Happy Halloween!

Today is the rather secular holiday of Halloween, where kids dress up in costumes and eat absurd amounts of candy. We’ll be observing by doing about the same, only going easy on the candy part. My son is going as a ‘skull ninja’ and my daughter found a dragon suit to wear.

There is something lovely, especially for a kid, about getting to walk around in the dark, autumnal weather. The leaves crunch under the feet. The cold (or rain) nips the nose. You get to knock on doors that you might never touch all the other days of the year. And the extra candy is always a sweet treat. Especially if you have a mother like me or mine, who doesn’t let much sugar into the house!

Tonight we’ll observe just like regular Americans, enjoying the holiday for what it is. Tomorrow and Saturday our family will observe this time in our own, more meaningful way.

Here are some past posts I quite like on this time of year. Enjoy!

Samhain Ritual

Kids & Halloween

The Not-So-Dumb Supper

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Health, part 2

In my last post I talked about five dietary changes to help you be healthy. Now I want to add five non-food related ideas for health. Yep, it’s another non-spiritual post!

Let me reiterate two things. One, I am not a medical professional. Take this post as you will. Two, I am not interested in promoting weight loss. I am interested in overall health. Sure, taking steps to get healthy as a whole person often leads to weight loss for those who have excess weight on their frames. Sometimes it means gaining weight. What’s important is that our bodies find equilibrium.

Let’s get to it!

#6: Get more sleep. I’m sure you hear this everywhere. You might even wish for it when your alarm goes off in the mornings. There are ways to get more sleep – and more restful sleep – without resorting to sleeping medications.

The first tip is…. just go to bed earlier. On night’s I’m feeling particularly tired I go bed as soon as the kids fall asleep. I feel a bit like child myself, crawling into bed at 8.30pm. But getting 10 hours of sleep? That makes me feel great!

Try making your room dark. I mean, DARK. This can be especially helpful if you live in an area with lots of streetlights. Get thick curtains or even a cheap, but thick piece of material to tack up. Put a scarf over your alarm clock. Our whole family sleeps much more soundly when it’s truly dark in our room.

Get off screens before bed. There’s something about the constant input of light that messes with our brain’s natural sleeping signals. All the light tells our brains it’s still daytime and our minds can keep going. I’ve read some people advocate for 5-6 hours before bed, some say 3-4 hours before bed; I generally get off 2-3 hours before bed. This means not just television, but computers and smart phones, too. If you spend all day at work in front of a computer, perhaps just leave screen time behind once you leave the office. Maybe start reading all those books you’ve bought, but never gotten around to reading.

#7: Deal with your feelings. Get to know how you really feel. Perhaps without the distraction of excess screen time, or with a practice of sitting meditation, you might start to realize that you have undealt with grief, anger, insecurity, or other unvoiced feelings. Learn to feel your feelings and find ways to express them. I have experienced first hand the heartbreak and health-issues that can arise from undealt with emotions. Learning to love and free up all of our parts will help reduce stress, but can profoundly affect our health, both mental and physical.

#8: Surround yourself with support. All of us need support and encouragement. Find people who love you and support your efforts to get healthy. Maybe you have some addiction issues – AA (Alcoholics Anonymous) and other 12-step groups can be amazing -and free!- therapy. Maybe you need to go see the doctor. Maybe you need therapy. Maybe you just need to reach out to your friends in new ways. Find a forum online or a meet-up group. We are not islands unto ourselves; we are meant to thrive in a community, whether that’s a small one of only 5 people or a larger one of interconnected groups. Whatever it is, do it. Get the support you need.

#9: Move in ways that make you happy. Our bodies were made to move. Even if you have mobility issues, find some form of movement that makes you feel good. If your health is particularly bad, maybe a walk around the block is a triumph. I don’t think we all need to be joggers or join the gym. I am a huge fan of exercise that can be done anywhere: yoga, walking, squats, push ups, etc.

