Death and My Grandmother

The past year has been one of major changes, both in my personal life and in the wider world. On a personal level, the past twelve months have seen the death of my grandmother, me leaving that (painful, abusive) living situation to live with two of my partners in Florida, the surgical removal of my uterus, and going off my meds due to financial difficulties. It hasn’t been an environment conducive to blogging, though hopefully that will change now that I’m settled.

I’ve been thinking a lot about death, for obvious reasons. Hela didn’t spare me many of the gory details of my grandmother’s decline and eventual death. There are many kinds of death, went the lesson, and the death of the body is a kindness compared to the death of the mind. And I had to witness the worst of it firsthand, including when she refused all food and water for days on end, and would only talk about how she had to go back to Cuba immediately, when she wasn’t moaning incoherently. It was a hard, hard thing to watch, and I think all of us looking after her were a little relieved when she finally passed. The nightmare was finally over for all of us, not least of all my grandmother herself.

I was still recovering from surgery at the time and my mother woke me from a sound sleep to tell me she’d died, and I literally could not wake up all the way — instead, I found myself sucked into a vivid dream in which she was on her feet again, wandering around the house and looking confused. My first thought was that I had to get her to the bathroom, because that was the only reason she was ever on her feet in her final days. But when she asked me what was wrong, what came out of my mouth was, “You’re dead! Look, your body’s right there!” and I pointed to the bed where her now-empty body lay and started sobbing hysterically. She reached out and pulled me into her arms, and told me everything was all right, and there was noting I needed to worry about. When I woke up, her body was already gone, and I felt strangely calm.

The calm wasn’t constant, though. There were days where I felt the need to curl up on her bed, right where she’d died, and cry. I felt closer to her there, and it seemed like it was the only place I could cry. The rest of the time was spent in the strange detachment of grief, where nothing seemed quite real until suddenly the fact of her death would stab though my consciousness and leave me unable to process anything but that single fact: My grandma is dead.

She was frequently spiteful, passive-aggressive, and outright emotionally abusive. She set the pattern for every abusive relationship I’ve been in since, and there have been several, but she was my grandmother and I love her still. And it’s been a struggle, reconciling the terrible things she did with the good. She felt love for me. I have no doubt of that. But she was very bad at showing that love in a way that were good for her children and grandchild. Her “I love you, therefore ____” script was broken, and so while she felt love, she was very bad at consistently being loving.

Once a year has passed since her death, I may include her as part of my ancestor practice, and may even perform some elevations for her that she may gain the understanding in death that she lacked in life. Right now, though, I’m giving her time to get settled, wherever she is. I hope for her Heaven, but should she be in Purgatory, I’ll offer up prayers to her god and to the Virgin Mary that she move on to something better, and reunite with my grandfather, who looked after her in death just as he did in life.

I love my grandmother, and in death, as in life, I want her to understand how she was hurting the people she cared for and not do it anymore. That may never happen, or it may be easier now that she’s no longer at the mercy of a physical body and its brain chemistry. I hope it is. I hope that, if she decides to reincarnate, she takes her lessons from this life and does better next time. I’m still angry, but the anger doesn’t change the rest of my feelings for her. It’s another thread in the tapestry, that’s all.

If there’s anything I’ve taken away from this, it’s that death can be ugly and complicated, and so is coping with the aftermath. We’re not obligated to immediately forgive someone for the things they did in life, but we owe it to ourselves and to them to acknowledge that it is complicated. My ancestral line has had its share of problems, not even touching on the centuries of colonialism, but in the end, we all have to come to our own peace with our dead. Sometimes that means cutting them out entirely, and other times it means taking some time to work things out, knowing that it may take years, if it happens at all.

For me, for her, it’s worth taking the time. Right now, my job is to come to some kind of peace within myself where she’s concerned, and her job is to settle in and decide how much attention she wants to devote to her former life. In nine months’ time, when I move the dried remains of the rose I kept from her funeral to my ancestor altar, and put her picture up, we’ll see where we stand. Despite all the pain between us, I’m looking forward to it.

The Tech Support Metaphor for Archetypes

Here’s how I (a former tech) imagine it working: being a god that fits an archetype could be seen as something similar to working tech support. Lots of people call in wanting help, and they frequently don’t care that your name is Katherine or Tanisha or Amir. They’re calling Tech Support Lady/Guy, and that’s literally all you are to them.

So it is with people who call out for the Love Goddess or the Trickster or the Great Mother. They’re calling the divine tech support line, and they’re hoping to reach someone with the right specialization. And so if they’re calling on, say, the Trickster, sometimes they’ll get Loki, and sometimes they’ll get Coyote, and sometimes they’ll get Anansi. And if they call in enough, like with real tech support, the person will get some case notes on their spiritual “file” that may direct them to one person in particular, or away from one person. “Transfer directly to Odin,” or “Isis isn’t accepting this person’s calls; get someone else to do it.” (Sadly, we never got to do that second one in real tech support. Being a god has its perks.)

So someone can call on the Love Goddess and get Aphrodite one day, and Inanna the next. It doesn’t mean They’re the same goddess, but because They both fit that archetype, They’re both open to receiving those calls, and neither of Them had a strong enough relationship with the person in question to call dibs. That might change as time passes and the person keeps calling on Them.

