Month: December 2010

A coyote moment

The cat rushes excitedly to the window and jumps on the sill in an exuberant leap. See! See!

And so we do, peering through the glass. The coyote traverses the snow, dusky brush tail, eyes and nose full of purpose. It stalks in the morning light, looking for its meal under the oaks.


Time and the Cailleach


The minute hand passes an arbitrary mark, and we burst onto the porch with pots and pans, rattling our way into newness. We spend a night with cheese platters and a crystal ball lit from within, descending a spire hundreds of miles away. We make promises for betterment: lose weight, quit smoking, win the lottery.

But it remains, still, an arbitrary moment: the dead of night in the dead of winter. It’s not the solstice, which marks the longest night and the sun’s return, or Samhain, when the cows come home and the weaklings are slaughtered. It’s not the equinox, as it was in some cultures: the rising of spring’s greenery as the light balances, an egg on its end. It’s not dawn, when light spills through the blackness, or sunset with the hint of blood and roses. It’s not the pregnant swell of the full moon or the maiden scythe of the first crescent, sighted over the minaret. It’s not the birth of lambs.

We are fascinated, however, with the clock of our own invention. That double-one of “January” and “first” must mean something, right? The turn over of three nines to three zeroes must mark the world’s end — just as when our odometer rolls from 39999 to 40000, the moment acquires some special numerical aura. 2012, too, must mean something: the stone calendar’s end must herald a great change, an utter transformation — something more than whipping out the chisel and carving a new calendar for arbitrary time.

I’ve always found secular New Year a bit puzzling. Time is a golem of our making, the magic of word, human concept, machinery. Time isn’t an element; it’s simply an arbitrary measurement of process. The orbit of planets marks a particular process — a particular species of time, even. The life-cycle of mayflies marks another, one no less important. Processes within processes — affecting each other in impossibly complex ways.

Why do we think that it’s so simple — a matter of human-defined numbers, ones and zeroes and nines? Why do we think that the time we define is the ultimate time?

The heart of winter is the heart of the Cailleach, the stone hag with her vast rhythms, mountains dropping from her skirts. What is our glass ball to her, our pots and pans, our calendars?

Any point of a globe can be its center, and so any bit of “time” can mark the New Year. This day, this hour mean nothing in themselves.

it’s Yule — lighten up!

And a fine secular Christmas was had by all.

Back to pondering my resistance to the solstice and its related holiday. In part, it’s the connection with the secular traditions: gift-giving, greenery, silly music, feasting. The winter holiday is all shiny joy — something that I tend to interpret as shallow.

No, I prefer to delve into darkness, the deep fluid of meaning hidden beneath the crust of ice, or the stars that burn in the bitter black of the night. Like many shamanic types, I have a thirst for ecstasy — religious experience that draws one outside the boundaries of one’s own brain and flesh.

But no matter which way I slice it, Mean Geimhridh — Yule, Winternights, whatever name you choose — is as sweet as a slice of fruitcake.

And this makes perfect spiritual sense. Merriment — the gathering of loved ones, gifting, feasting, song — truly is key to the meaning of solstice. In winter’s depths, a community requires some levity to survive. Laughter lightens the darkest night. Companions warm the cold road. You do not survive the winter alone. You do not survive it by shutting out your companions, or silliness, or cake in favor of a dour utilitarianism. And by the same token, you can’t just trance the winter away; you need planning, grounding in cold, hard realities — the flesh balancing the spirit.

Solstice is a dance between survival and celebration, seriousness and joy. After all the preparations for winter’s rule, the balance starts to tip on the darkest night. Yes, the coldest months are ahead — but so is the light.

Celebration, too, is a kind of ecstasy — the kind that draws you out of yourself, cracking a smile from ear to ear as a loved one rips through colored paper. A liminal time in which we forget our rules: the social rules of master and servant, the eggshell-walking boundaries of family life and power dynamics, the rules of diets and propriety. We act like children, rejoicing in food, fun, ridiculous songs.

Which is why Brighid laughs at me in this season and sets my sleeves on fire: You’re so damned serious. Lighten up!

Next year, as challenging as it is for me, I’ll follow in the footsteps of my home grove and make Mean Geimhridh a ritual of fun and frivolity. As ridiculous as it sounds, for me that represents actual spiritual work.

Yule, solstice, midwinter, whatever: Lighten up!

And the sun doth rise again.

When rituals go awry

Sometimes, rituals fail. They can be grandiose failures, involving a balefire that gets out of control and takes out a neighborhood block. They can be quiet failures: a deity not responding. They can be comedic: the chalice full of wine predictably falling on the pastel carpet, the closed chimney damper filling the room with smoke.

When you encounter a ritual failure, it’s important to do a post-mortem — not only to dissect your mistakes, but to keep yourself from feeling like an utter failure as a priestess.

Failures can be caused by a number of factors. First and foremost: a lack of planning. To avoid these types of failures, it’s helpful to keep a checklist of your ritual accouterments, so you don’t find yourself lacking a necessary object at the appropriate part of the rite. You need to know your site thoroughly: Does everyone have directions? What happens if it rains? Where is the bathroom?

