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How to Have a Perfect Yule

It was twenty-five years ago:

Coming through the door, we stamped snow off our boots and were hit with a wall of noise. There must have been fifty people crowding the farmhouse that night. Some were locked in conversation, clustered in twos and threes.  Toddlers careened across the room at knee level, and out in the kitchen two guitarists and a drummer hunched over mismatched chairs, their music lost in the general roar.
. A wish-net filled with lights and tokens hung over the battered sofa, potluck foods were laid out in heaps, and the wood-stove cranked out needless heat. Hats and boots and mittens steamed in the entryway, friends greeted each other with hugs, and a man I’d never met before pressed lyrics into our hands.
. Outside under a dark sky studded with stars, the snow was too cold to make snowballs; inside, everything was laughter, and light, and noise.
. We sang the songs, we lit the candles, we called back the sun. At the end of the night, we took home a candle a…

Walking through Grief and Loss

I should not have been surprised that my last post touched a nerve; not only is it Black November, but grief knows no season.  That’s the thing about loss as universal: in any community, someone is grieving today.

As someone who used to do grief counseling for a living, I should have remembered that.  It is one of the things I have learned about grief; within a community, it’s never an abstract notion.

Working with death and dying, back when I was a counselor, taught me a lot about how humans grieve.  Aging and loss have taught me more.  It occurs to me that it might not be a bad idea to put some of the things I’ve learned into words;  if it is true that someone is always mourning a loss, it’s also true that any hope or comfort we can offer will always be useful to someone, too.
It turns out, for instance, that it is not futile to learn about grief.

In fact, it turns out that we get better at grief with practice.  Grief is hard work, but it is also a skill, and one that i…

Grief, Death, and the Wheel of the Year

This has been a tough fall for a lot of the people I love.

My daughter’s stepmother has died, my favorite aunt has cancer, and one of my closest Quaker friends lost his wife at the end of the summer; her memorial was on Samhain itself.  Throughout this fall, I’ve been watching as people I love feel grief and loss.

It has been a lot like watching them drown.

I know, intellectually, that grief rarely kills.  I know, intellectually, that the wrenching sobs and the painful moments in between are not the sounds of my friends and family dying too.  I know it, and they know it… intellectually.

It looks a lot like knowing, intellectually, that you’re not going to die while you’re being waterboarded.  I mean, probably.  Almost certainly… right?  And meanwhile, every cell in your body is screaming at you with the certainty that you cannot possibly go on living.

Grief is so much more terrible than we think it will be.  Grief is horrible.  Grief hurts, and just watching it leaves us…

November, and the Nurturing Dark

October’s landscape is all burning bush… and yellow aspen, orange maple, and smoldering-ember oak. October is brightness, and fire, and hurry.

November, though? Is ash.  November is the fire burned out, the hurry burned away. October takes the breath away.  But November is the world taking back that breath, pausing for rest.  November is the world scoured clean.

Perhaps it’s because I am a teacher; early fall seems like one demand after another to me, and I reach the end of October days like a marathon runner who staggers across the finish line.  By the time November rolls around, with the end of Daylight Savings Time, that extra hour of sleep feels long overdue.  I set my clock back in relief, and accustom myself to seeing the sun’s weak light in the mornings again–though I know the darkness will swallow it up again soon.

This morning, as the sun punched up over a horizon neatly cleared of leaves, I watched the slanted light sweep long shadows over fields gone bare of …

Samhain Is My Fertility Festival

There is just something about the light this time of year.

Of course, it helps that I live in New England, where the slanted light of autumn pours over leaves that are themselves turned gold.  There are mornings and afternoons  on my commute when it’s all I can do to watch the road.  In hurried glances, I gulp down visions: pale fields of bleaching corn,  mist that blankets meadows, and the way the sun burnishes all the leaves and the limbs of trees that hurry past my car.

That beauty stirs my gratitude, but it stirs other things as well.

When the blue of the hills grows soft, and the shadows in the woods are long; when crows make calligraphy against the sky, I can feel the Samhain’s tide rising within me, and as it rises, it glows.

