Happy Samhain. Happy ‘Year of Less’.

The sun’s down – so blessed Oíche Shamhna to you. :)

This afternoon, rushing home (with a bag full of apples) in a tightly-timed attempt to ensure I was indoors before dark, I started pondering how I’ve developed this strange mix of Samhain customs over the past six or seven years. In my attempt at developing my own style of Gaelic polytheism, little things start to resonate, inspired by community or folklore (or other places entirely). They become part of the mix. Things like not setting foot outside the bounds of my land from sundown to sun-up on Samhain Eve; burning a candle in the window all night; replacing my Brighid’s cross with a rowan cross for protection through the winter; a sacred fire…

This is a time of the ancestors, but it’s also a time of many other things. The final harvest is brought in; the Good Folk are abroad; Cailleach Bhearra is reborn from stone onto sand; the Nightmare Queen stands with one foot on land and one in water, waiting for the Good God.

Around these central mythic moments turn my Samhain/Lá Samhna customs.

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Hag Stone, Beara Peninsula, Ireland – associated with Cailleach Bhearra

Now comes November.
my birth time, and white ribs of tide
uproot the silence of the bay.

Today I break from stone onto sand,
motherless, my mother a stone
bedding the earth and dreaming my image.

– ‘Birth’, Leanne O’Sullivan

She is reborn. Everything changes.

October is about cleansing, changing, reforming, making ready for Oíche Shamhna (Samhain Eve). Spaces: altars have been redesigned and redecorated. Spirit: Work has been done on lots of things, mostly to do with casting off the old and getting ready to let in the new. Self: I’ve been doing a lot of work to sort out a myriad of health problems this month, have managed to get pretty deep into my thesis draft, and feel like I’m at least plodding on through the swamp, even if it’s all rather a struggle still.

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Oiche Shamhna ritual setup. Will attempt to keep a candle burning all night. It is at least *near* a window!

The Samhain wreath on my door is synthetic – and beautiful, and made by someone else. (I support local and small-scale artists wherever possible.) I’d love it if I had the time (and fine motor control) to make my own. But my hands don’t work well, and I’m spending pretty much every minute I’m awake drafting my PhD (100,000 words due by February). So, purely symbolic it has to be. #MyDisabledPolytheism

I managed to completely fail to collect any rowan today, too, rushed as I was doing other prep. That can be tomorrow, I reckon.

On Oíche Shamhna itself, the most consistent thing I do is putting a candle in the window, to signal to the dead that they may come in and rest. My religious path is offerings-focused, so offerings to the gods, the spirits, the ancestors and the Good Folk are important. So is having a fire, if I can, but I can’t always. (I can try this year.) Everything else will probably be suggested by those whose time of year it is – Morrigan, Dagda, Beara – or it won’t. It can be a good night for divination for the coming year, or sometimes that works better at Midwinter. (I’d love to hear what other Gaelic polytheists do on the night itself, if any are reading…)

I always have a serious time of chaos around this time of year – She is about to be reborn, and so things fall apart before they can come back together in new, more coherent, better ways. Earthquake and fire and blood, before the new landscape emerges. Then, between Oíche Shamhna and Midwinter, things tend to get pleasantly quiet. This year I’m looking forward to that. My poor little mind has been broken for a few months now (hence my absence from online discussion, which is probably going to continue). It wants a rest. (I just got a new medication for anxiety that I’m somewhat hopeful about. I’m asking some relevant saints of health for help with that. We shall see.)

