Wyrd Words: Look Mom! We’re on T.V!

Greetings, and welcome back to Wyrd Words. Keeping the Thor in Thursdays, every other week here on Agora!

Recently Pagans have been getting a fair amount of media attention. During the fall season the world seems to suddenly remember that we exist, but for the most part it only seems to last long enough to throw some crappy Pagan stereotypes on the screen. Sometimes this can AWESOME! I can even enjoy complete bastardizations of our myths. I’ve watched Practical Magic more times than any sane human being would admit to on the internet.

 photo midnight-magaritas1_zps0a28bcf1.jpg

To be clear I am a HUGE nerd. I absolutely adore comic books and Marvel super heroes. (I can see the DC fans preparing to launch their rotten fruit projectiles!) I am a huge fan of the recent spree of Marvel movies. I thought Avengers was awesome, and I enjoyed both Thor movies. This was not because they were great movies (or even GOOD movies); mostly, it was because Loki was AWESOME and Asgard was pretty.

I’ve met a couple of Heathens who really took issue with the movies, but I never really had a problem. I can enjoy the setting and adventure of Marvel’s Asgard for its entertainment value and overlook the changes to the traditional Lore. Heck, I didn’t even think much of it when they made Thor into a woman, because I see no reason to get up in arms over a comic book. However, there’s a difference between playing with mythology for the sake of a comic and slandering an entire religious community on television.

I had high hopes for ABC’s Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. I was excited to see where they would go with the series — that is until I got ALL THE WAY to episode 8. The episode was going to be a tie-in to the last Thor movie The Dark World. To say that the episode was a disappointment would oversell what was essentially 40 minutes of Pagan bashing.

The whole episode starts off with a couple of Lore enthusiasts tracking down an ancient Asgardian weapon, through poetic clues left in some little known Saga. They do this by vandalizing a nature preserve, graffiti-ing an Othala rune on public property, and cutting down a thousand-year-old tree inside a circle of standing stones. Already we’re off to a rocky start, vandalizing a preserve and desecrating some mixed pagan symbols, but I thought perhaps I was being to sensitive.

So our intrepid heroes inexplicably discover that Asgardian technology has been stolen from this tree, and S.H.I.E.L.D. takes up the case. Here’s where the show jumps from being an acceptable Marvel version of the Lore to something a lot less okay. As the team investigates who the thieves might be, the culprits make themselves known by starting a riot (presumably with the assistance of the Angry Stick), and writing “WE ARE GODS” in burning letters on the street. The couple are then revealed to be leaders of a Norse Pagan group. Oh, but not just ANY bunch of Heathens, NO! Agent Ward announces that they are a (Quote) “Norse Paganist hate group.”

Lovely… First of all, I’m 90% certain that “Paganist” is not a word. Second, OF COURSE it’s a hate group! Because, as everybody knows, ALL Heathens are obviously White Supremacists. They couldn’t possibly be a reprehensible minority opinion who represent the Westboro-Baptist-esque human refuse of our community. If they had at least made a differentiation between the Neo-Nazis and the rest of us, I could have at least enjoyed watching S.H.I.E.L.D. waffle-stomp the schmucks.

 photo stormfront_zps22fd1eb0.png
(Seriously, I think the guy in charge of looking up Norse Paganism for the show just copied and pasted crap from Stormfront…)

The show even built in the perfect opportunity to save themselves and then promptly ignored it. The kindly biologist, Dr. Simmons, pauses to inquire “What’s a Norse Paganist?”, giving the writers an opening to explain that this is a religious community, and not all a bunch of Neo-Nazi trash. It wouldn’t have taken much. ONE line, could have saved it. What answer do we get instead?

“They’re OBSESSED with anything derived from Norse mythology.”

Swing, and a miss! Apparently being religious equates to obsession now. Somehow I don’t think this line would have even made it on the air if the question was about Christianity and the answer was: “They’re OBSESSED with anything to do with Yahweh.” Then it gets even better! We find out that the primary goal of the group is “to ascend and become gods of Death and Destruction!”

Wonderful… So let me get this straight. We’ve now established that all Norse Heathens are White Supremacist egomaniacs who want to bring about Ragnarok?

 photo pinkyandthebrain_zps92e5ba09.jpg
“Same thing we do every night Pinky. Try to take over the world!”

Who in the world thought this was okay? It’s like somebody decided that all of this pseudo-Norse mythology was giving us Pagans too much good press. So Jonathan Frakes is here to remind you that even though Thor is cool, Pagans are STILL EVIL. They’ll play with our myths, and mass market Nerf Mjölnirs, but “Whoa, Nellie!” let’s not give the Heathens too much good press! We’re supposed to be okay with them stereotyping an entire religion and turning its practitioners into a bunch of cardboard cutouts of White Power Bill. As I said in the beginning of the article; it’s one thing to play with mythology and use it to inspire a new story, it’s quite another to spend 40 minutes bashing an entire religious community.

As far as I can tell, there are two possible conclusions to take away from this.

1- Marvel obviously failed its sensitivity training course, and perhaps Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. just isn’t the show for me. This is sad, but hardly surprising or productive.

2- We can take the setbacks for what they are and look at the bigger picture. The fact that these kinds of exploitative shows are still being made should make it obvious that our situation is not ideal, but compared to where we’ve been in the past, our current status in the public eye is a MASSIVE improvement. In an industry which is controlled solely by the ratings and interests of consumers, that can really only mean one thing. There’s a demand.

There is enough of a demand for media focused on or around our own community that it has started to make a difference in how we see ourselves being portrayed. That’s something our predecessors as recently as fifty years ago would likely have never dared to hope for. Episodes like this, or CSI Halloween specials, are merely a bump on the road.

It’s up to us to tighten our grip and keep on driving.

Wyrd Words is published on alternate Thursdays. Subscribe via RSS or e-mail!