I’m not one of those Pagans who can recite for you the names of all the chakras.  I don’t know their colors or their Sanskrit symbols.  I’m not even sure I’ve sensed them all.

But at Samhain time, I can feel warmth like an ember, low down in m…

Altruism, Becoming the Crone, and the Grandmother Effect

I’ve been working on my Crone’s Wings this year, and I’m here to tell you: menopause is a nuisance.
I never know, from one month to the next, whether I’m going to skip a period, spot every day for three weeks and then have a period, open the flood gates and have a super-period for three weeks in a row, or even whether this month is the end of the show.

And, yeah, I have mood swings, hot flashes, and migraine headaches–my record is three in one day–along with a host of other bothersome physical changes, from suddenly having hyper-sensitive skin to developing an allergy to chocolate.  (Now that was epic!)

I comfort myself with the knowledge that all this misery is what has given the human race its weirdly long lifespan.

No, seriously–I don’t just mean life feels longer when I’m having menopausal symptoms.  I mean that, according to theory, the evolution of menopause and the evolution of our long lives are linked.
At first blush, that may seem unlikely.  How could menopause–t…

The What They Did, Not the What They Are Conversation

Oh, my people, my people.

Clearly, discussions of cultural appropriation are the third rail of Pagan race discussions right now.
If you are one of the fifteen people in North America who has yet to read Tom Swiss’s frankly wrongheaded take on cultural appropriation, which has absolutely blown up into a flying shitstorm over at The Zen Pagan, I’ll give you the short version: he doesn’t believe we need the term at all, that the term is mere political correctness.

Of course, this idea is wildly popular with all of us white Pagans who want to stop taking on the annoying, stressful work of contemplating which of our own favorite practices might be cultural appropriation, and to changing them.  Tom has a lot of fans right now.

His idea is less popular with those who have been paying attention to how cultural appropriation causes actual harm to actual marginalized people, and can play right into reinforcing racist stereotypes that cast all but members of the dominant white race an…

Why Racism is Paganism's Business

Over the past year, I’ve heard a lot of variations on the theme of white Pagans saying they are tired of talking about racism, or don’t see how talking about racism is our business.

Leaving aside the notion that dismantling racism should be the business of people of color, because it affects them most (as opposed to the business of white people, who benefit most, and who hold the most power within our current, systemically racist social structure), I am bothered by the idea that racism is a social ill that’s somehow outside of the legitimate concerns of Pagans–of white Pagans, anyway. We don’t get to be a religion of immanent spirit without caring very much about what happens in the world.

Paganism is, in almost all of its branches, an embodied spirituality; we don’t hold that the world is maya, illusion, and that what happens here doesn’t matter.  We see omens in the wind, altars in one another’s bodies.  To my way of thinking, nothing that is in the world is outside of …

Theism, or Down to the Sea (Of Limitless Light)

Sometimes, when I talk about my experiences in Quaker meeting, I throw around the word “God.”
I do this not because I’m a monotheist or a Christian, but because I’m pretty sure the experiences of those who use that word in my Quaker meeting are consistent with my experiences in that context, and it was coming to feel precious–like a constant need to remind people of my specialness, my difference–never to use that commonly understood word when I discuss those shared experiences.
But then again… it doesn’t quite fit.

Sometimes I use the vague, generic word “Spirit.”  I use it as a collective noun, meaning something like, “Ground of All Being,” or, as I once put it in worship, “Big Fuzzy Warm Thing that Loves Us and Wants Us to Be Glad.”

But then again… it doesn’t quite fit.

I’ve sometimes thought about trying out other terms: “Elohim,” for instance, that curious plural noun for the supposedly singular God of Israel, or “Great Spirit,” which does convey at least a little of t…

Lammas Tidings, Late Harvests, and the End.

I have a friend, a Celticist, who calls Lammas the most movable of all the “movable feasts”–the agricultural festivals that also shape the Wiccan Wheel of the year.  This only makes sense: harvest festivals follow the harvest, and the harvest varies from place to place and from crop to crop.

