Saturday, October 5, 2013

My 2013 Commitment

It's been a little while since I've tortured myself with a new creative goal (still trying to make myself forget the debacle that was my 52 Weeks Self Portrait Project -- that one I still need to revisit and complete). This new goal actually scares the crap out of me, but it's perfect because it will only take me a month, and there is a public online community to whom I can hold myself accountable, even if I never meet any of them. I also have some friends who are setting the same goal, and if they achieve it and I don't, I would just be embarrassed. I'm going to participate in NaNoWriMo 2013.

It's something I've wanted to do probably since high school, but back then I hardly ever wrote anything. I took a creative writing class and did well, but when I look over the few pieces I still have that exist from that time, I'm glad that my hard drive crashed twice and the bulk of that work is lost forever. I didn't really become seriously interested in writing until my early 20s, which is when I began to push myself to create more involved photographs, with actual stories behind them. At first, I never wrote any of the stories, just thought about them as I was shooting and editing the photos. Then I did start writing them down, just very short stories, little exercises. It took years before I became confident enough to actually post any of them publicly.

I'm a lot less shy about that now -- I have hang-ups and I have to make everything perfect, and I read and re-read and re-edit and flip out and scream at every story as I'm completing it, but I'm able now to get to a place where I can be satisfied with a piece of fiction that came from my mind, enough to share it with others. But! I've only ever written short stories. Stories that are short even for short stories, never a novel, never anything close to 50,000 words (the minimum amount for a NaNoWriMo submission). Sometimes I can hardly get to just 1,000 words. When I officially committed to doing NaNoWriMo yesterday, I started panicking a little almost immediately. How will I think of a plot interesting enough to carry for that long? How can I develop a character that manages to stay compelling beyond two pages? How will I avoid plot holes and stay original in my story? How am I going to finish this in one month...

I'm feeling a little better about it this morning. I woke up thinking about my story, after beginning a few notes yesterday (and for those curious, you are allowed to have outlines/plot notes/brainstorms about your NaNoWriMo novel prior to November, you just cannot have any actual prose already written). I think I've settled into a basic idea of what this story will encompass. It's a slightly old idea that's gone in a totally new direction from where it began. Some people may remember the self portrait I made back in May titled The Water Bride. I said back then that I had been working on a story to go along with it, an historical fiction set in the time period of British imperialism in India. The protagonist was to be a young English merchant's daughter. I worked on it for a few weeks back then, but I never felt too great about it. I wasn't very excited to see the words develop on the screen in front of me, and it became sort of a chore. So I left it behind and thought that I might never get back to it. But in thinking about what I would like to write a novel about, I kept going back to that photo in my head, remembering some of the very initial ideas that floated around while I was making it. Mythology and foreign lands and adventure. I had to work last night so while I was there, I just thought about where else I could go with this "water bride" character. I bought a legal pad after work and began recording all of the things I'd been thinking about, and I'm glad to say that I'm fairly confident with the spot at which I've arrived.

I don't want to talk too much about it at such an early stage, but it seems like it will be some sort of fantasy/period fiction set at the turn of the 20th century with undertones of actual and psychological horror. I do have a lot of ideas I need to sort out now... So for the next two months, I'm going to be extremely busy and pre-occupied. I will definitely expect to disappear from my blog for most of November, but I'll try to update when I'm not being driven insane by my own self. October isn't over yet though, and I'm going to have a lot to say about the coming weeks. 2013 has been kind of blah as far as years ago, but it looks as though its conclusion is turning out to be quite exciting.

Now if only this hot weather would disappear!!

