An Important Announcement!

Dear friends and faithful readers,

It is with much pleasure that I announce a big change coming to my own ashram. Beginning Tuesday, Dec 10, this blog will be moving to the Pagan Portal over at Patheos, warehouse of spiritual and religious blogs – and atheist ones too! I am particularly excited to be blogging regularly at Patheos Pagan. I’ve been an occasional contributor to Pagan Families (now also at Patheos Pagan) and until last June I was a regular columnist at A Sense of Place (located at Patheos Pagan). I have found the conversation insightful, the writing and perspectives diverse, and the support among the Portal writers supportive and encouraging.

What does this mean for my blog? Beginning Monday, Dec 9, when you click on my own ashram you will be redirected to the new site; the blog will be renamed A Witch’s Ashram. You will find all my posts archived there, if you want to read previous posts. Be warned: there will be ads. I have no control over the content of those. If you find one really out of context or outright offensive, please let me know. However, my content will not change. I’ll still be posting about my opinions, theological thoughts, book reviews, and musings on my personal practice. I also plan to have some guest posts written by other thinkers and practitioners of Traditional Witchcraft.

If you currently follow this blog or get notifications via email and want to continue with that, you’ll have to click again on the new page come Monday.

I hope you’ll continue to join me on my journey.

Sincerely,

Niki

Frozen: A review

Oh Disney, you are so complicated. Such beautiful art, such a weird and twisted empire. So many great movies, so many terrible ones. But one thing has remained constant for your empire: you are a feminist’s nightmare.

I fell in love with Disney when I was 14, when The Little Mermaid came out. The colors! THE SINGING. I didn’t have a filter then for deconstructing the anti-feminist qualities of that film. And oh, it’s awful for girls. Silence your voice to win a cute boy’s heart? UGH. Then there was the horrible, racist Lion King. Don’t get me started on that.

Frozen-movie-posterBut with John (Pixar) Lasseter’s move to Disney things have been looking up. I didn’t hate Tangled. Brave was good. But Frozen, Disney’s most recent offering, is great.

Did you read that right? Yes, you did. This notoriously unpleasable feminist, the one who rained on everyone’s Thor 2 parade, loves Frozen.

I always like to get the bad things out of the way first. There are a few typical Disney tropes that I hope die in a fire someday soon. First, we’re still telling stories about princesses. You’d think women didn’t deserve stories unless they are royalty. Secondly, the princesses’ faces, bodies, and especially eyes are really creepy. I’m tired of the wasp-waisted, tea-cup-eyed women Disney keeps drawing. Thirdly, the songs in this film are forgettable – except for the one that Elsa sings alone in her ice castle. Holy moly, can Idina Menzel sing. I prefer my animation without songs.

Lastly, there was some weird, racist stuff going on with the adorable trolls. Why is their ceremonial garb possibly Polynesian? Why does the lone non-’European’ voice belong to a troll? Disney’s inability to effectively portray anyone other than white, Euro-centric Americans is deeply problematic, and yet this was less of an issue than it’s been in past movies. I’ll take it a wussy step in the right direction.

Typical annoyances were delightfully downplayed. Usually I hate the ‘funny animal’ sidekick. In this case, Olaf the Snowman was a hoot – and strangely made sense!

Now, why on earth am I writing about a Disney movie in a blog devoted to spirituality? Because besides finding this film feminist and with a dash of my favorite theology (spoiler alert: the ladies save themselves and each other!), I liked most of what the movie had to say about magic. Or rather, I like that this movie introduced old tropes and then worked against them.

In past Disney movies the evil character is usually a female and a witch. She’s ugly or at least fearsome, ruining the lives of her hapless victims out of jealousy or just to delight in malice. Spoiler alert: There is no villain in this movie! There’s a bad guy or two, but they are not the Big Bad. The witch in this movie isn’t a witch at all. Elsa is a sorceress, led to believe that her powers were dangerous. Both she and her parents genuinely didn’t know much about her ice powers and didn’t want anyone to get hurt. Instead of learning about her powers, her parents kept Elsa isolated. This is the source of conflict.

What we see throughout the movie is that the powers themselves are neither good nor bad. What steers them are the intent of the sorcerer. As Victor Anderson is credited with saying, “White magic is poetry; black magic is anything that works.” There is no dichotomy between ‘good’ and ‘bad’ magic. But magic or power feared can lead to misuse. Only by claiming one’s power and abilities can a person wield them positively, or with choice.

