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Creating a Place-Based Practice

[originally published A Sense of Place, 02/20/14]

my Little Bigs at Pedernales Falls

On the second dark moon of January, a group of 9 gathered in my front garden. We sought uncharted territory; in fact, were willing to risk vulnerability to find it.  The group of explorers met to carefully plan the expedition.  We knew the journey might stretch every resource and tool we possessed, yet we were  drawn to try–to dare.  For there, in my front garden that night, was the first meeting of an advanced working group committed to discovering the Place specific spirituality of Central Texas.

The background and expertise of the group was varied, but we shared a few things in common: a dissatisfaction with the ‘traditional’ seasonal wheel that clearly did not sync with our lived (place-based) experience, a deep desire to meet and work with the Powers of our specific Place, and a willingness (even desire) to listen for or create new tools and practices that matched our experiential discoveries. We were, in a real sense, willing to craft a Place-based cultus.

Our group identified a few areas of import, ones we felt were vital to our work. The first was developing, or honing, our observation skills, seeing again the landscape around us–which for most of us is urban–and looking with new eyes. Many committed to taking notes of significant occurrence, i.e., the cycle of plants, bird calls and flight patterns, celestial positions, etc.  The second was a willingness and ability to use our witchcraft tools–or the tools of mindfulness and meditation–to facilitate deep listening, and a form of possession with/of the living land around us and the Powers we may encounter.

The third, and perhaps most important, was naming the need to build a secure, trusting container so we each felt safe expressing and acting upon impulses that may deviate from our previous Craft experience. Since the practices most of us had been taught were built on a largely European model, we surmised that energies/beings/Powers/Persons we encounter in North America–a continent away from the Euro-centric myths we all know–and specially central Texas, could feel different, express themselves differently, or generally interact with our energies in ways unique and different. With this in mind, we wanted to build trust in the group in order to enable the free expression and exploration of these fresh encounters.

Our group will meet monthly, and I hope to have many good things to share once the expedition is under way.

“Whatever you do, or dream you can, begin it. Boldness has genius and power and magic in it

A Pagan Goes To FreezerBurn

[originally published A Sense of Place, 01/23/14]

This weekend I attended FreezerBurn, one of the regional burns inspired by Burning Man, the annual art event and temporary community held in the Black Rock Desert of Nevada.  The local event I attended was about an hour outside Austin, on a piece of property full of Post Oak and Mesquite, with a little creek meandering along its perimeter, and acre upon acre of ingenious human creativity.

It was my first Burn, but because I know other Burners (what people in the community call themselves, or what others call them) I knew to keep my expectations low and my receptivity  high. I entered the gates and allowed the warmth of the Greeters to wash over me.  Their excitement was infectious, and as I moved through the community, taking in the Theme Camps, offerings, music, art and big smiles, I began to understanding the words of the famous Burner greeting, “Welcome Home!”

Image by Anthony Paul on his FB {link to https://www.facebook.com/tigerbuns}

There are ten principles that inform the Burn community, and two leapt out at me immediately: radical self-reliance and radical self-expression.  These spoke to me because of their resonance with my witchcraft lineage, which is Anderson Feri.  Within my lineage we work toward what we call a Warrior Ethic, which is itself a form of radical self-reliance that cultivates personal Will.  We also foster the expression of that Will in the world by seeking to know our Selves completely, which, when engaged, results in radical self-expression.

As a spiritual practice, self-reliance and self-expression first require knowledge of the Self.  Who is this Self, and what are its capabilities and preferences? To answer these questions requires examination of cultural bias, dogma, and world view; it requires delving into the depths of what and who we are; and importantly, it requires a willingness to let go of anything that no longer serves us.

Many of the things that do not serve me are stories of shame, bias, and separation, that my culture, family of origin, or other influential messengers imprinted onto my Self at some point in my life experience.  The stories may have been of incapability, or an unhealthy codependence on others to meet my needs for safety, acceptance and love.  The stories may have been of preference, subtle shaping of how I perceive others and the world around me.  Examining and letting go of these can feel scary for many reasons.  If all I have ever known or thought about my Self is set aside, what remains?  If long held beliefs and assumptions are removed, what is my foundation?

That’s where the radical inclusion, gifting and immediacy of a Burn event help ease the shock of self-examination.  When you are spontaneously hugged, smiled at, given a gift and told how amazing you are, it’s hard not to feel OK being yourself, even if that Self is newly discovered, still in transition and feeling vulnerable.  Also, being exposed to all those Other newly discovered and expressed Selves is liberating.  Authenticity is wonderfully contagious.

