A Day in the Life

I see the light peeking around the edges of the curtains. I know I’ve slept late. It’s Tuesday. Monday nights mean choir rehearsal, and I don’t get home until 9.30 – well, past my bedtime! It was another night of me not being able to sing, thanks to my myriad colds. I can’t dwell on self-pity for too long: the children have heard Adam putzing in the kitchen and they come climbing into my side of the bed for morning snuggles. Just as we’ve attained fair and equal snuggles for all, Adam comes in to tell us it’s 7.30 and breakfast is on the table.

They scramble off the bed and race to the table. I make my way slowly: bathroom, find robe, open up the windows in the bedroom. When I get the table I see bowls of oatmeal in front of the kids and a spinach omelet waiting for me.

Olympia artist Niki McClure's calendar

Olympia artist Niki McClure’s calendar

Adam gets the kids dressed while I take the briefest of showers. Once dressed, I pack lunches and snacks, and off we go. We’re bundled in boots and thick coats. Last night’s downpour surely meant there would be puddles this morning, but no. As we walk up the hill to school, my son informs me that Papa was wrong; he didn’t need his boots after all.

I drop one kid off at kindergarten, another next door at a preschool. Happy kids are happily learning and playing. I descend home, down the hill, feeling wiped out. I’ve been awake an hour and fifteen minutes.

Once home I survey the mess of the kitchen. I feel overwhelmed by all the To-Do’s cluttering up my head. It’s Tuesday, so we have nothing to do tonight, except enjoy one another. It’s Tuesday, which also means it’s Kali puja day. First, though, I need to sit.

I make a cup of green tea and sit myself on the horrid burgundy corduroy couch. I enjoy the thin sunlight shining in through the windows. I sip my tea and do the barest of responding to comments, threads, and emails online. I watch a news clip on the Fukushima disaster. I begin berating myself for all the things I’ve left undone: a book review or two, blog posts I keep meaning to write, emails to be written, Christmas presents to sort out, and oh yeah, there’s a book on hold for me at the library.

I’m tired of feeling tired and sick of being sick. Self-pity threatens to eat me whole. I remind myself that I’m pregnant, it’s autumn, and I have two small kids that bring every sniffle home. What might fell them for two days will no doubt fell me for five. I’ve been sick every week for 5 weeks straight. But it will pass. I remind myself of that: this will pass.

I shut my lap top, drain my tea-cup, and peel myself off the couch. It’s nearly ten. Walking into the kitchen I realize I haven’t bought fresh flowers this week, so I grab a fat medjool date and head to my altar. I lay the date in my offering dish, light my candles and incense, and do the most basic of pujas. Still, puja feels good, like visiting an old friend. While sitting in meditation I think of my 2013 collage up on the fridge. I realize that this last part of the year was ‘set aside’ for rest. My collages are surprisingly prophetic. Sometimes I forget this. I drew the Moon and the Hanged Man for the last few months of this year. While the wheel of the days continue to turn and opportunities continue to knock, I need to realize that this time period for me is one of quiet, rest, and internal contemplation.

My altar this day

My altar this day

With that helpful reminder fresh in my head, I bow and make prayers. I pray for my Feri teachers, who are in need of healing right now. I pray for myself, also in need of some immune support. I ask that I might get the rest I need, learn what it is I need to at this time, and gather the strength I need for whatever is to come after this season passes.

It’s now 10.30. One hour until I pick up my daughter from preschool. I decide to throw in a load of laundry, then drive out to my friendly local farm and get eggs. I return in time to get lunch heating in the oven before walking up to get the girl.

Walking home in warm coats

Walking home in warm coats

Lunch is last night’s shepherd’s pie with a green salad. Adam and I talk about how his work is going, the realizations I had in meditation, the news I picked up on the farm; our daughter reminds us at least six times that her birthday is coming up (it’s not until February, but she is obsessed).

I tidy up the kitchen. Daughter asks for a bath, so I run the bath, brew a cup of tea and sit to write. Just as I get into the piece she’s through; I dry her off and dress her. She asks to watch Rastamouse while I write. I finish up and move on to general mental housekeeping: answering more emails and making lists of everything: Christmas lists, prepping for the various coming holidays, etc.

Cup of tea drained, more cartoons than I care to admit, and one distracted descent into Facebook, I finally get to work on my lists before reading to my daughter and letting her play with marbles. Only half way through my lists, my husband and I decide to do an impromptu drive-by of a potential house (we’re still house hunting) before going to pick up our son from kindergarten at 3pm. The house’s location isn’t quite right.

Once home everyone gets snacks. I go back to my lists. The kids get two cartoons before spending the rest of the afternoon drawing, reading and making a mess of the living room. We work on reading homework and I field a meltdown. I’m still trying to organize my lists. I am interrupted every few minutes. I give up and decide to work on it after the kids are in bed.

4.30 rolls around and I realize I need to fold some laundry and start on dinner. After reading the kids two more stories. We do a quick tidy up, which is dismantled minutes later. The youngest comes asking to play with rice. I dye some rice orange and the kids make a fine mess in the kitchen while I cook. The boy asks for a bath, which he runs and then picks up his mess while the bath fills. This is a first.

Orange rice for the win

Orange rice for the win

Dinner cooks. Adam watches basketball. I sweep up the rice and start lighting some candles. I light the family altar candle, say the Holy Mother prayer and a few others for some family needs. I discuss the meltdown issues with Adam (stress at school).

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Dinner is lamb and pork meatballs, sweet and sour sauce, roasted cabbage, and chard – all homemade, all super tasty! Everyone asks for seconds. It’s been chaos for the last two hours, but I’m feeling peaceful and sated at the table.

