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.

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A happy mother’s day

Being a mother is perhaps the single most life altering, spiritually powerful thing I’ve ever done. Women often write about how intense and life-changing are the self-sacrifice, the long hours, the intense demands, and the beauty of the love that children bring. Those things are all real. For parents, male and female and every other stripe, parenting is crash course in intense love and compassion and heartbreak. These are good things.

For me, being a mother is all of those things and it is also the foundation of my spiritual life, the core of ‘my ashram.’  If I had been told this when I was pregnant with my first child, I might have laughed it off as hormone induced sentimentality.

Being pregnant was powerful stuff for me. I tend to be a very thinky person, all up in my head most of the time. I over think things, I reason out and take people and situations at their word, even if my gut is urging me to notice something different. My spiritual practice has long been focused on Results and doing things Right. But being pregnant put me in my body in a profound way. The hormones coursing through me kept me emotionally volatile, particularly with my first pregnancy. I struggled to surrender to that experience. I didn’t like that I couldn’t move as quickly, as nimbly, or as gracefully with my enormous belly. I struggled with the postpartum years – being three or four or five shapes and sizes in the space of 12 months is trying, and not just on the wardrobe.

I came to be present in my body in a way I’d never had to before. It wasn’t about being strong or fit or athletic – the ways I’d related to my body previously. It was about nourishing others and myself. It was about growing and sustaining a life. A life that was ME, my bones, my blood, but also its own singular thing, distinct from me.

Nourishment.

Nourishment.

With my first pregnancy this life within life transformed my theological understandings of the divine. I am the Holy Mother. And so are millions of other women. I’m not sure I can fully articulate the mind-blowing realization of this yet. But theological ideas of interdependence, Process Theology, goddess language, and ideas of a Matrix of Being, made so much more sense. Intuitive and experiential sense that reason and systematic theology could not argue away.

I remember one day in my first pregnancy, walking home from the BART in Oakland (public transportation), looking at the many varied people around me, many of them looking pretty miserable and not particularly healthy. I realized, every single one of those people is some mother’s beloved child. Every single person began as a mewling baby. Even if some of those people were not well-loved by their particular mothers, they were grown and nourished by a body and birthed – with blood and sweat and tears. That was powerful stuff for me. It was the beginning of new chamber of compassion in my heart.

In a practical way motherhood has also forced me to clarify. If I have 20 minutes of uninterrupted time: do I sit on my laptop? do I go meditate? do I write? I have to make choices in a way that I did not before. I am also more aware of my energy levels. I am ‘on’ all day long. At this point in their lives, I still have to monitor my kids’ energy levels and often be the boundary keeper for them. There are many times I want to go make my own magick or go connect to my gods and I just don’t have it in me. Sometimes I skip it all together. Sometimes I get creative. Whereas before I might have been ‘all or nothing’ about pujas or mediation, I now find great value in perhaps just placing an offering on my altar, bowing, and saying Hail and Thank You.

I understand the concepts of macrocosm and microcosm at more personal level too. My children are part of a great macrocosm, but their world as far as they experience it is teeny tiny. I see how my understanding of the world is equally teeny tiny, even though I’ve got a larger grasp on the world than they do right now.

I grasp the concepts and realities of the Ancestors and Descendents in a way I couldn’t before. I am bone and blood and flesh of my mother and her mother before her and so on. My children are my bones and my blood. The Ancestors and my Descendents make me a mother, as much as my own choices, my own body, and those of my partner have.

I can never not be a mother. I may some day have different spiritual beliefs, certainly my views and practices have evolved over the years. But I can never not be a mother. Even if both my children vanish tomorrow (may all the gods forbid), I am forever a mother.

I’m sure plenty of people come to these realizations on their own, not needing to have children. For me, I can’t imagine that I would have come to understand them without becoming a mother.

So, all hail the mothers! All hail the Ancestors and all hail the Descendents! And all hail the Holy Mother, in whom we live, move and have our being.

Amen.

Maxim Monday: Be (religiously) silent

I love this one.

Spring is in full swing here in Olympia. New colors from fresh blooms appear each morning. The sun’s heat is gaining in intensity, despite the bitter the breezes. The lilacs are blooming, although I can’t smell them because my sinuses are blocked up. That makes me sad, since lilac is my favorite scent. The birds are raucous in the twilight periods twice a day. Everything is a cacophony of scent, sound, texture and color.

