Supposedly Thanksgiving is about gratitude, a rather pagan-friendly appreciation of the harvest that will help us get through the hard winter ahead. In my experience, it’s primarily been a time to get together with family and/or friends, eat lots of food (and for some people get tipsy or drunk on whatever booze is available), and not have to go to work. Other than a prayer before the meal, I’ve observed very little overt gratitude being given amid the festivities. It’s not that I don’t appreciate the value of time with good people and plenty to eat, and I definitely disapprove of the growing trend of nonessential personnel having to work on Thanksgiving proper. But the original meaning of the holiday seems to have been rather lost in practice.
Perhaps this is in part because deliberate harvest festivals have been a part of my spirituality for the better part of two decades. Because I came to paganism after being raised Catholic, and I didn’t have a coven or other group to indoctrinate me formally with a predetermined set of spiritual parameters, I had to really consider what beliefs and practices I was adhering to and why. So I learned about the three harvest Sabbats–Lammas, Fall Equinox, and Samhain–and their historical counterparts in various European cultures. As I spent more time gardening, I was able to put theoretical practices to the test, exercising a new layer of gratitude as I watched seeds I planted sprout, grow, and come to fruition. The older I got and the more my path developed, the less I took my spirituality for granted.
These days, gratitude is deeply ingrained in my path because I know too much now to sustain ignorance. My roots are firmly embedded in urban sustainability and environmental awareness, and so I am acutely aware of where my food comes from and the cost it exacts on the land. “Harvest” isn’t just something to be celebrated in autumn; I’m able to get all sorts of food year-round, and that means there’s a harvest going on somewhere every day. As much as I try to stay local and seasonal, it’s not always within my budget (financial or temporal), and so I sometimes find myself buying out of season produce flown in from far away and processed foods whose ingredients were harvested weeks ago, moreso in the winter.
This means that each meal is infused with awareness and appreciation for the origins of each of the ingredients, whether I grew them myself or not. I can’t help but be grateful to those who made sure I was able to eat, whether that’s the animals, plants and fungi that died (or were at least trimmed back) to feed me, or the people who took care of them throughout their lives, or those who harvested and prepared them. I also have gratitude for the land that supported the food as it grew, particularly those places where chemical pesticides, fertilizers and other “enhancements” have destroyed the health of the soil. And I think, too, of the air, water, and land polluted by the fossil fuels used to grow, process and transport the food to me, and the other wastes that result from the sometimes convoluted path from farm to table.
All of this is summed up in a short prayer I’ve said before meals–quietly or out loud–for many years:
Thank you to all those who have given of themselves to feed me, whether directly or indirectly.
May I learn to be as generous as you.
Notice there’s two parts to that prayer–the acknowledgement of what others have given to me, and a hope that I can be as giving myself. Considering how much some beings sacrifice in order for me to eat, it’s impossible for me to give back exactly as much, at least until I die and my body is buried in the ground to be recycled into nutrients for others. But I can try to give back through more sustainable food choices, and attending to the tiny patch of land in my community garden, and donating food to charity. I can support efforts to gain better rights and working conditions for the migrant workers who pick the produce I eat and the underpaid employees of food processing plants. I can work to educate others about the problems inherent in our food systems and what we can do about them. All these are a far cry from being as generous as a being that died to feed me, but they’re a start.
My gratitude drives me to do what I can each day, not only to appreciate what I’m given but to care for those who have given it to me. The more I know about where my food comes from, the more driven I am to be a responsible part of this unimaginably large network of supply and demand, resource and consumption. Being grateful isn’t just about taking things with a “Yes, thank you”. It’s also the desire to give back, to demonstrate appreciation. The prayer at the beginning of the meal is only the barest glimmer of that urge, and it means little if it’s not followed up by action.
And so this Thanksgiving, as I am surrounded by others and as we prepare to eat turkey and stuffing and green beans and the canned cranberry sauce that retains its cylindrical shape all by itself, it’ll just be another day in which I am grateful and in which I try to enact as well as voice that gratitude. It’s also a good day to renew my commitment to that thankfulness and all it entails, in thought and deed alike. I may never achieve perfection; there are always more thanks to be given. But let this time of year be the rejuvenation of my efforts nonetheless.
My artwork and other practices with hides, bones and other animal remains have always been intensely spiritual. I didn’t like seeing them displayed as mere trophies or status symbols, and so set out to remake them as sacred creations and beloved personal artifacts, guides in costumed shapeshifting and curiosities for consideration. I wanted them to be revered, not merely possessed.
There are a lot of factors outside of my control in this. I can’t control who buys a particular item (other than turning away the occasional rude customer) or what they do with something I made once they have it. I’ve just had to learn to let go and let gods in that regard. But I can do my best to seek out my target audience and present my work in a way that will appeal to them, and keep working my intent into everything I create. And I add a bit of a ritual to it, too, whether you want to believe it changes things on a distinctly spiritual level, or simply helps me stay focused on my task.
I realized recently that while I reference the ritual I do quite a bit, I haven’t actually written about it much. So I figured now would be as good a time as any to share it with you in detail. You’re welcome to try it out for yourself, modify it as needed, but please do give credit when sharing.
There are three parts of the ritual: the meditation, the purification, and the offering.
The meditation is the part that takes the longest. I’ll sit with each piece that I’ve created, and meditate with the spirits of the animals whose remains are incorporated into the art. I have a conversation with them, and ask each of them to show me what they’d like me to know about their lives and deaths. Sometimes I get a vivid, play-by-play of their last moments; other times I get highlights of their lives, especially when they were young (even other animals like to reminisce about childhood). I’ve often gotten some of this information already; as I create the art I’m having an ongoing conversation with them about what I’m creating and what they’d like me to include, and it’s a good opportunity to chat with them about other things as well.
