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.

Resources

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!

Ancestor Remembrance Project: Blood and Spirit

This week for the Ancestor Remembrance Project, I had fully intended to write about my paternal grandmother, who, like my maternal great-grandmother, was another Mary Elizabeth. However, my meditations and journaling led me in a different direction, and instead of forcing it, I decided to see where my wandering would take me. That’s been a common thread of my conversations with Jamie as we work through this project together; letting the stories and the spirits lead us where they will, rather than spending the month on what we think we “should” be doing to connect with our dead. It’s been an eye-opening experience for me; I’m such a type A that I rarely sit back and suspend my expectations and perfection, but I’m trying to open myself more to chance and flow, especially in a ritual context.

Although the contemporary branches of my family tree are sparse, I’ve always been drawn to family history and traditions. Maybe it’s because I grew up without cousins around, or maybe it’s part of the role of the oldest to look to the past and find common ground, but I’ve always been interested in where we came from. My direct knowledge of family history, however, stops in my lifetime; I do not know the names of my maternal great-grandmother’s predecessors, nor do I know the names of those who came before my paternal grandparents. There has been extensive genealogy research into my maternal grandfather’s side of the family, but even as a child, I recognized that this was only part of the puzzle.

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Growing up, I clung to whatever scraps of family ancestry I could find; when my grandfather told me we had Cherokee blood from his side of the family, I forged an emotional connection with the tragedy of the Trail of Tears and Native American relocation. Later, when my mom affirmed that both she and my father had a lot of Irish blood in their respective lines, I fixated on the Celtic aspect of our family, dreaming a romanticized, magic-drenched tale of our Irish ancestors. In fact, the first time I slipped into a trance state was when I heard a Celtic band perform live in an ancient brewery during college, and the music touched a chord in my heart that, at the time, I thought reinforced my direct Irish roots, but now I wonder if it was my spiritual ancestry the music appealed to, rather than my blood.

Over the years, I’ve remained interested in the tangible questions of where my family came from, but I’ve also developed an understanding and appreciation of the spiritual heritage which may or may not have trickled down to me through my blood ancestors. If the past four generations are any example, my family has a tradition of strong women, and perhaps for that reason, I have found my spiritual home in a practice shaped by the concept of the divine as feminine. In seeking a deeper connection with my matrilineal roots, in my early twenties, I walked the initiate’s path in the Order of the Eastern Star, a Masonic organization that at least four generations of the women in my family have been affiliated with. Although I am no longer a member of OES, the experience of initiation is one I’ll never forget; in that night, I felt the bonds reaching beyond my mother, grandmother, and great-grandmother, and I felt a unity with the women who may not share my blood, but share this piece of my spiritual self: a love for ritual and the telling of stories of women.

Family and ancestry are not limited by blood; the choices we make link us to traditions and generations, in spirit and in action. Although my direct knowledge of my bloodline is confined to those family members I’ve known in my lifetime, I’ve embraced the idea that my connections run as deep as time. This week, as we approach Halloween, I’m taking time to honor both my direct and spiritual ancestors; blood calls to blood, but heart and spirit form lasting bonds, too. I honor those who came before: I name them family.

photo courtesy of shutterstock: shutterstock.com


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

This post is part of the Patheos Pagan Ancestor Remembrance Project.

Seekers and Guides: The Downward Spiral – Depression and Suicide in Paganism (Part 4)

This will be my last installment in my series on suicide and depression in Paganism.  Perhaps appropriately, this will also be the last installment of “Seekers and Guides.”  I am pleased to announce that I have been invited by the Patheos folks to open my own blog!  It’s called Between the Shadows: the Craft of a Liminal Witch, and I’ll be writing on existing in the “between” spaces of things and on the Craft and Paganism in general.  I would really like to thank all of you for your support (and your vocal arguments too!) during my time as part of the great team that makes up the Agora blog; without you, this would not have been possible.  I have enjoyed writing “Seekers and Guides” very much, and I will likely continue writing about the things that I wrote about here in my new blog.  I hope that if you’ve enjoyed my work (or hated it; spirited debate is good too) you’ll come on over to the new blog page so that we may continue our dialogue!

Now on with the subject of today’s column: suicide prevention and healing for survivors.

