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!

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Maxim Monday: Shun Murder

This is another maxim that at first glance seems so obvious as to warrant only a sentence. Yet, this maxim has several dimensions worth considering.

The most surface level is: don’t murder other people. I can say that I have never murdered anyone and have no intentions of ever doing so. Done and dusted, right? Not so fast.

Plenty of vegans and vegetarians suggest that eating meat is murder. I absolutely see that point, and I render it null and void. All creatures need to eat. Humans are omnivores. Many sages and vegans/vegetarians say that we have the karmic and conscious ability to choose not to harm other beings in our nutritional needs. But that’s not true. We have to kill something living to eat, whether that’s a rabbit, a cow, a carrot or growing grasses. We kill insects in the practice of agriculture. We step on worms and fungi and lichens when we walk outside. We are death machines, killing at every breath. I do not privilege the cow over the carrot. I do, however, privilege myself over the cow and the carrot. I don’t know how else to stay alive.

Another level to this maxim is supporting policies that do not kill other people. Let’s look at the situation in Syria. I concede that there is no good answer to that clusterfuck of a nightmare. People are dying by the thousands; it is the largest refugee crisis in a generation. If we support rebels, we are supporting killing. If we support the Assad government, we are supporting mass murders. If we do nothing, we are standing by while thousands die and will continue to die. In this situation I do not know what the right answer is, but these are the sorts of grey areas that make a maxim like ‘shun murder’ so difficult to contend with. What other policies, foreign and domestic, are full of invisible murder?

So deciding not to murder isn’t quite so easy. I may not have murdered anyone (any human) myself, but I have certainly been complicit in ways that are not so clear. This is not a grand, sweeping guilt trip. Merely a reflection that we can never be certain of every consequence of our every action. Shunning murder is harder than we might think.

Ganesh Chaturthi

Yesterday was Ganesh Chaturthi – the first day of a ten (or so) day festival celebrating the birthday of Ganesh. In India this is a huge festival! Many people make murtis (statues) of Ganesh out of clay and then submerge and dissolve them in local rivers.

There is no Hindu community in my town with which to celebrate, and I have no interest in crafting a statue (maybe next year?), so my household celebrated by basically having a bit of a birthday party for Ganesh.

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I set up the altar on the dining table. We placed all of our Ganesha murtis (all four) on the cloth. There is a candle, lots of flowers, a singing bowl, sandalwood incense, a plate with chocolates (one for each of the family members), and a big bowl of sweet rice ‘pudding.’ I performed a puja for the whole family, and then we sat down to dinner. After we had eaten dinner at the table, we cleared away the dishes, sang happy birthday to Ganesh, and dished up the rice.

I left the altar up during the night. It was so pretty.

May the blessings of Ganesh – wisdom, truth, the removal of all obstacles, and the abundance of all good things – be with you and yours!

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Harvest in the Pacific Northwest

At the beginning of August many of my Pagan friends celebrated the first harvest, commonly known as Lammas or Lughnasadh (from the Celtic calendar system). That observance has never meant much to me. I am not a farmer, and have spent precious little time in places where early August means first fruits of any kind. Now in Washington, it means the height of summer, and I spend my summer time waiting for the days to cool.

As August passed I began to have half-formed thoughts of salmon. Had my father said anything about his catch this year? A good catch means smoked salmon.

Lo and behold, a box arrived in the mail yesterday. 9 pounds of hard smoked, wild-caught Alaskan salmon, that my father caught, cleaned, filleted and smoked himself. I realized this to me is harvest. August is when the best fishing occurs in South East Alaskan waters; this is when the abundance arrives.

Vacuum packed for longevity.

Vacuum packed for longevity.

We’re not yet to the autumnal equinox for the spirit of the season to truly shift for me, but we’re now at the end of summer. In Washington the salmon are running, traveling upstream to spawn. The green chiles and tomatillos, strong bitter greens and garlic are appearing at the farmers’ markets. I stock up on these. I try to make as much salsa verde as possible to store through the winter. Something about tomatillos feels like edible sunshine to me.

But Salmon is the Life Giver to me.

Growing up my family was a subsistence fishing family. I don’t think I thought of this way until long after I’d moved out of Alaska. Many families fish all summer to fill their freezers. In a land where food costs are exorbitant (everything is shipped in from ‘Outside’), salmon was ‘free.’ I remember sitting at the dinner table thinking ‘UGH. Salmon? AGAIN?!’ Not until I moved away to college did I discover that fresh salmon was a meal of privilege. I imagine that Montana ranchers feel similarly about grass-fed beef.

