Socially Responsible Magic: How Scarcity shows up in Internal Work

In Scarcity by Sendhil Mullainathan and Eldar Shafir, the authors discuss the issue of scarcity and explain how it is a mindset or state of consciousness that people experience when they don’t have access to enough of something they need. For example, if you are hungry all the time, the focus of your thoughts will mostly be on food. The scarcity mentality can help a person manage a pressing need, but overall costs the person in terms of quality of life because their mental focus is primarily on the need they are trying to fulfill. Scarcity effects our decision making processes, because decisions are made in context to what is scarce.

a dead tree growing out of a parched desert plain
Photo by _Marion / / CC0 Public Domain

I’ve been thinking about the scarcity mindset as it relates to doing internal work, because it occurs to me that internal work is done in part to address scarcity or perceived scarcity in one’s life. Scarcity shows up in many different forms. A person may not be in a state of hunger, and yet can still experience scarcity of some type that defines their behavior and choices. It seems to me that when you fixate on something obsessively, so that it becomes the predominant concern of your life, then everything else and everyone else around it is defined by what you fixate on. The scarcity of not having enough defines you and your interactions. Internal work, when done to address such an obsession, may not factor in that scarcity mindset, which could prove problematic in effectively resolving the issue.

In applying this mindset to some of the internal work I’ve done over the years, I’ve come to recognize how much that work has been motivated by a feeling of scarcity in my life that has existed for almost the entire span of my life (if not all of it). And, that’s just one form of scarcity. There have been others that have shown up at different points in my life and have contextually effected my decision making. I think that one of the problems that people have around scarcity is that they haven’t really been taught to think about it in a way that’s healthy. For the most part scarcity is considered something to be avoided, and yet ironically, I suspect there is no person that doesn’t experience some type of scarcity in their life. Obviously there are forms of it which are much worse than others, but in the refusal to actually accept and understand that scarcity is something that people do experience, I think a result is a lack of empathic awareness around scarcity. Instead many people do their best to avoid it and when they are reminded of it, such as when they see someone on a street corner with a sign asking for money, they may just look away and refuse to really be present with that person’s scarcity for fear that it’ll pass on to them or that they’ll come face to face with their own scarcity in a manner where it can’t be swept under the rug.

Books such as The Secret don’t deal with this issue either, because what they argue is that you attract the circumstances you are in, so if you’re feel scarcity in some area of your life it must be because you attracted it and wanted it. I don’t think any person wants the scarcity they are dealing with. It is a part of their lives, but not out of choice, so much as some need simply isn’t getting met and the lack of that need defines why they do what they do.

For internal work to address scarcity, a person necessarily must accept their own version of it and recognize how it effects their decisions and life. When they can see how much it shapes their life experiences, and truly be present with that, then perhaps there is an opportunity to work with it and ideally as a result become more accepting of others’ scarcity, so that instead of avoiding it, they actually face it and are motivated to do something beyond pretending that person on the side of the road doesn’t exist. In examining my own scarcity mindset and how it shows up in my life and also how I trick myself into not being present with it, I see how it has lead me to not acknowledging the scarcity I see around me. And I guess that makes sense in a weird kind of way, because you get so caught up in your own scarcity and however it manifests that it takes over your awareness of whatever else is around you. But if you can step back and actually acknowledge that you are experiencing scarcity of some type, then you can also become aware of what else you are avoiding.

I never looked at scarcity in relationship to how it showed up in my life or how my behavior and choices was shaped by it. I’m just starting the book, so I’m sure I’ll have further realizations, but in considering my own scarcity mindset and how my internal work has or hasn’t engaged it, I’m also looking at my relationship to scarcity in general and how I relate to people and their experiences with scarcity, which is a good step toward changing how I am present with it, or not as the case may be.

Socially Responsible Magic is published on alternate Wednesdays. Subscribe via RSS or e-mail!

The Busy Witch: The Magic of Asking

Recently, I finished reading Amanda Palmer’s book, The Art of Asking. It’s memoir and creative inspiration all rolled into one, and I’ve been thinking about a lot of the ideas in the book lately. Asking isn’t comfortable for me, and I’m sure this is true for many of us. Somewhere along the way, I ingested the idea that if I asked for what I wanted, I was greedy, or worse still, I was revealing too much about what I had and what I lacked. I guess there’s a tendency toward stoicism in my family; joys are celebrated with pride and praise, but troubles tend to be kept quiet, except within the family support system.

Photo by Jen McConnel
Photo by Jen McConnel

It’s taken me a long time to begin to open up to the magic in asking for things I need or want, and there IS magic involved. If I keep my dreams to myself, quietly nurturing them in the darkness of solitude, that’s all well and good (and, honestly, that’s how I am at the start of any project). But, I’ve realized that there comes a time when I have to call out to the Universe and say, “Hey, I’m ready for X to manifest, but I need a little help.” One thing I’ve learned as a Witch is that, while intention is important, clarity is crucial. If I don’t ask for what I want, whether it’s from the Universe, from my husband, or from my professional contacts, no one is going to give it to me.

I’m coming to see that asking isn’t greedy or selfish; it’s an act of ownership. It takes strength to be vulnerable, and as Palmer points out in her book, asking isn’t just about telling people what you want; when you ask, you give them permission to say “no.” And sometimes, the fear of that rejection is enough to keep us from asking. But, although random acts of kindness are beautiful, they’re still, well, random. We have to ask for what we need, and we have to be willing to accept both bounty and rejection (something I’ll explore in more detail in my next post).

There are a lot of ways to ask: you could speak the request aloud, create a vision board, work a specific spell, repeat your desire like a mantra, call up the person who might help you, or put it on social media. Explore a variety of options, but if you really want it, my instinct is to throw everything you’ve got into the request. We can’t predict the outcome, but as any of you who work in sales can attest, the first thing I learned in my college retail days was that every time you ask, you are statistically closer to hearing “yes”.

