Losing Our Senses

I think most of us, at one time or another, have felt the sensation of losing our senses.  And although that phrase tends to evoke images of madness (something about which I have some tangled and complex feelings), recently I was reminded that I have, at distinct moments in my past, literally lost my senses, one at a time.

I don’t just mean being unable to smell because of a case of sniffles, or temporarily unable to taste after scalding my tongue on a too-eager spoonful of hot soup (both considerably unpleasant experiences).

When I was little I used to practice navigating my house with my eyes closed, stumbling up and down stairs and through the halls, testing my abilities with a determination that seemed to signal a certainty that I would imminently lose my eyesight.  I can’t recall if this activity started before or after I was first informed that I needed corrective lenses.  Oddly enough, I continued to do this even as I got old enough to realize how silly it must seem.  I guess I imagined there was no harm in it, and that way if I was ever attacked by a flock of birds that pecked out my eyes, I might still be able to find my way to the refrigerator.  Of course, I never imagined that I would be so thankful for the practice.

In my teens I was struck with a frightening combination of concurrent respiratory illnesses.  The severity of my symptoms delivered me to the hospital – not overnight, but just for a lung X-ray.  The procedure was routine enough that I was prepped in my heavy lead gown and directed about the radiology room by a student technician.  Poor fellow.

Everything was going fine until I realized, as I stood after the second scan waiting for the technician to reenter the room, that I could no longer see.  My vision wasn’t simply blurred as it might be without my glasses; it was absent.  I could see nothing at all — everything was darkness.  I was completely bewildered at first, and I remember putting up my hands to feel my face just to make sure my eyelids weren’t closed.  When I touched my open eyes, I’ll admit, I was scared.  I stood there silently just touching my face in disbelief and turning my head every direction to seek out some form of light, but nothing changed.  I finally heard the door open, the technician’s footsteps, and his slightly shy detached recitation of the next round of tests.

Afraid he might walk away if I didn’t say something, I interrupted with a rather high-pitched squeak of “I can’t see.”  I can only imagine his look at this point (as I didn’t see it), but I remember him stumbling over his words for a second before asking, “What?”  I can’t see; I can’t see anything.  My hands fluttered over my face again, and I felt myself losing my balance.  His voice had a confused tremor to it when he asked me to sit down, and I blurted out “Where?” under a panicked laugh.  He didn’t seem to understand until I stumbled while babbling that I couldn’t see any place to sit, trying to make him believe me.  I wondered what my eyes looked like, but they must have appeared normal since it took him so long to register the extent of what I was saying.  Finally he guided me to a chair and just said, “I… I’ll be right back.”

I don’t know where he went, what he told the doctor, or how long I was there alone, wondering what the hell was happening.  It felt like hours.

I do remember thinking, I’m glad I prepared for this.

As inexplicably as my vision was lost, it eventually returned, sometime shortly after he returned with a doctor.  I was too young to feel I could ask them for answers, and they never offered an explanation or any words of particular comfort.  Maybe they thought I had been lying and were relieved when the problem silently resolved itself.

I recall that when we were children we used to frequently ask each other what sense we would give up if we had to choose one.  Do young people still play that game?  Did you?  If so, what sense(s) did you tend to choose, and would your answer change if you were asked again?

For a long time I considered entering a convent.  Not out of religious conviction, but because of a need for silence.  I didn’t feel like the world around me was too noisy, but I felt sometimes like I myself would never stop talking, and that only an outside order could teach me the thrill of golden silence.

Then one morning I woke up, and I could no longer speak.

I have lost my voice in the past, several times.  My sister used to say I was the “voice-losingest” person she’d ever met.  But usually it was accompanied by other symptoms, came on gradually, and would allow me to have that raspy fun Hollywood minx voice for a while, maybe whisper softly, or at worst gurgle a little.  This was utterly different.  (Or unutterably different.)

I felt perfectly fine before, during and after, except for the fact that I could not produce any sound through my throat, not even a polite cough.  I decided I must need rest, and I didn’t push it.  Instead I resigned myself to hand signs, exaggerated facial expressions and scribbled notes.  I thanked my stars for my sign language class and quickly improved at shorthand, because my voice didn’t come back.

