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Posts Tagged ‘contemplations’

Still cold out when we went back to Thorn Creek. I wish Mother Nature would make up her mind. It’s certainly true that the extreme warm weather of a week ago was unusual for this time of year, and that the temperatures we’re getting now are more customary for this time of the year. But my body had adjusted to the warmth, and now, with my fibromyalgia, it isn’t responding happily to a return of the cold.

We arrived at the park fairly early (around 1 PM) and split up; my husband went to take a solo walk that looped along the trail once around. I went my way to wander, finding a place after about an hour to leave my offering: a single granite bounder in the center of a patch of oak trees:

I started with a pile of turbinado sugar on the center of the rock, a banana arching over it, and three dried cherries and three dried blueberries in two interlocking triangles around the sugar. Around the stone I placed four dried apricot halves and a handful of grapes:

At the base of the stone I put a pile of sunflower seed kernels with another blueberry at the center and three more in an upward-pointing triangle around its border:

Close-up of the stone, sugar, and fruit:

Over the banana, I poured maple syrup:

The spirits must have liked this particular offering. On my wandering through the woods this day, I found four deer skulls (and a number of other bones). Below are pictures of three of the skulls (the batteries in my camera died before I could get a picture of the fourth):

On my way back, I saw that someone had torn down a number of big branches from one of the hawthorn trees next to the bridge that runs over Thorn Creek, and then tossed them into the brook. One of these branches was decorated with a little cloth herbal sachet, a charm from — I imagine — some other pagan who visited the park like I did. Like it did with the apple branches, the sight filled me with rage. I made my way down the muddy bank without falling into the water or on my backside in the mud and managed to hook the branches out of the water. I untied the little charm and, once I had carried the branches up to the top of the bank, retied it onto one of the other still-attached branches.  The torn-off branches I salvaged and took home.

Trees are living things, too.  Like people and animals, I believe they feel pain when damaged, although they have no voices to scream. Why do people do stupid, thoughtless things like this?  How would those people like it if I tore off some of their fingers, or ripped their arms out of their sockets?  Why is hurting people like that illegal, but no one cares when trees (and at a state-supported park, too!) get damaged?

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Came to the park again for the seventh time in two months (or a little less). There really is much more room here to explore, spread out, walk around.  More garbage, too.

I brought a prepared offering this time: steel-cut oats, raisins, dried blueberries, a banana, barley, sunflower seed kernels, and wine:

And I placed it down in a ravine, at the base of a fallen tree. Turned around and not five feet away was the flash of white that marked more deer bones.  This time, a second skull — and in far better condition:

There were other bones there, too — in the end, about enough to make half a skeleton:

I gathered them up dutifully, accepting the gift I had been offered in return for the gift I had brought, and carried them carefully back to the car.

Then I spent the next two hours in the spring warmth, straying far from the path, picking up a great deal of garbage (three bags!)

I found more bones, as well:

There was also some startlingly beautiful fungus of a type I didn’t recognize, growing on a dead tree:

Both the bones and the fungus remind me of a quote you usually hear only at funerals: “In the midst of life, we are in death.” The bones are clear evidence of the teeming population of deer here at the park; I figure for every site I find where there are bones, there must be a dozen live deer still out there, feeding, mating, running. And fungus all feed on dead and decaying matter, whether that’s shelf fungus on a dead tree or the athlete’s foot fungus on the dead cells of a person’s foot. It’s important to observe these things: we think we might know what comes after we die, but the only way to find out for sure is to die ourselves. These little reminders are all around us, calling us to be mindful of how we spend the time allotted to us — hopefully, to spend it in the most practical and best way.

But there were plenty of signs of life, there, too — vibrant and gorgeous and bursting uncontrollably over every possible boundary in the warm spring weather. I found a stand of daffodils growing wild in one of the thickest parts of the woods:

And the first mayapples are up:

As is the skunk cabbage, thrusting up from every marshy, boggy spot in the forest:

It was a gorgeous day.

