Wednesday, December 13, 2017

Pagan Advent

When I was little, we read the advent story every Christmas, even when I was a teenager.  It was something I really loved, though I had heard the story so many times.  We had a book and folding picture (with the little windows you opened every day), that had a page to read as you opened the window, so over the course of the month, you got to experience the story of Christmas.

And of course, I loved anytime we got the chocolate Advent calendars, which were definitely more Santa oriented than Christ oriented.  Most of the time those doors had images of cookies and presents, elves and reindeer...and opened to reveal a piece of chocolate in some holiday shape.

I think part of what I loved about both of these practices was that it helped pass the time before Christmas.  We weren't a hugely religious family, so while we did often attend church around the Christmas holidays (which mostly consisted of singing Christmas carols and watching the Christmas story pageant that always seemed to be presented by kids of the church we attended), our family tradition was mostly centered on presents and family time.

Following the advent calendars gave us an activity to do each day, which was just fun.  When my son was little, we looked everywhere for those chocolate advent calendars, but could never find them.  All the advent calendars I found were highly Christian, and it always made me kind of sad that there weren't other options.

I know that advent is a Christian tradition, but I think that the idea of it can be turned into something really beautiful, no matter what faith you follow.  I have seen some really lovely traditions that remind me a lot of advent, that focus on spreading out the observance of the holiday so that it isn't just one night (or morning).

One that I thought was great, especially for families with kids, was to have a variety of holiday activities (like baking cookies, making ornaments, decorating the tree), and either plan out which activity goes with which day or randomly pick each day, and then that is what you do!  I have seen a more adult version that was an 'acts of kindness' theme, where everyday there was a simple thing you could do to make someone else's life a bit nicer (like give someone a compliment, buy a cup of coffee for a stranger, stuff like that).

I also love multi-day observances through extended ritual.  I read about a really beautiful Yule practice that spread Yule into nine days:  three surrounding the solstice and then three before and after that.  It went along with honoring the rebirth of the sun, so the first three days you celebrated at dusk, sort of saying goodbye to the night, then the three around Yule were celebrated at night (possibly with an all-night vigil for Yule), and then the three after were celebrated at dawn, to welcome the sun.  I loved the poetry of this concept!

I also recently read a version that used the nine Heathen virtues (courage, truth, honor, fidelity, hospitality, discipline, industriousness, self-reliance and perseverance), and each day time was taken to meditate on the meaning of one of these, and how it applied to your life.  You could use qualities that are meaningful to your path, or ones you associate with Yule, or even focus each day on an important person in your life (and why they are so special to you).  I've seen a version of this where you dedicate each day for twelve days to different deities.  I just like the idea of taking time to really stop and think about things that are meaningful.

And, with all the holiday crazy that often goes on, I think it is also important to give ourselves some love as well.  I had this idea of twelve days of self-love (I love that it is twelve days from Yule to New Year), and ended up writing a short story about it, which you can read here:  Crystal celebrates 12 days of Yule.  I'm pretty in love with this idea...but I love opening little gifts!

Speaking of opening up little gifts, I saw a really cute Pagan advent that used a puzzle as the base.  It was for younger kids, but each day they could open up a little envelope with a single puzzle piece in it, and as time passed they would put together the whole puzzle (which of course was Yule themed).  You would want to make sure that each day's puzzle piece was one that could connect to the ones before, so that it built up every day.

With creative magic, you can work with this idea, of each day building up on the ones before, and create a magical art piece that would hold your blessings for the coming year.  You can do this as art on a page or as a sculpture.  I love the image of a tree for this work. 

For an art piece, you can either find a picture of a Yule tree (or draw one), and then every day you add a 'decoration'.  You pick something that you want to call into your life, and draw or find a picture of something that symbolizes that.  So if you want more peace, you might use a peace symbol, a picture of a dove, or someone meditating.  You can also pick a decoration (like a garland) and then choose colors based on qualities you want to call to you:  gold for prosperity, red for passion, silver for grace...whatever colors mean to you!  And you can add gifts under the tree as well!  For these, you can use actual pictures of things you want or you can use pictures of wrapped gifts, and write the things you want on the back before you add them to your picture (you can be specific, like wanting a new car, or you can be more vague, like asking for something to help you be more organized).

If you want to do this in sculpture form, you can start with a rock or other base, then build up a wire tree-form.  You can can either add leaves as part of your base, or you can write wishes on the leaves too and add them as you go along.  You can create tiny ornaments, through sculpture or tiny pictures with a string loop to hang on your tree.  You can wrap up tiny boxes filled with things you want to receive in the coming year and place them under your tree as well.  And don't forget the shining star on top!

So much focus is put on presents, on buying things for people and on that one big moment where you get to unwrap things.  And so much time is spent getting ready for that one small moment in time.  Adding advent-inspired activities, helps create a festive season that isn't only focused on one activity.  It helps remind you of the many reasons why Yule is a wonderful time of year, and can help your holidays progress smoothly (and with less impatience, especially for kids).  And it can bring deep meaning to your spiritual practice, give you a sense of sacred pause and help you take time to appreciate the many gifts in your life...not just the ones wrapped in shiny paper and tied with bows!

Wednesday, December 6, 2017

Tending the Hearth

Winter is always a time when I am thinking about home.  I love snow, and even like those mucky-grey days that often abound at this time of year, but part of my enjoyment of these days is the knowledge that I can go home, bundle up with blankets and be cozy.

