Donations in memory of Jean

In keeping with my mother’s wishes that people donate to libraries, I invite anyone who is interested to donate to the New Alexandrian Library in her memory. Please consider this as part of your holiday or end-of-year giving! Donations earmarked in her name will go towards funding a memorial plaque on a sculpture to be created for the library.

Donations can be made through PayPal to the address nal@sacredwheel.org

Or checks can be mailed to:

New Alexandrian Library
P.O. Box 582
Georgetown, DE 19947

Please earmark all donations in memory of Jean Anne “Cameo” Laing.

One of the things that made my mother so amazing was her willingness and desire to keep learning and growing throughout the duration of her lifetime. With these gifts, we will extend that blessing manyfold.

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Ritual for committing to daily practice using the Eight of Pentacles

The 8 of Pentacles is an image of an apprentice practicing a craft. The message of this card emphasizes that progress and rewards come from repeated, enduring practice. In this ritual you will commit to practicing a single action every day for the next week and a day.

Your commitment to practice does not need to be a big one. In fact, it’s important not to make it too big to start out with. It could be something as simple as “I will take a deep breath.” It could be brushing your teeth. (Since we’re working with the suit of Pentacles, choosing to do something good for your body would be wonderfully appropriate!) It could be deciding to put a dollar in your savings. It could be a commitment to name three things for which you’re grateful. You get the idea.

Make this commitment specific, measurable, and realistic. Specific means that you name exactly what you will do – instead of “I will work out,” say “I will walk a mile.” Measurable means that you will be able to tell for sure whether you’ve achieved it. Instead of “I will be grateful,” say “I will name three things for which I’m grateful.” Realistic means that this needs to be something you can fit into your existing life in the next week. Every day. No exceptions. That’s why I encourage you to pick something small. Tiny. Just one thing!

Oh, and this should be a specific action you will do, not something to refrain from doing. This isn’t giving up X or refusing to do Y. This is a positive action for you to practice.

For materials you will need eight tokens. I suggest pennies, because they neatly reflect the theme of the card, but you could use stones or beads or slips of paper or anything else you like.

You may want to use the Eight of Pentacles from your favorite Tarot deck. If you have an object or tool that you will use in your daily practice (a candle? a mug for your cup of tea?), it would be beneficial to include that as well.

Ritual:

Ground and center yourself.

As you cast the circle, think about the repeating nature of the circle.

Call the Quarters:

Powers of the East, Element of Air, blow through me with a fresh breath as I (re)commit myself to this daily practice. Hail and welcome!

Powers of the South, Element of Fire, burn in me with the dedication to carry this practice through every day. Hail and welcome!

Powers of the West, Element of Water, flow through me with the commitment to this daily practice. Hail and welcome!

Powers of the North, Element of Earth, ground me in the stability of this daily practice. Hail and welcome!

Invoke a goddess if one is appropriate to the practice you have chosen, or simply ground and center and commune with your landbase as you commit to yourself with this work.

Sit in the center of your circle. Arrange your tokens in front of you, but not on your altar. Reflect on why you have chosen this practice, at this time. Meditate on it, and consult your intuition and inner guidance to be sure that this is what you want to pursue for the next eight days.

Formulate your practice into a simple statement. Build a visualization of yourself doing it: what does it look like, feel like, mean to you? Will it be at the same time every day, or will it be something you do when you remember to? How will you make it work on days when it’s hard? Ask all your allies to help you commit to this single, simple daily practice for the next eight days.

When you are ready, bless your tokens to help you. For each one, pick it up and draw an invoking pentagram over it (starting from the top point down to the lower left) as you state your daily practice. Place it in a pile on your altar.

When you have blessed all eight, put your hands over the pile and send any extra energy into them as a whole.

Ground and center yourself again. Thank your landbase and any goddess that you called.

Thank the Quarters:

Powers of the North, Element of Earth, I will do what I have said! Let me gain strength from it. Go now with my thanks and praise. Hail and farewell!

Powers of the West, Element of Water, I will do what I have said! Let me gain equanimity from it. Go now with my thanks and praise. Hail and farewell!

Powers of the South, Element of Fire, I will do what I have said! Let me gain energy from it. Go now with my thanks and praise. Hail and farewell!

Powers of the East, Element of Air, I will do what I have said! Let me gain insight from it. Go now with my thanks and praise. Hail and farewell!

Ground and center yourself again.