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I have never been much of one for daily devotions; coming as I do from the religion I was raised in (Catholicism) that valued orthodoxy (right belief) over orthopraxy (right action), much of that still underlay much of the way I interacted with the divine once I left Catholicism. I figured the gods knew I loved them, and I didn’t need to do things to show them that every day.

But recently, reading one of those memes you see on Facebook (the one that reminds you that you never know if the moment you’re looking at a loved one might be the last time you see them — heart attack, car accident, etc. — so you should tell them, over and over again, how much you love them; make sure they know how much you love them), it occurred to me that, if I would do something like that for my human loved ones (and I do), and even my pets, why would I leave the gods out of that circle of love and consideration? Sure, we routinely acknowledge that the gods are more powerful than us, and know more than us. It’s pretty much automatic to assume that they know we love them. But that doesn’t mean I should take it for granted. So about a week ago, I started building the first of what I hope will be many habits (21 days to build a habit, 3 days to break one, remember): daily devotions toward the gods. The first thing I do now, in the morning, upon rising — before my first cup of tea or checking to see if the mailman has come yet — is to light the candle on Hermes’ altar, and light a stick of incense for him, and greet him. Once I’ve built that habit, I’ll move on toward such a thing with another (probably Brigid), and then another, and another, until all the deities I honor have their own devotions. These things take no more than a few seconds apiece, and I can hardly begrudge a few moments out of my day toward them.

Old dogs can learn new tricks, and leopards can change their spots. If they care.

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Like most pagans, I started out as a Christian.  Roman Catholic, to be precise; my father was a devout man with an unshakeable faith and a lot of principles that differed from my own.  I knew from my early teens that Christianity was not a good “fit” for me, spiritually; what I didn’t know was what faith did fit me.

Very soon after leaving home for college, I set aside Catholicism, Christianity, and church attendance in general, and began to explore what I did believe in.  Such research was more difficult in the mid-80s, before the advent of home computers and the Internet, but not impossible; it simply required more effort to be devoted to the task.

Bit by bit, my path was set — I have recounted it in some detail in other posts — and, the more I learned about paganism in general, the more different I found it to be from Christianity.  Such differences lay not just in the way the two religions viewed the world, from their relative viewpoints on the value of women, the environment, freedom of speech over blind obedience, and holy texts, but in the merit placed upon two completely different tenets of faith: Christianity’s orthodoxy versus Paganism’s Orthopraxy.

Christianity — and to a lesser extent, other forms of monotheism — rely heavily on orthodoxy as a trait of the church.  If you believe the right things, then you are part of the “saved”, and nothing else is required.  To be sure, Catholicism and Protestantism place different weights on this tenet: the Catholic Church (both Roman and Orthodox) states that right belief also has to be followed up with right acts, whereas most Protestant churches state that belief alone — “I accept Christ as my savior, etc.” — is all that is necessary to rescue one’s soul from the clutches of Hell.

Most pagan faiths do not bother with right belief; partly, I believe this to be due to the fact that Paganism is such a vast collection of different traditions and practices:  traditional British Wicca (Gardnerian and Alexandrian), neo-Wicca (both solitary paths and most American trads), Druidry, Asatru, Recon faiths, witchcraft, shamaism, non-Asatru heathenism, and so on, and so forth.  While I can remember the occasional outbreak of “One-True-Wayism” among specific traditions, these A) seldom last and B) usually result in the hiving off of a new tradition composed of those on the losing side of the conflict.  Paganism is not a single faith, but rather an umbrella organization of so many different faith paths, few to none of which rely on received or revealed lore from a divine source (as opposed to ancient texts such as Hesiod’s “Works and Days”, for the Hellenes, which recount the lore of a particular faith, but generally admit to being written or compiled by a human author, rather than the revealed word of a divinity). In such an organization, it is hard to point to any one “holy book” and try to impose a rigid set of rules from that book on all followers of a faith.