Socially Responsible Magic: The Power and Peril of Positive Thinking, Part 1


The other day I went to an educational meeting at one of the chambers of commerce I’m a member of. The presenter did a talk on positive thinking. As I listened to him speak and trot out all the usual tropes of positive thinking, I couldn’t help but think about how misleading positive thinking can be, and how it can reinforce the inequality present in society. I say that with a provision nonetheless, which is this: When used properly, positive thinking can be a useful tool in your toolkit. We’ll discuss that later, but let’s consider first the peril of positive thinking and how it applies to magic and Paganism.

Positive thinking shows up in business books, new age books, and yes, even in books on magic. What is positive thinking? It is a form of thinking that shows up in two different ways. It shows up in the law of attraction, which argues that what you think about is what you’ll attract and manifest in your life. For example, if you are poor or obese, according to the law of attraction, it must because you attracted such states of being with your thoughts (we’ll discuss the problems with the law of attraction in more detail below). The other common conception of positive thinking is one where you adopt a positive attitude and thought about any situation and use that positive attitude and thought to get you through it. The concept of positive thinking shows up a lot in our culture, to an extreme that leads to a lack of empathy and non-recognition of others’ circumstances. The following traits illustrate the perils of positive thinking:

The illusion of equality. Positive thinking reinforces the illusion of equality. It argues that each person is equal and faces equal circumstances. This is simply not true. Not every person faces the same circumstances or has the same options available to other people.

Reinforcement of privilege. Positive thinking reinforces privilege because of the illusion of equality. It reinforces privilege by arguing that the only thing stopping a person from succeeding is their own thinking. It does not recognize that a person will encounter different experiences because of their race, sexuality, or class and that those experiences may limit their opportunities. It is not enough to think positively in such situations, especially when such situations will not change by positive thought alone.

Lack of understanding and empathy.  Positive thinking leads to a lack of understanding and empathy. When we blame others’ circumstances on failure to think positively, such lack of understanding creates an inability to connect to or empathize with what other people are experiencing. This thinking poisons our ability to connect meaningfully with other people and makes it much harder to enact social justice.

Victim-blaming. While it is true that your perception of a situation affects your outlook and experience of that situation, taken to an extreme, as occurs with the law of attraction, what you see is an argument that states you have attracted the experience you are having because of what you’ve thought, and that whatever problems you are having are there because you have attracted them with your thoughts.

Positive thinking can create a solipsistic perspective that causes a person to fall out of touch with the world and the reality that people have experiences that aren’t under their control. It even creates a lack of perspective for the person believing in such thinking, because when that person has bad experiences, they will see those experiences through the lens of the law of attraction, instead of actually seeing the circumstances for what they are. That lack of perspective can cloud a person’s ability to determine how to remedy the situation. Even if a person utilizing positive thinking has some degree of success, the lack of awareness the person may have in regards to the situations other people are experiencing can reinforce the divides and problems our society faces.

It is important that we examine our spiritual practices carefully and make sure that if positive thinking is part of such a practice, it is weighed carefully. The proper perspective on positive thinking allows us to utilize it, but it also keeps us grounded in the realities of life and recognition of the challenges other people face. In my next article, I’ll explore how positive thinking can be used and what we need to remember if we choose to use it as part of our toolkit.

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

The Busy Witch: Conjuring Words

November brings one of my favorite times of year. No, I’m not talking about Thanksgiving: I’m talking about NaNoWriMo. For those who haven’t encountered this squirrely acronym before, it’s National Novel Writing Month. The goal? To write 50,000 words between November 1st and November 30th.

Yes, it’s a form of insanity. But for me, NaNoWriMo is more than an important part of my work. It’s a month filled with magic.

Writing has always been deeply tied to my spiritual practice, and over the years, I’ve come to realize that the act of crafting a story or an article is, for me at least, a direct expression of magic. If we acknowledge that “magic is the art of changing consciousness at will”, something I hold very dear, then it stands to reason that the act of shaping a world out of symbols on a page is a magical act.

As my writing has grown and shifted and my expectations have changed, NaNoWriMo has become more than a month of wild story play (although that’s a hugely important part of this time of year for me, too): it’s become a lesson each year. As in any magical act, the craft of storytelling takes discipline, and so far this year, my NaNoWriMo project is helping me restructure my time and recommit to my writing each and every day. It feels so good to be writing again on a daily basis, and my spirit lifts in much the same way as it does during my nightly gratitude meditation at my altar. It’s also an amazing time for tapping into the shared subconscious; so many other writers are pounding out words this month, and the energy wave is tangible, something that I can feel pushing me along, even when I’m tired, even when I want to make excuses. Although my writing is a mostly solitary endeavor, in November I get a similar buzz from the global community that I feel after a particularly powerful session of group energy raising.

shutterstock_174511571I’ve also learned to approach the physical work of the writing in much the same way that I approach my solitary ritual practice; my writing space is a shrine to inspiration, with titles and trinkets surrounding me that are charged with positive energy. Even when I don’t write at the same time each day, I have my preparatory rituals in place; open the blinds, clean the kitchen, and make a cup of coffee or tea before I sit down and fall into my story. The act of writing is trance-like, too, and often I’ll look up to find that hours have passed while the words spin out of me from some unknown place. It’s not the same trance I felt the first time I danced a spiral dance, but it’s incredibly similar.

The sense of play, of rules falling away, that NaNoWriMo brings is a yearly reminder of how much I need to listen to my “younger self”, an idea Starhawk puts forward in the context of working magic. It’s so easy to get bogged down by intellect, but the magic I tap into when I conjure words requires me to be open to my child self, and part of that is the permission to play. NaNoWriMo gives me that permission; I’ve been writing long enough to know that anything I produce this month will need a lot of work before I’m ready to show it to anyone else, but that doesn’t matter. November is about throwing words on the page and reveling in the act of creation. The clean up can come later; right now, I’m playing.

Art is magic, and magic is art, and this month, I’m recommitting myself to both.


photo courtesy of shutterstock: shutterstock.com

The Busy Witch is published on alternate Tuesdays. Follow it via RSS or e-mail!