It took me a while to find these parallels while I was at the Burn. The atmosphere is in your face, and confronts you the moment you arrive.  The event is secular, in that, while there is no overtly spiritual focus there is a solid ethic found within the ten principles.  It’s also chaotic, with music, madness and mayhem.  Not everyone is like me; in fact, maybe nobody else is like me.  And that’s the point.  Part of radical inclusion is accepting Other, in all the glorious, messy difference of behavior, belief, expression and appearance.

Image by Anthony Paul on his FB {link to https://www.facebook.com/tigerbuns}

Human-persons have a natural tendency toward social inclusion, we need it and want it.  One way we attempt to build it, is through mimicry—being ‘like’ other—in this case, our group.  We do this at the micro level with our family, and at the macro level with our spiritual community, work colleagues, and social networks.  At a Burn event, this can be seen in the Sparkle Pony; a term apparently coined by Burners to describe a person who attends events unprepared for radical self-reliance, but who has dressed themselves in what they perceive as the Burner costume.  They are trying to fit-in through mimicry, and commodification, which contradicts the principles I discussed above.

So naturally, the first thing I did when I made the decision to attend FreezerBurn was google “burner clothing”!  I didn’t want to stand out.  As I sat with that, and thought about why I was doing it, I noticed that natural desire we all have to be ‘part of’.  What I was missing, though, was the principle of self-expression.  The major component that enables ‘fitting-in’ at a Burn is found within the ten principles; it’s called ‘participation’.  Burners hold that “transformative change, whether in the individual or in society, can occur only through the medium of deeply personal participation.”  The event strives to achieve Being through Doing, and the result is amazing human creativity: pieces of art that will blow your mind, sumptuous theme camps, delightful gifts offered with love by total strangers, and daring to reveal one’s authentic Self.

It comes back to knowing the Self, and finally learning to rely on that Self while expressing it in a wider world of suffocating globalization, sameness, and homogenization: and that is a liberating, radical idea, no matter your theology!  So, what did I do to fit in and find my place?  I tore through my costume box, putting together combinations I’ve only ever worn for myself, in the privacy of my bedroom, and baked the yummiest sugar cookies ever, to give away to the Strangers I met on the Playa.

TED Talk: A Sense of Place

[originally published A Sense of Place, 01/09/14]

with poet Dana Gioia

 

Paganism’s Messiah Complex

[originally published A Sense of Place, 01/02/14]

Or, the Anthropocentrism of Western Paganism

Occasionally, within pagan circles, I happen across a troubling component of the western centric world view, and one that I find particularly antithetical to pagan values: anthropocentrism.  The belief that human-persons are the most significant species on the planet, plays out within paganism in subtle and tricky ways.  Most of us would balk at the outright notion that our species is superior, yet I often hear how humans have a divine role as mediators between worlds, or even how we are tasked with saving our planet.  I don’t disagree that we do have a responsibility to live rightly and within our means; or that our species seems determined to remove itself (to our detriment) from the circle of life; or even that it is possible for us to shift our consciousness in such a way as to glimpse into other worlds.  What I heartily disagree with, however, is the subtle notion that our species is the only one listening.

Crom Stone

This past Lughnasadh, I stayed the night in one of the Carrowkeel megalithic mounds in south county Sligo.  As I settled into the southwest recess where the Crom stone is placed, I noticed three red moths.  They were resting on the Crom stone, near to one another, with wings spread.  I went to great lengths not to disturb them, as they were there first.  As I pondered the Red Moths, I wondered why they might be visiting the monument.  They were in a dry, protected place, but so was I.   These incidental details told me nothing about their motivation for being inside the mound, anymore than my presence could be accounted for by these details.

Since all things are made of the same star stuff, I perceive all as possessing consciousness in some form. That form may be radically different from the way I perceive my own consciousness, but conceptualizing it in this way enables a starting place for relationship, and my animism is about relationality within a community of persons, both human and other-than-human.  What IF the Red Moths were there mediating between the world of the ancestors and the world of the living?   What IF the Red Moths were there praying to their own god, to intervene in the changing climate? What IF the climate doesn’t concern the Red Moths, and they were there to sing, or have a party?

Red Moths

Anthropocentrism creeps in when we, as pagans, view the presence of the Red Moths as somehow specifically and exclusively connected to us, as humans.  If I had seen the Red Moths as a ‘sign’ to me from Crom, I would have removed their agency and transformed them into a lesser species, whose sole purpose for being there was to send me a message.  What a load of colonizing BS that is!

