Thursday, December 25, 2014

The Light of Humanity in the Dark.

The Winter Solstice marks the returning of the light in the Northern Hemisphere - and despite marking the darkest point we reach in a year, I'm always more optimistic about it than the Summer one. As in, it's going to get better and brighter after this day.  Yet, it also marks the beginning of Winter, not the end.

If you look at all of the religious holidays celebrated this time of year, they are all about light and bounty. We put lights up, we light candles, we decorate (with useful resources!), we feast and we gather with family and friends,. There's the notion of "goodwill towards men" and providing for the needy/less fortunate - aka, being charitable.

This particular cycle, I have been contemplating two aspects especially: the darkness and the seasonal goodwill - and I would like to share my thoughts with you.

The Benefit of the Darkness:
This year, the Solstice coincided with a New Moon - the darkest part of the moon cycle.  So not only was the night extra long, it was extra dark. I found myself in the days leading up to Yule being under the weather, and not accomplishing a lot.  Sure, I got some stuff done, but I wasn't as productive as I had hoped I would be.  It just wasn't possible with my body refusing to cooperate. It occurred to me that I could either be upset and depressed about that (coupled with the lack of light bringing me down) - or I could see it as a time of hibernation and renewal.  Much like a field lays fallow or the darkness of an egg or cocoon as a new being develops, this period of rest is a time of recharging, of preparation for the new year.

With all the stress that society lays down upon us regarding work, money, family, and all the "supposed-to's" - we often forget to take care of ourselves, which not only damages us physically, but also emotionally, mentally, and spiritually.  The darkness isn't to be feared as cold and desolate.  Instead, think about it as warm and embracing. Be kind to yourself, and remember it's not being selfish to care of yourself.  If you don't care of yourself, you can't be there for anyone else. And you will be prepared to appreciate the light even more when it returns.

Regarding Goodwill:
One thing that has long bugged me is the disproportionate focus on charity this time of year - when people need food, shelter, clothing all year long.  That we should also remember our family and friends all year round and cherish them - instead of when society or religion dictates an extra focus.

This year, I thought more about it all and had some realizations - and it comes back to that understanding that Winter is just beginning, with at least three more months of hard weather ahead of us.  Why do we gather and feast now? Well, historically we are celebrating the harvest of the Fall and prepare to face Winter.  Winter is a time of death, loss, and hunger, and so many of our customs have to do with not only appeasing Nature/The Gods, but also making good memories with those close to us in case the Winter takes us/them. It's the time where we would give to others in our villages whose harvest was not as successful. It's not only about celebrating what's good and taking care of ourselves, but also those around us - to reduce the loss, to preserve families and traditions. That we remind ourselves and each other of what's truly important.

As we've moved away from villages, hometowns, and family hearths over the centuries, we've become disconnected from that sense of community survival.  We aren't staring Death directly in the face or not seeing that others aren't doing as well (or perhaps we're experiencing either quietly, stoically, without making fuss about it).  But I do see that often those who are in the midst of struggle or face those terrible eyes are far more generous with what they have more than anyone else.  They still follow the pattern of community survival and understand what is most important.  They know it's not the stuff that matters, it's our interactions.

If we give to others, are we doing it to get a good "fill-in-the-blank" award or to somehow hopefully ward off the same from happening to us, to make them the other?  Surely, all help is valid, but the more we think about how we are all interwoven, the more we truly help others (and ourselves).  It's not we vs. them, it's all of us together in this existence.

So when we think about "goodwill" towards others, think about it as a reminder that we're all connected.  We're all here in the dark, fighting fears, growing our cocoons, preparing for the light.  That we're conscious of the hope that when we come out on the other side of it, we're even more appreciative and thankful for who and what we have.

We can be terrible to each other, but we have far more potential to be kind, understanding, and full of love. Start first in finding your own light, and then share it from there.

Thursday, November 6, 2014

The Balance of Ritual, Performance, & Ego

Photo of Tempest by The Dancer's Eye
This is a blog post that could just as easily be at home on my dance blog, but I think here is the best place for it. 

Where is the line between Ritual and Performance?  Not only for Sacred Dance (which can be a hot topic along the lines of "Can or should a trance dance be performed? How appropriate is that? And under what context?") but this is something that can be considered for almost any kind of ritual.  I've seen and participated in a lot of Ritual and Performance over the last two decades, and lately I've been thinking about what works...and what makes me want to bang my head on the nearest hard surface.  Of course, to each their own, but it still makes me wonder the why and how things work or don't work for me.