I've done a lot of thinking about cozy, and really love the concept of Hygge (which is a Danish word that encompasses that energy of coziness, of being so into this moment right now that you don't want for anything)!  What I appreciate about Hygge is it's not just something that you notice in retrospection, but something that you actively seek.

When I think about tending the Hearth, I think about these ideas of Hygge and Home.  To me, Home isn't just the building you live in.  It is a sense of where you belong in the world.  Your place, the space in which you are most comfortable and most yourself.  Funny, I may live in Kentucky, but it is not my Home.  When I think of a larger place that is Home, it is still Hawaii.  But my house is Home, because I have built it to be Home.

Hearth contains the word heart, and I do think of Hearth as the heart of Home.  When thinking of a literal hearth, I think of a fire, just warm enough (but not too hot), with that lovely fire smell.  It lends that soft quality of light to the air, and you just want to sit around it and talk or stare at the flames.  It has a very laid back energy, it is accepting, but you don't feel the need to DO anything.

But in a non-physical sense, I think that hearth contains the spiritual heart of your home as well.  I struggled with hearth tending for a long time, trying to work in more spiritual and mindful cleansing (which I do feel tends the hearth and is a completely worthy thing to do).  But I have come to the realization that the heart of our homes is so much more than this.

What makes up your home?

There is the physical aspect, the house itself, the land you live on, the things in your house.  There are many different ways to tend to these, not only of course making sure things are tidy and clean, but also that they fit you.  From big things like the style of your house (some people like wide-open floor plans while others prefer lots of smaller and separate spaces) to the smallest details (like the type of silverware you use), the more things in your house that are aligned to your own personal style, the more of a home it will be.

We tend to not really think about this kind of thing, because we picked all our stuff right?  But did we really?  There are so many things that we compromise on, because we have to.  We may not have the money to live in the house we really want.  We may be renting, and not able to modify our house in ways we might like.  While some of this may remain out of our control, we can often make different changes, thinking outside the box, to help create the atmosphere that we want.

If you have a smaller house, but long for more open spaces, look for ways to make the space feel bigger.  Mirrors, pictures of natural spaces, colors of your furniture....these all change how open a room feels.  If you can't change the colors of your walls, you might find curtains or wall-hangings that can act as a color change for your room.

We also tend to accept gifts and then feel obligated to use them..and to continue using them until they are literally no longer usable.  Some things we might have also inherited, either when we moved out on our own (and family or friends gave us things for our first place) or when someone passed on (and now you feel obligated because it is a heirloom).  We may not actively dislike the items in question, but we also may not love them.

Think really long and hard about how much it is worth it to you to keep items you don't love, versus how much it would cost you to admit that they just aren't your style.  Perhaps you can find someone appropriate to pass the items along to, replacing them with things that really bring you joy.

There is a Japanese philosophy of minimalism that suggests we should only keep things that spark joy in our lives.  Yes, this extends to everything:  technology, books, clothes, display items...consumables!  This was a thought that was very hard for me to wrap my head around, but I think I'm starting to get a picture of it.  I will never be a minimalist, I am delighted by too many things, but thinking about a life where every thing I interacted with in a day was something I loved....that has a certain appeal to it!

And why not?  There is no rule that says that useful things can't also be fun.  In fact, I think that making useful things fun is a great way to make normally tedious tasks less onerous.  I have had a string of bells on my bright red kitchen broom for over a year now.  I don't like cleaning.  But I can't help but smile when I sweep and the bells tinkle (and hubby complains good-naturedly about the bells...)  I may not like cleaning, but my broom definitely brings me joy!

Beyond the physical, our home is also the people who live in it.  So tending the hearth, taking care of the heart of our home, includes doing our best to make sure all the beings in our house are happy, well and taken care of.  Not just the people.  Not just the physical.  I definitely feel that our houses have spirits.  If you are in an old home, it may be a spirit that has built up over generations, molded by all the people who have lived there.  But even if you are living in a brand new house, there is a spirit there that will be influenced by how you treat the house and the other occupants in it.

There are many ways to interact with your house spirit.  Some people like creating an altar to the house spirit, leaving offerings and such there.  I often talk to mine, especially when cleansing.  I like to ask it to watch over us.  I definitely do this when we leave for a vacation!

Tending the house spirit covers most of what I used to consider hearth magic.  When I light a candle just to send that energy to my home or when I burn incense outside of a specific ritual or spell, I see these things as feeding the house spirit.  I definitely think it's a good idea to check in with your house spirit anytime things feel off in the house.  I also work with my house spirit whenever there is a traumatic event or sickness in the house, to set our house energy back to normal.

I think that working with the spirits of your land is sort of an extension of working with the house spirits, especially if you have a decent amount of personal land.  Being in an apartment, we don't, we have a tiny patch of plants and rocks in front of our door. But our neighbor keeps a big, open field out back, which is what our back door window overlooks.  I feel connected to this land, I often sit on our little back porch and sing to the field.  If I am going to work outside, it's almost always out back.

I share my house with hubby, son and three cats.  Actually, one of the cats spawned my recent change of thoughts on hearth tending.  I was sitting in my living room, meditating on what to do to tend the hearth, as that was my weekly project (and sort of monthly project, though I wasn't doing so well on it), and one of our cats wouldn't leave me alone.  She was very lovey, and not just asking to be pet, but sort of tripping and sliding all over my lap!

Which made me laugh, as I kept stopping to pet her.  But I realized that spending time and focusing on her and giving her attention fed into the feeling of Home that I was trying to tend!  I get a similar feeling when I give hubby a foot massage after he has had a long day at work, or when I do something special for our son. 