If I may, let me make a few suggestions about yoga. It can be expensive and elitist. Don’t let that stop you. I recommend finding a class that makes you feel good. If you can only afford once a month or every six weeks, do that and tell your teacher that you’ll be coming once a month (or whatever). Then, take what you learn and practice at home. You can get adjustments and corrections and new poses on those days that you go to class, but you’ll be getting the benefits of regular practice at home. Also, you don’t need fancy gear. I wear pajamas to yoga. Seriously. Or gear I’ve found at Goodwill.

Whatever you find, start with something that makes you feel good and is appropriate for your body. Then, work your way up in intensity and endurance over time. Eventually you might branch out to new activities. Forget about perfect abs and just make your body feel good!

#10: Find ways to manage stress. This one is part and parcel of every other tip here. Eating healthier foods reduces stress on the body. Getting more sleep can ease stress. Getting exercise can be a great release. But you may need more. Sitting meditation can be one tool for this, although I have found that sometimes it can raise stress because we have to sit with ourselves and our issues! Maybe you need to take up a hobby. Maybe you really need to find a new job, or make some other serious lifestyle changes. As you get healthier, I believe that you’ll start to see the ways that your life can be more spacious – even with kids and jobs and pets and bills.

So there you have it! Niki’s top 10 ways to bring more health and vibrancy into your life. Please remember to start where you are and make small changes that you can stick with. There is no need to try everything at once!

The spiritual life is ideally one of holistic health. We are both not wholly our bodies and we are completely incarnated in the flesh of this world. I don’t see our various parts as separate, but as interconnected. If I am unhealthy in my body, usually my work and my relationships struggle too. Finding the equilibrium in all my parts is one of my big goals for life in my ‘ashram.’ I wish for all my friends and readers abundant good health!

Maxim Monday: Give back what you have received

I think this is basically an ancient way of saying ‘Pay it forward.’ I absolutely agree with this idea. Now that I have a family, I believe this even more. I can respect and care for my parents, who have given me much for my success in life. But I can pass on the gifts and resources to help my kids succeed as a way of paying forward the generosity shown to me.

And not just my kids, but everyone’s kids. Modern America is a divided society, segregated primarily by class. We have less upwards economic mobility than we have in several generations, and less than most other industrialized nations, particularly Western Europe. Rising inequality is primarily to blame. My husband and I talk about how much easier it was to buy a house and support a family with only one working parent 30 years ago than it is now. Yet, I feel like those of us in our 30s and 40s are still living under the expectations that we can have the lives our parents had, and raise kids the way we were raised. I don’t think it’s possible. At least, not without help.

Giving back, helping others, is much easier if we ourselves have received assistance. It’s easy to judge welfare recipients if we’ve never struggled to pay bills, afford stable housing, or get enough to eat. I guess some people are so used to having others pay their way or handle their struggles for them that they expect others to always bail them out. I’ve met very few of those people in my life. Most people I know have worked hard and accepted help when it’s been needed.

Adam reminds me that perhaps this maxim might be talking about giving back negative things. I don’t know how the actual Greek breaks down. Instinctively, I leaped to the positive interpretation. I’d like not to live in a world where we give back negative for negative. An eye for an eye makes the whole world blind, so goes the saying. I’d rather walk away from those who hurt me or create systems of oppression and work instead to pay forward the good.

Too much of politics and parenting seem built around the bitter attitude of ‘well, I had it hard, and I turned out fine, so you shouldn’t have it any easier!’ But what if we didn’t have to work so hard? I’m not talking being lazy and never working diligently for anything. I mean, what if we didn’t have to work obscene hours at menial jobs for pay that doesn’t afford us basic health care? What if we didn’t have to protect children from abuse and neglect? What if we didn’t have fear walking down the street at night? What if we didn’t have to have bars on our windows and make certain we locked every door? Why can’t we make it easier for our descendents?

