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!

Wednesday, June 5, 2013

52 Weeks II : June 3rd - June 9th

I got myself a new camera toy...and I'm really excited about it! It's a remote shutter release, which allows me to take a photograph while I'm not at the camera, at any time that I want to. I've been doing self portraits since I was 17 and all those years, I've been using the self-timer on my camera, running back and forth between camera and scene in 10-20 seconds, and running back to press the shutter again. So I've gotten pretty good at getting into various positions in under 10 seconds, but it can be pretty exhausting. I had been meaning to get a remote shutter release for years and I finally stopped procrastinating. I'm so glad I did! I've had it for less than a day and I'm already obsessed. I doubt I'll ever go back to the self-timer again.

So I took my second self portrait in my 52 Weeks Project this evening, and got to try out my new shutter release.
And I didn't do a black and white again!
This is Untitled #2. I'm really trying to get better at lighting and that's why I decided to wait until it got dark out to do this. I ended up using a closet light (that you can see reflected in the window), my porch light, the street light at the end of my driveway, and a sparkler. I have a hard time getting the focus perfect when it's so dark (even with the closet light, I could hardly see anything inside), so I'm not very happy with that. But otherwise, it was so great using the remote shutter release. I'm not sure I would have been able to take this same portrait with the self-timer. Mine only goes up to 20 seconds, and getting outside, up on the railing, with the sparkler going would be extremely difficult in that amount of time. So a big, big Yay! for new camera toys!

Monday, June 3, 2013

My Hair, the Moon, and a little Faith

A couple of days ago, I was speaking with someone who had recently cut his hair and donated it to Locks of Love. He showed me a photo of his long hair and it was like staring at my dream. I love long hair, and have had it for most of life, until the past six years. Today, my hair is the longest its been in that time, and I want it to be the longest it's ever been, in my life! I want it to reach to my navel, but I'd love even more to get it to my hips. Some people seem to have no trouble accomplishing that, the kind of people who just don't really shed and can grow their hair to their ankles with nothing more than a hairbrush. Maybe it's because it's my own hair and I obsess over it everyday, but it never seems to get past the bottom tips of my shoulder blades. I'm determined to change that, and because of that recent conversation, I might have found a new way.

I've done lots of research on growing hair in the past, and many of the tips I've collected over the years are now established parts of my daily routine. I only wash my scalp, and not everyday. I only condition my ends (and not everyday). I hardly ever style my hair with heat (or otherwise), besides straightening the pieces in the front once in a while -- anything else, and I use a heat protectant spray pretty generously. I take a provitamin A supplement every morning, I use a split end treatment, I've stopped using chemical dyes altogether and am now working towards including natural henna and indigo hair dye into my hair care practices. Something I've failed at is keeping my hair tied back for most of the day. I vastly prefer the way my hair looks down, but keeping it that way, especially at work, exposes it to breakage constantly. I've also started trimming it to get rid of the inevitable split ends, which keeps it stronger and gives it the illusion of being longer, but admittedly I'm not doing that frequently enough. And now, I might have found a way to trim my hair that will be even more effective, and it comes from a very old source: the Farmers Almanac.

The man I was speaking with who donated his hair told me that he always had his hair trimmed during different moon cycles that he believes influence both the thickness and the speed at which hair grows. I know I believe some wacky stuff, but I am science-minded and was skeptical of that idea immediately. But then he said, "It's in the Farmers Almanac," and my interest piqued right away. For the past two days, I've been looking into whatever information I can find about cutting hair in conjunction with the various moon phases and I'm surprised to find that it appears to be a pretty widely spread practice with lots of positive (albeit anecdotal) evidence.
"I tested this by trimming my two daughters hair every 2 mos and after 1 year the one cut by the moon had grown almost to her waist and was twice as thick as her older sister's hair [sic]." --from a Farmers Almanac forum on lunar hair-cutting. {And yes, I realize this would be a better experiment had the daughters been identical twins with the same haircuts starting out, but at least there are people out there who are attempting to use the scientific method to test this.}
A simple search on the Farmers Almanac website will tell you the best days to cut hair to increase growth, as well as the best to retard hair growth, or increase its thickness. It seems that the moon phases are used to inform lots of different types of cutting, from haircuts to mowing the lawn to pruning trees to culling cattle from a herd. I was totally unaware of these common lunar timings for different activities, and although I'm disappointed that I've yet to come up with any good scientific evidence for the validity of the practice, I'm still tempted to try it myself. I doubt my hair will grow any slower at least!

The thing is, the moon influences a lot in my life. Many Pagans, especially those practicing witchcraft or different types of folk magic, rely on the moon for its (her) influence. Spells and tricks are timed according to the phases to harness the appropriate lunar energy for the success of the magical working. Spells to bring in money might be performed during the waxing or full moon, which symbolizes growth and increase; while work to break a bad habit is performed during the waning or new moon, that indicates weakening or decrease.