And let's not forget self-care!  When we tend the heart, we need to make sure we are taking care of the needs of all the beings in the house, which includes yourself.  This is where I cycle back to Hygge, and making sure I not only take time to do things I enjoy, but to really set time aside for them.  I love to read, and I often read while doing other things (like eating or waiting on food to cook), but that is a very different activity from curling up under a blanket and giving myself permission to just sit and read.

Winter is a time to slow down, to turn inward and to tend our fires.  We can get so busy running around with holiday parties, gift giving and other obligations, it is easy to get frazzled and overwhelmed.  When we tend our hearth, we take time to make sure that not only is our home a sanctuary, but that we are giving ourselves time and room to enjoy that sanctuary...before we crash and burn!

Wednesday, November 29, 2017

Thrifty Magic

One of the things that was very intimidating to me, when I was first starting out, was the sheer amount of supplies that most books suggested you wanted.  Sure, at first it didn't seem bad:  a blade, a wand, a cup and a pentacle, some candles and incense.  But then there every ritual and spell had it's own shopping list of things:  herbs, stones, special candles, other ingredients.  By the time all was said and done, you needed a fully stocked magical cabinet to get anything done!

And not only did you need to have these things, but many times you were subtly admonished if they weren't top shelf.  Your herbs 'should' be gathered by hand, or you had to make sure they were procured under proper, organic, humane circumstances (from ethical locations...).  Everything was better when hand-made, but if you weren't dipping your own candles, you should be charging and oiling them, inscribing them with your intent, rolling them in herbs and stones.  You should mix your own incense, from the dozens of herbs you should keep in stock, and burning it on an open fire or charcoal.  You should offer up the best alcohol and fancy home-made breads or other ornate treats.

Not only did this build the expectation of lots of expensive, specialty supplies, but you now had to have space to store them all!  And there is this very romantic image of antique bottles with hand-written labels in pretty (or arcane) script.  Huge altars that could be left set up, with whatever you are working on out and available at all times.  Bundles of herbs hanging from your ceiling, tables of stones laid out every full moon, bottles of assorted waters always on hand.

Don't get me wrong, this is like the ultimate fantasy set up for me.  I would love to have a cute little witchy cottage, devoted to nothing but my craft.  With a wood-fire kitchen, and lots of storage for all kinds of herbs and other ingredients.  Enough shelves for all my books (and all the books I wished I owned...).  A beautiful wooden or stone altar, preferably with lots of storage above it so all my tools were there at hand AND I still had plenty of working space to actually work on.  Lovely art bedecking the walls and statues and stones scattered about so the whole place was a work of art.

But I don't have a magical witchy cottage.  I don't have a lot of dedicated space at all.  Most of my herbs come from the kitchen spice cabinet, in large plastic containers we bought in bulk for the best price.  My stones are kept in a re-purposed toy box, with many plastic partitions originally meant to hold little cars.  Most of my magical notebooks are cheap composition books or three-ring binders that used to hold school work. 

I really don't have a budget for magical supplies.  When I work, I try to find things I already have, that can be used for a magical purpose.  The bulk of my magical shopping is done at dollar stores, thrift stores and the grocery store.  And even then sometimes I struggle to find things that I need (it's seriously sad when I have a hard time finding an orange.....yes a single orange!)

I am glad this is an attitude that seems to be changing though I think we still have a long way to go.  I have seen it said many times, when it comes to deity offerings, that if you don't have anything else, pure water will do.  But I still think that implies that you 'should' be offering up other things.

It sort of reminds me of hosting etiquette.  If you have guests over, you put out the good china and you give them the best of what you have.  You save the odds and ends for yourself, because you want to be a good host.  On the flip side, if you are a guest, you walk the fine line of not wanting to put your host out, so you offer to help or to make things easier for them.  You don't automatically take their bed and drink all their beer!

When it comes to offerings, I think that I like the idea of shared meal better.  If I am inviting people to come to my house for dinner, I expect that I will make food and we will all eat it.  I don't plan on cooking one meal for guests and one for myself.  I think this applies well to offerings.  If I am eating a meal, and want to make an offering...I can offer up some of what I have.  I also like the 'spirits eat the spiritual essence of a thing, not the physical thing', so I feel that you can offer up your food, and still eat it.  Sort of like dedicating your meal to a deity, and then enjoying it as a symbol of how you would like them to receive it.  And, just like you might make a special meal for a special occasion, you can make more elaborate or meaningful offerings for special occasions as well.

With magical workings, I don't think that our tools and supplies need to be top shelf necessarily.  I think that a perception of quality can definitely enhance a working, and for some things it can be a distinct boon.  Using something that represents extravagance to you could make a prosperity blessing more potent.  Likewise, using your last of a thing as part of a working to either help people who have nothing or to ward against loss brings a specific kind of energy.

For everyday things though, I take the upcycling approach.  I prefer to use things that may have already been used.  I also like using my ritual leavings for other things, whether it is a future ritual or a house decoration.  I recently was making some Florida Water, and the bits I strained out of the bottle were so lovely smelling, I knew I didn't want to just toss them.  I dried them out (so they wouldn't grow mold), and will be making a sachet or decorative bundle out of them, which will probably go on my desk where I can smell it.  I will be using some old fabric that I have saved, from favorite clothes that were no longer fit to be worn.

