Wednesday, December 27, 2017

Holiday Recovery

I always feel the time from about mid-October until after New Year is just one holiday after another.  It's a full on holiday season, and sometimes it feels never-ending.  Holiday season can be highly stressful, for many reasons.  We are often going from event to event, dealing with family, more expenses (from food alone...then presents), and just so much more busy than other times of the year.

Then there is the weather.  We are at a time of lower light, and this effects so much of our lives.  Not only do the days feel shorter (even with electric lights), but we get less sunlight, which is an actual vitamin (Vitamin D).  The effects of light also effect our sleep, which can effect our health.  It is no wonder this is a season of cold and flu as well!

Many people are starting to become more aware of the toll of the holidays on us, and are being more careful with their self-care and boundaries at this time of year.  We are saying no to more things, in a healthy way, so that we aren't overextending ourselves.  But even with healthy boundaries, as the holiday season winds to a close, we may still find ourselves depleted.

We are in a bit lull right now, Christmas and Yule are over, and New Year isn't here yet.  It's a small breath before that last hurrah.  Many people still treat New Year as the party to end all parties, and go to extremes they wouldn't consider the rest of the year. 

For me personally, my parent's are coming to visit for about a week, starting tomorrow.  I love my family, and I feel very lucky that we are on good terms.  But they are still my parents, and we don't always agree on everything.  This will always cause me some amount of stress, because I want everyone to be happy.  I don't like conflict, and I always feel like there will be some.

But I am also looking forward to their visit, as I haven't seen them in a few years.  This will be the last year my son will be living at home too, so sort of a last family holiday before our relationships change.  They mentioned wanting to do tourist stuff, so I figure we will be pretty busy while they are here, which is always a little taxing too (we aren't typically 'go out and do stuff all the time' sort of people).

So, even though my holiday season isn't over, I'm already thinking about ways to nourish myself, to recover from this holiday season and get back on track.

I think people tend to get into certain habits, which can be hard to break.  When you have been gearing up for the holidays for so long, working hard to make sure everything gets done on time, with lists and lists of things to do, it can be hard to get out of that 'must keep moving' mindset and actually slow back down.

I feel like this is part of why people rush headlong towards New Year Resolutions:  they are still all fired up and feel like they need to be doing something, anything.  It's like when you have had a really busy day, and you lie down to go to sleep, but you can't get your mind to actually stop thinking.

I have used a 'back to the routine' spell, for many years now.  It is a really simple thing, that involves a ring.  I always use my wedding band, as it is a simple gold ring, and it never leaves my finger, so it is always with me (I take my other rings off at night).  But you light a white candle, and hold the ring, visualizing an ordinary day.  "Day in and day out; Laugh, cry, whisper shout.  This is what I do; show me now what is true."  While still holding your ring, meditate on what your routine means to you, what it brings to your life, and what changes (if any) you need to bring to your routine.  Then wear the ring.

What I love about this little spell is it is a small moment of pause, to honor the routines in your life.  It is a reminder of the simple things you do, everyday, and what those things mean in your life.  It helps you bring your head back into your ordinary space, back to the day to day grind, but it also gives you some time to reflect on what you do.  I think that just as we can get into the habit of being busy, we can keep doing the same things everyday, even though we recognize they aren't working for us anymore.

Making a habit of using this spell, every year, at the end of holiday season, helps me keep mindful of the things that make up my ordinary life, of the things that are part of my every day, and to keep my routine fresh and useful. 

I also think this is a perfect time to tune into our self-care, to take some time to renew ourselves.  It is the start of a brand new year, so why not start it off right!  Think of things you can do to let go of any tension or lingering anxiety from the previous year.  We want to go forward relaxed and refreshed, so think about what you need to do to be in that space.

I feel like the holidays are often a very outward oriented time.  We are constantly thinking about other people, whether we are planning a get-together, an event or a gift, our focus is on others.  New Year is a great time to turn that focus around, to look at yourself and see what you need instead of thinking about what other people need.

I actually really like New Year resolutions, but done in a realistic way.  There are tons of statistics about how New Year's resolutions don't work, and I think that they are probably accurate, but not because resolutions can't work, but because so many people approach them as wishes or dreams, not resolutions.

