21 March 2016

Safe Space

Over the last few weeks I’ve had several issues of safe space and hospitality come up in my participation in the Pagan and Polytheist communities.  As both a community organizer and participant, this is an issue near and dear to my heart.  I’ve got some things to say about it and in the end it’s all about respect.

True safe space does not just tolerate the “other” but actually makes space for them where they can be comfortable.  True safe space actively protects those that might otherwise be ostracized or victimized.  In some Pagan communities this has been confused with “space where everyone thinks like me and we happen to all be part of the same minority that gets oppressed elsewhere.”  This most often manifests in as anti-christian or anti-conservative talk in otherwise non-political groups (if you say you’re a liberal/progressive/social justice/activist group right out front then politic away).  Just because you know the majority of a group of people feels a particular way about an issue doesn’t mean that everyone feels that way, and boy howdy there is no better way to make that lone dissenter feel isolated and unwelcome than to loudly condemn anyone who could possible be so foul as to think that way.  This is not what we’re here for people.  There are whole organized groups that live to ostracize us, let’s not do their jobs for them. 

We need to actively work on creating real safe space.  We have all screwed up at some point and said or done something that has made someone else unwelcome and we need to put on our big kid pants and do something about it.  Enough of this “boys will be boys,” “but I said I was sorry” bullshit.  Take responsibility for your actions people.  Just because you didn’t mean to hurt/trigger/threaten/offend someone doesn’t take away from the fact that you did so.  Harm is not something a perpetrator gets to decide on.  Harm is a subjective experience determined by the person experiencing it.  Sometimes that harm is obvious and understandable, sometimes you have to squint and twist yourself like the Gordian Knot to figure out what the hell happened.  Regardless, if someone says you violated their safe space then you did so and need to accept the consequences.  That means genuinely admitting wrongdoing (or genuinely working to understand why your victim felt harmed and then sincerely apologizing for that harm) and working on making sure it doesn’t happen again.  Safe space has to be maintained with sincerity by everyone in it or it falls apart. 

In any community a balance needs to be struck between the needs of the many and the needs of the few.  Creating true safe space doesn’t mean letting everyone in and treating them equally.  Safe space means we agree on who gets to be in that space, how people need to behave in that space towards each other, and then taking the necessary steps to ensure that people hold to that.  Making space for a victim and then making equal space for their abuser is not safe space.  Certain folks need to be actively protected in order for the space to be safe for them.  Certain behaviours are not compatible with the existence of safe space. Sometimes that means gently reminding folks one how they agreed to behave when they entered safe space.  Sometimes that means kicking people out who don’t respect the space and what it stands for.  Safe space doesn’t come to be just because you declare it so; safe space is an active working that requires effort and attention in order to truly manifest. 

That also means not bending and twisting everything you do for over sensitive individuals.  In the legal world we identify certain folks as having an “eggshell skull.”  These are folks that come to a situation with certain preexisting conditions that make them especially vulnerable to harm.  We want our communities to be safe space for people that come to us with their own personal demons, but we can only go so far to accommodate them while still accommodating everyone else.  We cannot create the perfect environment for everyone - it’s just not possible.  To go too far to satisfy any one individual is disrespectful to the others present whose needs end up pushed to the wayside or worse.  We need to do our best to create safe and hospitable environments, but we also need to accept that we’re not perfect and we just can’t account for every possible need that might come up.

Respect.  This is what it comes down to in the end.  You can believe in whatever you want to believe in, but when it comes to your actions in community you need to respect yourself and those around you.  Community requires mindful action that fulfills your own needs while not infringing upon the needs and experiences of others while they do the same for you.  This is not a quick and easy issue to resolve.  It will take each and every one of us working hard and being mindful of our actions in order to create real safe space in our communities, but it is work worth doing.  Respect yourself, respect others, respect the community. 