That is something that I love doing:  saving favorite things that no longer serve their intended purpose and finding some way to use them for something new.  I have lots of clothes that I adore, but when they get too many holes or need replaced, I hate to just throw them away.  If it is something that has simply been outgrown and could be used by someone else, I'll donate it, but if it is really not usable, I try to save as much as I can for future use.  I love using fabric like that for magical workings, because I can draw upon that energy and emotion that is already infused in the cloth!

I'm also a sucker for interesting containers.  I hate throwing old jars out.  Because I love to save lots of old things, I also need lots of ways to store them (because I much prefer to be organized).  While I can (and do) use any sort of container (the number of coffee cans in this house....), it is more fun when they are pretty or interesting, and can be decorative as well as useful! 

There is a balance to be found here, as in most things.  I don't want to get so caught up in the reuse mentality that I am unwilling to give my faith and my craft priority.  In a pinch, I will use what ever I have, whatever is necessary, but if I have the luxury of being able to actually get the right stuff, then I want to honor my self and my deities and do so.  I also don't want to become a hoarder!  I frequently (way more often than hubby thinks I do) go through my stashes and really ask myself what I'm saving them for.  If I can consolidate, I do.

With old clothes, this sometimes means cutting away the unusable parts (like the seams) and just saving the big, usable pieces (and buttons!).  With magazines, I have been trying to flip through them, and clip images and words I might use, and then accept that it is more important to let the rest go than to hold onto them in the off chance I need something else that I didn't see. 

But the biggest thing for me is owning my own practice.  I may not have all the fancy supplies, but I have some.  I often use what I have on hand, partially because I don't have the money to buy new supplies, but also partially because I want to upcycle things so they don't just get trashed after one use.  My practice has to be something that fits my life, something that I can live with, without feeling guilty.  I would rather offer up a heart-felt prayer, than bury a twenty dollar bill while feeling resentful at it's loss. 

I believe, very strongly, that both faith and magic require pure intent.  If you aren't fully behind the actions you are taking, that will effect the results.  Being honest with yourself, really knowing how you feel about things, is the first step in building a working practice.  Learning what your relationship to money is, and how it effects the different areas of your life, can bring a huge shift in how you approach the things you do.  There is no wrong way, only what is wrong for you!

Wednesday, November 22, 2017

Mindful Holiday Celebration

As an American, I am preparing for Thanksgiving.  On the surface, this is a holiday that seems quite simple:  we make a big meal, eat it with friends and family and honor the things we are grateful for.  But there are a lot of factors that complicate this holiday.

Firstly, it has some skeletons in the closet.  If you grew up in America, you were told the story every year about how the Indians and the Pilgrims sat down together for a big feast.  You were shown pictures of happy people, each culture on it's side of the table, which was laden with food.  I even remember being told that the Pilgrims were getting hungry, as it was nearing winter and they hadn't been able to get enough food, so the Native Americans saw they were in need and invited them to their feast.

With a little bit of digging, this story pretty much falls apart.  There are many different stories for where the roots of Thanksgiving originate, from an all out slaughter of native peoples, to a reformation of church holidays, to a harvest festival.  While Thanksgiving may only be commonly celebrated in a few countries, harvest festivals and celebrations of Thankfulness are much more common.

So, how do we go forward, celebrating a holiday with such a beautiful sentiment, when it is built on a lie (and potentially flat out slaughter)?  I think it is important to be aware of where our past lies, and to acknowledge the things that have happened in the past, but I also think that we shouldn't be shackled by the things our ancestors have done.  I feel we can take the spirit of a holiday and move forward with it.  For me, Thanksgiving is about being aware of the bounty in my life and being appreciative of all of the blessings I have.

Thanksgiving is a fairly traditional 'family' holiday.  While there are definitely other holidays that bring families together, Thanksgiving is pretty family-centric.  This can be problematic for many people who don't get along with or are estranged from their family.  In fact, this has led to a counter-holiday known as Friendsgiving.  Let me just say right here....I hate the name Friendsgiving!  I am a firm believe that family is who you make it....and friends can be family.  Thanksgiving might have originated as a family dinner, but most families also used to eat family dinner every night.  Thanksgiving was a bigger dinner, with more extended relatives invited, but it was also expected that people would more or less be civilized.  I don't think some families remember that, and family gatherings can be a time to bring up every slight or argument that has ever happened.

This is very much not in the spirit of Thanksgiving!  I really dislike the idea of compelled family events.  They say that you have to love your family...but you really don't.  If your family is horrible, abusive, distant or otherwise not a positive influence in your life, you are not obligated to them in any way....dinner or otherwise!  With all the focus on self-care lately, I think it's funny that many people don't make the connection that sometimes it is absolutely the best thing to do to not subject yourself to a toxic family environment.

Of course, it's not always as clear cut and simple as that.  Sometimes, we may love part of our family, but we have those one or two people who go out of their way to give us grief.  We may need to talk to the other people in our family, and make sure they are aware of the situation.  We may have to set firm boundaries:  either everyone is civil and polite, or I can't come.  If it is more than just words, if someone has caused you harm (physical, mental, emotional), you may need to make it clear that if they are attending, you won't be able to come.

I also think that more and more people don't live near their family.  We may not be able to spend holidays with our family, and yet we yearn for that closeness and community.  By all means, celebrate with your friends (just please, do we need to have silly words for it?).  When I was a teen, I had a lot of friends in the military.  None of them were near their families, and for many it would be the first year they weren't home for the holidays.  Some got to go home on leave, but some didn't.  I remember I was always allowed to invite one or two home with me for holiday dinners.  My mom didn't want people to have no where to go.