Each of the four moon phases includes a variety of energies that can be captured to positively effect our lives. The new/dark moon is about potential. It's a starting point without expectation and represents all the possibilities we can imagine. It also represents privacy, turning inward, self-contemplation. The waxing moon is all about growth, increase, exploration. It represents the energy of anticipation and adventure. This is why the Farmers Almanac says the best days to cut hair for length are during the waxing phases. The full moon has deep symbolism, even in secular culture. It represents accomplishment, the womb, strength, and vitality (cut hair during the three days of the full moon for thickness). It is an agent of great change, from the tides on the Earth, to the legend of werewolves. Moonlight from the full moon is considered both cleansing and energizing, especially when meditating under it. The waning moon is about decrease, maturity, slowing down. It is passive in energy, while the waxing is very active. It is shrinking and preparing to once again return the dark and inwardness of the new moon. It helps to think of these three moon phases using the imagery of the Triple Goddess that Wiccans and some other Pagans worship. The waxing moon is equated with the Maiden, the full moon with the Mother, and the waning moon with the Crone, three separate aspects of the same being.
One of my favorite phases: the very thin waxing crescent (this represents birth to me). Image found here.
The moon is a huge comfort to me. Often, getting off work late at night and exhausted, I feel so much better instantly when I can walk to my car and look up at the moon, and I know it sounds crazy, but just talk to her (I really think of the moon as female). When I feel sad or lonely or overwhelmed, I sit on my deck I night and look at the moon and just try to let everything go. The moon can really do a lot for us, and not just cause the tides and the ebb and flow of the water in our own bodies. So, since I think my life is already pretty involved with the moon, I don't see it as much of a step to start cutting my hair by the moon's timing either. I'll be heading back up to my hometown in New Jersey soon for the summer, so the next time I think I'll be able to schedule a trim, according to the Farmers Almanac, will be June 19th or 20th. Maybe before then I can come up with some way of recording results in the most scientific manner possible. The Almanac is eerily right about a lot of things, and I hope that this is one of those times as well.

Friday, May 31, 2013

Open Mind, Closed Skull

Before You Read:
I wrote this post as an outlet for my frustration. This is long-winded vent, and I understand that it will be considered offensive to different types of people. If you're not interested in reading pretty strong criticism of Christianity, then don't read this post. I'm not going to apologize for my words.

✫ ✫ ✫

I'm a person who thinks about religious tolerance quite a lot. I consider the difficulties in finding balance between too much and too little tolerance (and am especially interested in the former). I'm also interested in finding out what tolerance really is, and how it differs from acceptance and also encouragement.

Religious tolerance and coexistence are widely desired and cultivated values within Paganism. There is a universal ideal of acceptance for all faiths or "paths" that many Pagans hold to be a foundational trait of one who is open-minded. The sentiment appears in several forms, such as, "All paths are valid and/or leading to the same goal," - "There is no one true way, and all ways deserve respect," - "There is an interfaith connectedness between all people," - "All is one," - and so on. I'm sure every Pagan has heard, and most believe, in practicing these values of acceptance. But when is a person too tolerant, too accepting, too open-minded? I imagine many people believe that there isn't such thing as too much acceptance and tolerance, but I disagree with that completely.
-Arthur Hays Sulzberger
It's intriguing to me that complete open-mindedness seems to only be applied to matters of religion. We're "allowed" (and encouraged) to be intolerant of racism, animal cruelty, homophobia, sexism. But if you're not accepting of Christianity or Wicca or Islam or Satanism, you're suddenly close-minded, a bigot. Why is there a protective line drawn around religion? Why is it held separate from the scrutiny and criticism to which all other beliefs and opinions are subjected? Why is religion a sacred topic? As Mark D. Jordan said, “Truly damaging speech cannot be excused just because it expresses genuine religious belief."

When I was still a practicing Wiccan, I was wholly tolerant. I accepted all religions and spiritualities and believed they were all leading to a common place of love for all people. If I witnessed someone's religion being criticized (usually online), I went to their defense, even becoming personally angry on behalf of people I thought were being targeted. This was regardless of their beliefs, and is something I did specifically when Christians were under attack. I was a member of a small, online Wiccan community, sort of like Facebook, and while a member of that site, I wrote blogs constantly about defending Christianity against those Pagans who openly criticize it. I look back at that time in my life (probably 19-21 years old), and I can't even believe my memories of myself.

I was completely blind -- blind to the prejudice, bigotry, and injustices being done by the people I was spending so much time defending. I was completely tolerant of intolerance, keeping my mind so open that my brain fell out in chunks, squashed on the floor. I ignored all the bad experiences both myself and my peers had, insisting that we can't judge all people for the bad actions of some. When I fell away from Wicca, and moved to the Bible Belt in 2010, I began to really solidify a change in how I define and exhibit tolerance, and this change has made me stronger and more confident than I ever was when I was trying to unconditionally love everyone.