Salmon, halibut, crab – these are gifts of the Alaskan waters. They nourish me, the salmon especially; they connect me to my roots; they remind me that the waters and livelihoods of Washington are intimately connected with those of my homeland. When Celtic legends speak of the Salmon of Wisdom, I understand that deep in my bones. When Northwest Coast peoples tell stories of the sacrifice that salmon make for the people and how important the salmon are to traditional ways of life, I understand that. In a Christian way of thinking, every bite is a Eucharist.

So I offer up first fruits to the gods, to the Spirits of this place, and to my family. I thank my father for sending me this annual gift. I thank the Salmon and the Waters. I work toward preserving those waters. I nourish my family with bounty of this Land. We are what we eat, and we are people of Salmon.

Hail to the Harvest! Thanks be to the Mighty Salmon!

Sacrifice

The ever provocative Sam Webster posted about sacrifice this week at his biweekly blog on Patheos. Many people seemed off put at the idea of animal sacrifice, but Mr Webster spoke about the many different kinds of offerings and sacrifices that can be made. I think sacrifice is important – especially for modern Western people.

What is sacrifice? It is a giving of something precious, something that ‘feeds’ the gods or spirits, but I also view it as a gift. A simple gift might be on par with taking flowers or a bottle of wine to a friend’s house for dinner. A complicated offering might be akin to saving all year for your beloved’s birthday present.

In Hindu ritual there are many sacrifices: oil, lamps, spices, incense, fruit, flowers, breath (in the form of mantras and japa), etc. Many Pagans offer wine, food, candles, and incense. I don’t think most people think of lighting candles and incense as sacrifice, but it is. All offerings are sacrifice.

Cain and Abel Offering their sacrifices - Gustav Doré

Cain and Abel Offering their sacrifices – Gustav DorĂ©

And then there’s blood sacrifice. Many people today seem to equate this with a barbaric past. Most of those same people eat meat. Even the strictest of vegans kill things to eat. They sacrifice carrots and grains for their own well-being. We all kill in order to live. There is a baffling hypocrisy in most people’s food politics. How is eating factory farmed meat and cheese more acceptable than sacrificing a goat or a chicken or a fish and offering part of that to one’s gods? I think when we start to kill things with our hands we gain a greater appreciation of what our food means.

We eat a lot of meat in our house and most times as I prepare it I verbally offer up thanks to the animal, the land, and the hands that made it possible for my family to eat. I am cognizant that other lives died and other hands worked hard so that my family (and yours) could be fed. This is sacrifice.

There is sacrifice in choosing to spend money on food that is healthy and ethical. Financially, cleaner, more sustainable food options cost more, but it is a sacrifice my family chooses to make (as we can). Donating to a charity or cause is also an act of sacrifice. Perhaps if we are very wealthy a $20 donation is no hardship at all; perhaps that $20 is a huge sacrifice.

My family donates money every month to the local food bank. Food is a big theme in our house; we eat well and believe that is a form of justice, health care and comfort, and we want to help others have those things too. We have a set donation range monthly, if things are tight I donate at the lower end, if things are easier I chose the higher end. But every month we donate. It’s easier these days, but for much of our first year here it was often a true test of my dedication. We haven’t told the food bank, but our donations are in honor of Ganesh (I may make a notation in my donation soon to make this honor more formal). He has assisted us tremendously and is our household patron ‘saint.’ I believe donating to others is an act of ‘repayment’ for our blessings. It is also an act that cultivates generosity.

Burning nag champa, by Cary Bass via Wikimedia Commons

Burning nag champa, by Cary Bass via Wikimedia Commons

Most of us are blessed with so much: food, shelter, access to internet, etc. I believe that a practice of offerings to our gods, our Ancestors, and the spirits of the Lands we inhabit, be it a blood sacrifice, a first portion of our meal, regular burning of incense, or even a hair from our heads, helps create a spirit of generosity in ourselves, forge relationship and trust between us and the spirits, and yes, actually feeds the spirits.

I’ve written about fasting before and it too is a form of sacrifice. I don’t think it ‘feeds’ the spirits so much as feeds our own souls. Of course, the devotion and dedication present in a fast can bring us closer to those things for which we fasted.

Our spiritual life is about connection. Sometimes we have to make sacrifices for greater connection. Even with our loved ones. I know that sometimes I really don’t want to say sorry; I might feel it is unwarranted or I’m still angry, but I know that a simple ‘I’m sorry I said X’ or ‘I’m sorry I was a rude about how I felt’ etc can bring healing and closeness. That stingy extraction feels like it costs me (pride?), but it feeds the relationship and strengthens connection.

