Rethinking The Label of Solitary

297 days. That’s how long it’s been since my feet had trod the trail that’s been referred elsewhere in this blog as the Temple of Mud, Sweat, and Blood. Three seasons have come and gone without so much as a single footfall.  Physical incapacity has kept me away from this moving meditation for months; fear has barred my way when physical pain no longer prevented me from returning.

I returned to the Temple of MSB this morning for a slow and cautious hike, as there is still months of recovery before I can contemplate running again.  Today’s return was an act of sacred (but much dreaded) duty.  Not wanting to think too hard about why I’d come back, I focused my attention on the trail itself and some improvements that had been made in my long absence.  It occurred to me for the first time that I’d taken for granted the trail other than as it pertained to my own footsteps upon it.  Someone had come long before me to forge a passable path through wild nature; other hands left trailblazes to guide the way; an unseen army works unceasingly to clear trash and fallen timber; a forest ranger frequently checks the area for anything problematic.  Likewise, my ability to walk today has been the result of so many dedicated folks who made it their jobs to get me back on my feet.  Though I was walking alone through the forest, I could not have claimed this space as my own without the work and assistance of so many people.

I may have entered the woods alone today, but it was  not done as a individual acting in isolation.  Avoiding this particular trail has been an act of cowardice and denial on my part.  It is the place where I first met Sam.  In the days since his passing,  I have felt called there by his spirit. It is a call that I haven’t not wanted to answer, because I felt that I have failed him in this life. Michael ultimately pushed me to answer the call, by reminding me that, in denying Sam, I am failing to do the work that I’m sworn to do.  Damn his eyes for being both correct and logical.  In the end, Sam simply wanted to let me know that he has found the peace that he so desperately sought in life.

As I hiked out of the woods, I had a bit of an epiphany.  While I have long described myself as a solitary practitioner, the term is a misnomer.  As is the case with the Temple of MSB and with my physical well-being, I am not working in spiritual isolation. Ever.  Deities, guides, guardians, gatekeepers, helpers, and human souls are all a part of the work that I do.  Without the ubiquitous others, I could not do the work that has been charged to me.  There is never a time in my work when other sentient beings are not involved, never a moment when interdependence ceases.  Solitary implies that I am walking this path alone.  While the path is my own, I am never alone in my practice, never wholly independent.  Always, someone stands behind me, before me, or at my back, motivating me to continue this work.  For every one of those individuals, I am grateful.

 

(This post was written as a part of the Cauldron Blog Project 2015 for the July theme of Independence/Interdependence.)

 

 

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In Which Sam Eats Crow & Someone Else Gets the Bird

It’s been an interesting week. Interesting as in “May you live in interesting times”. Interesting in a “For the love of all that is good and sacred, make it stop” sort of way.  Interesting as in “Was the universe really so bored that it needed to send all this fuckwittery my way?”

(I’m going to serve up a little rant here. There will be a generous helping of sarcastic humor with a bit of WTF sauce on the side. No birds or spirits were harmed in the writing of this post.  I can’t say the same for the humans. You’ve been warned.)

My friend Michael invited me a picnic earlier this week. It should have been a fun afternoon, hanging out at the lake with a bunch of people, eating barbeque, and relaxing.  It started out that way, just a normal social gathering.  I pride myself in being able to get through my days without setting off anyone’s weird-shit-o-meter. I am also fairly skilled at blending into the background in any social situation.  I almost made it through the entire picnic without so much as a sideways look from anyone.

Almost.

My own internal radar started pinging when the crows showed up.  Crows are common as dirt here, so a random crow doesn’t even warrant notice. Even a dozen crows perching nearby won’t generate any interest.  When several dozen perch in a circle of trees, all turned the same direction without a single vocalization… well, if you need an omen, look no further. One for sorrow, two for joy, but forty-two for what? The life, the universe, and everything? For knowing where your towel is? For a Douglas Adams tribute flight? I don’t actually know how many crows were there, but this is where my brain went while watching them.

As it turns out, the crows were watching a latecomer to the party.  Because the universe has a sick sense of humor, the latecomer was Sam, who I haven’t seen since the “it’s not you” conversation last fall. I forgot about the crows momentarily in anticipation of an awkward reunion.  I expected things to be civil between us, if not a bit short on words and uncomfortable. What I didn’t expect was a confrontation.  When Sam saw me, he came over straight over and promptly start shouting.  We know enough people in common that he has been aware of the happenings in my life over the last few months.  Apparently, he does not agree with my decisions regarding my health and told me so in no uncertain terms while explaining what I ‘need’ to do. Bad idea.