This week, challenge yourself to speak honestly and ask for what you really need, whether it’s a large or small thing. There’s a courageous magic that manifests when we can give voice to our desires, and as I’ve recently come to believe, you never know what’s possible until you ask. As long as you are speaking from your heart, remember that it doesn’t hurt to ask.

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Born-Again Witch: Will – the Last Leg of Faith

“Why are you still a Christian? If what you just said was true, I don’t think I could be a Christian anymore if I were you. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not trying to tell you what to do, I just want to understand how you are a Christian still.”

an owl in a tree illuminated by camera flash
An owl listening to late night conversations

It is one of those conversations you have after you’ve said good night half a dozen times. It’s just a few short hours before the sun will rise on the other side of the lake. The fire has died down and the scraggly trees reach silently above the palm meadows. We are leaning against someone’s car at the entrance to the rainbow gathering and it is colder than I think it could ever get here in Florida. I pull my poncho tighter and look up at the stars. They have become so crisp against the black sky, now that the dust stirred up by hundreds of feet has settled.

I saw rainbow people worshiping Jesus earlier today, but they were not part of the Christian camps. They were runaways who left families, churches, and society, but they say they still love Jesus. They read their bibles, pray, and sing poorly remembered fragments of hymns patched together into something I almost recognize. But they don’t call themselves Christians. To them, Christians are those other people, the ones who have churches back home which sponsor the Jesus kitchens. Sometimes they bring a dentist chair into the forest and offer free dental services. And they preach repentance or God’s unconditional love or both.

I don’t know where I fit in here and my friend’s question catches me off guard. I trace the outline of his dreadlocks against the moon’s reflection on the water. When we first met I thought his were long compared to my own baby dreads, but now mine are down to my waist. Some of his must reach down to his knees by now. It’s been a long time. We’ve met in other states and have done ministry together. Stephen was always more open and honest than some of the others and I trust him instinctively. But this question he just asked me? Wow. So honest. So real. I didn’t see it coming and I have no answer. I fight the urge to cry and I don’t even know why.  

In my previous posts I wrote about how I lost my Christian faith, of the confusion that came afterwards, and of a transformative magical circle. All of these are stories of personal experiences rather than theological reasons for my conversion. I have chosen to write about these moments first because Paganism puts far more emphasis on experience than theology. There are whole branches of Christianity that care little for the experiences of faith but focus on dogma and theology. When I was a Christian, I considered both important and tried to find the perfect balance between the two.

a tattoo of a flower with the name Jesus in the center
Jesus Tattoo

And, I thought that there were only these two legs of faith, personal experience and theology, intellect and reason, emotion and empiricism. Or in evangelical terms, I had my intellectual assent to the Bible’s inerrancy, and (my particular interpretation of) Christianity’s absolute truth. On the other hand, there was my relationship with Jesus, the love and emotions I felt for him, the sense of his presence, and all of the ways I experienced him in my life. If one leg grew weak, I could always stand on the other. If I didn’t feel his love or presence, I would cling to his Word, the Bible, because Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life (John 6:68). And if I had theological doubts, I was taught to trust in the Lord with all your heart and lean not on your own understanding (Proverbs 3:5). And I was convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons,neither the present nor the future, nor any powers,neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord (Romans 8:38).

That night in the Ocala forest, Stephen and I talked about these two legs of faith. He asked me about my studies in Bible College. I opened up to him and shared all of the doubts I had developed. So many ways in which Absolute Truth seemed neither absolute nor true anymore. All the little inconsistencies: the different ways to interpret the Bible, the history of theology, and more than anything, the willful ignorance of American Evangelicalism; in other words, I told him how the leg of truth was broken for me.

the sun setting behind trees over a lake
The sun setting over the Ocala gathering

Stephen didn’t judge. He didn’t try to argue or win me back to biblical inerrancy or ask me to trust. He just listened and acknowledged my questions and doubts, whether they made sense to him or not. And then, we talked about our experiences with Jesus, our relationship with him. In our circles it was common to put more emphasis on the experiential aspect of faith. But, to me this was a touchier subject, and I told him about my Dark Night of the Soul. How I hadn’t felt the presence of God in many years. How it all felt so dry. How worship was just an endless drag through all of the motions. How God’s love had become an abstract concept. How I didn’t experience God at all anymore. In essence, I was telling him that the second leg was also broken. That’s when Stephen asked the question. What, then, are you standing on?

Reason and experience, what else was there? Put your hope in God, for I will yet praise him, my Savior and my God. (Psalm 43:5) When experience and belief are gone, I will yet praise him. I was willing myself to be a Christian. I found neither comfort or joy in my faith anymore, nor did it make any sense to me, but I wanted to believe. Although that’s not exactly true, either. I didn’t really want to be a Christian anymore. But I really didn’t want to be a non-Christian, an apostate, a backslider, or a lost soul.

I was holding on for the sake of holding on.

I didn’t understand the place of will in Evangelicalism until I had a conversation with Gus DiZerega, the author of Pagans and Christians. He argued that will had supplanted the importance of intellect and experience in fundamentalism and had become the primary pillar of the Religious Right. I think he is right, but as evangelical Christians we didn’t want to reflect on the place of will in our religion. And yet, Jesus is supposed to be the author and perfecter of the Christian faith. He is seen as the one who initiates faith journeys and the one who keeps his followers from being taken from his hand. Christians can walk away, they can choose to give up the faith, they can reject him. Those are all acts of will, the free will of the believer. But to truly lose one’s faith despite the will to keep it? It goes against the core of Evangelical theology. My story shouldn’t exist. In Germany we have a saying: with cleverness the conclusion we drew, that that which shouldn’t be, cannot be true. Somewhere along the way, I am told, I simply must have made a willful choice against God for some sinful reason.

