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?

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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: Pray For Things Possible

Do witches and Hindus pray? Absolutely! I think Paganism gets looked at as though it’s not a praying tradition (or collection of traditions). But it is. Prayer is a form of magic! This maxim is reminding us to pray for things possible. I think more of us could use that reminder.

I pray every single day. Everything I pray for is something that I think, or at the very least, hope, is possible. Why would I pray for things impossible? Why put energy into something I think has no chance of coming to pass? I think most of us pray for things possible. The question is, do you really believe that what you are praying for is possible? Really and truly? If not, there is very little chance of it ever coming to pass.

I don’t think it matters if prayer works because a divinity graces us with assistance, or if prayer might work just because of positive thinking. In the CS Lewis bio-pic, Shadowlands, Lewis says, “I pray, not because it changes God, but because it changes me.” This is the main crux of prayer. It’s a form of magic, it’s a form of meditation, but ultimately it’s a source of change. If we can change our attitudes, increase our compassion, determination, and efficacy in the world, then things can and will change.

Almost all traditions have some form of the saying “Be careful what you pray for.” That’s a good reminder too. Most traditions also remind us that answers to prayer don’t always come in the forms we most expect (or desire). Maybe this is way to expand the ‘proof’ that prayer works. It’s good advice anyway. This maxim adds to the advice: focus on praying for what is possible.

Attempting Yantras

Yantras are intricate, geometrical Hindu designs. Tantric Hinduism uses them for meditation, magic, and devotion. It’s an ancient practice that involves a lot of training, preparation, and precision. So I thought I’d make some. In a morning. Silly me.

I have only ever seen yantras in books or on-line, never in person. I’ve been intrigued by the idea of doing some for myself since I first began my Hindu quarter at the beginning of this blog. Now, with my eldest child in kindergarten and my youngest in morning preschool, I have 2.5 hours of child-free time. I thought surely that would be enough time to make some small yantras. But I was wrong.

I don’t know exactly what the process or requirements are for making yantra. From what I can tell, it involves purification, meditation, preparations, and puja. So this morning I censed my house, made kala (a purification rite), meditated, aligned my souls, and made a brief puja. I called upon Durga and Kali. I made offerings and petitioned their blessings and assistance.

Then I began to draw. I am not a visual artist, but I did my best. My eyes started watering, my hand started cramping. I clearly don’t do this very often. By the time I was done drawing and inking my three mini-yantras an hour had flown and it was time to get my daughter from preschool!

Here is what I have so far:

Shiva yantra

Shiva yantra

Durga yantra

Durga yantra

IMG_0728

Kali yantra

I will have to do yet more puja tomorrow and spend some meditative time coloring them. There is a part of me that wonders if I’m bringing calamity on my house by not having the geometry exact or the lines just so. I figure that these are all gods I have a relationship with, I prepared myself to the best of my knowledge and abilities, and the efforts are in good faith. This isn’t some casual, smart-ass coloring project.

For comparison, here are some pictures of actual yantras:

Kali yantra

Kali yantra

Durga yantra

Durga yantra

Next week I’ll post my colored final yantras.

 

What I Do

Earlier in the week a friend on Facebook linked to a great blog post on a blog I’d never read before. The post is called The Keys to Success in Magic. It makes a great point, that most witches/magicians/sorcerers worth their salt don’t do magic most of the time. I’d say that’s true!

Midway through the post the author has a ‘flow chart’ of his practice. If I had to make a chart, this would be pretty close.

If we’re not making magic, what do we do?

I can’t speak for most other people, but clearly this gentleman and myself – and many of my magical and/or Pagan friends – are similar in our approaches. Let’s walk through this flow chart together.

The foundation of all practice is some form of meditative practice. I learned mine primarily from yoga, but it was in my training with T Thorn Coyle where I was pushed to incorporate meditation into a daily practice. Before I had kids I would do 20-30 minutes of sitting practice every morning. I sat, checked in with all my parts – my body, my emotions, and various souls – and breathed through whatever came up. It was during this time that I finally got a handle on my anxiety issues, all through a daily sitting practice.

Now that I have kids, my practice isn’t so extensive or regular, but there is some form of breathing exercise every day. If I had to wager a guess, I’d say I sit before my altar three to four days out of 7 in the week, but there is some form of conscious breathing moment every day. It truly is the foundation of all else.

Why is breathing so important? In my experience it is useful in several ways. It teaches us to connect with all of our parts. I am learning to listen. What is going on with myself, physically, emotionally, mentally, spiritually? I am getting better at listening to others, both human and non-human. I am learning that my thoughts might not be the truth of the matter, nor might they be the most important information in any given moment.

Mostly what happens when I sit in meditation is that my brain hits me with every task I need to keep track of: grocery lists, appointments, blog post ideas, etc. My ears strain to hear the kids in the other rooms. What I do is I thank my brain for taking care of all that information and I let it go, just focusing on the breath. One of these days I’ll get back to the deeper levels of meditation. It happened before, so I know it can happen again. But this tool, this ability to slow down and quiet the mind is invaluable. Being able to step outside my reactive thought processing and learn to listen with other parts of myself has been the key to my mental and spiritual health.

The creator of the above flow chart has listed devotions, offerings and energy work next. Again, I think these three things are the next most important acts, after meditation and before magical work.

Devotions and offerings are perhaps one and the same in my mind and practice. Every dark moon I replace the offerings of water. sometimes I offer special incenses. Sometimes I buy flowers for a certain god. Every Tuesday I do Kali puja. It was not until I delved into a three-month Hindu practice, back at the beginning of this blog, that I learned how important and powerful devotions could be. Elaborate or simple, they are a way to build connection with deities and spirits. I learn something new each time I do it. Occasionally I do something a puja for Shiva on Monday, sometimes something formal for the Red Goddess on Friday. But always, every Tuesday for Kali.

sometimes these rituals yield immediate results, and by that I mean, felt connection or certain blessings later in the day. Some days there’s no felt connection. Never do I feel it was a waste of my time.