In the process of telling me what he thought of my choices, he brought up and then immediately derided my spiritual beliefs. Really bad idea.

When then I tried to walk away, he demanded that I listen to him and seized my arm to keep me from leaving.  Very. Bad. Idea.

I’m not sure who struck Sam first – me or the crow that dived out of the tree. The crow was still trying to peck at Sam’s face when Michael stepped between us and tried unsuccessfully to shoo it away. Without thinking, I said “stop it” rather more loudly than intended.  The crow squawked once and immediately flew back to its perch in the tree. What followed was dead silence and all eyes on me.  So much for not setting off anyone’s weird-shit-o-meter (really don’t know what the crow thing was about, definitely not my doing). Fortunately, someone cracked a joke about Sam eating crow and the tension evaporated. Humans and crows both managed to get through the rest of the picnic without further incident. Although Sam did get a bit twitchy any time he looked at me or the crows. I think he was wondering which of us was responsible for his bloodied lip.

Sam has since made a half-ass apology for the way he approached the situation. When he expresses regret for his actual words, I’ll consider accepting his apology. Until then, the crows can bloody well have him.  I cannot continue to expend energy on someone who has consistently tried to push me away while at the same time refusing to let me go. I’m certainly not going to invest another minute in someone who disregards my personal sovereignty and attempts to use my own beliefs as a way to insult me. It’s been a fun ride, but I’m getting off now, thank you very much.

As if that drama was not enough, Michael has managed to break my brain. Since we met last Samhain, he’s become a dear friend and source of support and strength through the last few months.  I’ve actually been impressed with the fact that he always taken things in stride, no matter what I’ve thrown at him.  He’s been consistently calm and accepting of whatever is happening.  The weirdness at the picnic only seems to have amused him, as he’s taken to referring to me as “Crow Whisperer” at every opportunity and then laughs until tears are streaming from his eyes, cawing all the while. Did I mention that he’s very mature and reserved?

His laid back attitude was explained at lunch yesterday. When we were parting, a certain guardian of mine made a somewhat obscene but incredibly funny remark.  Michael snorted in response and I nearly fell over when I realized he’d heard the comment. Michael just grinned and said “What? Do you think you’re the only one who can see what others can’t? That you’re the only one on a god’s payroll?”  Bloody hell.  I bow to his ability to avoid setting off people’s weird-shit-o-meters. I was completely blind-sided. Michael escaped before my brain re-engaged, so he still has some explaining to do. So does my guardian. And so do some gods. The rest of the universe might want to chime in as well.

In other news, I had a run-in with a “paranormal investigator”.  There’s a distant cousin many times removed who was interred in this area more than a century ago. I try to get out to his grave at least once a year to grave-tend and leave an offering. When I stopped by this week, the investigator was setting up to film in the cemetery and asked if I would be willing to try to provoke him (the cousin) into “giving a sign”.  I don’t think the sign he got was quite what he was looking for. For some reason, he turned down my generous offer to repeat the sign on camera.  *adjusting my halo so that it doesn’t strangle me*  Bless his little heart,he got so flustered when I was just trying to help.

I’m going to have to stop rolling my eyes now or I’ll end up with a bigger headache than I already have. I’m hoping for a normal week – no shouting, no revelations, no crows, and most importantly, no fuckwittery.  I’m sure that’s too much to ask, but one can dream.

Sunset Blues

The birds sing their farewells to the sun as it slowly sinks below the ridge tops.  Shadows begin to muster for their nightly gathering as the frogs warm up to voice their hymns to the night.  Darkness is held momentarily at bay as the last golden rays float lazily across the valleys.  An ever-cooling breeze brings with it the somnolent sweetness of honeysuckle and the faintest whiffs of woodsmoke from a distant fire. It is the time of day that begs for stories to be told, for the voices of the blessed dead to be heard, and for the living to remember that which has passed.

Evening twilight has always been my favorite time of day but it’s rare that I take the time to watch the light fade from the sky and open myself to the stories wanting to be told.  There are always other priorities, other obligations that must be met. It seems that the more life becomes filled with things to accomplish and do, the further away I move from those things that I find most fulfilling. I have had a tendency to take on projects that aren’t my passion – whether out of a sense of obligation, duty, or just a need to be able to check things off of a to-do list. I broke from this pattern of behavior over the winter, as my focus had narrowed to recovery, rest, and very little else.  Now that I’m getting back to old routines, I find myself again getting wrapped up in the minutiae of to-do lists and projects. As I do so, the same old frustrations creep back into my thoughts.