The purification involves a physical smudging of the completed artwork. I used to use sagebrush, but these days I tend more toward cedar or sweetgrass as I like the aroma better. I generally only use a tiny bit at one time; rather than burning an entire sage smudge stick, I’d just pull out one lone leaf and light it. Part of this is to keep from aggravating my asthma, but it’s also so I’m using fewer resources. One leaf purifies as well as thirty in my experience, even if it takes just a touch longer to smudge the entire piece. It’s really an issue of quality over quantity. Other forms of purification can work, too, though I recommend against water-based ones since water can hurt certain hides and other remains. I also say a prayer over each piece at this time, asking that they will go to someone who will love them and cherish them for who and what they are, and thanking them for letting me work with them in the first place.
The offering is the part that’s changed the most over the years. When I first got started, I would offer small drilled stones and shells to the totems of the animals whose remains I used. When I had enough to fill a small leather pouch dedicated to that totem, I would make the stones into a necklace, and then give it to someone who worked with that totem. Over time I became less enamored of this. What was I going to offer to the totems of the stones I made as offerings to the animals? After all, they’re a part of nature, too, not just objects to be given and taken. So I instead diverted the money I would have spent on the stones and shells toward donations to nonprofit groups, and increased my volunteer time to compensate as well.
No purification ritual goes exactly the same way as another. Sometimes the meditation is brief, other times it’s looooong. Occasionally I get a spirit making a special request for an offering or other gesture. That’s why I don’t have this all written out in one big “First say this, then do this” format. It’s more a set of guidelines than holy writ. The point is to remind myself that I am working with skin spirits and sacred remains, and that what I do is meant to honor.
Note: If you enjoyed this post, please consider bringing home a copy of my book Skin Spirits: The Spiritual and Magical Uses of Animal Parts, which details my years of spiritual work with hides, bones and other animal remains, along with step by step instructions on how to make assorted ritual tools with them.
One of the features I’m offering some of my patrons on Patreon is a monthly totem profile, featuring a different animal, plant or fungus totem each month. I’m still not a big fan of totem dictionaries for a variety of reasons, not the least of which being what a particular totem teaches me may not be what it has to say to you–if anything. So rather than offering up the usual “This totem means this, that totem means that” dictionary entry, my goal is to offer up fuel for your own explorations. It’s a little more specific than the exercises and ideas I offer in my books on working with totems in general; these monthly profiles provide some inspiration for connecting with a particular totem. However, they should NOT be seen as “Lupa says this is what the totem means, so you can just stop trying now”, and you should always keep yourself open to the possibility that the totem has bailiwicks that aren’t mentioned in the profile. And, as always, these profiles are from the perspective of non-indigenous, neopagan totemism, and are colored heavily by my own experiences and interpretations.
If you would like to receive access to these profiles, become my patron at Patreon at a level of $5/month or more. In addition to the profiles you’ll also get access to other patron-only content like work in progress shots of art projects, sneak peeks of completed blog posts before they go public, nature photos that I don’t post elsewhere, and other exclusive goodies.
This Gray Wolf profile is just a sample; I’ll be posting an additional profile on another totem for my patrons for August.
Name: Gray Wolf Scientific Classification:Animalia Chordata Mammalia Carnivora Canidae Caninae Canini Canis lupus Range: Almost all of the Northern Hemisphere historically, now reduced to less human-populated wilderness areas of Europe, Asia and North America
Physical Characteristics: The largest existing wild canine, the gray wolf is a lean, powerfully built hunter made for long-distance chases and ranging over cast territories. Wolves are typically about twenty-six to thirty-four inches high at the shoulder and may be up to six feet in length. Average weight for wolves is seventy to eighty pounds, with females being slightly smaller. Wolves in northern areas are generally larger than their southern cousins. The wolf’s double-layered pelt can be a variety of colors ranging from silvery-gray to brown, red, yellow, and even pure white; black wolves, which often have paler gray hairs mixed in, are derived from lineages that crossbred with domestic dogs in the distant past. In the wild, the wolf’s average lifespan is six to eight years, though wild wolves have been known to survive up to thirteen years, and captive wolves a few years beyond that. Wolves are primarily carnivores, and will hunt prey ranging from field mice to moose and other deer depending on availability. However, they may also consume a smaller portion of high-calorie vegetable matter such as berries and fruit.
Evolutionary History: Some of the earliest known ancestors of today’s wolf were the creodonts, Cretaceous-era carnivorous mammals that were dwarfed by their dinosaur neighbors over 100 million years ago. About fifty million years later one branch of creodonts became the carnassials, which had evolved better jaws for meat-eating and began to resemble today’s canines. Miacis is the specific member of this group that we think gave rise to canines and related modern carnivores like bears and weasels. Miacis gave rise to Cynodictis around 35 million years ago, which then later evolved into Tomarctus at about 20 million years ago. We don’t start seeing truly wolf-like creatures until about three million years ago, and the gray wolf proper first appeared about a million years ago in what is now Eurasia, later moving into North America. Today around forty subspecies of wolf (including a few now extinct) are recognized, including the domestic dog and the Australian dingo.
Behavior: Gray wolves are among the most social of canines, living in packs generally composed of a mating pair and their pups from previous years; a litter averages four to eight pups. This social lifestyle offers the wolves the opportunity to hunt larger prey as a group than they would as individuals. Wolves hunt their prey by chasing it down, first getting as close as they can to the prey, then running after it to separate it from its herd and tire it out. Wolves have been known to chase prey in shifts, with new wolves replacing those that are tired out, much like passing a baton in a relay race. A wolf can eat up to twenty pounds of meat or more at one sitting, after which a long nap is generally warranted. Hunting is only a small part of a wolf’s life, though. They are quite playful creatures, both with their pups and with fellow adult packmates. They enthusiastically greet each other when they reunite after separation, and use a variety of sounds to communicate both close by and at a distance. The pack is highly territorial and will defend their territory from other packs with some ferocity. While most pack disputes are settled without violence, on occasions fights may occur, leading to injury or even death. Contrary to popular myth, wolves are generally shy creatures when it comes to humans, and usually take great pains to avoid us. It is only a very starved or very sick wolf that will attempt to attack a human being, though wolves close to human settlements have been known to hunt loose dogs and cats and, on occasion, livestock.
