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!

One year ago, Wales

Today, if the world hasn’t ended, marks one year since my family packed up and drove away from Lampeter. We pulled out of the driveway before dawn. We watched the sun rise on the incomparable Teifi Valley. Our car was headed for Cornwall to spend Christmas with friends before heading back to the United States. (I linked to my last real post in Wales over on today’s A Sense of Place.)

Teifi River valley; courtesy of Autumnsonata on flickr creative commons.

Teifi River valley; courtesy of Autumnsonata on flickr creative commons.

I find Washington to be far more wild than Wales. It makes sense: it’s not been as cultivated for as long as Wales has. The mountains are taller and there are more things that can kill you here. But the magic in the Welsh land hovers so close to the surface. The magic in Washington is more embedded in the tangled weeds and thorns. Maybe it’s hiding out, away from the freeways and masses of people. Most of Wales is comparably less populated. There is more space between people there.

Before we left Wales I did a tarot reading for us. The results included a rocky time financially, followed with material success. Overall it was a positive reading, revealing that this was a good choice for our continued growth. Those predictions ring true. We depleted our savings by moving across the world and getting back on our feet, but signs look like improvement in that area is on the way. Much of the magic that has occurred in the past year has been the inner work of shedding old friends, old patterns, old fears. I don’t doubt for a second that we are supposed to be in Olympia.

Tonight I’m hosting a small gathering to celebrate the return of the light, and I’ll raise a glass to Wales and my friends there. I’ll leave an offering for the Fey and spirits of the Land of here. They’ll get the first serving of the mulled wine and spiced cider I like to make. Most importantly I’ll get to celebrate the long night and the slow growth of the light with the people I love most in the world.

May you be with ones you love this season. There is nothing more important.

Place – what does that even mean?

Today begins a new quarter! Hurray! Or hwre, as they say in Welsh. When I started this project I fully expected to be in Wales, exploring the green hills and red kites and Welsh mythology. Wales is a beautiful, powerful place; I miss it. Instead, I’m back in the US, in Washington state.

Place may seem like a strange choice for a religion blog. There’s no religion called Place. What does that even mean?

I put it last in my year-long exploration of the traditions that have informed my own personal beliefs and practices, because Place was the first ‘religion’ that I knew. Place, Land, Home – it can be called any of these things. In my testimony I talked about how I was raised secular, but I left out the specificity of being born and raised in Alaska. I don’t even know how I begin talking about the imprint Alaska has made on me. How to explain the sense of place and land to some one who didn’t grow up with that, or find it later in life?

Let me try.

The household I grew up in didn’t talk about things (still doesn’t). Almost everything was assumed, picked up through observing, or just discovered on one’s own. What I learned from my father, who was also born and raised in Alaska, was that the nearest thing to a god in his life was Alaska: its waters, its mountains, its communities, its resources. We were pretty subsistence-based. We went fishing all summer, catching so much salmon that I actually used to complain about having salmon AGAIN for dinner. We went berry picking. My father went hunting. Our freezer was stocked and our family fed and housed by the work of his hands. He built many of the houses we lived in. He told a few stories about spending summers camped out on Shelter Island fishing with his dad and brother. My dad knows all the waterways and islands and history of SE Alaska, like other people know freeways and commute times.

Place was also important to my mother, who raised me with Australian children’s books and music. I knew where her homeland was. I grew up with an understanding of just how big this world is, how diverse it geography and its creatures.

But there was something of the sacred in the way my father related – still relates – to the land. It’s not a tree-hugging reverence, but rather a respect for the forces at play in the land and weather and currents. It was an understanding of conservation and preservation, but not environmentalism. We take care of the land not because it is sacred and should be outside of our touch, because that land takes care of us, by housing us and feeding us.

I think there are many people in other lands that can relate to this. I’ve mostly found that people with a rural upbringing understand this, but I’ve also found some people with such a deep love of their city that they understand the complicated emotional connection to place as well. For a long time I felt like Juneau was my greatest love, and I kept cheating on hir by moving away. I always expected to move back and raise my children there. I only gave that up six months ago. Juneau is still The Home Land for me.

