Beltane – Sacred Sex

I’m continuing to republish a series of articles. This one was originally written in 2012.

In addition to the four Elements, on the cross-quarter days of the Wheel of the Year this year I’m going to explore four major themes or concepts that I think are deeply important in Wicca. Please note that Wicca is not the only kind of Paganism that there is and that even within Wicca interpretations vary widely, so this is not authoritative about anyone else’s practices or beliefs. It’s offered as food for thought.

Wicca is not a religion based on a text. Even the forms of worship vary tremendously, with nothing resembling a formal liturgy that is widely accepted or agreed upon. Most Wiccans, though, are familiar with a few important pieces of writing and many use them in ritual at times or consider them important reflections of the religion. The best-loved of these is Doreen Valiente’s The Charge of the Goddess.

The Charge exists in many forms and has been revised over the years by different practitioners. Here is a version by Starhawk, a famous feminist Pagan author. I’ll note that some people use the whole thing, but I personally only use the section from “Hear now the words of the Star Goddess…” to the end. In British Traditional Wicca, the Charge is read at each ritual, and others may use the Charge similarly, especially near Beltane. The reason is simple. One of the most oft-quoted lines of the Charge says:

Let My worship be in the heart that rejoices, for behold, all acts of love and pleasure are My rituals.

In Wicca, sex is sacred. This has a lot of metaphysical connotations: the union of Goddess and God is seen as the source of everything, and stories of that union take many forms. But it’s also about the purely human. Beltane is traditionally a fertility festival, even more so than Ostara, perhaps; as we begin to enjoy the longer days and warmer temperatures of spring and summer, it’s natural to be interested in making whoopee. And as we noted at Ostara, our nonhuman neighbors also tend to engage in acts of love and pleasure with great enthusiasm around this time of year.

But for me, it’s important to understand that this valorization of sex is about a lot more than it can seem. Yes, “all acts of love and pleasure” certainly refers to intercourse, and it also refers to a lot more than that; any loving act of pleasure is included, regardless of the genders of people involved. It doesn’t say “acts of love and pleasure that lead to conception” or even might lead to conception. To me, it’s a bit misleading to say that this is about fertility – unless one expands the concept of fertility to mean a lot more than simply making babies.

One of the ways I like to express this is to say that it’s not as much about having sex as it is about making love. My partner and I make love with each other in all kinds of ways that happen fully clothed and outside the bedroom: he makes dinner, I do the laundry, he gives me a foot rub, and we go to sleep having expressed our love for each other with great depth and passion, just not with “sex” per se. Don’t get me wrong – sex is one of my favorite ways of making love – it’s just not the only one, or the most important one for all situations.

Think also about the meanings of the word “intercourse.” Yes, it is usually used only to refer to sex these days. But historically, its meanings have included what today we might call “dialogue” or “exchange,” where people engage with each other in any number of non-physical ways. To me, these too can be acts of love and pleasure. When two friends have an engaging conversation that leads to the creation of a work of art, I can see that as a kind of non-sexual “intercourse” which has also brought forth something new in the world. And if a work of art has a life of its own, as we often express it metaphorically, then this too is a kind of fertility, of bringing new life into the world.

These expanded ideas of intercourse and fertility make my understanding of Wicca one where sex is sacred not because of sex acts themselves, but because it is one of the most wonderful, vital examples of a whole class of activity – all acts of love and pleasure. Wicca is about connections: connections within nature, connections to deity, and connections between individuals. All acts of love and pleasure that create and celebrate connections between people, especially ones that are fruitful or productive in those people’s lives, are sacred.

This weekend, participated in a ritual that included dancing the Maypole. The Maypole has a long history as a fertility symbol. But what struck me about it, as I steadied the pole and my friends whirled around me, was not the pole itself, but the network we wove as we did so. This wasn’t just about union between two people; it was also about community, coming together to celebrate how our interconnections are important to the fabric of our lives, and how those interactions bear fruit in so very many forms.