Monday, September 30, 2013

Choosing to Do the Hoodoo

I've been thinking a lot over the past two years, mostly to myself, about how much I've been struggling religiously or spiritually, and how much I've been fighting against some inner change. I realize I've been in conflict with myself for pretty much all of the ten years I've been practicing witchcraft, as well as attempting to fit into any number of Pagan traditions. I've researched and gone through motions of Wicca, Druidry, Celtic Recon, Thelema, some eclectic version of Egyptian religion. I kept looking and trying because I was holding so hard onto what had developed into my identity as a religious, Pagan person. I was willing to accept anything in order to be a religious person, but the whole time, I was forcing it. And my lack of progress in these traditions was evident. My identity is changing and I am embracing it, because now I'm really beginning to understand what everyone else is talking about when they say, "It just feels right."
My makeup for opening ritual at last week's Hoodoo Fest to invite in the Ancestors.
I'm no longer a religious person. I don't believe the gods exist as anything other than archetypes. I don't believe in karma, though that's sort of old news. I'm losing faith everyday in the occurrence reincarnation. I no longer view the elements as individual, conscious energies. I'm basically an atheist.

But I still consider myself a spiritual person, because I do hold beliefs in things that aren't directly observable, things that haven't been explained (or accepted) by science. I believe there is a truth to energy manipulation. There is truth in being able to sense and respond to energy that is outside of your own. Energies that belong to the air and the soil and the plants, ponds, rivers, lightning, stones, the moon, animals, the dead. I believe that land spirits are a real thing, they are unique to their own ecosystems, and that we can learn about them by spending time in our environments, paying attention to what we feel when we're there. And I think it's because that I believe in these things that I don't need the religion anymore.

Probably the biggest influence on this personal change entered my life two years ago, when my church began its West Kentucky Hoodoo Rootworker Heritage Festival. Our third consecutive Hoodoo Fest just ended last week and each time I attend, I learn and become even more confident in leaving religion behind to pursue a craft-like approach to spirituality that is rooted in the practices of energy manipulation (magic) and ancestor reverence. And these practices also have a different quality that captivates me more than any others ever have: they're American.

One of the biggest things I've been struggling with for the last decade is that I don't know how to practice something that is so culturally-involved when I myself am not a part of that culture. Yes, my ancestors came from Ireland and England and Prussia, but I didn't. Even having lived in Europe, attending a British school, studying abroad in England, visiting Ireland, hanging out in Germany every weekend, I'm not Irish or English or German. I am American, and before I knew what hoodoo was, it seemed like there was no practice of which that I was ever going to feel truly a part. I might not be a native of the Carolinas or grew up in a household with a grandma who sprinkled brick dust and had superstitions about how to store a broom, but I don't think that matters. Since I've began my own personal research and practice, and since I've been attending hoodoo-focused workshops every year at my church, I've enjoyed success and improvement in my spiritual life that I feel I was always missing out on before. When I dress candles and write petition papers and create sachets, I feel like I'm participating in something that works and enriches my life, rather than something frustrating and discouraging.

I'm even shying away from what I called European witchcraft. There is a feeling of so much freedom in Hoodoo when my materials are just yarn, salt, paper, herbs (among other very easy to find or make ingredients). No need for wands and athamés and censers and grand gestures. Hoodoo is the kind of craft that I can practice sitting on my deck listening to the birds, wrapping string around a little piece of paper. I don't have to be chanting and raising my arms and dancing around an altar at midnight. It's a relief.

And it's also relieving to understand and come to terms with how my beliefs are evolving. I think there's a lot of pressure in the Pagan community to be a polytheist, and to adhere to a karmic worldview, and to never harm anyone or anything, even in self defense. There's a stark dichotomy between "black/dark" and "white" witchcraft that frankly, I hate. It's always been my opinion that overall, Neo-Paganism should draw its spiritual inspiration from nature and it just drives me crazy when Pagans devise all these ethical constructs and fantastic beliefs that have nothing connecting them to the natural world. Hoodoo seems so different in the still early stages of my practice because it is directly connected to the land and the community in which I live. The rainwater I collect comes from my backyard. My petition paper comes from local thrift store packaging that wraps the many jars I also purchase there. The more I learn about this craft, the more I try to use materials that I can walk outside of my house and find right in my yard. I want to personally make my materials as much as I can, like when I made my own Florida Water. Next, I'd like to make my own rose water, and try my hand at my own candles and oils.