And Happy New Year to those who celebrate Samhain as such. I do, but sort of by accident – since it coincides with the beginning of a new academic year. This is going to be my Year of Less. A year to nurture my barely-flickering little Dark Flame. This is the year where I say No a lot more. This is the year when I say No to being being involved with things where I’m marginalised, or able-splained at constantly, or which cause me anxiety… say No to trying to be something I’m not (yes, I can do this polytheism/Paganism thing entirely my own way)… say Yes to speaking only my truth… and say Yes to creating only things that are honourable and beautiful. I want more time for things I want to do: go to gigs, and take my scooter around the wilder, weirder parts of London, and maybe see people I want to see (but let myself be alone as much as I want to be, without judging my little anti-social self too much). I want to read tarot and Ogham, and play a bit. I want to have my fifth or six attempt at learning Hebrew (you can’t give up till you’re at, like, 20 failures – that is Official). Most of all, I want to write my thesis, and I want to tell people that, No, I don’t have to do things they want me to do that will give me less time for that thesis…

At least, that’s the plan. :P

Oíche Shamhna Shona Daoibh. Blessings of Samhain to you and yours. Blessings on your ancestors. Blessings on your year to come.

(Pt 2:) My Polytheism

There’s a beautiful trend happening. People are writing about their polytheisms, people whose polytheistic practices are diverse, varied, multiple, weird, different from what we’re told (recently) that polytheism ‘should’ be. (See Jack’s post here, and Kiya’s post here, and the wonderful My Polytheism blog which is collecting a lot of this writing – and I hear that Jolene Poseidonae wants more people to contribute to it!)

Like a lot of these brilliant writers, I have been really concerned by the gatekeeping and crypto-fascist stuff coming out of those who would paint themselves as ‘leaders’ of polytheism. As though it were a cult and they were the gurus. As though it were a singular religion, with rules that we all share, and which they can write.

For me, part of this mess has been positive. My Lady is pointing me at the roots of modern cultural polytheisms – roots which are mostly nationalistic and fascist, if we are completely honest – and asking me if that’s what I want to be part of, even as it moves beyond that. For that history will always be with it. I’m thinking about that, and it may take some time. These things can be transformed, She says – but is that the Work you want to do?

Because you see, my gods are not particularly bothered how I worship them and what I call myself. And my ancestors definitely aren’t. It’s for you, they whisper, and I, barely hearing them, shake my head like I were brushing off flies, and pour out my offerings on shrines that Irish gods never had, and that they certainly don’t have now. And what paltry offerings they are – whiskey and mead and scraps of food.

And they don’t mind – it’s what I need. And I believe they appreciate those little offerings, paltry as they are. But there’s a sense that, when I’m ready, there are far bigger things waiting for me outside the four walls of the room that houses my shrines to the beings of Light that dwell in the secret places of the land. And far, far bigger things waiting for me beyond the four walls of my current ways of thinking and doing and worshipping.

My gods do not live in any shrine inspired by modern polytheism. No offering of whiskey is enough for them, and no trinkets that remind me of them could ever fill the deep, dark spaces they have made in my heart.

Then what do you want? I ask, perturbed, frustrated.

You, whispers Beara, my dark Lady, whom I had the gall to name myself, whose tales I have twisted as she has led me to, in whom I have found a depth of chaos and justice that no constructs of ‘ancient lore’ can describe. For it can only be found in the places she dwells – in the wind in the trees, at the seashore in a storm, on a wild island, on the mountain. And in the deepest pool of chaos, beneath the Tree.

Anything (and everything) you want, says Dovinia, ancestress-goddess who crosses divides between land and people, and finds me lost, somewhere in the depths between.

The Adventure, winks Manannan mac Lir, who does not care if I put the accents on the right places in his name, for all names and stories could only ever be an echo of the sound of the sea on the rocks in a mighty storm – and a wry, friendly fisherman watching from the shore in a bright yellow hat, so easy to miss in the heavy rain. He offered me a box once and asked if I wanted to open it. I’m not sure I’ve even cracked the lid yet.

