Wednesday, October 31, 2018

Exchanging gifts

It is Halloween, which sort of marks the start of gifting season.  Pretty much, from here to at least February feels like one gifting holiday after another (for me, it lasts until May, because of birthdays and anniversary!).  Now, don't get me wrong, I adore gifting.  But I think we have lost some of the spirit of gifting.

Society tells us that the gifts we give represent how much we care about another person.  It's sort of become this contest of who can get the 'better' gift...and better has come to mean more expensive.  We have begun to treat a gift like a representation of how much we feel the other person is worth.  The more expensive the gift, the more you value the other person.

And it's not a sliding scale either.  It doesn't matter if you only have one dollar to your name and the other person is a millionaire.  If they give you a gift that has a retail value of a hundred dollars and you spend your last dollar to buy a set of colored pencils and then spend a hundred hours drawing them a picture, many people will still value the more expensive gift more.

I like the meaning of the Futhark rune Gebo when it comes to the idea of gifting.  That the 'gift' is an exchange.  I have talked before about how I don't think there is such a thing as truly selfless giving, and I still believe this.  But I think there is absolutely such a thing as heartfelt giving.  And that is what giving should be:  felt in the heart.

When we gift, even if the gift isn't being reciprocated, or is anonymous, we are sending out energy.  And there is energy being received!  This might be a thank you, it might mean catching a glimpse of the person using the thing they were gifted, or even our own visualization of how a stranger might appreciate our gift.  Part of what makes gifting so special is that feeling we get when we truly give from our heart.

Now, you might remember that I mentioned Halloween as the start of gifting season.  I think that we have lost sight of what gifting means in many areas of our lives, because we are taught to expect being given things.  I think Halloween illustrates this really well.

Many of the roots of trick-or-treating have a much more direct exchange in the gifting.  Children would offer to pray for the house, or show them a 'trick' (recite a poem, sing a song, perform a skit) in exchange for their treat.  Now, this isn't something that we do today, but in a way you could consider the child's costume and their pure joy of the holiday their trick being offered when they ring your bell and ask for a treat.  You can always tell the ones that are really into it, the ones who delight in putting on the costume, whether it is a store bought one or handmade.  And those are typically the ones who don't even look at what they get in response, they are just happy with the whole process.

Christmas is another gifting holiday that has become so commercial.  My favorite example of the bad spirit of Christmas is Dudley from Harry Potter, who gets upset because he has one less present for his birthday (yes I know it's not Christmas, but the same idea) than the previous year, and throws a fit, even though is father explains that some of this year's presents are bigger.  I don't think that gifting should be a competition, either with each other or with previous gifts. 

I like to think of gifting as sending a message.  What is my gift saying to them?  I have always tried to find gifts that I think someone would really like.  It's not about me, it's about what would delight them.  Part of my joy in gifting is finding something that really makes the other person light up. 

Gifts don't have to be physical things either.  We can gift other people with many things that don't cost us a dime.  We just have to look at someone else, and think about what we would want, if we were them.  If you know someone who is always busy, and never has time, they would probably appreciate a gift of service:  helping them take care of some kind of task.  Many older people really appreciate gifts of companionship:  taking the time to really visit with them. 

One important thing, when contemplating gifts, is to remember to separate your own desires from what you honestly think the other person would like.  And this can be hard, especially if you get really excited about things!  I constantly have to remember that, while hubby and I share a lot of common interests, we approach those interests in different ways, so I have to make sure that I'm not looking for gifts that are more aligned with my own tastes instead of his.

On the flip side, when we receive a gift, especially from a child, we need to think about how the gift is being given.  Children are very good at giving from their hearts, but they also tend to give gifts that they would love.  They often haven't quite figured out how to see things from other people's perspectives yet.  And it can be heart-breaking when they give something, especially when they are very excited about it, and it isn't received with the same joy.

But this applies to everyone, not just children.  When you receive a gift, especially if perhaps you were expecting something different, or if the gift isn't quite to your tastes, think about what the other person is trying to say with their gift. 