To continue this metaphor, when I was Tech Support Lady, I’d do my job to the best of my ability unless a caller was actively being a dick to me. Even the exceptionally clueless ones would be carefully and gently helped as much as possible, and I’d frequently go above and beyond what I was “supposed” to be doing if I liked a caller and knew I could help them out. But once I was off the call, I was D-O-N-E. If they didn’t call back, I didn’t worry about their internet problems; I just got on with my job. But for my friends and relatives? Assuming we’re on good terms, and they’re not only calling me when something’s broken but are actually someone I enjoy spending time with, I will move heaven and earth. Hours spent troubleshooting their modems? Sure. Talking to other techs for them and cutting through the corporate-mandated bullshit? Absolutely. Checking in days or weeks later to make sure everything’s still working? Of course. Because to those people, I’m not Tech Support Lady. I’m Jaqui. They like Jaqui, and so Jaqui likes them.

Likewise, if you want your relationship with your gods to be more than “person I help out and get offerings from,” it helps to look beyond the archetype, to get to know all the ways that (for instance) Hela is not Hades is not Ereshkigal. The more you approach Them as individuals, as real and living beings who you want to be part of your life, the more They’ll rain blessings on you, even when you don’t ask, because that’s what They do for people They like.

Weird Beliefs and Abusive Cults

Every so often I come across warnings about certain people who claim to be reincarnated fictional characters and who use that belief to suck others in and abuse them. Hell, I spent some time in the inner circle of one of those people, and I’ve got the psychological scars to prove it. Cult leader behavior is shitty no matter who’s doing it.

But what I keep seeing is the conversation taking shape around them believing $weird_thing, and not the part where they conned their housemates out of money, or consistently deprived them of sleep to break them down, or gathered the whole house together to berate someone who did something “wrong” (which could be anything from watching a movie without permission to not being social enough with the group). And the people who stand in line to jeer at how obviously anyone with these beliefs is crazy and should be avoided are doing these small-time cult leaders’ work for them.

Most of the people who got sucked in, in my experience, were people who were already dealing with weird shit. Maybe their favorite fictional character is taking up residence in their heads. Whether it’s an alternate personality, a mask their patron deity uses to talk to them, a random thoughtform, a connection to the ideal form of that character off in the creative aether, or even a “past” life1 in a fiction-spawned alternate universe is irrelevant — I’ve given up on drawing and redrawing those lines, because except in the case of the deity thing, it doesn’t much matter. What matters is that it sure is a thing that’s happening. And along come some people who are very enthusiastic about all this, and understand, and don’t judge. And all the people giving warnings about these people? Why, they’re saying it’s because they believe these crazy things — crazy things which our prospective cult member is experiencing for themselves. It starts to sound like these people repeating warnings are just prejudiced against a belief, not concerned about abusive behavior — and that’s how the cult leader will spin it. Things got blown out of proportion. It’s grudgewank. They just hate these beliefs and don’t understand. The group understands, though. They know exactly what their prospective member is going through, and they’re just good friends who want to help.

And then yet another person is propping up a manipulative asshole’s ego, unless they get fed up with the abuse and make it out on their own… where, if they’ve kept their beliefs, they can never talk about it for fear of being ridiculed for not “knowing better”. If they haven’t, they’re likely to go to the opposite extreme, denouncing their former beliefs and anyone who shares them.

I’ve seen a site run by a former cult member literally refuse to honor someone else’s request for anonymity because the person still believed some of the same things the cult did — despite the fact that this person was condemning the leader’s behavior and encouraging her to take some responsibility for what she was doing. But these beliefs are bad and wrong and we must PUNISH people who — wait, is this starting to sound exactly like the cult’s bullying sessions to anyone else? Kind of makes you wonder who’s done the better job of breaking away from the abuse: the person who’s calling the cult leader out while still keeping their personal beliefs, or the person going for the vicious take-downs of the Bad Guys, like good little cult members do to prove how Good they are.

In short: shit is fucked up, and fucked up in a way that hurts the people we should be trying to help the most. We need some tolerance, not for happy fluffy “All beliefs are equally valid!” reasons, but because when someone goes, “You don’t understand!” the response can be, “Look, this person over here? They have similar beliefs, and I think it’s weird as hell, but they’re not the kind of person who keeps you up for five nights running because they’re under psychic attack or whatever.”

You still get to think it’s weird as hell. That’s totally valid. You don’t have to agree with any of it. But if you’re willing to accept that there are people out there who can believe in all manner of weirdness and not abuse everyone around them, it makes things safer for both vulnerable people and abuse survivors.

…Hi. I’m Jaqui, and I believe in some weird-as-hell things, but I have no tolerance for cult leader bullshit. And that’s the important part.

  1. Shared UPG: linear time is for incarnate existence, and doesn’t seem to hold much meaning outside of it, so it’s possible to have your incarnations “out of order”, as it were, or even explore different potential universes based on things being different. This may partly explain the overabundance of Merlins and Cleopatras out there. []

Unsafe Ancestors

There’s something I’ve noticed in discussions of ancestor veneration, and it keeps coming up: the idea that your ancestors automatically have your best interests at heart, that if you call to them and they show up, then they must be there to help. Ancestors are the best possible protection, right? So just invite them on in and nothing bad will happen ever!

Yeah, that’s bullshit.

Now, don’t get me wrong: I have seen mentions of what to do when it comes to dealing with abusive ancestors in your practice, from ancestor elevations to simply choosing not to honor that particular ancestor. But sometimes it’s the relatives you didn’t know in life that can cause the most trouble.

Case in point: a particular relative of mine, who at the very least is big on the sexual shame, and who I’m 95% certain was actually a child molester.

Of course, I didn’t put the story of a long-dead relative who was accused of molesting a child decades ago (not that anyone in the family believed the girl in question, despite the clear indicators that someone was molesting her) together with the picture my grandmother had helpfully donated when I asked for photos of deceased relatives until after weeks of intrusive thoughts, of suicidal urges, of filthy whore and dirty and disgusting showing up in my internal monologue, of increasingly disturbing images in my head when I masturbated.

