Working with Personal Cycles

I’ve learned that, like the Wheel of the Year itself, my life moves in cycles. I can remember being a Blue Star Dedicant years and years ago and realizing—courtesy of my very astute teacher who told me I needed to keep track of these things, which sounds obvious now but totally was not at the time—that my interests, moods, relationship with my body, and connection to the gods all ebbed and flowed according to the seasons. I am the happiest and most ambitious over the summer. In August, I have to be mindful of depression, which will set in as school starts. Halloween is fun, but I tend to be sick or injured this time of year. December is a good time to talk to the gods and feel them most strongly in my life. Imbolc always has be gunning to start some new spiritual project that’s usually a little beyond my scope at the time. I spend too much money in May, because all of my Taurus is hanging out and I feel good about the coming time off. And so on.

Years of doing this, and I finally have a reasonably good sense of myself. I used to try to fight it, but I find that it’s easier to just flow and be patient with myself. Work isn’t going away, and neither is depression, tax season, or final exam schedules, so better to just do what I can to prepare and move through these things as gracefully as possible.

My coven has a cycle to it to: times when it’s easier to meet often, times when people need extra support, and times when I feel like the worst high priestess in the world because I have to relinquish much of the coven’s functional work to others for the sake of my mental health. It’s not a problem, but in the past it’s been very frustrating. When you don’t recognize patterns and respond accordingly, it can feel like everything is just happening to you beyond control.

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Conversion and Trauma

I turned in my first short story to my writing workshop last week. I’m new to fiction, and I had a blast writing thirteen pages (haha) about a Wiccan shopkeeper who’s lost his belief in magic.

Mostly, I wrote it to amuse myself and my friends. I knew going in that the biggest challenge would be writing a story that felt authentic without excluding my non-witch audience. How to work in community jokes and contemplations on stuff that really matters to my personal experience while not alienating a roomful of people (one of whom is responsible for my grade) who might have zero experience with any kind of Pagan anything?

The feedback was surprisingly useful, and I was pleased that they seemed to think I’d pulled off something worthwhile (or, at least, not just produced a steaming pile of garbage). As a room, however, one snag sat at the center of the critique:

“I need to know this narrator’s religious background,” said my professor.

I should add, here, that the rules of our workshop prevent the author from speaking. We’re required to listen, take notes, and be thoughtful. I was not permitted to engage and instead practiced my (still bad) poker face.

“A loss of faith narrative could be interesting, but it matters where he’s coming from. Was he raised as a witch? And, if not, what trauma led to his conversion?”

Whoa. Trauma?

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Finding Community on YouTube

I don’t know how many people are aware of this, but I got my start as a writer and Internet witch (that’s a thing, right?) on YouTube.

I was studying French in Paris in preparation for beginning graduate work in religious studies, and I was miserable. Not because I was in Paris—Paris is amazing and this was a highlight of my life—but because I’d just escaped an abusive relationship with a dude who, aside from being an asshole, also thought Wicca was stupid (I believe the word most used was “childish”).

I’d spent more than three years not practicing, barely having contact with my Pagan friends, drinking unbelievably, and abusing amphetamines when I wasn’t hysterically trying to use my GPA and academic pursuits to make myself feel like a worthwhile human being. Oh yeah, and I was cutting myself.

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Going Within, Going Without: Exploring Multiple Traditions to Deepen Practice

I confess to being one of those people who gets a little suspicious when interacting with people who claim to be initiates in multiples traditions. In traditional Wiccan spaces, it’s common to hear tales of wayfaring strangers out to collect initiations and titles for the sake of being able to assert more authority in their community. These sorts of people are supposed to blow through, get their stamp on the forehead, and then move on to the next group. Their website biographies are usually some variant on “Lord High Priest Magnum Ravenface is a third degree high priest and magus in the ancient tradition of überwicca, as well as Tumbleweed Wicca, the Moon Raven tradition of High Witchcraft, and an adept in the Ordo Templi Golden Dawn. He’s also a Reiki master, a fourth degree black belt, and an ordained doula.”

It’s hard to take people like this seriously. The reaction they’re going for is, “Wow, that guy sure does know a lot. I should totally give him my money.” But in my case it’s usually more like, “Damn, this dude can’t commit to anything,” or “I wonder why he keeps getting kicked out of all these trads.” Rather than being impressed, I’m wary.

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Things Unfinished

IMG_8536Have you ever signed up for something and then not finished? Or maybe just haven’t been able to work at the rate you’d prefer?

I’m still working through the Correspondence Course through Tarot School. I’m a little over halfway, which feels like a huge accomplishment given how much I’ve done since I first signed up (earned a graduate degree, got a teaching license, got my own classroom, wrote my first book). My teacher, Wald Amberstone, tells me that hardly anyone actually finishes. Plenty of people sign up, but most of those don’t make it beyond the first lesson. I’m guessing that it’s because it’s a lot more work than people expect, and much of that work is tedious. Right away, you learn exercises for contemplating cards at many levels, but then you actually have to write these contemplations out for literally every card in the deck. I enjoy these sorts of tasks, but even I find it to be really challenging. It takes me forever to finish individual lessons, just because of how much writing each entails. I always learn a ton, though, so the work has been well worth it.

Increasingly, my practice of tarot has almost nothing to do with divination. I still think divination can be valuable, but for me it has a very definite time and place, and that only rolls around once in a great while. Further, sometimes I just don’t want to know things. I’d rather suss things out gradually, tracing the strands in my own journaling and discerning patterns. Without that kind of context, drawing cards can feel starkly off the mark. Only later do we go, “Oh, hey, that’s what that card was about.” By then the information is less useful. We just add the experience to our mental bank and hope to be a bit more astute next time.