And those are what I celebrate this Beltane. Yes, I include plenty of bawdy humor and making love both in and out of the bedroom with my partner, but I also celebrate the ways that I connect with others: through song and story, image and word, through all the myriad interconnections that make my world the vibrant, vital place that it is. One of those is the Slacktiverse, and so I celebrate each and every one of you, too, this season. With that, I wish you many acts of love and pleasure, of many different kinds. Bright Beltane to you all!

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Daily Tarot Practice

I’ve discovered that a daily Tarot practice is a great way to get better insight into the meanings of the cards as they relate to everyday life. I’ve been working on my daily practice lately – and I’ll be writing more about that soon – and have made it a habit to draw three Tarot cards daily.

Like other kinds of daily practice, this is something that many teachers and books advise, but I don’t know how many people actually do it. I’ve been pleasantly surprised at how useful it’s been.

One of the things it often does is reflect back to me what I already know; you could make an argument that this is entirely what Tarot does, and it’s very useful! By highlighting some things and bringing them further into my conscious attention, Tarot helps me figure out what is most important for me to be concentrating on at a given time. This helps me use my own self-knowledge more effectively. For example, when I’m having a bad day with depression and I draw the Five of Cups, seeing the card reminds me to acknowledge my feelings and take extra time for self-care.

Another way daily work with the cards has helped is by allowing me to discover more mundane meanings of the cards in my life. I don’t know about you, but most of the meanings I’ve learned for cards are expressed in broad, generalized language that has a lot to do with the psychological implications of the cards. This is useful because it allows for a broad range of interpretations, but it doesn’t get into the nitty-gritty of practical meanings very much.

Those practical, mundane interpretations are something I’m discovering for myself. The Six of Swords can mean a lot of paperwork and bureaucratic hassle. The Lovers is a beautiful card, but the Two of Cups has more to do with connecting with my love in day to day life. And I can’t tell you how often lately the Chariot has come up when I’m going to spend a long day in the car.

If you’re thinking of starting a regular Tarot practice, start small – maybe even just drawing a card a day. If you’re learning Tarot, it can help you practice remembering the meanings of the cards. If you’re experienced, maybe you’ll find new meanings or just get a heads-up on what your day may hold for you. Either way, incorporating Tarot into your daily practice can be rewarding. I’d love to hear about how it works for you.

Posted in divination, Tarot | Tagged , | 3 Comments

Oklahoma bill to discriminate

Marriage licenses, doing it wrong edition!

The Oklahoma House has passed a bill that would require all marriage licenses to be signed by clergy. This is a direct attack on separation of church and state: it effectively requires people who want legal benefits which are administered by the state to interact with religion. This is doing it backwards – we ought to be working on separating civil and religious marriage, not further conflating them.

Now it’s true that I fought for the right to sign marriage licenses in Virginia as a clergy person, and I would do so again. I did that as a stop gap, because it’s one of the ways “real” religions are recognized and because until we get to a better separation of civil and religious marriage people want their clergy to be able to do that. It’s unfortunate that the option of having a civil license signing is seen as a “lesser” option, but that’s part of the problem. However, even at the time I said that I didn’t think this was the way it should be, and that I advocated separating civil and religious marriage celebrations.

What’s really nasty about the bill in Oklahoma is that the originators say that they are concerned about protecting the delicate feelings of the public servants who have to do marriage licenses. Apparently the mere possibility of being confronted with two actual gay people is deeply disturbing to these public servants. In reality, this is a way to increase discrimination by pushing a public function off onto private individuals – clergy – who have a legal right to discriminate.

The spurious explanation makes this bill even more disgusting. As a clergywoman, as the wife of someone who served his country for many years, and as a regular citizen, I find that handwaving defense egregiously offensive to the very idea of civil society.

Public servants have to be prepared to put their personal scruples aside in a multitude of ways. That’s why it’s called public service – you have to serve the public, not just do what you want to do for the people you find acceptable.