Seasons ripen as the land tells them to, and as local conditions dictate: one year, I harvest my black raspberries in June; another year, not until the second week of July.

The shape of Lammas as we know it follows the harvest of barley in the British Isles, a matter of a mere handful of centuries ago.  Barley for bread and–more important still–barley for beer.  The feast of John Barleycorn celebrates that most popular of all forms of stored calories, alcohol. But still, the heart of the festival is the harvest of crops to store.   
I am a locavore.  Not a fanatical one: I drink coffee, I eat chocolate, and though grain for flour is raised locally–and organically–it costs the earth, …

The Value of a Garden

I love my garden to a ridiculous degree.

It's not all ridiculous. There are some traditional considerations behind my love.  Home grown tomatoes are a unique joy, and never running out of cucumbers is nifty, too.  And I come from a line of gardeners on both sides: I have many happy childhood memories of standing barefoot in my dad’s garden, feeling the warmth of the composting grass clippings he used to keep down the weeds as I picked us the lettuce or zucchini for our supper, and my aunt managed to feed a family of five with the summer produce she froze and canned herself every year.

I do my share of freezing and canning, too–but I came clean with myself this year about my garden: my love for my garden is not much about saving money or even the difference between a fresh, garden tomato and one from a grocery store.  None of those sensible, practical reasons are really where I draw my bottom line.

I figured this out in part because I had an awful spring.  I didn’t man…

Toward a Daily Spiritual Practice

When I was sixteen, I learned to play the guitar.

At first, I had a steel-stringed monstrosity from a discount store.  I remember how the strings had too much play in them, and they would cut my fingers until they bled.  But soon I’d saved a little money, and I was able to buy a second-hand Goya, and that guitar and I became close friends.  For almost two years, anywhere I went, the guitar went, too.   I worked my way through the instruction book I’d been given with that first guitar, and I picked up scraps of sheet music and chords that I could play with songs I already knew, and I badgered a lesson or two from a friend of a friend.  I played for my parents and their friends, I played and sang for the high school talent show.  I wrote love songs when I was in love, and sad songs when I was sad.  I played outdoors on the rocks at the lake in Maine, and by the wood stove after a day of skiing in the Berkshires.

Most of all, I played for myself, hunched over that guitar, f…

Even the Trees Have Moved

Twenty-five years ago, or the day before yesterday in subjective time, my friends and I spent a day laboring in the summer heat to build a ritual circle in a clearing in the woods.

We lifted rocks, we gathered refuse and scraps of wood, dug a firepit, and erected a small standing stone.  For the next five years, we used it often, gathering with other Pagans there for worship, camping in the deep, green moss nearby, and building trails and small shrines all around it in the woods.  It was a quiet place, and I loved it.  To this day, if I want to remember the feeling of magic, of hearts joined in Pagan community, all I need to do is find myself the smell of white pines and woodsmoke, and I am home.
But I fell in love, and I moved away, and life marched on, and I didn’t always return.  Somehow, I looked up, and decades had past since I had been in those woods.

And then I had the chance to go home again.

For many summers now, the beginning of August has been reserved for me a…

Are We the Land?

It’s raining.

Just another rainy summer day.  I hear the sighing of the traffic moving by on the road.  The spatter of the drops from the gutter against the stones of the porch.  The softer sound of individual drops against the leaves and soil of potted plants, and beyond that, the steady, murmuring sound of rain on maple leaves, hemlock needles, pines.

Probably because it is summer, and now that I am a school teacher, my summers are very much like those I had when I was a girl, growing up in a very similar New England landscape, my mind flows backward over all the rainy summer days of my childhood and adolescence.  Days I spent much as I have spent today: reading books, listening to the rain, venturing out into it, to the garden where a bird sits on a fence post, indifferent to the rain but timid of me.

I wonder, idly, how many rainy summer days I have lived in my life, surrounded by wet maples and wet grass.  A thousand?  I make some guesses, and conclude it is probabl…