Much of my discontent with my online life springs from this same source.  As I mentioned in my last post, my first priority was tackling those spaces over which I do not have significant control.  While I may occasionally check in or lurk to read interesting posts, I will be mostly absent from those spaces. Social media will probably also go the way of the dinosaur.  My plan is to continue this blog, assuming I can find both the inspiration and energy to write posts.  If priorities must be made, posting here will need to take a distant second to activities that are directly related to my practice.  It’s a fair trade-off, I think, as it’s hard to write about my path if I’m not actually following it.

This evening, I found myself sitting on a westward facing porch at sunset.  In the fading amber light, fireflies danced and shadows gained substance. The living drank toasts to those who had gone before and drew strength from retelling old stories.  The dead, in their turn, whispered of days past, ensuring that their memories will not soon be forgotten.  In these moments, I am most alive, most aware of the path under my feet.  I would not trade moments like this for all the screen time in the world.

It’s Not Me, It’s Not You, It’s the Ghosts

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.

On Artifacts and Stories

I have had in my custody for the better part of twenty-five years a silver lighter case set with three stones – two turquoise and one coral.  I do not know where exactly it came from, how it was made, or what, if any, value it might actually have.  It dates, I think, to some time in the 1970’s and has certainly seen better days.  There are some dents along the bottom and there is wear from being repeatedly pushed and pulled from pockets during the decades prior to it coming to me.   I do not own this object, but merely am its caretaker.  It resides in its own designated space within my home and is treated to regular polishings.  I use it to light candles of remembrance, as I think that it is important that utilitarian objects be used as they were intended, not simply left to collect dust.

Why does this matter and why am I talking about a battered vintage lighter case on this blog?  Because as I polished the case this week, I realized that, without ever setting out to do so, I have developed a habit of collecting objects that were of value to people have passed away.  These objects tend to be utilitarian, well used, and have little monetary value.  I keep these things because they tell a part of the person’s story and thus preserve the memory of that person.  Without actually ever being directed to do so, I know that it is my job to pass these objects on with the stories of those people who owned them to others who will cherish the stories and keep the memories of those people alive.  It is a part of the work that She demands of me, this honoring of the dead and preserving the continuity of their memories.

As for that battered bit of silver, there is a story there, a history that needs to be preserved.  It speaks a tale of my mentor’s family – a story of a father who abandoned his family, of a lighter case that he owned because it reminded him of a piece of jewelry that his mother had worn years before, of a son whose only link to that absent father was an object accidentally left behind, and of the grandson who grew into adulthood without knowledge of his father’s family.  It is a story of loss and absence, but also of honoring and preserving links to those from which we came.  The case will someday belong to the original owner’s great grandson,  as will the story of his father’s family.  In the meantime, I am the keeper of that object and the guardian of a family history that is not my own, an unwitting preserver of artifacts and stories.

 

 

 

Celebrating the Dead

El Día de los Muertos and Samhain are quickly approaching and this is the season in which the dead are acknowledged and celebrated. Even for those whose spiritual paths do not include either holiday, this time of the year can embrace a celebration for the departed.

Some ideas for celebrating the season:

  • The Memory Circle – This is a gathering of friends and family to celebrate the life of a single individual. Choose a meeting place – private is usually better, as this can be an emotional event. Within your selected space, have everyone sit in a circle. In the middle of the circle, place photos and momentos of the person. Each person at the gathering then shares a personal memory of the deceased. End with a prayer or appropriate closing remarks.
  • A Dumb Supper – “Dumb” in this case means silent. A dumb supper is a feast held in silence to honor of the dead. Solemn and reverent, this can be a moving celebration. To enhance the experience, place pictures of the departed around the table, serve the dishes on black dinnerware, and dine by only candlelight.
  • A Ghost at the Table – If the idea of a dumb supper seems a little intimidating or more than you’re able to do, set an extra place at the table in honor of those who have departed. If you wish, speak to the departed as if they were joining you at the table- tell them the things that you wish to say and invite them to continue to be a part of your life.
  • An Ancestor Shrine – Various cultures have traditions that involve the creation of a shrine to honor one’s ancestors. You can do this yourself by selecting a spot to set up the altar (a small table or shelf works well). Drape with a cloth – black and white are both colors associated with the dead. Place on the altar items that remind you of your ancenstors such as photos and momentos. If you wish, you can include candles, flowers, and other decorations. Regularly spend time focusing on the shrine and the memory of your ancestors.
  • Graveside Picnics – This is a variation on the idea of dining with those who have parted. It is just exactly as it sounds – a picnic held near the graves of loved ones. These gatherings are typically much lighter in mood than dumb suppers and may include libations and offerings of food left at the grave. Please, please be respectful of the rules of individual cemeteries and of other people who may be visiting the graves of their deceased.
  • Memorial Tree – If you are celebrating with others or remembering a large number of people, this idea is a simple way to celebrate if you have a tree with low hanging branches on your property. To do this, you’ll need ribbon, small scraps of paper that have been hole-punched and writing instruments. Have everyone write out a message or memorial to a deceased friend or loved one and then using the ribbon, tie the message to the tree. If there’s a common thread such as those who have died from breast cancer, you can tailor your ribbon and paper colors to reflect this.
  • Offerings for the Deceased – This can be a simple as a libation of water poured onto a grave or a stick of incense burned in memory of the deceased. In some cultures, small stones and pebbles are placed on the the grave. Other offerings can include food, sweets, alcohol, coins, and for children, small toys. Again, if leaving offerings at a grave, please be respectful of any rules or prohibitions that the cemetery may have.

These are just a few ideas. No matter how you celebrate, the important thing to remember is that the dead were valued friends and family members and even now, deserve to be treated as such.

Honoring the Dead

Admittedly, things have been a bit more strange and crazy in my world than they usually are, so it comes as no surprise to me when I forget to do things like taking the trash out to the curb or answering emails. Some things are so ingrained into my spiritual practices that forgetting them would be like forgetting to get up in the morning. One of these practices is to honor the dead who have in some way positively affected my life. Typically, I do this on either on their birthdays or the anniversary of their deaths. For a few individuals, both occasions are honored, as they have influenced me not only with their lives, but with their deaths as well.

Over the weekend, I forgot to celebrate the birthday of one such person, a friend and partner from college named Raven. I woke up this morning after dreaming of him and could not believe that I’d somehow forgotten to honor him on his birthday. Raven had more influence on my spiritual path than anyone else I’ve known, as well as future choices about my life path- boyfriends, sex, emotional openness. Furthermore, it was through Raven that I originally met Andy, who as it has turned out came and went out of my life in that same spectacular, bittersweet way that Raven did. I loved and lost each of them in a relatively short time span and my life after each of their passings has been fundamentally altered. Raven’s death became an excuse to emotionally shut down; Andy’s passing, at least for now, has resulted in my heart reopening to some scary possibilities- like the fact that I am still capable of love, no matter how much I might deny it.

How could I forget to honor someone who has played such a role in my life, someone whose influence continues more than a dozen years after his death, someone who still haunts my dreams? How do you forget someone who quiet literally died in your arms? I didn’t forget because I’ve been too busy or too wrapped up in other thoughts. On the contrary, I’ve thought more about Raven in last two months than I have in the last two years. I also check my book of days on a weekly basis and his birthday is clearly noted there. I remember thinking to myself “Hmm, that’s right. Raven’s birthday is Saturday.” No, I cannot plead the excuse that it had completely slipped my mind.

The answer is simple, I think, as to why I failed to offer up prayers and burn a white candle as is my normal ritual…. I don’t need Raven anymore. I no longer need to hold on to the feelings I had for him and the feelings that I had because of him. For too long, he held a venerated place in my mind, a sort of martyrdom for having loved me and for dying at a young age. I hate to admit it, but he could do no wrong in my memories. Interestingly it was our mutual friend, Andy, who gave me a new perspective on Raven, who after all these years, told me some hard truths about the man I thought I knew. Andy opened my eyes to Raven’s flaws, let me see him as a human being again.

We’ve come full circle now, Raven and I. Our work here is done, at least as far as each other are concerned. I have finally let go of all that he was to me and his influence on my life has essentially come to an end. It’s not that I don’t feel appreciative of Raven, but I no longer feel that I need to offer my time and energy in honoring him. I don’t need to be tied to that part of my past any longer. I’ll burn one last candle for him and let him go… for good.