Cultural Impact: The gray wolf is one of the most recognizable wild animals in the Northern Hemisphere, and has had a significant contribution to the symbolism of various cultures throughout the land. The wolf’s ferocity in hunting and defending its territory have earned it a reputation as a powerful being, sometimes revered and sometimes feared–and often both. The Big Bad Wolf of fairy tales is just one of several iterations of the wolf as a terrifying monster, and is derived in part from the villainous wolf of Aesop’s fables and the Brothers Grimm. The Navajo in the southwest United States tell of the yee naldlooshi (popularly known as a skinwalker), a human witch who transforms into a wolf (or other animal) to attack and terrorize people. And Fenrir (or Fenris), a monstrous wolf of Norse mythology, is said to be the killer of the god Odin when the end of the world, Ragnarok, arrives. But the wolf is often seen in a positive light as well. Romulus and Remus, the founders of Rome, were said to have been raised by a female wolf, and a similar lupine kinship has been adopted by cultures worldwide, from the Chechen people of Eastern Europe to the Mongols of Asia to several Native American cultures. The strength of wolves also makes them a common symbol of warriors and warrior culture, and their prowess in hunting has been emulated by humans for millenia. Today, the wolf is a common representative of the wilderness and the need to protect it, and several environmental groups use it as their emblem.
Totemic Inspiration: It is difficult for me to write about Gray Wolf sometimes because he has been such a significant part of my life from a very early age and has taught me so much of who I am today–persistence, drive, the ability to connect, but also a sharp tooth and not always at the appropriate times. Gray Wolf’s cosmopolitan children and high cultural profile makes her one of the most popular totems and almost sort of a “gateway totem”. This is not necessarily a bad thing, as he is often associated with teaching and guidance in neopagan totemism, and in my experience tends to be pretty patient (think of a wolf being gently mauled by a litter of playful pups!) Because wolves are persistent long-distance hunters, Gray Wolf may be called upon for help with staying the course in long-term projects and endeavors, though with an eye toward adapting one’s tactics to be more effective, much as a wolf must change course when prey darts off in another direction, or when a new prey animal becomes evident in chasing a herd. This adaptability is reflected in the wolf’s incredibly large range and ability to live in habitats ranging from deserts to tundra to forests, and for myself I’ve learned quite a bit about making the most of the resources available to me from Gray Wolf. Wolf is not without her shortcomings, though; while territoriality can be helpful when resources are limited and need to be protected fiercely, humanity in general has a lot to learn about generosity, particularly in cultures where there are many resources, but those resources are treated as though they are scarce. It’s not that wolves can’t be cooperative or benefit other beings; they frequently partner with ravens in finding food and in play, and a wolf’s kill can feed dozens of other animals. But Gray Wolf’s loyalty is to his own first and foremost, and this may need to be offset with a conscious reminder that as humans we do not need to restrict our intentional loyalty only to our nearest and dearest. Finally, as mentioned earlier, Gray Wolf and her children have become emblematic of ecological protection efforts because of the wolf’s place as a keystone species, and my co-blogger Rua Lupa and I discussed this earlier this year over at Paths Through the Forests. Please note that these are my interpretations of my experiences with Gray Wolf, and they should not be seen as “totem meanings”. Your mileage with Gray Wolf may vary quite a bit, so get to know him on your own terms if she’d like to work with you.
Somehow Pagan Values Month crept up on me this year. Luckily, it caught me at a time when a good topic was percolating in my head: food.
Food may not seem much like a value, so much as a necessity. Unable to photosynthesize sunlight into energy, we animals must consume other living beings to get our nutrients, whether in the form of other animals or the photosynthesizers (plants) themselves. And despite efforts to create a one-size-fits-all convenience substitute for food (like this dreadful looking stuff here), we’re still largely reliant on the direct products of the Earth for our daily sustenance.
But we are human, and one of the things that (as far as we know) makes us unique is the control we have over our environments through our intelligence, resourcefulness, and nifty opposable thumbs. One of the many ways in which we exercise this is through our conscious choice of food. Particularly as we developed agriculture and gained more independence on our food supply, we’ve been able to decide whether or not to eat a particular thing, rather than eating whatever happened to be available at the time. And cooking is even older than agriculture, with the earliest evidence arising 250,000 or so years ago.
With cooking came even more diversity in flavors, and with that a greater appreciation for the aesthetics, rather than just the functionality, of food. We can enjoy food, not just because a particular taste lets us know it has good things in it, but because we are conscious of our enjoyment. We are capable of choosing the flavors we like best, combining them in unusual and surprising manners. And in that act of creation, we appreciate and celebrate the food and its goodness.
But we don’t celebrate the land itself. Outside of a dedicated cadre of foodies and some wine enthusiasts, most people couldn’t tell you where the thing they’re consuming came from, never mind how the soil it was grown or fed on affects its taste. We may know vaguely that our loaf of bagged white bread was probably made from wheat somewhere in the Midwest–maybe–but that’s about it. For the most part, unless we grew or raised it ourselves, or bought it directly from the farmer, we just can’t say where our food came from. Food is an expression of the place it came from, and our bodies are made of that soil. We carry bits of countless fields and farms within our very flesh, yet few of us could identify every single one that’s provided us with our food.
This goes for most pagans, too. When we have our “harvest” celebrations in late summer and fall, Lammas and Mabon and Samhain, most of us aren’t offering up food that we ourselves grew or raised. Instead, everyone brings things we bought from the store, the farmers and farms themselves left anonymous and forgotten. We come together because someone’s ancestors way back when celebrated the harvest around this time–or because some book explained the eight Sabbats and that’s what we figure we’re supposed to do. There’s an almost complete disconnect between the empty words we speak out of some book of shadows, and the people who actually raised and harvested the food we consume once the circle’s closed.
It is not enough to celebrate “Yay, food!” with bland words of “Thank you to the Earth, blah, blah, blah”. What does that really mean? Thank you, entire planet? Thank you, unidentified spot where this apple was grown? Thank you, soil where a migrant worker stepped as they picked this handful of peas?