The Zen Pagan: The Burners and the Pagans

I recently went to Playa Del Fuego, the East Coast regional “Burn” held over Columbus Day / Indigenous Peoples’ Day weekend each year. (They also do a spring version each Memorial Day.) It was a cold, wet, and muddy festival… rather like this year’s Free Spirit Gathering in that respect.

Though PDF is a larger event with a lot more techno music and a lot less drumming, and more flaming art and less ritual, there are some similarities with large Pagan festivals like FSG and Starwood. Also some overlap in attendees — every night at PDF I ran into a few people who I knew from one of those Pagan festivals. While PDF does not consider itself a religious event, in some sense it represents the same sort of pilgrimage to a temporary community that religious festivals have embodied for thousands of years.

Image by Tom SwissThe Princip-Poles

I haven’t been to Burning Man (yet — if you have an established camp and would like to invite me to come give a talk, I think that would count as business travel for tax purposes, contact me…), but PDF is an “official” regional Burn and operates according to the “Ten Principals” that Burning Man Founder Larry Harvey wrote in 2004. Indeed these formed the basis of my favorite piece of art at PDF this year, the “Princip-Poles”, which invited attendees to write their thoughts on a pole for each of the principals before they were all burned.

I don’t think we’re going to set Patheos on fire here, but I thought I might take that idea and run with it a bit, with a little Pagan-ish refection on the Ten Principles based on my experience at a few PDFs and discussions with Burners. Do we perhaps see some parallel evolution here with Pagan festivals? Could a Pagan event be built upon the Ten Principles?

(If you’ve never been to a Burn, my friend Matt Muirhead (recently named Baltimore’s Best Artist in the City Paper reader’s poll) put together a short film of our PDF experience a few years ago which will give you a hint of it.)

Radical Inclusion
Anyone may be a part of Burning Man. We welcome and respect the stranger. No prerequisites exist for participation in our community.

While I’ve been referring to these events as “Pagan festivals”, you certainly don’t need to identify as “Pagan” to attend. FSG explictly welcomes “people walking all kinds of paths — Wiccans, Druids, Heathens, Pagans, Vodouisants, Santeras, Polytheists, Monotheists, Pantheists, Atheists, [and] Animists” (and I happen to know that its attendees have also included folks who identify as Buddhist, Christian, and Jewish), while Starwood proclaims itself “a celebration of diversity and alternatives in belief systems, lifestyles, and spirituality” with “a community of explorers fresh from their many journeys through realms both alien and familiar”. All are welcome.

Burning Man is devoted to acts of gift giving. The value of a gift is unconditional. Gifting does not contemplate a return or an exchange for something of equal value.

How many times has a bottle of something fine been shared as a gift around the fire? My good friend Joe Galitsky used to lay out breakfast for everyone at dawn at Bonfire Night at Starwood, and I’ve made it a habit the past few years to go around handing out wine and chocolate. (Remember, strangers have the best candy.) I have a number of small treasures that were freely gifted to me at festivals for no apparent reason other than the generosity of the giver. Gifting may not be as explicit at Pagan events as at Burns but it’s certainly part of the culture,

In order to preserve the spirit of gifting, our community seeks to create social environments that are unmediated by commercial sponsorships, transactions, or advertising. We stand ready to protect our culture from such exploitation. We resist the substitution of consumption for participatory experience.

Now here we have a difference, at least on the surface. While any sort of commerce is frowned upon at 10 Principles events, Pagan events not only have vendors selling stuff but often allow them to advertize in the program guide or otherwise help sponsor the event. Festival presenters and performers are often paid, or at least “comped” on admission. (Disclosure: I’ve been comped or paid as a presenter, performer, or staff member at several Pagan or Pagan-ish events. )

On the other hand, we’re not talking big-ticket sponsorship by multi-national corporations here, but rather the sort of very small businesses that anti-corporate “buy local” activists like to support, who are sometimes lucky to break even on their appearance at events. An FSG vendor once told me a joke about a doctor, a lawyer, and a Pagan festival vendor splitting a big lottery jackpot. Asked what they’re going to do with their winnings, the doctor talks about endowing a hospital, the lawyer wants to found a free legal clinic, and the vendor says, “Well, I guess I’ll just keep doing what I’m doing until the money runs out.”

If we compare this with the commodification that has come to surround Burning Man in practice — such as concierge service to set up camps — it may be that the formal acceptance of some small level of commerce at Pagan events has in practice been a better defense against commodification. Or perhaps Burning Man has just suffered more from proximity to Silicon Valley and its concentration of wealthy but hollow people who like to adopt a veneer of spirituality and bohemianism; East Coast regional Burns like PDF seem reasonably safe from commodification for the moment.

Radical Self-reliance
Burning Man encourages the individual to discover, exercise and rely on his or her inner resources.

When the weather’s good and everyone you’re camped with is on the ball and everything is going well, it’s possible to go to a festival or a Burn and not be challenged at all.

That’s why the best stories are about the times when things didn’t go well. That FSG where you danced around the fire in driving rain. That cold and wet Starwood where everyone ducked under a pavilion for shelter and an impromptu karaoke and liquor drinking session broke out. The mud burn at PDF where you managed to help your friend in the wheelchair get across camp without sinking into a pit.

Those times, in other words, when you were challenged to discover and exercise your inner resources, to grow to meet a challenge.

Radical Self-expression
Radical self-expression arises from the unique gifts of the individual. No one other than the individual or a collaborating group can determine its content. It is offered as a gift to others. In this spirit, the giver should respect the rights and liberties of the recipient.

For the past few years I’ve run the Bardic Circle at FSG, and I’ve often performed in the Bardic Concert at Starwood. We do love our bards, don’t we? These Bardics are more than opens mics, they’re invocations of the creative and expressive spirit that encourage everyone to find and share their gifts. And I mean everyone — I’ve lost count of the number of people who have performed in public for the first time at the FSG Bardic.