Hoodoo to me represents a practice of self-accountability, responsibility, and creativity. It provides so many opportunities for an individual to experience self-growth through trial and error and learning at one's own pace, along with practicing traditional methods. Specifically to me, it allows me to figure out my own ethics and beliefs without the requirement of belief in gods and karma and all the other things that hang me up about other spiritual/religious systems. But it's flexible enough that many practitioners of it (at least most of the people I've met), do approach it from a religious point of view. Some even identify as Christian or at least work the magic within a Christian context, using psalms, calling on Mary and Jesus. It's that flexibility that really makes hoodoo a true craft to me, not just a spiritual activity. From all I've learned and done so far, it's not a meditate-y, prayerful, fluffy bunny, unconditional love and peace type of spirituality. And I need that because nature and life and my own experience are sometimes rarely those things. I need a practice that is grounded in the type of reality that I'm looking at everyday. I don't want a religion or a spirituality for which I have to set time aside, or get into the right (somewhat altered) mindset to participate, or ignore my education as a scientist, or any other ways of removing myself from this world. I'm looking for a spirituality that isn't supernatural, but is still mysterious, with concepts and skills to learn throughout my life.

I believe ultimately that spirituality should be about enriching one's life in the present. I also believe that the enrichment should be driven by oneself, through study, active practice, learning from mistakes and remembering successes for next time. The practice of hoodoo allows these things to happen for the individual, for me, and it's because of that that I don't think I'll be looking back at much of anything else as I move forward. The deeper I go into the study and practice of hoodoo, the farther away these inner conflicts about gods and religion and fitting in with other Neo-Pagans become. This system of American folk magic makes me feel like I know what home is. And home to me is not worshipping deities and drawing down the moon and turning the other cheek until there's nothing left because performing a curse is "wrong." Home is reading and coffee and little red bags filled with lodestones and herbs, enjoying a breeze, sitting with friends, sprinkling salt in the corners of the house, cooking and beer and laughter. Religion or spirituality should not be separated from everyday life, and it just feels right to finally be experiencing them together.

Saturday, September 28, 2013

Outside, With Vincent

...It feels like it's been years. I've finally made a new photo! I'm really excited about it, I'm excited to be "working" again. I found a new little skeleton friend; his name seems to be Vincent. This is what we did today:
Two photographs combined. I think it looks like Vincent is laughing his ass off. 
My friend Alice inspired me to do this when she showed me another photographer's photo using a mirror in a similar way. I don't have a story to go along with this one because it wasn't really planned at all. I just grabbed a big-ish mirror of mine, a few props (large black sheet, my favorite hat), and Vincent and headed out into my yard.

This is definitely an idea I want to explore some more. It was actually a little difficult figuring out where to stand to get the angle I wanted for the mirror reflection. Having my remote shutter release really helped out with that; it would have been incredibly frustrating to have to use the self-timer.

I like the way it turned out and it was fun to spend an afternoon making this after a hard shift at "real" work. So thanks to Alice for the motivational kick~

Monday, September 16, 2013

I'm Still Here {Updates}

I've been pretty absent from the internet for a couple of months, but now that I'm starting to get back into my more normal routine, I plan to return fully to this blog and all the future projects I have planned. It has been a long time, but I'm excited to be returning to some creative endeavors, exciting upcoming events. It was a really wild and strange summer.

I left for New Jersey in late June. I had to secure a clinical internship with a veterinary hospital. I had to try to see all my greatest friends. I had so many plans for things I planned to do, and overall, I disappointed myself. I didn't achieve the goals with which I had started the summer. To be honest, I'm pretty glad the summer season is over (and will be officially this coming weekend). I miss everyone in Jersey terribly, and Kentucky doesn't have much that thrills me, but I'm glad I'm back down here.

I'm graduating the university in December, and hope to have my certification by March or April. I'm thinking about job searches, where to go, how to be a real adult. It's completely terrifying and I feel the procrastinator in me starting to shut down my motivation, but I'm so afraid of allowing that to happen. I recently had to write a list of personal, educational, and professional goals for a professional development seminar, and it challenged me to think about all the things I could do. If I get off my ass and do them.