Suicidal urges are a regular part of my struggle with depression, and while sexual shame was rare in the extreme for me, it wasn’t entirely unheard of, either. It was easy to write it off as my messed-up brain chemistry at work, at first. Eventually, though, it was obvious it wasn’t just a mood swing, or a new and exciting development in my depression — something not-me was causing it.

It took some time to figure out where the new and uncharacteristic sex-aversion was coming from, but when I did, I took his photo off the altar, told him to leave me alone, and tried to go on with my life. And lo and behold, the constant sense of sexual shame went away.

After that, I pulled away from ancestor work for a while, because it had been driven home quite thoroughly that not all the ancestors who show up will be warm and fuzzy ones. I’d read about people who had some badass Disir working to keep their ancestral house in order and make sure only safe people showed up, but I had no idea how to get in touch with them without opening myself up for more dead people who didn’t wish me well.

So while I was talking to Jack about the ancestor issue a while back, I suddenly realized the obvious: the Northern Tradition has not one but two goddesses Who are concerned with ancestors in a big way. Why didn’t I ask one of Them for help?

Feeling rather silly, I decided to talk to Hyndla and ask Her to put me in touch with safe ancestors. I said a little prayer, went and lit a candle at Her online shrine, and then went about my business…

…Only to have very vivid dreams in which my family was looking out for me, financially, with my great-aunt making a special appearance.

Now, I didn’t venerate my great-aunt for a long time, because of some old and ugly family drama better suited to a telenovela than this blog. But there she was in my dream, making sure I was safe and cared for. I started to think that it might be time to mend that bridge, and then two different family members mentioned in the following week that Tía Elena had, upon learning that my mother was no longer married to Stepfather #1, called her lawyer to have her will changed… only to die before the lawyer could get back to her.

No, really, when I say my family history is the stuff of telenovelas, I’m not kidding.

That was indication enough that it was time to add Tía Elena’s picture to the ancestor shrine, and these days I have a sense of her presence (and of my Disir) on a regular basis. Also, I’m no longer afraid of sketchy dead people showing up in my bedroom, which is always a plus.

Sometimes our ancestors don’t like us, not through any fault of ours, but because they were terrible people, and being dead hasn’t improved them any. Not everyone gains grace and enlightenment in their own personal hereafter. Some just remain awful. And while working to get our ancestors to a better place is a worthy pursuit, it’s not something that everyone can or should do right off the bat. Sometimes, we just need to find the safe people, the ones we can trust, before we can even think of engaging with the unsafe ones.

At this point, my strongest advice to anyone thinking of beginning ancestor veneration would be to first find the god/dess most concerned with ancestry in whatever pantheon you’re currently working with, and petition Them for aid in contacting the ancestors who will help and keep you safe. The scattershot “Hey, here’s a bunch of dead people I’m related to! I’ll just give them all offerings and see who’s helpful!” approach has gone incredibly badly for me, and I wouldn’t recommend it to anyone under any circumstances. Start with the people you knew and loved in life, and then get some divine help before you go any further.

(I had to stop and ask myself at this point why asking Hela had never occurred to me, when it’s Her altar that also serves as my ancestor harrow. I have a strong aversion to the thought of asking Her, though… maybe because I see Her as concerned with all the dead, and asking Her to sort through Her charges and send some of them my way based on x criteria seems disrespectful. Surely She has better things to do. I might ask Her for help in reaching one specific person, but She is not Google for dead people.)

Hail Hyndla! Lady of the Bloodlines, I offer you all gratitude and praise. Hail!

I have no title for this

I made a “culture” category on my blog, because from time to time I like to get my rant on about social issues, the diversity (or lack thereof) in media, and all that happy fun social justice stuff.

And yet, these past few months, when truly horrible things have been happening, I’ve been silent, because it’s just too much. Too horrible. Too terrifying. Too many people… I want to say “dead before their time”, but as someone who honors Hela, I know better: “their time” comes whenever circumstances allow it, and it’s never fair and rarely kind. It just is.

All the same, I’m angry because it could have been different. It should have been different. Maybe their deaths would have found them no matter what, and maybe not, but the way those deaths found them is our failure as a society. Most especially, it is a failure of those in positions of privilege to let other privileged people know that this shit will not stand.

And despite all the horrible things that have happened, there are still people saying “we believe the men” and “we support the police” and “it was a parking dispute” and “you can’t prove it was a hate crime” and fucking “God has called our son home” instead of “our daughter took her life due to our mistreatment”. Because too many people with privilege see those without as inherently untrustworthy, and our pain isn’t real to them.

There is nothing I can say to this parade of atrocity, other than this: I am watching. I am listening. I will remember. I will act. And I am so, so sorry.

A is for Abuse (Part 2)

This post is nearly two years late. I have this problem when it comes to relating my experiences with abuse: I make a big post that references abuse I’ve been through, and then it becomes impossible for me to write anything else in that blog for months or years, due to an irrational terror that my abusers will know I’m talking about them and that, somehow, they’ll find me and punish me.

So much for Pagan Blog Project 2013. Maybe I’ll try again in 2015.

In A is for Abuse (Part 1), I talked about spiritual and religious abuse in a Pagan context. Today, I’m continuing on that topic, with an emphasis on good things to do once you’ve realized that you’re in a bad situation.

GET OUT.

