Wednesday, August 28, 2019

Ugly is sacred too

It is very easy to see the sacred in the beauty of the world.  When things are calm and peaceful and everything is going smoothly, we can slip right into this connection with the sacredness that we strive for.  But even though it can be a struggle, there is a lot of value in searching for the sacred in all moments, including the hard and ugly ones.  And not only that, it is in those rough times that we often need that connection the most.

There are so many sayings that speak to this mentality, about trying to find the good in all situations.  I love the quote by Mr. Roger's mother, to "look for the helpers," in times of tragedy.  When things are going wrong, it's easy to get caught up in all the misery, to stop seeing the good and to focus only on the bad, but when we stop and look for the helpers, we see those people who are trying to fix things, to help and to do what they can.  Looking for the helpers also gets us moving in that direction, because once we see them, we start moving in their direction.  When you see someone helping, you are motivated to help them.  You may have frozen, been unable to think of what you could do to help, but you see someone rushing in, and you find yourself doing what you can to make their work easier.

Another good turn of phrase is that there is always a lesson in every hardship.  This can often help us reframe what is happening, especially if it is painful or overwhelming.  If you have lost your job, it gives you the opportunity to look for one that might suit you better.  If you hurt yourself, you may be forced to take things slower as you heal, and you may find new ways to relax and have fun.  This is a great strategy for looking at your flaws as well.  You might be a procrastinator, but it has taught you how to really focus when under pressure (and you can still work on procrastinating less, and keep the things your flaws have taught you).

These methods both are still looking for the bright spots in the darkness, but sometimes you need to look at the horrid bits themselves and see the way that they are sacred.  There are lots of creepy crawly things that many people shy away from, that are necessary to life.  We may not like to be dirty, but dirt is the fuel for the plants that give us food and oxygen.

A lot of spiritual people work with correspondences and allies.  Animal allies are one that come up a lot.  And most people want to work with wolf, or eagle, or butterfly.  Some of the scary ones are popular too, like spider and shark.  But how many times have you heard someone pipe in with, "I want to work with slug," or mosquito, or warthog.  The uglier or slimier a critter, the less likely people are to want to work with them.  But some of the ugliest creatures have really amazing skills and features, often directly tied to the thing that makes them ugly!  If we put aside our initial squeamishness, we may find these beings to be utterly fascinating, and that they have powers that we would want to know more about or be able to call upon.

An interesting note about this is that once you start to be curious, once you start to see the unique nature of these ugly things, they don't seem quite as ugly, scary or fearsome as they once did.  You may never find them truly beautiful, but you develop an appreciation for them.  You recognize their sacred nature, the things that make them special in their own way.

I think this is particularly relevant for many Pagans because the deities we work with may have traits or areas of influence that are traditionally considered gruesome.  This is especially true for deities that are aligned with the dead.  Many of us honor the dead, and we work with deities that deal with the dead, and so we might be faced with aspects of death that other people shy away from. 

The more we work with things we are uncomfortable with, the more we become accustomed to them.  This is true whether you choose to work with them, or if they are thrust upon you.  Someone who suddenly finds themselves in a war zone will be faced with horrible sights and choices, but the longer they are there, the more they learn to deal with what is there, and the less things send them into a state of shock.  Parents go through a similar integration period, as they are suddenly up close and personal with every bodily fluid (and more!)

One thing I've found that helps, especially when dealing with things you may find personally gross, is to think about their purpose.  Very few things in life serve no purpose.  Some might be simple byproducts, waste products, but even those are typically rejected by the host so that they can carry away toxins or other undesirable things.  The beauty of our world is that those waste products, the things that one organism finds toxic, are needed by other organisms.  This is the basis of the cycle of life, and it truly weaves throughout every aspect of the world around us.

But we tend to skim over the bits that we don't like, and we don't think about what their place in the world is.  If there were no more waste products, the whole system breaks down.  We need those ugly bits to build the beautiful things that we desire.

There is a whole, big, complex world out there.  Each thing in this world effects dozens of others, in ways that are often surprising.  If we only look for the lovely and beautiful things, we cut ourselves off from a whole lot of miraculous things, simply because we can't see beyond the surface to the greater role they play in the dance of life.  When we start looking for how the pieces fit together, we find that there is so much more to everything, and that some of the most powerful and amazing processes are quite ugly on the surface.

Wednesday, August 21, 2019

Reality is enough!