After the ritual, put your tokens in a place where you will see them as you do your daily practice, if at all possible. Move one from the pile to a new pile every time you do your practice. At the end of the eight days, take time to reflect on what worked and what didn’t about this practice, and what you’ve learned and gained from the experience.

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Ritual for creating stability using the Four of Pentacles

The 4 of Pentacles is traditionally seen as depicting a miser, someone who clings to possessions and physical objects at the expense of all else. For the purposes of this ritual, I would like to propose an alternate interpretation: someone creating stability.

In Mary K Greer’s wonderful book 21 Ways to Read a Tarot Card, she suggests physically taking the position of the person depicted in a card. When I did this with the traditional Four of Pentacles, what I felt was that the person was holding the pentacle in front of herself almost as a shield or protection. The image also looks like a castle, and fours are typically about stability and balance. For myself, this fall has been a time of tremendous upheaval, and the whole Samhain season can feel that way to others as well. In response to that, the intent of this ritual is to help us create a sense of stability even while experiencing change.

I have written this as a largely silent ritual, but you may add words wherever you feel moved to do so.

Materials: Four stones – any stones will work, as long as they feel strong and stable; you can use your most precious crystals, or four stones found in your local landbase. I find that slightly larger stones give me a better sense of grounding, and you may actually prefer darker colored or ordinary stones for their grounding nature.
You may want to use the 4 of Pentacles from your favorite Tarot deck.

Ritual:

Ground and center yourself.

Cast the circle by walking it, imprinting your intention on the earth with your feet as you move.

Sit in the center of your circle.

Take the first stone, face East, and call the Powers of Air with your mind. Blow across the stone, and place it on the ground.

Take the second stone, face South, and call the Powers of Fire with your will. Warm the stone in your hands, and place it on the ground.

Take the third stone, face West, and call the Powers of Water with your heart. Lick your finger and touch it to the stone, then place it on the ground.

Take the fourth stone, face North, and call the Powers of Earth with your whole body. Feel the weight of the stone, and place it on the ground.

Meditate about what makes you feel stable or unstable, safe or unsafe at this time. Think about the ways you seek stability for yourself. What is working well for you and what is not working?

Reach out to the stones surrounding you and feel their stability, their fixed nature. Ground yourself more strongly into your landbase and know that it is always there for you.

Take up the position of the person in the traditional Four of Pentacles card, holding an imaginary disc in front of your body with one arm below it and one arm above it. Now instead of a coin or a shield begin to see this disc as the full moon, shining between your hands, glowing directly in front of you. How does the Goddess guide you to stability, even in the face of change?

When you are done, thank the Goddess and thank your landbase.

Touch each of the four stones in turn and silently thank the Powers of the Elements.

Open your circle by walking in the opposite direction.

Take time to reflect on your meditation over the next few days; you may wish to journal about it.

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Samhain – Learning to Listen

I am continuing to republish a series of articles originally written in 2011. I wrote this piece only a few months before my mother was diagnosed with cancer, and it is especially poignant in light of her recent passing.

May you be blessed with communication with all you love this Samhain.

I see Wicca as a religion of relationship. Samhain is the Sabbat that teaches us about the challenges and ineffable fulfillment of living in relationship.

Samhain has its roots in an ancient Celtic festival marking the beginning of winter. It is also the festival of the dead – not of death, although it does acknowledge that we live our lives in the midst of cycles that include death – but of the dead, especially those close to us who have died.

At this time of transition, as he days and nights transform themselves into the darker, cooler times of winter, folklore tells us that the Veil between our everyday world and the Otherworlds begins to thin. At liminal times like Samhain, as we move from the world of summer to the world of winter, it becomes easier for the Otherworlds, lands of enchantment and imagination, to make themselves felt in our normally real world. The Otherworlds are home to the spirits of our beloved dead as well as potentially many other kinds of beings, depending on the stories and traditions you know follow; they may include the Good Folk, the puca and the bean-sidhe, the kelpie of the well and the hinkypunk of the marsh, and other kinds of creatures as well.

These creatures and their tales inspired many of the traditions of Halloween which play on the possible relationships between humans and spirits. For those of us who have lost loved ones, though, it is the thinning of the Veil between us and our beloved dead that is the most important feature of Samhain. It makes this the time that we pay special attention to our relationships with those who have passed over.