With Thanksgiving, more than any other holiday, commercialism has been trying to interfere in our holiday celebrations.  Sure, Christmas may be a bigger consumer holiday, because everyone is driven to buy more and for more people, but Thanksgiving is the one where the actual main part of the holiday (the big dinner on Thursday) is being ruined by sales and stores that are offering crazy deals and prices to lure you away from your family, away from your holiday and out into the stores.

I detest Black Friday now.  And I am a huge bargain shopper.  I love shopping, whether or not I have money.  I just like wandering around stores looking at stuff!  When I find things on sale, that is exciting to me.  The idea of Black Friday sales, even if you have to stay up to get the best deals at 12:01, has a certain appeal.  I have done it, several years back, and it definitely gave me that thrill of the hunt feeling.

What I abhor (big hateful words....this really upsets me) is that the sales are creeping further and further.  I saw advertisements for 'Black Friday' sales that started on Monday.  It makes me want to scream out loud!  It's called Black FRIDAY...that means it should be on the Friday after Thanksgiving.  And as much as the whole-week sales make me twitch, it's the ones that happen in the afternoon/evening of Thanksgiving day that really piss me off.

For most holidays, the stores are closed during the actual holiday.  Some select 'basic necessity' stores and of course things like emergency services are open during holidays, but almost everything else is closed out of respect for the workers and their desire to be home with their own families and enjoying the holiday.

Then there is Thanksgiving.  More and more stores are open all day Thanksgiving.  Not only does that mean that all the workers can't be celebrating the holiday, but it also means they expect everyone else to come and shop during the holiday as well.  It creates this sense of priority, as if shopping and saving money is more important than spending time with your loved ones.  And what makes it even worse, is the holiday effected is Thanksgiving...the one where we are literally giving thanks for our bounty.

In a perfect world, people would protest this incursion on our holiday, and they would stay home, and actually focus on what is important.  I understand that sometimes the sales mean the difference between getting that gift that you really want to give someone or not being able to afford it.  Trust me, I absolutely get trying to get the most out of your money.

But, I think this Black Friday thing is representative of a much bigger problem in our society.  We have shifted our focus from caring for each other and building meaningful relationships to buying other peoples affection.  We put so much importance on social status:  who has the most likes, who's gift costs the most, who gave the most presents...that we forget that it's not about all of that.  Why do we give gifts?  It's not because people need things.  Of course, we all need things, but most presents are things we want.  We give gifts because we want to show the people in our lives that they are important to us.

And we have become too busy to slow down and see that spending time with someone is a precious gift.  It is the most precious gift we can give!  We have a finite amount of time, and being able to stop, to really focus on connecting with another person, that is amazing! 

I am not opposed to gifts.  I love to give and receive gifts!  I'm not opposed to buying gifts!  I enjoy making things, but I also know not everyone does.  A truly thoughtful gift, whether bought or made, isn't a great gift because it was expensive, but because it represents how you feel.  It is a physical manifestation of what you feel for another person, that you are gifting them with, so they can know how much you mean to them. 

This is why I think it is so important to be mindful about our holidays!  When we take a step back from the bustle, the rush to get all the foods read, the desire to buy all the gifts at the lowest price, the need to please our family even when it makes us miserable, we find the holidays can be truly magical.

I love holidays.  They are a step out of everyday normal life.  We don't always do huge things, but we do things that are uniquely US!  We aren't doing turkey, but we have a nice dinner planned.  We will probably watch a movie.  It will be a simple thing, but it will be what make us happy, what brings us together as a family.

So I encourage you to take a pause this holiday season.  Stop for just a moment, take a big breath, and think about what is really important to you.  What would make your holidays absolutely perfect?  Look beneath the presents under the tree and think about what memories you want to create.  Consider all the things you do in preparation of the holidays.  Are there things that you don't even enjoy, that you could let go of to make your holidays better?  Think about little ways you can make the season better for all the people you care about, and all the people you encounter.  If we all focused on what was truly important...think about how wonderful this time of year could be!

Wednesday, November 15, 2017

Veterans and Guardians

Veteran's Day is one of those holidays that has the potential to frustrate me.  In some ways, it reminds me of Valentine's Day.   So many people treat it as a one-off holiday, that one day a year when you say, think and do all of the things you should really be doing throughout the year.  It's not that we have a special day for these things, it's that sometimes I think people think that recognizing Veterans on this one day is enough.

I grew up an Army was a big part of my self-identification as a child.  My dad was Army, and it definitely shaped our lives.  We moved frequently, he would take trips, and while he wasn't engaged in active combat I still lived with the knowledge that if our country were to go to war, he would ship out.

I think this is what makes it extra frustrating to me, when I see veteran issues ignored all year long, then on Veteran's day everyone posts a 'thank you Vetarans' meme or status.  I think that if we, as a country, truly valued our veterans and what they have done for us, what they had to go through and what many of them are still going through, we wouldn't treat them the way we do.

We do have some fantastic programs for veterans and for ex-military.  But I also think that sometimes it's just not enough.  We take for granted all of the freedoms and advantages we have, that often were won through blood.  And even our military who haven't seen combat, train with the knowledge that they could.  They face that every time they put on the uniform.

I fully support celebrating Veteran's day.  I love to see people acknowledging their Veterans and the many other Veterans who they may not know, but still want to thank for their service.  And even if you don't personally know anyone who has served, keep our military in mind throughout the year, not just on this one day.