But nothing could be further from the truth. I willed myself to remain a Christian by all of the stubbornness I could summon; I gave it my all. In his autobiography, Surprised by Joy, C.S. Lewis writes that he was “the most dejected and reluctant convert in all of England.” I have thought of that line often. My will to be a Christian only failed me when I also lost my will to live. “Better to be dead than an apostate” was my thought and when I was faced with the choice, I almost chose the former. Instead I became the most dejected and reluctant apostate. But, I learned that it is much better to have lost all three legs and remain alive. Losing my will to believe, that last leg of faith, left me broken on the ground, but not forever. The end of one faith is not the end of the journey, and if one’s religion stands only on the leg of will, it is time to move on.

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The Path of She: Our Sovereign Souls

A dream vision: I am sitting on a throne, bearing the full regalia of sovereignty: crown, ring, scepter, and royal robe. Around me in every direction are innumerable thrones, interconnected by a web of silver, shimmering threads–one for every person, creature and life form on the living Earth. And, I know that when you approach my throne, you must bend and kiss my ring in recognition of my unique powers and gifts, and when I approach your throne I must do the same for you. There is no top or bottom of the pile–no better or worse–just infinite configurations of beauty and power.

a floating dock in the middle of a lack
Image courtesy of SheBard Media Inc.

This vision holds the core premise of the Path of She: we are infinitely beautiful and infinitely worthy. Every one of us carries a fragment of the ever-creating Universe, infused with our unique place and value within the greater order of things. We are born into this world to claim our place and to live an authentic, soul-based life, sourced from the beauty and power of our inner sovereignty.

Imagine what it would be like to step into this dream vision, with each of us claiming our destined place in the order of things, living in accordance with what is deep and best inside of us, in the company of others doing the same, and extending this same respect to the wild inhabitants and the elemental forces that share our Earth home.

Imagine the changes in our everyday lives. When we source from our best qualities, we naturally become better partners, better parents, better members of our communities, and better stewards of the Earth. When we stop scrabbling after the limited social markers of worthiness, our fellow human beings are no longer the competition, but beautiful beings with their own unique value and contribution. When our true need to live an authentic, soul-based life is met, our false, addictive hungers fall away, and we naturally walk the Earth more lightly.

To claim and live from our inner sovereignty is a revolutionary act. We step away from a culture determined to control us from the outside-in, and entrain us to a homogenized ethos and lifestyle that serves the unknown and unnamed needs of others. And we step into the inside-out imperatives of our unique powers and gifts. Deeper still, we change the very fabric of our human dreaming; we carve a template in the energetic realm that others can follow, and the Gods and Goddesses beam their otherworldly approval, because this is what they made us to be.

Be bold: step into this dream vision and make it your own. Listen to the voice of your soul that longs to live from the inside-out of your best qualities. Pay attention to the nagging discontent that lets you know what isn’t working in your life, and to the joy that illuminates the things that give you deep satisfaction and pleasure. Heed those around you that see and honor your beautiful presence and gifts. These are the markers that will guide you home to the well-spring of your inner sovereignty.

The potential to build this dream vision already exists within us. We are the new world we are waiting for. But we must choose it so. We must be bold and dare to live on our own terms, shining outward our unique essence and best gifts to a hungry world waiting for our authentic presence. Together, in our boldness, we can weave this shining web of the infinite thrones of our big, beautiful sovereign souls.

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The Path of She is published on alternate Saturdays; follow it via RSS or e-mail!  If you like Karen’s work, like her page on Facebook or maybe buy her book, Tale of the Lost Daughter, a fictional spiritual adventure into the life-changing world of magic and the sacred feminine.

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The Zen Pagan: The Fire Circle – All Kinds Magic Worked Here

“As old as human memory and deep within the myth collective / Gathering around a Fire is like a Pagan prime directive.” —Doktor Billy Bardo (a.k.a. William J. Thorpe)

We’re moving into summer Festival season, which means the return of one of my favorite things in the Universe — Fire Circles, those late-night bonfire drum and dance circles that are the heart of large Pagan gatherings. (For those of us not living in drought conditions or other fire hazards, that is.)

A bonfire at night near a lake
Photograph by tpsdave /

Or perhaps I should say that when done well, Fire Circles are one of my favorite things, weaving together a brilliant variety of energy into a unique bit of structured improvisational magic. But a bad night at the fire, with a bunch of novice drummers all trying to be louder and faster than each other and people standing around the fire blocking dancers and folks generally behaving in a low-consciousness manner, is a tragedy of wasted potential, a great deal of sound and fury signifying nothing but frustration.

So what does it take to have a Fire Circle that doesn’t suck?

Friday Night Fire Circle at FSG 2014. Photo courtesy Vann Godfrey.
Friday Night Fire Circle at FSG 2014
Photo courtesy Vann Godfrey

There are a lot of ways to do it. I’ve heard from Very Very Serious people who believe that there should be no talking or laughing going on while there is drumming. (I am not making that up.) I’ve heard Billy Bardo deliver his famous Fire Circle Rap and I’ve watched and learned from the Free Spirit Gathering’s Firegoddess for several years. I’ve talked and worked with people who prefer the highly structured yet still fluid “Alchemical Fire Circle” model developed by Jeff “Magnus” McBride and Abigail “Spinner” McBride, and I’ve danced with people who didn’t give a damn about magic but just wanted to get drunk and dance and party — not knowing that this, too, is a form of magic.

I’ve danced to the drums around the Starwood Bonfire — rumored to be large enough to be seen from orbit — and around candles in nightclubs and interfaith churches and warehouse studios.

In those discussions and debates — and sometimes heated arguments! — I’m come to the conclusion that the Fire Circle at a large Pagan gathering should welcome and invite as many types of magic as possible. Not necessarily all at once (that could be a bit of a muddle) but allowing them to arise and dissipate in their own natural flow.

