Pagan in the Basement – Preamble

Just a note that I have embarked on a new endeavor that is leading me to question a lot on the spirituality front, and I’m actually kind of excited about it, as it is promising to incite a period of engaged awareness.  Also, I have mad love for the pagan podverse.  Thank you for bringing me a sense of community no matter what.

The snow packs are finally beginning to melt, and I can feel this drawn-out cold spell coming to a close. I hope you all are well, and I look forward to sharing more soon.

From under the dust with love,
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Death, Decay and Letting Go

Last week I was impressed by a series of close encounters with images of death.  It started the morning before I left for a short trip.  I was struggling to wake up, and in that paralytic hypnagogic moment, I very clearly saw the foot of a dead child sticking out from where my nightstand is.  It was startling and slightly creepy, but I wasn’t afraid, and I remember distinctly feeling like I already knew the child should be in that corner.

Over the next few days, I found myself fixated by actual death images in my path — a motionless cicada crawling with smaller bright red insects, a pristine but stiff squirrel body and several dead mice in the cabin, a rotting bird being devoured by shield-shaped beetles in the yard, a headless rabbit in the wood, the cries and snarls of a nearby wolf kill echoing in the night while I watched the stars.

I found myself somewhat surprised by how little disturbance I felt, and by how much my attention was drawn to the refrain of morbidity and mortality.

Image

Upon returning home, it came to my attention that an emotionally strenuous problem I had been fretting over for several weeks could be rather easily and satisfactorily resolved if I let go of something, and I felt foolish for not having considered the option before.

Today, I am grateful for signs, and appreciating the lesson of embracing loss.

Thoughtfully yours,
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On Yoolis Night

Wow, it has been a month of Sundays since I posted anything, and so much has happened!

On Halloween night, the boy and I moved into a new place, a lovely and strange old place complete with stained glass, servants’ stairs, parson’s (and pocket!) doors, a clawfoot tub, howling windows, phantom knocks, a widow’s room, and a pepto-bismol-pink bathroom.  (Not too shabby a resume for an apartment!)  Best of all, it has way more doors than make sense, and they all open with skeleton keys!  *squee*

Okay, sorry.  Clearly, I am still really excited and not wholly accustomed to the new place.  …Mostly because we are still not moved in, because work for both of us has been SO crazy.  I’m trying not to think about it too much during non-work hours, but it’s even starting to affect my dreams.  The other night, what started out as a basic work anxiety dream complete with scary, stiff-necked auditors carrying giant medieval-style books of things I could have effed up, ended with me asking (sincerely, even) how I can be the best [insert my title] I can be, and my dream told me, “Stop doing it.  Leave.”

But until I cave in to my subconscious and quit, I will be suffering in a loopy, overworked, blindly optimistic stupor.  And spending the rest of the time pretending I’m not terrified by my job and focusing on how much the rest of things don’t suck at the moment!

One down side (sort of?) to the new neighborhood, is my commute is significantly shorter, leaving me less time in the morning and evening to catch up on podcasts.  First world problems, folks.  I’m grateful that I have a place to live, food to eat, and the people I love are safe and healthy.

That about saps my gushy positive energy.  But it felt nice to put it all out there.  :)  It’s officially winter at this hour — I draped some lights around our cardboard boxes, and I’m feeling the spirit of the season.  Best wishes to you and yours, readers.  Keep yourselves and each other warm.

Love,
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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.

Love,
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Mourners

I recently visited an art museum exhibit on the mourning statues from the court of the Duke of Burgundy, and I was moved by their visual representation of the leveling power of grief.  At the funeral for the Duke in 1419, black robes were handed out among the attendees to be worn over their clothes, concealing all symbols of rank and status, and uniting clergy, nobility, and the poor into one class for a fleeting moment.  All were equally powerless under death.

A local choir ensemble prepared a special concert of medieval music in conjunction with the Mourners exhibition, and you can listen to or download the songs by clicking on the picture above and scrolling to the bottom of the page.  The recordings are haunting and beautiful.

I also recently made an emotional discovery while rifling through an old file of family history archives.  My immediate family uses the nickname “Addie” for me.  I had known since I was younger that this was the name of an ancestor who had died at a young age of typhoid during the family’s westward movement in a covered wagon from Ohio.  By chance last week, I stumbled across her obituary, which I had never before read or even known to exist.  Although written in an age where infant mortality rates were over 20% in America, and death on the plains was an everyday occurrence that could not interrupt the daily necessities of hard labor required to survive, this passage is written with more depth and eloquence than I have ever seen in an obituary in my time.