Recognizing the Warning Signs

Often – usually – a suicide attempt comes as an enormous shock to friends and loved ones.  But often, the person who has attempted to take his or her own life has been crying out for help for some time.  However, the signals are usually unclear.  Some things to look out for, in addition to all the symptoms of depression, include:

  • Self-defeating talk about nothing being worth it and things looking hopeless, especially if it is repeated
  • Distancing oneself from family and friends
  • Stopping long-term or lifesaving medications
  • Giving away a bunch of personal belongings, especially savings, sentimentally valued items, or pets; also, a sudden interest in setting out terms for a will or for a funeral (which might just represent a confrontation with mortality, but it’s worth noting)
  • Actively avoiding social interaction
  • Asking questions about methods of death or suicide and their results
  • A sudden fascination with  death
  • Lifechanging stress factors sometimes tip a depressed person over the edge.  Any intense emotional event can be a lifechanging stressor.  Examples include: moving, getting married, getting divorced or ending a long-term relationship, starting school, starting a new school, starting a new job, failing in school, losing a job or getting laid off, graduating, financial disaster, public humiliation, a new disability, quitting an addiction, confronting a deep emotional trauma or one’s own mortality, being diagnosed with a chronic or terminal illness, the death of a child or spouse, killing someone, or being charged with a crime.

Compassion: Nature’s Healing Balm for the Soul

When people are driven to suicide it is most often due to feelings of hopelessness or loneliness.  Time and again we hear stories of how a moment of compassion can save lives.  It really can.  If you see someone struggling, reach out to help.  If you see someone being bullied or abused, step in.  A kind word, an offer of a sandwich when someone is hungry, a shoulder to cry on, a warm place to sleep, a coat in a storm; these things can all make the difference between life and death.

It’s a hard thing.  We suffer from compassion fatigue in our society, probably because we hear so much about suffering that we find it hard to allow ourselves to care about anyone outside of our little sphere.  And we are frightened of the unknown, and the truth is that a hungry homeless person just might rob you.  But it is never wrong to care or to feel.

But, There’s a Limit

Some people just seem to feed on all the attention and use us as psychic garbage dumps.  After a point, you are not helping; you are enabling a negative behavior.  You can’t allow yourself to be sucked into their black hole and you must save yourself.  Because I am subject to depression myself, I can only handle so much negativity before I must distance myself.

Remember me talking about my friend in the first article; the one who tried to commit suicide on New Year’s Eve next door to me?  I felt horrible.  This friend had been my saving grace; he served the place of a therapist in my anorexia and my depression; he listened to me pour out and sort out my feelings, and he saved my life.  How could I have failed him so badly?

I meditated and sought communion with the Goddess.  And after several hours, just before dawn, the message I got was this: if you see someone drowning, you can throw out a life preserver.  You can hold their hand; you can offer to be there.  But if they won’t grab it, then there’s nothing you can do.  And to think that you have that much control over whether or not someone lives or dies is hubris.  It’s not up to you; each one of us must exercise our own free will, and no one else can do it for us.

Intervention

How do you know when to intervene?  How do you know when you should butt out?

You know what I think?  If you really think someone might be in danger of taking their own life, it’s time to intervene.  The person in question might be angry with you; but so what?  They’ll be alive, right?

So how do you help?

Contact a professional or a semi-professional.  Alert school counselors, church leaders, health care professionals, addictions counselors, community health nurses or doctors.  If you don’t know what else to do, call the suicide hotline and ask them!  Urge the one you’re concerned about to seek help for him or herself as well.

Be aware that most coven leaders or grove organizers are not trained as counsellors so they may not have solutions for you.  Ask someone with some training.  Try your local Unitarian church if you don’t know where else to go; they usually have at least a few token Pagans in their congregations and they will be friendly at least.

If you are a Pagan leader and you want training in counselling, there’s a great book out there called On Becoming a Counsellor by .  Also, the Cherry Hill Seminary has courses you can take.

Dealing with the Aftermath

No matter how much people care, no matter how much we try, sometimes people we care about will slip through our fingers.  They will be taken from us.  We will be faced with a whole host of emotions about it, and then we must not neglect our own self-care.  Here are some of the issues that come up and suggestions on what you can do about them.

Survivor Guilt

Survivor guilt is a special form of post-traumatic stress disorder that comes from having survived something when someone else we care about has not.  It is a very common affliction for the survivors of suicide victims.  Many of us struggled with that when Jodi took her own life.  Why her when she was the kindest, nicest person among us?  Why were we, the unworthy, still alive when she was dead?  What had we done, or not done, to fail her?