The same thing goes for art. I hardly took any photographs the entire summer. I didn't work on a single piece. But there is one serious project in the making that has already begun: it's a musical/film collaboration with my best friend Sean. He's writing a song, the lyrics to which are the words of the poem featured in my short story Vultures, and I'll be doing the vocals. I'll be working mostly on a video to go with the song, but of course Sean will be there to help film and edit, and he will be in the video as well. I've already begun gathering filler/inbetween film for connecting scenes, and Sean has come up with a rough draft of the music. It's entirely electronic, very synthy (what else would it be). We haven't come up with any name to give ourselves, but lists of ideas have also already begun for that. I'm really excited to continue this project and hoping (!!!) that we can finish it before 2014. I will continue to update about that.

I've also been coming up with lots of ideas for photoshoots and have been scouting new locations. I have some ideas saved for more short stories and maybe some more poems. Those will be posted as they become realized and finished...

Some other events happening for the rest of the year:

  • Hoodoo Festival with my Pagan church! It's the third annual festival celebrating rootworker, voudon, and other African diasporic and American folk traditions. This is the first time I will be able to attend all five days of the festival -- I'm leaving Wednesday afternoon and won't be back until Sunday. I can't wait to show photos of the different costumes I have planned and all the great workshops and music I'll be able to see and participate in. Hoodoo Fest is one of the highlights of my entire year.
  • After that, a true dream of mine is coming true: I'm seeing Nine Inch Nails in concert, finally!! I have always wanted to since I was a teenager and have never been able to afford it. A few years ago when Reznor said that NIN would no longer be touring, I was crushed. I can't believe that he decided to start work with the band again and release their new album, go on another tour. I was enjoying his other projects with his wife, but nothing he does compares to NIN, in my opinion. I am so unbelievably overjoyed and cannot wait. Makeup and styling plans have already begun for that evening...
  • Resuming the 52 Week Self Portrait Project. I think I was way too ambitious starting such an exercise at the beginning of a summer that I knew would kick my ass. So I'm going to rewind and try it again, now that summer is winding down into fall and I have the lowest class load I've ever had. Stay tuned for those...
  • Lastly, Hallowe'en, of corpse! My absolute most favorite holiday, the finale of my most favorite month. I have my costume totally decided on and construction of some of the elements of it have already begun. I'm still gathering some makeup and effects supplies, and figuring out the wardrobe. I think it's going to be one of the best costumes I've ever had. I will definitely be talking more about it and letting little bits of it slip as we get closer. 

So, in the next couple of weeks I hope to write about some of my internship experiences and about Hoodoo Fest, as well as share my new art projects. I missed blogging. I need to stop disappearing every year. To sign off, here's the first photograph I made since being back in Kentucky:
I've made a new friend -- there's a Praying Mantis now living in one of my windows! ♡

Thank you for reading.

Sunday, June 16, 2013

52 Weeks III : June 10th - June 16th

I almost failed this week -- I kind of picked a bad time to start my 52 Weeks Project. For the past two weeks, I've been concentrating most heavily on my summer trip back up to New Jersey (and all the stress of school work I need to do while I'm up there), and having to get my house in order for that. So by the end of today, after running errands and cleaning for nine and a half hours, I remembered that I hadn't taken a self portrait this week. I actually had a pretty intense argument with myself about whether or not to take one, while doing the dishes. Eventually, I just sighed out loud because I didn't want to mess up this soon into the project. So here it is, working title: My Feet are Dead and I Need Coffee.
Normally, I would have dressed up, made sure Loki and Sól were in another room, taken the time to move shoes and iPads out of the frame, make everything perfect. But I decided to be super honest with this one. These are the clothes I've been working in all day, this is how the table looked at that moment. As always, the pets were following my every move around the house. In some ways, this might be the truest self portrait I've ever taken because, although it's not candid, it shows a totally "normal" moment in my private. Moments that few people have ever seen. This is definitely not the version of myself that is seen publicly very often. 

