Winter brings a time of introspection and withdrawal from the outside world. The weather does all that it can to encourage this behavior. Even as I type this, rime ice coats the surrounding mountain ridges and the temperatures are cold enough that sitting near the window calls for a cozy sweater. These are the kinds of nights that I am content making a ritual out of sitting by candlelight with a warm mug of spiced wine and letting my thoughts wander where they will.
Most of my 2018 winter musings have been focused on the misadventures of the last three years. The Very Serious IllnessesTM have been mentioned in previous posts, as has the loss of Sam. There have been other things that I’ve had neither the will or courage to put into words – the violence that left a friend’s family shattered, the separation from my former employer, the unexpected loss of my sister. These are bleak things to mull over on dark and cold winter’s night. They are full of shadows and cold darkness and do little to dispel the gloom of the season.
Instead of returning to these phantoms of the past again tonight, I’ve spent the evening writing up my vision for the coming year- all the things that I’d like to happen, do, or be in 2018. There’s a lot on there and it ranges wildly from the frivolous (crocheting a pair of yoga socks) to the deadly serious (remission continuing through the entire year). It isn’t precisely a list of goals or resolutions but it may represent the beginning of one, with a little editing and polish. More than anything, it’s been an opportunity to let my thoughts wander to things, if not happier, then at least in from the cold world of loss. And who knows? By this time next week, I may actually have that list of goals written.
I knew it was coming, sooner or later, that inevitable moment when Sam would say “We need to talk” all the while avoiding my eye, looking about as if he expected phantoms to pop up in every corner. I won’t rehash it verbatim, but in essence, it was a conversation with which I am familiar. It’s the conversation that usually begins with some kind of compliment or loving statement like “You’re a really nice person” or “I really like having you in my life” followed by an unspoken “but”. Eventually, at some point after a lot of hemming and hawing, the speaker gets around to the heart of the matter: “It’s not you… it’s not me… it’s the ghosts.” “The ghosts” being some statement about the threshold work that I do. The conversation ends usually with a severing of ties, either for the reason of non-belief (and the implication that believing is somehow a character flaw or personality disorder) or of a fear of the work itself.
At the end of the day, the conversation becomes about the speaker’s comfort zones. Modern western society is, on the whole, uncomfortable with death. Spirit work tends to be dismissed in popular culture as a form of entertainment that attracts mostly curiosity seekers who want to experience the adrenaline rush of a good scare. While most people can accept ghosts-as-entertainment, the thought that there might be something more to it frightens them. Even those who profess a belief in spirits are often happiest when keeping them at arm’s length, usually as the subject of some distant tale to be told rather than something to be dealt with directly.
I am under no illusions that what I do will ever be widely accepted, so I do tend to limit my disclosures when dealing with people on a face-to-face basis to those who absolutely need to know. Sam was on that short need-to-know list for a multitude of reasons, not the least of which is that he’s been on the receiving end of my work. Samhain brought it home to him that the work that I do is a lot bigger and more encompassing than he had imagined. As he put it, it is one thing to hear about it second-hand or get a small glimpse of it, it’s entirely different when the person sitting across the table from you lives and breathes the work. The “enormity” of it is not something that he’s equipped to deal with right now. I recognize that and would rather absent myself from his life than be a source of consternation when he’s already facing so many other challenges.
A long time ago, I made the decision that I would answer these conversations with understanding rather than resistance. There is no argument that I can put forward when someone tells me that they cannot cope with who I am or what I do. I am what I am and the work that calls to me is the work that I am meant to do above all else. It is work that springs, not from some morbid desire to dwell in shadows and dark places, but from a well of love, compassion, and duty. It fulfills me in a way that nothing else does. I cannot change that aspect of myself for the comfort of others, nor can I cease my work to spare the feelings of one person. Letting go, and doing so as graciously as possible, is the only solution that I’ve found that limits the pain involved in severing ties.
I’m not entirely sure why I felt the need to put all of this into words. This post is perhaps one part apology to someone who will be hurt and angry that I did not fight to keep Sam in my life, one part warning for those who take up threshold work with any seriousness that there’s more than one way to lose someone in doing this work, and one part recording of where I wander as I tread my path. In any case, there it is, ghosts and all.