The truth is, we had done nothing to fail her, and nothing we had done could have saved her.  Jodi was in a relationship with a man who loved her.  She was going to school.  She had lots of friends.  She just lost her battle with depression.  It wasn’t our fault; and if you have survived someone who was a suicide victim in your life, it’s not your fault either.  No matter what you said, or didn’t say; no matter whether you loved someone with all your heart and stayed with them through everything, or dumped them because you couldn’t handle it anymore; no matter whether or not you called or didn’t call or even said something terribly hurtful; it’s not your fault.  They made the choice to take their own life; you had no power over that.

If you think you might be suffering from survivor guilt, that’s also a risk factor, so please get professional therapy for yourself too.

Anger

It’s not talked about much, but it is not uncommon for the survivors of a suicide victim (or would-be suicide victim) to be very angry about what has happened.  And the truth is, the one who has killed him or herself (or tried to) has done a very hurtful thing.  It is an act that causes terrible damage and trauma to the ones you love and leave behind.

How do you deal with that anger while still trying to provide emotional support for the one you love when they need you?  Most of us don’t, and so years later we need therapy for our damaged emotions and co-dependent behaviors.

Get some therapy for yourself while your loved one is getting therapy.  It is normal to be angry.

I blamed myself when my mother attempted suicide.  I spent much of my childhood trying so hard to be the person she wanted me to be, trying not to upset her that I lost myself completely.  Then I was suicidal.  Later on, I had a great deal of anger towards her for putting me in that position at such a young age.  Her bipolar diagnosis allowed me to put it in perspective.  I came to think of it as what it was; an illness.  She was sick, and no more in control of her actions than a person delirious with fever.  This allowed me to forgive her and to heal the rifts between us as well as to start healing myself.  Granted, it’s not perfect, and it’s not easy; but it’s much better.  And it gets better all the time.

Grief

Grieving takes time and is different for all of us.  Understanding the five stages of grief may help you to come to terms with what has happened (and even attempted suicide necessitates dealing with horror and grief).  Give yourself time to heal and don’t allow others to tell you what you should and should not being doing, or how you should feel from moment to moment.  For me, my best tactic for grief is to help others, try to get on with my life, but be given space to break down and cry a while when the inevitable reminders come.  Doing this helps me to move on and gives me reason to keep going.  Others may need to shut everyone away for a while.  Let all grieve in their own ways.

Resolution

Grief eases when we come to a place of resolution.  For some of us that can be difficult, especially when a death is traumatic and sudden, as suicides are.  Maybe there are things we never had a chance to say.  Maybe we just need to say we’re sorry and we need to feel we’ve been heard.

Fortunately, we are Pagans.  The Veil is thin this time of year.  Create a ritual in which you bring to the altar a picture or other memento of the person you loved, and say everything you wished to say; even your anger and your grief.  Then thank the spirit of the departed for joining you and move on.  Bury or burn the memento, toss it into a lake or a river, or keep it in a place of honor, according to your need and preference.  Hopefully you will find the healing you need.

A Final Message of Hope

There is very little in life that cannot be changed.  Indeed, change is the only constant.  That means that every day begins with the possibility of transformation.

If life seems unbearable for you right now, just remember that tomorrow might be better.  But if you don’t stick around to find out, you’ll never know.

Ending your life might mean that the pain will stop, yes.  But so will any possibility of joy.  So hang in there.  Cookies really are tasty, sex can be a lot of fun, sunlight is warm and rainbows really are beautiful.  And they really are out there, even if you live in the Pacific Northwest (trust me, I live in BC!)

She changes everything She touches, and everything She touches changes.  Or as the Persians once said; this, too, shall pass.

I decided I wanted to stick around and find out what happens tomorrow.  I hope you do too.

Thanks for listening.  Blessed be.

Next column: She changes everything She touches, and everything She touches changes.

Join me over at “Between the Shadows” http://www.patheos.com/blogs/betweentheshadows/.

Merry meet, and merry part, and merry meet again!

 

Queer of Swords: Halloween – The Secular Festival of Becoming

Some of you probably already knew that I’m British. We of the Old Country recognize Halloween, but it was never really a big thing for us. Remember, remember the Fifth of November. Gunpowder, Treason and Plot! For reasons that aren’t really well explained, bonfire night a few days later was really the event that collectively floated our boats. It possibly says something about us as a culture that we like to celebrate the anniversary of the day that Guy Fawkes in an act of terrorism almost but not quite blew up the Houses of Parliament, but I digress.