Thursday, June 13, 2013

Egg Treasure

So about a month ago, I heard the new prompt for Round 11 of NPR's Three-Minute Fiction contest: write a story in under 600 words in which a character finds something he or she has no intention of returning. Due to the contest rules, I couldn't publish the story until after a winner was chosen, and now that that has happened, I can share my own story here. I worked very hard and continuously on it for three days, even printing it out and bringing it to work with me so I could edit it on my break. I had a lot of fun and will definitely enter future contests if those prompts inspire me as well. Disclaimer: Blogger doesn't allow the formatting to make this story actually look the way I wrote it (with line breaks and indentations), so if interested, I have the original .pdf that I can show. Thanks for reading!

✦ ✦ ✦

I was walking, following little shreds of found objects in the dirt. Strips of newspaper and magazine pages, bits of colored thread and yarn, a discarded trail of human material left for the birds. My neighbor collected these things in shallow dishes placed around her yard: tiny pieces of shredded denim, leftovers from knitted socks, even locks of hair she pulled from her combs. She sat on her deck on Sunday mornings, offering me sweet tea when she caught me watching her. I watched her studying her birds, the orioles and robins that browsed through the ingredients she left for them. I watched her beaming at the new nest taking shape in the tree above her chair. She was so proud, and I so lonely.

One Sunday, just before noon, she called me over, quietly, in hushed excitement. Her mouth was opened wide and dumb and she was flailing her hands, almost spilling her tea.

“Come here,” she implored, “come see!” Still swinging her tea with one hand, she pressed the other to her lips and, signaling silence, she called out another stifled plea, more sounds than words. Her eyes were wide. I stood up out of the shade and walked to her fence, stepped over it lightly and waited at the stairs by her chair.

“Come up here, there's an egg, look at the egg!” She could barely sustain the effort to keep from squealing. Her gardening stool was next to her and I stepped up on it to get a better view. Tucked in among the wool and fragments of Reader's Digest, it was there. Small and white, with dark drops of brown and black speckled across its poles. It looked warm and alone, and I didn't want her to have it. I wanted it in my hands only, cupped in my palms and moving slightly. I wanted to hold my breath and see if I could feel its heartbeat.

It was dark and still and my neighbor was asleep in her room. I was walking, following little shreds of found objects in the dirt, the discarded trail of human material left for the birds. Like breadcrumbs, I followed them up the stairs, climbed up on the stool and was met with the face of the mother bird looking back. Black eyes I could see in the dark, reflecting the moon glow off the clouds and staring at me in recognition or in anger. She shifted her weight and I could see the egg there under her wing, even whiter in the absence of daylight.

“I will have that egg,” I breathed, hardly moving my lips as I exhaled my promise. She bit and flapped at my hand, scratching across my knuckles with a shrill scream. It was easy to take that egg, easy to ignore the mother following me down from the stool, down the stairs, pecking at my hair as I stepped over the fence, cradling the little egg in my hands like a pearl. I could feel the movement inside it, the vibrations of insects trapped in a jar. The mother left me, and I curled up alone and happy with my egg treasure, a living jar with a child inside.

My neighbor remained sad that spring and her sweet tea tasted like salt. The nest above her chair was abandoned and her dishes of paper and fibers were full, but ignored. While thinking of the egg I stole, I skipped into her yard, smiling, and took a seat on her deck next to her chair.

Tuesday, June 11, 2013

Summer's Arrival

This past Saturday we celebrated Summer's Arrival at my church. Usually in Paganism, summer's decline is actually celebrated at the Solstice (around June 21st), but the Summer Solstice -- also called Litha -- is a huge time for Pagan festivals around the States, so our church instead does a simple celebration in early June. This year was one of the funnest summer celebrations I've ever attended!