I no sooner finished typing up the October ritual than I realized that it wouldn’t be possible to do it as planned this year. While not as physically demanding as some of my workings, the October ritual can be a bit challenging if I’m under the weather, but I’ve always managed it. This year, however, I am largely immobile due to a knee problem and in a fair amount of constant pain due to the same. I realized, after a failed attempt to shop for supplies, that doing a full-blown solitary ritual is out of the question for the foreseeable future. I’m usually willing to push through pain and illness in order to get things accomplished, but this simply isn’t one of those times when sheer bloody-mindedness is going to work. The October ritual, as I think I mentioned in the original post, is my most important and really isn’t optional as far as my practice is concerned.
I’d bemoaned very briefly on social media that I’d had to postpone my ‘Halloween’ plans this year because I wasn’t able to be on my feet long enough to make them happen. An unexpected response to that post came in the form of a phone call from Sam’s daughter, asking what she could do to help. I explained that there really wasn’t anything that could be done, as I was referring to something of a religious/spiritual nature. If you can convey eye-rolling simply through tone of voice, she did… and reminded me that (in a momentary lapse of all reason) I’d given her a link to this blog so she was very much aware of what my Halloween plans were. If you’ve ever lost an argument with a strong-willed teenager, you can probably guess the rest of the conversation.
In the end, I agreed to let her help. I don’t know what form I was expecting this assistance to take, but it was certainly not what actually happened after I arrived at Sam’s house on Thursday. Sam’s daughter had rallied a dozen people to assist with every aspect of the evening – from getting me into the house (lots of uneven terrain and steps) to laying out wards for the ritual space. Not only did these wonderful people help me get through the mechanics of the work, they took an active part in it- breaking bread as silent group during the dinner, lighting candles, reciting the names of their own dead, and raising their voices in song. I am very humbled and grateful for their help and participation.
The span of those short few hours has given me a lot to consider and process. First, the personal, squishy stuff… For those who might recall my previous posts about Sam, I want to share (and do so with his blessing) that he is healing well. After months of physical therapy and being confined to a wheelchair, he surprised us all by standing, aided by crutches, during the reading of names. Again with his blessing, I’ll add that we are beginning to work to bridge the gulf that has sprung up between us and that we talked privately and face-to-face after the ritual for the first time in months. That he was willing to give help when it was needed in spite of a painful, silent distance between us says more about him than I can put into words.
Second, I just need to say very loudly and publicly that Sam’s daughter is an amazing young woman who deserves every happiness that comes into her life. I know she’s reading this, so I’m just going to say that I am very grateful that I can count her among my friends.
Finally, I’m going to have to reconsider being entirely solitary in my practices, at least as far as this particular ritual is concerned. I’m still processing the experience and I’m not sure yet where to take it from here. I’d always believed that bridging the gap between worlds is more difficult when other living people are involved, particularly if those people are head-blind. Thursday proved me wrong.
I need to give serious consideration to restructuring this as a shared ritual for future years. Thankfully, I have a year to think about this particular aspect of it. In the meantime, I have a gratitude ritual to prepare for November, including making a list of things and people for whom I am thankful. There are many this year and Sam and his daughter will be at the top of that list.
I keep tabs on my calendar and to-do lists on a daily basis, but somehow, the end of October still managed to sneak up on me. The ritual that follows is a highly condensed version of what I do over the course of the week leading up to the festivals of the dead that predominate this time of year.
October Ritual -Honoring the Dead
End of October.
Remember and reflect upon the lives of those of who have passed.
Gather supplies as needed.
Decide on foods to be prepared and shop for ingredients as necessary.
Prep or buy any offerings, gifts, and incenses to be used.
Ritual- Minimalist Version
There isn’t one, as far as my own practice is concerned. If you’d like to do a minimalist version, I would suggest that either a roll call or placing photos of the beloved dead at the dinner table might suffice.
Ritual- Full Version
Ward all of the spaces that are to be used during the ritual, including any areas used to transition from one part of the ritual to another. This kind of work tends to draw all sorts of ‘out-of-town guests’, so it pays to lay down some strong boundaries. Unless of course, you really enjoy banishing rituals.
Personal cleansing/purification ritual as desired. Dress as you feel is appropriate.
Part I – Dumb Supper for close family and friends. I’m not going to go into a lot of detail on how-to, as this is pretty well described other places. For those not familiar, this is a dinner held in silence in which the honored guests are the dead.