If this reverence and focal point in life isn’t similar to religion, then my degrees are worthless.

Or maybe it’s just that I’m bent to perceive the religious and/or spiritual in the world around me. Different lands feel different to me. The older and more traveled I become the more I find I am better at listening. Different places ‘speak’ differently, have different things to ‘say,’ and connect with me more personally. Some places want to dump their stories in your lap, others hold their secrets tightly, and sadly, some places are dead – either because that’s just how they are, or because it seems like the humans have stopped listening.

This quarter I’m diving into where I am: Olympia, Washington. I am going to take this spring quarter to explore the Land here: plants, animals, birds, geography. But a place is more than its land, it is also its people and its history. I’ll read up on the history (as told by white folk) and explore the indigenous peoples of the area, their customs, histories, traditions. I have heard that many of the reservations in the area have excellent cultural centers.

As I am as white as they come, racially and culturally, expect some awkward discussions of race. According to the US Census, Juneau’s population is 11.8% Native American or Alaska Native. (In comparison, Olympia is only 1.1% American Indian.) I grew up with Native friends, we learned about the myths and traditions of the indigenous people in school, and I knew people my grandparents’ ages who spoke Tlingit and remembered learning English for the first time. Alaska is a relatively recently settled land and many of the atrocities faced by other Native groups were avoided – however, that is not to say that horrific things didn’t occur and that Alaska has avoided rampant racism and white privilege. Oh no.

Washington also has the Tsubaki Grand Shrine of North America, the official shrine of Shinto outside of Japan. I have long had a fascination with Shinto, so I’ll be exploring a little bit of that too.

What’s exciting about this quarter is that much of what I learn or practice is very hands on – it’s doing, not just believing. And it’s stuff my kids can connect with. My family can attend the Shinto shrine and the cultural centers with me; we can go hiking and exploring together. It’s also spring. The forsythia is blooming yellow outside my window, the sun is getting a little bit warmer, the days are lengthening – let the great exploration begin!

Fifteen Years in the Wrong Shoes – part five

This is the final post in my ‘testimony’ series. (You can follow the links to parts one, two, three, and four.)

My family landed in Wales in the early autumn of 2009. It was a grand adventure. Husband had never been to Wales before; I had been once for three days two years prior. But the gods said go, so we went.

The rational reason for our moving to Wales was that I wanted to be nearer to my adviser and the academic community while working on my PhD. My area of specialty was the Virgin Mary, particularly feminist Mariology, and the woman at this particular university was one of the few people anywhere in the world focusing on this type of work. My topic was Marian co-redemption.

My husband and I love to travel and thought this was a great opportunity to explore someplace new. We went over on my student visa and our child was small enough not to be disrupted either in his social life or his schooling. But really we went because we felt ‘called.’

After getting settled, into house, into routine, I started work on my degree in earnest. I had an office which I shared at the top of the religions building. I worked in the mornings and my husband cared for our son, and then we would switch in the afternoons.

I began making some friends. It turned out that there were three other Feri practitioners in Wales (one student, one almost initiate and one Reclaiming Feri initiate). All were within an hour’s drive and one lived two blocks from me. Introductions were made by mutual acquaintances online. My first autumn there I had what was my first ‘definitive’ experience with the gods.

I started to sing with the Church of Wales chapel choir. Even though I was more personally identified with Feri at this point I still kept a toe in the Christian world.

But our time in Wales was our time in the desert. It was our crucible. The university I was a part of was merging with other universities and my department was gutted. My adviser was fired two weeks after I arrived. In the spring I lost my office and had no where to work or store my books. First the library, then my kitchen table. I transferred schools to follow my adviser. I ended up at a much better department at university in London, but there was no way our family could afford to move there, so I may as well have been back in the States doing the degree!