I call this principle “All Kinds Magic Worked Here.” That came from a little mini-vision, a quick flash, I had while in the middle of an extended on-line discussion of the Fire Circle. I saw a ritual gate with a sign across the top with those words on it– probably inspired, somewhere in my brain, by a sign that used to appear on the Saturday Night Live music stage: “All Kinds Music Played Here.”

That sort of magic where drummers and dancers trance all night? We do that. The sort where you sit off to the side with a friend you haven’t seen in too long and share a bottle of mead? We do that. The sort where you smile at a lovely member of the appropriate sex and manage to catch their eye as you both dance around and a little while later are headed up the hill together? We do that. The sort where you’re all confused and hurt over something and someone says, “come walk around the fire with me” and just as you do, someone “coincidentally” starts a chant, like it was just for you? We do that. The sort where there’s a lacuna in the drumming, a hiatus, dead air, and someone steps out into the firelight and tells a beautiful story? We do that.

All Kinds Magic Worked Here

So how do you set the stage for that magic? That’s where something I call “The Fire Circle Triangle” comes in.

Physically, fire requires a triangle of elements — oxygen, fuel, and heat — to burn. Take away any one of these, and you don’t have a fire.

Fire Circles also rely on three elements: fire tenders, drummers, and dancers.

  • Fire tenders (and water carriers and other caretakers of the space) start the fire and keep it fed, and are responsible for keeping everyone safe and healthy. They often have to maneuver through the circle carrying heavy things. Give them the right of way and much love, for without them the circle is cold.
  • Drummers (and chanters, and other makers of joyful noise) take the heat and light of the fire and turn it into sound that reaches our hearts. Do not block them from the fire’s warmth, and give them space and much love, for without them the circle is silent.
  • Dancers (and flow artists and walking meditators and others who move to the beat) take the energy of the fire and the drums and transmute it into motion that moves our spirits. Do not crowd them into the fire, or block their path around it. Give them space in which to move and much love, for without them the circle is still.

Put these together and all kinds of magic can happen.

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The Zen Pagan appears every other Friday — for now. Changes are afoot! It looks like we’ll be coming to you more often soon, more info to come. You can keep up by subscribing via RSS or e-mail.

My next scheduled events are the Free Spirit Gathering in June and Starwood in July. I hope to make magic with you around the fire at one of them.

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Dandelion Seeds: Digging Deep and Reaching High

[Editor’s Note:  Please welcome Melissa Hill to the Agora!  Melissa will be writing Dandelion Seeds here on alternating Wednesdays.  As always, subscription links are located at the bottom of the article.  Welcome, Melissa!]

I am a pagan, poly, bisexual, farmer/artist/poet.

Whew. Okay, we got that out there.  Nice to meet you.   Writing a first blog post is weird.  It’s like a blind date.  How do I explain the essence of who I am and what I’m going to be trying to share with you in a thousand words?  I’m also a priestess, and so I know that answer:


Before you read it, take a moment and think about you, and how you might express your self-ness in a poem. It’s cheesy, I know. Some of the best things in life are cheesy.

I am a yellow flower in the sun
I am a lake, cold and still
I am a coyote on the run
I am an oak tree on the hill
I am a page in a yellowed book
I am a poem in the hand
I am a red stone in the brook
I am a fox in Wonderland
I am a swan rising in flight
I am a word upon the screen
I am a star spinning through the night
I am a scurrying mouse unseen
I am the sky lit by the rising day
I am a voice of the Earth Mother’s way
Who seeks the headwaters of the river?
Who pours offerings upon the flame?
And who reads the ancient riddles and speaks the many names?
Who knows the secrets of berry red and greenwood’s wicked thorn?
Who casts off ill and calls the blessing who cures and chants and prays?
For whom do the spirits wink and nod in the evening and the morn?
Who weaves the cloth of ancient lore with warp of knowledge new?

The answer to those questions is me, of course.  The Dandelionlady. It’s a name I took as an online handle, more than ten years ago now.  Sometimes small choices can shape large changes.

a dandelion surrounded by grass

I wasn’t always this person. I came from the endless lawn mowing suburbia.  Repetitions of strip mall, party store, and fast food restaurant were the landscape from which I emerged.  I was meant to achieve bigger and better things than to be a farmer, artist, priestess, and mother.  I was meant to wear a suit and carry a briefcase; I never was very good at that.  When I was in seventh grade I proclaimed that I would be a Garbage Woman and break into the field.  I had never seen a female garbage collector, and this threw my Dad into fits.   It was perfect.

But surprisingly, I wasn’t all that wrong.  I do love garbage.  I compost and recycle.  I use sustainable materials in my artwork and in my work as a farmer.  I am a farmer, but not of the tractor driving variety.  The dandelion has an incredibly strong taproot that can drive down into the most packed down, ruined dirt.  That’s why you often see them taking over in old parking lots and beside sidewalks. Like the dandelion I am tough and often found in stony ground.   I know how to break up the hardest soil, how to make fertile ground when you cannot find it.  I have learned the hard way that drying fruit with a solar dryer can be tough, that burdock root is a giant pain to pull out of the ground, no matter what the books say, and that the first sun-ripened tomato off the vine is literally the best thing in the world.

photograph of the author holding recently harvested carrots
Melissa Hill … and some carrots.

The dandelion is classified as a pioneer plant.  That means it grows where other things can’t grow.  It retakes damaged land and creates an environment that is more favorable for other plants to grow.   We pagans are pioneers.  But not of the sort that force people off their land. We should be the ones who are healing the land.  We are explorers of culture and religion.  Our religions are young and we are the ones who will shape them for the generations to come.  My job is to help that process.  I experiment and ask questions, I try new things and see what works.  This blog is my attempt to report back on those adventures.  To share the knowledge I have gained in my experiments, and to build a dialogue with other explorers of culture, religion, and sustainability.

I am lucky enough to live communally on an urban farm, raising my children to love the land, respect people of all creeds, and seek knowledge for its own sake. I am bisexual, poly, pagan, a druid priest, an artist, and a farmer trained in organic vegetable production.   So I know a little about living on the edge of consensual reality.