There is a strange and, I think, misguided mention of this idea in the beginning. Due to an accident of Elsa’s, her parents take her to the trolls for help. The head troll uses fiery images of a ‘hellish’ nature to indicate magic gone wrong. It sets up an either/or that I don’t think holds in the rest of the film.

I loved that magic was not an outright evil in this movie, nor that a woman possessing magic was an evil witch. One man in the movie wants to make Elsa out as a ‘monster,’ but that theme is shot down repeatedly. Elsa reveals how when we step into the fullness of our voice and powers we find wholeness and learn to stop fearing our strengths as weaknesses. This along with the strong female characters and their bonds make Frozen a movie that I can unreservedly recommend.

Besides, it made me cry. Twice. Outside of Brave, I am not sure that’s ever happened with a Disney movie. But better than my recommendation is that of my kids. My 3-year-old was riveted. And my five-year old son was rooting for the ladies. Who says strong female characters have to exist at the expense of the men or can’t be box office draws?

Holiday Gift Guide for Magical Kids (and Kids at Heart)

When I’m shopping for my kids for birthdays or holidays, I rarely think to myself ‘is this Pagan?’ I don’t care if something is exactly my flavor of spirituality. What I’m looking for are things that foster creativity and enjoyment, and stories that reflect the values with which I and my husband are raising our family. There isn’t a lot of high quality Pagan- or Hindu-specific kid stuff out there (that I can find easily). But there are some things I’ve found and I’d like to share with you. Some of these books and media I’ve written about in other posts. I apologize for the repeats.

First, you’ll find no toys listed here. Basically anything that fosters imagination and creativity (paper and markers, blocks of any kind, dress up clothes, fake kitchen items, science kits, robotics kits, etc) are great for kids, as are anything that will get them outside. What could be more spiritual than creativity and nature? These sorts of ideas extrapolated for adults are also a good idea, because it’s rare to meet an adult who is getting enough creative or outside time. I know I’m not!

Books

We are a house full of readers. Below are some of the books I have particularly loved for kids of all ages.

Lakshmi, from Kathleen Edwards' Holy Stars.

Lakshmi, from Kathleen Edwards’ Holy Stars.

*Holy Stars by Kathleen Edwards is a great book for overviews of the world’s religious figures. Equal space is devoted to Jesus, the Virgin Mary, Yahweh, Muhammad, Lakshmi, Krishna, Buddha, Chango, and others. It’s all done in a graphic novel style that is engaging and fun to read. Snippets from prayers are included. It won’t tell the full story or answer all questions, but introducing kids of all ages to the world’s spiritual characters is a wonderful way to promote religious diversity, understanding, and literacy.

May not be ideal for kids under 4 or 5. Some of the gods’ stories can be…. scary. For example, the crucifixion of Jesus is not easy to explain to a 3-year-old!

Click on the image above to go to the author/illustrator’s site to see more images.

bigmomma*Big Momma Makes the World, by Phyllis Root, illustrated by Helen Oxenbury, is a beautiful picture book telling the story of creation. What I love about this version is that it doesn’t use an old, white man as the Creator. Instead we see an African-American woman as the Creator. The images are simply gorgeous.The narrative voice is delightful. I think this book is appropriate for all but the most conservative of traditions.

This book is appropriate for all ages.

abc_cover_small* ABC Book of Shadows is a board book, perfect for tiny hands and little ones just learning their letters. I will admit that the art in this isn’t my favorite, but little eyes love the bright colors and child-like drawing. This book is written with a Wiccan point of view, and I’m not Wiccan, but you know? It doesn’t matter. As my son got older we were able to talk about some of the differences between what I believe and what the books says. No matter, this a well-loved book in our house. I’m pretty sure I have it memorized, that’s how many times we’ve read this. In fact, our copy is starting to fall apart. I don’t expect it to last beyond the third child!

Click on the image to go Itty Bitty Witch Works, the author’s small press.

elsa beskowchristmas* While not explicitly Pagan or religious, but simply marvelous all the same, are the works of Swedish author/illustrator Elsa Beskow. We have three of her books and I would gladly have more! My children love the pictures as well as the stories. Beskow focuses on images and cycles of nature from her native Sweden. Characters are embodiments of the elements, seasons, or folk tradition (such as trolls) that sometimes interact with human children. Some books are slightly more Christian in theme, but none of the books are ‘religious’ in any overt way. The length of the stories might be hard for kids under 3 to sit through, but the images will grab them. Content-wise, these books are appropriate for people of all ages and all traditions.

 

* A great find at our local library was Gillian Cross’s wonderful retelling of The odysseyOdyssey, with Neil Packer’s stunning illustrations. This isn’t a complete retelling, but it’s enough to entrance a child – and the parent who has to read it aloud! Books of ancient tales and myths, if well done, are popular in our house. This one was a particular favorite. In fact, we will be gifting our son with his own copy for the holidays.