I just went through the process of getting my Ohio driver’s license. The public servants who do that work have to deal with lots and lots of people from all walks of life. In the relatively short time I spent in those offices, I saw people who looked like me and people who didn’t. There was a man with an offensive (to me) t-shirt and a woman wearing hijab. There were people who didn’t speak English and people who didn’t share my standards of personal hygiene. And all of them, every single one, deserves the exact same standard of consideration and service from those public servants.

And the folks in the driver’s license offices have a relatively straightforward job. If you choose to work in the court system, you’re going to be dealing with a lot of people who are there especially because they’ve done something that society considers unacceptable – and I don’t just mean smoking pot or driving while black. You’re going to be dealing with felons and deadbeat parents and all kinds of people. Even if you only ever work in the marriage office you’re going to be dealing with people who are on their third or sixth marriage, you’re going to be dealing with some guy in his 70s marrying an 18 year old where you can’t tell who is taking advantage of whom, you’re going to be dealing with some guy who has been divorced by his previous two wives for violent abuse but has found another woman who is convinced that he’s changed, and so on and so forth, day in and day out.

If you go into public service, you get to serve the public. No exceptions. You don’t get to put your feelings or personal preferences into the judgment space. It’s your job to see that the paperwork is filled out correctly, that they’ve got supporting documentation, and that everything is above board and legal according to the laws as they are currently constituted. When those laws change, you change with them. If you want them changed, you go out there on your private time just like every other citizen and do what you can. But at work you take your feelings and you put them someplace else and you serve the public.

This bill is especially insidious because there is so much potential for collateral damage. How are atheists supposed to get married? How are Catholic divorcees supposed to get married? Yes, most people would be able to find a friendly UU minister or somebody similar, but why should they have to? In order to get the state-administered legal benefits of marriage, they should be able to go to the state, file paperwork, and get a signed license.

Deep down, I don’t think this bill is really about protecting public servants’ feelings. I think that is an excuse, and the lack of consideration for the collateral damage is one indication that the real motivation is simple bigotry. Whether or not this bill passes the Oklahoma Senate and is implemented, we will see many, many more attempts like it because this is the modern-day equivalent of the attempts to avoid desegregation by closing the public schools.

This bill is nothing less than an attack on the fundamentals of civil society. Our society is trying to evolve to afford more basic civility to all its members, and as that evolution takes hold, one of the only possible responses by the fundamentalists is to try to tear down civil society as a whole. We cannot allow that to happen; as more of these attempts occur, we need to recognize them for what they are, call them out, and stop them in their tracks.

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Now in central Ohio

Just a quick update: for anyone interested in working with me, I am now teaching and offering services in the central Ohio area. See my pages on services and teaching for more.

I hope to have some classes and workshops to offer soon, so stay tuned or contact me to set something up!

Posted in announcements

Ostara – Element of Air

I’m continuing to republish a series of articles for the Wheel of the Year. This one first appeared in 2012.

We’ve been around the Wheel of the Year once together, so for the next iteration, I’m going to concentrate on the four Elements on the equinoxes and solstices and on four concepts that I see as fundamental to Wicca on the other Sabbats. For Ostara [1] we’ll start with the Element of Air.

I capitalize those words because I’m using them as proper nouns. The four Elements, as conceptualized by classical Greek philosophy, are not the same as the elements on the periodic table, and when I say Air, I’m not just talking about the stuff going in and out of your lungs. I’m referring to the archetype, the whole abstract concept which includes what you’re breathing, but it also includes the whirlwind and the summer breeze, the freezing breath of winter and the surprise of walking past lilacs in bloom.