Additionally, the JudeoChristian churches claim that their God is not only omniscient, but omnipotent and omnipresent.  No pagan faith I know of claims that the deities they follow are all-powerful, all-knowing, and everywhere; indeed, none of the pagan gods I know of have ever made such a claim in any of the myths or lore I have read.  In my estimation, this quality only reinforces the Christian churches’ reliance on right belief over right practice.  If “God” knows all, sees all, is all-powerful and everywhere, then there can be only one right way to believe — His way.  But in pagan faiths, where the deities are powerful in their own spheres, but do not claim to know everything, and often make mistakes, carrying out the right ritual practices — the right prayers, celebrating the holy days at the right time, offering the right sacrifices — are far more important.  The aphorism “Actions speak louder than words” applies here: it is easy to say that you believe the right things, but showing it in deeds, not merely empty words or thought, carries far more weight.

Seen in that light, Pagan faiths are not merely “the religion with homework”, but the religion that requires work.  By contrast, Christians have it very easy; believe the right thing, and that’s all you need do. This is especially true of some evangelical and fundamentalist denominations; once you have accepted Christ as your savior, not even regular church attendance is required, much less confession, Holy Communion, good works and deeds.  Once saved, always saved.

It is not quite so easy for most Pagan traditions.  Laying aside the question of whether witchcraft and spellwork is required as a form of religious action, especially for the various Wiccan traditions, there are still prayers, holy days, ritual observances, sacrifices (for some Pagan faiths), and other such deeds.  Some Pagan faiths include prison ministry, food bank donations, or other charitable donations and outreach as part of their work; others involve themselves heavily in environmental or feminist practices — cleaning the garbage out of parks, roadsides, and nature preserves, or volunteering at shelters for battered women and children.  This sort of advocacy is perhaps a more modern form of the traditional practices carried out by ancient cultures that we no longer have any contact with, or even more complete lore from that time.

I found it difficult to transition from right belief to right practice. Learning that what I believed was not nearly as important as what I did was hard to grasp in my earliest days; transferring to a different calendar of sacred days for ritual was especially difficult.  Learning the new dates, the new names, when to offer wine or honey or incense or barley or mead; these things were more important than which of the myths of Dionysus’ birth were “true”, for example.  (Hint: they both are.)  There were times when I just wanted to throw my hands up in the air and retreat — not to being Christian again, but to the easier, lazier way of just believing in the right thing.  It took so little effort, and freed up so much time for other things.

But I persevered.  I still can’t claim to know when the date for every holy day in all three of the traditions I follow, or speak Attic Greek or Old Irish or Old Norse, or have mastered the aulos or the bodhran (well, I’m getting better with the bodhran).  And I can’t say for sure whether I’ll ever be as good at any of these things as I want to be, hope to be.  It’s not a task like wrapping a present for Christmas; you can’t be done with it in fifteen minutes and then never have to pick it up again.  It’s the work of a lifetime.  At one time, that would have made me despair.  These days, it only makes me smile, and bend my attention to right practice again.  After all, I chose this.  I chose it.  No one else forced me to follow this path; I follow it because it’s the right one for me, and that means all the work that comes with it is right for me, as well.  Laziness is not a virtue, no matter how much it sometimes seems that the work, and the study, and the deeds, and the practice are an unending flood.

There’s a quote I heard just today that applies perfectly to this.  Ironically, it comes from the Talmud, and in the future will serve as a touchstone when I start feeling overwhelmed: “You are not expected to finish the work, but neither are you permitted to lay it down.”

I can live with that.

(With thanks to Galina Krasskova for the quote.)

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All my life, I’ve lived within spitting distance of large bodies of water.  I was born in Dubuque, Iowa, which sits at the junction of Iowa, Illinois, and Wisconsin, on the Mississippi River.  I spent most of my early life there, only finally leaving when I went away to college at age 18.  There was a large-ish lake near the Missouri town where I spent my first year in college, then dropped out (no self-discipline at that age).

After that, I moved to St. Louis — back on the Mississippi.  And after I got married a couple years later, I moved back to Dubuque.