Ideal to read aloud to pre-literate kids and great for older kids to read on their own. Click on the link above to see more images from inside.

sea of trolls * I have written at length about The Sea of Trolls. In fact, I consider it one of the best non-magic books about magic! Here’s part of what I’ve written before:

The Sea of Trolls is set in the 8th century in Saxon ‘England’. Our hero is Jack, an 11 yr old boy. His father longs for Lindisfarne, his mother keeps bees, his 5 yr old sister Lucy insists she’s a fairy princess, and he befriends a Druidic bard. In the first few chapters of the book, Jack is the bard’s apprentice and he begins learning and witnessing magic. Then comes the Viking invasion, and he and Lucy are carried off as slaves. We briefly see Picts and then Jack and Lucy are taken across the North Sea and must venture into Jotunheim, the land of the Ice Giants/Trolls.

It’s a wonderful story, with great characters. The writing is simple – very appropriate for readers 9-11 yrs old. While I like the story and enjoy reading it aloud to my son, what blows me away is the depiction of magic and spirit.

I have read this book many times to my son. There are perhaps two chapters (one on berserking, in particular) that might be too descriptive for your under 10 child – your mileage may vary. I admit to skipping bits here and there for my son.

This book is the first in a trilogy. I enjoyed the entire trilogy, but this is by far my favorite. A great easy read for the older kid or adult who likes fantasy, myth, and/or history.

GraveMercy_* For teens and adults who enjoy YA writing, I recommend Robin LaFevers’ His Fair Assassins series. Grave Mercy is the first in the historical fiction series. So far there are two books; I believe the third is coming out in the spring of 2014 (I can’t wait!). What’s great about these books are the strong female protagonists. They are trained assassins and nuns for the Breton god of Death, Mortaine. The young ladies haven’t really chosen their lives, and so their motives are complicated by politics and romance. I greatly enjoyed these stories.

What makes me include them here is the complex, if fictional, depiction of ‘the old gods’ existing in a newly Christianizing world. There is also an incredibly powerful vision of the god of Death at the end of Grave Mercy that made the theologian and Pagan in me jump for joy.

MeetPolkadot* The last book I want to recommend for kids is not spiritual at all, yet I think many readers of my blog will be interested in it. Meet Polkadot is an educational book on gender diversity for kids. Talcott Broadhead is a local (to me) author and social worker with a gender identity-diverse family. This book has bright illustrations and explores the topic through the eyes of Polkadot, a transgender child (or, for those that assume transgender means surgically altered, let me also throw in the phrase ‘gender neutral’). In a society that doesn’t know the difference between sex and gender (one is biology, the other is identity) and is suffocating under the tyranny of ‘blue is for boys, pink is for girls’ nonsense, this book is more than needed on bookshelves everywhere.

But better than my recommendation is the fact that my 5-year-old loved it. My nearly 3-year-old listened to the whole thing, though I don’t think she really understood much of it. We had great discussion afterwards, too. My son really wanted to know whether Polkadot was a boy or a girl – and that was a great opportunity to talk about the many ways people react to non-normative gender expressions.

This book is not available on Amazon. Please click on the either the picture or the link to go to Danger Dot Publishing.

Not books

* Once you’ve read all the books and you want to sit and watch something with positive Pagan values, I can recommend nothing as highly as the Avatar: The Last Airbender television series. I know, it came out years ago, but there still isn’t anything out there as compelling, with such outstanding design, strong females characters, well-written story arcs, and what I see as Pagan values. Sure, the last point is debatable, as there is nothing in the show explicitly Pagan. The series draws more from Asian and indigenous cultures than Western ones, yet this lack of Christian-based morality is a breath of fresh air. The values presented are all ones I hope my children (and myself!) emulate. I am sure I have seen every episode 30 times, and it still doesn’t bore me.

This program is suitable for kids over the age of 2 (the first season especially; the ending four episodes might be more appropriate for 5 and up – again your mileage may vary).

* Another cartoon that I recommend for its feminist leanings, excellent art and depictions of magic is My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic. I am no fan of content created for marketing, but this cartoon series was designed and spearheaded by the amazing Lauren Faust. She’s worked on the Powerpuff Girls and Foster’s Home for Imaginary Friends (two other cartoons that I am a big fan of). There is nothing spiritual about this series, but I can’t help but recommend something using magical tropes AND filled with strong female characters (and solid animation). I love Rainbow Dash, but suspect I’m more of a Twilight Sparkle. Suitable for all ages.