During one conversation someone asked me how I could have a relationship with someone who isn’t alive anymore; how would that work, without the other person responding to me? Relationships with our beloved dead are certainly different from relationships with those who are alive, and more challenging to maintain, but the effort that goes into them teaches me more about what it means to live in relationship with others. Most of all, it helps me learn to listen.

The lack of active communication with my beloved dead does not represent, to me, an insuperable barrier to being in relationship. After all, we maintain what we think of as ongoing relationships with living people with whom we communicate infrequently; just because I haven’t spoken or written to someone in months doesn’t necessarily mean I have stopped relating to her. If my partner and I were separated by circumstances, no matter how infrequent communication was, the intensity of my relationship with him would not be dissolved simply by time and space. The ways we related during that time would be changed but not totally removed. When I think about, remember, hope and wish and pray for those I love, I am in some way relating to them. The challenge is to stay open to who those people actually are, not just who I might wish them to be. This is the importance of listening.

When I interact directly with people who I haven’t seen in some time, I am often struck by how their presence is more vivid than my memories or imagination of them. I may remember the prejudices, the follies, the foibles, as well as the charm, the wit, and the mannerisms, but distance often dulls those recollections, like a reproduction of a vibrant oil painting sketched in misty watercolors. When the impact and essence of the original impose themselves on me, it can be a shock to realize how much I downplayed or disregarded an aspect. This happens for both good traits and bad; seeing a relative in person reminds me that she is both kinder than I think about sometimes and more nauseatingly guilt-inducing than I would like to recall.

This, then, is the challenge of trying to be in relationship with someone without active input from the other side. We run the risk of wearing down the memory to just the parts that are comfortable for us, evening out all the sharp edges and unexpected valleys of the other’s personality into a featureless, indistinguishable lump. But it is worth noting that we can also do this wearing-down process perfectly well with people who we relate to on a regular basis: a relationship between people who see each other every day can eventually break down when one person says “You’re not who I thought you were.” Even for those who are alive, it’s easy for us to choose to relate to our image or caricature of a person rather than the person herself.

This is why learning to listen is at the heart of living in relationship. It’s a challenge to seek out the unexpected, the uncomfortable, the unusual, the unknown. We have to make the effort to acknowledge that someone with whom we’re in relationship is really an other – someone separate, distinct, different from ourselves and our ideas, images, and imaginings. This process of learning to listen, learning to be open and aware beyond ourselves calls us to be more than just ourselves as isolated individuals.

One of the traditional ways to relate to the deceased at this time of year is the dumb feast, where places are set for those who have passed over and the meal is held in silence. It combines a fundamental human kind of connection through shared food and drink with an explicit example of listening, of recognizing that for such a connection to be shared, we have to make space and time – and silence – for others. This form of contemplation is especially appropriate as we begin to move into winter, a time when the world as a whole becomes more quiet, more still. Trading speech, perhaps the most-used form of communication between people, for silence encourages us to engage in other forms of communication, forms which may be more amenable to other kinds of awareness and relationship.

Striving to be in relationship with people who are not immediately present is also a way to learn to be in relationship with others whose voices are hard to hear. In Wicca, I am in relationship with the land and water, with plants and animals, all of whom communicate with me in non-verbal ways. Like with an absent person, it is easy for me to hear only what I want to, to disregard the reality of these parts of my world in favor of the more comfortable constructs inside my own mind. But if I take time to listen, especially in non-verbal ways, they do speak to me, confronting me with the reality of their situation, more vivid and amazing than any imagination of my own.

Opening to this awareness also teaches me about how to be in relationship with those whose voices are too often silenced: people who are not like me, people who are underprivileged, people who are far away. When I challenge myself to remember the complexity of the people I love who have passed over, it makes me better prepared to acknowledge the complexities that someone else’s life may hold. It teaches me to seek out their voices, to be open to hearing from them in ways I might not otherwise expect, and even to be open to hearing things that make me uncomfortable, because I realize that is an essential part of an ongoing relationship.

Learning to listen pushes us to cultivate empathy and to cultivate a kind of joint awareness of ourselves and others that may even begin to blur the boundaries of what is self and what is other. This is where listening is not just the absence of talking. This is how listening becomes an act of awareness, of being present with and in the relationships that surround us.

To work with reality, as a good Witch must strive to do, I must first be aware of that reality. And that reality is a reality of relationships, the reality that our stories are all told together. We may try to shout more loudly, to assert complete control over our own narrative, or we may try to stop our ears entirely so that no one else’s story can interfere with our own. But either way, we deny ourselves the ability to live fully, because our lives are stories of relationship, stories told in dialogue.