A week went by.  Finally, I signaled to my mom that I needed to see a doctor.  She made the call.  Checking in at the reception was interesting… I had forgotten to bring a notepad, and the ladies behind the desk looked at me like an alien while I floundered to communicate to them who I was, what I was doing there and why I couldn’t talk (which, of course, I couldn’t have explained anyway).

The doctor looked down my throat, did some tests, and ultimately told me that there was nothing wrong with me.  (Really.  He actually said nothing was wrong.)  But, friendly guy that he was, he prescribed me some heavy medication anyway.  (Suffice to say I never wanted to go back to this doctor again.  And I’m not even going into the time I went to him for immunizations before travel and he got the place I was going to wrong twice.  Who knows what he actually injected me with, if he thought I was off to a different continent?  But that’s neither here nor there.)

Another full week passed before the one morning finally arrived when I woke up, gingerly swallowed, and finally produced words.  As before, there was no gradual easing back, no identifiable cause for the loss or the return, and no comforting wisdom that I could prevent it from happening again.

I hadn’t thought about these experiences for a long time until very recently, and I suddenly wondered if I were being tested somehow, and whether I should be prepared to experience the loss of some other sense or ability soon.  I also realized for the first time that while dealing with some back issues last year that culminated in a sudden collapse in front of the sink — as though my body momentarily forgot how to support its own weight — I recognized the same kind of feeling.  One of shock, detached wonder, then awareness, thinking “Oh, so this is what it’s like for those who can’t do what I take for granted.”

These experiences of mine had no clear cause, no obvious reason for their resolution, and had the unusual trait of being witnessed by medical professionals.  I don’t ignore the possibility that there are, somewhere, simple explanations for all of them, but when I lay them all out like this it sounds like a fable.  The girl who lost her sight, her speech, her ability to walk.  But each was granted back to her by the power that took it away, like a light switch flicked off, then on.

To what end?  What is the moral?  Is the story over, or what lesson do I still have to learn?  And in its learning, what do I have yet to lose?

Last spring my dad lost his hearing.  In an instant.  He woke up, thought perhaps it was some sort of head cold, but the buzzing, the pressure, the muffling silence never waned.  After ENTs, steroids, acupuncture, chiropractic, essential oils, and favors called in to the brightest experts of the western medical community, there is still no change.

I never thought to draw a connection, but maybe now I can summon up the courage to tell him that I know, at least a little bit, how he feels.

Courage enough, maybe, to tell him my wish that I could find that power to turn his switch back on.

Someone once told me that pirates used to wear eye patches even if their eyes were both fine, but they would switch the patch to the opposite eye each morning and evening.  So doing, one eye was kept always in darkness, so that after sundown or below decks when it was uncovered, accustomed to the lack of light, it provided the pirate with naturally perfected night vision.  Maybe my temporary losses were teaching me to sensitize – or be sensitive to – my senses.  And maybe someday my dad will wake up above decks and have the sharpest ears, like an owl.

Thanks for listening.



Baby Crow Moon

So today is the first day of the waxing Crow Moon, and I am reminded of a little anecdote my mom once told me.

As the esteemed and intellectually crush-worthy Russian etymologist Anatoly Liberman once said, “Squirrely is never a complimentary epithet.”  However, back in the ’70s, Anatoly was only just en route to the U.S., and my mom had a good friend with a spectacularly bushy mustache, slightly buck teeth (or so I imagine), and the unfortunate moniker of “Squirrely.”

It was late June, and my mom’s identical twin had just given birth to her first child, a daughter.  Mother and baby were glowing, and the friends had come to pay a visit the new addition to the family.  My aunt beamed at her little girl and said tearfully, “Isn’t she just the most beautiful thing you’ve ever seen?”

Squirrely leaned over the bassinet, looked at my aunt, and stated with the deepest sincerity, “…Well, Darlin’…  Every crow thinks her chick’s the blackest.”

As appalling as this might have sounded to the new mother, I think this story illustrates quite accurately the mood of this new growing moon.  At the Crow Moon, the snow and ice of the previous months are finally teasing us with a slight thaw, and everything is humming with the potential energy of the approaching spring.  With Pisces ruling both sun and moon, we are filled with the excitement, hope and pride of a new parent, dreaming of the future achievements of the warmer days ahead.