Friday, September 16, 1892
Gray County Kansas

Miss Addie M_, aged 15 years and three months, daughter of Mr. and Mrs. D. M_, died at the family residence last Monday after a very brief illness, and was buried in the Cimarron Cemetery Tuesday afternoon.  It is said that “the remorseless past stands ever near, breathing through the broken cords of life its never-ending dirge.”  Death invades every home, and “life after life flowers out from the darkness but to sink back into it again.”  And so Death’s silent and remorseless step trod the precincts of David M_’s home and with his icy fingers sundered the cord that bound their darling to earth and set her spirit wending its way into eternity, shocking friends and making desolate the hearts of relatives – the more cruel, apparently, because of her youth, as she had just fairly started up life’s incline, at the summit seemingly such beautiful consummations awaiting her grasp.  Death met and claimed her, but remorseless as death is, and possessing power to kill, he cannot extinguish the light of  a correct life left behind.  The sympathy of the entire community is extended to the bereaved parents.

To this article was appended the following:

October 14, 1892

As we go to press, it is reported that David M_, who has been sick for several days past, is dying.  A daughter was buried a short time ago, and two other children are sick.

October 21, 1892

David M_, of whom mention was made in these columns last week died about 3 o’clock Monday morning of typhoid fever.

 

My great-great grandfather died at age 38, only one month after the death of his daughter Addie, leaving his grieving wife Mary alone in a sod house on 160 acres of plains, a widow with six surviving children, including one 18-month old baby (born en route as they crossed Illinois) and a seventh child on the way — my great-great aunt Clara, who would be born six months after her father’s death.

Addie and her father David were buried at a fork in the Santa Fe Trail in Kansas in an unmarked grave for 98 years, until 1990, when my relatives pooled their money to erect a gravestone at the site.  Mary left Kansas shortly after the death of her child and husband, moving her brood of seven another 500 miles alone.

 

Although the typical season for this is autumn, I am taking some time this week to honor the memory of all those who have gone before, buried in plains and forests and along mountains and rivers, in this country and overseas.

Rest in peace, beloved family.  Your final resting place may not be known, but you have not been forgotten.

Love,
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Welcoming the Harvest Moon

Tonight I took some of the leftover berries from yesterday’s cobbler to make a deep reddish-blue ink.  While I worked, I invited a few meditations on the season of harvest, the waning of the light, and the seeking of balance.

This week marked the autumnal equinox, when the hours of day equal the hours of night, and the sun entered the sign of Libra, the scales.  It seems an auspicious time to be mindful of balance in our lives, but it also strikes me as a time of only very precarious balance.  With each breath, the days grow shorter, and the perception of balance is only maintained for so long.

I was raised with a general impression that things in the natural world have a tendency to seek equilibrium.  If you put salt in water, it will usually dissolve, and then disperse until each part of water bears an equal burden.  If you open the door after a hot shower, the cool air rushes in, the hot air rushes out, and the molecules hurry to take their places until the temperature reaches a steady moderation.

But what about entropy?  What about the natural tendency towards disorder, and chaos, and constant change?  The inevitability of wasted energy?

It is chaos that transforms and provides its own sense of order, if you step back enough.  Pour something red into something blue.  Give it a good shaking and wildness and unruliness, and eventually you reveal a smooth shade of purple.

I started to think of the harvest time not just as a season of bounty, but of sacrifice, marked by the sheaves we must cut to fill our bellies, and the things we must let go to strike that balance.  We celebrate the fleeting equinox as we recognize the cycles of change and instability that together make our balance.  We prepare to enter a period of accelerating darkness, until the scales are tipped so far that they are compelled to turn, and the balance rights itself again.

I found it difficult not to hold on to the blueberries we had picked back when it was hot and beautiful outside.  I found it hard to say goodbye to the fruitful, but if I had not given them up to be cooked and pressed and strained, they would have spoiled.  I gave up the last of them for my ink.  A handful of berries, pummeled into only juice.

To this I added a bit of salt, so that our sacrifices might be pure, and vinegar, so that they may be purposeful.

It’s a bitter juice to swallow, but it can create such beauty.

in quietude,
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Return to Surrender

There are certain moments, or chains of moments, that seem to come in waves – moments in which you stop and notice other moments that ordinarily would have passed into the oblivion of normalcy without another thought.  But somehow, by some miraculous recognition, these moments push us above the surface where we open our eyes and realize we’re breathing just long enough to appreciate it before we sink back down into the murky water of human existence.

Some call it coincidence.  Some call it synchronicity.  What we call it ultimately doesn’t matter, as long as we can take something from it, be it wonder, or a sense of humor, or inspiration.

The other day I was eating lunch in an Italian restaurant – well, mostly sitting with my mouth open faced with a couple violently making out just outside the window – when the ballad “Torna a Surriento” began to play.  I found myself humming along, and suddenly realized that it was Elvis Presley’s “Surrender.”  I remarked with surprise to my companion that I’d never heard this song before, although it clearly predated the version I knew by several decades.