In my own devotions I always light candles and burn incense. At various other times, I offer sweets, flowers, money, wine, food…. Occasionally I’ve offered my own blood and hair. I offer it all. Just as I offer up all of me to my partner and children and closest friends, I do the same for my gods.

Out with the old!

Yesterday marked the one year anniversary of my leaving the UK and arriving in Olympia. This has been a big, exhausting, amazing year for me. I have learned so much. Let me share with you:

*I have an irrational love of the British Isles. The land there feels good to me in a way that makes no sense. It took me a good 2/3 of my year to stop waking up missing the Welsh sky.

*When you follow the magic, the Current, the flow, whatever you choose to call it, it will not disappoint.

*I have some work that I need help with, issues I feel ready to lay to rest. I am committed to going to therapy in 2013.

*Nothing is more important to me than relationship; nothing is more valuable in relationship than willingness to do the Work.

*I don’t cast spells often, but when I do they are remarkably effective.

*Perfection is a lie. So is self-improvement.

*Getting what you want is often WAY scarier than not getting it.

*I love bigger than I ever thought I could.

*What I feared most ended up feeling incredibly obvious and a lot less scary than I believed.

*I am not cut out for general teaching.

*I learned how to make rosehip jam, pork carnitas, and convert a lot of my favorite dishes in to gluten-free ones (I can’t eat wheat or gluten, or most corn).

*I need to sing again.

*I need a vacation.

*I am in the process of learning how to accept others without negating myself. I am also learning to trust my Fetch more (much work is needed around getting my Fetch and Talker to communicate more clearly – this will be a big chunk of work for me in 2013).

*Most importantly, I felt like my open heart surgery came to a close last night. Kali sat before me on her white horse, grinning happily from ear to ear, holding my bloody, severed heart in her hands. I looked down at my wide open chest. And you know what I found? I found a bigger, blacker, bolder heart was underneath all the time.

Let us ride forward in to 2013. Follow the magic!

The Not So Dumb Supper

I don’t know the much about history and tradition of the dumb supper. I’ve been to a few communal suppers and really enjoyed them. A few years ago I decided I’d like to add this to my own family’s traditions. Finding some balance to the commercialized candy-fest of mainstream Halloween and creating a container to discuss death and ancestors with the kids is important to me. This was our third dumb supper – and it certainly wasn’t all that dumb (and by dumb, I mean silent).

My ideal dumb supper is a beautiful meal, containing favorite foods of those we are honoring, laid upon a beautiful table/altar, with a place set for our ancestors, eaten in silence as we meditate on those that have passed and listen for their voices.

What typically happens is the children make a lot of noise, I realize too late that I don’t actually know what any of my ancestors liked to eat, and the dinner is chaos. Just like if we had guests.

Here is what our table looked like this year.

Dumb Supper 2012

From left to right, back: A picture of my friend Tim, who chose to leave this world five years ago, sitting on the Mendenhall Glacier; a picture of my maternal grandmother and namesake; a shot glass of water; some rocks from Alaska and Ireland; a black glass votive from my ancestor altar; a shot glass of wine; a green candle for more light; a picture of Victor and Cora Anderson, founders of the Feri tradition; various decorative gourds.

From left to right, front: A peacock feather; a Dia de los Muertos skull; a piece of peach pie for Cora on a china plate I inherited from my paternal grandmother; a cup of hot buttered tea for Victor in the same china.

Dinner did not go as planned this year. It’s been an emotionally stressful week and I was just not feeling my best. I was planning on making cottage pie with mashed sweet potatoes, but the potatoes never cooked (did I forget to turn on the oven? I still don’t understand what happened). I ended up serving the family a mish mash of various leftovers.

Once the altar was set and everyone dished up at the table, the baby was crying, desperate to eat and go to sleep. I turned off the lights and we said our Holy Mother prayer, invoked our ancestors and Mighty Dead, some by name, inviting them in. We sat, not in silence at all, and ate our meals. We began in chaos, and ended in chaos.

I left the candles burning and the table set with the altar all night long. In the morning my son wanted to eat the pie for breakfast, but Adam said his ‘magician’s eyes’ revealed to him that the pie was not meant to be eaten, that all the nutrition had been eaten up by Cora. My son wanted to know what kind of powerful god Cora was that she could eat pie.