I have to be honest now about the real focus of this post rant -- I dislike Christianity. I disagree with almost every tenet it espouses, and outside of a few psalms in the Old Testament, I consider the Bible to be a very destructive piece of literature. I believe YHWH to be a terrifyingly bloodthirsty god (I'd take the attention of the Morrígan or Pélé any day over his), and I've arrived at the opinion that Yeshua (Jesus) was a radical, apocalyptic prophet who disguised a call to war behind empty words of love. In my own life, almost all of the hatred, ignorance, and prejudice I've witnessed has been motivated by that god, that book, and that prophet, and I quit apologizing for and defending the actions of Christians in general years ago. I once accepted all Christians first, assumed immediately they were caring, loving, kind, non-judgmental. Now, I do my best to avoid them, and wait until they show by their actions that they are in fact full of unconditional love for their fellow humans. It's become an exercise in continued disappointment, with few examples that have changed my mind.

My house is visited almost weekly by all different churches, leaving pamphlets, knocking on my door, trying to spread the "good news." I went to a new dermatologist a few weeks ago, and within 20 minutes of entering the exam room, I was already being given flyers for a Christian class for college students (I'm never going back to that doctor again). I've been prayed to loudly on my own property by members of a group called the Christ Ambassadors -- one of them even grabbed the nose chain I was wearing, violating my personal space entirely. The rudeness with which these people treat others is really astonishing; it's happened to myself and I've seen it happen to others. And all of that is nothing compared to what is happening elsewhere in the world. I see church leaders protesting a Summer Solstice festival in Florida, pastors encouraging the murder and torture of children accused of witchcraft in Nigeria. Not to mention the Catholic sex abuse scandal, and now that the religion in general is starting to be more openly criticized, Christians are complaining about becoming a hated minority due to their anti-homosexual rhetoric and behavior. And while many say that these are fringe groups, that they don't represent rank-and-file Christians, nothing could be further from the truth, because those rank-and-file individuals hardly do anything to oppose the speech and actions of their leaders, especially publicly. They don't hold them accountable, and yet act offended when those of us on the outside affiliate them with the negative image that their hierarchy displays. Being tolerant of intolerance only perpetuates hatred.

That's why I can no longer defend Christianity, to others or to myself. There are some amazing Christians I've met, people I consider to be good friends (a couple are members of my family), but I no longer believe that most Christians are like them. They are the exception, and I wish that wasn't true, but it is. I barely need two hands to count the Christians I've met who don't proselytize or try to convert me and others. Those few Christians realize how offensive and divisive behavior like that is. They realize how behavior like that does not show love for fellow humans, only a desire to dominate and change them. A long rant like this wouldn't be necessary if all, or even most Christians were like the few that have taken the time to let me get to know them without the expectation  that I'll join them on Sundays. They've even invited me to speak about Pagan topics in order that they can learn more. They answer my questions in an honest and straightforward way, and remain welcoming without being pushy or expressing concern for my soul. It's incredibly refreshing to know them, especially while living in an area where a church van will park in my front yard and three people will stand on my porch trying to convince me to go to their church. And, as I've found out, adding my address to their mailing list without my consent.

Why should I be accepting of people like that? I think one of the fundamental practices of acceptance is "to live and let live." I only give out cards to my Pagan church to people who specifically inquire about Paganism. I don't go around town knocking on people's doors trying to convince them to attend Spirit of the Earth, and then fight them when they say no. While I would love to see the population of practicing Pagans grow, I'm not aware of any Pagans who are trying to actively cause that growth. The majority of the Christians in the United States do not live and let live, they do not practice tolerance and acceptance. It's not enough for them to just not attend the Summer Solstice festival in Florida, they have to do everything in their power to shut it down completely. It's not enough for them to send their children to private Christian schools, they also want the secular public to pay for a religious education with which they disagree. It's not enough for them to just be welcoming to the people who approach their churches on their own, instead they have to invade the private lives of their neighbors and attempt to scare them into attending.

So why should they be treated with respect and acceptance that they don't deserve? And why should we Pagans be trying so hard to remain accepting? We don't owe them anything. I tolerate their door-to-door "invitations" with politeness, but I no longer lie to them to spare their feelings at the expense of my own. I am tolerant of their existence, but I do not knowingly support or encourage their practice -- and simultaneously, I would never do anything to impede it, as long it was not interfering with my own way of life. That is what it means, to me, to live and let live, to be tolerant. It might make me harsh or a bitch, but I know my open mind is protected by a skull kept tightly closed.