21 October 2015

On Offerings and Sacrifice

Over the last few weeks I’ve been thinking a lot about my relationships with the deities and spirits that I work with on a regular basis.  I’m always looking for ways to strengthen and be more authentic in my relationships with my allies.  During this time of the year the walls between the mundane and metaphysical parts of reality are thin and I feel a lot closer to my non-corporeal allies, making it easier than usual to do workings with them.  That makes this time of year a great one for doing a working specifically designed to strengthen those relationships.  One of the easiest traditional way to improve a relationship with a metaphysical being of any kind (deity, spirit, ancestor, fae, etc.) is to give them some kind of offering or sacrifice.

An intricate handmade candle makes for a decent offering.

Let’s take a moment to think about what exactly offerings and sacrifices really are.  Some sources might use the terms offering and sacrifice interchangeably – as they are both something that you give to a being as a gesture of appreciation, supplication, or appeasement.  However, I find a crucial distinction between them – what they mean to you as the person giving them.  The way I look at it, an offering is something you give a being that you know they want.  One traditionally offers things like incense, favorite foods, flowers, energy, attention, etc.; things that tradition or gnosis tells us that the being we’re making offerings to wants from us.  An offering doesn’t really have to mean anything to you personally, it just has to be pleasing to the one you’re offering it to.  A sacrifice is something that is meaningful to the one doing the sacrifice that is being given up in a way that it takes away from the sacrificer in favor of the one being sacrificed to.  You do this as a sign or devotion or respect; essentially putting the needs ot the recipient above your own.  For example, if I, as a non-smoker, make an offering of tobacco to Baron Samedi (something that he is known to enjoy) I am offering him the tobacco and sacrificing the money used to purchase it.  However, if I were a smoker and was giving the Baron some of my favorite tobacco I would be both offering and sacrificing the tobacco itself – as the Baron wants it and I am giving up my own use of it.  Basically, an offering is something you give because the receiver wants it and a sacrifice is something that you’re giving up in order to show how important the one being sacrificed is to you.

Different beings and different types of beings often have preferences for the offerings and sacrifices they receive.  Some entities want offerings and don’t seem to have much of an opinion on whether they involve a sacrifice.  In my experience, ancestors and many fae appreciate offerings but don’t really care whether a sacrifice is involved in procuring them.  Other entities place great importance on sacrifice, sometimes to the point where the amount of sacrifice is more important than the suitability of what’s being sacrificed.  For example, some deities or spirits enjoy when a supplicant makes a vow of austerity (e.g. I will forgo consuming alcohol for a month) because of the devotion this shows, even though it doesn’t really give anything concrete to them.  This is most common with deities that demand explicit showings of devotion and spirits that want you to abstain from something for your own good.

In the past I’ve given a lot of offerings but haven’t really made many sacrifices.  Sure, I buy high quality incense to offer and go out of my way to get the good rum for the Baron, but I honestly don’t see that as much of a sacrifice.  The only time I really feel like I’m giving something up is when I offer really good food.  I have a tremendous amount of respect for the many allies that have helped and continue to help me and I feel like they deserve more from me than a bit of incense and burned beeswax.  Most traditional offerings are things that everyday people had around the house, that they used on a regular basis, and that those without excess income would miss: food, alcohol, herbs and spices, etc.  In my comfortable suburban existence giving up a bite of food or a pinch of dried herbs doesn’t really feel like a sacrifice.  I don’t really drink, so I could pour out a whole bottle of liquor without much pause (unless it was super expensive).  I have a fair number of little luxuries in my life: fine food, high quality tea and treats, electronics, toys, etc., that might make a more authentic sacrifice than more traditional offerings.  I particularly enjoy having a cup of fine tea and a sweet in the afternoon, so sharing that would be much more of a sacrifice to me than a shot of tequila.  Another good sacrifice would be putting my phone and iPad on my altar for an hour or two and not touching them or my computer (I have a media addiction.  This should shock no one.).  Of course, if I were to ask for a big favor the sacrifice would have to be larger and more meaningful.  For everyday offerings, something small should suffice.