So I’ll be voting for things that make others’ lives easier. I’ll be raising my kids with every resource that’s been given to me. I’ll be donating regularly, even when times are tough, to area organizations doing the same. (This last one is also enlightened self-interest. Who knows when I might need assistance?) Paying it forward, giving back what you have received, is a form of gratitude. Gratitude is an antidote to bitterness. Gratitude is also a powerful way to make our families and communities better, healthier, happier, stronger units.

Health, part 1

Warning: This post has nothing to do with Paganism or Hinduism or magic.

This time of year everyone is writing on Halloween and Samhain (I’ll get there). However, health is a topic that is really important to me. I am an American with lousy health insurance. I have a family of young children and another on the way. These two things make maintaining my health a priority.

Good health is also a political act. Working with an herbalist, choosing not to eat junk food or eschewing television for an earlier bedtime (just for some quick examples) put us in control of our health. These simple acts make us less dependent on the loop of food and health care systems that see our health as a commodity or an obstacle to worker productivity. Food companies will blame the eater – “Consumers don’t have to choose to eat our crap!” But when most affordable foods are laced with fillers and sugars, what is the average person to do? Our health suffers, and if you’re American, you likely struggle to work within your insurance system (if you have it) to get the care you need.

As a magic practitioner health is also a priority. I want my energy levels at their optimum capacity. Diminished health can mean limited reserves for raising energy for spells, or even for devotions. These facets, family, political, and magical all weave together. The personal is political; the magical is political, too.

On the heels of the herbal conference I attended and looking ahead to the long winter months of colds and flu, I want to write about 10 things that you can do for better health.

Before I begin, here are two disclaimers. Number one: I am not a medical or health professional. As in all things, do your own research, use your brain, and talk to health professionals if you have questions or special concerns or circumstances.

Number two: I am talking about health in this post, not weight. Yes, being vastly over or under weight usually signifies other health issues, but weight alone is no indicator of health or unhealth. I do not believe we have an ‘obesity epidemic’ in the modern world, I believe we have a health, food, and medical systems crisis. Losing weight will never make you a better person. However getting healthy can change your life.

All of the following suggestions are things I or members of my family do and with which we have had positive experiences.

#1: Get rid of processed food. All of it. The sugar especially. Now, I admit that our house usually has rice crackers, pirate’s booty, ketchup, and mayonnaise in it. (You can pry my Best Foods mayo from my cold, dead hands.) Almost everything else is a whole food. Getting rid of processed foods can seem really daunting. A great starting point is to go through your kitchen and read ingredient labels. If you can’t picture the ingredient or cannot pronounce it, it’s likely a chemical additive or rancid oil byproduct. Toss that sucker out. We are what we eat: literally. Take pride in your body and what you fuel it with.

Getting rid of foods can seem really wasteful, so if there are unopened packages, consider donating them to your local food shelter. I also recognize that more natural replacements can be costly. Maybe you can do without certain products. Maybe pick the top 5 you can’t live without and keep those. Like mayonnaise.

Get rid of candy and candy masquerading as healthy food. All of those nutrition bars and granola bars? They are packed with sugars. Low-fat yoghurts are especially notorious for their high sugar content. Buy full fat, plain yoghurt and add some jam or fresh fruit – you’ll be getting a lot less sugar.

Don’t think that artificial sweeteners are a good choice. They are not. Giving up soda, both diet and regular, is a crucial part of reducing sugar intake. If you drink soda daily, this can be a challenging, but excellent, first step to improving your health. Some people can go cold turkey, others need to taper off. But please, rid your diet of soda.

#2: Reduce caffeine. This is tied in with reducing sugar for many people. Most sodas have loads of caffeine and sugar, many people drink their coffees and teas with lots of sweetener. Beyond sugar, almost all of the herbalists I’ve heard speak talk of how most people have some degree of adrenal fatigue (the adrenal glands are stimulated in the ‘fight or flight’ responses to immediate stress). Reducing caffeine, whether switching from fully caffeinated to decaf, or from coffee to tea or green tea, is a great step to helping your body heal.