Our eyes may be dazzled by the bright return of the sun, blinding us to our perhaps over zealous notions of the joy that is coming our way and the beauty of our own potential, but we shouldn’t let the Squirrelys of the world make us feel remotely ashamed of this feeling.  Your spring *is* the most beautiful thing you’ve ever seen, and it has all the amazing potential you can imagine.

Embrace the child of your aspirations, hold her tight, and tell her that she can grow to become absolutely anything in the world.  You’re the mommy, and you know best.

Welcome, dreamy eyes, and congratulations.


How to tell if he likes you, and other sleepover occult games

When I was a little girl, Ouija boards were only rarely hailed as the harbingers of devil worship that they used to be, and mind-bending was so commonplace that one night when we hypnotized a girl into believing she was a toddler on the Titanic and she spent the rest of the night cry-babbling in a corner, we were barely phased.  But these days, when party guests are busy talking politics and kids, I’m just as likely to get shunned as scoffed at if I suggest a friendly game of “light as a feather, stiff as a board.”

Have we grown out of the thrill of the supernatural in our play time?  Are shared experiences of mystery and magic no longer considered relevant after the legal voting age?  This possibility confuses and saddens me, so I suggest we stand up and answer those questions with a resounding “No!”

In the hopes of garnering your support in the “spooky is still fun” cause, and in honor of the love spell extravaganza that has been hitting the pagan podcast airwaves surrounding St. Valentine’s day, I bring to you:

“How to tell if he likes you after one game of cards*”


Now, some will tell you that to discover the initials of your beau-to-be, you need to stick a key in a Bible and recite the words of Ruth, or peel an apple all in one strip and throw it over your shoulder.  My friends and I weren’t allowed to have knives at school, so instead of peeling the apple, we would turn the stem, reciting the alphabet with each turn, and whatever letter you were on when the stem broke off would be the first initial of your lover’s first name.  Effective as this may be, there are only so many apples, and really… how much fun is a name?  We wanted more answers, and we wanted to be able to at least have a say in our pool of potential suitors.

Enter the card game.

The card game (affectionately called “Four Kings”) allowed us to not only name four boys in whom we might have some interest and guarantee a match with at least one of them, it also gave us the opportunity to find answers to our every question about them, and to get a glimpse of our possible futures together.

Besides my very limited social circle, I have yet to meet anyone that played this game as a young’un (or as an adult, for that matter).  If you did, or if you played something similar, please tell me about it!  You can either leave a comment here by clicking up near the top of this entry, or contact me at PaganSpace or email up there on the right.  For those of you who have no idea what I’m talking about, here are the full rules:

Love Divination with Playing Cards

Begin with one dealer (the card “reader,” if you will), and one player (the “querent”), and one deck of 52 cards.  The dealer removes the four king cards and shuffles the deck.  The kings are arranged facing the querent from left to right as follows:

King of Hearts   –   King of Diamonds   –   King of Clubs   –  King of Spades

The querent then labels each of the kings with the name of a boy she knows, with the most loved on the left (King of Hearts), a boy she likes as the King of Diamonds, a friend that’s a boy as the King of Clubs, and lastly a boy she hates (King of Spades).  [Thank you to commenter Katharine for reminding me of this detail!]  I should say that this game can also be played for ladies, and one can substitute Queens for Kings, if desired.  For simplicity of pronouns only, I am assuming female players and male um… targets.

Before going any further, the querent must choose three cards face down from the remaining deck, and set them aside for later without looking at them.  These cards will answer the three main questions: “Who do I like?” “Who likes me?” and “Who am I going to marry?”  But before we can learn that much, the querent gets to ask 15 other questions of her choice, as long as the answer can be one of the four boys chosen as Kings.

So say for instance you are the querent, and your first question is, “Who [of these four boys] is the teacher’s pet?”  You ask your question, the dealer turns over a card, and the suit of that card matches the suit of the King who is the teacher’s pet.  If the card turned up is a heart, and the King of Hearts was named Johnny, then Johnny is the teacher’s pet.  Make sense?