For those pagans whose spirituality centers on nature, this is a potential area for a deeper connection to the land. We need to go beyond rote harvest celebrations. Just like a Christian doesn’t stop being Christian after the hour-long Sunday service is done, we don’t stop being nature pagans after everyone goes home from the Sabbat (or whatever your chosen celebration is). To really honor the land we get our food from, we have to know it. We have to remove the anonymity as best as we can. And we have to acknowledge the sources and systems that bring us our food every day, to include the harm they can bring to the environment and ourselves, and mitigate the damage as best as we can. If we’re going to claim to honor nature, it’s imperative that we go beyond the generic “thank you”.
This isn’t always as easy as it sounds. Gardening seems like the easiest and most immediate solution to the anonymous food and land problem; I’ve been growing vegetables since I moved to the Northwest in 2006. But it takes money and resources; there are times when all I had was a few pots on the porch, and some people don’t even have access to that. Few of us have enough land to grow enough food for the household year-round; my community garden plot is 10′ x 20′, and it’s a good week if I can pull a few salads for two from it.
We could look to other food growers, of course. I’m spoiled here in Portland because there’s a strong emphasis on local agriculture, from farmer’s markets most days of the week to restaurants and shops specializing in locally grown and raised food. So it’s really easy to get to know the farmer here. It’s tougher to know the land that grew your food when all you have access to is a chain grocery store with plastic-wrapped meat from one of Tyson’s many factory farms and spinach shipped in from somewhere in Mexico. You may have to do some research to find more local resources–and “local” may be relative, if you don’t have viable farmland within a hundred miles, or if all the farmland is owned by huge agribusinesses.
Cost becomes a factor, too, when trying to buy more personal food. Big agriculture gets a ton of government subsidies which allow their products to be sold more cheaply; often the independent farmers can’t compete because they have to sell their food at real cost. This, unfortunately, can price it out of the reach of some people, especially those on lower incomes. This isn’t always universal; in the middle of summer I can go to the farmer’s market down the road and get a giant bundle of carrots for two bucks, but then pay $20/pound for grass-fed buffalo sirloin. (In which case, we just eat more carrots and only a little meat.)
The good news is that there’s no single right way to treat food as a pagan value. Just having more awareness of your food and where it comes from is a great starting point for breaking out of the generic “thank you, Earth!” form of food and land appreciation. As one example, even if all you know about the chickens your eggs came from is that they lived in tiny battery cages somewhere and existed only to lay as many eggs as possible, then at least you know who to really thank for your food at harvest time! And your awareness can lead to more conscious choices in the future, too. You might have access to free range eggs, whether through the grocery store or a farmer’s market. Even if you can’t buy the free range eggs every single shopping trip because they cost a few more dollars a dozen or because you’d have to travel farther for them, you might consider buying them once a month if you’re able, and that’s better than not buying them at all.
I’ll be talking more about issues surrounding food, sustainability, and their connection to spirituality in future posts–in fact, stay tuned for my next post where I’ll be reviewing a really good book that I’ve found incredibly inspirational in my quest to be a more responsible consumer of comestibles.
I’ve always had a pretty psychology-heavy approach to spirituality, even before I went to grad school. I confess that I am one of those people who studied psychology in part to figure myself out; while in some ways I am a very capable, functional and adaptable human being, I do have my challenges. I’ve used therapy for years to help treat my anxiety and other idiosyncracies, but even when going on a weekly basis, I still have to attend to myself the other 167 hours. For a good long while I used meditation, with a strong focus on emotional processing, as a big part of my personal psychological toolkit.
It worked pretty well for several years. It gave me an outlet for exploring the weird twists and turns of my mind, particularly regarding my past. I grew up in a pretty safe and loving household, and even if I seemed to be a peculiar child, I was never, ever unwanted. But I also grew up with a constant onslaught of bullying at school, starting in second grade and going all the way to the end of high school. I had very few friends, and most of the ones I did have would often turn on me with no notice. For years I found refuge outdoors, alone and mostly unsupervised, able to immerse myself in the fauna and flora and fungi around me. But there was an additional trauma when the woods I took refuge in were suddenly and brutally bulldozed, and I found myself with nowhere to turn with my grief.
My twenties were tough, and I spent a lot of time trying to detangle myself from all these early influences. And for a while, it served its purpose. I gained more awareness of why I behaved in certain ways, and felt a little less like a badly programmed automaton. I even did some rite of passage work to banish certain behavior patterns or the effects of particular memories as a way of trying to reprogram myself.
But knowing how my brain worked and doing one-off symbolic actions wasn’t enough. In fact, beyond a certain point, it became counterproductive. I started spending too much time in my head, and would retreat into it as a defense against the anxiety, stress and other nasties that had plagued me for so long. I thought that if I could just tell my life story a little more clearly, I’d somehow be free of it, once that final piece was laid into place.
That’s not how it happened, of course. I just obsessed over my past more and more. More destructively, I was judging and measuring and nitpicking my every move and thought and trying to determine “Well, why am I doing this?” I was my own special little lab rat. I’d do a thing, and then I’d analyze it to death, and then I’d write up the “results”, usually on Livejournal. I don’t even want to think about how many pages-long posts of agonized processing I word-spewed onto the update page (thankfully hidden under LJ-cuts to spare my followers who didn’t give a crap what was going on in the deepest convolutions of my gray matter). It can basically all be summed up as “I THOUGHT ABOUT THIS THING FROM MY PAST BECAUSE I DID A THING NOW THAT REMINDED ME OF IT AND NOW I’M GOING TO TAKE AN EXACTO BLADE AND SLICE IT UP INTO TINY BITS AND SCRUTINIZE IT UNDER THIS MICROSCOPE AND LOOK AT HOW DEEP AND INTROSPECTIVE I AM EXCUSE ME WHILE I GO MEDITATE AND REFLECT AND PROCESS IT SOME MORE IT’S NOT MUSHY ENOUGH”.