I realize that saying paganism has a Messiah Complex is applying really strong language; after all, the state of mind characterized by the belief that one is exceptionally unique, with a predestined mission, is delusional, and can even be schizophrenic. But might the actions of The Human (our species as a whole) be seen as delusional, and more than a little pathological, by other species looking in at us?  After all, our record for ruining habitat, the very ecosystem we depend upon for survival, is less than sustainable.

Even though my argument is over simplified, and reductionist if taken too simplistically, it is a line of thought we ought to grapple with.  I hear too often in our conversations the same mindset we chafe against in dominant culture: one that perceives itself as superior to, and privileged over, another.  So the next time you encounter one of your neighbors, be that sister Bird, brother Wind, or cousin Tree, take a moment to consider what their world view is, and how they view you, as the strange alien moving within their sphere of life.

[originally published A Sense of Place, 12/05/13]

This article is a reprisal of one of my first on Patheos.  It’s my “Top 10 Tips” for cultivating a sense of Place in an urban environment; a feat that did not come easy for me.  I was reared on a family farm with hundreds of acres as my garden.  I roamed barefoot from sun-up till sun-down, engaging in more risk-taking behavior than my parents would ever want to know about!  Snake spoke to me, coyote sang his eerie song, and bobcat warned me about what happens when you meet Other, out past your bedtime.

I am a country girl, and my spiritual awakening happened in a rural environment.  My journey toward an animistic world view began as a child; a child in nature doesn’t need to be told the world is alive, she hears that living world all around her.  I also discovered witchcraft (I define this term for myself here), and reclaimed the line of my ancient Mothers, while still living in the countryside.  My interaction with the living world nourished me, and when that landscape changed (with my move to the city as an adult), it was a jolt to my system.  It took me years to adjust!  Thankfully, witch-craft taught me the tools of Connection and Presence–but you don’t have to be a witch to use them!

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The ability to connect and be present in the midst of chaos is important.  I first cultivated this skill while living in my cup-runneth-over-house with four Little Bigs.  I sharpened and honed this tool living within the constant pulse of the city.  Connecting with Place–the ground beneath my feet–in the city required more than foundational grounding and centering. It required research, digging, and the courage to change my thinking and my lifestyle.

All those years ago, when I struggled to hear this land’s voice — this bit of earth under the layers of asphalt and concrete; the cacophony of road noise woven with live music; the fabric of cowboy boots and hipster plaid — I longed to feel the heart connection I’d felt in the countryside. After engaging in the following practices, I found the love and appreciation I sought: a connection with this sauntering, swaggering city called Austin.

Myth
Discover the pre-history of your Place.   Which other-than-human persons once lived on the ground beneath your feet, and now rest within its substrata?  Many of us learned this information in school, but for those who have migrated it’s important to acquaint yourself with the beginnings of the land you now call home.  Visualize those waves of ancient migration, the shift of flora and fauna, and expand your awareness out a few paces to notice the patterns and story that emerge from that knowing.  Let the land tell you its stories: Listen.

Geology
You don’t need to be an expert, but learn a thing or two about the primordial shaping of your Place.   What forces created the significant landmasses? What type of rocks lie under or within your topsoil (do you have topsoil)? Often it’s difficult to imagine soil under the asphalt and concrete, but it’s there.  Heck, even the asphalt and concrete are organic material (as in, organic chemicals).  I like to imagine the roads and sidewalks as band-aids (plasters) covering the skin of the Earth.  I then stand on sidewalk and grass, in turns, while holding this image.  Try it!

Weather
Many pagans base their ritual year around a seasonal procession not in sync with their local weather patterns or agricultural year.  Do you utilize seasonal change within your system of praxis?  Why not craft a localized ritual year?

Central Texas does not follow an 8-fold wheel of the year.  The first time I broke with the revered British tradition was nerve-wracking.  ’Everyone else’ was doing it the ‘traditional’ way.  I was afraid that being an outlier within such a fringe subgroup as ‘paganism’ would push me into Lonely Land.  It didn’t, though my personal practice no longer matches that of the wider community.   But hey, I’m a witch and well used to being different!

History
Do some research on the human history of your city.  When did the indigenous population arrive, and who were the immigrants (or colonizers)? There are often amazing, heroic, tragic, and humorous stories associated with the settlement of our cities.  Dig them up!  Your local University is a great resource.  Check-out their history department, and ask whether they hold public lectures or symposiums.  Also, visit your local library.  I bet they can direct you to a local historian more than happy to share their knowledge!