An essential part of dialogue is listening. This listening is not an absence, but a fullness, a presence that participates in being together, in relating to the others in the dialogue. Like the not-so-empty space between things that is full of potential and interaction, and the silence between words that makes meaning possible, listening between beings is is what makes relationships possible. And that is the basis of life, for beings, like words, interenanimate each other. This is why I try to listen – to my beloved dead and to all the beings I live with in relationship.

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Candles for Jean

My mother, Jean, died last night.

Some of you knew her under her Craft name, Cameo.  Everyone who met her was impressed with her strength and grace. She was a true child of Brigid, as a nurse, as a mother, and as a woman.

We had been doing hospice care for her at home. She had one bad day, and when at the end of that day we were able to get pain control, she simply let go and passed away.

If you are moved to make remembrance of her, please light a candle in her name. If you can, send me a picture. Let’s light her way to the Uttermost West.

She asked that other remembrances be local acts of love and charity: thank a nurse, plant a tree, or donate to your local library.

Thank you all for your love and support.

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Mabon – The Myth of Progress

I’m continuing to republish a series of articles on the Sabbats originally written in 2011.

Mabon, the autumn equinox, is something of a blank slate. In the Wheel of the Year, the “cross-quarter days” are Celtic fire festivals; the other solar festivals – the solstices and the vernal equinox – are grounded in proto-Germanic cultures. In those Germanic cultures, though, the autumn equinox has no strong history of celebration; it doesn’t even have a distinguishing name. To keep the Wheel of the Year in balance, Gerald Gardner included the autumn equinox, but left most of the details open to interpretation. The name Mabon, drawn from Welsh mythology, came into common use later on, but doesn’t do much to specify the nature of the festival.

As a result, different ways of interpreting the multiple harvest festivals have sprung up. Some groups focus on the Celtic roots of Lunasa and leave the harvest symbolism to Mabon; others describe Lunasa as the start of the harvest and the equinox as its end, and may call the festival Harvest Home instead. [1] Still others describe Lunasa as the grain harvest and Mabon as the fruit harvest. It depends on the group, and the bioregion, and the weather. This multiplicity of interpretations is one of the things I love about Paganism: each open space is fertile soil where multiple myths can take root and flourish simultaneously.

Understanding and relating to Pagan myths has taken practice, though. When I first became Pagan, I used to be confused and sometimes downright irritated when I read tales of deities who didn’t seem very godlike, coming from a monotheistic perspective. I mean, they get drunk, they have fights, and they cheat on their spouses, not always in that order. They’re not exactly the kind of example we’d want to imitate in most cases.

As I grew in my practice and engaged more with the myths and with different kinds of stories, I gradually reached the conclusion that my assumption – that myths are stories about gods whom humans should seek to emulate – was a holdover from my Christian past. In Christianity, religious narratives about Jesus or good Christians are presented as exemplars for followers to emulate. This approach is very god-centered, and when taken to its (il)logical extreme, it can almost erase the adherent by reducing her to a mere reflection of the beatified.

I’ve come to see the older myths as human-centric stories. The gods act like humans – and do they ever! – except that the gods are bigger and stronger, so when they screw up, they royally – or maybe deifically? –  screw up. The myths reflect humans back to themselves, but enlarged. The stories don’t minimize the bad in favor of the good, or vice versa; they magnify all the parts and possibilities, or they add unique features that weren’t present before.

The myths give both storyteller and audience the chance to engage with human stories in an exaggerated setting so that they’re more interesting, more exciting, more dangerous, more tragic and more amazing. Throughout, though, they are fundamentally human stories.

This approach also helps me understand why so many overlapping, contradictory versions of the same myth can co-exist. The myths are no longer central; the teller and audience are, so it is natural for the people to adapt the myths to tell the stories they need to tell. No one is trying to find the single unchanging standard for behavior; the multiplicity of myths encourages us to adapt our responses to the situation, just as the storyteller working on the fly might have to alter the ending to fit the narrative corner she backs herself into. What matters is that the story works, that it’s good enough, that it fits its context.

The most encouraging thing about this approach to the myths, though, is that because we’re telling them, we can change them. They grow with us over time. And that’s important, because my favorite myth is the myth of progress.