Part II – Dessert. For those who I’ve known but were not invited to the dumb supper, I put out dessert and pour wine. For specific individuals that I want to invite at this time, I light additional tealights. This is the time that I set aside for the dead to make any requests that they need to (with the understanding that I am not a granter of wishes but will do what I can within reason).
Part III – The Unmentionables, Unknown, and Unnamed. Place a plate of food outside, away from the other ritual areas for any wandering spirits, any dead that you don’t want to name, etc. This is a simple acknowledgement that there are others who are not part of the main celebrations. A simple prayer gets offered for these souls.
Part IV – The Naming (aka The Honor Roll). The tealights are moved to the central ritual space. I begin this portion with music – specifically, Leonard Cohen’s “Who By Fire?”. The names of the honored dead are then read slowly, a bell tolled between each name. This list begins with those who have departed in the past twelve months, followed then by the names of those that were of special significance in my life. When all the names have been read (I do recommend writing a list before you start), finish with “And all those beloved who have come before. May you never be forgotten.” At this point, I’ll usually throw in a reading or piece of music that is appropriate to this particular celebration (this year, it will likely be series of quotes from Robin Williams, Dr. Maya Angelou, and Nelson Mandela).
Part V – The Blessing and Release. I end with a petition for a blessing of those who have died and a request that their memories be preserved another year in the minds of the living. Prayers are offered for those who will be passing in the coming twelve months and a request made that the deceased help to guide those who will soon pass. The guests of honor are thanked for their presence and invited to return for next year’s ritual. The tealights are allowed to burn until they are extinguished.
Modifications and Notes
This one has a similar disclaimer to the April ritual: Unless you’re at least somewhat seasoned with rituals involving multiple deities/entities, do not try this one at home. Start small if this is something beyond the scope of your experience. No matter what your experience level, be prepared to do a banishing ritual if needed (as in, be familiar with one and be able to do it quickly and on the fly if needed).
There’s room for variation throughout the ritual. The timing of this one is flexible. While I prefer this one to be done on October 31st, this isn’t always practical. I typically try to keep this one confined to the period of October 30th to November 3rd. If there are budgetary limitations, a single plate can be set for the dead at the supper (same with tealights). While most of my rituals are written for solitary practice, this one easily accommodates shared practice.
A final word of caution: This ritual can be very draining for a variety of reasons. For this reason, I don’t hold fast to a specific date, but try to schedule it when I can have a full day’s recovery time (i.e., no work or other major obligations the next day) or alternatively, break it up over several days.
Since this refrain has been looping through my head all week, perhaps it’s fitting introduction to this month’s Cauldron Blog Project theme: Calendars, Cycles, and Patterns. While I love the idea of spiritual calendars and finding patterns in my work, there are some cycles that are actually detrimental to my practice. The fact that I’m walking around with the above song stuck in my head is a fair indicator that I’m deeply enmeshed in one of those cycles – one in which I find myself scrambling for any scraps of self-love and self-worth that I can find.
The last few weeks have been difficult. Things that are happening now carry the echo of old hurts. Patterns of behavior that began with one or another painful event in the past are being repeated now, much to the detriment of myself and others who would be a part of my life. Seeing these patterns reemerge has given me the chance to see that the tools I used to cope at the time were not – and still are not – the ones that I actually needed to process those events in a way that was healthy. I’ve persevered, but in doing so, caused lasting harm in other ways. In trying to deal with pain in my own ridiculously stubborn and independent way, I have closed myself off from meaningful connections with others, nursed a deep-seated distrust of others’ motives, and created a mental framework that does not allow me to either love or trust deeply. Yes, a few people did some pretty awful things to create this outlook, but I’ve come to realize that while I cannot change what happened, I could have reacted to it in ways that were less self-destructive.
So what to do to break the cycles that are detrimental? Simple: Learn to trust again. Find a way to love that is sustainable and nurturing. Ask for and accept help when I need it instead of insisting that I can handle everything on my own. Communicate what’s happening below the surface, particularly when it involves others. Focus on the rewards of opening myself to others rather than the risks and dangers. Cope with the fallout of what’s happened without withdrawing or shutting down. Admit my own shortcomings and failings without endlessly being plagued with self-doubt. Accept that what has happened cannot be altered, that I can only change the way I react to it. Be wholly present in this world when not actively engaged in shadow or threshold work. Find a way to accept that not having all of these skills already does not make me in fatally flawed or unlovable.