Last year, while picking up a friend from dialysis, there was a basket of little plastic soldiers out, with the invitation to take one and stick it in your house, as a reminder of all the soldiers who work to protect out country, and thus our homes and way of life.  I picked one up, because I thought it was such a lovely idea...and that little soldier has ridden in my purse since then.  It's a wonder I haven't stabbed myself on his gun while reaching into my purse!

The little plastic soldier reminded me of guardian spirits.  I have a gargoyle statue that is a house guardian.  He sits on my bookshelf, where he can see our front door, to protect our house and all who are within it's walls.  And I think this is a lovely idea with the soldier.

For me, it is a two-fold guardian.  Not only can I work with the spirit of the soldier, the ones who sacrifice to protect us all, but every time I see it, I can think of our soldiers who are out training and fighting for us, and I can say a prayer for them.  I fully believe that mindfulness changes us, and being reminded of our soldiers keeps their sacrifices fresh in our minds, that we may never forget what they give up for us.

Because it's not just about the soldiers who die, though of course they have sacrificed!  But there are also all the soldiers who come back hurt, missing limbs, broken in body.  And the ones who are forever changed, haunted by the things they saw and did, the ones who are broken in mind and spirit.  Some soldiers never transition back into civilian life, and either find a way to stay in a career that lets them be in that warrior mindset or they drift, unable to settle into what we would consider a normal life.

And it's also the soldiers who never see combat, but sacrifice time with their families to train and become ready should we need them.  It's the families who don't see their loved ones.  Even the ones who serve in the National Guard or reserves, sacrifice their free time to train in case we need more soldiers than we thought we did.

Pagan's take on many causes in their practices and work.  We often champion peace and harmony, and many object to war.  And while these are absolutely wonderful goals, and perhaps someday we will evolve as a society to not need soldiers, right now we don't live in that world. 

It makes me horribly sad anytime I see people speaking out or taking action against our actual soldiers, in the name of promoting peace or protesting war.  These are the people who are literally putting their lives on the line for us!  If you don't support war, protest the politicians who create situations that encourage war, or who aren't willing to compromise or look for other solutions.  Work for peace, but honor the people who defend us when we need protection.  Whether we agree with any particular conflict, I think that it is important to remember that our soldiers don't get a choice in what fights they participate in.  They sign up to serve and protect the country, and they go where they are told.  If a specific fight isn't one you agree with, don't forget that the soldiers who are fighting and dying in that battle may agree with you...but they still are doing their job.

There are also many things you can do, to support our soldiers, that have real benefits for the people who are serving or who have served.  Of course, there are many organizations that support Veterans or the military, and you can donate to a cause that you agree with.  There are also places that provide services for our Veterans, and you can find out what they might need in terms of other donations, or volunteer your time to help out.

Another thing that you can do is send a care package or become a pen pal.  Our soldiers are away from their homes, their family and their friends.  While they know what they are fighting for, it is very different to know that in a theoretical sense and to have an actual person conversing with them, and letting them know they are being thought of and appreciated. 

With social media, it is also possible to connect with Pagans in the military.  I knew quite a few military Pagans, and it brings a particular set of challenges.  For many people, their faith is a source of comfort and strength, and while the regulations in the military have been expanded to allow for more expressions of faith, there are many things that are still quite restrictive.

To start with, you don't have a lot of stuff, even when you are here in the states serving a normal, non-combat tour.  Most of the Pagan's I know like their stuff, and speaking for myself, when thinking about what I will take with me on a trip, I always feel like I am slightly ungrounded, because I know I won't have access to the bulk of my things, whether it is books, tools or general supplies.

Some of our tools are also just not really allowed in many situations.  Blades are the first that come to mind, though incense/candles might also be restricted.  In some ways, this is similar to the struggles facing students, when considering how to practice in a dorm room.  But it amplifies the feelings of being alone and not being able to turn to the practices of your faith as you are used to doing them to find comfort.

Living in the barracks also means very little privacy.  This is a huge struggle for many Pagans who are still not comfortable sharing their believes or practicing in a place where other people can walk in on them.  Some may not be out at all, and trying to maintain any sort of practice in those circumstances without other people becoming aware of what you are doing would be extremely hard.

And this isn't even considering actual deployment.  Now you are in a high stress situation, possibly further away from home than you have ever been, and you may not be able to bring with you even some of the things you had in the barracks.  While many Pagans do practice without tools, most of us still have stuff that we use, even simple things like candles, small offerings, herbs or stones...that a soldier may not have access to.

With all of that, think about how receiving a letter from someone who understands would feel!  There is something really magical about receiving something in the mail (something that isn't junk or bills!), and now, not only are they getting a letter, but one from someone who may share beliefs that no one around them does.

Ultimately, I think that there are many ways to honor and appreciate our Veterans.  We all benefit from their service, and it would be good to remember and act upon this the whole year round, not just one day a year.  Celebrate Veteran's Day, but celebrate it as the cherry on top of a beautiful cake...not as the cake itself.

Wednesday, November 8, 2017

Gratitude Expanded

I'm coming to learn that I'm really bad with gratitude practices.  It's not that I'm not grateful, I just haven't found the right way to work a proper gratitude practice into my daily routine. 

There are many reasons to work with a gratitude practice.  It helps you focus on all the good and wonderful things in your life:  all the things you are grateful for!  By spending time and energy thinking about these things, you are calling more of them into your life.  The more time you spend thinking about something, the more your subconscious mind understands that these are the things that are important to you, and these are the things it should be helping you work towards.