I have received my share of 'not my thing' type of gifts.  Family is especially notorious for gifting you what you think they need or what they want you to want.  And that last one is particularly tricky.  Because they love you, and they often think they know, better than you do, what is best for you.  So they try to give you what they think you should want, instead of what you actually want.  And again, their feelings get hurt if you aren't properly appreciative.

I think the bottom line, when it comes to gifting, whether you are giving or receiving is to remember that it is an exchange and a message both.  Gifting is a conversation, and you have to look beyond the surface, and see what lies underneath.  Whichever side you are on, it may fall on you to make that stretch, to see the gift in the light it was intended. 

But when you do, when you start to experience that exchange as one heart speaking to another, the rewards are so much more than the stuff that is being given.  Gifting becomes a true spiritual act, and receiving a gift is a matter what the gift itself actually is.

Wednesday, October 24, 2018

Harnessing your fear!

"Fear holds you still when you need to move, and moves you when you need to be still.  Fear makes you silent when you need to be loud, and loud when you need silence...Fear closes your throat, makes it hard to breathe.  Fear weakens your hand and blinds your eyes...Fear is a danger.  Know your fear.  Face your fear."  (from Warlord by Elizabeth Vaughan...great book trilogy!)

I was just re-reading this trilogy, and this quote stuck in my mind.  Fear is something we all struggle with, at some time or another.  Fear effects us all differently, and even different fears can evoke different reactions in us.  Physical danger makes my heart race, but it makes me dig my heels in and push through.  Fear of things that I can't control (like fear of sickness) causes me extreme anxiety and can cripple me, no matter how hard my brain tries to logic it's way out of the fear.

We fear things that are happening, things that have already happened (both their repercussions as well as the fact that they might happen again), and things that might possibly happen.  We fear things we know are serious risks as well as things we acknowledge aren't that big of a deal...but still they scare us.

Fear has it's roots in survival.  Fear pumps us full of adrenaline so we can handle whatever is threatening us.  But even though many of us don't face life or death situations every day, our bodies don't know this, and we experience the fear response for less deadly threats.

If you look at the words at the top of this post, you will see many of the words inside the letters...things that fear makes us feel.  And sometimes we loose sight of the fact that these feelings are often illusions, they are created by our fear to make us avoid the thing that we perceive as a danger.

I think one of the most powerful things we can do is to name our fear.  We may be temped to avoid even thinking about the things that cause fear in us, but in order to begin to work with our fear, we need to know what it is.  Naming our fear gives us something to hold onto.  It lets us define what scares us, and that in turn allows us to start to see where the roots of that fear go. 

And this is important.  The roots are what feed the fear!  The fear itself might be big and strong and seem like we could never even begin to work through it.  But if we follow the roots, they get smaller and smaller, and branch out, and we find one that is manageable.  One root that we can work on, and by working on that one root, we weaken the whole fear.  Root by root, we begin to change how we relate to the fear.

Sometimes it's not about removing the fear.  Another quote I like says that courage isn't about not feeling fear, but rather feeling the fear and acting anyways.  Much like an ominous noise coming out of the darkness, fear can sound huge and terrifying, but the more light we shed on it, the more manageable it feels.  We may find, that by simply exploring our fear, by figuring out what it is and why it is triggering us, that we are no longer afraid of it.

But sometimes, no matter how much we uncover about our fear, no matter how much logic we apply to it, we are still gripped by it.  Then, it becomes a journey of how to work within the confines of your fear.  In some ways, I feel like this is a form of conditioning.  Each time you face your fear, even if you find yourself paralyzed by it, you become a little more accustomed to it.  Sort of like easing yourself into a cold lake.  When you first dip your foot in, you pull back yelping.  But each time you put your foot back in, it feels a little less frigid, and eventually you are in the water.