But I’ve been feeling a little quiet lately. Not withdrawn so much as wanting to be in my body. I want to be outside listening. I don’t want to be on my computer, on the phone, or in the car. I don’t want to talk as much, nor overthink things. In some ways this feels akin to being religiously silent.

There’s a place for silence. Last week I wrote about the importance of listening to everybody. Good listen requires silence. Today’s Maxim builds on the encouragement to remain silent in order to listen and encourages us to remain silent for silence’s own sake, for the mystery of the void.

I think of being religiously silent in many ways. There is the wisdom of not speaking of things we don’t understand, or not speaking of treasured things to people who would mock, exploit or treat casually what we hold dear. There is the wisdom in remaining silent lest we break oaths or reveal secrets and mysteries. On a shallower note, we could view this Maxim as a way to appear more ‘advanced’ and wise than we are. There is a saying, “Better to remain silent and be thought a fool than to speak and remove all doubt.” But more to the heart of things is the quote from Proverbs (17:28): Even a fool is thought wise if he keeps silent, and discerning if he holds his tongue.

Silence creates a void, a pause. As a singer I learned the importance of the pause, the rest in between notes. It creates a dramatic effect, but also it is in the space between notes where music might be made and felt. The same goes for meditation: the pause between thoughts and/or breaths is where peace and enlightenment might be touched. That void is important in the “passive” acts of reception, but it is necessary too in the “active” acts of creation. We must create space for something new to form, emerge, take root, or be gifted. Silence is often that space.

I used to struggle with this. Oh, how I struggled with rest, space, silence. In the last few months I have seen, felt and understood the beauty, necessity, and wisdom in these things.

And that’s all I’m going to say about that.

Desire

Last night my husband and I went on a date. An actual dinner without children. We talked. We sipped drinks. Halfway through my sidecar I realized I was fired up, giddy about my subject matter, and rambling. That’s how I feel when I’m full of desire. It’s a stream of passion, enthusiasm, happiness, intensity, and a feeling of losing track of time.

Desire is on my mind. Yes, the sexual kind, too. Spring will do that to a person. I embrace the lengthening days, the growing sunshine, the increased outside time. I seek fresher and less food. I want to move more and sleep less. I’ve also been getting rested as the kids are sleeping a bit better. These things fuel the little fires in my body and my spirit. There is more motion all around me. The birds chirp, the insects buzz, the kids play loudly outdoors, and I feel stronger and more eager for motion.

By Marcus Obal, via Wikimedia Commons

By Marcus Obal, via Wikimedia Commons

This physical desire twins nicely with my obsession. What was I so fired up about on my date last night? My studies, my reading, my spiritual practices. If I’m not sitting at my altar, I’m thinking about pujas or offerings. If I’m not reading a book about something related to religion or spirituality, I’m thinking about when next I’ll get time to read. I’m seeking ways to embrace the fires, large and small, all around me.

I used to want to be the smartest girl in the world. For a long time I wanted advanced degrees, to be an expert, to write a book (I might still want to do that last one). Knowledge was what I was seeking, which was a form of power. I dreamed of being a stronger performer too, for performing is also a form of power. I sought both of those kinds of power out of a feeling of lack in myself. It was twisted desire, honest enough as it was.

I haven’t performed in a long time. I haven’t so much as sung scales. I sing a few lullabies at night, but that’s it. I’m hoping that when I sing again I’ll be prepared to be vulnerable, as that is where the power in performing comes from. Virtuosity is nothing; connecting with the audience is everything.

By Lin Kristensen via Wikimedia Commons

By Lin Kristensen via Wikimedia Commons

Now I seek those same forms of power, but I seek them from out of my own fullness. I see that a PhD in theology was not what I desired. I want the knowledge, not the degree. I want the development of ideas, not the academy. A PhD in religion studies was my secular, acceptable form of a monastic life. It was a way to approach my spiritual seeking without having to ask others for monetary support (like missionaries) or join some one else’s church or admit that I had such ancient (and impractical) desires

Clarity of desire, vulnerability, willingness to forego the acceptable, these are the things that spring is stirring in me. The surface layer is about health, movement, house hunting, cooking dinner, and so on. But the heart of my thoughts is desire. Desire for a spiritual life, for the mystery, for my own ashram.