After dinner I go to the super awesome neighbors across the street for a quick chat and to pick up some keys. I walk over in my slippers. When I return, the end of the basketball game is on and the kids are reading on the couch. I finally fold the laundry and put it away. I make a cup of throat coat tea for myself and the boy. It’s time for the kids to get ready for bed and, of course, they get squirrelly and riled up. Adam gets them in their pjs and brushes their teeth while I write a little.

Pjs, toothbrushing, focus, night-time pees, get out of the laundry basket, time for bed, which story do you want, please focus on you, get in bed. While Adam works on the dishes, a story is read by me, hugs and kisses doled out. Adam goes in to sing them to sleep. It’s not terribly successful tonight.

I finally finish making my lists and get organized. I sort out what I want to accomplish tomorrow (add pictures to this post, post it, write up a book review, vacuum the house, don’t forget to buy milk and eggs, and get that package from the post office). I finally open this week’s Economist. And now it’s time for me go to bed. It’s 8.30 and I can’t wait to crawl into bed and do it all again tomorrow.

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The Power of Self Care

I recently wrote a two-part series on health (you can read them here and here). For those that bristle at the word ‘health,’ maybe because it’s a word that seems over-used to the point of meaninglessness and is often used to level judgment on people, perhaps thinking about it in terms of self-care will be a better entry point to the same idea.

In my previous posts I talked about eating well, getting enough water and sleep, finding ways to move that make your body happy, and finding professional and/or friendly support. All of those things are important, not just for our over all health, measured in terms of aches, pains, immune strength and fitness, but also in terms of happiness, peace of mind and personal stability. It’s much easier to be present with our lives and loved ones when we’re well rested and well fed and not hurting.

Self-care is something that I’ve learned only late in life. I’ve always been interested in health and fitness. I swam competitively growing up. I’ve never enjoyed staying up all night long. But the way I thought about health was much more along the lines of ‘don’t get fat;’ it was a form of superiority and virtue, so I thought. Over time I’ve let go of that thinking.

I remember two friends I had in high school and college. These guys were popular, smart, and high achieving. They attended prestigious colleges and when they came home for summer, they worked jobs with lots of responsibility and long hours. They worked hard and played hard. Their motto was “we can sleep when we’re dead.”

At 20 that seemed doable and even ideal. Now, as a mother of small children, in my late 30s, that just seems insane. However, that thinking seems to infect more areas of life than just the habits of ambitious 20-somethings. I remember working out with kids who would push so hard they’d vomit. I know loads of people who are getting through their days on coffee and sugar. It’s not that these things are just unhealthy – as if health is some sort of finite, definitive term that we can measure objectively; I find these ways of approaching life as acts of unkindness and even, in the extreme, acts of self-torture.

Kindness, going easy on ourselves, self-care – these things are generally looked upon as lazy or wussy; at best a sign of indulgence, at worst a sign of weakness. There’s something in American culture that aims to reward the person who works 60+ hours a week, pulls all-nighters, does gruelling daily work outs for a six-pack, or starves themselves thin. Somehow that’s virtuous. But those who happily eat bacon, get 9 hours of sleep a night, goes gently walking for a few miles only a few times a week, or chooses a slow-track career option in order to avoid an expensive commute or gain more time with family is often considered unambitious.

I’d like to extend self-care into our spiritual practices and even into the very private area self-talk. While I think I’ve got a strong handle on all the things I’ve listed above (eating, sleeping, major life choices, etc), I still struggle with bringing self-care into these two very personal areas.

I am ambitious and I want results! So that must mean elaborate pujas, regular spell work, making sure I do all my exercises every day, and so on, right? Well, no. Sometimes it means not doing anything. Sometimes it means just sitting and breathing and checking in with my parts. Maybe the way to honor a particular holiday is to not celebrate it, rather than stress out and go through the motions.

Not Doing is not something I’m good at. Over the years my husband has helped me trust that I can Not Do and my world will not end. I am coming to trust that when he says ‘lean on me, let me carry your load today’ he really means it and I can actually let go. There is freedom in this space. Eventually I get over my cold (or my migraine, what I’m struggling with lately) and go back to my regularly scheduled activities with renewed vigor.

But it’s hard. It’s hard to accept that letting go of Doing is an act of love for myself. This leads me to self-talk. The voices I hear in my head are mostly me trying to guilt me into Doing. ‘The gods will forget about you if you don’t make your weekly puja.’ ‘How are you ever going to grow in your skills if you aren’t practicing them daily?’ ‘You haven’t read tarot/run the Iron Pentacle/made a house offering/etc in weeks, what kind of a witch are you?’ Yeah, those voices are kind of mean. Nipping those voices in their wilted little buds is a necessary form of self-care.

I’ve come to realize that negative self-talk is a form of self-sabotage. More damaging to my skills and relationships than taking a day off or a week off, or doing the easier of the pujas (or whatever) is this self-talk that aims to undermine my very desires. Those voices don’t make me rush to my altar any quicker or practice my vocal exercises any more often; instead, they make me run even farther away from what I love. I want to hide under the bed, out of sight of such a nasty bully.

Self-care is an act of power. It’s not an act of power over – over others or even over myself. It’s an act of power with – I bring myself into right alignment with my loved one and with all of my parts. And what is a witch if not a person unafraid to harness power? I aim to increase the power and efficacy of my witchery and all the areas of life into which I put my efforts!

Getting a handle on all aspects of my Self and my health is powerful stuff. Better physical and mental health is an act of love to myself and to those with whom I have commitments. Learning to accept self-care and the care of others is an act of surrender  and commitment to what is really important: my relationships – with family, friends and my gods, and to the desires I work towards regularly.

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!

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.