One of the tools for working with fear is to use your own body's responses.  When we are afraid, our heart beats up and we breathe faster.  By working in reverse, by focusing and breathing slowly and steadily, we can in turn lower our heart rate.  This will create a calming effect in the body, and can help deal with some of the feelings that fear brings up in us.

I also find, that when I have worked through my thoughts on something that is causing fear in me, and I have come to the conclusion that it isn't a true threat, then I often go for diversion therapy.  I turn to something that I can loose myself in, often a tv show or game.  I deliberately try to distract myself, so that I can break that cycle of emotions that the fear is creating in me, so that I can free myself from the obsessive thoughts and foundless worries.  And I find, that if I can break free from the hold that fear has on me, it will retreat, for the time being at least.

The great thing about fear is that sometimes you can use it for it's intended purpose:  to pump you up when you need to face something difficult.  This is one place where my stubbornness really gives me an edge!  There are many fears I have, where I know that I am stronger than they are, and that all I have to do is run head long into them and I can break through them.  Again, I don't do this with things that are truly dangerous, but it works great for things where fear is holding me back from acting, especially when it is fear of success (one of those really insidious fears that makes no logical sense...but plagues us anyways).  Momentum is a great way to combat these kinds of fears, because once you get moving, you can focus on the movement and it will help you keep those fears at bay.

Fear is a tricky foe.  It is overpowering, can be ever-changing, and is invisible.  We sometimes can't even put our fears into words.  And yet, if we pick at them, if we refuse to let them beat us down, if we keep getting back up, we can use them to propel us forward.  We can become the master of our fears, instead of letting fear master us.

Wednesday, October 17, 2018

Worlds within books

I believe in the power of books.  Books are truly magical things!  Not only do they create a form of immortality (much like music, the author echoes forward through time, kept alive by everyone who reads their words), but they literally create worlds.

Whether it is a fiction or non-fiction book, the author is still infusing their words with their beliefs.  You can read many non-fiction books on the same subject, and walk away with a feel for each of the authors.  The same facts take on different feelings, based on how they are presented, and even the voice in which they are written.

This is both utterly brilliant and a little bit dangerous.  We tend to treat the written word, especially when it is presented as non-fiction, as Fact (with a big F...kind of like Truth).  We don't always acknowledge how much shading an author can put on facts, even when they are doing their best to be impartial.

But worse, many authors present their opinions as fact, or take the facts that they know and deliberately word them in such a way that they support the authors viewpoint.  I think these kind of books still have value, but we, as readers, need to stay aware of the power of an author's voice, so that we can see where it is leading us and make our own observations about what is...and what isn't.

With fiction, the message can be even more subtle and devious.  Because we read fiction as make-believe, we often ignore the themes in the book, focusing on the story and dismissing bits that we would have protested in a non-fiction book...because it's not real, right? 

It's good to stop and think about the themes in books, especially fiction books.  I don't feel like we should stop reading books with troublesome themes, in fact rather the opposite.  I think that books that explore problem issues, either by making them something the characters in the book are fighting against, or by creating a world where they are normal, gives us different perspectives about the topic.  Sometimes we need to see things taken to an extreme in order to really understand how problematic they are.

Another great feature of fiction books is they allow you to step into someone else's shoes.  The characters in the book share their point of view with you, and through their eyes you might see what it's like to be a different gender, race, culture, nationality, socioeconomic status, or any number of things.  We naturally connect with characters in books, and it feels very different to go through experiences with a character in a book than it does to hear about a problem just being explained.

Books can be a safe way to experience things that we may be drawn to that would be dangerous (or impossible) otherwise.  From sword fighting to mountain climbing, we can live vicariously through reading, without the inherent risks involved.  In a similar vein, a great writer can create a visceral experience for us of things that we might not be able to afford.  The most expensive foods and drinks can be yours with the right words!

And this is where books become pure magic.  When we become invested in a book, we can loose ourselves and the world around us.  We get transported to this whole other world, and we become another person.  Much like with visualization, we experience what the character experiences, and a talented word smith can capture the essence of something so you really feel like you are there!