I have a background in psychology and in the course of my training as a priest of ADF I have studied anthropology, linguistics, ritual structure, trancework,  and magic.  In this blog we will talk about modern eco-philosophers such as David Abram and Terry Tempest Williams, the work of farmers such as Eliot Coleman, and the spiritual work of many people, both pagan and of other creeds.  The scope of this column will be broad because the scope of the issue is broad.  It must not only include the spiritual, but the physical as well.  Ritual mechanics and gardening practices both have their place in the world of the modern pagan.

My goal in this blog is to sort through all this knowledge to find the seeds of wisdom contained therein.   These are my Dandelion Seeds that I hope to share with you, dear reader.  May the gods bless this work, may it  be rooted in the Earth Mother, warmed by the sun, and enlivened by the spirit that resides in us all.  So be it.


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Letters From Midgard: Grace From Strange Places

[Editor’s Note:  Letters from Midgard was a column elsewhere at Patheos that now lacks a home.  As such, we’ll be adopting it here at the Agora!  You can find prior articles here.  Subscription links to the newer articles here on the Agora are below!]

It went quickly, as such things go. Pop came home one day and said he couldn’t swallow. This turned out to be a side effect of some obscure kind of cancer. There were attempts to save his life, but nothing worked. Six months later, it was over.

The extended family went to see him a lot during those six months. My folks lived on a remote island in Washington at the time, so going to see Mom and Pop was no small thing. There was the flight, and the drive, and the long wait for the ferry, followed by the long ride on the ferry. A trip I had always anticipated and enjoyed took on different colors.

I don’t know when he decided this, but he had already decided when he told us: his sons would not watch him die, or see him dead. Close to the end, I went to be with him for the last time. I told him a long story I thought I would put into a book one day. He liked it. At my request, he told me stories about himself when he was little. I know many such stories about my mom, but not so many about my dad. I hugged him, something we had never done much, because Men Shake Hands.

Photo Courtesy of Shutterstock.
Photo Courtesy of Shutterstock.

The ferry ride back to the mainland was like something out of a cinematographer’s dream. I stood on the stern deck and watched the sun set through several layers of clouds. The top layer turned pink. The next layer was red, then redder. The bottom layer was brilliant orange, with the occasional lightning bolt through the grayness overhead. Really. I am not making this up. Hail Thor!

The drive back to Seattle was uneventful. My flight home was not until the next morning, so I pulled into the airport motel and wondered what I was going to do for a few hours, preferably something that might take my mind off the topic of the last half-year. Across the motel parking lot, a strip joint had opened recently. Of the available choices, spending the evening looking at beautiful naked women seemed like a pretty good idea.

Just inside the door, I was greeted by a tall, muscular, stern young man in dark clothing who told me Strip Joint Rule #1. It was simple: Look, Don’t Touch. He asked if I understood and agreed. I said that I did.

The area was divided into halves. One half was a cabaret-like theater. The girls got up one at a time and did their thing on stage. Then, after putting their skimpy outfits back on again, they wandered out among the tables and took a seat beside the customers, guided by some algorithm unknown to me. This was a weeknight and there weren’t many customers, so it wasn’t long before a gorgeous brunette was at my table.

This is where the commerce begins. The young lady invites you for a private session, which happens in the other half of the building. There are booths, almost like you would find in a diner, but the tables are higher. You go with the girl, and you sit while she gets up on the table and does more of what she just did on stage, but just for you and up close. One couldn’t really call this private, though, as there are no walls or curtains, and it is in plain view of that ominous fellow over by the door. If anyone had wanted to break the Look, Don’t Touch rule, it would have been difficult to get away with. Still, you pay extra for this.

It becomes clear that the girls have been instructed to chat you up. My particularly well-groomed companion asked me what I did for a living, and I told her. She asked if I was married, and I told her. Asked if I had kids, and I told her. I asked if this was her only job, and she said Of Course Not. Her daytime job was as an executive secretary, and she could easily have been telling the truth. She was also getting into real estate investments, and a few evenings a week at the strip club helped to finance those. She broke the figures down for me, while showing me all of her own. I was not in the mood for the math at the time, but she was indeed very nice to look at. Most of the way through the song playing in the background, her clothes started to slide back on, and our allotted time was soon over. She went through a door into the back, and I went back to the cabaret.

There was almost no one else in the place now. The next girl on stage also came to my table, and we went off to a booth together.

The chatting-up commenced while she climbed onto the table and started removing her outfit to the beat of the ambient music. She wore a black-and-white checked bikini with red straps, as I recall, which delineated her topography nicely. Her first question asked how I had come to be there. So I told her.

She stopped her routine for a few beats when the answer came. Then she continued. This was clearly a routine that she had practiced, and the show must go on. While wriggling free of some straps, she asked me if I loved him. So I told her.

When the routine was over, she got down off the table and reassembled herself. I got to tie the strap around the back of her neck, a nice touch that didn’t need me to actually touch her, thereby evading Strip Joint Rule #1. The time was not all used up, so she sat next to me and asked me more about Pop. When the song was over, she looked at me and said we could do it again if I wanted. So we did. More money on the table, another song, and she was back on the table, doing it again.

And I do mean doing it again. It was the same routine, exactly, only to a different song.

Figuring it was my turn now, I asked her about herself. She told me. She had tried a few jobs, but nothing worked out. It didn’t take long for me to wonder if taking her clothes off in front of strange men might be the only job she was suited for. I hoped I was wrong about that. One can’t do this forever.

She identified herself a single mom. Her four-year-old son’s father had not been around for a while. She said that the father was a really good guy, but he had some problems he had to work out. She knew he would be back soon. She didn’t know how she knew, but she was sure of it. How long since she had seen him? Over three years. Having heard stories like this before, I asked myself if I should tell her what I knew about really good guys like that, especially the ones who didn’t stick around for their children. There are times when even truth should be silent. I seem to have decided that this was one of those times, although I still don’t know why.