First, we must consider the question, what IS Ritual?
From my own website writings: Ritual is a very misunderstood entity. When most people think of ritual, they picture a very intricate, ornate, long, and intense ceremony. Ritual can be that, but it's most often not. Humans are ritualistic beings (not unlike cats), and do certain things every single day in order to make progress within that day or evening. It helps to bring meaning and order into daily living. Despite its mundane nature, it's a form of ritual. So between these two extremes, we see that ritual is done to bring meaning, purpose, and order to something. It can be very elaborate, or simple, as long as it works for you.

The following is one of my favorite explanations of ritual:"It is believed that the human need for some kind of formal, often public acknowledgement of significant events is one of the fundamental forces of our development as social beings. At the same time, ritual allows us to transcend our individual selves to gain a sense of participation with the greater environment of the forces controlling our singular and communal destinies." ­John T. Nelson, A Year in the Life of a Shinto Shrine
Ritual is also "a fusion of the powers believed to be inherent in the persons, objects, relationships, events, and histories which are represented by the ceremony itself." ­(Victor Turner)

So what about Performance? By simple definition it can be "an act of staging or presenting a play, concert, or other form of entertainment." I think a key element to consider is that Performance is done for some sort of audience, to communicate some sort type of idea, art, or other form of expression.  It opens up a dialogue and creates a shared experience.

Who is the audience? Depending on where and when Ritual is done, the audience can be active participants (part of a group activity/service), an observing contingent (such as a seated, paying audience in a theater), the performer/practitioner themselves (especially in solitary), and/or something/someone metaphysical (deity, spirit, elemental, ancestor, etc).  In that consideration, all Ritual contains some element of Performance, and that there are a lot of angles and nuances to consider when crafting Ritual.

Which brings us to Ego. Ego can be defined as "a person's sense of self-esteem or self-importance", "the part of the mind that mediates between the conscious and the unconscious and is responsible for reality testing and a sense of personal identity" or "a conscious thinking subject."  I think Ego, when it's integrated with Ritual and Performance, becomes the crucial element that makes it all work - or not.

How so? Well, it is definitely important to be confident in your abilities to accomplish what you have set out to do.  When focusing intent and working metaphysics, you cannot be shy or unfocused about what needs to be done.  You need to understand the parts you are bringing together, have a sense of timing and flow, and have a voice. The sum of these parts signifies a healthy Ego. It does not mean believing that you are MORE important than anyone or anything else (especially your audience), that it's your job to instruct, bestow, or pander to the audience - or completely exclude them all together. The "look how powerful/dark/smart I am" shtick falls flat and will be obviously hollow to a grounded practitioner.

So how does one avoid that trap?
-First, don't take yourself too seriously. Those who are truly confident don't feel the need to over-dramatize/demonstrate that point. It allows you to have permission to be more open to what's happening, to be more expressive, and communicate more freely. The more your try to show how "important" you are, the less it will work.
-Don't be afraid to laugh or to make a mistake - you'll actually trust yourself more.
-Don't put yourself above anyone else - we're all in this together and you never know who's watching.
-Do consider what it is that you wish to accomplish and how it can affect not only yourself, but others.
-Less is More. You don't have to over-explain everything, and don't rely on props to get your point across. Make them count, but don't make them the focus.  Also, don't believe that longer = better. Ask yourself is everything you're incorporating truly necessary to accomplish your goal?
-Clean up after yourself; physically and metaphysically.

Keep these simple ideas in mind and you will be on your way to crafting Ritual that will work in more ways than you could have ever imagined!

Tuesday, October 14, 2014

Go Ahead and Worship Trees

Seward Park, Seattle, WA
Out and about today, I saw a bumper sticker that said "Worship the Creator, Not the Creation."  And, as probably was its intent, it stopped my train of thought and made me consider it - but probably not for the reason they intended.

Occasionally when you identify as a Pagan (or Neo-Pagan, or follower of an "earth-based religion" - whatever flies your broom...), you'll get the question, "So does that mean you worship trees and dirt and stuff?"