I can definitely use more of the things I am grateful for in my life, but more importantly for me, the more time I am spending thinking about things I love and want more of in my life, the less time I am spending obsessing about bad things happening.  This is something I really struggle with, if my mind is going to wander, most times it goes to worst case scenario options.  Breaking free from those thought trains can be a huge struggle for me.

A gratitude practice can also help wake you up, and this is also something that would be very helpful for me.  Sometimes, it feels like my days are just running together, that I do the same thing over and over.  It feels monotonous, and tedious and I can get into a place where I just want to crawl back into bed and forget about everything.  Stopping and making myself think about, articulate and list things that are in my life (not just things I wish were in my life...) and why they make me happy or grateful can help lift me out of that feeling that nothing matters.

I also find that thinking about doing things I enjoy is infectious!  If I think about a great author I love, I want to read their books.  If I think about a great show that always moves me, I want to go watch it.  If I think about games that are super fun, I want to go play them.  It gives me a direction, a focus, and a desire to get up and actually go do things (that bring me joy).

Two years ago, I did a gratitude sharing project on Facebook.  Every week, for a year, I posted a topic, something for people to share something they were grateful for.  It was a fantastic experience, and I have many fond memories that grew out of it.  There is something very powerful in sharing our gratitude.

There are a couple of things that seem to stop me from keeping up with a gratitude practice, but the main one is timing.  I haven't found the right time for me to work on gratitude.  I've seen a lot of suggestions for both starting your day and ending it with gratitude.  I have this beautiful journal I set aside for gratitude, so that I could write all the things I was grateful for in it, and read back through it when I needed a lift.  And I had every intention of writing three things in it every night.

Turns out every night just doesn't work for me.  I am, by nature, a night owl, but I am also sometimes just mentally done by the time dinner rolls around.  So most nights, my evenings are spent doing easy, relaxing things.  And even though I know I require eight hours of sleep, I don't really want to go to bed when it's time, so having things I feel I need to do before bed, just makes bedtime feel even earlier!

Mornings aren't really great for me either.  I'm definitely not a morning person, and when I first wake up, I rarely want to do things.  Which is highly ironic, because the earlier I do things, the more productive I am!  If I put things off until after lunch, there is a pretty decent chance they won't get done.  But, trying to be in the right mindset for gratitude when I first wake (or morning pages of any kind), hasn't even been something I've attempted.

I also know a lot of people do their gratitude as part of their prayers or meditations.  This is actually something I haven't tried, and I'm not really sure why not.  I tend to tack a lot of things onto my morning and evening practice (which revolves around meditation), and this might be something I need to seriously look into.  The only downside I see is that I kind of really like having a physical record of my gratitude.

Speaking of which, even though I have the fancy, lovely journal, I also started gratitude pages in my calendar this year, since I'm doing a whole fancy bullet journal inspired thing.  Every month, when I do my monthly divination and add in the monthly calendar page and list my tasks for the month, I also draw up a gratitude page.  They aren't super fancy, just a crayon sketch, something themed for the month or season, with enough spaces to jot down a gratitude for every day of the month.

Flipping back through my book, I was pretty good for the first six months this year.  I know that I missed some days in there, but when I did, I went back in and filled in the blanks by the end of the month.  Then, I just sort of fell completely off the wagon.  Though there aren't any months with no gratitudes written, these final six months tend to have only a couple of entries.

This goes back to not being good at doing things in the evening, which is when I was typically adding my daily gratitude.  I started off checking in with my calendar before bed, ticking off anything I had done but not marked off yet, and adding my gratitude.  But I think because I am not going to actually do anything else when I get to my final check, I have just been avoiding it.  As much as I love seeing the little boxes ticked off, when they aren't, it makes me feel a little guilty (especially if I know I was just messing around all day, not legitimately busy with other things).

I recently read another blog, that gave a little twist on the standard gratitude practice.  (You can read the full post here:  My Morning Ritual)  What I found really neat about this is she takes the struggles and challenges in life and turns them into things to be grateful for!  This is a sentiment I have always loved, and have sort of based my life on.

I am who I am, not because of the many blessings in my life (though of course those have impacted who I am), but because of the obstacles I have overcome.  I measure myself in growth and stubbornness, not in things I'm innately good at.  When I think about the bits of myself that I am most proud of, it is the ones I have worked so very hard to achieve, not the things that have fallen into my lap.

I think it is important to look at both sides of gratitude!  To appreciate and honor the things we have received, the gifts we are born with and the fortune that finds us and surprises us with bounty unexpected.  But I also think it is important to recognize and be thankful for every rock that his tripped us...and forced us to pick ourselves back up.  For the pain that drove us to become stronger.  For the tears we cried, and the times our heart broke, and the way that those experiences made us appreciate each breath we take.  For those we have lost and the memories we retain of them.

It is so very easy to take our lives for granted.  Sometimes, we muddle through, not really even awake to what is going on around us.  We may find ourselves shocked into awareness by some great change, whether it is a boon or a bane.  Finding our gratitude, looking for what we have gained and what we have lost and how that impacts our lives, that is what makes us truly alive. 

I think we can all gain from spending some time working with the concept of gratitude.  We are approaching, what for many Americans, is the season of giving thanks.  And yet, for many, this means may not mean more saying what we are thankful for, right before dinner, one night a year.  We may not even really think about what we are saying, we may speak the words and not really let them move us.  But we should be moved, for our lives are fabulous things, in all their glitter and grime and glory. 