So, I recently finished up reading a pretty disappointing witchy book.  It was written as a novel, but shrouded in this mystery where it was being sold as a 'true story'.  The book itself was full of all kinds of crazy Mary Sue instances (for those unfamiliar, a Mary Sue character is one who is the super, perfect character, the one with all the powers and no flaws). 

But I'm not actually here to talk about the book, rather to point out how the book is a reflection of the Pagan community, the faces we show to the public.  Everyone feels like they have to have this perfect practice.  It's social media disease, we only share the carefully staged photographs that show us from the right angle with filtered lighting.  We don't talk about the flaws or the struggles.

The problem is, that this becomes very daunting for new people.  They listen to other people, and they have this larger than life image of what being Pagan is all about.  They think they need all the tools (or no tools!), they need to have these amazing rituals, these incredible connections with their deity, this practice that perfectly weaves into their mundane life and these mystical experiences that are as real to them as the world around them.

But how many people actually have all of those?  I'd wager that no one does, not all the time.  Some people may have one or two, or they may experience them all sometimes, but the reality is that most of us are fumbling along, having real struggles with our practice.

Because let's admit it:  being Pagan is amazing, but in our modern world it is also hard.  We are at a place in time where SO many people are struggling.  We are struggling financially, we are struggling emotionally, we are struggling socially.  We may be finding out who we are, or we may be fighting to have other people recognize who we know ourselves to be.  We are just trying to make it through this day, this week, this year, this life.

And then, on top of that, you want to add in a spiritual practice that wasn't built for this time.  Many practices that we have adopted as Pagans have had to be transmuted because we simply don't do things the way people used to. 

Things like the phases of the moon or the turning of the seasons had real, everyday effects on people in the past.  Things that we may not even think of being connected, because we haven't lived them.  We don't appreciate how much light the moon gives at night because our world is lit by streetlights and car headlights.  City glow turns our nights into eternal twilight.  We aren't struggling to get everything to fit in the limited daylight of winter, because we can simply turn on the lamp when the sun goes down (and everything is open at the same hours year round).

I think a big part of what creates this issue, this need to portray ourselves and our practices as 'more' is that sometimes what is there isn't flashy, it isn't obviously impressive.  But it is real, and real things have a weight that many of these ephemeral experiences don't.

I am sure that most people dream of having full sensory interactions with the Gods they work with.  You read about that person who had a dream vision where they got to meat their deity, they felt their touch, heard their words, smelled the scents associated with them.  I am one of those people who never had the full blown experience.  And it can leave you in a place where you might be left wondering if you are even doing anything at all.

But I think that there is something really impressive about doing the work, without knowing if our work is being received in the way it is offered.  To me, this is the work of faith, to continue to hold our own faith, and to trust, without receiving that vision or experience, that our actions matter.  Because they do matter, and just getting up every day and keeping your faith is work in and of itself.

And I also think that the people who do receive those visions have their own struggles and challenges.  We may think that it would be fantastic to get that kind of feedback, but it might leave you wondering about your own sanity, or perhaps dreaming of peace (depending on how chatty your deities are!) 

I personally feel that Paganism is a very down to earth (pun intended!) practice.  It takes your every day life and works your spirituality into it.  And our day to day lives involve both ups and downs.  It's human nature to not want to share your struggles, to only talk about when things are going well, but I think that is something that we are learning to overcome. 

Admitting when you are in a low place not only allows others to recognize their own struggles in yours, but lets them help you, something which many people find great fulfillment in.  Talking about the mistakes you have made, or the times when you haven't been able to do things the way you want opens up a conversation, about how other people might be struggling with the same things, or what people have tried that helped them get through a similar situation.  The more we talk about when things aren't going amazing, the bigger our knowledge pool grows, allowing more and more people to find ways to make things work, instead of just feeling inadequate with where they are.

Ultimately the goal is to make things workable for you, in your life.  And that may mean letting go of some of these idealized visions of what practice is.  I truly believe that when you stop and look at what you are accomplishing, even if your work hasn't yet realized results, the reality of what is absolutely outshines the image you may be trying to project into the world. 

Wednesday, August 14, 2019

Simple tools

We live in a world that is shaped by our society.  We are bombarded with messages all day, every day, about what we should be, feel, think and do.  We are shown images of things we should want, products we should buy....because money fuels the world we live in.

And, don't get me wrong, there are amazing, wonderful products out there, things that I love and things that I want...and things that I will buy.  I am a sucker for a beautiful deck of cards, for sparkly dice, for shiny tools and nice smelling stuff.