Some of the finest chocolate you can get 'round these parts

I feel like one should find a balance with offerings and sacrifice.  It’s important to offer spirits/deities/etc. things that they want.  It’s also important to make a show of effort/sacrifice in the making of those offerings.  If the offerings your allies want are things that you want as well then they can easily be both offerings and sacrifices, but if they aren’t then you should go the extra mile to also offer something that is a sacrifice to you.  For me that means I’ll give the Baron his weekly shot of rum and pinch of tobacco while also sacrificing some dragonwell tea and a bit of organic fair trade dark chocolate or a macaron.  It also means that when I make offerings to the ancestors I’ll be sure to give them things I like or things that required my own effort to make, not just purchase (think baking cookies vs. buying them).  It doesn’t have to be a lot, and it doesn’t have to be every day, but adding a bit of real sacrifice to regular offerings makes them more meaningful and a lot less routine. 

07 October 2015

Santa Muerte and Cultural Appropriation

Possibly the most popular folk saint in Mexico, Santa Muerte is rapidly gaining popularity in the US.  As you might imagine, the spread of her popularity amongst non-Mexicans has brought up the issue of cultural appropriation. 

Last Sunday I had the pleasure of giving a lecture on Santa Muerte down at the Spooked in Seattle Metaphysical market.  I opened my lecture by clearly stating that while I am Latina, I am not Mexican and am in no way an authority on Santa Muerte.  The only leg up I've got on anybody else coming from the US is that I understand Spanish well enough to read primary sources on her.  I've been working with her on and off for about five years now and have been working with her heavily for the at least the last two.  I feel like I have a pretty good handle on how to work with her respectfully and without being culturally appropriative.  

Santa Muerte is a uniquely Mexican figure.  While her origin myths vary pretty substantially depending on who's doing the telling, they all agree that she is 100% indigenous to Mexico.  She is very much "of the people."  She is also the ultimate in egalitarianism - death comes to us all.  It is for this reason she has essentially become the patron of the marginalized, forgotten, and reviled.  She's a saint for working days.  For many of Mexico's underclasses she is the only sacred figure they feel they can come to in their times of need, the only one that will listen to them.  As you might imagine, Santa Muerte's followers sometimes feel rather possessive of her.

In many respects Santa Muerte belongs to the Mexican people, but that doesn't mean you have to be Mexican to work with her.  It does mean that you have to be extremely respectful of her cultural context.  Santa Muerte is a folk saint.  As such, much of her established liturgy is made of variants to traditional Catholic worship: rosaries, novenas, masses, etc.  If you're comfortable with Christian iconography you can go ahead and use the published prayers that you can easily find for her online (try SantaMuerte.org).  If Hail Marys and Our Fathers aren't really your thing (and boy howdy are they NOT my thing), you can probably find variants on the traditional prayers that will work for you.  If you understand Spanish I highly recommend performing any prayers/petitions/etc in Spanish. 

What I do not recommend is taking Santa Muerte out of her traditional context and plugging her into an existing Pagan framework.  If you do your homework before trying to work with Santa Muerte you will learn that she doesn't really work with others.  She likes to have her own altar, her own workings, and she likes things a certain way.  Just because other Death figures you may work with are partial to offerings of rotting meat does not mean such offerings are suitable for Santa Muerte. 

Further, do not - under ANY circumstances - syncretize Santa Muerte with other death spirits or deities.  While there are certainly mythological similarities between Santa Muerte, Hecate, Hel, and other underworld figures does not mean you can exchange them for one another.  Gods, spirits, saints, and other metaphysical personalities are unique beings and cannot simply be substituted for one another.  All such figures deserve the respect of you doing your homework on them and figuring out what they like and how they want you to work with them.  Don't be the horrible uncle that always gives you presents that your big sister would like because, "Hey you're both girls, so you must like the same things right?"  Don't be that guy.

