I’m Writing a Fucking Book and Drinking Lots of Coffee

group-shotYesterday was my last day of student teaching, and I’m sitting at a Starbucks drinking liquefied sugar and gleefully clacking away on my laptop for the first time in months. God I missed this. Working really gets in the way of working you know?

I actually feel like blogging.

Good thing, too, because I’m writing a fucking book.

No, seriously. For real this time. The Llewellyn contract is signed, the deadline is set, and pretty soon I’ll have to provide a headshot that doesn’t make me look like I escaped from the woods and got lost at Sephora on my way to a spinster schoolteacher convention.

I got tired of whining about how I don’t know what books to recommend to seekers of traditional Wicca and decided to write my own. This is the kind of project that gets me really excited but comes with a certain level of dread, too. I’m purporting to represent a movement here, and, as a relatively conservative Gardnerian priestess (and a young one, at that) I’m clearly not the most representative voice in the world. To remedy this, I’m trying to include perspectives, anecdotes, and advice from others, in other traditions (as well as my own, of course). I’m working down my list of badass trad Wiccans to contact and beg for input, and I can only hope to be as inclusive as possible. I know I can’t write something perfect, but I at least want to write something that another coven leader in a different tradition can feel comfortable handing to an inquisitive seeker and going, “Here, this is pretty close to what we do and has some things in it that could help you.”

I’m not policing the term “traditional” either. I’m discussing it in terms of the role of initiation, lineage, hierarchy, and the coven, but I’m not out to tell people who is and isn’t legit. Ya’ll can figure that out on your own. So if you’ve got a story to share (I’m especially looking for people to represent some of the less-discussed BTW groups here in the States), please drop me a line. I don’t have the final say about what gets included (and there’s no money in it), but I’ll take all the help I can get to make this thing representative and solid. Seekers, that goes for you, too. Drop me a line. Some of you will hear from me personally at some point, asking for input. I’m envisioning inserts scattered throughout the text body, with advice, anecdotes, and other tidbits from people who aren’t me.

In other writing news, I’m working on another project that I hope will end up being a column for Witches&Pagans Magazine. I’m co-writing with one of the buttheads over at Gardnerians, so I know good things will result one way or another. I’ve been reading Witches&Pagans (back when it was NewWitch) since issues 1 (actually—fun Thorn factoid—I have a letter to the editor in an early issue in which I make myself look like an adolescent jackass), so I’m majorly pumped that they’re even considering my writing.

The great irony is that all of this writing about witchcraft leaves much less time to actually practice witchcraft. Foxfire has been extraordinarily patient with me, and for that I’m grateful. Winter months are just kind of a mess, anyway. Family events, holidays, traveling, work, and weather get in the way of the day-to-day business of coven things, especially when you’re in different towns. It takes an enormous amount of effort from everyone to be in the same space at the same time (both physically and emotionally). The upside is that we all seem to be busy with personal Craft stuff, and everyone seems to be growing despite my neglect.

My social time is limited, but most of it belongs to my HEMA club. I didn’t realize how much I missed belonging to a martial arts school. Taekwondo was this huge thing in my life back in college, and it was devastating to close that door, after moving away, realizing my instructors were assholes, and subsequently being disillusioned by the entire tradition. That was a really rough time in my life, and it tarnished a lot of the things that were really great about the art itself. I told myself I’d never be a part of a system like that again. Money-grubbing “masters” and a bullshit belt ranking system and raging misogyny from ninja dudebros (as well as other women) at every fucking turn. I’m still proud of what I accomplished in Taekwondo, but I’m no longer sorry I quit.

My sword club fills this deep-seated emotional need that I sort of forgot I had. Or was pretending I didn’t have. Or something. It’s a lot bigger than fencing.

And on that note, more coffee.

Alabama and Reflections on Alex Mar’s Witches of America

alex marI’m in Alabama for Thanksgiving, hanging out with my parents, running, writing, and sleeping more than I usually do. Oliver always makes the drive with me, and it’s funny watching him interact with my mother’s three cats, who are comparatively huge and fancy (long-haired, Persian, flat-faced, totally uncivilized despite whatever she says about them). Oliver stalks around the house looking surly, hissing a lot, and staying close to me. The other cats do little more than watch him attentively, but he hates it. And, naturally, I have to take his side.