But, what we can sometimes forget is all those things are luxuries...they are great if you have access to them (and if you have the means to get them, then by all means, get the stuff that makes your heart sing!), but if we can't, that shouldn't stop us from honoring our spirituality and practicing our craft.

There is so much we can do with stuff that is everywhere, with things that we find or make, that cost us nothing (or at the very least are much less expensive).  The beauty of it is, the more you invest in your spiritual tools, the more you imbue even the simplest of objects with power and meaning.

I have been making simple tools pretty much since I started.  And often, as my money situation changed, I would upgrade tools, though I still use many of my simple ones.  My very first rune 'set' was simple flashcards.  I wrote the names and meanings of runes on bits of paper (ordinary printer paper that I tore into squares).  Later, I made another simple set by finding small rocks outside and using a bottle of old nail polish to mark the runes on them (you can also use permanent marker, I've done that for other symbols).  I made an ogham set with craft sticks (like the kind they use for popsicles...and you could totally clean and use popsicle sticks...or go find sticks outside)!

My very first wand, which I still have and use, is a stick that I found at my college, while they were trimming trees.  I let it dry, and stripped the bark off, sanded the ends, and there you go:  wand!  Driftwood also makes great wands, the water often does the sanding for you.  If you want to dress it up a little, I've wrapped sticks with yarn or thread, which gives a pop of color and a bit of grip.  You can add in feathers you have found or bits of fur.  I like to bind stones to the tips of my wands, and I tend to use leather strips...but you can totally glue them in place, adding other decorative elements where they join, if you like.

Letter openers make great athames, especially if you are somewhere that a blade might not be acceptable.  I used a pocket knife for ages as my ritual blade (because I wanted one that could cut things as needed), and those are really reasonable to find.  Old kitchen knives can be transformed into ritual blades, and can often be found really cheap at thrift stores or garage sales.  I actually made a 'blade' for one of my art classes with some poster board, cutting out the pieces and gluing them together (I finished it with clear packing didn't have an edge, but it was pretty neat looking).

For a pentacle, my first was a simple silver (looking) coaster.  I have made pentacles out of salt dough (which is a fantastic medium for crafting all kinds of things, especially statues!)  You could take wire and make a pentacle as well, weaving the circle outline first, then bending the wire to form the star inside.

You can go even more simple, and paint or draw symbols on rocks to represent your tools.  Think about what the purpose of the tools is:  what does it represent, how does it function for you, what do you need from it?  Search out rocks that feel right, and decorate (or don't!) them to suit you.  I have a crystal point that I use to direct energy, but I could easily use a similarly shaped found rock.  I also have a large, oval shaped river rock that I use as a healing focus, and representation of fire.

Another, really portable option, is to find images of the tools you need and print them out.  For durability, you can laminate or simply seal them with clear tape.  In college, I had images that I had printed for all four elements, as well as a God and Goddess image, so I could carry a full circle in my wallet!  I had a friend who simply used a tarot deck this way, using different cards to represent things he needed (he was military, and often couldn't have the tools he wanted at hand).

I have also made sacred tool images in an art journal.  I painted some, but I also used collage, so no matter what your personal artistic comfort level, you can create pages to represent different parts of your practice.  I made an altar page, a cauldron (which was painted with chalkboard paint so I could add things to it and erase them as needed), a grounding page (that was a really fun one...with outlines of my hands, so literally I can put my hands on the book and ground myself).  You could also make pages dedicated to deities you work with (like shrines!).  If you draw out runes or other divination symbols, you can grab a handful of pebbles and cast them on the page to see what runes the rocks land on.

The possibilities for tools are as endless as your imagination.  If you can make the connection in your mind, you can use something as a tool.  Never feel like you are limited because you can't afford all the fancy tools, because there are tools all around you!  And sometimes, the ones you find or make yourself become the ones that you use the most.

Wednesday, August 7, 2019

Drying flowers

People have been drying flowers as a way to preserve them for pretty much as long as they have been using them.  Flowers are dried for medicine, cooking, art or memory.  And there are many methods for drying flowers!

I love dried flowers, I have always had this desire to dry and preserve flowers that I have received, whether I am keeping them whole or breaking them into parts.  I still have flowers I dried back in high school!