And symbolically, the Element of Air represents even more than that. The four Elements can also be construed as broad categories with a wealth of symbolic meanings through what we call associations or correspondences. Most Wiccans, for example, cast a circle (or Circle, if you like) as part of their rituals. Each cardinal direction within that circle is associated with an Element. Correspondences differ – sometimes wildly – but I’m going to discuss the system that I use, which also happens to correspond to the one most commonly used. Just keep in mind that none of this is set in stone – or written on the wind. My associations are:

East – Air
South – Fire
West – Water
North – Earth

Now, since East (there’s those caps again) is where the sun rises, it’s associated with dawn, and also with springtime, as the “dawning” of the year. So Air also represents beginnings, a fresh start, and even “a fresh breath.” You’ll find that many of our cliches can be used to summarize these sorts of metaphorical connections; that doesn’t mean the connections are trite. To me, it’s an example of the way a lot of these metaphors are embedded very deeply in our culture and our thinking, as reflected in and mediated by language.

The Wheel of the Year and the circle also correspond. Each of the direction/Element pairings – called Quarters – is associated with one of the solstices or equinoxes, in my understanding. Yule is in the North, Ostara in the East, and so on. Then the other four Sabbats, often called cross-quarter days, take the positions in between. This makes Ostara the perfect time to reflect on the Element of Air.

Air is associated with travel and movement. Thinking back to the days before cars, this makes a great deal of sense; in Renaissance times, ships depended on the wind, and they were the major form of long-distance transportation. Even after that, steam power depended on using air pressure as a driving force.

In several mythologies, birds are the archetypal messengers of the gods, representing both this association with movement and the function of communication. And, after all, speech literally depends on air. Thus the realm of Air became the domain of language, and also of reasoning, deciding, judging, and other intellectual pursuits. Unfortunately, this is where Air can start to get a bad rap.

While this understanding of the Elements does go all the way back to Greek philosophy, the current understanding of it was transmitted to us in the Western world mostly by way of the Golden Dawn. This esoteric organization, most active around the end of the 1800s and beginning of the 1900s, collected and organized much occult knowledge. They are also the origin of the most familiar design of the Tarot deck, which can give a negative impression about Air.

Tarot originated during the Italian Renaissance and is actually the precursor of the modern deck of playing cards. I’m not going to go into too much history here; the upshot is that in the early 1900s, members of the Golden Dawn designed and commissioned a particular Tarot deck, variously called the Rider-Waite or the Rider-Waite-Smith (RWS), which has been the basis for most subsequent decks in English-speaking countries.

A Tarot deck consists of 78 cards: four suits, with ten numbered cards and four Court cards in each suit, and twenty-two independent cards with their own sequence, which are now called the Major Arcana. As the deck transformed into modern playing cards, the Major Arcana were dropped, the Court cards reduced to three (jack, queen, king), and the symbols of the four suits became spades, diamonds, hearts, and clubs.

In Tarot, the suits are Swords, Pentacles or Coins, Cups, and Staves, and the suit of Swords is most commonly associated with Air. [2] For various reasons, the Golden Dawn created images for these ten cards that included some of the most negative-seeming depictions in the deck. Now, Tarot images are complex things in and of themselves, and I’m not going to try to explain too much of that right here, so let me just say that some of the cards in the suit of Swords have basic interpretations such as depression and grief.

The Court cards, which are often interpreted as people involved in a particular situation, can also take the judging function of Air to an extreme; the Queen of Swords is frequently depicted or described as harsh, even shrewish. The King of Swords is stern and demanding; he’s a judge who won’t accept an excuse.

With all of this imagery going on, people who work with Tarot a lot, and especially with the RWS deck, can get kind of a negative impression of the Element of Air. There’s good reason to think that some of the seemingly negative imagery in this suit isn’t drawn directly from concepts about Air, but rather from other mythology that the Golden Dawn incorporated. Regardless, it’s important to remember that none of the Elements is exactly warm and cuddly: Fire isn’t meant to be played with, Water includes the tsunami and the flooding rains as well as the refreshing drink, and Earth by itself can be as barren and inhospitable as the depths of the desert.

And part of the complexity of Tarot is putting each image in context. While swords are meant for killing, not all blades are intended solely for destruction. Psychologically, the functions of judging, choosing, and deciding are absolutely necessary – when kept in balance.