It is possible (and really not very difficult) to hold strong religious convictions without needing them to be validated by millions worldwide, without having to constantly gather more and more followers to give your own beliefs weight. Pagans are living like this everyday. Regardless of religion, all people believe their personal practices or paths are the best -- we wouldn't be following them if they weren't -- and we should be strong and passionate enough that we don't need anyone else to believe our paths are the best along with us. We should have a confidence and self esteem that allows us to handle disagreement and be able to walk away from it, unoffended and without losing a step. And though I am biased, I see that most Pagans can do this, and we can do it politely and without being offensive ourselves. I'm often inspired by the way I see other Pagans dealing with highly offensive encounters with Christians. For example, another blogger posted this video recently (and I encourage any reader to watch it in entirety):

She is asked questions by this man that I've been faced with myself, and she responds gracefully despite the disrespect being thrown into her face by a stranger. She lives and let lives, even when faced with individuals who cannot do the same. She is a model for Pagans, illustrating beautifully the point at which I've tried to arrive with this whole rant: We can be tolerant without accepting, encouraging, or defending behavior we find abhorrent. We can politely defend ourselves against those who wish to attack and change us. We can be open-minded, but remain firm in our personal convictions. We can respond to rudeness with honesty and strength, and ultimately, we can coexist. We can walk away, shut the door, and move on without allowing insensitive, persistant people to invade our lives.

I'm trying to become better at this everyday. I started out so accepting that I would let anyone walk all over me and still try to defend and respect them. I know better now -- I'm no longer intimidated or angered by the offensive Christians I encounter in my daily life, and I also can tolerate them without being accepting or supportive. The type of encounters you experience living in the Bible Belt require a lot of patience, and sometimes it takes a rant like this to vent the frustration that results from such encounters. Compassion and understanding are important virtues, but they should not be extended unconditionally. It's important to speak out against what you believe is detrimental or wrong, and I'm glad that I've overcome my own fear of doing so. I hope more Pagans, and more rank-and-file Christians who are unhappy with how their religion is being portrayed, will do the same.

To those few exceptional Christians I've met: thank you for being confident enough in yourselves that my own confidence does not threaten you. To the Christians who can't be the same, get off my porch, stop flooding my mailbox, and kindly stay out of my life.

Tuesday, May 28, 2013

52 Weeks I : May 27th - June 2nd

The 52 Week Self Portrait Project is something I've seen all over the web, from blogs to DeviantART to Flickr, and more. A simple Google search of "52 weeks self portraits" shows all kinds of results from amateur to professional photographers. Some have just started out and others have been doing it for years. The entire idea of the project - take one self portrait every week for a year - has really been inspiring me to practice both photography and posing more. Additionally, this project inspires me to come up with ideas that are simpler in nature, that aren't attached to stories I write out, requiring elaborate edits that stitch together several photographs to make one scene. I want these self portraits (which will be designated specifically as falling into the 52 Week category) to show minimal editing, and never anything that would qualify as photo-manipulation, unlike most of the work I've been doing for the past two years. I want all of the "effects" for these self portraits to be created in real life before the shutter is ever pressed.

Other goals I have for myself are to do more work in color rather than black and white, and to be braver with lighting as well as setting. Any time I'm out driving, I constantly look for areas I think would be great scenery for my photographs, but I hardly ever go back to use them. I want that to stop! If I see a place I think is perfect for an idea, I want to have the guts to do it, whether there are people around or not. A lot of the time, I allow myself to miss out on a great scene because it's public; I don't want to waste opportunities anymore. So, having said all that, here is the first of my 52 Week Self Portrait Project:
{It's black and white, I know.}
Untitled #1, taken in my bedroom sitting against the wall using natural light from a window. I dodged the background to downplay the texture of the wall, burned the molding around the floor to make it darker, and burned parts in the cloak to minimize the appearance of lint and cat hair -- all things that I would have done had this been film. Originally, I really wanted it to be a color shot because I painted my entire face red; however, I just couldn't get the tones looking the way I wanted. I have a lot of practice to do with color indoors. The rest of the editing was desaturating the colors, tweaking with the levels, curves, and contrast, and a slight gaussian blur around the cloak. Normally, I would have wanted to use a texture or part of another photo, so this image looks really empty to me. It might take me some time getting used to not working within my normal habits.

I'm excited to start this new project and hopefully improve my skill. The hardest part is going to be sticking to the time frame, so wish me some luck and perseverance. Thank you for viewing ♥~

Tuesday, May 21, 2013

A New Venture: Henna Hair Dye and Strand Testing

My hair has definitely been on a really crazy journey (it's had more adventures than I have)! I've worn many different cuts and styles and have been dying it all different colors since I was in 8th grade. But along the way, my hair experienced a lot of damage. I got really sick of having short, brittle hair that broke easily. I stopped box-dying altogether, and tried henna hair dye for the first time, specifically this product from Lush. I have been a long time Lush customer and was so excited to try their hair dyes when they came out with them, but I was completely dismayed when their henna dye damaged my hair just like a box dye. So I gave up on dying my hair myself and started going to a salon.