This is, of course, wonderful fun, but it can also be so much more!  If you feel helpless in a situation, you can read about a character who is in a similar situation, but has tools to fight back.  Sometimes, this is enough to get you through it, especially if it is something you have no control over.  But other times, this can actually cultivate the strength in you to change your own circumstances.  You might not use the same methods, but you can call upon the spirit of a character to make your own move.

If you were considering trying a new thing, but weren't sure you want to commit to it, you can read a book that lets you try it.  Perhaps there is a different path that you find interesting, but you aren't sure you really fit it.  You might find, through reading about it, that the parts you were unsure of have melted away...or you might discover that the things you thought would be amazing have aspects you hadn't considered.

Books can (and should!) be read for enjoyment.  I love reading all kinds of books, from really deep, heavy thinky books that I really have to be alert and in the right mood to read down to fun little fluff pieces that just make me happy and take no effort.  But just because we enjoy them doesn't mean that we can't also explore them in deeper ways.

Let yourself sink into the books you read.  When something is described, slow down and let it's image (or scent, or taste....) form within you.  Savor it, the way you savor your favorite treat.  When a character has an emotion, let it fill you.  It is quite common for me to cry while reading.  If you enjoy a book, no matter what kind of book, embrace it!  Don't let anyone else tell you that you are too old (or young, or whatever) to like that kind of book.

And when you put the book down, ruminate on it.  Let it's ideas swirl around in your mind.  Allow thoughts and reactions to bubble forth.  Perhaps you might like to journal about how it made you feel or what it made you think. 

Revisit your books.  It is amazing, no matter how many times I read a book (and I have books I've read a dozen times, and re-read about every year), I always come up with bits I don't remember, or things that mean something different to me now, because I've changed since the last time I read a book.

Let books be your therapy, your touchstones, your security blanket.  I have books I turn to when I'm in certain moods.  Sometimes I want a book that combats a mood...but other times I want one that compliments it.  I like to wallow in my moods, I like to surround myself with emotions.  I know which books to read when I need to feel certain things. 

Books are incredible, and there are so many ways to use them.  Challenge yourself to try new books, or to experience your favorite books in new ways.  See what you can uncover, in those huge worlds between the covers.  Because you never know where you'll end up, when you open a book!

Wednesday, October 10, 2018

Everyday Witchcraft!

One of the common comments I see, when talking to other's about their spiritual and magical practice, is that they can't afford all the things.  And this makes me sad, on two levels.  I am a very "Ooh look at the lovely stuff!" person.  I adore all the pretty ritual tools, the fancy ingredients and the elaborate rituals.  I definitely don't practice like this.  I do have some gorgeous tools...but I also have no problem working with whatever I happen to have on hand.  And I think that there is a lot of wisdom in using what you have.

I've written before about practicing Thrifty Magic, and talked a bit about how to be thrifty in your practice.  But today I want to talk a little more about how our ancestors might have practiced.  I definitely think that there were people practicing at all wealth levels, from the nobles down to the poorest of the poor.  And it only makes sense that people used what they had.

One of the things that really drew me into this realm of spirituality was the level of personal involvement.  I don't need to attend a temple and find a priest to practice.  I am my own Priest/ess, and wherever I am is my temple.  I love the idea that I am doing, in my own way, something that my ancestors (of the heart if not of the blood) did, many generations in the past. 

There is something very cool about the idea of every person being able to have a relationship with divinity, or with the Gods that they choose to work with.  And, along those same lines, I love that folk magic takes these lofty ideals of magic and uses them in ways that normal people would use.

I sort of think of this as everyday magic, or peasant magic.  It's not the type of thing that a priest/ess in a formal temple would do as part of a religious ceremony, nor is it the type of thing even that the villagers would do at a seasonal ritual (although both of those are great in their own way!), but the stuff that commoners would do, through the course of their normal days.

And if you think about it, some of the existing texts, the spells and rituals that were written down or passed down in story, sound exotic to us, but these might be things that were commonplace in another time.