Dedication

Tomorrow I am driving north to Seattle for a dedication. My dedication.

For the last year I’ve been driving 70 miles every third Saturday of the month to study with two amazing Feri/Faery initiates, NG and W. I haven’t written about it; it’s been something close to my heart and I wanted to keep it to myself. My teachers are private and don’t have much of an online presence. I only learned about their location and openness to teaching through word of mouth: one initiate introduced to me another initiate who mentioned NG and W and passed along their contact info. This seems to be my experience with mystery traditions.

A year and a half ago I wrote about being my own guru. At that time stepping into my own spiritual authority was a really important step for me. It was not something chosen to flout teachers or the wisdom and/or grace accumulated by others further down their paths than me; it was me accepting that I had to make choices and then act on those choices and learn from my own experience. I’ve had teachers in the past: some formal and several less formal. Some direct spiritual mentors, and some in an academic setting. I am grateful to all of them. But now I’m at a point where I am ready to walk more deeply with a teacher.

The ecstatic, mystery and more Left Hand Path traditions (both Feri/Faery witchcraft and Tantric Hinduism fall into these categories) all stress having a teacher. One has to learn and practice and experience on one’s own, but a guide is needed, indeed necessary, not only to avoid certain pitfalls, but also because much of the knowledge is not online, not written in books. Beyond oral knowledge there lies the Current that is passed at initiations.

What’s interesting to me is that many people don’t realize that even Christianity was once a mystery tradition. There is a part in the Orthodox liturgy where the catechumens are instructed to leave – only baptized Christians were supposed to witness, much less participate in,  the Eucharist, that mystery of bread and wine becoming flesh and blood.

Tomorrow I will stand before my teachers and …… I have no idea. I have no idea what the dedication consists of! I was told that I could wear ritual clothes (I have none, so I am wearing a black dress that I’ve only ever worn to sing in – a sort of ritual in itself) and that I could use a magical name or choose a name to use at this time (fodder for another post!). In Feri/Faery there is but one initiation, considered a marriage to the gods, where the Current is passed and lore is told. This is a formal dedication to my teachers and this path. No oath-bound material is passed, but more lore is given – a token of deepening trust. This is in a way a ‘going steady’ ritual. I let my teachers and other initiates know that I am serious and my teachers say, “Hey, I like what I see in you, let’s take this to the next level.”

I’m still interested in finding a Hindu guru. There is nothing in Feri/Faery or Tantra that I understand contradicts each other. In fact, the deeper I go, the  more compatible I find them. With due diligence on the seeker’s part, ‘when the student is ready, the teacher will find them.’ I am trusting in this right now.

And here I can’t really say more. Silence and discretion are important here, but I don’t write now because of that, I write because I don’t know anything about tomorrow! It’s a mystery……

Moondays

I’m going to discuss Female Things, like fertility and menstruation, so if this is not your cup of tea, I’ll just say  – thanks for stopping by! – and wish you well on your way. This will likely be a little TMI for some.

When I started this project my baby girl was five months old. I was exclusively breastfeeding her and it wasn’t until last month (at 12.5 months postpartum) that my period returned. Like girls beginning to menstruate for the first time, the postpartum body takes several cycles (anywhere from one to over a year) to ‘normalize’ – find its rhythm and flow, literally. I am in the midst of my second postpartum period, and it’s a doozy.

Hot on the heels of last week’s virus I began bleeding. When I was a teen I had crippling menstrual cramps. Humiliatingly crippling. I once crawled on hands and knees through my high school hallways to get to the nurse. In college, I was once carried out of the dining hall bathroom back to my dorm because I was unable to stand, let alone walk. That kind of thing no longer happens to me. Birth has aided me in that area. But I’m bleeding more than I ever have since I was about 13.