Then, one day earlier this year, I heard my friend Alice talking talking about the henna hair dye she uses herself. She has gorgeous, long, healthy, red hair:
Photo posted with her permission. ♥
I asked her where she gets her henna hair dye from and she explained that she uses body art quality henna from Mehandi. I immediately started doing research (have been doing so since then), and have now decided to try out this henna hair dye for myself. I ordered a 3 gram sample and it arrived in the mail yesterday. I've recently shaved part of my head and I kept some strands from that in order to do a strand test. Here is my original hair:
I could seriously use a trim for split-ends, but this is the longest and healthiest it's been in years. This is the also the un-washed, un-styled, natural texture.
I took photos in the sunlight to try to show the truest color I could in the camera.
After getting some "fresh" locks of hair to use for the dye test, I prepared the henna:
It seems the most common acidic liquid used is lemon juice, but Alice gave me the tip that using orange juice makes her hair less dry. My hair can be prone to really drying out, so I opted to use orange juice as well. In my research, I've seen several warnings against using coffee or vinegar (acetic acid).
At this point, the henna is now ready to be used! Some people really don't like the smell of henna, but I like it quite a lot. It's kind of grassy and soil-smelling, and the orange juice gives it a bit of a sweet fragrance too. I've seen some articles that talk about other oils that can be added to henna to improve the smell, but I've only seen people using henna for body art doing this. I wouldn't ever add anything to the henna for use as a hair dye, but that's just me. If you really hate the smell though, some of the Mehandi info pages say you can add powdered ginger and/or cardamom to the mixture.
I know this picture looks weird and maybe's kind of hard to make it not look that way.
You'll want to cover the hair locks (or your entire head) with plastic wrap in order to keep the henna moist and warm. This will keep things a little less messy and will also improve the color of the dye. For my test strands, I decided to let it sit for 3 hours to see what the middle ground of time would yield. I left some space at the ends of each hair lock in order to have a comparison of colors when finished. Here is what the henna looked like in my hair locks after it was washed out and dried:
Successful, I think! but...I'm not finished yet.
So, I love red hair and I think Alice's above looks absolutely amazing, but for all the years I've been dying my hair different colors, I always eventually go back to black. It's the color I feel most comfortable with and most like myself in, but I don't want to keep paying for a salon to dye my hair black with chemicals. The original Lush henna dye that I used had indigo added to it to make it black hair dye, but through my research, I've learned the proper way to dye hair black naturally is first with henna, and then again with indigo. So after washing the henna out and allowing the hair to dry, it's time to mix up the indigo dye:
The big difference between dying with henna and dying with indigo is the time. First of all, do not let the indigo set out after it's mixed! Henna needs that time over night for the dye to release, but indigo needs to be used immediately after it is mixed, and leftovers cannot be used. Wait until you are totally ready to dye your hair with indigo before mixing it. Then, the same procedure is followed as with henna, and the plastic wrap is used again to keep it neat, moist, and warm.
The look of the indigo can be a little alarming at first because it's so green, but the longer it is left out in the air, the more it oxidizes and changes to a dark, blue-black color. Note that while henna needs to stay in the hair for 2-4 hours, indigo is only left in for 1 hour. Indigo also smells a lot different than henna. I wouldn't say it's an unpleasant smell, but it's not as nice as the henna. It sort of smells like peas or celery powder. According to Mehandi, ginger/cardamom can also be added to indigo to improve the smell if desired.

After the indigo sat in my hair locks for an hour, I washed them out and let them air dry. Here are the final results:
I'm not completely blown away by the indigo. It is definitely dark, but not as dark as I was hoping. However, all of the information I've read repeats that although it may have a slightly greenish hue to it at first, over 1-2 days following application, the indigo dye will oxidize further and mature into a deep blue-black (and there are lots of photos of beautiful black hair). So I'm going to keep an eye on the hair strands and see how the color changes.

Besides that, I'm very happy with how this test went. The indigo made the strands feel a little dry, but I was expecting that. I didn't feel, however, any of the type of elastic feeling that hair gets after being heavily damaged by box dye. Even the original Lush henna dye I tried gave my hair that icky, stretchy feeling and caused a lot of breakage. I didn't notice anything like that kind of damage during this test, so if I'm happy with how the indigo color looks over the next two days, I will definitely be using Mehandi henna on my hair. I've gone through and calculated how expensive I think it will be the first time around, and if I'm correct, I'm expecting between $62-$70. That might seem like a lot, but I was paying more at the salon (around $80) for dye that fades fast and is full of harsh chemicals. I definitely don't want that for my hair anymore, so the price to me is worth it.

I'm really excited about this new venture and I will be updating with how it goes for my whole head of hair. I'm so grateful to Alice for her recommendation, and if people have questions about henna hair dye and henna in general, I would, along with Alice, recommend the Mehandi site as well as far as information goes. It's very thorough and easy to understand, with tons of free e-books, a forum, tutorials, and more. ♡

Friday, May 17, 2013

The Unnecessary Threefold Law

I wanted to take some time to talk about rant all over the place about one of my personal positions for which I've received some pretty heavy criticism in the past. I know what follows might seem pretty ridiculous; I'm going to talk about a commonly-held belief that I don't think is grounded in nature or science, despite the fact that I practice witchcraft, I'm a polytheist, and believe in many things for which there is not really a scientific foundation. Having said that, I will try not to sound too inane, and  please keep in mind that I'm not singling out any person/group in particular, and that I'm not attempting to offend anyone either, including the authors I've cited. I welcome any feedback or explanations that can be given, but please do not tell me that you think I'm naïve or absurd or displaying arrogance and hubris. I've been told all of that before, I've had my share of mistakes, but I've also had a lot of success, and I arrived at the following (non)beliefs through years of personal practice and experience. Thank you for reading, and I hope there's a good point somewhere in all this.