If you want to work with Santa Muerte take the time to do your research beforehand.  Be respectful of the culture she comes from and the established liturgies and workings that are already in use.  Be sincere in your workings with her.  Don't make assumptions about her based on how similar figures from other pantheons would behave.  Treat her right and Santa Muerte will be an amazing ally.  Fuck around with her at your peril.

30 August 2015

Scary Gods

In recent days I've come to the conclusion that a lot of people don't really know what to do with scary deities.  When I say scary deities I mean Gods that are generally known for being harsh, deceptive, dangerous, petty, violent, or even cruel.  As someone who works, almost exclusively, with scary deities I have rather strong feelings about how these deities should be treated by those that want to work with them. 

This whole thought process was kicked off last month at Many Gods West.  I went to an amazing workshop called "Winning the War," presented by Sobekneferu.  The presentation was about looking at deities whose stories are told by their antagonists and how that has skewed our perceptions of them.  The main ideas boiled down to the necessity of being aware of the cultural filters through which the stories of the old Gods have been passed down to us.  A lot of the villains in our mythologies were actually the Gods of cultures that were antagonistic to the ones that told the stories, and thus were demonized - often for political reasons.  For example, I work with Cailleach who is the rather nasty Goddess of winter and death in Celtic mythology.  However, looking deeper into her history one finds that she was actually the predominant Goddess of an earlier Celtic culture that was conquered by the one whose stories have come down to us.  By being aware of this one can better approach her as she really is (blunt, decisive, unforgiving, but also protective and loving in her own way), rather than as she is often perceived (cruel, nasty, and petty).  As you might imagine, this particular presentation really resonated with me and it's been percolating in my brain ever since.

Since then I've observed some interesting and slightly troubling things about the way some of the folks I've encountered work with such deities.  I've noticed that we Pagans just love to reclaim things that have been shunned by others.  Maybe it's because Pagans and polytheists of various shades tend to be outsiders and misfits to varying degrees, but if something is rejected by "the majority" we tend to pick it up, buff it to a high shine, and make it our own.  In and of itself there's nothing wrong with that, but when it's done without any discernment as to why that thing was rejected or feared in the first place we tend to get ourselves into trouble. 

Some scary deities are scary because their antagonists made them look way scarier than they really are; other scary deities were demonized by their antagonists but are also genuinely dangerous to work with if you're not careful.  A few years ago I went to a ritual that called upon Kali as the great, kind mother who gives succor to us all.  Now, I don't know what version of Kali these folks were working with - but the Kali I know would smack me right in the mouth if I ever neutered her ferocity.  Some deities have earned their reputations.  If you want to work with scary Gods go for it, but you need to set up strong boundaries.  Do not call Loki and Eris into a public circle filled with neophytes without laying out some pretty strict ground rules about how you want things to go (and a reasonable belief that you can actually enforce those rules if need be).  Just because they aren't the abject evil that they're often made out to be doesn't mean they're not gonna wreak havoc upon the unwise and then laugh their godly asses off.  By all means work with scary deities, but don't think that just because somebody badmouthed them that they're really just fluffy kittens with spiked collars.

It really all boils down to this: do your homework before working with scary deities.  Some of them are really quite lovely when you get to know them, others will be utterly terrifying no matter how much they like you (and some are much, much scarier if they like you...trust me on this one).  Take the time to get to know the mythology; learn where the myths came from; think; use your common sense.  Be cautious and take reasonable precautions before trying to work with deities with bad reputations. 