They ask me to challenge the deepest parts of myself that do not want to offer hospitality to the stranger (or wants to fetishise them* until my hospitality is far more about me than about them). The parts of me that withdraw into tribal instincts – where what is mine must stay pure and unsullied by others, and what is yours must be mine if I think it is good, and condemned as alien and wrong if I do not. The parts of me that are racist, colonialist, internally and externally disablist, internally and externally homophobic, transphobic, classist, elitist… the list goes on. The parts of me that secretly like that most of my gods are Irish and that I rarely venture out to meet others. That I rarely look beyond my little boxes. That I call myself a thing and ignore how it oppresses others. Because to look at that oppression is difficult, and may involve Work that I’m just too tired to do. (The parts of myself that use ‘I’m too tired’ as an excuse far, far too often.) They call me to challenge all these things in me, for only then can I even begin to challenge them in others.

This is my offering.

They ask me to give all of myself to a cause without end, from the depths of my frustration and pain, in disability campaigning that alienates me from my community – and leaves me deeply hurt, unsure if I should go on with such work that makes people stand against me, vocally, if very boringly. But I will, because order needs chaos, rising up from the dark pool beneath the Tree, or nothing ever changes. And Beara nods, and approves – but only long enough to ask for more.

This is my offering.

And they ask me to do the most simple things, that are the most difficult. Continuing to show up, even in the too-bright, scorching days of a summer ruled by Balor, where my world and my mind feels like it is falling apart. Keeping going, when the doctors are unkind and unhelpful, when the university administration is neglectful to the point of my desperation, when the mountain of work is terrifying to look up at. To keep pulling out that next transcript to analyse, Cuchullain-like (but with no super-strength to help). To accept the many gifts that They give me. To believe my spouse loves me. To keep lighting the candle on the shrine – because that is what I need, and my need is great.

This is my offering.

My polytheism is social justice. My polytheism is critical theory. My polytheism is Hannah Arendt and bell hooks and Sara Ahmed and Robert McRuer and Rosemarie Garland-Thompson and Sharon Betcher and Nancy Eiesland. My polytheism is stories – sharing the stories of those who are not heard, because my privilege means my voice is louder, and this is what I can do. My polytheism is research into disability and Christianity, that I have never walked away from in six long years, through circumstances having forced me to attend three universities, all of which have made it very hard to work as a disabled student – because I made a commitment, and because the stories of my participants need to be told. My polytheism is hospitality, keeping my vows, showing up, and really trying hard not to raid the cattle of others.My polytheism is the modern stories that inspire me that I am afraid others will laugh at, and so I relegate my feelings about those to other places, and pretend I am not inspired by Buffy and Angel and X-Men and Night Vale and a reimagined Narnia where a queen calls to me. My polytheism is not even sure it’s all that different from monotheism, some days, when the voice of the One whispers through and in the voices of the Many. My polytheism simply is, a belief in many gods, because many gods made themselves known to me. And oh, how they made themselves known!

My polytheism is nothing like yours. And that’s OK. It’s good. It’s beautiful.

Now please – tell me about yours?

(Don’t worry – part 3, on disability, miasma and polytheism, is still on the way… :) )

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Image: ‘Bright Flame’ shrine. Images of Brighid and Our Lady Breaker of Chains, with flowers (from my garden) and candles, plus memorial and inspirational items.

*Currently reading Sara Ahmed on the fetishisation of the stranger. I recommend it.

An hour in the life of a… priestess?

Blogging Priestess series: #1

Now playing:

Woke up this morning and the streets were full of cars
All bright and shiny like they’d just arrived from Mars.
And as I stumbled through last night’s drunken debris
The paperboy screamed out the headlines in the street:
Another war and now the pound is looking weak,
And tell me have you read about the latest freak?
We’re bingo numbers and our names are obsolete –
Why do I feel bitter when I should be feeling sweet?

Hello, hello – turn your radio on
Is there anybody out there? Help me sing my song
Life is a strange thing
Just when you think you learn how to use it’s gone…

Woke up this morning and my head was in a daze
A brave new world had dawned upon the human race,

But words are meaningless and everything’s surreal –
Going to have to reach my friends to find out how I feel.
And if I taste the honey is it really sweet?
And do I eat it with my hands or with my feet?
Does anybody really listen when I speak,
Or will I have to say it all again next week?