✦  ✦  ✦

Karma. I can't do it, regarding any definition, but especially the basic American definition - for that concept, there is no room in my worldview. What I really have a problem with, and was actually one of the main theological issues that drove me away from Wicca, is the American version of karma (good things happen to people who do good, bad things happen to people who do bad) and further, the Threefold Law (the consequences of one's actions, whether good or bad, return to the actor three times over). The latter especially grinds my teeth, and is made even worse because so many Wiccans seem to believe in the Threefold Law in a literal sense. I've never once experienced any event that could be clearly attributed to karma. I don't see others experiencing such events either, though their own interpretation might be different. I don't see any evidence for karma, in particular the Threefold Law, in nature. And aren't our religions as Pagans and Neo-Pagans, most of us anyway, nature-based? Shouldn't those of us practicing nature-religion, as Wiccans are, take our laws for life from what is observable in nature, and not try to make man-made laws work within a natural concept that does not support them?

Sometimes I feel like I might be missing what the Threefold Law actually teaches. It's hard to know how watered-down the modern American Wiccan version is from what must have been in the original Gardnerian and other British Traditional teachings. I'm not against living as if the Law does happen in reality with the realization that it doesn't actually, but that isn't how it is taught or represented, at least in the literature. It is explained to be literally what is happening out in the universe every time an action is made:
  • "This couplet outlines the belief that the energy attached to any good or bad action that a Wiccan performs will be revisited upon the practitioner threefold (also known as the Law of Return). The threefold attribution is specific to the practice of Wicca, but the general law of cosmic consequence to an action or behavior is not unique." -Arin Murphy-Hiscock, from Solitary Wicca for Life (2005), referring to the couplet concerning the Threefold Law in Lady Gwen Thompson's Wiccan Rede.
  • "Karma is the Sanskrit term for the energy generated by our actions, particularly in relationship to future incarnations. Witches see it as an extension of the Law of Three: what you do will come back to you threefold. Seen from an ethical viewpoint, karma could mean that one who does 'good' acts get rewarded with good and one who performs 'bad' actions gets punished with bad events." -Christopher Penczak, from The Inner Temple of Witchcraft (2002).
  • "We believe in the Threefold Law and its justice. This has to do with cause and effect. What this means is that every action taken and every deed performed - whether good or bad - is calculated by karma at triple value, then sent back to us." -Dorothy Morrison, from The Craft (2001).
  • "Witches believe that you get your rewards and punishments during this lifetime, according to how you live it. Do good and you will get back good. But do evil and evil will return. More than that, though, it is a three-fold retribution. Do good and you will get back three times the good; do evil and you will receive three times the evil." -Raymond Buckland, from Buckland's Complete Book of Witchcraft (2002).
In the last quote, Buckland goes on to say it might not be literally threefold, but uses the example of getting punched in the eye. If you punch someone in the eye, you might not be punched back three times, but at some vague point in the future, you might break your leg, which is three times the punishment to being punched in the eye. That just sounds a little ridiculous to me.

Penczak might be onto something in his own work, and he is already known for looking at witchcraft and Wicca with somewhat scientific eyes. He explains the Threefold Law as the energy generated from action gathering inertia out in the universe before returning to the sender. He thinks the number three is arbitrary, but that the inertia of the sent energy is what accounts for the reward or punishment's increase. 

However, the worst, and the most commonly-observed in my opinion, is Morrison's outline of the Threefold Law in which karma is viewed as something conscious, or at least as a cosmic justice system. Karma calculates our actions and doles out rewards and punishments. I can't help but imagine a Dutch businessman in the 1500s sitting at a table with a scale, setting all the actions on one side, and adding enough weight to the other to be three times as heavy. Then giving his reward or punishment to some sort of karmic mailman with a Return to Sender stamp. I don't mean to poke fun at an ethical guideline that is so important to Wiccans, but it's the literalism by which it is upheld that just baffles me. 

Why is the existence of this mythical threefold return necessary as an ethical foundation? If you believe in no form of cosmic retribution, actions all still have consequences and its the avoidance or gain of negative or positive consequences that motivates our behavior. Receipt of pleasure and avoidance of pain is the system that already exists in nature. Wolf packs hunt and share food together, monkeys groom each other, parent birds protect their nests and offspring, vampire bats share blood meals with each other. Their rewards are health, bonding, survival. This non-karmic system of consequences is observable and effective, without having to try to figure out how to explain an unseen universal force (my Dutch businessman) deciding when and how each person will pay their karmic debts and cash out on their karmic rewards.