I moved to the United States a decade ago, originally just for the summer, then two years later it became permanent. The US and the UK have a lot of similarity – mostly the same language (give or take a few double letters and disagreement over what to call the access hatches at each end of a car), broadly similar values, summing to a way of life that is initially very familiar. I’d say that, at first, what amazed me was how much that was essentially the same, but after a little more time, it was the small differences that started to convince this particular Dorothy that she wasn’t in Kansas any longer. I remember being utterly bewildered the first time I attempted to buy bedding because the words for everything were entirely different. I’m not sure I ever managed to adequately come to terms with the concept of a pillow sham. What is a pillow sham, anyway?

Nothing, though, prepared me for the way that the entire United States becomes utterly unhinged one night of the year: Halloween. October 31st, the day that the veil is thinnest between being a fine, upstanding citizen and dressing like an undead tomato handing out vast quantities of chocolate to passing children.

Why?

Seriously people, why?

As most people who have read my column for a while will already know, I’m open about being transgendered. It’s been about 20 years now since I started living in the gender that vaguely approximates my identity. Back in the 1990s as this was all happening, the rise of the internet gave me my first ever way to find community, information and support. This was the first time that I really started to spend a lot of time talking to Americans and realizing that there really was something different about Halloween for them. I talked to a surprising number of people who had their first ever experience of doing something about their gender nonconformance on that night – the only night of the year when the stigma of crossdressing wasn’t present. For some, this was a big deal. They would plan for months, putting together all the logistics for the big night, when they got to be themselves, with the only risk of being found out being a chance to win the best costume contest.

For many, this was extremely profound. Changing outward gender is a huge and scary thing, with no easy way to stick your toe in the water before committing. Halloween was that opportunity, cited by quite a few people as central to their decision to transition, or not transition.

My culture didn’t have anything like that. One kept a stiff upper lip, cor blimey strike a light. We never had an annual festival of becoming, that gave us permission to be someone else, some thing else, for a day. More importantly, for the transgendered among us, we never had the chance to become ourselves for a day.

We live in a world of self-appointed gatekeepers, whose permission we must seek in order to become ourselves. For the transgendered, this manifests as a tendency for medical professionals to set out their shingle as our lords and masters, the keepers of the keys to our gender identities. If you read the medical literature on the subject, particularly going back a few decades, you see some utterly bizarre and contradictory theories about our etiologies, all of which were supported by research based on interviews with transgendered people. The uncomfortable truth, if you happen to be transgendered, is that you have to make your own choice about transitioning and go with it. This involves lying your face off to any gatekeeper in earshot, telling them exactly what they need to hear in order to have them let you pass by unharmed. The consequence of this is that any gatekeeper with a pet theory will find any amount of corroborating evidence for that theory. We’re not stupid. We read your published papers and your books. We know exactly how high to jump when you say jump. This, of course, renders such gatekeeping largely useless, since it offers no real benefit to anyone, but still retains its intrinsic abusiveness. No one should ever have to petition for the right to become themselves.

I’m given to wonder whether the secret of the success of the American Halloween is really that it is a secular festival of becoming. Everyone likes a good excuse for a party, but there is something more here. My gut tells me that it’s not just the candy and the fake spider webs, fun that they are. It’s the permission. One night a year, Americans are allowed to get away with being themselves, however unhinged that might appear.

Well done, America. You did good with this one.


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Alone In Her Presence: Halloween – Inviting the Secular

HalloweenIt’s that time of year again: a time when the veil between two worlds, the living and the crossed-over, is at the thinnest. This is a time many Pagans call Samhain, a sabbat to honor the death of the Horned God in his epic journey of death and rebirth. Many step into rituals that acknowledge the departed to commune and welcome the spirits of beloved dead. This month, many of the articles here at Patheos Pagan are focusing on honoring the beloved dead with the Ancestor Remembrance Project.  This is, after all, our most ‘high profile’ time.

Initially I thought that I might contribute to the project; however, I do not have ancestors I wish to remember or honor. I suppose Margot Adler might have been a source of inspiration, but that felt inauthentic as she and I met only once. The more I meditated on it, I came to feel a bit perplexed and annoyed that contemporary Paganism had this seemingly “one size fits all” application around Halloween. There is a belief proliferated by many that this is either a holy time or an evil time, but not all Pagans revere Halloween as holy. But I think all Pagans will agree, it certainly is not evil.