I got to tie the strap around her neck again. The song ended. She asked me if I wanted to do it again. Sure, why not?

Up on the table, the same routine played out. The chatting up continued. I asked who looked after her son while she was at work. Her mother had that task. What did her boy like to do? Watch TV. That’s what he did when she was away, and that’s what they did when she was home.

Without my asking, she said that her mother disapproved of her having a child, and disapproved of what she did for a living, because her family was Christian, and she had been raised Christian. Then she told me in a rush of words why it was really OK for her to make her living this way even though she was a Christian, an explanation I didn’t think she owed me. It seemed to be important to her, though, that I hear it. Then she asked me if I thought it was OK for her to make her living this way even though she was a Christian. I was on the spot, and I don’t remember what I said. I only remember thinking Hail Freya!

Sometime during this, I tied the strap. The song ended. Perhaps she was going to ask me again, but I asked her instead if she would do me a favor.

We had built a pretty good rapport by this point. My question killed that. She looked down at the floor. I could see, hear, feel the wheels turning in her head. I thought it likely that men often asked her questions that started out like this, questions that must violate Strip Joint Rule #2, which the bouncer had not enumerated but was surely somewhere in the local law books. There was a long pause before she asked quietly:

“What is it… that you want?”

“I want you… to take your little boy someplace where he can climb a tree.”

There was another long pause. She was still looking at the floor, but I could see enough of her face to find a bit of a smile there. Then she said:

“I’m going to pray for your father.”

And she turned and walked away.

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Mysteries of the Grail: Seeker, Shaman, and Sovereign – Part 1

What is the secret of the Grail? Is it the archetypal Grail as cauldron of rebirth, the chalice from the last supper, or the Philosopher’s Stone that transmutes lead into gold? Perhaps it is all of these. Reflected within the mysteries of the Grail, and the process of the Quest, are powerful learnings for any spiritual seeker, and especially for those who have stepped into a leadership role.


Through the Quest we transform our inner reality, our deepest selves, and our hearts, into the vessel known as the Grail.

“The passage of the mythological hero may be overground…fundamentally it is inward—into depths where obscure resistances are overcome, and long lost, forgotten powers are revivified, to be made available for the transfiguration of the world.”
— Joseph Campbell, The Hero With a Thousand Faces

My own personal Grail Quest has led me to moments of pure joy as I filled my heart with the source-waters of the divine. And, like many Grail Knights, that Quest was catalyzed by personal crisis. Laid off from my job, in a marriage that didn’t feel right, and a leader in a group that had imploded, I was ripe for a new phase of spiritual seeking.

My own work with the various Grail legends has led me to the Grail Quest as a model for personal and leadership development. The main characters are often the Knight, the Grail Maiden (or Priestess), and the King. If we take gender out of it, we can work with the archetypes of Seeker, Shaman*, and Sovereign.

Here is the general flow of the story with some adaptations to show a progression of personal transformation:

  1. The Knight Begins the Quest:
    Journeying out to seek knowledge, wisdom, inspiration, and to find a way to heal the wounded king.
  2. Facing Challenges in the Wasteland:
    Physical and psychological challenges in a dry land devoid of water and divine love. This leads the Knight to self knowledge and transformation.
  3. Final Challenge:
    At the center of the Knight’s labyrinthine pilgrimage, the Knight meets the Grail Maiden. She who protects and serves the Grail offers a final challenge.
  4. Claiming the Grail:
    Having gone through the journey, the Knight knows the shape of their own heart. The Knight understands what inspires and fills them, and in doing so, can pass the challenge and eat or drink from the Grail Service the Grail Maiden/Priestess offers.
  5. Knight to Priestess:
    In drinking from the Grail, the Knight has claimed the Grail and in doing so gains the powers of the Grail Maiden. No longer the seeker on the Quest, the Priestess is one who knows the mystery of filling from our own source, and who can offer the Grail Service to others who seek the mystery.
  6. The Return:
    When the Knight-turned-Priestess returns to the world, bringing the life-giving energies to the land and to the people, the Priestess becomes the King.

Knight, Priestess, King—Seeker, Shaman, Sovereign.  The Grail Quest is a journey into transformation. It is a process of learning how to serve my deepest self in order to serve my land, my community, and the divine. If you seek to lead a spiritual or grass-roots community, before you can serve others, you must first learn the mysteries of yourself as the Seeker.

Wandering the Wasteland

I had been a solitary Pagan for years, but felt that I was missing something. I wanted meaning in my life. As an artist, designer, and event planner, I found many projects creatively fulfilling, but I also found myself stressed out and depressed more and more.

“The wasteland is a metaphor for a barren psychological landscape where creativity and generativity are absent, where nothing grows and life is meaningless and emotionally flat.”
—Jean Shinoda Bolen, M.D., Crossing to Avalon: A Woman’s Midlife Quest for the Sacred Feminine

A prominent part of the Grail story is the Wasteland; a land that will bear no fruit. For me, this is the essence of depression. Feeling empty, emotionless, unable to create. My personal Grail Quest has largely been born out of my desire to know how to draw from the well-waters of inspiration. I didn’t want to stay caught in the spiral of apathy and depression.

Becoming the Grail Knight

Sword in the Stone by Shauna Aura Knight
Sword in the Stone by Shauna Aura Knight

To find what was missing, I left my more ordinary life, beginning a strange pilgrimage. The day after I was laid off, I took an Elements of Magic class with the Chicago Reclaiming community. I bonded with people from the class, and volunteered to help with graphic design and event planning.

For the first time in my life, I had found a spiritual community that felt like home.

