From the corpses of the dead come seedlings; from the pelts of the slain comes wealth. Corn and grain, corn and grain, all that falls shall rise again.

On my altar, your image is nestled between Isis and the Morrígan: Goddess of Life, Goddess of Death, and He Who Straddles the Two. (I know, that’s an astounding oversimplification, but Isis and the Morrígan will get their own love notes.)

You don the costume of the animals, wise shaman, and make them love you enough to give you their lives.

Same with witches like me.

May you be happy, dear deity. May you be well. May you be praised and remembered always.

Pagan Blog Project: Grey Magic (or, how to avoid a cult)

When I first started searching for other witches in my area, I went to Meetup.com and subscribed to a bunch of the Pagan groups. One of those groups called itself “The Positive Magickal Community” or something like that. The description on the group’s page was lengthy and terribly written–it was easily 2-3000 words and after struggling through it, I could barely tell what the group did–but I didn’t want to judge a group by whoever was in charge of its Meetup page, so despite that initial red flag, I joined.

You know how Meetup groups can ask potential members a few questions to get a feel for them? Usually it’s 2, maybe 3 questions: “What brings you to this group? What’s your favorite thing about X?” Partly these questions can be used to screen people; mostly, though, I see them used as ways to build a little bio for each member. It’s nice to click on someone’s name and see how they answered the questions. Well, this group had a full-length quiz. One of the questions asked me to define white, grey, and black magic.

I’d never heard of grey magic, so I made a guess: it was magic that focused on neither harming nor avoiding harm, but rather achieving a neutral outcome. I submitted my answers and moved on to the next Meetup group.

A few days later, I got an email from the organizer. The email stated that she did not do emails. Every potential member had to talk to her on the phone. Oh, and she didn’t do phone dates. Every potential member had to be available whenever she happened to call them. Could I give her my cell phone number?

At this point I started having some significant reservations, but I hadn’t yet met any witches in LA, so I clung to the hope that this was perhaps a normal group with an eccentric Meetup organizer. Over the next few days, I missed call after call from the organizer–she only called during working hours and grew increasingly annoyed that I wasn’t answering–but she finally managed to catch me when I wasn’t teaching or in a meeting. I went into a conference room. There was a problem with my application, she said, concerned. Could I clarify my thoughts on grey magic?

Sure. I basically reiterated what I’d said in the quiz. I admitted that I didn’t know much about it.

“Ahhhh,” she said, suddenly understanding. “Okay. So there’s a big controversy going on right now in the magical community over grey magic. Some people think it’s okay to just get whatever they want and not worry about who it hurts. Some people think it’s okay to just bounce energy back if they get hexed. But that’s not okay! Grey magic is basically black magic in disguise! And our community only practices white magic! Do you understand?”

“S…sure?” I said. Big controversy? That sounded like a big heap of baloney to me.

“So what are your thoughts on grey magic now that we’ve talked?” she said.

“Well…” I decided to take her at her word for the time being. “I suppose I don’t see much point in it. If someone hexes you and you bounce it back, then they haven’t learned anything, and they’ll probably just become an even angrier person.” Despite my best efforts to sound thoughtful, I could hear superstition coming out of my mouth and it felt creepy. “To me it violates the Jewish imperative to repair the world.”

“But do you think it’s okay?” she pressed. “Would you ever do it?”

Again, I took her at her word. “No,” I said.

“Good,” she said. “You’re in. But–I need you to do one last thing for me. I need you to go back and change your answer to reflect what we just talked about. Okay? Because I don’t want any ambiguity influencing our community.”

When we got off the phone, I decided that I’d try one meeting, and if it was super creepy and weird, then I never had to go back. I went back to the quiz and, to humor her, changed my answer to talk about how awful and evil grey magic is, and how no smart person would ever use it.

What followed was a series of experiences so bizarre they were almost comical. The organizer posted private events on the Meetup page, but hid the member list so no one could tell who else was in the group. You weren’t allowed to RSVP through the site–you had to call her and wait for her to call you back. (That was another rule she had: she had to be the one to call you. But no phone dates!) You had to attend a Dance of Universal Peace first, so that she could get a sense of you in person. Then you’d finally be allowed to attend a Positive Magickal Community event. I went to the damn Dance of Universal Peace and met her in person: she was dressed head to toe in velvet, with about a dozen charm bags hanging off her belt. Clearly she was protecting herself from a lot of hexes.

By this point, she’d been stringing me along for about a month, and I still hadn’t met the actual group. My hopes that the other members were sensible were rapidly dwindling, but when she finally offered me the coveted prize–an actual ritual with the actual group, at which I’d meet the actual people!–I decided to give it a try.