Personally, I like my Halloween with green faced ‘witches’ and candy corn, trick or treating and carved pumpkins. Oh, how I love candy corn and a jack-o-lantern! Sure, some of those items have folkloric history in pagan-based cultures, but I want to bob apples and throw lavish parties while eating candy corn till my stomach hurts (have I mentioned I LOVE candy corn?). Having grown up Evangelical Christian, I am not sure how how I managed to have Halloween as a kid. But it was the only time when the Ouija board could come out and not be looked upon as a “portal to Satan.” I can still hear my mother saying to my father, “It’s just a silly game!” My mother also loved Halloween, and I think this is why unlike other holidays, such as Christmas (she hated Christmas, due to the commercialization of forced gift giving and excess), we always had so much fun! It was for her a purely secular spectacle.

Once when I was in sixth grade, she threw me the most lavishly epic Halloween party. I have two memories from it. First, for one night I became the most popular kid in school. The other memory is my father following the one black friend I had like a shadow, making sure he didn’t steal anything. I am not sure he knew that I saw this, but I did. Subsequently, our house was robbed a few weeks later, and naturally my father let it be known that the ‘n**ger’ at the party must have been casing the house. 

This is why I let the beloved dead stay dead. While my father is not dead, we have not spoken in probably 18 years. I have little connection to my family of birth, and this is by choice. For the handful of joyous memories, I have bushels of sorrowful ones. For myself and many others who have come into knowing the lap of the Goddess as a place of healing and sanctuary, the past was a place of great pain. There are no ancestors to honor in my long line of oppression and racism that proliferates both sides of my family tree. From chattel slave traders and owners, to merchant whalers, and more, in that past is history of known mental illness that destroyed generations with sexual trauma and near-psychotic obsessions with Jesus as “lord and savior.” 

No, I think I will sit this one out. And here is why? Maya Angelou once said, “History despite wrenching can cannot be unlived, yet if faced with courage need not be lived again.” 

It is with courage that I walked away from that place. It is with courage that many align their lives in the present, maybe looking toward the “western sky” as Elpheba sings in Defying Gravity, the musical adaptation of Wicked.

In this perfectly imperfect moment it is okay to politely decline Ancestor Remembrance. That is not to say that I do not feel inspired by beautiful family altars I have seen or Day of the Dead celebrations in my neighborhood, I do. I love a great Dia de la Muertos altar; it is one of the benefits of living in a predominately Mexican neighborhood. But reading some of these articles have made me feel less than, like I am missing out on something when I am not.  Beyond the observation of others, honoring the beloved dead of ancestors past is simply not my truth. The same goes for honoring a Horned God’s death. I don’t worship a dying and rebirthing god. To be honest, the whole idea is for me is a bit too zombie Jesus. Again, not my truth. I do not align myself with an ancestral or bloodline magical path or tradition and honor the centuries of kinsman of a Reconstructionist religion. And that is okay. My path is an ever generating, every abundant, ever changing Holy Mother.

Rather, instead I honor Halloween as a secular holiday. I revel in the misinformation about it, and about what witchcraft is and isn’t. I watch, bemused, when Pagans defend their beliefs to Christians and when Christians denounce the holiday, or in the case of Kirk Cameron, try to reclaim Halloween from the “Satanist pagans.”  I don’t get involved in the discursive patterns that often arise when people try to defend “who they are.” I know who and what I am, everyone does…. The Goddess needs no introduction. 

No, I’d rather watch babies get their first Halloween costume, and children get dressed up as princesses and vampires, or even better, dress as a haggard green faced monstrous wicked witch!!! I put on my cliche witches hat and give out copious amounts of candy: the good candy, because I have not forgotten the value of ‘good candy.’  I carve a pumpkin and make pie, and I watch Charlie Brown’s Halloween special… and if you forgot, I will also be eating candy corn!

This year on Halloween maybe I will light a candle for Margot Adler, and maybe go to a circle in NYC. But I may not be able to tear myself away from the secular of that day to invite the ‘holy’. And that is okay. The point of being in beloved community that nurtures truth is that we have the power to cultivate the present, and manifest the future. I will, however, light a candle as I do nightly for all the spirits who have crossed over, that their journeys be easeful and that they know deep peace. As with everything, when we cast the widest circle we invite a magic that is manifold in blessings. I invite you to do the same.

Now off to the store to buy candy!!! Happy Halloween!


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

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