Hello, hello – turn your radio on
Is there anybody out there? Tell me what went wrong
Life is a strange thing
Just when you think you learn how to use it’s gone…

– Hello, Shakespears Sister*

The Morning

“We’re bingo numbers and our names are obsolete…”

This morning I woke up crying. (This isn’t a rarity for me, although the further we get into medical explorations of my sleep disorder, the more I’m very occasionally allowed a few sleeping pills, and that helps. I’ll sleep better tonight. Not so many of those pesky dreams.)

Then I went onto Facebook and twitter to check that none of my disabled friends are (more) suicidal (than usual) today from battling in the long war society is raging against us. I remember when I used to go onto Facebook and twitter to procrastinate from work. Now I can’t go near them a lot of the time, for fear of what I’ll read – ‘benefits’ measures get ‘stronger’, and we are pushed ever further towards the edge of the cliff. Falling off, one by one.

Next: remembering that I have no support worker this morning. (There’s only so much money for these things.) I pondered how (if) I was going to have a shower today. (I have so much more running/hot water privilege than almost everyone else on the planet. I must not let myself feel self-pitying about having to go some days without. But still.)

Then I remembered that I won’t get any help making breakfast and lunch today, what with absence of support worker, and considered my various lifehacks that resist a society that creates our vulnerability and refuses to support us through it. These are usually linked to my financial privilege, because it’s what I have that can help make this life work — I go to a cafe, park close to the door, struggle in, and let the low-paid exploited precariat compensate for a stripped-away welfare system (that our parents knew would last forever), and do my privileged, non-manual knowledge work. We oppress and are oppressed. It’s the way of this world and its systems… for now.

Then I finally get to thinking through the state of my body. It hasn’t been doing well recently. Over the past couple of weeks I have done a lot of driving to meet people, to help people, to be with people. I helped a friend whose father has died to clear out his house, just for a couple of days (I really wished I was up to staying longer). I wouldn’t change that, though, despite how much pain I’m now in. My friend is disabled herself. Most of her friends are disabled. We come, and we probably cause far more problems than we solve, but we give our bodies as an offering to the causes of friendship and resistance against oppression. And then an email from a family member who is going into hospital and who I want to help… and thoughts turn to other family members and friends I would like to support far better than I do, or just to offer more time and energy to sustain our friendship… There is a sense in which I do much of this bodily harm to myself, willingly and knowingly. (Oh how the DWP would love to hear that.) But only because I insist on maintaining my integrity and links to community in a world where systems of disability oppression are self-sustaining. Systems of oppression are embodied, not abstract. They break us, again and again. We carry on.

Then my partner sends me a message about a clarification on government policy on disability ‘benefits’ (they come across these things in their job), and I’m crying again. Because I may have to write that 40+ page application to renew my ‘benefits’ at exactly the same time I have to hand in my thesis. It’s a kind of strange irony – or is it the opposite? The famously appalling benefits process (that destroys lives and self-esteem and leads to suicide, that disability scholars and activists and many others have critiqued in much detail, to little effect) may catch up with me (again) just when I am trying to make my dent in these systems, my little attempt at critiquing oppression. That I will be most degraded by the state, for its own very conscious purposes, at a time when I will be on the last push to get out my biggest stab at resistance against this stuff. It’s… oddly fitting. And fits this government’s ideology perfectly.

The Moment

And now here I am in my shrine room (well, the shrine corner of my office). And because of all the chaos in my life at the moment, it currently looks like this.

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I was hoping to meditate. I don’t know how effective that will be.