Resolutions share a root word with resolve:  a firm decision to do something.  But just because we make that decision doesn't mean it will magically happen.  First, it has to be the right decision.  If I haven't been active at all last year, and I decide I want to win the Iron Man competition, that probably is a bad resolution.  Even with the best plan in the world, I am probably not going to make that one come to be.

The first step in a good resolution is an accurate image of where you are, right now.  Reflection is something that I think we shy away from, for the same reasons that we want to set resolutions.  There are always things about ourselves that we feel could use improvements, and sometimes we are embarrassed at where we are right now.  We feel like we should have been doing better or more or differently, and we don't want to admit, even to ourselves, exactly how far we have fallen.

But it is a very necessary step!  We need to know where we are so we can accurately determine how far we can push and what steps we need to take to move forward.  And this means being really vulnerable and honest with ourselves.  We need to take a look in that mirror, to observe our selves and our lives without judgment, with compassion, and with the intention of really seeing what is going on.

Once we know where we are, then we need to keep that honesty and kindness when we think about where we want to go.  There is a fine balance between setting a resolution that will push you but still be attainable.  We don't want to only make super simple goals that don't take effort to reach, because those don't help us grow very much.  They are great to do to help you build up your confidence or to start your momentum, especially if you have been very inactive in those areas of your life, but the smaller goals should be the baby steps towards something bigger.

On the other hand, we don't want to make goals so huge that they feel utterly unreachable...or are unreachable.  We want to be able to meet our goals, but to feel like they were something we earned and something worthy of celebrating!  Understanding this balance is something that often comes with time, so don't stress too much about your first goals, just pay attention to how hard or easy they are and adjust your future goals accordingly.

And finally, once you set a goal, you want to make a plan.  You need to decide how you are going to get from where you are to where you want to be.  If you don't make a plan, if you don't think about how you are going to grow, you won't go anywhere.  You will almost certainly stay where you are and time will pass and your good intentions will have flown outside the window.

Making a plan can be as simple or complicated as you need it to be.  This is a very personal thing, and some people need a very strict plan while others can be more fluid.  I benefit from a very strict plan.  If I can lay out steps (and sub-steps....complicated is fine for me!), I can follow through.  If I only have a vague idea of what I want to do, or a very broad set of steps, I tend to put things off and never get around to them.

I do a lot of weekly and daily planning.  If I set something up in my weekly plan, but never put it in a daily plan, it won't get done.  I rarely put things on a monthly plan because I don't even remember to check the month page in my planner (which I am trying to get better at next year!). 

Even little bits of choice can make things harder for me.  If I have the goal of working out three times a week, but don't plan specifically what I will be doing, it is too easy for me to just put it off.  On the other hand, if I am part of a 30 day workout challenge, where each day's workout is laid out for me, I can follow that most of the time all the way through (I really do well with challenges...I think I've done 6 month long challenges this past year! as well as a few shorter ones along the way).

But, other people may find that having too much structure hampers them.  If they are given a 30 day workout schedule, but on day 3 they really wanted to do a cardio routine and instead it's a weight day, they may be more inclined to not do it.  They might function better by having a simpler structure:  they may plan on doing cardio 3 times a week and weights two times, but they can pick which day to do what just fine.

It's all about seeing what works for you, and what helps you the most.  And some of this is also trial and error.  You may think a system will work very well for you, because it sounds like exactly what you need, but then when you actually try to follow it, you just can't get into it.  When this happens, think about what you liked about the system, and what was giving you problems.  Then look for other ways to try, that work with your strengths and help you overcome your weaknesses.

Holiday season can be hard, but it can also be wonderful.  And just because it was wonderful doesn't mean you still can't benefit from taking some time to care for your self and to recharge, at the end of it.  Keep that in mind as the holiday season comes to a close, as we say good-bye to the old year and welcome in the new.  Give yourself time to recharge, and think about what you want to keep the same and what you want to build, in the days to come!

Wednesday, December 20, 2017

The power of Storytelling

Christmas always feels like a season of storytelling to me.  There are so many stories we tell, at this time of year.  Whether it is the story of the babe being born in a manger, the story of Santa Clause delivering presents to all the children of the world or the newer (and highly creepy) Elf on the Shelf.

Storytelling is an art as old as time.  As long as there have been people, I believe those people have been telling stories.  We tell stories to get our point across, to transmit (or obscure) information and to entertain. 