Instructions might include that you should harvest your own herbs, to show that you didn't need to buy fancy herbs from far away, but the ones that grew in your garden or the forest near your home would be perfectly fine.  Many of the suggestions for time of harvest might be based on very practical things that we just aren't familiar with anymore.  Picking herbs in the evening, they would be dry from the day's sun and not yet covered in the night's dew, so possibly better for drying.  Some flowers open and close with the sun's light, so might be seen as more magically potent for different purposes depending on whether they were harvested open or closed.

Even the tools we use in our practice, can be distilled down to common things that were used in the house already.  The cauldron was the big soup pot, that could be hung over the fire to slow cook stew all day, and would also be great for brewing up salves, medicines and potions.  The broom would sweep the floors and getting that dirt out would brighten the energy of the house. 

Things that are purely ritual now, might have their origins in more practical use.  The Witch's ladder comes to mind:  a string on which significant objects are tied and hung for various purposes.  But this is very similar to the way that herbs or even game, was hung for storage.  When we banish, we are often told to bury something in the earth or release it into running water.  If you think in terms of sickness, things buried in the ground not only get transmuted into nutrients, but they are removed from the sight and scent of both animals and people, so less likely to be tampered with or to bother the people living nearby.  Running water would literally carry the thing being banished away from you, again, an excellent precaution if there was sickness involved.

To me, there is something really elegant in taking ordinary things, things that you use for regular purposes, and using them to create magic.  It really underlines the belief that the magic comes from us, that we create the magic (as opposed to the magic coming from the crystal or the tool). 

When you really think about why people turned to magic, it was to solve problems.  They either wanted something or wanted something to go away.  They used magic to give the world a push, but I feel like many things were taken at face value, in a matter of fact way that we have lost.  We understand so much more now, so things that were assumed to be true, in days gone by, we now shroud in mysticism.  We see our actions more as symbolic, with the true work being done energetically, and we tend to want to make things feel more magical.  It's like we can't really believe that they will work if they are too simple, too ordinary.

But I don't think the magic, the universe or any of it, cares if we use fancy woo-woo methods or simple, ordinary ones.  I've said it many times before, and probably will many more to come, but we need to trust that what works for!

And it is okay if multiple things work.  If you can do ritual with all the bells and whistles, but you can also do ritual by tracing a circle in the dirt with your finger, do either of them work any less?  I can bake bread that uses four, very simple ingredients, and I can also make bread that needs fancy ingredients and involves a dozen steps.  Both will fill my belly, and isn't that the whole point?

So, if you ever find yourself thinking that you can't do something, because you found a version of it that requires things you don't have (or things that you can't do), ask yourself what is the core point.  What is the ritual trying to accomplish.  And what other way can you reach that same goal.  It's not about how you get there, it's about where you are going!

Wednesday, October 3, 2018

Remembering the Forgotten

This time of year, we often remember and acknowledge our ancestors:  those who have come before.  Many of us honor the people, blood related or not, who have influenced us and made us who we are today.  Whether you have a dedicated ancestor practice or not, many people are drawn to connect with ancestors during this season.

But, sometimes it's like talking about past lives:  everyone wants to have been someone important, but no one wants to have been a farmer or servant.  Of course, we should remember the mighty dead, the great heroes and the important people who created great change in their day, change that echoes and influences the world today.

But we should also remember the ordinary people (gosh I really disliked all the words I thought for describing this:  normal, simple, smaller....perhaps unseen?).  There are a million, million lives that no one remembers.  And whether they made great ripples or not, we know that the  slightest action will create huge waves as it builds through time!

It takes work, to connect with and remember the less obvious people.  You may not know much about them, you may not even have a name to work with.  Perhaps you know that your grandmother talked about her grandmother, and how she worked hard every day, just to keep food on the table, and to keep all the kids clothes clean and well patched.  Or how your great uncle used to be able to whistle like any bird, and you used to listen to him for hours as a child.