Then I found out that each ritual cost $20 because she needed to rent a massage table. Then I asked her about the childcare she’d mentioned at one point and she sent me an angry email telling me the deadline to request childcare had passed, and she was tired of irresponsible parents.

By the time the day of the ritual arrived (I had no idea what kind of ritual it was going to be, by the way–that information was classified), I desperately didn’t want to go, but I’d already hired a babysitter. I was on the verge of canceling and doing something else with my morning when I got three emails and a call from her simultaneously.

“You’re in another Meetup group!” she cried, outraged.

Yup. It was true. I was in two others.

“Some of the people in that group practice GREY MAGIC!” she said. “I can’t be interconnected with those people! As your teacher, I need you to dissociate yourself from them!”

By this point I’d decided never to interact with her again, so it was more out of morbid curiosity that I let her continue her rant. When she finally reached a pause, I suggested that I might not be a good match for the group.

“I think that intellectually, you’re not ready to commit to us,” she said, seething.

It was more about family-friendly rituals, I said, to be polite.

“You’re still exploring intellectually,” she said. “I’m going to remove you. From. The group. Okay?” She said it slowly to make sure I understood the implications.

When we hung up, I’d never felt so relieved.

A couple of weeks later, when I’d begun to meet other witches, I spoke to someone else who’d tried to join. “They had this grey magic question,” she said. “I answered that true magic isn’t any particular color, and I got this really nasty email saying, ‘you are not on a positive life path!'”

The other witches gasped and laughed, appalled. I told her my story and we all bonded over it.

I fear this post has gotten really snarky, so I’ll stop here, even though there were many more disturbing things about the group. So what are the morals of this story?

1) Always trust your instincts about a group. Don’t let wishful thinking get you caught up in something that doesn’t feel right. I know, this advice is obvious. But it’s so easy to forget when you’re in the middle of a situation. If the group demands exclusivity–especially before you’ve even met them–they’re no good. If a total stranger suddenly starts calling themselves your teacher, they’re no good. If they withhold more information than they give, THEY ARE NO GOOD.

2) Never, ever get mixed up in a group that’s obsessed with “white magic.” This person’s most prominent trait seemed to be that the more she committed herself to positive magic, the more bitter and angry she became. Trying to purge yourself of anything negative will only ever lead to frustration, and the more you dig into it, the more that frustration will make you lash out at other people. This person had a frightening desire for control over the people she interacted with–and every time I spoke to her, it seemed like that control was constantly beyond her grasp. She was a deeply unhappy person.

Was this group a cult, by standard definitions? I don’t know. I think it would have been a more clear-cut cult if this person had been more skilled at controlling people. I think she was striving to completely control the thoughts and actions of everyone in the group, but she couldn’t figure out how to accomplish it.

3) I still don’t know what the hell grey magic is supposed to be. Yes, I’ve googled it. Look, any practical spell is going to run the risk of having an adverse effect on someone, just like going to a job interview impacts someone else’s chance of getting that job. If you need money or whatever, add a modifier onto a spell like “may it harm none” or “for the highest good of all.” Then stop torturing yourself over the billions of lives you just ruined with your all-powerful magical abilities.

I’ve refrained from posting the organizer’s name, because she still has my phone number and I don’t want to draw her attention to me. The Meetup group doesn’t seem to exist anymore. But if you’re in the Los Angeles area, please, be cautious.

Pagan Blog Project: Fantasy

So I’m a Witch. I’m also a fantasy writer. I’m also a fantasy reader. This poses problems.

I don’t think I need to tell you about the enormous overlap between Pagans and fantasy enthusiasts. To some extent, I think it’s a healthy and predictable overlap: we like nature and ceremony and fairies, and fantasy fiction provides them in abundance. But I also think we always run the risk of letting our love of fantasy bleed into nostalgia and wishful thinking.

For instance, right now I’m reading a terrific fantasy novel: Flame of Sevenwaters by Juliet Marillier, a Druid in OBOD. The novel is about pre-Christian Celts and Druids, and is super good, and you should go out and get a copy right now. Obviously I can’t speak to Marillier’s intentions when writing the novel, but I have noticed that so far, her portrayal of Druids is pretty idealized. They’re wise, they’re aloof, they feel most comfortable outdoors. That doesn’t ring true to me. Druids were (are) flawed, messy human beings, just like the laypeople around them, and I’ve never known of a religious order that didn’t deal with the same conflicts and politics as lay society. Reading a novel in which my co-religionists are portrayed as spiritually perfect makes me deeply uncomfortable. (Let me stress, though, that I’m only about 50 pages in, so maybe things get messier.)