#3: Go gluten-free. I know, I know, it seems like a fad these days. But my family swears by it. Some of the things we’ve seen improved are fewer mood swings, elimination of skin rashes, weight loss, fewer colds, and serious sugar reduction and all the benefits that brings. I find that without wheat and other gluten fillers to take up space on the plate or in foods, we end up getting more actual nutrition in our meals. We snack less and are satiated with simpler things.

#4: Learn to cook. Making dietary changes usually requires some degree of taking control of your own meals. Cooking well does not have to be expensive or elaborate. For those that end up eating out every day for lunch and/or who are pressed for time during the day, try setting aside a few hours on a Sunday to cook up one or two casseroles or one-pot meals, then lunches are taken care of for a week.

#5: Drink more water. Lots and lots of it. We are made of water and need it for just about every bodily function. If you drink a lot of teas and coffees and/or sodas during the day, you are very likely running at a hydration deficit.

Try not to drink bottled water. I learned a really effective tip recently – keep a pitcher full of tap water and let it stand for 6-8 hours. The chlorine will off-gas, leaving you with healthier, tastier water. We have two pitchers that we rotate, so that one is always off-gassing and one is always ready to drink. Also, diets heavy in grains seem to cause more water retention. When I went off grains, I found that I peed like crazy for two weeks straight and then….. I didn’t need quite as much water as I was drinking before.

These are my five basic food suggestions. In my next post I’ll talk about five non-food related tips for bringing more health into your life.

One last thing to remember: don’t feel you have to change everything at once. Set yourself up for success. If eliminating soda from your diet is the first step you choose, you might just want to focus on that for a while. Then move on to adding in something else. Health isn’t about short-term changes. There is no ‘miracle food that will melt belly fat in 5 short days!’ We’re talking long-term rejuvenation.

L’chaim! To life!

Herbalism and the Craft

Witches, midwives and herbal healers all have some history in common. Throughout history many midwives were also healers, shamans were healers, and many women who worked as midwives or healers might also have been considered witches. Their histories are often woven together.

In modern times, people who are attracted to witchcraft, in my experience, tend be rather independent and willing to learn about anything that attracts their fancy and/or will advance their craft. I never had an interest in herbalism and plants. I love plants, but have never wanted to learn to garden. I am very knowledgable of and interested in food politics and natural food ways, but don’t have any desire to grow my own food. I still don’t. But over the years, as my knowledge has deepened and my family has grown, I’ve come to see how learning about basic herbalism can benefit me, my family, my cooking, and my craft.

With that in mind I signed up for the Dandelion Seed Conference (held two weekends ago at The Evergreen State College in Olympia), put on by the people who run the Herbal Free Clinic in town. Can I just say, how awesome it is that my adopted town has a free clinic that focuses on herbal support?? I think it’s super awesome.

I’m not sure what I was expecting. I thought that I’d be completely clueless, but I was pleasantly surprised to find myself wrong on that assumption! I was completely delighted by the entire event. It was an odd mixture of people who use herbs medicinally, those that use them for intuitive and spiritual purposes, those that use them for food and cooking; crafters, gardeners, teachers, and just plain community members like myself.

I hit up several workshops and one plant walk. The first workshop I attended was led by Feri initiate and traditional herbalist, Sean Donahue. My notes from his talk are basically a reminder to myself to get outside more and to explore some of the plants that I have long loved in the coastal Pacific region: devil’s club, skunk cabbage, and fireweed. He told us the story of Thomas the Rhymer and related it to plant magic, which I found a fresh twist on a tale I hear told quite often in my tradition.