Thanksgiving break and then winter break are much-needed, and I appreciate them more now that I’ve finally admitted to just not liking fall. I can catch up on reading (in between grading student papers), do some blogging, and refocus on my own physical well-being (eating regularly, getting a lot of exercise, sleeping). I even set up a target in my parents’ backyard so I can shoot.

I’m finishing up Alex Mar’s Witches in America, which I’d been dying to read since seeing all of the horrendous, scathing, angry reviews floating around the Pagan Internet.  It’s been sitting on my table for weeks, and I finally got to read it yesterday, finishing up this morning.

There’s a lot in here that I recognize. Mar and I have similar educational and economic backgrounds (near as I can tell) and are close in age, so many of her questions and impulses look familiar to me. I understand how she feels when she doesn’t quite connect to the language prevalent amongst the Dianics she visits (it’s not her feminism, not her experience of womanhood). I understand that she feels self-conscious, surrounded by the kind of ecstatic religiosity at a large Pagan gathering, and later amongst the smaller groups she pursues. I understand wanting to suspend disbelief in search of a feeling that everyone else seems to have already achieved, feeling like you’re missing something. I understand the difficulty she has negotiating conversations about socioeconomic class, and the sometimes careless assumptions she makes about the people she’s studying.  And I understand the disappointment of having to go, “Nope. This isn’t what I thought it was or what I hoped it would be.”

So I’m empathetic, even if my experiences were different.

I can’t really comment on her relationships with her individual subjects or what oaths she may or may not have broken. I think it’s worth noting that (as far as I know) the people she describes by name have remained silent on the matter. Only they can say what boundaries were violated, if any. I’m not privy to the promises she made, and I don’t feel like that’s any of my business. I also think that when oathbound material is shared and vows are broken, it’s usually best dealt with by shutting up and not drawing attention, which only serves to let everyone else know the material is really oathbound.

When I first read Tanya Luhrmann’s Persuasions of the Witches’ Craft, I had similar reactions. I found myself thinking, “Jeez, I would never have been comfortable letting a scholar into my circle like this.” But that’s their business. It’s not up to me to tell them what’s secret and what isn’t, because every group is different. If I disagree, they only way I can protect material is to keep my own mouth shut and use their experience as a cautionary tale. As for open rituals, I think having writers present is a risk that everyone takes. These are public, after all. How many church services have I written about myself? How many open rituals? Even when you go through IRB clearance (as I did), individual consent from a large body of attendees is often not required, especially if the event is open to the public (like most Pagan festivals). Whether or not that’s personally ethical varies by individual, and the outsider’s position (whether she’s a scholar, a journalist, or a blogger) is usually different from the insider’s.

Friends and colleagues have commented that they found the work to be dismissive of certain kinds of Paganism (especially eclectic Wicca) and also somewhat body-shaming. I didn’t get that impression, myself. If anything, I thought most of her descriptions were a little cliché (“pendulous” breasts abound). When she avoided eclectic Wiccans, I understood it to be because she was personally on a quest for something organized, lineaged, and appealing to her desire for intimacy. Her avoidance made sense to me, and didn’t strike me as dismissive.

As an ethnographer, I can also empathize with the fact that subjects almost never feel perfectly represented. They often feel you’ve missed the point. They often feel slighted. Usually—for religious groups—this is rooted in the ethnographer never totally giving up her outsider position. The Christians I worked with knew that I couldn’t possibly have gotten them, because if I had, I would have been saved.