Communal Effort
Our community values creative cooperation and collaboration. We strive to produce, promote and protect social networks, public spaces, works of art, and methods of communication that support such interaction.

Events like FSG and Starwood are certainly community efforts. Yes, there is an “official” staff that puts them together, but everyone is encouraged (even expected) to collaborate through volunteering. The Free Spirit Alliance (the groups that puts on FSG) is a member organization that was founded to provide a social network in the days before that meant Facebook.

Civic Responsibility
We value civil society. Community members who organize events should assume responsibility for public welfare and endeavor to communicate civic responsibilities to participants. They must also assume responsibility for conducting events in accordance with local, state and federal laws.

Festivals and Burns are temporary autonomous zones, but they take place within a larger community. FSG has often had a canned goods drive, and more recently the Free Spirit Alliance has been looking for ways to work with charities in the “off season”.

Leaving No Trace
Our community respects the environment. We are committed to leaving no physical trace of our activities wherever we gather. We clean up after ourselves and endeavor, whenever possible, to leave such places in a better state than when we found them.

We are, most of us would say, a “nature religion”. Respecting the environment is at the core of Paganism. Wisteria, the campground where Starwood is held and a Pagan community in its own right, is dedicated to restoring a former strip mine site (and doing a fantastic job). FSG and Starwood have both featured workshops on permaculture farming and other topics related to sustainable living.

Our community is committed to a radically participatory ethic. We believe that transformative change, whether in the individual or in society, can occur only through the medium of deeply personal participation. We achieve being through doing. Everyone is invited to work. Everyone is invited to play. We make the world real through actions that open the heart.

Magic, I have often said, is not a spectator sport. The fire circles that are the heart of FSG and Starwood invite the participation of all, to drum or dance or sing — or to serve, helping maintain the space, make sure celebrants have food and water to keep them going, and the like. An expectation for everyone to do a volunteer or “community service” shift to help with the operation of the festival also encourages participation.

Immediate experience is, in many ways, the most important touchstone of value in our culture. We seek to overcome barriers that stand between us and a recognition of our inner selves, the reality of those around us, participation in society, and contact with a natural world exceeding human powers. No idea can substitute for this experience.

As I discussed in Why Buddha Touched the Earth, the Pagan movement emerges in part from a desire to make religion an immediate experience again, to get back to the direct mystical experience of shamanistic practice rather than something moderated by a priestly middleman.

So all in all, there seems to be quite a bit of overlap between the values and ideals of the community around Burning Man and similar events, and the festival Pagan community. A more conscious and deliberate attempt to share ideas could be fruitful.

You might be interested in joining a Facebook group on “Zen Paganism” I’ve set up. And don’t forget to “like” Patheos Pagan over there, too.

And you can subscribe to The Zen Pagan via RSS or e-mail.

Queer of Swords: The Black Heart of Indifference

Unknown. Blunt force trauma. Blunt force trauma to the head. Gunshot wound to the head. Multiple stab wounds. Stoned to death. Multiple gunshots to the head and chest. Multiple stab wounds. Multiple stab wounds, dumped on the street. Multiple stab wounds. Gunshot to the chest. Gunshot. Dismembered. Multiple stab wounds. Gunshot. Beaten and stoned to death. Gunshots to head and chest. Facial injuries. Multiple gunshots. Beaten to death by father. Multiple gunshots to the face. Suffocation. Multiple stab wounds. Gunshots. Gunshots. 3 gunshot wounds to the head. Multiple gunshot wounds. 15 stab wounds, dragged, fractured skull, stabbed in the neck. 2 gunshot wounds to the chest. Burned to death. Gunshot. Gunshot. Hands and feet bound, stabbed in the neck and abdomen. Dismemberment. Gunshots. Beaten with weapon, fists by several people, dragged through the street. Blow to the head with iron bar. Beaten and strangled to death. 4 gunshot wounds. Gunshot to back. Gunshot to the chest. Four gunshots. Four gunshots. Massive trauma, body left in a field. Knife wounds to neck, feet and hands tied. Massive trauma, found dead in alley. Gunshot wounds to the face. Raped before being brutally executed with blows to head. Raped before being brutally executed with blows to head. Hanging. Beaten to death. Multiple gunshot wounds to the hip, chest, and back. Multiple gunshot wounds. Found dead, with eyes removed. Gunshot to the back. Thrown from vehicle, ran over. Multiple gunshot wounds. Pushed off moving train. Gunshot wound. Gunshot wound to the head. Three shots to the face.

Image by Sarah ThompsonThe previous paragraph is not word salad generated by a spam bot, nor is it a list of atrocities committed in one of the world’s many war zones. Rather, it comes from somewhere far closer to home. If this were the work of a single serial killer, books would be written about them two hundred years from now.

In truth, it comes directly from the black heart of modern-day bigotry.

The list is, in sequence, the causes of death of the people memorialized on the Transgender Day of Remembrance web site just for this year. Just for 2014. These are people who were murdered for no reason other than for being transgendered.

Sadly, this list is the tip of the tip of the iceberg. Many such murders go unreported. Still more go uninvestigated. Then there are the many, many cases where the would-be murderer was unsuccessful, with their victim, like me, surviving to live on with PTSD, cursed to mentally loop on their attack for decades to come.

I did a bad thing in condensing the list like this. I should be celebrating these people’s lives, not reducing them to their causes of death. I didn’t personally know these people, and likely as not, if you’re reading this you probably didn’t know any of them either. I find myself thanking all the gods and spirits that I was not on that list. Not this year, anyway. I survived again. But reading the list, all I can see is their pain and their suffering and I can’t shut it out.

One evening in 1997 I was on my way home from a business meeting in the City of London. As was my custom at the time, I was sitting in a first class carriage on the train from London Paddington to Oxford and beyond. I paid the extra because I felt safer, not because I particularly wanted to sit in the posh seats. On this day, it wasn’t enough.

I didn’t make it to Oxford. I am quite aware that I was close to not making it anywhere at all, after that day.