Lastly, I would call the lessons I am doing for my Feri training my energy work. Right now we are working through the Iron Pentacle, a form of energy and value system, that is unique to the Feri tradition. Making kala, a form of purification, also falls into energy work. I make kala at least once a week, sometimes more as needed.

Lastly comes making magic. I include reading the tarot in this category, as well as spells or ritual. I don’t often read for myself. If I read it is usually for others. I go in phases, sometimes pulling a card every day, sometimes doing a reading on each full moon. For the last year I’ve been rather inactive with my cards.

When I do make magic, use spell work, or construct a larger ritual, there is always a specific need. I spend several days giving the purpose much thought, and once the intent and/or goal is clear, I figure out what course of action is most appropriate. I want to make sure the timing is right, that I have the items needed for whatever working I’m doing, and that I’ll have uninterrupted time and space to complete the working.

My experience is that, while I don’t make magic often, when I do, it is effective. I don’t think I’m any more innately gifted, psychic, or touched by the gods than anyone else. What I am is deliberate. I think the scaffolding of my practice also sets me up for success. Before magic comes gaining strength in skills and forging relationship with others, gods and spirit allies and the world around me. But before even that comes getting centered within myself and letting go of the chatter in my mind as much as possible.

If I could sum up in a less wordy way an answer to the question ‘if not magic, what do you do?’ the answer is basically: I breathe.

Winners!

Adam drew a cartoon of our process.

Adam drew a cartoon of our proces

 

Don’t worry, you’re all winners to me.

Thanks to everyone for entering my first ‘contest.’ It was fun to do!

I wrote out all the names and put them in my pretty silver salad bowl.

My son drew names for two of the books and my daughter drew for one.

Without further ado the winners are:

Ambaa wins Make Magic of Your Life by T Thorn Coyle

Jody Marx wins Seeking the Mystery by Christine Hoff Kraemer

Rhiannon Mackey Dacono from Colorado wins Kali by Elizabeth U Harding

Congrats! Please send me an email with your name and address to myownashram at gmail dot com.

My daughter doesn't want to let the books go.

My daughter doesn’t want to let the books go.

 

The Stories We Tell

Attempting to process one’s life in public is difficult. It’s challenging to avoid details that risk exposing other less public people, or details that get too intimate for my comfort. Yet how to explain my story? I fear I might have misrepresented myself in my last post. The likelier occurrence is that in attempting to present my experience safely, I actually created A Story.

What’s a ‘Story’? It’s a narrative of events that we tell ourselves to make the confusion neater and tidier, to wrap up loose ends, to put one’s self in the best possible light, and to make more comfortable the uncomfortable.

Recently the wise John Beckett wrote a post called Change Your Story, Change Your Life. We have the power to reframe the stories in our lives. For example, in May I realized that I’m actually an introvert. This realization reframes every awkward party and sleep over I’ve had. This reframes group dynamics for me. When I look back on my first marriage, I used to tell a story about how I was really a lesbian, you see. Only that’s not true. At the time it was the best way I could make sense of my experience. The story I now tell about that marriage’s demise is one I think is more truthful: an ill-fitted match of two people with no tools to deal with conflict or communication, and one party (me) deep into the throes of major depression.

Our stories evolve over time, and I’ve no doubt that my understanding of what I’ve been experiencing this summer will evolve as well.

The problem is that we try to create Stories at all. How often do we cling to a narrative that may or may not be true? I realize that creating a narrative is but one way we can process our experiences, and it can certainly be a necessary part of communicating that experience to others. However, in the last few years, and especially in the last few months, I’ve seen how limiting clinging to those stories can be. My experience is my own, but it may not be the ‘truth’ of the matter.

In writing my previous post it seems that a few people saw some victim mentality in what I wrote. That was not my intent at all. Yes, I used the word ‘hazing.’ That certainly implies a victim being bullied. I chose that word because that’s how I feel about only a small part of my recent experience, not because I think that is the truth of the situation. I would never be in relationship with any bullying entity – lover, friend, or god.

I also do not think that either my Feri training or the Feri Current are to blame for what is clearly a situation made all the worse due to my personal failings. And yet, I do think both of those things play a role.

First, any intensive spiritual work is bound to facilitate conflicts. Why? Not because chaos is cool, but because facing our fears and realigning our patterns causes chaos. Using the tools we’re given to stand taller, speak truth more boldly, move more strongly, create firmer boundaries, love more deeply, etc, will cause conflict with those that expect us to be just as we always were. And then there’s the general awkwardness of learning to function more healthily. This summer has exposed some major weak spots of mine and highlighted patterns of mine that need some serious realignment.

Secondly, I think the Feri Current is a living entity. It isn’t in my control, but is part of a grand give and take. I certainly don’t think it’s out to get me. Nor do I believe that tapping into a living Current absolves me of my free will. It’s a dance, where I feel the wave and choose and respond. Maybe the Current isn’t a singular entity, maybe it’s more a conglomeration of the various Feri gods. I don’t know. There’s some theology to unpack here; I’ve been focusing on my experience of it, rather than trying to nail it down in concepts and fancy words.

I’m no victim. I’m just a flawed person, working out my patterns in a somewhat semi-public fashion, in relationship with other flawed people, who are also working on their issues, all the while we try to connect with our gods, spirits, and communities. It’s really uncomfortable and exposing. Being vulnerable and held accountable by my partner, friends, teachers, and gods isn’t easy, but it is necessary. Hopefully those two things, vulnerability and accountability, will keep me from being paralyzed by my Stories.