My son's Ganesh murti.

My son’s Ganesh murti.

* Finally, I think a small Ganesh murti can be ideal for kids. Their very own statue! Plus, small murtis aren’t often that expensive – usually between $10-20. Ganesh is a fantastic god to keep in a kid’s bedroom. He’s kind, loving, happy, and will keep watch over the littles! I like to say he’s a great gateway god!

Maxim Monday: Honor a benefaction

I actually had to look up what a benefaction is. I figured it meant something positive. It does: a charitable gift or deed. Honor gifts given or good deeds done.

How can we do this? I think a simple ‘thank you’ is always sufficient and in good taste. The art of thank you cards seems to have died out, but are always a nice touch. Sometimes an email or phone call to say thank you can work just as well. Perhaps this means not giving anonymously? Allowing others to thank you for your donations or efforts on their or their organization’s behalf. Perhaps this means praising others that you know give graciously of their time and other resources.

There’s not much to say about this maxim. Merely, simply: thank you.

Holiday Gift Guide for the Mystic

It’s full on holiday shopping time. But what do you buy the mystic in your life? What do you get for the witch that has everything? Let me help you!

This is my first ever gift guide. I typically don’t want to encourage the commodification of sacred holidays, but who doesn’t like pretty things? And who doesn’t want to support independent artists and other small businesses?

So without further ado here are things that I would love – I mean, that the spiritual person in your life might love. In no particular order, I present to you a list of beautiful things. I’ll admit, I have expensive tastes. Some are these items are quite affordable, others …. well, that’s why there are wish lists.

Sri yantra from Ekabhumi

Sri yantra from Ekabhumi

Ekabhumi creates many beautiful things, but his yantras are glorious. These are large geometrical paintings, prayed over and infused with intention, much like icons in the Christian tradition. I would love to have one of these in my home. I think it would look beautiful over a lovely murti of a Shiva Nataraja, perhaps hanging in a yoga studio, or blessing some one’s home.

You can order Ekabhumi’s yantras here.

Beautiful garnet and copper japa mala by Bija Malas

Beautiful garnet and copper japa mala by Bija Malas

Several months ago I tried to make my own malas, prayer beads used in Hindu and Buddhist practice. I did not make it out of the bead store. I faced several challenges: the overwhelming choices presented at the bead shop, not knowing the meanings behind any of the stones, my limited budget, and the reality that I was not about to have the time, money or manual dexterity to create a practice mala, much less a beautiful final product. I went searching online and found Bija Malas.

Bija Malas are very pretty and seem quite affordable to me. There are shorter bracelet ones, along with more traditional 108 bead malas. While I long for a 108 bead mala, I don’t know which of those I would prefer! They are all so beautiful. These would make a valuable gift for the Buddhist, Hindu, yoga teacher or student, or meditator in your life.

Jet and amber necklace

Jet and amber necklace

Raven Edgewalker creates a wide array of crafts and wares for witches. I am particularly fond of her amber and jet jewelry. These two stones work well together to purify energy and to protect from and neutralize negative energy. Very handy for witches and sorcerers.

This particular necklace is available from greenwomancrafts for $49.

Alchemical Raven by Liv Rainey-Smith

Alchemical Raven by Liv Rainey-Smith

I love art and long to have a house full of art and crafts. I also adore word cuts. Liv Rainey-Smith combines my love of art, wood cuts, and occult themes. I discovered her work at the Esoteric Book Conference in Seattle a few months ago. Her work changes regularly. There were several pieces I saw there that aren’t listed in her store now. I assume they sold – and for good reason!

This glorious cut is called Alchemical Raven and sells for $350.

For the literary and discerning magician, witch or occultist of any stripe, anything by Scarlet Imprint is a good choice. Their works never fail to be thought-provoking, informative, and created with the highest quality materials. Scarlet Imprint books are bound spells. Their latest offering is the two-volume edition of The Testament of Cyprian of the Mage, last in a series on grimoires by Jake Stratton-Kent. I, however, do not have Pomba Gira, and have wanted to read it for a while now.

Pomba Gira

Pomba Gira

Hey! This is the only one not sold! I'll take it!

Hey! This is the only one not sold! I’ll take it!

Another artist whose work makes my witchy heart beat faster is Lindsey Kustusch. Her raven and owl series are stunning. Sadly, they are almost all entirely sold out! The one pictured at left is the last one left!

She also has a series of paintings of San Francisco, and those are striking as well. Perhaps you know some one who has left their heart in San Francisco?