I've had some of the most rewarding spiritual experiences of my life working with very frightening deities.  No, they were not as mean or spiteful as most of their myths would make you think, but they were still scary and would have no problem putting me down like a dog if I pissed them off.  Many, if not most, scary deities did something to earn at least part of their reputation.  Don't demonize a deity just because one faction thinks they're evil, but don't neuter them into benevolent balls of love and light either.  Deities are complex beings with long histories that can be seen from many different viewpoints.  Be respectful of their complexities.  Take the time to really get to know a deity before calling on it.  You'll rarely be sorry that you took the time to know what you were getting yourself into before hand, but you might really regret the lack of that preparation.   

TL;DR - Don't be an idiot.  Do your homework before working with scary Gods.

28 August 2015

Central Puget Sound Pagan Pride 2015

Yes folks, this weekend is Central Puget Sound Pagan Pride 2015!  It's going to be an amazing weekend and I am presenting both days.

  • Saturday 8/29 at 3pm "Conflict Resolution for Magickal Communities"
  • Sunday 8/30 at 2pm "Pop-Up Ritual"
For folks who are unable to attend or just want a little more information on these workshops I am posting the basic information below.

Conflict Resolution for Magickal Communities

Identifying positions vs. underlying interests.
  • Positions are a person's assertion of opinion about what they want.
  • Positions are often "my" statements. E.g. "My way is 'x'" or "I need you to do 'y'."
  • Underlying interests are the needs and desires that motivate people. E.g. Safety or validation.
  • Ask "why"? If there is more than one possible answer to "why do you want that?," then that is not the underlying interest - it's a position.

Check your understanding.
  • If you want to be listened to, you must be willing to listen.
  • Make sure you really understand what is being said - don't assume.
  • Reflect back, paraphrase, and ask if you got it right.
  • Restate what appear to be the most important points to the speaker, not what is important to you.

Validate and respect emotions without buying into them.
  • The experience of emotion is always valid and genuine, even if the reasons they are being experienced doesn't seem to be.
  • Empathize with the speaker's experience, but remain objective.
  • Excessive buy-in (over identification) clouds judgment.
Pop-Up Ritual

The purpose of Pop-Up Ritual is to be a flexible and responsive alternative to formal planned ritual. The point is not to replace formal ritual, but to supplement it and to hone your ritual skills so that you can adapt when things don't go as planned.

  • Know 3-5 different ritual formats from different traditions
  • Keep a Ritual Toolkit
    • Items that represent elements, dieties, spirits, etc.
    • LED candles
    • Smokeless incense, cleansing spritzes, salt water, etc.
    • Duct tape
    • Other fun items that you find inspiring
  • Have a collection of ritual appropriate poetry, evocations, incantations, etc.
  • Have a variety of ritual music on an MP3 player and a set of wireless speakers
  • Be proficient in several quick and dirty magickal techniques that can be deployed in a ritual setting and performed by a group including novices
    • It can help to have a mechanism on standby for the most common magickal needs: healing, prosperity, protection, devotions, etc.
 Before the Ritual
  • Know your attendees
    • What traditions are represented in your participants?  
    • What belief systems? 
    • How able are they?
      • If you've got several attendees with movement impairment, perhaps a spiraldance is not the best idea.  
      • Have you accounted for any sight or hearing impaired attendees?  Etc.
    • Ask them if you're not sure
  • Ask if anyone has any pressing magickal needs
    • If several people have sick relatives it might be time for a healing ritual, if many people are concerned about wildfire then perhaps a weather working would be best, etc.
  • Once you've decided on a goal for your ritual ask if anyone has a particular technique they'd like to use to achieve it
    • Your attendees are your best resource.  Let them be as active participants as they'd like to be (within reason).
During the Ritual
  •  Be flexible
    • Weather, bystanders, and sometimes participants can throw a monkey wrench in your plans.  If one plan seems to go off the rails, just go with another idea.  
  • Pay attention to your participants
    • Your ritual isn't just for you - keep an eye on participant energy levels, attention, and of course safety.  Adapt accordingly.
  • Have fun
    • Ritual is supposed to be enjoyable and satisfying.  Don't take yourself too seriously and allow things to unfold (within the bounds of safety, sanity, and reasonable timing).
After the Ritual
  • Be sure to ground!
  • Set up social time to allow participants to decompress
  • Get feedback from participants.  How else are you supposed to get better?