Not far outside London, two men started verbally harassing me. I called the police, then called my partner and left the line open so that there would be a witness. The abuse escalated. One of them put his hand down my T-shirt and grabbed my breast. I was terrified. It went downhill from there. As the train pulled in to the platform at Reading, one of the men had me pinned to the floor of the train by standing on my hair, while his compatriot repeatedly stamped on my face. The door opened. A police officer got onto the train, pulled them off me, then escorted them and me to a room somewhere in the station. I was concussed and in shock, to the extent that I even mixed up my own middle names with those of my partner when I gave my ID. I passed out several times.

This is where I tell you that the cops did the cop thing and put away those bad guys for a long time, yes?

No, actually. It took all my negotiating skills to persuade them not to arrest me for attacking the people who just tried to kill me. It seemed that the men had a fake witness lined up who backed their story. Luckily for me, a young Spanish woman traveling with her young child saw everything and gave a witness statement. The police split the difference and basically just abandoned me in the middle of Reading station, concussed, bruised, bleeding and missing about a third of my hair. My partner arrived and took me to the hospital, thankfully. I don’t remember an awful lot after that, other than being seen by a medic who went to considerable lengths not to actually examine me or treat me in any useful way, other than to give me a leaflet which basically told me that if I survived the next 24 hours I’d probably not die from my injuries.

Some of my dear friends are heavily involved in TDOR, and I thank them for that from the bottom of my heart. I have never attended a TDOR service, and most likely never will. PTSD is no joke, and I am fairly sure that writing this piece will likely give me a rough time for a few days.

I prefer to remember my honored dead in my own way. As a Wiccan, Samhain is a good opportunity for this, but it is generally a solitary observance even if I’m with others at the time. To outwardly acknowledge my pain and my fear is a very difficult thing to do because there is potentially no bottom to that particular pit.

“The truth of a thing is the feel of it, not the think of it.”
— Stanley Kubrick

This much is the think of the thing. Trying to express the feel of the thing in words seems somehow dilute to me. A couple of years ago I wrote a series of connected pieces of music that together form a Samhain ritual – I think this might sum up my feelings better than my words. My wife and I recently edited all the pieces together, with some sparse narration, for her Samhain podcast. It’s not easy listening, I’ll warn you.

This is why I do what I do. This is why I volunteered to write this column. This is why I have worked to bring about acceptance of transgendered people in the Pagan community.

To all the gods and spirits: give us fair wind at our backs as we fly, but catch us as we fall.


The International Transgender Day of Remembrance is held on November 20th. Services are held worldwide.

This Week in Heresy Episode 20: The Descent: A Samhain Meditative Journey with Mage of Machines.

Queer of Swords is published on alternate Thursdays. Subscribe via RSS or e-mail!

Alone In Her Presence: When Love Takes Over

When Love Takes Over. David Guetta and Kelly Rowland. Promotional image for media use.One of my favorite dance songs is “When Love Takes Over by David Guetta, featuring Kelly Rowland. There is something about how the pulsating beat explodes when Rowland sings the hook, “When love takes over (yeah-ah-eah), You know you can’t deny, When love takes over (yeah-ah-eah).” But more than the hook is the honesty in the opening lines.

“It’s complicated
It always is
That’s just the way it goes
Feels like I waited so long for this
I wonder if it shows”

Love IS complicated. And while she is singing about romantic love, I think the words apply to all types of  love, and the power of love. How often do you find yourself at the threshold of rapid feelings about people or issues that at times seem overwhelming? Love is a complicated choice, and no place is that more evident than in in dialogues about the Three P’s: power, privilege, and patriarchy. When faced with those massive dynamics, how can we let Love Take Over?

It is no secret that I write about about race, power, privilege, and oppressive systems. I feel it is part of my Goddess-given duty to make it my ministry. On more than one occasion, I have been in conversation with people of color, mostly black, and heard them say, “You get it!” Or other caucasian people will ask my advice on delicate situations about race.  I am by no means an authority on bringing race to the table, but I am a contributor to the dialogue. But that wasn’t always the case. Sure, I have black friends and was in a long-term relationship with a biracial man. But even the “you get it” guy had an issue with race. My issue was what I call ‘apathetic white syndrome,’ meaning I had convinced myself I was exempt from white privilege and accountability, because I had decided I was ‘one of them’ through osmosis. After all, I had a black best friend, and a black man on my arm, and isn’t ‘gay’ an oppressed minority?

Then maybe two years ago, I met Crystal Blanton through a mutual friend on Facebook and found myself in a dialogue where I wasn’t being patted on the back for being “Mr. White Ally.” Instead I was being challenged. Not in a confrontational way, though at that time I thought so. Who was this angry black woman and her tribe of sympathizers picking on innocent me? I was being asked pointed questions and my stock (apathetic) answers like, “You don’t know me, I have a black boy friend” were met with, “So what, what does that really mean?” or, “This is about systems, not the personal.” For a good four months, I was the world’s most antagonist Facebook troll ever. If she had a post, I had an opinion. Even when I thought my opinion was congruent to hers, it wasn’t, because my ego was on this quest for instant approval.  Because I was caught up in my story, I was not falling in love with hers. What was missing from the dialogue was the complicated work of letting love take over.

It’s complicated, it always is, when we choose to be part of the solution on any issue. It’s about bringing love into the dialogue. When I write about love, I am writing about that complicated driving force that accepts the challenge, that is sometimes angry, and is unmitigating. When we accept the challenge, love eventually does show. The step towards reparation was the choice to stop festering in privilege and in my opinion and to shut my mouth. The reason I “get it” is because I made the choice to watch, listen, and to step into knowing. In choosing to let love take over, I gained one of my closest friends.


Steps for letting Love Take Over!

Step 1.

Listen. Listen instead of making a rebuttal or chiming in. If you do anything, hear and understand what is being said, blogged, tweeted, etc. Please, speak less and just listen. Understand that your role is not to lead or speak for women or people of color or any other marginalized group that you are not part of. They are more than capable of speaking up for themselves.