At best, I’d say this is an interesting memoir from someone who thirty-something spiritual seekers may recognize. At worst, it’s just kind of rehashed and self-indulgent—pretty standard fare in popular journalism. I think the mistake some people made was assuming that this book was designed to be representative or descriptive, but this is obviously not the case. It’s very clearly a memoir. I can’t imagine how someone could pick this up after reading the dust jacket and opening chapter and think this book would tell them how to be a witch, what Paganism looks like in the United States, or what really goes on in a witch coven. This is one more volume in the growing library of “seeker” memoirs—popular for the last several years—akin to Kevin Roose’s The Unlikely Disciple or Lauren Sandler’s Righteous: Dispatches from the Evangelical Youth Movement. Fascinating for the mildly curious, but clearly not intended to be objectively scholarly.

As usual, I think our reactions say more about us than about the work itself. Maybe she really gets it wrong. Maybe looking in the mirror is uncomfortable for us Pagans. Maybe she broke her oaths. Maybe we’re offended that she didn’t feel what we feel. Maybe we wish she’d worked with different people. Maybe we just wish she’d picked a better title.

I think it’s worth reading, though, and considering the problem for yourself.

Wicca is not Nice

There’s a lot to be said (later, when I’m not running late for work) about the pathway by which Wicca became a religion characterized by “tolerance” and “open-mindedness” and “doing no harm.”

But, while some of these and related virtues may deserve cultivation, they are far from central (and may be absent entirely).

Drawing Lines: Musings on Categories, Labels, and Representation

IMG_6554Drawing Lines: Musings on Categories, Labels, and Representation.

Is there a Pagan uniform? With so much interest in organized representation, how do we decide who to exclude?


 

Okay, please bear with me while I try to figure out how to effectively share Patheos posts in an aesthetically pleasing way.  I really will refrain from double-posting, as promised, but the option to follow my postings on Oathbound isn’t quite up and running yet (it’s dependent on having a minimum number of posts, apparently).  Until then (later this week), here’s my most recent blog for those of you who may have missed it.  If you like it, please share it with people who may also like it!  My schedule there entails posting about twice a week, so updates will be frequent!  There’s also a lively comments section for those of you who enjoy sharing your input!

Blogging at Patheos!

photo-4In just about a week I’ll be writing on Oathbound: Witchcraft and Magic from the Gut, my brand new blog over at Patheos. I’m super excited, because I’ll be sharing space with established authors whom I’ve followed for a long time (Jason Mankey, Lupa, Aidan Kelly, Peg Aloi, and Lilith Dorsey, among others).  So hooray!  It’s a big deal for me because I’ll have the opportunity to write for a larger audience and get more critical feedback on both my writing and my general line of thinking. It’ll also give me an excuse to finally attend Pantheacon, which I’m mad stoked about.

I’ll be writing about a lot of the same topics: traditional Wicca and witchcraft, Paganism in the academic world, generally humorous stories about being Pagan in the wild, and tales from my own work operating a coven and trying not ruin the tradition with which I’ve been entrusted.

The new blog is still under construction, but look for a link in about a week. I’ll continue to post at Thorn the Witch, but it’ll take some time to figure out exactly what the divide is going to look like. I expect that things may get a bit more personal and swear-y over here (because saying fuck a lot and trying to revive the word “cowan” isn’t going to go over well on Patheos, probably), but hopefully not less frequent.

In the meantime, please check out and like my brand new Facebook page! You’d be doing me a big favor (and tricking Patheos Pagan into thinking I’m really popular and cutting edge so no one regrets letting me do this).

(And isn’t my blog banner badass?  It was made by Lore over at Ecstatick Magick, who is a fucking wizard.)

Witch Show-and-Tell

So my last blog had a lot of words in it. This one is also about favorite witch stuff, but with more pictures. Here are some of my most significant witch items.

photo 1

This is my skinning knife. Knives are a big part of my witch practice, and this one is specifically reserved for the work I’m doing with the Horned God. I only began practicing (traditional) archery and learning to hunt last year, and I haven’t made a kill yet, but this is one of the knives that I’ll use when I do. I purchased it from a magical blacksmith I met at a festival, who promptly disappeared into the aether. When I asked for his business card, he gave me a slip of paper with GPS coordinates. Fucking magical.