It hits me in waves. I may be tired but I can focus and function, and then WHAM: I’m dizzy, exhausted. I can’t focus. I’m light-headed and the focus of my body is in my pelvis. Plans for even menial tasks are out the window. In some ways, it reminds me of being pregnant. I don’t get light-headed and unable to focus, but my center of gravity is lower. My body feels thicker, heavier – not necessarily in a weight and size way, but as if my blood is magnetized and connecting more viscerally with the iron in the earth.

This changes my perception of the world around me and profoundly affects my spiritual practice. During pregnancy and menstruation I feel less up in my head; Talky Self is less engaged and Fetch, my more primal soul, is at the forefront. I don’t want to think, I want to Be. This is a needed and welcome change for me – when I can alter my life and expectations to suit that shift.

My spiritual practice the last couple of days has been disjointed. I haven’t had the energy to take my practice outside, or to work on putting together my outside altar. This morning I sat on my cushion and lit a red egg candle. I feel fertile and bloody and fully enfleshed. Primal. I feel like I connect more deeply with Kali and the goddesses who in my mind sit on the Red side of things: Inanna, Ishtar, Lilith, Babalon. I am considering deepening my relationship with them and focusing my practice during my ‘moondays’ on them. I feel I relate a lot more now than otherwise.

I certainly don’t consider menstruation an impurity. I may feel sticky and messy and achy, but I know that the process is one of purification. This process allows me to have children. As a woman who chooses to have children, I am grateful for this. I am grateful that I no longer live a life where I have to ‘suck it up’ and continue on as if I’m not bleeding. Our society has no room for the mysteries of fertility, for Women’s Things.

None of this particularly lines up with place or Shinto. Perhaps as my outdoor practice becomes routine I’ll feel differently. Maybe next month will be a different experience entirely.

I’d love to hear from other women: how has menstruation affected your spiritual practice or experience? How do you accommodate it? Thoughts?

A Goodbye

The boxes are packed. We came to Wales with twelve boxes, four suitcases, two cats and one child nearly two and half years ago. We leave with 14 boxes, three and a half suitcases, one cat and two kids. These final days are the busiest, most chaotic. My friend, Haloquin, arrived for dinner and magic last night in the midst of people moving furniture out of our house, me feeding the baby and the three-year old running around in his green, footed pajamas. My energy was frazzled and frayed.

Halo and I had decided to make some magic together. She too has studied Anderson Feri, with the same teacher I did! Halo is one of two other Feri practitioners in all of Wales (not including me) and she happens to live in the same small Welsh town as me. It’s been a comforting gift, having her presence here.

The weather here has been cold and wet – sometimes hailing, sometimes sunny, sometimes lashing rain. Halo and I hoped to get outside, and the weather cooperated. We went to the Fairy Tree, a spectacular oak, half alive, half dead. We walked in the dark, through the cemetery, behind the housing estate, over the stream, through the ankle-deep mud, over the trash left behind by partying teens, and around into the ‘arms’ of the tree.

My Fairy Tree, Lampeter, Wales, during the summer

We lit candles in jam jars, nestling them in the soggy grass and the crooks of branches. And we stood. And listened. And felt. Halo rang her singing bowl, the vibrations soothing my frenetic parts. We invoked the Old Ones, the Fey and the Spirit of the Land.

There’s no way to talk about my experience without sounding completely daft. It was an unexpected, tender, and bittersweet experience. The branches looked like extensions of dryads, dancing, writhing and pointing the way. I felt the Old God. I felt the Fey, I heard them. Water murmured beneath our feet. Oak wrapped around and over us. The Spirits appeared, listened in, and then retreated.

I came close to tears, which for me as a non-crier was a big deal. This land is so wild, so alive, so beautiful. I’m not ready to leave! And yet, I am. It is beyond clear that it is time to move on: due to a mistake on my part we are leaving one day earlier than expected. I hear you, Wales! We’re going already!

Halo sounded the bowl again. We offered ourselves to the Old Ones: we would know, we would learn, we would serve. Yes, this path is for me. For some reason the word ‘baptism’ came to my mind. This ritual felt like a baptism of sorts. Maybe all the water around us – in mud, rain, damp wood – was what did it. One more step closer to the Heart of things.

Such a simple ‘ritual.’ We left behind offerings of sweet short bread biscuits. We said our goodbyes. And back we walked in the night. I love that tree. I will carry it with me, in my spirit.