That same evening I decided to keep the tv on as company while I puttered around the house, and not a half hour later, my ears perked up to the strains of… “Torna a Surriento.”

As it turns out, this this was just one of a string of strange familiarities lately.  They all seemed to start at one moment a few weeks ago…

August 24, to be exact, I was sitting in my cubicle at work thinking about tattoos.  (No, this is not part of my job description, sadly.)  I don’t have any tattoos, but I go through periodic phases of consideration.  Unfortunately, the tattoo I most often wish I had isn’t really practicable, so I inevitably turn to the temporary satisfaction of henna or a ballpoint pen.  And thus, only so often during the year, I walk around with an extra bounce in my step thanks to masses of unfurling flowers drawn onto the bottoms of my feet.  (There’s something about the thought of walking on flower petals wherever you go that makes it hard to be glum.)

Now, I was at work perusing the internet for new flower designs, when I came across this hypnotically beautiful image:

The caption tells me it is a mandala designed by a patient of Carl Gustav Jung, and an illustration in the text The Secret of the Golden Flower.

Shortly after viewing the flower, I experience a rather profound epiphany regarding my name, and subsequently decide to start this blog.

Not long after, I assembled a post all about a stroke of luck after a long string of failures, my grandmother, and the magic of the eggshell.  At work the following day, my coworker happens to stop by to tell me a funny story about that old wonder that you can’t break an egg by applying pressure to it vertically, because of the structure of the shell.  I cocked an eyebrow at the odds, but I should have known – jamais deux sans trois. That same afternoon, I sit down to leaf through a new book I purchased about the illuminations of Hildegard of Bingen, and I open to a chapter entitled “Egg of the Universe.”

The chapter contained a discussion prompted by the following illustration of the cosmic architecture, as revealed to the mystic Hildegard of Bingen (1098 – 1179):

(If the universe really is egg-shaped, I suppose we can only hope that when it finally stops expanding, the backlash of contractions will only be applied vertically.)

I fell rather in love with this depiction of the cosmos, and I spent a good deal of time looking at the illustration before delving into the text.  I’ll admit that one of my first impressions was akin to the feeling one has when looking at a Georgia O’Keeffe print.  But I started looking at it more systematically and thinking about the layers of the cosmos, and it seemed to me a very poetic reflection of how I myself envision the universe.

On the outside warbles the never-ending expanse of space filled with exploding gases and flaming stars that we can really only experience by the grace of light and the magic of inertia.  Our sun blazes like a tiger lily, the red-faced south wind breathes fire from the right, and our dazzling night sky crowns the ever-changing moon in all its phases.  And encircled by it all, our clouds, and winds, and atmosphere, and waters above and waters below, and the tiny complication that is earth.

[As a side note, I interpreted that interim ring of chunks with fiery tails like meteors to be the asteroid belt.  If you look at the smaller sun-shapes as the other planets in our solar system, the placement halfway between them is even just about right.  I was delighted to read Hildegard’s own description of that region as “full of sounds, storms, and the sharpest stones large and small.”  This description of the asteroid belt (if we suspend disbelief for a moment) would predate the first recorded suspicions of its existence by at least 600 years!]

Drawn by the connection of egg-related references that had been following me about that day, I sat down to read the chapter, and nearly wept at how familiar and welcoming it felt, describing ways I feel about the universe and its sacred significance, my fixation on the dynamics of microcosm/macrocosm, and my longing for the marriage between science and spirituality.  Eager to find additional sources for similar views, I flip to the end notes and start making a list of references to look up.  I almost drop my pen when I realize what I am writing:

C.G. Jung, The Secret of the Golden Flower.

That was only a few days ago.  I have already ordered my copy of The Secret of the Golden Flower, and it shipped yesterday.  In anticipation, I searched for it on [forgive me] Wikipedia, and I found this quote: “If the practitioner sees the Mandala, that means he/she sees part of the “Original Essence”, and he/she is entering the beginning level of the immortal essence.”  Sounds nice, no?

This brings us to tonight.  Tonight my loving one (with whom I had not discussed the Golden Flower phenomenon) came home with especial exuberance, saying, “I have to show you something!”  Inspired by a science podcast he had listened to earlier that day, he had been prompted to look up “cymatics.”  He sat me down in front of his computer and pulled up a video of a cymatic experiment in which grains of sand were poured on top of a metal plate balanced on top of a speaker.  The sand responded to each note played through the speaker by spontaneously shifting into symmetrical, increasingly intricate formations:

The resulting shapes, according to the caption of the video, might easily be called MANDALAS.

Perhaps this feeling was best described by one Hildegard of Bingen, when she wrote about an egg-shaped vision of the universe, and said:

O Spirit, you are the mighty way in which every thing that is in the heavens, on the earth, and under the earth, is penetrated with connectedness, penetrated with relatedness.

What a lovely way to feel.

Love,
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