photo 3

This is the amber and jet necklace that I inherited from my Witch Queen. Amber and jet carries a lot of significance in many BTW circles, both in terms of magical association and as a symbol of our hierarchies (what this looks like specifically may vary across traditions, though).  It’s a tremendous honor to own a piece of ritual jewelry that’s been passed down like this, and wearing it in circle reminds me of both my witch family and the weight (and privilege) of being a part of this tradition.  If the house caught fire, this is definitely something I’d make a break for.

photo 4

I’m not particularly skilled in any artistic medium, but I know enough about some that I can trick other people into thinking that I’m more capable than I really am. I was just messing around with Sculpey, using Oliver as a model, when it occurred to me: hey, wouldn’t it be potentially useful to have a figurine magically imbued with Oliver-ness? I could use it for related spellwork, but also just as a token for when I’m forced to live life without him. Via sympathetic magic, the statue becomes Oliver. So I mixed the clay with a generally warm-fuzzy-type herbal concoction, then hollowed it out and stuffed it full of Oliver hair. Ta da!

photo 5

I own several sets of runes, but this is the one that I use to read for other people. If you wander into the shop, this is what I’m fidgeting with at the back table (when I’m not buried in a book). Runes occupy this bizarro nebulous space for me because I’m not Heathen, but I nonetheless have this massive out-of-control relationship with runes. I definitely think there’s sort of a gateway thing happening, though, because I’m finding myself increasingly in Heathen spaces, whether socially or spiritually. The runes have their own magical space, away from my usual Wiccan shenanigans, and that’s what they seem to prefer. So I roll with it and see where it leads.

photo 2

This is another piece of Sculpey fabulousity, crafted as a surprise by Aspen, who is currently circling with Foxfire’s outer court. She presented it to me when we first met face-to-face, as a thank you, and I don’t think I’ve ever been so surprised and touched. See how the fox is wrapped up in thorns? Perfection. This little guy sits on my main working altar at all times.

How about you guys? What are your favorite magical items?

My Favorite Witch Stuff

Witches love stuff. We can have abstract conversations about materiality and assert all day long to seekers that, “You don’t need any tools!” That’s true, to an extent (more on that in a minute), but we still love stuff. And we often have a ton of it, whether it’s empty jars in the pantry, piles of salvaged wax and string, or expansive collections of books, bones, or stones (or all three). I co-taught a class at the shop a few weeks ago called “Are You a Witch?” and we started out by asking participants for their initial impressions of what a witch is. One woman’s kneejerk contribution was that witches are hoarders (her word, not ours), and those of us who’d been practicing for a while all had a chuckle.

So this post is dedicated to my favorite stuff and the artists who make it (go buy their work because it’s amazing). You may consider exploring some of these as potential arenas for the expansion of your own Craft, or simply enjoy the slew of pictures and personal adventures.

Bones and Skins and Critter Bits

photo 2Human beings are universally fascinated by our fellow animals, and this manifests in myriad ways. For witches and Pagans, this often entails the incorporation of animals into ritual practice, whether as familiars, totems, spirit guides, and all kinds of other things that I’m not qualified to speak on. This can involve actual live animals, their representations (statues, pictures), or their remains (skin, bone, hair).

There has been a great deal of discussion in the past few years about the use of the word “totem” and the appropriation of Native American traditions with regard to the use of animal parts (and language about animals), and I would advise thoughtful readers to make themselves aware of these conversations (showing up at an open ritual and declaring that “Wolf is my spirit animal because my great grandma was Cherokee,” is a surefire way to ensure that people roll their eyes about you when you’re not looking).

Also necessary are conversations about the proper acquisition of animal parts. All fox tails being sold on the Internet are not equal and there are more laws attached to feather possession than most people could ever dream. Aside from the laws that may or may not apply to you depending on your geographical location and the critter in question, there are moral issues to be considered. Something being legal doesn’t mean it’ll sit comfortable with your ethical code. All of this should be considered with great care as you move forward.