Now that I live in Indiana, in a town that’s technically a suburb of Chicago, I live just a few blocks from the shores of Lake Michigan.  All my life, I’ve heard water’s call.  If you believe in astrology, you might chalk that up to the fact that the day and month I was born make me a Cancer — a water sign.

But I’d never been to the ocean.

Not until last year.

A few years ago, I put up an altar to Poseidon, after a day of shopping in which elements that suggested Him kept popping up — seashells, fishing net, coral, candles that presumably smelled like the ocean (they don’t, of course — they’re named with oceanic scents, but they smell like some sweet scent that doesn’t occur in nature; the ocean mostly smells like salt and fish and rotting kelp).

Last year, my husband and I went to New Orleans for our vacation in September.  And I put my foot down; we were going to see the ocean, like I had always wanted to.

So we took a route that brought us down in a path that swerved around New Orleans to the east, cutting through several gulf cities — Biloxi and Gulfport — before driving back west and pulling over at one of those roadside beaches, just outside of Long Beach.

 

 

The sand was very white, and the beach was mostly empty, except for a long-legged, dark-feathered bird that watched us warily as we got out of the car.

 

There were tracks all over the beach from gulls; I see plenty of them back by the lake at home, so I recognized them at once:

 

We walked along the sand for a good fifteen minutes before I stopped and stripped off my shoes.  I had brought along a bottle of wine to make a libation to Poseidon, and I had my husband open it for me:

 

 

Finally, I stepped into the water, not caring that the legs of my jeans instantly got wet:

 

 

The water was very warm; I hadn’t been expecting that — warm as the caress of a mother’s hand on my cheek.  I waded out fifteen or twenty feet from the shore, listening to the purr and crash of the waves, the cars going by, the occasional shriek of a gull.  The water and the sand looked much cleaner than I had expected, after the disaster with the Deepwater Horizon spill.

With bottle in hand, I waded out.  I had thought long and hard about pouring a libation of wine into the ocean: would it just be more pollution?  Could it hurt the fish? Could it upset the chemical balance of the water? Would Poseidon appreciate it, or would he resent me dumping yet more human chemicals into his home?

In the end, I decided to do it. The amount of wine in one bottle, in comparison to the vast ocean, was very small; furthermore, the wine, chemically, was composed more of water than anything else; if one freezes a bottle of wine to remove the water from the alcohol (an old way of making brandy, before advanced distillery methods), what is left is very small.  And I didn’t want to come all that way to see Poseidon and not bring a gift.

 

 

We stayed a little longer; I confess I was very reluctant to leave.  There was so much to see, so many little things that it would have been easy to overlook.  At a distance, I had seen only the bird, large wildlife — but the smaller inhabitants of the coast were there, too.

Hermit crabs in abundance:

 

And jellyfish:

But it started to get late, and we were still due at our hotel, so eventually — much as I wanted to stay — we got back in the car and drove away.

I can still hear the ocean singing; it haunts my blood, echoes through my veins.

I think that one day, perhaps when I am old, I will have to live by the ocean, so I can rise every morning with the dawn, and go to greet the sun and the shore and the surging waters, and wade along the beach barefooted, feeling the warm water on my skin.

Some day.

 

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Cold out there today.  44*F, so not as cold as it could be, but snow swathes every inch of the land like a diaper over a baby’s bare bottom.

Tomorrow, of course, it’s supposed to be colder again — not considerably colder, a high of 35*F (enough so that the snow will probably continue melting), but it was definitely an incentive to get out to the park today for my devotions.

The park was hushed today; the snow muffled most of the sound.  Birdcalls and the far-away murmur of passing cars were most of what I heard as I trudged through the snow to the willow tree where I leave my offerings; the snow was mushy enough underfoot as it melted that it didn’t make the traditional wintry crunching sound.

The tree from a distance:

Inside the tree’s hollow core: if there’s any of last week’s offerings left, they’re buried under the snow.