I realized I needed leadership training to realize my larger dreams. I joined the Diana’s Grove Mystery School program, and soon after, I found myself building a large outdoor shrine to Brigid on the Grove lands. After a week of sunburn, pulled muscles, and other injuries, I realized I’d never been happier, and that I wanted to serve community in this way perhaps for the rest of my life. I finally had the focus and courage to break up with my husband. He wasn’t a bad guy, but our lives just weren’t compatible any longer. I moved from Chicago into a rural cabin at Diana’s Grove.

“The adventure of the hero normally follows the pattern of…a separation from the world, a penetration to some source of power, and a life-enhancing return.”
—Joseph Campbell, The Hero with a Thousand Faces

Facing Challenges

What I learned on my Quest was that the Grail is born of both sorrow and of joy. As I learned what creatively inspired me, I understood the nature of the waters that filled my soul.

But it was having my heart broken that transformed me. My heart had been closed for years. Like so many other people, I was rejected by my peers as a child, and I had frozen my heart in self-preservation. When I fell in love, and when my heart later broke, I cried harder than I ever had. At the time, I was surprised to realize that I had a heart to be broken.

Heartbreak like this can happen from falling in love with a person, or from the love experienced by creating a piece of artwork or connecting to a community vision or to any larger project or other big dream.

Through joy and sorrow, and a lot of personal growth work, I allowed myself to feel again. I recognized that deep feeling was me filling from the Grail waters once again. In the leadership and personal growth work, I recognized my core strengths. I also began to recognize where my own personal Grail had cracks and fractures from past wounds, and the waters of life would pour right back out.

But how could I heal those holes in the cup of my heart? How could I fill with the life-bearing waters? Part 2 coming soon!

First published in CIRCLE Magazine, Issue 104, Fall 2009

*Note: I use the word “shaman” to refer to a job/function, not to the specific Tungusic spiritual traditions. Priest, priestess, witch, druid, sorcerer, wizard, healer, magician, medicine man…none of these quite work for what I’m trying to convey. The word “shaman” has been borrowed into English and used by explorers and anthropologists to refer to the function of a magical spirit worker and religious specialist in any tribal culture, though it most likely comes from the Tungusic Evenki language. 

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Book Review: The Hand on the Mirror by Janis Heaphy Durham

[This post has been updated to include a link to other reviews of The Hand on the Mirror elsewhere within the Patheos channels.]

In The Hand on the Mirror, Janis Heaphy Durham shares with us her account of an extraordinary journey that she embarked upon following the death of her first husband, Max, in May of 2004.  On the first anniversary of his death, Janis encountered–for the first time, but not the last–a handprint on the mirror in the bathroom used by Max prior to his passing.

that was when I saw the handprint on the mirror. i knew it was fresh because it hadn't been there earlier.  stunned by the sight, i stood frozen for at least a full minute.  i could make no sense of what i saw.  — Janis Heaphy Durham, "The Hand on the Mirror," p. 3
For more information, visit

Before I continue, I think it’s worthwhile to make something clear:  I believe in ghosts.

I can’t say for sure, but I suspect that this isn’t too radical a statement within the Pagan community.  We have a variety of traditions that honor and revere our ancestors–both of blood and of spirit–in a vast number of ways.  The lore around the commonly celebrated holiday of Samhain includes the belief that the veil between the living and the dead grows thin and we can interact more freely with those who have passed on at that time.  Furthermore, many of us believe in a plurality non-corporeal entities (for lack of a simpler term) including nature spirits, genius loci, various gods and goddesses, and probably more.

In other words, even prior to picking up this book, I was inclined to trust in the author’s experience.  But, years in the journalism industry provided her with an innate understanding of the skepticism her claims were going to create.  As such, the author is meticulous in establishing her own the credentials and those of others with which she meets during the course of her investigation into the handprint on the mirror.

This begins with a chapter devoted to her own history and that of her family.  She presents her accomplishments dispassionately; she’s not trying to impress the reader.  Her goal is to establish the fact that she’s neither easily dismissed as gullible nor can she be simply ignored as grief stricken.  Lending additional credence to this, she’s not the only person to experience the phenomena that she discusses in her memoir.  In addition to her son, her second husband, Jim, also shares some of her experiences and much of her research and travel throughout the United States to meet with researchers in fields stretching from psychology to cognitive science, from telecommunications to paranormal investigations.

For each of these, she provides a summary of their credentials discussing their education and work history and, in many cases, how they came to be involved in their current line of work and how that work relates to her research.  Similar to her own biography, these are starkly written not to aggrandize those she met with but to further cement in the reader a sense that not only is she credible but those she’s working with are experts in their fields.  These curriculum vitae additionally help to show the reader that the belief in extraordinary phenomena (I, personally, avoid the use of “supernatural” or “paranormal” when I can) can be held along side advanced degrees, scientific acumen, and even–in one case–military service.

The phenomena she describes are fairly commonplace for a “ghost story.”  In addition to the handprint on the mirror–which reappears on subsequent anniversaries of Max’s death–she also encounters other phenomena including, chiefly, electrical disturbances and the movement of rugs across the floor.  Sensationalism sells, and had the author wanted to craft a chilling tale of contact from The Beyond, she certainly could have fabricated more thrilling experiences to share with us, the readers.  Hell, I’ve heard better yarns from distant relatives around my parent’s dinning room table.

photograph of the author
Janis Heaphy Durham
Photo © Sigrid Estrada
Used with permission

But, The Hand on the Mirror, is not that sort of tale.  The author’s goal is not merely to entertain–though she does that quite well–but to share her journey from skepticism to believer.  In that way, her story could be considered one of conversion; not of a religious point of view, but still one that rocks the author to her core.  And, one that feels familiar to me, and perhaps to others who’ve undertaken a journey of such personal magnitude.