Even further back, how many great people were able to rise to greatness because of the many people around them who did little things.  How many unsung heroes were there?  People who lived and died in anonymity, but still worked hard and risked everything for the causes they believed in.  For every historic figure, who made great bold gestures, ask yourself how many other people, forgotten in the history books, acted to support those great gestures, in their own way.

In wars, we remember the leaders and the people who stood out, but every soldier was out there, on those battlefields, fighting for their lives.  We look back, and we pick a side that we agree with, and we like to think that everyone on the other side was a bad person.  But how many people had no choice.  How many soldiers were conscripted to fight?  How many fought to protect or save their families?  How many were lied to or fought out of ignorance?  Do they deserve our disdain?

People are complicated, and the obvious story isn't always the true one.  One common thread, when thinking about ancestor work, is what do you do about family members that were horrible to you?  Or family members that lived lives that you don't agree with.  Perhaps you have a criminal ancestor, or one with radically different political or social views than you.

I can't tell anyone how to practice, but consider this:  did that ancestor teach you a lesson?  They say that those who don't know history are doomed to repeat it.  And we often say that people were 'from a different time' to excuse behavior that wouldn't be acceptable today.  When we look back an ancestors, who did things that were not condemned in their time, perhaps we can honor them in the light of teaching us that those kinds of behaviors are not right. 

In our local Day of the Dead ceremony, we name the beloved dead.  Everyone attending has the opportunity to add names to the list that we read and honor.  And let me tell you, even with only a dozen of us there, the list gets long!  This is something that happens, as you uncover more and more ancestors who have influenced you, especially as you start to name the forgotten in your list.

I don't feel that we need to name each and every ancestor, every time we work with our ancestors, to honor them.  At any given moment, our heart is leaning a different way.  Some days, we may be angry and defiant, and called towards our rebellious ancestors.  Other days, we may be feeling quite content and full of love for the simple things, and it is the ancestors who were focused on home and hearth that call to us.  Or, we may be fully engaged in a new project, and hearing the call of our innovative and studious ancestors!

I like calling out to more generalized categories of the dead, and honoring specific people who I am connecting with most deeply in that moment.  I may address 'all my ancestors of blood and bone, all my kin of heart and spirit, my sisters and brothers of path and art,' before calling out actual names. 

I also feel very moved when honoring the lives lost in disasters, but I think it is important to remember them as a collective, not by specific names (unless I actually, personally knew people involved).  If there were one or two names that were made famous, I think it is better to remember 'the victims of the hurricane/shooting'.  Nothing hurts my heart more than the thought of someone, lost and alone and ultimately forgotten, in a big disaster like that, where the media has focused on certain people, and left off mentions of the countless others who were effected. 

One of the ways I honor the forgotten is to read the lesser known stories.  And not just about the big moments in time.  There are heart-touching stories about every period, about every type of person, in all walks of life, around the globe.  There is something really poignant about hearing about how people have adapted, how they have struggled and overcome, and how they made do with what was available.

Pictures are another great way to connect with the forgotten.  Looking at a powerful picture transcends language.  It doesn't matter if you know anything about the person's culture or time period, there is a connection there that brings their live into yours, no matter how many years have passed.  I really love looking at pictures that travelers have taken, especially of ordinary people going about their regular lives. 

We live in a wonderful age, where we have access to these pictures and stories, through libraries and the internet.  We can explore the past in ways that people of other ages simply couldn't.   And we can sample so many lives in so many eras.

When we look at the people who came before, we tap into their story, and they are remembered.  We may not know who they were, or the specifics of what they were doing, but we can imagine.  We can ask questions and think about what it might have been like.  And we can honor their memory, in whatever form we experience it.

And to me, that's what it's all about.  If their stories can echo forward, to reach and effect us, then our remembrance can reach back (or out, to wherever they are now).  Let us not only remember and honor the shining stars, but also every light in the darkness that we can make out....and even the dark spaces in between, the places that we know have light, even though we can't see it.