Karma isn't, and furthermore shouldn't, be needed to live by the Wiccan Rede: an' it harm none, do what ye will. We live in a causal universe. Actions have reactions, and we as humans interpret the quality of those reactions as good or bad. We can make decisions based on those consequences, whether predicting them or learning from previous experience. We can be good people, and harm none, because being so enriches our lives through friendship, overall positivity, love, and even the perhaps more baser expectation of reciprocal altruism. The Threefold Law is an unnecessary, unfounded ethical premise that, in my opinion, does nothing to actually enhance the practice of witchcraft or Wicca. If you engage in spell-crafting (or any other activity for that matter) without a clear head, a focused plan, and a careful consideration of the consequences, then you deserve what happens. And if you do take the time to consider all the possibilities, alternative solutions, and have a focused goal, then you also deserve the good that can come your way. But attributing such consequences -- whether they are good or bad -- to a cosmic justice system removes responsibility away from the practitioner and places it onto something invisible and ultimately unreachable. I fear that this lack of true responsibility can lead to misinformed, unreliable, and maybe even dangerous spell-crafting. (As a worst case scenario, of course.) It can cause a lack of growth of the practitioner because attributing every 'punishment' or 'reward' to a universal force that they have no way of controlling, instead of recognizing and admitting a mistake or a victory, prevents learning through self accountability.

That's why I call it the Unnecessary Threefold Law. I don't think it's bad, and I even think sometimes it could be nice if the good energy I send out could amplified back to me. But it isn't realistic. It isn't really logical. It isn't nature, and it isn't life.

✦  ✦  ✦

Tell me what you think in the comments. Do you agree with me? Disagree? Why?
If you believe in the Threefold Law, where and how do you see it happening?

Thursday, May 16, 2013

The Water Bride

Self portrait from today with a short story titled "The Water Bride" pending! I'm working on something that is sort of historical fiction set in the East Indies. It's starting to run a little away from me so I wanted to take a break and revisit it. I still wanted to share the photo I made today to go along with it. Taken in my living room, and I used a texture from my friend Sa Scha -- his textures are unbelievable and his is so generous about letting other artists use them. Danke!~

Tuesday, May 14, 2013

Enjoying Exercise

I think one of the things that makes sticking to an exercise plan difficult is the feeling of obligation and the lack of excitement. But not at first -- I do it all the time. I'm completely committed for a week or two, waking up early, making time, doing cardio, weight-lifting, ab work outs, etc. Sometimes, I go over to the gym and use the machines there. Other times, I stay at home and do a P90X routine. Every day I look forward to that time I make for myself, but after those 10 days or so, my enthusiasm starts to wane because I'm not actually enjoying my workouts. They are something I've made room for by taking away a different activity that I do like. If you go about exercising in this way, you'll never have a sustainable daily practice. At least, that's what I believe.

So I've been trying something different. I'm taking activities that I already enjoy and don't put into the exercise/working out category and I'm upping them so that they are more physically challenging. But I'm still holding onto what the original activity entails so that I can keep having fun with it. For example:

I love walking Sól. I get to bond with my dog and see him having fun, I get to explore the neighborhood where I live. I get to enjoy nature, the nice breeze, and I always feel better when I come home from a walk because I've done something that makes me and my dog happy. So instead of giving up that time that I love, I can change it in order to get even more benefits. I increase my time to walking for at least 30 minutes, but if I can, to go for an hour. I walk at a faster pace, and I take routes that have more hills. When I have a little bit more money, I would like to get some ankle weights as well as a pedometer to track my distance. But besides these few changes, my walks with Sól are the same. It doesn't seem like much, but mentally it goes a long way in order to keep yourself enthusiastic about becoming and staying more active.

And just because it's exercise doesn't mean I can't bring my camera along to get a few shots of the things I appreciate while I'm walking around town:
My absolute favorite house in town. I've never seen a witchier-looking manor. This is a total dream house for me.
A beautiful park that is about 30 minutes on foot away from me.  It's a very relaxing area.
I love seeing him so smiley (even though it's hot outside!)
I feel like I'm in a storybook when I walk here.
This treasure exists on my street, only a few doors down. I'm pretty certain it's abandoned and I would love to get over there to do a photoshoot soon.
I like to think that after we get home and rest, he thinks about the great, long walk we just went on.
Keeping motivation alive can be really difficult. Being healthy and happy with yourself is a lifestyle change that requires commitment and sacrifice. It can be really hard to continue to make choices that work for your goals because we become so dependent upon routine. But I really believe that with some creativity, research, and dedication, we can make our breaks from routine fun, enjoyable, and events worth looking forward to. I'm practicing this method everyday, and some days, I truly feel like I'm getting close. 