So, in this time of thanks, let us truly uncover what we are grateful for.  Let us learn to see the gratitude in every day, and to express that in ways that build us up when we are low.  Let us bind together, and share what we are grateful for, so that the people who touch our lives know how dearly we hold them to us.  Let us whisper our thanks at night, to the stars and the moon and the divinity both within and without, for all the things that we aren't yet ready to give thanks for out loud.  But let your heart be thankful, let your mind embrace the gratitude, and claim the blessings of your life.

Wednesday, November 1, 2017

Time to Reassess!

It's Daylight savings time again.  Okay, not quite, at least for us Americans, though our European friends changed over last weekend.  As much hassle as Daylight savings time is, I do find that it causes me to stop and pay attention.  I've blogged about daylight savings time before, and was trying to think of what I could write about this time that would be a little different.

What occurred to me is that there are plenty of thoughts I have about time, our perception of it and how we can react to the gain or loss of an hour, but I also think that just the fact that we have to stop and think about time can be a little bit of a wake up call.  The amount of light we get when we wake and around dinner time changes so gradually, and then Daylight savings comes around and all of a sudden the world around us has changed, seemingly overnight.  It always feels like a little bit of a shock, when I open the window for the first time after a time change, and it's more or less light out than I'm used to. 

This is like so many other things in our lives, where we can have these little gradual changes, and not even notice them.  We may be working towards a goal and feel like we are just running in place.  It's only when we stop, and look at where we were when we started, that we realize we have actually traveled some distance!  On the flip side, we may feel like we are doing everything the same way that we always have, and yet when we look up we realize that we've let little things slip through our fingertips and we have fallen behind from where we  want to be.

It is always a good idea to reassess and re-evaluate where we are in life, not only in relation to the things we are actively working towards, but also just our state in general.  And while many of us do this at the New Year, when it is traditional to check in and to set resolutions, we really need to do this more than once a year.  A year is a very long time, and habits are hard to break.  When we start to slip, the quicker we can catch ourselves, the less catching up we will have to do.

Also, when we are starting to feel frustrated, it is a perfect time to check in, to see where we actually stand.  This can help us to keep going, when we might have started to give up.  It can feel absolutely fruitless to keep beating your head against a wall, if you feel you aren't going anywhere, and yet, each time you do something, a tiny piece of you changes.  Those tiny changes add up over time, even if you can't see it in the moment.

There are lots of ways to assess your life, to look around and see where you are at.  But the biggest factor in all of them is you have to really be honest with yourself, about both the good and the bad.  I can sometimes have trouble seeing the good in myself, and seeing my own progress is something that is hard for me at times.  I am much more likely to just feel frustrated and at a loss.

For me, being very specific helps.  If I just think about how I am doing in a certain area, and let myself respond with broad generalizations like "good/bad", it is very easy to not see the changes that are happening.  Instead, if I make myself grade on a scale (whether it is 1-10, a detailed emotional scale of how I feel about that aspect of my life, or even a percentage representing how far along I am from start to finish on a particular goal), I am more likely to actually think about how things have changed.  And even more so when I have to explain my answer!  When I ask myself why I think I'm at a particular place, or why I think I haven't grown or changed, I have to justify my own evaluation.  And sometimes, when I'm doing that, I realize that I have changed in ways I hadn't noticed.

Life is tricky, it's not all black and white.  There are so many factors that determine our progress along the way.  And sometimes we look at where we want to be and we realize we haven't been walking that way in a very long time.  Not because we aren't motivated or are doing a bad job, but because we have found something else that we want more.  Our direction has changed, but we are still judging our success based on how far we are from our original destination.  When we stop and see where we actually want to go, we may find that we have gone so much farther than we thought we had.

I think it's also helpful to look around us and see what unexpected benefits have come from our progress.  Our actions have ripples, and when we have our eyes trained on our goal, we may not see all the extra things that we have gained along the way. 

I have done some really big writing projects over the years, not only NaNo (which is always intense!), but also my moon phase year, and now my Patreon story series.  It is very easy for me to feel caught in this endless grind.  Each month there is another goal, another deadline, another thing to finish up, and yet it sometimes feels like it never ends!  Because as soon as one is 'finished' I have to start thinking about the next one.

We all have things in our lives that are like this, whether it is a job thing, a home thing, or a personal thing.  Every day we have things that we grind away at, things we do over and over, and things that never end.  Instead of focusing on how we have to pick up that burden again, stop and take a moment and look around and see what else has come to pass because of the work you are doing!

For me, it is a body of work that I can now draw upon.  I have had plans on publishing for a while, and through NaNo I have several projects that could be polished up and published.  I have more that will never be published, and some were never intended to be.  But even from those, I gained experiences that have changed how I write and how I approach writing (and even how I approach other tasks based on what I learned while writing).  My moon phase project was never intended to be more than just a personal project that I decided to share on Facebook, and now I am thinking of compiling it and editing it and publishing it as a year's journey through the moons.

Even my Patreon stories, working on writing one a month, at the end of a year, have left me with content that could be combined into a story book.  And a lot of lessons about how to create continually, how to create when I am not feeling creative, and how hard I can push myself, when I need to (thank you NaNo for the start of that one).

We all need a little encouragement, from time to time.  We all need to stop, take a breath, look around and take stock.  We need to acknowledge how far we have come and all the extra things we have picked up along the way.  We may need to change our goal, or accept that our goal changed without us even being aware of it!  And we need to do these things regularly, before they have bogged us down and become obstacles we have to overcome to get back on track.