This was all amplified when I ended up in a relationship for a few years with someone who also did a good deal of internal processing and past-picking. Now I had someone else encouraging me to dig deeper, spend more time “sitting with myself” and my problems and my pain and otherwise focusing on the stuff in my head. Some of their suggested techniques were different than what I was doing, but the result was the same–I stayed stuck in my head, a broken record skipping over the same crack again and again and thinking that the sound I made was the music I was supposed to hear. Eventually it became something of a horrible feedback loop between us, especially when we’d fight–instead of dealing with the problem itself, we’d take turns explaining exactly why we were each behaving the way we were, sometimes spending hours in this war-storying* circlejerk. Unsurprisingly, the actual thing we were fighting about rarely got addressed, and it would just come up again later. In the interim, we’d both meditate and otherwise “reflect” on ourselves and our quirks and flaws in an attempt to gain control of them, which invariably did little good. I was supposed to be visiting my past in these meditations as a way of giving myself control in my everyday life, but instead all I was doing was reinforcing the neurological pathways in my brain that led to the anxiety and other problems.
This approach to “fixing things” continued until I became involved with my current partner a few years ago and began trying the same processing patterns with him. Not too long into our relationship, I had a bit of an anxiety attack, and my immediate response was to open up the mental Rolodex of “Why is this happening? What patterns in my childhood led to this response behavior?” and so forth, going over the same tired examples in the hopes of finding some new little twist I’d missed before. He’d seen this happen a few times, and he’s a pretty observant person; I’ve actually learned quite a bit about empathy and active listening from him.
So he stopped me in mid-sentence. I forget exactly what he said, but it was something along the lines of “Lupa, what are you trying to do? You’re not ten years old any more; you’re not fifteen, and you’re not twenty. You are who you are now, and you need to stop hanging on so tightly to who you were back then. Be here now.” And then instead of letting me continue to obsess over the reasons for my anxiety attack and what created my anxiety disorder in the first place and who bullied me, etc. etc., which kept my anxiety heightened until I exhausted myself, he carefully walked me through the anxiety, calmed me down, and grounded me in the present.
It boggles my mind that until that point no one had ever effectively done that for me before. I’d gotten a lot of dismissive remarks like “Just get over it” and “What are you making such a big deal for?” I’d gotten yelled at and bullied and retraumatized into shutting up by those who couldn’t handle what was happening to me any more than I could, even by people who were supposed to be helping me. And I’d both inflicted on myself and had reinforced by others this idea that if I just “sat with my past” it would fix everything and empower me to change; in the end, people who thought they were helping me by leading me deeper into myself were just perpetuating the problem and hurting me even more with their “expertise”. And yet someone who had only known me for a handful of weeks was able to see where I was stuck in my head and gave me a lifeline out of it.
It took me a while after that incident to break myself of the instant response of “INTERNALIZE! PROCESS! REFLECT!” whenever I got hit with stress. There were plenty of times where I realized, or my partner observed, that “Lupa, you’re doing that thing again. Quit it. Come back here.” And being that I was deep in grad school at the time, I was embroiled in upper-level psych and counseling classes that kept unearthing things in my head (this is why my program required every student to receive at least ten hours of therapy before starting their practicum). So it was a hard fight out of my internal cage.
But eventually I got there. I don’t remember the precise time when things shifted; like so much growth, it was gradual–as opposed to the sudden growth spurts I think I must have been expecting with every new revelation I discovered about my past during meditations and processing sessions. It’s been a couple of years at least, though, since I can remember it happening.
Of course, some things are still the same old Lupa–I still have anxiety attacks now and then, usually from fairly predictable stimuli. But at least now my panicking brain focuses on the here and now, along with some catastrophizing about the future. The catastrophizing I can get around by reminding myself that I’m looking at the worst case scenario and the future hasn’t arrived yet so it does no good to worry about it now, and so then I can get down to the business of the present. And because I’m shifting my focus to the present, I become aware, most of the times when an attack happens, that my mind is going haywire because my brain and body are flooded with fight, flight or freeze chemicals, and I hang onto that awareness til the chemicals flush out of my system and I can think rationally again.
More importantly, I’m not constantly reinforcing that connection with my past. While I have an understanding of how my past shaped who I am today, it’s no longer the central focus of my identity like it used to be. Instead, “influences from my past” is just one of many and varied threads of self that all weave together to create who I am in this moment. Nor do I have to nitpick every single thing I do under the magnifying glass of my past. If I happen to notice a connection between past and present, I note it briefly, usually with a bit of curiosity and “Huh, okay, that makes sense”. And then I move the fuck on with my day.
This is a big part of why my path has shifted so drastically to the physical in recent years. Pagans talk about “grounding” in the sense of visualizing one’s self being energetically rooted into the earth. Sometimes it involves symbols of nature, like pretending to be a tree and putting down roots, but it’s still a technique based on being in my head. The best thing for me has been being grounded right here in the moment, not pretending to be a tree or a beam of light or a cloud, but being me, Lupa, in the flesh. I’m tired of willful dissociation, and I’ve wasted too much time on it. Now, when I feel overwhelmed, I go back to what worked first in my life–I go outside, preferably alone and where it’s quiet. It allows me respite from my thoughts, and it does things that reduce the physiological causes of anxiety and stress, like lowering my blood pressure and letting my senses drift instead of focus hard. My answer to problems is not to think more, but to think less for a while, and rest from thinking. When I come back, my thoughts and plans are more calm and steady, not frazzled from reaching inside for THE ANSWERS.
Does this mean I’ve written off meditation entirely? Absolutely not. But these days I use it as an antidote to overthinking; my meditation is based in mindfulness, not magic. Even when I do guided visualizations I’m not trying to power my way through chakra blockages or go on quests to seek the grails within. Instead, what I visualize are things that reconnect me with the physical world. With my eyes closed, I try to pinpoint exactly where a particular sound is coming from, or to remember where I am in location to a specific tree. And then when I open my eyes again, I am fully here and now again, not rabbiting off down some path to the mean old past yet again.