Then there’s my own fiction. In the YA novel I’m working on, people pull energy out of the earth to work magic. (Rule number one of fantasy: you gotta have your magic system figured out, otherwise you end up with a world populated by superheroes.) I write a scene in which people are pulling up earth energy to work magic…and then I go to a Reclaiming ritual in which I ground myself to raise a cone of power. I write another scene in which characters pray to their gods in the woods…and then I go do a devotional in the local state park. My Paganism isn’t usually on my mind when I work on my novel, but then I look back on what I’ve written and the influence is unmistakable.

And then I think–does Paganism influence fantasy, or does fantasy influence Paganism? I’ve known people for whom it’s the latter. Sometimes I fear that I’m one of them.

Because here’s the thing: I want my spiritual practice to be beautiful, and I want it to be green and numinous, but I also want it to trouble me. I want to learn to let go of craving and clinging, to avoid spiritual materialism. I want to find a power in myself that will change the world around me, rather than lead to self-absorption. I want to honor the gods, not turn them into trinkets.

I want to engage in spiritual play, but I don’t want to play pretend.

I suppose the best way to avoid nostalgia and wishful thinking in my fantasy writing is to focus on telling a good story, with flawed characters in an imperfect world. But even if I manage to keep my spirituality and my fiction separate, readers will still bring in their assumptions (if I go public under my real name, that is). Notice, for instance, the assumptions I made about Juliet Marillier? I don’t know if I would have noticed her treatment of Druids if I hadn’t read her bio before starting the book.

In the meantime, let me stress that Flame of Sevenwaters is fantastic* so far and you should read it. And I hope whatever you’re reading at the moment is giving you pleasure and joy.

* No pun intended.**

**Aw, heck, who am I kidding? I totally intended that pun.

Pagan Blog Project: Fetch Animals, Real and Fake

In college, my pagan friends and I went on a spirit animal vision quest.

If you want a really embarrassing story to tell when you get older, the best way to get it is to gather a bunch of white college kids with no training in meditation and throw some appropriated faux-Native spirituality at them. I don’t remember anything about my own vision quest, mainly because I thought it was dumb and I wasn’t into it, but my husband reminded me of a winning quote by a member of the group who, at the time, was obsessed with angels. “In my quest, I had wings,” he purportedly said. “I just knew I’d have wings!”

I feel like this is what “vision quests” look like for most Americans seeking alternative spiritualities. You decide ahead of time what idealized, romantic experience you want to have in your vision, and then you insert it. I’m guessing that “I just knew I…!” is a common refrain.

So when my teacher in Reclaiming led us through a power animal exercise, she began by explaining two things: 1) the idea of the power animal is not limited to Native culture, so we weren’t going to spend the next half hour playing Indian; and 2) the spirit world, like the real world, contains hucksters. In the real world, if you walk around convinced that you’re a seminar away from supreme enlightenment, then you’ll have no problem finding a “teacher” who will take your money and nurture your delusion. Same in the spirit world, my teacher said: if the animal that came to you was exactly the beautiful, shining creature you always! knew! you’d have as your guide, then that was a sign that someone was taking you for a ride.

Spiritual growth does a lot of things to you, but one thing it never does is massage your ego.

So, my teacher said, we needed to pay attention to surprises. Based on that, I expected my power animal–which, henceforth, I’ll call my fetch animal, in order to honor the European tradition I come from and avoid further damage to Native religions–to be some sort of ugly monster. Indeed, my teacher even used dripping fangs as an example of what an animal could look like. I was also afraid that I’d mess up the meditation and crowd out an authentic animal with one that I wanted.

When we got to the point in the meditation where the animal was supposed to appear, I was definitely surprised, but not because my animal was repulsive. In fact, it was pretty. Schlocky, actually. If you go into a knife store in a Republican area and look at the cringeworthy velvet paintings and porcelain figurines, you will see more than one reproduction of my fetch animal. (No, it’s not a wolf.)

When I googled fetch animals (I compulsively google everything I write about), I found this site. Look at that beautiful painting of familiars! Black cats and ravens and hares! If I could choose my fetches–I read one book that claims you can have more than one–I’d choose a red fox, a crow, and a stag, no contest. Then I’d sew myself the most beautiful witchy dress in the world and go wander the countryside with a stang and my familiars. Can you imagine? I would look so good!

I’d never intended to look for a fetch animal, and now that I guess I have one, I’m not sure what to do with it. I suppose the time will come to work with it. In the meantime: thank you, fetch animal, whether you’re a real being or an image I made up. You are the exact opposite of my personality, and you are exactly what I need in my spiritual work and my magic. I’m sorry your image has been schlockified. You are a beautiful, noble, inspiring creature.