Historian Laurence Keeley, in his book on prehistoric warfare, wrote that modern people tend to view prehistory in terms of two competing myths: the myth of the golden age or the myth of progress. [2] The myth of the golden age conceives of the world as continually declining. It leads us to assume that the past was always better than the present – if not in hygiene or life expectancy, then in some in some ineffable but presumably more important characteristics like social structure and morality. The myth of progress supposes the polar opposite: it tells a story of continuous development, usually with technological and social development being used as evidence of the present’s superiority.

It is quite accurate to describe both of these worldviews as myths; as the Slacktiverse’s motto says, it’s usually more complicated than that. Depending on the period and place that a historical narrative tries to describe, and what the narrative’s author views as “good,” it may seem that these myths take turns driving alternating ages of development and decay, or that one is predominant for all the period under consideration, or both, or neither.

For example, the history of Europe in the centuries after the end of the Roman Empire is usually told in accord with the myth of the golden age, while the history of the time around the Renaissance and the Enlightenment is usually presented as progress. Neither of these is entirely true or entirely false, especially depending on who and what the person telling the story considers important. Each framing, though, highlights some aspects and supports some conclusions, while pushing other matters into the background.

For the present moment, I try to make narratives that loosely fit with the myth of progress. I think that trying to tell our own stories as a part of the myth of the golden age is fundamentally discouraging, but trying to tell them as part of the myth of progress is a fundamentally optimistic position which can not only make us feel good but inspire us to do good.

To me, starting from a position that assumes the past was better seems like an invitation to despair; we can’t get back there, after all, and if you think, as I do, that a certain amount of change is inevitable, then we may not even be able to hold on to the fragments of it we retain. The ability to learn and the ability to change are tied up together. An attitude of suspicion about all change seems to me to be inherently resistant to learning, and hence to growth.

The myth of progress, by contrast, is an invitation to hope. We can’t change the past; we have to acknowledge it in all its beauty and grandeur, its cruelty and despair. But with that acknowledgement, we free ourselves to work on what we can change: the present, with an eye towards the future. As Terry Pratchett wrote, if we do a good job of changing our own present, when we get to the future, the present will “turn out to be a past worth having.” [3]

In this way the myth of progress is more than an invitation to hopeful feelings: it is an invitation to hopeful action, to hope and love enacted. The myth of progress, and the mindset that comes with it, help me tell my stories in ways that guide my actions. Because I continue to have hope, I continue to put forth effort to make the world – and its stories – continue to improve.

And although some of the stories we tell are ones we really don’t want to live through, sometimes we tell ourselves stories that we do want to live up to, stories that inspire us to be better than we thought we were. I think America’s founders did that, for example, telling themselves a story about how things might work out much better in a society where religious liberty was guaranteed to all. The ones who found hope in that story were able to convince the ones who wanted to preserve an imaginary golden age of state-sponsored Christianity, and so there are clauses of the First Amendment to the Constitution which prohibit government establishment of a religion and guarantee free exercise to all.

But even at the time the Constitution was written, the story of free exercise for all religions was not the literal truth; it was in some ways a myth. Native Americans and slaves were not granted the rights the founders proposed, at least in part because they were seen as not really citizens and not fully human. State-sponsored Christian prayer continued in schools until the mid-20th century. Today, the US still lives up to that lofty ideal only imperfectly, but it has made tremendous strides towards making what was once a myth into a reality for more and more people. That gives me hope.

This is what I love about Mabon; more, perhaps, than any other Sabbat, it is a festival about which Pagans are actively making their own myths, in all their many forms. Mabon is an opportunity for us to look at our myths, and the stories we tell ourselves about our world, our past, and our potential futures. And since Mabon is so open to reinterpretation, it reminds us that if we don’t like those stories, or where they’re going, then maybe we can start telling the story differently, trying many versions, until we find the ones that we can live with and live in.

So, what’s your myth? How do you use a myth – of progress, or something else – to tell your own stories?


[1] Here I use the modernized Irish spelling for this holiday rather than the “Lughnasadh” spelling most Pagans are used to seeing.

[2] Keeley, Lawrence H. War Before Civilization. Oxford University Press, 1996, p 4-5.

[3] Pratchett, Terry. I Shall Wear Midnight. Harper Collins, 2010, p 336.

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Now at Pagan Square: Practice what’s not perfect

I’m suggesting that more of us take this back-to-school time to challenge ourselves to try something new without being limited by our previous assumptions of what we’re innately good at. Read more at Pagan Square.

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