On the other hand. I honour a deity of Chaos. And whenever I try to be tidy, to go with the mainstream, to stay in control, she swallows the ground beneath me and vomits up a new mountain. I die and am reborn every thousand years. I come from stone, and to stone I shall return. Either follow in the wake of my blast, or get out of the way.

And everything shifts into a bigger perspective.

The Concept

I am pondering the concept of ‘priestess’ at the moment – planning to start a new blog series here on it very soon. I am thinking about issues such as: is this a gender-essentialist concept? Is this a female-subjugating archetype? Can a Jungian archetypal approach to the Work ever be a useful one? What about the connection of ‘priest’ and its variants to hierarchy – does that have any relevance anymore, and does it continue to oppress the powerless? And, then, if any of these can be resolved in any meaningful way: what is the Work of a priestess?

And so I stand in front of an incredibly messy shine made with human hands to a distant deity who lives in a mountain and who often pays little attention to the fragile creations of people — but who also, right now, sees the mess of boxes all around it, and approves of them far more than the pretty trinkets. The boxes that are full of things that I am ebaying for the aforementioned friend who can’t deal with them herself. That speak of the Work of – whatever I am. When I claim the space of a priestess, I don’t call on the hierarchical associations of the term — I am an anarchist (of a sort) who walks in the shadows. Nor the female/gendered ones — I am non-binary, autigender, gender-binary-rejecting, and aim to be non-essentialist in all things gender. Maybe none of these oppressive associations can be extracted from the term now. But there’s something there that has always worked better than ‘witch’ (I’m not magical enough), than ‘druid’ (I’m not white-robed-respectability enough), or any of those identities that can be reclaimed for better things than they once intended. Its shadow side speaks of standing with and for communities and lone liminal people living on the margins, shouting at the forces we call gods for support in our cause, walking alongside those who have no one to walk with them, and calling down symbolic power that was always already within us. I want to know if this archetype can be radicalised, can be useful for liminal people. But ultimately, if it can’t, the term matters far less than the Work.

I take a breath, and start on the Work again.

When you’re standing by the roadside
And it’s a long way to go
Ah, to carry me
to carry me, friend

Together in this mad land
far from truest of hands
well I’ll carry you
if you’ll carry me, friend
Oh, carry me…

If we can take the time
we’ll build ourselves a road
from what we know
each take our part
and now’s the time to start

Carry Me, The Levellers

 

*Thanks to Cat Treadwell for reminding me about this song, which was on repeat for much of my teens. Oh look, it’s on repeat again.

31 Days of Offerings – Days 20-22: Attack of the Migraines

So I have totally failed to do any extended offerings for the past few days. I’ve been attempting to maintain my very brief offerings and practice – a hearth lantern lit with a prayer for protection for my house, candlelight for Beara and Duibhne, little offerings to the Good Folk.

And I’ve had one slightly more intense encounter with a goddess in which I whined about no one knowing her properly… which I’ll get to soon.

Mostly, though, I’ve been busy warring with the migraines all day, and too tired to do anything at night. I’ve been plagued with episodes of chronic daily migraine for years now. Just when I get them under control with a new medication for a few months, the medication stops working, and round I go again with daily torture for a few weeks (longer if I’m unlucky). I can’t work, write or think. It completely sucks.

Such is the world in which we live, though. We’re privileged to be human, to be creatures of the earth. I don’t hold to all that ‘spiritual being having a human experience’ stuff. I rather think ‘spiritual’ is a Cartesian dualistic social construction we created in order to pretend that one part of our lives was special but the rest of it wasn’t. While that might have made the special stuff seem extra-special, it did nothing for the valuing of the rest of our lives. I want to value every part of my messy, physical, real human life. 

Even the migraines.

(I think.)

31 Days of Offerings – Day 19: Surprising Offerings – Sound, Song and Speech

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Singing!

Tonight I thought it was about time to pull a new Ogham fid, to set the tone for the next few days of offerings. I pulled Muin, the fid I associate with communication, words, music.