A previous post on Pop-Up Ritual


18 July 2015

Book Review: Nonviolent Communication - A Language of Life

I am firm in the belief that effective communication skills are vital to the successful practice of magick.  The way I see it, if you cannot articulate what you truly want to another person how can you articulate it with your magick?  Due to this belief I've spent a fair amount of time honing my ability to listen and communicate well.  I'd heard a lot about nonviolent communication in recent months so I decided to check it out.  I picked up the Kindle version of Nonviolent Communication: A Language of Life by Marshall B. Rosenberg.  Never in my life have I had a harder time deciding if I liked a book or not. 

TL; DR - Recommended with reservations. See below for why.

The raison d'etre of Nonviolent Communication is teaching people to speak effectively and to listen well - a worthy goal.  Rosenberg does a good job at giving readers the tools necessary to do so.  The book is very well written and easy to understand.  It's formatted beautifully for both skimming and referring back to it later without needed to highlight and mark it up.  As someone who likes to reread books for their salient points I thoroughly appreciate this.

Some of the most important ideas from the book revolve around learning to how to separate the observation of facts from the drawing of moralistic conclusions.  A huge number of the conflicts in our lives stem from the difference between the judgments we make and what is actually happening around us - particularly when it comes to inferring the thoughts and motivations of others from what we see them do and hear them say.  The book does a great job helping the reader to learn to see their own though process more clearly and be more objective.

The book then goes on to try to teach the reader how to better understand their own needs and desires and how to articulate themselves so that they can actually have their needs filled - also a worthy goal.  This is where the book begins to stumble a bit.  Rosenberg makes it seem like being able to clearly articulate what you want to others is some kind of magic bullet for getting what you want.  While there are undercurrents that can be inferred as saying, "if what you want is selfish and irrational you really need to reevaluate whether you should really get it," it's glossed over.  In fairness, if the book were to delve deeply into all the concerns about understanding our own desires it would be a multi-volume tome rather than a slim, readable book. Rosenberg does about as much as he can within the framework he's designed for himself, but I found this section a bit lacking in reality checks.

Then the book goes on to chapters on listening and empathy.  This is where I really had a hard time, not so much with the tools and techniques described, but in the examples given.  Rosenberg talks about the importance of sincere and attentive listening and having empathy for others and making sure that you've understood what they're trying to communicate rather than whatever your brain turned it into when you heard it.  This is probably the single most important skill anyone can develop in terms of improving your interactions with other people.  It is absolutely critical.  However, in the example scenarios Rosenberg seems to make a lot of assumptions about what other people are feeling rather than letting them tell him.  I think it stems from the fact that Rosenberg is a psychologist and thus has been trained to help teach people about their feelings.  It comes across as arrogant and really leaves a bad taste in my mouth.  In mediation folks are taught to never, ever presume they understand what someone wants or feels unless that understanding is specifically validated by the person who's actually doing the thinking/feeling. 

Overall I think that Rosenberg communicates some really important ideas about communication and human understanding.  I don't always like the way he demonstrates his techniques, but I do like the techniques themselves.  Nonviolent Communication: A Language of Life has some really good ideas that I think just about everyone who has to interact with other people (aka everyone) can benefit from learning.  Just keep an eye on how much you buy in to how the author demonstrates his techniques and you'll get a lot out of it.

03 July 2015

Exoteric Magick

Those of you that are interested in Pop Culture Magick should check out my new blog over at Pagan Square - Exoteric Magick.  It's focused on approachable pop culture magick for people from any path and at any skill level.
My first post, Finding Pop Culture Magick, talks about the circumstances that brought me to pop culture magick and gives some insight into the strange cauldron that is my brain.  I hope you like it!