Many of our first experiences might have involved stories.  We read so many stories to our children, they grow up hearing stories.  And when they start to talk, they begin to create stories of their own.

We have a lot of mixed messages about stories.  We caution children 'not to tell stories' when we want them to be truthful.  We accept that many stories get embellished over time, or as they are passed between people, so the original story might not even be recognized when you hear it (just like in the game telephone).

And that is one of the things that makes stories so powerful.  Whether they are accurate or not, whether they are Truth, they are real.  This is why things like Elf on the Shelf work so much better than just telling your kids to behave.  We tell them a story, and we make that elf real to them.  When they see it, they remember the story...and they believe.  They believe what you have told them, and it changes how they act.  If that's not real, then I don't know what is.

It's not just children who are moved by stories.  When an actor steps into a roll, they are telling a story.  And many people can't seem to separate the role from the person who plays it.  There are countless incidents where people have treated actors better or worse, based on what characters they know them as.  We believe the story they tell when they take on a roll, and we react to them accordingly.

On a more personal front, we tell ourselves stories all day long.  When we think about our memories, we are shading in a story based on how we feel about what happened.  If we feel we are unlucky in love, when we think back on our younger self, we won't remember any good experience we had with love, we will only remember the bad things that happened to us.  We will spin this story about someone who can never find 'the one', no matter how hard they try, and that is the story we will remember and believe.  We will find ourselves not even noticing the people who try to approach us, because we have bought into that story that we are not attractive or likable.

But the truly wonderful thing about stories, is that you can always re-write them!  At any moment in time, you can write yourself a new story, and change how you perceive yourself or the world around you. 

I am a storyteller, in about every sense of the word that I can think of.  I tell stories that are pure fiction, created to entertain.  I tell teaching stories, tales that are used to illustrate a point that I want to make.  I tell puzzle stories, when I create stories as a game-master for roleplaying games, where I want to give some hints as to a mystery or situation that is going on, but not so many that it is obvious.  The fun is in figuring out what is really going on in the story, based on the clues that have been uncovered.

One of my favorite types of stories, are deity stories.  For me, these stories make Gods people.  They cease being just the embodiment of a quality and become complex beings with motivations, fears and desires.  It is their stories that bring them to life. 

And a fascinating thing about stories is that they don't have to all agree!  I have read many stories, about the same God or Goddess, that portray them as very different people.  This really gives them depth in my mind.  Much like if you were to talk to a dozen different people who knew me, and were to ask them what I was like, you would get a dozen different stories, some of which might paint me in a nice light, while others might not.

The thing to remember about stories is there are always (at least) two sides to a story.  If I am telling someone a story about you, that story will be influenced by many things.  It will probably have at least some passing resemblance to the event that happened, but it will be flavored by how I feel about you.  It will also be effected by who I am as a person:  my own perspective, experiences and outlook will alter how I view the world, and thus how I view you and what happened in my story.

This is something we need to be very mindful of, when we hear a story.  It is easy to get caught up in a story, and to empathize with the victim of the story, and to forget that we are only hearing one side of it.  This misrepresentation might be accidental or it might be purposeful.  When we hear a story, especially one that makes us feel strongly about something, it is very helpful to try to seek out an opposing story.  You will notice, I don't say look for the facts, because I feel it is very hard to get truly impartial is all just stories.

Even if you see a video or read a seemingly impartial 'just the facts' sort of write-up, remember you may not be seeing ALL the facts.  Either omitting or focusing on certain aspects creates a story of it's own.  I feel this is especially relevant when dealing with historical 'facts'.  So much of the records we have, were written by the ruling class of the day, so the stories we are hearing are those of the people who were running the show.  Even when we do get stories from other people, they are all written from the perspective of the mindset of the era, and some things that were considered fact at the time, we may no longer consider true at all.

This is also something we should always keep in mind as we tell our own stories.  We can never fully escape our perspective, and trying to present our stories as fact or truth is misleading.  However, we can own our stories, embrace that we can offer up our own unique point of view, something that no one else in the world, or throughout history could have shared, and our story becomes something really special.

Stories are powerful, and can be used for a great many things.  As long as we are mindful of the stories we tell, the stories we hear and the stories we pass along, we can use stories to make the world a better place, instead of tearing it apart.

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!