And that’s made all the difference. A few years ago, if I were talking about my relationship with meditation down the years, I’d be hyper-analyzing every detail of the story, and finishing it with “…and that’s why I am the way I am today! Look how smart I am for recognizing that!” And that’s it. This post is a curious note in my thoughts today, where I realized “Oh, hey, remember that thing you used to do, Lupa? You haven’t done it in years!” And my response was “Oh, hey, that’s cool.” I thought maybe my cautionary tale would be of interest to some readers, maybe if others are stuck in the same headspace; I got out, and maybe you can, too.
As to my ongoing work to calm my anxiety? I acknowledge that my brain doesn’t quite work right; maybe that’ll change someday, maybe not, but I don’t need to try to figure out every single thing that led up to it being the way it is. It’s okay that I’m able to largely ignore injuries of the past and let them work on healing while I do other stuff. I’m like this little puppy with a busted leg all wrapped up, run-stumbling around Tumblr lately:
Like Tumblr user iraffiruse said about the pup:
Some people might feel sorry for themselves in this situation
Puppy don’t care
Puppy’s got stuff to do
Puppy’s got places to be
Puppy’s got people to bark at and things to sniff.
And I think I can relate to that little ouch-legged pup in that.
* War-storying is a term I picked up from when I was interning at an addictions treatment facility in my final year of grad school. It refers to a phenomenon in addictions treatment where the client spends their time telling and re-telling stories from their past to get an emotional rise out of themselves and, as they hope, their audience. It isn’t particularly effective, as it’s just reliving the experience rather than attending to its effects in the now. It’s also very similar to some of the “internal work” I was attempting to do.
When I say every species has a totem, I mean it! This includes the species that have long since ceased to exist on this physical plane. They often have a different view on this world and our concerns because they no longer have physical counterparts here, but I find them fascinating to work with.
One of my favorite plant totems in this regard is the totem of the ancient species we know as Cooksonia caledonica*. This plant and the rest of its genus (at least the species we’re aware of) is the oldest plant known to have the beginnings of a vascular system. This makes it a bridge between the bryophytes like mosses and liverworts, and more advanced vascular plants like the various flowering plants, trees, and so forth. It’s also one of the earliest land plants, and the vascular tissue in its stem was an important evolutionary step that helped plants further colonize dry land.
My relationship with Cooksonia is one of shared curiosity. Most of our interactions involve us sitting back and observing the world today, with its diversity of plant life, and being astonished at how far the plant kingdom has come in the past 400 million or so years. Cooksonia really had no idea at the time how far that one little adaptation would go, and the fact that we have redwoods and sequoias that built on the same basic system that Cooksonia evolved delights this good-natured totem. It also doesn’t seem particularly bitter about the extinction of its species; part of this is due to the great amount of time since the extinction, but it’s also that Cooksonia sees a bit of its children in their descendants today.
More than most totems, Cooksonia enjoys interacting with modern physical plants and their totems. You know how grandparents and great-grandparents admire and dote on their (great) grandchildren? it’s much like that, only with many, many more generations involved. All the Cooksonia totems have a tendency to cluster together like the old “aunties” of the family. I talk about the totem Cooksonia Caledonica in singular here, but very often it’s just the most outspoken of the group who join me in watching the world go by for a while–Cooksonia Pertoni, Cooksonia Banksii,** and the rest. They love going hiking with me and sometimes they’ll spend a great deal of time convincing me to stop and look at this particular leaf, or the shape of that trunk there.
Really, if there’s any totem that embodies my sense of awe and wonder at the world, it’s Cooksonia. I certainly haven’t had the long view on things that any of the plants have, but I can borrow their perspective for a while, and Cooksonia Caledonica is more than happy to share.
* Due to some physical structures, some scientists have assigned this plant a new genus, making it Aberlemnia caledonica instead. The totem seems to like its older name better, so I generally stick to that in working with it, but I thought it was important for readers to know the different opinions on the nomenclature for this species.
** For those not familiar with my personal formatting conventions: when talking about a physical species, I use the proper scientific nomenclature in italics and the species name starting with a lowercase letter (Cooksonia caledonica); when talking about the totem, I treat it like a proper name without italics and both the genus and species names beginning with a capital letter (Cooksonia Caledonica).
Riding on the momentum of my last post, I’d like to trot out one of my pet peeves: the notion that this world doesn’t have any magic.
It’s a sentiment that I’ve heard here and there over the years among pagans and others. It generally starts with a discussion about how we can’t actually fly without support or shoot fireballs or change the color of our eyes with a spell, and complaints that there aren’t any dragons or unicorns or telepathic horses running around. This sometimes devolves into speculation that, as in some urban fantasy novel or White Wolf RPG, this world once had magic but somehow lost it when technology took over. Of course, no one ever provides any compelling evidence that this was the case in the past, and the speculation is usually defended with “Well, you can’t prove it wasn’t that way, so I believe it was!” This is then postulated as being as real a reality as that explored by science over the centuries, and no one can dissuade the speaker that there isn’t some huge government conspiracy to hide magic from the commoners.
Now, I like a good fantasy novel as much as anyone, and I exercise a healthy imagination thereby. And while over the years I’ve become more skeptical of the idea that ritual magic is anything more than elaborate confirmation bias, I can still see its value when couched in personal or cultural beliefs, or when used to focus particularly strong emotions and desires. In either case, magic is a manifestation of the desire to have more avenues of possibility and action than are normally assumed. For example, if I am looking for a new job or contract or other income opportunity, I’ll do a ritual with the totems American Badger and River Otter. Badger is grounded and very tenacious, and understands the need to preserve one’s den (even if badgers don’t pay rent). But Otter reminds me to look for work that I can enjoy on some level, and to not forget to make time for self-care and having fun on a regular basis. By asking them for help, it may be that I am employing spiritual beings that help nudge the possibility of finding the right kind of work, and soon, more in my favor. Or I could just be revving myself up for the hunt, boosting my confidence and energy, and making me more aware of opportunities when they arise. Whether I’ve tapped into something external or internal (or both), I’ve made use of a resource others may not have, and which are not just the usual “send out the CV, write an inquiry letter, feature a new piece of artwork, etc.” that anyone can do.