Let's first look at the word "worship":

worship (ˈwɜːʃɪp)
vb, -ships, -shipping or -shipped, -ships, -shiping or -shiped
1. (Ecclesiastical Terms) (tr) to show profound religious devotion and respect to; adore or venerate (God or any person or thing considered divine)
2. (tr) to be devoted to and full of admiration for
3. (intr) to have or express feelings of profound adoration
4. (Ecclesiastical Terms) (intr) to attend services for worship
5. (tr) to honour
6. (Ecclesiastical Terms) religious adoration or devotion
7. (Ecclesiastical Terms) the formal expression of religious adoration; rites, prayers, etc
8. admiring love or devotion
9. dignity or standing

So essentially, to worship something or someone means to show or have respect/adoration for it. But really that question is more intended to mean "do you believe trees are GOD?" Which sounds silly when you put it that way, but that's what they're asking.

And when I think about it - the answer to both aspects is YES.  As a Pagan, I believe that there is a sacred/divine aspect to all of nature and what nature (including us) can create ourselves. If you consider God/Goddess/Deity/Spirit created everything in existence - and the act of creation is what makes deity, Deity -  then you cannot separate the Creator from the Creation.  If you wish to respect the Creator, then you must also respect the Creation.

It is this complete lack of respect for Creation that has landed our environment in such a perilous condition.  If your holy book says God put you in charge of what It made, gifting it to you, then where does it say that you should treat that gift like garbage? To overuse, abuse, and ruin it?  How does that show respect for the Creator? It doesn't.

If you want to show respect for an artist you like, you don't trash their work - you support it, purchase it, take care of it.  The work is not the artist, but the artist is part of the work. Similarly, our children are not us, but we are part of them.  The past is building the future, which is right now and everything else. All life is in a state of interdependent balance. There is an intricate pattern of life that must be acknowledged wholly - it cannot be separated simply to suit your own will.

So yes, you can say I worship trees and dirt and stuff.  I find the divine all around and within me, and my path is one of respect and responsibility.

Wednesday, October 8, 2014

In The Beginning...

It feels like another lifetime ago. (in a sense, it is...)
Tempest, circa 1999, photo by Anja Page

I'm not even sure how I managed to do it all.

In 1998, I formed a student group at RISD for Pagans. There was interest at Brown, just up the hill, and since we did have some crossover clubs, it was opened up to those students.  Then students from other local colleges wanted to come (RICC, URI, Bryant, Johnson & Wales, etc), so sure, the more the merrier.  Then folks who were college-age, but not in college or recently graduated wanted to come. And once you get past that point, you might as well open it up to anyone. And so the Cauldron of Annwyn Pagan Society came into existence. It became the largest open-path Pagan group in New England not associated with a church until it was disbanded at the end of 2001 (coinciding with my move to California.)  During that time, we had regular weekly and monthly meetings, rituals for esbats and sabbats, trips up to Salem, MA, held lighted labyrinths at Samhain in downtown Providence, organized the first RI Pagan Pride Day, and so forth. We worked with the print and TV news media to present Paganism in a positive light, and offered workshops and community outreach.

I also taught metaphysical classes, and built a tradition, forged from my own background and those I worked closely with.  I built a website to document it all and help others find their own paths.

And I was the Associate Editor of Crescent Magazine: A Pagan Publication of Art, Philosophy, & Belief - which involved writing, illustrating, curating, editing, and working with the business end of things. Through that, I attended the Pagan Leaders Summit in Bloomington, IN - which was an amazing event - I believe myself and the editor were the youngest folks in attendance.

I attended Starwood, Caduceus Rising, CUUPS Convocation, and other Pagan events/gatherings throughout New England and the Northeast.

All of this on top of finishing college, being married, working several jobs, and learning bellydance!

When I moved to California, I encountered a different sort of community.  Where Pagans in New England were dealing with a much more conservative/traditional environment, West Coast Pagans enjoyed more social acceptance in a relatively more progressive and culturally diverse region.

The more time I spent in the Bay Area, the more my overall personal focus shifted.  I missed my East Coast family/friends (and you can never really go back).  I was putting a lot more energy into my dancing and design, and I sadly burned out on working for the magazine.  Everything else I had in me went to making ends meet and trying to maintain balance in my relationships. I didn't feel I had anything else to contribute or anything more to give.  My spiritual path went from being very public to very internal and private - sometimes bringing elements into my dancing and on occasion helping out others with ritual and spellcraft.

In the last few years, my life began to shift again and taking root in a whole new way.  I've been inspired to create so much artwork and have changed much of my outlook on dance.  I look back at all of the information squirreled away on my website, and found there is much to share - as well as add to.  And so I have started this blog to share all of that information, thoughts, musings, and's a new beginning.