We had very few friends. The community we were in was not the best fit for us. This is not to say that it isn’t lovely and the people wonderful. It was a mutual ill-fit and an acknowledgement that Americans don’t easily fit into the British social scene, that Americans don’t have an easy place in a community carved up by Welsh-English divides, and that a family isn’t a good fit for a university culture. My husband and I spent A LOT of time together. Many of our weaknesses were brought the forefront. Our first summer there was particularly difficult. But by not having any other distractions we were forced to deal with things. We were made stronger as a unit.

My husband started his own business right before we moved. Building up his skills, clientele, and confidence while in a new country after having just endured a very expensive move meant we were barely scraping by financially. That was stressful.

And I got pregnant with our second child. One more complication in the mix!

My academic work was slowing down. My enthusiasm for the work was waning. I was tired of reading anti-feminist treatises – both ancient and modern. I was feeling more and more distant from the Virgin Mary. She wasn’t the focus of my devotion anymore. I wasn’t enjoying singing at the church and I particularly didn’t care for all the Lord-ly, kingly, martial language employed by the Bible readings. I felt really disconnected from all things Christian. Personally, I had given up on the term. I don’t know when it occurred but at some point during that first year in Wales I gave up using that term as a personal identifier. But my academic work was firmly and fully embedded in the Christian tradition.

Deep in winter, fully into my second year in Wales and hugely pregnant I started to wrestle with the idea of quitting my PhD program. The work that had seemed so important, the work that kept getting unexpected assistance when it got stuck, the work that had seemed so vibrant to me, went cold. I thought that perhaps this work had just been the ploy to get us to Wales, to force us into the verdant desert. I did a tarot reading about my degree. That reading revealed that for the sake of my greater spiritual growth I would indeed quit my program.

Now, I not only had to come to terms with shedding an old outdated self-identifier (Christian), but I had to wrestle with the idea of letting go of my PhD program. I have wanted a PhD since I was 12. I don’t know who I was trying to impress, but all these years I’ve felt I’ve had to prove something. To some one. Probably myself. What would I do if I didn’t keep going in academia? Would I ‘just’ be a stay-at-home mother? Oh, there was some internalized anti-feminist thinking I needed to unravel!

I spent a lot of time in meditation in the last weeks of my pregnancy. Our family life mirrored the pregnancy in many ways. Late in our second autumn my husband’s business began to take off. We were wrestling with the big challenges in our relationship and life together. We had little to do except ask the big questions and stew in the confusion.

Then the baby was born. It was a beautiful birth – a safe, healthy and peaceful home birth (a million thanks to the NHS). Spring was spent adjusting to this new addition to the family; I had to physically recover. And figure out what to do next.

And really, this leads me up to my first post for this blog. If not a Christian, what is my practice? If not a grad student, what is my work? This blog has helped me immensely with both of these questions.

The Virgin Mary will always have a place of honor in my home. I feel like she was the vehicle for a stronger divine voice (oh Mary, you are so often the vessel for other divine voices) that has been leading all these years. She was the way I could enter more fully into the Christian tradition, and it was through her that I heard the voice of the Great Mother for so long.

Looking back there was no single point where I decided once for all ‘I am not a Christian.’ It’s been a slow, but not unsurprising, reveal. In some ways it was like being in a quiet, safe relationship (Christianity), developing some new friends (feminism and Paganism) and after a while realizing that I’ve been in love with someone else for a long time (witchcraft).

I spent fifteen years in the wrong shoes. I am grateful I had shoes at all for the journey. I’ve learned a lot from Christianity – language, stories, myth, theological tools and insights, personal practices, such as prayer, contemplation, compassion, discernment, textual analysis, etc. But the shoes never fit quite right and I never thought to exchange them for a new pair. But now I’ve taken that old pair and retired them. I’ve got new shoes on. I need to break them in – or they need to break me in. But they fit better and I’m excited to climb the rest of the way up this mountain.