The offerings I brought, from left to right: a diced pear, oats, a banana and raisins (under the oats), nuts, green grapes, a pomegranate (in the larger tupperware container), turbinado sugar (atop the pomegranate container), and raw local honey.

The pomegranate, split in two so the arils can be reached by cold critters:

Turbinado sugar:

Honey, pooled on a piece of dead wood:

Pear:

Green grapes:

Oats:

The last of the mixed nuts, until I get more:

Raisins:

A banana:

The offering in its entirety:

Through the veil:

After I left the offering, I walked, looking for garbage.  I didn’t find much; not only did the cold keep most people inside, except for necessary trips (which ruled out visiting the park, I suspect), the snow covered up most of what might have been there.  I found a little bit, less than half a bag — the least I’ve ever seen there before.

The snow had hit the park fairly hard; in one place, I found a fairly large branch snapped off one of the park’s elderberry bushes; in another spot, I found smaller branches of birch and Norway spruce knocked down.  I habitually carry branch trimmers with me on these trips, and used them to trim a smaller branch from the elder, and brought it (and the birch and spruce) home with me, where I found the largest branch snapped halfway off my holly bush — local kids, probably.  I trimmed that off, too, and brought it inside.

On the way home, I went past a stand of three red pine trees in mid-park; woodpeckers favor these trees, and the bark is full of old woodpecker holes that resin has seeped from over the years.  I’ve gently gathered up the dried resin I found in the past, but today I bothered to look up and saw numerous very large hunks of pine resin crusted on branches higher than I can reach.  In Spring, perhaps I’ll bring a ladder with me on these visits, and gather more:

Wild-gathered pine resin makes for sweet incense.

Being outside in this was something of a test for myself.  Anyone who knows me offline knows I hate the winter; hate the cold, hate the snow, the gray skies; hate the way my depression gets worse in winter.  I admit that I was worried that, when winter hit for real — colder temperatures, snow on the ground — my devotion to serving the land spirits would wither in the face of discomfort and weakness.  I am glad to report that wasn’t the case, at least not this time.

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Two days after Christmas, which I don’t celebrate religiously (of course).  Spiritually, another matter.  We had a green holiday season here this year; it was cold enough, but nothing on the ground.

The willow tree is bare of leaves, but the living branches are still yellow-green, just waiting for spring to don their sleeves of green again.

As always, the offerings from last week are completely gone.

The offerings (clockwise from left): wine, candied ginger, nuts, grapes, turbinado sugar, honey, and a banana.

Sugar and honey, heaped and pooled on old wood.

Nuts (pecans, cashews, almonds, hazelnuts).

Red grapes.

Banana!

Candied ginger root (I use a friend’s recipe).

Damp spot where I made the libation with the wine.

The whole of the offering.

Through the veil (ever so thin as it is, at this time of year).

What interactions I have with nature at a park in the heart of a small town (that is, in essence, a suburb of Chicago) are small, I know.  The rabbits eat the fruit; the squirrels, the nuts.  The tree roots drink up the wine or ale I bring; the ants eat the sugar and honey (when it’s warm enough for them to be out, anyway).  There aren’t larger animals here — raccoons and possums and geese are the largest I’ve seen in this neighborhood, though I’ve heard coyotes howling by the college/golf course less than a mile away (which is well within the range of the territory they’d consider theirs).  But never deer, not this close to the city.  In spring, summer, early autumn, there’s a wider range of birds, and frogs and toads, and snakes.  Possibly small lizards, though I’ve never seen any.  Maybe even foxes.

My soul yearns to be somewhere closer to the heart of the land, away from so many people.  I want deep forest, rolling hills; the couple of years I spent in southern Kentucky with mom and her parents when I was littler would suit me fine.  Even the flat plains of farm country here in the midwest, with small scrub forests, and more room for my garden, would be better; I like the conveniences of city living (911 service most of all!), but I’ll always chafe against the irritant of so many people packed in so close like individual grains of sand caught up in a child’s palm — too little space, too many neighbors.

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