I took a class on joyful aging from a local herbalist. The plant walk was led by an herbalist trained in just about every modality of herbalism possible: Chinese medicine, Ayurveda, medicinal, and traditional herbalism. We talked about a few select plants and spent time with each one, feeling, smelling, tasting – using all of our sense to get acquainted with them. My last workshop was on traditional foodways as a source of healing. I was definitely the choir to the speaker’s preaching!

There were many other workshops, some focused on various aspects of communities that herablists might see in their practice. A two-part workshop on herbs for health and healing in trans* communities seemed particularly interesting. There were workshops on making, crafting, learning, and healing with herbs. Something for everyone! A market filled the hall, and I picked up the most amazing medicinal honey for throats and lungs. Truly the best herbal concoction I’ve ever purchased, as my daughter gets a rattle in her chest with every sniffle. Our pediatrician has given her a steroid inhaler to use at the first sign of a rattle (something to do with warding off asthma in the years to come). This honey, however, managed to that more successfully than the inhaler ever did!

This wasn’t a specifically ‘Pagan’ event. But I certainly expanded my knowledge and found several fantastic local resources for me and my family. I definitely plan to attend next year.

 

Maxim Monday: Test the Character

I feel like this one is incomplete, as in an incomplete sentence. Test the character of what? But I suspect this one is telling us to test the character of the people around us.

Knowing of what sort of character our friends and family are made of is a good idea. Can we trust them? Do their words and actions line up? But I don’t think we actually need to test anyone’s character. If we just pay attention we’ll find that people reveal their character regularly. In my experience, life is full of tests of character; there is no need for me to go adding in extra tests.

Maybe this one means testing our own character. To that I repeat, life is full of challenges and tests of our character. There is no need to set ourselves up for more tests. And yet, when tests and challenges come up, we can embrace them as tests. Sometimes we discover that we’re weaker in some areas or under some circumstances than we realized. So then we can reflect and hopefully strengthen ourselves for the future.

May we all score an A+ in the tests to come.

Surrender

I suck at surrender. I’m a dominant, organized, go-getter who has a very hard time not doing. A lot of the time this works in my favor, especially as I run a household and raise my kids. I enjoy nurturing others and being pro-active in all of my varied practices. But surrender is an important act of (not)doing, critical to the spiritual life and for healthy relationships.

I’m starting to see that my limited capacity for ecstasy might be linked to my limited ability to surrender. Letting go to an experience that I have no control over is an essential component in experiencing ecstasy, but I have a hard time feeling safe in that position. Much of that is because for my entire life I’ve privileged what I call Big Fat Brain over other forms of knowing. I am very smart, and I’ve clung to that as a shipwrecked person would to a life-raft. Big Fat Brain serves me very well. To it I say, Thank you. But it’s not the entirety of me. I’m trying to make more space for other ways of knowing and experiencing.

Wrapped up with Big Fat Brain is the training I’ve received in Doing, rather than Being. I witnessed adults deriving their worth from doing. My parents, my mother particularly, is never sick. Never. She dotes on others, others do not dote on her. The examples my parents taught me was that getting help was a form of indulgence. None of that is true, which I know in my head, but letting go of those attitudes is hard work. I’m still disentangling those myths from my life.

And there’s no experience like being sick to drive this home to me, again. This week I’ve caught the cold my husband had last week. It’s just a regular ol’ cold, nothing too serious. Except I’m in the late stages of my first trimester of pregnancy. What does that mean? It means that I was already experiencing headaches and mild congested due to swollen membranes brought on by the expanding of my vascular system as the body ramps up blood production for the growing fetus. Add a cold on top of that I’m pretty miserable. Being pregnant also means I can’t take anything for any of the symptoms. I have no choice but to hunker down, rest, and drink ungodly amounts of fluids.

It means that I need extra help. It means that I have to let my husband take care of the cooking, dropping off and picking up the kids at school, and doing all the things that I might normally do. I have to surrender: to the cold, my duties, to accepting help. Better to learn this now, better to improve my surrendering through relatively small colds, than to be felled by chronic injury or illness and forced to learn the hard way.