One of the things I found most fascinating was the author’s lack of familiarity with the stories of others who’ve had similar experiences.  At one point in the book, she describes the full realization that others–perhaps many others–have experienced similar extraordinary moments in their lives as follows:

“I had lived these past years with a subtle but nagging fear that my exposure to these stunning occurrences meant that somehow I wasn’t ‘normal.’  Because the events were so strange, I initially stayed quiet.  Eventually I shared my experiences, but I was selective in whom I chose to speak with.  Bottom line, I didn’t want people to think I was nuts.  If they did, it might mean that, yes–I was nuts.  But now, for the first time, I had confirmation that I wasn’t unusual.  In fact, I was normal.

— Janis Heaphy Durham, The Hand on the Mirror, p. 166

Because of my own biases, I’ve been drawn to everything from ghost hunting on reality TV to horror movies to other personal accounts typically more sensational than this one.  I’ve even been on a few paranormal investigations, though none of them ever resulted in anything like the experiences touched on in this book or in other more fantastic sources.  Thus, it was surprising and somewhat exciting to me to read the account of a person who was not inclined to see such tales as possible.

Even more gratifying was the conclusion she reached:

“I realized […] that it was time for me to start talking openly, without shame or embarrassment.  From this point forward, I vowed to myself, I would open up not only to those I was interviewing for my research, but to my family and friends as well.  […] It was a breakthrough.  I felt free.  Liberated.  Unshackled.”

— Janis Heaphy Durham, The Hand on the Mirror, p. 167

And, this if nothing else, helps to convince me that her story has been shared with little to embellish it.  She writes with an easy, approachable style.  She’s not trying to tell a story for the ages, she’s telling her own story for those who are interested in hearing it.  And, she does so with little pomp and circumstance; a style which creates not a dry, boring tale (as it could have been), but rather one that allows the reader to get a sense of her own emotional and intellectual state within it.  In fact, in some ways, it reads more like a travel log than a ghost story striking the perfect tone to further enhance both the author’s credibility and believability.

The Hand on the Mirror is a tale of personal change wrought in the aftermath of personal tragedy.  We are transported along with the author on her travels–physical, intellectual, and emotional–as she seeks to accept and understand the phenomena that she, and those around her, are experiencing.  Accompanied by a limited number of photographs of these phenomena–including the handprints–Janis Heaphy Durham shares with us a deeply personal account of her life and does so in a way that found this reader nodding his head rather than shaking it.

It’s available now in print and online.  Others here at Patheos have also reviewed this book.  You can read their thoughts here; just look for the “Book Roundtable” heading and you’ll find them there.

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The Rantin’ Raven: I Met Bill Schnoebelen and Lived!

[Editor’s Note:  Please welcome Dana Corby to the Agora!  Dana’s column, The Rantin’ Raven, will be published on the first and third Saturdays of a month; subscription links are below.  Welcome, Dana!]

Jason Mankey’s article on May 15 goes into considerable detail about the infamous Bill Schnoebelen and his book, “Wicca: Satan’s Little White Lie.” I actually met Bill Schoebelen in person, and learned something few other people know for sure: He’s fully aware that he’s lying. So are the people close to him.

Sigh ... / via Wikipedia
Sigh … / via Wikipedia

November 30, 1993, four other Witches and I were invited by Seattle radio station KIRO to talk about Witchcraft and Halloween. Being idealistic idiots, we jumped at the chance. But when we got there, the producer informed us that, in order for there to be ‘balance’ in the presentation, they were having a couple of pastors on as well. Who were they, we asked. Bill Schnoebelen and his mentor, Ed Decker. We’d been had.

We immediately went into a huddle. We were furious at the station. Did we even want to spend half an hour in the same room with these creeps, we asked each other. But if we didn’t, they’d not only be free to spread their lies but would be sure to assume – and spread – that we were afraid to face a couple of ‘true Christians.’ In the end, one person decided she couldn’t do it but the rest of us went through with it, feeling very much like we were entering the lion’s den.

Things started out OK. Everyone got introduced and the moderator had each of us tell a little about ourselves. She asked questions about the history of Halloween. So far so good. Some general discussion about the differences between witchcraft and Wicca, between Halloween and Samhain. Even Decker, by far the nastier of the two, behaved himself.

And then the moderator allowed Schnoebelen to plug his new book, which he did by reading the introductory paragraphs in which he claimed that one of his common activities as a Wiccan High Priest was to “cruise the back alleys of downtown Seattle at midnight, looking for a woman whose blood I could drink.”

We were stunned. We were even more stunned when the moderator cut to a commercial. Bill Schoebelen looked us Witches in the face, WINKED, for Pete’s sake, and with a conspiratorial grin said “Of course, we all know that last part isn’t true. I just put it in to get people to listen to my witnessing later.” As if this was a perfectly normal and OK thing to do!

I wish I could tell you that we denounced him the moment we were back on the air. I can’t. We were completely taken aback, and the moderator gave us no chance: she immediately turned to the youngest of us and began asking his opinion on a different matter. By the time we got it together enough to formulate something to say, the show was over and we were out the studio door, upon which our worthy opponents dropped all pretext of good manners. Dirty looks and muttered remarks were cast our way as they went to collect their mousy wives, who’d been sent to the greenroom for the duration. I happened to turn and find myself nose-to-nose with Mrs. Decker, who recoiled and snarled, “I’m not going to shake your hand!” “I don’t want you to,” I replied, which inexplicably offended her. They all sailed out of the studio offices looking self-satisfied.

I still feel like an idiot for letting the radio station do that to us. I should have talked right over the moderator and told the listeners what Schnoebelen had said. But we knew damn well the station had set the situation up in hopes of a nice, ratings-boosting fight, and we’d decided beforehand not to give it to them. To make up for it, I tell the true story every chance I get.

Bill Schnoebelen is a liar and knows it. He has betrayed his oaths to every religious or spiritual order he ever joined, abandoning each one as he found another where he could exert ever more influence over ever more people. When he joined Decker’s “Saints Alive in Jesus” cult he found the audience and mentor he needed to fulfill his ego’s need for adulation.

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