Photo: 'Muin' Ogham fid - card from the Celtic Tree Oracle pack

Photo: ‘Muin’ – card from the Celtic Tree Oracle pack

So then I suddenly find myself singing. I grab my bodhran, and out come both tune and words, in several verses:

Come, blessed Ladies, and gather around
As I sing a story without word or sound,
The world recreated as it resounds,

A song from the sea and the sky and the ground.

There’s even a penny whistle accompaniment! There’s more of it to come, about speaking the lost stories of the unheard, but I need to sit down and work with the snatches of lines I got while playing.

Singing!

Well, I did say that my shrines were there to tell my deities’ stories.

“Open your mouth and speak…” For silence is the gateway of oppression, but stories break down the walls.

Or, as Bonhoeffer put it (much better than me): Silence in the face of evil is itself evil. Not to speak is to speak. Not to act is to act. Dietrich Bonhoeffer, 1906–1945

31 Days of Offerings – Day 17-18: Community Redefined

31 Days of Offerings(1)

Offerings don’t have to be a solely Pagan affair. We do too much separatism, for people who claim to believe that the world itself is sacred.

Last weekend I was heavily involved in helping to run this conference (see also here, where a group that participated has reviewed it), for which I’ve been on the planning committee most of this year (and I do a lot of their publicity, and was their social media person, and tweeted on the day, and, and…). I’m still recovering! I’ve not really talked about this much in Pagan circles, because, well, Christian.

But I grew up in a Christian context (actually I was about 30 when I left church), and I believe my Wyrd is tied to that community. It is part of my Work. I’m not doing a PhD on Christianity and disability for my health (and definitely not for my wallet). I believe I have a calling, and activism around disability and churches is part of that calling.

Photo: St Martin-in-the-Fields church, London

Photo: St Martin-in-the-Fields church, London

Other offerings I give to a broad interfaith local community include inter-faith educational work, work with the Druid Network, and various other things that I do with the aim of improving dialogue between religious communities and serving the local community generally.

Ultimately, as well as an offering to the people around me, this is also an ancestor offering. Most of my ancestors were Christians. Social justice and Christianity was important to many of them, I gather from stories told about a few of them.

My exploration of the story of Narnia and its less-acceptable characters is all part of this tangled web of a spiritual-religious journey that never ends. My relationship with a very liminal deity probably is too.

I am a proud non-active Anglican (while also a polytheist and modern druid), living on the edge of the community that is itself living on the edge of the churches: the community of disabled Christians. Religion isn’t always about belief. In fact, in most of the world, it isn’t really. We’ve taken American evangelicalism and tried to apply it to Paganism as well as to every other religion in the world – but religion for most people is about action, much more than belief. Do the stuff. Embody your practice. Be.

Liminality. It’s not just about Otherworlds. ;)

31 Days of Offerings – Day 16: Something For Nothing?

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I have been praying to St Cajetan on behalf of a friend.

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‘Our Lady Breaker of Chains’

Novenas (nine-day prayers) to saints are something I’ve been doing for many years. I’ve long since moved past the theology of it, past wondering whether my prayers will be heard, or asking why they would be. I do know that the offering is a bit of a struggle. Half way through the second ‘Our Father’ I’m usually getting a bit bored. By the third ‘Glory Be’ I’ve either started heading towards mystical union with the divine, or I’ve fallen asleep. It varies.

These days I see novenas as a ‘do ut des’ thing, a ‘deal’ made with spiritual ancestors, with them watching the content of my character as I ask them for something… “Are you honourable enough? Are you dedicated enough?”

I give that you may give. Asking something for nothing is not good for community, or for me. The offering I give in exchange for the saint’s favour may be words, perseverence, steadfastly remembering a friend, or candlelight… I’m not sure where the offering to the saint starts and the gift to the friend begins.

And all of that pales when I start to realise that the shaping of my own character is the greatest gift, and I’m giving it to myself.