But what I don’t do is discount the everyday actions associated with finding work. I could whine that because owls on the wing aren’t bringing me job offers from an office of magical arts and that I have to hit the pavement like everyone else, the world has fallen from a former height and sunk into a morass of banality. Or I could just appreciate that it’s a fact of life that, generally speaking, you get out of life what you put into it, and the door to a world of applications and interviews is right over yonder. It’s still no guarantee of a job, especially in the current economic climate, but I can put forth as much effort as I possibly can under my current circumstances and work within the restrictions my reality presents. Not as much fun as a teaching position at Hogwarts, but much more likely.
So what does this have to do with dragons and other mythical beasties that supposedly once roamed this land? Well, while the fossil record is far from complete, there’s yet to be any evidence of any creature that violates the laws of physics in the way Smaug and his winged, fire-breathing dragon counterparts would. The biggest flying reptile that we have evidence for, the Cretaceous-era pterosaur Hatzegopteryx, had a maximum wingspan that topped out at just under 40 feet, and it probably didn’t hoard gems, breathe fire, or speak any human language. And no animal has ever evolved that, other than the occasional genetic mutant, had one single true horn in the middle of its forehead (the tusk of a narwhal is a modified tooth, not a horn). The closest thing we have is a rhinoceros, and probably no one would mistake that for a horse or deer-like creature in the 21st century.
But rhinos are pretty awesome in their own right. Like the other African megafauna, they’re a relic of paleolithic times when giant mammals roamed many continents. While their northern woolly cousins passed into extinction thousands of years ago, the five species still living have survived changes in climate and the rise of humanity as a dominant force on earth. And they’re absolutely necessary to the African savannah where our species came about: In areas where the white rhinoceros has been removed from its historical territory, for example, the entire landscape changes, from the soil on up. White rhinos add crucial nitrogen to the soil through their droppings, which sustains the vast grasslands in the savannah. Take away the rhinos, and the whole ecosystem suffers.* You know the story of how a European unicorn could purify poisoned water with a touch of its horn so that all the animals could drink it? The backside of a rhino may be less romantic, but it has a similarly positive effect for all the creatures and other living beings in its homeland.
So that’s the unicorn. But what of dragons? Well, there’s the Komodo dragon, of course, the biggest of the monitor lizards, reaching up to eight and a half feet long. It doesn’t breathe fire, but it does have a nasty bite that’s both loaded with bacteria and venom for a double dose of awful. The females are capable of parthenogenesis, or reproduction without sperm involved, a pretty rare accomplishment that some human women may wish they could repeat! On the topic of dragons, I’d also like to introduce you to Draco volans, the flying dragon. It’s a small lizard from South Asia that has membranes attached to elongated ribs that allow it to glide from tree to tree. It’s the closest thing we have to a winged reptile, and it’s pretty cool-looking if you ask me. It’s a lot smaller than fictional dragons, too, at less than a foot in length. And you can apparently have them as pets, though the usual caveats about pet reptiles, to include making sure they were domestic-bred rather than wild-captured, and being very aware of the animal’s unique care and needs, apply particularly strongly here.
If mythical beasties aren’t your thing, what about a dash of alchemy? The ancient alchemists sought a way to transmute base metals into gold, as well as perform other internal and external transformations. But we don’t need gold to live; what we do need is energy, and we have the Philosopher’s Stone for that right in our front yards. I tend to go on and on about how awesome photosynthesis is, and for good reason–it turns sunlight into food, to explain it very, very simply. A more complex explanation is that plants have organelles called chloroplasts; these take the energy from sunlight and use it to turn the carbon from the carbon dioxide the plant breathes into a type of sugar, a simple carbohydrate. And if you think this is nothing special, consider that our experiments with artificial photosynthesis are comparatively crude and inefficient compared to the streamlined process that the plants have evolved over millions of years. We have yet to be able to successfully transform a base element (carbon) into the absolutely crucial “gold” carbohydrates we need to live, yet plants have the process perfectly streamlined. In fact, every bit of energy you get from your food started out as the product of photosynthesis, whether you ate the plants directly or the animals and fungi that ate the plants. In this regard, the green kingdom has better alchemists than we ever could dream of.
Why do I make such a big fuss about this? Partly because I feel that people who are overly fixated on fantastic escapism are potentially missing out on the wonders of this world and what they have to offer. It seems like such a sad viewpoint to see this world as utterly devoid of any magic, beauty, or wonder. I recognize that this can come about from a variety of valid causes, from depression to deep cynicism, things that all my perky “yay, nature!” cheerleading can’t negate. And sometimes fantasy and other fiction can be a nice temporary vacation from the cares of this world. However, all things in moderation: it’s not healthy to completely cut one’s self off from this world, and nature can be one way to be enticed back to the things that are good about the Earth**. You don’t only have to obsess about environmental issues, either; it’s okay to just sit in nature and absorb its restorative benefits.
But that does bring up an even more widespread reason to see the magic inherent in the everyday world: all the living beings here, humans included, are at great risk of extinction if Homo sapiens continues in its overuse of resources. Part of how we’ve been able to do this with impunity has been ignoring the effects we have on the planet and its denizens, and turning a blind eye or deaf ear when problems are discussed. We take for granted what we are privileged to have. We may be the only planet in the universe on which life has developed, and I don’t feel we consider how incredible that is nearly as much as we could. It’s not just for the purposes of meditation, either. As I mentioned in my last post, when people feel wonder and awe for something, they generally feel more compelled to preserve and protect it. At a time when both human and non-human nature are taken for granted and endangered, I feel we could use a refresher on the magic inherent in what we have right here. What a shame it would be if the last rhinoceros was slaughtered for its horn because too many people were chasing after unicorns instead of addressing the very real problem of poaching.