First, we dedicated two new altar spaces. Most of our camping and worship area are large fields with full sun, but in one spot, there is a great little island of flowers and trees that provide shade. In this space, we planted two new willow trees, and set up rough drafts for a healing altar and a Buddhist/Pagan peace altar.
Our church has a really long tradition of incorporating healing work into everything that we do. Having an outdoor altar that will be set up every time the land is used is a natural extension. And it's in such a great, shady place. I'm excited to see how it grows. 
Petitions for healing are written on popsicle sticks that are then thrown into a sacred fire.
One of our members has also been working on a Buddhist/Pagan peace altar that honors the goddess Kuan-Yin (she's one of the many Buddhas of the world and is known for her healing powers and compassion). He described "peace" in this instance as a sky that is totally clear, without clouds. It's a deep kind of peace that goes beyond just relaxation or feelings of tranquility. He will be gathering up the contents of the altar as it grows and carrying them to different Pagan events, where it will grow even more. I think it's wonderful that we will have that altar space to connect to the Pagan community and the world in general through the peace of Kuan-Yin.
After dedicating these two new altar spaces, we planted some very young, tiny willow trees as the head of the "island." Willows are a tree that have long been associated with healing, and they're special trees to the church. All of us brought dirt from our yards at home to the church's land and filled in the holes around the saplings with that dirt, symbolizing how we all come together as a community, despite our different backgrounds, locations, origins. Our priestess read a really beautiful poem to the willow tree. I'm excited to watch them grow!

We also had a great ritual to welcome Summer. Though I'm not very into the heat and getting tan, I always love the spring and summer time of year. The rituals are fun and light-hearted, but also very powerful. It's a time to celebrate strength and growth and the gathering of momentum toward change (or solidification). We created the sacred space by singing "You Are My Sunshine," and also sang chants celebrating the trees and the earth. We used colored balls to represent the Elements and had fun throwing them at each other to raise energy -- it did start getting a little similar to dodge ball. We also had pieces of colored paper cut in the shape of leaves on which we wrote blessings for our community. These were all put into a cardboard boat that will be sent down the creek near the land to carry our blessings out.

One of the things I love about our Summer's Arrival celebrations is that we also take time to identify those negative things in our lives that we want to remove. We do this using water balloons. We concentrate on what that negative thing is, whether it's a bad habit, an ailment, destructive relationship, etc., and push that energy into the balloon. Then, when ready, the balloon is smashed into the ground or crushed in our hands. It's a great way to feel some resolve and encouragement to change our lives and selves for the better.
My balloon represented procrastination and apathy. I allow too much of both to interfere with what I want to be doing.
After ritual was over, we all ate our potluck feast, and then started playing with fire! One of the ministers at the church does poi and other fire-spinning techniques, and always is willing to teach us and let us practice. Our priestess's son is also really good at the fire staff and he helps out a lot too. I've always been really shy to try them because I don't want people to see me mess up, but I decided that enough is enough last night and gave it a shot. I have a cousin who also spins poi, and my minister gave me a practice set to use at home, but I've never felt totally drawn to it. It takes a rhythm that feels really foreign to me. Instead, the more I watched, the more I wanted to try the staff, and when I finally did, it felt so right! 
A friend got this photo of me with the staff. I just couldn't stop laughing. 
I did feel awkward moving it around, but the more I got used to the weight, the better it felt and the more fun I had. I am definitely hooked now! I can't stop thinking about it. Over the coming weeks of the summer, I'm going to see what I can do about making a staff of my own so I can keep practicing. I'm keeping in mind that I made the promise to myself to not let procrastination continue to interfere with my life, so I want the fire staff to become a new project that I really dedicate myself to. It's also a good upper arm work-out, so there are more benefits than just being able to spin a burning stick!

I might not be the most summery of people, but I don't think any person can ignore that summer is a magical time of year. It's really come to represent friendship and community to me, and I'm so grateful to know all the people with whom I can celebrate the Sun and nature and Earth. And since the rest of the summer is going to be a lot of hard work for me (securing and internship, preparing for my last semester of college, etc.), it was great to have this day to spend with my church before joining in with the "real world." So, Happy Summer, Happy Festival Season -- I am looking forward to the Sun's blessings in the coming months!