If you read the previous post, those words have probably been hammered into your head already. However, this is easier said than done in some cases, especially if you’re living with your abuser, or other members of the abusive group. If you have friends or family who you can hit up for money or crashspace, this would be the time to do it. Look up local domestic violence resources, women’s shelters, homeless shelters, anyplace that’s away. But the most important thing at this point is to not make a big deal out of leaving. There are plenty of nice, non-threatening reasons for you to suddenly be elsewhere — make up an excuse to visit family, spend the weekend with a friend — just focus on getting out the door with a packed bag.

If you can get away with actually moving out openly, do so, but try not to act as if you’re never going to see them again, even if this is actually your goal. Abusive people will often try to reel you in again if they suspect you’re leaving the group1, so if you can get away with “needing more personal space for now” or “visiting a friend”, that may be the best option.

If they’ve given you things, throw those things away, or have someone who’s good with energy cleanse them and sever any ties between the object and the one who gave it to you. Store-bought things, or things you’ve paid them for tend to come clean pretty easily, and I’ve had good luck cleaning out things like crystals and tarot cards. Handmade things tend to hold their maker’s energy more strongly, so if they made you a dreamcatcher or knit you a scarf, get rid of it. You probably don’t need the emotional associations with someone who’s treated you badly, and you definitely don’t need their energy in your space.

So yes, you may lose some stuff. You may lose a lot of stuff. In a worst-case scenario, you may end up leaving a bunch of things behind you in your rush to get away from the scary people, and you need to be prepared for that. But I’ve found it’s easier to get more stuff than it is to recover from long-term abuse. There are even people who will make you custom magical jewelry and other objects who aren’t trying to use that as a way to make you grateful to them, as shocking as it may seem.

Once you’re away, do some heavy-duty ritual cleansing, and focus on setting up wards and personal shields. If the group used a specific method of setting up defenses, try using a different method2. Some abusers will try and throw nastiness your way, and some either won’t or can’t, but if nothing else, setting up magical defenses will help reinforce that you get to have space of your own now, and their bullshit isn’t welcome in it.

If you’re not living with your abuser(s), or have successfully left, you should then decide how to handle the possibility of further social interaction. Probably the best thing to do is to calmly say that, due to such and such issue, you don’t think you can continue being friends/covenmates with the abuser(s), and then to cut off all contact. Block their calls and emails, and otherwise carry on with your life. It’s up to you whether you want to keep in touch with mutual friends, but you might want to have a script prepared if they try to bring up your abuser or suck you back into the group: “I understand you’re still close to [abuser], but I’d really rather not talk about them. Have you gone to see [movie you’re both interested in] yet?” or “I know the group is doing really great things for you, but I wasn’t comfortable there, and so I’m taking this time apart to get my head together. Did you hear about the art gallery that’s opening downtown?” Let them know you’re not willing to talk about it, and change the subject3. If they persist in trying to talk about your abuser(s) and why you left, politely but firmly remind them that you’re not interested in talking about it, and exit the conversation. You can say something like, “Maybe we should try this again some other time,” if you still want to try and be friends, but you also have every right to stop speaking to them if they refuse to respect your wishes.

Of course, all of the above is the mature adult thing to do. The scared abuse victim thing to do, in my case, was to let the “friendship” drag on, even with continuing abuse, and gradually make up more and more excuses to not come over when I was invited, and finally just stop responding to emails after a long enough period without contact. It was not the best plan, and probably screwed me up more in the long run. If, like me, you’re afraid of cutting things off completely, at least try not to go anywhere with your abuser(s) where you couldn’t get back under your own power. My abuser used to invite me over, keep me there past when the buses stopped running (“Dinner isn’t even ready yet!”), and then declare that her partner was too tired to drive me home. (“I think you should spend the night. You don’t mind, do you? Your cats will be fine on their own a little longer.”) One day would turn into two. Then she’d push for three, and only the fact that I had cats at home who’d doubtless emptied their food bowls by then would get me out sans drama4.

Don’t be like me. If you’re planning on doing a slow fade, keep an escape route open at all times.

Once you’re out, there’s the problem of figuring out which of the group’s beliefs are valid, and which are just controlling bullshit in a different form. This isn’t easy, to say the least. Things you once took for granted may be tainted by association with your abuser(s), and you may be unused to trusting your own perceptions after too long a time spent being told you’re wrong about everything… all of which is a subject for another post, because if I try to go into that in this one, it’ll never get posted.

I’d strongly recommend anyone with these issues go read all the posts tagged “boundaries” over at Weaving Wyrd, because there’s a lot of good stuff there that I haven’t been able to cover, myself, some of it explicitly concerned with religious abuse.

  1. This isn’t a universal trait, though: I actually got kicked out of my abuser’s house the first time I left the group, on account of how putting a projective empath with Major Depressive Disorder (that would be me) in an abusive situation is bad for everyone involved. But then she made disapproving remarks about how I could’ve stayed in the city instead of going back home, so I’m taking it to mean she still wanted me in abusing range, just not close enough that she had to deal with the consequences of said abuse. And then I went back to living with her when she apologized, thinking things would be better if I just stopped projecting my unhappiness everywhere. Spoilers: they weren’t. []
  2. I highly recommend Spiritual Protection by Sophie Reicher as a resource if you need information on cleansing, shielding, and warding. I literally have only one problem with that book, and that’s the lack of thorough editing — there’s some homophone confusion in the text which really should’ve been caught by someone. []
  3. It can be tempting to try and convince them to leave, as well, but if they’re not ready to, they’re more likely to go running back to the abuser(s) with stories of how you’re badmouthing them, thus confirming you in your abuser’s eyes as an Evil Traitor who’s out to ruin them. Just be polite but firm, and when they’re ready to get out, themselves, they’ll know where to find you. And then you can swap horror stories and traumatic memories! It’s hours of fun! []
  4. I tend to leave out more food and water than my cats can finish in a day, so it wasn’t like a couple of days would hurt them… but three or more would. []

On Shamanism: Just How Public is That Horse?