If you’re using fire, you need to keep safety considerations in mind. Is there a dish under the censer to keep it from scorching the altar top? Will the candle wax drip on the carpet? Can we safely hold a bonfire in this clearing — or is there a drought that would make it unwise? Has the tinder been kept dry? Is there water nearby to douse any wayward flames?

You also need to keep in mind the number of people expected, and whether your ritual structure can accommodate that number. A trance-journey, for example, may be appropriate in a small group. In a larger one, people on the edges may not hear the journey, and small children may fidget and complain. A talking stick works well in a group of 10 — and not so well in a group of 75.

Research, too, must be a part of ritual. You should know better than to call the Morrigan for a love rite, or to offer her Twizzlers. You need to know what you are doing and why — backward and forward. A bad experience from my younger days: even though it’s winter and the bloom is off the rose, it’s not okay to substitute rose thorns in a love spell.

Sometimes, however, you can have your ritual down to a science and still have it go awry. In the case of my Mean Geimridh ritual, I didn’t know the chimney damper was closed — or really what it was, since I’m a city girl and previous hearth fires went well without my touching the thing. I’ve knocked a glass of wine on the carpet during a ritual several years ago — which can also be attributed to a lack of planning, I suppose, although it’s something that can occur in secular time as well.

Sometimes the Gods just laugh at you.

This could mean that it’s simply the wrong time or place for a ritual. You can’t always tell beforehand and, even if you can, can’t always reschedule, especially when your guests are already on your doorstep. The Gods could be asking for an offering or ritual act that you haven’t provided — in which case it’s good to find out afterward what they do want and to supply it.

Or they could just be telling you to get over yourself. Not every rite needs to be a deep well of gravity and pomp. Sometimes, it’s fun to poke the Martha Stewart of priestesses. It’s seldom mean-hearted, and always a lesson.

And part of the lesson: No matter your mistake, forgive yourself. It’s not the end of the world. Offended Kindreds can be given offerings and won over through sincerity and generosity. The lessons you learn from failures are just as important as those garnered from shining success.

Such as: mind the chimney damper.

Lady of the forge

She asked for a banishing, a burning rite. I considered, and then she came to me: Brighid the smith, lady of the needful fire.

Brighid it was, then.

As our guide, we honor Brighid the smith, the lady of the useful fire. Brighid of the iron-hard arms, Brighid who withstands the forge’s heat and Brighid of the hammer, Brighid of labor and Brighid of force.

I have relatively few dealings with the Smith, which is to be expected. I don’t forge metal, weld or tinker with machinery. If it were up to my personal level of evolution, the human race wouldn’t have gone beyond digging sticks and hoes of lashed-together mammoth bones. Her contributions to human civilization, however, I can deeply appreciate.

And so I can her other qualities: the arm’s strength, the driving blow again and again and again. Persistence. Endurance of labor, pain and heat.

Light the fires within, Brighid!
Light the fires within!
Stoke the ashless blaze within our hearts!

While I’m certainly capable of hard labor, I’m not accustomed to using force. Not accustomed, but even I have wielded that hammer — to forge weapons against my enemies, to forge my own life into something malleable and useful, to break old forms, to temper the heat of my nature. It makes the arms ache and the heart burst from the chest. Rivers of sweat spring forth, with the silt of soot, the ceaseless rhythm, the boredom and the pain.

The Smith is the lady of sheer, hard work. There’s nothing glamorous about it and everything of value in it. The hammer-blows tap out the rhythm of inescapable time. Life is work, time, effort.

We prefer to honor her as the lilt of words, the lure of music, the balm of the healing well, the hearth-fire and its comforts. Mercy, generosity with the ever-giving milk cow, the pale hand that feeds the poor — Brighid as Lady Liberty, welcoming the huddled masses yearning to breathe free, the Lady of the welcoming flame.

Let us remember her too at the moon’s darkness: the coal and its steady, unglamorous burn, the sweat on the brow, the midwife of metal, the shaper of life through effort and boredom and pain.

Tinne: the ingot-ogham, the sharp-edged honer of skill.

Bitheadh e mar sin.

a snippet on courage

I’m not quite ready to return to virtues blogging, at least at this particular stroke of the minute hand.

I admit I had considered it a quick-hit series of topics when I first toyed with it. But I find myself wanting more time to think about the individual virtues — however the authors of varied lists define them — and make them my own.

The next will be courage. Snippets: one of my tarot clients, trying to leave an unbearable situation but encountering a wall of fear. Yesterday: My husband calling me brave during my periodic blood work appointments, although I don’t consider myself brave. Frightened and fainting even, yes — but the thought of not going doesn’t occur to me. I have to for my health, which is something I benefit from: hence, no courage.

But is that so true? I admired the courage of my tarot client, although she could only see her fear and her failures. She, too, would benefit immensely from leaving the situation at hand — although it would also bring with it a good deal of suffering.

Perhaps I am falsely correlating courage with self-abnegation, in the effort to relate it to pure selflessness. A cancer patient facing painful and longlasting treatment is often considered courageous — by others, not often by himself. What is courage to an outsider is a matter of survival to the protagonist.

So, I’m still formulating thoughts. As a concept, courage is still in the snippet phase. I want more time to roll it on my tongue.

Today, we’re doing a rite of transformation invoking Brighid as the smith. Working with heat, sweat and flames takes courage, as well.