Opinion sometimes is not desired or required. Instead of speaking out, try letting love take over from within. Interrogate yourself about why listening is so hard, maybe why you’re so upset to hear that your action or inaction has hurt someone. This is probably going to be the hardest action ever, because active listening isn’t something most of us are used to doing, especially when topics like rape, racism, poverty are so fraught with emotion.

There will be an urge to defend as I did with Crystal, even though the topic of the conversation isn’t specifically you. When Love Takes Over, we ignore that urge because:

  • No one cares that you’re not like that. You’re a stranger and your word doesn’t mean anything. Your actions will speak volumes.
  • Derailing a conversation to talk about how someone’s tone upsets, offends, or distresses you is not okay.
  • Any response to a discussion of someone else’s oppression that centers on you and your feelings is the wrong one. Why? Because it is oppression in the purest form.

Step 2.

Educate yourself. The greatest gift to the conversation is being educated. Be it following writers like Crystal Blanton, Thorn Coyle, YesheRabbit Matthews, even what you are reading today invariably invites wisdom and knowing. Also, learning is more than a few quotes by Maya Angelou, it is digging deep to let wisdom guide how love takes over your life. Your education is limited if you have never explored the voices of transgendered people, the poor, or survivors of rape. When love takes over, you choose to know. Read what you can when you can, instead of demanding an individual education. Like step one, it isn’t the oppressed’s job to teach you, though I have found many who make it their ministry to educate.

Step 3.
Let Love Take Over your actions. It doesn’t mean squat if you choose not to stand up and stand out! I find myself often interjecting into oppressive situation to be an actual ally. Recently Thorn Coyle was called a ‘n*gger lover” on her face book page. Nothing could be a greater compliment! It means that people are listening, even the racists. Sure, people of color and women can and do fight their own battles, but when you see someone being harassed, bullied, or verbally abused, let love take over and offer words of support, deflect a troll, rally to defend the marginalized online or in person, in whatever way is safe for you.

Step 4.
When Love Takes Over, we know that sometimes we need to remove ourselves from people we may have been in community with. Not every community has the same goals or the same needs. The veda teaches that we are the company we keep. Sometimes, we have to divorce ourselves in the name of love from situations.  Just like in step one, when love takes over you listen to what is being said, and if nothing else, know (from step two) that just because your community functions a different way, that doesn’t make it better. Sometimes the community needs to change.


Doing the work is complicated. Being the example of the work is even more complicated. My friendship with Crystal hasn’t always been easy, because as a perceptive mirror she is challenging me to be better: to give myself the permission to be more than apathetic, but instead be sympathetic and real. This is your invitation.  It is actually a beautiful invitation to come into Presence.  How can we become the drop in humanity’s bucket that realigns the world for love and service, for justice and peace?

When love takes over, we listen more and invite the challenge. We are faced with a choice to stew in our own experience or to Let Love Take Over, even when it’s complicated. When Love Takes Over, power systems are realigned with love. Love that is complicated. Love that is Angry. Love that is Fearless.  Love that is Divine.

How will you let LOVE TAKE OVER?

Photo Credit: © 2009 Virgin/EMI

Alone In Her Presence is published on alternate Wednesdays! Subscribe via RSS or e-mail.

Jewish Witch: The American’s Guide to Getting Ebola

Hat tip to Rhyd Wildermuth for putting me in the mood for a jokey list.

As we all know, if you’re a well-off American citizen living on American soil, there’s a virtually infinite variety of ways that you can become infected with Ebola–CDC be damned. Here are just a few:

1. Touch the hand of someone who touched the hand of someone who touched the hand of someone who knows someone who read a news article about Ebola.

2. Turn off the bathroom light and say “Ebola” three times into the mirror.

3. Post on Facebook about the likelihood that all the doorknobs in your city are covered in Ebola. You don’t have to touch the doorknobs. The post will be enough.

4. Sit on a park bench and watch people walk by. When someone sneezes, narrow your eyes at them.

5. Accidentally invoke Ebola at your Yule ritual.

6. Intentionally invoke Ebola at your Yule ritual. Because you wanted to invoke Air but that stupid person you don’t like snapped it up.

7. Play the board game Pandemic with some buds. Place an infection cube on your own city, look up, and grimly whisper, “my gods.”

8. Watch Outbreak, then Contagion, and then run around your neighborhood screaming “IT’S IN THE CHEMTRAILS!” When someone points out there were no chemtrails in those movies, just shake your head at them in disgust.

9. After that, watch Night of the Living Dead and some episodes of The Walking Dead and then play The Last of Us. Oh, and John Carpenter’s The Thing. Because why not round things out? I can’t believe Kurt Russell doesn’t wear gloves during the blood test!

And, the most surefire way to get Ebola:

10. Spend a day in the same state or region as someone who meticulously followed all safety procedures while working with Ebola patients, has never shown symptoms, and tested negative for Ebola twice. Spend lots of time and energy calling her a “selfish b*tch” for following some whim to go take care of people you will never care about. Emphasize, over and over again, that your safety is more important than her rights. Roll your eyes at “science.” Because, as we all know, science is only worthwhile when it supports what you already believe.

And if none of the steps above result in you having Ebola… simply wait for the next exotic threat to come along and fuel your rage.

* * *

By now I’m sure you’ve heard about Kaci Hickox, the nurse who was subjected to interrogation and an attempted quarantine upon returning from her work in Sierra Leone. A taste of the absurdity she was (briefly, thank goodness) subjected to upon landing on US soil:

She’s not allowed to have her luggage and was given paper scrubs to wear. Hickox said she has no shower, no flushable toilet and the hospital gave her no television or any reading material. Mostly, she says, she stares at the walls….

Hickox said she’s not allowed to see her lawyer or anyone else.

“The tent has a window, and doctors talk to me in normal clothes from outside the window,” she says. “So if there’s no risk to them talking to me from outside the window, it doesn’t make any sense that my lawyer wouldn’t be able to do the same.”