I’m not a shaman.

Let me clarify: I own a bunch of books on practices that some say fall under the shamanic umbrella, so to speak, and I do a lot of stuff that people would consider part of What Shamans Do, but that’s not a label I care to use, because there are a lot of indigenous people out there who feel like the word is capitalizing on stereotypes about their culture, even when it’s not being used by white people to present a bastardized version of their religion.

At the same time, I often enjoy and recommend the work of white people who identify as shamans, like Raven Kaldera, Lupa, and Galina Krasskova1. Do I agree that their choice of terminology is a good one? No, I definitely don’t. But I do think these are people who know their shit, and who put a lot of effort into making it clear their practices are completely distinct from the “Native American Spirituality” bullshit certain clueless white folks like to trot out… so I still buy and recommend their work, while adding relevant disclaimers where necessary.

Sometimes, though, certain things just get under my skin. Like Raven Kaldera’s essay, “Public Horses,” which was written in response to NDN protests over his use of the word “shaman”, and which claims that the word has become public property over time. I’m quoting a bit below, but I strongly recommend you go read the whole thing.

To put it in storytelling form – a typical shaman’s thing to do – let’s say that someone came to your house and gave you a horse, saying, “This looks like it belongs to you.” The next day, someone else comes into your yard and tries to ride the horse. You object, and they say that it isn’t your horse, it’s a public horse. Before you take them to court over it, wouldn’t it be smart to check around and find out if maybe that horse was stolen property?

It bemuses me that many Native Americans, rather than being able to agree on a morally indefensible word from an actual Native language, are arguing over ownership of what is, basically, a white man’s label. (Similar arguments abound over the word “berdache”, another white man’s label whose actual original meaning is so insulting that I am horrified to hear Native people refer to themselves that way. Surely such words as “winkte”, “lhamana”, or “kwe’rhame” would be more respectful?) It seems that after decades of wearing a white man’s word, it begins to feel like it fits. Unfortunately, the label in the shirt printed “shaman” says “Made In Siberia”, and it has become, over many decades, a public shirt. Maybe it looks foolish on some and fits right on others, but we all have as much – or as little – right to try it on as any other person on this continent. It’s become a public horse that all cultures can ride – and fall off of.

Now, I don’t actually have anything against Raven2 — there are plenty of people attacking him already, and usually there’s a lot of gross transphobia and kink-shaming at the root of it — and from what I’ve heard from people who know him, he’s pretty awesome, but that’s always set my teeth on edge. In addition to mixing its metaphors, that story leaves out a few important details. I have another version, and while it’s not a perfect metaphor3, I hope it serves its purpose in illustrating another side of the public horse debate.

Continue reading

  1. I take issue with a lot of her opinions, but her books are great, and have a lot of useful info. I just don’t read her blog very often, for my own peace of mind. So it goes. []
  2. Quite the contrary: lot of what he’s written started me on the path to a whole new level of understanding and self-acceptance, and I tend to aggressively recommend his writing to people who, like me, have spent much of their lives feeling like monsters. []
  3. I’m Latina with a tiny bit of Apache blood, but I was raised in a mix of Cuban and white American geek culture, so I don’t claim any firsthand experience with this particular oppression. I can’t speak for any members of indigenous North American cultures. I may get stuff wrong. This is metaphor, not gospel. Not to be taken internally. Failure to remove the sliding part from the part that moves may result in product malfunction. In the event of dizziness, blurred vision, blood in the stool, or death-like symptoms, please contact a physician. []

A is for Abuse (Part 1)

So here I go, attempting to make another start at spiritual blogging with my participation in the Pagan Blog Project. Every Friday, I’ll be posting something about my practice or experiences I’ve had on my spiritual journey. This post is late in coming, and I eventually decided to split it up into two parts, because I’ve got a lot to say on the subject… Part 2 will be up on Friday, on schedule.

If you type “spiritual abuse” into Google, what you’ll find is a dazzling variety of sites devoted to abuse in a Christian context, but Christianity doesn’t have the market cornered when it comes to using spirituality as a vehicle for abuse. Having spent a few years trying to get away from an especially toxic would-be cult-leader, I think more needs to be said about the ways abuse can manifest in Paganism.

First off, some required reading: this excellent post by Melitta Benu. Also, for those who deal with people who are (or claim to be) horsing spirits, this excerpt from Raven Kaldera’s Wightridden is also useful for discerning whether a possession is genuine.

Unfortunately, when you’re in an abusive situation, it’s hard not to go, “Yes, but…”

“Yes, the group I’m involved with meets all the criteria for cultlike behavior, but there are extenuating circumstances!”

“Yes, this possession seems somewhat dubious, but this person was undoubtedly genuinely possessed before, so I should just give them the benefit of the doubt.”

“Yes, this person is awfully controlling, but they were abused as a child, and I should be understanding of how they need to run their household.”

“Yes, people have actually gone so far as to call the group I’m working with a cult, but their criticisms are so full of  judgmental bullshit and ridicule for our ‘weird’ beliefs that it’s hard to take the other accusations seriously.”

And sometimes even well-meaning advice hurts. More than once, I’ve heard that the evil, manipulative people who set up cultlike groups don’t have any real power. After all, if they had actual magical abilities, why would they manipulate others? You know, because power and enlightenment are totally the same thing, and mentally ill people aren’t ever magically gifted… But as ridiculous as that line of reasoning is, it’s part of what kept me in an abusive situation with a woman who had undeniable magical abilities, and who had, on occasion, managed to channel the goddess I was working with. The fact that she then used a poor copy of my goddess’s energy to fake later possessions was something I only realized later, because she didn’t try faking it until she had me so thoroughly turned around that I was doubting everything I felt and perceived.