This is a fun step, and another realm of myth-making.  Who were the archetypal Mothers, Warriors, Wise Women & Men, or Tricksters?   I  loved discovering the stories of Austin.  Texas was already rich in mythic imagery, so I was delighted to learn of the Austin buffalo hunt, Mrs. Eberly and her cannon (pictured above), and the house of ‘ill repute’  in my neighborhood.

Don’t shy away from People
Cities are the anthills of humanity, areas of  condensed human creativity and enterprise.  Some of us are introverts and need to carefully craft our excursions, but don’t let that deter you from connecting with other humans.  Get out and meet your fellow ‘ants’! This makes us feel grounded in our physical place, as opposed to a fantasy land of our imagining.  It’s tempting to be an internet pagan, or witch, but don’t stop there!  There is so much more out there.  Don’t read – DO!

Get out of the box
Get out of your house, your car, your office, your coffee shop.  Get your body out of the center of the anthill and up on the surface where the sun shines and the wind tousles your hair. This is vital for a Witch.

The most important step for me in building a sense of Place within an urban environment, and a major turning point in my relationship with the city, was selling my car and buying a commuter bicycle.  My first commute to work was an epiphany!  Each garden I passed was a unique scent experience.  I became intimately acquainted with the environment by stepping outside my box, and removing the barrier.

Visit Landmarks
While you are out experiencing the plants, weather, and other-than-human-person creations in the city, visit the sites that commemorate the history and myth of the area.  These stand as temples and altars of our urban landscapes.  You might be surprised what shrines speak to you, and what places whisper your name.

Eat Local
Put into your body the produce of your bioregion.  We are what we eat– literally.

Contribute
You are part of the anthill that is your city.  Find your work; your part to play; your art; your unique offering, and Do It!  Contribute your time and energy to the activity and organization of the human city.  By getting involved, you become invested: you feel connected to others who are part of Place.

Embrace Your Humanness
Finally, relish in your humanness.  We can be pretty amazing animals.  While the countryside is the anthill  of…well, ants, the cities are our places. These wondrous works deserve our active participation.  We can make them better than we ever dreamed, but only if we engage and connect: with ourselves, the humans around us, and our other-than-human neighbors.  It’s about relationship, being present, and building sacred connection.

Go forth–be fully present in your location, and Cultivate Place!

[originally published A Sense of Place, 11/28/13]

There was a time, not so long ago, when information was shared by word of mouth.  Most of us were illiterate.  That word has such a nasty taste in the mouth now, doesn’t it?  It conjures all sorts of images, from gross ignorance to the cruel acts committed by those same ignorant individuals.  I don’t like those conjurings, so I’m going to make-up my own reference phrase (which may have been thought of already by scholars who also ponder such things).   Let’s begin again…

There was a time, not so long ago, when information was shared orally, when we were all Other minded, and animatedly literate.  We saw the world in pictures: a tapestry of sound, vision, taste, texture, all woven into a unified, and sacred, whole.  During this time, my vocal sounds blended and joined the vocal sounds of the Other animals that lived around me, along with the verbal sounds of the environmental Other: the wind, the trees, the water.

All auditory stimulation combined to communicate something to those who listened.

My ancient ancestress would have been acutely aware of the water listening to her.  The rain that fell outside the house heard her mumblings and hummings and murmurs and sighs.  The water paid attention, and knew.  The trees also.  They looked in at her, through the door opening, and heard her speak words out-loud to herself, or to her children.  They listened, and knew.  Oh, how careful was she in what she said.  How deliberate was her choice of word and phrase.  All of the animate, living World heard her.  What would they think?  What might they do?

During this time of animate literacy, information was shared from human to human by way of Story.  These beautiful mnemonic techniques, used to pass important knowledge, allowed for abundant creativity and ingenuity.  Shared around a toasty fire, over a hearty meal, they were comforting entertainment and essential reminders.  Most of the world’s indigenous population told these sacred stories—which very often involved warnings and wisdom about the natural world—during the winter.  It may seem they were told during winter for purely pragmatic purpose.  What else was there to do?  It was dark and cold and we were all indoors, under a skin flap or in a wood hut.

Ah…but why else might winter have been the time to share stories about the living world?

That world was asleep!  The tree who peeks her knowing eyes into my hut during summer, sleeps deep within her trunk in winter.  She does not hear the warnings shared about her nuts and leaves, thus the humans do not offend her.  She rests, and we respect her by not gossiping within ear shot!  Yes… I like that notion.