In Judaism, the word mitzvah means both commandment and good deed. That is, there’s no difference between a commandment and a good deed; good deeds are commandments, and commandments are meant to be good deeds. I know the logic breaks down in the particulars, especially with not wearing blended fibers and whatnot, but in general it’s a good rule to live by. I see it as roughly corollary to the Charge of the Goddess: “all acts of love and pleasure are my rituals.” True, not all good deeds are pleasurable, but a truly good deed will always be an act of love.

I’m sure you can see where I’m going with this. To do the work that Hickox and other healthcare workers are doing is beyond selflessness and beyond love. And the fact that they’re being met with such hostility and disgust when they arrive back at home speaks not to the danger of Ebola–if you still don’t know how it can and can’t spread, then please, educate yourself–but to the West’s hatred of the Other. Think of the AIDS epidemic: straight folk were so concerned about whether they could get AIDS from toilet seats that it never occurred to them to treat the freaking disease.

Yes, I have actually seen Hickox called a “selfish b*tch” who just “wants to be a hero.” Yes, people I know have actually expressed outrage that she is now existing in the same geographic region as them. Their rallying cry is “she may be infected! You never know!” and no amount of evidence or scientific thinking will sway them. At no point is there any recognition that perhaps the work she’s doing is important. That maybe–and you might want to sit down for this–African lives are worth saving.

There was an article a couple of weeks ago, which I’m not going to link to, that included a picture of a child lying on the floor of a hospital and staring at the camera. A couple of paragraphs into the article, it became clear that the girl in the photo was dead. I have never in my life seen the body of a dead white child plastered on national media like a morbid curio. Black and brown lives, in the ideology of the West, are simply worth less than white lives. At all times, in every way. This attitude simmers, then erupts when a white person has the gall to treat black and brown lives as important. She’s seen as a traitor. How dare she prioritize “them” over “us.”

In “the sky is blue” news: we can’t go on like this. We have to transition to a society based on love and respect, rather than hatred and fear. To care for other human beings is a divine mandate, no matter which religion you follow. There’s simply no excuse to choose fear over love. Kaci Hickox and her colleagues are warriors and heroes, and should be honored as such.

Seriously, how many times do we have to go over this?

Jewish Witch is published on alternate Tuesdays. Subscribe via RSS or e-mail!

Heathen Woman: Reconstructing Heathen Rites

When reconstructing ancient heathen rites and practices in a modern day setting, a person can easily be left wondering how to implement them in a respectful way that leaves our ancestors’ worldview intact. As life is an organic (and thus evolving) process, we’re left negotiating a delicate balance between proper reconstruction of ancient rites and the necessary use of modern means. We must work to understand reciprocal gift exchange in order to carry out our rites in a way that encompasses both ancient viewpoints and modern practicality.

This past weekend, I had the pleasure of spending time in a ritual and enjoying good company in the Theod that I am part of. I cannot properly convey how much it meant to be with those of like mind while taking part together in religious rites and celebration. I could easily spend the length of an article singing the praises of my Alderman who makes it all possible. One of the most important things that I have learned from him is that the internal emotional experience that comes from being part of face-to-face community is almost impossible to fit into words. It’s something that has to be personally experienced.

We can read and study, but until rites and practices are integrated into real world living, they remain only words on someone else’s page. I cannot convey the pure joy that I feel to hear my Alderman sing the old words. His presence when he begins the ritual feels like a stone being dropped in a pond. As his voice echoes, so to do the ripples flow out from his presence. It is a palpable, but indescribable feeling that touches everyone in attendance. Additionally, sitting around a table eating a meal together and sharing our experiences creates a continually forming bond among the participants. In my opinion, it is this experience that reflects the ancient worldview of heathen kinship and community.

I’ve often been asked what a person should do if they don’t have their own circle of heathens to gather with. This is a tricky question because I realize that many people do not live in areas that make it easy to gather with other heathens. My first response is that the most important factors in community are our families, ancestors, and selves. Working to maintain the peace, welfare, and prosperity of the home cannot be stressed enough. If a person is looking to expand outside of that, then up to a day’s travel may be necessary in order to meet with others who are willing to build a local community.

Travelling hours to meet others may not sound like an ideal solution, but it is a practice that was not foreign to ancient people. While independent tribes existed as their own communities, after trade and exploration became commonplace, travelling became something that was an ordinary expectation for many people. For those willing to travel and invest in creating a solid group, I think the time spent going back and forth is worth it. Working within one’s local community helps build a network and also establishes a reputation with neighbors. Note that I’m not talking about weekly treks halfway across the country here. These should be special trips spent with people who have a vested interest in you, and in whose success you are likewise invested.

Sometimes, we can be our own defeating element when it comes to heathenry if we allow a sense of ignorance to influence our practices. You do not need to know the names of every ancestor in order to make an offering to them. The act of tending their gravesite, or leaving them a precious offering, is still appropriate. It is also not required that levels of initiation be passed before a person can study a particular area of history as it pertains to heathenry. Do not be afraid of the academic material because you think that it does not reflect modern-day realities of living. Often, we can see particular aspects of daily life from the past that are still reflected in the present day. Using the example above of my experience this past weekend, we can see how the experience of gathering carries the past into the present in a way that allows us to better understand of our ancient forebears. When we can personally adopt such practices, our experiences in heathenry become enriched and meaningful.

When constructing rites, consider how certain elements of nature may have been viewed. Grain, for example, was valued, and thus its harvest is recognized by giving thanks for an abundant supply of food that sustains us through the year. Also, when leaving offerings to ancestors, consider the things that were a big part of who they were in life. Was your grandmother a gardener? Did she have a favorite flower? Was your grandfather a baker? Did he have a trademark recipe? Use this knowledge to determine your offerings. Display pictures of your more recent ancestors around your home where they can be seen and appreciated. Tell stories about them. Remember them.