It is much easier, magically speaking, to mess with people’s heads than it is to mess with probability to get the lucky lotto numbers. This is why we tend to have more stories of love spells gone wrong (*raises hand guiltily*) than money spells gone wrong. It is easier to attract people who have the things you want than it is to attract those things independent of other people. This doesn’t mean it’s easy to get a millionaire in your pocket (I roll my eyes at people who insist they can’t be cult leaders because of their lack of gold-plated limos, because that’s exactly the logic my abuser used while living off her roommates’ funds and getting nearly every shiny thing she had her eye on), but even a small group of frequently-broke people can still be exploited.

Unfortunately, that “Yes, but…” is really seductive. Abusive people have plenty of good-sounding reasons for why they’re acting the way they do, and they frequently believe them, themselves. Furthermore, it’s really easy to get caught up in the cycle of acting as if these things are normal — members of a group that turns abusive can easily find themselves abusing other group members in turn, because it’s easier to join in the abuse than be the target again. (Been there, done that, still ashamed.)

And things get even fuzzier when you’re not dealing with a proper religious group at all. “But we’re just a group of friends” was one of the frequent excuses in my case… never mind that, despite not being any kind of a formal magical group, new people were lured in with stories of how magically vital they were to the group, how we’d all had past lives together, how they were needed, how much better their lives would be if they’d just move closer… oh, they don’t have an apartment yet? They can stay with everyone else, no problem… And then a few months later, they’re being encouraged to lie to their families to get money for Important Magical Items, or being cast as the villain in the Drama of the Week with no idea of how to get out.

Listen: sometimes, people are mentally ill in ways that hurt you, and you’re not obligated to stay with them. Just because their illness isn’t their fault, it doesn’t mean you should engage with them when doing so is damaging to you. And sometimes they may be wonderful and helpful, while other times, every interaction is toxic. When someone is being toxic, sticking by them without complaint will not help either of you; just because a person is your friend, your lover, your roommate, your covenmate, or someone you’ve shared umpty-bazillion past lives with, it is still not your job to fix them. It is their job to seek help from someone outside their intimate circle. If they try to convince you otherwise, they’re manipulating you, consciously or not, and you need to get the fuck away from them.

So here’s the thing: if you’ve read the resources linked, you already have some helpful guidelines for whether someone is faking a possession, or setting up an unhealthy group dynamic. But here are some things you really, REALLY need to keep in mind when the “yes, but…” feeling starts creeping up on you:

  • If you’re scared of upsetting someone all the time, whether or not they’ve had valid spiritual advice for you in the past, you’re in a bad situation and you need to get out.
  • If they make you afraid that you’re going to offend your patron deity/your pantheon/every god EVER with every decision you make, you need to seek a second opinion from someone who isn’t close to the person who’s giving you dire warnings. Preferably, this person should be someone who is not a friend of yours, and is a devotee of whichever Powers you’re afraid you’ve offended. Yes, it’s possible to fuck up pretty badly and offend the gods. (I’ve done it, and I’m still paying off some of those debts.) But claiming you’ve offended Someone can also be a means of control. If every “friendly visit” or “important talk” turns into hours of someone claiming to be your patron deity and screaming at you? You’re in a bad situation and you need to get out.
  • If you’re being pressured into re-enacting past life relationships in the here and now, you are probably in a bad situation and need to get out. The key word here is “pressured”. Sometimes consensually exploring an old dynamic can help you get a better handle on how you relate to each other in this lifetime, but glorifying the past at the expense of the present isn’t likely to help either/any of you and, again, can be used as an underhanded means of control.
  • If someone claims to know your feelings better than you do yourself, and constantly accuses you of lying when you try to express yourself, you are in a bad situation and you need to get out. Even if you realize later that they were correct about your motivations, you still need to get out. Using insight as a weapon is Not Okay, and it’s easy for that “insight” to become manipulation once you’re used to accepting someone else’s judgments about how you “really” feel.
  • If you’re promised training that never materializes, but people still insist you’re somehow magically necessary, you’re in a dubious situation, and you should take a long hard look at just what it is they need you for.
  • If you are being encouraged to lie to friends and family members, especially for the purposes of making them give you money for whatever the group leader needs most? Again: bad situation. Get out. (Note: If you’re a closeted Pagan, in some circumstances people may encourage you to lie about where you are and what you believe out of concern for your safety. That’s not what I’m talking about. I’m talking about things like, “Just tell your dad you’re going back to school, and you need some money to make ends meet,” with the money in question actually being spent on shiny trinkets Important Magical Items, or worse, drugs and alcohol.)
  • If the person who is acting as your spirit worker/shaman/priest(ess) starts passing along messages from gods/spirits/whatever that imply you need a closer relationship with them (becoming their lover, moving into their house, etc.), and discourages you from seeking a second opinion, you’re in a really bad situation, and you need to run the fuck away right now. I’m not kidding.

Yes, you could really be Doing It Wrong. Maybe you’re a metaphysical menace. Maybe the gods really do want you to be closer to that person, or to contribute funds toward that Shiny Magical Thing. And perhaps you really did offend members of five different pantheons. And especially if the person telling you these things is someone who knows their shit, metaphysically speaking, that bit of doubt can be enough to keep you in a bad situation.