Her bottle still lifes are delightfully creepy and will likely appeal to those who love curiosities, as well as liquor. Not that I know anyone like that…..

Sarah Lawless is a writer, artist, crafter, and master salve maker. I would take just about anything from her. I can recommend her flying salves first hand. Her apothecaries are on hiatus for the holidays, but I still want to give her work a shout out. Her knives are stunning.

chibiTarot-smallImages-09-theHermitFinally, no gift guide is complete without a nod to the Chibi Tarot. Only the major arcana is available at this time. This may look like a silly cartoon deck, suitable for the kid, manga lover, or video gamer in your life. Do not be deceived! This is a legitimate and powerful deck. It’s also created by husband, who is writing a book along side this deck and gearing up to begin the minor arcana.

I think this collection of beautiful things is enough to get anyone’s gift giving juices flowing.  Stay tuned next week for recommendations for the kiddos! I guarantee that list won’t be as pricey as this one.

Giving Thanks

Today is Thanksgiving in the United States. A day where we all eat the same meal containing too many carbs and too much sugar. A day where we drive some distance to be with family we only see once a year at most. Or a day where we’re plotting our shopping itinerary to take advantage of Black Friday sales that start at midnight to buy cheap shit we don’t need.

Ok, that’s the cynical view, but on a broad scale I’m not too far off. I love me a holiday, so while I am deeply cynical of the holiday and the trappings I hear about out in the world, my husband and I keep things simple and end up enjoying a delicious meal with whichever friends and family come to us.

But this year has been different. This week I got to experience Thanksgiving as seen through the eyes of the American public school system as an adult. I am shocked and dismayed to report that nothing has changed since 1980. Teachers are still making kids create teepees (which I am pretty sure belonged to Native Americans from the central plains, not the eastern seaboard), wear various headdresses, calling Native Americans ‘Indians,’ and basically spewing an historically sketchy version of events using the word ‘God’ in the story. My history degrees cringed and wept. The liberal snob in me was appalled. The mother in me smiled like a fool while my kindergartener happily (and politely!) ate up his plate of various corn products.

Oh hey look, this is not how it happened! Nothing about this scene is accurate. Painted by Jean Leon Gerome Ferris.

Oh hey look, this is not how it happened! Nothing about this scene is accurate. Painted by Jean Leon Gerome Ferris.

No, Thanksgiving isn’t a holiday of freedom. The Pilgrims were fleeing religious persecution, but they did not believe in ‘freedom for all.’ Perhaps from a white colonialist point of view their landing was a step toward their freedom. But we know how the story ends – with Native American populations more than decimated by war and disease, forced off their lands and into spaces that forced them to renounce their languages, families, customs, and gods. This is not a holiday celebrating the kindness of whites to Natives, or their friendship.

I think there are ways to discuss the contested origins and perspectives of this holiday that even 5 year olds can appreciate. (This is a good look at the Native American perspective.) I expected that in a rather liberal, hippie town such as Olympia that there would be more nuance in this unit. I was terribly mistaken.

Yes, capitalist powers have eaten into this idea by creating a national day of shopping on the Friday after. Yes, this holiday is much more easily celebrated by the middle and upper classes who can afford the standard meal of turkey, stuffing, cranberry sauce, sweet potatoes, and pumpkin pie, and who are not compelled to work on a day that most people get off. Cynicism and criticism vented, I still celebrate this holiday and think that, in general, it is a positive one for the United States. Why? Because anything that can bring attention to the history and current status of Native Americans is a good thing. Because having a national holiday that focuses on giving thanks is a good thing. Because in spite of the cynicism and distractions of food and goods people still post all over the internet and share in person the things that they are grateful for. Gratitude is serious spiritual and magical work.

Today I am grateful for the beautiful weather my region has been having and the sun that lifts my spirits. I am grateful for my husband and children who bring love and joy into my life every single day. I am grateful for a healthy, uneventful pregnancy, and an active fetus wiggling like mad inside me. I am grateful that Adam’s parents have chosen to live near to us, that we will drive a simple and lovely 20 minutes to their house today. I am grateful that we have enough to eat and that my parents showed me how to cook, so that I can eat what I want to eat. I am grateful for the people in my life, near and far, who support me in my fullness.

Wherever you are, I hope you will take a moment to practice an expression of gratitude. If you are American, I hope you find a way to celebrate this day in a way that has meaning for you and yours. May your families, biological and chosen, be blessed. May your stomachs be full. May you be blessed by the land and your communities. Safe travels to all who are on the roads, in the skies, or on the rails this weekend.

Blessings to one and all!