When we were kids, these questions tended to be completely innocuous and not very interesting things like, “Whose favorite color is blue?” or “Who has the nicest laugh?”  A more adult version might consist of questions more along the lines of, “Who is better at [insert sexual activity]?” or “Who has the hottest [insert body part]?”  The sky’s the limit, but it can be surprisingly hard to come up with evocative questions on the spot, so we recommend brainstorming a list of question ideas to keep handy any time you intend to play.

Once you have determined the answer to a question by turning up one card, you place that card face up under the King with the matching suit, then lay two more cards face down on top of it.  This is key!  Remember not to look at the two additional cards, and keep them with the right King.

Continue to ask questions, laying the answer cards on top of the corresponding King along with two cards face down each time, until you run out of cards.  The number of cards in the deck minus the four Kings is divisible by three, so it should work out evenly, unless you’re doing something crazy or you’re missing cards.

Once all of the cards have been distributed (and all but three of your burning questions answered!) it’s time to discover what your future life with each boy might be like.  Start by turning over all cards that are face down, but keep them with their respective Kings.  In this stage of the game, hearts represent love, clubs represent children, diamonds represent money, and spades represent fights.  By counting the number of cards in each suit under a given King, and weighing the value of the cards, you can sketch out how much love and money, and how many fights and kids, you can expect from your future with that boy.  Higher numbered cards and face cards represent greater passion, high dollar amounts, smarter kids, and bigger fights.  Lower numbered cards represent cooler or gentler feelings, lower funds, dumber kids, and small arguments.  An ace of diamonds indicates that you will be millionaires.  An ace of spades, or seven spades of any value on one King, represent divorce.

The dealer is responsible for interpreting the life represented by each group of cards, and she can embellish as her skill and imagination permit.  :)

Finally, we come to the conclusion.  The querent now takes up the three cards that were set aside face down at the beginning of the game, shuffles them and orders them as desired, then hands them to the dealer.  The dealer explains that the first card determines who the querent really likes, and turns up the first card.  The suit determines which King holds the querent’s heart.  The second card turned up reveals which of the King-boys has feelings for the querent, and at last, the third card determines whom the querent will marry.  In lucky cases, all three cards will fall on the same King.

After exhausting the potential love scenarios of your homeroom class or office, remember the always popular movie star round! This is a particularly good option when the querent is already spoken for, as it eases some of the anxiety brought on by toying with the future of a current relationship.

I very much hope you enjoy playing this little game, and if you have any questions or comments, please do let me know!  Regardless of how many Kings or Queens are in your court, I hope you all had a lovely and happy Valentine’s day, and I wish you all the love in the world.  Aces.


*Rules from the ca. 1989 incarnation, recollected and annotated with much nostalgic giggling by my amazing elementary school friends T and H.  Love you!


A whiskey anecdote

When my father was a boy growing up in rural Blue Grass, Iowa, my grandfather had one rule about curfew:  You can stay out as late as you want, but you have to get up when I say.

All in all, my dad was a pretty good kid.  Did his homework.  Played nice.  Kept clean.  One night, though, he stretched his legs a little, stayed out having some fun, and didn’t come home until nearly morning.

Grandpa woke him up again before dawn.

Well aware of the rules, my dad could only relinquish his warm bed and get dressed and ready to follow orders.  Grandpa made sure he was up, then handed him a shovel.

Now, I want you to go outside, he said, and dig up two earthworms.

Well, my dad was a bit confused, as you can imagine, but he did as he was told, and when he had found two earthworms under the  soil, he came back inside to find my grandfather sitting silently at the kitchen table with two glasses.  One contained water; the other held a tall shot of bourbon whiskey.  He gestured for my dad to have a seat.

I imagine in this moment that my grandfather took his time getting around to explaining, letting my dad squirm a little like those worms he had dragged in, in the early morning light.  Finally, though, he told his son to put one of the worms in the cup of water.  He did, and the worm swam around calmly.

Then he gestured for the second worm to go into the glass of bourbon.  Dad followed his instructions, and the second worm writhed violently in the alcohol.

Now, what does that teach you? he asked.

Dad paused warily.

Grandpa didn’t let him panic too long.  He just looked at him with an honest face and said:

“If you drink whiskey, you’ll never have worms.”

Love you and your traditions, FWS.  You are missed.