Alright, maybe this isn’t so simple. One step at a time, I think, beginning with enlisting the help of others. I did reach out to other people this week , to ask for general emotional support and to schedule counseling. It doesn’t like much, does it? Such small steps, such giant leaps, to break the cycle.
This is not the post I had intended to write when I sat down yesterday. The post that I’d already composed in my head was about Yule and the longest night of the year. There are other things that need to be said in the wake of yesterday’s events in Connecticut.
To the ferrymen… Ease the journey of those who have fallen, shepherd gently the souls of the innocent, help them cross to a place of peace. To the comforters… Ease the pain of those left behind, hold them closely in your arms, help them to see the life still left. To the fighters… Choose carefully your battles, know that you will not always win, make the progress that you can. To all… Mourn and grieve as you need, and when your tears have dried, take a stand and vow “Never again.”
This world will never be without violence or pain, but the kind of horrific scenes that unfolded yesterday do not need to be a part of anyone’s experience. Do what you can, wherever you are, with the tools you have to prevent another child being lost to violence. Advocate for the solutions that you believe will stop this kind of mindless violence against children. We may not agree on the best solutions or how to achieve them, but until we begin to talk earnestly and honestly about the issue, there can be no hope of ending this nightmare.
“What else could I do? All other avenues were closed to me.”
Phrases like these have been popping up a lot lately. They’re being uttered by people I know who are, to be quite frank, speaking in self-pitying tones about the various situations which they’ve found themselves in, either by accident or by intention. While I do care about the people who are saying these things and can sympathize with anyone who’s going through a rough time, a small but integral part of me wants to pour a large dose of tough love down their throats without benefit of spoonful of sugar as a chaser.
I don’t mean to be callous because I know that times are difficult for a lot of people and that life is not full of rainbows, unicorns, and puppies. I am a person who believes in tough love, though, precisely because I do know that life is so much grittier, uglier, and crueler than most people dare to imagine. I do know what it’s like to find yourself in a miserable situation. I’ve had those real life George Bailey moments of wishing I’d never been born. Been there, done that, and worn the t-shirt until it was threadbare.
There is another thing that I know… barring certain severe cognition problems, there are always choices available. Those choices may not be to our liking, but they are there. Finding a plate full of distasteful food is not the same as finding an empty plate. Yet, we often confuse a lack of palatable choices with an absolute lack of choices. We complain about the lack of option when the reality is that we simply do not like the options in front of us and have failed to find any alternatives.
Even when our choices aren’t readily apparent or seemingly non-existent, we still have a choice open to us – a choice about our attitude toward any given situation. We can chose how we react to the circumstances that are handed to us. There’s no right or wrong answer in our choice, but our choice can make the difference between a smooth path or one filled with obstacles that would have not otherwise existed. With your choice of attitude, you can make mountains from mole hills or shrink mountains to the size of a grain of sand.
Here’s the thing… when we deny that we have a choice in a situation, we are also absolving ourselves for any responsibility for that situation. It makes getting sympathy so much easier when we can convince ourselves that we were merely innocent bystanders who got blindsided by a problem. That makes it okay to sit back and feel bad for ourselves. Look at this terrible thing that’s happened to us. What can we do except lick our wounds and let everyone know how horribly we’ve suffered and how powerless we were to prevent it?
Yet, how often are we innocent bystanders in the problems that crop in our lives? Even when we are blindsided by something totally unexpected (a life-threatening illness for example), we instantly stop being innocent bystanders and become active participants in the situation with choices to make. Denying the availability of options does not negate their existence.
We allow ourselves to become victims when we relinquish responsibility for ourselves and fail to recognize the choices available to us. Is this how we really want to view the world, and in turn, how we want the world to view us, as powerless victims in our own lives? Do we want to be one of those people who aren’t clever, tough, or courageous enough to make the best of a bad situation and to find a way to turn it around? Do we really want to play the victim and deny responsibility for our own attitudes? Or do we want to put on our big girl panties/big boy briefs and deal with the unpleasantness that life hands us in a way that is not destructive to our own psyches, lives, and relationships?
Choices are available to us. First, last, and always we have a choice about our attitude. We can choose to remain crouched miserably in the wreckage of our personal catastrophes or we can rise phoenix-like from the ashes, dust ourselves off, and move on, a little bit tougher, wiser, and stronger. There is no one else who can make that decision for us. It is ours alone for the choosing.
The question is: What choice are you going to make when life throws something unexpected in your path?