This, of course, is not to say that one’s life should be all activism, all the time. Everyone needs to make their own decisions as to how much to involve themselves in environmental movements (and whether they think a given movement is even valid). But if you’re going to complain that “this mundane world has no magic!” then I’m going to vehemently disagree with you. Just as you have to learn how to sense the magic inherent in things like spells, so you can also learn to see and feel and otherwise sense the magic that permeates every atom in this physical world–right down to the invisible force that holds the atom together. And sometimes perception, experience, and understanding are the best magical tools of all.
* There’s a fantastic BBC documentary series, “Secrets of Our Living Planet”, which addresses this and many other intricate relationships in nature.
** There are other ways to find wonder in the world besides nature, too. Human technology is a big one for some people; even I think it’s amazing that we can now print human tissue and organs! And the cultures of people past and present are another wellspring of curiosity and exploration, even if you can’t travel. And the arts, and exercise, and more–all of these have the potential for meditation, for creating change above and beyond our everyday lives, and for carrying spiritual inspiration through wonder and awe.
Recently, my fellow writer, Rua Lupa, posted to No Unsacred Place about her goings-on for Transequilux. This is the time of year that many pagans refer to as Imbolc, Candlemas, etc., midway between the winter solstice and the spring equinox. In her path, Ehoah, the spring equinox (or Equilux) is the new year, which I feel is a more fitting time than the middle of winter. She described a variety of projects she was undertaking as the equinox approached, including a lot of eco-sustainable activities, but also some personal endeavors as well. It reminded me something of the time-honored tradition of “spring cleaning”, in which the detritus of winter is shucked out the door and everything is organized anew to greet the arrival of warmer, sunnier days. And as the land is waking up in here in Portland, this shift to greater activity and improvement seems especially apt.
Winter has historically been a tough time for me, some years moreso than others. Start off with the fact that I am a warm weather kind of person (despite, or perhaps because of, growing up in the Midwest where winters get harsh), and winter just isn’t the best season for me. And this past winter had a lot of particular challenges; I spent the entire summer into fall working a day job in addition to my usual art and writing schedule, and so I spent a lot of beautiful, warm days stuck indoors. I hardly had time for hiking, and camping was a distant memory; I was going through serious wilderness withdrawal. As soon as I got my time back, fall was settling in, and the leaves began to fall while I recovered from the exhaustion. By the time I was ready to engage with the world again, the skies were gray and I couldn’t go outside without at least four layers of clothing. Add in that I had a lot of other deadlines and obligations to corral and deal with , with not a lot of breathing room, and I was one very knotted ball of stress.
But over the past few days (the chilly weekend notwithstanding), the temperatures have been climbing up into the upper 50s and even low 60s, and the sun has made appearances amid the much-needed precipitation. On the way back from a hike with my dear friend Emily on Friday, we got a good look at Mt. Hood, the sun shining on a coat of snow that draped much lower than it had a month previous thanks to February’s snow and rain. I felt much like that mountain, staving off drought with a longer hem of white–given more leeway than before, suddenly feeling more like myself.
And it’s resulted in a greater burst of energy than I’ve had in months. There’s the push of urgency that I used to get through running Curious Gallery, followed by trips to PantheaCon and FaerieCon West back to back, but so many mornings all I wanted was to go back to bed, dredged up from slumber much too early, and frenetically chasing commitments hither and yon. In the warmth of the first days of March, though, I feel the sunlight soaking into my skin, and the layers of fatigue and angst fall away like heavy clothing off my shoulders.
Like Rua Lupa, too, I’ve been taking that energy and putting it to good things. You’ve seen how I revamped my website, clearing out old HTML whose roots are fifteen years old and paring down links and sub-pages like husks on corn. Offline, when I arrived home from FaerieCon West weekend before last, I came to the realization that I’d let my art room go to utter disarray in the busy-ness of events and preparation and stocking up. So I took the time to not only put things back in their place, but to go through the bins and crates and destash the things that needed new homes, projects I probably wasn’t going to get to, supplies that may be better in another artist’s hands. We’re preparing to do the same to the garage, all of our extra stuff that we do need now and then, probably not valuable to anyone but us, but worth hanging onto despite the space it takes up. In fact, the entire apartment is due for a deep cleaning anyway, and now’s as good a time as any.
And in clearing away the old, there’s room for fresh growth. I’ve spent the past couple of weeks saving my community garden plot from weeds, and I’ve been left with full, rich soil that benefited heavily from the minerals and bone meal I put on it last fall. It abounds with life beneath the dead plants; the presence of overwintered cutworms signaled a need to find an organic solution before my fresh seeds become tasty sprouts, and a survey of one cubic foot of soil found fifty-five earthworms when I turned the earth to prepare it for planting, though the opportunistic crows that swooped down to the turned earth as I left probably reduced the population a bit. I even discovered a few daffodils that I transplanted to the northern edge of my plot where a bunch of of mystery bulbs are due to reveal their identities in the weeks to come. (I inherited this spot last summer, once all the bulbs had bloomed and died back, so I’m looking forward to pleasant surprises.)
I rewarded all my weeding with seeding; for roots I have turnips, two types of beets, two varieties of radish, and a newcomer to my garden, parsnips. For early greens I’ve laced the earth with the tiny seeds of spinach, arugula and kale, and rounded out the lot with peas and onions, both personal favorites of mine. I realized too late that I was planting some things in the same spots as last fall–radishes and turnips and kale in identical rows–which means greater vigilance against disease and pests. But it’s only the second time, and I’ll remember to rotate next time through.
So it is that I make my own preparations for changes and developments, and clear away space for growth and evolution. I always look forward to spring, but this year I can almost feel myself growing, plant-like, toward the windows even as I carry about my business indoors, and every trip outside feels like the biggest, most satisfying stretch in the world. I need this shift now, more than in most years, and the sweet smell of cherry blossoms and tender grass studded with little brown mushrooms can’t get here soon enough.