Thursday, May 2, 2013

Pagan Coming Out Day - May 2, 2013

Today is Pagan Coming Out Day, a celebration that began, as far as I know, in 2011. It's become an important tradition for many Pagans of all different spiritual identities, and I feel that each year its importance grows stronger than the last. I've never had any sort of official "coming out of the broom closet," so I wanted to take some time today to write about my experiences and participate in the PCOD tradition.

As it seems with most people who are not born into Pagan families, I encountered Wicca through pop culture when I was around 12 years old. I saw movies like The Craft, or watched shows like Charmed and Buffy on TV. I was curious and started talking to a friend about it in junior high school. He also liked all the supernatural shows, but I had no idea that he had already began exploring Wicca as an actual religion -- I didn't even know it was an actual religion! This friend really changed my entire life because of a book he let me borrow one day, and I don't think there's a Pagan in the United States today who isn't at least familiar with it: Dorothy Morrison's The Craft. That book created something like a paradigm shift in me. I was completely fascinated and obsessed, I think I finished reading it in only two or three days before starting it over again. What followed is predictable. I moved on to Buckland's "Big Blue Book," made my way through Scott Cunningham's bibliography. I tried one Silver Ravenwolf book (but even back then, I knew I didn't want anything to do with her writing, hahaha). I dedicated myself, very privately and very quietly, in November of 2003.

Fast forwarding to the present, I no longer identify as Wiccan (the more I studied it, the more theological issues I had with it), but I am proudly Pagan, with a heavy focus on European witchcraft and a growing passion for Hoodoo and conjure practices. I suppose I officially work with the Egyptian pantheon, though lately I've been combatting a lot of deep spiritual issues when it comes to Deity. I don't want to get too side-tracked, however, I just wanted to lay down a little bit of my religious history.

It took a long time for me to really be a public Pagan, both in terms of people who knew and also participating in public rituals and holidays. I went to a Yule party once in a high school, and a few different rituals in New York after I moved there, but I didn't ever stay with a particular group. A lot of Pagan communities can be really difficult to break into, and I think that leaves a lot of solitary practitioners feeling lonely. I know I did, because while I was practicing witchcraft at home alone, I didn't get the kind of community that comes with holidays. Think about our sympathy toward those people who are alone on Christmas or Thanksgiving -- I felt like that every time I was alone on Beltaine or Lughnasadh or Yule. Ironically (perhaps) it took moving to the Bible Belt before I found a stable, wonderful, diverse Pagan community, and I'm proud to be a member of it.

And now that I am a member of a Pagan church, I feel like I'm more "out" than ever -- I have one of their stickers on my car and my laptop, I have their business cards, I talk about them frequently with my friends, both those who are Pagan and who are not. Since I've been attending their festivals and rituals, my first one being Samhain 2010, I've lived everyday as an out and proud Pagan.

Except with my family.

It's a strange feeling, not really lying to them, but cutting them off from what's become a huge focal point to my life and my identity. I did talk to my parents about Wicca occasionally when I was in early high school, but I'm not sure they ever took it seriously. When I went to that Yule party, my mom tried to convince me that that wasn't what they were actually celebrating and that I shouldn't assume. My dad once made a joke about casting spells on my brother with the clay pentacle I was making. Though, he also once brought me back a pentacle necklace from a business trip. I don't believe that either of them wanted to make me feel weird or bad about my religious interests, but I did anyway. I've never been comfortable with the idea of discussing that with them. And I don't really know why.

Last summer, I visited with some cousins in Texas and while I was there, one of them asked me what my religious beliefs are. I'm sure she knew the answer; I have them displayed on my Facebook page (where all my family can see it), but even knowing that she most likely knew, it still felt strange or foreign to say it out loud to her. I mean, it was also a little weird for me because her family is very Christian, which is fine, but I always get a little weird about discussing any alternative religion with most active Christians, but the discomfort I was feeling was also because she is my blood family. Maybe it's because of the obligations that exist between blood relatives, whether real or imagined, I'm not sure, but I'm afraid of their judgment. I'm not afraid of anyone else's. I feel awkward truly letting in any of my family. I don't hide from them, but I don't bring it up either. It's difficult and depressing.

And I don't want it to be that way. I want to be able to tell them about the awesome friends I've made in Kentucky, about the cool new things I learned from these friends, about how much I look forward to festival season and how happy my church makes me. I want to tell them when I finish my degree, I want to go through my church's ministry education to become a Pagan minister myself. I want to tell them about how much being Pagan means to me, how passionate I am about it, but they just don't get the opportunity to know that side of me. And for that, I feel guilty and dishonest, as well as sad because I don't think it's going to change. It's a conversation that I don't know how to begin and I've used that fear to block off a huge portion of my life. It also makes me feel like a hypocrite, because I believe the greater Pagan community should be out and public and known, when I myself am not those things entirely. Maybe someday I'll be ready to remove those self-imposed chains from my life. And wouldn't that be relieving?
Part of my temple room (and my dog who likes to hang out in there)