This is why it’s hard to talk about each of the Elements alone. Part of what keeps the Elements in moderation is the way they exist in balance with each other. The spring weather includes the storms which help strip away the last of the dead leaves from last year and the gentle breezes that tease open the new buds. We need both, and the interplay of wind, water, and warmth that moves across the world is what allows for the variations and tempers the extremes.

With all of this in mind – the domain of Air – I invite you to enjoy this Ostara by finding a time when the weather is cooperative and maybe even a place where those sweet-smelling buds are opening. As you reflect on what air and Air mean to you, what roles they play in your life, and how you relate to this Element, take a deep, gentle breath. May it be the fresh start you need!

[1] In the Northern Hemisphere, the vernal equinox is approaching, which is Ostara, while in the Southern Hemisphere, it’s the autumnal equinox, which is Mabon.

[2] This is a point of disagreement which I will address in greater detail in the Litha piece.

Posted in Pagan, Tarot, theaology | Tagged , , , ,

Personal is political: House edition

This is another entry for the I Hate Patriarchy file:

My partner and I are in the midst of buying a house. As part of this process I have gone to a moderate amount of work to educate myself about the basic mechanics of houses. Learning about why icicles look pretty but are a bad sign, what a stack is, what those things poking out of the roof are, why they’re there, and so on. Identifying soffits and baffles, sump pumps and stacks, grade and drain, and on and on.

Somewhere along the way I realized that I was having to learn this stuff for the first time not just because I have spent my adult life in apartments but because when I did live in a house, my mother didn’t teach me. Because she didn’t know. Because Patriarchy.

I vividly remember her helping me with a class project in middle school that involved some kind of very basic nailing pieces of wood together. I was having trouble with it, and Mom wasn’t very successful either. As she wrestled with it, she grumbled, “I wish I’d taken shop class!”

Back when she was in school, the girls took home economics and the boys took shop. Home economics taught Mom very little, because as the oldest of four (soon to become five) kids, she was already helping run the household. But she remained uninformed about mechanical type matters and that ignorance often made her nervous and even angry.

My grandmother didn’t learn these things either, even in her adult life when she was living in a home alone. So she never taught Mom. I don’t know how much my father knew, but as he was raised without his father, I don’t think he ever had an opportunity to learn, because his mother wouldn’t have known about mechanical matters either.

I’m not talking about advanced handyman stuff here. I’m talking about things like how a septic system works, and how often it has to be maintained, which is necessary knowledge for someone who lives in a home with a septic system. As a result, I wound up dealing with a major septic issue at her house at the same time my mother was in the hospital having surgery. This is the equivalent of not realizing that you have to change the oil in your car, except that with a house there’s about five major systems that you have to think about, and the issues can be more subtle in terms of building up over time.

Mom didn’t maintain her house well, and now I realize that was because she didn’t know how. Admittedly, she could have done more to learn, but the same barriers that prevented her from learning as a child or a young adult still made it difficult as she got older, and it’s hard to realize what you don’t know. As a result, over the last few years and especially the last few months, I’ve had to deal with a series of issues at her house that have been unpleasant.

Her life could have been better if she had known these things. My life could have been much, much easier if she had. But she didn’t, because Patriarchy.

I’m glad it’s easier for me to educate myself about these matters, and that I have the opportunity to overcome the prejudices and blind stupidity that hurt my mother and that have made my life more difficult. But I shouldn’t have had to overcome those barriers.

The longer I live, the more I see the wisdom in the saying that the personal is political. The political certainly is personal: the prejudices have affected me and my family in terms of emotions, health, and finances. Taking back some control, overcoming those barriers in my own personal life, is nothing less than a political act to try to make the future a better place – for myself, for my family, and for everyone.

Posted in feminism | 3 Comments

Review – Divorcing a Real Witch

Rajchel, Diana. Divorcing a Real Witch: For Pagans and the people that used to love them. Moon Books, 2014. 190 pages.