But this is what you have to remember: even if you’ve done something wrong, staying in a situation where you constantly feel scared and harassed isn’t going to help you make amends. In my experience, the gods and spirits are more interested in getting you to fix your mistakes than They are in beating you over the head with them, and keeping you perpetually guilty and miserable is counterproductive. Furthermore, They’re not restricted to just one means of making Their will known. If you’ve angered Someone, you’ll have ample opportunities to witness Their displeasure, and not just because one person yelled at you a lot.

I’ve never known the gods to get hung up on one messenger: that’s a human thing. They’ll use any available means to get Their message across. This means that yes, sometimes the scary abusive person will give you a genuine message if they happen to have the wiring for it… but if you get away from the scary abusive person, the messages will keep coming until you take the hint. And no message is worth dealing with someone who makes you feel scared and miserable on a near-constant basis.

Up next: Abuse Part 2, in which I talk about getting away, identifying lingering damage, and taking the first steps toward recovery.

Sunna and Mani

I feel like a bad Northern Tradition person, because it’s Memorial Day, and it really makes more sense for me to be writing about the Einherjar today. As it is, I’ll likely be pouring out a libation for the dead warriors in my family later on, but this is what wanted to be written, so I’m going with it, rambling and incoherent as it is.

I had thought, coming from an eclectic Neopagan practice that had its roots in Wicca, that it would be strange, shifting from a view of the sun as male and the moon as female to the Norse view, which is the other way around. After all, being female, I was supposed to be in tune with the obviously feminine lunar cycles, through my very own menstrual cycle.

I could admire the idea of sun and moon as female and male, respectively. After all, the menstrual connection aside, there was something annoying in the idea that the sun — the warm, projective source of life and symbol of intellect — was inherently male, and the moon, cold, receptive, and tied up with the murky depths of the subconscious, was inherently female, fit only to take the masculine sunlight and reflect it back at us, and fuck about with our watery feminine natures. And as much as I love the tarot, don’t even get me started on the symbolism behind the Sun and Moon cards and the gender associations I keep seeing there. Just don’t. I may start to froth at the mouth.

This isn’t to say that I think these associations are wrong, mind you. I’m not going to argue with all the sun gods and moon goddesses out there about their existence. I try not to be that stupid, really. And obviously, those associations work for a lot of people, and are powerful, important things. Diana is an awesome lunar goddess, for one, and a wonderful, empowering being for women to work with. But I really dislike the idea that certain archetypes belong inherently to one specific gender. The sun is male because masculinity means x, and the moon is female because femininity means y (though, when it comes to chromosomes, perhaps it should be the other way ’round?), and of course this is the natural order of things, blah blah blah, excuse me while I bash my head against the nearest wall.

Just because I don’t wear my own rather ambiguous and shifty gender stuff on my sleeve these days, it doesn’t mean the overwhelming gender dysphoria of my late teens early twenties was just a phase I outgrew. I’ve become a lot more comfortable in my own skin, but I still have days when I’m more Jacque (or Jack) then Jacqueline, though I’ll still answer to Jaqui, either way — and yes, dropping the c is deliberate, because that’s how it looks right to me. On those days I tend to stare blankly when people use female pronouns for me, and then remember that, oh yeah, I have boobs.

So yes, I can get touchy about gender associations, and how lunar energy and the presence of a uterus seem to go hand in hand in modern Neopagan practice, as well as what seems like every fantasy novel ever. (Really, you guys? Really?)

All the same, I was somewhat wary of the switch, especially given the menstrual associations. Queer as I am, did I really want a male deity in charge of my female reproductive cycles? Was that even more heteronormative than the inverse? Would it just be vaguely uncomfortable, dealing with that shift in perspective? It’s one thing to say that a certain symbol set is limiting, another thing entirely to actually switch one’s worldview around.

And yes, these seem like awfully silly and irrational things to worry about. Typing this out, I’m laughing at myself. But gender issues are a big part of my spirituality, and that’s not changing in the forseeable future.

Of course, the thing about gods is that, no matter what symbolism you choose to hang on Them, it doesn’t change the fact of Their existence. Moon goddesses are still there, no matter what we think Their existence may say about us, and some of them are quite happily subverting what we tend to think of as traditional ‘feminine’ lunar associations. The same goes for sun gods. And yes, this applies to moon gods and sun goddesses as well.

So I decided to start actively looking for Sunna and Mani when sitting outside, instead of dicking around with theory and my own gender issues. My personal practice tends to rock the UPG, and since there’s not a whole lot about either of Them in the lore, the sensible thing to do was go out and see what happened.

It was easiest to get a fix on Mani — I tend to be nocturnal, despite (or perhaps because of!) seasonal depression on my part. Daylight is safe and happy-making, so I want to curl up and sleep in the warmth and safety and contentment. And, seeing as how I’m a hermit by nature and not living alone for the first time in years, nighttime is good for being alone and destressing, without having to worry about unexpected people getting their energy all over my space. But I digress.

Mani was surprising. I sat outside, staring at the moon, remembering the childhood ‘man in the moon’ references. Seeing a face in the moon was easy enough, but as part of my Wiccan teenage years (before Silver Ravenwolf ever wrote trendy books about being a Teen Witch), I’d trained myself to see a woman’s face instead of a man’s. Consciously shifting my perception back to a male face there was difficult, but it seemed as good a place to start as any. I sat and watched the moon, feeling my way around the twist in perception, and just as the pattern of craters on the moon’s surface resolved itself into a male face, He was there. Or rather, He’d always been there, and I just hadn’t known how to look for Him.