So, we communicate in order to share valuable information, to pass on customs, express affection, request help, process emotional pain, and pass the time.   All those are important reasons to communicate but it seems what I want to say has nothing to do with that; rather, I seem concerned with the power of our communication.  Namely, why it is vitally important to use words respectfully.  As a witch, I work with the natural world as both part and parcel.  I am the natural world.  I am one with it, and I am a component of it.  Just as I hear the Grackle whistle, perched high in our native Pecan, she likewise, hears me.  Just as I hear the south wind sing through the corridors of living buildings in downtown Austin, he likewise, hears me.

Mutual respect and strong relationship are important to my work and life as a witch, and as a human. 

I need a harmonious relationship with the elements, and all other-than-human-persons.  What in the world would the north wind think if she heard me bad-mouthing her?  My word!  She wouldn’t be any more desirous of working with me than I would if I heard a friend gossiping behind my back!  And let’s not forget the rain!  He eventually winds his way back to the ocean, and I certainly would not wish to offend Her!  A wise witch minds her words and communicates to ALL beings with respect and courtesy, never speaking more than is needed, and remembering the wisdom of the ancestors: some secrets are best woven into Story and those Stories are best shared when the world sleeps.   ssssshhhhh

[originally published A Sense of Place, 11/21/13]

Decomposition : creative commons

In Ireland,  the chthonic energy of decay is experienced as Crom Dubh, the dark, bent one who takes the grain under the ground.  He was a sacrificial god heavily associated with Lughnasadh.  In fact, while many Irish people may never have heard of the ‘festival of Lughnasadh’ (apart from the movie), they have certainly heard of Crom Dubh’s Day: Dé Domhnaigh Crum-Dubh.  This is a day of pilgrimage to the high places: a custom maintained with the yearly climb of Croagh Patrick.  More anciently, Crom was associated with sacrifice: King Tignermas offered human sacrifice, and there is a long history within antiquity of scapegoat sacrifice to underworld powers.  In more modern folk practice, Crom was the ‘old bent one’ who lived in the rings and forts, waiting to receive the Lughnasadh offering of the strangled black cock.

To understand the placing of offerings in storage pits, it is perhaps helpful to think of corn storage itself as, in a sense, a ritual or religious act, whereby the grain was given into the safe-keeping of the chthonic or underworld gods. […] The animals [or humans] which rotted in the ground, their blood and vital juices seeping into the earth, nourished the earth-gods in whose territory the pits were dug.  – Animals in Celtic Life and Myth, Miranda Green.

It’s about exchange, right order, and living in balance, so as not to draw undo attention.  The powers were never seen as playthings to be called for fun; rather, great lengths (taboos, social customs, etc) were gone to so the world of human-persons and the world of Other did not meet.

The Power, or force, of decay is also seen in urban environments.  When a building, a living structure, is no longer occupied, it is reclaimed by the force of decay.  When vines or other plants begin to grow up a structure, the force of decay rides with them.  The order we create is in constant peril, under siege from the Powers of decomposition.

Austin experienced severe flooding at Halloween this year.  People I know had water seeping into their homes.  It was a dire situation, because the Other world was coming into direct contact with the human world.  Fast action and decisive measures were taken to remove the water, and  prevent the Power of decay from getting a foot-hold: industrial fans were rented, high-powered vacuums used,  sheetrock stripped, carpets ripped up.

I spent the past weekend removing, ending the life of, tree-persons who had grown too close to the house.  Their bark touching the exterior walls—the Other world touching the human world—opening a portal for the Power of decay.  This weekend I will rake and pile fallen leaves, for this same reason.  It’s why we paint or protect wood, embalm our dead, or get plastic surgery:  we wish to slow the Power of decay.

Yet we must remember the balance.  Decay and Death are necessary parts of the whole.  We do seek to dance with them, in a fashion.  One taking the lead for a song, or two, until it is time for the Other to lead.  Sensing this natural order, the rhythm of the dance of life and death, is what a witch does.  It is what any spiritually minded person living in a society connected to the natural world does.  And when we cease to hear the rhythm, or even remember there is one.….well, that’s when we invent things like cosmetic surgery.

As I pile my leaves this weekend, adding them to the bones of the trees I cut down last week, they will be transformed into a scapegoat offering.  In my compost pile, they are offered to the Powers of decay.  An act intended to nourish the Powers of decomposition in my soil, and as a religious act of thanksgiving to the Power of Death that brings Life.