Your girl,

Alma and the almighty Eggshell

My paternal grandmother was named Alma.  A comfortingly plump woman with thinning baby-blond hair and large pink-rimmed glasses on a gold chain, she cooked everything with Crisco, never used a sponge (only dishrags), and I never saw her wear anything other than a house dress, pantyhose, and giant fake pearl clip-on earrings.  Her favorite term of endearment was “Louse Poop,” and whenever she wasn’t really following a conversation, she would sigh, “yeah, right…” as though she had never heard the phrase spoken with a sarcastic tone.

This woman left her parents at age 14 to be a domestic servant, then to teach in a one-room schoolhouse on the prairie, and she taught me how to “puss” my soup if it was too hot.  I didn’t find out “puss” wasn’t a real English verb meaning “to blow on something to cool it” until I was about 20.  (It means “kiss” in Swedish.)  I never heard my grandmother talk about religion, or saw her go to church.  The regular weekend routine usually just involved bacon, eggs scrambled with milk and sausage, and bourbon highballs at 4:30 p.m.

Alma was also the queen of outlandish home remedies.  Have athlete’s foot?  Go walk in the dewy grass at sunrise.  Got a stye?  Rub a gold wedding band on wool and hold that on your eye.  My dad always laughed when these cures came up in conversation, but secretly I believed in, and desperately wanted to know them all.  Heartbreakingly, I never got the chance to sit down and talk to her about them.

So over the last several years, I have made many futile attempts to find examples of other remedies like Alma’s, and to figure out where they come from.  Earlier in the summer I renewed my search again, and this time, finally, I had tremendous luck.

By grace, I stumbled upon UCLA’s archive of folk medicine.  Not only did it contain variants of Alma’s foot-dew and wedding ring eye cures, but I was able, for the first time, to shed some light on one of her more confounding suggestions — putting an eggshell over a bleeding nose.  I entered a few search terms in their database, and came up with the following:

“If one’s nose bleeds and will not stop bleeding, take an egg shell and let three drops of blood fall in it and throw into the fire, thereupon the bleeding will stop.”

I stared at this prescription for hours.  I found myself completely fascinated by the symbolism and ritual of the cure.  And on top of that, I was transfixed by the source.

Ethnicity Of Origin Pennsylvania German

Now, as far as I knew, Alma’s heritage was a mixture of German and Swedish, and the all-American who-knows-what.  In a recent endeavor to uncover my family history, I’d confirmed a rumor that my mother’s mother’s line was Pennsylvania Dutch — we landed in PA in 1732 and camped there for a good hundred years before moving west toward Ohio and Iowa.  This had elicited a good deal of excitement on my end, as I’d just recently learned about the Pennsylvania Dutch folk-magic tradition known as Pow Wow or Braucherei.  Now I learn that I may have some Pennsylvania Dutch folk traditions on my father’s side as well!

I immediately went out and hunted down used copies of some massive collections of Midwestern folk beliefs listed as sources by UCLA, and have been perusing them with glee ever since they arrived.  In case someone else out there is looking for long lost remedies or simply carries a torch for some old-time superstition, I’d like to share some of these  curious remnants every now and again.  To start us off, I bring to you now a collection of folk wisdom regarding Alma’s favorite coagulator: the eggshell.

  1. To cure boils, eat eggshells.
  2. [But…] If you handle too many egg shells, you will get warts.
  3. After you eat an egg, crush the shells to avoid harm or bad luck.
  4. To protect against caterpillars, scatter about your cabbage bed shells of eggs blessed for the Easter feast.
  5. Chickens will lay if fed ground eggshells.
  6. [Not just for chickens…] Keeping eggshells will cause fertility.
  7. [Alternately…] Keeping eggshells will ward off fire.
  8. For epilepsy, use eggshell tea.
  9. To dream about broken eggshells means gossip.
  10. In order to be assured that a cake will rise, put the eggshells in the cupboard until the cake is baked.
  11. If you make a wish on the first Easter egg you break and put the shells under the pillow at night, your wish will come true.
  12. Eggshells burned during a thunderstorm will protect the house against lightning.
  13. Crush eggshells before throwing them away, or the witches may use them for boats.

Hm… sounds to me like kind of a cozy way to travel!  Or as Alma would say, “Absolutely elegant!”  Until next time…