How you dry your flowers very much depends on what you want to do with them.  When I am preserving something as a memory, I tend to want to keep it whole.  If I am preserving flowers to display, keeping them whole is an option, but for me a bigger consideration is preserving the color.  And then if I am wanting to use them magically, I tend to break them apart.

One of the first ways I learned to preserve flowers was by pressing.  Pressing flowers is pretty simple, but also works best with simple flowers that don't have a lot of bulk to them.  It is much easier to press a violet than it is to press a hydrangea.  The less bulk there is, the easier it will be to press them.  I also find that it helps to have petals that lay fully flat. 

I love to press flowers in the pages of journals, though you can use any book.  But pressing a flower directly in the pages of your book will often leave an imprint of the flower on the pages, which can be a fun way to add a bit of color to a journal.  You can also press the flower between writing paper or in a card slipped into a stack of books.  It may be helpful to add a weight on top of the books to help press your flower.  You can also press leaves and other greenery.

When you are laying out your flowers to press, arrange the petals in the way you would like them to be pressed. You may need to close your book carefully to keep the flower arranged the way you wanted.

Once you have gotten familiar with pressing single flowers, you can also press multiple flowers into a single arrangement.  This can be great for using in artwork or even for spellwork.  If you leave a stem on your pressed flowers, it makes them easy to hold if you want to burn them for ritual reasons.

If you want to dry flowers whole, you can always just leave them in a vase without water, but I find they wilt and droop when you do this (which can be an interesting look, if you want some thematic Samhain decorations!).  My favorite way to dry whole flowers is by hanging, and I like to hang them individually.  If I want to keep long stems (either for burning or to put them back in a vase later), I will dry them with the stems on, but if I just want the flower part, I'll trim the stem close to the flower. 

Then, I will take a needle and sturdy thread and string them through the stem (if they have very thin stems you can string them right through the base of the flower itself, which should be thicker).  You can  string a whole lot of flowers this way, and hang them from a rack or curtain rod to dry.  Drying whole flowers like this takes a bit of time, so be prepared to let them hang until they are fully dry before storing them (or you risk them growing moldy).

You can also tie up bundles of flowers to dry, much like you would a sage bundle.  With flowers, you would arrange them in a pleasing manner, then wrap your cord tightly around the stems (remember, wind tightly, they will loose bulk as they dry). 

There is a really pretty way of making flower crowns, that can be worn fresh or dried, that I learned while in Hawaii.  You start with a braid of raffia or cording of some sort (you can use ribbon if you like!).  Then, you will want a selection of flowers, with at least about a half inch of stem left on them.  Taking your cord, place one flower where you want your crown to start and wrap it a time or two with the cord.  Then pick another flower, adding it in and continuing to wrap.  You can make your crown as full or sparse as you like, placing each flower along the way with intention (you can make these tuned to a particular purpose as well, the process of making them is very focusing).

This actually reminds me of another way to string and dry flowers...the way they are often strung for leis.  You will run your needle right through the center of the flower (it's easiest to pierce the middle of the flower itself, and then guide your needle right through the stem on it's way out).  These leis can be worn fresh or hung to dry (and once dry you can easily snip the string to pull off the individual flowers).

I also like drying just the petals of flowers, and I did this with a bunch of roses from my mother-in-law's garden, when I was keeping an eye on it for her.  She wanted me to snip the roses when they started wilting, so that they would keep blooming, and I just couldn't toss out all those roses!  So I brought bags of them home with me.

Of course there were many petals that were chewed on by bugs or that might have spider webs on them...and there were quite a few insect hitchhikers that came along with the roses, so I took the bag outside, and dumped it out on my back porch.  One by one, I pulled the roses apart, saving the nice looking petals, and collecting them in a big bowl. 

I placed the bowl on my kitchen table, and left it until the petals were completely dry, giving them a gentle toss (with my hands, I just mixed them around a little so the same ones weren't always on the bottom) a few times a day.  I used the anti-splatter cover we have in our microwave to keep our kitties from scattering them everywhere while they dried!

Once you have your plant parts dried, you will want to store them in clean, dry containers.  You will also want to keep them out of the light, so they don't loose their color.  One nice trick is to save those silica gel packets you get in things and tuck them in your storage containers.  I have a few in the tub I keep my rose petals in.  They help absorb any moisture that might find it's way in.

Drying flowers is easy, and there are so many ways to go about it, and so many things to do with your flowers once they are dry.  I highly recommend giving it a try, and you may find that you love it just as much as I do!