Researching your ancestors’ country of origin, their cultural folk lore, and development of their tribes and land can all help. Further, if you feel so inclined, the study of your ancestors’ native language (if it is different from yours) can give context for how certain terms were used and aid in writing prayers in their remembrance. While religious experience is personal, applying these techniques and building communal bonds can help create a practice that is continuously enriching.

Heathen Woman is published on alternate Fridays. Subscribe via RSS or e-mail!

Wyrd Words: Putting the “Holy” Back in “Holiday”

Greetings, and welcome back to Wyrd Words. Keeping the Thor in Thursdays, every other week here on Agora!

So we’ve come to the changing of the seasons! Autumn is here, bringing its chilly 90 degree weather, flowering gardens, and bright green trees. Remember, I live in Arizona. We have 2 seasons: “Magic-Sky-Water-Season” and “WHY-DID-I-CHOOSE-TO-LIVE-IN-AN-INCINERATOR?!?!-Season.” We’re Currently enjoying “Magic-Sky-Water-Season,” and with it come the many joys of October! All the cool decorations are on sale, Pagans suddenly get to be on TV, and there’s pumpkin-spice EVERYTHING.

 photo pumpkinspice_zps67ba6389.jpg

(You only wish we were kidding)

It’s also the time of year when many of us observe some of our most sacred rites. The Wiccans are gearing up for Samhain tomorrow, the Heathens are out buying mead for Winter Nights, and I’m getting ready to go deal with hordes of tiny sugar junkies for 8 hours… The unfortunate truth is that many of us are forced to work through our Holy days. This is often not because our bosses are evil bigots who refuse to let us observe our religious traditions, but because our desire to eat real food some time this week keeps us bound to our desks.

I believe Winter Nights is more than just a ritual observance or a day of remembrance. It’s a time that should be made sacred and set apart from the mundane affairs of our everyday lives. This, to me, is part of my covenant with the Vættir. So when our schedules don’t allow us to participate in holiday functions, how can we still feel as if we are doing our part?

Many of us grew up in nominally Christian households, and as such we celebrated Christmas every year. I remember the sense of ecstatic joy and excitement the night before, and throughout the holiday everything always seemed a bit brighter simply because the day was “special”. The world was always prettier on Thanksgiving. The world was always more fun on someone’s birthday. The offerings I make during this turning of the seasons consist of more than the ritual sacrifices offered at the Blót; the very act of setting this time apart to honor the Gods, the ancestors, and the spirits of the land is an offering in and of itself. The simple act of making the day a special occasion always seems to make the world a slightly better place for the day, even if we still have to fulfill our regular (mundane) obligations.

For those of us who don’t have the option of taking a day off to celebrate our holy days, we can still keep the spirit of the day alive. Take extra time to enjoy the little things. I often have to work outdoors, so I like to pause every so often and enjoy the breeze. I won’t be able to eat dinner with the family, but I can still prepare a special meal to enjoy at work. I also try to go the extra mile, putting forth an effort to try and do just that much better than any other day. I refuse to let the fact that I’m at work stop me from making the day unique and special. I cannot change my surroundings, so instead I choose to change my perception of them, and set myself apart. That is my offering on this day of sacrifice.

Wyrd Words is published on alternate Thursdays. Subscribe via RSS or e-mail!

Socially Responsible Magic: What Is Community?

In the last few posts I’ve shared on here, I’ve focused a lot on leadership, but I want to take a step back and look at the concept of community, because the word community is used a lot: to describe anything from the Pagan community (an overarching community comprised of anyone who identifies as Pagan) to describing a specific local community of people that a person is part of. Either use is correct, but it’s worth asking ourselves what we really mean when we use this word community.

For myself, this word has always held a variety of meanings. For most of my life, I wanted to belong to a community. For most of it, I didn’t really feel I belonged anywhere. As a kid and teenager, I was never popular, always being on the fringe with the other geeks and nerds who knew too much and yet didn’t know how to relate to other people very well. When I became a Pagan, in my high school years and later college years, I looked into various groups, even joined several college Pagan organizations, but none of them ever really felt like community to me. I looked into various magical organizations and didn’t find a fit there. It wasn’t until I moved to the Pacific Northwest that I finally realized something: If I wanted to belong to a community, I was better off creating one than trying to fit into one.

When I think about what community is, I don’t associate it with an organization or a magical order. I think of community as something much more personal. My community is my chosen family, the people I connect with regularly who hold a place of meaning and emotion in my life. And that community is much different from the community at large, because of how much more personal it is. So when I see the word community, I wonder sometimes if people have really considered what it means to them, beyond the rather impersonal use of the word used to describe many people who choose to identify as Pagan, but who may not necessarily connect with each other in any other way.

I also think about what brings community together. With the community I formed, what brings us together is a combination shared interests, spirituality, and a desire to connect with people in a deeply meaningful way on an emotional, intellectual, and spiritual level. We come together for social purposes, to play board games, watch movies, and celebrate birthdays, but we also come together for educational purposes, in order to learn something about each other’s spiritual practices. We also come together to spiritually work together, to do ritual and magical practices that will help us commune with the universe and whatever spiritual forces we identify with, as well as anything else we care to reach out to.

But I also think of community in context to connections. Who can I help is the question I ask each day, and in all my various interactions I am always on the lookout to help other people, both directly and through the network of people I am connected to. That network isn’t quite the same as a community, but it is nonetheless a resource I bring to my community, with the goal being that my community can benefit from having access to a wide variety of resources and experts as needed.

I don’t think I’m alone in feeling this way. In fact, I’d say that many people I’ve connected to feel a similar connection to their own communities, to the group of people that means something to them that is more personal and familial. The celebration of this understanding of community is found in the ways the community comes together. It may be for a ritual or education night, or a social event, or it may occur during a moment of crisis, when one person needs the community to come together and help out because of a crisis. However community manifests in this context, what it demonstrates is the importance of the relationships we have to each other. We are not alone… we have each other.

What does community mean to you? How does it show up in your life? What do you do to contribute to your community? How do you support your community, and how do you reach out when you need support?

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

Follow Us!