I’ve been incorporating animal remains into my ritual work for the past several years, and my practices have changed over time. Sometimes, it’s about incorporating the cultural/magical associations (not to mention the actual biological traits) of the critter into spell work. Other times, I’m invoking the spirit of an individual animal (not just “Wolf” the archetype/totem/whatever, but that individual wolf spirit that resides in that unique skull/tail/etc). I’ve got a number of foxes, for example, and my experience has been that each has a very distinct personality (and therefore different purposes, in and/or out of ritual). My experiences with skulls have been the same. In some senses, they’re still alive, magically speaking. I think of my critters as companions, with their own agency.

photo 1

If you haven’t already checked out the work or artist and author Lupa, you’re in for a treat. I recommend her writing without reservation (and you can find plenty of material about cultural appropriation and animal parts laws on her website and blogs). My fox and coyote parts (and the periodic other beasty) come from her almost exclusively, because I trust her sourcing and have been totally satisfied with the care and quality of her work. I also majorly dig her artwork (and she’s working on a tarot deck right now!!1!OMG) and try to stuff as much of it into my life as possible.

The Green Wolf Etsy

Lupa’s website

Lupa’s Patreon

Paper and Ink

photo 3Writing is a major part of my practice. I’ve written before about my penchant for journaling and recordkeeping, but my use of ink and paper goes beyond this. I do a lot of sigil magic. I also do a lot with petitions. Suffice it to say that there’s always paper and ink at hand. Now, the paper and ink that you choose doesn’t have to be the fanciest thing around, but I like to make things special where I can. That could mean hand-cut goose feather quill pens and ink you make with your own blood (*ahem*) or it could mean a consecrated Bic roller ball used exclusively for magical work. But in just about any kind of magic, specialness helps.

I’ve been known to get super fancy with blank books used for magical purposes. As a young priestess operating in an established tradition, I’m grateful for my predecessors who ACTUALLY KEPT FUCKING RECORDS SO I DON’T HAVE TO FUCKING GO BACK IN TIME AND IMAGINE SHIT I DON’T HAVE A TIME MACHINE. It’s been important to me to document both my own training and the growth of my own coven. I hope someday it’ll make things easier on my downline, or at least make it clear to them where I was coming from (because I’m planning on being too addled to recall things in detail). I try to choose books that are durable, with materials that can survive more than just a couple of decades of handling.

It’s also much more pleasurable to write when your tools are romantic and fun. Writing with a quill is fun. Writing in a special magic book that makes you feel like a medieval wizard is fun (I strive to feel like a wizard as often as possible). Journaling can be a challenging skill to acquire (and still harder to turn into a habit), and I’m a proponent of doing whatever you need to do in order to acquire said skill. Surround yourself with things that excite you. Don’t be afraid to write in an expensive blank book (people always tell me they’re afraid of “ruining” it)—that’s what it’s for. And it doesn’t matter what your handwriting looks like. Once the book is full, it’ll look badass. I promise.

photo 4

Here are some cool places to buy books, ink, and other writing accoutrements:

Silver Willow

Arte of the Book

Okay, so back to the not needing tools thing.

That’s true to an extent. I think there’s something to be said for aspiring to be able to cast effective magic without tools. However, I’ve never found myself in a situation where I literally had access to nothing. So in my mind this is a little like working to memorize the periodic table of elements when it’s right there on the wall in the lab.

Is there a scrap of paper? Some frayed string? A pile of dirt? Some broken glass? Water? These are all things you could potentially use as a witch.

Usually, what people mean when they say you don’t tools is that you don’t need to spend money. And that’s absolutely true. Plenty of newbies make the mistake of dropping wads of cash on tools that they don’t really have a handle on yet. If you have the means to do so and it makes you happy, by all means (it’s only a mistake if it involves debt). There’s no shame in rejoicing in materiality and materialism, as far as my own Pagan perspective goes. But most people can’t afford a $100 leather book or a fucking hand-forged athame. And that’s perfectly okay in terms of what you’re capable of magically. Your Craft need not suffer.

But I don’t know any witches that don’t collect stuff in some capacity, even if it’s just stashing empty baby food jars for later use in magic. We just like stuff. Stuff means potential. Some of the witches I know are like magical doomsday preppers (myself included). And I think a skilled witch strives, not to work with nothing, but to work with anything.