I also think there’s a danger in becoming overly dependent on things like daily draws. As meditative exercises, yes, absolutely. But I’ve seen a lot of people get so hung up on what they pull each morning that they give up some of their own agency, resigning themselves to “what the cards said” or making far-fetched connections that, while perhaps valid, don’t actually depend on having a daily divination ritual. Sure, the 9 of Swords could be about your laundry, but did you really need a deck of cards for that?

I’ve never left that liminal space where tarot is both sacred (a map of the universe), but also totally mundane and accessible (laundry). I’m sure it’s something I’ll always wrestle with.

My next project is reviving and reformatting the newsletter. I’ve been writing a lot lately (most recently at Patheos) about identity, and I really want to consolidate some of my web presence. I do a lot, and it’s gotten hard to keep up with the various versions of myself. And if you’d like to keep up with me and my assorted adventures, you’ll be able to do so in one place (more or less)!

Meanwhile, I’m doing all of the things that go along with publishing a book, after the manuscript is done. Turns out there’s a lot! The release date for Traditional Wicca: A Seeker’s Guide (with Llewellyn) is still almost a year away, but there’s still a ton of work to do. I should see my cover in the next few days, though, and I’ll be sure to share it with you all!

Is Tarot Necessarily Spiritual?

Photo on 8-3-16 at 1.35 PMOkay. First, I need to put on my religious studies scholar hat.

There.

“Spirituality” is not objectively a thing that we can locate and measure.

It’s constructed, both culturally and by individuals. Over time, we ascribe meaning to objects and practices, and eventually those things take on greater symbolism. They become spiritual. For some people.

As a community, we tend to talk about certain things as though they’re inherently spiritual. Meditation, crystals, drinking tea, tarot cards…you can probably make your own list based on the various “spiritual” hashtags from Instagram or Tumblr.

Like the more we meditate, the more spiritual we inherently are. Or the more tea we drink, the more enlightened we become.

But here’s the thing: those things are tools. They’re not in and of themselves spiritual. Thanks to some selective history and, frankly, marketing, we associate them with “spiritual” people. We forget that “religion” and “spirituality” (again, even the perceived difference between those terms says more about our cultural locations than it does about objective things called “religion” or “spirituality”) have looked different across millennia—continue to look different wherever we are in the world. Just doing and having particular things doesn’t automatically make us more anything.

I have at least a dozen Bibles in my house right now. In my hands, they’re just books. For Christians, they may be symbols of something else, but my owning and handling them has zero impact on anything in my life. The power isn’t literally in the book, or I’d surely be glowing by now.

Drinking tea might relax you and make you feel super witchy and receptive to the voices of the gods, and that’s fantastic and valid. But it’s not inherently in the tea. The thousands of other people drinking that tea from the same manufacturer aren’t having the same experiences you are. Your experience has more to do with you.

Someone else (hint: it’s me) is a lot happier with coffee or vodka.

And that’s cool.

Something becomes spiritual when you assign spiritual value to it. If it’s meaningless to you, it will continue to be meaningless no matter how much of it you drink, buy, or practice.

Tarot cards are not inherently spiritual. They became spiritual in time, thanks to the efforts of particular people. They used to just be a weird card game for rich Italians.  If they are spiritual to you, then that says more about you than the cards themselves. And you’re probably awesome, so that’s great news.

Cool.

Okay, taking my religious studies hat off.

Tarot is a part of my spiritual practice, but not really because it’s a divination tool. I see my tarot reading as an acquired skill, developed with long hours of practice over the course of years. Part history, part religious studies, part literary studies, part storytelling, tarot makes sense to me the way interpreting any kind of text makes sense to me. We take a set of symbols and we build meaning, based on our cultural backgrounds, our personal experiences, and our impulses (which are often just sublimated pieces of our experiences, not external messages from nowhere). If the gods are involved, it’s because, on some level, I’ve involved them.

Instead, tarot is spiritual for me because it’s given me this huge body of symbols—a language, if you will—to make sense of other things. Tarot is a map to my world. I think of people and events in terms of cards. I understand abstractions like “spiritual growth” or “initiation” or “shadow work” in terms of tarot symbols. It’s a way of creating meaning for me. It gives me context. I can say, “Oh, this was totally a Seven of Swords moment,” or “Holy shit I need to stop dating Knights what the fuck is wrong with me.” Instead of feeling like I’m alone in the world, feeling something no one has ever felt before, I can find reassurance in the cards. Yes, other people have been here, too. This is the next step on the Fool’s Journey.

It may not make sense to anyone else, but it works for me. It becomes spiritual.

So is tarot necessarily spiritual? That depends on what world you’re occupying, I suppose. For me, the Bible is just a book and a tarot deck is just a stack of printed cardboard. But I can see the power that they hold for people, in different circumstances, and I can respect that. It’s the thing the symbol represents that matters, which depends on context. The American flag itself isn’t holy, but perhaps liberty and justice are. When people get upset at the misuse of flags, it’s not because they believe that the flag is literally the country. The Book of Shadows I keep isn’t my practice of witchcraft. You could set it on fire and I’d just make another one.  I wouldn’t stop being a witch just because you took it from me. My tarot deck isn’t the source of my divinatory powers. If I lost it, I’d just buy another one.   The tea you’re drinking isn’t what’s making you magical. You’re magical all on your own. Your tarot practice is spiritual because you are spiritual.