For all that I’d tried to tap into the vast well of feminine lunar energy, the actual sense of Presence when I tried to do so always seemed rather remote to me. “Okay, yeah. Here’s some energy. Now run along and play.” Mani was completely different — He was very strongly present for me. I don’t remember if words were said; unlike Loki, He didn’t seem particularly chatty. He was just there with me, while I sat out on the front porch. He was… lovely, in the sense that appeals to the emotions as well as the eye. Quiet, too — I almost want to say ‘shy’, but that tends to be linked with social awkwardness, and it very much wasn’t that. The impression I got was of someone who doesn’t share much of Himself on short acquaintance. He was there, and He was friendly, in His quiet way, with a remarkably soothing presence, and that was enough.

I very much wanted to hug Him.

…Yeah, so much for “BOYGAWDTHINGEH MESSIN WIF MAH UTERUS? DO NOT WANT!” I feel silly now, and not just because I rendered that in lolcat.*

Of course, I’ve only scratched the surface where Mani’s concerned, and I know it, but the anxiety is entirely gone.

Sunna, on the other hand, was a different experience. Not the drawn-out sense of presence I got with Mani, but then, here in Texas, She tends to come on rather strong, and I overheat easily, so long periods outside during the day aren’t very good for me. Also, staring at the sun is generally considered a bad idea, so I couldn’t quite do what I did for Mani.

With Her, especially given my need for sunlight to keep from going into a rather nasty depressive cycle, it was more an impression of warm hands on my shoulders, and a strong feeling of, “Look, it’s not so bad. See? …If you need to sleep, by all means, but if you just need a little boost, here. Now you can go out and do things.” Not to say She spoke to me in those words, but that’s the best translation I can give for the way She felt. She was warm and friendly, but in a very indiscriminate way. My time spent tuning into Mani’s particular energy felt a lot more personal. Even so, She had that same sense of solidity to Her that Mani did; she clicked with me very strongly.

For all that I’m not completely cut off from other pantheons — it’s a big universe and there are a lot of different beings in it; it’s silly to expect me to only have to deal with one pantheon’s worth — the deeper I get into this, the more I seem to have a ‘reserved for:’ sticker on my perceptions. There really is a tangible clicking sensation, and the Northern Tradition gods and wights come across more strongly, while the others are… still there, but more distant. That’s Sunna up there for me, not Helios, for all that I could probably reach Helios if I tried. But unless there’s a specific reason for me to need to deal with Him, if I just reach for ‘solar energy’, it’s Sunna that’s on the other end.

It’s very reassuring, in a way; I know where I fit, and who I need to be learning from, and that’s a kind of spiritual security I haven’t had since my days as a wee Catholic.

Some people would find it strange that I’d get this sort of security from Loki showing up in my life, but it really does seem natural for me, and I can’t thank Him enough for this. It’s more than a bit frightening at times, but I’m so very, very grateful, all the same.

* Yes, I enjoy cat macros far too much. This leads to things like the nagging desire to translate the Poetic Edda into lolcat, as is being done with the Bible.

The Pagan Blog: An Introduction

So here we go: official blog-opening time, where I introduce myself.

I consider myself a baby spirit-worker, in that I have very little formal training, but I’ve been Doing Stuff at the behest of various Powers since I was twelve… which is all well and good, except ‘stuff I’ve been doing since I was twelve’ isn’t actually a formal discipline, and leaves me with big damn holes in my education. I’m trying to fix that.

I was raised Catholic at my grandmother’s insistence (an amazing, if sometimes infuriating, woman — today is her eighty-eighth birthday, in fact), but my mother and both of my stepfathers were various flavors of Neopagan. This made for a somewhat confusing religious upbringing, and led to my calling to religious service taking several different forms.

After exploring Wicca in my teenage years, I spent the better part of a decade as an eclectic Neopagan in service to an Egyptian goddess. I looked into Gnosticism, which was wonderful for reconciling my feelings of hurt and betrayal toward the Old Testament god with the profound spiritual experiences I’d had when attending Mass as a young child, but for the most part, I stuck firmly to my eclectic Paganism.

I made a lot of stupid mistakes, and found myself stuck in a cycle of focusing so intently on spiritual matters that my mundane life went straight to hell, and then burning out and being spiritually dead for a while, until something would yank me back into the spiritual side of things and the cycle repeated itself. That’s something I’m still struggling with; I tend to be a creature of extremes, and finding a balanced middle ground is hard for me… but it’s something I have to learn to do, because if I’ve learned anything in all these years, it’s that the spirits don’t just go away when you’re tired of them.

A few years ago, after a series of rather profoundly life-altering experiences spanning a two-year period, my Lady released me from Her service, and pretty much told me point blank that where I needed to go wasn’t somewhere She could take me.

I’d been reading about Northern Tradition Paganism for a while, and lots of things there called to me in a way that Asatru never had. I had, in fact, written off all things Norse as Not For Me, until Loki showed up and started dropping hints the size of anvils in my lap. And the more I read about spirit-work, the more I realized I’d been spending years doing what was basically ‘spirit-work lite’… and what’s more, when I was doing it, it felt right. It felt like I was doing my job. I was lacking context, structure, and a full set of tools to work with, but the job description was a familiar one.

So this is where I am now: putting together a personal practice in the Northern Tradition, studying the runes and the lore, adding my own UPG to it — kind of a necessity, since it’s the Jotnar that snatched me up, rather than the Aesir or Vanir. That said, I’m still studying what books I can get my hands on that are Asatru-specific: even if parts of it don’t apply, if I’m going to be part of a reconstructionist-derived practice, I need to be intimately familiar with just what it’s derived from.

Hi. I’m Jaqui. I’m twenty-eight years old, and I’m a baby spirit worker. We’ve all gotta start somewhere.