Diana Rajchel takes a very clear stand that divorce is a life passage that some people go through which involves pain and grief that, like other life passages, lead to an opportunity for renewal. Within this approach, her work is intended as a resource for those going through divorce or its after effects. She shares personal reflection, tries to position divorce within a Wiccan worldview, and offers healing methods for coping with divorce and the accompanying changes through spiritual techniques.

She begins with a discussion of divorce, why people might choose to divorce, especially women, and how divorce fits into a Wiccan worldview, system of ethics, and spiritual practice. This discussion broadens into how divorce is seen in the wider culture, including ways that those who choose to divorce may encounter friction with friends, family, and other relationships. This is not a work to help those trying to make a last-ditch attempt to save a marriage; Rajchel takes divorce as a fact of life – and a fact of the reader’s life. Her view of divorce as a life passage rejects the characterization of “broken homes” and the disproportionate blaming of women that often attach to divorce; she asserts early on that “Divorce is not the fault of a massive failure of character.” (xiii) This nonjudgmental approach is refreshingly direct and appropriately sets the stage for helping readers heal.

Rajchel’s writing is part personal reflection, part handbook, part survey report, and part ritual resource, which makes for an interesting mix. Her discussions of what divorcees might go through is clearly informed by her personal experience, which makes them much more valuable. She has clearly done an immense amount of personal work to process her own experience and be able to discuss the wisdom gained. The resources she has created are aimed squarely at those very personal experiences.

The middle chapters contain most of the resources, which include a number of different rituals, meditations, and other techniques. Rajchel suggests reflections that will shape however the reader chooses to personalize the work, then offers several different variations of a handparting ritual, including versions with one or both members of a couple present, an officiant or not, and more.

Possibly even more valuable are a whole series of guided meditations aimed at dealing with different specific emotional experiences that are likely to arise during and after the process of grieving an ended relationship. Rajchel speaks wisely about the emotional issues that can occur, framing them as a type of grief, and explicitly acknowledging that emotions will recur, change at their own pace, and should not be forced to fit anyone else’s framework or expectations. She also recommends that readers seek additional help such as counseling when needed. With that in mind, her wide variety of meditations and associated techniques are a rich field of resources for processing these emotions in a spiritual perspective.

To balance the personal nature of the experience she brings to her writing, Rajchel does try to get outside her own perspective. She acknowledges same-sex couples, and the differences and difficulties they may face in these situations, and briefly touches on some of the issues that arise when couples with children divorce. In trying to expand her perspective, Rajchel apparently conducted a survey of other Pagans from a number of traditions, but she fails to describe how the survey was created and administered, nor does she describe the overall purpose or conclusions of the survey. The lack of information about this survey is one of the weak points of the work. She cites a few summaries, but mostly uses qualitative and anecdotal reports from within the survey, including some vignettes interspersed with the main text. There are many more of her own personal vignettes, and sometimes I found it difficult to determine which were which.

The other major problem with this book is that the organization and structure are haphazard. Chapter titles reveal their repetitive nature, and while there is an attempt to progress from discussion to rituals to further discussion to conclusions, the lack of an overarching structure makes it unclear why some choices of topic were made and where the reader should turn for a particular topic. On the other hand, the episodic nature of the writing is amenable to a reader who is going through a particularly painful life passage and who may want to pick up the book, scan one part, put it down, and take it up again at a later point. Regardless, the rituals and meditations, as well as the overall perspective on divorce as a life passage from a Wiccan perspective make it a valuable work.

Rajchel expresses her purpose by saying “We must become our own heroes because no myths deal with failed interdependence.” (7) While I might quibble that some myths address irreparable breakdowns in trust and intimate relationships, her overall point is quite true – divorce as we know it is a fact of life, for Pagans as for others, and it is not something for which we have a standard narrative template, mythical or otherwise. It is up to us to shape our own personal and spiritual responses to it in the ways that are best for us. Rajchel’s book provides valuable and important resources for doing that work.

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